Thursday, October 31, 2013

Iliad versus Mahabharata

Drawing parallels...

Homer’s narration is a third person account of the fall of Troy. He can read the minds of his characters and thus add better control to the storyline. In book 12, he begins with the end of the war thus indicating a flash forward. Vyasa is the composer and the actor in case of Mahabharata. The story is being narrated by someone else (Vaisampayana, a disciple). It is linear with many open-ended interpretations.

Iliad was composed in the Ionic dialect of ancient Greek. Mahabharata was initially in Sanskrit and later on translated to other languages. The play of words, similes and examples, ideal heroes, archaic language make both the epics grand works in terms of scope and imagination.

In both the epics, the divine powers participate, advise, eliminate and cheat the semi divine mortals on Earth. They descend to the heavens to witness wars. Gods cheat as well. They play favorites. For example, Indra goes to Karna to ask for his armour so that he cannot win over Arjuna in the fight. They can be ruthless if their wishes are not fulfilled. They take sides in the war. In Iliad, Zeus supports the Trojans in the war and even sends Hermes to escort King Priam to Achilles’ camp.

Heroism has been defined as fearlessness on the battlefield and being righteous. The concepts of evil and good are more didactic in the Mahabharata. Arjuna attains salvation for his righteousness, while Achilles dies later in the battle. For the western epic, death is impertinent. The tragic hero Hector is selfless while Karna follows the Kshatriya code of conduct.

It is one’s karma, in other words, one’s choice that decides what is in store for one. The sway between karma and fate is never 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 one’s 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. Humans are mere puppets in the hands of gods in the Greek tradition that in Indian where there’s an equal emphasis on choice, or one’s karma.

With their broad spectrum of ideas, heroic feats, grand visions, the Iliad and the Mahabharata are indeed epic poems. In-spite of the Western and Eastern epic disconnect, they both strike a chord in the human heart. Perhaps this is the difference between literature for a generation and literature which inspires many a generations. Iliad and Mahabharata definitely fall into the second category.

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