Vishwa Adluri & Joydeep Bagchee (ed.): Essays by Alf Hiltebeitel— Reading the Fifth Veda, Vol. 1, pp.646+xlviii, $240. When the Goddess was a Woman, vol. 2, Brill, Leiden, pp. 624+xlvii, $232.
Among modern scholars of the Mahabharata (MB) none has been as prolific, varied and intense in his research as Alf Hiltebeitel, Columbian Professor of Religion, History and Human Sciences at The George Washington University. Since 1976, besides several books breaking new ground, he has numerous papers covering an astonishing variety of topics stretching from Indus Valley seals to Tamil street plays and festivals of the third sex, all with MB connections. Currently he is translating the Shalya and Sauptika Parvas for the Chicago MB translation project. Adluri and Bagchee have grouped 41 of these articles under two themes with excellent introductions, bibliographies and indices in two handsomely produced hardbound volumes covering 1365 pages. Within the tight compass of a review it will only be possible to mention highlights.
The editors point out the major influence of Madeline Biardeau in turning Hiltebeitel from theorizing about the epic to the composition itself, i.e. what it meant for the reader in philosophical, narrative and literary terms, showing that it “had to be read from the outside inwards”, that it transmits the Indian tradition “without the need for Western ‘critical’ surgeries”. Instead of being Oldenberg’s “monstrous chaos” or Winternitz’s “literary monster,” it is “a product of conscious literary and artistic design,” a proposition that constitutes a radical break from two centuries of Western scholarship.
The 21 papers of the first volume largely focus on Hiltebeitel’s proposition that MB is a deliberate literary composition written around 150-100 BCE (a period first suggested in 1901 by E.W.Hopkins, but ignored) when the Sungas reasserted Brahminism against the spread of Buddhism under the Mauryas. This flies in the teeth of the prevalent theory of it being orally transmitted and finalized in the Gupta period. Further, he holds that the Ramayana (RM) is somewhat later (pace Madeline Biardeau). The references to heretics (nastika) cover all non-Vedic movements (Budhists, Jains, Charvakas, Ajivikas) and the north-west (Greeks, Pathians, Sakas, Kushanas) with debauched dharma. He gets around the problem of Panini mentioning MB characters much earlier (mid-4th century BCE) merely by suggesting that these may be interpolations. Yudhishthira, he proposes, was possibly modelled on Ashoka whose making of dharma the imperial concern led to the composition of MB and RM seeking to interpret dharma in terms of new bhakti ideology. No reasons are advanced for disagreeing with Biardeau’s proposition that MB was written during Ashoka’s time, that Jarasandha was modelled on Ashoka (pre-conversion?), as a brahminical manifesto against Ashokan diktats. For Hiltebeitel, Jarasandha represents the Buddhist tempter Mara (death, Jara). Rajagriha and Magadha were centres of Buddhism which revived in the Mathura region under Kanishka pushing out Brahminism (Krishna having to leave Mathura). Asti and Prapti, Jarasandha’s daughters, are non-Vedic names but prominent terms in Saravastivadin Buddhism. Thus, MB represents a contest between Brahminical and Buddhist ideas. In the account of the svayamvara of the Kalinga princess (Shanti Parva), Jarasandha and a king named Ashoka are present, besides rulers from the north (Sakas etc. symbolized in Kalayavana, Jarasandha’s ally) and the Buddhist dominated east. Shaunaka’s advice to Yudhishthira in the Vana Parva echoes Buddhist terms, contradicting the Buddhist eightfold path by a Vedic presentation of eight-limbed yoga. The picture of Kali Yuga Markandeya draws echoes Ashoka’s prohibition of religious assemblies, the worship of edukas (Buddhist reliquaries) instead of temples of gods and the subordination of Brahmins to Kshatriyas. The reversal of this by a militant Brahmin, Kalki, is foretold, paralleling what Pushyamitra Sunga did.
Hiltebeitel argues against the traditional stand that MB is a Kshatriya epic remoulded by resurgent Brahminism and proposes that it was written by Brahmins over a couple of generations (but can the specific statement that Vyasa composed it daily for three years be just ignored?). They used bardic transmission as a literary device to portray what the svadharma of a dharmic king should be, struggling to reconcile the violence inherent in a life of action, pravrittidharma, with the ideal of liberation through a life of withdrawal, nivrittidharma. The solution Hiltebeitel proffers is the concept of non-cruelty, anrishamsya, though many would argue that it is ahimsa, non-violence.
A major contribution of his is to pursue T.P. Mahadevan’s discovery that the southern recension of MB extensively revised the northern one before the Kalabhra interregnum (350-550 CE). Mahadevan has shown that around 25 BCE, the invading Sakas having supplanted the Mitras, Purvashikha Brahmins from Mathura moved to Tamil areas carrying MB with them. The problem is that in 57 BCE the Sakas had been routed by Vikramaditya, a contradiction Mahadevan does not resolve. Anyhow, this MB was written by a “tri-Vedic axis” of Purvashikha Shrauta Brahmins with cooperation from “branches” of the three Vedas around 300-100 BCE. This would be the text underlying the Sharada and Kashmiri manuscripts that are the core of the Critical Edition. Ashvaghosha (Buddhacarita) was familiar in the 1st or 2nd century CE with an MB that included the Mokshadharma Parva, so far was presumed to be a late addition. Taking his cue from the Buddhist Councils’ committees that edited the Suttas and the Vinaya, Hiltebeitel suggests that this model is applicable to MB, particularly for the Shanti and Anushasana Parvas.
In other articles he discusses the case of Nahusha, the first human ruler of the gods, in astronomical terms, as depicting an overturning of celestial order, disrupting devayana, the way of the gods, and pitriyana, the path of the manes. He translates with commentary the death of Karna bringing out the artistry, the representation of authorship, audience and character and showing that Krishna’s divinity is not an after-thought. A Rigvedic parallel exists where Indra shatters Surya’s chariot wheel to benefit Kutsa Arjuneya (son of Arjuna). Hiltebeitel does not notice that in RM the reverse occurs: Sugriva, Surya’s son, has Rama (Vishnu) kill Vali, son of Indra.
Fascinating parallels are drawn between Karna and Naraka who possesses him. The Vana Parva (3.240.33-34) declares that Bhishma, Drona and Kripa are possessed by Danavas, but only Karna is possessed by a demon Krishna has killed, so he is particularly concerned with him. A fine piece of comparative mythology is seen in the discussion on the Irish myth of Cuchulainn’s battle with Fer Diad in the Tain Bo Cuailnge and the Arjuna-Karna duel. Both are duels between foster brothers and share the theme of friendship involving the charioteer (Laeg for Cuchulainn; unnnamed for Fer Diad; Krishna and Shalya).
The Upanishadic image of the chariot-warrior driven by buddhi the charioteer is the theme of a paper rich in insights that teases out the significance of the symbolism of the many Krishnas in MB. For instance, Krishna, Arjuna and Draupadi represent the triad of Vishnu, Shiva (with whom Arjuna has many affinities) and Devi. The other Krishna, Vyasa, has affinities with Brahma. The monkey-bannered Kapidhvaja chariot bearing the two Krishnas harks back to the cosmic chariot fashioned for Shiva, driven by Brahma, for destroying Tripura (in this episode alone is Shiva called Jishnu, one of Arjuna’s names).
While warning against reading history into MB and RM, Hiltebeitel has no hesitation in saying they “seem” to be reflections of Brahmin poets on samrajya, both internal imperialism (Magadhan, Satavahanan,) and invasion by mleccha barbarians (Persian, Greek, Kushana), celebrating kingdoms they eclipsed. Does Kalayavana stand for Alexander’s failed invasion, as Guy Vincent argues in his lecture at the University of Aix-Marseille? A.Holtzman Jr. proposed in the 1890s that MB was originally a Buddhist epic with Duryodhana modelled on Ashoka representing national resistance against Greek invasion, which was subsequently inverted by Brahmins.
For Hiltebeitel MB “attempts a great synthesis of Indian civilization in the name of Hinduism” emerging out of and influencing, in turn, a culture. Except that ancient Sanskrit literature does not know the word “Hinduism”. This implies that to understand the epic the approach has to be both textual and ethnographic, finding out the connections between mythic and ritual exegesis. That is why, he argues, at key points in the narrative myths are told to deepen awareness of the layers of meaning underlying the text.
In arguing for the epic being, from inception, a written text performed orally (pace V.N. Rao), he articulates 19 propositions, marshalling evidence for each. The Karna Parva, in particular, is cited as an example of deliberate literary style drawing on Vedic images. In addition, pointing out the emphasis laid on Brahmins living by gleaning (uncchavritti) he suggests this is the self-image of the composer(s). Further, that the story of Shuka being imparted MB on the “back (prishtha) of the mountain” is “an image for the mise en scene of writing.” For the latter he depends on an account of Vyasa teaching MB to his son and four disciples before the birth of Dhritarashtra. This, however, contradicts Vyasa’s assurance to Dhritarashtra that he will immortalise the dynasty in his composition after the war.
An interesting distinction Hiltebeitel makes between the two epics is in the context of their common concern: grounding a brahminical conception of royal rule and stratified society in bhakti. Where MB “grounds its politics of bhakti in a politics of friendship and the enemy” (Krishna-Arjuna-Karna), RM bases its politics of bhakti on a politics of kingship. Hiltebeitel argues that RM’s design is based on MB, both having divine plans and showing the great Vedic rishis delighting in witnessing the implementation. Vyasa is not the traditional brahminic text-compiler but an author (or a “composing committee”) enforcing tight connections in his composition and repeatedly appearing in it. In this connection, he links together the Shuka story, the Narayaniya, the “many doors to heaven” section that follows and accounts about gleaners and the Naimisha forest concluding the Shanti Parva.
Hiltebeitel is the first to suggest an answer to the puzzle of why MB uses the term itihasa, namely,“to construct an alternate Vedic history of the people of a total land.” He tracks the eight usages of itihasa in MB to describe itself: cosmogony to genealogy as Ganga leaves Shantanu, time cooking everything, Parashurama’s massacres at the Treta-Dvapara cusp, the Kurukshetra battle as Dvapara fades into Kali, and finally the benefits of hearing this “so it was”.
MB tells us that the “Bharata” devoid of upakhyanas (subtales) was of 24000 couplets. Hiltebeitel analyses what functions the 67 subtales serve. He provides very interesting data that by way of describing itself, MB uses most frequently akhyana (narrative) 14 times, itihasa (history) 8 times, purana (ancient lore), samhita (collection), fifth Veda twice and Krishna’s Veda twice each, katha (story), mahagyana (great knowledge), shastra (treatise), upanishad, charita (biography or adventure), jaya (victory), upakhyana (subtale—first used by the MB) and kavya (poem) once each (the last allegedly interpolated). Besides these, it is actually a samvada (dialogue) between a multitude of speakers. Thus, MB is a multi-genre work while RM is only kavya, a single literary genre. The subtales make up at most 14.9% of MB (the critical edition) which ought to be 76% (100,000 couplets less 24,000), which tells us a lot about the danger of applying a statement made in a particular verse about the unedited composition to the considerably reduced compass of the critical edition. Hiltebeitel’s thesis is that without the subtales—all concerned with dharma—the grand design of MB cannot possibly emerge. In making his point he creates a sentence of Vyasan dimensions running to 28 lines non-stop (p.156). No wonder that in the course of this breathless rush he should call Bhishma the “ninth and sole surviving son” and refer to Ganga having “drowned the first eight”! The implications of both Bhishma and Krishna being the eighth son whose elder brothers are slain at birth are overlooked. He makes out a strong case for the huge Shanti and Anushasana parvas being part of the MB’s original design, based upon the nature of the subtales, with the interlocutors relaxing more and more after the war, delighting in teasing out the significances of stories. Even where they recur, the angle is different (e.g. the Vishvamitra tale in Book 13). Vyasa declares that this shastra, which is the secret of the Vedas, has been produced by churning the wealth inhering in the tales, as amrita was churned out of the ocean (Shanti Parva 238). Narayana is its foundation and its essence is advice on how truth and dharma lead to liberation.
The RM subtales are also analysed and their significance brought out. Hiltebeitel proposes that Valmiki went beyond the Ramopakhyana of MB to explore new values about bhakti-centred dharma of servant and master and between subjects and a divine ruler. While doing so, Hiltebeitel points out several corrections needed in the critical edition (footnotes on p.182). Similar observations occur quite a few times (e.g. p.192) regarding the “Narayaniya” portion of the Shanti Parva, usually considered as later bhakti padding, but important because it speaks of benefiting Shudras and women. Hiltebeitel calls in question the hallowed Sharada manuscript’s completeness, points out that merely four Malayalam manuscripts were consulted by the editor (p.195) and posits the existence of “a fuller and more meaningful text” (p.203) than what the editors produced. That makes out a strong case for revising the critical edition that has been the subject of papers by several other scholars—all foreign. It appears that Indian Indologists are unable to engage with such critical issues.
Hiltebeitel makes a very interesting connection between Dharma-Yama-Yudhishthira. It is during Yama’s sacrifice when death is at bay in the world that the five Indras are cursed by Shiva to be reborn as the Pandavas. Yudhishthira as Dharma-Yama’s son will complete his father’s death-dealing work at Kurukshetra. This is how the subtale provides the background of the divine strategy for the main action.
These upakhayanas form the context for a fascinating exploration of gender construction, probing the fringe areas of female sexuality, specially the unique sakhi-sakha relationship of Draupadi and Krishna, the Mandapala-Jarita-Lapita triangle (Hiltebeitel fancies the wives of Janamejaya and Shaunaka et al. as listeners) and the question of friendship between king Brahmadatta and a bird. Is it not surprising that after the discourse on moksha Yudhishthira should suddenly ask Bhishma whether it is the man or the woman who derives greater pleasure from coition? Not if we realise that he is reconciled to ruling and is returning to concerns of home life. Draupadi listens to these subtales and approves of Yudhishthira’s decision not to turn to ascetisicm (Anushasana Parva 57).
In the unique sakhi-sakha relationship of Draupadi and Krishna there is the quirky joke Krishna cracks when Yudhishthira enquires whether Arjuna bears some inauspicious mark. Krishna responds that he has overdeveloped pindika, which Hiltebeitel translates as “cheekbones”. That would hardly provoke Draupadi’s indignant glance. Monier-Williams’ dictionary gives the meaning as, “the penis,” with an analogous meaning of, “swelling in the calf of the leg”, constituting a double entendre that explains Draupadi’s indignation. One suspects that Yudhishthira’s “So it is, Lord” is said with a smile that appreciates the double entendre, which is also the cause of the amusement of Bhima and others. When Hiltebeitel argues that the swollen cheekbones also refer to those of the sacrificial horse that makes little sense. The other meaning is more applicable, particularly because Draupadi has to lie beside the horse in simulated copulation. Nowhere is Krishna shown—as Hiltebeitel claims— mitigating Draupadi’s supposed embarrassment at this.
Hiltebeitel draws a comparison between the sakhi-sakha duo and the Vedic image of the two birds on one tree, the upanishadic sayuja sakhaya, companions and friends, and extends the Arjuna-Krishna duo to include Draupadi (brihati shyama, the great dark lady) completing the trifold symbol of jivatma-purusha-prakriti individual soul, witness soul and primal nature that is still seen in the triple Jagannatha image.
Possibly the most challenging paper in this collection is that on the horse sacrifice seeking to prove that Vyasa’s impregnating Ambika and Ambalika parallels the Ashvamedha rites, repeating much of the special pleading regarding Krishna mitigating Draupadi’s “humiliation”. Every queen was well aware of the ritual requiring her to simulate copulation with the suffocated horse. Kaushalya, Kaikeyi and Sumitra do so in RM. The names Amba, Ambika, Ambalika are invoked in the ritual to represent the chief queen and the co-wives approaching the horse. As in that ritual, Vyasa wants the two widows to observe a year-long vow of abstinence, but is over-ruled by Satyavati. Hiltebeitel likens Vyasa to the horse, as he has an overpowering odour that the queens have to bear. In RM, Rishyashringa of the phallic horn is ushered into the women’s quarters by Dasharatha, followed after some time by the horse sacrifice and the birth of the sons. The vehicle of Kama, god of erotic love, is the fish; Satyavati is fish-born; Vyasa carries his mother’s piscean odour along with her strong sexuality (because of which bathing apsaras cover themselves in his presence but do not do so before his son Shuka). Significantly, Pushyamitra Sunga revived the horse-sacrifice, and Hiltebeitel proposes that MB was written in this context.
Ever since E.W. Hopkins there have been comparisons between RM and MB. Hiltebeitel shifts the perspective to trace the common design and vocabulary, concentrating on how the author is placed with reference to other sages and the heroine. As an example, he traces the heroines’ paths in their forest exiles. It is Draupadi-Krishnaa’s dark path that the text follows right till the end in heaven. Hiltebeitel points out that both in MB’s Ramopakhyana and Virata Parva, Sita and Draupadi appear in a single dirty, black garment. Valmiki defines her path through a group of sages who, in succession, get Rama to carry out the divine plan of wiping out the demonic menace in the forests: Vasishtha, Rishyashringa, Vishvamitra, Gautama, Parashurama, Bharadvaja, Atri, Sharabhanga, Sutikshna, and Agastya. Thereafter, Rama has to follow signs Sita has left and news from vultures and monkeys. Hiltebeitel hazards a rather fanciful guess that Valmiki might have been an apprentice-contributor to the composition of MB, both works addressing the same communities. Because of the competition, Hiltebeitel suggests, the myth of Brahma declaring MB to be a kavya was interpolated pre-4th century AD to keep pace with RM, the declared kavya.
A new approach Hiltebeitel adopts is to map the treatment of bhakti in the two epics through the voices of their heroines, picking out instances where each has suffered the deepest outrage. Both realise that their husbands choose dharma instead of protecting them. Draupadi emerges as a philosopher and a materialist. Sita voices the emotional side of bhakti addressing her absent spouse and God, while also involving the audience in that engagement with Rama/the Divine.
Hiltebeitel’s long review of Fitzgerald’s translation of the Shanti Parva voices the important warning of not stressing the opposition of didactic vs. narrative. He disputes the translator’s assertion regarding absence of a deliberate literary construction. The four themes of duties as a ruler, duties in emergencies, the way of liberation and the way of donation covered in it and the succeeding Anushasana Parva reinforce the corner-stone of Yudhishthira’s character: straightforwardness.
An intriguing proposition Hiltebeitel makes is that the source of most of Bhishma’s encyclopaedic expounding is “his time with his mother,” during his sojourn in celestial regions where he was instructed by the great rishis. What he does not explain, however, is that after Ganga agreed to beget the Vasus through Shantanu, why should she make flagrantly sexual advances to his father Pratipa?
In reviewing the research on the connections between the epics and the themes of empire and invasion, Hiltebeitel states that he is unable to find the verse in which Yudhishthira speaks of their family custom of polyandry. This is the 29th shloka in chapter 194 of the Adi Parva:
sūkṣmo dharmo mahārāja nāsya vidmo vayaṃ gatim/
pūrveṣāmānupūrvyeṇa yātaṃ vartmānuyāmahe//
“Dharma, maharaja, is subtle
who knows how it works?
Safer for us to follow
the examples of the ancient past.” (The P.Lal transcreation, p.1010).
It is interesting that both epics do not mention Pataliputra but refer to Rajagriha and Girivraja, and both are the first texts to name Saketa “Ayodhya”, the unconquerable.
MB and RM were a new genre in Sanskrit literature introducing novel concepts like sanatana (eternal) dharma, raja-dharma, dharma-yuddha (war to uphold dharma), purushartha (meanings of human life), karma-yoga and explored these by exposing the protagonists to opposed dualities: paurusha (heroism)-daiva (fate), nivritti (withdrawal)-pravritti (action), astikya (theism)-nastikya (atheism), arya (nobility)-mleccha (barbarism). Junior heroes advocate heroism (Lakshmana, Bhima) while the seniors stand for submission to fate (Rama, Yudhishthira). Hiltebeitel senses nostalgia for pre-imperial independent kingdoms. The original Kshatriyas were annihilated by Parashurama and had to be re-created by Brahmins, thereby no longer being true descendants of the sun or the moon. This could be a reflection on how the poets looked upon contemporary Kshatriyas following the repeated invasions by Persians, Greeks, Parthians Sakas, Kushanas, Huns etc. In the medieval oral epics (Alha, Pabuji etc.), composed not by Brahmins but by Dalit bards, the heroes are reincarnations of MB and RM figures with Muslim and Dalit helpers. As against the Kshatriya role model constructed in the epics, there is nothing similar for Brahmins and the other classes: there are flawed martial Brahmins; remote Brahmin authors; Brahmins who appear in some episodes but, “There is no sustained treatment”.
The second volume takes a different tack, studying how the text is reflected in ethnography. Hiltebeitel is the first scholar to highlight the significant role of the mythologies of Shiva and of the Goddess, particularly the cult of the Devi, in regional epics and festival rituals. This is a major departure from traditional Indology that ignored regional Shudra or tribal versions of the epic believing that these could have nothing to do with royal heroes celebrated by the Brahmin redacteurs. It was Dr K.S. Singh, Census Commissioner, who was the first to document these folk versions.
Hiltebeitel offers intensive analysis of how MB was and is being re-interpreted for non-Brahmin live audiences in villages through street drama, festival-rituals of Draupadi and of Aravan/Kuttantavar with great significance for the third sex, oral performances of vernacular epics (Alha, Pabuji) and South Indian folklore. Through these a rare theme of MB is explored: “its analysis of the four ‘genera of becoming’ (sacrifice, cosmology, genealogy and war or agon)’”. This expands the epic tradition significantly beyond the Indo-European or “Aryan” to include ritual and performance, suggesting the existence of a parallel “underground Mahabharata” running alongside the Critical Edition’s Sanskrit text. Hiltebeitel is the first to explore the epic as a stri-shudra-veda, knowledge meant for all categories instead of being merely brahminical religious rhetoric.
Hiltebeitel’s great importance in MB studies lies in his highlighting various aspects of Draupadi hitherto unseen. Ten of the twenty essays collected in the second volume are concerned with her hair, garments, disguise, purity, cult and, lastly, her question that remains unanswered till the very end. Remarkable depths of insight are revealed through these investigations. It is her associations with Kalaratri, the night of time, or death—the dishevelled hair, black dirty garment, black complexion, vengefulness—that are taken over into her cult as the terrifying Vira Shakti, virgin goddess, the Primal Prakriti who forages in Kurukshetra at night.
In these explorations it is puzzling why Hiltebeitel does not examine the plays of the earliest Sanskrit dramatist Bhasa while discussing Bhatta Narayana’s Venisamhara. According to him, Venisamhara was reworked by Subramania Bharati into a “play”, whereas it is an epyllion, best translated into English by Dr.Prema Nandakumar for UNESCO and the Sahitya Akademi.
Four studies deal with the South Indian story and cult of Aravan/Kuttantavar, son of Arjuna, whose northern counterpart is Barbareek, son of Bhima or Ghatotkacha, who goes by the name “Khatu Shyam” in Rajasthan. Both are born of serpent maidens and their severed heads watch the entire battle of Kurukshetra. Just as Krishna brought about Ghatotkacha’s death, so is he responsible for the death of Aravan/Barbareek. This head declares that the cause of victory was Krishna’s discus and Draupadi as goddess Kali. The major difference is that in South India crossed gender is a major theme, where Krishna as Mohini marries Aravan before his decapitation. The Kuttantavar cult is a major festival for transsexuals and the third sex. A number of fascinating photographs of the performances have been included. Hiltebeitel is mistaken in saying that Barbareek’s mother is nameless. In the Hindi chapbook from Khatu she is Ahilyavati, daughter of Vasuki, king of snakes, who marries Bhima by the grace of Shiva. In the Skanda Purana’s Kumarika Khanda account she is Kamakatankata, daughter of demon Mura of Pragjyotishpura whom Ghatotkacha wins by defeating her in a duel.
The remaining six papers are a miscellaneous lot exploring the significance of the animals in the Proto-Shiva Indus seal, suggesting that it has links with the buffalo-and-the-Goddess myth, the mythology of Sati from the Puranas to the Rajput lay of Alha, comparing that lay’s battle-story with MB, comparing the Tulu myth of the killing of a boar by twin brothers Koti and Cennaya (parallels of Bhima and Arjuna) with the Tamil “Elder Brothers Story” and the Telegu folk epic Palnadu and an account of two South Indian buffalo sacrifices The volume includes a shocking expose of Peter Brook’s atrocious behaviour with the street-play (terukkuttu) while he was conceiving his MB drama.
These ten studies are an incredible treasure trove of ethnographic material as much for anthropologists as for Indologists. Going through the two volumes is an exhausting but richly rewarding and exceptionally stimulating experience. The production is excellent, but one is surprised to come across errors in cross-references in a few footnotes that have escaped the editors’ notice. The bulk could have been reduced significantly by omitting repetitive material.