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In the ages before printing, literature must for the
mass of people in all countries have tended to
take the form of a single volume witness the name
biblos or Bible, the book containing elements of
history and geography, a certain amount of
general information, some current fiction, and
above all an authoritative rendering of theology
and morals in combination. History of course
would be reduced to little more than an indication
of the origin of the reigning dynasty, or a sketch
of the epoch regarded at the time of writing as
"modern." Geography would consist of an


account of the chief pilgrimages and sacred rivers.
And in the Vishnu Purana, in the stories of Dhruva
and Prahlada, when compared with the infinitely
superior popular versions, we have a key to the
treatment which fiction and folklore would receive.
As the theological exposition proceeds, one can
almost see the Brahman teaching at the temple-
door while the shades of evening gather, and ignor-
ing every other consideration in his desire to put
the highest philosophy into the mouth of Prahlad, or
to pin a religious meaning to the astronomical
picture of the child Dhruva pointed onwards by
the Seven Rishis.

It would be clearly impossible for every village
in the Gupta Empire to possess either a scholar
learned in, or a copy of, the Mahabharata. But
the scheme of culture comprised in the knowledge
of the work known as the Vishnu Purana was not
equally unattainable ; and it is difficult to resist the
conclusion that the book was planned or edited
as a standard of common culture. If there be any-
thing in this suggestion, a new importance will be
conceded to the question of the province or district
in which each separate Purana was produced. A
single touch in the Vishnu Purana is sufficient
to indicate its composition in the neighbourhood of
an imperial capital, such as Pataliputra must have
been. This is found in the story of Hiranyakasipu
taking his little son on his jknee, when he had been
under tuition for some time, and putting him
through his catechism. One of the questions in


this catechism is extremely suggestive. " How
should one deal with an enemy by whom one is
vastly outnumbered ? " asks the father. " Divide
and attack them one by one," answers the son,
evidently from his book. In Hindu literature there
is no second work which can be called " national "
in the same sense as the Mahabharata. The foreign
reader, taking it up as sympathetic reader merely
and not as scholar, is at once struck by two features ;
in the first place, its unity in complexity ; and in
the second, its constant effort to impress on its
hearers the idea of a single centralised India with
an heroic tradition of her own as formative and
uniting impulse. It is in good sooth a monarch's
dream of an imperial race. The Gupta Emperor
of Pataliputra who commissioned the last recension
of the great work was as conscious as Asoka before
him or Akbar after of making to his people the
magic statement, " India is one."

As regards the unity of the work itself, this in
the case of the Mahabharata is extraordinary.
That a composition so ancient in subject-matter,
and so evidently complex in its derivation, should
be handed down to us as one single undisputed
whole, is historical evidence of the highest import-
ance for its original promulgation in this form by
some central power with ability and prestige to
give it authoritative publication. The origins of
the poem are hoary with antiquity. Its sources
are of an infinite variety. But the Mahabharata
was certainly wrought to its present shape in the


shadow of a throne, and that imperial. So much
is clear on the face of it to one who meets with
the book for the first time in mature life.

One would naturally expect it to have existed
in fragments, or at best to be current in many
different versions. Indeed it is clear enough on
the reading, that it has at some far past time
so existed. Every here and there the end of one
chapter or canto will tell a tale in one way, and
the beginning of the next repeat it, or some part of
it, from an utterly different point of view, as might
rival narrators of a single incident. But the work of
collating and examining, of assigning their definite
values to each separate story, and weaving all into
a single co-ordinated whole, has been done by
some one great mind, some mighty hand, that
went over the ground long long ago, and made
the path that we of to-day must follow still. The
minute differences of reading between the Bombay
and Benares texts only serve to emphasize this single
and uncontested character of one immortal render-
ing of the great work. All through Maharashtra
and the Punjab, and Bengal and Dravida-desh,
the Mahabharata is the same. In every part of
India and even amongst the Mohammedans in
Bengal it plays one part social, educational, man-
making, and nation-building. No great man could
be made in India without its influence upon his
childhood. And the hero-making poem is one
throughout every province of the land.

Socially the first point that strikes one, as one


reads, is the curious position held by the Brahman.
It is very evident that this is as yet by no means
fixed. No duty with which an audience was al-
ready familiar would-be so harped upon as is that
of gifts to and respect for the Brahmans here. We
notice too that the caste is not yet even fixed, for
Draupadi is represented at her swayamvara as
following the five brothers, when she and everyone
else imagine them to be Brahmans. Nor is this
a detail which requires explanation or apology, as
does the marriage of one woman to five men. No,
at the date of the last recension of the Mahabharata,
a marriage between Brahman and Kshatriya is
well within the understanding and sympathy of an
audience. It is however fairly clear that the pro-
mulgation of the work is bound up with the success
of the Brahmans in impressing themselves and it
on the public mind. It was entrusted to them,
perhaps by royal warrant even as in the story
of Damayanti another story is given to them
to carry forth of her father's capital to spread
far and wide, depending on the alms of the
faithful for payment. And we are constrained at
this point to ask, What up to this moment had
been the characteristic work of the Brahmans as
a caste ?

But there are notable exceptions to this constant
commendation of the Brahmans to the considera-
tion and charity of their hearers. On looking
closer, we find that there are many passages of no
inconsiderable size in which the Brahmans are never


mentioned. And this feature gradually establishes
itself in our minds as a very good differentia of the
more modern additions. It would appear that in
its earlier versions the poem contained no forced
mention of this particular caste, and that, in making
the final recension, some care was observed to
maintain the purity of the ancient texts, even while
incorporating with them new matter and new

The most important question of all however is
one on which a new reader will find it hard to
imagine himself mistaken. This is the question as
to who is the hero of the last recension. Un-
doubtedly the Mahabharata, as we have it, is the
story of Krishna. It is difficult to understand how
the theory could have been put forward that the
final editing had been Saivite. On the contrary,
Mahadeva is represented as speaking the praises
of Krishna, while, so far as I am aware, the reverse
never happens. This could only mean that
Hinduism as it stood was here, in the person of
Shiva, incorporating a new element, which had to
be ratified and accepted by all that was already
holy and authoritative. The Krishna of the national
story is indeed Partha-Sarathi the Charioteer of
Arjuna most probably an earlier hero of Dwarka
and the war-ballads but every effort is made, by
calling him Keshava and the slayer of Putana, to
identify him with that other Krishna, hero of the
Jumna, who appears to have been worshipped by
the cowherds, a people still half-nomadic as it would


seem, who must have been established peacefully
in India some centuries before his time.

Was Krishna Partha-Sarathi, then, the deliberate
preaching of the Gupta dynasty to the (at that
time half-Hinduised) peoples of the south side of
the Jumna ? Was he a hope held out to the
democracy, a place made in the national faith for
newly imperialised populations ? Was it at this
period that the play of the Mahabharata was de-
liberately established as an annual Pandava-lila in
the villages of the south, while to Krishna Partha-
Sarathi especially temples were built in Dravida-
desh? In any case, there is abundant evidence
half a century later, when we pass to the reign of
Skanda Gupta the grandson of Vikramaditya, of
the hold which the Krishna of the Jumna had
obtained over the hearts of the imperial house of
Pataliputra at Bhitari. 1 In the district of Ghazipur
to the west of Benares is still standing a pillar
which was raised by the young king on his return
from victory over the Huns in A.D. 455. He
hastened to his mother, says the inscription, "just
as Krishna, when he had slain his enemies, betook
himself to his mother Devaki." The pillar was
erected to the memory of his father it may have
marked the completion of the requiem ceremonies
postponed by war and in commemoration of the
victory just gained by the protection of the gods.
It was surmounted finally by a statue of the god
Vishnu. This statue has now disappeared, but we

1 Vincent Smith. Early History of India, pp. 267-8.


may safely infer that it was of the form still
common in the south of India as that of Narayana.
It was probably made in low relief on a rounded
panel, and depicted a beautiful youth with a lotus
in his hand. In the following year 456 a great
piece of engineering, so far west as the Girnar Hill,
was completed and consecrated by the building of
a temple of Vishnu.

Seven hundred and fifty years earlier, in the year
300 B.C., Megasthenes had noted amongst Indian
religious ideas that " Herakles is worshipped at
Mathura and Clisobothra." Was this latter the
Hellenic pronunciation of " Klisoputa," Krisoputra,
Krishnaputa ? And is it to be identified with
Dwarka, persistently identified with Krishna
throughout the Mahabharata without any very
satisfactory reason being stated or with some other
town near Mathura, since destroyed ?

Now this same Herakles is a figure of wonderful
interest. We must remember with regard to the
period of which we are now thinking, that Greece
was but the remotest province of the Central Asiatic
world, and in that world the youngest child of
history. Her myths and religious systems had
chiefly a central Asiatic origin, and Herakles of
Mediterranean fame was doubtless pre-eminently
of this order. Probably little ever finds its way
into literature of the human significance to human
souls of any given religious system, or more par-
ticularly of the ideas connected with an ancient
god or hero. We may depend upon it that Herakles


of Hellas, when he was worshipped by the common
folk, had more in him of the Christ who saves, more
of the Krishna, lover of man, than any of us now
could easily imagine.

It may be that Krishna slaying the tyrant of
Mathura forms but another echo of some immeasur-
ably ancient tale, held by future nations in common,
ere the Asian tablelands or the Arctic home had
poured down new-born breeds of man on the
coasts of Greece and river-banks of India. So at
least must it have seemed to Megasthenes, making
up his despatches for Seleukos Nikator. And 700
years go by, it appears, before a Gupta emperor,
who has just annexed Western India with its
capital of Ujjain, commissioned the editing anew
of the national epic of the north, causing it to teach
that this Cliso Kriso Krishna of the Jumna is no
other than a certain Partha-Sarathi, known this
long while to Northern and Vedic India as the
exponent to his disciples of all the secrets of the
Upanishads. Are we to take it that the Aryan
teacher cries, "Whom ye ignorantly worship, Him
declare I unto you " to the tribes whom he fain
would Hinduise ?

Readers of the Bhagavata Purana will note that
the Jumna life, that is to say, the Heraklian
element in the story of Krishna, is crowded into
his first twelve years and that after this he is repre-
sented as being sent to learn the Vedas. That is to
say, it is at this point that he is Hinduised as the
Incarnation of Vishnu. Obviously, after this had


been done, many of the incidents of his childhood
might have a Hindu interpretation reflected back
upon them.

How great is the beauty of that divine child-
hood ! How warm and throbbing the sense of
personality that speaks in every line of the Maha-
bharata! In spite of the English dress, how
wonderful the power and passion with which
both Epic and Purana tell the tale of Krishna!
How rude yet grand this ancient world out of
which in its unsuspecting simplicity, in its worship
of strength and heroism, comes the story of the
Lord slaying demon upon demon, elephant,
wrestler, tyrant, all. Centuries, maybe milleniums,
will go by before the tender Hinduising interpreta-
tion will be added to each incident, "and then,
offering salutation at the feet of Krishna, the soul
of that evil one went forth unto bright places, for
ever the touch of the Lord brought salvation, even
unto those whom He appeared to slay."

Like children long ago on the Greek islands, and
children and men in German Scandinavian forests,
or like the peasants of to-day in Icelandic log-
houses, so have the Indian people all down the
centuries listened to wonder-tales of a hero who
was vulnerable at no point save on the soles of his
feet ; of mortals who went armed with divine
weapons ; of that strong one who could gulp down
the forest-fire like water ; of the woman who peeped
and saw between her eyelids ; of madness sent by
the gods upon whole peoples whom they would


slay ; of dooms and destinies and strange heroic
whispers from the twilight of the world.

But nowhere, it seems to me, does the enthusiasm
of the story carry us s> completely away as when
we read at last of the ascension of Krishna into
heaven. Here we are dealing with nothing pre-
historic. Here we have the genius of a great
Hindu poet in full flight. All that the ecclesi-
asticism of the West has done in fifteen centuries
to place the like incident in the Christian story in
an exquisite mystical light, half-veiled by its own
glory, was here anticipated by some unnamed
writer of the Gupta era in India, in or before the
year A.D. 400, ending the story of the Incarnation
on a note of mingled love and triumph :

"And He the Lord, passing through the midst
of Heaven, ascended up into His own inconceivable
region. Then did all the immortals join together
to sing His praises. The gods and the rishis like-
wise offered salutation. And Indra also, the king
of Heaven, hymned Him right joyfully."


WE may take it then, for the sake of the argument,
that the final recension of the Mahabharata was
the literary magnum opus of the reign of Chandra
Gupta II of Magadha, known as Vikramaditya of
Ujjain (A.D. 375 to 413), and the source of his
great fame in letters. We may also take it from
the evidences seen there that he deliberately
organised its promulgation by missions in the
Dravida-desh, or country of the Madras. But, if
all this be true, what may we suppose to have been
the means employed by him for the execution of
so vast an undertaking? Undoubtedly the work
of compilation must have been carried out in
Benares by a council of scholars under the control
of one supreme directing genius. If Professor
Satis Chandra Vidyabhushan be correct (as I
should imagine that he is) in his suggestion that
the name of Devanagari, as applied to one par-
ticular form of Prakrit script, means of Devanagar
or Benares, 1 the question then arises, Was the
promulgation of the Mahabharata the occasion
on which it gained its widespread fame and appli-
cation ?

i See Indian World, November, 1906.


The possible date of the Ramayana suggests
itself at this point as a subject for examination
and decision. For my own part, trying the
question on grounds other than that of language,
I would suggest that the first part of this work
was written before the Mahabharata was finally
edited, and that it opens up a long vista of years
during which Ayodhya had already been the
principal Indian capital. The hypothesis is thus
that the Asokan capital of Pataliputra was suc-
ceeded by Ayodhya, and this again succeeded,
under the Guptas by Pataliputra. I am assuming
that the Uttarakanda portion of the Ramayana
was written later, according to what is said to be
the tradition of the islanders of Baly and Lombok,
east of Java. The fact that a synopsis of the
Ramayana as it then stood is given in the
Mahabharata, even as Kalidas's Kumara Sambhava
is epitomised in the Ramayana, points possibly to
some literary convention of an age when books
were necessarily few. One cannot help feeling
that it is the political greatness of Ayodhya and
Pataliputra, each in its own period, that leads it
to preach a new religion in the form of a definite
incarnation of Vishnu in the one case Rama, in
the other Krishna. And if this be true, it lends
an added interest to the fact that the worship of
Sita-Rama has now its greatest following in the
Dravida-desh. We may take it perhaps as a law
that a religion is likely to survive longest and
with greatest power, not in the region of its birth,


but in the land to which it is sent or given. An
exception is found in the worship of Shiva, which
is still dominant in Benares.

If the date I have suggested as that of the final
compilation of the Mahabharata be correct, it
would follow that the great work must in the
doing have trained a vast number of scholars and
critics. It must also have called together in one
place (doubtless Benares) an enormous mass of
tradition, folk-lore, old records, and persons re-
presenting various kinds of ancient knowledge.
All this would constitute that city an informal
university of a most real and living type, and it
might well be that the learning and research of
which to this day it is the home was the result
of the revival thus created under Vikramaditya of

Of the Gupta age as a whole (A.D. 326 to 500),
we find Vincent Smith saying :

11 To the same age probably should be assigned
the principal Puranas in their present form ; the
metrical legal treatises, of which the so-called Code
of Manu is the most familiar example; and, in
short, the mass of the ' classical ' Sanskrit literature.
The patronage of the great Gupta emperors
gave, as Professor Bhandarkar observes, ' a general
literary impulse/ which extended to every depart-
ment, and gradually raised Sanskrit to the position
which it long retained as the sole literary language
of Northern India. . . . The golden age of the
Guptas, glorious in literary, as in political, history,
comprised a period of a century and a quarter


(330 to 455 A ' D -)> an d was covered by three reigns
of exceptional length. The death of Kumara,
early in 455, marks the beginning of the decline
and fall of the empire." l

And again :

"The principal Puranas seem to have been
edited in their present form during the Gupta
period, when a great extension and revival of
Sanskrit Brahmanical literature took place." 2

The revision and re-editing of records thus
described would be an inevitable result of the
royal recension of the Mahabharata, supposing
that to have taken place, nor is it necessary, in
my own opinion, to mass the writings in question
together as " the principal Puranas," for it is
possible to trace a serial development of the Hindu
idea, which makes it easy enough to distinguish
chronological periods in Puranic literature, with
a considerable approach to definiteness.

With regard to the Mahabharata itself, if the
theory suggested as to the date of its last recension
should be finally accepted, it will, I believe, prove
not impossible so to determine its different strata
as to be fairly sure what parts were added in the
Gupta period, and by the Gupta poet. We must
remember that Indian students might easily qualify
themselves, as no alien could, to apply the tests
of language and theological evolution. This and
similar work might easily be undertaken by literary

1 Early History of India, pp. 267-8.
. 19.


societies. And I would suggest in accordance
with a method already widespread in Biblical
criticism that students' editions of the texts might
be printed, in which the ground of pages and para-
graphs should be of various colours, according to
their supposed periods. The paper of indetermin-
ate passages might be white, for instance, the
ancient yellow, the Saivite green or pink, and the
additions of the Gupta period blue in tint. Or
students might carry out this somewhat elaborate
undertaking for themselves by means of washes of
colour. In any case, such a device would prove
a valuable mode of presenting to the eyes at a
single glance the results of considerable time and

Some points in the relative chronology are easy
enough to determine. The story of Nala and
Damayanti, for instance, by the exquisite prayer
of Nala "Thou blessed one, may the Adityas,
and the Vasus, and the twin Ashwins, together
with the Marutas, protect thee, thine own honour
being thy best safeguard ! " betrays the fact of
its origin in the Vedic or Upanishadic pre-Puranic
period. The story of Nala and Damayanti is one
of the oldest of Aryan memories, and the mention
of the man's name first may be a token of this.
The atmosphere of the story is that of the India
in which Buddhism arose. The king cooks meat,
and his wife eats it. The gods who accompany
Nala to the Swayamvara are Vedic gods. There
is no allusion throughout the story to Mahadeva



or Krishna. There is, on the other hand, a
serpent possessed of mysterious knowledge. And
the Brahmans are represented as servants, not
as governors, of kings. One of the next stories,
in that wonderful Vana Parva in which Nala and
Damayanti occurs, is the tale of Sita and Rama.
And third and last of the series is Savitri. This
sequence is undoubtedly true to the order of their
evolution. Sita is the woman of sorrow, the
Madonna of serenity. And Savitri, which is late
Vedic, and referred to in the Ramayana showing
little or no trace of Saivite or Vaishnavite influence,
save perhaps in the mention of Narada is the
fully Hinduised conception of the faithful wife.
Her birth as the incarnation of the national prayer
is an instance of the highest poetry. And the
three heroines together Damayanti, Sita, Savitri
constitute an idealisation of woman to which I
doubt whether any other race can show a parallel.

That such tales as the Kirat-Arjuniya, again,
belong to the Saivite recension, there can be no
question. Equally certain is it, that some incidents,
such as that of Draupadi's cry to Krishna for
protection, and Bhishma's absorption in Krishna
on his death-bed, must belong to the Gupta version.
The rude vigour of the gambling scene, however,
and the old warrior's death on the bed of arrows,
as well as the marriage of five Pandavas to one
queen, would appear to come straight out of the
heroic age itself.

It would greatly aid us in our conception of


the genius and personality of that unknown poet
who presided over the deliberations of the Council
of Recension, if we could say with certainty what
touches in the great work were his. Was he re-
sponsible, for instance, for that supremely beautiful
incident, according to which, up to a certain
moment, the wheels of Yudhisthira's chariot had
never touched the earth ? If so, the world has
seen few who for vigour and chastity of imagina-
tion could approach him. But not alone for the
purpose of literary appreciation would one like to

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