Introduction. Defining Epics through Comparison

An epic is an extensive poem that has been composed in an elevated style, that treats a pivotal epoch in the past of a particular people, and that endures because it both entertains its audiences and educates them on issues of ultimate importance. But the images that the term “epic” now evokes—mighty heroes who face fierce foes while traveling to exotic realms in search of special powers—reveal that a rather narrower definition of epic has prevailed in the minds of its users. At some point in its long history, the epic category collapsed into a class of adventure story. Consequently, the critics who employ this category emphasize aspects of epics that concern quests for faraway rewards rather than consolidations of holdings at home, clashes with enemies from outside rather than reconnections with beloved insiders, and aspirations to divine dominion rather than acceptance of human impotence.
Yet a corrective to such critical shortsightedness lies in epics themselves, for these poems portray what happens at home as well as away from it, and thus offer insight into living resignedly with human frailty in addition to striving mightily for the divine. In fact, four poems that have had among the greatest influences on critical conceptions of epic feature figures whose own poetic efforts sharpen the contrast between divine ease and human difficulty. These characters are kings or kings-to-be who appear in the Greek Iliad and Odyssey and the Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata.
Those who listen to these singing kings—Achilles in the Iliad, Odysseus in the Odyssey, Kuśa and Lava in the Rāmāyaṇa, and Nala in the Mahābhārata—learn that their songs reflect the epics in which they are embedded. These songs thus reveal the epics’ perspectives on their respective religious ideals, kléos (or heroic glory) in the case of the Greek poems and dharma (or righteousness) in the instance of the Sanskrit ones. Each pair of epics comprises an “affirmative” epic that exhibits the divine ease with which a core ideal is achieved and an “interrogative” epic that demonstrates the human difficulty with which the same ideal is attained.
Reconceptualizing the Iliad and Rāmāyaṇa as affirmative epics and the Odyssey and Mahābhārata as interrogative epics requires relinquishing earlier ideas of what the Greek and Sanskrit epics were. These ideas emerged from the epics themselves, from classical criticism of these works, and from their modern reinterpretations. Tracing the progression of both Greek and Indian notions of epic, then, is possible. But the culturally distinct developments of these epic ideas do not show what they share simply by virtue of being human creations.
So, examining Greek and Indian epic categories separately in the manner of Hellenists and Indologists is not enough. These categories—and therefore the poems that have given rise to them—must be brought together so that they may be reconsidered in light of their mutual illumination. Such comparisons of epic categories and of epics from two different cultures can inform a reformulation of the more general notion of epic that encompasses them. This reconception of epic offers insight into the cross-cultural problem of bridging the human/divine divide on which any poems of this genre center.
To reformulate the category of epic, then, I will study not only how this category came to be applied to the Iliad and the Odyssey, and to the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, but also how the performances of poetic kings in these works refine Greek and Indian ideas of epic. My study comprises three comparisons, the first two of which I will make in methodological support of the third. First, I will compare the different ways in which the Homeric epics and the Cyclic epics, two sets of poems composed in ancient Greece, have been classified by their premodern and modern interpreters, my aim being to explain why it was the Homeric poems rather than their Cyclic counterparts that shaped premodern and modern notions of epic. Second, I will compare the distinct histories that the Homeric epics and the Sanskrit epics have had with the term “epic,” so that I may clarify the respective contributions that these pairs of poems have made to the epic category. My third and central comparison actually is a metacomparison, a comparison of two comparisons. I will begin by comparing the poems performed by kings in the Iliad and the Odyssey, continue by comparing analogous accounts offered by monarchs in the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, and end by comparing interculturally the outcomes of these two intracultural comparisons. My purpose in doing so will be to shed light on the different and similar ways in which the ancient Greek and Indian poems depict epic composition in their portrayals of poetic rulers.
The three comparisons that compose my study are of three different types based on three different assumptions about how the comparanda of concern are interrelated. [1] The assumption underlying my first comparison is that the poetic inheritance common to the Homeric epics and the Cyclic epics reflects the derivation of these two sets of works from the same source. In my second comparison, however, I assume that the classification of the Homeric epics has influenced that of the Sanskrit epics because interpreters of the Greek poems have interacted with interpreters of the Sanskrit ones. Yet I assume no such interaction between the royal poems in the Iliad and Odyssey and those in the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, assuming instead that the Sanskrit accounts could have arisen independently of the Greek ones.
Issues concerning genetic comparisons that assume an inheritance common to the comparanda, diffusionist comparisons that assume influence among the comparanda, or analogical comparisons that assume the independence of the comparanda have been discussed in disciplines as disparate as political science, anthropology, comparative literature, classical studies, religious studies, and art history. As I keep in view what scholars in these fields have identified (sometimes unconsciously) as potential problems posed by genetic, diffusionist, and analogical approaches, I, a historian of religions, will propose solutions to these problems that will allow me to adopt these approaches fruitfully.

The Inheritance, Influence, and Independence of Epics

The nature of what is shared by epics being compared, as well as the extent of their pre-existing interconnection, varies between the three major types of comparative studies considered here. An “independence study” requires that such epics share simply the scholarly category in which they have been placed—the category that indicates why a scholar has associated these perhaps otherwise unconnected works with one another. In contrast, an “influence study” presumes that the authors or critics of already interconnected epics share a history of having interacted with one another, though the epics themselves may belong to different literary and cultural traditions. In still further contrast, an “inheritance study” holds long-interconnected epics to share a literary and cultural source, as in the case of the Homeric epics and the Cyclic epics.

The genesis of the Homeric and Cyclic epics

Examining the etymology of the English word “epic” reveals its roots in Archaic (ca. 800–500 BCE) Greece, where its etymon was applied to two types of poems: the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer and the poems composing the Epic Cycle. The similarities between the Homeric epics and the Cyclic epics in style and subject matter stem from their outgrowth from the same body of heroic poetry present in an even earlier Geometric (ca. 900–800 BCE) Greece.
In assuming that the traits shared by the Homeric and Cyclic epics reflect their descent from the same source, I am undertaking a genetic comparison. This kind of comparison was made most famous (and infamous) by late-nineteenth-century comparative mythologists who regarded the similarities that they saw among sacred stories related in different Indo-European languages as evidence of a shared Indo-European inheritance. [2] This legacy was held to be one of location as well as literature, of space shared at one time by the groups responsible for the sets of stories being compared. [3] Indeed, the comparative mythologists’ presupposition of a common Indo-European space was shared by their admirer Wilhelm Scherer, a philologist and literary critic who incorporated their project into his comparative poetics as the first of three types of relations that he treated: “The first kind deals, as a rule, with comparative mythology, … and the Indo-European area entailed by the parallels drawn above … may also belong there.” [4] The two other relation types that Scherer goes on to characterize correspond to the diffusionist and analogical approaches to comparison.
Genetic comparisons are appealing now, as in the nineteenth century, because they rely on linguistic data that can be analyzed systematically. The usefulness of such information was affirmed early on by political historian Edward A. Freeman:
It is not safe to set down any instance of likeness as being necessarily a case of an inheritance from the common stock, unless we have some corroborative evidence besides the likeness itself. We have the highest degree of such corroborative evidence whenever Comparative Philology steps in to help us. If two distinct nations of the Aryan family—or, by the same argument, if two distinct nations of any other family—have a common institution called by a common name, and if the likeness is plainly not a case of imitation or borrowing from one another, such an institution may be set down without any kind of doubt as being a clear case of common inheritance from a common stock. [5]
In my own inheritance study, I assume that the Homeric and Cyclic epics came to be called by the same name because they shared features passed down to them from their common poetic predecessors. But this resemblance between the Homeric and Cyclic epics cannot be confirmed, for the Cyclic poems no longer exist. Any information about the Epic Cycle must be gleaned from the criticism composed about it. Thus, as I will discuss in Chapter 1, ancient critics clearly used the same term to classify the Cyclic poems and the Homeric poems, but the common characteristics of these poems no longer can be compared directly. Their “likeness” is accessible only through the assessments of their earlier interpreters, even as “corroborative evidence” of this similarity between the Homeric and Cyclic epics exists in their shared classification. Therefore, my genetic comparison differs from the kind that Freeman has in mind, not only in considering literary works produced by speakers of the same language, but also in being limited by a lack of comparanda themselves rather than by a lack of evidence of how they were classified by their early critics.
The absence of the Cyclic epics at present is not an impediment to my genetic comparative study, but rather its central subject. After observing that these no longer extant poems have been categorized in the same way as their Homeric counterparts, I will explain how the absence of the Cyclic works has led modern critics to assume that ancient interpreters were correct to assess the Cyclic epics as poems inferior and ancillary to the Iliad and Odyssey. As a consequence of modern critics’ uncritical acceptance of this assumption, the defining characteristics of the Homeric rather than the Cyclic poems have informed the modern conception of the epic genre. This Homerically informed notion of epic has shaped the study of poems composed after the Iliad and Odyssey in areas other than Greece, as I will show in my second comparison.

The diffusion of the Homeric and Sanskrit epics

In my second comparison, I will inquire into the reasons why the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata—poems composed largely between 200 BCE and 200 CE in Sanskrit, a language having no etymon for the word “epic”—nonetheless came to be called epics. My aim is not to identify which elements of these Sanskrit poems were contributed by the Homeric works as they made their way from Greece to India with soldiers, traders, and other travelers, but instead to understand how modern interpreters’ Homerically informed idea of epic influenced their similar categorization of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata.
In distinguishing the classificatory influence that modern readers of Homer have had on modern readers of Vālmīki and Vyāsa from the spread of epic narratives over time and space, I draw upon a distinction that literary critic G. Gregory Smith drew for the discipline of comparative literature between “the antiquarian and genealogical facts of authorship” (which include “the influence of individual authors and books on other authors and books”) and “the folklore bases” of literature (that is, the collections of tales that have traveled the world over with their tellers). [6] Although Smith calls attention to the authors of literary works while I am spotlighting their interpreters, we both single out individuals interested in these works, in an effort to discern the influences that these individuals have had on one another.
Yet, in studying the influence of readers of the Iliad and Odyssey on readers of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, I will do well to heed the warnings of scholars studying those who have tried to trace the faceless spread of stories across cultures. [7] Those who claim to have followed the movement of narratives from the place of their creators to the place of their appropriators, and who thus have invested heavily in establishing the direction of story diffusion from one society to another, tend to make too much of the tale-lender’s contribution and the tale-borrower’s obligation. These tale-trackers—like their fellow diffusionists, who have been assessed by historian of religions Jonathan Z. Smith [8] —are susceptible to overvaluing what they see as the source and to undervaluing what they see as the receiver, and therefore to asserting the superiority of the source tradition over the receiver tradition in the manner described by historian of religions David M. Freidenreich. [9] For example, folklorist Stith Thompson does little to discount the possibility that “stories usually proceed from culturally higher to culturally lower peoples” when he uses the phrases “diffused from an original center” and “versions close to the archetype” just prior to his discussion of this proposition. [10]
Art historian Partha Mitter sees a similar obeisance to the supposed source in some of the reports of early Western travelers to India who recorded their reactions to the art there. In contrast to those beholders for whom “Indian art consisted of nothing but irrational monsters and horrific demons[, t]he other[s] saw the elegance and grandeur of the temples as clearly proving their classical origins. Some even went so far as to find historical links with Alexander.” [11] The cognitive bridges that these explorers quickly built between India and Greece suggest that the venturers would have subscribed to this belief in the original’s unsurpassability: “We should add—and this again is true of organic nature as well as of human affairs—that all forms show themselves in their purest state at the point of their origin, before they have undergone the changes which later befall them. The leaf of the fern is more fully formed than that of the higher plants which must relinquish the stage to the glory of the blossom. Similarly certain forms of art, the representations of human beauty and the poetic genres of epic, lyric, and drama found their perfect shape among the Greeks.” [12] Like the aforementioned sightseers who managed to peer at the Parthenon though far from Athens, advocates of the diffusionist approach may fall prey to the prejudices that the later form of an artifact can be flawless only if it is a facsimile of the original, and that this imitation is interesting only insofar as it preserves its paradigm.
In order not to privilege any archetype as I adopt a diffusionist approach to comparing critics’ designations of Homeric and Sanskrit poems as epics, I will study not only the influence that the epic categorization of the Iliad and the Odyssey has had on the modern reception of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, but also the influence that the epic categorization of these Sanskrit poems has had on the originally Greek epic category itself. Even though the Iliad and Odyssey predate the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata by centuries, the Sanskrit poems—despite being different enough from each other to designate themselves in different ways—were coupled by medieval Indian critics who recognized the poems’ common characteristics. Moreover, once the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata were paired by modern Western readers as epics, these works contributed their intracultural commonalities to the epic category.
But, at the same time that the Homeric and Sanskrit poem pairs differ from each other in their culturally informed constructions of what constitutes an epic, these coupled compositions portray poetic kings in ways that evince intercultural similarities and intracultural disparities with regard to the representation of epic creation. The similar manners in which bardic rulers—and thus the poems that they compose—differ across the Iliad and the Odyssey and across the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata form the center of my third comparison.

The analogy of the Homeric and Sanskrit epics

As I examine the resemblances between the Greek and Indian epic representations of singing kings, resemblances that remain prominent in the face of the kings’ striking unlikenesses, I will assume that these correspondences reflect the common human condition of the epics’ authors. Their shared human concerns probably account best for the commonalities between the composers’ limnings of kings performing poems, given the wide temporal and cultural divides that separate the Greek and Indian epics. The Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, which were composed several centuries after the Iliad and Odyssey (which date approximately from 750 to 700 BCE), take as their topic not the Greek ideal of kléos, but the Indian ideal of dharma.
By comparing first the Homeric epics’ portrayals of poetic rulers, and next the Sanskrit epics’ depictions of such figures, and finally the results of these two comparisons, I will make an analogical metacomparison. Thus, I will regard any patterns that persist across the Greek and Indian epics as ensuing from what Freeman and anthropologist Edward B. Tylor termed “independent invention,” [13] such trends being “the fruit of like circumstances leading to like results.” [14] Such correspondences, therefore, constitute “the likeness of analogy.” [15]
The grounds for such similarity among data likely to be historically independent are broader than those underlying data related through common inheritance or geographical influence. Whereas genetic comparisons rest on similarities reflecting slight divergences from a single cultural source, and diffusionist comparisons are based on commonalities stemming from the sharing of materials across cultures that is associated with migrations, analogical comparisons are founded on parallels that transcend the accident of actual human contact. Thus, in the apparent absence of intercultural interaction that could account for the connections between cultures, the analogical comparativist herself identifies those aspects of shared human existence that are most salient to the comparison that she has constructed. As she selects and connects her comparanda “for … her own good theoretical reasons,” [16] she is free from the stricture of having to gather evidence specifically to establish the inheritance or influence linking her comparanda. But, at the same time, the comparison that she constructs must reveal something important about the comparanda. Her comparison must provide some type of useful information about the comparanda apart from their interconnection through a shared inheritance or direct influence. Her study of her comparanda’s independence must offer insight into them that is different from that afforded by investigations of their inheritance or influence, for “[t]he value of any analogy,” including that at the heart of her comparative analysis, “is dependent upon the depth and richness of its implications.” [17]
In my own independence study, I aim to interpret the poems by (and about) bardic rulers that the Greek and Sanskrit epics incorporate. The rulers’ portrayals of their respective religious ideals reflect the methods that the epics themselves employ to instill these ideals. The heroic attainment of kléos in the Greek epics and of dharma in the Sanskrit ones poetically addresses two common human concerns: namely, how people face the inevitability of their mortality, and how they act morally in the face of ever-present immorality. These concerns number among what theologian David Tracy has termed “religious questions,” which are
the most serious and difficult questions, both personal and communal, that any human being or society must face: Has existence any ultimate meaning? Is a fundamental trust to be found amidst the fears, anxieties and terror of existence? Is there some reality, some force, even some one, who speaks a word of truth that can be recognized and trusted? Religions ask and respond to such fundamental questions of the meaning and truth of our existence as human beings in solitude, and in society, history and the cosmos. … Lurking beneath the surface of our everyday lives, exploding into explicitness in the limit-situations inevitable in any life, are questions which logically must be and historically are called religious questions. [18]
Such “religious questions,” as historian of religions Wendy Doniger has described, “recur in myths” and treat such topics as why human beings exist and what happens to them after they die. [19]
The particular ways in which singing kings treat these types of religious issues within the Homeric and Hindu epics clarify why the epics have their kings sing, and how the epics reflect in these royal songs on the religious reasons for their own invention. This invention of epic in ancient Greece and India is understood best by an analogical comparison. Even if the kings’ accounts of epic invention could be connected genetically or by diffusion, such connections would not evidence the aspects of epic invention in which I am most interested. Understanding the enduring appeal of the solutions that the Greek and Sanskrit epics advance to their existential problems (the inevitability of mortality and the ubiquity of immorality, respectively) within and without their poetic kings’ accounts is too broad an interpretative purpose to be realized by interconnecting linguistically the occasional epic incident common to Greek and Sanskrit or by attesting materially the ancient travel of epic tales between Greece and India.
So, to keep in sight the epics’ parallel efforts to address their audiences’ religious concerns, I will take up an analogist’s telescope instead of a geneticist’s microscopes or a diffusionist’s movie camera. An analogical comparativist, by conceiving of categories in an effort to fathom the flood of data before her, devises a way to view everything of interest to her, taking up the telescope of intercultural comparative analysis to see as a whole the components that a genetic comparativist would see only separately through the microscopes of intracultural contextual analyses. [20] If a genetic comparativist would move between intracultural microscopes through which she would observe aspects of Greek and Sanskrit epics connected by a common linguistic inheritance, then a diffusionist comparativist would carry a movie camera because she would aim to document the spread of epic stories from one culture to another.
In adopting an analogical approach, I do not deny that connections between ancient Greece and India at the microscopic level of linguistic genetics and at the readily observable level of geographical diffusion may lie behind, and thus account for, the epic likenesses reflected in the human analogies that telescopists draw when they peer from afar at the poems. Instead I assert that analogists, who look through their telescopes at these texts as wholes rather than in parts, view something new about these works, by virtue of having a broad focus. This type of perspective is instructive even in instances where the objects of study have no common origin or history of contact.

Defining Greek and Sanskrit Epics via Identity, Metaphor, and Ideals

Even though my study of the Greek and Sanskrit epics does not rely on their relation by inheritance or influence, I will adopt the aforementioned methods of geneticists and diffusionists as I consider the categorizations of these poems in their premodern and modern contexts. In Chapter 1, I will examine the etymology of the word “epic” in advance of arguing that, because this term originated in ancient times as an appellation for the Iliad and the Odyssey, the statement today that these texts are epics amounts to an identity. In Chapter 2, I will exchange my microscope for a movie camera in order to track modern critics’ transfer of the term “epic” from Greek works to Sanskrit ones, and thereupon to explain why saying that the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata are epics amounts to making a metaphor.
After investigating how premodern and modern scholars have invented the Greek and Sanskrit “epics,” I will compare the royal poems embedded in these works and thus their religious inventions. In Chapter 3, I will interpret the poems of Achilles and Odysseus, heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey whose own coming kléos is symbolized by their identification with poets (who would celebrate them), but whose triumphal and piteous poems mirror the two men’s distinct means of achieving their ideal (conquering another country versus defending one’s own kingdom). In Chapter 4, I will study the poems of Kuśa and Lava and Nala—rulers whom the heroes of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata hear as they attempt to demonstrate dharma, but whose narratives’ exultant and sorrowful characters forecast that righteousness will spread readily across Rāma’s cosmos, but will be restricted within Yudhiṣṭhira’s realm.
In the conclusion that trails this pair of comparisons, I will recontextualize the epic pairs, turning back briefly to their textual traditions in order to explain intercultural differences (and intracultural similarities) between the pairs’ portrayals of their respective religious ideals. Yet I will emphasize the intercultural similarities (and intracultural differences) between the dyads’ depictions so as to recategorize the Iliad and Rāmāyaṇa as “affirmative epics” that exhibit the ease with which their core ideals are achieved, and the Odyssey and Mahābhārata as “interrogative epics” that show that these ideals are attained only with tremendous difficulty. I will end by asserting that affirmative and interrogative epics arose simultaneously—first the Iliad and Odyssey in Greece, and then the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata in India—in order to offer their audiences alternative models of religious accomplishment, and that the persistence of these poems till today demonstrates the immense appeal of their complementary instructional approaches, an appeal that modern self- and social-psychological theories make clearer.


[ back ] 1. Classicist Gregory Nagy (2005:71–72) has taken a similar threefold approach to different comparanda.
[ back ] 2. Thompson 1946:371, 372. For discussion of the disastrous repercussions of comparative mythology, see Lincoln 1999:64–75.
[ back ] 3. Debates over the existence and location of the Indo-European homeland are examined extensively in Mallory 1989.
[ back ] 4. Scherer 1893:704: “Die erste Art behandelt in der Regel die vergleichende Mythologie, … und der arische Theil der oben … angestellten Vergleichungen mag auch dahin gehören.” All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.
[ back ] 5. Freeman 1873:61.
[ back ] 6. G. G. Smith 1905:1.
[ back ] 7. This anonymous transmission of tales is captured by the second sort of relation that Scherer (1893:704) addressed in his comparative poetics: “The contents of short stories and fairy tales provide the best-known example of the second kind.” [Für die zweite Art geben die Novellen- und Märchenstoffe das bekannteste Beispiel.] On the grounds of this statement, Germanist and comparative literary critic Ulrich Weisstein (1973:188) argues that Scherer’s poetics had “a home base in folklore.”
[ back ] 8. J. Z. Smith 1978:243.
[ back ] 9. Freidenreich 2004:83.
[ back ] 10. Thompson 1946:438, 437, 438.
[ back ] 11. Mitter 1992:47–48.
[ back ] 12. Snell 1953:261.
[ back ] 13. Freeman 1873:17; Tylor 1878:373, 376.
[ back ] 14. Freeman 1873:17.
[ back ] 15. Freeman 1873:74. Explorations of this type of relationship have been fixtures in the field of literature. In 1893, Scherer (1893:704) assured his readers that “[t]he third kind [of relation for which he accounted in his comparative poetics] w[ould] be present in the non-Indo-European parallels above” (Die dritte Art wird in den außerarischen obigen Parallelen vorliegen), i.e. those that did not ensue either from inheritance or from influence. By 1971, “analogy studies” of the sort Scherer foresaw had appeared frequently enough to afford fodder for the doctoral dissertation of comparative literary critic Michael Eugene Moriarty (1971).
[ back ] 16. J. Z. Smith 1990:115.
[ back ] 17. Moriarty 1971:140.
[ back ] 18. Tracy 1981:4.
[ back ] 19. Doniger 1998:65.
[ back ] 20. For this figure of double vision, I am indebted to Doniger (1998:chap. 1, “Microscopes and Telescopes”).