Gond Ramayani: Ramayan in tribal comic format

I found my first Gond story in a Gond painting exhibition by Indra Gandhi National Centre of the Arts in Bangalore. The series of paintings, in ten by ten feet frames, was a graphic narrative like I’d never seen before. And I was wowed.

It’s Ramayana, I exclaimed, a story I knew, peering to understand the visuals and corroborate it with the story my grandmother had told me ages ago. The story I’d seen again in Ramananda Sagar’s Ramayana TV series which was inspired by the Awadhi text Ramacharitra Manas written by Goswami Tulsidas. However, I couldn’t decipher the visual story. It didn’t collaborate with the Ramayana tale I knew. The one I considered the right one. Curious and fascinated, I contacted IGNCA, started to research on this unusual Gond version, emailed people, called scholars, read books and piece by piece constructed the story that is sung by the bards of Gond, where Ram isn’t the main hero. And so I build up the whole story. Or atleast a version of it. For I’m a storyteller too.

Have you heard the story where Lakshmana is the real hero in Ramayana? And Ram, that ideal husband and king is but a side character who orders his younger brother to fetch his dice for a game and then blames him for trying to sleep with his wife. I hadn’t.

So I’m going to retell one of the Gond Ramayani tales to you.

Continue reading “Gond Ramayani: Ramayan in tribal comic format”

The secret of Thillai Nataraja

The legend goes that once, long ago, before time was clocked, Shiva came strolling into the Pichavaram mangrove forest. In those days, magicians who thought that gods can be controlled with rituals and mantras, lived there. Shiva decided to test the sages and took the form of a bhikshuk, a mendicant seeking alms. Inspite of his matted hair and his filthy attire, the sages’ wives couldn’t control their desire. Angered, the sages sent scores of serpents after the mendicant. Shiva wore them in his matted locks, neck and waist. The sages sent a fierce tiger, who Shiva skinned and wore as a skirt. Finally, the sages sent Muyalakan (or Apasmara the immortal the demon of arrogance and ignorance). Shiva subdued him, stepped on top of it and danced the dance of eternal bliss and knowledge, in his Nataraja form and so the sages knew him. Nataraja remained behind, in his celestial dance pose, still worshipped in the Chidambaram temple today.


(Photo credit: noisypilgrims)

The secret lies behind that curtain which whispers. No one, not even the priests in the temple know what it is. Some whisper it’s the bared truth: that god is nothing, mere akasha, or ether, which is what this temple represents too. Vacuum, sheer space, emptiness. Some claim that it’s only holy men and saints who can see the reality. That behind that gauzy flutter of the curtain, Lord Shiva himself comes to strum the dance of destruction with his consort, Parvati, invisible to the naked eyes of normal people.

For those like me, the normal ones who sway between disbelief and staunch belief, all I see is a shimmering layer of golden bilva leaves which the priests have hung behind the curtain. For how does one see ether? ‘The curtain represents maya, the illusion behind which one hides oneself,’ says the guidebook I read before. Just words which don’t really tell me what I would feel. I sway to the beats of the aarti, belief overpowering disbelief, and decide that tonight, not matter what, I will gut my fears, those burdens all of us carry, will sacrifice them in this temple complex.

The curtains sway and the emptiness whispers. The devotees sigh together, itching, craning their necks, their eyes open wide, not daring to blink, for a single glance of the dark emptiness. Some stand looking up to the dias, some, like me, stand on the stairs a few feet away, sacrificing distance for height. The drums beat to the rhythm of the aarti, the devout prostrate on the floor, the priests sing in a cacophony of sound with the drumbeats and the brass bells, their wide plates full of heady smells of jasmine and camphor. I crane my neck with all others, together now, our oh-so-important individual identities slipping away in the dark cold shadows that lie all around us.

The Nataraja form shimmers with the diyas surrounding it in the dark dampness of the sanctum sanctorum. The dance signifies creation of life and its destruction after life has become unwieldy. The circle of life, the bronze ring around the Nataraja signifies the whole cosmos. This is one of the first known temples in the country which started worshipping the Nataraja form, the dancing form of Shiva. No wonder Bharatnatyam, the dance form which is inspired by Shiva’s Nataraja, still flourishes here.

The Thillai Nataraja temple is massive, covering an area of over 40 acres. Built and then rebuilt in the 12 and 13th centuries, layer after layer, the temple is the foremost of all temples for Saivites, the Shiva worshippers. Its dark corners and rooms are full of cosy shrines of minor gods, relevant for some, ignored by others. As you walk through its grand halls, with intricately carved balustrades and canopies, an occasional masterpiece in bronze, the damp smell clings to you, as do the shadows, always there, always with you. They are not scary, but they never become completely comfortable too. They are what they are, shadows, floating full of your fears and supernatural powers. Things you don’t really understand.

In contrast, the courtyard is full of life. Every evening, its grand space flows with a sea of locals and tourists alike, sitting in conversation, gawking, praying, singing, laughing, walking, huddling. Estimates state that around a 100,000 people flock its stone paths every year. Chidambaram falls in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, ruled since centuries by Cholas, Pandyas, Vijayanagara, Marathas, the British before it became part of India. The Thillai Nataraja temple which is the heart of the town, named after the tillai trees that used to surround the shrine but now have receded ten kilometers away to the Pichavaram mangrove forest.


Ten kilometers away, the Pichavaram mangrove forest sways to the tandava still, open to the sky as we float amidst it in a small wooden dinghy. The darkness in the temple has opened up to the blue, clear, cloudless sky. Rooted in a few feet of water, spread over a whopping 1100 hectare area, the mangrove trees with their clawed out white roots, shiver together, dancing the eternal dance of nature, in a huddle, constantly whispering the secrets that they hold so close to their bosoms. I, in the dinghy that drifts between their huddles, stare up at the eternal trees, jealous at the stories lost, the eternal tales the grand Avicennia and Rhizophora trees tell. They whisper it to the many varieties of birds that come to their branching, pecking on their leaves and fruits. The watersnips, cormorants, egrets, know it as do the storks that fly high and the spoonbills and pelicans. They stare back at me, from the untouchable heights of the tillai trees and tweet about the dance. I look at them as an outsider, a wanderer and wonder what they know, to be at peace so.

This is one of the stories I’ve heard about Thillai Nataraja’s secret. Another, which I find a little silly is about Shiva showing up to Parvati that men are better, by doing a dance pose which she can’t. That one’s too middle class, too sexist and too banal and a complete let down of the beautiful philosophy of Shiva, Bharatnatyam and the Goddess. If you have another version, do retell it below!

(First published in Discover India August 2014)

Teaching comics at Bookalore

Making comics is such a difficult task. I have always appreciated the dedication and the love of comics in artists that i meet every day online and offline. So it took me a while to say yes to the kind people at Bookalore when they suggested that I do a comics workshop in their July event for kids. I went back to the drawing board (my whiteboard in my study) and figured what to do with kids. How does one teach about making comics? As a writer that too? So I asked Bangalore-based, soft spoken artist Ojoswi Sur to join me in the workshop to give an artist’s perspective to kids.


It was all experimentation on our part. We loosely structured the workshop and decided to give the kids the basics of comic making (panels, balloons for dialogues, types) and gave them a chilling scene from The Ghost Hunters of Kurseong and see what they came up with. The results were surprising and so much fun! The kids huddled, discussed, wondered, had a nervous breakdown, scribbled, begged each other for erasers and mostly I hope had a grand time. Of course I had grossly underestimated the time they would need to make comics and given them a long scene (poor things), so none could complete the effort. But they did have a gala time and I requested them to complete the comics at home and email them to me. Hope some do.

Some pictures that my dear, dear Ashwani who always comes with me to workshops, took. Enjoy 🙂

If the pictures don’t open in your browser, see them on either of these links: Google+ or Facebook depending on your choice of network.

Brain or the sexy body?

Sexuality simmers in ancient tales of India. While I was researching for my current book (a series based on tantrism), I came across the lovely tale from Vetala Panchavimsati, an older version of Vikram-Betala stories.

In a temple in the city of Shobhavati, through the favour of Goddess Gauri, Prince Dhavala marries Madanasundari, the daughter of the king
named Suddapata. Svetapatta, Suddhapata’s son, one day proceeds to his own country along with his sister and her husband. On the way they come across another temple of Goddess Gauri. Dhavala goes into the temple to pay homage to the Goddess. There he happens to see a sword, gets obsessed to offer his head to the goddess and does the same. When he does not return for long, Svetapata enters the temple and gets stunned to see Dhavala dead and his head presented to Goddess Gauri. Through some irresistible urge he also cuts off his head and presents it to the Goddess.
After waiting for a long time for her husband and her brother, Madanasundari goes in to beg something of her. She requests the Goddess to restore her husband and her brother. Hearing this Goddess Gauri asks her to  set their heads on their shoulders. But out of excitement Madanasundari puts the head of her husband on the body of her brother and that of her brother on the body of her husband. Both of them come back to life as such. Madanasundari then realizes her mistake, but what has been done cannot be undone. At this stage Vetala asks Vikram, ‘Who is Madanasundari’s husband, the man with her husband’s head, or the man with her husband’s body?’ The King’s reply is that the person with Dhavala’s head on his shoulders is the husband.


Girish Karnad got inspired by this tale and created his play Hayavadana. The story has been taken thanks to scholar K Mangaiyarkarasi’s research paper which compares this tale with Girish Karnad’s interpretation of it. It’s fascinating how richly coloured our myths easily exploring even taboo subjects. The story swims with incestuous undertones as well as questions one’s idea of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. By today’s high prude standards, it’s insulting and could get someone into jail, even because of retelling of it.

Another thing that next ceases to amaze me is how tantrism and its esoteric cults in this country represent the breathable spaces, the perforated gaps in the suffocating, prudish morality of today. Which is perhaps why the cult is considered evil and seen upon with fear.

The Skull Rosary nominated for two awards!

There are times when you write for the heck of it. And then there are times when you are forced to write just so that you can somehow, somewhere collect, announce, record, and remember all the awesome things that have been happening to you. This one is a latter kind of a post. A lot many good things have been happening to me and I am overwhelmed. So this is not to all you readers. This blog is meant for the future Shweta Taneja. Food for her days which will be bleak and black and without hope. For her to remember that good things and then bad things happen in a continuous cycle. And what’s low will go up high soon enough.

The Skull Rosary has just been nominated for The Best Writer and The Best Cover in the Comic Con India awards. The latter was kind of obvious all thanks to the amazingness made by Lalit Sharma and colourist Yogesh Padgaonkar (hello, have you see the cover?). But the first one comes as a delightful, extra scoop of chocolate! Am basking in the surprised glory.



And there’s more! Krishna, Defender of Dharma was named as a must read in CBSE School Reading List for 2013. The credit goes to the awesome artist Rajesh N, who quietly works in shadows on a desk in Campfire Comics.

Meanwhile, The Ghost Hunters of Kurseong, my darling novel which was never to have been written, has been written, has been published by the awesome Hachette India and is slowly cuddling up to little ones and warming up to people in the media. Read reviews spread across the web: Citizen Matters, Niticentral, The Hindu and elsewhere. I am also doing a detective workshop for it next weekend. Come over!

And even that’s not ALL. I have managed to sign a three-book contract with a really, really good publisher for the fantasy book series which I have already dreamed to write and have written part 1 of. That will will be announced soon and separately. Meanwhile, I will go back to writing Part 2 Smile

But really, wow. Too much. Overwhelming.

Kali and the patriarchal fears

She’s naked, covered with ashes, her hair matted with snakes in them, a garland of skulls and freshly cut heads around her neck. She laughs like madness herself, dancing to the chaotic rhythm of death, dragging a corpse behind her which she licks with her blood-red tongue from time to time.

Now imagine meeting her in the middle of the night on a dark lonely path. Here’s an old description – a dhyana mantra of Guhya Kali, one of the forms of Kali. The tantric text is called Tantrasaara and is written by Krishnananda Aagamavgisa.


“She is dark as a great cloud, clad in dark clothes. Her tongue is poised as if to lick. She has fearful teeth, sunken eyes and is smiling. She wears a necklace of snakes, the half-moon rests on her forehead, she has matted hair, and is engaged in licking a corpse. her sacred thread is a snake, and she lies on a bed of snakes. She holds a garland of fifty heads. She has a large belly, and on her head is Ananta with a thousand heads. On all sides she is surrounded by snakes….She has a snake-girdle and an anklet of jewels. On her left is to be imagined Shiva in the form of a boy. She has two hands and has corpses for ear ornaments. Her face, decked with bright new jewels, shows she is pleased and calm.”

She’s not likeable. Hell, she’s scary. In Hindu mythology, she’s nature— something that causes death and destruction, something that’s wild and raging, something that’s unpredictable and uncontrollable. Her hair are wild and open (mark of undomesticated woman or someone who doesn’t belong to a husband-ry), she dances naked outside. Both being naked and being outside is something that is forbidden to the female gender in our society.

You wouldn’t invite her into your homes (unlike the more demure Lakshmi, goddess of wealth or Saraswati, goddess of knowledge). She’s wild, frantic, out of control. She’s nature in its more fearful, horrific form, an earthquake, a hurricane, a tsunami. Her world is the one where a dog butchers another and all of them perish.

No wonder the patriarchal society, the cultured society, the rule based, control-based society, you and me, tremble at the very thought of her. You see, the patriarchal society is all about control – through rules, rituals, and routines. Do this, and you will get this. Do this and this and you can prevent death and disease from happening to you. If there’s a death in a neighbour’s house, don’t go there, for you might catch that disease.

If there’s a garbage-collector coming near you, step away, even though he takes your own garbage. Don’t touch him as he touches something filthy and you will become filthy too. Oh, your left hand is by default filthy. It wipes your bum after all!

Both genders are mired in rules, rituals and routines in this society – all in an effort to control life, prosper and save oneself from death. A man should control his estate and his woman, a woman should control her body and keep herself inside the house, under her husband. Both should stick to the codified laws of dharma created by some rishis a few thousand years ago. People most probably too stuck up to let their hair down.

Since she’s uncontrollable and fearful, like everything else, she’s associated with tantrics, who all mainstream Hindus see as charlatans, black magicians or simply people who are evil or threaten the codes of the patriarchal society. Like Bhairava (Both Kali and Bhairava feature in one of the most beautiful stories I have written in my upcoming graphic novel The Skull Rosary) she’s a goddess who belongs to the fringes of the society. She and her worshippers are associated with blood sacrifice, sometimes even human sacrifice. S

he’s the patron of thugs and witches—both of whom threaten the society’s status quo. Patriarchal society intellectuals have alternatively looked at her ugly form (by societal standards) as filthy, fearful or downright disgusting. That’s the reason you would not see rich merchants in Calcutta or Gujarat worshipping her. She’s of the night, meant for those who roam about the shamshaan in the night. She’s death itself.

If you worship her, you are either crazy or inconceivably evil. You are definitely not a well-wisher of the society. You are an outsider. Her image is the opposite to the mainstream, civilized society. She distrupts society. Personally, she inspires me and pushes me to write. She is the destruction and inspiration of creative energies itself and my heart beats in tandava with every step she takes.

I wrote this blog long time ago, but am sharing it here to celebrate the upcoming Kali puja. May you be as understanding of the darkness as you are of light.


Enjoy some of the visuals I have collected of her—most of them are drawn by painters, created by sculptures in the last 1000 years.


I will do another blog post on the Bengal traditions of her as soon as I find time to study that! Did you like this blog?

Krishna’s beautiful video

This video of Krishna’s awesome graphics by artist Rajesh N was shown at the launch of the graphic novel. Check it out!



If you would like to pick up the book, it’s available online on Campfire and Flipkart as well as in the stores across the country. Like it? Or hate it? Tell me about it!

Launch of Krishna, my graphic novel!

Campfire will be launching my first graphic novel Krishna in the first Comic Con in Bangalore! It’s  happening over the second weekend of September (8-9 September 2012) at Kanteerava Stadium. The launch starts is on Saturday,  8 September, 2012 at around 7pm. I would love to have any of you out there reading this with me on the occasion.


Krishna Graphic Novel

If on Facebook, do like Krishna’s page here. You can pre-order the book from Campfire here.

FB page for Skull Rosary

Just a few months ago, I announced my upcoming graphic novel The Skull Rosary. To build up some excitement (not only for you guys, but also for myself!) I have just launched its FB page! If you read this, and click on the FB link too, I hope do press that all important LIKE button. The graphic novel releases in May 2012 and will be done in collaboration with artist Vivek Goel and his indie production house Holy Cow Pvt Ltd. I am thinking how I can Do keep coming back to know what more is happening in this!

And a sneak update: The Skull Rosary comprises of five stories and I have already completed one of them! It sounds beautiful to my ears, but you never know what happens when its thrown out there! Fingers crossed.

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!


A comparison between two epic traditions of separate cultures


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.

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.

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