Dharma is Hiltebeitel’s ambitious thesis that Ashvaghosha drew upon the Ramayana and the Mahabharatain his portraiture of Buddha. He places in the first century BCE the writing of the epics by Brahmins of Haryana and the Buddhacharita. Hiltebeitel lists 12 “dharma texts” between the Mauryas and the Kushans in Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit and Tamil by propagators of both Brahminical and Shramanic soteriology. Ashvaghosha uses “dharma” in ways not found before the dharmasutras and the epics, employing it “as a term of civil discourse with his Brahmanical counterparts.”

Hiltebeitel builds on BK Matilal’s treatment of the Mahabharata “as the locus of a paradigm shift on dharma.” While the Ramayanais founded on formal ethical norms exemplified by Ram, the Mahabharata is far more complex, depicting it in Yudhishthira’s dilemmas as Dharma’s son. Curiously, what Krishna says in the Gita is not cited as the ultimate pronouncement on dharma in the Mahabharata. Krishna’s premise that saving life is superior even to truth and to keeping an oath is not reconciled with the Kurukshetra holocaust he encourages and the Prabhasa carnage he participates in. The Buddhacharita has no such complications. When Krishna rebukes Yudhishthira for countenancing Bhima kicking the prone Duryodhana’s head, Yudhishthira justifies Bhima and Krishna has to accept this. Hiltebeitel says such relaxation of dharma is absent in Rama’s case, overlooking Bali’s and Tara’s reproaches. Both Rama and Yudhishthira favour traitors by making them ruler/regent of the conquered kingdom.

Ashoka uses “dhamma,” the Prakrit for “dharma,” 111 times. Basically this meant respecting and being generous to Brahmins, Shramanas (monks), parents, teachers, elders, servants, slaves, the weak and the poor. He dismissed Brahmanical rites and women’s rituals as meaningless and insisted on not killing animals. Progress in dhamma occurs by following its rules and, most important, meditating. The new imperial ideology was a major threat to Vedic religion. Chandragupta and Bindusara had already favoured Jainism and Ajivika-ism. This would have spurred the composition of new dharma texts by Brahmins (the Apastamba, Gautama and Baudhayana Dharmasutras).

Six of Buddha’s most profound discourses were delivered to the Kurus in a town named “Kammasa-dhamma” or “Kammasa-pada” (ogre with spotted feet, the Mahabharata’s Kalmashapada). In the Kurudhamma, Jataka Bodhisatta is king of the Kurus after his father Dhananjaya’s death. He and his subjects follow five principles strictly. Hence the kingdom is prosperous. Buddha moves from Magadha to bring his dhamma to the Vedic heartland. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, despite the Vajji republic following the seven Vinaya precepts, Ajatashatru destroys them. In the Pali Vinaya people criticise Buddha for causing extinction of families as they become monks, as does his own royal Shakya line. Hence the Puranas depict him as the avatar destroying Asuras by deluding them into practising nonVedic dharma. The early dharmasutras (Gautama, Baudhayana) claim that the householder’sashrama is the only one since it alone produces progeny. Later, Vasishtha Dharmasutra, Manava Dharmashastra (Manu) and both epics uphold the householder’sashrama as the best of the four, being their support. Buddha counters this in the Agganna Sutta.

Hiltebeitel holds Manu to be the earliest, an early Sunga or late Kushana text. It creates a dharmaspecifying standards coordinating the differing traditions of Vedic schools to set up a common Brahmanical order. It assigns greatest importance to five mahayagyas with five rituals, simplifying the Vedic Soma sacrifice, adding the concept of four debts to rishis, devas, ancestors and guests. Only after discharging these, following the ashramas in sequence, is the pursuit of moksha through renunciation permissible. Buddha did not limit monkhood to any stage of life. Manu introduces non-violence by naming the householder’s slaughterhouses as — fireplace, grindstone, broom, mortar-and-pestle, water pot, all of which can be performed by meditative means. In the Mahabharata Nakula recommends domestic life to Yudhishthira after the war where maha-yagyas are performed just with the mind. In Shuka the Mahabharata shows that without living the four ashramas in sequence one can directly attain moksha. Yet it also speaks of pursuing four stages of life sequentially like Manu.

For Hiltebeitel, Manu and the Ramayana overlap with the Mahabharata composed by a committee under Vyasa within two generations from 150 BCE. He suggests that Valmiki and Manu could be names taken by contemporary poets from the MB and both texts could have begun before the Mahabharata was finished. In each case the poet is present to listen to his work recited: Valmiki by Rama’s sons, Vyasa by Vaishampayana, Manu by Bhrigu. They focus on the dharmaof Brahmanical kings, providing a counterpoint to the term being appropriated by Shramanas and made into an imperial ideology by Ashoka.

Apastamba and the Mahabharata state that dharma can be learned from women and Shudras. But Baudhayana, Vasishtha and Gautama like Manu deny women any independence. This might be a reaction to the independent and heterodox Jain and Buddhist nuns. In the Mahabharata, with Ganga’s entry, the law of the mother prevails as crisis mounts among the Kuru males, unlike the Ramayana, which upholds the father’s pledge. Shantanu’s marriages are the result of “restrictive samayas (compact, arrangement)” introducing “a supervening Law of the Mother” into a dynasty whose continuity is disrupted by curses. Both queens make crucial decisions to ensure the continuance of the dynasty. In a brilliant insight Hiltebeitel links the two mothers, bright Ganga and dark SatyavatiKali, to Dhatri and Vidhatri in Uttanka’s story.Very significant is the forcible induction and impregnation of the Kashi princesses named after the three mothers specific to the horse-sacrifice. Hiltebeitel endorses Jamieson’s flippant translation of the names as “Mama, Mamita and Mamacita or Mummy, Mummikins, little Mummy” and “the horsikins is sleeping” (p 374-75). He suggests that the malodorous and terrifying Vyasa is taking on the role of the sacrificial horse to impregnate the queens. The Ashvamedha identifies the king with dharma. In both epics progeny are the result of the horse-sacrifice (Parikshit, Lava-Kusha). Hiltebeitel states that Mahabhisha picks Devapi to be his father (p 346), and refers to “Bhishma’s paternal grandmother, the wife of Devapi,” (p 365). This should be Pratipa, whose eldest son is Devapi. Vasishtha cursed not Mahabhisha but the Vasus (p 353). Bhishma does not bring in the three new queens, having nothing to do with Kunti choosing Pandu. Sita does not call upon “the four mothers plus her own mother as well” (p 499, 505). She mentions only three —Sumitra, Rama’s mother and her own mother.

The two epics are dharmabiographies whose approach differs from the Buddhacharita, which is the first “close and critical reading of the Sanskrit epics.” Hiltebeitel shows that the way Rama’s and Yudhishthira’s lives are organised follows a common blueprint through the first five books in both epics. The poet of Ramayanawas familiar with the design of the Mahabharata and refined it. Sita’s birth “like a crest of fire on a vedi” suggests that Valmiki is making her resemble Draupadi. Hiltebeitel argues that in Draupadi’s debate with Yudhishthira about karma, Jain doctrines discounting a Creator are being voiced under a Vedic cover (Brihaspati’s materialistic shastra) in a woman’s voice. “Yudhishthira’s dharma biography comes from within. Unlike Rama’s and like the Buddha’s, it is one of ongoing reflection.”

Manu refers to the place of the Kurus as sacred and Buddhist texts mention it as a place of Kurudhamma where Buddha imparted special teachings. “Kurudharma” occurs six times in the Mahabharata. Buddha in the Samyutta Nikaya contradicts Krishna’s assurance to Arjuna about those falling in battle being assured of Swarga by stating that a warrior goes to hell, his mind being depraved by violence. The Nikayas condemn kshattavijja(Kshatriya science). The Gita (14) speaks of attaining brahma nirvana, becoming Brahman, a term used in early Buddhist texts to describe nibbana, but Krishna means something quite different.

There is less of a riposte in the Ramayanathan in the Mahabharata to Buddhism but there is the same condemnation of Shudras seeking to move up as in Manu. Biardeau holds that the danger from Buddhists has been displaced on to the Rakshasas of distant Lanka. To fulfil the heavenly plan of relieving the Earth of being overburdened and urbanised, Brahma directs the devasto be embodied without passing through wombs. Hiltebeitel overlooks Kripa and Kripi while listing those not-of-womanborn. There is an error on page 599 in the quotation from the Shanti Parva (53.23.25), where instead of “Bhishma” we find “Bhima” in line four. Hiltebeitel asserts that Krishna’s display of friendship for Draupadi comes in only two scenes where her problem occurs because of “Vedic ritual injunctions” — the stripping and the horse-sacrifice (p 605). The Critical Edition, which he swears by, has no Krishna in either case. There is no indication of his saving her from the “humiliation” of simulating intercourse with the slain horse, or from being stripped (if he had provided clothes, why is she wearing the blood-stained cloth when leaving on exile?).

Hiltebeitel is one of the rare scholars to discuss the Harivansha as completing the Mahabharata and not composed much later. Vyasa forecasts that Janemejaya’s horse-sacrifice will impact all Kali Yuga ashvamedhas. Janamejaya abolishes it for Kshatriyas. The first to be celebrated after Yudhishthira’s is by a Brahmin, Pushyamitra Sunga (185 BCE) who performs it twice. Is he Harivansha’s“army-leader, a Kashyapa Brahmin who will again restore the Ashvamedha in the Kali yuga” (115.40)?

This valuable and extensive study would have been enriched by an examination of Bankimchandra Chattopdhyaya’s Dharmatattva(1888) and his commentary on the Gitaavailable in translation since 2001.

The reviewer is former additional chief secretary, West Bengal, and specialises in mythology