The mystery of the pANDava-s

While the bhArata epic is a central to understanding the rise of the Indian state and the very culture of the Indian people, there are some mysterious issues associated with it which still leave a major gap in understanding this historical period. At its heart the epic represents the expansion of the kuru-pA~nchAla realm over the whole of Northern India, establish a unified administrative and cultural zone. The sequence of events leading to this as painted in the mbh are thus: 1) We have the rise of the bhAratas under their eponymous founder the great conqueror bharata daushyanti who raises this line of the pUru kShatriya clan to prominence and pre-eminent rulers amongst the Indo-Aryans. 2) The dynastic successors of bharata daushyanti (not necessarily his biological lineage descendent) split up into two powerful states (subsequently the kuru and the pa~nchala) at the time of the brothers purumIDha and ajAmIDha. 3) The kuru and the pa~nchala were the pre-eminent rulers of much of north India jostling for territory with each other, as well as other Indo-Aryan states. 4) The period of the great bhArata war, where through marital alliances with pa~nchala, virATa, yAdava and other smaller Aryan states a younger branch of the kuru-s, the pANDava-s, overthrew their older cousins the main-line kaurava-s. In the bloody bhArata war most north Indian rulers were annihilated, giving the surviving pA~NDava-s total control of much of this swath of land. Subsequently, their successor janamejaya pArIkShita through a formal ashvamedha rite and the sarpa sattra marking the destruction the nAga rivals made himself the emperor of the first unified empire of India, marking the efflorescence of the formal shrauta period of vedic culture.

Now in my investigations, the vedic saMhitA-s, brAhmaNa-s and shrauta sUtras largely confirm this sequence of events but leave one very mysterious gap vis-a-vis the bhArata. Firstly, in the core R^ig saMhitA and the core parts of atharva saMhita there are no references the later kings of the bhArata . Instead there are allusions to early pUru kings, bhArata and his immediate successors purumIDha and ajAmiDha are seen. This suggests that much of the samhitA period predated or overlapped with early history of the pUru clan till the time of original, but not yet formal kuru-pA~nchala split. The brAhmaNas primarily talk of the core kuru-pA~nchala period, explicitly using this “hyphenated” term. They also allude to the ancient historical gAthas praising king bharata daushyAnti as hoary figure, while refering to others like janamejaya pArIkShita as more immediate or contemporary. In particular they detail the ashvamedha of janamejaya as a contemporary event and an epitome of the formal shrauta performance (e.g. aitareya brAhmaNa 8.21.3, shatapatha brAhmaNa and some shrauta sUtras). These brAhmaNas and shrauta sUtras also talk of several characters who figure in the core events of the mahAbhArata. These include for example: dR^itarAShTra vaichitravIrya , shikhaNDin yAGYasena, kR^iShNa devakIputra, vyAsa kR^iShNa-dvaipAyana (consistently providing patro/matronymics as in the epic) and parIkShit the kaurava. The gR^ihya sUtras also recall the traditional narrators of the bhArata epic like vaiShaMpAyana and jaimini explicitly in the context of the bhArata (e.g AshvalAyana gR^ihya sUtra 3.4). Thus, at the face of it, it may seem that the tradition in the mahAbhArata is at least consistent with vedic tradition. Yet we see no mention what so ever throughout the vast vedic literature to the pANDavas. Their descendents parIkShit and janamejaya are prominent late vedic figures, yet where are the pANDava-s in vedic literature? This is especially strange, given that the great epic tries to paint the pANDava rAjasUya and ashvamedha as key historical events and even models for these shrauta performances. Yet, they are bypassed and those of their descendents are detailed.

While the silence of the vedic texts regarding the pANDavas down to the shrauta sUtras is striking, they are uniformly alluded to in all the major purANas, aShTAdhyAyi and earliest mytho-historical works of the nAstIka matas- jaina and bauddha. This pattern strikes me as odd and requiring an explanation. The point is complicated by another observation of some interest: Several later Indic dynasties have claimed descent from the yAdavas of the bhArata period (e.g. chAlukyas, yadu kula rAjpUts, yAdavas, abhiras so on). Yet, the number of Indic dynasties claiming pANDava origin are very few. This is especially strange given that their supposed descendents had such a prominent role in formalizing the vedic shrauta ritual which was so closely associated with royal prestige in ancient India. The only major dynasty with such a claim is the pANDya of Madhurai, whose very name bears this sign.

Simple proposals for solving this conundrum have hardly explained all the complicated issues associated with it. So, I will stop at this point and present some possible theories later.

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