Book Reviews

Ahimsa in the BLOODIEST of Epics

Alf Hiltebeitel: Nonviolence in the Mahabharata, Routledge, 2016, pp. 175, Rs. 8558/-

Alf Hiltebeitel has been keenly interested in parts of the Mahabharata (MB) usually considered tedious philosophical discourses added in later times. The discovery of the Spitzer manuscript in Brahmi script in the Qizil caves of Xinjiang (c. 100-300 CE) listing the parvas of the MB (except Anushasana and possibly Virata) indicate that Shanti Parva was then part of the MB. Its “Narayaniya” portion has engaged Hiltebeitel’s interest in depth. His latest book focuses on four topics: how unchavritti [gleaning (including “non-eaters”)] is celebrated in the context of peace and nonviolence; how it features in Buddhist and Jain texts; Anandavardhana’s view that the dominant aesthetic sentiment (rasa) of the epic is shanta, serenity; and Mahatma Gandhi’s interpretation of this most violent of epics in terms of ahimsa. Anirudh Sainath’s painting of Balarama makes a striking cover for the book.

This new area of research appears to have been prompted by an operation he underwent during which, chewing nothing, he received nourishment through a stomach-tube. That set off the trend of thought about ascetics who lived by gleaning leaves, fire, water, air, or ate nothing. This is reminiscent of Professor P. Lal who documented his near-death-experience at length in Lessons spurring him into rushing to complete his sloka-by-sloka transcreation of the Mahabharata.

To Hiltebeitel, “gleaning is a metaphor for the MB poets’ art” who took material from oral and written texts leaving traces in “rough joins” between units. The texts included a Greek repertoire (Fernando Wulff’s thesis, which can be turned on its head, i.e. Greeks borrowing from the Indian epic repertory). Gleaning also symbolizes the MB’s heterogeneity encompassing six elements: the main story, frame narratives, authorial interventions, didactic material, side-tales and bhakti matter. The gleaners practice ahimsa, the obverse of the MB which seems to be all about war. Significantly, Akbar named its Persian translation Razmnama, Book of War. Imagining the gleaners as “spectral presences” on corpse-littered Kurukshetra, Hiltebeitel makes the important point that the Shanti Parva does not signify peace after the carnage. Shanti is “calm of mind, all passion spent,” necessary for enabling the demoralised Dharma-raja to rule.

Hiltebeitel holds that the origins of ahimsa lie not in Vedic tradition but in Jainism and Buddhism. Yet, we find that both epics repeatedly criticize hunting as one of the four royal vices leading to disaster. In the Mokshadharma Parva, rishis condemn raja Uparichara Vasu for interpreting sacrifice to be animals instead of crops. Yet, eating meat is not criticised. Starving Vishvamitra even steals a haunch of dog meat from a chandala. The MB has several tales in the Sankhya and Yoga traditions upholding non-killing of animals. During the forest exile, rishi Lomasha recounts the story of the virtuous vegetarian hunter who sells meat and teaches a Brahmin moksha-dharma enunciating, ahimsa paramo dharma, “Non-harming is the supreme way of life.” The hunter goes on to criticise Jains, since “who in the world does not hurt something,” even cultivators. However, this is not the first occurrence of the phrase. It occurs first in the Pauloma Parva where it is an expedient spouted by a non-poisonous reptile about to be killed by rishi Ruru wreaking vengeance for his wife’s death by snake-bite. All sages are not non-violent! Parashurama massacres Kshatriyas and Vishvamitra plans Vasishtha’s murder. This is what the MB’s heterogeneity is all about.

Ahimsa is absent in the Upanishads and appears as na druhyed (let him not hurt) in the Dharmashastras, particularly in Baudhayana which has passages similar to the MB’s about forest ashramites and gleaners, as does Manusmriti. Apastamba, the oldest Dharmasutra, speaks about gleaning. Hiltebeitel suggests that the deer who addresses the ascetic Satya in the Mokshadharma Parva is actually the god Dharma who declares that sacrifice by practising ahimsa is superior. It is interesting that Hiltebeitel should rely on this story which the Critical Edition omits. He even suggests that the commentator Nilakantha Chaturdhara (latter half of the 17th century CE) inserted this tale!

A list of all gleaner and forest ashramites mentioned in Shiva’s address to Uma in the Anushasana Parva has been provided from both the Northern (N) and the Southern (S) recensions. Hiltebeitel finds that the latter wholly revises the former. He posits that N dates from 200 to 50 BCE while S is much later but before 300 CE. Shiva mentions types of ascetic gleaners (9 in N but 13 in S) who follow what Uma calls “rishidharma,” a synonym for moksha-dharma.

Buddhists did not espouse gleaning. Buddha states in the Kukkuravatika Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya) that the ascetic following “govrata” (living like an ox) and a naked one living like a dog off food cast on the ground, will be reborn as an ox and a dog. Jain texts state that such living leads to animal birth. The Jain advocacy of fasting and staying motionless has a parallel in the MB’s gleaners who observe vows reducing the quantity of food and remaining fixed in dhyana.

Hiltebeitel argues that the Dandaka forest is to the Ramayana what Kurukshetra is to the MB, namely, “the great contested battle terrain within India.” As the Dandaka rishis practice ahimsa, they do not kill the Rakshasas, leaving that to Rama. Balarama on his pilgrimage to Kurukshetra passes through forests full of ahimsrair nribhir, men who do no harm. Rama, in ascetic guise, slays Rakshasas whereas Balarama refuses to fight at Kurukshetra. He reaches it carrying the plough, an agricultural implement, linking him to the king Kuru who ploughs at Samantapanchaka. In this parva, Balarama is frequently called Langalin and Halayudha, plough-wielder. This is significant because he is famous as the master mace-wielder who teaches Bhima and Duryodhana mace-battle.

Balarama’s pilgrimage is examined in detail to explore three hypotheses: the relationship between the N and the S recensions; the link with the Uma-Maheshvara dialogue; and the composition of the MB by Brahmin poets of the Kurukshetra region familiar with its folklore of gleaners. Hiltebeitel finds that in some cases the S preserved archaic readings of the N. He bases this on T.P. Mahadevan’s research about the Purvashikha Brahmins of Panchala composing the MB and bringing it south during the Sangam era (300-100 BCE). The Kalabhra interregnum around 300 CE led to one branch (the Nambudiris) leaving for Kerala carrying a copy of the S. From this the MB in Malayalam script was written, preserving its basic features, unlike the Grantha and Telegu versions. Therefore, urges Hiltebeitel, the CE needs to be based upon collating the S with the N text. The Choliya branch of the Purvashikhas stayed back in Tamilnadu with a copy of the S. That was added to from the 7th century onwards by the Aparashikha Brahmins migrating to the south. All this makes Gupta datings of the MB impossible: “Only N is really the text; S is already the tradition…our second MB with a lot of changed words…more systematically brahmanical…in south India where the Guptas were never even in the picture.”

In examining the Jaigishavya-Asita Devala tale, Hiltebeitel refers to spirits of ancestors making two “fateful interventions”, viz. of Jaratkaru and of Uparichara Vasu. There is a third one: Agastya’s, leading to the story of Lopamudra which, along with that of Madhavi, is a remarkable portrayal of the assertion of feminine independence.

Hiltebeitel reaches a dubious conclusion that the MB poets invented Kuru and his parents Samvarana and Tapati as they do not feature in Vedic literature. He proposes that the name may be a toponym or refer to an activity, viz. ritual ploughing. Significantly, Buddha’s father Suddhodana’s ploughing impels Siddhartha to meditate on the cycle of eating-and-being-eaten. Janaka finds Sita during ritual ploughing. The sacred nature of Samantapanchaka lies in its having been Prajapati’s northern altar where the gods once assembled for a sacrifice. It came to be named Kurukshetra after the king who ploughed there (or after the act of ploughing) so that anyone dying there attained heaven. As that would deprive the devas of their sacrificial shares, Indra granted a boon that is an aporia: those fasting to death there (gleaners) or dying in battle (irrespective of crooked or honest acts) would attain Swarga. This links Balarama’s pilgrimage to Shiva’s reply to Uma’s 125th question later in the Anushasana Parva, mentioning non-eaters and Kshatriyas dying in battle. Hiltebeitel spots this as an addition made to the N by the S because it localizes the non-eater by putting him on par with those who burn or drown themselves, practices prevalent in the south. Balarama alone honours Duryodhana’s warrior dharma by assigning him Swarga for dying in Kurukshetra in battle. In this he is true to his being the avatar of Shesha, the remnant of dharma left after universal dissolution.

In his earlier books Hiltebeitel had seized upon Naimisharanya (“the twinkling forest”) and “the back of the mountain” as symbols for the process of recital and composition of the MB. Here he proposes that gleaning symbolises the art of the MB poets, selecting from texts, leaving rough joins, moving on to other interests. How Bhishma and Vidura teach exemplifies this. The former’s sources are wide-ranging, often telling gleaners’ tales, while the latter is limited to two cities and never mentions them. From his encounter with Dharma in the Vana Parva, Yudhishthira—through the stories of Shuka, Uparichara Vasu (both in the Mokshadharma Parva) and the half-golden mongoose’s tale of the gleaner in the Ashvamedha Parva—is made to face the juxtaposition of moksha and a ruler’s duties. Shuka is Yudhishthira’s uncle; Uparichara Vasu is his maternal great-great-grandfather and the Narayaniya’s rishi Nara is his brother Arjuna. Thus, Yudhishthira is being turned back from moksha towards familial duty.

According to the Kashmiri Anandavardhana (c. 9th century CE), the prevailing rasa, flavour, in the MB—through the sorry end of the Yadavas and the Pandavas—is shanta (serenity) with the complementary sthayibhava (abiding emotion) of vairagya (distaste) or nirveda (total indifference) aiming at the human goal of moksha., Abhinavagupta (10th century CE), also from Kashmir, established Shanti as the ninth rasa. Thereby, these Kashmiri savants presented a new MB in which the main sentiment was not valour, vira-rasa, but serenity. In that case, Yudhishthira needs must be the true protagonist, as Buddhadeb Basu had argued in his “Mahabharater Katha.” Mahatma Gandhi argued that, through the carnage at Kurukshetra and Prabhasa, Vyasa was establishing the futility of violence. However, unlike Kuru, Yudhishthira is not concerned about all humanity. His supposed detachment unravels when, finding Duryodhana in Swarga, he exclaims, “This is not heaven!” Disagreeing with Gandhi and Anandavardhana, Hiltebeitel posits that the prevailing sentiment in the MB is adbhuta, uncanny, with vismaya, wonder, as the abiding emotion. Perhaps they could be rendered more appropriately as “extraordinary” and “perplexity”.

Hiltebeitel quotes an excellent insight provided by Adluri: Pramati relating Astika’s tale to Ruru implies awareness of the entire MB narrated to Janamejaya, only after which Astika intervenes. Ruru is prompted to ask his father by a venomless snake who tells him ahi?sa paramo dharmah. Thus, Pramati’s retelling is a “meta-commentary” on the MB from the standpoint of ahimsa as the supreme way of life. Thus, non-injury is a paramount flavour to be added to that of serenity. For Hiltebeitel, the “nothing eaters” take ahimsa “to its logical conclusion and pinnacle”. By linking Shiva’s talk to Uma about gleaners to Balarama’s pilgrimage one can reach this rasa via the scene of the illegally felled Duryodhana being kicked on the head by Bhima that shames even Krishna. Strangely enough, Yudhishthira justifies it!

The book concludes with the proposition that whereas the gleaners in the forests call upon Rama to follow his dharma and defeat the Rakshasas to restore peace, those in Kurukshetra are only concerned with achieving liberation through heroic renunciation. Through their rishidharma they attain inner peace that lies beyond dharma and adharma. It is the merging with the transcendent Self which Krishna speaks of in chapter 14 of the Gita.

An earlier version was published in the 8th Day supplement of The Sunday Statesman dated 20 August 2017.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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