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A Comparative Study of the Aeneid and the Mahabharata
By Kushal Modi
The cultures of Ancient Rome and Ancient India are descendants of a common Indo-European culture that flourished in the steppes of the Caucasus several thousand years ago. As several world cultures developed from this proto-culture, they retained certain shared Indo-European cultural and linguistic characteristics. These similarities are apparent in both the content and linguistic structure of two great works of epic poetry that they have produced: the Indian Mahabharata and the Roman Aeneid.
The origin of the Mahabharata, the longest written epic poem known, can be traced to the 8th or 9th centuries BCE; however, it was not until around 300 CE that it was compiled and written down. Over the centuries, as it was passed down through teachers and disciples, many stories were added to the epic kernel of the poem. Despite these numerous revisions, at its core the Mahabharata tells the story of a dynastic struggle in the ruling family of the city of Hastinapur in northern India. Unlike the Mahabharata, which was compiled following centuries of oral transmission, the Aeneid was commissioned by the emperor Augustus as propaganda in order to promote the values of his government and the Roman people. Vergil did not create Aeneas, but rather Aeneas was a character mentioned by Homer in the Iliad, and tales of his journey were already a part of Roman mythology. However, between the years 29 and 19 BCE, Vergil took several tales of Aeneas’ wanderings and created a story that served as a founding myth for the Roman people, tracing their history back to the civilizations of Greece and Troy.
Despite the differences in their literary transmission, both works relate the story of a hero kept away from his fated kingdom, where each hero must fight a war to regain said kingdom. Through addressing such similarities in plot, as well as similarities between character types, I will attempt to illustrate how these works’ share a common origin in the proto-Indo-European culture.
I will first provide brief summaries of the two works to contextualize the comparisons made in the following sections. The story of the Mahabharata revolves around the central battle between two opposing cousin lines: the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The five Pandava brothers are Yudhistira, Bhima, Arjuna, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva. The leader of the one hundred Kaurava brothers is Duryodhana. As the boys grow up, the cousins constantly fight and even try to kill each other. Since Yudhistira is the oldest of them all, he has the claim to the throne. However, through Duryodhana’s trickery, Yudhistira, along with the other four Pandava brothers, are condemned to twelve years of exile in the forest, followed by a thirteenth year spent incognito in a kingdom. In the thirteenth year, Duryodhana finds the Pandavas hiding in the kingdom of the king Virata, and he wages war on that kingdom. Thus, several kingdoms take sides in this conflict, and a war is fought to determine who takes control of the kingdom. The great war of the Mahabharata lasts for eighteen days and the Pandavas emerge as the victorious rulers of Hastinapur.
The story of the Aeneid begins as Aeneas and his men are sailing in the Mediterranean, having fled the city of Troy after the Greeks sacked and burned it. They eventually reach the north shore of Africa and the city of Carthage. There, the Carthaginian queen, Dido, falls madly in love with Aeneas due to a trick by Cupid; however, Aeneas eventually leaves in order to fulfill his fate to found a new homeland for his Trojan refugees. Upon arriving at the Italian region of Latium, Aeneas wishes to marry Lavinia, the daughter of the Latin king Latinus and his wife Amata. However, Lavinia is already promised to a local chief named Turnus. Even though Aeneas hopes for peaceful settlement, war eventually breaks out between the forces of Aeneas and Turnus over the hand of Lavinia. Several tribes take sides in this conflict, such as the Tuscans and the Arcadians, and a war ensues. In the end, Aeneas and Turnus are forced into single combat, and Aeneas kills him, becoming the ruler of Latium.
Structurally, the journey of the hero in both epics has striking parallels if taken in general terms. While there are many avenues and details that could be discussed, I will focus on three main points when discussing the plot. Firstly, I will look at the similarities between the Pandava exile and Aeneas’ journey at sea, viewing them both as a way the hero is kept away from his fated kingdom. Secondly, I will look at the great wars of these epics, addressing them as a necessary obstacle before the hero can rule over his kingdom. Lastly, I will look at the role of divine intervention on the hero’s side in determining his victory.
A large portion of the Mahabharata addresses the Pandavas’ twelve years of exile in the forest, with the thirteenth year spent incognito in a city. The exile was a result of a game of dice between characters Duryodhana and Yudhistira, in which Duryodhana and his wicked uncle Shakuni tricked Yudhishtira into gambling away his kingdom and his family. Duryodhana demanded that the Pandavas live in the forest for twelve years and then spend a year in a city without being recognized. If they did this successfully, then Duryodhana would agree to share his kingdom with the Pandavas by splitting it in half. Like in the Aeneid, and in the Odyssey, this period of time spent away from the kingdom is the setting of many of the epic’s most important events. In the end, this period serves to transform the hero and is necessary for his eventual rightful obtaining of the kingdom.
Another parallel is found in the wars fought in these epics. In both plots, an important component of the hero’s mission is that he must fight a great war before he gains his kingdom back. This great war comes at the end of a period of travel in which the hero is kept away from the kingdom. The virtuous hero attempts to avoid war, as Aeneas does after his arrival in Latium and Yudhishtira does after his post-exile return to Hastinapur; however, due to the actions of the irrational antagonist, a great war breaks out. The syntax and language used in describing the war is similar as well. In both cases, the war itself is long and involves many of the neighboring tribes or kingdoms. This great war is a necessary barrier to overcome and results in the hero being given his fated kingdom, which encompasses the struggle of the entire epic.
The role of divine intervention is inherently important in both epics because of the way they both are linked to the religions of their respective societies. In the Aeneid, Aeneas is fated to rule Latium from the very beginning. Take his passage from the first few lines of the Aeneid:
From the sea-coast of Troy in early days
He came to Italy by destiny,
To our Lavinian western shore
In the Latin epic, Aeneas is helped along the way by gods such as Minerva, Apollo and his mother Venus. Juno is most notably against him, and Jupiter is neutral. I will argue that Jupiter’s deferral to Fate is the most important depiction of the role of divinity in the Aeneid. He recognizes that Aeneas is destined to win the battle and to take the kingdom of Latium, and so he knows that nothing he does can prevent this eventuality.
In the Mahabharata, Krishna is the most important divine entity. According to Hindu tradition, he is the physical manifestation of God who was born on earth to rid it of evil. He is distantly related to both the Pandavas and the Kauravas. While it seems from the beginning that the Pandavas are more just than their cousins, Krishna is not necessarily on their side from the start. He tells us in Book 5 that his “relationship to the Kurus and Pandus is equal.” (Mbh. 5.5) However, before the war begins, he calls Duryodhana and Arjuna to his palace in Dwarka and offers them a choice. One of them could take his army of 100 million soldiers, and the other could have Krishna himself, who would only advise, not fight. Arjuna is given first choice and selects Krishna. Duryodhana is delighted, because he would have chosen the army first anyway. However, when Duryodhana returns to Hastinapur having chosen the army, his father, King Dhritarashtra, is disappointed. He knows that his son has made the wrong decision because having the Lord on their side would have guaranteed their victory, as it had then done for the Pandavas. He says this:
It is childish on Duryodhana’s part to think that it is possible to rob the Pandavas of their just share so long as they are alive. It is wise to yield to Yudhishthira his due share before the war…the victorious and high-souled Krishna, the lord of the three worlds, incapable of defeat, is able to do the same.
Similarly, in the Aeneid, we know that Aeneas’ people will control Latium in the end, regardless of what occurs in between.
Scholars generally agree that the primary heroes of the Mahabharata are the Pandava brothers. The fact the brothers align well with the canonical qualities of the Indo-European (IE) hero (e.g. all are strong, virtuous warriors of noble birth) adds credence to this claim. Considering the brothers individually, Bhima has unparalleled strength and Arjuna is unmatched on the battlefield. Nakula and Sahadeva have divine beauty. While there is not a consensus on who is the primary hero in the Mahabharata, I will focus on the fifth brother, Yudhistira, as he is the most compelling parallel to Vergil’s Aeneas. Yudhistira possesses all the qualities of the IE hero, and this is evidenced throughout the Mahabharata. He is of noble birth, since his father is Pandu, king of Hastinapur, which is the kingdom under dispute in the epic. Given his many interactions with Krishna throughout the story, Yudhistira is significant enough to be recognized and cared for by a divine figure. Just like Aeneas, Yudhistira is constantly subject to fate and divine will, and he must carry out his destiny to liberate a subjugated people to become the rightful king.
While we may say that these qualities hold true for any of the Pandavas and, by extension, to the whole range of Indo-European heroes, Yudhistira in particular is a more fitting comparison to Aeneas. In the sense that Vergil was writing an epic that embodied Roman values, the hero Aeneas is the embodiment of these values, exemplifying a moral protagonist. From the first time we encounter Aeneas, he is called insignem pietate. Throughout the epic, he is hailed as being righteous and good, and these are defining traits for his character. For example, these lines from the first book of the Aeneid establish Aeneas’ exceptional character:
“I am Aeneas, duty-bound, and known above high air of heaven by my fame, carrying with me in my ships our gods of hearth and home, saved from the enemy.”
Yudhistira is similarly said to be exceptional in his devotion to dharma, or righteousness, a close parallel conceptually to Aeneas’ pietas. In fact, while Yudhistira is the son of Pandu and Kunti, who are mortal beings, the Mahabharata states that the birth of each of the five Pandavas was facilitated by a god. In Yudhistira’s case, the god is Dharma, who is the deification of the concept of righteousness. As such, Yudhistira is often called dharmaputra, or “son of dharma.” In addition, he is called dharmaraja, or “king of dharma.” In this excerpt from Book II, Yudhishtira’s kingdom and ruling style are described:
In consequence of the protection offered by Yudhishtira the Just, and of the truth which he ever cherished in his behavior, as also of the check under which he kept all foes, the subjects of that monarch were all engaged in their respective avocations.
This can be compared with the following short description of Aeneas:
“We had a king, Aeneas—none more just,
More zealous, greater in arms and warfare.”
–Aen. 1. 544-545
In embodying both the traditional Homeric and more specifically Roman moral aspects of Aeneas’ heroism, it can be argued that Yudhistira bears closer resemblance to Aeneas than do the other Pandava brothers.
The resemblance in character is not limited to the protagonists. The antagonists of these stories, Turnus in the Aeneid and Duryodhana in the Mahabharata, both bear a remarkable resemblance to each other. Most importantly, both antagonists are driven by rage and are controlled by their emotions. In the same way that Aeneas and Yudhistira are connected most strongly through their moral uprightness, Turnus and Duryodhana are connected by their uncontrollable anger. Take the following passage from Book IX of the Aeneid:
“ultimus ille dies bello gentique fuisset.
sed furor ardentem caedisque insana cupido
egit in adversos.”
“That would have been the last day of the war, the last for the Trojans. But high rage and mindless lust for slaughter drove the passionate man [Turnus] towards his enemies.”
Turnus is described as having furor ardentem, literally “burning rage.” In addition, he is described as being insana cupido, or “mad with desire.” He is also called “violenta” (10.151). This can be compared with the following passages: one from Book V of the Mahabharata, in which elders of the court advise Duryodhana, and the other from Book IX:
“‘Be not the exterminator of thy race, be not a wicked man, let not thy heart be sinful, do not tread the path of unrighteousness. Do not sink thy father and mother into an ocean of grief.’ After Bhishma had concluded, Drona also said these words unto Duryodhana, who, filled with wrath, was then breathing heavily.”
“…The covetous Duryodhana bereft of wisdom and enslaved by his passions…”
Duryodhana’s anger is often recognized and chastised by his family. In the following Sanskrit verse, the blind king Dhritarashtra, his father, describes him as his “royal son, who was wrathful by nature.”
evaṃ duryodhano rājan garjamāne muhur muhuḥ
yudhiṣṭhirasya saṃkruddho vāsudevo ‘bravīd idam
As in this verse, Duryodhana’s anger is often referred to by the word krodh (क्रोध). In Hindu philosophy, krodh is often paired with kama (काम), or passion, as emotions that are overpowering and to be avoided. Likewise, in Latin, the concept of anger is known as furor, and it is often paired with cupido, loosely translated as passion or desire, when describing Turnus. For example, in the passage above, he is described as insana cupido, or mad with desire. The dichotomy in the two stories is remarkably the same: the hero is rational and puts divine will over his own emotions, whereas the antagonist is stubborn, passionate, and ruled by his emotions. As such, I would argue that these shared moral and rational values embodied by these works’ respective heroes that are similarly set in contrast to their respective antagonists suggest a shared cultural origin.
There is also striking similarity between the young fighters Pallas and Abhimanyu. Both fight for the hero in battle and are killed following a prolonged aristeia, or scene in which the character shows his most excellent moments of fighting. Before Abhimanyu enters battle, he is described as possessing all the virtues of the five Pandavas. When Drona, commander of the enemy Kaurava armies, is killing large numbers of the Pandava army, Yudhistira asks his nephew Abhimanyu to take the heavy burden of leading Pandava forces against Drona. However, Abhimanyu easily infiltrates Drona’s battle formation and lays havoc on his army as we see from this description from Book VII:
When they saw Subhadra’s son [Abhimanyu] fiercely slaying that army single handed, like the god of war slaying the army of the demons, your [Kaurava] soldiers and your sons stared all around, mouths dry, eyes a-quiver bodies sweating, hair standing on end.
After hearing about the havoc Abhimanyu has wreaked on his army, Duryodhana takes his forces to fight him. Abhimanyu wounds many famous Kauravas, including Drona, Salya, Sakuni, and Duryodhana’s younger brother, Duhsasana. Several Kaurava warriors team up on him and destroy his chariot and weapon, but, adhering to his dharma, Abhimanyu still fights. Abhimanyu dies after a large enemy group teams up on him; it is written in the text, “Thus, O king, was one slain by many in battle.” (Mbh. 7.48.14).
Just as Abhimanyu fights at Yudhistira’s request, Pallas, son of the Arcadian king Evander, leads the Arcadian people to fight under Aeneas against Turnus and the Rutulians. Similarly to Abhimanyu, Pallas excels in battle, killing large numbers of enemy soldiers and effectively commanding his own. This excerpt from Book X demonstrates his prowess:
With this he charged the clump of enemy center.
First to meet him, led by cruel fate,
Was Lagus: as this man tore from the ground
A heavy boulder, Pallas put a javelin
Through him where the spine divides the ribs.
After the death of Abhimanyu, Yudhistira feels personally guilty because he asked Abhimanyu to fight without the permission of his father, Arjuna. Similarly, Aeneas is quite troubled by the death of Pallas, and it is his outrage at seeing Turnus wearing Pallas’ belt that compels Aeneas to kill Turnus at the end of the poem. The comparison between Abimanyu and Pallas is indicative of a wider Indo-European notion of the virtuous youth who dies young. This youth often resembles the hero both physically and mentally, and his death must occur before the hero can fulfill his destiny. Fortifying this suggestion of a shared cultural origin, this motif of the virtuous youth who dies young can be seen across the Indo-European spectrum, from Patroclus in the Iliad to Sohrab in the Shahnameh.
A comparison of these two epics’ plots and characters has shown remarkable parallels in their organization, cultural implications, and themes. As both stories center around the journey of the hero, we come to learn the qualities valued by both cultures through their characterizations of their heroes, as well as their conception of the divine in relation to the hero. Both of these cultures, in portraying their cultural hero as morally upright and devoted to divine will, appear to have valued respect and morality, while simultaneously denouncing rule by emotion and rage, as demonstrated through their antagonists. Such cultural parallels may be the result of a shared cultural heritage that, just like the language, can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European people that lived about 7,000 years ago. Additional avenues of inquiry include more detailed studies in the syntax and phonetics of these epics, more thorough analysis of plot lines and characters, and expansion of the comparison to include several other Indo-European epics. Further studies in the field of Indo-European historical linguistics would certainly prove beneficial to understand cultural links between the Indo-European civilizations.
N.B. This paper reflects a shorter segment of a larger independent study, in which the author further demonstrates how these two works may share the same cultural origin through additional consideration of metrical, poetic, and linguistic parallels.
Kushal Modi (College ’21) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Philosophy Politics and Economics (PPE).
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