From the Jacket
Long ago when this book first appeared in the opening year of the century the Great Epic, Mahabharata, had not been thoroughly examined to see what literature it reflected, had not received a careful investigation from the metrical side, its philosophy had been reviewed only in a most haphazard fashion, and its relation to other epic poetry had been almost ignored. Yet critic after critic had passed judgement on the question of the date and origin of this poem, of which scholars knew as yet scarcely more than that; before a definitive answer could be given, the whole huge structure must be studied from many points of view. Such was the academic situation which prompted the present author to undertake a serious study of the Epic. During an almost whole century since then no appreciable improvement in the situation has been seen and no brilliant study on the subject, worth the name, has seen the light of the day, so far as the basic issues are concerned. This work thus still has its relevance and demand.
The sub-title of the book places analysis before speculation and the author begins his study with an examination of the character of the Epic which, he rightly thinks, one should do when the origin of a work is unknown and one wishes to discover it, as the present case is.
Tm sub-title of this book places analysis before speculation. In recent studies of the great epic this order has been reversed, for a method calling itself synthesis has devoted itself chiefly to dwelling on epic uniformity, and has either discarded analysis altogether or made it subject to the results of “synthetic” speculation.
The best way, of course, to take up the historical investigation of a literary product the origin of which is well known is to begin with the source and afterwards to study the character of the completed whole. But if the origin be unknown, and we wish to discover it, we must invert the process, and begin our study with an examination of the character of the work. When the results of our analysis become plain, we may group together those elements which appear to have existed from the first, and thus, on the basis of analysis, reconstruct the past. To begin with a synthesis (so called) of whatever is preserved in the product, and so to postulate for the beginning exactly what we find to be the completed whole, is a process that leads us only to the point from which we started. As vaguely incorrect as is the designation synthesis for the method so called is the method itself, which thus does away with all analysis. Analysis is an examination of constituents. As a method it is, like any other, obnoxious to error, but it is not on that account an erroneous method. It is in fact, as turned upon history, nothing but inevitable critique; and synthesis without such critique becomes merely the exploitation of individual opinion, which selects what pleases it and rejects, without visible cause, what is incompatible with the synthetic scheme.
In the case of the great epic of India, the peremptory demand that we should reject the test of analysis is the more remarkable as the poem has never been completely analyzed. The literature mentioned in it has been ably collected in the well-known memoirs of Professor Holtzmann, who has also indicated what in his opinion may be supplied from allusions; but the poem has not been thoroughly examined to see what literature it reflects from the age of the later Upanishads or Vedic schools; it has, not received a careful investigation from the metrical side; its philosophy has been reviewed only in the most haphazard fashion; and its inner relation to other epic poetry has been almost ignored. Yet critic after critic has passed judgment on the question of the date and origin of this poem, of which we know as yet scarcely more than that, before a definitive answer can be given, the whole huge structure must be studied from many points of view. And last of all the synthesist comes also, with his ready-made answer to a problem the conditions of which have not yet been clearly stated.
Thus far, indeed, the synthetic theory has not succeeded in winning over a single scholar to accept its chief conclusions, either as regards the contention that the epic was composed 500 B. C., or in respect of the massed books of didactic material and their original coherence with the narrative. Though the results of the method have not proved to be entirely nugatory, yet they are in the main irreconcilable with a sober estimate of the date and origin of the epic; but the hypothesis is, in truth, only a caricature of Buhler’s idea, that the epic was older than it was thought to be. In its insistence upon the didactic element as the base of the whole epic tale it bears a curious resemblance to a mediaeval dogma, the epitaph of which was written long ago. For there were once certain ingenious alchemists who maintained that the Legend of the Golden Fleece was a legend only to the multitude, whereas to the illuminati it was a didactic narrative teaching the permutation of other metals into gold; on the tomb of which brilliant but fallacious theory was finally inscribed
But though this theory has failed as a whole, yet, owing to the brilliant manner in which it was first presented by its clever inventor, and perhaps also to its sharing in the charm which attaches to all works of the imagination, it has had a certain success with those who have not clearly distinguished between what was essential and adventitious in the hypothesis. The Rev. Mr. Dahlmann, to whom we owe the theory, has shown that epic legends and didactic motif are closely united in the epic as it is to-day; but this is a very different proposition from that of his main thesis, which is that complete books of didactic content were parts of the original epic. One of these statements, is an indubitable fact; the other, an historical absurdity.
This historical absurdity, upheld by the Rev. Mr. Dahlmann in a rapidly appearing series of somewhat tautological volumes, is of much wider application than has perhaps occurred to the author. For in the later additions, which the Rev. Mr. Dahlmann regards as primitive parts of the epic, are found those sections which reflect most clearly the influence of Buddhism. If these sections revert to 500 B. C., all that Buddha as a personality stands for in the history of Hindu religious thought and practice belongs not to him but to his antecedents, and therewith vanishes much, of the glory of Buddha. Though the author has not publicly recognized this obvious result of his theory, yet, since it is obvious, it may have appeared to some that such a darkening of the Light of Asia added glory to the Light of the World, and this is possibly the reason why the synthetic theory has been received with most applause by the reviewers of religious journal, who are not blind to its bearings. But however important inferentially, this is a side-issue, and the historian’s first duty is to present the facts irrespective of their implication.
On certain peculiarities (already adversely criticised by disinterested scholars) characteristic less of the method of investigation than of the method of dialectics which it has suited the Rev. Mr. Dablmann to adopt, it is superfluous to animadvert in detail. Evidence suppressed by one seeker, in his zeal for truth as he see it, is pretty sure to be turned up by another who has as much zeal and another method; nor has invective ever proved to be a satisfactory substitute for logic. As regards the claims of synthesis and analysis, each method has its place, but analysis will always have the first place. After it has done its work there will be time for honest synthesis.
The material here offered is by way of beginning, not by way of completing, the long task of analyzing the great epic. It is too varied for one volume, and this volume has suffered accordingly, especially in the chapters on philosophy and the interrelation of the epics. But the latter chapter was meant only as a sketch, and its worth, if it has any, lies in its appendix; while the former could be handled adequately only by a philosopher. The object of these and other chapters was partly to see in how far the actual data rendered probable the claims of the synthetic method, but more particularly to give the data without concealment or misstatement. For this reason, while a great deal of the book is necessarily directed against what appeared to be errors of one sort or another, the controversial point of view has not seldom been ignored. Pending the preparation of a better text than is at present available, though Dr. Winternitz encourages the hope of its eventual appearance, the present studies are intended merely as signboards to aid the journey toward historical truth. But even if, as is hoped, they serve to direct thither, they will be rendered useless as they are passed by. Whether they are deficient in their primary object will be for travellers on the same road to say.
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