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Mahabharata Historicity by Prof. B B Lal


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Presentation made by Prof. B B Lal at the International Seminar on Mahabharata organized by Draupadi Trust in April 2012 at New Delhi.

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Mahabharata Historicity by Prof. B B Lal

  2. 2. THE PROBLEM• There are two extremely divergent views about the historicity of the Mahabharata.• To the faithful, everything mentioned in the text is true to the very letter. To some others, it is a mere figment of imagination. The reason for such a confusion lies in the very nature of the epic itself. Say, for example, if Krishna was a historical figure, he is unlikely to have been later than Buddha who lived in 6th -5th centuries BCE.
  3. 3. THE PROBLEM (Contd.)• On the other hand, parts of the text may be as late as the 4th Cent. CE, since it refers not only to the Greeks and Romans but also to the Huns – what an yawning gap between the event and the text!• Secondly, the Mahabharata, as available now, comprises over 100,000 verses, but earlier it consisted of 24,000 verses and called the Bharata. Still earlier, it had only 8,000 verses, called the Jaya. Thus, what indeed is the original can’t be determined.
  4. 4. THE PROBLEM (Contd,)• Thirdly, let it not be forgotten that the Mahabharata was not meant to be a history book. It is an epic (prabandha- kavya) and the poet enjoyed absolute liberty to let his imagination fly high. Thus, one cannot question his use of superlatives while describing the palaces or the strength of the armies on the battlefield or the supernatural weapons used by them.
  5. 5. THE APPROACH• As an archaeologist, I thought that a way to ascertain the truth might be to explore and excavate sites associated with the Mahabharata story and find out what these have to say in the matter.• In this context, a very important point to note is that all the Mahabharata sites, luckily, continue to bear the same names even today as they did in antiquity, e.g. Hastinapura, Mathura, Kurukshetra, etc.
  6. 6. HASTINAPURA– THE KEY SITE• Way back, in 1951-52, I conducted excavations at the key site of Hastinapura, the capital of the Kauravas, located on the right bank of the Ganga, in Meerut Distt, Uttar Pradesh, some 60 miles north-east of Delhi.• The results were very startling, as we shall see from the slides that follow.
  7. 7. Claims of the PGW Culture• At this point, it needs to be emphasized that it is the Painted Grey Ware Culture which is the lowest common denominator at all the sites associated with the Mahabharata story referred to earlier and shown on the map. In fact, even sites associated with the story through verbal tradition have yielded remains of the Painted Grey Ware Culture.
  8. 8. Archaeology vis-à-vis the Texts• In the context of the archaeological evidence of a flood having destroyed Hastinapura, the texts aver:• Gangayapahrite tsmin nagare Nagasahavaye• Tyaktva Nichaksur nagaram Kausambyam sa nivatsyati• i.e. ‘When the city of Nagasahvya (Hastinapura) is carried away by the Ganga, Nichakshu (the then ruler) will abandon it and dwell in Kausambi.’• And the archaeological evidence corroborates it.
  9. 9. Chronological Horizon of the Mahabharata War• We now come to the most crucial issue, viz. the probable date of the Mahabharata War.• As mentioned in the texts, it was during the time of Nichkshu that the capital was shifted from Hastinapura to Kausambi.• The texts further tell us that (a) Nichakshu was 5th ruler in succession from Parikshit who ascended the throne after the War;
  10. 10. Chronological Horizon (contd.)• and (b) amongst the rulers at Kausambi Udayana was 19th from Nichakshu.• Hence Udayana was the 24th ruler after the War. Further, it is well known that Udayana was contemporary of Buddha who passed away in 487 BCE. Thus, in broad figures, Udayana may have ruled around 500 BCE.• The next question is: What was the total duration of the reigns of these 24 rulers?
  11. 11. Chronological Horizon (contd.)• If we round off the 13.55 years average per ruler to 14 years or even extend it to, say, 15, the date of the War would work out as follows:• 24 (rulers) x 15 years (average reign per ruler) = 360 years.• If we add this number, 360, to 500 BCE, when Udayana was ruling, we arrive at the date of 860 BCE for the War.
  12. 12. Chronological Horizon (contd.)• This is not to say that the War took place exactly in 860 BCE. It is a figure arrived at from a combined evidence of archaeology and literature. We may further round it off to circa 900 BCE, but perhaps no more!• I would be failing in my duty if I did not mention dates (all in BCE) assigned by other scholars to the War: 1424(K.P. Jayaswal); 1400(A.S.Altekar); 950 (F.E. Pargiter); 9th cent. (H.C.Raychaudhury).
  13. 13. Chronological Horizon (contd.)• I have commented on these dates in my various papers and would not like to repeat the same here. But I would certainly like to say a few words about 3102 BCE, based on a lonely inscription at Aihole dated to Saka year 556 i.e. 634-35 CE. This date, however, seems to be supported by astronomical data in the Mahabharata, as interpreted by Prof. Narhar Acharya.
  14. 14. Chronological Horizon (contd.)• My difficulty in accepting this date is that around 3102 BCE (nor even for another 1000 years to come) none of the sites associated with the Mahabharata story was in existence – be it Hastinapura or Indraprastha or Mathura, as established by the excavations at these sites. How can then we enact the Mahabharata story without these sites having been there? Can we?
  15. 15. Chronological Horizon (contd.)• There is yet another way of looking at the figure 3102 BCE. As seen earlier, there were 24 rulers from Parikshit, who ascended the throne after the War, to Udayana who ruled around 500 BCE. This gives an average of 108 years per ruler: 3102 - 500 = 2602, divided by 24 = 108.• Nowhere in the entire world has there been such an average per ruler. Has there to be a special case for India ?• Let the learned audience think and decide!
  16. 16. • Thank you very much for your patient hearing.