Lesson 11



1. Clay & Skin

2. Gilgamesh

3. Acts of God

4. Genesis


5. Odysseus

6. Men like

7. Socrates

8. Alexander

9. Virgil

10. Paul


11. Krishna

12. Rama

13. Kalidasa

14. Buddha

15. Confucius

16. Lao Tse


17. Quran

18. Beowulf

19. Genji

20. Survival Itself


21. Dante 1

22. Dante 2

 23. Dante 3

 24. Chaucer

25. Journey to the West

26. New World

27. Indians

28. Don Quixote







         Krishna Destroys the First People


1. Read Damrosch "Hymns from the Rig Veda" (A19-A21), "Early South Asia" and Vyasa, Mahabharata (A819-A870). The latter are excerpts from the 7,000 pages of Vyasa's account of the legendary first dynasty of South Asia whose self-slaughter ended the bronze age with all its virtues and inaugurated a  vicious world of unenlightenment, and generally bad karma, the Kali Yuga ("Age of Destruction"). What does this poem have to say about the destruction of the world?

2. Read through the page below, and then summarize and reflect on the lesson for an hour in your World Literature Journal.

3. If you are enrolled in this course for college credit, go to the Angel web site, take the quiz for this lesson, and submit your World Literature Journal to Dr. G.

South Asian Literature

There is no such continent as Europe, geographically, and no such continent as Asia. There is only Eurasia. In ancient literature, too, there seems only a false divide between east and west. Ancient south Asian literature will seem slightly different but far from  strange to readers thoroughly familiar with Homer and the Christian Bible.

The Homeric problem of retributive justice, that the sacrificer becomes the victim, that the blow given is the blow received, is the central preoccupation in Vyasa, Valmiki, and the Buddhist scriptures. They have a technical word for its cause, dharma--not meaning "religion" or "virtue" in the modern sense of dharma or damma, but simply universal justice, the inevitable law that makes the aggressor's victory paradoxically his defeat. Dharma is time's mirror by which bad and good karma (action) eventually comes back to punish or reward the actor.

Homer presents this theme tragically; his hubristic characters are victimized by it, their only relief being tears eventually shed in identification with their victims' grief, tears that restore their humanity and differentiate them from animals. Early South Asian literature presents similarly fatal cases, but in addition it attempts to illustrate positive outcomes, especially through ascetic withdrawal and renunciation of personal desires, the happiness associated with Gotama (563-483 BCE), the prince who wisely gave up family and kingdom to sit under a Bodhi tree. In Alexander's journey east we already have encountered this renouncer type in the Indian sage Calanus who immolated himself "as it was the ancient custom of the philosophers in those countries to do."   

Greek-Indian connections are much older than Alexander. Comparative language studies show that ancestors of these peoples were united in prehistoric times. The earliest South Asian texts that we can interpret were composed in Sanskrit (the word means "pure language," language suitable for communication between humans and gods), an Indo-European tongue dating far back into the Bronze Age. From similarities between Sanskrit, Persian, and Greek, linguists have concluded that once-related peoples settled the Indus region, Iran and the Greek peninsula in the timeframe of 1500 BCE to 1200 BCE.

The origin of these settlers, known as Aryans, is disputed. Many Eastern scholars have claimed Iran and sometimes even India as the Aryan homeland. Western scholars generally have argued that the Aryans were invaders from the steppe between the Urals and Caucasus Mountains or the region from the Black Sea to the Caspian. In any case, the Aryans were cowboys and cowgirls whose livelihood centered on animal sacrifice, war chariots and bows of superior power and range. The growth of the Aryan tribal economies depended on increasing herds and acreage of pasture lands, expansion enabled by military superiority over lightly-armed and weakly organized pastoral neighbors.

Gods of various names and shapes played essential roles in blessing this predatory lifestyle. (It was Krishna or Apollo or the Lord who was doing the killing.) In the west, this belief system morphed into the Zeus-man, Hellenic, Roman and later Christian forms. In the east, it was maintained in the earliest historical times by hereditary priests known as Brahmins (devotees of Brahma, the soul of all), and it gradually spread to the wide variety of beliefs and practices known today as Hinduism. Preclassical Brahmanic scripture was codified in the Sanskrit Veda ("wisdom") which includes three samhita ("collections"): Rig-Veda ("song wisdom" of hymns addressing gods and forces of nature), Sama-Veda ("chant wisdom") and Yajur-Veda  ("prose wisdom"). A fourth collection was added later, Atharva-Veda ("Wisdom of the Atharvans," including prayers and curses), along with the Brahmanas, priestly liturgical and dogmatic literature explaining rites and beliefs.

Other Sanskrit writings explaining rituals, beliefs and doctrines were collected in the Upanishads (cir. 900 BCE). These teachings may be the earliest extant schoolbooks in the world, as they were used to spread the words of seers in forest academies or ashrams. In general, they espouse a changeless spiritual reality that underlies the physical world of flux; they claim that this reality lies at the core of the self where it can be realized through spiritual practices.

Left: the bard Vyasa dictates Mahabharata to Ganesha (center) in Peter Brooke's magnificent
film. Ganesha is required to stop writing whenever he becomes confused about Vyasa's meaning.





















Left: a sandstone carving in Calcutta, cir. 100 BCE, portrays Gotama's Bodhi Tree as a venerated  pilgrimage site.












Historical racist use of the term Aryan, especially in connection with Nazi propaganda, has tainted the word in the West, but in India and Iran the word Aryan continues to he used as a demographic description. The word Indo-European is an alternative name in the west.







Sample songs from the Rig Veda 


East-west literary similarities have been emphasized by western scholars calling Vyasa's Mahabharata an Asian Iliad, and Valmiki's Ramayana an Asian Odyssey. There is no clear proof of borrowing one way or the other, however, nor has it yet been proved definitively which of the poems is the oldest. We can say simply that all of them founded a grand tradition of "epic" or, as I prefer to call it, heroic literature that provided related models for later classical fiction, drama, and history writing throughout much of Eurasia.

Characters who figure in Mahabharata (completed cir. 350 CE) already are named in the Rig-Veda (cir. 1500 BCE), so it is possible that their stories circulated historically even before those of Achilles and Odysseus. This is not to say that Mahabharata in the form we know it could have been known to Homer, Phoenix, or whoever first told the story of the War at Troy. Much as Homer was revised by Alexandrians, and as the Hebrew prophets were updated from time to time by the Jerusalem temple priests, and as Gilgamesh is the product of Sumerian and Babylonian and neo-Babylonian materials rewritten over centuries, so the ancient Asian heroic poems are manuscript compilations reflecting various historical contributions rather than the literary output of a single author to whom the whole text should be attributed.

Mahabharata is Iliadic in recounting a past period of cultural self-destruction, the "great war" that divided the past time of great deeds from the more mundane present of the audience. The victims are not Zeus-men whose cult falls apart because of rapes and quarrels over women, but they are a ruling family whose competitive inability to share political power brings all-out war and total annihilation. In both poems, brutal slaughter is explained in terms of divine punishment or retribution for injustice, and yet emphasis falls on the suffering of individuals who are caught in these dooms. 

The political problem is expressed as a dice game in which one player seems to win everything and to leave his opponent nothing. The reality is that nobody really wins or loses, for the winner gains vanity and enmity of others, while the loser gains humility and sympathy.  The historical basis of the war in Mahabharata is uncertain, but it may reflect a hollow victory won by Aryans over more numerous, darker skinned peoples. Although the white Pandava brothers destroy all of the black Kauravas, who are their cousins, all of the sons of the Pandavas die in the war, their whole army is wiped out, and their women are sterilized by a magic weapon, so the whole dynasty of the Bharata or Kurus ("first people") comes to an end.

As in Homer, the question of responsibility is not entirely clear. At points the catastrophe appears to result from misconduct of the evil Kauravas, especially their villainous leader Duryodhana who cheats the Pandavas of their lands and assets. At points it seems that the doom of the Kurus is something fated to happen because the time for it has come; it is the will of the gods, expedited by Vishnu in his incarnation as Krishna. Karma is an ambivalent doctrine. It promotes moral actions, but it also bolsters fatalism.  The dual presentation of causes, divine and human, may result from retelling of stories of human tragedy from later religious and philosophical points of view.

Many themes and motifs are common to Mahabharata and Homer's poems: chariot warfare, magical weapons and monsters, paradoxical treatment of victory and defeat, sons of gods, vows and curses that always come true, divine intervention intended to carry out what is fated to happen as well as to punish misconduct, grotesque presentation of battles and battle-fantasies, violation of the rules of war, renunciation of the warrior's life, bow-stringing contests among suitors, visits to the world of the dead, elaborate animal sacrifices, and much more.

One who looks carefully at the similarities between Homer and Vyasa must wonder whether there was a common literary tradition, possibly even a single ultimate source from a time before the division of the Indo-Europeans. We might expect such original narratives to have existed, recalling and explaining to the migrating Indo-Europeans the reasons for their dislocation and hardships.

Krishna, god of cowboys and cowgirls, is one of the great enigmas in Mahabharata, as he comes to establish a kingdom of justice on earth yet does so by inspiring unjust acts that destroy the Kuru. He may be a late classical addition to the poem that  appropriates it to a cult. 




Many scholars say that a Mahabharata of 8,800 lines originally was composed perhaps as early as the 8th or 9th century BCE, that a 24,000 verse version was composed as early as the 5th century BCE, and that the elaborate modern form of more than 90,000 verses in 18 books and 100 chapters was produced in the first century CE.  











The Song of the Lord

In the Iliad, Achilles withdraws from battle because he is angry. He has been shamed by his unworthy boss, dog-faced Agamemnon. Later and angrier, he is motivated to rejoin the fray only to take revenge against Hektor for slaying his friend and charioteer Patroklos. The revenge is ugly and offensive even to the gods, as Achilles chariots around Patroklos' memorial dragging Hektor's corpse in the mud. The war in Homer is an ever-widening cycle of contagious personal violence, endorsed by gods charged with the execution of fate.

In the portion of Mahabharata known as the "Bhagavad Gita" (meaning "Song of the Lord") the Pandava bowman Arjuna withdraws from battle for a reason very different from Achilles' anger. Most of Arjuna's cousins, one of his brothers, and his teachers are lined up in the opposing army across the field of battle from him, and the sight of them paralyzes him. How can he bring himself to kill them? Wouldn't it be better to die than to have their blood on his hands? If he wins, how will he ever find forgiveness and peace?

Arjuna's charioteer, a cousin named Krishna, inspires Arjuna to get up and join the fray and later to kill his innocent and defenseless elder brother Karna. It is the most famed passage in Mahabharata, and one of the most fantastical, as Krishna suddenly appears to Arjuna as an incarnation of the great god Vishnu come to earth to restore justice by destroying all of the bad Kauravas in an apocalypse.

Why shall we kill our kin and friends? How does a god persuade anyone to that kind of behavior? Krishna knows five reasons:

  • death is only an illusion: since we are all reborn and pass through many deaths, killing is insignificant

  • death is inevitable: since death is going to happen sooner or later, killing matters little

  • killing is the job of the warrior (Arjuna belongs to the warrior caste), and a war against evil presents opportunities for salvation (for those who choose to fight) and for sin (for those who will not fight)

  • to refuse to fight is to incur dishonor and disrespect and to encourage enemies

  • if one loses, one attains heaven, but if one wins, one enjoys the spoils

The real secret, according to the charioteer, is indifference to results. If Arjuna were simply fighting over a kingdom, then his personal materialistic motive would be insufficient justification for kin-slaying. But if the act is committed with detachment as to results, free of desire and anger and fear, then it is "selfless service" which keeps the heart pure. As a god, Krishna himself is the model; he fights though he has nothing whatsoever to gain; he can't really be slain.

The illusion of irresponsibility can be strengthened through yoga, a practice of self-transcendence in which the practitioner comes to a state of recognition that he is not the doer of his actions, that events are controlled instead by forces of nature (gunas of prakriti) and the supreme soul of the universe (atman). The only way to find peace of mind, then, is to live in harmony with these higher powers, instead of trying to take responsibility for one's actions.

The notion of freedom in the "Bhagavad Gita" bears little relationship with the Greek notion of freedom. Alexander's Greek commanders were offended when their leader began to act like an eastern despot by claiming to have absolute authority and demanding absolute obedience. The freedom discussed in the "Bhagavad Gita" is not western political freedom from lawless rulers but psychological freedom from desires and appetites and concerns about the material circumstances of one's life, including one's political position. The Pandavas model this freedom when they accept exile into the forest for twelve years prior the war and again, after the war, when they renounce their kingdom  and return to the wilderness to die. The better kingdom is in the mind, for it can be governed successfully without dependence on unjust actions.

The liberating power of mind is celebrated in the "Bhagavad Gita." Skeptical readers might see this power as imagination, but Vyasa does not imply that imaginings are illusory flights from reality. According to the poem, one who learns to control the mind through disciplined meditative practices is better off than one who sacrifices. Those who follow the rituals of the Vedas are said to purify themselves but only to the extent that they can attain the heaven of the gods. (As the poem puts it, those who worship devas will go to the realm of the devas; those who worship ancestors will go to the realm of ancestors; those who worship phantoms will go to the phantoms.) The yogi regardless of birth, race, sex or caste can go higher than these conventional worshippers and release the soul from the painful cycle of deaths and rebirths.




Left: Achilles drags Hecktor's body behind his chariot as the war goddess Athena dances in delight on a classical Grecian urn.






























































Left: Arjuna and charioteer from modern Jakarta

South Asian timeline
for the preclassical and classical eras

Before 3500 BCE. Indus region is settled. Yoga may have been practiced from this early date.

3500 - 1500 BCE. Bronza Age Harappan civilizations were based in cities along the Indus River in what is now Pakistan. They coincided with similarly river-based civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Harappan language was written in a script whose symbols look Near Eastern, but it has not been deciphered. These cities fell about the same time as the Bronze Age civilizations in the Near East and Mediterranean, suggesting a cataclysmic disaster afflicting much of Eurasia. The cause of collapse is still disputed by historians. See Harappa.com for more.

1500 BCE. Aryan invasion or beginning of the Vedic period with the Rig Veda introducing an early form of Sanskrit and devas (gods). Characters who later appear in the Mahabharata are mentioned in the Veda. See Sacred Texts for more.

1000 BCE ? Zarathustra, prophet or Zoroastrianism, in Iran. See Avesta.org for more.

900 BCE. Sanskrit Upanishads explain the Vedic rituals and beliefs. "Bhagavad Gita" text on yoga may belong to this period, though inserted later into Mahabharata.

877-777 BCE: life of Parshvanath, earliest known teacher of Jainism.

563-483 BCE. Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni, the Buddha or awakened one, promotes counterculture we now know as Buddhism.

500 BCE. Cyrus I of Persia extends the Achaemenid Empire to the Indus River.

320 BCE. Alexander's invasion of the Indus region.

304-232 BCE. King Ashoka develops a Buddhist state in much of the subcontinent. See King Ashoka's Edicts for more.

250 BCE. Maurya dynasty, with first surviving written documents in South Asia come from the court of emperor Ashoka. This empire vanished at about 100 BCE.

200 BCE. Valmiki's Ramayana composed?

320 CE. Gupta empire. Vyasa's Mahabharata probably reaches much its modern form at about 350 CE, though its stories had been in circulation since Vedic times.

400 CE. The golden age of South Asian theater. Kalidassa's Shakuntala and other plays based on the classical epics.

500 CE. Tamil epic SilappathikAram written by iLangO atikaL. Unlike Sanskrit, Tamil is one of the Dravidian languages native to the subcontinent.


See also the Metropolitan Museum timeline for South Asia.



Left: Harappan seals depict symbol language and animals, often both extinct.








Zarathustra as depicted in the 3rd century CE temple in Syria.




First century image of Buddha in Guimet Museum, Paris.


Lesson Summary: Mahabharata celebrates the power of the mind to construct happiness, regardless of one's physical or social or political circumstances. The important power is that which lies within us, for it is governable and can assure lasting peace.

Suggested journal topics
and optional readings

1. How are powers of mind sufficient to produce happiness?

2. What similarities and differences do you find between Mahabharata and western literature?

3. The Mahabharata: A Play Based Upon the Indian Classic Epic by Jean-Claude Carriere, translated from the French by Peter Brook (New York: Harper and Row, 1987). The script served as the basis for Brook's stage and film presentations of the Mahabharata. Carriere sees the central theme of the epic to be "a threat: we live in a time of destruction--everything points in the same direction. Can this destruction be avoided?" (Introduction, p. ix), and his play represents that theme consistently. MiraCosta College has published a brief summary of the film.

4. Ancient authorship problems.  The puzzle of authorship is greatly fascinating and greatly frustrating in works composed before the age of print and widespread literacy. When we want to know what originally was intended by Isaiah or Jeremiah or Homer or Vyasa, we are first of all confronted with a job of restoration, not unlike the repair of a vandalized statue. What was the original text? What was grafted on later? As soon as we begin peeling away layers that we take to be extraneous add-ons in a manuscript, we cross the line between interpreting what the text means and revising it to fit our interpretations of core meaning. The whole text may be a rich composite in which we find competing views reconciled more or less successfully, or it may be a jumble in which the revisers did not achieve a successful synthesis.

Composite authorship is a problem in all retellings of old stories, including every translation. To what extent has the revisor, reteller, interpreter retained the meanings and concerns of the received text? To what extent has the received text been over-written or falsified to serve new purposes?

4. Useful Web Sites.

Frances Pritchett South Asia: Some good sources and also Maps of South Asia and also Sources of Indian Traditions.

Indo-European languages

Laura Gibbs' online course, Epics of India

A. Harindranath's Mahabharata Resources

Fitzgerald's brief plot summary of Mahabharata.

Ganguli translation of Mahabharata.

Dutt abridged translation of Mahabharata.

The International Gita Society

Frawley's "Myth of the Aryan Invasion of India."

Images by Wayan Logeng

Instructor:  gutchess@englishare.net
Copyright  2008
- 2013


























It was a long time before it was discovered that Spinnario (Hellenistic bronze), the boy with thorn in his foot, had been beheaded, and a new head engrafted on the trunk.






















Left: contemporary Indian poster of the Gita should be compared to the ancient image of Athena inspiring Achilles, Odysseus and other Greeks in a fight.