The Mahabharata’s Socio Cultural Impact in India by Michel Danino
THE MAHĀBHĀRATA’S SOCIOCULTURAL IMPACT IN INDIAMichel Danino (email@example.com) Presented at a seminar on “The Mahābhārata: Its Historicity,Antiquity, Evolution & Impact on Civilization”, New Delhi, 26 &
The Mahābhārata is not just a gripping epic and a greatteaching of Dharma. It is also a mine of anthropological information. Left: Some of thestates mentioned in the text.(Source: K.S. Valdiya, Geography, Peoples and Geodynamics of India in Puranas and Epics, 2012)
1. Ethnographic data in the Mahābhārata •Socially, the Epic presents a mixed society: numerousdifferent languages, cultures, rulers and regions. •363 people are listed on different occasions, as janas orjātis. •Jana = people, especially those forming a state. •Jāti = a community of people, basically a segment of ajana (e.g., Kirātas, a jana, have several jātis). •The Epic does not distinguish between caste and tribe,in fact has no concept of a tribe in the usual sense, which isa colonial construct. (Neither do the Purāṇ as.) K.S. Singh:“There is hardly any evidence to show that in the collectiveconsciousness of India there is any difference between thetwo sets of janas.”
The janas appear in the Epic (after R. Shafer,1954): •as part of geographical lists — 231 •the digvijaya list (Yudhiṣṭ hira’s victories won byhis four brothers in the four directions) — 212 •those paying tribute to the Pāṇḍ avas — 296 •those part of army formations — 158 •other data — 108
The 363 janas are defined: •in geographical terms (with reference to“Jambudvīpa”). Some of the regions are regardedas holier than others, for instance the Kuru-Pañcālaand Matsya. •in political terms, territorial units such asjanapadas, varṣ as or rāṣṭ ras. •In ecological terms: living in mountains (Khasas,Haimavatas, Arbuadas, Vindhyamulakas...), nearrivers (Kausijakas, Saindhavas...), from deserts(Marudhas...), from pastoral lands (Pasupas,Govindas...).
•Janas in the East: Angas, Vangas, Kiratas, Chinas,Pundras... •Janas in the North (Himalayas): Trigartas, Khasas... •Janas in the West: Daradas, Pisachas, Vahilkas,Yadavas, Surashtras... •Janas in the South: Cholas, Pandyas, Keralas,Andhras, Dravidas, Karnatas, Mushakas... •Janas in the Northwest: Pahlavas, Sakas, Hunas,Yavanas, Kambojas ...
2. The Mahābhārata and the making of India “Everywhere I found a cultural background which had exerteda powerful influence on their lives. This background was amixture of popular philosophy, tradition, history, myth, andlegend, and it was not possible to draw a line between any ofthese. Even the entirely uneducated and illiterate shared thisbackground. The old epics of India, the Ramayana and theMahabharata and other books, in popular translations andparaphrases, were widely known among the masses, and everyincident and story and moral in them was engraved on thepopular mind and gave a richness and content to it. Illiteratevillagers would know hundreds of verses by heart and theirconversation would be full of references to them or to somestory with a moral, enshrined in some old classic.” Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, p. 67.
Mechanisms of integration •Repeated attempts (in the Epic as in early history) tobuild empires. •Marriage alliances across janas. •Storytelling (e.g. Harikatha) traditions often receivedroyal patronage. •Complete freedom was given to local cultures to adopt,adapt, transpose, translate, re-create the two Epics. •Creation of a sacred geography related to the Epics. •Overall, an organic process beyond the control of acaste or political power. The result was the cultural entitycalled India, and the thought and belief system calledHinduism (which may be defined as the interface betweenVedic and regional folk and “tribal” cultures).
The Mahābhārata and the South •In the Epic, Cholas, Pāṇḍ yas, Dravidas are oftenmentioned. •Sarangadhwaja, king of the Pāṇḍ yas, fights in the waron the side of the Pāṇḍ avas. •In inscriptions, Chola and Chera kings proudly claimdescent from the lunar or the solar dynasties. •An inscription records that a Pāṇḍya king led theelephant force in the Great War on behalf of thePāṇḍavas, and that early Pāṇḍyas translated theMahābhārata into Tamil (the translation is lost). •The first named Chera king, Udiyanjeral, is said tohave sumptuously fed the armies on both sides duringthe Bhārata war.
“Pancha Pāndavar”hero stone, BenagudiShola, Nilgiris (TamilNadu), maintained by Irula tribals to commemorate the Pāndavas’ passing through the area.
•Near Kodaikanal, a few caves bear the name of “PanchaPāndavar Pārai”, “the rock where the five Pāndavas[stayed]”. •Numerous Draupadi shrines in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. •Folk traditions of the South generated numerousretellings of the two northern epics in the form of popularballads, some of which have been preserved inmanuscripts. •In Tamil Nadu alone, a recent survey (by A.A.Manavalan) enumerated “about a hundred versions [of theMahābhārata] that have come down to us in folkloreforms”. •From the ninth century at least, a few inscriptionsrecord the grants of “lands and revenue for poets anddiscourse scholars on Mahābhārata.”
The Mahābhārata and the Northeast •The two Epics have left numerous landmarks in theregion. The Kirātas correspond broadly to the Indo-Mongoloids of the Northeast. •Prāgjyotiṣ a: founded by Naraka and his son Bhagadatta(who fights Arjuna in the Epic). Bhagadatta is a historicalfigure: he is mentioned in inscriptions, such as the Nalandaseal of Bhaskaravarman. •After the war, Arjuna goes out to Manipura on a missionto placate the Nāgas and marries Ulūpī. •A tradition identifies Ghaṭotkacha, Bhīma’s son fromHiḍimba, with the Kachhari kingdom in Assam (whosecapital Dimapur was a corruption of “Hiḍ imbapur”). •The Bodos have a tradition of having given Rukmini, aKirāta woman, to Krishna. They claim Bhagadatta andHiḍimba among their ancestors.
•K.S. Singh: “If the Bodos have a view of theirrelationship with pan-Indian traditions, this cannot bedescribed as something imaginary, but has to be seen aspeople’s efforts to link with historical traditions.” •Ajay Mitra Shastri: “Ancient Pragjyotisha or the North-East had very intimate relations with the rest of India, ofwhich it was an integral component, geographically andculturally, despite its own distinctive culture and physicalelements.”
The Mahābhārata and Kashmir •Kalhana’s Rajatarangini traces the origin of Kashmir’skings to Gonand I, a contemporary of the Great War. •Krishna is portrayed as helping the widow queenYaśovati ascend the throne after the king’s death in awar. •Jammu has numerous traditions related to the Epicsand a folk version of the Mahābhārata. There is a traditionof Nāga worship which claims that a Nāga tribe livedthere; Arjuna came, married Ulūpī and lived there forsome time. •Some of the tribals there worship the Pāṇḍ avas andDraupadī as ishtadevata.
Conclusions on the Epic’s ethnography •A rich human tapestry thriving on endless diversity,but united through certain ethico-cultural concepts, suchas dharma, mutual respect. •No separate status for “tribes”. •K.S. Singh: “The Mahabharata notion of jana or peopleof a territory still endures. ... People continue to identifythemselves with the epic traditions, associate places withthe visits of the epic heroes and to recall people’s ownrole in the growing and developing epic traditions. Thismay be bad history but it is good myth and therefore goodanthropology. ... Indians are reported to have relativelylarge eyes. This may me because our eyes are popping allthe time; there is so much beauty, so much diversity tobehold!”
3. Can the Mahābhārata’s ethnographic landscape help date the Epic? •In the 3rd / 4th millennium (a “traditional” date suchas 3100 BCE), the Northwest is in the Early Harappanphase, which is hardly reconcilable with the Epic. •As per current archaeological record, this phaseis free from weapons of war, armed conflicts andmilitary structures. •It is a phase of convergence, not of disintegrationas reflected in the Epic.
In the 3rd / 4th millennium, the Ganges valley is in the Neolithic, pre-iron era, with rural communities slowly spreading and establishing networks. This appears incompatible with the listing of numerous competing sociopolitical units with an advanced material culture.Map: First-millennium BCE sites innorth India: compatible with the Epic’ssociopolitical context.
This is true also of central, east, northeast andsouth India, where material cultures are even morerudimentary in the3rd / 4th millennium. Map: first-millennium BCE siteselsewhere in India
•A date in the 3rd / 4th millennium BCE for the Epic’sevents would demand a massive amount of re-creationand embellishment — so massive that those events mightas well be taken to be fiction. •The Mahābhārata’s ethnographic map belongs eitherto the late 2nd or the early 1st millennium BCE — morelikely the latter, if we consider the archaeology of east,northeast and south India in particular. •It bears repeating that the Epic’s ethnographiclandscape is intimately woven into its very fabric — thelists of janas cannot be mere “interpolations”.
French historian Michelet on India’s Epics “India, closer than us to the creation, has better preservedthe tradition of universal brotherhood. She inscribed it atthe beginning and at the end of her two great sacredpoems, the Ramayan and the Mahabharat, giganticpyramids before which all our small occidental works muststand humbly and respectfully. When you grow tired of thisquarrelsome West, please indulge in the sweet return toyour mother, to that majestic antiquity so noble and tender.Love, humility, grandeur, you will find it all gathered there,and with such simple feelings, so detached of all miserablepride, that humility never even needs a mention.” Le Peuple (in the 1860s)