Keerthik Sasidharan is an incredibly erudite Indian economist who works in the US and who has somehow managed to work full time, read so much AND write the first volume of a planned trilogy about the Mahabharata. The idea is that he will retell the Mahabharata through the eyes of 9 of its main characters and each segment will also bring out one aspect of the 9 rasas of ancient Indian philosophy. A general familiarity with the Mahabharata is helpful before you can read this, because the author does not provide you with a roadmap before you begin. But as long as you have that basic familiarity, you should be able to read and enjoy this book.
The first book introduces us to Bhishma, Draupadi and Arjun. The book is over 500 pages, so each character gets a lot of room to express themselves. And express themselves they do, in a very philosophical and subtle book that raises (and sometimes answers) profound philosophical questions while telling what is ostensibly a war story (one can say the same thing about the original Mahabharata). But be aware, just like the original, this IS a war story, and no detail is spared. At first glance some readers may look at that and decide this is just too much detail, but again, as with the original, patience is rewarded; The philosophical, psychological and sociological insights are scattered within, and worth the time spend reading the details of the war, the weapons and the stratagems.
The author’s greatest achievement is his ability to render the actions and motivations of these ancient characters in terms a modern reader can grasp. The actions and choices made by the various actors in this drama can appear mystifying in the original, but Keerthik is able to stick to the original story (and even the original phrases) while making them fully comprehensible to us. For example, the story of Amba and her kidnapping and subsequent rejection can seem very foreign and strange in other tellings, but in this book you can almost understand why every character acts the way they do. That is a tremendous achievement. Well worth a read.
Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.
Would appreciate more positive reviews!
In this episode I talk to Keerthik Sasidharan, an author and columnist whose debut book “The Dharma Forest” just came out in India in December 2020. Release in the US is awaited. We talk about his book, the Mahabharata, Indian tradition and whatever comes to mind..
In 1987 and 1988, India’s official (and at that time, only) TV channel (Doordarshan) broadcast serialized version of the famous Indian epics, the Ramayan and the Mahabharata. The series were hugely popular and with no competing TV choices, there was the kind of nationwide common viewing experience that is less and less common in the internet and cable TV age. I dont know if Left-liberal Indians (mostly Hindus themselves) were agitated at that time (i dont remember it being an issue, but I was not really reading Indian media at that time) but over time a narrative has developed that the broadcast of these serials led to a rise in Right wing Hindu nationalism, which culminated in the demolition of the Babri masjid by a Right wing mob in 1992. THe subsequent rise of the BJP to power is then the next step in a sequence that began with the broadcast of these “Hindu” serials.
As India has gone into lockdown due to Covid19, Doordarshan has announced that it is going to rebroadcast these serials. This step has revived the complaints about these serials being the first step in the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, exemplified by tweets like this one from “engaged historian” Audrey Truschke:
To me, as an outsider, this is quite fascinating. It seems that there is a significant segment of the Indian intelligentsia (which hapens to be the dominant faction in terms of foreign coverage of India; Western news organizations almost all pick up their own view of India via these “native informants”) that believes that: Continue reading Are the (TV) Mahabharata and Ramayan “Right Wing”?
Is the famous Mount Soma another name for Mount Narodnaya? I don’t know. Many have been trying to identify the famous Mountain Soma–which appears in so much of ancient Arya literature and is one of the most important sources of Arya culture. Mount Soma is in Uttara Kuru. Soma, also called Chandra, is synonymous with the moon. Which means that the moon, and Monday (Moon Day or Selene Day or Luna Day), are very closely connected with this mountain. The famous Chandra vamsha or Soma vamsha (or Jati of Moon and Monday) originates from Mount Soma.
Long ago the seventh Manu (Vaivasvata Manu or progenitor of hominids) had a son called Ishvaku, father of the Surya Vamsha (or Jati). For tens of thousands of years hominids came from the Ishvaku dynasty, including during the time of the Ramayana. Then, based on my interpretation of the texts, tens of thousands of years later a new hominid came called Illa. Illa, another daughter of Vaivasvatu Manu, lived for many, many generations of normal humans (which suggests that she is a different species, or alien, or had some type of advanced medical technology to avoid aging, or was born multiple times the way the Dalai Lama is.) She was a great proponent and practitioner of daily gender fluidity, changing gender hundreds of times. At times she was androgynous with no gender or parts of both genders. There are many Ardhanarishvara class beings in the east. In fact the goal of spiritual practice in the eastern philosophy is to transform ourselves into an Ardhanarishvara. To be a perfect man and perfect woman at once. Eventually transcending all philosophies, all genders, all concepts, all forms and all qualities.
Illa had many children, both as a mother, father and androgynous being. Her son Pururavas was also from Mount Soma (associated with the Moon). He married the Apsara (or different branch of hominid or non hominid or alien) Urvaśi. As an aside Illa answered some of the most asked questions of all time:
Is it better to be a man or a woman?
Who enjoys life better?
Who enjoys reproduction more?
For readers slow on the uptick, the obvious answer to these much asked questions is very simple . . . woman. This is yet another reason woman are considered far superior to men in the east. [Krishna said that woman have seven divine qualities versus men having only three divine qualities.]
Let me posit a hypothesis for consideration and testing. Might the Surya Vamsha be an allegorical reference to the south east Asian branch of humans from 50,000 to 75,000? Might Chandra Vamsha be a reference to the the Iranian or Turan farmer from around 9,000 years ago? How can these hypothesis be tested?
What is Mount Soma, which along with Mount Kailash is central to Eastern and Arya philosophy? Other than Mount Narodnaya what other tall mountains west or north of South Asia could it be? Note that Sugreeva says not to go north of Mount Soma. Could this be because of the northern Polar ice cap? Are the areas north of Mount Soma a reference to Aurora Borealis?
“On passing beyond that mountain in Uttara Kuru, there is a treasure trove of waters, namely vast of Northern Ocean, in the mid of which there is gigantic golden mountain named Mt. Soma. Those who have gone to the sphere of Indra, and those who have gone to the sphere of Brahma can clearly see that lordly Mt. Soma, situated in the vast of ocean from the vast of heavens. Even though that place is sunless it is comprehensible as if with sunshine, since it is illuminated with the resplendence of Mt. Soma itself, which will be irradiating that place as if with the resplendence of the Sun. The God and Cosmic-Souled Vishnu and Shambhu or Shiva, an embodiment of eleven selfsame Souls, called ekaadasha rudra-s , and the god of gods Brahma who is surrounded by Brahma-Sages, will be sojourning on that Mt. Soma.”
This suggests that Mount Soma is also a reference to deep personal mystical experience. Note that the eleven Rudras are a reference to Shiva. In the ancient Vedic Samhitas 33 gods are repeatedly referenced [12 Adityas + 8 Vasus + 11 Rudras + two others]. This has many layers of meaning which can only be understood through deep meditation. One layer of meaning is 33 sections of the spine. From a certain perspective the 33 Gods are when someone enters Samyama or Samadhi with respect to 33 different parts of the nervous system. This might also be linked to a common theory among neuroscientists that the human brain has 33 senses instead of 5 senses. Mount Soma is linked to Monday, the Moon, and the 8 Vasus (one of which is the moon).
There are several perspectives on Afghanistan’s name. Afghanistan’s name might come from “Upa-Gana-stan”:
“Upa” with a choti “a” at the end or “उप” means near
“Gana” or “गण” I believe might be a reference to Shiva’s Ganas (gouls, ghosts, unusual looking beings . . . possibly a reference to non homo sapiens of some kind, some say aliens)
“Stan”, I don’t know. Is this “Sthaana” or “स्थान”? If so this might mean position or venue or station or field or throne
An extremely wise fellow contributor from Brown Pundit reminded me of two other ancient names used for Afghanistan:
Panini’s Aṣṭādhyāyīrefers to Afghanistan as ash-va-kaa-na (अश्वकान).
Please note that the Aṣṭādhyāyī is much older than Patanjali who is considered millennia older than Krishna. Traditional scholarship of Aṣṭādhyāyī places it more than 7 thousand BC, which is not to say that the Aṣṭādhyāyī has not in any way been modified since then.
Pakrit name “a-va-gaa-nna” (अवगान्ना).
The oldest part of the Rig Veda samhita refers to:
“The Pakthoons are descendants of the Paktha tribe mentioned in Vedic literature.”
“Archaeological excavations in this region conducted by Sir Estine (an East India Company official) led to the recovery of uncountable shrines and inscriptions. He has authored four books on that topic featuring photos of icons, icons and inscriptions discovered. The photos show a sun temple and a Ganesha statue too. An Islamabad University professor Abdul Rehman has authored two books on those finds recalling the glory and prosperity of those times.”
“Regimes of two Hindu rulers “Kusham” and “Kidara” lasted for fairly long periods. During their rule a number of Shiva temples were not only in Afghanistan but in other West Asian regions too. Uzbekistan and Takzikistan formed part of the Afghan kingdom in those times. Tashkent has one of those ancient Shiva temples standing even today.”
“Professor Abdul Rehman states that Bukhara region Was known as “Shah Vihar” in ancient times. It was ruled by an Hindu king. When Arabs invaded that kingdom its queen traveled to Kashmir to seek military help. Arab chronicles mention her as ‘Khatoon’, meaning ’Woman’.”
“An Ayurvedic practitioner of Varansi (alias Benares) had treated the Khalifa for some ailment afflicting the latter. In those days it was Hindu Ayurvedic practitioners who were eagerly sought by Arab patients. A number of Arabs had translated Sanskrit Ayurvedic texts into Arabic. A list of those translated Sanskrit texts appears in a Volume known as al “Frisht“.”
“Baku (capital of the Azerbaijan region) known for its underground petroleum yields has still an ancient Hindu temple of the Divine Flame generated by the subterranean petrol and gas). During the Czar regimes in Russia a Punjabi priest officiated at that temple. The walls display some religious stanzas written in Punjabi Gurumakhi script. The market there also had Hindu merchants. Nearby was a locality too of Hindu inhabitants. Baku in Azerbaijani language actually signifies a Goddess. Therefore obviously Baku derives its name from a very ancient Vedic Goddess temple there.”
Afghanistan is also central to the ancient Sharada civilization:
The Sharada civilization [Afghanistan, Northern Pakistan, Kashmir] represents many things. One is the convergence of the six major Shaivite schools (not just Trika) within Uttara Mīmāmsā (Vedanta) and the four major Tibetan schools via the shared 84 Siddhas. Later large streams within Sufism joined this convergence [which might be the topic of a future researched article].
In the opinion of Wilson the renowned Vedic translator Kandahar is similar to the Rig Vedic word Gandhara. Wilson further observes,:
Ibn Haukil mentions that in his time there were remains of a considerable city more to the west, by the people of which, Zaranj was built. He calls this places Ramshhristan, a curious compound of Indian and Persian appellations.
There were ruins ‘at astonishing number’ in Herat, at Farrah, and Peshawarun–all sites near the province of Dranjiana connected with the Vedic dynasty of the Srinjayas [who were prominent during the 18 day Mahabharata war]. It therefore becomes all the more curious to hear the name of the place called Ramshehristan.
Panini, the eminent grammarian of Sanskrit, lived here in about 350 BC. [for the record I think Panini lived far earlier and before Patanjali] In his composition of the a sutra (4.3.93) on the Sindh and Takshasila class (gana-patha), he includes Sindhu, Varnu, Madhumat, Kamboja, Salwa, Kashmir, Gandhara, Kishkindhya, Urasa, Darada and Gandika. These are geographical names and lie in the trans-Indus regions. The place mentioned by Panini as Kishkindhya is today known as Kalat in Baluchistan. A great linguistic puzzle is that the local people call Brahuis speak in a Dravidian dialect.
Afghanistan was not the name of a country before 1747 AD. The lands lying to the est of the River Indus were called by different times as Kamboja, Bahlika, Madra, Aratta etc. in the north; as Sarayu (Horayu) in the north-west; as Sarasvati (Harahvati) in the south-east; as Gandhara in the center; as Zranjiana in the south-west and as Kishkindhya in the south.
. . .
They were of five streams or Pancajanas. Their leader was Visvamitra, who lived in Satudri-Vipasa valley (RV III.22.1). They fought against the Srinjayas under Vasistha in the famous battle of the ten kings.
Several waves of the new people, the Aryan races–Druhyus, Turvasus and Anus went westwards from these places. These groups are variously known in traditional literature as the Persians (Parsu), Medians (Madras), Parthians (Prithus), Hyksos (Yaksus), Mittanians and Helenes (Alinas) etc. They originally settled at a places known as Shortugai in Badakhshan in North Afghanistan. Old Sumerian texts as also the descriptions in the Baudhayana say that Aratta was Badakhshan, Balkh, or Bactria in Central Asia. From here, they exported lapis lazuli to the Sumer. The Sumerian epic, Enmerker and the Lord of Aratta describes this in detail. The epic, found in the clay tablets of Boghaz Keui is dated c. 1700 BC. In the Mahabharata, Karna derides the Madras and Arattans as being lowly people! [in conversation with Salya during the 17th day of the Kurukshetra war]
. . .
The name Srinjaya is similar to Zaranj and Sarangaei of the Iranians, old Persians and the Greeks. These were the names of the Iranian tribes who lived according to Herodotus in Zranjiana or Dranjiana, an area on the River Sarasvati or Horahvaiti in the Arochosia-Helmand region. Divodasa, greatest among the Rig Vedic kings, was a Srinjaya. He was born here. . . .
Horahvaiti region i.e. the Helmand-Arachosia region of what is today western Afghanistan . . .
Heldebrandt, one of the earliest scholars on the Ramayana in the West, was of the view that Sarasvati was the river Arghandab (Horahvaiti of the Zend Avestaiver, ) in Arachosia of modern Afghanistan (then Iran). Brunhofer, another scholar of the epic, adopted the Iranian link. Zimmer was in favour of placing the Rig Vedic Sarasvati in this area. Recently, Burrow has held that the early Rig Vedic Sarasvati was the River Horaxvaiti of Iran, and the River Sarayu was the Afghan, Horayu. Among the Indian scholars, Jaichandra Vidyalankar, after a detailed rumination, identifies Sarasvati as the Iranian Haraqvati . . .
The Ishvaku, the family Ram belonged to, and the Vasistha family were linked to a very early time of the Rig Veda, originally from the north and north-west region called Harirud of modern Afghanistan, on the bank of the River Horayu, mentioned in the Avesta. Only in the Rig Veda there is the name Sarayu. In the same way, still earlier, the family of Atris hailed from the banks of the River Rasa in the region of South Russia and North Afghanistan today. In a very early hymn in the Rig Veda (53.9), Sage Syavasva Atreya extols in glory a fleeting dolumn of the Maruts moving southward–the horse-borne storm troopers. In the course of their journey, they cross the rivers Rasa (Ranha or Oxus, in modern South Russia), Krumu (Kurran), Sindhu (Indus-between Pakistan and India today) and Sarayu (Horayu or Harirud)
Most people do not know that until about a thousand years ago, the Tarim Basin (northwest of Tibet, which is the part of Xinjiang below the Tian Shin Mountains) was Indic in culture and it was a thriving part of the Sanskritic world; its people spoke the Gāndhārī language which many see as descended from Vedic Sanskrit, and Khotanese Saka, which is also closely related to Sanskrit. Perhaps the region to compare it most is Kashmir, to whose north it lay. There was also much interaction between the two regions with many scholars traveling from Kashmir to Khotan, and silk culture is believed to have passed from Khotan to Kashmir and then into India.
Gāndhārī inscriptions have been found as far east as Luoyang and Anyang in Henan province in Eastern China which attests to the vastness of the influence of Sanskrit. Europeans in recent centuries called the whole region Serindia, indicating the meeting place of China and India.
The traditional date for the of Khotan, on the southern and the more ancient branch of the Silk Road, is the reign of Aśoka Maurya (3rd century BCE). It was ruled by Buddhist kings until it was conquered by the Muslims in 1006. Some of the kings mentioned in the “Prophecy of the Li Country”, composed in 746 CE, dealing with events of the recent past are Vijaya Kīrti, Vijaya Saṅgrāma, Vijaya Dharma, Vijaya Saṃbhava, and Vijaya Vāhana.
Many Khotanese cities had Sanskrit names. For example, Khotan in Sanskrit was Gaustana गौस्तन and the modern city of Kashi (Kashgar) was called Śrīkrīrāti (in Sanskrit Śrī+krī+rāti, श्रीक्रीराति, ‘Glorious Hospitality’). Kashgar itself appears to be the popular name from Sanskrit Kāśa+giri (काशगिरि, bright mountain). The Khotanese called their language hvatanai ह्वतनै which later became hvaṃnai ह्वंनै; this is equivalent to the name deśī that is used for language in India (vatan, from svatana = deśa).
The liturgical texts in the region were written in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, whereas those in the region of Krorän (Chinese Loulan), an important oasis further east of Khotan, used Prakrit in administration. A third language called Tocharian was also used both to translate Buddhist texts and as an administrative language. Many Sanskrit texts of India remember the general region as Tuṣāra or Tukhāra, and it retains currency as a popular proper name.
That Khotanese Saka was principally a Indo-Aryan Prakrit is reinforced by the fact that the texts are in Indian scripts of Brāhmī and Kharoṣṭhī. Many of these documents were collected in archaeological explorations to Chinese Turkestan by Aurel Stein, who is also known for his translation of Kalhaṇa’s Rājataraṅginī. Stein came across tens of thousands of manuscripts from 5th to 11th centuries in various sites including the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas in the Kansu (Gansu) province. One of the principal scholars who edited and translated many of these texts was H.W. Bailey and this literature remains a popular field of study for scholars.
Aurel Stein says in his celebrated Ancient Khotan: “There was little to prepare us for such overwhelming evidence .. on the large place which Indian language and culture must have occupied in the administration and daily life of this region during the early centuries of our era. That Sanskrit Buddhist literature was studied in Khotan down to the end of the eighth century A.D. has been proved beyond all doubt by the texts in Brāhmī script which I excavated.”
The mummies of Tarim Basin
The discovery of the Tarim mummies that go back to 1800 BCE strengthen the view that the region was Sanskritic. The earliest mummies in the Basin are exclusively Caucasoid, and the American Sinologist Victor H. Mair has said: “Because the Tarim Basin Caucasoid corpses are almost certainly the most easterly representatives of the Indo-European family and because they date from a time period that is early enough to have a bearing on the expansion of the Indo-European people from their homeland, it is thought they will play a crucial role in determining just where that might have been.”
Some have suggested Europoid identification to explain the blonds and red-heads among the mummies, but there is no need to travel thousands of miles to Western Europe to explain this; Kashmir, just south of the Basin has plenty of red-heads and blonds.
One of the DNA studies notes that the population had “relatively close relationships with the modern populations of South Central Asia and Indus Valley, as well as with the ancient population of Chawuhu.” This is perfectly reasonable if the original inhabitants of the region were from Indus Valley [code for India] and they left a genetic trace in the region.
My own interpretation is that the Vedas, Purana Itihasas, Ramayana and Mahabharata refer to some places north of Afghanistan in Turan (perhaps Sudakshina‘s army in the Mahabharata came from Turan) and west of Afghanistan in Iran (some believe that Pahlava refers to Arjuna‘s, Abhimanyu‘s, Parakshit‘s and Janamajeya‘s and Ashwamedatta’s ancestral line). Some even claim that the temple of Baalbek in Lebanon
and temple of Delphi in Greece are very closely connected to Arya culture and temples in the east:
I would define the “intellectual dark web” as the confluence and convergence of leaders from classical European enlightenment, hard sciences, technology (including neuroscience, bio-engineering, genetics, artificial intelligence), and east philosophy streams. Among the intellectual dark web’s many members are Dr. Richard Haier, Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Haidt, Ben Shapiro, Weinstein brothers, Sam Harris, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Yuval Noah Harari, Thomas Friedman, Maajid Nawaz, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku , Dr. VS Ramachandran, Steven Pinker, Armin Navabi, Ali Rizvi, Farhan Qureshi, Peter Beinart, Gad Saad, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Dave Rubin, Joe Rogan, Russell Brand. If Steve Jobs were still alive, I would include him among them. They defy easy labels and are high on openness. I hesitate to label others without their permission, but our very own Razib Khan strikes me as a potential leader of the “intellectual dark web”; although I will withdraw this nomination if he wishes. 😉
Some see the intellectual dark web as the primary global resistance to post modernism. I don’t agree. Rather I see them as ideation and intuition leaders thinking different:
[So I have returned to BP and will be posting here occasionally (though my personal blog is going to be my focus). Let’s just let the drama of the past week go.
I am cross-posting a book review I did of Alice Albinia’s novel “Leela’s Book”– a modern reworking of The Mahabharata. This review was originally published on The South Asian Idea in April 2012. ]
According to Hindu mythology, TheMahabharata was dictated by the sage Vyasa to Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. However, some scholars believe that the sections of the epic that deal with Ganesh’s scripting are later interpolations. Vyasa himself appears as a character in the epic. Vyasa’s brother Vichitravirya died without issue, so Vyasa’s mother asked him to impregnate his brother’s wives, the sisters Ambika and Ambalika. Ambika was the first to come to Vyasa’s bed, but out of fear and shyness, she closed her eyes. Vyasa cursed her and told her that her child would be born blind. The next night, it was Ambalika’s turn. She had been warned to remain calm, but her face turned pale due to fear. Again Vyasa cursed her and told her that her son would be be anemic and not be fit enough to rule the kingdom. These two brothers would end up being the ancestors of the two warring clans, the Kauravas and the Pandavas.
It is this mythological background that Alice Albinia draws upon in her novel Leela’s Book (originally published in January 2012). The story revolves around Ved Vyasa Chaturvedi, an eminent professor of Sanskrit and his relationships with two sisters, Meera and Leela. Twenty-two years before the novel begins, Vyasa had seduced Meera, who died after bearing him a pair of twins, a boy and a girl. After falling out with her sister regarding her relationship with Vyasa, Leela had gone into exile in New York, making a vow never to return to India. Now, two decades later, Leela is forced to return because her husband’s niece is marrying Vyasa’s son. Although the family thinks that they have arranged the wedding for their own selfish purposes, events are really being directed by Lord Ganesha, who is trying to save Leela, his beloved heroine, from Vyasa.
Many sections of Albinia’s novel are actually narrated by Ganesh. The god wants to correct the belief that Vyasa was the author of the Mahabharata. As he tells the reader, “I freely admit that my sworn enemy is Vyasa, pedestrian composer of India’s too-long epic, a poem called the Mahabharata, every word of which I wrote” (Albinia 26). Ganesh also wants to reveal Vyasa’s true character. He says:
Now, in the Mahabharata, Vyasa portrays himself as a holy sage, with matted hair and an otherworldly air, an expert teacher, the counsellor of kings, the wise old grandfather of his characters. He builds up a fabulous portrait: comforting yet aloof, clever yet alluring. I have only one problem with this benign vision: it is totally untrue. In these pages of mine, I will correct the misapprehension under which mortals have languished for so long. I will show how Vyasa disrespected ladies, failed to dissuade his descendants from mutual carnage, gave students of literature headaches with his prose (29).
Ganesh also confesses that he added his own original characters into Vyasa’s story. Two of these were Leela and Meera. Ganesh tells the reader: “Without mentioning a word of it to anyone, I simply dropped [Leela] into Vyasa’s tale, at one of the few places in the epic where a character didn’t have a name – Vyasa’s own bed, as it happened – as the amorous slave-girl he impregnated by mistake (after his late brother’s widows had had enough of him)” (31). Leela and Meera have been together through eight avatars, and the present story (their ninth avatar) is Ganesh’s last chance to get things right and save Leela from Vyasa. Continue reading Leela’s Book: A Review