The Mahabharata in Modern Intellectual History: Perspectives from South Asia, Europe, and East Asia

Posted by

By Contributing Writer Michael Kinadeter

The conference “The Mahabharata in Modern Intellectual History: Perspectives from South Asia, Europe, and East Asia” organized by Milinda Banerjee at LudwigMaximilians-Universität Munich on 24 November 2018, addressed the dearth of academic engagement with the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, from the perspective of modern global intellectual history. The edited volume Political Thought in Action (S. Kapila, F. Devji: 2013) constitutes a rare exception in this regard, given that the bulk of scholarship on the Mahabharata (subsequently Mbh) tends to concentrate on premodern Indian history. Academic research on the Mbh in its many written, oral, and performed versions not only has historical value, but contemporary relevance, given that the Mbh has profoundly influenced modern politics in South Asia; in fact, it still significantly shapes public discourses in the subcontinent and intellectual-cultural debates globally. To analyze the manifold reception histories of the epic, scholars need to weave together approaches from multiple disciplines, including global intellectual history, Indology, philosophy, literary studies, and political theory.

Paulus Kaufmann (University of Zurich) and Philipp Sperner (Munich University) examined the transnational significance of the Mbh as evident from its reception in German philosophy. Kaufmann noted the tendency to neglect non-Western philosophers in German histories of philosophy, with the ambivalent reception of the Mbh providing a paradigmatic exemplar. Kaufmann chose Hegel as an example of a critical, yet informed, philosopher interested in Indian thought. Hegel’s main critiques of the Mbh, which Kaufmann identified as the “argument from lack of freedom and the argument from lack of systematicity,” led to vivid discussions during the workshop regarding the distinction of philosophy from other areas of intellectual creativity.[Unbekannt1]  Kaufmann argued that discussions on systematicity and traditions of dialectical reasoning can offer insight into how a philosophical corpus can be distinguished within the vast amount of (Indian) literature; in the process, misperceptions about Indian philosophy in Hegelian and European thought can also be more comprehensively addressed.

Sperner chose a deliberately achronological approach to point out not only the possible influences from India on German Romanticism and vice versa, but also how the Mbh was “considered as a quintessential example of a national epic, even before most other European nations discovered their national epics in the course of the 19th century.” He focused on the understanding of the Mbh as a national epic and the subsequent political implications. His comparison was based on Friedrich Schlegel’s On the language and wisdom of the Indians (1808) and Maithilisharan Gupt’s Bharat Bharati (1912). Schlegel not only significantly shaped debates about cultural nationalism in Europe and the role that German romanticism and folk literature played in its formation – which, according to Sperner, prefigured the emergence of similar ideas later in Indian nationalism –, but was himself foundationally inspired by his engagement with Indian history and textual culture. Similarly, Gupt, the first Hindi poet to be called rashtra kavi (national poet), put major emphasis on anti-colonial themes of Indian identity and national unity. He deployed ‘historical’ examples from the Mbh to place the concept of the epic at the center of Indian nationalism in Hindi-language discourses.

Meanwhile Egas Moniz-Bandeira (Autonomous University of Madrid) and Melanie J. Müller (Munich University) dealt with the uses and representations of the epic since the turn of the 20th century. Moniz-Bandeira traced its philosophical impact among intellectuals in China and Japan, where Okakura Kakuzō, Liu Shipei, and others examined the historical relationship between India and East Asia. Interest about India was fostered by several factors such as its colonial status, seen as a warning to East Asians, and the wish to find common traditions in the face of European imperialism. Several intellectuals maintained private exchanges with Indians, in which they discussed politics. International connections like these led to publications in Tokyo, where Indian and Chinese students gathered and authors such as Su Manshu and Liu Shipei wrote about Indian classics, while revolutionary authors among them emphasized India as the origin of cultural goods and philosophy.

Müller examined the “production of the ideal woman” through the Mbh. She alluded to Gandhi’s movement, which included women in the non-violent struggle for independence, although Gandhi dismissed the importance of education for women and failed to adequately consider their economic situation and their position within the family and in broader society. Gandhi emphasized the supposed ability of women to suffer silently, their non-violence as well as their alleged moral superiority over men. In contrast, the entrance of women into the public sphere required stronger prototypes to inspire, shape, and revise the ideas of gender roles. Here, the figure of Draupadi from the Mbh offered a powerful exemplar for women seeking a more active role in society and politics. Müller emphasized how Draupadi and other female characters from the Mbh motivated the fashioning of women’s voices and feminist literature in India. Such characters inspired women with values such as an activist sense of justice and self-determination. A typical example of a feminist retelling of the Mbh, as Müller pointed out, can be found in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions (2009).

Milinda Banerjee (Munich University) traced the role of the Mbh in the emergence of sovereignty in modern Bengal from the late 19th century. After the Imperial Assemblage in 1877 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s assumption of the title of Empress of India, British and pro-colonial Indian writers often legitimized the British colonial state as the restoration of the kingdom of Yudhishthira, described in the Mbh. In response, anti-colonial writers started their dialectical engagement, unwilling to submit to the unrighteous and exploitative British rule. This struggle gave rise to modern Bengali ideas of national sovereignty, partly based on the Mbh: a law-based national state, where law represented the codified will of God. Many Bengali intellectuals imagined the Indian nation on the basis of dharmarajya, the ideal ancient kingly state, unified by one king, one God and one law. From the 1910s, the Mbh became a source for political theories of social contract, as Indian thinkers demanded democratic rights on the basis of (supposedly ancient) constitutionalist ideas. Simultaneously, the epic inspired peasants and anti-colonial revolutionaries in their class-fight and struggle for political freedom. Bengali feminist writers and dramatists also re-interpreted the Mbh from the 1970s onwards, to seek women’s autonomy. Banerjee argued that the political interpretations of the Mbh opened up a gap between sovereignty and justice in their very attempt to locate what was right and just; it was through this epistemic opening that new notions of autonomy and demands for social progress could arise. Banerjee rounded up the discussion by noting how Bengali thinkers associated with the Subaltern Studies and postcolonial thought – especially Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – have brought the MBh into conversation with Hegel in recent decades, to produce new horizons of critical political and social theory.

In his presentation, Simon Cubelic (Heidelberg University) described the “political idiom in Nepal’s time of crisis” during the first half of the 19th century, a period often wrongly portrayed as “prepolitical”. Considering the struggles in Nepal due to unstable politics, infant monarchs, territorial expansion, and British colonial politics, Cubelic examined how Nepalese intellectuals responded to the crisis through the lens of the Mbh. The royal preceptor and later prime minister Ranga Nath Poudyal alluded to the Sanskritic state theory of the saptangas, describing the ideal qualities of the king and his ministers, to justify the restoration of the righteous monarch. He propagated his ideas of kingship based on descriptions from the Mbh; later the same text was used to determine the relationship between Brahmins and the king, and to reject polemics against Brahmins and to provide justification for their status, in a political situation when land-giving to Brahmins was problematized. Both presentations, by Banerjee and by Cubelic, described how the ancient classic was used on purpose to justify and re-define political concepts and relationships in modern South Asia.

Finally, Shuvatri Dasgupta (University of Cambridge) chose to combine the overlapping angles of literary studies, ethics, anthropology and history. She used the Mbh to raise the question of how the representation, translation, the selective reproduction, and adoption of a text like the Mbh shapes the reception, understanding, and function of the text. The Mbh exists in manifold versions, from being a popular love-story for a broad audience to a modern, educational version as “Gita for Girls”, or “Mahabharata for Boys” in the 20th century. Drawing specific attention to the obliteration of Draupadi’s menstrual politics in these retellings of the Mbh, Dasgupta indicated ways to rethink the concepts of the ‘political’ in the Mbh. Through constant and ever-changing re-creation, Dasgupta argued, a text leaves its past behind in the process of constant re-invention and re-interpretation. This ultimately dissolves the binary between the reader and the author within the larger discursive space.

The idea of taking into account different aspects and new angles on the Mahabharata was constantly present throughout the workshop. Its significance was discussed in terms of political, literary, and gender- or class-based terms, even though only a fractional amount of its extensive modern representations and reception could be covered. However, the task at hand was primarily to highlight the benefits of studying the Mbh in the broader context of Global Intellectual History, rather than providing sufficient answers. To invite the academic audience to join in and further develop this research on the Mahabharata, a publication is currently being planned.

Michael Kinadeter is a PhD student in Japanese studies and Buddhist
studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. His research interests are Japanese history and East-Asian religions (Shinto, Buddhism). His current dissertation project is a comparative study of Buddhist commentaries and their reception, based on Medieval manuscripts of the Buddhist Sanron school in Japan. You can reach him via email to

Leave a Reply