The possibilities of the occult in fiction

How does one research into occult? In the climax of Cult of Chaos, the first novel of my tantric fantasy series ‘Anantya Tantrist Mystery’, the protagonist Anantya and her teacher, Dhuma, an aghori who lives in a cemetery, embark on a complex tantric ritual to call upon a charnel goddess, Shamshana Kalika, to the human plane.
The ritual called Shava Sadhana requires Anantya to sit on top of a corpse on a full moon night. I first came across this dramatic ritual in The Calcutta Review Volume XXIV written in 1855. In true Victorian Gothic style, the text explained that the sadhak, or the one who meditates, sits on top of a dead body, preferably a corpse of a chandala who has died a violent death, on a full moon’s night, so as to gain command over impure spirits like danavas, betalas, bhutas, pretas and other paranormal goblins.
While researching this scene, I sat on top of a corpse, all night, in suffocating darkness with Anantya. We touched the cold, clammy flesh of the swollen corpse and we felt blood pounding in our veins and hearts. Sitting on that corpse, waiting to connect with powers beyond the human consciousness, made me realise the ultimate truth of all human lives:
That the day shakti (alternatively meaning energy, prana, life, or soul) stops coursing through our bodies, we will cease to exist and maggots will consume the bodies we call our home. This relationship with death and life, expressed in such a dramatic, dreadfully mesmerising way, stays with me even three years after I wrote it.

Rituals like these are the reason perhaps why tantrism is misunderstood by outsiders.

According to Georg Feuerstein in Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy, the verbal root in ‘tantra’, tan, means ‘to expand’, tantu means a thread or a cord. Tantra then is a web, a system, a ritual, a doctrine or compendium that expands jnana or knowledge and wisdom.

In early Vedic times, everything was called a tantra, be it actual sciences like agriculture, cattle-breeding, distillation, iron-smelting or experimental ones like alchemy, medicine, embryology, and physiology. Tantrism was an individual’s quest for science, spirituality and the supernatural. The aim was to attain siddhi, a spiritual quest for liberation, enlightenment, or, in a worldlier sense, a search for extraordinary powers or paranormal abilities.

The power of tantrism lay in its democratisation of knowledge. Anyone, be it lower caste, tribals or women, could become adept at it. This soon led to a conflict with the Vedic philosophy which preferred structure, the varna and patriarchal systems. So tantrism began to form around the other, the subaltern, the negation, the non-Vedic, the one outside social mores.

In a way, this push to the edges of the society freed tantrism as a science of its moral and ethical shackles.

Tantric practitioners, in their quest to understand and be one with prakriti, or nature, pushed the acceptable boundaries using methods that were considered sinful, immoral, shocking, or abnormal by conventional Vedic society. The idea was to shock the human consciousness out of imbibed social behaviours and morals and achieve a state of infancy.

Ritualised sexual intercourse, aphrodisiacs, alcohol and meat, as well as necromantic rituals, eating excreta and drinking urine and blood were included—all symbolising freedom from social habits.

This idea is perhaps best exemplified in the iconography of tantric goddess Chinnamasta, who holds her own severed head in one hand and a scimitar in the other, as she stands on top of a divine copulating couple. Jets of blood spurt from her bleeding neck and are drunk by her severed head and two attendants. In tantrism, blood is a symbol of life. The image, though shocking, implies the goddess nourishing her devotees with her shakti. 

Unable to understand this symbolic, outrageous aspect of tantrism, mainstream society further vilified tantrics, shunning their rites, looking at them with disgust.

Centuries of storytellers, imaginations and half-truths build upon this, till what remained in anyone’s mind when the word ‘tantric’ was whispered was jaadu-tona, black magic, or people who were power hungry, ruthless and inherently evil.

Like the Chinnamasta symbol, actor Amrish Puri exemplifies this modern image of a tantric in movies like Naagin and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. From a scientist or a philosopher, the tantric had turned into a black-choga, rudraksh-wearing black magician, an enemy of society, who hollered and danced in front of a larger-than-life sculpture of goddess Kali, did disgusting blood magic, sacrificed humans and animals and inhabited dark spaces like caves or burial grounds.

Both this occult image and the philosophy that preceded it inspired the ruthless fantasy world that Anantya Tantrist lives in. While the popular imaginations of tantrism provided me with the world of ambitious tantric clans, fighting each other for power, the tantric philosophy of shakti wove itself into the magic-principles of the world.

Everything runs on shakti and tantrism is the science of harvesting that shakti, as Anantya explains, be it through sacrifice, mantras, or through ritualised sex. Fantasy world-building would be empty without supernatural creatures, which I found in the epics, folklores and oral stories of our myth-rich lands. From rakshasas who have the power to turn invisible and move through planes, to dasyus, bat-like creatures who live in caves and yalis who are part lion, part elephant and part something else.

While building the world of my books, I consciously tried to make tantrics part of the mainstream.

Instead of living in secret cults and shadows, tantrics have been announced to the world. They run an efficient system controlling the supernatural population in tandem with the Indian Government and have their own council, police and justice systems.

Because tantrics have all the power, the supernaturals are the new tribals, the subalterns (who are ousted from forests and pushed into underground city ghettos, to live their lives in poverty, and are forced to buy expensive maya potions from tantrics) who hide themselves from humans. The Matsya Curse, the just-released second book of ‘Anantya Tantrist Mystery’, sees a supernatural tribe, the Nishadas, being used to provide immorality to the few rich socialites in Delhi. The supernaturals in the world are the new downtrodden. Them and the women.

The other day, someone messaged me on Facebook, wondering why the protagonist of a tantric fantasy series was a woman.

According to him, tantrics are all males; women can only be channels of shakti for the male. He wasn’t incorrect. Tantric texts, without exception, speak to men urging them to worship women, approach them with reverence, purity and devotion so they can raise themselves to the standard of the female. Some like Sahajiyas even believe that the man should transform himself into a woman. Becoming a woman or one with the supreme woman, Shakti herself, is the ultimate goal for a male tantric. But even though the shakti, the energy or magic, belonged to women, there is no mention of women themselves using it in any of the tantric texts.

In the History of the Tantric Religion, a seminal book written by scholar NN Bhattacharyya, I found an answer which was to tell me more about Anantya and the philosophy she symbolises. ‘Though in modern times, Tantra has become male-dominated, there is reason to believe that once it belonged to the females,’ writes Bhattacharyya. Quoting ancient texts, he redefined the ‘vama’ in ‘vamachara’ to mean not ‘left’, but ‘woman’. From there, much like my detective, I looked out for references and found that every text circumstantially mentioned yoginis, variously named tantra-yoginis, or sadhikas, female shamans or even witches. They stood in the shadows, as spectators to an elaborate tantric ritual, as goddesses being worshipped, as sex-aides to males in their quest for power.

Soon a parallel philosophy emerged, run by powerful educated women, who used tantrism and the shakti within them to aim for higher spiritual quests.

I had found my subaltern, the new tantric, considered an outcaste by even the original outcastes themselves. It was exactly here that my protagonist, Anantya emerged. She is born in Banaras in a conventional tantric ashram, trained in ritualised sex to aide male tantrics attain shakti. She suffers abuse, fights and leaves this limited life choosing to travel into the shadows, embracing the art of occult herself, tapping into the shakti troves within her female body.

In Anantya’s world, as in ours, she’s a threat, an illegal entity, an abnormality. It’s a new conflict, not between Vedic and Tantric philosophy, but an eternal one between prakriti and purush, female and male, yoginis and tantrics that is played out in the third book of the series which I’m currently working on.

A tantric image of Kali sits on my study table, as I write this. In it, Kali, prakriti or nature herself, stands fierce, naked, full breasted, full of life, astride the prostrate dead body of her eternal partner Shiva, the purusha , with ashen skin and an erect penis, infusing the half-dead body with her life or devouring its life, however you wish to see it. The image, which I bought in Kamakhya Devi Temple in Guwahati, reminds me every day of yoginis, female power, deified and suppressed, forgotten by a history written by men, though the dark echo of their presence remains like a smear on human memory.

Somewhat like the forgotten ruin of the Chausath Yogini Temple sitting on top of a hill in Madhya Pradesh which is shaped in the form of a yoni, or vagina. Not much is known about who were the women who worshipped there; the sculptures have been rooted out, replaced by Shivlings. But the temple is said to have inspired the unique circular architecture of the Indian Parliament, the seat of power of men.

 


This column was first published in Open magazine. 

Can’t sleep? Give your phone some snooze time

Log out of your email and apps and keep your smartphone on silent mode to improve efficiency, concentration and sleep. Here are some  benefits of keeping away from your smartphone at work.

You’ll get more sleep

Feeling fatigued or exhausted at work? Using a smartphone after 9pm increases the possibility of you being less engaged at work the next day owing to reduced sleep and anxiety, according to a study by the University of Florida, US, that was published in the Organizational Behaviour And Human Decision Processes journal in 2014. The blue light that smartphones emit interferes with the production of melatonin, a chemical that helps you fall and stay asleep, the study explains.

“Sleep is getting compromised because people sleep with their phone on the bedside, messaging, answering calls, constantly working their brain,” says Amitabh Saha, consultant psychiatrist at the Max Super Speciality Hospital in Vaishali, near Delhi, who does not own a smartphone. “At night, your body and mind are 90% switched off and so get servicing. If you don’t give them snooze time, you’ll get fatigued or burnt out.” He suggests keeping the phone away from the bedroom at night. Continue reading “Can’t sleep? Give your phone some snooze time”

Who will come first?

You can’t really miss it. Competition or rivalry for supremacy or a prize is at the heart of what construes our social set up. All of us are rivals—for food, for water, for the same flat, for the same job, for love. That’s how we have been shaped by our parents, leaders and society. At New Year’s eve while playing a board game with my friends, I started to ponder of the power of competitiveness, of the desire to win which can cause loud arguments between friends, turn them into bickering foes for a few minutes before someone backs off.

more-together

Why do we get competitive? Why is the idea of winning so important? Why do we want to score that just extra point to win the game? Why aren’t losers are revered in the society as winners? The dictionary defines a winner as someone who wins, the victor. I was curious about competition so I found an article which explains how competition between business is harming the society by making the business act in unethical ways. All to earn that extra customers, more sales, more market, or better employs. More search led me to a brilliant paper from someone at Berkeley which sort of summed up what competition is in our society.

“Competition is a fact of life; employees compete for promotions, groups of researchers vie for grants, and companies fight for market share. Typically associated with competition is the drive to win, or defeat one’s opponents. However, not all opponents are alike. Certain competitors, or rivals, can instill a motivation to perform that goes above and beyond an ordinary competitive spirit or the objective stakes of the contest.”

According to the paper, ‘competition is relational and path-dependent’. So you compete with each other when you are playing the same game, the same sport, or are in the same jobs in the company. Companies (or an herd of us) compete with companies on the same path, or same industry.

Which is fine as it goes in the current society that we live in, but it still didn’t answer my first question as to why do we compete at all? Do we need competition to survive or proliferate? Is comparison necessary to keep our productivity high? Or  build our character? Or is it a natural occurring codified in our genes, courtesy Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ theory.

Then I found this paper, an old extract from a book by Allie Kohn published in 1986 in the USA, arguably the most competitive developed society around. To my delight, Ms Kohn debunked all arguments I have heard on why competition is necessary for our society’s betterment. Myth by Myth. With studies to prove them. And it’s still relevant to us about 15 years later, in Indian society. Here are a few points I loved (they are detailed so I have highlights things):


Myth 1: Competition Is Inevitable

As with a range of other unsavory behaviors, we are fond of casually attributing competition to something called “human nature.” …that our desperate quest to triumph over others is universal…but it is difficult to find a single serious defense of the claim or any hard data to back it up….competition is a matter of social training and culture rather than a built-in feature of our nature…other researchers have shown that children taught to play cooperative games will continue to do so on their own time. And children and adults alike express a strong preference for the cooperative approach once they see firsthand what it is like to learn or work or play in an environment that doesn’t require winners and losers.

Myth 2: Competition Keeps Productivity High and is Necessary for Excellence

Many people who make such claims, however, confuse success with competition…First of all, trying to do well and trying to beat others really are two different things. A child sits in class, waving her arm wildly to attract the teacher’s attention. When she is finally called on, she seems befuddled and asks, “Um, what was the question again?” Her mind is on edging out her classmates, not on the subject matter. These two goals often pull in opposite directions. Furthermore. competition is highly stressful: the possibility of failure creates agitation if not outright anxiety, and this interferes with performance. Competition also makes it difficult to share our skills, experiences, and resources–as we can with cooperation. All of this should lead us to ask hard questions not only about how we grade–or degrade–students and organize our offices, but also about the adver­sarial model on which our legal sys­tem is based and, indeed, about an economic system rooted in competition.

Myth 3: Recreation Requires Competition

It is remarkable, when you stop to think about it, that the American way to have a good time is to play (or watch) highly structured games in which one individual or team must triumph over another. Grim, determined athletes memorize plays and practice to the point of exhaustion in order to beat an opposing team–this is often as close as our culture gets to a spirit of play. Children, too, are pitted against one another as they conduct serious busi­ness on Little League fields…Even the youngest children get the message, as is obvious from the game of musical chairs, an American classic. X number of players scramble for X minus-one chairs when the music stops. Each round eliminates one player and one chair until finally a single triumphant winner emerges. Everyone else has lost and been excluded from play for varying lengths of time. This is our idea of how children should have fun…but there’s an alternative: what if the players instead tried in squeeze onto fewer and fewer chairs until finally a group of giggling kids was crowded on a single chair? Thus is born a new game–one without winners and losers. The larger point is this: All games simply require achieving a goal by overcoming some obstacle. Nowhere is it written that the obstacle must be other people; it can be a time limit or something intrinsic to the task itself–so that no win-lose framework is required. We can even set up playful tasks so everyone works together to achieve a goal–in which case opponents become partners.

Myth 4: Competition Builds Character

Some people defend striving against others as a way to become “stronger.” Learning how to win and lose is supposed to toughen us and give us confidence. Yet most at us sense intuitively that the consequences of struggling to be number one are generally unhealthy. As the anthropologist Jules Henry put it, “a competitive culture endures by tearing people down.” …Trying to outperform others is damaging–first of all, because most of us lose most of the time. Even winning doesn’t help, because self-esteem is made to depend on the outcome at a contest, whereas psychological health implies an unconditional sense of trust in oneself. Moreover, victory is never permanent.…Perhaps the most disturbing feature of competition is the way it poisons our personal relationships. In the workplace, you may be friendly with your colleagues, but there is a guardedness, a part of the self held in reserve because you may be rivals tomorrow. Competition disrupts families, making the quest for approval a race and turning love into a kind of trophy. On the playing field it is difficult to maintain positive feelings about someone who is trying to make you lose. And in our schools students are taught to regard each other not as potential collaborators, but rather as opponents, rivals, obstacles to their own success. Small wonder that the hostility inher­ent in competition often erupts into outright aggression.


And she finally sums up beautifully: “Instead of perpetu­ating an arrangement that allows one person to succeed only at the price of another’s failure, we must choose a radically new vision for our society, one grounded in cooperative work and play.

I get Ms Kohn’s logic. The days when I actually appreciate what someone has written and send them a few lines of love, I feel good, happy. The day I am jealous of an author who’s selling books (books she has written btw), it’s all dark and dirty. I hate myself, I hate the author, I hate the world and my shoulder aches as my stress level goes up (and I don’t perform well).

Our society, last generation, this one, the next one, seems to be in a mad race against each other and even against death. Parents want their children to learn everything from maths to tennis to swimming to genius letter writing or some such. Parents themselves are in the race to get the better job, better salary, better house, better promotion. And each one is okay trotting on a few dead bodies on the way. People compare, compete constantly in everything—from sports, to cooking, to the bigger sofa, better clothes, prettier nose, bigger car… cut throat competition has replaced our souls today. And everyone is unhappy and anxious in this environment of losers and winners. Sad, isn’t it? I wonder when we will realise that cooperating, lending a hand, cleaning up your street and letting people be is a better way to survive and live.

PS: You can read Allie Kohn’s article here (automatic download). For parents who want to make their children non-competitive, here’s some more advice by her.

PPS: I have a feeling I will write more on this. So do wait for it 🙂

Word Breakup: Poppy Shame and Eve teasing

I have been toying with the idea of doing a blog on the phrase ‘Shame, shame Poppy shame’ something that is used quite freely around me, though no one knows where and how it originated. I heard it recently spoken by my mother, who rarely uses English words when in family, use this phrase for my 2-year-old nephew when he was happily running around in the buff. The term is usually used for 2-5 year olds and sung in a nursery rhyme format.

The complete rhyme is: Shame Shame Poppy (or Puppy) shame, all the donkey’s know your name.

I have rarely heard the latter, just the first four words. The phrase is a part of a list of ‘If you Grew up in India is the 90s’ you use this phrase.

According to  samosapedia it is “a light hearted remonstration for some, usually minor, social transgression or faux pas, a taboo flouted, a line of decency crossed…”

I am not completely sure about this definition. It’s more than light-hearted remonstration for one. The rhyme itself seems to have come from the British rule, but the Indians have associated it more with the idea of nakedness.

The phrase is happily used in Pakistan as well as shown by this blog by an American woman married to a Pakistani guy. She mentions how her in-laws say ‘Shame, shame’ everytime they see her child naked. It’s the same as Indian households.

Author Salman Rushdie uses this phrase in Shame based in Pakistan where he talks about the idea of ‘sharam’ which includes an element of society with the English word shame.  It has been interpreted as showcasing an example of an hangover of the idea of shame in post-colonial discourses.

So I have a feeling that the phrase is not as ‘light-hearted’ but rather associated with our culture’s idea of nakedness as being something shameful and which should be hidden. Of course it comes disguised in a sing-song, smiling sort of a way.

Since I am obsessed with graphs in recent weeks, I searched for the word ‘shame’ in Google Trends  which tracks the ‘average traffic of shame from India in all years’. I was surprised!

 

 

 

What’s so shameful about 2007 and 2011 that Indians used or searched for this word so much?? Makes one’s mind wonder. Check out the whole analysis of the word here which will also give you region wise search, etc.

Hiding deep-rooted hang-ups about sexuality and ‘sharam’ behind sing-song phrases reminds me of yet another phrase for today:

 

Eve teasing

The word which has become popular to casually talk about the pinching, winking, breast-staring that happens in this country, has its own Wikipedia page. Quoting the rather nicely done definition there:

“Considered a problem related to delinquency in youth,[3] it is a form of sexual aggression that ranges in severity from sexually suggestive remarks, brushing in public places and catcalls to outright groping.[4][5][6] Sometimes it is referred to with a coy suggestion of innocent fun, making it appear innocuous with no resulting liability on the part of the perpetrator.[7] Many feminists and volunteer organizations have suggested that the expression be replaced by a more appropriate term. According to them, considering the semantic roots of the term in Indian English, Eve teasing refers to the temptress nature of Eve, placing responsibility on the woman as a tease.[8][9]

Apparently the word is very strong in Bangladesh as well if Google trends (I am obsessed!) has anything to go by.

“Eve teasing is a euphemism used in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan for public sexual harassment, street harassment or molestation of women by men.” – thedailystar.net

 

In India-only search, the phrase seems to have gained popularity in middle 2011 when there was a protest against the very idea.

 

The phrase seems to have its origins in India in the 1960s. I found a very interesting citation of 1960s on the website Double Tongued.

1960 Times (London, England) (Apr. 22) “Protection For Indian Girl Students” (in Delhi, India) p. 9: One aspect of the problem of student indiscipline which is plaguing university authorities in India has been the bullying and harassment of girl students in the few coeducational institutions—a pastime so common that it has been given the name of “Eve-teasing.”…“Eve-teasing” is not, apparently, just the oafish high spirits or ill-will of a handful of male students but is rather a symptom of the strong resentment which many students feel against women in the universities.

1963 Selig S. Harrison Washington Post, Times Herald (D.C.) (Oct. 26) “The Sad State Of India’s Youth” p. A8: Police officials have been discovering that the collegiate enthusiasts who prowl streets in Indian cities are not content to watch the girls go by. Indian newspapers have carried accounts of police roundups in Srinagar, Dehra Dun and other centers for indecent advances at bus stands and traffic intersections.…Happy headline writers have dubbed the new offense “Eve-teasing.”

The quotes above are from international media. I couldn’t find references to the same in 1960s Indian media. It had to be a journalist to coin a catchy, casual phrase. I place my bets on it being a male journalist. The phrase emerges from the authorities/media/patriarchal society talking jokingly about male students jeering at their fellow female students.

Eve and Tease are two words created by a patriarchal society which has been in the habit of leading and objectifying their women. It’s the same society which feels that the woman’s body is impure, full of things they don’t understand and so women are not allowed in temples during periods. Their bodies are objects which when covered should be venerated and when uncovered is a source of shame.

The phrase manages to have a relaxed attitude about things like rape and at the same time squarely puts the blame for teasing/distracting serious, studious university boys on their fellow female students. It also places the blame squarely on women for having the tempting bodies and temperaments (again patriarchal perspective). The problem which Indian women are facing even today with a Karnataka minister blaming women for being raped because they wear tight jeans.

It’s interesting to see how new words take on the same old meanings. Only more insidious.

I would like to close this with a link to one of my favourite blogs, http://blog.blanknoise.org/. Read it, if you are any gender, to understand what the other side, the non-patriarchal, the women, feel about the word.

Battle of the Epics – Iliad and Mahabharata

Recently caught the movie Troy again one evening browsing through channel. Iliad, the epic poem by Homer, which is one of the stalwarts of classical literature, has been interpreted and reinterpreted from its original form innumerable times through the centuries which succeeded it. (Download the Samuel Butler translation here or just take a look at Wikipedia). The movie Troy, is not Iliad by any standards, though it celebrates the poetry in motion that is Brad Pitt and works brilliantly as a fantastic-version of Homer’s epic fantasy. If he imagined it, why cant we reimagine it to make it relevant to the modern 21st audience?

Consecutively, I had also been reading Mahabharata, an old abridged version of English translation by C Rajagopalachari, published in 1978 in a bid to promote indigenous literature in the increasingly West-influenced India, which I was lucky to get my hands on in one of the charming old places in Bangalore. This interpretation is an honoric one which is in awe of the fascinating epic that has been part of our literary heritage. Rajagopalachari sounds almost like a child who’s proud of his parents’ achievement. Fascinating work.

But why I mention both of these incidents here is that both the film and the book reminded me of a two year old assignment on a comparison between the two stalwart epics I had done and quite enjoyed during my MA. Am putting it here in a copy-paste version. Do let me know your thoughts on the same. Oh, and enjoy!

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THE MAHABHARATA AND THE ILIAD
A comparison between two epic traditions of separate cultures

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 is 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 nation, or the human race.”

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.

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 constitute a family, with variable physiognomatic similarities, rather than a strictly definable genre. In this broad sense, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Spencer’s Faerie Queene are often called epics, as are works of prose fiction such as Melville’s Moby Dick, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace; Northrop Frye has described Joyce’s 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 Sagan’s Contact — for the twentieth century’s 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) , 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 people—human, 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 heroes—and by extension the rest of us—become 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.    Protagonist’s 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 one’s 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.

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 Abram’s 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, there’s 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, there’s an abbreviated version of the Ramayana as well as the story of Damyanti. The Harivamsa Parva is a compilation of the story of Krishna.
In Iliad on the other hand, though the content is inspired by the stories abounding in Homer’s times, the narrative 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 character’s mind. The storyteller in that way has control. The style is linear in the sense that the story Homer’s 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. There is a linear form but some open-ended questions like this, make the epic a mystery.

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 languages.
More than the language, it’s the words, the similes, the epithets for heroes, the archaic, high-style words that make the epics sound like grand works in terms of scope and imagination.

Scope of the poems
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.”

It’s 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.
They are mostly shown as merciless, especially if humans don’t follow their wills. Gods even give boons or wreak wrath on humans due to personal differences or in other words, takes sides in the war. 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, doesn’t 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 reader’s 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.”

In another passage from the text:

“The death that a Kshatriya meets with at home is censurable. Death on one’s bed at home is highly sinful. The man who casts away his body…in battle…obtains 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 one’s head chopped off with a single stroke of the enemy’s sword or a well-shot arrow was equally noble.” 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 preceptor’s 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, Drona’s 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  , 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 better 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, in both the epics. 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.
But there’s a crucial difference here in between the two epics. Arjuna gains moksha at the end of Mahabharata as he is on the ‘right’ side, but there’s no such release in Homer’s Iliad. Though Achilles does not die in the epic itself, the myth that everyone knows explains that death is impertinent. There’s no escape for any human being from death. Achilles goes the Hector way, albeit a bit later in the battle. Mahabharata then, is more didactic than Iliad in its closures of concepts of ‘evil’ and ‘good’.

Concept of fate
In both the tragic hero’s 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 battle…The fulfillment of Duryodhana’s wishes is even like locomotion to one that is lame, or the gratification of the poor man’s 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 it’s 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 it’s impossible to beat the two ‘Krishnas’, but he takes responsibility for the fight as there’s no one else. Everytime, Karna seems to emphasize that he has no choice in the matter and that his hands have been bounded by fate. But Krishna, who’s the ‘right’ voice of the text, brings in the Hindu belief of ‘karma’ when he addresses Karna:

“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 it’s one’s karma, in other words, one’s choice that decides what’s 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 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. 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 Hector’s 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 fates—about which they have already 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 there’s an equal emphasis on choice, or one’s karma.

CONCLUSION
Both the Iliad and the Mahabharata are epic poems 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 common—they 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 definitely fall into the second category.

Shweta Taneja © 2007