Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Epic history

I have always been interested in epics. Especially the thin line between epics and history. As someone clever once mentioned "History is truth for all, epic is truth for some and fantasy is truth for none".
My first love was Egyptian gods helped to a large extent through Wilbur Smith's books including River God and Seventh Scroll.
This then progressed on to Greek epics and history especially the two of Homer's work that are regarded as among the most notable epics in Western History - namely Iliad and Odyssey.
Iliad was of course the more exciting of the two for me. It is a precursor to Odyssey in terms of timeline. Menelaus, is a spartan king whose wife Helen is supposedly the most beautiful woman in the whole world. (Tall tales, I’m sure). Helen is kidnapped and taken to Troy (a city kingdom, probably in today’s Turkey) by Paris, a prince in Troy. To bring her back and take revenge, Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon leads a furious Spartan army of well-known warriors including Achilles and Odysseus. But the Troy turns out to be a difficult citadel to fall even for the mighty warrior. The war rages on to 10 years.
A side story at this juncture worth mentioning is that of Achilles. When he was born, his mother tried to make him immortal by dipping him in river Styx but his heels were not dipped. In the war Achilles kills Hector (as revenge for killing his own friend, Patroclus), brother of Paris and greatest Trojan warrior. Paris finally kills him by shooting an arrow to his heels. Achilles’s anger is the prime motif in Iliad.
Odyssey is the return to Ithaca of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca who fashions the idea of Trojan horse to defeat Troy towards the end of the 10-year siege. The Greeks, pretending to desert the war, sailed to the nearby island of Tenedos, leaving behind Sinon, who persuaded the Trojans that the horse was an offering to Athena (goddess of war) that would make Troy impregnable. That night Greek warriors emerged from it and opened the gates to let in the returned Greek army. Odyssey lays out in detail the journey back of the King Odysseus after the victory to his wife Penelope and the challenges the entourage has to face enroute.
Recently, Ive gotten more and more interested in the two Indian epics - namely, Ramayana (R) and Mahabharata (M).
I find M to be amongst the most philosophically satisfying epics of all I've read - across all old civilizations. Just in size at close to 100000 shlokas, its 8 times that of Iliad and Odyssey and 4 times that of Ramayana. Ofcourse, most believe it was written over decades by multiple authors, all adding up stories to create what some western scholars call “a monstrous chaos”.
R mirrors Iliad + Odyssey in many ways. It’s about the King Ram whose wife Sita is abducted by Ravana, the demon King ruling the island of Lanka. Ram and his brother Lakshman plots revenge and gathers an army of tribal people from south of India, sporting Monkey and Bear emblems. In a brutal war, they kill all of enemy other than one brother of Ravana (Vibhishan) who they then make king of Lanka and gets back Sita. What then happens is quite astonishing for modern readers – Ram hears rumors from people about Sita’s character since she has stayed at house of another man for many days. And decides to ask Sita to prove her chastity by walking through fire. Sita is victorious but decides (rightly so) to leave her sad husband and give birth to twins Luv and Kush in Naimisha forest under the watchful eyes of sage Valmiki, who is also the author of the epic. Later Ram unites with his sons but Sita refuses to join and goes back to mother earth where she came from.
Both Iliad and R for me are triumphalist stories - one could even say the victory of “right” over “wrong”; whoever steals other’s wife meets the fate meant for such theft. In that sense its also affirmative. There is one right path and who ever deviates meets bad fate.
That is where M significantly deviates from tried and tested format of epics. For starters, it was like an archive – not really a poem written by a single author. Its author is regarded as Vyasa (which roughly translates as editor – someone like a Wikipedia moderator). Potentially most of the core 7000 shlokas (called Jaya) was written by one author – presumably Krishna Dwypayana (means a black man from an Island, likely within the river Yamuna). The core story is the family feud between cousins – the “bad” Kauravas and the “good” Pandavas (drawing parallel with other epics). Kauravas “steal” the land that is due Pandavas through trickery via gambling and throw them to spend 13 years in forests with promise to give the land back if they are not found out during the 13th year. Even though Pandavas are not found out, Kauravas still refuse to part with what is rightfully due Pandavas. In this sense Kauravas are indeed the bad guys – going by normal epic template. However, in the war that ensues, Pandavas kill most major Kaurava warriors through illegal means. 
And finally, at the end of 18 day war, most of 40, 00,000 people that started it alive (clearly impossible given estimated population of Indian sub continent at that time, but still probably a very large number in reality) are dead. No one is victorious – no soul is celebrating. Only 9 people are alive – 6 with Pandavas and 3 with Kauravas. It said every household from Gandhara in west (Current Afghanistan) to Magadha & Anga to east (current Bihar, India) had a widow or mother who lost a child / child who lost father. The winning king Yudhishtira inherits an “ocean of widows”.
Hence, M at its core is neither triumphalist nor affirmative. It’s tragic and interrogative. 

Its philosophical – no one really wins in war, there is no one right path, no human is fully black / white and we all have shades of gray (including gods!).
One constant narrative throughout the poem is one of "dharmasya tatvam nihitam guhayam" which when translated from Sanskrit broadly means, "The essence of what is right (way of living) is hidden deep in caves" i.e its not easy to differentiate right from wrong in everyday human actions.