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

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.