|Contexts and Comparisons||Chapter 1 - Epic Poetry|
The quintessential Indian epic is the Mahabharata. As in the Iliad, the story concerns a war that has distant roots in historical events given mythic dimension by the passage of time. Also an oral work, the Mahabharata was composed over a much longer period of time than were the epics of other traditions, becoming in the process a unique storehouse of Hindu culture. Its main story has been so enlarged and embellished over the centuries that the range of the resulting massive work far exceeds that of any single Western poem. The Mahabharata contains not only the seeds of most classical Indian poetry and drama, but also one of the world's major religious documents as well, the Bhagavad-Gita.
Although the original language of the poem is Sanskrit, it has been translated into the other languages of India since the sung narrative was written down, sometime around A.D 400. Knowing the meaning of the Sanskrit title gives some sense of the poem's significance: "maha" means great and "Bharata," the name of the progenitor of the race, came to be the name for India itself. Thus the title announces the great story of India. Indeed, scholars believe they can see references in the poem to the founding of Indian civilization through the competition that seems to have taken place between different tribes moving into the valleys of the Indus and Ganges Rivers in about 1200 B.C. Centuries later, the bards who sang of the past turned the story of this competition into poetry. Because it is a work of the imagination rather than a record of history, the Mahabharata does not relate an accurate narrative of rival tribes, but like all epic poems, personalizes their conflict instead. Out of dimly remembered history the work distills primal universal themes, recounting a tale of sibling rivalry and family strife that culminate in a war between cousins for the legendary kingdom of Kurukshetra.
The main hero of the poem, Arjuna, comparable to Achilles in many ways, is a brilliant warrior who suddenly has doubts about the virtue of war. In the portion of the Mahabharata known as the Bhagavad-Gita (meaning the Lord's Song), Arjuna seeks a justification for shedding the blood of his relatives. The Lord in question is Krishna, one of the incarnations taken by the god Vishnu. The Hindu religion teaches that existence is cyclical; gods and human beings may change form and re-enter the world in different ages, moving along an endless continuum of time. Here Krishna presents himself to Arjuna as his charioteer. Anguished by his obligation to fight his cousins, Arjuna halts his chariot in the middle of the field of Kurukshetra before the battle begins. With tears in his eyes, he asks Krishna to explain how it can be right for him to shoot his magic bow in such circumstances. Arjuna receives from his "charioteer" the essence of Hindu philosophy so that he is prepared spiritually to act as his duty ("dharma") requires.
The Bhagavad-Gita consists of eighteen chapters in which, while action is suspended, Krishna instructs Arjuna--and the audience--in the discipline ("yoga") appropriate to the warrior. Here is the portion of the second chapter, as recently translated by Barbara Stoler Miller, in which Krishna explains why it would be cowardly of Arjuna not to fight.
Excerpt from The Bhagvad-Gita
- How would you characterize the relationship between Krishna and Arjuna?
- What metaphors does Krishna use here? What is their function?
- How does the heroic code to which Arjuna must adhere differ from that which governs Achilles and the other warriors of the Iliad?
- What is the nature of violent action according to the Bhagavad-Gita? How would you compare the nature of violence in the other works you have been studying?
- What is the difference between "action" and the "fruits of action"? What degree of responsibility does the hero have for his actions, according to this teaching of Krishna's?
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The Origin of Poetry in the Sanskrit Epic Ramayana