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Naina Dayal

By Alf Hiltebeitel
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002, pp. x 365, Rs. 645.00


Hiltebeitel, I think correctly, sees Magadha’s imperial history, with both its relentless killings and brutality as well as its rulers’ patronage of heterodox faiths, as the politico-religious backdrop to the Sanskrit epics. The slaughter of kin in the quest for power especially is a central moral issue to which the Ramayana and the Mahabharata respond. In the Ramayana, righteous Rama dissuades Lakshmana from overthrowing their father Dasharatha and killing their brother Bharata to eliminate Rama’s obstacles to the throne. Rama is never set in conflict with his brothers. Nor is he torn by inner conflicts. The Ramayana does not view the war between its protagonists with ambiguity, and Rama achieves a clear-cut victory which ushers in his dharmic rule. During Rama’s reign, the Ramayana tells us, his subjects knew neither disease nor unhappiness – women were never widowed, the old never had to do the work of the young, everybody had a thousand sons and lived contentedly for a thousand years. The Mahabharata, on the other hand, tells the tale of a fratricidal war, and views it with persistent reservation. The Pandavas have grave hesitations before deciding to fight, they win through subterfuges, and their victory comes only after the destruction of their kin. Yudhishthira inherits a desolate kingdom echoing with the wails of women grieving the loss of husbands, sons and brothers. The Mahabharata describes that king’s anguish at having caused the deaths of relatives and allies.   Hiltebeitel writes thus about the heirs-apparent who become kings: ‘The Ramayana does not present a Dharmaraja [Dharma King] so beset with ambiguities. Yudhisthira is never said to know the highest dharma….If Rama would seem to incarnate it, Yudhisthira must learn it.’ Via the intervention and advice of such wise elders as Vyasa, through narratives that illumine its complex nature, questions posed, messages transmitted indirectly. Via the near-total annihilation of the Kurus. But the Mahabharata, and Hiltebeitel, remind us that Yudhishthira is known as Dharmaraja not only because he is renowned for his truthfulness (one aspect, an important one, of dharma), but also because he is fathered by the god Dharma, and ‘Dharma is also Yama, with deep destructive designs’. This patrimony provides an additional tier to the background of the war between the Kauravas and Pandavas. Further, Hiltebeitel points out that the Mahabharata also ascribes the births of Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva to a rite of abhichara ...

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