Philology and Criticism: A Guide to Mahabharata Textual Criticism

Philology and Criticism: A Guide to Mahabharata Textual Criticism

by Vishwa Adluri, Joydeep Bagchee


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The Critical Edition of the Mahābhārata, completed between 1933 and 1966, represents a landmark in the textual history of an epic with a nearly 1500-year history. Not only is the epic massive (70,000 verses in the constituted text, with approximately another 24,000 in the Vulgate) verses, but in its various recensions, versions, retellings, and translations it also presents a unique view of the history of texts, narratives, ideas, and their relation to a culture. Yet in spite of the fact that this text has been widely adopted as the standard Mahābhārata text by scholars, there is as yet no work that clarifies the details of the process by which this text was established. Scholars seeking clarification on the manuscripts used or the principles followed in arriving at the Critical Text must either rely on informal scattered hints found throughout academic literature or read the volumes themselves and attempt to follow what the editor did and why he did so at each stage.

This book is the first work that presents a comprehensive review of the Critical Edition, with overviews of the stemmata (textual trees) drawn up, how the logic of the stemmata determined editorial choices, and an in-depth analysis of strengths and drawbacks of the Critical Edition. Not only is this work an invaluable asset to any scholar working on the Mahābhārata today using the Critical Edition, but the publication of an English translation of the Critical Edition by Chicago University Press also makes this book an urgent desideratum.

Furthermore, this volume provides an overview of both historical and contemporary views on the Critical Edition and clarifies strengths and weaknesses in the arguments for and against the text. This book simultaneously surveys the history of Western interpretive approaches to the Indian epic and evaluates them in terms of their cogency and tenability using the tools of textual criticism. It thus subjects many prejudices of nineteenth-century scholarship (e.g., the thesis of a heroic Indo-European epic culture) to a penetrating critique. Intended as a companion volume to our book The Nay Science: A History of German Indology (Oxford University Press), this book is set to become the definitive guide to Mahābhārata textual criticism. As both a guide into the arcane details of textual criticism and a standard reference work on the Mahābhārata manuscript tradition, this book addresses a vital need in scholarship today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783085767
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 06/29/2018
Series: Cultural, Historical and Textual Studies of South Asian Religions , #1184
Pages: 1000
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Vishwa Adluri holds PhDs in philosophy, Indology and Sanskrit from the New School for Social Research, Philipps-Universität Marburg and Deccan College. He teaches at Hunter College, New York, USA.

Joydeep Bagchee has a PhD in philosophy from the New School for Social Research and teaches at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Germany.

Read an Excerpt



Our only source is the manuscripts themselves, and therefore, in the final analysis, these stemmata. We therefore do not have the right to repudiate their evidence on the pretext that it appears absurd to us.

— Robert Marichal, "La critique des textes"

The Normative Redaction Hypothesis

The constituted text is not the archetype of the tradition but merely a "normative redaction," defined as "a redaction that had a normative effect and overgrew all other versions." The critical edition reconstructs "a text that was a historical fact at a certain period in time," but precisely because it is not the archetype, it should not hinder us from exploring "the prehistory of the normative redaction." Above all, we should consider "passages rejected from the constituted text," as they could be evidence of a "parallel transmission" of the Mahabharata.

We commence our review of post-critical edition Mahabharata scholarship with a look at Andreas Bigger's work. Although the thesis that the critical edition reconstructs merely the Mahabharata's "final redaction" rather than its archetype is not new — as we have seen, it originated in 1974 with Georg von Simson — its contemporary renaissance can be traced almost exclusively to Bigger, specifically his hypothesis that the constituted text reconstructs the "normative redaction" of the Mahabharata, defined as "a uniform redaction that was fixed in a written form at some time and to which further texts and streams were added by later copyists." The characteristic feature of this redaction, however, and the feature that lends it its name, is that it "had a normative effect and overgrew all other versions."

As an example of such a version, Bigger cites Nilakantha's seventeenth-century vulgate edition. He argues, "if in the seventeenth century a commentator could compile a text of the Mahabharata that disseminated itself in certain circles and thereby doubtless suppressed other versions, it is also conceivable that a much earlier redaction attained such authority that it dominated the entire written transmission." Apparently, the official text of the Mahabharata in the normative redaction decimated other versions in existence, both oral and written, thus enabling a new Brahmanically authorized version — and, concurrently, a Brahmanic vision of society — to take hold. The salient feature of the normative redaction, however, and the reason Bigger advances the hypothesis, is that it permits him to reinterpret verses found only in some manuscripts as remnants of an earlier oral epic tradition. Although rejected from the constituted text as of doubtful authenticity, Bigger argues, "from the perspective of a theory of a normative redaction [...], some of them represent a parallel transmission. The normative redaction admittedly suppressed the other versions in these cases. But some copyists incorporated parts of these versions in their copy of the normative redaction." Identifying and collecting these passages thus not only permits him to reconstruct an earlier stage of the transmission than what is represented in the critical edition (the so-called prehistory of the normative redaction); it also undermines the critical edition's claims to accuracy and authenticity.

If Bigger's thesis is correct, it will reveal, as Oskar von Hinüber postulates, that "what has arisen [in the critical edition] is not the Ur-text, which could not have arisen at all, but a completely new normalized recension [eine ganz neue normalisierte Rezension]." Ultimately, the normative redaction hypothesis validates the German Mahabharata critics' suspicion that "much of what [we] would like to count among the characteristic content of the poetry, proves ultimately the inferior, derivative work of later copyists [Schreibermachwerk]," thereby reinstating their authority. Hence their interest in embracing it.

Normative Redaction, Archetype and Original

Textual criticism allows us to reconstruct the archetype of the tradition, which represents a constriction in the tradition attributable to a "normative redaction." This reconstructed archetype, however, only gives us access to the official Brahmanic text resulting from the redaction of an earlier oral tradition. It neither accurately models the contents of the tradition nor can it be seen as a copy of the original, since the tradition was plural above the archetype and a single original never existed.

Before we consider Bigger's normative redaction hypothesis in greater depth, let us first understand why the stemma codicum indicates a narrowing — but only apparently so — of the tradition. Consider V. S. Sukthankar's stemma of the adiparvan (Figure 5).

The Mahabharata editors used the common-error method, so called because it is based on the insight that only shared errors prove manuscripts related, to identify the genealogical relationships between the witnesses. Once these relationships were identified and the manuscripts fit into a stemma, they used simple rules to determine the reading of their probable ancestor, known as the archetype. Because all extant manuscripts were descended from a single source, by eliminating innovations or secondary readings unique to a specific branch of the tradition, the editors could arrive at a codex unicus, the unique manuscript that represented their best conjecture of the text of this source. The circumstance that the editors reduced the multiple readings in evidence to a single one for every line of the Mahabharata, thus creating a unique text, explains the apparent narrowing of the tradition as we ascend toward the archetype.

We must remember, however, that this narrowing is only apparent. In reality, the archetype was not the sole source in existence at the time. It just so happens that its descendants rather than those of other manuscripts survived, giving it its apparently unique position in the stemma. If we wished to represent the "true" state of affairs, our stemma would probably look like Figure 6.

From this diagram, it should be immediately clear that the archetype was neither the sole exemplar in existence at the time nor does it represent a constriction of the tradition. It is therefore incorrect to assume that the tradition was plural above the archetype, but underwent a reduction at the time of the archetype, as the many versions in existence were assimilated or standardized into one official copy. Yet Bigger commits this precise error. From the fact that the archetype occupies the vertex of the stemma, he concludes that the tradition was reduced to a single exemplar, and uses this fact to open up the tradition again above the archetype. Let us read his own words:

The MBh, which presents itself in the manuscripts, goes back to a uniform redaction that was fixed in a written form at some time and to which further texts and streams [sic] were added by later copyists. In that case a critical edition makes sense, since it represents an attempt to reconstruct this normative redaction.

Concurrent with this redefinition of the archetype as a "normative redaction" (and the identification of this so-called redaction itself with a real, historically existing text), Bigger also argues for reconsidering the relationship of the archetype and the original. Rather than view the archetype as editors have traditionally done — that is, as a copy, however remote, descended from the original so that if we can reconstruct it, we will come as close as possible to the author's text — he argues that it represents a deliberate revision of the original. Indeed, this revision is so extensive that it represents a break in the transmission and the original epic survives only as fragments that the normative redaction could not erase. Bigger explains:

At the time of its creation, the normative redaction was not the sole version of the Mahabharata. Rather, there existed other versions parallel to it, which, however, were suppressed in the course of time by the normative redaction. It is conceivable that, in its time, the normative redaction was the sole written version of the Mahabharata, which allowed it to dominate the written tradition of this work. In the course of time, however, different copyists inserted passages from other versions — partly from direct recollection, partly from other (younger?) written versions — into the transcript.

If we imagine the tradition as two cones placed one on top of the other apex to apex, we come closest to understanding Bigger's view of the tradition. Above their common vertex, the tradition was oral and plural. Rather than a single authorial text, several versions existed. The normative redaction interrupted this variable tradition and created, instead, a single text. It not only led to a reduction in the number of copies or versions in circulation but also exercised a normative effect on their contents in the sense that, henceforth, only the authorized version (or versions in conformity with it) was preserved. Repeated copying of this new version caused the tradition once again to spread beneath the archetype, but the relationship of the archetype to the original is no longer that of a copy and its source. Rather, the archetype represents a new tradition connected only tenuously to the earlier one through elements accidentally preserved in the archetype. Proceeding in reverse, we first encounter several manuscript versions of the Mahabharata. As we successively eliminate their unique readings, the tradition keeps narrowing until we reach their common source, the archetype. However, because this work is neither the first origin of the tradition nor a faithful reproduction of the preceding tradition, the critical edition does not provide us an accurate insight into the Mahabharata. It merely occupies a prominent place on the stemma because it reconstructs a deliberate redaction that reduced the number of copies in existence. The Mahabharata editors erred in privileging this work, and, in at least one instance, for similar reasons as its hypothetical architects, the Brahmans. Using "the methods of higher textual criticism," we can and must go beyond its text to at least a partial original by identifying remnants of the older oral tradition surviving either in the archetype or through other means. As "the most complete collection of Mahabharata versions," the critical edition presents an invaluable aid in this task, but no more than that.

Criticism: Higher and Lower

The redefinition of the constituted text as a normative redaction rather than an archetype permits us to reconstruct earlier stages of the tradition using "higher criticism." In contrast to textual criticism, which is a rigorous and mechanical procedure that begins with the manuscript evidence and attempts to infer the manuscripts' likely sources based on shared errors of transcription, higher criticism uses subjective, a priori criteria to identify certain passages as older than others and therefore as part of the "genuine" epic tradition.

Although every single one of Bigger's contentions is false — the critical edition does not attempt to reconstruct the Mahabharata's "normative redaction"; there is no evidence that such a redaction existed; it is erroneous to assume that the archetype was the sole exemplar in existence at the time; the apparently unique nature of the archetype must not be confused with a real reduction in the number of exemplars in circulation; and it is illicit to use this hypothetical reduction to open up the tradition once again above the archetype, giving the tradition a funnel shape — we nevertheless take a closer look at his work, as it permits us to delineate a truly critical approach from one that merely appears critical. We shall focus on the distinction between historical criticism, sometimes called higher criticism in contradistinction to lower criticism and identified with the reconstruction of stages before the archetype, and textual criticism — the stemmatic method proper, which culminates with the reconstruction of the archetype.

Textual criticism proceeds from the assumption that our manuscripts are copies of an original, whether extant or not, and seeks on the basis of the genealogical relationships between them to identify their descent from it. If the original is no longer extant, these relationships can be used to conjecture the reading of the archetype, the (latest) common ancestor from which all extant manuscripts are descended, and to reconstruct this archetype by eliminating the innovations unique to one branch of the tradition or to specific manuscripts. We begin with the witnesses and attempt, on the basis of their evidence, to reconstruct the text from which they derive (the ancestor or source). For example, if we have three witnesses A, B and C arranged in a tripartite stemma of the form


and A and B offer the reading x and C offers the reading y, it is likelier that A and B preserve the original reading and C contains the innovation, provided neither A nor B is the source of the other's reading (horizontal transmission or contamination) and x is not such that A and B could have arrived at it independently (simultaneous innovation, polygenetic innovation or polygenesis of errors). Fitting manuscripts into a stemma thus presents editors a mechanical way of choosing between the available variants for a variation place rather than using subjective criteria such as sense or style. Above all, it lets us identify latent errors, that is, readings that, due to their unexceptional nature, might have escaped our notice as innovations over the original in the absence of the stemmatic method. Gianfranco Contini describes stemmata as "an objective and mechanical tool, invented to sort out, in the first instance, the quarrel between variants that are in themselves equally acceptable: [...] variants that are pronounced erroneous serve to brand as erroneous those that have remained equally acceptable." Paul Maas first formalized the principles by which editors make these choices in his classic Textkritik. He used the hypothetical stemma shown in Figure 7 to illustrate the basic principles.

We do not review these principles here, but it is important to note the special status of α in his stemma. Maas noted that α, as "the source from which the first branching occurred," is called the "archetype" and that "the text of this archetype is free of all errors that arose after the branching; it is thus closer to the original than the text of all witnesses. If we thus succeed in securing this text, the constitutio is significantly advanced." Although Maas conceded that in three of the four possible outcomes —" recensio thus leads either to an extant codex unicus or to an archetype that can be reconstructed with certainty or to two variant texts that are either extant or can be reconstructed and ensure the text of the archetype only when they agree but not when they vary" — we must examine the transmission to see if it is original, reconstruction typically aims not at an original, but at an archetype. Thus he noted:

In this examination, the transmission proves to be the best conceivable, or equivalent to others we can conceive, or worse than others we can conceive but still tenable, or untenable. In the first of these four cases the transmission must be considered original, in the last one as corrupt, in the two middle ones one may or must doubt. [...] If the archetype of an entire work proves completely free of corruptions, it can be the original, that is, the branching could have begun with the original itself. I know of no major work of a classical author in which this possibility must be considered.

Maas allowed a limited scope for divinatio (conjecture), through which the editor can attempt to improve the text and thus in some respects come closer to the first source of the entire tradition, but he remained skeptical of historical criticism:

The methods of historical source criticism are closely related. But whereas the literary transmission leads back to an original essentially identical with all witnesses in that it is likewise a manuscript, at the beginning of the historical transmission stands an event that by its very nature resists being given a written form and is already colored or falsified by the first witness, indeed often intentionally so. Whereas the literary art work's organic nature, which we experience as necessary in every element, can survive millennia without severe damage, especially in a culture subject to its effect, often only the roughest outline of the historical event transcends doubt, and often not even this. [...] But nowhere will the path be as clear, the goal as attainable as in textual criticism of the classical authors.


Excerpted from "Philology and Criticism"
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Copyright © 2018 Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee.
Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Preface; Prologue;


Chapter One Arguments for a Hyperarchetypal Inference;

Chapter Two Reconstructing the Source of Contamination;

Chapter Three Confusions regarding Classification;

Conclusion; Appendices.

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From the Publisher

“Philology and Criticism, published on the fiftieth anniversary of the critical edition’s completion, has been much needed in Mahābhārata studies for the past half-century. Adluri and Bagchee describe how the critical edition’s evidence does not support theories of a prior oral epic or ‘layering’ in the text. Brilliant and persuasive!” –Bruce M. Sullivan, Professor of Comparative Study of Religions, Northern Arizona University, USA

“Philology and Criticism is an essential reference work, the first to explain what the critical edition is. Adluri and Bagchee’s clarification of the critical edition's overarching project is brilliant and makes a lasting contribution to the field.” –Alf Hiltebeitel, Professor of Religion, History and Human Sciences, George Washington University, USA

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