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The Sanskrit Epics' Representation of Vedic Myths

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Item Code: IDD984
Author: Danielle Feller
Language: English
Edition: 2004
ISBN: 9788120820081
Pages: 383
Other Details 9.0" X 6.0"
Weight 520 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

This book studies several mythical motifs, found in the Veda (especially in the Rgveda) on the one hand and in one or both Sanskrit epics on the other: Agni's hiding, the theft of the Soma, Indra's rape of Ahalya, Upamanyu's salvation by the Asvins, and finally the representation of the Great War of the Mahabharata as a sacrifice. While it is often said that the subsequent Indian literature only paid "lip-service" to the Vedas without really knowing and even less understanding these texts, the present study not only shows that many Vedic myths are still kept alive in the Epics, but more importantly that their deep underlying meaning was perfectly understood by the epic mythmakers, and reactualized to fit the changed religious conditions of epic times.

About the Author:

Danielle Feller was born in Switzerland in 1965. She studied Sanskrit at the Universities of Lausanne, Switzerland and then Pune, India. She now teaches Indian Religions and Sanskrit at the University of Lausanne. The present book is the outcome of her doctoral dissertation, defended in Lausanne in 2001.


As the title of this study, "The Sanskrit Epics' Representation of Vedic Myths", suggests, my aim is to examine the way in which certain myths which first appear (as far as India is concerned) in the Vedas, and more specifically in the Rgveda, are retold in the Sanskrit Epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and to examine in what way the Epics re-use the mythological material earlier used in the Vedas. Before proceeding any further, I shall first give a brief summary of the nature, contents and dates of the texts mentioned above. T he texts The oldest stratum of Sanskrit literature is called the Veda, a term which (originally at least) was roughly synonymous with mantra or brahman and meant ‘sacred utterance’. The Veda is also called the sruti ‘that which has been. heard’, or the ‘revelation’, and is, according to the later Indian tradition - especially according to the Mimamsa, a school of Vedic exegesis -- eternal and authorless, and was a‘revea1ed’ to the Vedic rsis or seers. The Veda is divided into several layers of texts: first come the Samhitas or ‘collections’. There are four Samhitas: the oldest is the Rgveda Samhita, or the ‘collection of verses’, (dated circa 1500-1000 B.C.E.), composed in ten mandalas or books. Out of these, the tenth mandala is usually considered to be younger than the rest of the collection. The Rgveda consists of hymns attributed to certain families of seers, mainly containing prayers and praise addressed to different gods. In these hymns, the poets frequently mention and describe the mythical deeds of these gods, The Rgveda Samhita is thus of paramount importance for our study. The Samaveda Samhita, or the ‘collection of melodies’, mainly consists of verses taken over from the Rgveda. But the Samaveda adds musical annotations to these verses, which were meant for the use of the udgatr-priest who had to sing these parts in the ritual. The Yajurveda Samhita, or the ‘collection of sacrificial formulae’, whose oldest text goes back to about 800 B.C.E., is not unitary, unlike the other collections. It is first subdivided into ‘white’ (sukla) and ‘black’ (krsna) Yajurveda, and consists of five texts, namely; the Vajasaneyi Samhita belonging to the White Yajurveda; and the Katha (or Kathaka) Samhita, the Kapisthala Katha Samhita, the Maitrayani Samhita and the Taittiriya Samhita belonging to the Black Yajurveda. Although these five Samhita are said to be recensions (sakhas), they are too different to go back to a single, original Ur-Yajurveda, or at least to allow such a text to be reconstructed. (See MYLIUS (1988:53). The Yajurveda Samhita, as its name shows, is mainly concerned with the sacrificial ritual. But, and this point is important for our study, it also narrates many myths, mainly in order to justify or explain certain aspects of the ritual. Finally, the Atharvaveda Samhita derives its name from the fire-priest Atharvan. According to MYLIUS (1988:32), it is as old as the tenth book of the Rgveda Samhita, but it was accepted as part of the Veda (which is often called the trayi vidya or ‘triple knowledge’) only late, and was never quite considered as the equal of the other Samhitas. This Samhita consists for the greatest part of magical formulae or charms, and is of little relevance for the solemn ritual. It contains some speculative hymns, but, as GONDA (1975:294) remarks: "These poets are [...] less inclined to make the traditional mythological figures an element of their speculations.”

The remaining Vedic texts are necessarily attached to one of the four Samhitas. We can distinguish several different groups of texts, which were roughly composed in the following) chronological order, though there are some overlaps: the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, the Upanisads and the Vedangas. The Brahmanas are prose compositions mainly dealing with the sacrifice, composed for the Brahmins. By their subject-matter, they continue the line of the Yajurveda Samhita. They give precise descriptions and explanations of the sacrificial ritual, but also contain dogmatic commentaries, philosophical speculations, and are a real treasure-trove of legends and myths, a point which makes them highly relevant for our study. (See MYLIUS (1998:63). The Aranyakas derive their name from the term aranya, ‘forest’. They probably received this appellation due to the fact that, as secret texts, they had to be studied in the wilderness. MYLIUS (1988:72) notes that the Aranyakas still mainly concern the sacrificial ritual, but not in a concrete sense: they give the ritual a mystical-a1legorical interpretation leading to meta-ritualistic ideas. The Upanisads mark a break in the Vedic literature. While retaining a connection with the sacrifice, they are also philosophical texts, recording, for instance, the emergence of the theory of samsara (cyclical reincarnation), the identification of atman and brahman, etc. Finally, the Vedangas, or auxiliary texts of the Veda, contain treatises on the ritual, phonetics, grammar, etymology, metrics and astronomy. They are all composed in the very terse sutra-style. Of these, only the auxiliary texts concerning the ritual, or Kalpasutras (subdivided into srautasutras, concerning the solemn ritual, and grhyasutras, concerning the domestic ritual) are of some limited relevance for us. In the course of this study, and mainly for the sake of convenience, we shall principally distinguish between the Rgveda Samhita, due to its greater antiquity, and the rest of the Vedic texts, which will be grouped together under the denomination of ‘the later Veda’. As for the two Sanskrit Epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, let us first note that although we distinguish them by the appellation ‘Epics’, the Indian tradition itself does not generally consider that they belong to the same literary genre. The MBh is usually classified as itihasa (history), a genre to which also belong, most importantly, the Puranas, whereas the R is considered as a kavya, even as the adi-kavya, the ‘first poem’, because of its more refined form, and also because it marks the beginning of a long line of poetry. However, the tradition is not unanimous in this respect; the MBh sometimes refers to itself as kavya and the R is also classified by certain writers on alamkarasastra as itihasa. These two works, however, present enough overall similarities to justify their common designation as ‘Epics’. The MBh and the R are voluminous works: in their unabridged form, they contain respectively about l00'000 and 25'000 verses (slokas), somewhat less in the critical editions. Their dates are the subject of much dispute, and no real consensus has been reached on this score. The broad spectrum of dates which is often and for somewhat mysterious reasons given for these texts is 400 B.C.E. to 400 C.E., but this is valid only if we accept that they were composed in successive stage. Concerning the relative priority of these two texts, no consensus has been reached either, and it seems indeed that it is impossible to determine with any certainty which one of them is older. We shall therefore consider them to be roughly contemporary. The authorship of the MBh is attributed to the sage Krsna Dvaipayana, also called Vyasa, and that of the R to the sage Valmiki. Both authors appear as characters in their own works. The MBh is composed in l8 books (parvans), and describes the fratricidal war which opposes two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, who tight over the inheritance of the kingdom of Hastinapura. The R is composed in 7 books (kandas) and describes the exile of Rama, prince of Ayodhya, and his subsequent war with the demon Ravana who has kidnapped his wife Sita Apart from these central events, both Epics contain digressions on various topics. This trait is much more prominent in the MBh, which contains also much didactic material similar in content to that of treatises of law (dharmasastras), and less so in the R, where these digressions are limited to the first and last books.

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