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54: Parallels from Ancient Lives - a Thought Experiment with Hindu and Roman Mythology

Reading Thomas Bulfinch ('The Age of Fables', 'The Age of Chivalry',  'Legends of Charlemagne') is like getting a first-hand lessons from the master storyteller. His prose flows like poetry, and one is quickly lost in the fantastic realms of ancient worlds. This time while reading though, interestingly, I found myself getting reminded of some of the incidents and people from Hindu myths.

Make no mistake. These two bodies of work cannot truly be compared. The religions of Roman gods (and their predecessors the Greek gods) are long gone, and there are no worshipers or followers left. While the Hindu gods and goddesses continue to have a following among a billion Hindus and several million Buddhists (to an extent) across the world. The characters, the stories, the drama - the times, the motivations, the culture and the civilization - all are quite, quite apart.

But it is interesting to see parallels in unexpected places while reading these works of ancient poets across the two civilizations. And I don't mean the very obvious, in-your-face type things - like both Jupiter (Zeus) and Indra being thunder-wielding, over-sexed, chauvinistic, kings of gods; or the myth of a worldwide flood and deluge (which is common to almost all mythologies across the world); or Mars (Ares) and Skanda (Kartiyeka) being both gods of war.

The gods of Roman (and Greek) mythology behave in a certain character, much like the older Vedic gods of Hindu myths. Zeus keeps finding new dames to frolic with, sometimes taking the form of the woman's lover (Amphitryon) to seduce the woman (Alcmene, the mother of Hercules) - much like in Hindu myths, Indra deceives Ahilya by taking the sage Gautama's form and seduces her. Another example is that of Minerva (Pallas Athena), who keeps helping her favorite heroes like Ulysses by giving them advice of strategic importance in Iliad, much like Krishna advising Yudhishthira and Arjuna in Mahabharata. The similarities from the childhood of Hercules and Krishna are well known too. You get the drift.

All this is much discussed and debated over the years by older mythologists, and yet younger mythologists get super excited with these connections and keep discussing and debating over the years till they turn into older mythologists (yes yes, I plagiarize. Douglas Adams wouldn't mind).

But considering that these two are among the most ancient civilizations that have survived in parts, and have handed their knowledge and wisdom generation over generations till it has reached us, it is actually amazing how little is this overlap. Look around us today, and all we see is an amalgamation of thought, music, art, literature, cinema across countries and people. So these broad similarities are actually rather tedious. And I don't intend to read much into them - certainly not what influenced what.

But what is interesting to me, is the parallels that I find in the 'subtle'. In the characters. In some dramatic moments. In the dangers people faced and feared, and the decisions they took. It is like having a large bowl of Italian zuppa full of veggies and herbs and broth, and suddenly discovering that the pepper in it tastes just like the one from Kerala.

So here are 7 random findings, in no particular order, dedicated to this comparison of events and people in Roman (mostly, also some Greek) and Hindu myths:

1. Achilles and Arjuna both dress as women

In Iliad, when Thetis (Achilles' mother) knows the fate of her son - that he will die in the Trojan War, she devices a plan so that her son does not go to war. Achilles is made to dress as a woman to avoid being recognized, and Thetis then sends him to court of King Lycomedes to hide among the maidens. He is discovered by Ulysses due to his interest in weapons and arms, and is recruited for war. - In Mahabharata, Arjuna hides in the court of King Virata as a eunuch dressed as a woman during the time of Adnyatvaas (last year of hiding).

2. The gods have their impostors

Salmoneus, presumed to vie with Jupiter, builds a bridge of brass over which he drives his chariot that the sound might resemble thunder in the sky, launching flaming brands at his people in imitation of lightning, till Jupiter strikes him with a "real" thunderbolt, and teaches him the difference between mortal weapons and divine. - Krishna has to fight his impostor Paundreya Vasudeva, who would dress like Krishna, complete with a peacock feather in his headgear and a chakra in his hand, and who would go around calling himself "Vasudeva"; until Krishna strikes him down with his Sudarshan Chakra.

3. In war, Heroes quarrel for silly reasons

At the start of Iliad, Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel for a frivolous reason in spite of coming to a war that they are supposed to fight together. Achilles withdraws and says he will return to Greece, resulting in a huge loss of morale in the Greeks, prolonging the war for 9 to 10 years. - In Mahabharata war, on the evening before the battle, Karna and Bhishma quarrel about who should lead the army. They bad-mouth each other for some frivolous reasons. So much is Karna's anger in this that he withdraws from the battle saying he will not fight till the old man is dead, knowing fully that Duryodhan relied on him the most for his victory, and thus lets the war prolong for 10 painful days. (in myths, days and years have to be taken with a lot of latitude!)

4. Two valiant warriors descend from their chariots to one's fatal end

Again in Iliad, while Achilles is sulking, his older friend Patroclus wears his armor and rallies the Greeks against the Trojans. Hector, the greatest warrior from Trojan side meets him, and they fight while in their chariots. But then Hector jumps down to rescue his charioteer Cebriones who gets wounded, and Patroclus also descends to meet his foe on ground. The final battle is hand to hand, on ground, away from both the chariots. Hector finally wounds Patroclus fatally with his spear. - This description of battle is rather similar to Shalya and Yudhishthir fighting on the 18th day of the Mahabharata war, after descending from their respective chariots, and Shalya is finally killed by Yudhishthir with ... wait for it ... a spear!

5. A decisive dual is fought with the fervor of righteous retribution

In Aeneid, The final conflict between Aeneas and Turnus, king of the Rutulians, reads just like that between Arjuna and Karna, and the final blow is as personal as it can get. Turnus avoids the contest with Aeneas as long as he could, just like Karna avoiding Arjuna. But at the time of the battle, the gods leave him, like Karna forgetting his mantras at the end. Juno, who favors him, is forbidden by Jupiter to assist Turnus. Turnus begs for mercy to Aeneas, like Karna does to Arjuna once his chariot wheel gets stuck in the mud.

Aeneas would have conceded when Turnus pleaded, but sees the shiny belt of Pallas (Aeneas' allay) that Turnus is wearing at the decisive moment. This is the belt Turnus had taken after he slew him in an unequal match earlier in the battle. The sight of the belt turns Aeneas's mind away from mercy and in rage he kills Turnus, saying "Pallas immolates thee with this blow". Similarly, in Mahabharata, Arjuna is coaxed by Krishna at the decisive moment of the battle with Karna, by reminding him how Karna was one of the six people responsible for his son Abhimanyu's unjust death a few days ago. This cements Arjuna's resolve and he takes the life of his nemesis Karna - who is like Turnus, pleading for mercy - without remorse or doubt.

6. A river assists in transporting an infant

Camilla, warrior princess who fought with Aeneas later in her life, has an escape across a river as an infant. Her father, Metabus, carries infant Camilla and in his flight from his enemies reaches the bank of river Amazenus (modern day Amazon). It is swelled by rain. Metabus preys to goddess Diana and crosses the river, with the infant on his head, unharmed. - In Harivansh, Vasudeva carries the infant Krishna on his head, across a swelled Yamuna river, in the middle of night, without harm and away from his enemy Kansa.

7. A goddess turns to a mare, and a god to a horse to follow her

In an archaic myth, Neptune (Poseidon) pursued Demeter (Ceres). She turned herself into a mare and hide in a herd of horses owned by King Onkios. Neptune disguised himself as a stallion and followed her and courted her. - In Vishnu Purana, Surya, the god of Sun married Sangna, daughter of Tvastr (Vishvakarma). As Surya was too bright, his wife could not bear the intense light and heat, she fled into a forest. She transformed herself into a mare to avoid being recognized. But Surya soon discovered her and he also went to the same forest disguised as a horse. Sangna gave birth to several children, and eventually reunited with her husband. (See here for the full story).

There you go.

Just for completeness sake, here are some rather generic and somewhat well-known comparisons:

8. Jupiter (Zeus) wields thunderbolts, so does Indra. Jupiter's wife Juno (Hera) and Indra's wife Sachi are both jealous of their husbands' paramours and love interests and exploits.

9. The Roman Metempsychosis, covered at length by Virgil in the Aeneid, and the Hindu theory of Rebirth is almost identical.

10. Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha (fire?) survive Jupiter's flood drowns the rest of the world. They take refuge atop mount Parnassus. Identical to the Hindu myth of Manu taking refuge with his wife and family atop mount Meru.

11. Connection of horse with the ocean. Neptune (Poseidon) produced the Horse (Pegasus in some myths, unnamed in others) as a useful gift for mortals. In Hindu myths, Ucchaishrava the celestial white horse came out of samudra-manthan (churning of the ocean).

- Peace
19 Nov 2016


zap said…
Some of these I had no idea of, so thank you. But this made me think mostly of Alexander the Macedonian and his role as the first great (european) conqueror. There is a school of history that attributes a lot of Indian culture, math and science to Alexander beating Porus; that being the floodgate to India getting its ideas from.
It will be excellent for someone to truly look at what happened when Alexander met Porus in battle. I believe that the historical inaccuracy in portraying young Alex as the winner of that battle will be corrected within our lifetime.
Finally, I had read this piece before you reminded me on FB. Just hadn't left a comment:)
No one knows what truly happened. Again, like I mentioned in the post, I have no intention to claim that one influenced the other. It is just an interesting thought experiment to see how many such parallels exist between two seemly distinct cultures and civilizations, separated by time and distance. But thanks for writing in. That way I know at least some people are reading my blog :)