Context, Silence, and Academics

From about 8:30 AM to at least 6:00 PM, I spend my days in Swift Hall at the University of Chicago. More often than not, there is noise. Regardless of where I go, there is noise. It is never ending, constant noise. My mind filters out the noise and keeps working. When people leave the halls and classrooms, though, there is silence. The context which held the noise is now void of sound. The only sound is me walking through the halls.

Today, as I walked through silent halls, I heard the walls speak (metaphorically, of course). What I mean is that I focused on the small things. I noticed the cracks in the walls. I noticed the little holes in door frame. I observed each and every dent and scratch on the floor. In essence, I paid attention to my context. The only reason I could do so what because of the silence which covered Swift Hall.

Now, besides giving me spiritual clarity on the reality of life and importance of our world, this experience gave me clarity on why I study Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern literature. The Hebrew Bible, like anything else in this world which can be seen, cries to be seen, heard, and understood. It, just like the Mahabharata, a Trader Joe’s sign, and and a tree on the sidewalk, wants to be seen. As people, it is up to us to stop and listen. It is up to us to see what makes the content and shapes the world. How does each individual crack, hole in the wall, smear of dirt, and door handle shape how we see the world?

Everything cries out in a harmonious voice. And, like any good choir, you can’t easily tell how the voices and sounds are working together. In regard the Hebrew Bible and other ancient literature, this is what I want to find. I want to pay attention to how the letters work together to communicate something to people. What are they trying to say and why are they trying to say?

Anyway, this has been a non-conventional post. I hope you, as I do, pay attention to the world around you. At bottom, I think that academics should pursue this. We don’t do “academic study” of texts. We should yearn to listen to every way in which the text or object speaks to us. We should yearn to hear how it works in harmony with other texts or objects to shape the reality that we see.

On the Mahābhārata: Internal, Ancient Pantheon Conflicts

12burningforestThis weekend, I started analyzing the narrative about the burning of the Khandava Forest. One thing which came to the surface was how I should understand the conflict between the gods and team Arjuna-Krsna. In the case of this passage within the Mahābhārata, the conflict is seemingly Arjuna, Krsna, and Agni (Fire) against Indra and the gods. Yet, when we consider the textual and oral context of the Mahābhārata, another important factor comes into play.

By the period in which the Mahābhārata was being compiled, the Rigveda was an normative text. Predating the Mahābhārata, the Rigveda is a series of poems composed c. 1500 BCE. In it, one of the predominant gods is Agni. Agni is also the Fire god present in the burning of the Khandava forest. This is important because in a few of the English translations of the Rigveda which I have quickly examined, the first hymn in the first book is about Agni, the god of Fire. And because the Mahābhārata was composed in a period when Vedic traditions from the Rigveda were known, it is reasonable to suggest that Fire (Agni) in the Mahābhārata evoked memory of a very ancient deity.

Likewise, Indra is one of the most important figures in the Rigveda. During the Vedic period, he was one of the main gods. Thus, we may assume that any mentions of Indra evoked memory of a deity who was known to be very ancient.

According to Britannica, Agni was second only to Indra. In light of this information, it offers an interesting perspective from which to read the burning of the Khandava forest. It draws emphasis away from conflict between team Krsna-Arjuna and team Indra. It re-focuses emphasis upon the ancient, internal conflict between Agni (Fire) and Indra, important members of the ancient pantheon as presented in the Rigveda.

After I tease out my analysis of the narrative structure, I hope to consider how this approach to the text may be fruitful.

*These thoughts are in no way meant to be complete. This blog is merely an extension of my brain. Writing these on a public sphere is a chance for me to draft and test my ideas before further exploring them. Also, please forgive the lack of proper citations. Feel free to check the entry for Agni on Encyclopedia Britannica or the dating for the composition of the Rigveda.

Just Another Day Learning Akkadian

This is a snippet from my translation of an Akkadian marriage contract.

“If Bashtum has said to Rimum, her husband, “You are not my husband,” they will throw Bashtum into the river.” – Marriage contract written in Akkadian
If Rimum does the same, he only pays silver. This is institutionalized sexism in its truest form.

On the Mahābhārata: History of Scholarship

kurukshetraPreviously, I briefly discussed a few of my interests in reading the Mahābhārata. One of these was the potential to learn methods from the History of Religions. Consequently, I could utilize the methods for new approaches to the Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern material. Although I haven’t figured out how to do this yet, I have been fascinated by the parallels between the history of scholarship on the Mahābhārata and the history of scholarship on the Hebrew Bible. Also, some of the ideas are strikingly similar.

One of the earliest scholars of the Mahābhārata was Adolf Holtzmann, Sr. Holtzmann argued that, originally, the losing party was actually the victor. So, in the current state of the Mahābhārata, the Pandavas are the victors over the Kaurava. This recension, though, is a modification of the original story in which the Kaurava are the victors over the Pandavas. Those involved in biblical scholarship may recognize a similar trend in biblical scholarship. Many biblical scholars highlight the conflict between Northern Israel (Samaria) and Judah. Likewise, there is much conflict between surrounding people groups. Within biblical texts, there are many conflicting accounts which have been reworked in order to account for the incongruities.

Another major scholar of the Mahābhārata was E. Washburn Hopkins. Hopkins wrote in 1895, around the period as major biblical studies figures: Gunkel and Wellhausen. Hopkins intensely analyzed the Mahābhārata in terms of meter, philosophy, and languages. He concluded that within the Mahābhārata is an original epic. The current state of the Mahābhārata, though, was agglutinated with many “pseudo-epics.” Needless to say, Wellhausen argued similarly in the same time period. Unlike Mahābhārata studies, though, biblical studies continued intensely throughout the 20th century. Mahābhārata studies slowed substantially at the onset of the 20th century. Of course, both fields, Biblical Studies and the History of Religions, developed in substantially different ways.

Clearly, study of the Mahābhārata and Hebrew Bible in the modern period come from very similar roots. These roots ultimately grew in very different directions. Perhaps by considering why each field developed how it did, we can shed new light on both the Hebrew Bible and Mahābhārata by utilizing new methods. After all, the field of Biblical Studies and the History of Religions seem to be distant cousins.



Buitenen, J. A. B. van. 1973. The Mahābhārata. Book of the beginning: University of Chicago Press, 1973. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed January 10, 2017).


On the Mahābhārata

One of my courses at the University of Chicago is an English reading of the Mahābhārata, taught by Wendy Doniger. As a scholar interested in Near Eastern and Levantine history and literature, the Sanskrit epic is outside of my area of specialty. Yet, with the growing importance of interdisciplinary work in academia, the Mahābhārata takes on a new meaning for me. Rather than merely being a Sanskrit epic from another region of the world (India), the epic offers a plethora of opportunities to do comparative literature. In order to do so, I am focusing on a few aspects of the Mahābhārata as I read through John D. Smith’s abridged translation of the text.

First, I am intrigued by the use of ritual, especially sacrifice. For example, the Ugrasravas the Suta, the storyteller, comments on the actions of the Brahmins. He notes there equality to Brahma as it relates to ritual and sacrifice: “every one of you is Brahma’s equal! Noble ones, radiant as sun or fire, I see that in this sacrifice of yours you have purified yourselves by bathing, said your prayers, and made the fire-offerings, and now you are sitting at your ease” (2). Ugrasravas implies that the Brahmins are equal because of their rituals. The rituals included purification by bathing, prayer, and fire-offerings. I am interested in tracing the perception(s) of the efficacy of ritual. Once compiled, I wonder how the diversity of understandings might intersect with, or diverge from, conceptual idea of sacrifice within Mesopotamia, ancient Israel, and the Levant.

Second, I am interested in examining the Moses-like account from the Mahābhārata. Although I’ve yet to reach that story within the Mahābhārata, the basic account is that a character is placed into a river. He ends up being raised in a level of society higher than that to which he was born. What I want to think about is how the employment of the motif compares to Cyrus, Sargon, and, of course, Moses. Perhaps it will yield some interesting results and offer a new perspective on the spread of the motif (or autonomous developments?) throughout the ancient world.

Thirds, I am interested in the intersection of narrative and philosophy/wisdom. Perhaps by reading the mix of narrative and wisdom in the Hebrew Bible, as we see in the Mahābhārata, some intentional aspects and nuances of the Hebrew Bible will become more apparent. This could even be applied to other Near Eastern literature, especially Near Eastern epics like Enuma Elish.

In short, I look forward to how this semester will influence my scholarship. I hope I continue having opportunities to consider non-Near Eastern and Biblical material. By doing so, I may strengthen my own inventory of tools for future consideration of texts. Naturally, this may assist in re-constructing history more precisely.