Alf Hiltebeitel: Dharma: Its early history in law, religion and narrative
Oxford University Press, pp. 748, Rs. 1800/-
The period from 300 BCE onwards marks a watershed in ancient history. It is not only the time of Ashoka, but also that of Qin Shi Huang, uniter of China and founder of the Great Wall, and of Rome’s triumph over Carthage assuring its supre macy in the Mediterranean. Hiltebeitel assigns to this period the writing of the Mahabharata by Brahmins of Haryana in the 1 st century BCE and Ashvaghosh’s Buddhacharita which, he shows, draws extensively upon the epic in its depiction of Dharma. Both the epics and the Buddhists use the literary trope of oral origins of their texts. He discounts the theories of Gupta patronage for the Mahabharata’s composition and of Doniger’s assertion that it continued in oral form for a millennium.
The term “dharma texts” (Hiltebeitel lists 12 starting with the Ashokan edicts) relates to the period between the Mauryas and the Kushans when these were composed in several languages: Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit and Tamil by propagators of both Brahmanical and non-Vedic Shramanic soteriology. Ashvaghosh uses “dharma” in ways not found before the dharmasutras and the epics, using it “as a term of civil discourse with his Brahmanical counterparts.” The Tamil Draupadi temples are often called Dharmaraja temples, personifying the concept as a god. Bengal has an analogous folk tradition of worshipping Dharmadeb that should have been included in this discussion. In several shrines it is an icon of Buddha, sometimes of Shiva or a Tirthankar, that passes by that name. Among “dharma texts” Hiltebeitel includes the Yuga Purana and the BuddhistProphecy of Katyayana (late 1 st to early 2 nd century CE). Why he places their composition in Central Asia is not clear. Both share the background of invasions by Greeks, Shakas and Pahlavas (the last are absent from the Yuga Purana). Where the Buddhist text speaks of dharma disappearing, the purana assures its continuance as a seed. Hiltebeitel does not explore the reasons for this, which lie in the puranic concept of universal dissolution leaving a remnant symbolized by Shesha-naga from which the world’s great age begins anew. Buddhism has no concept of pralaya and re-creation.
Hiltebeitel devotes significant space to pointing out where Wendy Doniger, Madeleine Biardeau, Georges Dumezil and David Shulman are mistaken in rejecting the Bhandarkar Critical Edition (CE) in favour of the Vulgate text of the Mahabharata (MB) and postulating bardic paeans to warriors as the early tribal epic. But why should the “Sharada” script text be accepted axiomatically as the earliest version simply because it is the shortest? Hiltebeitel builds on B.K. Matilal’s treatment of MB “as the locus of a paradigm shift on dharma.” While Ramayana [R] is founded on formal ethical norms, with Rama exemplifying it in action, MB is far more complex, embodying it in Yudhishthira’s dilemmas as the son of the deity Dharma.
A very telling and interesting point made is that what Krishna says in the Gita is not cited as the ultimate pronouncement on dharma anywhere in the MB. The arguments Krishna uses to persuade Arjuna first not to kill Yudhishthira and then not to kill himself out of guilt are founded on the premise that saving life is superior even to truth and to keeping an oath. How is this to be reconciled with the carnage he encourages on Kurukshetra and participates in at Prabhasa? Such complicated questions are not found in the Buddhacharita (BC). In explaining Krishna’s speech to Arjuna, telling him that he had blundered being unfamiliar with the decisions of those who pursued dharma, (the “kavayah”) Hiltebeitel makes the mistake of translating this as “poets” (p. 24). In the Vedas, “kavi” means “seer”, one who sees through the appearance into the reality. The MB is Vyasa’s rendering of the Vedas for the common reader. Krishna is referring not to “the imaginative poet” but to the seers who have proclaimed what is dharma.
Yet, Krishna also says that prescriptions do not exist in all cases. Then what does one take recourse to? Reason? But reason, “tarka” is not extolled in the MB. Bhishma urges that it be shunned as a worthless branch of knowledge. What is of interest is to see Yudhishthira justifying Bhima’s kicking prone Duryodhana’s head when Krishna rebukes him for countenancing this. Krishna has no option but to accept Yudhishthira’s viewpoint. When Hiltebeitel says that such a relaxation of dharma is absent in Rama’s case he overlooks the onslaught Tara launches upon him, and before that the reproaches Bali showers upon him. Unlike Krishna, Rama has no moral compunctions about killing Bali from hiding, or in killing the Shudra ascetic Shambuka. Rama and Yudhishthira share one interesting feature: both favour the traitors, Vibhishana and Yuyutsu, by making them ruler and regent respectively of the conquered kingdom.
Ashoka used “dhamma,” the Prakrit for “dharma,” 111 times, inscribing it in Kharoshthi for the north-west and in Brahmi for the rest. He appointed dharma spies not only for the officials but even for royalty and enumerated seven texts as expressing the true dharma (“saddhamma”). He sought to advance dharma in everyone, irrespective of religion and class. Basically this was showing respect and being generous to Brahmins, Shramanas (monks), parents, teachers, elders, servants, slaves, the weak and the poor. He dismissed Brahmanical rites and women’s rituals as meaningless and insisted on not killing animals. Progress in dharma occurred by following its rules and meditating, the latter being most important. The new imperial ideology was a major threat to Vedic religion. Chandragupta and Bindusara had already favoured Jainism and Ajivika-ism. This would have spurred the composition of new dharma texts by Brahmins such as the Apastamba, Gautama and Baudhayana Dharmasutras.
Hiltebeitel holds that our epics are not tribal bardic lore about chiefs but written documents constructing an imaginary history of monarchs. In the early books of the Rig Veda (II, IV, V and VI) dharman is the foundation of the cosmos that is both above and below, and is linked to Varuna and Mitra, described as asura, representing the foundation of authority that structures society. It is parallel to rita, the truth expressing the proper structuring of the world. In the later Book X Soma establishes the material foundation and Varuna the social. The Atharva Veda departs from the Rigvedic “dharman” to use “dharma” in an abstract sense as custom or law. The Maitrayani Samhita invokes gods as upholders of dharma, “Dharmadhritas” to make the king emulate them. The Taittiriya Samhita explicitly identifies the king with Varuna whose dharma is true, “satyadharma”. Both Samhitas state that in the Rajasuya sacrifice a formal proclamation is to be made, “This is your king, Bhaaratas” which the Apastamba Shrautasutra explains as signifying Kurus-Panchalas, or just people. That leads directly to the MB. It is in the Taittiriya Brahmana that the first reference occurs to “adharma” as a deity to whom a deaf man is to be dedicated in the Purushamedharite, while a member in the assembly is offered to “dharma”. Here is the first reference to dharma in the context of a royal “sabha”. Here Shri is also called “dharmapatni”, the wife of dharma and also of Indra. This links to the MB where Shri-Draupadi is the wife of both Yudhishthira and Arjuna. The Aitereya Brahmana celebrates the king as protector of dharma, “dharmasya gopta”.
“Dharma” occurs in only ten passages in the four oldest Upanishads, specially in the Brihadaranyaka and the Chandogya, all in the context of Brahmanical concerns. Their geographical horizon stretches from Afghanistan to Bihar but no picture of the changing socio-political conditions is found in them. In the Brihadaranyaka, Brahman creates dharma in order to develop itself fully. Nothing, it says, is superior to dharma to which a weak man appeals as to a king. Here dharma is the law enforced by the monarch, and is identical to truth. In the later Katha Upanishad in the story of Nachiketa, Yama instructs in “subtle dharma” which is distinct from dharma-adharma. Yama compliments Nachiketa for rejecting Vedic rites as the foundation of dharma, and imparts to him the far more profound knowledge of the atman gained through yoga. Kings say nothing about dharma in the Upanishads. Indeed, it is Gautama Buddha, of royal Ikshvaku lineage, who expounds dhamma to both Brahmins and kings in the Ambattha Sutta. The Brahmins are of two types: those having great halls (Brahmana mahasala) and those with matted hair (jatila). Buddha compares dhamma to a raft used to cross over to the other shore and then left behind, not to be held on to. The king governs with dhamma as co-ruler. “For the first time dharma is presented as a tactic of civil discourse for engaging Brahmins.”
Some of the Buddha’s most profound discourses—as many as six suttas—were delivered to the Kurus in a town (nigama) named Kammasa-dhamma or Kammasa-pada (ogre with spotted feet, MB’s Kalmasha-pada). The Kurudhamma Jataka refers to Bodisatta as king of the Kurus after his father Dhananjaya’s death. He follows five principles strictly, as do all his subjects, because of which the kingdom is ever prosperous. It is interesting to find Buddha moving from Magadha to bring his dhamma to the Vedic heartland. The Mahaparinibbana Sutta documents that despite the Vajji republic following the seven Vinaya precepts preached to the monks, Ajatashatru of Magadha destroys them. Buddha has nothing to say about this. The Pali Vinaya text records people criticising Buddha for causing families to die out as they turn to Buddhist life. Indeed his own royal Shakya line becomes extinct. That may well be the reason why the Puranas depict him as the avatar who brings destruction to the asuras by deluding them into practising non-Vedic dharma.
The early dharmasutras (Gautama, Baudhayana) claim that the householder’s ashrama is the only one since it alone produces progeny. Later, Vasishtha Dharmasutra, Manava Dharmashastra and both the epics hold that the householder’s ashrama is the best of the four, being their support. Hiltebeitel holds Manava Dharmashastra (Manu) to be the earliest, an early Sunga or late Kushana text. The Buddhist Vinaya Pitaka (which often refers to writing) condemns coitus since it leads to living in houses and to storing food. The Ambattha Sutta accuses Brahmins of slandering Brahma when they claim to have issued from his mouth whereas actually their birth is vaginal. It carries a reference to the Baudhayana Dharmasutra in describing how good Brahmins live, which is absent from the Apastamba and Gautama Dharmasutras. Thus, the Buddhist text is referring to a dharmashastrarule that is not earlier than the 2 nd century BCE, i.e. not pre-Mauryan. The MB, too, has the same description of the life of a renunciant Brahmin.
The Shrauta, Grihya and Dharma sutras—in that chronological order—constitute a genre called kalpasutras linked to specific Vedic schools in which dharma means specific rituals, a technical meaning not found in the Brahmanas and Upanishads. Svadharma means the rules specific to a particular rite, which later denotes duties specific to particular groups or persons. Manu attempts to create a dharma specifying standards coordinating the differing traditions of Vedic schools to set up a common Brahmanical order. Possibly this was called for with the growth of trading urban settlements in the eastern regions. In this the most important place was assigned to five maha-yagyas with five rituals which radically simplified the elaborate Vedic Soma sacrifice: bali (food offering to spirits); hospitality; wood as fire-offering saying “svaha”; water to ancestors saying “svadha”; and Vedic recitation in solitude (svadhyaya) as the offering to Brahman. These would secure one all the fruits of a pious life. To these are added the concept of four debts to rishis (by study), devas (by sacrifice), ancestors (through progeny) and hospitality. Manu specifies that only after these have been discharged, through following the various ashramas in sequence, is the pursuit of moksha through renunciation permissible, whereas the Buddha did not limit monkhood to any stage of life.
Buddha in the Subha Sutta favours five Brahmanical pursuits as meritorious, viz. truthfulness, austerities, celibacy, study, charity, which are “as old as Vedic culture itself” and recommends a sixth: compassion (anukampa). The Apastamba lays down the duties of a Brahmin which are carried into Manu and the MB, combining the lifestyles of the wealthy householder and the ascetic: study, teach, sacrifice and officiate at sacrifices, give and take gifts, inherit, glean. Manu replaces the three shrauta fires by the domestic fire. He also ushers in non-violence by describing the householder’s slaughter-houses as: fireplace, grindstone, broom, mortal-and-pestle and water pot, all of which can be performed by meditative means by the sense organs, speech, breath, or knowledge (mind). In the MB (12.12.23) Nakula recommends domestic life to Yudhishthira after the war where maha-yagyas are performed just with the mind.
For Hiltebeitel, Manu and the R overlap with the MB composed by a committee led by Vyasa over a period of not more than two generations from 150 BCE. He suggests that Valmiki and Manu could be names taken by contemporary poets from the MB and that both texts could have been begun before the MB was finished. In each case the poet is present to listen to his work recited: Valmiki by Rama’s sons, Vyasa by Vaishampayana, Manu by Bhrigu. Manu is early Shunga or late Kushana, focussing on the dharma of Brahmanical kings, which is what both epics also do. This was a counterpoint to the term having been appropriated by Buddhist and other monks and made into an imperial ideology by Ashoka. Only the two earliest dharamashastras, Apastamba andGautama, draw upon purana as an authority for dharma. Vasishtha Dharmashastra is the only one to refer to a sloka from Manu and is possibly later than it, while the MB alone uses the phrase itihasam puratanam. None of the others link dharma with itihasa, whereas all except Apastamba use the term itihasapurana once. The MB’s stock phrase while citing dharma prescriptions is atrapy udaharanti which is absent from Manu, R and Gautama. Hiltebeitel suggests that this second group claims authority independent of early dharmashastras and the MB which cites itihasa as precedent to support its views on dharma.
The MB depicts sanyasa in two ways. In the story of Shuka it shows that the four ashramas need not be lived in sequence. Instead one can directly attain moksha. Yet, it also speaks of the sequential pursuit of four stages of life. Manu, however, insists on the latter. All the texts hold that domestic life is the best, as it supports the others and produces progeny, a concept that the Buddha counters in the Agganna Sutta.
The linking of social classes (varna) to the ashramas is first done by Manu in chapter 7, Rajadharma. Whereas Apastamba and MB permit learning dharma from Shudras and women, Manu drastically abjures this, using terminology found in the Arthashastra for describing punishments for them, as also in describing how the king should think, “chintayet”. Both MB and Manu hold that the raja’s thinking must be dharmic. The Apastamba, prior to Manu, recommends the raja should have a fort (puram) and provides a floor plan with a gambling table in the middle of the assembly hall (sabha) and a capital complex, both of which feature in the MB. Hiltebeitel argues that Manu is drawing upon the MB in recommending that soldiers be drawn from the lands of the Kurus, Matsyas, Panchalas and Surasenas, and in mentioning a forested area for building a capital, as in the epic’s Indraprastha. Hiltebeitel refers to Manu’s ruler as an “upstart king,” reflecting early Vedic chiefs and later Vedic Vratyas (Brahmin and Kshatriya) anticipating the medieval Rajput. The Pandavas can be viewed as “vratya” like the Rajputs, who only assert rulership after disguising themselves as “snatakas” who have just completed Vedic study and kill Jarasandha. So that they are not seen as parvenus, both Manu and MB, specially the latter, want their kings to be Kshatriyas. Manu recognises the existence of non-Kshatriya rulers in warning snatakas not to live where a Shudra rules, nor accept gifts from a king following a wrong shastra (Jainism, Buddhism).
New territory is explored by contrasting how Buddhist and Brahmanical cosmologies relate change in dharma to the concepts of kalpa in the former and yuga in the latter. Kalpa denotes cyclical time in the Magadha area’s Jain, Ajivika and Buddhist concepts, while yuga is linear time. Hiltebeitel disputes the finding that the yuga theory is a late addition to MB. The epic links dharma with yuga and the manvantara (a Manu’s epoch), while Buddhism linked dharma with kalpa as in Ashoka’s rock edicts. Through this linkage, Buddhism gave the kalpa complexity, which Brahmanical texts gave to the yuga. Gonzalez-Reimann, studying the MB and the yugas, notes that in the Mokshadharma Parva’s Narayaniya section Vishnu speaks of the devas fulfilling their duties till the kalpa ends, which is similar to Ashoka’s inscriptions that practising dhamma will increase and improve life in the world till the kalpa’s end. This seems to be the Brahmanical dharma’s answer to Ashoka’s proclamation regarding Buddhist dhamma, both using the same expression, “yavat kalpakshayat”, until the destruction of the kalpa. Nowhere else in the epics is kalpa used thus. Manu (9.301-2) restates the MB’s doctrine that the raja is or makes the yuga, and describes the decline of dharma through the yugas.
James Mitchiner studying the Yuga Purana, which alone refers to the Indo-Greeks, holds that after the Shakas invaded, a new Krita Yuga dawned and the era of 58 BCE was founded by the Indo-Scythian king Azes. This era of renewed prosperity was under the Shatavahana Empire between the Vindhyas and the river Krishna. Parallel to this is the Buddhist text, Prophecy of Katyayana which is told from a Bactrian perspective whence the Nikaya school of Dharmaguptakas with four Pitakas and the Mahasanghikas would have spread it through Central Asia. Both Katyayana and the Yuga Purana depict Magadha in decline. Where the Yuga Purana assures that dharma will continue through history, the Buddhist text depicts a disappearance of the true dhamma and its replacement by a semblance of dhamma.
Where Stridharma is concerned, Apastamba and MBH state that dharma can be learned from women and Shudras. But Baudhayana, Vasishtha and Gautama are as negative as Manu in denying women any independence. This might be a reaction to the growing phenomenon of independent and religiously unorthodox women, viz. the heterodox nuns of Buddhism and Jainism. Hiltebeitel makes a novel point that in the MB from the entry of Ganga the law of the mother prevails as crisis mounts among the Kuru males. This is not found in the R which stresses the importance of upholding the father’s pledge.
Hiltebeitel mistakenly states that Mahabhisha picks Devapi to be his father (p. 346), and refers to “Bhishma’s paternal grandmother, the wife of Devapi,” (p. 365) whereas it is Pratipa, whose eldest son is Devapi. Nor does Vasishtha curse Mahabhisha but only the Vasus (p. 353).
Ganga tells Shantanu that her acts were to accomplish the work of the devas—the first statement of what the Kurukshetra holocaust is all about. With her departure begins the “itihasa” of the MBH, with events occurring not in the world of gods but on earth. Shantanu is linked to the solar dynasty not only because of having been Mahabhisha of that lineage in his previous birth, but also because of his relationship with Ganga who had been brought down to earth by Bhagiratha of that dynasty. Hiltebeitel puts much store by the word “samaya” (compact, arrangement) in the interventions by these women: Ganga’s with the Vasus and Pratipa; Satyavati’s foster-father with Bhishma. Both of Shantanu’s marriages are the result of “restrictive samayas” introducing “a supervening Law of the Mother” into a dynasty whose continuity is disrupted by curses (Mahabhisha-Shantanu and Vasu-Dyaus-Bhishma). Moreover, Ganga and the Yamuna (on which Satyavati plies the ferry) encircle the doab that is the land of dharma. Ganga brings liberation by killing; fish-odorous Satyavati suggests connections with both the law of larger fish eating the smaller and the ferrying across the waters of samsara. Both Ganga and Satyavati make crucial decisions that ensure the continuance of the dynasty. The dharma in which Bhishma and Satyavati engage is “rough and discordant” “co-improvising it with the author” (Vyasa).
In a brilliant insight Hiltebeitel links the two mothers, bright Ganga and dark Satyavati-Kali, to Dhatri and Vidhatri in Uttanka’s story who weave the black and white threads of night and day on the loom of Kala-Time. Very significant is the forcible induction of the Kashi princesses named after the three mothers who are specific to the horse-sacrifice where the chief queen has to simulate coitus under a blanket with the slain horse to which she is led by her co-wives (Taittiriya Samhita). Hiltebeitel indulges in flippancy here following Jamison, translating the names as “Mama, Mamita and Mamacita or Mummy, Mummikins, little Mummy”. Not only is their induction violent, but so is their impregnation. They are also the three Ambikas of Rudra Tryambaka who is invoked in the ritual of pati-vedana (husband-finding) to obtain progeny with some rites similar to the horse-sacrifice. Hiltebeitel suggests that malodorous and terrifying Vyasa is taking on the role of the resurrected sacrificial horse for impregnating the queens. The year-long vow he urges the widows should maintain before impregnation is the same in the Ashvamedha stipulation that the king and queens must remain celibate for the full year the horse wanders. Vyasa assures that if this is done he will give the widows sons like Mitra and Varuna—an unusual Vedic echo in the MB. The Rajasuya sacrifice invokes Mitra as “lord of truth” and Varuna as “lord of dharma”. The Ashvamedha identifies the king with dharma. In both epics progeny are the result of the horse-sacrifice (Parikshit, Lava and Kusha). However, in the MB, Satyavati’s hurry distorts this paradigm. Instead of Amba, the other two “mothers” are joined by a Shudra maid-servant to be impregnated by Vyasa. They are subsequently paralleled by Gandhari, Kunti and Madri. The eldest of both generations (Amba, Gandhari) is linked to Shiva and destruction. Kunti carries the Ashvamedhic paradigm further in urging Pandu to emulate Bhadra who lay with the corpse of her husband Vyushitashva (as the queen does with the slain stallion).
Where the life-goals (purushartha) are concerned, it is significant that while artha is displayed by the martial exploits of Chitrangada and Pandu, and kama by Vichitravirya and Dhritarashtra, the function of dharma is not discharged properly either by Bhishma or by Vidura as they are not rulers. Hiltebeitel is mistaken in saying that Bhishma brings in the three new queens. He has nothing to do with Pandu being chosen by Kunti in her svayamvara. Both Kunti and Gandhari win boons by satisfying the rishis Durvasa and Vyasa, emanations of Shiva and Vishnu respectively. Thus, two of the Trinity act in conjunction to accomplish the work of the gods to remove the earth’s burden of wicked warriors. Like the ancient duo of Kadru and Vinata, Gandhari and Kunti are rivals.
Hiltebeitel makes a fascinating finding in showing that the way in which Rama and Yudhishthira’s lives are organised follows a common blueprint through the first five books in both epics. He argues that the poet of the R was familiar with the design of the MB and refined it. Thus, in the R version told in the MB, Kabandha was formerly the Gandharva Vishvavasu. Valmiki turns this in his R into Viradha who was the Gandharva Tumburu, and makes Kabandha a nameless Danava. He draws a revealing comparison between the two protagonists on four points: their introduction; their status relative to sub-stories (almost nil in the R); their second encounter with monsters that end their forest exile; and how they handle duplicitous killing (this last section is particularly illuminating). A fine point is made that when Yudhishthira sees his four brothers fallen at the Yaksha’s lake like guardians of the world yugante (end of a yuga), there is a correspondence between the four fallen brothers and the four yugas, while Yudhishthira is the king who has to make a new yuga. Hiltebeitel alone has linked the Yaksha-crane to Bagalamukhi, the Tantric goddess, who paralyses, which is what has been done to the Pandavas. In ensuring that his step-mother Madri has a living son, Yudhishthira is true to a law of the mothers, whereas Rama deals solely with that of fathers. Further, whereas Rama never has any doubts about his actions, however cruel, Yudhishthira often questions his. To the former the highest virtue is truth, while to the latter it is non-cruelty, non-violence and truth. “Yudhishthira’s dharma biography comes from within. Unlike Rama’s and like the Buddha’s, it is one of ongoing reflection.”
Sita’s birth being described as “like a crest of fire on a vedi” suggests that Valmiki is making her resemble Draupadi, with the difference that Sita has no knowledge of the divine plan. To that end he adds the svayamvara too. Both features are absent in the R narrated in the MB. Hiltebeitel erroneously cites Sita calling upon “the four mothers plus her own mother as well,” (pp. 499, 505) whereas she mentions only three: Sumitra, Rama’s mother and her own mother. Making a suggestion that is novel indeed, Hiltebeitel argues that in Draupadi’s debate with Yudhishthira about karma, Jain doctrines discounting a Creator are being voiced under a Vedic cover (Brihaspati’s materialistic shastra) in a woman’s voice.
In discussing the Manu’s point that by being married to Brahmins low-born women improve their gunas, while noting that the Mandapala-Jarita example is drawn from MB, Hiltebeitel overlooks that Vidura is the best example of Manu’s pronouncement that progeny of an Arya man by a non-Arya woman becomes an Arya because of the father’s gunas. Manu also gives Vasishtha a low-born wife named Akshamala, which occurs in the Skanda Purana. She is said to be the second birth of Arundhati, or having been so named by her husband because of her radiant beauty.
Hiltebeitel provides interesting statistics: Kshatriya/Kshatra-dharma is found about 175 times in MB except in the Mausala and Mahaprasthanika Parvas. Curiously, in the R they occur only 12 times and not in the Yuddhakanda, which is about the war! Brahmanadharma is mentioned only once, in Shanti Parva, Vaishyadharma 9 times, Shudradharma 6 times. What is of great significance is that the innovative meaning the Gita gives to svadharma is not to be found elsewhere in the MB. Neither is karmayoga the same in Manu (where it relates to desire-impelled ritual rites) and the Gita. Actually, in the Anugita in the Ashvamedha Parva Krishna never mentions the phrase! Hiltebeitel’s point is that “Krishna’s teaching to kill with indifference runs the risk of winning the warrior who has not quite mastered it the same prize—heaven being just a favourable rebirth—as the sacrificial goat.” He is, however, mistaken in claiming that Arjuna loses track of his question, “Then why to violent action?” Krishna answers that quite conclusively: death is inevitable and he is to act as the instrument of the divine plan. Draupadi’s birth was for the same purpose and she acted without hesitation. He discusses the Gita as presenting dharma “through a ring structure,” with ripples moving outwards.
The Arjuna-Krishna dialogue is the only one amidst the plethora of samvadas making up the MB that is described as “dharmya”. The Manu refers to the place of the Kurus as sacred and Buddhist texts mention it as a place of Kurudhamma where Buddha imparted special teachings. “Kurudharma” occurs six times in the MB and its limits are said to have been reached kurudharmavelam in the attempted stripping of Draupadi. Buddha in the Samyutta Nikaya contradicts Krishna’s assurance to Arjuna about those falling in battle being assured of Swarga by stating that a warrior goes to hell, his mind being depraved by violence. Indeed, the Nikayas condemn kshattavijja (Kshatriya science) in no uncertain terms. Chapter 14 of the Gita speaks of attaining brahma nirvana, becoming Brahman, which is a term used in early Buddhist texts to describe nibbana, but Krishna means something quite different from what the Buddha does.
Hiltebeitel believes that the Manu and the R are a little later than the MB which does have an element of bhakti. The former leaves out bhakti and focuses on prescribing what dharma consists of, while the latter arranges both dharma and bhakti around the perfect king. There is less of a riposte in the R than in the MB to Buddhism but there is the same condemnation of Shudras seeking to move up as in the Manu. Biardeau holds that the danger from Buddhists has been displaced on to the Rakshasas of distant Lanka. Hiltebeitel points out that to fulfil the heavenly plan of relieving the earth of being overburdened and urbanized Brahma directs the devas to be embodied without passing through wombs. He lists among those not-of-woman-born Dhrishtadyumna, Draupadi and Drona but overlooks Kripa and Kripi.
Hiltebeitel is one of the very few scholars to discuss the Harivansha as completing the MB and, therefore, not composed much later as is the prevailing view. He focuses on the seminal query Janamejaya poses to Vyasa: despite his omniscience and his being the guide of the Kuru-Pandavas, how did they depart from dharma? Vyasa replies and forecasts that Janemejaya’s horse-sacrifice will impact all Kali Yuga ashvamedhas. Indeed, Janamejaya abolishes the ashvamedha for Kshatriyas. The first to be celebrated after Yudhishthira’s successful horse-sacrifice is by a Brahmin, Pushyamitra Sunga (185 BCE), which Vyasa also foretells. Pushyamitra performs it twice. Is Vyasa referring to him in the Harivansha (115.40) as the “army-leader, a Kashyapa Brahmin who will again restore the Ashvamedha in the Kali yuga”? Markandeya’s description of Kali yuga to Yudhishthira in the forest-exile paints a society without sacrifices and festivals, Brahmins having abandoned the Veda for logic. This may refer to Ashoka’s prohibition of religious assemblies and the land being dotted with edukas (stupas) worshipped by people instead of temples of gods. The passage about Kalki, a Brahmin, as king re-establishing social roles and classes does for the ideal Brahmin what the Gita does for the ideal Kshatriya, with the same concept of “just war” for both.
Hiltebeitel opens up a new theme: how the heavenly plan ties in with themes of friendship, hospitality and separation. These supplement the strains of bhakti and dharma in the epics, calling for “a three-dimensional map that can plot vertical and horizontal movements, temporo-spatial coordinates and textual and geographical terrains.” In a very interesting sidelight the deities Dhatri the Placer and Vidhatri the Ordainer are distinguished at some length by the way their functions are referred to. They are involved in seeding, forming character, karma-dharma-svadharma, fate and, fifthly, the food chain.
The two epics are discussed as two dharma biographies whose approach is different from Ashvaghosha’s in Buddhacharita (1 st or 2 nd century CE) which is the first “close and critical reading of the Sanskrit epics.” Hiltebeitel argues that Valmiki copied features of the Kabandha story in the Ramopakhyana of the MB in his tale about the encounter with Viradha. However, where both are cursed Gandharvas in Vyasa, in Valmiki Kabandha is a Danava which argues against this proposition. In both epics the second encounter with a monster marks the hero’s exit from the forest and his re-entry into society (of apes, of Virata). How his dharma changes with circumstances is depicted.
There is a major typographical error on page 599 in the quotation from the Shanti Parva (53.23.25), where instead of “Bhishma” we find “Bhima” in line 4. Hiltebeitel makes a questionable point that Krishna’s display of friendship for Draupadi comes in only two scenes where her problem occurs because of “Vedic ritual injunctions”, namely the attempted stripping and the horse-sacrifice (p. 605). However, the Critical Edition, which Hiltebeitel swears by, has no Krishna in either case. There is no indication that he intervenes to save her from the “humiliation” of simulating intercourse with the slain horse, or from being stripped (if he had provided clothes, why is she wearing the blood-stained cloth when leaving on exile?). Moreover, the translation of “kalabhis tisrbhi” as “three minutes” (the period for which she lay beside the horse?) by Jamieson which he accepts is incorrect.
Why Hiltebeitel feels that Rama’s ancestry sounds occasionally “like a spoof on the lunar dynasty’s early genealogy” is not clear. He feels that in performing the horse-sacrifice with a golden statue of Sita as her substitute, he is mocking the ceremony too. Valmiki might have the Kurukshetra carnage in mind when he has Bharata urge Rama not to perform the Rajasuya which leads to the destruction of royal lineages.
An interesting point is made that the Seven Rishis common to the two epics point Rama to his destination whence Sita will be abducted. Four of them play host to him. This group is also the author of the oldest hymns in the Rigveda. These seven are Vishvamitra, Gautama, Atri, Bharadvaja, Vasishtha, Jamadagni and Agastya, who are first mentioned in the Jaiminiya Brahmana. Hiltebeitel adds Kashyapa merely because he is the ancestor of Rishyashringa who brings about Rama’s birth and also because the Brahmin gotras stem from these eight. Kashyapa, actually, is added to the list in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad which drops Agastya.
Where James Fitzgerald posits a post-Ashokan bitter political animosity at the core of the MB, Hiltebeitel suggests that its mingling of bhakti and dharma reflects a post-Mauryan clever way of spreading a new Brahmanical dharma depicted through great rishis extending hospitality to the two avataras and by the son of Dharma listening to the advice of Krishna and the rishis on the subject. Ashvaghosha, familiar with both epics, weaves bhakti into the Buddha’s quest for true dhamma. By his time (pre-Kanishka, 1 st century CE) both Brahmanical and Buddhist streams of bhakti were running side by side. By studying Ashvagosha’s treatment of dhamma it is possible to estimate the type of MB and R that he was responding to. In Ashvaghosha’s world Brahmanical ideas prevail, he refers to Brahmins with great respect, drawing from their myths and couches Buddhist views in terms that recall Brahminical sources. There are specific references to events and characters from both the MB (Shanti Parva) and the R (cantos 1 and 7) only to show that, while they might be parallels, they are irrelevant to what Buddha achieves. One of the references that Hiltebeitel refers to as “unknown and uncertain” is to Karalajanaka (p. 636 n. 34) although a discourse with this king exists in the Mokshadharma Parva of the MB in the Haridas Siddhantavagish edition, which I have translated.
An analysis of BC reveals familiarity with the Ayodhyakanda as we have it today, comparing Siddhartha and Rama in leaving the palace, as also borrowing from the Sundarakanda the description of women asleep in Siddhartha and Ravana’s palaces. Seven of the thirteen proponents of Brahmanical dharma recall the R, and the R-link is perceptible in the first nine cantos of BC. Patrick Olivelle states that Ashvaghosha is presenting Buddha as the new Rama.
Where the MB is concerned, the BC’s stance that dhamma can be chosen at any time goes against the Manu’s emphasis on the four ashramas being consecutive, while the MB is aware both of this and the earlier doctrine of the earliest dharmasutras (pre-150 BCE) that they are four independent ways of life. Ashvaghosha is quite familiar with the Shanti Parva, as we have it now, particularly the Rajadharma and Mokshadharma portions, specially in his cantos 9 and 10 (the former transiting from the R to the MB). Vishnu’s prophecy to Mandhata (Shanti Parva) links the free choice of ashramas to the spread of Buddhists (bhikshavo linginas) after the Krita yuga. Ashvaghosha does refer to several characters and episodes of the MB and to Bhishma killing Ugrayudha which occurs only in the Harivansha, which, therefore, is much earlier than usually presumed. Siddhartha’s dress as a mendicant on Rajagriha’s Pandava mountain is precisely the guise adopted by Krishna, Bhima and Arjuna when they enter Girivraja by the Chaityaka mountain (a Buddhist reference), and by Ravana and Hanuman. Vyasa refers to the peak as a “horn”, which the Pandavas shatter and kill Jarasandha. Conversely, In Ashvaghosha Buddha rejects Bimbisara’s prayer to fight his foes and is described as the restored “horn” of the mountain (of dhamma) broken by those following Brahmanical dharma in the MB. Ashvaghosha uses the Jarasandha episode to convey that “where Krishna was, there now is the dharma looking personally like the horn of a mountain.” BC introduces the term mokshadharma from the MB as a way to render Nirvana. It does not appear in Buddhist texts before him and the Manu never uses it. Yudhishthira and Siddhartha both wish to abandon kingship and pursue moksha, but where the former is persuaded not to do so, the latter rejects the same arguments and does. Mara’s challenge to Buddha is couched in the language of the Gita, urging Kshatriya svadharma (a term not found in Buddhism), placing “Krishna’s words into the mouth of the devil.” In remarkable insight, Hiltebeitel brings in Ismaili ginans in which Buddha appearing before the Pandavas as a monk looking like a Muslim warrior, who is an untouchable and a sinking leper, teaches bhakti as dharma, denounces the Brahmanical sacrifice as useless, and convinces them to make a shared meal of the Kamadhenu (wish-fulfilling cow) to gain liberation.
At the end the BC states that Ashoka distributed the relics of Buddha in over 80,000 stupas, which tallies with Markandeya’s prophecy that in Kali yuga the land will be covered with edukas (the oldest term for Buddhist reliquaries) instead of devasthanas(temples). The converse if found in the Manjushrimulakalpa where Buddha foretells to the parricide Ajatashatru that the land will be invaded by Devas and Tirthikas, with people turning to Brahmins and violence. To Ashvaghosha both Buddha and Ashoka are Dharma-Rajas propagating a universal value, to which the epics and the Manu provide ripostes.
This valuable and extensive study would have been enriched by an examination Bankimchandra Chattopdhyaya’s Dharmatattva(1888) and his commentary on the Gita available in translation since 2001.