I am going to take a risk here and say that there are what I would call aboriginal epics and derivative epics, the last of which are parasitical on a literary ‘epic tradition’. The Iliad falls, in my opinion, into the first of these categories, while The Aeneid and Paradise Lost fall into the second. The Iliad to me is simply about the madness or savagery of war, no embellishments, no religious doctrine or political agenda to self-consciously uphold. The gods are bastards who find the horrible things people do to each other quite entertaining; for life must be extremely boring up there on top of Olympus. The gods are there for comic relief; what they are not are moral exemplars. The Aeneid wants to justify the ways of Imperial Rome to Romans, just as Paradise Lost wants “to justify the ways of God to Man”, though that intention does tend to come unstuck when Satan enters the picture to fuck things up for God, who is a pretty colourless and featureless being. Give me the Judaic Jahweh any day, the irascible old bastard, to the concept of God worked out in both Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy. At least Jahweh is human.
The interesting thing about both The Aeneid and Paradise Lost is the way they begin – as if to establish their credentials as ‘epic poems’ in the tradition of an original – namely, The Iliad. The Iliad begins by invoking the Muse.
“Rage, Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’s son, Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses.”
(Trans. – Robert Fagles)
and so on. The Aeneid begins, not quite invoking the Muse, but otherwise in a similar way.
“I tell about war and the hero who first came from Troy’s frontier,
displaced by destiny” (Trans. – Jasper Griffin)
and so on, while Paradise Lost famously begins thus:
“Of Man’s first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, heavenly Muse.”
Ok, so The Aeneid does not exactly invoke the Muse, but it is clear that it is trying to establish a link with Homer and a tradition which seems to have begun with The Iliad, just as Paradise Lost is. This whole business of self-consciously establishing links with ‘precursor poets’ and the tradition which began with them is in my opinion very suspect, since it seems to me to treat poetry as something literary or academic. How refreshing, therefore to find The Mahabharata beginning on a totally different note – as one would expect from a work in a different tradition.
First I acknowledge the eternal being,
Brahman, essence of everything that is,
source of all, the inconceivable
bliss-bestowing Vishnu, Hari Krishna.
And I bless the name of Sarasvati,
goddess of deep learning and of art,
she who can touch a poet’s tongue with silver.
To her I dedicate my epic poem.
So simple in essence and so modest and unpretentious, while at the same time acknowledging its religious affinities. Much of this may be down to the blank-verse, iambic pentameter translation of Carole Satyamurti, but I suspect that the original in Sanskrit has something to do with as well.
The original of The Mahabharata is, I believe, thousands of pages long – making it the longest poem ever written. Satyamurti has given us about 850 pages, so it is fairly truncated and is therefore bound sometimes to come apart at the seams. Try condensing a poem of thousands of pages long into 850 pages without dropping a stitch and see how far you get. Take the example of the dog who accompanies Yudishthira to heaven. This dog suddenly materialises out of nowhere as on old friend who’d been there all along. But it is heartening how infrequently this actually happens.
I can recommend The Mahabharata, because it is quite simply mind-blowing in what it conveys of the possibilities of epic-poetry beyond the narrow European perspective. It is not only about war, it is about a whole world-view with cosmic dimensions, which makes it a much richer treasure-trove than you will find in the Western tradition. The only time my interest in it began to flag was when Grandfather, Bhishma, was giving lessons to the new king, Yudishthira, about the right principles of ruling in accordance with Dharma. But even here, I was struck by how flexible Dharma could be, even down-right Machiavellian. Of course, the last thing a ‘just monarch’ should do is let his guard down and allow himself to be taken advantage of. Clearly, Machiavelli was not the first to teach the principles of statecraft and political survival. Dharma is all very well, but sometimes you must betray Dharma to uphold it. (Dharma is personified as a god, but I am using “it” out of convenience.) Contradiction is the name of the game and Dharma is not free of it either, though from a higher or more comprehensive perspective, Dharma’s will is being fulfilled, whatever devious tactics are used.
This concern with Dharma is what raises The Mahabharata above the Western epic tradition, but I would be hard put to say exactly what Dharma is. In a way, it is like The Moral Law which governs the universe. I suppose one could describe it as the principle of cosmic balance. Of course such a principle could never be empirically verified - or falsified, for that matter – but it is held to be true in some kind of transcendental way. There are things you should do and shouldn’t do, and Dharma is the god who upholds the former and defends it against the latter. In a sense, it’s a bit like a less subjectivised version of Kant’s Categorical Imperative - “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” However, Kant had the disadvantage of not having had a religious world-view like Hinduism to lend his Categorical Imperative ‘proper’ authority. Another difference is that, for Kant, The Categorical Imperative is expressed in a highly abstract and bloodless language, whereas, in The Mahabharata, Dharma can be expressed in all sorts of concrete human ways - such as Yudishthira’s refusal to abandon the dog that had accompanied him on his journey to heaven because the dog had come to depend on him. (Dogs weren’t allowed in heaven, apparently.) The dog, of course, would turn out to be the god, Dharma, who had simply been testing Yudishthira.
In this poem, then, a universal cosmic principle like Dharma is given a very human form in all sorts of ways. Moreover the spirit of Dharma is meant to rule at the expense of the letter, so that what you get in the end are not dogmatic rules of behaviour, but a flexible philosophy of life which transcends rules. It is Dharma, for instance, that Krishna defends in the famous section known as The Bhagavad-Gita before he reveals himself in his divine form to Arjuna in The Cosmic Vision. Dharma also lies behind Yudishthira's apparently foolish willingness to gamble his brothers, wife and all his possessions and power which leads to them all spending 13 years in the wilderness – but there is a point to all that. Dharma is not an easy notion to fathom unless you abandon all conventional ideas concerning ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and are willing to rise to a much more transcendent and human level in the field of morality.
Of course, The Mahabharata being a Hindu poem, Dharma is also associated with preserving the status-quo – with Bramins and Kshatriyas (ruling-class warriors) on top and Shudras and Dalits (untouchables) at the bottom. I suppose this is to be expected from a poem with its lineage, but it doesn’t detract from the profundity of Dharma, though it does, of course, add a very important dimension to it which prevents us taking it too much at its word – especially in an India which Hindu nationalists want to reserve just for Hindus. Dogmatic religionism, it appears, is not simply confined to Christianity and Islam.
In The Iliad, the equivalent of Dharma seems to be Apollo, who engineers the fall of Patroclus when he becomes too self-confident and has gone too far. It is on passing this threshold that Patroclus is killed by Hector – even though the death of Patroclus is necessary to bring Achilles back into the war, ensure the death of Hector and the eventual defeat of Troy. Apollo is on the side of the Trojans, which suggests that Dharma would be as well. After all, the Greeks are the invaders, the disturbers of the peace, the upsetters of the balance, much like the western forces that invaded Iraq or deposed Gaddafi in Libya, thereby opening a whole Pandora’s Box of mischief for themselves and the region.
In The Iliad, the fate of Patroclus is similar to that of Arjuna’s son, Abhimanyu, in The Mahabharata, although Abhimanyu is not as important a catalyst in the plot as Patroclus is in The Iliad. Nonetheless, Abhimanyu’s death has something in common with that of Patroclus. It is brought about when he penetrates a cakravyuha, the wheel-formation of the Kaurava army, which closes behind him, leaving him isolated and exposed without his comrades to help him. This wheel-formation could be used as a metaphor for the threshold through which Patroclus had also passed, when he was struck suddenly from behind by Apollo. In other words, Abhimanyu went too far in trying to attain individual glory and become a ‘hero’, putting discretion aside for foolish ‘valour’, which is not something calculated to please Dharma any more than Apollo.
However, although Apollo does tend to fulfil the function of Dharma in The Iliad, he is hardly central. Athena, who is the supporter of Odysseus is much more so. Athena is a martial god(dess) and I suppose one ‘indication’ that ‘history’ might be on the side of the Greeks, for all their upsetting of Dharma – or should I say Apollo. Not that retrospective historical justification is as important in The Iliad as it is in The Aeneid. Dharma is much more important in The Mahabharata than Apollo is in The Iliad, because the war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas is a war to restore a broken balance and the rule of the Pandavas, which it is suggested has been usurped by the Kauravas, whose blind king, Dhritarashtra, is heavily under the baleful influence of his son, Duryodhama, who envies and hates the Pandavas. (It should also be remembered that the Pandavas and the Kauravas are cousins.) So it is a war between the ‘rightful’ rulers and those who had usurped their rule, which, of course, makes Dharma much more important.
I am not going to say much more about The Mahabharata. It is an extra-ordinary poem in so many ways. It is also I believe a work in progress still. Wendy Doniger, the author of The Hindus, writes, “The Mahabharata grew and changed in numerous parallel traditions spread over the entire sub-continent of India, constantly retold and rewritten, both in Sanskrit and in vernacular dialects. It grows out of the oral tradition and grows back into the oral tradition; it flickers back and forth between Sanskrit manuscripts and village story-tellers, each adding new gemstones to the old mosaic.” So, unlike the western epic tradition, it is still a living, breathing tradition. The western tradition revolves too much around the idea of The Book and canonical authors. Of course, there is a great deal more I could say about The Mahabharata, but space is limited. Suffice it to say that this 850 page translation is a real eye-opener regarding the possibilities of the Epic.