Battle for history

Interview: Can the Mahabharata actually be treated as literal history?

Supriya Varma, professor of archeology at JNU, speaks on when religious texts can be used in service of history – and when they can’t.

The Enlightenment in Europe during the 18th century meant that faith and what was now seen to be “reality” were separated from each other. Across the 19th and 20th century, this process of secularisation, it was believed, was irreversible and could only grow as European ideals spread around the globe.

However, we in the 21st century now know this not be to be true. “The resurgence of religion,” wrote the philosopher John Gray, “is a worldwide development”. Evangelical Christianity is growing in the United States, Islamists believe in divine law and the Russian Orthodox Church is stronger than ever in the very home of godless Communism.

Faith and reality, separated by Enlightenment, are now merging again. This is visible in India too where archaeologists will now, in all seriousness, try to find evidence for events that took place in the Mahabharata. Last week news broke of an excavation planned at the site of what people believe to be the house of lac, an important incident in the Mahabharata.

This is not the first time something like this is happening in India. Haryana is actually diverting water from a canal to revive the mythical Saraswati river of Vedic scripture. And, of course, the most famous example is the literal belief in the birthplace of Lord Ram at the place where the Babri Masjid once stood in Ayodhya.

To understand how the discipline of archaeology is shaping these trends, Scroll.in spoke to Supriya Varma who teaches archaeology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Recently, the Archaeological Survey of India approved an excavation of site that local legends believe is the “house of wax” from the Mahabharata. Do you think treating the Mahabharata as history and then spending resources on it is a good idea?
According to the historians of Early India, the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, can certainly be used as a source of history provided one can identify its internal chronology. Broadly speaking, the composition of the Mahabharata has been dated between c. 400 BCE and c. 400 CE – although some historians ascribe a much shorter period of just 150 years, from the mid-second century BCE to the year zero, while others believe that it could have even been written over a thousand year period. Undoubtedly a critical study of the Mahabharata can inform us about political ideas and social institutions during this long period, spanning from c. 500 BCE till about 500 CE. What is, however, far more difficult is the exercise of tracing material evidence for specific incidents or buildings described in the epic, for instance, the “house of wax”. The discipline of archaeology remains marginalised in most universities and it may be more fruitful if money was instead utilised for creating some “world class” departments of archaeology in a few of our universities.

This is not the first time the ASI has indulged in “Mahabharata archaeology”. What do BB Lal’s excavation of Hastinapur in UP or SR Rao’s in Dwarka tell us?
Nearly 65 years ago, between 1950 and 1952, BB Lal of the ASI had excavated the site of Hastinapura, about 18 km from Meerut. These excavations revealed objects of everyday use – like pots for cooking, eating and storing, terracotta toys, glass bangles, iron nails and mud houses of ordinary people. There have been several excavations at Dwarka, beginning from 1963 when ZD Ansari and MS Mate of Deccan College, Pune, found archaeological remains that were dated between c. first century BCE till c. 10th century CE. In this case too, everyday objects like pots, shell and glass bangles were recovered. In 1979-80, SR Rao of the ASI conducted excavations in the forecourt of the Dwarkadhish temple and found remains of a ninth century CE Vishnu temple. Alok Tripathi, a marine archaeologist, earlier with the ASI and now at Assam University, Silchar, has come to the conclusion that there is no evidence to identify Dwarka with the ancient Dvaraka or Dvaravati of the Mahabharata or to date this site to the mid-second millennium BCE. Some offshore excavations were also carried out by the Marine Archaeology Centre of the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa between 1983-1994 and 1997-2002 which led to the discovery of a large number of stone anchors dated to the period from c. seventh to 17th centuries CE.

In Europe, Heinrich Schliemann and Sir Arthur Evans carried out archaeological work around Greek epics like the Iliad in the late 1800s. Did they find anything that confirmed these are historical and if so can it be replicated in India with epics like the Mahabharata?
Heinrich Schliemann was excavating in 1871, much before archaeology had developed as a professional field. Moreover, Schliemann’s digging methods at the site of Hisarlik, which he identified as Troy, were severely criticised by later archaeologists who felt that he had actually destroyed the site. In the case of Sir Arthur Evans, too, who excavated at Knossos on the Greek island of Crete between 1900 and 1930, there were objections to his methods as well as his identifications of certain buildings based on ancient Greek mythology. Nonetheless, he played a major role in the history of the British as well as Ashmolean Museums. Not only that, he was a pioneer in the study of Bronze Age Aegean civilisation. His archaeological work at Knossos was one of archaeology’s major achievements that led to an understanding of the deep past of the eastern Mediterranean region, which was hitherto unknown. He was also the first to define the Cretan scripts Linear A and Linear B as well as an earlier pictographic writing.

Are there any parallels to Biblical archaeology in West Asia carried out both by Europeans as well as post-1948 Israeli archaeologists?
Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1956 had this to say about Palestine: “Where more sins have probably been committed in the name of archaeology than on any commensurate portion of the earth’s surface”. For many decades, archaeological research in Palestine along with the adjoining regions has been referred to as “Biblical Archaeology”. More recently, however, some scholars have argued for the usage of either “Near Eastern Archaeology” or better still “Syro-Palestinian Archaeology” as they feel that the term “Biblical Archaeology” is an American phenomenon attributed to Protestant professors of religion. During the first half of the 20th century, many of the European archaeologists who were digging in Palestine were hopeful that the archaeological findings had validated the historical claims of the Bible. Post 1948, many of the Israeli archaeologists, too, held a similar perspective. However in recent years such a view is largely absent except among the most conservative archaeologists and Biblical historians. In fact, John Laughlin, Professor Emeritus of Religion, Averett University writes in his book (2000) Archaeology and the Bible that the “contemporary view of most archaeologists is that the purpose of archaeology, however defined, is not to prove the Bible true in any sense, historically or otherwise”.

Is the Mahabharata dig a sign of the politicisation of the ASI? Is it different globally? Is archaeology across the globe as politicised as in India? Is there an ASI equivalent?
In most countries, the management of historical monuments, archaeological sites, and heritage places is left to state institutions, or private and at times community based bodies. As far as archaeological research is concerned in a large number of countries, this is solely undertaken by archaeology departments of universities. However in some of the countries that were colonised, such as India, field surveys and excavations are undertaken both by a government institution like the ASI as well as the Archaeology Departments of different universities. Moreover it is the Central Advisory Board of Archaeology set up by the ASI which is solely responsible for grating permits to carry out archaeological research in India.

Was the ASI as political during the British Raj when it was set up? What were its politics then?
One does notice that in the colonial period there were attempts by the ASI officials to ascribe religious labels to monuments, terracotta human figurines as well as a range of artefacts including bricks.

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