The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata

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The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata
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This book is a study of India s great epic, the Mahabharata, against the background of Indo-European myth, epic, and ritual. It builds upon the pioneering studies in these areas by Georges Dumezil and Stig Wikander to work toward the goal of understanding how this epic s Indo-European heritage is interpreted and reshaped within the setting of bhakti or devotional Hinduism. The book begins with a comparative typology of traditional classical epics, arguing that epic is a distinctive mythical genre and that the Maha-Bharata, in particular, should be studied as part of an Indo-European epic (and not just mythical) continuum. The reshaping of the Indo-European theme is then examined in relation to the Mahabharata's central mystery: the figure of Krsna, the hero and ally of the Pandava brothers in their struggles against their cousins, the Kauravas, and incarnation of Visnu. The study argues that Krsna figures in the epic at the centre of a coherent theological ensemble that builds upon continuities in Indo-European, Vedic, and particularly Brahmanic sacrificial idioms. Ultimately, Krsna guides the forces of dharma or righteousness through a great sacrifice of battle whose eschatological background recalls Indo-European and Vedic themes, while projecting them into the Hindu bhakti cosmology of universal dissolutions, recreations, and divine grace. The study vigorously opposes attempts to explain Krsna by arbitrary theories of the Mahabharata's growth through interpolations.


About the Author

Alf Hiltebeitel is a Professor in the Department of Religion at George Washington University. Dr Hiltebeitel is the editor of Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism, also published by SUNY Press, and he is the author of The Cult of Draupadi, Vol. 1, Mythologies: From Gingee to Kurukshetra.



The Ritual of Battle is a benchmark in Indology; it is in some ways the culmination of a long series of approaches to the great Epic formulated for many decades before it, and it has proved to be the source of a whole series of new approaches in the decade that has followed its original publication, leading on to other important works including Alf Hiltebeitel's own on-going, multivolume, epic study of Draupadi. His debt to the more recent past is to several giants - primarily Georges Dumezil, Madeleine Biardeau, J. A. B. van Buitenen, Victor Turner, and Mircea Eliade -whose shoulders provide what turns out to be not so much a resting place as a springboard for his own contribution to the never-ending parampara of Mahabharata studies. The book abounds in theories which appear far-fetched at first but are invariably substantiated - that there are three black Krishnas that mediate between the red and the white; that both Krishna and Siva, though ostensibly absent from or passive at the disrobing of Draupadi and the disastrous dice game, are in fact essential elements of these episodes; and many more. Several chapters deal at length, and in great detail, with the death of the hero, the destruction of the world, and other aspects of the tragedy at the heart of the Epic. These are analyzed in light of many complementary theories gleaned from an impressive array of scholarly works cited in the copious footnotes. But this is no patchwork of other peoples' theories; it is an integrated and highly original view of Krishna and of the great Epic as a whole.

To begin with, Hiltebeitel is one of Georges Dumezil's greatest supporters, who paid his homage to the master by translating a number of Dumezil's works into English. One great strength of this book is the skill with which the author places the Krishna epic in the context of other Indo-European epics that Dumezil has elucidated, particularly the Scandinavian and Greek epics. Many of Dumezil's ideas are put to new tests here. Some of them prove, in Hiltebeitel's hands, to be even more exciting than when they were first boldly suggested by Dumezil. Some are right but not particularly illuminating. Some of them prove to be dead wrong.

Hiltebeitel challenges Dumezil on many important points. Thus, where Dumezil (and J. A. B. van Buitenen) regarded the story of the Pandavas' divine heritage as a late addition, with even later Saiva retouchings, Hiltebeitel suggests that an old tradition may have been preserved and linked with Siva, and he argues that the activities of Visnu and Siva were integral to the work from an early period of its construction (p. 174). Unlike Dumezil, he views the mythological paternities of the heroes as an integral part of the Epic. Following the lead suggested by Dahlmann at the turn of the century, that the myths are not "interpolations," Hiltebeitel builds upon Angelo Brelich's formulation and argues that the Epic integrates myths, which tell how gods create fate, with legends, which tell how heroes challenge fate. The didactic elements, too, and the whole consideration of sin and virtue, are correctly regarded as part and parcel of the epic narrative.

But Hiltebeitel is also an admirer of Madeleine Biardeau, who is critical of the Critical Edition that Dumezil and van Buitenen endorse, an edition that has selected what appears to be the oldest layer of the major epic, called "the Mahabharata," and relegated all other variants to appendices. Thus, like Biardeau and unlike Dumrezil, Hiltebeitel consistently draws upon material that is rejected by the critical edition, using what the critical edition labels "interpolations" to develop his persuasive ideas about such matters as the scene in which Draupadi, distressed by the efforts to disrobe her, calls upon Krishna to rescue her and he appears (p. 88); the importance of the jeu truqfie in Indo-European eschatology in general and the death of Abhimanyu in particular (343 n.); and the reference to the warrior Salya as an incarnate demon (p. 91) and to the Madraka as "dirt" (p. 277). He remarks that an essential variant of the myth of Visnu as the dwarf is provided by "what must be regarded as one of the earliest tellings of the myth even though it occurs only in the Northern recension of the Mahabharata" (p. 137). Yet, though Hiltebeitel follows Biardeau in many of her interpretations, he does not follow her slavishly. Thus, in discussing a possible interpolation that would make Draupadi an incarnation of Saci, the wife of Indra, rather than Sri, goddess of fortune, he notes that "Biardeau seems to want it both ways... This solves little"

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