Philology and Criticism

A Guide to Mahābhārata Textual Criticism

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Vishwa Adluri, Joydeep Bagchee
Cultural, Historical and Textual Studies of South Asian Religions
  • New York, NY: 
    Anthem Press
    , June
     568 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Philology and Criticism: A Guide to Māhābhārata Textual Criticism, philosophers Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee summarize the nature of philological work as it relates to Sanskrit texts. As a not-quite sequel to The Nay Science: A History of German Indology (Oxford University Press, 2014), Adluri and Bagchee now turn their sights from the larger academic enterprise of Indology towards the much narrower—though related—field of philology, taken by the authors to mean the act of studying the history of a text. Taking the critical edition of the Māhābhārata, a forty-seven-year-long textual project undertaken by Deccan College in Pune, India, as a basis for their analysis, the duo first lay out the criteria for a critical edition's success, before systematically proceeding to challenge the common criticisms which have been levelled against it.

On first glance, this text appears not to be intended for the lay reader with its technical vocabulary and approach. It engages with different types of textual criticism and the various theoretical approaches to reconstructing texts and creating critical editions. The authors use frameworks based on Latin and Greek philology, such as the neo-lachmann method, and demonstrate how this differs from the methods used in the Mahābhārata critical edition. Helpfully though, they also provide diagrams where appropriate, which allow non-specialist readers enough of an inroad into the work if they are sufficiently patient.

After a prologue framing textual criticism as art, their cross-examination of the Mahābhārata critical edition and its critiques opens with an introduction which summarizes the “unscientific and ideologically motivated” (11) nature of German Mahābhārata studies, prescribed by their previous book. It explains the nature, contents, and purpose of a critical edition in a precise and logical manner. The book is particularly useful in this regard, as it succinctly summarizes the philological method used in the classics. This further highlights how the method used by philologists in indology, at least in relation to the critiques of the Mahābhārata text, differ greatly in their approaches. Their basic reasoning is that indological textual criticism bases itself in a Protestant, romantic fantasy of India created in the West, as established by The Nay Science (Oxford, 2014), but the methods Sanskrit philologists use are distinct from classical textual criticism used for Latin and Greek texts.

What follows is a systematic refutation of the major arguments made of the critical edition. Chapters one through three cover a vast range of critiques including oral recensions, independent recensions, typographical errors, and classification by script. The authors deconstruct the various critiques into three main categories: critiques regarding a hyperarchetype, critiques regarding contamination, and confusion over classification. The authors not only critique the practice, but also the philosophy and the inherent biases of indological textual criticism. Ultimately, the pair argue, the work “owes as much to the tradition of Nietzsche as to that of West,” (xxvii) as it does to the Mahābhārata and its critical edition. Thus, the book does well to contextualize philological work on Sanskrit texts within the Western-centric academy that dominates this scholarship. In this way, the book focuses not upon the philosophical content or the narrative of the Mahābhārata, as most other Mahābhārata-studies tend to do, rather, it focusses upon the technicalities of one particular edition of the text, and demonstrates the presuppositions which lie behind the arguments that critique that edition. The authors use this as a platform to highlight the issues with academic discourse on the Mahābhārata, as well as text-critical work on Sanskrit more generally. It is useful in offering a counter-perspective to the notion that Sanskrit textual criticism is always an objective and rational process.

Appreciably, the authors have done well to accentuate the subjective nature of text-critical work on Sanskrit texts and the difficulties scholars of Sanskrit face when making philological decisions about their texts. However, the claim made in the conclusion is bold: German Indology “cannot claim the title of philology at all; it is rather a mixture of dogmatic assertion and Protestant anti-traditional, anticlerical sentiments masquerading as rigorous textual scholarship” (319). While the contents of this book have displayed many discrepancies within the discipline of indology, to discount the entire field based upon their critique of the Pune Mahābhārata seems unwarranted, especially considering there have been many other text-critical works on Sanskrit sources. Similarly, they argue that there is not a single common method shared by indologists globally, maintaining that the discipline “fails to meet even basic canons of objectivity, truth and method” (319), which might be considered an overstatement. This and similar comments throughout the book capture the somewhat polemic undertone that plays throughout the work, though the authors acknowledge as such, stating, “this book has had to be equal parts guidebook and polemical essay” (xvii) due to the influence of the West on the framework of indology. But rather than offering a truly alternative, indigenous philological method, the pair seem to settle with using the classical philological paradigm, which they argue will yield appropriate results regarding critical editions of Sanskrit texts.

Overall, this book is a valuable guide to those that work regularly with Sanskrit texts, especially for students and scholars of indology. It is also valuable to students of the Mahābhārata, as well as scholars who rely on Sanskrit texts in religious studies. The work reminds us that the critiques of Sanskrit philological work carry forward to the translations and abridged versions which scholars of religion rely on as evidence, and prompts us to be more aware of the larger power dynamics that underpin using an ancient text.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kush Depala is a graduate student of Cultural and Religious History of South Asia (Classical Indology) at Heidelberg University.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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.


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