Mythos 34 – Nuclear War in Mahabharata

 

The other great epic of India is the Mahabharata, set in the region of the Indus Civilization circa 5,150 years ago, at the same time as the genesis of Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations. It is generally agreed that unlike the Vedas, which have to be preserved letter-perfect, the epic was a popular work whose reciters would inevitably conform to changes in language and style,(1)J. A. B. van Buitenen, translator (1973) The Mahabharata, Volume 1, Book 1: The Book of the Beginning so the earliest surviving components of this dynamic text are believed to be no older than the earliest external references we have to the epic, which may include an allusion in Panini’s grammar Ashtādhyāyī from 2,400 years ago.(2)J. Brockington (1998) The Sanskrit Epics The date of around 5,150 years ago is based on the fact that the Mahabharata claims the Battle of Kurukshetra took place 36 years before the beginning of Kali Yuga, which the ancient astronomer Aryabhata calculated as Magha 29, 3,181 BSE (February 18, 3,102 BC).(3)S. P. Gupta and K. S. Ramachandran (1976) Mahabharata: myth and reality, Page 55

Like the Rāmāyaṇa, several versions exist including the Hindi version, a Tamil version, and a Javanese version. The core of the story surrounds a dynastic struggle for the throne of Hastinapura, the kingdom ruled by the Kuru clan, in Northern India. It involved a number of ancient kingdoms participating as allies of the rival factions. The struggle culminated in the great battle of Kurukshetra, in which the Pandavas were ultimately victorious. The battle produced a complex conflict of kinship, instances of family loyalty and duty taking precedence over what is right. The Mahabharata itself ended with the death of Krishna, and the subsequent end of his dynasty. It also marked the beginning of the Hindu age of Kali Yuga, the Iron Age. The Pandavas were the five sons of King Pandu: Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva. Together the brothers fought and prevailed in the great war against their cousins the Kauravas.

This war is generally considered to have been a technologically primitive conflict fought with bows and arrows, although some translators believe it has been mistranslated and the war in it was technologically advanced. As the Mahabharata is the longest known epic poem and has been described as “the longest poem ever written,”(4)James G. Lochtefeld (2002) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M, Page 399 there have only been a few attempts to translate it into English or any other language. With about 1.8 million words in total,(5)Howard Spodek (2001) The World’s History the Mahabharata is roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, or about four times the length of the Rāmāyaṇa.(6)Amartya Sen (2005) The Argumentative Indian. Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity The first complete English translation was the Victorian prose version by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, published between 1883 and 1896. Between 1919 and 1966, scholars at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune (India) collated 1,259 manuscripts to produced the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, on 13,000 pages in 19 volumes. Another English prose translation of the full epic, based on the Critical Edition, is also in progress, published by University Of Chicago Press, initiated by Chicago sindhologist J. A. B. van Buitenen (books 1–5) and, following a 20-year hiatus caused by the death of van Buitenen, is being continued by D. Gitomer of DePaul University (book 6), J. L. Fitzgerald of Brown University (books 11–13) and Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago (books 14–18).

One of the people that read the Sanskrit version and believed it represented something more than a primitive war was Julius Robert Oppenheimer, one of the Fathers of the Atomic Bomb. While witnessing the explosion of the first atomic bomb at Trinity, New Mexico (US) in 1945, Oppenheimer later reported that it reminded him of the following verse from the Bhagavad Gita(7)Bhagavad Gita, XI, 12, a section of the Mahabharata:

If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.- Julius Robert Oppenheimer (8)Robert Jungk (1958) Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists, Page 201

Years later on a TV interview he explained that another verse of the Bhagavad Gita(9)Bhagavad Gita XI, 32 had also entered his head at that time, the more famous verse:

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.- Julius Robert Oppenheimer (10)Fred Freed and Len Giovannitti (1965) The Decision to Drop the Bomb

Some non-academic translations of the Mahabharata include shocking imagery of the battle of Kurukshetra, which is generally translated as poetically phrased prayers. In the only complete translation of the Mahabharata to date, the 1883 to 1896 translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, there is a description of a weapon of mass destruction:

When the next day came, Samva actually brought forth an iron bolt through which all the individuals in the race of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas became consumed into ashes. Indeed, for the destruction of the Vrishnis and the Andhakas, Samva brought forth, through that curse, a fierce iron bolt that looked like a gigantic messenger of death. The fact was duly reported to the king. In great distress of mind, the king (Ugrasena) caused that iron bolt to be reduced into fine powder. Men were employed, O king, to cast that powder into the sea.- Mahābhārata (11)Kisari Mohan Ganguli (1883-1896) translation of the Mahābhārata, Book 16: Mausala Parva, Section 1

This combined with the description of the description of “Earthen pots showed cracks or broke from no apparent cause”(12)Kisari Mohan Ganguli (1883-1896) translation of the Mahabharata, Book 16: Mausala Parva, Section 2 in the following section of the Mahabharata, and the apparent description of fallout has led some to conclude there was the use of radioactive weapons in ancient India. Perhaps future translations of the Mahabharata will translate it more literally. Perhaps the discovery of the ruins in the Gulf of Khambat will make historians reconsider the ancient epics of India as a source of information from pre-historic times.

References   [ + ]

1. J. A. B. van Buitenen, translator (1973) The Mahabharata, Volume 1, Book 1: The Book of the Beginning
2. J. Brockington (1998) The Sanskrit Epics
3. S. P. Gupta and K. S. Ramachandran (1976) Mahabharata: myth and reality, Page 55
4. James G. Lochtefeld (2002) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M, Page 399
5. Howard Spodek (2001) The World’s History
6. Amartya Sen (2005) The Argumentative Indian. Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity
7. Bhagavad Gita, XI, 12
8. Robert Jungk (1958) Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists, Page 201
9. Bhagavad Gita XI, 32
10. Fred Freed and Len Giovannitti (1965) The Decision to Drop the Bomb
11. Kisari Mohan Ganguli (1883-1896) translation of the Mahābhārata, Book 16: Mausala Parva, Section 1
12. Kisari Mohan Ganguli (1883-1896) translation of the Mahabharata, Book 16: Mausala Parva, Section 2