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Review: The Mahbhrata and Its Universe: New Approaches to the AllEncompassing Epic

Author(s): Aditya Adarkar


Review by: Aditya Adarkar
Source: History of Religions, Vol. 47, No. 4 (May 2008), pp. 304-319
Published by: University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/589783
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REVIEW ARTICLE

The MahAbhArata and Its Universe:


New Approaches to the All-Encompassing Epic
Rethinking Indias Oral and Classical Epics: Draupadi among Rajputs, Muslims,
and Dalits. By Alf Hiltebeitel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1999. Pp. xiv+560. $60.00 (cloth); $29.00 (paper).
Rethinking the Mahabharata: A Reader s Guide to the Education of the
Dharma King. By Alf Hiltebeitel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2001. Pp. x+365. $50.00 (cloth); $25.00 (paper).
Destiny and Human Initiative in the Mahabharata. By Julian F. Woods.
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Pp. ix+237. $65.00
(cloth); $22.95 (paper).
The Mahabharata and the Yugas. By Luis Gonzlez-Reimann. New York:
Peter Lang, 2002. Pp. xvi+299. $35.95.
The Mahabharata. Vol. 7: The Book of the Women and the Book of Peace, Part
One. Translated, edited, and annotated by James L. Fitzgerald. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2004. Pp. xxxii+818. $85.00.
The Sanskrit Mahabharata is crucial to any understanding of Hinduism; as
A. K. Ramanujan once remarked, No Hindu ever reads the Mahabharata for the
rst time.1 It contains the Bhagavad Gita, a text often extracted from the context
1
A. K. Ramanujan, Repetition in the Mahabharata, in Essays on the Mahabharata, ed.
Arvind Sharma (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991), 419.

2008 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.


0018-2710/2008/4704-0003$10.00

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of the Mahabharata and sometimes presented as the central statement of Hinduism.


The epic is of special interest to those scholars who care about religion as literature
as well as to those who care about understanding the way that narrative characters
shape religious stories. (See, for a similar use of the Hebrew Bible, Robert Alters
The Art of Biblical Narrative.)2 Each of the books under review here demonstrates
a new way in which to understand the epic, its vast narratives and philosophies,
its even more extensive performative traditions, and its ability to realign the relationships that listeners have to the gods and heroes that people its stories.
There are many paths through the voluminous Mahabharata, but past scholarship
has tended to focus on the details of how the text itself came to be, rather than on
what people have said about it. Writing about the Ramayana in 1991, Sheldon
Pollock said, If earlier criticism concentrated on the epics genetic history and
dismembered the work in the search for its primal components, we might now
want to take its receptive history more centrally into consideration.3 The books
under review here suggest that Mahabharata scholars (at least) are doing just
that: it is becoming increasingly respectable for them to take up and investigate
popular beliefs about the epic, what people (i.e., the audience of the epics)
have said about it. This is not to say that all of these books agree with popularly
held beliefs about the epic; but those beliefs are now the focus of scholarly attention and the bases for interpretations.
For instance, the Sanskrit tradition, as well as the Mahabharata itself, has viewed
the epic holistically. Earlier scholars have balked at the idea that the epic is
coherentHermann Oldenberg infamously assessed the Mahabharata as the
most monstrous chaos4or that its parts belong together: E. W. Hopkins dismissed as pseudo-epic the lengthy section that James Fitzgerald has translated
in his book under review (82 n. 15). For these earlier readers, the Mahabharata
was hardly a book at all, but merely a confabulation of layers, one laid on top of
the others. In contrast, the popular view has been that it was written by an author,
Vyasa, and that it is sustained by a unied aesthetic vision. The books under
consideration take seriously the Sanskrit traditions idea that the Mahabharata is
a coherent object and that this object is (a) textual and (b) deserving of the same
interpretive treatment we give to other literary epics.
Five books published since 1999 are illustrative of this current trend in Mahabharata scholarship. In Destiny and Human Initiative in the Mahabharata, Julian
Woods reminds us that philosophy and theology are always embedded in literature,
especially religious literature, and he traces the philosophical tension between
destiny and free human striving throughout the epic. Time and destiny are intertwined in the epic, and Luis Gonzlez-Reimann, in The Mahabharata and the
Yugas, shows us how to read in historically appropriate terms the dark, apocalyptic
mood of the epic. James L. Fitzgeralds work, The Mahabharata, volume 7, The

Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic, 1981).
Valmiki, Aranyakanda, trans. Sheldon I. Pollock, The Ramayana of Valmiki: An Epic of
Ancient India (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 3:5.
4
As quoted in Vishnu Sitaram Sukthankar, On the Meaning of the Mahabharata (Bombay:
Asiatic Society of Bombay, 1957), 1.
3

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Book of Women and the Book of Peace, gives us both a translation and a major
interpretation of the rst postwar parvans (epic sections); he is especially concerned with the despondency of the victorious king, Yudhisthira, and with the ritual, philosophical, and political aspects of that despondency. The lessons that
Yudhisthira learns throughout the epic frame Alf Hiltebeitels book Rethinking the
Mahabharata, which explores the epic as a deliberately authored work of literary
ction. His earlier volume, Rethinking Indias Oral and Classical Epics, considers
the folk epics that he argues are, surface details notwithstanding, connected to
Sanskrit and folk Sanskrit epics. All these studies depend upon the idea that the
Mahabharata is not a monstrosity to be tamed, but rather a work of genius to be read
for its wisdom and beauty, and that the reading practices that have been applied
to it must be carefully examined and defended.
Woods wants to characterize the epic as a work of moral philosophy, and he is
justied in doing so, or at least as justied as anyone who would claim that the
Platonic dialogues are philosophical. Destiny and Human Initiative focuses on
one of the epics central tensions: what role is there for individual human effort
( purusa-kara) in a world that seems to be dominated by the will of the gods or
destiny? The epic addresses this question as a deep philosophical dilemma with
political consequences. Woods does well to identify two scenesthe Bhagavad
Gita and Yudhisthiras lament after the warthat ask what human effort is appropriate (or dharmic) when destiny (daiva), especially unfortunate destiny, seems
to rule the day. The author analyzes each of these episodes through the twin paths
of active, engaged (pravrtti ) dharma and of withdrawn, contemplative (nivrtti )
dharma. He argues that human initiative in the epic is illusory and that, in reality,
the drama on the terrestrial stage is just the play (lila) of a central divinity, in this
case Krsna. Essential freedom is beyond the material (prakrti ), at the level of
the universal self (Atman). Consequently, the concept of destiny itself has two
aspects: destiny appears to us as time and fate and seems to be in tension with
(and affords us the delusion of ) human effort, while omnipotent Destiny reects
the will of a deity or the Atman. It is left for us to act, then, with what we know of
Destiny, and, as the Bhagavad Gita advises, act as if all our actions were merely
sacricial offerings (to Krsna).
Woods is best when he synthesizes arguments from various sources, including
both Sanskrit commentaries (his starting point is Madhva) and contemporary
scholarship in Indology and European philosophy. For example, in three quick
pages (14951) he quotes the (Western) ethicist Nicolai Hartmann, Madeleine
Biardeau, and both amkara and Ramanuja. Similarly, when he describes the
debates within the epic, he claries each characters position and contribution;
for example, when Yudhisthira asks which of the human goals is most important,
Woods lays out the answers from Vidura (dharma), Arjuna (artha), Bhima (kama),
and Yudhisthira himself (moksa). A critic who is able to synthesize a variety of
approaches makes a good reader of a text that draws together a panoply of philosophies and religious orientations.
This book signals how much perceptive philosophy is packed into the Mahabharata, and how instructive it is to unpack it. The philosophical and theological
issues that Woods raises perplexed the epic authors as much as they perplex
us today. If anything were to be added to this slim volume, it would be a wider

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acknowledgment of how others have approached these issues. When Woods claims
that purusakara (human initiative) is ideally transformed into the daivalila of
Krsna playing in the world through the ute of the human body (148), his discussion would do well to take into account other aspects of Krsna that the epic
presents: for example, the nonomnipotent Krsna, at once subtle and committed
to justice, that B. K. Matilal describesa Krsna that leaves every creature free
to perform his own karma.5
Gonzlez-Reimann reminds us that time (kala) and destiny are conceived
together in the epic, for destiny is the way that time cooks all beings. The Mahabharata and the Yugas, though, concentrates not on how the epic conceives of
time, but on the chronological theory that we should keep in mind as we interpret
the epic. Many contemporary scholars assume that the stories and characters
are informed by the Hindu theory of yugas, eras of human existence; often,
the epic battle is believed to mark the transition to the Kali Yuga, the fourth of
the yugas, and the most decrepit and decadent yuga. (It is also the yuga we supposedly inhabit.) But Gonzlez-Reimann argues that the assumption that the
inuence of the Kali Yuga is an essential narrative element of the Mahabharata
story is unwarranted (2).
Yuga theory, he argues, is imposed onto the epic poem late, that is, at the time
of the later Puranas. He does acknowledge the importance of that imposition when
he writes, in Puranic Hinduism, as well as in all other later developments based on
it, the Mahabharata plays a fundamental role in the yuga scheme (51). But this
is still not enough to prove that a theory of yugas was part of the epic zeitgeist. In
general, Gonzlez-Reimann feels that the traditional mode of interpretation . . .
takes many assumptions for granted, not least of which is that [the epic] was all
the creation of a single author (10). Like Fitzgerald, and unlike Hiltebeitel,
Gonzlez-Reimann believes the epic developed in discernible stages. He is willing to grant that as new layers were added, they were not added haphazardly, but
rather reworked by intelligent redactors (11). Yuga theory, he maintains, was
competently added to the epic, but it was added nonetheless.
Like Woods, Gonzlez-Reimann notes how important a role time plays in the
epic, and how the epic authors emphasize how an irresistible, ruthless destiny is
at work, guiding the lives of the characters and leading to the sense of doom
and helplessness that pervades the end of the poem (28). In fact, he seems to
retrace some of Woodss argument, writing, for example, that free will is more
the instrument, the ally of destruction, than a force opposed to it (30).
Gonzlez-Reimann very usefully contrasts the epics chronicity with that of
the Maitrayaniya Upanisad; in this text, all-consuming time is said to be, in turn,
cooked by something superior, the atman (34). Eventually, this leads to very
different interpretations of the goal of human existence: for the epic, it is understanding and facing the personal challenges of dharma; for the Upanisads (in general), it is renunciation, a freeing of ones self from the bondage of time.
Hiltebeitel and Fitzgerald explore similar distinctions in their works, discussed
below.
5
Bimal Krishna Matilal, Krsna: In Defence of a Devious Divinity, in Essays on the
Mahabharata, ed. Arvind Sharma (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991), 41314.

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Gonzlez-Reimanns crucial question is whether or not the epic characters act


with the conscious knowledge of an impending Kali Yuga. By exploring the
semantic range of the Sanskrit word kali, Gonzlez-Reimann reminds us that the
term can refer to discord or misfortune (55). Thus a term like kalidvara, often
taken to mean the door(way) to the Kali Yuga, should be understood as signifying
only the door to conict (54). In this way, he reinterprets several key passages of
the epic that mention the Kali Yuga, building a case for his claim that there is a
predisposition on the part of translators to read the classical yugas into the text,
based partly on the epic itself, but mainly on Puranic and later tradition (61).
Gonzlez-Reimann seems to be making a ne distinction here: he would agree
with much of traditional and contemporary interpretation that the Mahabharata
carries a dark, foreboding mood, and that the war at the end is horrifying almost
beyond comprehension. Yet he would like to see that understood in the context of
misfortune and tragic destiny rather than yuga theory. He emphasizes the subtle
distinction between the idea that the epic authors had some form of yuga theory
and the claim that the epic story was inserted into a particular moment of the
yuga cycle (140). He is to be credited for wrestling with the crucial details that
inform our interpretation of the epic: he is arguing for a shift from one type of
rich interpretive scheme to another.
Gonzlez-Reimann documents the nine instances where the epic places itself
at the transition between the Dvapara and Kali Yugas (chap. 3) and argues that
most of them are part of the later strata of the text (86). The remaining ones, he
argues, belong to a time when the Kali Yuga was thought to be only a thousand
years, and so would have indicated to the epic audience that the Kali Yuga was
not beginning but nearing completion. To explain how the Mahabharata became
so intertwined with yuga theory, Gonzlez-Reimann emphasizes how the word
kali denes the epic . . . the term summarizes much of the Epic (139). The term
informs much of the mood of the epic as misfortune; it plays a crucial role in the
narrative as the losing dice throw that sends the Pandavas into the forest. Because
of the importance of kali, when yuga theory was later formalized, it was natural to
associate the epic with the Kali Yuga (141). For Gonzlez-Reimann, this happened
in the context of the tendency of the epic poets to enhance the story by means of
hyperbolic statements (139), as well as the social changes taking place in the
period between the Mauryan and Guptan empires; in Gonzlez-Reimanns model,
inconsistencies arose naturally in the text through centuries of agglutinative
layering.
Gonzlez-Reimann leaves untouched, however, several critical possibilities,
not least of which is the way that the impending Kali Yuga generates a kind of
dramatic irony for the epic audience. There are, moreover, rare moments when
his interpretative scheme is stretched to its limit; one occurs when he is interpreting
Mahabharata 5.140.615 (5960). In this passage, Krsna is foretelling the great
epic battle using the refrain there will be no Treta, nor Krta, and no Dvapara,
referring to (in my reading at least) the yugasand, indeed, Krsnas speech is
full of apocalyptic end-of-yuga imagery. Gonzlez-Reimann insists, though, that
the series Treta-Krta-Dvapara refer to dice throws (as indeed they can) and that
consequently this passage is probably saying that, this time around, the battle is
to be fought with weapons, not dice (59). While this seems improbable, one fact

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in Gonzlez-Reimanns favor is that the word yuga is not to be found in the


passage, and it is to his and his books credit that he does not try to skip over this
passage.
To be sure, Gonzlez-Reimann is in the unenviable position of debunking longestablished cultural assumptions. He is akin to critics who would like to prove
alternate authorship for the Shakespearean corpus; they are ghting an uphill
battle, even if they might eventually be proven correct. Gonzlez-Reimann is a
careful reader of the epic, and his book is most helpful in that it invites the readers
to the discipline of reading the epic within its own strictures. Still, as his own
useful comparisons to the Upanisads and Puranas show, it is difcult to stay
within the bounds of a text that triumphantly declares its own universalism.
Like Gonzlez-Reimann, Fitzgerald believes that the epic is made up of layers,
and that it is useful to distinguish the early from the late. As a translator of
and critical guide for the epic, Fitzgerald (The Mahabharata, vol. 7) is a worthy
successor to J. A. B. van Buitenen; his translations read well and he has done
much in the critical apparatus of the translation to help navigate the huge compendium of advice. Of note here are his introductions to the anti and Stri Parvans,
introductions that, like van Buitenens, can be taken as scholarly works in and of
themselves.
Relatively complete English translations do exist, notably the Ganguli-Roy
translation (which is, however, awkward and not always accurate), and another
translation project of the Bombay Recension is under way under the auspices of
the Clay Foundation. Still, van Buitenens translation has stood above the others
for its readability and accuracy. Scholars of Indology and religion owe a tremendous debt to Fitzgerald not only for restarting the project of translating the
epic into uent English and thereby making it accessible to a wider audience
but also for maintaining its high standards. To allay fears that a second translator
could not continue from the rst, Fitzgerald reminds us that the Mahabharata
is not a uniform literary artifact composed by a single author in a single voice,
and the imposition upon it of a carefully considered and deliberate stylistic uniformity would, I think, be one more distortion of the underlying text added to the
necessary distortions that constitute translation in the rst place (xvii).
In introducing the Striparvan, Fitzgerald rightly points out that representations
of war and the roles of women in those representations are profound and farreaching matters, and the Mahabharata is one of the richest sources of such representations in the literature of the world (3). He calls upon Jean Bethke Elshtains
book Women and War 6 and Alf Hiltebeitels sustained scholarly investigation of
all things Draupadi. The Book of the Women is thus a moving depiction of real
grief which simultaneously serves societys need for warriors. It assuages the epic
warriors anxieties with a sense of purpose and feeds his ego with fantasies of
glory, admiration, and paradisial pleasures (16). Fitzgerald himself is ambivalent
about this material, an ambivalence he parallels with Gandharis ambivalence
to her son Duryodhana (16) and the epic authors general ambivalence toward
war (xvi). Fitzgerald points to the raw power of the books description even as

Jean Bethke Elshtain, Women and War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

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he encourages us to stop and think of how these constructs function to encourage


and perpetuate such violence (16, 17).
Because The Book of the Women is compact and affecting, its role in the
epic and its status as literature have rarely been questioned. That cannot be said
for the other parvan that Fitzgerald translates and analyzes, the antiparvan, The
Book of Peace. Often neglected by readers put off by its length and didactic
tone, this parvan has found an able advocate. Fitzgerald proves that the antiparvan
is a deliberate literary and intellectual construction (80), but that he has to do
so is indicative of the attitudes of previous generations of epic scholar (82 n. 15).
His argument is twofold: rst, he shows that Yudhisthira is cooled by the instruction he receives from Bhisma, and, second, he shows how that instruction is
a response to the religious and political threats felt by the epics brahmin redactors.
If the women in the previous parvan are disconsolate over the loss of their
husbands, brothers, and lovers, so Yudhisthira too is inconsolable over the loss of
life, especially the loss of his recently revealed brother Karna. This is a particularly human moment in the epic, and, like Arjunas hesitation before the war in
the Bhagavad Gita, one that provides the epic authors the opportunity to explore
many issues at once. Here is the dilemma of a good man [Yudhisthira] recoiling
from acts that are an inherent part of ruling as a king. The authors of the Mahabharata represent Yudhisthiras oka [grief ] as an alarming problem, and the
response to it was swift and decisive: it was unacceptable (86).
After the all-consuming war, Yudhisthira resolves to withdraw to the forest
and give up the throne; many, including his family, try to convince him to rule, but
his sorrow overwhelms him. (Among the various attempts, Vyasa, the putative
author of the epic, tells Yudhisthira that Time is responsible; this only has the
effect of making Yudhisthira promise to fast to death [93 n. 71; Mahabharata
12.2627].) Eventually, Krsna brings Yudhisthira to the deathbed of Bhisma,
who then delivers four massive anthologies of lessons and parables about dharma
(The Laws for Kings, Law in the Time of Distress, The Laws for Gaining
Absolute Freedom, and The Laws for Giving Gifts), the rst two of which
Fitzgerald has translated in this volume.
Fitzgerald persuasively argues for an original approach to these anthologies
based on Yudhisthiras physiology: because of his excessive grief, he was
dangerously overheated. Consequently, the whole of Bhismas instruction of
Yudhisthira [is] a grand anti of the newly inaugurated king, one intended to
bring his disabling inner heat to rest and allow him to rule (95). Fitzgerald nds
support for this from the antis described in, for instance, the Atharva Veda and
the Dharmaastras. Moreover, the cooling of the king is paralleled by Bhismas
slow but steady progression toward death (98).
Fitzgeralds second argument originates in Yudhisthiras suggestion that
there was an opposition and contradiction between dharma and kingship (99).
By tracing the historical developments taking place as the epic was redacted,
especially the spread of Buddhist dharma under Aokas reign, Fitzgerald argues
that the brahmins who eventually composed the written epic, as we more or less
have it, were reacting, in these instructional anthologies, to their treatment at the
hands of various emperors as well as worrying about the strength of the ruling
ksatriya warriors. Part and parcel of the reaction (to Buddhism and Jainism) was

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a transformation of brahminic religion itself through the development of the yoga


discourses and their emphasis on rening ones self (105). This transformation,
in turn, brought about a bifurcation in the way the term dharma was employed,
and an ambiguity in the way that it is used in the epic: an older sense of human
activity that leads to human prospering, victory, glory, and the like, as opposed
to a newer sense of human activity that replaces personal self-interest with a devaluation of ones particular being afliated with a sense of connectedness to all
others and a concomitant sense of kindness towards others (104). Carefully juggling these several simultaneous developments, Fitzgerald argues that Yudhisthiras
grief was the perfect setting for the brahmin authors to defend a claim that distinguished them from the nonviolent Buddhists and Jains. After all, accepting the
violence of the universe is a necessary corollary of Brahminisms afrmation of
monism, of whatever variety (112).
At the same time, Fitzgerald does not want to suggest that the epic is merely
the result of a tension between the brahmin and the Buddhist, for this [oversimplies] these people in terms of doctrinal formulations alone, not attending to
the broader social and political goods at stake (120 n. 72). Thus Fitzgerald argues
that on top of Aokan (Buddhist) nonviolence, the epic authors are also reacting
to the uga revolution, after which brahmins and their religious institutions
found themselves particularly favored by the ruler; for the brahmin redactors,
the ultimate credibility of brahmins as a religious elite depended on their disassociating themselves from the direct cruelties of governing (122). In this way,
the epic developed two major agendas: rst, to tell the story of how entire groups
or classes were killed and then recovered, and, second, to nd ways in which to
reconcile this grotesque, sanctioned violence with the values of the newer sense
of dharma (123).
Fitzgerald argues that such a reconciliation was inspired by Aoka, whose
reign presented both extreme violence and the new ideal of ahimsa. To Fitzgerald,
Yudhisthira is a better Aoka, and a brahminical Aoka. Yudhisthira considers
the rejection of violence offered by the Aokan edicts as well as the rejection of
kingship altogether. But then, calmed, consecrated, and instructed, he takes up
the reign and expiates his sins and grief through a spectacular brahminic ritual,
a horse sacrice: he owns up, accepts, the war he has sponsored, accepts it as
good and necessary, as a sacrice well-made (139).
Like Woods, Fitzgerald sees a connection between the Yudhisthira-Bhisma
dialogue and the Bhagavad Gita. He compares the above solution to the knotty
tensions between kingship and the multiple senses of dharma with the solution posed
by Krsna in the Bhagavad Gita, arguing that the Gita is a later and improved
solution to the same basic problem of reconciling the older and the newer senses
of dharma (action and virtue, svadharma and paramadharma), especially violence
and ahimsa (140)improved, that is, because of the more sophisticated philosophy of karmayoga and bhaktiyoga in the Gita. Yudhisthira then stands at a
midpoint, ideologically, between Aoka and Arjuna, and takes his place, as
Fitzgerald promises, as a character more complex and interesting than almost
any other gure in the epic (125).
Fitzgerald writes that he has always approached the Mahabharata as a form
of literature that makes some use of historical events, rather than as some kind

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of chronicle, and I have long believed that Yudhisthira . . . is a literary creation,


designed by a literary, theo-philosophical artist for the purpose of giving others a
new world of possibilities (136). As a scholar committed to treating the epic as
a work of literary art, Hiltebeitel would agree with both the method and subject;
in fact, the subtitle of his Rethinking the Mahabharata is A Readers Guide to the
Education of the Dharma King. Unlike Fitzgerald, though, Hiltebeitel is concerned
with constraining excavative scholarshipthat is, scholarship that attempts to
distinguish strata (however dened)from dominating the interpretation of the
Mahabharata.
Rather, what Hiltebeitel attempts in this book is proof of two claims that can
alter the course of Mahabharata scholarship. First he asserts that the Mahabharata
is best interpreted as a great work of ctionthat epic criticism needs to shift
from a focus on oral epic theory to a renewed emphasis on the epic as a supreme
work of written art. The second claim is that, by taking seriously the rst claim as
our fundamental critical principle, we are better able to see the Mahabharatas
theological and philosophical aspects. In other words, understanding the epic as
ctionas great artis the key to understanding the epic as theologyas a great
religious and philosophical text.
Aggressively entering the critical fray in the rst chapter, Hiltebeitel proposes
a theory of the epic that puts the composition into a brief time span and emphasizes its written aspect. Hiltebeitel attacks excavationists and dispenses with each
luminary in that camp, one by one, like Arjuna dispatching the Kaurava heroes.
Here Hiltebeitel makes many of the observations that are most controversialbut
not necessarily most crucial to his argument: the epic was composed as a single
written archetype (26), not just as a record of an oral tradition, and not stemming
from oral preliterate epics; if the epic seems oral, that is because the epic authors
exploited orality as a literary trope; it was composed sometime between 150 BCE
and 0, by a committeethis accounts for the variety of styles and moodsmade
up of out of sorts brahmins.
As an example of Hiltebeitels method, let us take up the last claim above, that
the authorial committee was made up of out of sorts brahmins. The clinching
evidence is the story of Padmanabha, which comes at a crucial point in the
epic. In the story, which ends Bhismas long set of teachings, Bhisma announces
that the highest dharma is uchavrtti (the way of gleaning). (Hiltebeitel also
mentions several other moments where gleaning is recommended to Yudhisthira.)
Hiltebeitel then connects this concept of gleaning to the brahmin class that apparently wrote the epic, and thus provides insight into the type of authors that composed the epic: they are not simply court chroniclers who are either praising or
cursing a particular lineage. Their place is more complicated (like the complicated place of the suta, the epic reciter); they are perhaps minor brahmins who
show a deep appreciation for the life of gleaning, that is, for a life that may be
outside of the usual set of life stages. And thus they are out of sorts (19, 20).
One imagines then that the kind of person that wrote the epic would be someone
revered, both pious and angry, poor but rich in narrative, straining through art to
create a world, a man not burning with social outrage but one who recognizes it
nonetheless, a man for whom the world is not an ideal place but not a dreadful
one either.

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Hiltebeitel further delineates this vision of the composition of the epic in


chapter 4. The authorial committee, he argues, consisted of a leading bard and a
group of brahmins; composition proceeded by committee, with the unusually perceptive leader pulling it together as much as he could, but still being forced to
leave some joints rough (169). By examining the complexities of the identity of
this leading bard, Hiltebeitel concludes that here we see the Mahabharata poets
tipping their hand as framers who are both beyond and within the outer frame.
What a strange, dark sense of humor, and what daring sense of t it is that they
reveal (176). Additionally, Hiltebeitel adduces the ironic presence of women
perhaps beyond earshot, but denitely heard (166). Their physical absence
perhaps explains why the women who do appear in the epic, like Draupadi, shine
so bright (167).
In his second chapter (The Author in the Works), Hiltebeitel turns his analytic
powers to a question posed by J. L. Mehta, and inspired by Michel Foucault:
what is the authors literary function in the epic text? (32). Using a dazzling
list of moments of authorial construction (33), Hiltebeitel makes two important
points about the literariness of the epic: the epic should be read as ction, and
ction experiments with time ( la M. M. Bakhtin and Gary Saul Morson). Thus,
for example, we should pay careful attention to the Mahabharata use of time by
examining discourse about time (kalavada) as both Woods and Gonzlez-Reimann
do, and by taking seriously the phrase time cooks (39). Whereas the other two
scholars want to investigate the philosophical aspects of time, Hiltebeitel, by
contrast, examines the innovative play with which the epic poets explored . . .
tempero-spatial conventions while creating them (40). Hiltebeitel is concerned
with how the epic conveys to its audience its exible sense of time. He sees these
new chronotypes as one aspect of the artistry of the authorsan innovation that
they developed and that established the Mahabharata as a work of art, the masterpiece of these new chronotypes.
This investigation leads Hiltebeitel to several insights about Vyasa and his
relationship to his characters. For instance, because Yudhisthira cannot be consoled by Vyasa, we see that a character can resist an author (68). Hiltebeitel is
especially interested in how Vyasa moves between the various frames of the epic,
and his keen eye picks out particularly charming moments. At one point, Samjaya
is telling the story of how he was captured and about to be killed, but then Vyasa
arrives to save him; thus the author of the author saves the embedded author (59
62). Later, in chapter 8, Hiltebeitel paints a vivid portrait of Vyasa as an author
who, once he has lost his son, tells us a grand epic story that is constantly meditating upon sons and loss.
In chapter 3 (Conventions of the Naimisa Forest), Hiltebeitel turns his attention to the conventional literary setting of the epic, the Naimisa Forest. Through
an examination of the embedded narrative frames of the epic, Hiltebeitel argues that
the poets are winking at usinspired by the translation of wink for nimesain
placing the epic in the Naimisa Forest. To Hiltebeitel, this location becomes the
place where thought gets translated into poetry. In terms of authorial constructions, Vyasas thought is something prior and superabundant and can never
truly be handed over; Vyasas thought may be considered this epics term for
its own primary process (102). Hiltebeitel is apparently making the claimas is

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often made about great works of literaturethat the work of art is primarily about
the creative process itself. This insight, hinted at through a link between authorial
and physical literary settings, is highly productive when applied to interpreting
the Mahabharata.
In terms of the epics message, by considering (in chap. 3) the Bhargava
material and the story of Paraurama, Hiltebeitel nds that the svadharma of
kings must include not only the means to violence but the means to its appeasement . . . one of the chief objects of the Mahabharata is thus to instruct kings and
other ksatriyas in how to curb endless cycles of violence, particularly as such
cycles effect and implicate brahmins, sic (118), a topic we have seen Fitzgerald
address in his introduction to the antiparvan. Later, in his fth chapter, Hiltebeitel
argues that the epic authors were responding to the moral dilemmas of patricide
and despotism (178). Furthermore, like Fitzgerald, Hiltebeitel sees the epic as also
responding to Yudhisthiras crisis: violence is both necessary and repugnant. But
where Fitzgerald argues that the solution is based on (brahmin-directed) expiation
and cooling, Hiltebeitel believes the solution lies in the concept of anramsya,
which he translates by the apt neologism noncruelty. Noncruelty (which might
also be translated by compassion or, as Fitzgerald does, by kindness) is held
up by the epic as a virtue in an age where violence is inevitable. So, instead of a
king who is cruel but advocates ahimsa (as the epic imagines, say, Aoka to be),
the epic favors the ruler who eschews total ahimsa and yet avoids cruelty (206).
Yudhisthira seems especially in need of the lesson of noncruelty; and, indeed,
this comprises the heart of Yudhisthiras education. Yudhisthiras treatment of the
dog that accompanies him on his walk to heavenand, indeed, the treatment of
animals in generalshows that noncruelty is crucial to the authors new conception of dharma. Noncruelty is a trickle-down virtue that ows from a king and is
aligned with anukroa, to cry with another, commiseration. Indeed, as the case
of Yudhisthira illustrates, the difcult task that faces any king or human being
is how to withstand the cruelties of those entities that regulate our lives and still
remain noncruel ourselves. If this sounds like theodicy, it is: Hiltebeitels ultimate
point here is that, through the question of Krsnas noncruelty, the Mahabharata
becomes an argument with God (213).
In his nal three chapters, Hiltebeitel moves from the strictures of what the
text says to the wide open prairies of what the text asks. At his best here as a
thinker and critic, Hiltebeitel not only perceives the implicit questions behind the
explicit ones, but even considers the import of the unasked questions. For example,
Hiltebeitels reading of Draupadis question (could Yudhisthira have wagered her
after he had already lost himself?) gives it a place of prominence in the philosophical meditations of the epic, for it is a question not only about the self of
King Dharma (Yudhisthira) but . . . about the subtle self or essence of dharma . . .
it hovers over the entire Mahabharata . . . since no one ever resolves it (219).
Nor is Hiltebeitel afraid of the epics mysteries and conundrums; he even revels
in that which does not t perfectly. He emphasizes that incongruity is . . . what
makes a t interesting (216) and that the mist joint is the foundation of the epics
aesthetic. The epic presents a world both as tragically disjointed and as heroically
unied as human nature; it does not tidy everything up, but constantly leaves one
wondering, undersatised and unsettled.

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This view of human nature, and its religious ramications, is brought out in
Hiltebeitels analysis of the Nala-Damayanti story, which he claims encapsulates
the epic narratively as the Gita does theologically (216). While we may safely
say that there is more theology in the epic than in the Gita, this analogy, despite
its imperfect t, has the useful ability to distill the narrative complexity of the
epic into a single narrative that we might pore over (see 21819, especially, when
he spins out the connections between Nala and Yudhisthira). Interpreting the NalaDamayanti story is one of the joys of Mahabharata criticism, especially at its
most creative. Hiltebeitel weaves in notes from the powerful interpretations that
have preceded his (Madeleine Biardeau, Wendy Doniger, David Shulman, to
name a few) and brings these back to reect on what the story might mean for
its audience, King Yudhisthira. Hiltebeitel thinks that the story centers the questions of noncruelty around the little cruelties of intimacy and, once again, around
the gendered opposition male identity and female delity (231). When Damayanti
sends a message to Nala, she is also reminding Yudhisthira that (once again) noncruelty is the highest dharma.
Hiltebeitel works from the use of words; his technique owes much to classical
philology. His modus operandi is straightforward: begin with a question about some
aspect of the text that is mysterious or undertheorized, then nd all instances of
that element in the text, work through the catalog carefullyone close reading
at a timeand then generalize from the patterns to the wisdom the Mahabharata
has locked away in this trope. Many pages have as much footnote text as body
text, and Hiltebeitels quick and agile mind does not always wait for the reader to
catch his or her breath. One is reminded of Vyasa relating the Mahabharata to
Ganea, who has warned Vyasa that he will write for Vyasa if and only if Vyasa
can keep up with how fast he can write.
This book works best for those whose view of the epic is both informed and
open: it is not so much a readers guide as a Mahabharata readers guide to
(rereading) the Mahabharata. Hiltebeitel is, after all, a critics critic, a readers
reader. What Hiltebeitel does best is provoke us (do we read the Mahabharata
by listening in or by tuning out? [218]) and bring our attention to unexpected
but vital bandhus (connections) between one part of the epic and another, as in,
for example, the stories about gleaning and the epic authors. Even if we do not
agree with Hiltebeitels interpretation of this bandhu, we cannot ignore it, and we
must acknowledge the value of having noticed it for our understanding of both
the authors of and the relationships among the various social groups in the epic.
Hiltebeitel is emphatically not antihistorical, and much of his argument relies
on historical data. To be sure, it is crucial that we understand the ways in which the
epic has been understood historically and constantly strive toward rening such
understandings. Yet our interpretive project should not stop there. If possible, we
need to be both historical and contemporary: to continue the conversation about the
epic and thereby keep it alive. If every generation has remade the Mahabharata,
we should not be afraid of remaking it for ourselves as well.
In his earlier book, Rethinking Indias Oral and Classical Epics, Hiltebeitel
strives to expand our notion of Mahabharata: he wants to see it not just as a single
Sanskrit text but rather as a constellation of texts, folk narratives, and even
hidden folk narratives, all of which inuence and are inuenced by each other. In

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this expanded sense, the epic is a uid, exible, living thing, constantly shaped
and contoured by the myriad inuences around it. This helps us see just how pervasive the inuence of the epics is, as well as how central they are to the network
of intertextual inuences throughout South Asia. Rethinking Indias Oral and
Classical Epics demonstrates this pervasive inuence by highlighting the artistry
of the regional martial oral epics (henceforth RMOEs) and placing them in intertextual relationships with the Sanskrit epics and with each other.
Hiltebeitel begins with typology. In order to bring the RMOEs under the same
comparative analytic lens, he argues that they form a distinct genre within the
body of South Asian oral epics. He also reviews the relevant scholarship and
critiques the pattern in which connections with the classical epics are consistently disesteemed (19).7 Instead, Hiltebeitel proceeds by investigating precisely
which features connect and fail to connect the RMOEs and the Sanskrit epics,
and what commonalities the RMOEs share among themselves (11). Hiltebeitel
has spent decades studying the Draupadi cult of the Mahabharata in Gingee;8 not
surprisingly, then, the RMOEs are shown to share many commonalities with the
Gingee oral epic. These include their dates (many of the RMOEs developed
between the twelfth and fteenth centuries CE), a focus on the particularities of
the region, and emphases on the peripherality of little kingdoms, land, landed
dominant castes, and the goddess of the land (6). Moreover, there is usually a
distinctive rapport between the goddess and the little kings, each of whom is
characteristically accompanied by a low-status sidekick-protector (7).
One particularly fruitful commonality is that the RMOEs all reenplot Sanskrit
epic, and Hiltebeitel focuses a large part of his study on four RMOEs that are distinguished by strong reenplotment from either the Mahabharata or Ramayana (6).
These RMOEs are taken from a variety of regions and languages: Elder Brother
(in Tamil), Palnadu (in Telegu), Pabuji (from Rajasthan), Alha (in Hindi); for
Alha, Hiltebeitel also examines a written (Sanskritized) version, the Krsnama from
the Bhavisya Purana which helps to elucidate pathways from the epics to the
RMOEs. Hiltebeitel carefully distinguishes between the Sanskrit epics, textually
constituted, and the oral Mahabharatas; he makes the precise claim: we may thus
say that although the oral epics have indirect relations to the Sanskrit epics, they
have direct relationships to (mainly) oral versions of the classical epic stories (17).
Often, the reenplotting takes place via reincarnation; for instance, Bela is a
reincarnation of Draupadi in Alha. (Note that the Draupadi incarnated in Bela
is more like the Draupadi of Draupadi cult folk traditions than the Draupadi of
any classical Mahabharata [169].) Hiltebeitel suggests, moreover, that the RMOE
reenplotments take up questions and options that the classical epics leave open,
the epics unnished business (511). So dissatised with the blood she obtained

7
William Sax has also analyzed traditions of performing the epic; see William S. Sax,
Dancing the Self: Personhood and Performance in the Pandav Lila of Garhwal (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2001).
8 Alf Hiltebeitel, The Cult of Draupadi 1: Mythologies from Gingee to Kuruksetra
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), and The Cult of Draupadi 2: On Hindu Ritual
and the Goddess (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

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in her life as Draupadi, she must be reborn as Bela to get what she missed (509),
the further battles of Alha. But the range and scale of reenplotting is limited
only by the aesthetic imaginations of the oral poets; the RMOEs can invert,
reverse, and even subvert aspects of the classical epics. To continue with Alha,
when telling of the last Hindu kings before Mughal dominance, the artists of
regional epics draw upon the trope of yuganta, the end of an era. So even if the
classical Mahabharata ends with a victory for the seemingly virtuous, these
stories end with the complete defeat of their protagonists. (A Mahabharata
heroic age is thus mapped onto a microheroic age of Alha [121].) And if the
classical epic has a grand, imperial thread, the RMOEs are often imbued with an
anti-imperial, egalitarian spirit.
Under Hiltebeitels keen eye, the classical Mahabharata is not merely imitated,
transformed, or transposed; he warns us away from theories designed to impose
notions of development, inuence, and causality on relations between written texts
and oral traditions (123). Borrowing A. K. Ramanujans term, Hiltebeitel describes
the classical epics as constituting a pool of signiers (45), a sea of tropes, characters, and situations that help the RMOE artists express their visions. This suggests
the notion of an underground pan-Indian folk Mahabharata, a system of texts
and tropes animated not only by Hinduism but by a certain Islam (299).
The RMOEs also have many commonalities that cannot be traced to the direct
inuence of the Sanskrit epics. For example, the Sanskrit epics lack low-status
sidekick-protectors. Hiltebeitels ingenious suggestion is that these commonalities all stem from a complex of Rajput-Afghan culture, a cultural complex
that includes at times, in this analysis, South Asian Nizari or Satpanth Ismaili
Shiism (2). Moreover, to account fully for the history and distribution of these
commonalities, Hiltebeitel traces the spread of this cultural complex rst from
northwest and central regions to southern ones and, subsequently, enriched by
religious, martial, and literary tropes from southern traditions, northward. The
exemplar of the rst spread is the Ballad of Raja Desing (in Tamil), a RMOE
centered on a Rajput ruler of (southern) Gingee; the northward spread is attested
to by the southern (goddess worship) roots of myths found among the Agnikula
Rajputs. Thus Hiltebeitel paints a picture of mutual borrowing, of the back and
forth of cultural inuences throughout the subcontinent.
This volume stands as an important contribution to our understanding of
how peripheral traditions subtly inuence the center and how the center subtly
inuences the periphery. It also models the kind of multidisciplinary virtuosity
necessary to understand a whole matrix of syncretic, interactive cultures and the
complex, interdependent oral and written texts they produce together. Hiltebeitel
himself writes that rethinking Indias epics has meant thinking more about literature and history than doing anthropology (7). Although some may quibble with
deducing history from literary comparisons, the resulting vision is an aesthetic
universe rooted in Sanskrit texts and expanding, in both oral and written forms,
across religion, class, history, and geography to encompass folk epics and martial
narrativesan aesthetic universe as diverse and capacious as the subcontinent
and its epics.
Put in the same room, these authors would no doubt discuss the dating of the
process of composition of the Mahabharata. While Hiltebeitel favors a quick

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redaction over a century and a half, Fitzgerald and Gonzlez-Reimann argue for
a somewhat longer process, one that would result in discernible strata and accretions. This debate is a continuation of a long-standing question of whether the
Mahabharata was a pure epic nucleus surrounded by a host of spurious accretions
or whether it was an organic whole, unied aesthetically, theologically, and
philosophically. While this debate continues, however, we should notice that
the camps are converging; before World War II, for example, V. S. Sukthankar,
the editor in chief of the team that produced the critical edition, described
Mahabharata scholarship as polarized by this debate.9 Today, epic scholars still
differ over which passages are late and which are essential, but, like their colleagues
studying Greek epic who weathered the Homeric question, they forge forward
in interpreting the text itself.
Taken together, these volumes present an array of methodologies: all rely on
close textual and philological readings; all are markedly philosophical; all emphasize and interpret the epic through literary lenses; some rely on comparative
analyses (Hiltebeitel 1999 and Woods), while others focus on historical developments (Gonzlez-Reimann and Fitzgerald). Hiltebeitel 2001 is perhaps the most
interdisciplinary of them all, but they all bring to the Mahabharata what Doniger
has called a toolbox of methodologies, a range of interpretive methodologies that,
she argues, every scholar/bricoleur should have and from which she will select
what she regards as the most appropriate tool(s) for any particular analysis.10
The new millennium has made time-worn concernschronicities, women, the
human cost of war, and individual destinyseem newly relevant, and so it is not
surprising that we nd attention to these concerns in these authors toolboxes.
We should also remember that approaching the epics as literature has a longstanding history. As J. P. Sinha has shown us, the Sanskrit critical tradition was
deeply committed to bringing out the beauty of the epic through carefully theorized
literary devices.11 Moreover, Sanskrit commentators, such as Devabodha in the
eleventh century, were concerned with interpretive issues of meaning in the epic.
And Anandavardhana famously suggested that the dominant aesthetic emotion
(rasa) of the epic was a peaceful quietude (anta); he recognized the Mahabharata as both a work of instruction and science (astra) and a work of poetry
(kavya).
These books demonstrate how the Mahabharata is connected, both within its
vast structure and without, to multiple textual and performative traditions. Each
authors interpretation depends crucially on those intertextual connections: Woods
uses the philosophies of Ramanuja and amkara, Gonzlez-Reimann the Maitrayaniya Upanisad, Fitzgerald the edicts of Aoka, and Hiltebeitel multiple folk
epic traditions. Indeed, to read the Mahabharata is to read the sprawling corpus of
9

Sukthankar, On the Meaning of the Mahabharata, 11.


Wendy Doniger, The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth, Lectures on
the History of Religions, n.s., no. 16 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 153.
The toolbox metaphor originally appears in Wendy Doniger OFlaherty, Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 56. There
she cites an unpublished 1977 work by Sheryl Daniel.
11
J. P. Sinha, The Mahabharata: A Literary Study, 1st ed. (New Delhi: Meharchand
Lachhmandas, 1977).
10

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South Asian theo-philosophical and literary texts and ideas. The Mahabharata is
not just one center of that universe, it is an entryway into it. It stands then as
an invitation not just to itself but to the interpretation of the entire religious and
aesthetic canons with which it is inevitably intertwined.
If only by dint of the very scale of its polysemic universe, the Mahabharata
should be treated as equal to other great books in the arenas of philosophy and literature. Yet to suggest that the Mahabharata can be read the way we read Shakespeare or Dante is to imply that it could also be read the way we read Devara
Dasimayya, the great tenth-century Kannada poet-saint. Let us not fear to apply
Lacan or Anandavardhana to this epicor other methodologies from other traditions. The awesome, generous Mahabharata will reward them all.

Aditya Adarkar
Montclair State University

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