Harvard professor and poet, Dr. Kevin McGrath’s Mahabharata
investigations began with The Sanskrit Hero: Karna in 2004. In Stri (2009) he
switched to its women. Then came Jaya: performance in epic Mahabharata in 2011,
Heroic Krishna (2013), Arjuna (2016) and 
Yudhishthira (under publication). He follows the Harvard school of epic
poetics (Milman Parry, Gregory Nagy and Albert Lord), concentrating on the text
qua text and envisaging epic society as a Bronze Age Indo-Aryan pre-literate
and pre-monetary culture.

Ruth Katz in her 1989 study on Arjuna found him to be
triple-layered — hero, human, devotee. She rejected the idea that
contradictions in his character are a result of layers of composition,
accepting them as indicating the complexity of his nature. To McGrath, Arjuna
is dual in nature: uniquely godly and humanly heroic, wherein lies the secret
of his cult status. He discusses Achilles in a fascinating appendix, also a
late Bronze Age hero attaining cult status through the same characteristic of
bestriding two worlds, the mortal and the celestial. Though shrines to Bhima
and Karna exist, Arjuna alone lives for years in Swarga, interacts repeatedly
with the Devas and Shiva, rides in Indra’s chariot, and slaughters rakshasas  the Devas cannot defeat. But what of
Devavrata, with shrines in Allahabad and Kurukshetra, reared by celestial
Ganga, taught by deva-guru Brihaspati and uniquely blessed with death-at-will?
Dualistic patterns define Arjuna: with Krishna (as a duo), Karna (in
opposition), Yudhishthira (wielding his 
danda of punishment), double deaths, unique ambidexterity and as Nara
with Narayana. Even sexually, he is a charismatic male and eunuch, like
Ardhanarishvara Shiva, with his double in Shikhandi, born by Shiva’s blessing.
McGrath finds “strangely obscured” a similar dual pattern with Krishna and
Balarama. The epic’s appendix, Harivansha, develops this. The Arjuna-Krishna
duo, one semi-divine, the other born of human parents, is an archaic
Indo-European “twinning” archetype seen in Mitra-Varuna and in the Greek
Castor-Pollux, Heracles-Iphicles. Vyasa tells Satyavati that he will provide
Vichitravirya with sons like Mitra and Varuna. Madri has twins by the
Ashvinikumaras. Such “twinning” is also seen in Achilles-Patroklos and
Achilles-Diomedes. Krishna and Athena drive the chariots of Arjuna and Diomedes
and speak to them.

McGrath argues that doubling is typical of the poetic
thought process of pre-literate and pre-monetary cultures. Such a literature
operates by metaphor, barter, poetry and syntax, while a literate society’s
favours metonymy, money, prose and grammar. “Polymorphic duality” or “twofold
bivalence” lies at the core of the Arjuna narrative, reaching its acme in the
Gita where he simultaneously experiences two worlds — the human and the cosmic.
He is the sole liminal figure in the epic. Though achieving enlightenment and
engaging in desireless action, he is named “Bibhatsu” for his terrifying
violence. Repeatedly Krishna has to shake him out of depression. He forgets the
Gita and has to be imparted the Anugita. McGrath proposes: “This kind of
polarity is an aspect profoundly inherent to both the psychic and the narrative
composition of heroic Arjuna.” He suggests that there was a  phalguna-katha (Arjuna’s name whenever
weaponry is concerned) which was woven into the Mahabharata. But how can he
argue that Arjuna is not a moral figure in the context of his repeated
reluctance to kill his kin?

It is curious that this unique hero is never considered for
kingship. Even more intriguing is Bhishma naming him not an atirathi (supreme
warrior) or maharathi (great warrior) but merely a rathi (chariot-warrior).
Yet, it is Arjuna’s grandson who is installed in Hastinapura, like him dying
twice and being resurrected. Why were the sons of the elder brothers
Yudhishthira (Yaudheya) and Bhima (Sarvaga) not considered, nor his sole living
son Babhruvahana, the only person who killed Arjuna?

The argument that Parikshit’s investiture is “the victory of
the matrilineal clan system-Pandavas-over the patrilineal
model-Dhartarashtras-represents the triumph of the indigenous over the
intrusive Indo-Aryan,” is founded upon the premise that Arjuna’s marriage to
Subhadra “is a Dravidian type,” being matrilineal, while patrilineal marriage
is Indo-Aryan — a questionable proposition based upon the discarded Aryan
invasion hypothesis. McGrath suggests that the bheda, division, between two
lineage types represents two separate traditions of heroic poetry which were
combined early in the 1st century CE. It is undeniable that the Yadava link is
crucial. Arjuna, a half-Yadava, marries Kunti’s Yadava niece; the death of his
Yadava wife’s son devastates him, not those of his two other sons; the Yadava
Vajra is installed in Indraprastha and Parikshit-part-Yadava at Hastinapura.
McGrath mistakenly calls Vajra, whose father is Aniruddha, Krishna’s son (page
78, fn.10). McGrath is the first to call the Mahabharata, “the charter myth of
the victorious Yadava clan,” and the Gita “a truly influential Yadava song,”
which invites discussion.

McGrath asserts that Arjuna alone, during his exile, has
sexual relations with three females of whom only one is human (Chitrangada)
“and with an apsara” (page 9). However, Subhadra is human too. Further, Arjuna
rejects Urvashi in Swarga, abjuring his godly heritage from the libertine Indra
for the human value of regarding his ancestress as a mother. Similarly,
Gilgamesh refused the advances of Ishtar and invited her wrath.

McGrath asserts that none of the Kauravas receive cult
status except Duryodhana who has a temple in Uttarakhand. However, Karna is
worshipped in Netwar village in Uttarakhand. In Kerala’s Kollam district there
are temples to Duryodhana and Shakuni and a G?ndh?r? temple exists in Mysore.

Arjuna’s half-divine nature, his celestial arms, chariot and
avatar-charioteer, makes him a hero in the ancient Indo-Aryan tradition. His
speech to Sanjaya in the Udyoga Parva, is in irregular  trishtubh verse, the oldest in the epic,
frequently mentioning chariots indicative of the Bronze Age (the chariot
evolved c. 2000 BCE). With the spontaneous combustion of his chariot post-war,
Arjuna begins to lose the superhuman qualities characterising the old Bronze
Age hero, becoming more and more mortal. McGrath does not explore his early
pettiness vis-à-vis Ekalavya, nor his obsession with Jayadratha when Drona made
the inviolable discus formation, nor his lack of vengefulness against the seven
who jointly slew Abhimanyu. Arjuna is not alone in being so furious with Yudhishthira
as to almost kill him. In the dice-game Bhima commands Sahadeva to bring fire
to burn Yudhishthira’s gaming hands. Nor does Arjuna alone overcome the moral
dilemma of killing a guru. It is so with Yudhishthira too and he is
guilt-ridden throughout, expiating it through the vision of hell. Equally is he
tormented by Karna’s death, unlike Arjuna.

McGrath describes the Gita as departing from the pastoral
Bronze Age Indo-Aryan culture and approaching the urban beliefs of Jainism and
Buddhism with their stress on puja with 
bhakti  instead of sacrificial
offerings. Its doctrine of the hero emerges from the interaction of a warrior
duo. We tend to forget that Buddha was a Kshatriya prince too. Significantly,
as the Gita prepares Arjuna for Kurukshetra, so does the Anugita precede his
journey with the yajna-horse, during which he dies and lives again. Why McGrath
describes Ulupi here as a “spiritual figure” is not clear. This time Arjuna
neither has the divine chariot, nor Krishna as charioteer. He is Nara, man,
without Narayana, the Divine. At least twice the Gandiva bow slips from his
hand and he is knocked unconscious.

Krishna announcing that he is Bhrigu among the maha-rishis
is significant for the argument that the Bhargavas inhabiting the area around
Yadava Dvaraka redacted the Song of Arjuna (Jaya, the four war books),
embedding it in the Mahabharata. McGrath proposes that Arjuna and Krishna’s
bows made of horn (as their names signify) connects with the Kushanas who
settled at Mathura whence the Yadavas migrated to Dvaraka. The post-Kurkshetra
books where Arjuna is merely a “meme,” a pale copy of the earlier glorious
figure, come from a poetic tradition far removed from the original heroic one,
more concerned with evoking pity and fear than horripilation and heroism.
Indeed, Krishna describes Arjuna as 
bahusangramakarshitam, “much emaciated by battle,” when he returns with
the horse. Also, the picture of kingship after the Stri Parva is of an urban
polity, not the earlier archaic form. The last words of Arjuna are, kalah
kalah, “time, time,” reminding us of his cosmic vision of Krishna as Time.
Krishna dies an ordinary death. Arjuna, weaponless, shrinks to the human and
collapses silently, shorn of his memorable duality. In hell he mutters “I am
Arjuna” to Yudhishthira who ultimately sees him in Swarga, dazzlingly
brilliant, adoring Krishna (McGrath gives the reference here as XII.4.4 which
should be XVIII.4.4).

Krishna does not receive his discus from Mitra, as McGrath
states, but from Agni. Krishna’s bow is not Srinjaya (page 120) but Shaaranga.
The origin of the “two Krishnas” is the ancient Nara-Narayana duo, Nara
wielding a celestial bow and Narayana the Sudarshana discus, slaughtering the
demons during the churning of the ocean for amrita. Here Nara is the human
while Narayana is the Divine. The Khandava massacre is a doubling of the same
scenario with the nature of the two reversed. The Vedic deities attacking them
withdraw on hearing that they are that ancient duo. This epic duo replaces the
Vedic Mitra-Varuna pair. In the Nara-Narayana myth Parashurama narrates in the
Udyoga Parva, Nara counters a king’s attack with deadly reeds, while Narayana
stays still. McGrath does not notice that this is reversed in the Mausala Parva
where Krishna uses reeds to slaughter his kin.

McGrath suggests that this duo is Dravidian in origin,
turning an archaic concept of divine twins and double heroes into an idea of
conjoint deity-and-hero, “a perfect metaphor for how the preliterate and the
literate aspects” of the Mahabharata were combined in early Gupta times. The
world of the Shanti Parva “is of a historically later order of culture and
society.” However, it is wrong to assert that there is no reference to writing
in the epic when explicit mention exists of the benefits accruing from gifting
a copy of the Mahabharata.

A character sharing in the doubling of Arjuna and Krishna is
Narada, incessantly moving through the celestial and earthly worlds, joining
the past to the future through his speeches, knowing the done and the undone in
the world,  loke veda kritakritam.  He also forms a duo with his sister’s son
Parvata. The first to use the term 
omkara (XII.325.83) and to interact with Nara and Narayana, he is
virtually their first priest. Krishna declares that among the deva-rishis he is
Narada. Like Krishna’s theophany to Arjuna, Narayana’s to Narada is
vishvarupadhrik, containing all forms. As such, opines McGrath, Narada is
“thoroughly imbued with that inchoate world of emergent Hinduism” representing
“the poem’s own internal oral tradition,” as others recollect what he had said
in the past. Vyasa, whom for some reason McGrath calls a “rajarshi,” though he
is no royal seer  and Narada shape the
epic narrative “towards crisis and resolution.” 
Ultimately, it is Narada who brings forth the  shanta rasa, 
“calm of mind, all passion spent,” telling Yudhishthira, troubled on
seeing Duryodhana, “This is Swarga; there is no enmity here.” To McGrath, “He
is a fine exemplum of how preliterate Mahabharata poets once functioned, as
they in their performances likewise drew upon what had been formerly heard.”

McGrath asserts that there are three figures of a-temporal
consciousness influencing the poem’s movement: Krishna who conducts the
political narrative, Vyasa the maker of the poem, and Narada who omnisciently
draws upon the past and the future to perfect the narrative. The epic is
entirely retrospection and recollection, a characteristic typical of Narada.
McGrath is mistaken in stating that only Vaishampayana and Janamejaya are alive
when the epic is being sung. Vyasa is there, permitting and overseeing the
recitation. In the Jaiminiya Ashvamedhaparva, he does so with Jaimini. As at the
beginning, so at the end we find the statement that Narada recites the
Mahabharata to the Devas. For McGrath, through Narada’s performance the poem
becomes an imperishable, unmatched tradition and makes Arjuna the epitome of
the ancient heroic warrior to be worshipped. 
McGrath’s book is a fascinating slim volume that everyone interested in
the Mahabharata will benefit from.

The reviewer is a retired IAS officer specialising in
comparative mythology.