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The Spirit of the Age

Social Vision and Historical Perspective in the Mahābhārata and the Vālmīkirāmāyaṇa

India’s age-old fascination with its two great and ancient epic tales of love and war and of the descent of the Godhead in human form to right the evils of the world and to restore the ascendancy of dharma, righteousness and order over the forces of adharma, unrighteousness, and chaos has not, to judge from a perusal of contemporary popular culture diminished in the face of the onslaught of modernity.

Indeed, since the broadcasts and video and DVD dissemination of the televised serializations of Ramanand Sagar’s Rāmāyaṇ and the Chopras’ Mahābhārata and their spin-offs from the 1980-s onwards, it seems that the popular imagination remains as fully captured by these two grand narratives as it has even been.[2] This may be observed in such phenomena as the increasing number and elaborateness of the annual Rāmlīlā-s that have become a much anticipated and heavily attended feature of the fall holiday season in Delhi and other North Indian cities[3] and even in the use of epic characters and episodes in such popular and ephemeral media as television commercials.[4]

If in the popular mind the two epics have tended to merge somewhat into  a  set  of  easily  recognizable themes,  episodes,  and  larger  than  life characters that is readily understandable. The central themes of the two poems are quite similar. In both, the supreme deity, Lord Viṣṇu Nārāyaṇa graciously agrees to take on a human or seemingly human birth at  the request of gods who are being harassed by powerful demonic forces. In both cases the Lord is assisted in his mission by other divinities who incarnate as humans or animals along with him. Both poems involve questions of royal succession, the temporary exile of their heroes and feature as their central emotive moments villainous assaults upon their principal heroines. Finally, both tales culminate in grand and sanguinary battles, changing their worlds forever and resulting in the triumph of the forces of dharma over those of adharma.  Both end with the return of their divine heroes to their heavenly abodes. Indeed the themes of the two poems are so similar that the epic career of the Rāmāyaṇa’s hero could be easily incorporated wholesale as an upākhyāna for the instruction and consolation of the similarly situated central hero of the Mahābhārata.

However, although both epics organize their central plots around these very similar events and themes, the strategies and the military-political goals of the victorious parties in the two poems are starkly different. These differing goals moreover are closely aligned with radically different senses of history that characterize the central thematic concerns of the works. In what follows I shall attempt to outline these differences and to put forward some preliminary and tentative efforts to explain and interpret them.

Before doing so, I should say a word about my overall approach to the poems, especially the Mahābhārata, Many thinkers and scholars both in India and the west have, at least since the time of Nīlakaṇṭha Caturdhara and probably much earlier, have attempted to define the central theme or “meaning” of this massive work. Interpretations have varied widely. The poem has been regarded as an advaitavedāntic treatise, a record of a struggle between Hinduism and Buddhism, an allegory of the conquest of the base passions, a charter for nationalist resistance, a Vaiṣṇava tract and, of course, simply a historical record of a political struggle and civil war in the late Vedic era Doab. The reason for the wide variety of interpretations is no doubt the ability of the text itself to suggest and sustain most if not all of them. The fact is that the poem is not about any one single thing but truly lives up to its author’s boast, “yad ihāsti tad anyatra,  yan nehāsti na tat kvacit.”[5]

In making the following remarks then I do not wish to be understood to be putting forward or accepting any single overarching interpretation of the great epics. The works are indeed by design far too great for that. Rather I would like to try to tease out one or two important threads from the thematic tapestry of the poems whose elucidation may help us add to our knowledge of these monumental works and the worldviews of the different eras in which they took shape.

The warring parties in the Mahābhārata are linked by close ties of kinship  and  even  affection while  those  in  the  Rāmāyaṇa  are  alien  and seemingly implacably hostile species — humans and vānaras on the one hand and savage rākṣasas on the other. The conflict in the former is, ironically, a pitiless  war  of  near  total  extermination,  thoroughly  in  keeping  with  a political strategy of wiping out one’s enemies to the last individual while that in the latter follows the far more humane approach of offering the offender an opportunity to abandon his evil ways and, when he does not to replace him with a more benign leader of the same race.

The signal and most immediately apparent difference in the two struggles is manifested at the outset of each epic at the level of the mythological framing of the two stories and concerns the identity of the poems’ villains whose evil acts initiate the hostilities in both cases. In the Mahābhārata, the malign forces whose depredations require that the gods take birth in human form to combat them are unambiguously plural. In the 58thadhyāya of the ‘Ādiparvan’ we learn that the Goddess Earth herself has become overburdened by the weight and sheer numbers of the demonic hosts, the asuras,  who, once their lordship of the worlds has been wrested from  them  by  the  gods,  incarnate  themselves  as  a  vast  generation  of rapacious kings.[6]

Thus, unlike many well-known purāṇic narratives and the Rāmāyaṇa story itself, the framing narrative of the Mahābhārata identifies no particular individual demonic antihero against whom the avatāra-protagonist and his allies are to be ranged. Evil in the age of the Mahābhārata, the late Dvāparayuga, has become diffuse since it resides in an entire class. For, by the peculiar metonymic logic of the Mahābhārata the locus of adharma in this period comes to be generalized from the hosts of demonic kings to virtually the entire kṣatriya class itself, the good and the bad alike.

By very definition, then, the solution to the problematic of the poem can only be achieved through what amounts almost to a form of mass slaughter, a vast holocaust in which the sacrificial victims will be virtually the entire warrior class.[7] Thus, although in the complex narrative of this conflict that spans the  lifetime of the  earthly manifestation of Śrīkṛṣṇa, particularly egregious examples and ringleaders of this type, such as Śiśupāla,  Jayadratha,  Jarāsandha,  Duḥśāsana,  and,  most  notably, Duryodhana will be singled out, their destruction cannot in itself, solve the problem.[8] The oppression of the earth and its peoples can only be washed away in a sea of aristocratic blood that will drown all but a handful of the most powerful and virtuous warriors of the age. Vyāsa makes no effort to conceal this dark thematic. Indeed he constantly holds the motif of near total genocide before the eyes of his audiences through a continual series of parallel narratives that serve to first foreshadow and then recall the war of annihilation that forms the narrative centerpiece of the epic.  Virtually  the  first  things  we  learn  in  the Mahābhārata is that the sūta Ugraśravas, having heard the epic tale from Vaiśaṃpāyana at the snake sacrifice of the Kaurava dynast Janamejaya then visited the  pilgrimage site  of  Samantapañcaka before proceeding to  the Naimiṣa  forest where he recites the story in turn to the sages assembled there.[9] Both of these references — the sarpasattra and the samantapañcakatīrtha — have significant and obvious holocaustic implications. The sarpasattra of Janamejaya at which Vaiśaṃpāyana regaled the participants with the heroic deeds of the patron’s forebears is after all a ritual whose purpose is the destruction of an entire race of beings, the great nāgas or semi-divine serpents, who figure so prominently in Indian myth and folklore. Their destruction is no doubt intended to prefigure the doom of the kṣatriyas.[10] Their partial holocaust is decreed by Brahmā as necessary since, like the kings, they too are too numerous and in many cases wicked.[11] Their doom is first pronounced in a curse by their matriarch Kadrū;[12] but the way in which it is accomplished is illustrative of the way in which these narratives of extermination are structured. The snakes as a class are doomed for  fiery  destruction  in  an  act  of  genocidal fury  provoked  by  a  single member of their race.

The Bharata dynast Janamejaya is so enraged by the Nāga lord Takṣaka’s killing of his father the Kuru dynast Parikṣit that he vows to avenge himself not just on the author of this deed (predetermined though it was by a curse) but by every last member of his race. This theme of collective guilt and punishment is one that, as we shall see, lies close to the heart of the Mahābhārata and one that will recur in several of contexts throughout the poem. Also noteworthy is the fact that the planned holocaust is incomplete. It is interrupted through the intercession of the sage Astika, the officiating priest, so that on the very verge of extinction the nāgas are ultimately spared actual extinction.[13] Ironically, and interestingly, Takṣaka, the culprit on whose account the snakes are slaughtered, himself escapes the holocaust. The slaughter of the nāgas is further thematically tied to the story of the similarly interrupted sacrifice undertaken for the extermination of the rākṣasas by the sage Parāśara in revenge for the act of the king-become- rākṣasa Kalmāṣapāda’s  having  killed  his  father  Śaktin.  Here too, the intended holocaust of the whole race of rākṣasas in retribution for the actions of one of their number is interrupted before its completion by the intervention of venerable sages including Pulastya, the ancestor of the rākṣasas and Vasiṣṭha, Parāśara’s grandfather.[14]

The second fact about his recent travels that Ugraśravas reveals to the sages is that among the various unnamed tīrtha-s he has just visited, he singles out for special mention the holy site of Samantapañcaka. This site is of significance to the epic because of two events that took place there at very different times but which are clearly understood to be thematically related to the epic’s central event. For it was here at the juncture between the Dvāpara and the Kali yugas that the great Bhāratayuddha itself took place[15] while, earlier, at the juncture between the Tretā and the Dvāpara yugas it was at this very same spot that the great nemesis of the kṣatriya class, the fearsome brahman-warrior Rāma Jāmadagnya exterminated all the warriors of the earth twenty-one times filling five great lakes with their blood.[16] This episode exerts a peculiar fascination over the epic bards and redactors, being repeated no fewer than four times in detail in the poem and alluded to on dozens of other occasions.[17] This oft-told tale is in turn closely linked to the story of the universal holocaust undertaken by the Bhārgava child-sage Aurva in his implacable rage at the genocide perpetrated by the Haihaya kings against his clan for their having hidden their wealth from them.[18] Again, the extermination that he  has  undertaken  can  only  be  halted  by  the  intervention  of  Aurva’s murdered kinsmen who pacify him by telling him that they intentionally provoked their own destruction at the hands of their patrons since they had become weary with life and could not commit the sin of suicide.[19]

All of these stories of offense followed by genocidal retribution serve, as it were, to set the stage for the central event of the Mahābhārata the great, eighteen-day massacre on the killing fields of Kurukṣetra. It is the very prospect  of  this  slaughter  of  his  own  kinsmen  that  causes  Arjuna,  the greatest hero of his age, to lose his nerve. This forces Śrī Kṛṣṇa to lecture to him on the stern duty of a warrior and to argue that he is but a mere instrument in the much larger and ineluctable process of periodic universal destruction that is the essence of the created universe. No one who has read it can ever forget the graphic and masterful description of the destruction of the warrior class in the jaws of Death in the Bhagavad Gītā’s representation of the Vairāṭarūpa of the Lord as Kāla, Time himself.[20]

With this brief survey in mind let me now turn to a discussion of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa in which one might expect this theme of collective guilt and genocidal retribution to be even more clearly highlighted than in the Mahābhārata.  For in the latter we see a familial power struggle move into a civil war in which there are profound ties of kinship and affection joining many of the combatants on the two sides.  Consider for a moment the emotional turmoil Arjuna must face at the prospect of fighting and killing such venerable gurus as his Pitāmaha Bhīṣma, Droṇācārya, etc.

On the other hand the Rāmāyaṇa purports to represent the chronicle of a foreign war, an overseas expedition against a congenitally evil race of demons, enemies of everything for which the epic hero stands. Not only are Rāma’s opponents unrelated to him by blood, they are not even human. If the  successful prosecution of  a  bloody  war or a  campaign of genocide depends on the de-humanization of the enemy, then there should be no problem  whatever  in  our  hero’s  wiping  out  this  devilish  spawn,  the rapacious, violent, cruel, and bloodthirsty rākṣasas, who exemplify entrenched and implacable hostility to dharma itself, that is to say to all of the beliefs and practices of vedic-brahmanical civilization. In short, unlike the situation facing the linked yet warring lines of the lunar dynasty, the mise en scène of the Rāmāyaṇa seems ideally constructed for the extirpation of the ego-alien rākṣasas, the ghoulish, night-roaming (niśācara)  sons of chaos (nairṛta), who haunt the imagination of the early Aryans. Indeed this idea is not totally alien to many influential versions of the Rāmāyaṇa. Thus, notably in the ‘Araṇyakāṇḍa’ of the Adhyātmarāmāyaṇa, Rāma, when he hears from the despondent and terrified forest sages about the atrocities perpetrated against them by the rākṣasas, is said to vow the complete extirpation of their kind.  “When Rāma had heard those words of the sages, so filled with fear and misery, he vowed the complete extermination of the rākṣasas.[21] This vow is famously echoed by Rāma in Goswami Tulsi Dās’ immensely influential Rāmcaritmānas  at the same point in the narrative. “Raising his arm he took a vow, ‘I shall rid the earth of rākṣasas!’ Then, visiting all the āśrams of the sages he delighted them.”[22]

But this vow of total extermination appears to be an innovation on the part of the author of the Adhyātmarāmāyaṇa. In the parallel passage of Vālmīki’s poem, that is to say the scene in which Rāma promises to relieve the sages of the Daṇḍaka forest of the depredations of the rākṣasas, it seems evident that he means to restrict his punitive campaign to those miscreants who are actually assaulting the holy men. In this, the oldest known version of the Rāmakathā, Rama’s statement to the ascetics is thus rather different from the all-encompassing vow of annihilation of the entire race of the demons. He says only, “I wish to slay in battle the rākṣasas who are the enemies of the ascetics.”[23] Of course, the idea of the  total extermination of one’s foes  does surface from time to time in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa in the form of a boast or a threat but the acting out of such claims is not seen and, as I will demonstrate, is, in fact, counter to the spirit of the poem and the morality of its hero. Thus, for example, Sītā threatens Rāvaṇa with the annihilation of his people at her husband’s hands,[24] while Trijaṭā warns her rākṣasī sisters of Rāma’s destruction of their race.[25]  Hanumān similarly threatens the demon-king[26] while even Rāma himself instructs Aṅgada to carry a warning of the impending annihilation of his people to Rāvaṇa if (and only if) he fails to surrender Sītā.[27] Similarly, this kind of hyperbolic vaunting is indulged in from time to time by the rākṣasas themselves as when, for example, the rākṣasa warrior Prahasta vows to exterminate all the monkeys.[28]

But all of these   are   merely   rhetorical   devices   and   are,   in   any   case,   mostly representative of the kind of formulaic martial vaunting characteristic of the epic warriors. Rāma’s goal is not, as the epic makes very clear, the annihilation of the rākṣasas but what is known in contemporary international political rhetoric as, “regime change.” The object of the Laṅkan war is the destruction of the tyrant responsible for the outrages perpetrated against the Aryans, outrages that culminate in the fateful abduction of Sītā, and his replacement with a friendly and righteous ruler who will become an ally of the hegemonic power, the Kosalan State.

Nor is the Rāmāyaṇa’s dissociation of its hero from the themes of collective guilt and punishment merely left by the Ādikavi to be inferred. On the contrary the immorality of collective guilt and collective punishment is expressly addressed by that paragon of dharma Rāma himself in a situation of extreme duress where such practices might seem most tempting and even necessary. In the sixty-seventh sarga  of the ‘Yuddhakāṇḍa’ Rāma faces his most desperate crisis of the war and indeed appears to be on the point of utter  defeat  and  failure  in  his  quest  to  defeat  Rāvaṇa  and  recover  his abducted   wife.   Rāvaṇa’s   powerful   and   terrifying   son,   the   warrior Meghanāda, also known by his epithet Indrajit, has wrought complete havoc in the ranks of the monkey army and, through his superb command of divine weaponry and the arts of illusion, is able to invisibly strike down any and all of his enemies with impunity. In desperation at the slaughter being wrought in the monkey ranks and his frustration at his inability to do anything to stop it, Lakṣmaṇa proposes that he be permitted to unleash the dreaded Brahmāstra, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, which, with its genocidal power, will put a sudden and decisive end to the war by instantly wiping out the entire rākṣasa race. “Then in a towering rage Lakṣmaṇa spoke these words to his brother, ‘I shall use the divine missile of Brahmā in order to exterminate all the rākṣasas.’  But, Rāma said this in reply to Lakṣmaṇa, of auspicious marks, ‘You should not slaughter all rākṣasas of the earth on account of a single one. Therefore, mighty warrior, let us strive to slay him alone. Let us summon our divine missiles that strike with tremendous force and resemble venomous serpents.’”[29]

Even Garuḍa, after restoring the wounded Rāma to health and vitality, suggests a limited campaign against the rākṣasas.  Addressing Rāma as, “ripūṇām api vatsala (compassionate even to his enemies),”[30] he urges him to kill only the male rākṣasas of military age, sparing children and the elderly.[31]

How strikingly different is the attitude reflected here from that which lies at the very core of the Mahābhārata.  How unlike the shifting ethical sands of the larger epic is the unshakeable moral bedrock of this one. For Vālmīki and his hero the ends do not justify the means. If a thing is wrong then it is wrong and no situation, however dire, can make it right or permissible.

Nor is Rāma the only figure in the epic to stand against the kind of vengefulness and blood-feuding that characterizes the Bhārata War and its aftermath. The difference between the attitudes that characterizes the heroes of the two poems also carries over to their heroines.

As is well known and amply documented in the Mahābhārata,  the much wronged and long-suffering Draupadī shows little in  the  way of feminine  gentleness  and  forgiveness  with  regard  to  her  tormenters. Although the popular tradition of her vowing to keep her hair unbound until she can dress it with Duḥśāsana’s blood is merely hinted at in the Mahābhārata  itself[32] there are several passages in which she expresses a vengeful attitude and incites her husbands, particularly Bhīma, to exact bloody vengeance on her behalf. Thus in the ‘Āraṇyakaparvan’ she urges Bhīma to take bloody revenge on Jayadratha for his attempted abduction of her.[33] Again in the Virāṭaparvan Draupadī conspires with Bhīma and incites him to exact brutal and gory revenge on Kīcaka who had been molesting her.[34] This aspect of her personality will continue until almost the very end of the epic when she urges her husbands to wreak bloody vengeance on Aśvatthāman, a request they will ultimately refuse, releasing him after his defeat.[35] Draupadī’s response to her tormentors and her passionate desire for sanguinary retribution is fully in keeping with the Mahābhārata’s overarching themes of vengeance and violence that are exemplified by its masculine characters as mentioned above.

But let us now turn once again to the Rāmāyaṇa by way of a contrastive analysis. The case in point here would be Sītā’s comments on the fierce rākṣasa women who have been menacing and tormenting her during her captivity in Rāvaṇa’s aśoka grove once she has the opportunity to see them punished for their abuse. When, after the death of Rāvaṇa, Rāma sends Hanumān  as  a  messenger  to  bring  the  good  news  to  Sītā,  there  is  an interesting conversation between the liberated queen and the great monkey- hero who is, incidentally the older brother of the violent Bhīma and shares many of his traits. After a warm exchange of greetings and mutual praise, Hanumān begs permission from the queen to indulge his desire to violently slaughter her rākṣasī wardresses whose cruel threats and torment had earlier driven her to the brink of suicidal despair. But as did Rāma with Lakṣmaṇa Sītā rebukes Hanumān for his vengeful attitude interceding on behalf of the demonic women with what may well be the first appearance in any text anywhere of what we have come in modern times to know as the Nuremburg Defense:

“Addressed in this fashion by Hanumān, the illustrious Vaidehī, daughter of Janaka, responded to him in words that were in keeping with righteousness. ‘Who, foremost of monkeys, would be angry at servant women, mere functionaries, who being dependents of the king are obedient, and act only on the orders of another. It is as a consequence of my evil destiny and my own misdeeds in the past that I have suffered all of this. For one always experiences the fruits of one’s acts. I have concluded that I had to suffer this as a consequence of my evil fate; and being helpless, I had to endure all of that here at the hands of Rāvaṇa’s servant women. These rākṣasa women tormented me only on the orders of Rāvaṇa. Now that he has been slain, foremost of monkeys, they will not torment me any more.’[36]

Sītā then goes on to lecture the monkey on the necessity of doing good to all creatures even those who, like the rākṣasas, are wicked by nature. “One should not inflict harm upon the shape-shifting rākṣasas even though they do evil and take pleasure in injuring people.”[37]

Without belaboring the point too much here, I think that it is clear that in a number of critical respects with regard to the conduct of war and its political aftermath, the two great Sanskrit epics, whose central mythological themes seem at first glance to be so similar, show some striking and significant differences.

The Pāṇḍava brothers and their Kaurava cousins wage a civil war of mutual annihilation in the course of which the Mahābhārata’s  recurrent mythic themes of collective guilt  and punishment are  acted out  in  real historical time so that virtually an entire generation of the ancient Indian warrior class  is  wiped out,  leaving its  world in  ruins  to  lapse into the barbarities of the Kaliyuga. Rāma’s project, however, is quite different. His primary purpose is the overthrow and destruction of an iniquitous and tyrannical despot and his inner circle in favor of a handpicked ally in the person of Vibhīṣaṇa. The rākṣasas may, as Sītā notes in the passage quoted above,  be  congenitally  malicious;  but  that  alone  still  does  not  justify harming them. In the world of Vālmīki punishment may be harsh but it must be measured. The innocent must not be destroyed for the sins of the guilty.

But in the light of this rather stark difference in the moral and political economy of the two great epics, the question must naturally arise as to what we can possibly make of it. Well, as in all matters of interpretation of these massive and complex texts, one must tread carefully, for they are rich and multilayered constructions that have come to bear a great number of meanings. Truly it has been said that the Mahābhārata is durvijjñeyam surair api and the same can be said in some measure at least for the Rāmāyaṇa. These  are  texts  that  operate  on  many  levels  and  certainly do  not  lend themselves to any single overarching interpretation. Therefore it would be foolhardy to try to state with any certainty (as many others have done) exactly what the epics are “about.”

Nonetheless,  one  is  tempted  to  speculate  here  as  to  what  this difference may suggest to us about the socio-political and intellectual conditions in South Asia that may have contributed to the different thematics of the two poems. If, as I strongly believe, an epic, by its very nature, captures and expresses the most deeply ingrained and cherished beliefs and ideologies of the civilization whose worldview it expresses, then we must look for some ways in which the circumstances under which the two epics took their present form may have differed. Such an investigation, if fruitful, may also give us some further insight into the still disputed question about the relative dating of the two poems. If, in the light of what I have noted above, we were to step back for a moment and try to capture in a word the weltanschaung expressed in each of the poems, I would say that the Rāmāyaṇa, despite its mournful indulgence in the karuṇarasa, the aesthetic mood of loss and grief, is fundamentally a work  filled  with  a  feeling  of  what  one  would  have  to  call  historical optimism. Rāma’s world, as Vālmīki depicts it, is a largely utopian one. Kosala is the ideal state governed according to the well-established beliefs and practices of the varṇāśrama system that lies at the heart of the socio- political discourse of Brahmanism. It  is  a  state — a world  even — that is almost perfectly ordered, flawed as it is only by a single element of disorder in the person of the formidable violator of all brahmanical norms of law, propriety, diet and sexual mores, that infamous thorn in the side of the world, the fearsome lokakaṇṭaka, Rāvaṇa.

Rāma’s mission then is a simple one although it is immensely difficult and costs him and Sītā dearly in terms of trial and suffering. The very purpose of his birth, the reason for which Lord Viṣṇu takes a human form, is the destruction of this fearsome, yet fascinating, embodiment of everything brahmanical civilization feared. Evil, it seems — at any rate serious evil — is essentially incarnate in a single individual whose power has been greatly enhanced  through  his  abusive  appropriation  of  one  of  the  fundamental values of the civilization itself, asceticism. In slaying Rāvaṇa, then Rāma has at a single stroke destroyed virtually all of the evil and disorder in his world. There is no need to exterminate the rākṣasas in Rāma’s New World Order for even these fearsome demons, when governed according to the precepts of brahmanical society by a righteous ruler, Rāma’s ally and his hand-picked successor to his brother, Vibhīṣaṇa, present no further threat to that world order or, to put it succinctly, to dharma.  In fact, the epic makes it abundantly clear, with implications that have reverberated through the ages down to the present day, that once Rāma has eliminated Rāvaṇa, he ushers in a new Kṛtayuga, or Golden Age, in which there can be only minor, transient, and easily remedied disturbances to the perfect harmony of both nature and society. In short Rāma in embarking on his deferred Rāmarājya is explicitly said,  although  he  is  ruling  in  the  Tretāyuga,  to  recreate  the  utopian conditions of the Kṛtayuga. Thus in its opening chapter the poem says that the condition of the world under Rāma’s ruler-ship were just like those in the Kṛtayuga, or Golden Age (kṛtayuge yathā).[38]

There are a number of noteworthy things about this passage, Not only does the rule of the rightful and righteous monarch eliminate all economic hardship, all mental and physical disease and even all natural disasters but it instantiates a particular kind of social order with special reference to issues of gender and class. Note that in the Rāmarājya women are always faithful to their husbands and, perhaps even more importantly the four socio-ritual of Vedic society, the priestly class, the ruling class, the productive class and the working class are not permitted to depart from their predetermined functions and occupations. In other words the Rāmāyaṇa represents a kind of historical optimism in that it relates a tale in which the downward spiral of history as mapped onto the classical yuga theory is arrested and reversed through the instantiation of a millenarian polity, the literal kingdom of God on earth. The myth, if one chooses to regard it as such, is that of a cataclysmic struggle leading to the renewal of the world. What about the Mahābhārata?  If the Rāmāvatāra can at a single stroke, as it were, eliminate all evil and disorder in the world and so reverse the flow of history, why can’t the Kṛṣṇāvatāra do so as well? After all, Rāma, as a consequence of the particular terms of Rāvaṇa’s boon must remain largely unaware of his own divinity and consequently, of the cosmic dimension of his feat, while Kṛṣṇa labors under no such restriction. On the contrary he is fully aware of his own true nature and makes the purpose of his mission unambiguously clear in his famous announcement in the Gītā, “I take birth in age after age for the establishment of dharma, for the protection of the virtuous and the destuction of the evil doers.”[39]

But the vināśa that Kṛṣṇa engineers is the destruction not only of the evildoers, it is, as indicated above, a more or less universal wiping out virtually the entire warrior class, the duskṛts and the sādhus alike. And why? Because as noted above, evil is not located in any one individual but is spread throughout an entire generation of asura-kings. In other words it is inherent in the system itself. The system cannot therefore be purged of its corrupt elements. It is itself corrupt and so it must fall to be replaced by a newer — but not necessarily a better — order.

Kṛṣṇa does not arrest or reverse the movement of history because he is that very movement itself. As he himself puts it, “I am Time, destroyer of the worlds, come to maturation to destroy the world.”[40] He is the very agent of an inevitable  historical  decline  and  his  departure  from  the  historical  plane marks precisely the transition from the heroic age of the Dvāpara  to the unpleasant realities of this, the present Kaliyuga.

Thus, the Mahābhārata ends on a note that one can only call one of historical pessimism as its aging and dejected heroes, the last survivors of their once powerful generation, make their last, sad trek into the Himalayas. Here there is no 11,000-year Kingdom of God, no reversal of the flow of history, no restoration of the perfection of the Kṛtayuga. We see only the fading of the age of glory, yugānta,  and the sense of a world in ruins inspiring, as the medieval Kashmiri alaṃkāraśāstrins, Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta famously pointed out, śāntarasa,  the aesthetic mood of tranquility, a state that is inspired in turn only by the profound experience of vairāgya, or renunciation of the world. This is precisely the experience that, as these scholars first pointed out, the Mahābhārata is designed to engender.

But what can be the reasons for this immense difference in outlook, the one positive and looking backward to a legendary golden past that will now be renewed and the other ahead to a world of decline, disorder, chaos, and ashes? To my mind the most compelling explanation in the light of the above is that the epics were composed at two different historical moments when their authors and their audiences faced different kinds of historical circumstances.

The world of Vālmīki knows disorder and resistance to the discourse of Vedism and Brāhmaṇism but it appears to be of a type that is seen as surmountable and even assimilable. The rākṣasas of Laṅkā may destroy the sacrifices of the Aryans, assault their priests, and abduct their women but, as the poem shows us, they have their own readily comprehensible Vedic rites and their own priests. Rāvaṇa is himself a Brahman descended from the great ṛṣi Pulastya, one of the mind-born sons of Brahmā. We can see from his elaborately described funeral that Rāma feels that he is fully entitled to an elaborate vaidika saṃskāra.  Indeed, he misbehaved, but he was given every opportunity to make restitution and abandon his evil ways and thus avoid retribution against himself and his people. Since he was incapable of repentance and persisted in his evil ways, he had to pay the price. After his fall, Rāma appears entertain no bitter feelings against him and indeed takes no further punitive action against the defeated rākṣasas. As Rāma himself puts  it  when  he  instructs  the  reluctant  Vibhīṣaṇa  to  proceed  with Rāvaṇa’s obsequies, “maraṇāntāni vairāṇi  (all enmity ends with death).”[41]

It is possible to conjecture here that part of the framing of the story is an early response of brahmanical elites of the so-called janapada period to the rise of the śramaṇa movements in the Gangetic plain during the 6th  and 5thcenturies BCE. These movements reject many of the beliefs and practices of the Vedic religion and its associated social order but they also share manyof the fundamental metaphysical beliefs and life-cycle rituals. These groups, Ājīvakas,  Jainas  and  Bauddhas,  although  in  later  times  some  of  them, notably  the  Buddhists, would  arouse  the  ire  of  Hindu  thinkers  such  as Śaṅkarācārya,  do  not  appear  ever  to  have  been  seen  as  utterly  alien intrusions into the  body of Indian society and civilization. The Buddha himself, the most successful of the anti-brahmanical reformers in terms of the numbers and spread of his doctrines and his followers could easily be assimilated by the Vaiṣṇava purāṇas as an avatāra of the Lord. This remains true to this day with Hindus evincing no animosity towards Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism, faiths recognized as growing out of the soil of India and the heart of Indian civilization, even though adherents of these religions do not regard themselves as Hindus.[42] In the historical milieu of the mid first millennium BCE challenges to the vaidika worldview are seen as real but manageable. Excesses can be punished but such punishment restores harmony. If the rākṣasa king becomes too threatening, eliminate him. If a śūdra usurps the socio-religious functions of his ritual superiors, execute him.[43] Society and civilization will be restored to their normal function.

The world faced by Vyāsa and the redactors of the Mahābhārataseems to have been quite different. The gloom that hovers like a palpable cloud over the closing chapters of the great epic seems to me to betoken a profound civilizational crisis in which the whole ancient and familiar order of society has been put in mortal danger. Although the antagonists of the dhārmic heroes of the poem are represented as the close kinsmen of its heroes, that identification is ironic. Even leaving aside the fact that one party consists  of  the  earthly  incarnations  of  the  devas  and  the  other  their congenital arch enemies and cousins the asuras with whom they have been at  war  virtually  since  the  creation,  the  two sides  are  divided  along  a profound and finally unbridgeable religious divide.

Despite the Vedic ambience in which they move, Pāṇḍavas are, in fact, Bhāgavatas, Vaiṣṇavas convinced of the Godhead of Śrīkṛṣṇa and devoted to his worship. This fact is made clear over and over again, as for example in the ‘Sabhāparvan’’s  account of the decision to honor Kṛṣṇa above all other guests  at  the  Rājasūya,  Bhīṣma’s  hymn  of  praise  to  Kṛṣṇa  as  the paramātman, the primal cause and all-in-all of the universe,[44] and, of course, in Kṛṣṇa’s revelation of his divine form and religious discourse to Arjuna in the Bhagavadgītā[45]  as well as in the various anugītā-s that mark the text. If there is one thing that on the deepest level differentiates Duryodhana and his followers from the Pāṇḍavas it is his staunch refusal to accept Kṛṣṇa as the Lord, a refusal that will cost him his kingdom and his life.

What may be behind the pessimism of the Mahābhārata  then, is the exposure of late vaidika early Hindu culture with new, powerful, exogenous and — initially  at  least — seemingly  unassimilable  forces  in  the  form  of peoples who did not share the fundamental metaphysical, social, cultural and religious beliefs and practices of early Hindu (including Jaina and Bauddha) India.  Such forces might be represented by groups like the Greeks, the Hunas, the Śakas, the Kushanas, the Persians, and other mleccha elements that entered the subcontinent in force from the 4th century BCE and onwards. In later centuries similar crises can be seen with the advent of Islam as a political force on the subcontinent and the advent of European colonialism and missionary activities.

Thus it is possible that in the Mahābhārata’s dark vision of the coming of the Kaliyuga we see reflected in a disguised form a kind of future shock in the form of a cultural anxiety connected with a sense that, “the old order changeth givimg way to new… lest one good custom should corrupt the world”[46], and that the ancient hegemony of the brahmanical ideology was in danger. It seems to reflect a world in which the  old  cultural resilience expressed in the historical optimism of the Rāmāyaṇa appears to be threatened by forces beyond its control. For these reasons, as well as others that I will not detail here, I continue to believe that, contrary to the opinions expressed in recent writings by a number of western epic scholars, but in agreement with the virtually unanimous belief of the traditional Indian culture, the Rāmāyaṇa is, at its heart, a work composed some centuries earlier than the Mahābhārata which is more modern in its tenor and its substance.





Primary Sources:

Adhyātma-Rāmāyaṇa: Adhyatma Ramayana: The Spiritual Version of the Rama Saga. Original Sanskrit with English Translation by Swami Tapasyananda. Mylapore, Madras Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2001.

Bhagavadgītā (BhG) Text as in Critical Edition of the Mahābhārata (see below)

Mahābhārata:  Critical Edition. 24 vols. (MBh) Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. With Harivaṃśa Critically edited by V. S. Sukthankar et al., 1933-1970.

Rāmcaritmānas: Tulasidasa’s Shri Ramacharitamanasa:  The Holy Lake of the Acts of Rama Edited and Translated into Hindi and English by R. C. Prasad. Delhi. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1999.

The Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa: Critical  Edition. 7 vols. (Ram) Baroda: Oriental Institute. General editors: G. H. Bhatt and U. P. Shah 1960-1975.

Secondary Sources:

Goldman,  Robert.  Gods,  Priests,  and  Warriors:  The  Bhārgavas  of  the Mahābhārata. NewYork: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Hiltebeitel, Alf. The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata,  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

“Draupadi’s Hair.” Puruṣārtha 5, pp.179-214. 1981,

Jatavallabhula, Danielle Feller. “Raṇayajña: the Mahābhārata War as a Sacrifice” in Violence Denied: Violence, Non-Violence and  the Rationalization  of  Violence in  South  Asian  Cultural  History.  J.  E.  M. Houben and Karel R van Kooij, eds. Brill’s Indological Library Volume 16. Leiden: Brill, 1999.

Lutgendorf, Philip. “Ramayan: The Video.” TDR (The Drama Review: A Journal of Performance Studies) 34:2 (T126), 1990, pp.127-76.

Pollock, Sheldon. “The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki” An Epic of Ancient India. Volume III Araṇyakāṇḍa. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1991.

Rajagopal, Arvind. Politics After Television: Religious Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Uses Of The Past : The Televisual Broadcast of an Ancient Indian Epic and Its Reception in Indian Society. Thesis (Ph.D. in Sociology) University of California, Berkeley, May 1992.

Endnotes and References

[1] The article was first published in Radhavallabh Tripathi (ed.), Śrutimahatī: Glory of Sanskrit Tradition (Ram Karan Sharma Felicitation Volume), Vol.1, New Delhi: Pratibha Prakashan, 2008, pp.305-322. Republished with permission from the author and the publisher.

[2]On  the  significance  and  impact  of  the  televised  serials  see  Lutgendorf  (1990)  and Rajagopal (1992 and 2001).

[3] One particularly interesting feature of these events is the way in which the traditional opposing forces of good and evil are supplemented with figures and concerns drawn from the headlines. Thus, for example, in the fall of 2004 the traditional effigy of Rāvaṇa shared the stage in at least one Delhi Rāmlīlā with the recently killed outlaw Veerappan, while in the fall of 2005 the added villains were the ‘Discoms,’ the local electricity distribution companies that had become the object of outrage in the wake of newly imposed (and quickly rescinded) rate hikes.

[4] In a current example the actor playing the heroic vulture lord Jaṭāyus at a staged performance of the Rāmāyaṇa stops to the consternation of the audience in the middle of the performance to enjoy a pizza delivered to the theatre.

[5] MBh 18.5.38.

dharme cārthe ca kāme ca mokṣe ca bharatarṣabha /

yad ihāsti tad anyatra yan nehāsti na tat kvacit //

[6] Mbh 1.58.25-35.

[7] Cf. Hiltebeitel 1990 and Jatavallabhula 1999.

[8] Śrīkṛṣṇa’s mission to destroy Kaṃsa and his demonic minions presents a greater parallel with the theme of the Rāmāyaṇa but this portion of the narrative of the avatāra is not dealt with in the Mahābhārata itself, being left to such later texts as the Harivaṃśa, the Bhāgavatapurāṇa, etc.

[9] janamejayasya rājarṣeḥ sarpasatre mahātmanaḥ/

  samīpe  pārthivendrasya samyak pārikṣitasya ca//

  kṛṣṇadvaipāyanaproktāḥ supuṇyā vividhāḥ kathāḥ/

  kathitāś cāpi vidhivad yā vaiśaṃpāyanena vai//

  śrutvāhaṃ tā vicitrārthā mahābhāratasaṃśritāḥ/

  bahūni saṃparikramya  tīrthāny āyatanāni ca //

  samantapañcakaṃ  nāma puṇyaṃ dvijaniṣevitam /

  gatavān asmi taṃ deśaṃ yuddhaṃ yatrābhavat purā//

  pāṇḍavānāṃ  kurūṇāṃ ca sarveṣāṃ ca mahīkṣitām/

didṛkṣur āgatas tasmāt samīpaṃ bhavatām iha //

āyuṣmantaḥ sarva eva brahmabhūtā hi me matāḥ/

asmin yajñe mahābhāgāḥ sūryapāvakavarcasaḥ//

kṛtābhiekāḥ śucayaḥ ktajapyā hutāgnaya/

bhavanta āsate svasthā bravīmi kim ahaṃ dvijāḥ//

purāṇasaṃśritāḥ puṇyāḥ kathā vā dharmasaṃśritāḥ/

itivttaṃ narendrāṇāṃ ṛṣīṇāṃ ca mahātmanām //

MBh 1.1.8-14.

[10] It  is  interesting  to  note  in  this  connection  that  several  of  the  snakes  killed  at Janamejaya’s sacrifice have the same names as characters in the central epic narrative, names such as Kauravya, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Śakuni, etc., MBh 1.52.10 ff.

[11] MBh 1.34.8 ff.

[12]MBh 1.18.7-8.

[13] MBh 1.53.

[14] MBh 1.172-1-17.

[15] MBh 1.1.10-12.

[16] MBh 1.2.1-5.

[17] For a discussion of this and related themes in the Mahābhārata. see Goldman, 1977.

[18] MBh 1.169-171.

[19] MBh 1.170.14-21.

[20] Bhagavadgītā 11.25-30.

[21] śrutvā vākyaṃ munīnāṃ sa bhayadainyasamanvitam/

   pratijñām akarod rāmo vadhāyāśeṣarakṣasām//

Adhyātmarāmāyaṇa 3.2.22.

[22] nisicarahīn karaiṃ mahi bhuja uṭhai pana kīnha /

   sakala muninha ke āśram jāi sukh dīnha //

Rāmcaritmānas 3, doha 9.

[23] tapasvināṃ raṇe śatrūn hantum icchāmi rākṣasān

Rām 3.5.20.

[24] Rām 5.19.22.

[25] Rām 5.25.6.

[26] Rām 5.49.31.

[27] Rām 6.31.56. It is noteworthy that in his grief and rage at the initial loss of Sītā, Rāma, in  a  passage  reminiscent  of  some  of  the  terrible  vows  found  in  the  Mahābhārata, threatens to destroy all creatures (including the rākṣasas) and the world itself, if she is not restored to him (Rām 3.60). But this is intended merely to demonstrate the extent of his loss and the unlimited power of the divinity. There is no real danger of Rāma making good on this wild threat and he allows himself  to be pacified by Lakṣmaṇa almost immediately. For a scholarly discussion of this passage see Pollock 1991, pp. 55-67.

[28] Rām 6.8.41.

[29] lakmaṇas tu susaṃkruddho bhrātaraṃ vākyam abravīt/       

   brāhmam astraṃ prayokṣyāmi vadhārthaṃ  sarvarakṣasām//

   tam uvāca tato rāmo lakṣmaṇaṃ śubhalakṣaṇam/

   naikasya heto rakṣāṃsi pṛthivyāṃ hantum arhasi//

   asyaiva tu vadhe yatnaṃ kariṣyāvo mahābala/

   ādekyāvo mahāvegān astrān āśiviṣopamān//

Rām 6.67-37-39.

[30] Rām 6.40.56.

[31] Rām 6.40.57.

[32] At MBh 12.16.25 Bhīma appears to allude to this when he tells Yudhiṣṭhira:

diṣṭyā duryodhanaḥ  pāpo nihataḥ sānugo yudhi /

draupadyāḥ keśapakasya diṣṭyā tvaṃ padavīṃ gataḥ//

I am grateful to my colleague Alf Hiltebeitel for pointing out this passage and several others in the Mahābhārata and other texts that bear on this popular motif. See Hiltebeitel 1981, 179-214.

[33] MBh 3.248-283.

[34] MBh 4.22.68.

[35] MBh 10.11.14 ff.

[36] evam uktā hanumatā vaidehī janakātmajā/

 uvāca dharmasahitaṃ hanūmantaṃ  yaśasvinī//

rājasaṃśrayavaśyānāṃ kurvatīnāṃ parājñayā/

vidheyānāṃ ca dāsīnāṃ  kupyed vānarottama//

bhāgyavaiṣamyayogena purā duścaritena ca/

mayaitat prāpyate sarvaṃ  svakṛtaṃ hy upabhujyate//

prāptavyaṃ tu daśāyogān mayaitad iti niścitam/

dāsīnāṃ  rāvaṇasyāhaṃ marṣayāmīha durbalā//

ājñaptā rāvaṇenaitā rākṣasyo mām atarjayan/

  hate tasmin na kuryur hi tarjanaṃ vānarottama//

Rām 6.101.29-33.                                   

[37] lokahiṃsavihārāṇāṃ rakasāṃ kāmarūpiåm/

kurvatām api pāpāni naiva kāryam aśobhanam//

Rām 6.101.37.

[38] Rām 1.1.71-76 and 6.116.82-90.

[39] paritrāṇāya sādhūnāṃ vināśāya ca duskṛtām/

dharmasaṃsthāpanārthāya saṃbhavāmi yuge yuge//

BhG 4.8, MBh 6.26.8.

[40] BhG 11.32, MBh 6.33.32: kālo‘smi lokakṣayakṛd pravṛddho/ lokān samāhartum iha pravṛttaḥ.

[41] Rām 6. 99.39. Compare Rāma’s forgiveness of his slain archenemy with Yudhiṣṭhira’s bitter refusal to remain in the same heavenly realm shared by his lifelong rival Duryodhana at Mbh 18.1.7-10.

[42] Consider the Indian Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order, 1950 that permits Hindu Dalits and those who convert to Buddhism or Sikhism to remain eligible for reservations while those who become Christians do not. This law has recently come under scrutiny by the Indian Supreme Court. See the Times of India (Delhi edition) November 30, 2005.

[43] This is Rāma’s famous and controversial solution to the counter-normative penance performed by the śūdra Śambūka at Rām 7.64-67.

[44] MBh 2.35.6 ff.

[45] BhG 11 (MBh 6.33).

[46] “Idylls of the King: The Passing of Arthur,” Alfred Lord Tennyson.