Covert Lokayata II: Proto-Materialism in Vedic and Tantric Traditions

(Click to go back to Part I: Doctrines)

lokayatachartfiddled_2Proto-Materialism in early Indian thought:

           Dr. Chattopadhyaya has done a wonderful job presenting the theory that in the earliest days proto-Tantra and proto-Lokayata were a single system, which either originated or was most prevalent in northeast India.[1] His argument rests on a theory of magic as a necessary precondition of religion, similar to the theories of anthropologists such as Andrew Lang and J.G. Frazer: [2] [3]

The theory goes as follows: magic precedes, and then accompanies religion in early human societies. Magic does not necessitate Gods; it is simply an attempt for early humans to manipulate the forces of nature without knowing the actual mechanisms of how nature works. For example, it makes sense for someone ignorant of physics, chemistry and the hydrologic cycle to attempt to generate rain by ritualistically pouring water on the ground and calling to the sky. It is worth experimenting with at the very least. In this sense, magic is a sort of proto-science.

The problem is that when these magic practices are empirically tested over generations, most of them will be found ineffective. Yet still perceiving order and regularity, the population generally will infer that other conscious agents called Gods are in control, and will adapt their magical beliefs and practices into a theistic system. By this process the magic becomes a religion, and “experimental” processes ossify into religious rituals.

The magic underlying Hindu religion is evident in all the early texts. The Rig Veda contain a huge number of passages asking the Gods for purely material things such as cattle, crops, prosperity, or protection from the elements. [4] [5] [6] These are likely magic rituals to induce crops, or protect cattle adapted into a theistic framework. Other passages frequently identify the Gods as a “powerful chief” “foremost amongst men,” “the bravest among all humans” (In the case of the Rbhus, this is made explicit: being mortals they earned immortality”, RV, I.110.4) which is perhaps a clue that these first Gods were in fact God-kings or the deified spirits of ancestors, who were perhaps thought to be able to control physical processes from the next world. The Arthava Veda consists almost entirely of magic techniques, mantras and rituals, not dissimilar from what we find in Tantra. Several early Upanishads also espouse a belief in the magic power of breath manipulation. [7] [8] It seems likely that many of these writings exist because early experimenters with meditation found them to be materially effective in inducing samadhi states. In other words, early meditative practices can be thought of as successful early attempts at quasi-scientific experimentation with the human body and brain. Sinha argues that the materialist trend represented in the Vedas culminated in Lokayata in the 7th century BC. As evidence he cites many examples similar to those above, but also emphasizes the fact the in the Vedic canon, the progenitor of materialist philosophy is the deified guru named Brihaspati.[9] Another word for Lokayata is Brihaspati Darsana.


According to the Vedas, Brihaspati invented materialism in order to fool the Asuras into incorrect beliefs and practices. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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Covert Lokayata I: Doctrines


This chart doesn’t represent every possible influence between the subject categories, just those relating to Lokayata’s influence. Each post will start with this chart, darkened to signify which relationships will be explored in that post.

This will be the first in a series of posts exploring the hidden role of Lokayata, and closely related forms of materialism, in Indian history and philosophy.

Reconstructing the influence of a dead school of philosophy is a difficult task, made all the more difficult in the case of Lokayata, where none of the original source material has survived. We are left to rely on the few fragmentary quotations, which pass on to us exclusively from critics of the school. The following posts rely heavily on the work of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Dale Riepe, and Rasik Vihari Joshi, both in their analytical capacities, and in the collections of primary source fragments they’ve published.

In future posts I will examine the proto-materialist origins of Lokayata, Tantra, and Vedic religion, the impact of Lokayata on the orthodox darsanas, the impact on social and physical sciences,  the impact on culture and art, and the 20th century revival of interest in Lokayata. But this first post will simply be an overview of the remarkable characteristics of Lokayata.

Core Features of Lokayata

Though Lokayata (also known as Carvaka, or Brihaspati Darsana) changed over time the main features were as follows:

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If you Meet Krishna on the Road, Kill Him.

(Disclaimer: The title is a reference to the Buddhist saying: “If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him.” meaning something like: To fetishize your interpretation of Buddha is to disregard his teachings. If you think that you’ve discovered the truth, shatter your illusion.)

This will be a response to some of the criticism I’ve received on and offline for the post The Yoga of Arjun’s Despondency.

The most common criticism I receive is that I didn’t “get” it. I interpreted the text literally, whereas it is a metaphorical or spiritual treatise. Its really about an “inner battle” whereas I focus entirely on the external battle.

The second criticism I get is that since I disagree with Krishna’s conclusions, I must not understand, or disagree with his reasoning.

I find these criticisms unsatisfactory, but they comes up a lot so I might as well address them:

Image Source: ISKON/Corbis

Image Source: ISKON/Corbis

Levels of Analysis: First of all, Hindu exegesis has (at least) three levels. First, adhyatmika (analysis on a philosophical, spiritual, transcendental level) second adhidaivika (analysis of cosmological, ritualistic, psychological factors) and third adhibhautika (analysis of physical events, the sphere of matter and nature.) Check out Page 76 of this paper for a better set of definitions.

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The “White Hindus” Phenomenon

Hello readers,

Today will be a short post. On October 5th I’ll be speaking at Princeton University in the practicioner section of this event titled: The “White Hindus” Phenomenon: A Symposium on Sanatana Dharma, Race, and Identity. I’ll be discussing the tensions of multiple identites (Hindu, non-Hindu. Indian, white), and also probing into how white Hindus sometimes come to unusual interpretations of the tradition. This link has all the information you’ll need. If you are interested in attending, please email the  Coordinator for Hindu Life at Princeton:


Click to see full size image

Maybe I’ll see some of you there!

Duryodhana II: Hated by the World

“King Duryodhana was born from a portion of Kali, he of evil mind, of evil counsel, dishonour of the Kurus; he who, being a man of dissension, was hated by the whole world.” -Mahabharata1.16.60-81[1]

“The wise man beholds all beings in the Self and the Self in all beings; for that reason he does not hate anyone.” –Isa Upanishad [2]


Duryodhana showing his army to Drona. Image source: Wikimedia

This will be a relatively diffuse postscript to a prior post I made: Playing Duryodhana’s Advocate. Duryodhana is one of the more despised characters in Hindu mythology. This is a shame.

The basic message is this: While Duryodhana is clearly a villain, dismissing him wholly or decrying him as evil incarnate would be to miss the point of the text. The Mahabharata is nuanced, and represents an unresolved tension between on one hand, the counterrevolutionary, materialist, tradition upholding Kshatriya: Duryodhana— and on the other hand, the devotionalist Pandavas, who uphold a newer system of ethics rooted in idealism and theism rather than tradition and pragmatism. Just because modern Hindu discourse is permeated with devotionalism does not mean that always was the case, or always must be the case.

Bhasa’s Depiction of Duryodhana: 

Duryodhana may be hated by the world, but at least one respectable writer offered him a charitable representation as a consistent practitioner of Kshatriya Dharma. In Bhasa’s writings, Duryodhana’s virtues, particularly his earthly “master morality” are more pronounced than it is in the epic. Take the following line from the play Duta-Vakya. This is how Duryodhana responds when asked to return part of his kingdom to the Pandavas:

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Imaginary Indias

Today I’m taking a break from the more serious, intellectual type of thing I normally do. How about we explore some alternative histories which have struck my fancy as of late?

I’ll start this off with the most interesting, thorough, and beautiful alternative history scenario I’ve ever read:

Gurkani Alam


India in the year 2000. Click map for full size image.

Gurkani Alam (by Tony Jones) is premised on the historical theory that Aurangzeb’s incompetent reign was the turning point in Mughal history, which led to it’s decline and the ease of British domination starting in the 18th century. In some ways, the reality is more surprising than the alternative history. Aurangzeb was not Shah Jahan‘s chosen successor, and had to pull off a protracted coup d’etat in order to become ruler. His older brother, Dara Shikoh (who was killed at the conclusion of the coup), was extremely religiously tolerant. Shikoh had fostered a close relationship with the Sikh community, had 50 Upanishads translated into Persian under the title “Sirr-e-Akbar” or “The Greatest Mysteries” the “Kitab al-maknun” or “hidden book” referred to in the Koran, and authored a title called “Majma-ul-Bahrain” or  “The Confluence of the Two Seas,” which is an exploration of Sufi and Vedanta mysticism. In my estimation, Dara Shikoh’s religious pluralism outshines even that of Akbar.

To contrast, Aurangzeb’s leadership style diverged tremendously from prior rulers, especially in regards to religion. Akbar had established a set of policies designed to foster religious liberalism. He revoked the jizya tax on non-muslims, intermarried with Hindu kingdoms, and appointed non-Muslims to high administrative posts. Either out of the practical realities of ruling a mostly non-muslim population, or out of ideological sympathy, religious liberalism was largely retained by Jahangir  and Shah Jahan (with the notable exception of anti-Sikh violence perpetrated by the former.) These policies were scrapped by Aurangzeb in favor of a cartoonishly evil theocratic Islamic approach. This combined with his overly rapid (and very expensive) conquest, undermined the stability of Mughal rule. The empire became a soft target for Sikh, Pashtun, Rajput, and Bengali revolts, as well as Maratha, and eventually British incursions.

Gurkani Alam departs from reality in 1644, with the unexpected death of Aurangzeb in battle. Dara Shikoh becomes emperor, and continues in the old liberal Mughal tradition, while not weakening the empire with reckless expansion. The more stable outcome is a long lasting Mughal state in the north, in which Sikhism plays a much larger role, an independent South Indian federation, and a subcontinent which, while highly prosperous is not particularly permeable to Western imperialism.

I won’t spoil the details of the universe for you, but check out the concluding world map:


Gurkani Alam in the year 2000. Click the map to see it full size.


Ok, so when I said “alternate history” at the start of this post I was using the term perhaps too loosely. Mughalstan is more of an alternate future for the Indian subcontinent dreamed up by Islamic nationalists, possibly in cooperation with Dalit nationalists. It is amusing for two reasons:


Most detailed version of Mughalstan map

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Book Review (sort of): Poems from the Sanskrit


Cover art from the Ellora Caves Image source: Buddhism for Vampires

“If learned critics publicly deride

My verse, well, let them. Not for them I wrought.

One day a man shall live to share my thought:

For time is endless and the world is wide”

Bhavabhuti (p.53)

I try not to saturate this blog with book reviews, but I have a justification in this case. This review contains a slew of poems excerpted from the book, which are worth far more than my review, and my numerous tangents. Hit “Continue Reading” and scroll down if you just want to check those out.

John Brough’s Poems from the Sanskrit[1], despite its confusing title, (what is the Sanskrit?) is actually a very charming anthology of translated Sanskrit poems, ranging from roughly the 4th through 10th centuries.

The translator’s stated purpose for compiling this volume is as follows: Normally Sanskrit translators, focus on conveying meaning at the expense of poetic or prosaic style. But since Sanskrit and English grammars differ considerably, meaning focused translations often come across as stilted or sometimes even unreadable. Sanskrit Poetry compounds this problem, because so much literary value is vested in the poetic structure itself (for example: The number, repetition, and weight of syllables.) This is a translation, which attempts to give equal weight to content and form.

Translating a Sanskrit poem into rhyming verse while keeping the original meaning intact is an impossible task. Perhaps a more accurate description of the book is: an anthology of English poems by John Brough, based closely on Sanskrit classics. The purist in me recoils at this prospect, but if you read the poems without wringing your hands over the potential “butchery” of the originals which preceded them, they are actually quite lovely  on their own merits. And based on the samples and explanation of his technique as delineated in the introduction, I have faith that he has amply conveyed at least the basic sense of each work.

I’ll jump right into the verses and save my criticisms for the end:

I noticed some recurring patterns:

Anti-Clericalism: There are a surprising amount of poems in here, which are highly critical of priests, focusing on their hypocrisy foolishness, or exploitation. These are mostly secular poems, but it still surprises me. One has to wonder: Were they talking about priests generally or about “the bad ones” i.e. the heterodox ones?

“‘So, friar, I see you have a taste for meat.’

‘Not that it’s any good without some wine.’

‘You like wine too, then?’ ‘Better when I dine

With pretty harlots.’ ‘Surely such girls eat

No end of money?’ ‘Well, I steal, you see,

Or win at dice.’ ‘A thief and gambler too?’

‘Why, certainly. What else is there to do?

Aren’t you aware I’m vowed to poverty?'”

Sudraka (p.79)


According to Doniger’s theory (described later), this is a “friar” similar to the one who is under critique in the above poem. He is an Aghori, a sect which split off from the Kapalika. The Kapalika would have been contemporaneous to Sudraka. Image source: Flickr

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Book Review: Uniqueness of Carvaka Philosophy in Traditional Indian Thought


I’m working on a much longer article (or series of articles?) on the Charvaka/Lokayata school of philosophy, so I’m going through a whole bunch of texts on the school of thought. As this one was the shortest, I finished it first. And as I’ve got a lazy saturday afternoon on my hands, I’ll supply a short review:

Uniqueness of Carvaka Philosophy in Traditional Indian Thought (or a version thereof) served as Dr. Bupender Heera’s doctoral thesis, so my expectations were high in terms of the scholarly quality of this text. However, in total I was disappointed. Heera doesn’t offer a new perspective on Charvaka, nor does he synthesize some of the existing viewpoints on Charvaka into one coherent conception, nor does he give a clearly worded survey of the range of theories about Charvaka. I also found that many of the book’s claims were either sourced in a frustratingly obscure way (i.e. a claim would appear [for example] five times throughout the book, but would cited only the third time.) To a degree this is unavoidable, but it made the text problematic as a research material.

Heera has clearly read the work of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, but he neither utilizes his theories on Charvaka effectively, nor addresses/refutes them. Chattopadhyaya for example, points out that most of the academic viewpoints on Charvaka rely on the description of the philosophy which is contained in Madhvacharya’s  Sarva-shastrartha-sangraha as a basis point, without properly accounting for Madhvacharya’s Vedantic bias, and his argumentative style. Madhvacharya tried to “put himself in the shoes” of his opponent, which often led to him presenting a position derived from a blending of his own Vedantic beliefs, and the beliefs of the opposing system, as purely the beliefs of the opposing system. Thus, the uncritical reliance on Madhvacharya’s account renders most accounts of Charvaka distorted. Heera’s work largely falls prey to Chattopadhyaya’s criticism, without attempting to justify why Madhvacharya’s account should be accepted as basically consistent with actual Charvaka practice. For instance, on page 42, where Heera claims that Charvakas quote scripture in defense of their position, a claim which derives completely from Madhvacharya’s account, and without which would seem bizarre.

The book also contains numerous internal contradictions. Heera cannot seem to decide whether or not the Charvakas had any actual texts, or not. On page 17 he says:

“Many of the above mentioned works, by way of quoting with acknowledgements the sutras, karikas and slokas pertaining to materialistic school of thought, hold out a clear and unmistakable evidence to the effect that there once existed, at least, two works of the Indian materialists, namely the Barhaspatya-Sutra and the Lokayata Sastra. Patanjali’s Mahabhasya on Panini’s Vyakarana refers to another work of the Lokayata School — One by Bhaguri, a commentary on Lokayata Sastra.” (Emphasis added, and my apologies for omitting diacritical marks)

Then on page 87 he says:

They did not have any literature of their own like other philosophical systems of traditional Indian thought. The Carvakas did not have any sutra… In the case of Carvaka we hear only Barhaspatya Sutra which is very small in size besides being a sutra of questionable authenticity.” (Emphasis added, and my apologies for omitting diacritical marks)

Another notable inconsistency is the notion that Charvaka was simultaneously the first Indian philosophical system, and a reactionary movement against asceticism and brahmanism. In an attempt to simply describe Charvaka without getting entangled in any of the historical controversies, he presents a wide range of mutually exclusive scholarly opinions (without prefacing them as such) and thus creates an incoherent view of the Charvaka philosophy.

There are also certain confusions which occur towards the end of the book, such as the idea that the Charvakas were not condemning the Vedas, but were rather condemning their distortion and misinterpretation by brahmanas. This claim is not sourced*, leading me to believe that this is Heera’s opinion or personal interpretation. Thus, I theorize that Heera in an attempt to be charitable, has formed a conception of Charvaka which is strongly influenced by his own spiritual outlook. In this sense, he is himself a modern Madhvacharya.

Nevertheless, the book was useful to me. It has pointed out many source texts to explore further, and summarized some of the beliefs of prior scholars. There are also useful analogies made to Western philosophers like Hume, Locke, Lucretius, and Strato of Lampsacus. For this, I humbly thank Dr. Heera, though I have trouble recommending his volume. Nevertheless, it is the briefest (and cheapest) exposition of Charvaka philosophy on the market, so if you can tolerate some inconsistencies and are aware that this perspective may be distorted, why not check it out? Even with all the problems, it still provides a more nuanced and complete perspective on Charvaka than any online resource I’ve discovered so far.

*Interestingly, this claim is only remotely plausible if Madhvacharya’s account is discarded. The Sarva-shastrartha-sangraha (page 10) contains an alleged quotation from Brihaspati in which the authors of the Vedas are explicitly condemned as “fools, knaves, and demons.”

Hariti: Saraswati’s Persian Cousin


Hariti Relief Panel at Candi Mendut, Java. What is an Iranian deity doing in Java?

Hariti’s history goes way back. I’m taking pre-Vedic. Something like 2500 BC or maybe even earlier. At that time the Iranians and Indo-Aryans were still one people– the Indo-Iranians. They worshipped two classes of deities: Devas and Asuras in Sanskrit, or Daevas and Ahuras in Avestan. After the Indo-Iranians split into two distinct civilizations, Vedic civilization (eventually) adopted the Devas as Gods. The Devas were engaged in a perpetual war with the Asuras, which evolved into evil-ish demigods. Ancient East Iranian civilization did the reverse, deifying the Ahuras and demonizing the Daevas (hence words like demon and devil.) The reasons for this reversal is not entirely clear. I’d like to imagine there was a fascinating, but long lost clerical-political drama involved, but who knows. The mystery of this era is half the appeal.

To reiterate and simplify:

Vedic civilization: Devas- Good guys, Asuras- Bad guys

East Iranian civilization: Ahuras- Good guys, Daevas- Bad guys

Vedic civilization had a Devi, a fertility/mother goddess by the name of Saraswati. She was the personification of a main river of Indo-Iranian culture. Therefore, her Iranian equivalent, Harauhuti, or Hariti was a Daevi, and a fertility/mother demon as odd as that sounds.* Hariti was believed to be a highly prolific mother with hundreds of children. The problem is that she would also steal other peoples children in order to cannibalize them and feed them to her young. In practical worship, she was treated as a demon of pestilence who needed to be appeased, probably because disease was a big killer of children.

That was the story, at least until Buddhists came out of the core Indian subcontinent and into modern Afghanistan. The Buddhists modified the original tale to fit better into the Indian cosmology. For instance, they transformed Hariti from a “Daeva” into a Yaksha (nature spirit), and gave her a backstory involving reincarnation. More importantly, they also extended the original tale to include a fateful interaction with the Buddha.**


Hariti with children.”House of Naradakha,” Found in Shaikhan Dheri, Charsada, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. This is a Gandharan piece.

According to the Buddhist legends, the childless victims of Hariti beg the Buddha to save them from her cruelty.*** To help, Buddha waits until Hariti leaves the house and traps her smallest child, Priyankara under his alms bowl. When she returns and cannot find her son she weeps and panics. She scours every city, village, mountain, lake, and forest on Earth. She franticly soars into the hells and into the divine realms in search of her son, even going so far as to demand entrance into the abode of Indra. After exhausting all other options, she too appeals to the Buddha for help. He points out that her suffering is minor compared to the combined suffering of all the mothers whose children she has killed. She agrees, and (although seemingly under duress) agrees to protect those who she formerly devoured if only Buddha renders his assistance. At that, Buddha lifts up his alms bowl and Priyankara hops out safe and sound. Thereafter Hariti converts to Buddhism, quits cannibalism, and becomes a spirit of fertility, childbirth, motherhood, and the protection of children (and also of healing in some areas, such as Southeast Asia where the top image is from.)

One might imagine that this was part of a marketing strategy by the Buddhists. Brand localization. Thats speculation. Anyway, from Afghanistan, Hariti was exported back to India, and the rest of the Buddhist world as a mother goddess and defender of children.

But isn’t this an odd progression? First there was an Indo-Iranian fertility deity which split into Saraswati and Harauhuti/Hariti. Two figures which are basically the same, only one is deified and the other is demonized. From the Indian point of view, Harauhuti is a reversal of Saraswati. Fast forward a few thousand years, the Indian Buddhists come back and adopt the reversed Saraswati, and reverse her once again into Hariti, a fertility spirit (Yaksha.) How many times can this character switch sides? Furthermore, now the Hindu and Buddhist pantheons have a duplication problem. They’ve got two deities with the same origin and function. Saraswati and Hariti both fertility deities based on the same river. I know I know, over time their backstories changed enough to be perceptibly different figures, but its still an interesting mythological duplication.


Saraswati with her veena. Over time she lost a lot of her more blatant “motherly” traits and became more associated with knowledge and the arts.


Hariti: Saraswati’s long lost cousin? You can see she’s crawling with children. Clearly the more blatant fertility/mother deity out of the two.


















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King Akbar’s Mahabharata, or the Razmnama (Book of Wars)


The battle of Duryodhana and Bhima (among others.) From the 1616-1617 edition of the Razmnama. By Kamal.
Image source: Simon Ray

When I was little I used to come across prints (much less elaborate than the above) in my house of scenes from the Mahabharata—with (what I assumed to be) Urdu writing on them! It confused me. I looked it up. Turns out, the Mughal king Akbar had a copy of the Mahabharata translated into Persian. Mystery solved. I put it to the back of my mind until recently when, while trying to plug gaps in my knowledge base I found out that there is actually a pretty interesting cast of characters behind this translation. An impassioned, suicidal artist, and his apollonian counterpart! An Islamic fundamentalist tasked with translating infidel texts! A king motivated by both religious toleration, and the maintenance of his regime’s legitimacy! Plus, it’s a good focal point around which to examine Indian art history which gives me the opportunity to post pretty pictures. Swiftly onwards–

Akbar’s Translation movement:

Akbar has a well-earned reputation as the most tolerant and humane of the Mughal kings. His formal policies towards non-muslims displayed liberality, and the composition of his court bespeaks of inclusivity. The range of art and music he chose to patronize also knew no religious bounds.[1] He even founded “Din-e-Ilahi,” a new syncretistic religion that earned the scorn of the orthodox Muslim intelligentsia.

Given these tolerant and syncretistic tendencies, it is no surprise that Akbar was interested in gaining access to the literature of the non-Persian speaking world. During his reign Akbar’s scholars translated works from Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, Greek, and Latin into Persian, and also did substantial translation work from Persian into Hindi. Though the Mahabharata was the center of his project, Akbar also had the Ramayana, the Artha Veda, the Lilavati (a treatise on mathematics), and other Sanskrit texts translated into Persian.[2] [3]

Court historian Mulla Daud writes that Akbar “ordered, that the rational contents of different religions and faiths should be translated in the language of each, and that the rose garden of the traditional aspects of each religion should, as far as possible, be cleared of the thorns of bigotry.” Akbar’s reputation for tolerance has helped this explanation for the translation movement stick.[4] However, one should treat anything explanation given by court historians as suspicious. The Razmnama’s text has an array of strangely translated passages, additions, or omissions which justify this suspicion. While I’m sure that Akbar was genuinely interested in reading Hindu texts and spreading knowledge of them amongst his nobility, I also think that the translation project had distinctly fetishistic and propagandistic elements to it.

But First—

The Translation Process:

Ok, here’s the basic process. First, Sanskrit literate Brahmans (many of whom were converts to Islam) translated a common North Indian variant of the Mahabharata from Sanskrit into Hindi both in text, and verbally. Then the Hindi text was translated into Persian by a staff of Muslim, Persian speaking scholars. [5] Then that raw translation was converted into poetic verse by the project’s head, a scholar named Abu al-Fazl. [6] So obviously “translation” is a very loose term. It’s really more of a retelling.


A folio from a 1616 copy of the Razmnama in which: “Asvatthama Fires the Narayana Weapon (Cosmic Fire) at the Pandavas.” You’ll notice I have so far posted no images from the 1587 manuscript which is under discussion here. That is because it sits in the City Palace Museum in Jaipur off limits to all historians. So thanks for nothing City Palace Museum in Jaipur.
Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

(If on the main page, hit “Continue Reading” for more [theres pretty pictures ahead {do it}])

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