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Ancillary stories in the Mahabharata

Pradip Bhattacharya |

Hiltebeitel’s devoted shishya Adluri and his chela Bagchee have edited a superb collection of papers by 12 Mahabharata (MB) scholars with Hiltebeitel at both ends. The theme is his proposition that “sub-tales” are not fringe episodes but are central to the MB’s architectonics. Goldman’s Foreword notes that thematic proximity characterises these stories.

Adluri’s fine Introduction happily titled, “From supplementary narratives to narrative supplements,” proposes that the tales are the best way to rethink the MB’s encyclopaedic nature. Noting that upakhyana, as the MB calls itself, is a non-Vedic word first used here, Hiltebeitel lists 67 stories taking “the reverberations between them as a kind of sonar with which to plumb the epic’s depths.”

However, as Brobeck points out in his paper later, because of this treating the term as a technical genre is risky and depending upon colophons for the classification is erroneous as they were added much later. Unlike the oft-interrupted akhyanas,upakhaynasare unbroken major tales mostly addressed to Yudhishthira. Not just one, however, is narrated by a woman (Kunti to Pandu). Hiltebeitel overlooks Vidula’s tale that Kunti tells Krishna.

He argues that the Shanti and Anushasana Parvas are part of the total design building up a nexus of values like non-cruelty, friendship, hospitality, gratitude. This is not so obvious in the Ramayana (R). Hiltebeitel writes that Parashurama demands Rama break Vishnu’s bow and Rama does. Actually, Parashurama challenges him to shoot an arrow with the bow, which Rama does. Rama meets all eight founders of Brahmin lineages, but how can issue-less Parashurama one?

Hiltebeitel argues that Valmiki went beyond the MB’s Rama story (beginning with material from the R’s canto seven) to posit new values about dharmabased upon bhaktiof subjects for the king bolstered byVedic rishis. In calling for correcting the MB’s Critical Edition which turns the 18 chapter Narayaniya section into 19, spoiling the ideal “18” paradigm, Hiltebeitel resorts to the “higher criticism” he usually condemns. Goldman argues that upakhyanas are instructive complementary narratives repeating motifs in the main story.

The R’s Uttarakanda is one such, encapsulating core components of the MB’s central story to project Rama as the chakravartinachieving universal imperium through conquest like Yudhishthira whose sway, post-rajasuya, stretches from Antioch to China. But why should the Persian Empire be its inspiration? Yudhishthira does not “lay waste to all rival kingdoms” and commit “wholesale slaughter” for the rajasuya as Goldman states. Besides Bhavabhuti (eighth century BCE) who sought to remedy Rama’s lack of imperial forays by adding the battle with Lava and Kusha, Jaimini did so in his Ashvamedha Parva.

Goldman suggests a probable chronology as Bharata’s Pushkaravati and Takshashila were major towns of the Persian satrapy of Gandaris and under Alexander (circa fourth century BCE) and Menander (second century BCE). If their importance inspired the R’s authors to include them in the Kosalan Empire, why not the MB too, recited to Janamejaya in Taxila? Challenging guru Hiltebeitel’s views on variations in the Shakuntala story in the northern and southern recensions, Bagchee proposes a novel concept — southern scribes composed extra slokas restoring a better sequential order of chapters of Paurava genealogy to “heal the breaches in the text” based upon “an architecture in their heads”.

This is the very “higher criticism” he decries. In proposing a common source for both recensions he reverts to the German theory of an “Ur-Mahabharata”. Mahadevan, he states, mistakenly holds that Sukthankar chose the shortest text as the archetype being trained in the German school of Philology. By describing this as “a case of Vorlage that makes a certain Vorgabe,” Bagchee reveals his Germanic affiliations.

The lengthiest paper is Adluri’s claiming that Amba-Shikhandi represents Ardhanarishvara. While her name is that of the Devi-as-Mother, how does masculine rebirth recall Shiva’s “gender ambiguity”? Ardhanarishvara means not “half-woman” but “the-half-womanGod.” He argues that Arjuna and Shikhandi resemble the Purusha-Prakriti dyad.

However, Purusha is always a witness, whereas it is Arjuna’s arrows, not Shikhandi’s, that bring down Bhishma. Nor does Amba-Shikhandi remember “to become the divine androgyne.” The MB does not know the Ardhanarishvara. While listing female interventions altering Kshatriya dynasties, Adluri overlooks Kunti replacing Satyavati’s bloodline by her own.

The point is well made that Amba’s rejection creates the void in which the epic action occurs, a space that “rapidly folds in on itself” with her return, for she symbolises the laya(destruction) motif. The German approach to the New Testament informing the Critical Edition of the MB rears its head with Adluri’s reference to “the Wirkungsgeschichte of this text”.

Bailey shows how Markandeya’s stories mirror the use of multiple and mixed genres in the MB besides providing a “totalistic view of things.” Krishna and he are the sole actors. The focus is on presenting to Brahmins a unified interpretation of dharma through tales of widely varied content. Examining the MB’s Ramopakhyana and the R’s account of Rakshasas in the Uttarakanda, Sally Goldman shows that female sexual transgression and misogyny inhere in the demonic in Valmiki’s imagination, not in Vyasa’s.

She holds that the Ramopakhyana refashions the Uttarakanda to fit in with its views. Why should it not be the other way round when Hiltebeitel is certain that the Uttarakanda is later? Sullivan makes the excellent point that there is no reason to assign several centuries or a committee for the MB’s size when Isaac Asimov, as a biochemistry professor, could write 500 books on multiple subjects. The Bhima-Hanuman encounter, he finds, is the only instance where Bhima mentions the unqualified supreme soul (nirgunah paramatmeti) and refuses food.

Bhima knows of Hanuman’s exploits in the R, but when the Pandavas hear the Ramopakhyana he does not mention the meeting, nor Hanuman’s presence on Arjuna’s flagstaff since the Khandava-burning, which the episode explains. So, was it added at the end of the composition? This encounter is appropriately placed in-between Arjuna and Yudhishthira meeting their fathers. Hanuman assuming his incomparable form to teach Bhima about dharma and the yugas, advocating puja with bhakti, is modelled on Krishna’s Gita, as is both brothers begging forgiveness of the deities. Arjuna, Bhima and Yudhishthira alone can see the supernal forms of Krishna, Hanuman and Dharma. Hanuman being more divine here than in the R might indicate composition at a time when he was worshipped as a deity, but that comes much after 400 BCE. Alonso proposes that the committee writing the MB was presenting an answer to competing ideologies like Buddhism and bhakti after Alexander’s invasion.

Focusing on “the architectures of power and the role of Indra,” he compares Gilgamesh who is also punished for misrule. Both epics have a divine plan of massacre, but in the MB this affects only Kshatriyas, not all humanity.

However, how is the good side “degraded…paving the way for their slaughter,” when the Pandavas are left unscathed with a resurrected heir? Nor do bad kings, or the absence of kings, imply attacks by demons, perversion of the social order and lack of yagyas. None of these occur during Duryodhana’s reign, which the subjects extoll. An excellent insight is how sages contribute to the devas’ plan through rape, boons, curses and engendering. Indra is more a figurehead unlike Homer’s Zeus, with no place in the new bhakti ideology, his Swarga rejected for moksha. The tirtha stories show the devas overcome by rishis, asuras and even humans.

The MB-makers made it a war story so as to be inaccessible to competing groups like the Shramanas with their cycles of tales. To understand the Madhavi episode, Sathaye conceptualises the MB as a museum whose text panels guide audience-reaction.

The story provides “a unique fusion of morality and political discourse,” advocating gathering power through friendship, not conquest. Yayati’s grandsons’ yagya is the MB’s version of Rigvedic verse 10.179 by the same kings (Shibi, Pratardana, Vasumanas) ruling over Kashi, Ayodhya and Bhojapura, plus Ashtaka at Kanyakubja, all important Buddhist and Jain sites. Linking them through matrilocal genealogy is a new way of consolidating power, following the Mauryan collapse, through alliances instead of conquest. Focusing on obdurate pride leading to destruction, they show the audience the anxieties of post-Mauryan rulers when the MB is trying to push a new vision of moral rule (dharmartha), ruthless conquest no longer being a feasible option.

Bowles focuses on three ancillary tales about fish (not in Hiltebeitel’s list), doves and ingratitude. They are mirrors for rulers on the art of governance, resembling Buddhist Jatakas in which the fish tale occurs. They share Arthashastra concerns of proper alliances and right action. However, the ungrateful Brahmin’s tale is not the only instance of a Brahmin acting abnormally. Parashurama, Sharadvat, Kripa, Drona and Ashvatthama, all violate the Brahmin code.

Further, though this tale comes after the war, it precedes the Yadava massacre where, again, Brahmins are the harbingers of death. Dejenne deals with Biardeau’s crucial contribution in highlighting ignored aspects of upakhyanas. Thus, she considers that Damayanti, a reflection of Draupadi and suffering earth, takes up the role of the avatara, adding a new dimension to the epic. Without these tales we would miss significant analogies.

Biardeau argued that the MB was an ideological instrument countering the prevalence of Buddhism in society. Unfortunately her major study of the MB is not available in English. Mahadevan studies Mudgala, the gleaning Brahmin and ideal ritualist of the Rigveda’s Shakala branch in east Panchala and Kosala. Hiltebeitel presumed that these gleaners lived in small kingdoms like the Shunga’s (2nd century BCE), interfacing with Vyasa and writing the first draft of the MB.

Mahadevan finds Mudgala was a real person with a gotra identity, part of a distinct Rigvedic group of Purvashikha Brahmins migrating southwards around 150 BCE followed by the Aparashikhas (6th to 17th centuries CE), both carrying the MB. This gotra still performs complex soma rituals and narrates the MB in Srirangam, covering a history of nearly 3000 years. However, Rajendra Chola’s 8th regnal year is cited wrongly as 1929-31 instead of 1022-23. Brodbeck’s is the sole study of the Harivansha (HV) upakhyanas. An upakhyanaless MB is not “a bizarre idea,” as the Indian retellings for children are precisely that.

Arguing that the HV is integral to the MB, featuring in its list of 101 parvas, to Hiltebeitel’s 67 upakhyanas he adds the HV’s four. These serve “as stepping stones” through the text and are inter-related, suggesting a new approach to the upakhayanas. Thus, the “Dhanya upakhayana,” the last one, has the birth of Samba by Shiva-Uma’s boon, whose cross-dressing precipitates the curse destroying Krishna’s clan.

In the final paper, Hiltebeitel studies the geography of these tales proposing that they fit the main story into the spatial and temporal geography of the MB. This is the first text projecting the Ganga-Yamuna doab “as a total land and a total people,” besides building “its cosmograph into its geography”.

Hiltebeitel asserts that the MB composers invented Kuru and his parents Tapati and Samvarana because the stories are “especially dreamlike and elliptical” — hardly an objective criterion! He shows how the story of Shakuntala accomplishes the devas’ plan by engendering the Bharata dynasty. So does the story of Yayati who divides the world among his five sons, assigning Puru the heartland. Another set of stories centres on Kurukshetra, implying familiarity with it on part of the Purvashikha Brahmins who “may actually be writing a Mahabharata ethnography out of their own experience there” circa second to first century BCE.

We have here a scintillating necklace of 12 iridescent gems with a Hiltebeitel solitaire at either end. It is a collection that no Mahabharata acolyte can afford to miss. The reviewer, a former additional chief secretary of West Bengal, specialises in comparative mythology