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THE MAHABHARATA AND THE ILIAD


A comparison between two epic traditions of separate cultures
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Before I set out comparing the styles of the Mahabharata and the Iliad, I will discuss in detail what
how the term epic as a genre has been defined by literary critics looking at Western epic traditions
and those looking at the Eastern ones. Then I will combine the two definitions to chart out the
similarities and differences in the Mahabharata and the Iliads written narrative style, content,
concept of heroism as well as themes to understand an all-encompassing definition of the epic genre.
UNDERSTANDING THE EPIC FORM
Western epic as a genre
The most modern sum up of various definitions of the epic genre in the Western literary circles is
that of MH Abrams, who says:
An epic or heroic poem us applied to a work that meets at least the following criteria: it is a long
narrative poem on a great and serious subject, related in an elevated style, and centered on a heroic or
quasi-divine figure on whose actions depends the fate of a tribe, a nations, or the human race.1
Abram divides the epics in the Western literary tradition between traditional epics or folk epics
and literary or secondary epics. Folk epics are the ones which were shaped by a literary artist
from historical and legendary materials which had developed in the oral traditions of his nation
during a period of expansion and warfare (citing examples of the Iliad, Odyssey and Beowulf) while
literary epics are composed by sophisticated craftsmen in deliberate imitation of the traditional
form (citing examples of the Aenied, and Paradise Lost).
Continuing his definition, Abram lists down some essential features that make an epic, which he
explains, are derived from the traditional epics of Homer. The features, in summary, include:
1. The hero is a figure of great national or even cosmic importance (Achilles in the Iliad)
2. The setting of the poem is ample in scale, and may be worldwide, or even larger
3. The action involves superhuman deeds in battle, such as Achilles feats in the Trojan War.
4. In these great actions the gods and other supernatural beings take an interest or an active
part. (Olympian gods are all over the place in the Iliad)
5. An epic poem is a ceremonial performance, and is narrated in a ceremonial style which is
deliberately distanced from ordinary speech and proportioned to the grandeur and formality
of the heroic subject matter and epic architecture. (Homer deliberately used a Greek dialect
extinct in his times to distance and elevate his epics language)
Abram also looks at the various open-ended definitions by some of the other critics:
In addition to its strict use, the term epic is often applied to works which differ in many respects
form this model, but manifest, suggests critic E.M.W. Tillyard in his study The English Epic
and Its Background, the epic spirit in the scale, the scope, and the profound human
importance of their subjects; Tillyard suggests these four characteristics of the modern epic:
high quality and seriousness, inclusiveness or amplitude, control and exactitude
commensurate with exuberance, and an expression of the feelings of a large group of people.
Similarly, Brian Wilkie has remarked in Romantic Poets and Epic Tradition, that epics
1

A glossary of literary terms, MH Abrams (First published 1971)

constitute a family, with variable physiognomatic similarities, rather than a strictly definable
genre. In this broad sense, Dantes Divine Comedy and Spencers Faerie Queene are often
called epics, as are works of prose fiction such as Melvilles Moby Dick, and Tolstoys War
and Peace; Northrop Frye has described Joyces Finnegans Wake as the chief ironic epic of
our time (Anatomy of Criticism 323). Some critics have even look to the genre of science
fiction in prose and film, like Carl Sagans Contact for the twentieth centurys
continuing sense of the epic spirit.
Epic definition according to the Indian traditions
In spite of what Abram starts out to do when defining the epic genre point-by-point, his definition
ends up open-ended. Now, I will speak about another group of critics who define the epic
genre according to what they call the Indian epic traditions. In a book called the Oral Epics
of India (1989)2, a group of critics have listed down similar characteristics of the epic
tradition according to the Indian oral epics. The essentials are:
1. A narrative which tells a story in song, poetry, rhythmic prose, with perhaps some unsung
parts in a poetic, formulaic, ornamental style
2. It is heroic as it tells adventures of extraordinary peoplehuman, quasi-human, semi-divine
or divine
3. There are three epic types (in Indian cultures):

Martial: War, battle, struggle at centre with a focus on the society

Sacrificial: Heroic act of self-sacrifice or suicide at centre

Romantic: Individual actions celebrated at centre though threaten group


solidarity
4. Deities and humankind: Gods mix in human affairs for their own and the cosmos benefit;
when trouble threatens, the gods shift it to earth; and epic heroesand by extension the rest
of usbecome the gods scapegoats. Human suffering is inevitable and life is ruthlessly
fatalistic. Important cult deities play active role in events, even if they are not the central
characters.
5. Scope: Indian epics are stories full of marvels, but are also more: they present a mythology
(or a religion, to believers) and an interpretation of the human condition. Indian oral epics,
like the Mahabharata, are often filled with large amounts of didactic material, which works
with the narrative to teach lessons, ethical norms, and the collective wisdom of the national or
regional culture.
6. Complex intergenerational plots and repeat core character triangles: A core character triangle
grouping consisting of a lead hero or heroine and two secondary female or male characters.
7. Protagonists character develops through repeated story or plot types.
8. Focus on male protagonists, and present character attitudes (e.g. toward women and human
relationships, eg within kinship groups of family or caste) of a male-dominated world.
9. Kinfolk, often the heroes close relatives and especially within the same or parallel castes,
often pose serious problems and provoke destructive feuds, which drive the epic plot
10. Themes include Dharma (moral law), Fatalism (fate or daiva), Divine grace and the way of
bhakti to final release or moksha
In a summary, epics are loosely defined as long verse narratives that tell the heroic stories of ones
tribe. They present the deep questions about courage and moral order, about love and violence, about
war and peace which must be answered if a nation is to know itself.

Oral Epics of India, ed Stuart H. Blackburn, Peter J. Claus, Joyce B. Flueckiger, and Susan S.
Wadley (1989)
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WHERE THE TWAIN SHALL MEET


I will use the above-cited definitions as a starting point to understand the various differences and
similarities between the two epics, the Iliad and the Mahabharata.
Through oral traditions
Though attributed to a single authorship, both the Iliad as well as the Mahabharata, were written in
Abrams definition of the primary epic. According to Abram, the epics were shaped by a literary
artist from historial and legendary material which has developed in the oral traditions of his/her
nation during a period of expansion and warfare. These epics have been composed without the aid
of writing; sung or chanted to a musical accompaniment which means a lot of repeating. Also, since
the form is looser, separate stories or episodes from the epic can be detached from the whole and told
in completeness. The content of both the epics fit into this definition.
Structure: loose or taut?
The Mahabharata which is claimed by scholars to be a build up of additional stories onto the
original writings of Rishi Vyaas from 5th century BC to 4th century AD, has a looser, compiled
feeling. The various sections of the book are complete in themselves. Though it is talking about the
history of the race of Bharata, there are a lot of detours with separate stories/content in the book
which have nothing to do with the story itself. In Anushasana Parva, theres Bhagavad Gita where
Krishna advises and teaches Arjuna and Vishnu saharanama, which is a long hymn to Vishnu that
describes his 1000 names. In Aranyaka Parva, theres an abbreviated version of the Ramayana as
well as the story of Damyanti. The Harivamsa Parva is a compilation of the story of Krishna.
The Iliad on the other hand, though the content is inspired by the stories abounding in those
times, has a crisper structure. There are lesser detours in the story than the Mahabharata. The poem
is compressed with every word made to count in its meaning and understanding, especially in the
beginning of the story.
Narrative style
Homer is a third person, omnipotent narrator who is not only retelling the story of the Fall of Troy,
but also has access to every characters mind. The storyteller in that way has control. The style is
linear in the sense that the story Homers telling has already happened. For example, in Book 12 of
the Iliad, Home begins with a flash-forward part the end of the Trojan War.
The narrative in the Mahabharata is complex in comparison. Vyasa himself is both poet and
actor in the epic. Vyasa has written the story but Vaisampayana, a disciple of the rishi, is actually
telling it.
Formal elevated style
Both the epics use an elevated style of language. The Iliad was composed in the Ionic dialect of
Ancient Greek, which was spoken on the Aegean islands and in the coastal settlements of Asia
Minor, now modern Turkey. The poet chose the Ionic dialect because he felt it to be more appropriate
for the high style and grand scope of his work. Similarly the Mahabharata was first written in
Sanskrit and then translated into the regional language.
More than the language, its the words, the similes, the epithets for heroes, the archaic, highstyle words, that make the epics sound like grand works in terms of scope and imagination.
Scope of the poem
The Mahabharata is more than a story about kings, princes, sages and wise men. As Vyasa explains
in the beginning:
What is found here, may be found elsewhere.
What is not found here, will not be found elsewhere.

Its a compilation of myths and folks of a culture and its races. There are many deflections and
unrelated stories woven into its loose and long structure.
By comparison, the Iliad, takes one aspect of the myth and focuses on just that. The poem is a
story of a hero, Achilles, in a fight. Though the scope is elevated in language, the story focuses on
Achilles development as a character in the few days in the poem.
A lot of divine intervention
In both the epics, divine deities of the culture participate, council, kill and cheat semi-divine humans
on Earth. There are many instances in the Mahabharata when the gods come in the heavens to see a
fight between two warriors. Gods cheat as well. For example, Indra goes to Karna to ask for his
armour so that he cannot win over Arjuna in the fight.
Gods even give boons or wreak wrath on humans due to personal differences. They are mostly
shown as merciless, especially if humans dont follow their wills. In Iliad, Zeus supports the Trojans
in the war and even sends Hermes to escort King Priam to Achilles camp.
The glory of War
Both the Mahabharata as well as the Iliad seem to celebrate war. Characters emerge as worthy or
despicable based on their degree of competence and bravery in battle. In Iliad, Paris, for example,
doesnt like to fight, and correspondingly receives the scorn of both his family and his lover.
Achilles, on the other hand, wins eternal glory by explicitly rejecting the option of a long,
comfortable, uneventful life at home. The text itself seems to support this means of judging character
and extends it even to the gods. The epic holds up warlike deities such as Athena for the readers
admiration while it makes fun of gods who run from aggression, using the timidity of Aphrodite and
Artemis to create a scene of comic relief.
Satya Chaitanya, a scholar in an article Mahabharata Odes to Red Blood and Savage
Death lists down various passages from the book where there is glorification of war, the warriors
and even bloodshed. Killing according to her in the epic is a power-game which in its moments of
climax not just thrills, but transports the winner into ecstasies akin to orgasmic moments. She
quotes Duryodhana from the Shalya Parva:
Fame is all that one should acquire here. That fame can be obtained by battle, and by no other
means.
The death that a Kshatriya meets with at home is censurable. Death on ones bed at home is highly
sinful. The man who casts away his bodyin battleobtains great glory. He is no man who dies
miserably weeping in pain, afflicted by disease and decay, in the midst of crying kinsmen.
She continues, These sentences leave no room for any doubt about their attitude towards war. To
slaughter the enemy ruthlessly in honorable battle was noble indeed. And to be pierced by a hundred
arrows in every limb, to have ones head chopped off with a single stroke of the enemys sword or a
well-shot arrow was equally noble. And equally desirable.
Take a look at the description of an encounter between Arjuna and Ashwatthama:
The son of Drona then, O Bharata, pierced Arjuna with a dozen gold-winged arrows of great
energy and Vasudeva with ten. Having shown for a short while some regard for the preceptors son in
that great battle, Vibhatsu (Arjuna) then, smiling the while, stretched his bow Gandiva with force.
Soon, however, the mighty car-warrior Savyasachi (Arjuna) made his adversary steed-less and
driver-less and car-less, and without putting forth much strength pierced him with three arrows.
Staying on that steed-less car, Dronas son, smiling the while, hurled at the son of Pandu a heavy
mallet that looked like a dreadful mace with iron-spikes.

The realities of war are not ignored, they are instead glorified. The Kshtriya code of conduct
is the dharma of the characters in the story. In one of the scenes in Book 9 in the Iliad 3, Achilles tells
Odysseus, Phoenix and Ajax about the two fates he much choose between:
For my mother Thetis the goddess of silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.
In Iliad, men die gruesome deaths; women become slaves and concubines, estranged from
their tearful fathers and mothers; a plague breaks out in the Achaean camp and decimates the
army. Though Achilles points out that all men, whether brave or cowardly, meet the same
death in the end, the poem never asks the reader to question the legitimacy of the ongoing
struggle. Homer never implies that the fight constitutes a waste of time or human life. Rather,
he portrays each side as having a justifiable reason to fight and depicts warfare as a
respectable and even glorious manner of settling the dispute. The word kleos meaning the
glory earned through battle occurs in the epic quite a few times.
Concept of heroism
Heroism then, in both the epics is fearlessness in fighting and standing for what is right for the
society, but on the right side. This is the difference between the epic heroes, namely Arjuna and
Achilles and the tragic heroes, namely Karna and Hector. Though both Karna and Arjuna follow the
kshtriya code of conduct, Karna is killed because he acts wrongly. Just before he is killed, Krishna
explains that he insulted Draupadi in the Assembly, so he has no right to ask for a fair fight.
Hector on the other hand, is a tragic figure because he is selflessly fighting for his lands. But
he does wrong by flaunting the death of Achilles friend Patroclus and making a wrong military
decision of keeping most of his army in camps outside the walls of Troy.
Concept of fate
In both the tragic heros tales, lies the hand of fate, a very important theme in both the epics. In an
instance in the Karna Parva, Dhritarashtra exclaims to Sanjaya, summing up the whole theme of
destiny:
I think destiny is supreme, and exertion fruitless since even Karna, who was like a Sala tree, hath
been slain in battleThe fulfillment of Duryodhanas wishes is even like locomotion to one that is
lame, or the gratification of the poor mans desire, or stray drops of water to one that is thirsty!
Planned in one way, our schemes end otherwise. Alas, destiny is all powerful, and time incapable of
being transgressed
Karna is aware of his fate but still embraces it, as its his duty. Karna cries to Salya on the day of his
death in Karna Parva:
Who else, O Salya, save myself, would proceed against Phalguna and Vasudeva that are even such?
Either I will overthrow those two in battle to-day of the two Krishnas will to-day overthrow me.
He knows its impossible, but he takes the fight on his shoulders as theres no one else. Everytime,
Karna seems to emphasize that he has no choice in the matter, his hands have been bounded by fate.
But Krishna, whos the right voice of the text, brings in the Hindu belief of karma when he
addresses Karna:
For reference, I have used Iliad translated by Richmond Lattimore, Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1951
3

It is generally seen that they that are mean, when they sink into distress, rail at Providence, but
never at their own misdeeds.
This seems to imply that its ones karma, in other words, ones choice that decides whats coming
for one. The sway between karma and fate is never really decided in the text.
In Iliad, fate is all encompassing. It is obeyed by both gods and men once it is set, and neither seems
able (or willing) to change it. Although the Iliad chronicles a very brief period in a very long war, it
remains acutely conscious of the specific ends awaiting each of the people involved. It was
considered heroic to accept ones fate honorably and cowardly to attempt to avoid it. But in a similar
case as Mahabharata, fate does not predetermine all human action. Instead, it primarily refers to the
outcome or end, such as a man's life or a city such as Troy. For instance, before killing him, Hector
calls Patrocles a fool for trying to conquer him in battle. Patrocles retorts:
No, deadly destiny, with the son of Leto, has killed me,
and of men it was Euphorbos; you are only my third slayer.
And put away in your heart this other thing that I tell you.
You yourself are not one who shall live long, but now already
death and powerful destiny are standing beside you,
to go down under the hands of Aiakos' great son, Achilleus
Here Patrocles alludes to his own fate as well as Hectors =to die at the hands of Achilles. Upon
killing Hector, Achilles is fated to die at Troy as well. All of these outcomes are predetermined, and
although each character has free will in his actions he knows that eventually his end has already been
set. Troy is destined to fall, as Hector explains to his wife in Book 6. Also, Achilles and Hector
themselves make references to their own fatesabout which they have been informed. Although its
origins are mysterious, fate plays a huge role in the outcome of events in the Iliad. It is the one power
that lies even above the gods and shapes the outcome of events more than any other force in the epic.
Humans are mere puppets in the hands of gods in the Greek tradition that in Indian where theres an
equal emphasis on choice, or ones karma.
CONCLUSION
Both the Iliad and the Mahabharata are epic poem as they are all-encompassing in their scope, grand
in their vision and tell tales of heroes of a culture and depict the values of the same. In spite of
belonging to different cultures, they have one thing in commonthey touch the human cord within
all of us. Perhaps this is the difference between literature for a generation and literature which
inspires many a generations. Iliad and Mahabharata as the second kinds.
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