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.

Text of Mahabharata Historicity by Prof. B B Lal

  • 1. MAHBHRATA HISTORICITY Prof. B.B. Lalby

2. THE PROBLEM There are two extremely divergent viewsabout the historicity of the Mahabharata. To the faithful, everything mentioned inthe text is true to the very letter. To someothers, it is a mere figment of imagination.The reason for such a confusion lies in thevery nature of the epic itself. Say, forexample, if Krishna was a historical figure,he is unlikely to have been later thanBuddha who lived in 6th -5th centuries BCE. 3. THE PROBLEM (Contd.) On the other hand, parts of the text maybe as late as the 4th Cent. CE, since itrefers not only to the Greeks and Romansbut also to the Huns what an yawninggap between the event and the text! Secondly, the Mahabharata, as availablenow, comprises over 100,000 verses, butearlier it consisted of 24,000 verses andcalled the Bharata. Still earlier, it had only8,000 verses, called the Jaya. Thus, whatindeed is the original cant be determined. 4. THE PROBLEM (Contd,) Thirdly, let it not be forgotten that theMahabharata was not meant to be ahistory book. It is an epic (prabandha-kavya) and the poet enjoyed absoluteliberty to let his imagination fly high. Thus,one cannot question his use ofsuperlatives while describing the palacesor the strength of the armies on thebattlefield or the supernatural weaponsused by them. 5. THE APPROACH As an archaeologist, I thought that a wayto ascertain the truth might be to exploreand excavate sites associated with theMahabharata story and find out whatthese have to say in the matter. In this context, a very important point tonote is that all the Mahabharata sites,luckily, continue to bear the same nameseven today as they did in antiquity, e.g.Hastinapura, Mathura, Kurukshetra, etc. 6. HASTINAPURA THE KEY SITE Way back, in 1951-52, I conductedexcavations at the key site of Hastinapura,the capital of the Kauravas, located on theright bank of the Ganga, in Meerut Distt,Uttar Pradesh, some 60 miles north-eastof Delhi. The results were very startling, as we shallsee from the slides that follow. 7. Claims of the PGW Culture At this point, it needs to be emphasizedthat it is the Painted Grey WareCulture which is the lowest commondenominator at all the sitesassociated with the Mahabharatastory referred to earlier and shownon the map. In fact, even sitesassociated with the story throughverbal tradition have yielded remainsof the Painted Grey Ware Culture. 8. Archaeology vis--vis the Texts In the context of the archaeological evidence ofa flood having destroyed Hastinapura, the textsaver: Gangayapahrite tsmin nagare Nagasahavaye Tyaktva Nichaksur nagaram Kausambyam sanivatsyati i.e. When the city of Nagasahvya (Hastinapura)is carried away by the Ganga, Nichakshu (thethen ruler) will abandon it and dwell inKausambi. And the archaeological evidence corroborates it. 9. Chronological Horizon of theMahabharata War We now come to the most crucial issue,viz. the probable date of the MahabharataWar. As mentioned in the texts, it was duringthe time of Nichkshu that the capital wasshifted from Hastinapura to Kausambi. The texts further tell us that (a) Nichakshuwas 5th ruler in succession from Parikshitwho ascended the throne after the War; 10. Chronological Horizon (contd.) and (b) amongst the rulers at KausambiUdayana was 19th from Nichakshu. Hence Udayana was the 24th ruler afterthe War. Further, it is well known thatUdayana was contemporary of Buddhawho passed away in 487 BCE. Thus, inbroad figures, Udayana may have ruledaround 500 BCE. The next question is: What was the totalduration of the reigns of these 24 rulers? 11. Chronological Horizon (contd.) If we round off the 13.55 years averageper ruler to 14 years or even extend it to,say, 15, the date of the War would workout as follows: 24 (rulers) x 15 years (average reign perruler) = 360 years. If we add this number, 360, to 500 BCE,when Udayana was ruling, we arrive atthe date of 860 BCE for the War. 12. Chronological Horizon (contd.) This is not to say that the War took placeexactly in 860 BCE. It is a figure arrived atfrom a combined evidence of archaeologyand literature. We may further round it offto circa 900 BCE, but perhaps no more! I would be failing in my duty if I did notmention dates (all in BCE) assigned byother scholars to the War: 1424(K.P.Jayaswal); 1400(A.S.Altekar); 950 (F.E.Pargiter); 9th cent. (H.C.Raychaudhury). 13. Chronological Horizon (contd.) I have commented on these dates in myvarious papers and would not like torepeat the same here. But I wouldcertainly like to say a few words about3102 BCE, based on a lonely inscription atAihole dated to Saka year 556 i.e. 634-35CE. This date, however, seems to besupported by astronomical data in theMahabharata, as interpreted by Prof.Narhar Acharya. 14. Chronological Horizon (contd.) My difficulty in accepting this date is thataround 3102 BCE (nor even for another1000 years to come) none of the sitesassociated with the Mahabharata storywas in existence be it Hastinapura orIndraprastha or Mathura, as establishedby the excavations at these sites. Howcan then we enact the Mahabharata storywithout these sites having been there?Can we? 15. Chronological Horizon (contd.) There is yet another way of looking at thefigure 3102 BCE. As seen earlier, therewere 24 rulers from Parikshit, whoascended the throne after the War, toUdayana who ruled around 500 BCE. Thisgives an average of 108 years per ruler:3102 - 500 = 2602, divided by 24 = 108. Nowhere in the entire world has therebeen such an average per ruler. Has thereto be a special case for India ? Let the learned audience think and decide! 16. Thank you very much for your patienthearing.