Conclusion. Affirmative and Interrogative Epics

So far, I have discussed the Greek and Sanskrit epics largely separately. In Chapters 1 and 2, I examined the ways in which the Greek poems and their Sanskrit counterparts classified themselves, and I considered the effects that the reclassification of each pair of poems, as epics, had on their subsequent interpretation. In Chapters 3 and 4, I showed that each epic’s approach to its core religious ideal of either Archaic Greek kléos or ancient Indian dharma was encapsulated by one or more poems that were embedded in the epic and were related by one or more poetic rulers.
But now I will intertwine these two lines of inquiry into an analogical metacomparison. As I compare my comparisons of the Iliad and the Odyssey and of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, I aim both to explain the variations that occurred between the epics’ embedded royal poems within and across the Greek and Indian traditions and to theorize the intertraditional similarities between these royal poems and between the epics that embed them. In doing so, I will reconsider briefly the epic pairs’ respective cultural contexts and then will reflect at greater length on the human psychology that informs all four works. I will emphasize their intercultural commonalities over their intracultural ones, in order to develop a conception of epic that illuminates the analogous types of religious instruction that, from their inception to the present, the Greek and Sanskrit poems—human compositions that present themselves as having been authored divinely—have offered to their audiences. My new notion of epic will help account for the enduring appeal of the Iliad, Odyssey, Rāmāyaṇa, and Mahābhārata.

The Intercultural Boundaries between Greek and Indian Royal Poems

Even as the epic category subsumes the Greek and Indian rulers’ verse works (as well as the poems that embed them), they remain separate culturally in three regards: the embedded poems are performed by Greek heroes, but are presented to Indian ones; Greek poetic rulers evince brevity in ascendancy and expansiveness in debasement, but Indian royal poets are prolix in success and concise in shame; and the Greek kings use implicit and explicit prolepses in their triumphal and woeful poems, respectively, but the converse holds true in the case of the Indian monarchs.
Royal poems are related by the heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey, but to the heroes of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, because of the different religious ideals on which the Greek and Indian works center. The epic pairs promote kléos and dharma as solutions to two different existential problems. The Iliad and Odyssey, by demonstrating how heroic glory may be achieved, assuage their audiences’ anxiety about the uncertainty of the afterlife—the fate that befalls human beings when they die, but that is unknowable before that moment. Yet, the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, by illustrating the attainment of righteousness under adverse circumstances, ease their audiences’ misgivings about behaving morally in the face of increasing immorality.
The different natures of the epic pairs’ religious ideals affect their expressions by poetic rulers. Kléos is what constitutes Archaic Greek epic poetry itself. To be remembered and celebrated in such song, and thereby to acquire poetic, if not physical, immortality, a hero has to do exceptional deeds of his own. Although he is likely, before attaining fame, to have heard of others who already have done so, he need match their exploits only in magnitude and not in specifics. Indeed, the Greek poetic tradition allows its leading men to be exceptional in quite individual ways, depending on the particular talents that divinities bestowed on these protagonists when they were born. Consequently, the tradition tends to portray its heroes striving for their own glory rather than assuring that it accords with that of their predecessors. So, in the Iliad and Odyssey, the royal poetry that appears is articulated by the epics’ heroes themselves, in anticipation of the distinctive impressions that they will leave on their shared poetic tradition.
By contrast, the royal poems that the Rāmāyaṇa’s and Mahābhārata’s heroes hear convey to them the ways in which ancient Indian society expects kings to realize their dharma. Because this type of righteousness requires rulers to behave morally both toward and in behalf of a great many others, the kings have much to glean from the experiences of their antecedents. Hence, the epics represent their heroes listening to stories that look not only ahead to these heroes’ own fulfillments of righteousness, but also back to the moral achievements of preceding kings of the sort featured in other pieces of dharma literature.
In addition to treating different religious ideals, the Greek and Sanskrit epics’ royal poets wax wretched and triumphant to different extents. Achilles evokes his future victory only briefly in a rhapsody that the Iliad hardly characterizes, but Kuśa and Lava elaborate on the rise of Rāma in a poem that occupies almost the entire Rāmāyaṇa. Conversely, Odysseus delineates at length in the Odyssey the travails of his travels, whereas Nala depicts elliptically the woes that Yudhiṣṭhira will face at the close of the Mahābhārata.
The opposite relationships between affect and length in the Greek and Indian royal poems may stem from their embedding epics’ distinct genre designations. The traditional Archaic Greek categorization of the Iliad and Odyssey as the glories of two men implies both that the mere mention of Achilles’ singing of kléa andrō̂n is enough to suggest that his own fame is nigh, and that the extended portrayal of Odysseus eloquently lamenting his lost fame-gaining opportunities provides him with the poetic disguise that he needs so as to sow his renown. Yet, given the traditional ancient Indian classifications of the Rāmāyaṇa as a kāvya and of the Mahābhārata as an itihāsa, Kuśa and Lava take pains to ensure that their rendering of the Rāmāyaṇa contains as many of the emotional initial lows and final highs as does that of its composer, Vālmīki, while Nala—who composes vivid poems only about his present failures and not about the past successes of other heroes—cannot craft accounts anywhere near as monumental as the epic in which they fleetingly appear.
The works of Achilles and Odysseus and those of Kuśa and Lava and Nala differ interculturally in still a third respect, namely, in the poetic rulers’ use of prolepses. In the case of the Greek kings, Achilles’ rhapsodic recitation on his lyre from Thebe is an implicit prolepsis of the warrior’s preordained triumph-to-come in Troy, while Odysseus’ bardic compositions incorporating or evoking the prophecies of Teiresias and Theoclymenus are explicit prolepses of the homecomer’s perilous return to and restoration of Ithaca. In the instance of the Indian rulers, however, Kuśa and Lava’s rhapsody, including their prophecy of Rāma’s success on earth and in heaven, is an explicit prolepsis of this hero’s accomplishments, whereas Nala’s abbreviated compositions capturing the losses that will afflict Yudhiṣṭhira on his way to heaven and hell and back are implicit prolepses of this hero’s difficulties.
The Greek and Indian royal poets may use implicit and explicit prolepses differently because prophets occupy disparate positions in these rulers’ societies. In Archaic Greek literature, the prophet is a stock character whose predictions tend to challenge an oppressive status quo in favor of a new order engineered by a hero. Where the hero’s victory, like that of the Iliadic Achilles, is a foregone conclusion, overt prophecy of his success is unnecessary to include in his poetry. But, where the hero’s success is more precarious, as is that of the Odyssean Odysseus, its prediction in prophecies incorporated into his poetry reassures his audiences that he will indeed prevail.
In ancient Indian literature, however, prophecy is presented by sages who tend to work from—rather than invert—the status quo, and thus who envision a continuation of present events as they are conditioned by the development or devolution of dharma. Therefore, prophecy is present manifestly in the sage Vālmīki’s poem, which Kuśa and Lava recite in their certainty of righteous Rāma’s terrestrial and celestial victories. Yet, in the poems that the non-sage Nala seems to compose about his own sorrows over the reversal of his fortune, he expresses only vaguely unpleasant presentiments of judicious Yudhiṣṭhira’s terminal loneliness.
Although the Greek and Indian royal poems diverge in at least these three ways, the works resemble each other as well. In fact, their striking intercultural similarities allow their embedding epics to be recategorized to reflect the variety encompassed by the epic genre.

The Intercultural Bridges between Affirmative Epicsand between Interrogative Epics

The genre (or genres) in which poems like the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Rāmāyaṇa, and the Mahābhārata are placed is (or are) important because classification itself is an act of interpretation. Genre, then—to borrow the definition offered by literary critic Alastair Fowler—“is a communication system, for the use of writers in writing, and readers and critics in reading and interpreting.” [1] On this view, Fowler recommends that critics distinguish between the genre of a literary work at the time of its composition and this work’s genre in the critics’ time, and implies that these critics should employ the generic notion that best suits their own analytical purposes: “We identify the genre to interpret the exemplar.” [2]
In Chapters 1 and 2, I examined the self-designations of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Rāmāyaṇa, and the Mahābhārata, and I adopted “epic” as an umbrella term for these poems, even as I recognized the reciprocal influences that these works and this rubric had upon each other. Yet my readings of the Greek and Sanskrit epics and of the royal poems that they include (see Chapters 3 and 4) lead me to conclude that the intercultural correspondences between these works warrant refinement of the epic category overspreading them. As a result, I regard the Iliad and the Rāmāyaṇa as affirmative epics that depict the ready realization of kléos and dharma, respectively, and the Odyssey and the Mahābhārata as interrogative epics that portray the difficulties in achieving these religious ideals.
In the past, scholars distinguished the Iliad from the Odyssey—or the Mahābhārata from the Rāmāyaṇa—by classifying the former poem of the pair as an epic, and the latter as a romance. Among the earliest interpreters to make this observation of the Sanskrit works, as well as of the Greek ones, were the philologists and spouses Hector Munro Chadwick and Nora Kershaw Chadwick. At first glance, the Chadwicks seem to see romance only in certain segments of the Odyssey and the Rāmāyaṇa, offering the following characterization of the Indian work: “The rest of the story, contained in Books III–VI, can hardly be regarded otherwise than as romance. In principle it resembles the romantic part of the Odyssey, though it is largely concerned with fighting.” [3] But the Chadwicks then infer, from these romantic segments, that the poems comprising them are best categorized as romances, if these critics’ assessment of the Rāmāyaṇa narrative gives any indication: “The theme is a heroic story which is just passing—or perhaps rather has already passed—into romance.” [4]
Classing the Odyssey and Rāmāyaṇa as romances creates two interpretational problems. The first is that this classification can be based on the assumption that the romantic poems have deviated and devolved from earlier, epic forms of poetry. Such an assumption, which appears to have informed the Chadwicks’ aforementioned categorization, was held by Bowra as well, as evidences his discussion of the
transformation of heroic poetry [in general] … when it passes into what is conveniently called romance. Romance is a vague term, but at least it suggests anything which is not real or even believed to be real by the poets themselves, who advance it as a charming fancy and ask it to be accepted as such. In other words, while strictly heroic poems claim to deal with a past which once existed, though its date may not be known, romance claims to be nothing but delightful and is quite content to be accepted at its own valuation. …
When heroic poetry passes into romance, it is touched by a lyrical spirit which dwells on tender emotions and charming scenes and softens the stark outlines of adventure with intervals of ease and pleasure. … The whole of this transformation into romance may be regarded as the intrusion into narrative of a spirit which likes to linger on the elegances of life and belongs to a society which tries to make its customs less brutal and its manners less forthright. [5]
Bowra’s rather harsh evaluation of romance—relative to epic—leaves the impression that romance is less honest than fanciful, less momentous than frivolous, and less traditional than recreational. On the first page of his preface, he actually acknowledges his intellectual debt to the Chadwicks, whose “analytical examination of [heroic poetry] shows what it is in a number of countries and establishes some of its main characteristics.” But Bowra, despite doing work “continuing the subject [of heroic poetry] where [the Chadwicks] stop,” differs from them in “exclud[ing from his study] … the old Indian epics, in which a truly heroic foundation is overlaid with much literary and theological matter.” [6] Even so, his adoption of the Chadwicks’ devolutionary view of heroic poetry implies that he may have approved also of the Chadwicks’ elevation, on this view, of the Mahābhārata above the Rāmāyaṇa.
Unfortunately, more current considerations of the Odyssey and Rāmāyaṇa as romances are nearly as derogatory as are the Chadwicks’ and Bowra’s assessments. For instance, Hainsworth observes of the Odyssey: “Like most folktales, this story is rich in mystery and suspense, and by exploiting these qualities it has grown into a romance. Many [of its] incidents are irredeemably unheroic.” [7] Likewise, Sanskritist J. A. B. van Buitenen remarks that the “romance” that is the Rāmāyaṇa “is a consciously literary work, and [that] Vālmīki is the First Poet, the ādikavi, even though by later standards his composition might be found to be lacking in poetic power, refinement, and precision.” [8]
Fortunately, however, even newer views of the Odyssey and Rāmāyaṇa provide insight into their epic aspects. In the eyes of literary critic David Quint, for instance, the Odyssey’s heroic teleology is as patent as this poem’s persistent dilatoriness: “While the narrative romances that we are most familiar with, including the Odyssey itself, contain seemingly aimless episodes of wandering and digression—adventures—they also characteristically are organized by a quest that, however much it may be deferred by adventure, will finally achieve its goal.” [9] Similarly suffering from being read solely as a romance is, from Pollock’s perspective, the Rāmāyaṇa: “[T]hinking of Vālmīki’s poem in this way, however justified it may appear to be by certain surface resemblances, … makes some readers less receptive to the product of a very different literary culture, closing off instead of providing access to a whole range of topics in which Vālmīki seems to be deeply interested. Adventure, love, and service, staples of romance that have little broad social significance, are certainly part of his poem, but so are those patterns of ‘public behavior’ that are the central concern of a very different species of literature,” [10] namely, epic, of which heroic exemplarity is a defining characteristic.
Categorizing the Odyssey and Rāmāyaṇa as romances hampers the poems’ interpretation in another way, for this categorization separates these works utterly from their intracultural partners, the Iliad and Mahābhārata. The disparities between each intracultural pair of poems warrant not the exclusion of the Odyssey and Rāmāyaṇa from the epic genre, but the genre’s reformulation. This work of reworking a literary category is actually the signal contribution that genre criticism can make, and such a reworking is much more significant than simply placing literary works in pre-existing classes. The difference between classification and reclassification has been captured by literary critic Tzvetan Todorov: “By locating the universal features of literature within an individual work, we merely illustrate, to infinity, premises we will have already posited. A study in poetics, on the contrary, must come to conclusions which complete or modify the initial premises.” Although these “premises” may require revision, they provide starting points for literary inquiries: “The moment we produce a discourse on literature, we rely, willy-nilly, on a general conception of the literary text; poetics is the site where this conception is elaborated.” [11]
The twofold process that Todorov treats exemplifies the two types of category work that occur in an informed comparison. To set up such a comparison, a comparativist sets forth a category that requires her to take for granted that her comparanda have something in common that distinguishes them from the data that she excludes from her analysis. In other words, at this early point in her study, she gives unqualified credence to her category, because she—in order to proceed with her comparative inquiry—“need[s] to assume some stable entity, some reasonable conception, some logic of connections and distinctions.” And, by employing such a category, she registers her “recognition of [the] similarity between the instances to which [she] applie[s it].” [12]
As soon as she has compared her comparanda in the manner suggested by her chosen category, she can assess it critically. After approaching her comparanda from the top down (taking no issue initially with her category), she can work from the bottom up (reconstructing her category so that it reflects the results of her comparison). [13] The reflexivity [14] of this dual method has been described by Doniger, who remarks that a scholar starts with her “motivating idea [i.e. her category]; but that idea then leads her back to her texts, where she may find unexpected details that will in turn modify the idea of what she is looking for.” [15]
I have taken this twofold approach to my metacomparison of the Greek and Sanskrit epics. In Chapters 3 and 4, I first compared the Iliad and the Odyssey and then the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, while assuming that all four royal-poem-embedding works were comparable by virtue of having been labeled epics. Now that I have described the ways in which the royal poems within the Greek epics and within the Indian epics differ intra- and interculturally, I will refine the epic category, on the basis of the intercultural similarities between the Greek and Indian poems belonging to this category. By identifying both affirmative epics and interrogative epics across the Homeric and Hindu traditions, I will offer a new explanation of the complementarity that characterizes each tradition’s poem pair.

Affirmative and interrogative epics as accounts of intracultural complementarity

A chorus of classicists has characterized the Iliad and the Odyssey as being “complementary,” [16] with each poem centering on something that is significant, yet that is absent from the other poem. More precisely, each poem is distinguished by its hero’s behavior: “Achilles’ story is that of a man increasingly isolated from his own society, for even at the end of the wrath he still sits and dines apart from the rest of the host. The Odyssey tells of a man and wife reunited, a family and kingdom restored to peace and order.” [17]
Yet the distinction between Odysseus’ story and the Iliad evinces the interaction between, rather than the separation of, these two epic traditions. One way to regard this encounter is as an adversarial one:
It has been argued that the Odyssey perceives its relation to the Iliad, or Iliads, or Achilles tradition—whichever is more correct—as competitive. …
… For inasmuch as the priorities and organization of epic songs reflect larger cultural preoccupations and values, poetry and poet simultaneously serve as a central means not only of preserving and reproducing these values, but of reformulating and rethinking them as well. It is from this perspective that we must view the Odyssey’s confrontation of Achilles and the tradition promoting him. [18]
But poets’ efforts to differentiate the ideals and outlooks of the Homeric epics may have been cooperative, not competitive. Certainly, in the case of the epics’ central ideal, kléos, epic audiences have benefited from having available “two exemplary extremes in conceiving [thei]r relationship with life and death and accordingly two different ways of writing and circumventing [thei]r anxiety about death.” [19] The authors of the Iliad and of the Odyssey, then, may have strived to provide alternative models of kléos between which their audiences could choose: one model affirming such glory so fervently that its destructive achievement is expressed as a kind of easy creativity, but the other model interrogating such fame so intently that its productive attainment is threatened continually by ruin. Perhaps, in order to cover both poles of human experience (and thus everything in between them), these epic poets actually agreed to make their respective protagonists, Achilles and Odysseus, disagree. [20]
Like the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata have been described as being “complementary,” but have been recognized primarily for their disparities rather than for their interrelationship. Thus, the Rāmāyaṇa is ascribed to a “ ‘poetics of perfection,’ ” which populates the poem with exemplary players who, through their unwavering actions and interactions, reach the aesthetic acme of the “lyrical universe” that they inhabit. By contrast, the Mahābhārata is attributed to a “ ‘poetics of dilemma,’ ” which recreates the actual world with imperfect actors who struggle to find their rightful places in a show stalled by indecision and stolen by ruin. [21]
Onto this perfection/dilemma dichotomy, Shulman maps a breach between the idealistic Rāmāyaṇa and the realistic Mahābhārata. As a kāvya (or sung poem), the Rāmāyaṇa “achieves a perfection of form in the telling” and correspondingly portrays “cultural ideals in the near stillness of their presumed perfection.” Yet, the mythic history (or itihāsa) of the Mahābhārata operates as a “vehicle of … ‘realistic’ insight” that has a “structure of ongoing dilemmas … that is amazingly supple and absorptive, to the point where the world itself is seen as held within this frame.” [22] Similarly, historian of religions Gregory D. Alles differentiates from the Rāmāyaṇa “the other great Indian epic, the Mahābhārata, renowned for ‘telling it like it is,’ not as it ought to be.” [23]
But both the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata may be understood as being idealistic rather than realistic. Both works are the spheres of “idealized” [24] heroes who demonstrate the ideal of dharma. Yet, even though dharma is the focus of both the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, poems that expanded at about the same time, they treat this ideal differently. Whereas the Rāmāyaṇa “affirm[s] … the centrality of dharma to all right endeavor,” the Mahābhārata “explores the problems of acting in accordance with dharma” and thus displays “the questioning of dharma by those who are obliged to uphold it.” [25] In depicting dharma, then, the Rāmāyaṇa is an affirmative epic, [26] while the Mahābhārata is an interrogative one. As the epics together present their audiences with alternative approaches to dharma, the poems’ “complementarity” is not simply “contrastive,” [27] but additionally collaborative.
The Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata—in their different, though complementary, approaches to inculcating dharma—resemble the Iliad and the Odyssey, works that together affirm and interrogate kléos in a continuing effort to impress this ideal’s importance upon the minds of their attenders. The influences that the four epics have had on individuals open to the poems’ cultural instructions can be comprehended by recourse to modern theories of self and social psychology.

The self and social psychologies of affirmative and interrogative epics

One way to assess the influences of the epics as religious instructors is to study the texts and practices of the communities in which the epics arose and persisted. But such sociological analysis constitutes only one of several stories that interpreters of the epics can tell about their educational role. My own account will center on the ways in which individuals who turned to the religious teachings of the epics interacted implicitly with these texts. Because I am interested in a set of psychological processes that are not attested outside of the epics themselves, my exegetical tale is, by necessity, hypothetical. Even so, this tale can explain in part the patent popularity and persistence of the ancient poems at this tale’s heart, much as contemporary fiction can shed light on the actual human condition.
At the core of my interpretative story, I contend that the epics’ heroes show, by their own example, how the epics’ audiences took to heart and put into practice these texts’ religious instructions. To actualize the religious ideals of the epics, the heroes first heed traditional tales whose protagonists demonstrate the epics’ ideals, tales that the heroes themselves tell (as in the case of the Greek epics) or that other displaced rulers tell (as in the case of the Sanskrit epics). Then the heroes follow in the footsteps of the tales’ protagonists.
These acts of internalization and imitation [28] can be understood better by referring to modern self- and social-psychological theories—specifically, the life-story metaphor of identity psychologist Dan P. McAdams and the mastery and coping models of behavior therapist Donald H. Meichenbaum. [29]
The first of these frameworks focuses on the formation of the self. McAdams equates identity with a “life story,” a “personal myth” that an individual invents over the course of his late adolescence and adulthood so as to make sense of the events of his past, present, and future. Although this narrative is inside him, it incorporates elements from his social environment. Among these elements are the stories that he hears being passed down as part of his cultural tradition. [30]
To any extent that internalization occurs—that is, to any extent that a person integrates outside stories into the life story of his identity—this process promises that he will enact the external tales that he has made his own. More specifically, the life story that he has created from the substance of the tales that he has heard serves as a script for his future action. He thus “live[s] according to [the] narrative assumptions” of this personal myth. [31] Because the myth is made from the accounts that his society has made available to him, “to live the myth [in the aforementioned manner] is [both] to connect to the grand narratives of [his] social world” and, by realizing them in some way, to contribute to the actual world from which these narratives emerge. [32]
If the internalization of traditional tales has real-world influence—that is, if certain of their components are assembled into a life story whose creator can actualize them—then the content of this life story is crucial. The most important impulses behind a personal myth’s plot are the need for “power,” an urge to obtain authority over one’s environment, and the need for “intimacy,” a desire for close interpersonal interaction. These two motives manifest and absent themselves most overtly in what are, for better or for worse, the myth’s most emotionally intense episodes, its “peak and nadir experiences.” [33]
To imagine how these narrative highs and lows affect their authors’ communities in the manner in which McAdams implies, I turn to Meichenbaum’s models of mastery and coping. In advancing these models, Meichenbaum, like the social psychologist Albert Bandura before him, assumes that observers imitate more easily models who seem to be like them. [34] So those who hear a person relating his peak or nadir experiences, and who find that these experiences resemble their own, are more likely to imitate his subsequent actions.
Those audience members who identify most closely with and mirror a person who achieves his aims easily, a “mastery model,” probably are those people whose own lives have been eased by frequent peaks of pleasure. But those audience members who empathize most strongly with and emulate a person who attains his goals only by struggling, a “coping model,” probably are those people whose lives often have descended to nadirs of misery. Yet the memberships of these two groups may be identical, given that all human beings are likely to live through both highs and lows. The same people, depending on their moods, may respond to mastery models at certain times and to coping models at other times.
In any case, combining McAdams’ metaphor and Meichenbaum’s models illuminates both the influences that a mythical character can have on an individual and the influences that this individual in turn can have on those who hear the life story that he has put together, in part from the myths that he has heard. This influence chain itself has been depicted in the Greek and Sanskrit epics. In each of these four epics, a displaced ruler hears a myth that he himself (or his proxy) learns to tell and that he enacts eventually as an exemplar for others. Yet the emphases that each of the two epic pairs places on the processes of internalization and imitation depend on the pair’s particular religious ideal.
The Iliad and Odyssey accent the ability of their heroes to perform poetry themselves because Greek epic verse consists in, and thus preserves, the ideal that allays anxiety about an uncertain afterlife, namely, kléos. Accordingly, the Greek epics stress their successful protagonists’ identification with the poets who would celebrate them. Especially important in the Iliad and Odyssey, then, is internalization, the operation whereby the epics’ heroes anticipate their own poetic immortalization. Only by performing poems on their own, in the manner of traditional poets, can these heroes provide themselves with the proper scripts to perform unforgettably up to their potential as heroes and thus to take their rightful places on their culture’s stage of commemorated players.
By contrast, the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata highlight heroes who hear poems from other displaced rulers because the Sanskrit epics teach their ideal of dharma by example. Hence these works’ heroes not only hear about exemplarily righteous rulers, but also hear from monarchs who embody the hard choices that doing right requires in an age of increasing immorality. Because the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata underscore rightdoing, these poems spotlight their heroes’ imitation of dharmic paragons, rather than the heroes’ internalization of admirable episodes (which presumably precedes the heroes’ good deeds).
Although the Greek and Sanskrit epics, in accordance with their respective religious ideals, accentuate internalization and imitation differently, the epic pairs adopt analogous approaches to instill those ideals. In each pair, one epic features a hero who tells or hears a triumphal tale punctuated by peak experiences and who, by enacting this story, acts as a mastery model for the audience of the epic. The epic affirms its core ideal by exhibiting the ease with which this ideal is achieved to peak perfection both in the epic’s embedded tale and in the epic’s main story. But the poem with which this affirmative epic is partnered interrogates the same ideal. The interrogative epic focuses on a hero who relates or listens to melancholy accounts laden with nadir experiences and who, like the plaintive protagonist of the encapsulated narratives, attains his ideal with a great deal of difficulty. Consequently, he serves as a coping model for the epic’s audience.
The heroes of the affirmative and interrogative epics serve as such different exemplars by virtue of having internalized differently the tales of their traditions. Achilles and Odysseus, for instance, both surely have attended to the kléa andrō̂n since childhood, but have drawn from these glorious deeds of men distinctively while crafting personal myths.
By the time that Achilles—sitting in the camp that his countrymen have pitched before battling the Trojans—takes up the lyre that he has looted from Thebe, he sings of the famous acts of his antecedents, even as he is poised to procure similar glory for himself (Iliad 9.185–189). Although the Iliad does not specify about whom Achilles is singing, its classification of his song among the kléa andrō̂n—the designation that this epic, like the Odyssey, employs implicitly for itself (Iliad 9.519–526, Odyssey 8.72–78)—suggests that Achilles is singing his own life story in advance of its celebrated completion. His story has little suspense even when he is absent from the Trojan War, for, during this nonfighting phase, Achilles cannot help but set in motion the divine machinery that fixes his own future fame. He asks Thetis to ask Zeus to help the Trojans so that Agamemnon will suffer enough losses to be punished for dishonoring Achilles, who has left the fray in protest. Moreover, even before Patroclus’ death draws Achilles back into battle to slay Hector and other Trojans soon before dying himself—and to obtain everlasting fame as a result—Phoenix foresees the Phthian king’s glorious trajectory, comparing Achilles to men who have been immortalized in past poems (Iliad 1.407–412, 335–344; 18.114–116; 9.412–413, 519–526). Hence, Achilles articulates at Troy a life story that probably consists of peak experiences and, in its emphasis on glory, corresponds to the full actualization of destructive power that Achilles himself is destined to accomplish there.
But the internalization of kléa does not appear to come nearly so easily to Odysseus, for—unlike Achilles—Odysseus does not overtly incorporate earlier glories into his own stories. Even though he has heard his own wartime exploits sung by Demodocus, Odysseus dwells on his defeats as he looks back on his life and tells of having hit rock bottom repeatedly, dogged by nadir experiences at almost every one of his many turns. At this lowly position, the Ithacan laments his lost opportunities to exert authority over his subjects and to enjoy intimacy with his loved ones. Yet, his strategic performances of such harrowing stories are the means by which the hero will be restored to royal power and close associations atop his society. He acquires the economic resources requisite to this reascent by sharing narratively with generous Phaeacians not only past sorrows, but also happy prospects guaranteed by Theban Teiresias. And Odysseus lives up to Teiresias’ prophecy by ascertaining poetically the sympathies of his Ithacan herdsman and queen, telling each of the two a tale that is false on its distorted face, but true to Odysseus’ sincere intent to reconnect with the people who have made—and who will make—his productive rule possible (Odyssey 8.73–74, 511–515; 9.1–12.453; 14.191–359; 19.164–202, 220–248, 268–299). [35]
A similar difference in internalization is at work in the Sanskrit epics. On their surface, the poems portray their heroes hearing traditional tales being told by bardic monarchs. Whereas Rāma listens to the Rāmāyaṇa recited by Kuśa and Lava, Yudhiṣṭhira hears Nala’s narratives secondhand (or second-ear) (Rāmāyaṇa 1.5.1–7.100.25; Mahābhārata 3.64.9–19, 3.68.8–11, 3.72.25–28). On closer inspection, these accounts that the epics embed reveal themselves as the life stories that Rāma and Yudhiṣṭhira would tell, were the sovereigns too to take poetic turns. This symbolic significance of the encapsulated tales is brought out by their royal tellers’ close resemblances to the epics’ heroes. Kuśa and Lava look just like Rāma, and the tale that the twins tell is the story of their father’s life. Although the Ayodhyan king and princes have more in common than do Yudhiṣṭhira and Nala, the Niṣadhan monarch’s circumstances are much the same as those of his Indraprasthan counterpart. [36] Consequently, the sorrow and shame that Nala expresses in his accounts are shared by Yudhiṣṭhira and probably would color any story that Yudhiṣṭhira would tell about his own life.
At the same time that the Sanskrit epics portray internalization, the poems’ distinct depictions of this process imply that it comes more easily to some characters than to others. Rāma, for instance, hears a dharma-affirming account directly from its princely performers. Their physical similarity to him, as well as the fact that they actually are recounting a story about him, suggests that he could take over for them and render his life story readily—a fitting outcome for a ruler to whom righteousness is always apparent. In contrast, Yudhiṣṭhira listens only indirectly when a bardic king laments losses that interrogate whether dharma can be attained at all. Yudhiṣṭhira’s lack of a blood relationship to this ruler, Nala, and Yudhiṣṭhira’s distance from Nala’s life (which is described to Yudhiṣṭhira by an intermediary, Bṛhadaśva, rather than by Nala himself) would limit Yudhiṣṭhira’s ability to reproduce Nala’s poems as his own—an appropriate problem on the part of a King Dharma who is unsure of how to act rightly.
While peak and nadir experiences alike appear in the royal poems that represent Rāma’s and Yudhiṣṭhira’s life stories, the experiences are distributed differently in these personal myths, which accordingly paint strikingly different portraits of the monarchs at the myths’ centers. Rāma, according to Kuśa and Lava’s Rāmāyaṇa recitation, suffers greatly when he is separated from Sītā through her abduction and interment. Even so, Rāma’s is much less a tale of lost intimacy than of power won, as his sovereign success attests. By contrast, the Yudhiṣṭhira seen in the shadows of Nala’s woeful tales has cause to lament the losses of his own land and family, even as he remains their ruler. The limited power in Yudhiṣṭhira’s possession does little to offset his lost opportunities for intimacy.
In comparison with Odysseus and Yudhiṣṭhira, Achilles and Rāma internalize their respective societies’ stories of glory and morality more readily because the affirmative Iliad and Rāmāyaṇa offer a different type of exemplar than the interrogative Odyssey and Mahābhārata do. Both Achilles and Rāma masterly model their religious ideals. Achilles, in effect, recites his fated fame as though it has long been a part of his society’s poetic repertoire. And Rama hears a tale about how he himself has done and will do right decisively, an account that represents the ease with which he will put into practice what he has heard and thus will imitate the king whom Kuśa and Lava limn. Odysseus and Yudhiṣṭhira, however, cope with adversity as they struggle to model kléos and dharma, respectively. Odysseus can realize his renown only after his narratives have moved Alcinous, Eumaeus, and Penelope to aid him in his effort to regain his throne. And Yudhiṣṭhira—after hearing the abbreviated narratives in which long-gone Nala questions whether he himself can do right by his kingdom and queen—treks uphill to heaven, while accompanied not just by Dharma but also by self-doubt.
By presenting these mastery and coping models simultaneously, the affirmative and interrogative epics increase the appeal of their ideals to their audiences, whose differential abilities to realize glory and to realize righteousness are implied by the disparities between the Greek paragons and between the Indian ones. While Achilles and Rāma demonstrate the mastery with which kléos and dharma may be achieved, Odysseus and Yudhiṣṭhira cope with the difficulties in the attainment of these ideals. Taking clear and occluded paths to reach their ideals, the affirmative and interrogative heroes allow contrasting kinds of audience members—those to whom the ideals come readily and those for whom the ideals are hard won—to follow in the footsteps of the corresponding heroes and to apply the lessons of their lives.
The effectiveness of the affirmative and interrogative epics as instructors explains their persistence and prominence now as in the past. These poems transcend the times and places of their makings, by meeting religious needs that human beings still have today. Whenever they encounter the epics, audiences can find existential comfort as their heroes counter by kléos the uncertainty that death threatens and defeat by dharma the forces of increasing immorality, whether these exemplars achieve their ideals easily or not. And audience members, by internalizing the stories of these rulers and by imitating their endeavors to some extent, can incorporate into their own identities those ancient narratives and paragons.


[ back ] 1. A. Fowler 1982:256.
[ back ] 2. A. Fowler 1982:51, 38.
[ back ] 3. Chadwick and Chadwick 1932–1940, vol. 2:472. In regard to Odyssey 9–12, Hainsworth (1991:67) similarly argues: “[T]hese books have little to do with heroic epic. Blown past Cape Malea, Odysseus sailed into a world of fantasy: the Lotus-Eaters, who lived in blissful oblivion; the Cyclops; the island of Aeolus, god of the winds, and his family of incestuous children; the cannibal Laestrygonians; the witch Circe; the land of the dead; then the Sirens, Charybdis, the Cattle of the Sun, and, for a touch of realism, the final shipwreck.”
[ back ] 4. Chadwick and Chadwick 1932–1940, vol. 3:878–879.
[ back ] 5. Bowra 1952:543, 548–549.
[ back ] 6. Bowra 1952:v.
[ back ] 7. Hainsworth 1991:35.
[ back ] 8. Buitenen 1974:70, 54.
[ back ] 9. Quint 1993:9.
[ back ] 10. Pollock 1991:11.
[ back ] 11. Todorov 1977:236, 237.
[ back ] 12. Miner 1990:237; Lloyd 1966:172.
[ back ] 13. In advocating that comparativists combine these top-down and bottom-up procedures in their studies, I differ from Freidenreich (2004:90), who presents these approaches as separate methods.
[ back ] 14. According to historian of religions William E. Paden (2000:190), reflexivity comprises “self-awareness of the role of the comparativist as enculturated, classifying, and purposive subject (which does not mean that patterns are fictions without substance); a cleaner [sic] sense of the process and practice of selectivity; an exploratory and multileveled rather than hegemonic sense of the pursuit of knowledge; the need for ongoing category critique; and the production of new or revisionary thematic collocations.”
[ back ] 15. Doniger 1998:60.
[ back ] 16. Stanford 1963:26; Finley 1978:54; Nagy 1999:21; Mueller 1984:180–181; Beye 1993:33; Rutherford 2001:118; Felson and Slatkin 2004:103.
[ back ] 17. Rutherford 2001:144.
[ back ] 18. A. T. Edwards 1985:92, 93.
[ back ] 19. Pucci 1987:173.
[ back ] 20. Earlier versions of the following three paragraphs have appeared in Pathak 2006:141–142.
[ back ] 21. Shulman 2001:22, 24, 31, 36, 37, 26.
[ back ] 22. Shulman 2001:22, 39, 26, 28.
[ back ] 23. Alles 1994:71.
[ back ] 24. Sutherland 1989:77, 72.
[ back ] 25. Brockington 2004:656, 1998:242; Bailey 1983:124.
[ back ] 26. In its later retellings, however, the Rāmāyaṇa comes to question Rāma’s dharma, as the contributors to three edited collections have shown (Richman 1991, 2001; Bose 2004).
[ back ] 27. Shulman 2001:39.
[ back ] 28. In positing these processes of internalization and imitation, I elaborate on the events that religion scholar Arti Dhand (2002:360) describes as she identifies the Sanskrit epics as aids to moral development: “Ultimately, one aspires not simply to emulation of epic characters, but to an active re-creation or grafting of the epic narrative onto one’s own individual life.”
[ back ] 29. Earlier versions of the following three paragraphs have appeared in Pathak 2006:145, 146.
[ back ] 30. McAdams 1985:v, 17–19, 25, 29, 120, 252; 1993:5, 11–12, 232, 94–95, 265, 268–269, 13.
[ back ] 31. McAdams 1985:v.
[ back ] 32. McAdams 1993:265, 37.
[ back ] 33. McAdams 1985:62, 77, 83–84, 136–137, 161–162. McAdams’ notions of peak and nadir experiences derive from the ideas of humanistic psychologist Abraham H. Maslow (1959; 1968:84n1, 103–114) and of psychiatrist and clinical psychologist Frederick C. Thorne (1963).
[ back ] 34. Meichenbaum 1971:298; Bandura 1969:171.
[ back ] 35. Earlier versions of the following three paragraphs have appeared in Pathak 2006:145–146, 146.
[ back ] 36. While I have shown, in Chapter 4, how Nala’s narratives speak to Yudhiṣṭhira’s ultimate situation, a number of other parallels between Nala’s and Yudhiṣṭhira’s experiences have been pointed out by Indologist Madeleine Biardeau (1984, 1985), Shulman (2001:131–158), and Hiltebeitel (2001:215–239).