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The Critical Edition as Art: Exploring the Ways to understand Mahabharata

January 11, 2023 Authored by: Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee

saṃ gacchadhvaṃ saṃ vadadhvaṃ saṃ vo manāṃsi jānatām | devā bhāgaṃ yathā pūrve saṃjānānā upāsate ||
Ṛg Veda 1.191.2

František Kupka

Czech artist František Kupka (1871– 1957) painted Le Premier Pas or The First Step, reproduced on the cover of this book. The painting on the cover and this essay accompanying it provide a useful avenue for understanding certain concepts: origins and archetypes, singularity and plurality, emanation and transmission and the parallelism of cosmology and art. These themes are essential to understanding the conceptually difficult task V. S. Sukthankar set for himself when he created the design for the critical edition of the Mahābhārata. Therefore, before we look at the technicalities of a critical edition, we wish to first explore the logic and artistry of creating stemmata through a related medium: abstract art.

Le Premier Pas by František Kupka

The choice of abstract art to illustrate the concept of a critical edition may seem strange at first, yet it is also obvious when one considers that, like abstract art, stemmata are idealized representations of relationships that have no basis in matter. Hence, when we approach stemmatics from the perspective of abstract art, we gain a new perspective on textual criticism— one that goes beyond the standard presentations of this field. The movement known as “abstractionism” itself originated in the early part of the twentieth century in response to a specific concern: artists wished to free themselves from the constraints of having to represent something. Abstract art and stemmatics thus both respond to a similar problem: the figurative representation of abstract relations that nonetheless permit us to intuit certain features of reality– – features that possibly go beyond what we can intuit with our senses.

By collating various manuscripts, identifying the textual coherences and harmonies, arranging them according to the logic of emanation and carefully distinguishing the original from the archetype, Sukthankar created an intellectual organization that does justice to the complicated architecture and reception of the Sanskrit epic. His work fittingly transcends the crude mechanical models created by the Indologists whose work we analyze in this book. Trained as a mathematician, with a keen appreciation for the subtle nuances of ideas contained in the text, Sukthankar culled the many extant manuscripts into a single pyramidal architecture. Scientists who appreciate genetic relationships, as well as artists who understand how plural elements can be meaningfully organized, will no doubt appreciate his creation. Both Sukthankar and Kupka wanted to move beyond the fetishism of facts to an engagement with truth. If Sukthankar mathematically, philosophically and aesthetically transcended philology while doing it full justice, Kupka did something similar with art. He wished to transcend the formal and material dimensions of painting by making it self-consciously intellectual, mathematical and spiritual.

Margit Rowell– art historian and independent curator

In 1892, Kupka moved from Prague to the Vienna Academy, where he “read avidly: particularly Greek and German philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Paracelsus, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and German romantics. Also he read extensively on astronomy, astrology, Theosophy.” Whatever the contemporary evaluation of theosophy as a discipline, it was an early protestation against the gross materialism and hemorrhage of meaning inaugurated by modernity. Artists rather than philosophers and social scientists reacted immediately to these trends— Kupka foremost among them. As with Sukthankar, no opposition appears between the spiritual and the scientific in Kupka— a distinction that itself has its root in the obsessive dichotomy between faith and reason endemic to Christianity. Margit Rowell notes:

Kupka’s most fundamental premises— that nature had a spiritual reality determined by
final causes, that the hidden laws of this reality are present in all of nature’s manifestations
including man and the artist’s function is to make visible these laws, not by copying nature
but by creating a parallel order— spring from Goethe’s aesthetic. […] Through a better
understanding of natural causes, rhythms, structures and progressions, he hoped to develop a parallel vision, order and language. His interest in physiology, biology and astronomy therefore had its roots in mystical thought. By extension, he paid acute attention to his ownsense impressions and evoked coenesthesis as a form of access to higher knowledge. Through a close observation of his own body’s rhythms, reactions to stimuli, sense perceptions, emotional responses, he attempted to develop a sixth sense, an extrasensory receptivity which he believed led to a state of superconsciousness.

These methods and intellectual efforts led Kupka to describe the artist’s relationship to inner visions as follows— a description that provides a model for visualizing not only the intra- textual setup of the Sanskrit epic as containing additional temporal dimensions clarified by avataraṇa or descent but also the pan- Indic relationships that Sukthankar explored in the manuscript tradition:

In our inner visions, the different fragments which float in our heads are incoherently situated in space. Even in remembered so- called representative images of organic complexes, they are so strangely situated that the painter […] who would wish to project them would have to go even beyond the fourth dimension. Some parts penetrate each other; others seem completely detached, disconnected from the organism to which they are supposed to belong. The same is true of purely subjective visions where often only fragments, plexuses of forms, or colors are
given. Before we can seize them and set them down, we must draw lines between the
and establish a structural coherence.

František Kupka: One Vision (1946)

Kupka thus saw in the cosmic rhythms and repetitions a truth that the artist experienced in his visions, and it was the artist’s task to go beyond representing the objects given to the senses and rather depict the intellectual perception of the connections between the fragmentarily given sense data. Concomitant with this purely intellectual approach was a spiritual orientation, which included self- cultivation and a refusal to accept the crude empiricism of modernity.

The creative solution Kupka adopted is not too different from the poetic solutions found in the epic. The frame narratives and the descent of the characters in the Mahābhārata represent a self- conscious repetition that organizes itself by organizing space: descent of gods and titans, or repetition in vertical space, which in turn organizes the field of action (the battlefield), the field of transmutation (sacrifice) and the field of recognition (the forest). By extension, it is these repetitions and rhythms that guide the expansion and proliferation of the manuscripts, not mechanical and extrinsic “contamination.” Every interpolation thus clarifies the text by providing a new chromatic variation, and Sukthankar’s task can be seen as one of cataloguing and arranging the cosmos of manuscripts in the overall intellectual composition of his enterprise. Kupka, on his part, was aware of this intellectual- spiritual- artistic conceptual constellation. It was the spiritual worldview of many artists of his day. Maurice Tuchman summarizes this worldview as follows:

The universe is a single, living substance; mind and matter also are one; all things evolve in
dialectical opposition, thus the universe comprises paired opposites (male– female, light– dark,
vertical– horizontal, positive– negative); everything corresponds in a universal analogy, with
things above as they are below; imagination is real; and self- realization can come by illumination, accident, or an induced state; the epiphany is suggested by heat, fire or light.

Maurice Tuchman and Henry Hopkins during installation of American Sculpture of the Sixties, 1967

It is hard to remember that Tuchman is speaking of the early abstraction movement in art, not about the Mahābhārata. It is even harder to believe that in the annals of Mahābhārata scholarship, not one scholar understands its creative elements so succinctly. The artist, it seems, is the very teacher of the epic. These insights find their finest expression in The First Step, a painting Kupka executed during 1909– 13.20 The painting contains a luminous black background, which evokes a pregnant darkness full of potential, and not merely a blackness of absence. The organization of the various circles creates a map of space and dimensionality within the background, and thus demonstrates that the background is not non- being. The painting itself is a harmonious variation of a single form— the circle— echoed in its appearance or disappearance (in red), its concrete manifestation and endurance (blue and white) and finally its repetition and multiplication (a circumference composed of blue and red circles). The three processes of evocation, manifestation and multiplication create a complex sense of movement. Kupka was experimenting with motion at the time he painted The First Step, as were the Futurists. But the movement Kupka depicts is not mere physical movement, but a complex one of pulsations in existence. Its cosmological meaning was not lost on later commentators.

Roger Lipsey
Author, biographer, art historian, editor, translatorhttps

Roger Lipsey comments on his Disks of Newton, a series of works to which The First Step was a prelude:

Kupka’s transformation of color theory diagrams into a rotating, complex, genuinely spirited evocation of cosmos and light represents the high point of what might be called the naïve phase of his work, a phase of mobile search without the hardening that often occurs
when answers are attained or, on the contrary, doubt gains the upper hand. The image moves freely and glows, conveying sensations of ease and pleasure. It is, as much as any painting, an Orphic work of strong poetic appeal; sunny and confident, pitched to the scale of the cosmos and approachable. Kupka intersects here and is generally thought to precede Delaunay. Their paintings projecting the humble color wheel out into the cosmos constitute, to my mind, an undeniable manifestation of the spiritual in art. Perhaps neither closely reasoned nor metaphysically elaborate, they are nonetheless a celebration of cosmos that can leave few untouched.

Disks of Newton

Besides the cosmological and spiritual meanings of the painting, Kupka endowed it with a critical evaluation of art. Kupka himself spoke of “a realm of rhythms and signs” to shed light on his art:

We have to try […] to separate two incompatible elements, that is to say, the imitative work
which today is superfluous, from art itself. This is a realm of rhythms and signs too abstract
to be captured easily and which form the leitmotif of all compositions, the basic arabesque, a kind of framework which the painters […] as of old fill with a vocabulary of forms taken from nature. If we sacrificed the intruding element we would of course have to face the danger of talking in an unusual language. Yet there is a kind of pictorial geometry of thought, the only possible one, which forces the painter to lie less. And that is what I am trying to achieve.

Study For Vertical Lines, 1911

Kupka’s painting thus illustrates not only a skill, or allegiance to a movement, or incremental innovation (invenzione) or design (disegno). Art can embody thinking, and precisely the kind of thinking that—while reflected in a historical object— transcends history. In Kupka’s painting, art likewise transcends the universe and its cominginto- being and passing away. It does not abolish, but preserves the manifestation and repetitions of the universe. Each of the blue and red “instantiations” of the one concept, the circle, is different. These differences are preserved, and yet their perfect procession and repetition and also their interaction (see the green ghostly circles) add to an overall sense of continuity in the cosmic order of the circle. The clarification of these existential movements, and the constant presence of a singular reality (here the circle) in the manifold “lies less” than the representation of a single concrete object. The painting discloses a profound truth: the truth of mimesis, the “lesser lie” that the truer existence is never what something is historically, but always a play of paradigms that transcend it. The reason for using this image by Kupka as the cover of a book on the study of Mahābhārata manuscripts is simple: the Mahābhārata is a literary creation; it is art. In its materiality, it is of course created within history, but in its intellectual effort it transcends it. Both the painting and epic exploit the contextualization of the macrocosm with the microcosm to break free from the “literalism” of both. The First Step and the Mahābhārata are essentially “cosmological” works. Tuchman notes that The First Step is “a painting whose imagery is rooted in astrology and pure abstraction. The painting may be interpreted as a diagram of the heavens and as a nonrepresentational, antidirectional image referring to infinity and evoking a belief that one’s inner world is truly linked to the cosmos. Like Kupka’s work, the epic is a cosmological work executed as a series of echoes: the intra- textual author Vyāsa’s conceptualization of the epic on the slopes of the axis mundi, Mount Meru; his teaching it to his students in an academic setting; one student’s (Vaiśaṃpāyana’s) repetition at the horrific scene of the sacrificial immolation of snakes; and the bard Ugraśravas’s (literally, the “he of the awesome voice”) recounting of the narrative in the sylvan and peaceful assemblage of sages in the Naimiṣa Forest. The text itself presents these repetitions. Of another order are the repetitions of vignettes and motifs and messages in the various sectarian bibles: the Purāṇas. A. K. Ramanujan offers the best statement of the mimetic self- consciousness and the inbuilt mechanisms for transmission of the epic. Kupka helps us visualize Ramanujan’s insight, one that states that repetition and modulation of repeating elements is itself the structure of the epic:

I’d suggest that the central structuring principle of the epic is a certain kind of repetition.
One might say that repetition or replication is the central principle of any structuring. What
occurs only once does not allow us to talk of structure. Einmal ist keinmal— it’s as if what
happens once does not happen at all. Students of narrative like Propp, Levi- Strauss, Dumezil, and J. Hillis Miller have made this idea a commonplace. Indian artworks, like the Hindu temple, or the decads (pattu) of Tamil classical or bhakti poetry, of the rāgas of Karnatak music, are built on the principle of interacting structures of repetition and elaboration and variation. Not only are there repetitive phrases, similes, and formulaic descriptions that the students of oral poetics (Parry, Lord, et al.) have taught us to recognize, but incidents, scenes, settings, and especially relationships are repeated.

Hindu Motif, or Graduated Red by Kupka

Kupka’s art self- consciously creates by using repeating patterns. For instance, in 1921 he painted the Hindu Motif, consisting of repetitions and modulations, abstractly recreating the architectural logic of the Hindu temple. This work paradigmatically illustrates his interest in Indian thought as well as his ability to recognize the repeating, abstract and symbolic qualities of Indian art. So much for the “external,” that is, formal aspects of mimesis as concerns the text. “Internally,” that is, with regard to the narrative and content, the mimetic nature assumes cosmological attributes. The text is presented as if it is a “history” but the universe presented in this “history” is itself a mimetic object. The author enters the text and procreates the characters. Besides this literary duplication, there is a cosmological one: all the characters in the world described in the epic are “descended” from certain prototypes: gods and titans. The idea of mimesis plays a crucial and enduring role in the Mahābhārata and in the Indian textual tradition. Brahmā, the creator god, always creates the universe according to a paradigm, symbolically “given” to him by the One Being, called Nārāyaṇa in the epic. The universe is always an artefact, created and recreated, endlessly in cycles. Coming- to- be and passing away is the ultimate indicator of the mimetic nature of our perceived and lived reality. And the epic is careful to present this repetitive cycle, rather than a naïve linear history: one that takes fluxing time as a permanent framework. It is precisely by overcoming history that the epic “lies less.” Likewise, ideas of rebirth, lack of ultimacy of phenomenal reality and the soteriological presence of Being are ubiquitous elements with which all Indian philosophical systems grapple. Lurking behind the issue of any witness text of the epic are the usual problems germane to all ancient texts, for example the Nibelungenlied from the German tradition or Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis in the Greek. These include textual variations and insertions and emendations, bequeathing to philology the task of coping with multiplicity in the textual tradition. But the Mahābhārata seems to anticipate and absorb these issues into its very composition. The question of a “lost” original is trumped not only by the various “versions” narrated within the text, but more seriously, any historical event is also divested of originality (the characters of gods and titans are merely enacting roles). In fact, the universe itself is a mimetic process, hardly a static object. Originality does not belong in the universe; it remains a feature of “unfallen” Being (Brahman). To seek either an original event (history) or an original narrative (text) violates the epic’s understanding of itself. Those who seek an “original” Mahābhārata (as opposed to the original of any other text) are not like the blind men who variously represent the elephant as a snake or a pillar or a wall with respect to its various parts. They are the fools searching for a barren woman’s son.

Sukthankar therefore carefully distinguished “older” from more developed forms of the texts, and discovered not an “original” but an archetype. The “archetype” in Kupka’s painting is not any particular circle but the concept circle, which is essentially abstract, and which “lies less.” The plural depictions of circles and their variations are essential to the recognition of the concept. Similarly, the plural witness texts are “recognizably” the Mahābhārata with respect to the archetype recovered in its critical edition. Sukthankar’s “critical” project negotiates between a method that prefers a fetish original to an actual text and the text’s obsessive disavowal of the category “original” in its literary and its philosophical vision. Any great philologist can recover a most “ancient” text, but Sukthankar’s stemmatic arrangement of a plurality of texts as an astrolabe is the work of a philosophical and artistic genius. The critical edition does not replace the witness texts; it makes us more confident in appreciating them, and seeing them as singular/ plural.

Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee

Unfortunately, few have seen these abstract yet “less untrue” dimensions of the Mahābhārata critical edition project. This is not surprising. Mahābhārata scholarship has been ravaged by the crudest sort of butchers, untrained in philosophy and aesthetics and lacking the minimal sentience required to distinguish history from fiction. Therefore the need for this book, which serves to remind scholars of the brilliance and rigor of the critical edition scholars’ work, and which hopes to teach the scholars of the future to appreciate the critical edition as a creative project of great subtlety, abstraction and truth that guides the thinker in the textual universe of the itihāsa purāṇa.


Philology and Criticism: A Guide to Mahābhārata Textual Criticism: 1184 (Cultural, Historical and Textual Studies of South Asian Religions) by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee, Prologue, page number: xxiii.

Please find the full text here: https://www.academia.edu/36999444/Philology_and_Criticism

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