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.