Testing the Greater Magadha Hypothesis on the Mahābhārata: Two narratives from the Tīrthayātraparvan
Bronkhorst developed the Greater Magadha hypothesis (GMH) on the basis of limited evidence, as was unavoidable considering the richness of relevant sources.
The GMH fulfils various criteria of strong hypotheses. It is first of all parsimonious since it explains the occurrence of a wide variety of cultural and religious innovations in the literature of Neo-Brahmanism as resulting from a single process, namely the adaptations from the cultural complex of Great Magadha. It is also parsimonious in so far as it explains the belief in theories of karma and rebirth that are characteristic for religions of Greater Magadha as a shared inheritance from a common religious background. Similarly, the GMH is built on the assumption that sporadic and quite late references to karma theories in the literature of Vedic Brahmanism are shared derived innovations, rather than an attestation of precursors of these theories in the śramaṇa religions.
In addition, the GMH is robust. It combines knowledge derived from different fields of research, i.e., textual scholarship and research in the early political history of South Asia, into a single comprehensive hypothesis.
However, any hypothesis requires testing on previously unstudied textual materials.
This presentation tests the GMH on materials from two narratives from the Tīrthayātraparvan of the Mahābhārata, which describe a tour of four Pāṇḍava brothers and their common wife to sacred places that are called āśrama-s. Āśrama-s are places of residence of eminent Brāhmaṇas that Bronkhorst identified as having a corresponding function in Neo-Brahmanism to that of the caves and monasteries that the śramaṇa religions of Greater Magadha had received from royal sponsors. Āśrama-s were thus important power centres of Neo-Brahmanism.
The first narrative, the Māndhātṛ-Upākhyāna (MBh 3.126), a Neo-Brahmanical adaptation of the Buddhist Māndhātṛ-Jātaka or -Avadāna, depicts Neo-Brahmanism as the most suitable choice for rulers interested in maintaining and expanding political power by ritual means. This depiction involved the devaluation of Buddhist soteriology and the ideal of the sovereignty of a universal ruler or cakravartin as it was promoted by the Maurya emperor Aśoka. Moreover, the story reconfigures the main protagonist of the narrative into an ideal type king of Neo-Brahmanism and stresses the unlimited power of a ritual to shape the world.
The second narrative, the Jantu-Upākhyāna (MBh 3.127), intends to create acceptance for the world view of the śramaṇa religions of Greater Magadha among the followers of the Vedic religion. It integrates with literary means the theory of karma and rebirth into the religious worldview of Neo-Brahmanism, albeit denying it the pre-eminence that it had for the religions of Greater Magadha. By re-enacting in the story world of the Mahābhārata the religious debate about competing religious causalities concerning the post-mortem fate of humans, the Jantu-Upākhyāna establishes a hierarchy of competing causalities according to which ritual actions, i.e. Vedic sacrifices, are mighty in this world. However, the post-mortem fate of humans is determined by the law of karma, which can be overruled by ascetic power.
Considering that the compilation of the Mahābhārata corresponds to the period that the GMH identified as the period of the integration of the two cultures,
the above analysis of the two narratives reflects the creation of Neo-Brahmanism and supports the GMH. This result of testing the GMH on narratives passages of the Mahābhārata is remarkable because previous scholarship either ignored these narratives or admitted frankly that it could not make sense out of them. The GMH thus provides a novel perspective for research in the early religious history of South Asia that is promising for future studies in the narratives of the Mahābhārata and beyond.