(Last Updated on : 09/09/2014)
Brahmanical legends in Mahabharata
are to a large extent a result of the fact that the Brahmins took possession of the Mahabharata in its later stages. This is partly the reason why the old Indian bard-poetry has not been preserved in its pure originality. It is due to their later works and improvisations that we find the preservation in the Mahabharata not only of numerous myths of gods, and legends, important for the history of mythology and tradition, but also of some remarkable creations of Brahmanical poetic art and valuable specimens of Brahmanical wisdom.
There are a number of snake myths found in the Brahmanical myths and legends in Mahabharata. Interesting from the point of view of mythology and tradition is the frame-story of the Snake sacrifice of Janamejaya
, into which there is again interwoven a tangle of stories, snake-legends, myths of the bird Garuda
and others. With this legend of the snake-sacrifice, the ancient myth of Kadru
and Vinata, occurring already in Vedic texts, is combined. One more of the snake-legends interwoven into the frame-story deserves mentioning, namely the story of Ruru partly only a duplicate of the legend of the snake-sacrifice itself, for, like Janamejaya, Ruru, too, vows to annihilate all snakes.
The last mentioned brings to the front another category of stories in the Brahmanical myths and legends, namely stories of rejuvenation. Ruru, the hero of the legend, is a descendant of that Cyavana, of whom it is already related in the Rig Veda
, that the Asvins made him young again. The story of this rejuvenation is told in detail in the Brahmanas
, and a version of the legend is to be found in the Mahabharata too.
It is seen clearly, as in many other cases that the Brahmanical poetry which is contained in the epic, represents a much later phase of development than that of Vedic literature
. The characteristic of this later Brahmanical poetry, however, is exaggeration lack of moderation in general, and especially immoderate exaltation of the saints- Brahmins and ascetics- over the gods. In fact, even in the actual Indra myths connected with the Vedic legends of the gods, Indra is no longer the mighty champion and conqueror of demons, as he was known in the hymns of Rig Veda
. It is true that the old legend of the battle between Indra and Vrtra survives, it is even related twice in considerable detail in the Mahabharata, but the main stress is laid upon the circumstance that Indra, by killing Vrtra, burdened himself with the guilt of Brahmin-murder. It is related in great detail how he first had to free himself from this terrible guilt, suffering many humiliations. Thus for the first time he is seen robbed of his heavenly throne, and Nahusa occupies his place. The belief that the supremacy of Indra may be shaken by the austerities of pious Brahmins is exemplified by numerous legends. It is even said that asceticism can compel Indra himself to enter the home of Lord Yama
(the god of death). And often indeed does Indra have recourse to the proved expedient of allowing beautiful Apsaras
to seduce a saint who, through his severe austerities, threatens to become dangerous to the gods.
Even Agni, the friend of Indra, has, in the myths of the Mahabharata, lost much of his old glory as a god. Yet the myths related of him are still connected with the Vedic ideas of fire and of the god of fire. Already in the Rig Veda he is called "the lover of maidens, the husband of women." But the Mahabharata tells of Agni's definite love affairs. Thus he once became enamoured of the beautiful daughter of King Mia, and the sacred fire in the king's palace would burn only if fanned by the beautiful lips and the sweet breath of the king's daughter. There was nothing for it but the king must give his daughter in marriage to Agni. In gratitude for this, the god grants him the favour that he may become invincible. The gluttony, too, of Agni, is already spoken of in the Veda. The legends of the Mahabharata relate, however, that in consequence of the Rishi Bhrigu
's curse he became an "eater of all things."
That Agni has several brothers and that he conceals himself in the water or in the friction-sticks, are also Vedic ideas, which already in the Brahmanas led to the formation of myths; but it is only in the Mahabharata that detailed stories are told about the reason why Agni hid himself, and how the gods found him again.
To the legends which are known already in the Veda
and which recur in the Mahabharata belongs also the flood-legend of Manu
and the fish. The narrative of the Mahabharata, the "fish episode," as it is called, differs from the legend as it is related in the Brahmana, in its greater detail and the poetical presentation, which is not lacking in poetic flights- as when it is described how the ship, "like a drunken wench," staggers to and fro on the agitated ocean. The conclusion of the legend in the Mahabharata differs from that in the Brahmana. In the epic the fish declares that he is the god Brahman, and invites Manu to create the world anew, which the latter does by means of undergoing severe austerities.
While the Agastya
-legends are intended to show the tremendous ascendancy of the Brahmanical saint over gods and men, there is also found in the Mahabharata also a whole cycle of legends, the heroes of which are the famous Rishis Vasistha and Visvamitra and in which, though in the end they also serve for the glorification of the Brahmins, there can still be perceived distinct traces of the struggle for supremacy between priests and warriors. The roots of these legends reach back far into the Vedic period
, and they recur in various versions also in the Ramayana
epic and in the Indian Puranas
While the literary value of this kind of Brahmanical legends cannot be disputed, there are also numerous stories in the Mahabharata which are invented purely for the purpose of glorification of the Brahmins or for the inculcation of the Brahmanical doctrine or other. For instance, there are found a number of tales of pupils who go to the utmost extremes in obedience towards their teacher, like Uddalaka Aruni, who is commissioned by his teacher to block a leaking dam, and does this, as no other way presents itself to him, with his own body. Or the story is told of a king who, as a punishment for having given a Brahmin's cow to someone else, was changed into a lizard. Other stories are intended to prove that there is no greater merit than giving cows to Brahmins. Such stories are frequent especially in the didactic sections and books (XII and-XIII). In these didactic portions of the Mahabharata we find finally also numerous frame-stories called Itihasas which serve only to introduce and give a certain form to the talks upon law, morality or philosophy.
Thus, discussed above is a brief glimpse into the nature, features and content of the Brahmanical myths and legends contained in the Mahabharata.