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The dating of the Mahabharata war, traditionally related to the advent of Kali Yuga has long been a topic of intense controversy in academic circles though, for innumerable centuries, as the author of the book under review recalls, there was no dispute in India about the chronology which situated the onset of the Kali Yuga in 3101 before the Common Era and the great battle amongst the royal heirs of Kuru thirty-five years earlier. It was only in the period of European colonisation that the historical validity of astronomically based records was disputed and dismissed on the basis of ‘rationalist’ considerations stemming mainly from western Biblical notions about the age of the world and the antiquity of human civilisation.
European cultural prejudices, which were usually equated with scientific notions, ruled out the existence of advanced and complex societies thousands of years before the life of Jesus Christ when the earth had barely been created or was still sparsely populated by primitive cave dwellers according to the conventional theory of prehistory. Indian epics were relegated to the category of mythological literature and folklore. Thousands of matching epigraphic records such as land deeds and grants going all the way back to the early years of Kali Yuga and citing the names of monarchs featured in the epics were deemed to be apocryphal forgeries by British officials and, following the adoption of western standards of ‘serious scholarship’ many researchers either rejected the historical validity of the Ramayana, Mahabharata and other Indic chronicles such as the Puranas or adopted tentative and often fanciful alternative chronologies proposed by colonial indologists, thereby espousing the prevalent view that Hindu civilisation did not know of scientific history and was grounded in religious traditions and symbolic tales.
Several contemporary specialists have shown this colonially influenced perspective to be biased and outdated. Jayasree Saranathan, who belongs to a long line of South Indian Shastris in Indic astrology and Sanskrit literature, has written a monumental thesis to defend and rehabilitate the traditional chronology and the historic accuracy of the Mahabharata, the ancient world’s largest epic and a real encyclopedia of the Indian civilisation of the ‘heroic age’ that she boldly describes as the Pre-Harappan period. Some years ago, her conclusions would have been dismissed out of hand by ‘orthodox’ Indologists because of the lack of archaeological evidence for such an advanced and complex material culture anywhere on earth five thousand years ago. However, the tide is turning and just as ‘homo sapiens’ is now acknowledged to be far older than hitherto assumed, indices are multiplying for civilisations which flourished long before the conventional ‘origins’ of writing, agriculture and urban life in West Asia. We are looking at the entire Holocene period (that is the last ten to twelve thousand years) as an era of thriving human development and activity, probably on all continents. In that much wider and older context the events narrated in a more or less poetic form in the Vedas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, Brahmanas, Kathas and numerous other texts now appear to be quite plausible, even to those who dispute their factual accuracy.
Affirming that Vyasa, the author of ‘Jaya’ in its original form (or forms) was an eye witness to the events he narrates, Jayasree Saranathan’s research establishes three principal contentions as the pillars for her conclusions:
One, it is impossible to calculate dates for the events described in the Mahabharata through the astronomical simulations provided by computerised systems because of the non-concordance of the zodiacal-sidereal vedic astronomy with ‘western’ astronomy which relies on the tropical zodiac. For instance, modern simulators don’t take into account the ayanamsa adjustment of distances between the beginning of the sidereal year (Zero Aries) and the equinoctial Sun’s position. The passage from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1582 in Europe further complicates calculations. Saranathan is able to confirm the locations of the planets and constellations described of the epic at the time when the happenings which preceded the war and the battle itself, prefaced by the hallowed dialogue of the Bhagavad Gita, took place. According to her computation the discourse of Sri Krsna to Arjuna was delivered on the date corresponding in our calendar to October 22, 3136 and the battle began on the following day.
Two, she has found various proofs of a major cataclysm which affected the earth and the moon in or around the year 3136 BCE and is described at length in the Mahabharata from a date that Saranathan equates with September 2, 3136 BCE. It appears that a meteor entered the solar system, broke into pieces and disrupted the orbit of both our planet and its satellite before showering the two astral bodies with meteorites while causing many of the nimittas (catastrophic omens reported by Vyasa). The cosmic intruder has now returned and was detected in 2020 as Comet Atlas by NASA which tracked its elliptic trajectory denoting its passage some five thousand years ago when it created major climatic and geological disruptions for which scientific evidence exists.
Three, Saranathan vindicates the date of the passing away of Sri Krsna thirty-five years after the war, in ‘our’ year 3101. On the following day, January 23 of the year there was a conjunction of all planets (except Rahu) in sidereal Aries (once in 432 000 years) and the current Kali Mahayuga began. She explains the rapid submersion of Dwaraka, Krsna’s insular or peninsular capital one week later by an offshore seism in an area well known for its faultlines between the continental plates. She points out the traditional location of Dwaraka as an islet to the southwest of Prabhasa (Somnath) and Girnar, pointing out the numerous seismic presages and manifestations recorded in Vyasa’s text and related scriptures. In the light of her analysis, Dwaraka and other coastal zones of Saurashtra sunk under the sea not as a result of a tsunami but through a collapse of the seafloor from which the island of Dwaraka had emerged only a few decades earlier according to the epic’s own account.
The epilogue of the book reflects on the fate of the survivors of the Mahabharata war and of Dwaraka’s disappearance and it establishes a convincing link between the reports given by Vyasa and his disciples and the archaeology of the so-called Harappa-Saraswati civilisation.
The Mahabharata says that the Vrishnis from Krsna’s kingdom ‘reached the land of the five rivers’. In the author’s view the Harappan cities of Punjab, Rajasthan, Sindh and Baluchistan grew in size at the end of the 4th millennium BCE when they received many uprooted Bharatiyas who settled in them or built new towns under the rule of their traditional monarchs. Saranathan notices the emblems or ‘totems’ of various chiefs belonging to or affiliated with the Kauravas on the steatite seals of the Indus-Saraswati cities. She muses whether those defeated peoples took to trade, agriculture and craftmanship after losing their warrior status and she links the absence of the horse from Harappan seals to the fact that none of the kings involved in the battle featured that animal on his banner despite the fact that horses were widely used at the time. Was there a ritual or cultural ban on depicting that quadruped so essential in warfare? The mystery remains among many others but Saranathan has produced a convincing case for taking the traditional chronologies of India seriously despite inconsistencies such as those with puranic dynastic nomenclatures computing about a thousand years between the start of Kali Yuga and the advent of the Nanda rulers believed to be contemporaries of Alexander’s invasion. Hydrologists will point out that the Saraswati was drying out in the middle of the second millennium BCE when Balarama went on his yatra and found the river disappearing in the desert, which is not consistent with the state of that stream fifteen hundred years earlier. Much work remains to be done to reconcile the pieces of that immense puzzle but the book Mahabharata 3136 BCE is a tour of force. Its extensive astronomical and calendric calculations may discourage non-specialists but its detective-like investigation and correlation of many kinds of data deserves careful consideration.