Gods, Heroes, and Krsna: A Study of the Mahabharata in Relation to Indian and Indo-European Symbolisms

Author: 
Hiltebeitel, Alf
Year: 
1973

     This study of the Mahabharata first situates epic first within the larger category of legend or heroic story and second in an intermediary position between myth and ritual. It then examines what such a scheme implies for the epic genre itself. These discussions are centered on the Mahabharata, although we draw parallels from other epics where they add depth to the documentation. The study then considers comparative Indo-European Epic and asks if one can speak of the basic outline of the Mahabharata as presenting a distinct epic crisis? Or must one explain the crisis in terms of a prior myth? In our view, the evidence is strong enough to suggest that the Indo-Europeans knew a story, in certain basic details like the Mahabharata, about a dynastic struggle which brought to an end their 'heroic age.'
     From our perspective on myth, epic, and ritual, we . . . [then] begin to narrow our focus onto the particular place of Krsna in the Mahabharata. This . . . first involve[s] . . . considering what other have said about the epic Krsna. Then we . . . look at two other figures -- Vyasa and Draupadi -- who, perhaps significantly, share his name; and then, at last, we . . . make our way through the epic scenes in which he appears. This last discussion . . . [is] divided into two parts: one dealing with the pre-war Krsna and the other, with the theme of Sovereignty as concerned, primarily, with his role in the war and its aftermath. The pre-war incidents include the marriages of Draupadi and Subhadra; three episodes during Krsna's visit to the Pandavas at Indraprastha (the birth of Abhimanyu, son of Subhadra and Arjuna; a picnic by the Yamuna; and the burning of the Khandava forest); Krsna's interactions with Jarasandha and Sisupala; the disrobing of Draupadi at the dice match; Krsna's visits to the Pandavas while they are in exile; the events at Krsna's bedside as he wakes up; and the narratives in the Udyogaparvan when Krsna is the most conspicuous he has been, making speeches, representing the Pandavas on the alleged peace mission to Hastinapura, and, in point of fact, catalyzing the conditions which build up to the inevitable clash at Kuruksetra. The topics dealt with in the section on Krsna's role in the war and its aftermath include a discussions of Sri and the Sovereignty and the royal virtues. These provide a framework within which to interpret the virtues that enhance the royal figure of Yudhisthira. Despite much variation and considerable inflation, we have detected a consistent trifunctional theme. Now we . . . examine the countertheme. Underlying our discussion . . .[are] two assumptions . . . which . . . place the problem in a new perspective. First, it is of the nature of epic . . . to open vistas on the nature of sin and virtue; second, the two -- virtues and sins -- must be studied and interpreted through their relation to each other. This leads to a discussion of scholarship on the sins of the Pandavas and Krsna; it then considers Yudisthira's responsibility for the deaths of the four Kaurava generals. The concluding chapter returns to the wider Indo-European perspective and considers the eschatological themes surfacing in the Mahabharata, with a particular focus on the similarities between the Mahabharata and the Scandinavian epic tradition closest to the Mahabharata -- the account of the Battle of Br

Advisor(s): 
Mircea Eliade
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