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Homer, Valmiki and Vyasa: Brotherhood in Mythology

Were Homer, Valmiki and Vyasa siblings separated by space and time who drew from the same ancient source of mythical wisdom to weave magnificent tales of gods and goddesses, heroic mortals and demi-gods and demi-goddesses?

The earliest of the trio was Homer whose Iliad was presumed to have been composed in the 8th or 7th century Before Christian Era (BCE) in the ancient language that came to be known as Homeric Greek. Next came Valmiki whose 24,000 stanza Ramayana in Sanskrit was composed some time between the 7th century BCE and 3rd century CE. Vyasa’s Mahabharata, the longest poem in the world with 100,00 couplets or 200,000 lines, also in Sanskrit, was the latest of the three epics  and it was believed to have been completed between 3rd century BCE and 3rd Century CE.

What is significant is that many of the personalities, events or concepts that figure in the last two epics are there in a large measure in the first, as also in Homer’s other epic poem Odyssey, indicating that all of them must have had a single, ancient, common source. A source that nostalgically nourished the creative imagination of a people that got dispersed from the Eurasian steppes to different regions of Europe and Asia and, in the march of time, developed linguistic and cultural identities and traditions of their own.

Many of the divine and mortal characters in Iliad and Odyssey have their copy images in Mahabharata and Ramayana. Krishna and Achilles having an identical vulnerable heel and dying in an identical manner are good examples. So is Kamsa, the reason for the incarnation of Vishnu as Krishna. Because of a prophesy that his cousin Devaki’s eighth child will kill him, Kamsa imprisons Devaki and proceeds to kill the children as soon as they are born. Kamsa is a copycat image of  Iliad's  Kronos, father of gods and Titans. He too has the prophesy that the sixth child born to his wife Rhea will kill him. So he kills the newborns, just by swallowing them. His wife Rhea, however, spirits away the sixth child, Zeus, to safety just as Devaki does with her eighth child Krishna. A grown up Zeus later comes back to deal with Kronos, the same way Krishna faces Kamsa.

We may see a similarity even in some unimportant aspects of  the epics. Dhritarashtra, the head of the Kuru clan, for instance, had a hundred sons, an upgrade from the aging father in Troy, King Priam,who had fifty sons

One of the best comparisons of the divine characters in these epics is that of Zeus and Indra. Both are lords of the skies, lightning and thunder being their principal weapons. Nowhere is the  Hellenic and Indian similarity so pronounced as in their case. In the circumstances of their births, in their many exploits, in their notorious lust for heavenly or earthly women they are practically one and the same.

What basically serves as an undercurrent in all the four epics is the intervention of gods almost on a day to day basis in whatever is done by the mortals whose lives these epics recounted. For every happening, it appeared,  the gods had a design. Every fortune or misfortune was tinged with gods’ pleasure or displeasure, favour or disfavour. And gods were never fair in their dealings with the mortals, or even with their own incarnations on earth.

This is strongly brought to light in the earliest of the epics, Iliad, meaning the song of Illion, the old name of Troy. The highlight of the epic was the ten-year war of Troy, leading to its total sacking. And every event preceding the war, during the war and succeeding the war was  dictated by one god or the other, who all brazenly took sides.

In fact the central theme of all the three major epics is a devastating, all annihilating war: the Trojan War, the Lanka War, the Kurukshethra War, each of them waged in the name of a woman wronged: The abduction of Helen of Troy leading to the Trojan War, the abduction of Sita leading to the Lanka War and the vasthrakshepa (disrobing) of Draupadi leading to the Kurukshethra War. Even the fourth epic, Odyssey, had something to do with a woman wronged. Ulysses’ final adventure in Odyssey was to adroitly vanquish the large number of belligerent suitors who had occupied his palace during his thirteen year absence  and pestered his wife Penelope, queen of Ithaca.

Descriptions of war necessarily implied a good awareness of army formations, of weaponry used, of strategies adopted. There is perhaps no epic to rival Mahabharata in this as great attention to detail was given by Vyasa to describe 21 army phalanx like vajra vyuha, chakra vyuha, garuda vyuha etc and of army contingents from the basic unit to Akshauhinis.  But in doing so, did he have any model to look up to? There is indeed a mention of the rudiments of an army formation in the Dasarajna Yuddha (Battle of the Ten Kings) in the Third mandala of Rig Veda. But apart from it was there anything that might have been of help? There is good possibility of such a model being found in the ancient wisdom of the steppes tribes, as explained in Homer’s Iliad through descriptions of naval formations on the Greek side and to a lesser degree army formations on the Trojan side. However, there is no doubt that the Mahabharata version is immensely superior to what all is provided in Iliad.

Mahabharata for instance describes the basic battle formation as a Patti, consisting of one elephant, one chariot, three horses and five foot soldiers. Three Pattis formed a Sena Mukha, three Sena-Mukhas made a Gulma, three Gulmas a Gana, three Ganas a Vahini, three Vahinis a Pruthana, three Pruthanas a Chamu, three Chamus an Anikini and ten Anikinis formed an Akshauhini.

It is possible thus to calculate how many men and animals make up an Akshauhini. An Akshauhini, by calculation, consists of 21,870 elephants, 21,870 chariots, 65,610 horses, and 109,350 foot soldiers. Incidentally the digits of each of them would add up to 18, the same as the number of days the Kurukshethra war raged, or the number of chapters that Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita  contained.

While there are similarities between Iliad and Mahabharata on various counts, the greatest dissimilarity is in respect of casualties of war, as also in the duration of the war. The Trojan War went on for ten years, but the battlefield deaths mentioned by Homer numbered only 240, comprising 188 officers on the Trojan side and 52 officers on the Grecian side . No mention was made of the deaths of ordinary soldiers.

The Kurukshethra war, on the other hand, took only 18 days in all. And the casualty figure was mind-boggling. Eighteen Akshauhinis of army, eleven on the Kaurava side and seven on the Pandava side took part in the war, showing a total involvement of 47,23,920 men estimated as per the army formations given in the epic. Of this enormous fighting force, only twelve people came out alive after the 18th day: the five Pandavas, Krishna, Aswaththama, Kripa, Satyaki , Kritavarma, Vrishakethu and Yuyutsu.

More than Mahabharata, however, it was Iliad that began with an ominous opening line on the gory battlefield spectacles to follow:

The wrath of Peleus' son, the direful spring
Of all the Grecian woes, O Goddess, sing!

What was the reason for the wrath of Achilles which led to a bloodbath in Troy the like of which was not witnessed earlier? During the nine years that the war had raged, the Grecians had ransacked many areas surrounding Troy and army commander Agamemnon and chief warrior Achilles had their war prizes from these raids, two beautiful maiden by name Chryseis and Briseis. Agamemnon was forced to return Chryseis to her father, a priest of Apollo, after the sun-god punished the Grecian army with a pestilence. A miffed Agamemnon then took Briseis from Achilles, an act that made Achilles refrain from fighting. Much later when he was persuaded to rejoin the war, Achilles sent his closest friend Patroclus in his armour and his chariot. Achilles went into a rage when he heard that his friend had been killed by King Priam’s son Hector. He not only rejoined the war, but went in for a frenzied killing of Trojans. He killed Hector and showering indignities on the body, tied it to his chariot and dragged it around the Trojan fort several times. The killling of Hector and the subsequent debasement of his body were helplessly watched by father Priam from the ramparts of Troy, just as the deceitful felling  and the slow bleeding death of Duryodhana were watched by a helpless Dhritarashtra through the magical eyes of Sanjaya. It was on the twelfth day after the killing of Hector that Achilles condescended to hand over the body to Priam for the funeral.

There is an equal to Wrath of Achilles in Mahabharata, in the rage of Aswaththama, who in the course of one night annihilated the entire remaining army in the Pandava camp, after beating to death his father Drona’s killer Dhrishtadwimna.

In fact traits of Achilles may be found in other Mahabharata warriors also. As the supreme fighter on the Grecian side he was compared to the supreme fighter on the Pandava side, Arjuna, and on the Kaurava side, Karna. As the vulnerable spot in his body was the heel, he appeared to leave a copycat image in Krishna, whose vulnerable spot too was the heel. Achilles, son of sea nymph Thetis and King Peleus, was dipped in the River Styx by his mother to give him invincibility. But since she held him by his foot, a part of his body that was untouched by water became vulnerable. He did not die during the Trojan war, but Odyssey mentions his death from an arrow shot by Paris that pierced his heel, the same way a hunter’s wayward arrow killed Krishna, much after the Kurukshethra war.

The similarity between the Trojan War and the Lanka War was also striking as both wars were waged in the name of a woman, Helen of Troy and Sita, though the circumstances of their abduction were dissimilar. Helen who went with Priam’s son Paris was in fact a victim of machinations by Aphrodite who was returning a favour to Paris for judging her as the most beautiful goddess and awarding her the contentious Golden Apple. Sita, on the other hand, was a victim of circumstances created by her husband and his brother through reprehensible behaviour towards a love-lorn woman, though a rakshasi in disguise. But the wars waged in their names were devastating, cataclysmic. In all the three epics the authors wax eloquent on the post-war descriptions of the battlefields, with mounds of human and animal carcasses, unburied and remaining an easy prey for dogs and vultures. As Homer says:

That wrath which hurled to Pluto's gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain,
Whose limbs, unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.

(Tr: Alexander Pope)

01-Apr-2023

More by :  P. Ravindran Nayar

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