Skip directly to content

Lectures on Mahabharata

The importance of Bhishma for Indo-European cultural comparativism

Dr Nick Allen
6 May 2004

Related: Mahabharata

Female speakers in the Upanishads and Mahabharata

Dr Brian Black
3 May 2005

Related: Gender, Mahabharata, Upanisads

Towards an Existential Textology of the so-called 'Sanskrit epics'

Dr Simon Brodbeck
29 Oct 2009

The Ramayana tells of the war, on distant soil, between Rama Dasharatha of Ayodhya and Ravana’s demon hordes—in which Rama was the victor. The Mahabharata tells that story too, amongst many others, and orders business chronologically such that the righteous war Rama won is followed, as the generations pass, some distance northwest of Ayodhya, by the massacre of the inhabitants of Khandava Forest by Arjuna and Krishna, the massacre of practically all kshatriyas by the Pandavas as advised by Krishna at Kurukshetra, and, as the generations pass, by Janamejaya’s massacre of snakes at Takshashila, which was suspended on condition that the surviving snakes behave themselves. And in the meantime Krishna and the Vrishnis have all killed each other at Prabhasa. And the Harivamsha tells of what Krishna did before and after the business at Kurukshetra, which included licking various miscreants into shape.

In this paper I take these various massacres as a depiction of one process—an iterative royal rite of expansive self-assertion involving the exploitation of any and all resources that can be obtained, involving the appropriative subordination of other power-centres—and begin to explore some of its ramifications.
In human terms, and as partly inspired by the thirteenth major rock edict of King Ashoka “Beloved of the Gods” (in which the good king warns the massacred Kalingans that he will resume his massacre upon any and all who misbehave), I will compare Valmiki’s cursing the nishada hunter (at Ramayana 1.2:14) with Arjuna’s cursing Ashvasena as the latter escapes from the burning Khandava Forest (at Mahabharata 1.218:11). These must remain refugees and fugitives unless and until they reform and conform to the new order. Similar examples will be mentioned from within the Mahabharata (Ekalavya, Padmanabha) and from recent times.
In existential terms, I will highlight the analogy between the well-led state, the good household, and the good career individual—a triple myth that these texts develop in such a way as to involve the reader or hearer most intimately, particularly as all hearers or listeners are bodies that have expanded and are sustained by nutritive absorption.
In genealogical terms, I will discuss the local appropriation of solar ancestry by the Hastinapura kings, who were reckoned as descended from the moon in the days of the Pandavas, but have come to be reckoned, at Janamejaya’s snake massacre, as descendants of the sun. In terms of the standard solar and lunar vamshas as seen in the Harivamsha and the Puranas, such a change in reckoning would involve the branch-lines of brothers, cousins, and more distant cousins being cut out of the significant ancestry.
In gendered terms, and with particular reference to Harivamsha appendix 18, I will show how the solar royal conception involves a fully patrilineal model of inheritance and—at least in its paradigm case, that of the eldest son, the single heir—an endemic fear of the influence of the wife’s natal context upon her son, the next heir. This fear is most starkly dramatised with regard to the the figure of the putrika, a woman whose son continues her father’s line, not her husband’s.
Simon Brodbeck was educated at the University of Cambridge and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where he obtained his PhD with a thesis on the philosophy of the Bhagavadgita. Since then he has been a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, a researcher on the "Epic Constructions" project at SOAS, and a translator and editor for the Clay Sanskrit Library. He is now working at Cardiff University, doing research on genealogy in ancient India. His publications include Gender and Narrative in the Mahabharata (ed., with Brian Black, Routledge, 2007) and The Mahabharata Patriline (Ashgate, in press).

Related: Mahabharata, Sanskrit

Telling the World: Exploring the Cultural and Intellectual Agenda of the Sanskrit Mahabharata

Majewski Lecture
Dr James Hegarty
16 May 2011

In this lecture, I explore the form and function of the Sanskrit Mahabharata. I take up features of its design, its explicit statements about itself and its most prominent themes in order to make some suggestions as to what the Mahabharata sought to do, culturally and intellectually,in early South Asian society. I combine this with an analysis of the presence of the Mahabharata in select literary and epigraphical sources of the first millennium in order to explore the impact of the text from Guptan north India to Kerala and Kashmir. These investigations will be combined with a broader discussion of the role of narrative in the transmission and adaptation of understandings of past, place and preferred ideology within, and potentially beyond, South Asia.

Dr James Hegarty is Senior Lecturer in Indian Religions at Cardiff University. His primary research interest is in the role of religious narrative in the cultural and intellectual history of South Asia. He has published numerous papers on Sanskrit and vernacular narrative materials. His monograph Religion, Narrative and Public Imagination: Past and Place in the Sanskrit Mahabharata is forthcoming with Routledge.

Related: Mahabharata

How japa changed between the Vedas and the bhakti traditions: the evidence of the Jāpakopākhyāna (Mbh 12.189–93)

Majewski Lecture
Professor John Brockington
24 Oct 2011

The term japa is one that has a long history within the family of Hindu traditions but the difference between the murmuring of Vedic mantras as an accompaniment to sacrificial rituals and the meditative repetition of a divine name in bhakti traditions is considerable. In an attempt to find some evidence for the development process involved, I shall examine theJāpakopākhyāna (MBh 12.189–93), a text which seems in some ways incongruous in its context, and will also survey the occurrence of japa and its cognates throughout theMahābhārata. I seek to unravel the textual history of the passage and the logic of combining its parts, as well as the message that it conveys. The prominence of Brahmā in the passage may form one key to its interpretation, while the fact that the next highest (though much lower) frequency of japa and related terms is in the Nārāyaṇīya seems to offer another clue, especially in conjunction with the significance of japa in the developed Pāñcarātra system.

Professor Brockington is emeritus Professor of Sanskrit in the School of Asian Studies (of which he was the first Head) and an Honorary Fellow in the Centre for South Asian Studies. He has written several books and around 75 articles on his special area of research, the Sanskrit epics, as well as on other topics.   He is the Secretary General of the International Association of Sanskrit Studies and was the chair of the organising committee of the 13th World Sanskrit Conference, held at Edinburgh in July 2006. Among his many publications areThe Sacred Thread: Hinduism in its continuity and diversity, (1981); Righteous Rama: the Evolution of an Epic; Hinduism and Christianity; Epic and Puranic Bibliography (up to 1985) (1992); The Sanskrit Epics (Handbuch der Orientalistik, 2.2.12; A Descriptive Catalogue of the Sanskrit and other Indian Manuscripts of the Chandra Shum Shere Collection in the Bodleian Library, Part II, Epics and PuranasEpic Threads: John Brockington on the Sanskrit Epics, ed. Greg Bailey and Mary Brockington (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2000); Indian Epic Traditions – Past and Present (Papers presented at the 16th European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies, Edinburgh, 5–9 September 2000) ed. by Danuta Stasik and John Brockington (2002); The Intimate Other: Love Divine in Indic Religions, ed. by Anna S. King and John Brockington (2005); and Rama the Steadfast: An Early Form of the Ramayana,tr. by John Brockington and Mary Brockington (2006).

Related: Mahabharata, Ritual