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Mahabharata was about family property dispute, "justified" violence: British Lord

By Our Representative
Making an unusual statement, India-born British economist Meghnad Desai, who is professor emeritus, London School of Economics and a Labour Party Lord has said that Mahabharata was about "property dispute in a family" on who would rule Braj. Desai's statement acquires significance, as he had been praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi's style of governance till recently, when he said that "people are disappointed" with Modi and they feel, "somehow, the feeling is that 'acch din ab tak nahin aaye' (the promised good days have not come in yet)".
Also known as Marxist Lord, delivering this year's Pravin Visaria Memorial Public Lecture, an annual event in Ahmedabad organised by the Gujarat Institute of Development Research (GIDR) in the memory of of one India's topmost demographers, Desai said, he finds the war in Mahabharata fascinating, one reason why he has tried as a scholar to have a look at its historicity. The epic suggests how violent Indian society was.
Contending that he has tried to look at different claims of the number people who died in the Mahabharata, Desai quotes top ancient India historian DD Kosambi, who had called the epic a book of fiction basing on its description: Kaurava and Pandava armies had 11 and 7 akshauhinis respectively; a total of 18. Each akshauhini had 21,870 chariots, 21,870 elephants, 65,610 horses and 109,350 foot soldiers. Desai calculated, this would add up to about two million deaths, as only a handful of warriors (10) survived.
Desai said, it is indeed not possible for so many people to have died, because as a rule, not more than 5% of the population die in a war. Referring to the "Atlas of Population History", published in 1978, he added, presumably, India had a population 10 to 50 million under different periods of history in the entire country, depending on when the Mahabharata could have taken place.
However, as the geographical area of the Mahabharata did not include South India, and the war took place only in North India, he wondered if India's population at the time of Mahabharata was 100 million.
Be that as it may, the British Lord noted, the war suggested the kings at that time were willing to pay for so many deaths; they were fighting on dead bodies. Calling the deaths in the Mahabharata a genocide, Desai said, there is no comparison in history or other epics with this kind of a war and, if it actually took place, it was the biggest war of those times.
He added, what however is clear is that it was possibly a very costly war in which no young men were left, with none knowing as to what happened to the widows.
Pointing out that all this and more are a matter of research, and suggesting there are many grey areas here, Desai said, at one place one finds a Malthusian explanation to so many deaths. He was referring to the 19th century British scholar of political economy Thomas Robert Malthus, who became famous for his theory that population growth would always tend to outrun food supply and that it was a source of misery (e.g., hunger, disease, and war), which would inevitably afflict society.
Interestingly, in a recent book, ‘Who Wrote the Bhagavad-Gita?', even as pointing out that the Bhagavad-Gita was originally not part of the Mahabharata and was inserted in the epic much later, Desai had suggested, his is a secular inquiry into a confused philosophical book, pointing out, all kinds of people have liked it from Hitler and serious philosophers to Sufi saints and other seekers. But, the fact is, it justifies violence, he underlined.

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