Review : Battle, Bards and Brahmins ed. John Brockington,
The 13th World Sanskrit Conference held in Edinburgh had 14 sections of which 5 papers on the mahakavya Ramayana, 13 on the itihasa Mahabharata and, alas, only one on its khila-appendix Harivamsha have been edited by John Brockington, an authority on Valmiki’s great poem. The Dubrovnik conferences on epics and puranas have been focusing, lately, on the neglected appendix. The presence of a scholar from India, Urmi Shah of Ahmedabad, though solitary, is most welcome. The title, however, begs the question as the only paper discussing battle is the editor’s and brahmins are not a major concern in the rest, several of which discuss the narrative art.
Both Brodbeck and Allen discuss the Mahabharata genealogy. The former raises questions about Vaishampayana’s two versions, the first in verse up to Shantanu, the second in prose down to Janamejaya, its listener. Brodbeck makes the very interesting interlinking of Bhishma, Dhritarashtra and Yudhishthira as the overtaken eldest sons. The Bharata patriline faces disaster thrice: Vichitravirya dies childless (Vyasa rescues); Pandu is sonless, cursed with coital death (Kunti rescues); Bhishma is killed by Arjuna (the Kuru lineage is extinct); Arjuna is killed by his son Babhruvahana (Ulupi Naga rescues); the Pandava heir Parikshit (the sons by other Pandava wives are nowhere!) is killed in the womb (Krishna rescues) and a second time by Takshaka Naga (of which his son Janamejaya is peculiarly unaware till vengeful Uttanka tells him). Bharata, Bhishma, Abhimanyu and even the Pandavas are brought up by their mothers—a point worth mulling over.
Allen examines Vyasa’s four sons in terms of the Indo-European pentadic ideology (representing wisdom, force, wealth, above the triad and below it) bringing out the centrality of Vidura in the narrative right from his birth, which is recounted before that of his brothers and at greater length. He relates Vidura-Yudhishthira-Kripa to Aryaman, Pandu-Chitrangad-Bhima to Varuna, Dhritarashtra-Vichitravirya-the twins-Yuyutsu to Bhaga. Above this triad are Shuka-Bhishma-Arjuna as the positive aspect (what about Vyasa, Krishna?) while Shakuni-Duryodhana-Karna are below it as the negative aspect. Allen investigated the marriages of Vidura-Dhritarashtra-Pandu in a paper in Gender and Narrative in the Mahabharata (reviewed here earlier). We look forward to his research into the parallels in Greek myth with the sons of Iapetos (Atlas, Prometheus, Epimetheus, Menoetius).
Angelika Malinar’s paper is an engrossing presentation of Duryodhana’s claims, showing that he projected the future on the basis of his finding that whatever he had wanted did happen in the past. Therefore, he is not boasting. Nor is he going beyond defending the integrity of his kingdom, by right of primogeniture. He is also a master of yoga in being able to freeze the waters around him. Malinar proposes that the Gita opposes his absolute sovereignty and supernatural power. In the historical context, a post-Ashoka period is suggested for the text (Ashoka criticized former cruel kings). It is interesting that in the late 19th century Holtzmann identified Duryodhana with Ashoka, while now G.von Simson identifies Dhritarashtra and others equate Yudhishthira with Ashoka. However, when we find Kautilya’s Arthashastra in pre-Ashokan times referring to Mahabharata characters, one wonders how the epic can be post-Ashoka.
Danielle Feller examines Bhima’s two quests for flowers drawing an interesting parallel with the lotuses in an earlier story of the five Indras and Shri the femme fatale. There is another parallel with the seizing of amrita which never reaches earth (so too Draupadi, the earth, never gets the celestial flowers). This quest is always most dangerous and is followed by abduction (Draupadi by the demon Jatasura disguised as a hermit when Bhima is absent; Sita by Ravana similarly disguised in Rama-Lakshmana’s absence). The mythic message, says Feller, is that women (the earth) cannot obtain immortality that is heaven’s despite sending the wind (Garuda, Bhima, Hanumana) for it.
The quest for immortality is also the core element in the intriguing Uttanka episode occurring twice in the Mahabharata. Paolo Magnone shows that beyond the didactic purpose of inculcating model discipleship lies the layer of the folktale hero’s fabulous adventures and beyond that the archetype of the hero’s descent into the netherworld for amrita. In the Ashvamedhika Parva Uttanka refuses the ambrosia offered by Indra disguised as an untouchable showing, again, that immortality is not for the mortal.
A particularly valuable paper is on the integration of sacred pilgrimage spots (teerthas) into the narrative. James Hegarty successfully argues that they construct the past and contextualize and interpret narrative. Teerthas are paradigmatic venues for recitals and ritual, connecting Kurukshetra and Naimisha with Vedic Sarasvati. Through them, the epic incorporates all past and current religious discourse. No teertha is dealt with in isolation but always in relation to others, being part of a circuit. Pilgrimage is established to be as essential as sacrifices for the maintenance of society. The climax occurs in Vyasa’s exclamation, “What need has the listener (of the epic) of the waters of Pushkara?” establishing recitation of the epic as surpassing pilgrimages, even replacing Vedic rituals. Thus, “Vedic ritual…was transformed into more portable and multi-applicable formats…by narrative means.”
Hiltebeitel’s paper on mapping bhakti with dharma takes off from the proposition (that Malinar echoes) that the Mahabharata is a response in post-Ashokan times by Brahmanical culture to the imperial espousal of Jainism and Buddhism. He focuses on the twin themes of hospitality (who hosts Rama and Krishna?) and friendship. The latter concept of “well-wisher, suhrid” ultimately incorporates the bhakta audience and readers of the epic. A new Brahmanical dharma is being made familiar through Rama, Krishna and their hosts, the sangha of Rishis. The “suhrid” concept, however, is already there in the Rig Veda, as Indrajit Bandopadhyay points out elsewhere. How, then, is this is new?
Adheesh Sathaye argues that the epic uses Vishvamitra to engage with a folk theme: the wish-fulfilling cow and the king-turned-ogre. The former is common to both epics, the difference lying in the treatment. Valmiki stresses the power of Vishvamitra’s weapons and traces how lust and anger vitiate his ascesis. Vyasa emphasizes the superiority of Vasishtha’s ascetic power in routing the army, supplementing it by showing the sublimity of his forgiveness in the case of the cannibal king Kalmashpada. Sathaye relates this to the 2nd century BC situation of a flux in the social class system where the Brahmin Pushyamitra usurped the throne. The epic engages with this by having king Vishvamitra become a great sage, simultaneously establishing the supremacy of brahmin Vasishtha’s ascesis. The portrayal of several brahmins who, like Pushyamitra, abandon their vocation to become take up arms (Jamadagni, Parashurama, Sharadvat, Drona, Kripa, Ashvatthama) might well reflect this historical situation.
Questions are being raised now about the sanctity of the Bhandarkar ‘critical edition’ of the Mahabharata text. The central problem lies in mapping the interrelationships among manuscripts. Wendy Phillips-Rodriguez has put forward a fascinating schema called “uprooted trees” like the Gita’s cosmic tree whose roots are upwards and branches downwards. Through this paradigm she finds that the southern manuscripts are more widely dispersed than the northern, indicating their independent evolution. This upside-down tree model opens up the study of the epic’s variations as having “an independent cultural value”. Very pertinently she asks, “Why privilege one version over the others?” The variations are separate interpretations, and the study of how each evolved will enable greater understanding of the cultural roots of the epic.
Antonella Cosi’s close study of style and syntax reveals that a fixed set of similes is used in insults, more frequent in dialogues than in speeches or descriptions. Vyasa follows certain stylistic principles. For abuse, he uses impure animals and combines them with improbable situations in the Karna Parva to create more sophisticated insults!
Seeking to construct an ‘epic psychology’, Sven Sellmer analyses how the heart (hrid, hridaya) is depicted in the Mahabharata at the physical, psychosomatic and abstract levels. James Fitzgerald, who is translating the Shanti Parva, takes up the Sankhya-Yoga discussion in its Mokshadharma part to show that Narayana stands at the end of both, beyond whom lies liberation, moksha. Sankhya’s disembodied kshetrajna, whose knowledge is non-sensory, is shown as superior to the embodied yogeshvara.
Yaroslav Vassilkov, translator of the Stri and the Ashvamedhika parvas into Russian, contributes a valuable examination of how the myth of the boar incarnation has Munda tribal roots. He proposes that archaic Indo-Aryan folk traditions ran alongside Sanskrit culture which borrowed such myths from them—a phenomenon of ‘archaization’.
Horst Brinkhaus’ is the solitary paper on the Harivamsha. It deals with the 16,108 wives of Krishna arguing that this appendix to the epic predates the Puranas as it shows Rukmini as Krishna’s predominant wife. He is unaware that back in 1894 Bankimchandra Chatterjee had examined this issue in detail in Krishnacharitra (available in English since 1991) and dispelled the figment of 16108 wives quite conclusively.
Mary Brockington’s Ramayana paper is an excellent analysis of the narrative art of Valmiki bringing out his careful planning. She shows how tension is heightened and the audience—on occasion the characters—are shocked by surprises not only in the plot but also in the characterization.
John Brockington examining weaponry in Valmiki concludes that swords are not important. Arrows are the most significant (particularly the speed and numbers shot, not accuracy) followed by javelins and, much less, clubs. The monkeys use branches, trees, boulders besides teeth, nails, fists. Defensive armour and fortifications are rare. Chariots feature quite often, but not charioteers. It is clearly a society less advanced than the Mahabharata’s.
Sally Goldman, co-translator of the Sundara and Yuddha cantos of the Princeton Ramayana project, takes up Indrajit’s rites at the grove of Nikumbhila intrigued by the word being unique to Valmiki. What are the implications of linking the rakshasas with a mother-goddess figure, the demonic with the feminine? Several malignant female figures people the Ramayana right from the palace to the forest and through the sea to Lanka. Sita, though mysteriously born, is never deified except at the end of the war when Brahma tells Rama that she is Lakshmi incarnated. The fire ritual in Nikumbhila’s grove has demonic women in attendance and offerings are made to evil spirits. The destruction of the ritual by Lakshmana is the defeat of the mother-goddess and the dangerous feminine world.
Urmi Shah, the solitary Indian scholar, presents a comparative study of polity in the Nitiprakashika (contemporaneous with the Mahabharata?) and the Ramayana. This text, narrated by Vaishampayana to Janamejaya, is a treatise on governance for the Kali epoch. Hence it concentrates on weapons and military organization for maintaining law and order. The section on faults of kings is practically identical with both epics.
The Anandaramayana is a 15th century text extremely popular in Maharashtra and southern India and among the Ramnamis and Rasik Sampradaya in the north. Vidyut Aklujkar argues that its composition occurred around the river Godavari near Nasik and the composer was a Marathi as it concentrates on pilgrimage spots of Maharashtra, especially around the Godavari. Several words and phrases and myths typical of Marathi occur in it. It is ahead of its times in its feminist attitude. For the first time we find the 108 names of Sita and the stipulation that Rama must not be worshipped without her. Clever and morally superior women are praised over their husbands.
The book has a valuable index of epic passages cited and is free from misprints. It is sad that there not a single paper that discusses the women in the epics. Even the female scholars do not seem inspired to research this aspect. Missing, also, are contributions by noted Ramayana scholars like Paula Richmann, Arshia Sattar and Sheldon Pollock; but, then, there is more than enough for a rich repast! It is symptomatic of our loss of identity that though India is the home of Sanskrit our government does nothing to encourage such international conferences. Otherwise it would not take six years for the papers to get published. One wonders when the papers of the 15th conference held in New Delhi in 2012 will be available.