Swapping War Stories

Martial Violence and Moral Thought in the Iliad and the Mahābhārata

Jacob Hebda

Contact between India and Greece occurred throughout antiquity, and this exchange of goods and ideas likely shaped the cultural artifacts produced by both civilizations (Murphey 29). Although his work is somewhat dated, J.W. de Jong powerfully adduces the presence of the theme of the overburdened earth “in almost the same wording” in both the Cypria, which Peter Green describes as the first part of the “so-called Epic Cycle” that includes the Iliad, and the Mahābhārata, one of the greatest epics of ancient India (400; 6). De Jong explains that in both ancient Greek and Indian mythology, “the supreme God…brought war to lighten the earth of her burden:” overpopulation (400). Although there remains “insufficient evidence to suggest that this theme belongs to a common Indo-European heritage,” this myth of a war sanctioned by the gods informs the epic literature of Greece and India (400). The connection between the overburdened earth and war stands within a broader treatment of war and moral thought found in the Iliad and the Mahābhārata, and these thematic parallels reveal an understudied relationship between the epics of ancient Greece and India. The battlefield becomes a site of inquiry where two heroes, Achilles and Arjuna, approach moral reasoning through the experience of emotion, and their unique responses to this theme illustrate the flexibility of the epic form.

Prior to examining war as a device for facilitating the development of philosophical ideas in the Iliad and Mahābhārata, it proves beneficial to define the epic form. For the purposes of this study, the epic form is defined by the representation of mythic and martial themes through the medium of a lengthy poem. Epic characteristics include a rootedness within the mythology of an oral tradition, which is often already familiar to the audience. These mythological elements of epic, as Romila Thapar puts it, hold a “consciousness of history but [do] not claim historicity” itself (1830). As for epic’s martial themes, William Allen associates the classical epics of the West with “societies where warfare was endemic,” and Thapar echoes this violent context when she states that “conflict over territory was not unusual” during the time the Mahābhārata emerged from (19; 1831). For these social and historical reasons, epic focuses on heroism, but this generic form proves flexible by simultaneously articulating and interrogating these martial values through Greek and Indian moral thought against a backdrop of war.

Before moving to the texts themselves, it remains helpful to highlight how the Iliad and the Mahābhārata demonstrate the flexibility of the epic form by responding differently to the characteristics previously mentioned. The Iliad is indebted to “at least five centuries of oral transmission” and stands as part of a larger collection of Archaic Greek mythology known as the Epic Cycle (Green 12, 7). According to Green, the Homeric epics greatly surpass any of these lost texts, and he specifically emphasizes “the Iliad’s unparalleled length” (7-8). From Green’s discussion, the Iliad’s embeddedness within a mythology stemming from oral tradition and its exceptional length show how Homer’s work adheres to the epic form. To these characteristics, Green adds the problematic historical character of Greek epic, in spite of the fact that later Greeks insisted upon the “unquestionable historical accuracy” of the Trojan War (11). Greek epic’s particular engagement with history is motivated by the project of “memorializing the famous deeds of great men (klea andrōn)” (Green 12). To accomplish this task, Greek epic adhered to a metrical form known as “the epic hexameter” (Green 19). However, this meter did not undermine the flexible “ways in which bards make use of their verbal repertoire” (Smith 268). Allen rightly agrees with the “malleable” nature of the classical epic, and he also notes the value placed upon “military heroism, loyalty, and masculinity” in the war-torn Greco-Roman world (19). However, Allen fails to acknowledge that epic’s malleability also allows criticism of this warrior paradigm (Allan 19).

The Mahābhārata reflects the epic form’s capacity for flexibility as well. Not unlike the Iliad’s embeddedness within the mythology of the Trojan War, Sudipta Kaviraj says that prior to reading the Mahābhārata, “we have to read the myths that surround it,” an observation that situates the Mahābhārata within Indian mythology (103). Furthermore, according to Sheldon Pollock, the Mahābhārata epitomizes the Sanskrit genre “itihāsa, the narrative of the way things were” (“Sanskrit” 59). Thus, not only is the Mahābhārata mythic, but the historical features of itihāsa represent the distinctly Indian approach to these characteristics of “early epics” (Thapar 1830). Another difference between the Mahābhārata and the Iliad arises in the former’s use of “a variety of meters” as opposed to the epic hexameter of the Iliad, yet both exhibit flexibility in their respective metrical forms (Van Buitenen xxxviii). For a work of such staggering size and complexity, the Mahābhārata’s “relatively free metres” should remain unsurprising, especially since “the transformation of the original oral epic” into the written form occurred over eight centuries (Smith 275, 273).

Kaviraj also comments on the epic’s flexibility, as he sees the Mahābhārata as “a vīrarasa text, a narrative of great heroism,” that also challenges this vision of heroism tied to varṇa or caste (105, 114). In ancient India, “the virtues of heroism and contemplation do not exist separately,” but instead constitute the value systems of the kṣatriya and brāhmaṇa castes that together dominated Indian society (Kaviraj 114). That this approach to heroism differs from the Iliad’s klea andrōn constitutes an example of epic versatility in itself. However, the Mahābhārata is packed with “disturbing episodes” that put its own values and the caste system they uphold into “radical question” (Kaviraj 115). On this basis, Kaviraj convincingly presents an alternative reading of the Mahābhārata as “a text of śāntarasa, a tragic sense of the world, which reveals the insubstantiality…of the brāhmaṇa-kṣatriya social-ethical ideal,” and effectively “shows the futility of valor” (116). With this reading in mind, one can understand how both Thapar and Chakravarthi V. Narasimhan can agree on the importance of the rivalry between the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas to the Mahābhārata, and yet Narasimhan can claim that “the essential theme of the epic is really peace and reconciliation” (xxviii). From these diverse commentaries, it becomes clear that the Mahābhārata’s epic form lends the text a flexibility that both celebrates and undermines heroic values.

When Achilles refuses to fight in the Iliad, a similar critique of warrior virtue emerges alongside the stirrings of what later became Greek moral philosophy, making for another demonstration of the epic form’s flexibility. For instance, something akin to “the act of choosing” takes place when Athena warns Achilles against attacking Agamemnōn for his taking possession of Briseïs (Johnstone and Benson 20). Even though Achilles’s decision remains outside of himself, determined by a deity rather than his free will, Achilles’s refusal to strike Agamemnon and his reluctance to join the battle against the Trojans dominate the Iliad (Johnstone and Benson 20). Agamemnōn’s Paris-like seizure of Briseïs inspires Achilles to extend his nascent critique of warrior values beyond himself when he later asks “why must the Argives wage war / against the Trojans?” (Homer 9.337-338). This inquiry sets Achilles apart from the other Achaean heroes and leads Achilles to meet with Priam, the leader of the Trojans, and discuss the myth of Niobē, a scene in which Paolo Vivante insightfully claims that “Achilles grows philosophical” (qtd. in Frobish 25). Vivante’s connection between philosophy and myth aligns with several critics’ observations that the rationality associated with logos and subsequent moral thought also undergirds mythology or narrative more broadly (Johnstone and Benson 28).

Interestingly, for Achilles, this movement toward philosophy occurs alongside his empathy toward Priam. Barbara Koziak rightly cautions against the tendency among English translators of the Iliad to depict Achilles’s decision-making as a clash between reason and emotion (1077). Yet the Homeric conception of thumos (θυμός), often translated into English as “heart,” refers to the seat of emotional life related to action, including “the activity of thought” (Koziak 1080). With this vision of thumos in mind, it becomes clear that thought, later tightly woven to reason, proves bound up with emotion for Homer. Although Douglas Cairns wisely expresses reluctance in comparing modern English labels for emotion to those of the ancient Greeks, he decisively argues that the sympathetic exercise of “‘putting oneself in the position of another’ is a regular feature of ancient Greek eleos” or pity (52, original emphasis). Crucially, this Greek capacity for empathy arises when Priam asks Achilles “to me show pity (ελεος)” (Homer 24.503). This empathy marks a shift from Achilles’s earlier wrath and makes it possible to read Homer “as critic of heroic society, offering a new criterion of human worth” in Achilles’s empathetic moral thought that defies warrior values and illustrates Greek epic’s unique, variable approach to the theme of war (Koziak 1084, 1083).

In the Mahābhārata, the Pāṇḍava hero Arjuna, “overcome with a complex emotion of grief, fear, guilt, and dread,” questions how to engage in combat against his beloved relatives and teachers on the Kaurava side, and his ensuing discourse with Kṛṣṇa forms the classic of Indian thought, the Bhagavad-Gītā (Johnson 658). The Bhagavad-Gītā explores an inner psychological dimension that the Iliad fails to probe, but “the South Asian view of emotions as stirrings of the body and intellect that precede action” seems comparable to the role of thumos in motivating action for the Archaic Greeks (Johnson 659). Nonetheless, within the Mahābhārata, the Bhagavad-Gītā constitutes an example of the epic form’s flexibility by expressing the original development of Indian moral thought amid the thematic trappings of war.

Considering the sheer length of the Mahābhārata and the multiple, fluid layers of meaning within the epic, the Bhagavad-Gītā also captures several layers of moral thought. If Kathryn Ann Johnson is to be believed, the Bhagavad-Gītā presents “three distinct…theories of emotions and moral reason” that correspond to the development of Indian philosophy alongside the composition of the Mahābhārata (672). The oldest of these layers views “emotions as somatic phenomena with real value in making moral judgments” (Johnson 666). This physiological basis for emotion and moral thought arises when Arjuna says “my body trembles, / the hair bristles on my flesh,” and Barbara Stoler Miller helpfully describes this passage as “dramatiz[ing] the pity he feels” (Bhagavad-Gītā 1.28-29; 6). The Bhagavad-Gītā, however, takes pity in directions that differ from the Iliad and illustrate the Mahābhārata’s ability to incorporate even contradictory understandings of emotion and moral thought. The next strand of Indian thought Johnson identifies in the Bhagavad-Gītā is the Sāṃkhya/Yoga layer, which values “perform[ing] one’s duty in recognition of the social and cosmic hierarchy” through detached emotion (669). This rejection of emotion as a means to moral insight supports the caste-based social order of ancient India, but the ability of the Bhagavad-Gītā, and the Mahābhārata more broadly, to absorb different strands of thought serves to simultaneously celebrate and undermine this approach to emotion and moral thought.

In another illustration of the flexibility of the epic form, the Sāṃkhya/Yoga movement away from emotion contrasts with the final layer Johnson points out in the Bhagavad-Gītā: bhakti yoga, or devotional Hinduism, which celebrates “the emotion of devotion” (671). Bhakti yoga reverses the assault upon emotion found in the Sāṃkhya/Yoga layer, offering an ideal in the devotee “whose positive emotions are revitalized, whose reasoning is clear, and whose decision is to obey his Lord” (671). Kṛṣṇa voices this bhakti belief in understanding as enhanced by emotion:

Dwelling compassionately

deep in the self,

I dispel darkness born of ignorance

with the radiant light of knowledge. (Bhagavad-Gītā 10.10-11)

These emotions reach their climax when Arjuna is granted a vision of Kṛṣṇa, yet Johnson believes that Arjuna’s reaction to this experience “is not moral reasoning as such, but rather obedience to the will of the divine” (Johnson 671, 672). In this manner, the Bhagavad-Gītā, and the Mahābhārata as a whole, not only address emotion and moral thought, but also exceed morality itself, further demonstrating the epic form’s plasticity amid its thematic treatment of war.

The Iliad and the Mahābhārata both present heroes that encounter moral philosophy through their emotional reactions to war, but the diverging conclusions they reach illustrate the flexibility of the epic form on this shared theme within the contexts of ancient Greece and India. Achilles, driven by his thumos, finds that his wrath is tempered by a pity that surpasses the warrior values of Archaic Greece. Arjuna is gripped by emotion before the Kaurava armies, but this moment becomes an opportunity for Kṛṣṇa to introduce numerous strands of Hindu thought on the role of emotion in moral reasoning and beyond. These heroes, though, raise questions about emotion’s capacity to fully transcend heroic values. After all, profound meditations on moral thought stimulated by intense emotion neither keep Achilles from sacking Troy nor prevent Arjuna from fighting on the plains of Kurukṣetra.


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