Some Reflections on Mytho-history and the Epigraphical Record

Our knowledge of the reception of the sources I have considered in my recent blog entries is very limited. We can reconstruct some things from commentary and evidence of intertextuality, as well by comparison. Visual culture can also help in this regard. Archaeology, more generally, can provide contextual data. It is inscriptions, however, more than any of these other sources, that allow us to reconstruct something of the cultures of reception and the relative persuasiveness of texts and ideologies in early South Asia (at least amongst those able to commission inscriptions on metal and stone). They are, of course, no more a neutral record than the text themselves.
Meera Viśvanathan, in a stimulating paper on the forms of descent recorded in Brahmī inscriptions composed between 300 BCE and 300 CE (which forms part of an edited volume on genealogy and history, which Simon Brodbeck and myself edited for Religions of South Asia in 2011), shows that, while we find records of kinship networks amongst land owners, merchants and Brahmins, we do not find consolidated royal genealogies until the first century of the Common Era. She states, ‘the recording of genealogies is not a constant in the inscriptional record. It assumes importance at particular junctures and fulfils particular needs.’ (p. 263). This is also very clearly the case, if we proceed to consider some Guptan and post-Guptan inscriptions.
In Guptan royal inscriptions there is evidence of an attempt by the Guptans to present themselves as bona fide kings very much on the Brahminical model (as users of Sanskrit, as patrons of learning, as givers of lavish gifts to Brahmins). The heroes of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa were an important part of this self-presentation. This is demonstrated, for example, by the Supiā pillar inscription of Skandagupta (dated to 460-461 C.E.), in which we find the following (in the translation of the Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, as are all that follow it):

The prosperous Skandagupta, the mahāraja (who) resembled a cakravartin (chakkra[vartti]) in strength and valour, Rāma in righteous conduct and Yudhiṣṭhira in truthfulness, conduct and self-control (satya-ācāra-vinaya).

I suspect the term chakkravartti is intended in its Hindu sense here (Skandagupta, after all, only resembles such an august being). The concern to compare Skandagupta to the heroes of the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇā is clear. The understandings of time that we saw imperfectly systematized in the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa seem to have also established themselves very firmly amongst the Guptans; the Bilṣad pillar inscription of Kumāragupta I (415-16 C.E.) includes the statement that this king follows the practices of the kṛta yuga (kārttayuga). This suggests, of course, yugic awareness (by now an established feature of Purāṇic discourse in all probability), but also a resistance perhaps to the entropic nature of their progress (from an age of perfection to one of strife).
In copper plate donative inscriptions, we find very clear evidence of an awareness of the putative author of the Mahābhārata, Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana Vyāsa. Successive land grants cite the authority of Vyāsa, in a series of formulaic stanzas, as to the consequences of a king failing to honour a land grant:

And it has been said by the Divine Dvaipāyana:
He (who takes away land) given by himself or others, (having become a worm in excreta) rots with his forefathers.
The giver of land rejoices in heaven for sixty-thousand years. (He who resumes it and he who assents to it may dwell in hell for as many years).

This warning, in a more or less abbreviated form, is a common feature of land grants of this type. In the land grants of successor kings the verses are explicitly credited to the Mahābhārata and not just to Dvaipāyana. Vyāsa’s warning is extended in two Dāmodarpur land grants (both of Kumāragupta I). In these texts, we find the following exhortation:

Carefully preserve the land that has already been given to the twice born (pūrvva-dattām dvijāti[bhyo]) (by) Yudhiṣṭhira, the best of land-owners. Preservation is more meritorious than grant (of land).

This śloka calls to mind the culmination of the Aśvamedha in the Aśvamedhikaparva of the Mahābhārata, which I translate as follows:

Then Yudhiṣṭhira gave to those present in the sacrificial enclosure , as decreed, a thousand crores of gold coins and to Vyāsa the earth (vasuṃdhara lit. the ‘container of wealth’). Having accepted the earth, the son of Satyavatī, Vyāsa, said to that king, the best of the Bhāratas, Yudhiṣṭhira, who is dharma himself, “O first amongst kings, you sir will be entrusted with this the earth! Give to me its equivalent in gold because Brahmins pursue wealth.

Guptan epigraphy demonstrates that the Rāmāyaṇa and, in particular, the Mahābhārata, as well as functioning as a resource for self-aggrandisement, inform the Guptan legal framework, at least in the matter of land grants to Brahmins.
Much more direct references to the characters and events of the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa abound in later inscriptional sources and are combined with a new feature: genealogical integration. The Bilhari stone inscription of Yuvarājadeva II (dated to c. 975 C.E.), for example, is a tour de force of descriptive excess. As well as rich comparisons to various luminaries of the Brahminical imagination, the Chālukyas are said to descend from Droṇa (the military instructor of the heroes of the Mahābhārata), while Yuvarājadeva II himself (a Kalacuri) has his descent traced from Arjuna Kārtavīrya (a heroic king that appears in the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Purāṇas). The Guptans do not trace their descent from epico-purāṇic characters. Many of their successors do. There is thus perhaps something of a progression here; it is one that moves from the complete absence of consolidated royal genealogies, before the C1st CE (though some awareness of kinship groups, such as gotra); to comparison to ‘epic’ heroes in the context of consolidated genealogies of immediate forebears, to the C6th CE; to the – at least partial – genealogical integration of mythic lineages in the latter part of the first millennium.
It is equally clear from this brief survey that neither the Buddhist or Jaina visions of the significant past are getting much of a look in. However, Jeffrey Samuels, in a paper on the development of the Boddhisattva ideal cites Śrī Laṅkan epigraphy, from the C8th, in which kings are willing to claim the status of bodhisatta. This may be part of a parallel process of mytho-historical and doctrinal integration in a Buddhist context, but I would need to do much more work to substantiate such a claim. In any case, it is clear that inscriptions can be of help in exploring, at least elite, engagement with early Indian narrative.

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