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.

Joseph Campbell and the Humanities

joseph_campbellJoseph Campbell is important to people as a guide to approaching stories and myth because he focuses on the underlying spirituality of humanity. Some historians and actors utilize his model made famous by The Power of Myth. It is valuable because it allows people to find the significance of age old myths and consider how they are relevant to themselves. Yet, often times people can become so focused on approaching myth via Joseph Campbell’s guidance that they miss other opportunities and avenues to interpret, understand, and internalize myths and stories.

In examining the nature of Campbell’s The Power of Myth, Daniel Gorman Jr. aptly notes that Campbell’s work is a mixture of subjective, personal philosophy and empirical theories on the history of religions. Consequently, his is able to weave “these  competing theories and personal anecdotes into a remarkably coherent discourse” [1]. So while his work is valuable as an illuminating philosophy, it should always be taken into consideration that Campbell is not operating purely as historian of religion. Rather, he employs elements of subjective viewpoints and objective viewpoints[2]. Perhaps we may even consider him to be the father of a sort of faith, or at least a school of philosophy.

Therefore, when a historian attempts to use Campbell’s approach as a model for the academic study of religions, his or her work is also applying a vast amount of personal ideology, ideology not subject matter for the analytical, academic studies of religion. Likewise, when an actor uses Campbell’s approach as a model, he or she must take into consideration that the approach is very much imbued with Campbell’s personal philosophy. In the case of actor, that is not necessarily a bad thing; however, it is something that people must be aware of.

Consider, though, the value of taking this into consideration. Perhaps if both actors and historians accounted for this, they may be able to find elements of Campbell’s approach and combine them with elements from other philosophical outlooks. For the historian, although most don’t use Campbell’s approach, it would vastly increase the potential for alternative understandings of historical developments. For the actor, it would clear the path to explore alternative approaches to the human spirit, or psyche, and representations of characters within plays and worlds.

*While I am fully aware that many scholars recognize the issues with Joseph Campbell’s approach, readers should be aware that this post is more generic and more about helping scholars and artists see the value of working with each other to produce a stronger focus on humanities within American culture.

[1] Daniel Gorman Jr., “Revisiting Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth”, Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 5, no. 1 (2014), p. 86. http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/imwjournal/vol5/iss1/5

[2] Although I am aware it is practically impossible to have a purely objective fact, for the sake of the simplicity of this discussion, I am distinguishing between them is such a way.

meaning-of-life

The Privileged Tradition: An Approach to Comparative Studies

Emerging from an academic environment in which the Hebrew Bible was extremely privileged and West Semitic culture “Canaanized” (Ballentine 2015, 17), much 20th and 21st century biblical scholarship has sought an equilibrium to allow for comparative studies without presupposed significance of one text over the other. By “Canaanized”, I mean the gross misrepresentation of West Semitic cultures primarily via the polemical lens of the Hebrew Bible and cherry picked texts. More recently, from an evangelical perspective, John Walton has championed the importance of comparative studies for the Hebrew Bible, drawing emphasis to the challenges of comparative studies for confessional scholars in Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Walton 2006, 29-40). Debra Ballentine succinctly notes in her discussion of “the comparative enterprise” that “Israelite and Judean traditions should be included among Canaanite traditions, not portrayed as being opposed to, completely other than, or superior to Canaanite traditions” (2015, 16).

But how does one avoid privileging the Israelite Judean traditions without abandoning recognition of the role of the Hebrew Bible in the daily lives of the religious? I believe the answer to this question does not rest upon increasing ones faith in the Bible, for doing so would move back towards the “Canaanization” of West Semitic culture and myth. Nor does it require movement towards complete agreement on the authoritative nature of ancient literature. Positive development of supporting the authoritative status for the religious, and avoidance of diminishment of it to one insignificant piece of literature among many, may be found by moving toward questions of the universality of story, myth, and ritual. As Catherine Bell (1952-2008) notes at the end of her introduction to ritual, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, “the form and scope of interpretation differ, and that should not be lightly dismissed, but it cannot be amiss to see in all of these instances practices that illuminate our shared humanity” (1997, 267). In other words, regardless of religious affiliation, or lack thereof, the ritual nature of life itself should be drawn out to find common humanity.

By elevating the status of other ancient literature to demonstrate the commonalities of humanity, comparative study may more successfully flourish amongst those who do privilege the Hebrew Bible. The notion of privilege then becomes an issue of praxis rather than glorified literature. So even if one firmly believes in the importance of the Hebrew Bible over other ancient literature, the common ritual, and hence uniting humanity, permits a more balanced equilibrium. Furthermore, this approach would allow confessional and non-confessional scholars alike to be heard better by those outside of the academy. Instead of hearing a person say that the Hebrew Bible is not significant, drawing out the common human elements of other literature allows people to hold to their beliefs while still recognizing the intrinsic value of other ancient literature.

Such an approach accomplishes two important missions for all people. First, this approach unites people in finding common humanity. No evidence need be shown to reveal the disconnected and opposing behavior of many people due to the sense of one’s traditions over another. But by elevating the intrinsic value of ancient literature for human commonalities, an environment is cultured in which conducive discussion may occur and unite, rather than splinter people. Secondly, people are permitted to believe freely in what they understand to be Truth, or truth. Culture of scholarship would permit confessional and non-confessional alike to unite and hold to their own tenants. Hence the validity of scholars are upheld and the community becomes more inclusive, accepting the full spectrum of traditions and scholastic approaches.

Finding the intrinsic value of ancient literature has the potential to improve the quality of biblical scholarship. How do certain texts discuss the nature of humanity? Does the text do so in a ritual manner that compares equally to the Hebrew Bible? Too what extent does ritual illustrate the common humanity between ancient Israel and Canaan? These are the sort of questions that may be explored more thoroughly only when one is willing to note the intrinsic value of all ancient literature for demonstrating common humanity.


Cited Works

Ballentine, Debra Scoggins. The Conflict Myth & the Biblical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Bell, Catherine. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.