Kevin McGrath: Arjuna Pandava: The Double Hero in Epic Mahabharata, Orient Blackswan, 2016, pp.207, Rs. 835/-
Dr. Kevin McGrath, poet and Harvard professor of Sanskrit, engaged in fieldwork in the Kacch on kinship and migration, began investigations into the Mahabharata with his study Karna: the Sanskrit Hero in 2004. Thereafter, in Stri (2009) he switched to Vyasa’s women, following up with performance in the Mahabharata in Jaya (2011). Then, in swift succession, came his studies of Krishna (2013), Arjuna (2016) and Yudhishthira (forthcoming, though completed earlier). An irritation in the book under review is the repeated references to his study of Yudhishthira which cannot be fully appreciated as it is under publication. McGrath follows the Harvard school of epic poetics founded by Milman Parry, Gregory Nagy and Albert Bates Lord which concentrates on the text qua text and envisages epic society as a Bronze-Age-Indo-Aryan-pre-literate-pre-monetary culture.
The only other full-length study of Arjuna is the 1989 book by Ruth Katz who found him to be triple-layered as hero, human and devotee. She rejected the idea that contradictions in his character are a result of layers of composition, accepting them as indicative of the complexity of his nature.
McGrath, however, looks at Arjuna as dual in nature, uniquely godly and humanly heroic, wherein lies the secret of his cult status. He provides a fascinating appendix on Achilles who, a late Bronze Age hero like Arjuna, attained cult status by virtue of the same characteristic of bestriding two worlds, the mortal and the celestial. One might well enquire why it does not hold equally true for Bhima and Karna, shrines to both of whom exist. Well, Arjuna alone lives at length in Swarga and interacts repeatedly with the devas and Rudra-Shiva. He alone shares Indra’s seat, rides in his chariot and slaughters the demons whom the Devas cannot defeat. Achilles may interact with gods, but he never lives in Olympus. Of the others, Kunti has intimate contact with four gods, Madri with two, Karna with Indra in disguise, and Yudhishthira with Dharma as a crane and as a dog. McGrath overlooks Devavrata, brought up by celestial Ganga, taught by deva-guru Brihaspati and uniquely blessed with the supernatural gift of death-at-will.
Arjuna is defined by dualistic patterns: with Krishna (often referred to as a compound, or as the two Krishnas, or as Nara-Narayana); with Karna as his chief adversary; with Yudhishthira (as wielder of his danda, rod of chastisement); and finally in his double deaths. Further, he is uniquely ambidextrous, savyasachin. Even sexually, he is both male and neither-male-nor-female, like Ardhanarishvara Shiva, a persona in which his double is Shikhandi, born as Shiva’s boon to Drupada. McGrath finds that a similar dual pattern with Krishna and Balarama is “strangely obscured”. However, the Harivansha does develop this, which is why it is called the khila, appendix, to the epic.
McGrath’s argument is that doubling is typical of the poetic thought process of pre-literate-pre-monetary cultures while fashioning their poetry. The Iliad has similar sequences of counterpoised speakers presenting dual acts and thoughts. But is it so with the Odyssey too, whose hero has much in common with Arjuna? Such a culture’s literature operates more in terms of metaphor, barter, poetry and syntax, whereas a literate society’s favours metonymy, money, prose and grammar. “Polymorphic duality” or “twofold bivalence” lies at the core of the Arjuna narrative, reaching its acme in the Gita where Arjuna simultaneously experiences two worlds: the human and the cosmic. He is the sole liminal figure in the epic. Moreover, while here he achieves enlightenment and supposedly engages in nishkama karma, detached action, yet he is called “Bibhatsu” for his terrifying violence. Repeatedly Krishna has to shake out of depression. He even forgets the Gita, is soundly berated for it by Krishna who has to impart to him the Anugita. McGrath proposes: “This kind of polarity is an aspect profoundly inherent to both the psychic and the narrative composition of heroic Arjuna.” He suggests that perhaps there was a Phalguna-Katha (a name by which he is called whenever weapons are concerned) which was woven into the Mahabharata. But how can he argue that Arjuna is not a moral figure in the context of his repeated reluctance to proceed against his elders?
Is it not curious that this unique hero is never considered for kingship? Even more intriguing is that Bhishma does not enumerate him among the atirathis (supreme warriors) or maharathis (great warriors) but mentions him as an ordinary rathi (chariot-warrior). A similar triple ranking occurs in Book 12 of the Iliad. Yet, it is Arjuna’s grandson—whose grandmother is a Yadava—who is installed in Hastinapura. Parikshit, like Arjuna, dies twice and is resurrected. Why were the sons of the elder brothers Yudhishthira (Yaudheya) and Bhima (Sarvaga) not considered, nor his sole living son Babhruvahana who alone laid Arjuna low?
The argument that Parikshit’s investiture is “the victory of the matrilineal clan system—Pandavas—over the patrilineal model—Dhartarashtras—represent(ing) the triumph of the indigenous over the intrusive Indo-Aryan,” is founded upon the premise that Arjuna’s marriage to Subhadra “is a Dravidian type,” being matrilineal, while patrilineal marriage is Indo-Aryan. The proposition is questionable being based upon the discarded Aryan invasion hypothesis. McGrath suggests that bheda (division) between two lineage types represents two separate traditions of heroic poetry which were combined early in the 1st century CE. Evidence for substantiating this challenging notion is not produced. It is undeniable, however, that the Yadava link is crucial: through Kunti Arjuna is half-Yadava; he marries Kunti’s Yadava niece; he is devastated by the death of his son by his Yadava wife, not by those of his other two sons; the Yadava Vajra is installed in Indraprastha and Parikshit—part-Yadava in lineage—at Hastinapura. McGrath mistakenly calls Vajra Krishna’s son (p. 78, fn.10) while he is his great grandson, being Aniruddha’s son by Usha. McGrath is the first to call the Mahabharata, “the charter myth of the victorious Yadava clan,” and the Gita “a truly influential Yadava song,” statements that invite vigorous discussion. Hopefully, we will see this in the near future.
According to McGrath, Arjuna alone has sexual relations with three females of whom only one is human (Chitrangada) “and with an apsara” (p. 9). What about the human Subhadra? Moreover, Arjuna refuses to be seduced by Urvashi in Swarga. In abiding by the mortal value of regarding the ancestress of the Lunar Dynasty as a mother, despite her curse, Arjuna abjures his godly heritage from the libertine Indra. Similarly, Gilgamesh refused the advances of the goddess Ishtar, thus inviting her wrath. Arjuna is also the only one to rescue the apsara Varga and her four friends from the curse of a crocodile existence. In Tamil ballads, he is very much of an inveterate philanderer, even masquerading as a snake to seduce three princesses with the help of Krishna during this period of self-imposed exile.
McGrath is incorrect in asserting that none of the Dhartarashtras receive cult status except one temple to Duryodhana in Uttarakhand. Karna is worshipped in Netwar village of the Tons valley in Uttarakhand. Down south, a Duryodhan temple exists in Edakkad Ward (Kara) of Poruvazhy village in Kunnathoor Taluk of Kollam District, Kerala. The legend is that tracing the Pandavas in exile, Duryodhana reached Malanada hill. Tired, he went to Kaduthamsserry Kottaram, where Malanada Appoppan, the priest and ruler of the land was staying. An elderly woman gave him toddy, the customary mark of respect. He enjoyed the drink, but realized after seeing the ‘Kurathali’ worn by the woman that she belonged to an untouchable caste named ‘Kurava’. He appreciated the divinity of the place and its people who possessed supernatural powers (Siddha). Thereafter, he sat on the hill and worshipped Shiva, praying for the welfare of his people. As an act of charity, he gave away hundreds of acres of agricultural land and paddy fields as freehold to the temple. The land tax of this property is still levied in the name of ‘Duryodhanan’. The king also ensured that Gandhari, Duhshala, Karna, Drona and the other members of his family were worshipped nearby by the Kurava caste. There is a temple dedicated to Shakuni in Pavitreshwaram in the same district. Shakuni travelled with the Kauravas and when they reached the place where the temple is situated, they divided their weapons amongst themselves, whence the place came to be known as ‘Pakuteshwaram’, which later became Pavitreshwaram. Shakuni returned here after the battle and attained moksha with the blessings of Shiva and became Lord Shakuni. The other deities of the temple include Bhuvaneshwari Devi, Kiraat Murti and Nagaraj. Further, there is a Gandhari temple in Hebbya village, Nanjangud, Mysore. A Duryodhana (Periyantavar) festival enacting his death is held at T. Kuliyanur village near Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu. Draupadi is said to have granted permission for him to be worshipped for a single day.
The half-divine nature of Arjuna, along with his celestial arms and chariot and the avatar as charioteer, makes him a hero in the ancient Indo-Aryan tradition. When he speaks to Sanjaya in the Udyoga Parva, the verse is in irregular trishtubh form, the oldest part of the epic, with frequent mention of chariots, indicative of the Bronze Age (the chariot evolved at the end of the 3rd millennium BCE). Significantly, with the spontaneous combustion of the chariot after the war, Arjuna begins to lose the superhuman qualities characterizing the old Bronze Age hero, becomes more and more mortal and even suffers death. McGrath does not explore his unheroic pettiness vis-à-vis Ekalavya, nor his obsession with Jayadratha though Drona made the inviolable discus formation. Why is he not vengeful against the seven chariot-heroes who combined to kill Abhimanyu? McGrath writes that Arjuna alone is so furious with Yudhishthira as to draw his sword to kill him, overlooking Bhima’s command to Sahadeva in the dice-game to bring fire to burn Yudhishthira’s gaming hands.
According to McGrath, Arjuna alone is able to overcome the moral dilemma of killing a guru, but so is it with Yudhishthira regarding Drona, and he suffers from the guilt throughout, expiating it through the vision of hell at the end. Equally, he is tormented by the death of Karna, unlike Arjuna. On the other hand, despite his name “Bibhatsu” (as when violating the warrior-code by cutting off Bhurishrava’s arm when he was fighting Satyaki) Arjuna rejects Krishna’s advice to lie so that Drona abandons his arms. There is also his peculiar Bhishma-like adherence to a number of vows that no one is aware of, e.g. feeling compelled to pursue the Samsaptakas despite his commitment to guard Yudhishthira against Drona’s machinations, and drawing his sword to kill Yudhishthira. These McGrath does not deal with.
In his chapter on the Gita, McGrath describes its doctrine as departing from the pastoral Bronze Age Indo-Aryan culture and approaching the “urban beliefs” of Jainism and Buddhism with their stress on puja with bhakti for salvation instead of sacrificial offerings. How this is “urban” in nature has not been explained. However, we must not forget that the doctrine-of-the-hero emerges from the interaction of a warrior duo, and that Buddha too was a Saka Kshatriya prince. The Gita’s teaching was initially imparted to King Ikshvaku, whence it became hereditary knowledge of seer-kings. The Mahabharata tells of the supreme knowledge of liberation being known only to such rajarshis whom moksha-seeking Brahmins approached for instruction. Significantly, as the Gita prepares Arjuna for the battle of Kurukshetra with the assurance that the atman does not die, so does the Anugita precede his journey protecting the dedicated horse, during which he dies and is resurrected. Why McGrath describes Ulupi here as a “spiritual figure” is not clear. This time Arjuna neither has his divine chariot, nor Krishna as charioteer. He is Nara, man, without Narayana, the Divine. At least twice the Gandiva bow drops from his hand and he is knocked unconscious.
McGrath finds it significant that Krishna announces he is Bhrigu among the maha-rishis in the context of the argument that the Bhargava community inhabiting the area around Dvaraka dominated by the Yadavas redacted the Song of Arjuna (viz. Jaya, covering the four war books), embedding it in the Mahabharata. He also suggests that the books following Kurkshetra where Arjuna is merely a “meme,” a pale copy of the earlier glorious figure, come from a different poetic tradition far removed from the original heroic one, more concerned with evoking pity and fear than horripilation and heroism. Indeed, Krishna describes Arjuna as bahusangramakarshitam, “much emaciated by battle,” on his return with the horse. Also, the picture of kingship after the Stri Parva is of an urban polity, not the earlier archaic form. This assertion requires elaboration. Arjuna, having reached his nadir against staff-wielding Abhiras, consults Vyasa who tells him that the time has come for departure, kalo gantum gatim. The last words Arjuna speaks are, kalah kalah, “time, time,” reminding us of his cosmic vision of Krishna as Kala-Time. Giving up his bow and quivers, he shrinks to the purely human and collapses silently, shorn of the duality that characterized him so memorably. Earlier, Krishna has died an ordinary, human death. In hell Arjuna mutters, “I am Arjuna” to Yudhishthira who ultimately sees him, dazzlingly brilliant, in Swarga adoring Krishna (McGrath gives the reference here as XII.4.4 which should be XVIII.4.4).
The Arjuna-Krishna duo, one semi-divine, the other born of human parents, is an archaic Indo-European “twinning” archetype that we see in Mitra and Varuna and in the Greek Castor and Pollux, Heracles and Iphicles. Vyasa tells Satyavati that he will provide Vichitravirya with sons like Mitra and Varuna while Madri has twins by the Ashvinikumaras. McGrath is mistaken in stating that Krishna receives his discus from Mitra, for it is given to him by Agni. Nor is Krishna’s bow called “Srinjaya” (p. 120); it is “Shaaranga”. McGrath proposes that Arjuna and Krishna’s bows made of horn (as their names signify) connects with the Kushanas who settled at Mathura, whence the Yadavas migrated to Dvaraka.
The origin of the “two Krishnas” is the ancient duo of Nara and Narayana who rush into our sight in the very first book during the churning of the ocean for amrita, Nara wielding a celestial bow and Narayana the Sudarshana discus, slaughtering the demons. Here Nara is the human while Narayana is the Divine. The Khandava massacre is a doubling of the same scenario with the nature of the two reversed. The Vedic deities attacking them withdraw on hearing that they are that ancient duo. In the Nara-Narayana myth narrated by Parashurama in the Udyoga Parva, Nara counters a king’s attack with deadly reeds, while Narayana remains still. McGrath does not notice that this is reversed in the Mausala Parva where reeds are what Krishna uses to slaughter the Yadavas. This use of reeds recurs in the Jaimini Mahabharata’s Sahasramukharavanacarita where Sita uses mantra-infused reeds to destroy the thousand-headed Ravana who has knocked down Rama. Such “twinning” is also seen in Achilles-Patroklos and Achilles-Diomedes. Like Krishna driving Arjuna’s chariot and speaking to him, Athena drives Diomedes’ chariot and talks to him.
We can see the Nara-Narayana duo represented in sculpture in the oldest Indian temple which is located in Deogarh, (circa 5th century CE). The antiquity of the Mahabharata is seen in the solitary reference to images of divinities in the Kaurava temple shaking, laughing, dancing and weeping. The first statuary found in India is Buddhist in the 3rd century BC, co-terminus with the appearance of writing. McGrath is wrong in saying that there is no reference to writing in the epic. There is explicit mention of the benefits accruing from gifting a copy of the Mahabharata.
In the very beginning, Dhritarashtra states that Narada declared to him the divinity of Arjuna and Krishna as Nara-Narayana. Then, in the Vana Parva Krishna announces that Arjuna is Nara and that they are inseparable, indistinguishable. In the Shanti Parva they speak in unison—a unique phenomenon. Thus, this epic duo replaces the Vedic Mitra-Varuna pair. At the end of the Drona Parva, Vyasa declares Narayana as a deity “older than the oldest,” born of Dharma, who deludes the world. Nara is a product of his ascesis. McGrath suggests that this duo is Dravidian in origin, turning an archaic concept of divine twins and double heroes into a later idea of conjoint deity-and-hero. To him this becomes “a perfect metaphor for how the preliterate and the literate aspects” of the Mahabharata were combined in early Gupta times. The world of the Shanti Parva “is of a historically later order of culture and society.” Indeed, in the Puranic world Narayana becomes the Supreme Being, equated with Vishnu, giving rise to Vaishnavism. McGrath further proposes that this represents a union of the Kshatriya and the Brahmin orders, of worldly puissance and ritual power. A parallel is visible in the figures of Parashurama, Drona and Kripa—all Brahmins who choose to be mighty warriors and teachers in warcraft.
A character who shares in the doubling of Arjuna and Krishna is Narada, incessantly moving through the celestial and earthly worlds and joining the past to the future through his speeches, knowing all the done and the undone in the world, loke veda kritakritam. Narada also forms a duo with his sister’s son Parvata—again a matrilineal connection. He is the first to use the term omkara (XII.325.83) and is the first to interact with Nara and Narayana, being virtually their first priest. Krishna declares that among the deva-rishis he is Narada. Like Krishna’s theophany to Arjuna, Narayana’s to Narada is hundred headed and thousand armed, vishvarupadhrik, containing all forms, divine and otherwise. As such, opines McGrath, Narada is “thoroughly imbued with that inchoate world of emergent Hinduism” representing “the poem’s own internal oral tradition,” for others recollect what he had said in the past. Vyasa— whom for some unexplained reason McGrath calls a rajarshi although he is no royal seer— and Narada shape the epic narrative “towards crisis and resolution.” Just as Narada understands Narayana and is closest to him, so is Vyasa an avatar of Narayana.
As Vyasa is to the Kuru clan, so is Narada to the Yadavas. He advises Yudhishthira, who promptly complies, to perform the rajasuya yajna. Conversely, when he advises Duryodhana in the Udyoga Parva to ally with the Pandavas, he refuses. In the Stri Parva Dhritarashtra regrets having ignored the advice of Narada and Vyasa. After advising Yudhishthira, Narada leaves for Dvaraka, reappearing during the rite, satisfied that Hari-Narayana, the Supreme Lord Self-Born, will destroy the Kshatriyas in the form of the human Krishna. Then Krishna kills Shishupala, following which Vyasa foretells the apocalyptic Kurukshetra war. It is Narada who informs Bhishma about the true gender of Shikhandin, because of which he does not fight the transvestite and dies. Just before the Gita, it is Narada who makes the renowned pronouncement: yatah krishnas tato jayah, “where is Krishna, there is victory.” Narada narrates Vyasa’s composition to the devas and summarizes the eighteen days of war for Parashurama in the Shalya Parva. The Vyasa-Narada pair informs Bhishma of Karna’s true identity and stands between the all-destructive missiles of Ashvatthama and Arjuna, speaking in unison—like Nara-Narayana—to prevent annihilation. Narada tells Yudhishthira of Karna’s deeds which are unknown elsewhere in the poem. McGrath does not mention that it is only to Narada that Krishna confesses the misery he is subjected to by the Yadavas. Narada foretells when Dhritarashtra, Gandhari, Sanjaya and Vidura will die, tells Yudhishthira of having witnessed Dhritarashtra’s death, and predicts the destruction of the Yadavas. He is, thus, part of the epic’s process of closing the bheda, alongside Vyasa who sends the Pandavas off on their last journey. Finally, it is Narada who brings about “calm of mind, all passion spent,” telling Yudhishthira, distressed on seeing Duryodhana, “This is Swarga; there is no enmity here.”
On the other hand, McGrath points out, Narada’s quoted speeches do not influence the narrative. His is thus a twofold presence: one that is effective and another that brings past oral tradition to comment on the present. His presence derives from the Puranic tradition, “indicating a late acquisition” featuring most in the Shanti and Anushasana Parvas (the latter is the richest in Bhargava material and at some time formed part of the former). He is unique in that no other character is mentioned and quoted so much. To McGrath, “He is a fine exemplum of how preliterate Mahabharata poets once functioned, as they in their performances likewise drew upon what had been formerly heard.”
McGrath asserts that there are three figures of a-temporal consciousness influencing the poem’s movement: Krishna who conducts the political narrative, Vyasa the maker of the poem, and Narada who omnisciently draws upon the past and the future to perfect the narrative. The epic is entirely retrospection and recollection, a characteristic typical of Narada. However, McGrath is mistaken when he says that the only two figures alive when the epic is being sung are Vaishampayana and Janamejaya. Vyasa is very much there, granting permission to the former to recite his composition. In the Jaiminiya Ashvamedhaparva, he grants it to Jaimini. As at the beginning, so at the end we find the statement that Narada recites the Mahabharata to the devas. For McGrath, through Narada’s performance the poem becomes an imperishable, unmatched tradition making Arjuna the epitome of the ancient heroic warrior to be worshipped.
While scholars like J.A.B.van Buitenen feel that the Virata Parva is a burlesque composed later, according to McGrath its account of chariot fighting is highly archaic, as also the scenes about Draupadi and Bhima. Unfortunately, he does not explain how. Sri Aurobindo was also of the opinion that the style here is typical of Vyasa’s style that is “bare, direct and (of) resistless strength (going) straight to the heart of all that is heroic in a man.” Vyasa, Narada and Krishna do not appear in it. More variant readings exist for this book than for any other. Is it, then, a combination of various Bharata traditions inserted after the Vana Parva?
McGrath makes a number of telling points regarding the character of the Mahabharata. The absence of reference to the Indus civilization and to Buddhism suggests a purposeful avoidance. The references to Hari and his being four-armed, to Krishna as maha-yogi, to bhakti (when such devotional practice is depicted nowhere) are all typical of classical Hinduism. Yet, Vedic figures like Indra, Agni, Surya and Rudra move easily in and out of the narrative, showing a remarkable conflation of cultures and periods. McGrath proposes that the poem supports a heroic religion that based itself on chariot warfare characterizing the old Bronze Age heroic world to express new views exemplified by the duo Arjuna-Krishna and Nara-Narayana, semi-divine and immortal. Arjuna, a late Bronze Age persona, is initiated into cosmic knowledge so that he becomes a myth of ritual devotion, connecting “as a metonym…the mortal with the supernatural,” fading out once bheda, the partition, has ended. Hence he is still worshipped. The Yadavas, the Bhargavas and the Gupta rulers changed the Mahabharata “from an old and polymorphic verbal and performative tradition to a uniform and synoptic written text.”
McGrath’s book is a fascinating slim volume that everyone interested in the Mahabharata will benefit from.
A shorter version of this review was published on 20th November 2016 in the 8th Day supplement of The Sunday Statesman.