It was in 1942 that the late Dr. V.S. Sukthankar was engaged to deliver four lectures on the 'Meaning of the Mahabharata' under the auspices of the University of Bombay. However, the fourth and last lecture was not delivered on account of his sad sudden demise on the morning of the day fixed for it. The Manuscript (Ms.) of these lectures-a veritable treasure to cherish had remained lost to the world of scholars for a long period of fifteen years. It beared the title "Four Lectures on the Meaning of the Mahabharata." This rather heavy-looking title has been abridged here in publication into the substantial title "On the Meaning of the Mahabharata." In a great many places, sentences or paragraphs have been placed in rectangular brackets in pencil. This bracketed material has been retained in the body of this book. Secondly, an alternative word or phrase is occasionally found written with a pencil in the margin along with an underscoring of the relevant word or words in the text. It is thought advisable to retain the text of the script as it stands, leaving such marginal alternatives alone. However, there is one exception: Dr. Sukthankar had rewritten in pencil almost a whole para at the end of the third lecture. This pencil-script is incorporated in the body of the book. A facsimile of this page is reproduced as the frontispiece. An English rendering of the German quotation from OLDENBERG is given in an Appendix for the convenience of the general reader. In Index I Sanskrit quotations are printed in Devanagari for the benefit of those not quite conversant with the transiliteration.
Vishnu Sitaram Sukthankar, also known as V. S. Sukthankar, (4 May 1887 – 21 January 1943) was an Indologist and scholar of Sanskrit. He is principally known as the General Editor of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, India. He was born on 4 May 1887 to Sitaram Sukthankar, his father, a civil engineer, and Dhaklibai, his mother. He married Eleanor Bowing (1889-1927) on 29 July 1908. Their children were John (1908), Kathleen (1912) and Maurice (1913).
Sukthankar was educated at the Maratha High School and later at St. Xavier's College in Bombay. After passing his Intermediate Examination, he left for England and studied mathematics during the years 1903-1906 at St. John’s College, Cambridge and passing his Mathematical Tripos. In 1909, he studied at the University of Edinburgh.
Meanwhile, his interests had turned to Indology. He completed a doctorate between 1911-14 at the Humboldt University in Berlin under the supervision of Heinrich Lüders. He was also a student of Hermann Jacobi. The subject of his thesis was the grammar of Shakatayana, together with the commentary of Yaksavarman. The outbreak of the First World War forced him to leave Germany, and he was formally awarded his degree only in 1921.
In 1915, having returned to India, Sukthankar took up the post of Assistant Superintendent of the Western Circle in the Archaeological Survey of India. In 1919, he returned to Britain and re-joined his family.
In the years 1919-21, Sukthankar and his young family lived in New York. In 1920, he lectured at the annual convention of the American Oriental Society. During the early 1920s, he wrote a series of papers on the plays (presumptively) by Bhasa, and moreover published a translation of his 'Svapnavasavadatta'. This material, together with Sukthankar's papers on epigraphy has been posthumously collected in the 2nd volume of the 'Sukthankar Memorial Edition'.
In 1925, Sukthankar assumed the General Editorship of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune. After years of tireless labour and the assistance of several copyists and fellow scholars, the first fascicule of the Adi Parva (i.e., first of the eighteen Books of the Mahabharata) was published in 1927, followed by the entire Adi Parva in 1933. The work involved collating about 60 partial manuscripts of the Mahabharata in ten different scripts belonging to two major recensions (Northern and Southern). A lucid and detailed account of his methods of Textual Criticism may be found in the `Prolegomena' to the 1933 volume. Some of his writings on the Mahabharata have been collected in the first volume of the 'Sukthankar Memorial Edition'.
The subsequent Parvans were edited on the basis of his framework by a legion of scholars at the Bhandarkar Institute during his tenure and after his death, and the publication of the entire Critical Edition was finally complete in 1966. This work has proved to be immensely valuable for all subsequent scholarship on the Mahabharata. An English translation of the Critical Edition was undertaken by J. A. B. van Buitenen, who completed five of the Parvans before his death. This work is now being carried forward by other scholars.
Sukthankar's principles of textual criticism were also put to use towards the Critical Edition of the Ramayana, prepared during the years 1951-1975 by the Oriental Institute at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda.
In January 1943, Sukthankar was invited to deliver a series of four lectures on the Mahabharata at the University of Bombay. However, on the eve of the fourth and final lecture, he died suddenly due to complications arising from cerebral thrombosis. The lectures were later published as a book.
Contemporary accounts describe him as an aloof and reticent scholar, whose early mathematical training had led him to an insistence on precision in his philological studies.