Thinking about the Mahabharata – I: Individual Heroes in Epics

I often enjoy thinking about comparisons between epics that spring from different soils. What, for instance, are the similarities – and the differences – between an Aeneas and an Achilles or a Beowulf and a Roland? How do Aeneid and The Ramayana treat the question of just war? How does the amorality of The Iliad relate to that of the Germanic epics? These are all fascinating issues, because it does seem, at one level, that the historical and social conditions that give rise to epic (and I use “epic” in a very broad, loose sense, ignoring for the moment distinctions between oral and written, and so on) are similar, across times and nations – and yet, when you get down to particulars, very different.

One question that has always interested me is the role of the hero in the epic. Epics were composed in an age that many call “heroic” (see Vico), and their main protagonists (think of Achilles, Odysseus, Beowulf, Roland, El Cid, Siegfried, Rama, and to an extent, Aeneas) exist at a level between gods and human beings; they are far superior to the ordinary humans in terms of strength and battle-prowess (in some cases, that seems to exempt them from being bound by the codes, customs and conventions of mortals – positively Nietzschean), and the epic, to a large extent, becomes about their interactions with each other and with the gods.

One set of epics are actually named for their individual heroes. The Odyssey (Odysseus); The Aeneid (Aeneas); Beowulf (Beowulf); The Ramayana (Rama); The Song of Roland (Roland); The Lay of the Cid (El Cid); Orlando Furioso (Orlando). And there’s no doubt that, despite a decent supporting cast, these epics are about their heroes. Of course, you need a Turnus and a Dido to make an Aeneid, a Grendel to make a Beowulf, a Ravana to make a Ramayana, but these characters remain precisely that: a supporting cast. In other words, in a certain (very simplistic sense), these characters owe their existence to the hero, derive their raison d’etre from the hero, and are, at least to an extent, defined and constituted in virtue of their relationship with or opposition to the hero.

The obvious exception, of course, is The Iliad. Admittedly, The Iliad paints upon a large and diverse canvas. It can’t very well be called The Song of Achilles, because Achilles spends most of the epic sulking in his tent. Nor can it be called The Song of Hector, because Hector, for all his heroism, is defeated and killed (think of Karna). Perhaps it might be called The Song of Achilles and Hector? That, I think, wouldn’t be too inaccurate, because Achilles and Hector (like Aeneas and Turnus, perhaps?) do attain a level of prominence that exceeds the lot of the other characters: Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, Nestor, Ajax, Diomedes, Patroclus, Priam, Paris, Andromache. Yet, the very fact that we feel like we must invoke the names of all these characters to have a fair description of The Iliad makes The Song of Achilles and Hector a curiously unfitting title. 

So The Iliad is a problem case. Nonetheless, the fact remains, again, that it is, in at least one sense, about the conflict between Achilles and Hector, since all the events of the epic seem to lead up to that final climax, that battle beside the walls of Ilium – Agamemnon’s insult of Achilles leads to Achilles’ refusal to fight; that, in turn, allows Hector to wreak havoc among the Achaeans, and the famous burning of the ships; that compels Patroclus to put on Achilles’ armour and go out to battle, leading to his death at the hands of Hector; and that drives Achilles back into the war – and crucially, the epic ends with the burial of Hector (“and so they buried Hector, tamer of horses“).

Another problem case – or set of problem cases – are the Germanic epics. But again, the only difference here, I think, is that while they are not about individuals, they are nonetheless about a few (Sigurd and Gudrun), a chosen few (sometimes, a single clan). Moreover, the reason for this is that these epics (think of The Volsunga), unlike their Greek or Roman or other European counterparts don’t span a particular event or a series of events – but they often span a generation, or generations, events following upon events, with a logic of their own. Das Nibelungenleid, for instance, has two distinct sets of events – the first, involving Siegfried, Gunther, Kriemheild and Brunhild, and ending with Siegfried’s death; and the second involving Kriemheild’s revenge, in which the likes of Hagen von Tronje and Deitrich of Bern come to the fore; during one particular event, however, it’s very clear who the heroes are, and who the subsidiary characters are.

The Mahabharata, I think, is very different. Clearly, it is not named after a single hero, or even a group of heroes, like the Volsungs, or the Nibelungs. More importantly, I think it is simply impossible to reduce the epic to a manageable cast of “main characters”, or “heroes”. Yes, at a very basic level, the epic is about the conflict between the two branches of the Kuru clan. It’s clear that amongst the Pandavas, Yudhishthira, Bheema and Arjuna are prominent (already, you have three “heroes), and likewise, Duryodhana amongst the Kauravas. But where, in this scheme, do you then fit in Bhisma? Drona? Karna? Draupadi? Dhritarashtra (he is no Priam)? Krishna, even. Furthermore, in one sense, the story is linear – all events are oriented towards, and linked to, the final battle, but unlike The Iliad, individual episodes not only exist for that purpose, but also they are episodes and stories about the characters in their own right. Think about the episode of Karna and Parashurama; or Drona and Eklavya; or of course, most importantly, The Gita. Yes, all these episodes owe their existence to their place in the overall scheme of the epic, but they could also be read standing alone, in themselves, for themselves, for what they tell us about these fascinatingly drawn characters.

What do I mean by that last sentence? Well, think of Dido and Turnus in The Aeneid. Now, I yield to no-one in my estimation of The Aeneid as a sublime and beautiful work of literature, deserving of enduring for centuries; but Virgil’s private voice notwithstanding, there is at least an argument to be made – and has been made repeatedly (see Bowra’s From Virgil to Milton, and other similar works) that Dido and Turnus exist as part of Aeneas’s story, as part of the story of the founding of Rome, and their role, their very existence, is defined and characterised by that story. “So great a task it was to found the Roman people“, writes Virgil in Book I, and Dido and Turnus’ role is to demonstrate just how hard the task was. Dido, by almost tempting Aeneas to stay on in defiance of his mission, until the gods remind him that he cannot abandon his trials and wanderings until Rome is founded; and Turnus to demonstrate how Rome can’t be founded without bitter toil and conflict (and because of various accumulated curses, not least, Dido’s!). This is buttressed by how Virgil plaintively asks, again at the very beginning of Aeneid I, whether the gods can know from such anger against ordinary mortals. The encounters with Dido and Turnus are determined by the gods, and the way these two characters act is, again, pre-decided by the gods (like Cupid inflaming Dido’s heart with love for Aeneas).

And in another sense, those two are necessary for Aeneas to prove his heroism, to prove that he is a worthy founder of the Eternal City and the universal Empire. Against Dido, he proves his stoicism, his unswerving commitment to the mission of Rome; and against Turnus, his valour and heroism. Like a bildungsroman, these stories are about the hero, and the other characters exist as foils, to allow him to bring out his most heroic qualities. And if this is a controversial example – as it must be – just think about Circe in The Odyssey; or Ganelon in The Song of Roland – two very different characters, but the first essential to presenting the obstacles that are necessary to make the return to Ithaca the heroic quest that it is, and the second, the traitor who is required for the battle at the pass of Roncesveux to happen, and for The Song of Roland to be what it is.

And now think of Karna, persecuted, embittered, brooding, tragic, magnificent Karna, the likes of which I have not come across in any epic (Hagen von Tronje in Das Nibelungenleid may come close, but not really!); who, far from being rolled about like a dice by the gods, attempts to outwit them at their own game (recall the beggar-scene with Indra), who always and ever tries to make his own fate (Draupadi’s swayamvara). Who will dare say that he is part of someone else’s story, a member of the supporting cast, his destiny defined by and subservient to someone else’s, the stars’ tennis-ball? Or even Eklavya, who comes on to the stage, blazes briefly like a meteor, and exits as suddenly – despite his short length of stay in the epic, he is no poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more – his story impacts us deeply and profoundly, and his presence stays with us, casting a pall and a shadow over the rest of his epic. Shalya, Ashwatthama, Ghatotkaccha – the list of such characters is endless.

This has been one of the reasons why The Mahabharata has always fascinated me. The complexity is astounding. I don’t intend to write here about how this complexity exists not only in framing the cast of characters, but pervades the entire epic through questions of morality (again, not a common feature of epics generally); for now, suffice it to say that even this – a vast template of characters all of whom have their own lives, their own characters, their own living, breathing, passionate souls, their life-histories and their unique stories, who exist not in relation to others, not to hold up a mirror to the hero, not as cogs in the wheel of the epic, but who live as men and women, as subjects in their own right and as the locus-points of stories, dreams and desires – that is what has always made The Mahabharata unique for me, among all the epics.



Filed under Epic, The Mahabharata

8 responses to “Thinking about the Mahabharata – I: Individual Heroes in Epics

  1. I’ve been meaning to read The Mahabharata ever since I started learning about Indonesian language and culture, and this post is encouraging me to make it my next epic (after I finish Herodotus). Which translation would you suggest, and is there one that has an introduction that’s worthwhile?

  2. Great post!

    Though it has been a few rears since I read any of the Mahabharata (I have read an abridged version, as well as various parts of separately over the years), and wish that it was fresher in my mind, I do agree with you regarding the moral complexity. Your commentary has promoted me to think about the characters and events in that story anew. Its themes and meanings can actually boggle the mind. That epic is just so rich, I can imagine someone making a lifetime study of it.

  3. It is about time somebody tried a decent translation of Rashmi-Rathi (come to think of it, have there been any published attempts?) but then I also always end up thinking that the rhythmic structure that lends it such power will fail to survive any such translation.

  4. Brunda

    Just came across this post on the Mahabharata… it is an extremely fascinating epic! Look forward to reading more posts on this. It has been a long-cherished dream to study the original work; hope it translates into reality soon.

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