Zuzana Špicová
Lancaster University
Anglo-Czech Educational Fund

My stay at the Lancaster University was an extremely important experience which has greatly influenced and enriched my research. During my stay, I was forced to confront many of my assumptions about the topic of my thesis, the Mahābhārata, mostly thanks to my supervisor, dr. Brian Black, and other distinguished scholars I have met during their visits to Lancaster, as well as during conferences in various places in the UK. The first couple of months were dedicated mostly to rethinking my approach and methodology, reading relevant books and papers available in the Lancaster University library, and consulting the possible changes with both dr. Black and my Czech supervisor, dr. Jaroslav Strnad. Also, it became apparent that the “intertextuality” of my episode (“the Ambopākhyāna” ) is much greater than I expected and that there are many episodes and parts of the Mahābhārata that have to be read in connection to it. Hence, I have dedicated more time to reading and translating these episodes, summarising those that contain any direct reference to the events mentioned in the Ambopākhyāna in Chapter 2, and incorporating the findings from the rest of them primarily into Chapter 4 and Chapter 5.

After developing a new outline and improved methodology, I have been writing the main part of my thesis. Chapter 1 is dedicated to the methodology and a new interpretation of the Mahābhārata as a whole, Chapter 2 presents the fragments of the text relevant to my research. In Chapter 3, I have analysed the narratorial strategies of Bhīṣma, the narrator of the episode in question; most importantly, I have proposed that the episode should be interpreted
as an autobiographical narration, and I have also analysed the ways the author(s) worked with Bhīṣma’s subjectivity, authority, and (un)reliability in order to create an immensely rich, an intriguing, and puzzling piece of narration. After establishing the narratorial strategies of Bhīṣma as the narrator (and the authors of the text) in Chapter 3, I was able to write half of the Chapter 4 and sketch the outline of Chapter 5, both of which deal with Bhīṣma’s presentation of some of the fictional facts (Śikhaṇḍin was born a woman, Śikhaṇḍin is Ambā reborn for Chapter 4, and the mystery of Bhīṣma’s death in Chapter 5). My main input is reading these facts while taking into account Bhīṣma’s essentially subjective narration and comparing them to versions presented by other narrators, who are more or less subjective as well, and therefore also inherently unreliable, a fact that has evaded the attention of the scholars so far. I have sketched the outline of Chapter 6 which deals with the changes of both narratorial strategies and fictional facts in a selection of later Mahābhāratas . Unfortunately, I have not been able to completely finish my thesis during my stay in Lancaster. By the time of my departure, the thesis comprised of 151 pages (47 643 words). My notes are, however, very thorough and I am still hopeful to finish my thesis by the end of the year and to present it for defence in the early months of 2020, depending on notes and comments of my supervisors.

Conferences, papers, and lectures
During my stay in Lancaster, I have attended four conferences :
“Knowledge Traditions of the Indian Ocean World” in Oxford, on the 29th–30th of November.
“Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions” in Lancaster, on the 12th–14th of April.
“Subjectivity and its Modes of Expression in Indic Traditions” in Prague, on the 9th–10th of May. I have presented a paper called “‘With(out) my father’s knowledge’: Subjectivity in the Mahābhārata ”.
“Sanskrit Traditions in the Modern World” in Oxford, on the 24th of May. I have presented a paper called “Fragments and perspectives: The abduction of the princesses of Kāśī in the Mahābhārata”, and also served as a discussant to Simon Brodbeck’s paper “Was the thirteenth year over?”.
I have given a lecture “‘b hīṣmo vasūnām anyatamaḥ’: Establishing Bhīṣma as one of the Vasus in the Mahābhārata” at the Lancaster University (on the 5th of December), and submitted a paper called “Bhīṣma, an (Un)reliable Narrator” to be published in proceedings of the World Sanskrit Conference (2018, Vancouver).

The current state of the thesis and further plans
( partly finished )
The first draft of the Introduction (5 pages) is finished. I presume there will be some further changes and additions during the work on the thesis.

Chapter 1: The Mahābhārata as a complex literary text
( mostly finished, will be completely finished after Chapter 6 is written )
Parts 1.1 (“The Mahābhārata as an itihāsa” ) and 1.2 (“A polyphonic battlefield, or a polyphonic unity?”) are practically finished (15 pages), a few minor additions are planned, especially adding some further quotations of relevant books and papers. Also, some changes and additions might be necessary as the work on other chapters progresses. The part 1.3 (“Monophony and the ‘heresy of paraphrase’”) is not yet finished, as it needs to be written along with Chapter 6.

Chapter 2: Fragments, aspects, and perspectives
( finished )
The first draft of Chapter 2 (22 pages) is finished. There might be minor changes during the final proofreading and some possible, but unlikely additions from the Harivaṃśa (an appendix to the Mahābhārata ).

Chapter 3: Bhīṣma as the narrator of the Ambopākhyāna
(finished )
The first draft of Chapter 3 (57 pages) is finished. There might be minor changes during the final proofreading.

Chapter 4: Fictional facts in a polyphonic storyworld
( partly finished )
The first draft of part 4.2 (“Śikhaṇḍin was born a woman”, 20 pages) is finished. There will be some changes after finishing part 4.3. The introductory part 4.1 (“Dubious fictional facts”) and the part 4.3 (“Śikhaṇḍin is Ambā reborn, a palimpsest character”) is yet to be written.

Chapter 5: Who killed Bhīṣma Pitāmaha
( sketched )
Chapter 5 (now 10 pages) deals with one of the most important fictional facts of the Mahābhārata: who actually killed Bhīṣma? Part 5.1 (“Bhīṣma’s guilt”) deals with the various subjective narrations and interpretations of Bhīṣma’s kidnapping of the eldest princess of Kāśi which resulted in ruining her life, and with the question of whether it constitutes an objective or subjective guilt, fault or sin (‘ pāpa ’) which is finally punished when Bhīṣma is killed. The relation between Bhīṣma’s vows, “sins”, and deaths is analysed. Part 5.2 (“Bhīṣma’s slayer”) deals with the question of at least two heroes who can be deemed responsible for Bhīṣma’s death, namely Śikhaṇḍin and Arjuna. The chapter is still only sketched and I presume there will be major changes as I progress. I am confident to finish this chapter during September and to send the final draft of chapters 1–5 to my supervisors by the end of the month.

Chapter 6: Ambopākhyāna in the later Mahābhāratas
( sketched )
Chapter 6 is yet to be written. It comprises of two main parts, 6.1 (“Monophonisation”), and 6.2 (“Shifts in the narrative universe”). The first part deals with the shift from a polyphonic subjectivity of the narrators that are so prominent in the Sanskrit Mahābhārata to a rather monophonic narrative ambience in the later Mahābhāratas, including the medieval Mahābhāratas in Bengali and influential modern versions mostly in English, both by Indian and non-Indian authors. The second part deals with changes that are a result of a change in the narrative universe, most importantly the “promotion” of Rāma Jāmadagnya to one of the avatāras of Viṣṇu, and the implications of this shift for the events of the Ambopākhyāna. The changing status of Ambā/Śikhaṇḍin is also discussed, as they are presented in different versions as a man, a woman, a transgender woman, a woman who poses as a man, and so forth. The first draft of this chapter should be written during October.

( yet to be written )
The conclusion is to be written after all the chapters are finished and proofread. My plan is to submit the chapters 1–5 to my supervisors by the end of September, and add Chapter 6 by the end of October. November would be dedicated to incorporating the notes and comments of my supervisors into the thesis, and finalising the bibliography, footnotes and other formal features of it. I am hopeful to submit the final draft of the full thesis to my supervisors by the end of the year.

Monthly reports

In October, I have spent most time reorganising the outline of my thesis because of new insight from my supervisor, Brian Black, and working to further precise methodology used in my thesis. During the reorganising and rethinking, it became apparent that there are other parts of the text than my primary episode, the Ambopākhyāna, have to be taken into account as well, and I have meticulously read these passages in the original Sanskrit. Also, I took advantage of the extensive amount of Indological literature in the Lancaster University library.

In November, I have worked on the crucial hypotheses and terms used in my thesis. I have developed the term “palimpsest character” that is universally usable in the Mahābhārata and in ancient Sanskrit literature as such. I have explored some possibilities that have not proven fruitful, such as attempting to prove a character’s coherence in the Mahābhārata. I have worked on the introductory and methodological Chapter 1. I have also attended a conference “Knowledge Traditions of the Indian Ocean World” at Oxford, on the 29th–30th of November.

In December, I have worked on Chapter 2 of the reorganised thesis (a working title of the chapter is Fragments and narrations). This chapter, consisting of roughly 25 pages, is a necessary introduction to all the important parts of the text where the characters of Ambā, Śikhaṇḍinī, and Śikhaṇḍin appear. For writing this chapter, a meticulous rereading of a substantial part of the Mahābhārata was necessary. In December, I have given a lecture “‘b hīṣmo vasūnām anyatamaḥ’: Establishing Bhīṣma as one of the Vasus in the Mahābhārata” at the Lancaster University (on the 5th of December). Thanks to the feedback to the lecture by several prominent scholars, including Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad and Naomi Appleton, I have been able to test my hypotheses and to slightly reshape the main focus of the thesis.

In January, I wrote a subchapter 4.2 with the working title “Śikhaṇḍin was born a woman” to see if the methodology and terms adopted can be successfully used in the practical analysis of the text. The methodology proved to be fruitful but not completely sufficient. This chapter of roughly 25 pages works with the concepts of aspectual storyworld and polyphonic nature of it. During the process of writing this chapter, it became evident that it will be necessary to adopt a more precise terminology to evaluate the Mahābhārata’s narrators. Most importantly, the concepts of storyworld and the narrative universe have been elaborated.

In February, I have finished Chapter 2 and outlined Chapter 3 (Bhīṣma as the narrator of the Ambopākhyāna) : the crucial concepts of narratorial subjectivity, authority, credibility and reliability will be analysed in order to find the position of the Ambopākhyāna in the Mahābhārata and to answer the question of the effect the subjective nature of the narration has to the fictional, implied, and real audience of the episode. In February, most of my time was dedicated to rereading the Udyogaparvan (Book 5 of the Mahābhārata) to fully understand the unique position of the Ambopākhyāna in it. By the end of February, the thesis consists of approximately 80 pages which is roughly ⅓ of the intended full thesis. All the major problems of approach and terminology have been solved and the thesis has been reshaped in accordance with the latest research in the field.

In March, I have been working on the concept of reliability. This narratological concept has a long history but has never been seriously used to describe a narrator in the Mahābhārata, except for a few quite liberal usages of this term. The concept of an unreliable narrator has been elaborated and employed in Chapter 3. In the same chapter, the hypothesis of the Ambopākhyāna as an autobiographical narration has been elaborated. In March, I have dedicated some time to reading the Virāṭaparvan (Book 4 of the Mahābhārata), which deals with a plethora of relevant motifs comparable to those in the Ambopākhyāna, e.g. transvestitism/transsexuality, the nature of subjectivity, authority and (un)reliability of Bhīṣma and other characters.

I have been working on another part of Chapter 3, namely on the concept of authority and the credibility of Bhīṣma as the narrator of the Ambopākhyāna. In this subchapter, establishing authority by preceding narrators is discussed, examples of Bhīṣma’s other discourses are presented, especially those which are supposed to be undoubtedly authoritative (most importantly, the discourses in the Śāntiparvan and the Anuśāsanaparvan), and it is concluded
that Bhīṣma’s authority as a character and narrator is not monolithic in the Mahābhārata and always has to be judged with its narrative ambience and circumstances in mind. I have been reading the Bhīṣmaparvan (Book 6 of the Mahābhārata) , one of the most important books for my research. The Bhīṣmaparvan ends with the “death” of Bhīṣma, an event which is dealt with in Chapter 5 of my thesis. In April, I have submitted a paper “Bhīṣma, an (Un)reliable Narrator” to be published in proceedings of the World Sanskrit Conference (2018, Vancouver). I have also attended the Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions (12th–14th of April, Lancaster).

I have finished the last subchapter of Chapter 3, “Subjectivity”. The concept of subjectivity is recognised as one of the central underlying concepts of the whole Mahābhārata, as almost every narrator has his or her own personal script, and every narration bears signs of aspectual. The first draft of Chapter 3 (approximately 50 pages long) is finished. In May, I have read the Droṇaparvan (Book 7 of the Mahābhārata) to compare the “death” of Bhīṣma to the death of the second Kaurava general, Droṇa. I have presented a paper “‘With(out) my father’s knowledge’: Subjectivity in the Mahābhārata” at a workshop “Subjectivity and its Modes of Expression in Indic Traditions” in Prague, 9th–10th of May, and a paper “Fragments and perspectives: The abduction of the princesses of Kāśī in the Mahābhārata” at the symposium “Sanskrit Traditions in the Modern World” in Oxford, 24th of May.

In June, I have been working on Chapter 4. I have further elaborated the first subchapter, “Śikhaṇḍin was born a woman”, and started the second subchapter, “Śikhaṇḍin is Ambā reborn”. The first subchapter contains an analysis of all mentions of Śikhaṇḍin’s (former) sex/gender in the Mahābhārata. The truthfulness of the sex change, as narrated by Bhīṣma, is addressed, as well as other characters’ view on Śikhaṇḍin’s masculinity or femininity. A host of connected motifs, including Arjuna’s transvestitism, Bhīṣma’s celibacy, Draupadī’s polyandry, and the special position of Śikhaṇḍin’s twin siblings is discussed. In the second subchapter, Śikhaṇḍin’s former life as Ambā is put into doubt, contrary to the Mahābhārata scholarship which accepts this event simply as a fact. I have read the Karṇaparvan (Book 8 of the Mahābhārata) to compare the “death” of Bhīṣma to the death of the third Kaurava general, Karṇa.

Unfortunately, I have been ill for most of the month and I haven’t finished everything I had planned to. I have sketched Chapter 5 that deals with Bhīṣma’s three “deaths”: the vow of celibacy (as progeny means certain immortality here, it is a death of a sort), his fall on the bed of arrows (immobility, it is referred to as Bhīṣma’s death), and his actual death (after his discourses on dharma in the Śāntiparvan and the Anuśāsanaparvan) , the matter of his guilt and his slayers Arjuna and Śikhaṇḍin, but also Yudhiṣṭhira, Kṛṣṇa, and Bhīṣma himself.

Zuzana Špicová