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.

On the Mahābhārata: Quarter Paper Topic

arjuna_statueIn Biblical Studies, a major issue is the coherency of the text. Apparent contradictions and obscure statements are often understood to point towards an older version of the text. This occurs on a micro and macro level. In other words, it can occur in little portions of text or in entire chapters. In the Mahābhārata, we see a similar issue. The text itself was composed between 500 BCE and 500 CE. Additionally, the text incorporates older Vedic traditions from before 1000 BCE. With such a vast period in which the text could develop, the text as it stands naturally contains obscurities and oddities. It is one of these obscurities which I plan to write about for my quarter paper.

In the first book of the Mahābhārata, there is a scene in which Indra fights against Arjuna and Krsna. In the middle of the narrative, Indra praises Krsna and Arjuna for what they are doing, namely burning a forest. Yet, in the narrative leading up to this moment, Indra and other gods are attempting to stop Arjuna and Krsna from burning the forest. In terms of the narrative sequence, there is no reason for Indra to suddenly praise Krsna and Arjuna. It is this obscurity which I will explore.

I plan on thinking of it in terms of the movement from the older Vedic pantheon into a new(er) pantheon. This is an accepted idea among Indologists. What I want to explore, though, is the nuances in this particular scene. I am interested in drawing out how it contributes to the broader picture within the Mahābhārata of the changing of the heavenly guard and the broader picture of Indian historical development, both political and religious.

On the Mahābhārata: Tradition Versus Tension

snakesacrificeFor my course on the Mahābhārata, I read through two chapters of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus. I was particularly intrigued by how she speaks of the various ideas within the Mahābhārata. She views the competing ideas within the narrative(s) of the Mahābhārata as tensions. The tensions are the conflicting accounts. It seems they are viewed as “tensions” because they present competing, and often conflicting, worldviews. The narratives in the Mahābhārata attempt to iron out the conflicting worldviews, although they often fail.

In my brief reading of the Mahābhārata, I see the conflicting worldviews not so much as tensions. In their current form, though, I do not deny that the conflicting worldviews are tensions. My interest lies in what elements make up each thing that is in tension. In other words, I look at conflicting narratives and see distinct traditions made of similar and dissimilar elements. So, if two narratives in the Mahābhārata try to approach an issue in different ways, I focus on what is unique about each tradition.

In this manner, I think I understand my own approach better. I tend to focus on identifying the variety of traditions and their uniqueness therein. On the other hand, Doniger focuses on identifying the dialectical elements of the traditions. Perhaps these aren’t necessarily different approaches. Maybe Doniger is able to focus on the dialectical elements because she has explored the traditions independently already. If, though, she first focuses on the text from a dialectical perspective, it may shroud the unique traditions found within the Mahābhārata.

On the Mahābhārata: Similar Material

kurukshetraIf you have been following recent posts, you’ll know that many of my recent posts have considered the Mahābhārata and the Hebrew Bible in light of each other. Here, I will explore a similar thing, namely parallel material. Although each parallel is by no means developed, I hope these comparisons will eventually shed light on the uniqueness of each idea/story and the similarities between the stories.

First, the Mahābhārata contains much material considering the idea of what is, in Judaism, called the Levirate marriage. In the Mahābhārata, there are various accounts of a brother (a) impregnating the wife of his brother (b). They do this because the brother (b) dies. His family lineage, though, must live on. In the Hebrew Bible, Levirate marriage is also a major issue. In Ruth, we see a very clear case of Levirate marriage, or something like it. We also see it in the narrative of Zelophad’s daughters. While I don’t think the texts are in anyway historically related, they do address similar issues in similar ways. I’d like to explore the nuances of each text and how they conceptualize the idea of a levirate marriage.

Second, as I wrote previously, there is a tale in the Mahābhārata that is similar to Moses, Cyrus, and Sargon. A child is placed on the water or given to another person. In turn, they are raised outside of their “assigned” class. Although outside of their assigned class, they tend to acquire some sort of great wisdom, knowledge, or capability. Generally, at least in my little amount of research, scholars mention the similarity to Moses. There is an absence, though, of comparative analysis concerning all the figures: Karna (Mahābhārata), Moses, Cyrus (Persian King), and Sargon (Akkadian King). I’d like to explore the nuances and similarities between each of these accounts.

I have no idea what study of these things could yield; yet, it may be fruitful for both Biblical Studies and the History of Religions.

UPDATE (January 12, 2017): Some work has been done to compare the origin stories; however, there is still very little work done. In particular, there is little work done which explores the question of historical developments. Available work focuses on the origins as myths. How, though, do these myths fit into a historical context? That is my question.

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.