The core of their argument isn’t about when Ashoka and Yudhishthira lived, but that the virtues of the latter, as described in the Mahabharata, have been usurped from non-Hindu sources.
Recently, a short video clip of Romila Thapar went viral. In this, she talks about the Mauryan emperor Ashoka.
In the video clip Prof. Thapar is heard saying that ‘Yudhishstra’’s remorse at the fratricidal war, according to some historians, could have been inspired by Ashoka’s remorse after the Kalinga war.
Naturally, Hindu Twitterati has reacted strongly to this clip, with reactions ranging from anger to sarcasm.
Essentially, the reactions are based on the fact that Mahabharata events happened long before the period of Ashoka (304 to 232 BCE).
Many seasoned historians like Dr B B Lal and the late Prof. S P Gupta, considering a holistic look at the literary sources, epigraphy and archaeology, generally consider the core events of Mahabharata to have happened around 1200 (+/- 200 years) BCE.
Those who go by the astronomical data gleaned from the epic itself usually take the dates to be around 3100 BCE, which in turn go well with the traditional dates of the start of Kaliyuga mentioned in the fifth century Gupta and seventh century Chalukya (Aihole) inscriptions.
But, the real contention here is the composition of Mahabharata itself.
Even historian R C Majumdar is of the opinion that the standardisation of the text in the present form happened around fourth century CE.
It was not some new radical discovery. Prof. S P Gupta, one of the finest archaeologists and a great scholar, wrote in his introduction to ‘Mahabharata: Myth and Reality’:
Scholars recognise at least three redactions in the Mahabharata as we have today. The first one is by Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa consisting of 8800 verses, called Jaya; the second by Vaisampayana comprising 24,000 verses, known as Bharata, and the third (the present form) composed of a lakh of verses called the Mahabharata was given to us by Sauta.
While there are scholarly discussions on the accepted fact that Mahabharata is a layered text, what has been happening with a group of historians right from the days of colonial era to Romila Thapar, is that all the positive and good elements in such layered texts have been attributed to Buddhist or Jain influence.
So, when she states on the sly that Ashoka’s remorse at the war cruelty could have been the source for Yudhishthira feeling the same, as suggested by some historians, she is essentially floating an idea that has already been getting forged in the Indological crucibles guarded within the castles of academia.
To understand the kind of narrative that goes behind the dissection of Mahabharata, just consider the following passage from an academic study of the epic - with primarily Western sources:
This ‘dark’ Yudhisṭhira must preside over ̣a divine raiding party of the gods that descends to earth to restore Brahmans to privileges denied them by the pro-Buddhist Mauryan emperor Ashoka—these being the Brahmans who, according to Fitzgerald, would have composed the first written ‘main Mahabharata’ out of “rage” at their treatment under Ashoka-”deep and bitter political rage at the center of the Mahabharata”Alf Hiltebeitel in ‘Reading the Fifth Veda’, Vol.I (Ed. by Vishwa Adluri & Joydeep Bagchee), BRILL, 2011, p.54
This is the academic kernel of which Thapar’s seemingly innocuous, suave utterance is only an interface - a subliminal preparation.
Soon, a rhetorical Marxist would emphatically assert that the remorse of Yudhishthira and the hesitation of Arjuna were Brahminical fabrications to appropriate and devalue Ashoka’s great remorse and conversion.
How does one counter this?
Mahabharata is a layered text and many Indologists have suggested that the standardisation of the text continued well into fourth century CE.
So, the Bhagavad Gita, Shanti Parva etc., are conveniently pushed into either the post-Ashokan or even post-Common Era. This makes it easier to allege that they are appropriations of Buddhism or were influenced by Buddhist and Jain sources.
One should remember that the same tactics have been used in the case of Tamil literature. Here, it is argued that the high ethics in Thirukkural were a departure from the Sangham era and hence should have come from Jain influence.
This, despite the fact that Thiruvalluvar mentions Hindu deities, and advocates the king removing the evil ones ‘like weed’ (no Ahimsa) and speaks high of ‘birth based virtue’ of Brahmins.
The answer to Thapar is not proving that Yudhishthira lived before Ashoka. It should be established rather that some crucial portions like Bhagavad Gita and Bhishma’s advice to Yudhishthira were part of the epic before Ashoka.
Dr Priyanka Pandey, an upcoming Sanskrit scholar from JNU in her recent work on Shanti Parva points out in a detailed manner that the composition of the Mahabarata was done before the spread of Buddhism. She also says that the texts including Bhagavad Gita (and hence Arjuna's hesitation in the battle field) predated Ashoka by at least two centuries. Dr Pandey writes:
In Baudhayana Grhyasutra there is a clear description of ‘Vishnusahasranama’ and one verse of Bhagavad Gita (IX.26) is quoted there as an evidence and it is known to all that Gita is the part of Mahabharata. Time period of Asvalayana and Baudhayana was around fourth century BCE. It appears that the composition of Mahabharata took place in 200 or 600 BCE, from the composition of these two Samhitas (Asvalayana and Baudhayana). Based on these two quotes it can be said that Mahabharata must have been composed before the spread of Buddhism (450-600). Time period of Asvalayana is considered around 400 BCE, and before Asvalayana Grhyasutra there was no description of Mahabharata in any available literature. So from the above references it become clear that Mahabharata was composed about fifth century BCE.Rajadharma in Mahabharata: With Special Reference to Shanti-Parva, DK Printworld,2019
So there is every possibility that Ashoka could have been influenced by the narrative of Yudhishthira and not the other way round.
So, do get outraged at Romila Thapar’s remark, but even as you do, remember that she points to more dangerous attacks and stereotypes getting prepared against the Hindus in the academia.