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the whole Mahābhārata by the whole Bhagavad Gītā The language community could certainly be con-
and the “didactic” was the very height of stratigraphic ceived from the most ancient times without racial
denial. Lévi also opposed the Holtzmanns, without unity or political unity, but not without a mini-
mentioning them, for the “laborious superstructures” mum of common civilization—and an intellectu-
that made Duryodhana the poem’s original hero. Rath- al, spiritual (that is, essentially religious) civiliza-
er, he says: “It is at once both simpler and more honest tion rather than a material one.14
to take the poem just as it is.”10
Evidence for comparison must come principally
Fig. 16: Sylvain Lévi. from the earliest texts in Indo-European languages.
Dumézil hypothesized that Indo-European peoples
Never mentioning “tribe,” Lévi repositioned caste carried with them a “trifunctional ideology”: in brief,
by introducing a third societal component of sect: and from the top down:
the Bhāgavatas. “Sect” offered some explanatory
power for the Gītā in the epic taken as a “whole.” 1. a sovereign sacerdotal and juridical function;
Lévi’s Mahābhārata is a post-Vedic “creation of
the Hindu genius”11 and a text that “seems with de- 2. a warrior function; and
liberate purpose to enter into competition with Bud-
dhism.”12 Through its originary vastness, narrative 3. an economic and fecundating function.
complexity, and its disciplinary code for Kṣatriyas,
Lévi makes his Mahābhārata comparable to the vast In his early work, he considered the three func-
Mūlasarvastivādin Vinaya. 13 tions to be inherently social, and for this he had debts
to Émile Durkheim and his school, which included
Georges Dumézil, who dedicated his first foray into Mauss.15 He of course had no difficulty in seeing In-
the Mahābhārata “á la mémoire de Sylvain Lévi …” dia, with its four castes or varṇas, as one society that
(1948), now raises old issues in a new way. For Du- from the late Veda on reflected the three functions—
mézil, the category of comparison of Indo-European by the addition of Śūdras at the bottom.16 But Dumézil
cultures and their migrations is not the tribe but a eventually sought to explain his work as an engage-
“community” of larger-than-tribal language groups: ment with the ésprit of texts.17 With that, “The prestige
of Indian varṇas thus found itself exorcised, and more
imagined problems disappeared.”18 Dumézil meant
that one could find traces of the tripartite ideology not
only in what Indo-European texts said about social
structure but in myths, rituals, laws, philosophies—
and, let me emphasize these last two: in histories that
were transposed from myth, and in epics.

It was in these latter two categories, but most ba-
sically as a transposition of myth, that Dumézil in-
terpreted the Mahābhārata. In 1947, Stig Wikander
discovered that the configuration of the five Pāṇḍavas
and Draupadī could be interpreted along Dumézilian
lines as a transposition of a trifunctional set of mainly
Vedic deities, and proposed this mythic explanation
as an advance over non-Aryan tribal explanations
of Draupadī’s polyandry, including the Holtzmanns’
inversion theory (1948, 38-41). Full of appreciation,
Dumézil translated Wikander’s article a year later. As
the son of the non-Vedic god Dharma, Yudhiṣṭhira
has juridical traits that Wikander associated with “the
concept of dharma, ‘the Mitra aspect’ (following Du-
mézil’s terminology)” (1948, 49); but Dumézil quickly
found rather unconvincing reasons why the Vedic “ju-
ridical sovereign” Mitra would have preceded Dharma
in the original conception.19 The next two brothers,

EXEMPLAR: THE JOURNAL OF SOUTH ASIAN STUDIES
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