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Narrativity and Empiricism in Classical Indian Accounts of Birth and Death: The Mahābhārata and the Samhitās of Caraka and Suśruta

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This paper will address the relationship between the Mahābhārata's representation of the physical processes of birth and death and similar material found in the classical āyurvedic texts of Caraka and Suśruta, which are roughly contemporaneous with the Sanskrit epic (second century BCE–second century CE). My primary source in the Mahābhārata (MBh) is the Anugītā, the second, and lesser known, dialogue between Krsna and Arjuna. This 'subsidiary Gītā' is situated in the fourteenth book (parvan) of the epic, the Āśvamedhika parvan, which ostensibly deals with the horse sacrifice (aśvamedha) performed by the victorious king Yudhisthira after the conclusion of the great war. The relevant chapters of the Anugītā (MBh 14.17–18) contain fascinating and practically unknown material on the physical processes of birth and death, on embryology, and on physical dissolution. I will explicate this material, and then compare it with selected passages from the Caraka-Samhitā and the Suśruta-Samhitā. I shall then ask why, given considerable evidence for intertextuality between the MBh and the āyurvedic compendia, the classical medical texts did not include this interesting material and why the Mahābhārata did. In exploring this question, I must inquire into the scientific, or at least empirical, principles utilised in the medical texts that would force their authors to exclude the MBh material they probably knew well, in order to frame a particular kind of discourse.


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