Western and Indian scholars seeking for an Achillean hero in the world's longest epic have traditionally zeroed in upon Arjuna for he is not only the most charismatic, invincible in love and war besides being the chosen audience of the Gita, but also the grandfather of the prince to whom the kingdom is left at the end. It was only in 1974 that litterateur-scholar Buddhadeb Bose challenged this in his remarkable Bengali study Mahabharater Kathapresenting Yudhishthira as the protagonist. It became accessible in English a decade later in Sujit Mukherjee's superb transcreation rightly entitled The Book of Yudhisthir to distinguish it from Amalesh Bhattacharya's profound insights also called Mahabharater Katha. How appropriate it is, and what a vindication of the perpetual appeal of Vyasa's mighty composition, that the first decade of the new millennium should see a major study reiterating that very point of view'that it actually narrates the education of Yudhishthira.
Professor Hiltebeitel's long engagement with the epic-of-epics, at once kavyaand itihasa, that began with Krishna and wound its way through the Draupadi Cult of Gingee and oral folk-epics, has resulted in a work that is mandatory reading for anyone professing serious interest in Indian tradition. It is heavy reading. Indeed, one would be surprised if it were not, for digesting this feast of gargantuan proportions demands application of well-nigh yogic dimensions. The rewards reaped after ploughing through the dense text and the plethora of annotations compensate richly. He begins as I did my The Secret of the Mahabharata (1984) by referring to the typical Western impression about the epic exemplified by Oldenberg's 'the most monstrous chaos'. The Indian scholar is no better, R.C. Dutt describing it as 'an unending morass'.
Dahlmann's was the lone voice to argue that the composition had an over-all artistic unity. The French Indologist Madeline Biardeau espouses the same integrated approach in her approach to the Mahabharata. Unfortunately, like Dumezil's Mythe et Epopee, most of her research is not available in English. Hiltebeitel makes a gripping start, grappling with unusual themes of empire and invasion, epics and ages, gleaners and Huns, then going on to introduce elaborate examinations of eight enigmas: 'empire', 'the author', 'transmission', 'cosmology', 'non-cruelty', 'the wife', and 'writing'. Through this labyrinthine maze he tenaciously clutches on to the thread of Ariadne: the education of Yudhishthira.
For its composition Hiltebeitel proposes a period spanning just a couple of generations, ending by the mid-second century BC during the Mauryan empire, dispensing with E.W.Hopkins' proposition of 'a text that is no text' at that point of time. Following Andreas Bigger, he urges a fresh look at the critical edition's apparatus, an argument John Brockington has also advanced which was recently reiterated in the 2007 national seminar held by the National Mission on Manuscripts in New Delhi. Hiltebeitel sets out to examine not just what the epic means but how it goes about conveying its text: Vyasa to five disciples; Vaishampayana to Janamejaya in the presence of Vyasa and Sauti; Sauti to Shaunaka in Naimisha forest; Sanjaya and Bhishma in the main action; Narada and Markandeya, who supplement Vyasa.
Hiltebeitel examines not just what the epic means but how orality is a literary trope in the Sanskrit epics which'unlike the oral martial ones' need to be understood against a background of writing. He seeks to plumb what it is in the epics that made them so important not only for their times but for later ages too. Following V.Narayana Rao on the Puranas, he refutes the mutual exclusivity of oral and written composition asserted by A.Lord and argues that a written dynamism is the explanation for the composition of the epics. Vyasa and his surrogates leave distinct signs in the text that are deliberate compositions, 'creating space,' as Foucault says, 'into which the writing subject constantly disappears.' Hiltebeitel superbly focuses the challenge the Mahabharata presents: 'No story is ever the whole story. As with Tolstoy's novels, 'continuation is always possible.'Moreover, there is the Vedic convention of the ritual interval which the epic poets fictionalise into a narrative convention through which to tell the epics themselves.'
I had pointed out in Themes and Structure in the Mahabharata (1989) that the narrative structure is severally layered, like a set of Chinese boxes. Hiltebeitel also sees the narrative emboxed in a series of frames: the authorial frame outermost, letting Vyasa move in and out of the spatio-temporal limits of the text; the inner genealogical frame tracing a dynastic story, with authorial interventions, through seven generations; and the middle cosmological frame in the Naimisha forest, fusing the epic's spatio-temporal indicators. What a sensitive eye Hiltebeitel has for the Chinese-box structure of the epic is shown when he picks out Shaunaka's approving laughter as Sauti successfully explains the etymology of 'Jaratkaru': 'Who hears Saunaka's burst of laughter? The Author? The reader? Who takes such delight in how things fit?'as framers who are both beyond and within the outer frame 'what a daring sense of fit it is that they reveal. These authors, ghost-writing in collaboration with the fictional Vyasa under the cover of the Naimisheya Rishis, set in motion the hearing of a new understanding of life as it begins from what is.'
Vyasa as the inheritor of the Vedic tradition, he argues, is first hinted at in the tale of the five Indras and the weeping femme fatale Shri cursed by Shiva to be reborn as the Pandavas and Draupadi. Actually, as I showed in 1985, this begins in the Paushya Parva itself which utilises a number of Vedic themes and symbols. Hiltebeitel's novel suggestion is that Vyasa, through his story of 'the overanxious maiden' told to the Pandavas in Ekachakra, plants the idea of a polyandrous union in Yudhishthira's mind. In another brilliant insight he focuses on Vyasa's speech to Arjuna after Parikshit has been revived to show the multiple functions it discharges: it contains seven continuous generations from Vyasa to Janamejaya; it is the tour de force of transmission whereby Vyasa as a speaker within the text can become a presence behind the telling and listen to his own story told at the snake sacrifice; and there is the facile transposition of Krishna Dvaipayana and Vasudeva Krishna, with the author vouching for the verity of the god's promise to revive the still-born Pandava heir. A startling revelation is that here is the only instance of an author disposing of surplus survivors himself, persuading the Kaurava widows to drown themselves, thus relieving the new rulers of a sore burden. Their elimination follows the deaths of Bhishma and Vidura and is soon followed by those of Dhritarashtra, Gandhari, Kunti and the Yadavas, ending with the passing of the Pandavas and Draupadi. What Vyasa tells the demoralised Arjuna, beaten by Abhiras, is actually intended for Yudhishthira, advising him how to close the story. Henceforth, the focus of the last two books is the quiescent son of Dharma who suddenly becomes the most decisive of the five brothers. The epic now becomes the story of Yudhishthira till the end, the final tests crowning his lifelong education.
The book extensively teases out the significance of Naimisha forest. Hiltebeitel proposes that it is not just a place but it symbolises a process of 'modernising' the ancient Purana for the present Kali Yuga. Punning on its name, in an eye-blink Naimisha conflates past, present and future. Situating the myth of imprisoned Indras in the context of Yama's sacrifice at Naimisha, during which death stops, has critical significance. The Kurukshetra war is truly a holocaust perpetrated by the gods to rid earth of surplus life. Dharma-Yama's son Yudhishthira is consecrated for a sacrificial war that renovates earth. Krishnaa (dark) Yajnaseni's marriage with him has links with death. Her gratuitous emergence is, like the Pandavas' birth, from deadly abhichara ritual and she is dark like the destructivekritya invoked through such rites. Yudhishthira's encounter with Dharma-as-crane over his brothers' corpses and his assuming the name 'Kanka' (carrion-eating stork of the battlefield) substantiate these ominous links. Uniquely, even the author himself intervenes to remove the 'surplus' of wailing widows.
Hiltebeitel is the only scholar to study Balarama's pilgrimage in detail, bringing out its multiple significances particularly how the former's 'incomplete Sarasvati yatsattra is completed by Bhishma's coordinations with the celestial Ganga.' The painstaking detail of the study is shown in the analysis of the intriguing episode about dogs in one of the beginnings of the epic that earlier scholars have avoided explaining. He carefully maps this motif linking Yama, Dharma, the Rig Veda and Yudhishthira who 'punctuates his career by a series of meditations on dogs'. The epic ends with a dog too. Here, indeed, is scholarship at its exploring best which would have become memorable had he discussed the analogous fish motif running through the epic and the implications of the story of Draupadi's secret desire for Karna that occurs in Bengali, Marathi and Tamil 'tellings'. He brings out how Vyasa represents the Panchalas as the central element of the old Kshatriya order along with the Kauravas, both of whom Krishna gets wiped out, leaving an heir of Pandava-Yadava blood carrying nothing of Kuru-Panchala bloodline.
Correcting a prevalent misconception, Hiltebeitel shows that the epic celebrates non-cruelty (anrishamsya), not non-violence (ahimsa), as the highest virtue, the best dharma being to know what anrishamsya is in a specific situation. It is a value that is voiced by Sita too, having been told to her by Rama, but that epic has no one beset with ambiguities like the two Pandavas. However, Hiltebeitel is mistaken in citing Pandu (p.208, and not n. 64 but n. 63) as knowing the highest dharma. Pandu's death occurs precisely because he failed to practise non-cruelty in shooting the muni couple before they had finished coupling. This value is particularly directed at Yudhishthira who exemplifies it in his responses to the questions put by Dharma-crane and Nahusha-python, and leaves the world practising it towards a dog. When he voices doubts about it in the battlefield, just before the Gita, Arjuna responds saying that victory is won by truth and non-cruelty. Of the gods, Dharma alone fosters this value, embodying it as Vidura because of Animandavya's curse. The paradoxical nature of the value is seen in the excruciating tests Yudhishthira has to pass: lying to bring about Drona's death, Krishna engineering Ghatotkacha's death, and Kunti's message that by not fighting he will actually be committing extreme cruelty. Intriguingly, the value is not expressed by Krishna although he visits the Kuru court for the sake of anrishamsya, but is endorsed by Vyasa and his surrogates, starting with Satyavati urging him to practise niyoga (levirate) with non-cruelty. It is a moot question whether the two widowed princesses experienced it as such! Certainly Ambika did not, for she sent in her maid when a repeat performance was ordered.
In the process of his education Yudhishthira discovers that though his thoughts may deviate, his heart never swerves. That is why he will abandon neither dog, nor brothers and Draupadi when offered heaven. Both qualities of non-cruelty and compassion, anrishamsya and anukrosha are his, shared with his progenitor Dharma, and it is through these that he passes his third and final test in heaven.
In a long discussion on Nala-Damayanti, Hiltebeitel argues that it 'is a text alive to both philosophers and lovers: Yudhishthira and Draupadi included' and teases out the numerous parallels and differences with the plight of the Pandavas. Among them is the parallel between Draupadi and Indrasena-Nalayani, the implications of which are more fully worked out in the southern recension and in Tamil variations where the former is the latter reborn. From the Nala story each of the Pandavas and Draupadi find out something useful about their hidden selves and a hint of what their disguises will be. Damayanti and Draupadi both assume the guise of Sairandhri. They and the weeping Shri, whose tears turn into golden lotuses, are all wives pauperised like their sacrificing husbands. They also presage the prosperity that waits at the periphery of a sacrificial ritual.
The Nala story mirrors certain questions that are investigated at length in the chapter on Draupadi's question to the royal court which is 'the epic's ultimate setting for constructing, deconstructing, and rethinking authority.' Yudhishthira never figures it out till the end, his parallel self Vidura having left it unanswered. Draupadi's question is never resolved. Indeed, even at the very end in heaven when he sees her lotus-garlanded, sun-resplendent, he suddenly wishes to question her, but is cut off by the impatient Indra who tells him that she was fashioned by the trident wielder whose presence of Rudra-Shiva looms over Vyasa's composition. Indra's comment wings us back to one of the beginnings of the epic, where Shiva consigns five Indras to a mountain cave with the weeping Shri. But this leaves a question hanging in the air, one that Yudhishthira never gets to ask and which, therefore, we never get to know of. As Hiltebeitel puts it inimitably, 'Past, present, and future thus open up with this 'imperfect moment.' In a sentence redolent of Keats' 'Grecian Urn' he writes, 'Yudhishthira will never answer Draupadi's question and he will never ask her his own.' Here, indeed, is a version of the moment made eternity. Rama, the acme of dharma, also has a question that he never gets to put to Sita. In both cases the Dharma-Raja's question is snatched away by the author.
Hiltebeitel argues in favour of the attempted disrobing of Draupadi being part of the original text. My recent research has shown that this was added subsequently and that still later Krishna's miracle was interpolated. Hiltebeitel provides a revealing insight by pointing out that the Panchala capital is called Shishumara, the city of the child-killer, only once, significantly at the svayamvara of Draupadi, foreshadowing the fate of her children. Fascinating light is thrown on the Arjuna-Draupadi-Yudhishthira nexus that leads to Arjuna's curious decision to exile himself. Vyasa uses the sexually loaded anupravish, 'follow (Yudhishthira) in entering', six times in this episode as also samadarshana (staring). The OriyaMahabharata uncompromisingly states that Arjuna saw them in flagrento delicto. The word used for Yudhishthira here is 'guru', so that Arjuna's staring is the grievous sin of violating the privacy of the guru's bed. Anupravish also means 'attack', for Arjuna has seen them at their most vulnerable. The puzzle is why the weapons had been kept in the bedroom. Hiltebeitel suggests that it is like a Draupadi Cult temple where weapons are stored for the annual procession. They also symbolise the brothers' virility, he argues, 'and Arjuna wants his back', actualising this with Ulupi, Chitrangada and Subhadra. The text, however, nowhere suggests that they were closeted in the bedroom, merely stating that they were where the weapons were kept. The Bengali teleserial sensitively located the incident in the armoury where Yudhishthira was trying to 'turn on' his new bride by showing off the marvellous weapons. Hiltebeitel does not provide any evidence for supposing that the events occurred 'after at least one previous cycle of passing Draupadi down by order of seniority' causing Arjuna emotional problems. His readiness to avoid the emotional trauma is all the more natural if it is the first cycle which is interrupted. The scene is repeated much later in the Karna Parva where Arjuna upbraids Yudhishthira for lying on Draupadi's bed, expecting him to kill great warriors for his sake.
Hiltebeitel's most novel investigation is the father-son relationship of Vyasa and Shuka and the latter's birth as an allegory of 'churning out' writing'an experience linked with suffering, sacrifice, even despair. Extending the insights offered in Wendy Doniger and David Shulman's 1993 articles, Hiltebeitel explores how Shuka's story is 'a metatext on the poetics of the Mahabharata' and evidence of the literary artistry of the epic's construction, besides depicting the author himself in relation to his work. Shuka's last words raise a fascinating discourse on whether an author can be cruel not only to his characters but to himself as well. Shuka's disappearance itself becomes a tour-de-force in narrative art with Hiltebeitel seizing upon a single hint to show that Vyasa heard of it from witnesses like Markandeya and Narada who would have told Bhishma who is relating this to Yudhishthira, that being told by Vaishampayana to Janamejaya which is retold by Sauti to Shaunaka in Naimisharanya.
At the end, Hiltebeitel daringly exceeds the sub-title of his book by pointing out that the epic is not just the education of Yudhishthira but, finally, a record of lessons Vyasa himself learns from the nude apsaras' differing reactions to his son and to himself. Very perceptively he notes that this reaction looks forward to the author's siring three sons after losing Shuka: 'Vyasa remains the lustful author who loves and pours himself into the joys and sorrows of his text'sorrows that include not only those familiar from the main story, but the preceding sorrow of the author's loss (of Shuka)'or of this son's exceeding his father's grasp, if not his father's text.'
In an extremely interesting aside Hiltebeitel'tongue in cheek one suspects'turns from providing European parallels (like Derrida on Plato) to Vyasa's authorial technique to what Indologists will revel in: a sinological comparison with Lao Tzu, the sage hidden by Mount Meru or Mount K'un-lun, the other side of which is ever unseen because it is ever receding. In an extended metaphor he proposes that the epic story 'is the shadow and echo of what the father once told the son, who is now gone, whom he has 'let go'.' Similarly, Rama hears the Ramayana from his unknown sons. Both epics share a relationship between poetry and birds (Shuka = parrot). If Narada points Valmiki towards the hero, the curlew's mournful cry turns him to the heroine in his hermitage. Rethinking one epic is to rethink the other too. 'How better to sing of perfection' asks Hiltebeitel in an inspired rhetorical question, 'than inspired by the pain it caused?' Both compositions remain works pervaded by an image of perfection awash in sunt lacrimae rerum.