c. 300 BCE-300 CE The Mahabharata is composed
c. 200 BCE-200 CE The Ramayana is composed
327-25 BCE Alexander the Great invades Northwest South Asia
c. 324 BCE Chandragupta founds the Mauryan dynasty
c. 265-232 BCE Ashoka reigns
c. 250 BCE The Third Buddhist Council takes place at Pataliputra
c. 185 BCE The Mauryan dynasty ends
c. 185 BCE Pushyamitra founds the Shunga dynasty
73 BCE The Shunga dynasty ends
c. 150 BCE The monuments of Bharhut and Sanchi are built
c. 166 BCE-78 CE Greeks and Scythians enter India
King Yudhishthira walked alone on the path to heaven, never
looking down. Only a dog followed him: the dog that I have already
told you about quite a lot. Then Indra, king of the gods, came to
Yudhishthira in his chariot and said to him, “Get in.” Yudhishthira
said, “This dog, O lord of the past and the future, has been constantly
devoted to me. Let him come with me; for I am determined not to
be cruel.” Indra said, “Today you have become immortal, like me,
and you have won complete prosperity, and great fame, your majesty,
as well as the joys of heaven. Leave the dog. There is nothing cruel in
that. There is no place for dog owners in the world of heaven; for
evil spirits carry off what has been offered, sacrificed or given as an
oblation into the fire, if it is left uncovered and a dog has looked at it.
Therefore you must leave this dog, and by leaving the dog, you will
win the world of the gods.”
Yudhishthira said, “People say that abandoning someone devoted to
you is a bottomless evil, equal—according to the general opinion—to
killing a Brahmin. I think so too.” When the god Dharma, who had
been there in the form of the dog, heard these words spoken by Yudhishthira,
the Dharma king, he appeared in his own form and spoke
to King Yudhishthira with affection and with gentle words of praise:
“Great king, you weep with all creatures. Because you turned down
the celestial chariot, by insisting, ‘This dog is devoted to me,’ there is
no one your equal in heaven and you have won the highest goal, of
going to heaven with your own body.”
Mahabharata, 300 BCE-300 CE (17.2.26, 17.3.1-21)
As the Hindu idea of nonviolence (ahimsa) that emerged from debates about eating and/or sacrificing animals was soon taken up in debates about warfare, the resulting arguments, which deeply color the narratives of the Mahabharata on all levels, were simultaneously about the treatment of animals, about the treatment of Pariahs symbolized by animals, and about human violence as an inevitable result of the fact that humans are animals and animals are violent. The connection between the historical figure of the Buddhist king Ashoka and the mythological figure of the Hindu king Yudhishthira, and their very similar attempts to mitigate, if not to abolish, violence, particularly violence against animals, are also at the heart of this chapter.
Ashoka claimed to have conquered most of India, though evidence suggests that he did not venture beyond southern Karnataka to attempt to conquer South India. But in the eighth year of his reign, he marched on Kalinga (the present Orissa) in a cruel campaign that makes Sherman’s march look like a children’s parade. Afterward he claimed to have been revolted by what he had done, and issued an edict that was carved into the surfaces of rock in several places in India (not including Kalinga, significantly). It is a most remarkable document, allowing us a glimpse into the mind—or, at least, the public mind— of a ruler who regrets what he regards as a major crime committed in the line of duty. This is how the edict begins:
ASHOKA ON THE ROAD FROM ORISSA
When he had been consecrated eight years, the Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadasi, conquered Kalinga. A hundred and fifty thousand people were deported, a hundred thousand were killed, and many times that number perished. Afterward, now that Kalinga was annexed, the Beloved of the Gods very earnestly practiced dhamma, desired dhamma and taught dhamma. On conquering Kalinga, the Beloved of the Gods felt remorse, for when an independent country is conquered, the slaughter, death, and deportation of the people are extremely grievous to the Beloved of the Gods and weigh heavily on his mind. What is even more deplorable to the Beloved of the Gods is that those who dwell there, whether Brahmanas, Shramanas, or those of other sects, or householders who show obedience to their superiors, obedience to mother and father, obedience to their teachers, and behave well and devotedly toward their friends, acquaintances, colleagues, relatives, slaves and servants—all suffer violence, murder, and separation from their loved ones. Even those who are fortunate to have escaped and whose love is undiminished suffer from the misfortunes of their friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and relatives. This participation of all men in suffering weighs heavily on the mind of the Beloved of the Gods.1
That Ashoka renounced war at this point is perhaps less impressive than it might seem, given that he now already had most of India under his control (or at least more than anyone else had ever had and apparently all that he wanted); he was locking the stable door after the horse was safely tethered in its stall. But his repentance did not mean that he had sworn off violence forever; in this same edict he warns “the forest tribes of his empire” that “he has power even in his remorse, and he asks them to repent, lest they be killed.” In another edict he refers, rather ominously, to “the unconquered peoples on my borders” (i.e., not conquered yet?) and acknowledges that they may wonder what he intends to do with/for/to them.2 He may have hung up his gun belt, but he still had it. What is most remarkable about the inscription about Kalinga, however, is its introspective and confessional tone, its frankness and sincerity, and the decision to carve it in rock—to make permanent, as it were, his realization that military conquest, indeed royal vainglory, was impermanent (anicca, in the Buddhist parlance). Here is evidence of an individual who took pains to see that future generations would remember him, and this is a new concept in ancient India.
The dhamma to which Ashoka refers in his edict is neither the Buddhist dhamma (the Pali word for the teachings of the Buddha in the oldest layer of Buddhist literature) nor Hindu dharma, nor any other particular religion or philosophical doctrine but is, rather, a broader code of behavior, one size fits all, that is implicit in the various good qualities of the people whom he itemizes here as those he regrets having killed, people who might be “Brahmanas, Shramanas [renouncers], or those of other sects.” That code of dhammaincluded honesty, truthfulness, compassion, obedience, mercy, benevolence, and considerate behavior toward all, “few faults and many good deeds” (or “little evil, much good”) as he summarized it.3 He urged people to curb their extravagance and acquisitiveness. He founded hospitals for humans and animals and supplied them with medicines; he planted roadside trees and mango groves, dug wells, and constructed watering sheds and rest houses. This idealistic empire was reflected in the perfect world of Rama’s Reign (Ram-raj) in the Ramayana.
Ashoka made his thoughts known by having them engraved on rocks and, later in his reign, on pillars. These edicts show a concern to conform to the local idiom and context. All in all, nineteen rock edicts and nine pillar edicts, written in the local script, are to be found scattered in more than thirty places throughout India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The sandstone for the highly polished pillars was quarried at Chunar near Varanasi (Kashi) and shows remarkable technological expertise; averaging between forty and fifty feet in height and weighing up to fifty tons each, the pillars were dragged hundreds of miles to the places where they were erected, all within the Ganges plain, the heart of the empire. Ashoka adapted older, existing pillars that symbolized the pillar that separates heaven and earth and were expressions of an ancient phallic worship of Indra.4 The lions (symbolizing the Buddha as the emperor) on the capitals of the pillars show Persian influence, for Iranian journeyman carvers came to Ashoka’s cosmopolitan empire in search of work after the fall of the Achaemenids. But the bulls and elephants are treated in an unmistakably Indian way,5 stunningly similar to some of the animals on the Indus seals; the horses too are carved in the distinctive Indian style. Thus the pillar combined, for the first time, the technique of representing animals in a uniquely naturalistic but stylized way that was perfected in 2000 BCE in the Indus Valley, and was the first representation of the horse, an animal that the Indus Valley artisans did not have. Indus form (the Indian style) expressed Indo-European content (the horse). (See the image on page 84.)
Ashoka cared deeply about animals and included them as a matter of course, along with humans, as the beneficiaries of his shade trees and watering places. In place of the royal tradition of touring his kingdom in a series of royal hunts, he inaugurated the tradition of royal pilgrimages to Buddhist shrines, thus substituting a Buddhist (and Hindu) virtue (pilgrimage) for a Hindu vice of addiction (hunting). In one bilingual rock inscription, the Aramaic version says, “Our Lord the king kills very few animals. Seeing this the rest of the people have also ceased from killing animals. Even the activity of those who catch fish has been prohibited.”6 Elsewhere Ashoka urges “abstention from killing and nonviolence [avihimsa] to living beings”7 and remarks that it is good not to kill living beings.8
But he never did discontinue capital punishment or torture or legislate against either the killing or the eating of all animals. This is what he said about his own diet: “Formerly, in the kitchens of the Beloved of the Gods, the king Piyadasi, many hundreds of thousands of living animals were killed daily for meat. But now, at the time of writing of this inscription on dhamma, only three animals are killed [daily], two peacocks and a deer, and the deer not invariably. Even these three animals will not be killed in future.”9Why go on killing these three? Perhaps because the emperor was fond of roasted peacock and venison.10 Perhaps he was trying to cut down on meat, the way some chain-smokers try to cut down on cigarettes. And his own particular dhamma became prototypical, since the people are to follow the king’s example; the implication was: “This is what I eat in my kitchen; you should eat like that too.” But his personal tastes cannot explain the other, longer list (rather approximate in translation, for some of the species are uncertain) of animals that the edicts “protected” from slaughter: parakeets, mynah birds, red-headed ducks, chakravaka geese, swans, pigeons, bats, ants, tortoises, boneless fish, skates, porcupines, squirrels, deer, lizards, cows, rhinoceroses, white pigeons, domestic pigeons, and all four-footed creatures that are neither useful nor edible. Also nanny goats, ewes, and sows lactating or with young, and kids, lambs, and piglets less than six months old. Cocks are not to be made into capons. One animal is not to be fed to another. On certain holy days, fish are not to be caught or sold; on other holy days, bulls, billy goats, rams, boars, and other animals that are usually castrated are not to be castrated; and on still others, horses and bullocks are not to be branded.11
What are we to make of these lists? Ashoka is hedging again. He recommends restraint of violence toward living beings in the same breath that he recommends the proper treatment of slaves,12 but evidently it is all right to kill some of the creatures some of the time. In particular, Ashoka allows for the slaughter of the pashus—male goats, sheep, and cattle, the animals most often used both for sacrifice and for food. There is no ecological agenda here for the conservation of wildlife, nor can the lists be explained by the privileging of certain animals for medicinal purposes. What there is is the expression of a man who finds himself between a rock edict and a hard place, a man who has concern for animals’ feelings (give them shade, don’t castrate them—sometimes) but recognizes that people do eat animals. It is a very limited sort of nonviolence, not unlike that of the Brahmana text that pointed out that eating animals is bad but then let you eat them in certain ways, instead of outlawing it entirely, as one might have expected. Ashoka is the man, after all, who gave up war only after he had conquered all North India.
His attitude to the varieties of religion was similarly politic. As a pluralistic king he had a social ethic that consisted primarily of inclusivity:13 “Whoever honors his own sect or disparages that of another man, wholly out of devotion to his own, with a view to showing it in a favorable light, harms his own sect even more seriously.”14 Not a word is said about Vedic religion or sacrifice, aside from the casual and entirely neutral references to Brahmanas (Brahmins) along with Shramanas, nor does Ashoka mention class or caste (varna or jati), aside from that reference to Brahmins. But he does not hesitate to criticize the more popular religion that was the livelihood of lower-class priests: “In illness, at the marriage of sons and daughters, at the birth of children, when going on a journey, on these and on similar occasions, people perform many ceremonies. Women especially perform a variety of ceremonies, which are trivial and useless. If such ceremonies must be performed, they have but small results.”15 Small-time superstition is foolish but harmless, he seems to be saying, with an incidental swipe at women. He approves of public religion, however, and expresses his pride in the increase in displays of heavenly chariots, elephants, balls of fire, and other divine forms,16 as a means of attracting an audience to create an interest in dhamma.17 This sort of bread and circuses is cynically developed in the Arthashastra (13.1.3-8), which devises a number of ingenious things to do with fire and also advises the king to have his friends dress up as gods and let his people see him hanging out with them. It is one of the great pities of human history that Ashoka’s program of dhamma died with him, in about 232 BCE.
Far more enduring were Ashoka’s services to Buddhism, which he spoke of not to the people at large but to other Buddhists. He held the Third Buddhist Council, at Pataliputra, and sent out many missionaries. He built a number of stupas and monasteries. His patronage transformed Buddhism from a small, localized sect to a religion that spread throughout India and far beyond its borders. Both Ashoka and his father, Bindusara, patronized not only Buddhists and Jainas but also the Ajivikas, to whom Ashoka’s grandson may have dedicated some caves.18 The more general program ofdhamma continued to support all religions, including Hinduism.
Fast-forward: Myths about Ashoka became current shortly after his own time, when Buddhist texts discoursed upon the Kalinga edict, the confession of cruelty, and the subsequent renunciation of cruelty in favor of Buddhism. This resulted in a fantasy that Ashoka killed his ninety-nine brothers to attain the throne and then visited hell, where he learned how to construct a hell on earth, equipped with fiendish instruments of exquisite torture, which he used on anyone who offended him.19 The mythmaking never stopped. In 2001 a film (Asoka, directed by Santosh Sivan) depicted a youthful Ashoka (Shahrukh Khan) who, traveling incognito, meets the regulation heroine in a wet sari under a waterfall (Kareena Kapoor). She is, unbeknownst to him, the queen of Kalinga, also traveling incognita. So when he eventually massacres Kalinga and finds her wandering in despair amid the wide-angle carnage, he is very, very sorry that he has killed all those people. And so, after three hours of nonstop slaughter, in the last two minutes of the film he converts to Buddhism.
THE RISE OF SECTARIAN HINDUISM
Despite (or because of) the rise of Buddhism in this period, both Vedic sacrificers and members of the evolving Hindu sects of Vaishnavas and Shaivas (worshipers of Vishnu and Shiva) found new sponsors among the ruling families and court circles.20 The keystone for the Brahmin establishment was the new economic power of temple cities.21 From about 500 BCE, kings still performed Vedic sacrifices to legitimize their kingship,22 but the sectarian worship of particular deities began partially to replace Vedic sacrifice.23 As the gods of the Vedic pantheon (Indra, Soma, Agni) faded into the background, Vishnu and Rudra/Shiva, who had played small roles in the Vedas, attracted more and more worshipers. Throughout the Ramayana and Mahabharata, we encounter people who say they worship a particular god, which is the start of sects and therefore of sectarianism.
Pilgrimage and puja are the main forms of worship at this time. Pilgrimage is described at length in the Mahabharata, particularly but not only in the “Tour of the Sacred Tirthas” (3.80-140). Sacred fords (tirthas) are shrines where one can simultaneously cross over (which is what tirthameans) the river and the perils of the world of rebirth. As in Ashoka’s edicts, the “conquest of the four corners of the earth” (dig-vijaya), originally a martial image, is now applied to a grand tour of pilgrimage to many shrines, circling the world (India), always to the right. Puja (from the Dravidian pu [“flower”])24 consisted of making an offering to an image of a god (flowers, fruits, sometimes rice), and/or moving a lamp through the air in a circular pattern, walking around the god, and reciting prayers, such as a litany of the names of the god. Krishna in the Bhagavad Gitafasays that pious people offer him a leaf or flower or fruit or water (9.26). Sometimes the image of the god is bathed and dressed, and often the remains of the food that has been offered to the god is then distributed to the worshipers as the god’s “favor” or “grace” (prasada), a relic of the leftovers (ucchishta) from the Vedic sacrifice.
There is rich evidence of the rise of the sectarian gods. The Mahabharata includes a Hymn of the Thousand Names of Shiva (13.17), and in 150 BCE Patanjali, the author of the highly influential Yoga Sutras, foundational for the Yoga school of philosophy, mentions a worshiper of Shiva who wore animal skins and carried an iron lance. Gold coins from this same period depict Shiva holding a trident and standing in front of a massive bull, presumably the bull that is Shiva’s usual vehicle. In the first century BCE, under the Shungas, artisans produced what is generally regarded as the earliest depiction of the god Shiva: a linga just under five feet high, in Gudimallam, in southeastern Andhra Pradesh. (See page 22.) Its anatomical detail, apart from its size, is highly naturalistic, but on the shaft is carved the figure of Shiva, two-armed and also naturalistic, holding an ax in one hand and the body of a small antelope in the other. His thin garment reveals his own sexual organ (not erect), his hair is matted, and he wears large earrings. He stands upon a dwarf. A frieze from the first or second century CE suggests how such a linga might have been worshiped; it depicts a linga shrine under a tree, surrounded by a railing, just like the actual railing that was discovered beneath the floor in which the image was embedded.25
The Mahabharata tells a story about the circumstances under which Shiva came to be worshiped:
SHIVA DESTROYS DAKSHA’S VEDIC SACRIFICE
Once upon a time, when Shiva was living on Mount Meru with his wife, Parvati, the daughter of the mountain Himalaya, all the gods and demigods thronged to him and paid him homage. The Lord of Creatures named Daksha began to perform a horse sacrifice in the ancient manner, which Indra and the gods attended with Shiva’s permission. Seeing this, Parvati asked Shiva where the gods were going, and Shiva explained it to her, adding that the gods had decided long ago not to give him any share in the sacrifice. But Parvati was so unhappy about this that Shiva took his great bow and went with his band of fierce servants to destroy the sacrifice. Some put out the sacrificial fires by dousing them with blood; others began to eat the sacrificial assistants. The sacrifice took the form of a wild animal and fled to the skies, and Shiva pursued it with bow and arrow. The gods, terrified, fled, and the very earth began to tremble. Brahma begged Shiva to desist, promising him a share of the sacrificial offerings forever after, and Shiva smiled and accepted that share (12.274.2-58).
This important myth, retold in various transformations several times in the Mahabharata26 and in other texts through the ages, is in part a historical narrative of what did happen in the history of Hinduism: Shiva was not part of the Vedic sacrifice, and then he became part of the Hindu sacrifice. The gods, particularly Daksha (a creator, mentioned in the Rig Veda hymn of Aditi [10.72.1-5]), exclude Shiva from their sacrifice because Shiva is the outsider, the Other, the god to whom Vedic sacrifice is not offered; he is not a member of the club of gods that sacrifice to the gods.27 He appears to Arjuna, in a pivotal episode of the Mahabharata, in the form of a naked Kirata, a tribal hunter (3.40.1-5). The myth of Daksha’s sacrifice verifies Shiva’s otherness but modifies it so that Shiva is in fact given a share in some sacrifices, still not part of the Vedic world but the supreme god of the post-Vedic world, at least in the eyes of the Shaivas who tell this myth.28
In the Ramayana, the god Rama is on his way to becoming one of the great gods of sectarian Hinduism. The god Krishna too now enters the world of Sanskrit texts, in the Mahabharata. The grammarian Panini, in the fifth century BCE, mentions a Vasudevaka, whom he defines as a devotee (bhakta) of the son of Vasudeva (Krishna), an avatar of Vishnu. This was the time of the beginning of the Bhagavata sects, the worship of Bhagavan, the Lord, a name of Vishnu or Shiva. In 115 BCE, Heliodorus, the son of a Greek from Taxila and himself the Greek ambassador to one of the Shungas,29 set up a pillar in Besnagar in Madhya Pradesh (not far from the Buddhist stupas at Sanchi), topped by an image of Vishnu’s eagle (the Garuda bird) and an inscription. Heliodorus said he had done this in honor of the son of Vasudeva and that he himself was a Bhagavata.30 This is significant evidence of the conversion of a non-Indian not to Buddhism but to a new form of Hinduism. These are the early stirrings of communal sects that were beginning to supplement, sometimes to replace, the royal and domestic worship of the Vedic gods.
THE ERAS OF THE TWO GREAT POEMS
The Mahabharata story may have begun earlier than that of the Ramayana, but the text that we have was probably composed in North India between approximately 300 BCE and 300 CE,fb after the Mauryas and before the Guptas. It therefore shares the general chronology of the Ramayana,entre deux empires, a time of shifting political and economic power.
The two texts have much in common: They are long poems, in Sanskrit (indeed mostly in the same meter), and both are about war. They quote the same sources and tell many of the same stories. But their differences are more interesting. The geographical setting of the Mahabharata signals a time earlier than that of the Ramayana. The Mahabharata is set in and around the earlier capital of Hastinapur,fc already a great city in the age of the Brahmanas, instead of the Ramayana’s cities of Rajagriha in Magadha and Kashi in Koshala, which were settled later.31 The Mahabharata calls itself the “Fifth Veda” (though so do several other texts) and dresses its story in Vedic trappings (such as ostentatious Vedic sacrifices and encounters with Vedic gods). It looks back to the Brahmanas and tells new versions of the old stories.32 Indeed, it looks back beyond the Brahmanas to the Vedic age, and may well preserve many memories of that period, and that place, up in the Punjab. The Painted Gray Ware artifacts discovered at sites identified with locations in the Mahabharata may be evidence of the reality of the great Mahabharata war, which is sometimes supposed to have occurred between 1000 and 400 BCE,33 usually in 950 BCE, the latter being the most reasonable assertion in light of what we know of Vedic history.fd
Yet its central plot is really about the building of a great empire far more Mauryan than Vedic. In other ways too it is very much the product of its times, the interregnum between the Mauryan and Gupta empires in the Ganges plain.34 The text often refers to the quasi-Mauryan Artha-shastra, particularly when seeking textual support for hitting a man below the belt or when he’s down (10.1.47). The authors react in nuanced ways to the eddying currents of Ashokan Buddhism and the Brahmin ascendancy of the Shungas, striving somehow to tell the story of the destruction and reconstruction of entire groups or classes of people and, at the same time, to reconcile this political flux with the complex values of the emerging dharmas.
Moreover, according to Indian tradition, the Ramayana took place in the second age (right after the Golden Age), when the moral life was still relatively intact, while the Mahabharata took place later, at the cusp of the third age and the fourth, the Kali Age, when all hell broke loose. TheRamayana imagines an age of order preceding that chaos, while the Mahabharata imagines the beginning of the breakdown, the planned obsolescence of the moral world. In keeping with the basic Indian belief that time is degenerative, theRamayana, which is more optimistic and imagines a time of peace and prosperity, is said to precede the Mahabharata, which is darker and imagines a time of war and the collapse of civilization.
The Mahabharata is generally regarded as having reached its final form later than the Ramayana but also to have begun earlier; the Ramayana is shorter and in many ways simpler, certainly more coherent, but not necessarily chronologically prior. Both texts were in gestation so long, and in conversation during so much of that gestation period, that each of the great poems precedes the other, like Brahma and Vishnu, or dharma and moksha. The Ramayana cites the Mahabharata from time to time, and the Mahabharatadevotes an entire long section to retelling the Ramayana(3.257-75), a version of the story that is probably later than the one told in the Ramayana itself.35 Characters from each make cameo appearances in the other. Intertextuality here hath made its masterpiece; the two texts may have anxiety (amhas) about a lot of things but not about influence. 36There is a famous Sanskrit poem that can be read, depending upon how you divide the compounds and choose among the multiple meanings of the words, to tell the story of either the Mahabharata or the Ramayana.37 In many ways, the two stories are two sides of the same coin.
THE INTEGRITY OF THE MAHABHARATA
The Mahabharata is a text of about seventy-five thousand versesfe or three million words, some fifteen times the combined length of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, or seven times the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, and a hundred times more interesting. (The Ramayana is about a third of the length of the Mahabharata, some twenty thousand verses against the Mahabharata’s seventy-five thousand.) The bare bones of the central story (and there are hundreds of peripheral stories too) could be summarized like this, for our purposes:
The five sons of King Pandu, called the Pandavas, were fathered by gods: Yudhishthira by Dharma, Bhima by the Wind (Vayu), Arjuna by Indra, and the Twins (Nakula and Sahadeva) by the Ashvins. All five of them married Draupadi. When Yudhishthira lost the kingdom to his cousins in a game of dice, the Pandavas and Draupadi went into exile for twelve years, at the end of which, with the help of their cousin the incarnate god Krishna, who befriended the Pandavas and whose counsel to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra is the Bhagavad Gita, they regained their kingdom through a cataclysmic battle in which almost everyone on both sides was killed.
The Mahabharata was retold very differently by all of its many authors in the long line of literary descent. It is so extremely fluid that there is no single Mahabharata; there are hundreds of Mahabharatas, hundreds of different manuscripts and innumerable oral versions (one reason why it is impossible to make an accurate calculation of the number of its verses). The Mahabharata is not contained in a text; the story is there to be picked up and found, salvaged as anonymous treasure from the ocean of story. It is constantly retold and rewritten both in Sanskrit and in vernacular dialects; it has been called “a work in progress,”38 a literature that “does not belong in a book.”39 The Mahabharata (1.1.23) describes itself as unlimited in both time and space—eternal and infinite: “Poets have told it before, and are telling it now, and will tell it again. What is here is also found elsewhere, but what is not here is found nowhere else.”40 It grows out of the oral tradition and then grows back into the oral tradition; it flickers back and forth between Sanskrit manuscripts and village storytellers, each adding new gemstones to the old mosaic, constantly reinterpreting it. The loose construction of the text gives it a quasinovelistic quality, open to new forms as well as new ideas, inviting different ideas to contest one another, to come to blows, in the pages of the text.
Clearly no single author could have lived long enough to put it all together, but that does not mean that it is a miscellaneous mess with no unified point of view, let alone “the most monstrous chaos,” “the huge and motley pile,” or “gargantuan hodgepodge” and “literary pileup” that scholars have accused it of being.41 European approaches to the Mahabharata often assumed that the collators did not know what they were doing, and, blindly cutting and pasting, accidentally created a monstrosity. But the Mahabharata is not the head of a Brahmin philosophy accidentally stuck onto a body of non-Brahmin folklore, like the heads and bodies of the Brahmin woman and the Pariah woman in the story. True, it was like an ancient Wikipedia, to which anyone who knew Sanskrit, or who knew someone who knew Sanskrit, could add a bit here, a bit there. But the powerful intertextuality of Hinduism ensured that anyone who added anything to the Mahabharata was well aware of the whole textual tradition behind it and fitted his or her own insight, or story, or long philosophical disquisition, thoughtfully into the ongoing conversation. However diverse its sources, for several thousand years the tradition has regarded it as a conversation among people who know one another’s views and argue with silent partners. It is a contested text,42 a brilliantly orchestrated hybrid narrative with no single party line on any subject. The text has an integrity that the culture supports (in part by attributing it to a single author, Vyasa, who is also a major player in the story) and that it is our duty to acknowledge. The contradictions at its heart are not the mistakes of a sloppy editor but enduring cultural dilemmas that no author could ever have resolved.
THE POLITICAL WORLD OF THE MAHABHARATA
The Mahabharata challenged the relationships between the two upper classes, only ultimately to reconfirm them. For example, the career of King Pushyamitra, the Brahmin who became a general and reinstated Hinduism over Buddhism in his kingdom, may have inspired an important episode in the Mahabharata, the tale of Parashurama (“Rama with an Ax”), the son of a Brahmin father and Kshatriya mother. When a Kshatriya killed Parashurama’s father, he avenged the murder by killing the entire class of Kshatriyas, over twenty-one generations. He also avenged the theft of the calf of his father’s wishing cow by pursuing the king who stole her, killing him, and taking back the calf (3.116). This variant of the ancient cattle-raiding myth has a Brahmin rather than a Kshatriya protagonist; it turns a famous Kshatriya myth around in order to attack Kshatriya despotism and royal greed and to undo the bifurcation of temporal and spiritual power. The fantasy of Brahmins exterminating Kshatriyas and becoming Kshatriyas (a goal that was also attributed to an early historical king, Mahapadma Nanda) may also have been a projection of Brahmin fears that the Kshatriyas would exterminate Brahmins, by converting to Buddhism or Jainism or by encouraging renunciant Hindu sects.43
VIOLENCE OF AND TOWARD ANIMALS
We may see a parallel, perhaps a historical influence, between the ambivalence toward nonviolence (ahimsa) expressed in the Ashokan edicts and in the Mahabharata.
The Mahabharata is about what has been called “grotesque, sanctioned violence,” 44 and violence not only toward animals but among them is a central theme. The assumption that the relationship between the animals themselves was, one might say, red in tooth and claw,ff was enshrined in a phrase cited often in both the Mahabharata and the Artha-shastra: “fish eat fish” (matsya-nyaya), the big fish eating the little fish.fg In the myth of the flood, the tiny fish asks Manu to save him from the big fish who will otherwise eat him, a literal instance of the metaphor for the vicious, cannibalistic aspect of human nature, the dark things that swim deep in the waters of the unconscious. This image of virtual anarchy was used to justify a law and order agenda and to promote the strict enforcement of restrictive versions of dharma, in order to keep people from behaving like animals. The assertion that without a king wielding punishment the stronger would devour the weaker as big fish eat small fish (or, sometimes, that they would roast them like fish on a spit [Manu 7.20]), is often used as an argument for coercive kingship.
Characters in the Mahabharata also, however, sometimes use “fish eat fish” to justify the opposite agenda, anarchy, more precisely the jettisoning of the ancient India equivalent of the Geneva Convention (or the Marquess of Queens-berry’s rules), on the assumption that people too are animals and cannot be stopped from acting like animals. When Arjuna urges Yudhishthira to action, he says: “I see no being that lives in the world without violence. Creatures exist at one another’s expense; the stronger consume the weaker. The mongoose eats mice, just as the cat eats the mongoose; the dog devours the cat, your majesty, and wild beasts eat the dog (12.15).”
Scenes of the violent death of hundreds of animals, like miniatures of the violent death of human beings at the center of the Mahabharata, stand like bookends framing the introductory book.45 It begins with King Janamejaya’s attempt to murder all the snakes in the world in revenge for his father’s death by snakebite. This is an inverted horse sacrifice, an antisacrifice. The horse, a creature of light, the sky, fire, flying through the air, is the right animal to sacrifice in a Vedic ceremony, while the snake, a creature of darkness, the underworld, water, cold, sliding under the ground, is the wrong animal. To the ancient Indians, a snake sacrifice must have been an abomination,46 for though Hindus have worshiped snakes from time immemorial, they do so by making small offerings of milk to them, not by killing them. The snake sacrifice in the first book sets the stage for the central Mahabharata story. The story of a sacrifice that goes horribly wrong, it is a dark mirror for the Mahabharata as a whole, brilliant, sinister, and surreal. For not only is the snake sacrifice the wrong sort of sacrifice to undertake, but Janamejaya’s sacrifice is never even completed: Snake after snake is dropped into the fire, writhing in agony, until a sage stops the ritual before the massacre is complete.
And the first book of the Mahabharata ends with an attempt by Arjuna, Krishna, and Fire (Agni) to burn up the great Khandava forest, ignoring the plight of the animals that live there: “Creatures by the thousands screamed in terror and were scorched; some embraced their sons or mothers or fathers, unable to leave them. Everywhere creatures writhed on the ground, with burning wings, eyes, and paws (1.217).” Only a few snakes still remained alive when a compassionate sage stopped the snake sacrifice, and only six creatures survived (one snake, four birds, and Maya, the architect of the antigods) when Agni, sated, stopped burning the forest.
Stories about animals are sometimes really about animals, the treatment of whom was, as we have seen, both a public concern of rulers and an issue that Vedic and non-Vedic people often disputed. But stories about animals also function as parables about class tensions in this period.
Take dogs. Hindu dharma forbids Hindus to have any contact with dogs, whom it regards as unclean scavengers, literally untouchable (a-sprishya), the parasites of Pariahs who are themselves regarded as parasites. Even Yudhishthira uses dogs as symbols of aggression when he says that humans negotiating peace are like dogs: “tail wagging, a bark, a bark back, backing off, baring the teeth howling, and then the fight begins, and the stronger one wins and eats the meat. Humans are just exactly like that (5.70.70-72).”47Even after he has won the war, he says: “We are not dogs, but we act like dogs greedy for a piece of meat (12.7.10).” As for dogs symbolic of low castes, though the Gita insists that wise people cast the same gaze on a learned Brahmin, a cow, an elephant, a dog, or a dog cooker (5.18), the Mahabharata generally upholds the basic prejudice against dogs, as in this story, which also makes clear the analogy between dogs and upwardly mobile Pariahs:
THE DOG WHO WOULD BE LION
Once there was an ascetic of such goodness that the flesh-eating wild animals—lions and tigers and bears, as well as rutting elephants, leopards, and rhinoceroses—were like his disciples. A dog, weak and emaciated from eating only fruits and roots, like the sage, became attached to him out of affection, tranquil, with a heart like that of a human being. One day a hungry leopard came there and was about to seize the dog as his prey when the dog begged the sage to save him. The sage turned him into a leopard, and then, when a tiger attacked, into a tiger, and then a rutting elephant, and a lion.fh Now that he was carnivorous, all the other animals feared him and stayed away, and finally he wanted to eat the sage, who read his thoughts and turned him back into a dog, his own proper form by birth [jati]. The dog moped about unhappily until the sage drove him out of the hermitage [12.115-19].
This dog even has a human heart, but he must not be allowed to get ideas above his station. The phrase “his own proper form by birth” (jati) can also be translated, “his own proper form by caste,” for jati means both “birth” and “caste.” Both the dog and the sage are all wrong from the very beginning. The dog violates dog dharma by being a vegetarian, whereas he should be a carnivore, and the sage is wrong too to protect the dog by making him bigger and bigger instead of, like Manu with the expanding fish, putting him in bigger and bigger places. But the sage does not reciprocate the dog’s devotion or attachment to him. Whereas the dog misrecognizes himself as a human, the sage in the end is as cruel as a dog.48
A very different point of view is expressed by the tale of a dog with which this chapter began, “Yudhishthira’s Dilemma,” an episode in which Yudhishthira refuses to go to heaven without the stray dog who has attached itself to him, as the dog who would be lion attached himself to the ascetic—though Yudhishthira’s dog proves true to the end. What is most striking about this passage is that the god of Dharma himself becomes incarnate in this animal; it is as if the god of the Hebrew Bible had become incarnate in a pig.fi
Dharma uses the dog to make a powerful ethical point; this is surely a way of arguing about the sorts of humans that should or should not go to heaven (a topic that the Mahabharata also explicitly addresses) or even, perhaps, by extension, about the castes that should or should not be allowed into temples. All good Hindus go to heaven (in this period), but they do so after dying and being given different, heavenly bodies; Yudhishthira is unique in being given the gift of going to heaven in his own body.fj Perhaps in acknowledging his bond with animals, treating his dog like “someone who has come to you for refuge” or “a friend,” Yudhishthira has somehow preserved the animality of his own body (that very animality denied by the sages, who regard both dogs and women as dirty). And so he enters heaven not merely as a disembodied spirit but as his entire embodied self.49
Yudhishthira refuses to abandon a dog who is “devoted” (bhakta) to him; heaven will not be heaven if he cannot bring his dog with him.‡ The dog, the loyal dog, is, after all, the natural bhakta of the animal kingdom; it’s no accident that it’s a dog, not, say, a cat, who follows Yudhishthira like that. (Cats, in Hinduism, are depicted as religious hypocrites.§) But bhakti at this period meant little more than belonging to someone, being dedicated to someone as a servant or loyal friend (or, occasionally, lover, as the term is sometimes also used for carnal love); it did not yet have the specific overtone of passionate love between a god and his devotee that was to become characteristic of a branch of medieval Hinduism. Yet as the word expanded its meaning, the story of Yudhishthira and his dog often came to be read as a model for that sort of devotion.
Indra’s argument, that dogs would pollute the sacrificial offerings merely by looking at them, let alone touching them, is a common one. Manu (7.21) warns that if the king did not wield the rod of punishment justly, the dog would lick the oblation and everything would be upside down. In theMahabharata version of the story of Rama and Sita, when Rama throws Sita out for the first time, he compares her, after her sojourn in Ravana’s house, to an oblation that a dog has licked (3.275.14). Much of the trouble in theMahabharata begins with a dog who does not lick an oblation:
When Janamejaya and his brothers were performing a sacrifice, a dog, a son of the bitch Sarama, came near. The brothers beat the dog, who ran howling back to his mother and told her that they had beaten him though he had neither looked at nor licked the offerings. Sarama then went to the sacrificial grounds and said to Janamejaya, “Since you beat my son when he had not done anything wrong, danger will befall you when you do not see it coming (1.3.1-18).”
As a result of his prejudiced mistreatment of this pup, Janamejaya soon gets into serious trouble with other animals (snakes). Thus the Mahabharata both begins and ends with a story about justice for dogs.
But in Yudhishthira’s case the conflict remains unresolved; the text equivocates. The sudden intrusion of the voice of the author in the first person at the beginning of the episode (“the dog that I have already told you about quite a lot [17.2.26]”) is highly unusual, almost unprecedented. It is as if the author has anticipated the end of the story and begins to remind the audience that it is just a story—and not only just a story, but just a test (as they used to say of air-raid signals on the radio), one of a series of tests that Dharma set for his son, all of which he passed (17.3.18). For the dog never does go to heaven, never violates Hindu law, because there was no dog; it was all an illusion. In case of a real dog . . . what then? The story shows just how rotten the caste system is but does not change it. No dogs get into heaven.
NONCRUELTY AND NONVIOLENCE
“I am determined not to be cruel,” says Yudhishthira. The term that he uses for “not to be cruel” is more literally “not to harm humans [a-nri-shamsa].”fk It is a doubly weakened word: a double negative (it doesn’t refer to doing something good, just to not doing something bad) and species specific (specifying harm to humans); to apply it to the treatment of an animal is therefore rather forced, given the usual Hindu distinction between cruelty to humans and to animals. The term (“not to be cruel”), which occurs here three times in four verses (17.3.7, 8, 10, and 30), is sometimes translated as “compassion,”fl but the usual Sanskrit word for that is karuna, a more positive word.50 Indra praises Yudhishthira for “weep[ing] with” all creatures (anukrosha), a word sometimes translated as “compassion,” but more than compassion, a vivid form of sympathy. Yudhishthira is damning himself with faint praise if all he can muster up, in place of either “compassion” or “weeping with,” is that he doesn’t harm humans. He is hedging, just as Ashoka did when he stopped short of embracing nonviolence entirely but merely mitigated some of the brutality to animals in his kingdom.
The issue of noncruelty to animals is a minor variant on the heavier theme of nonviolence (ahimsa) toward both animals and humans, in an age when violence—toward humans as well as toward animals—is inevitable. Ahimsa (“the absence of the desire to kill”) is another of those double negatives, like “noncruelty.” (The Indian nationalist leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak [1856-1920] translated ahimsa, in the Gita, as “harmlessness,”51 another double negative.) Elsewhere too (3.297.72), Yudhishthira says that noncruelty is the highest dharma. On another occasion, when Yudhishthira threatened to renounce the world, Arjuna had urged him to resign himself to violent action, invoking a host of Vedic gods and one new, sectarian god (Skanda), as well as mongooses and cats and mice, and saying: “People honor most the gods who are killers. Rudra is a killer, and so are Skanda, Indra, Agni, Varuna, Yama. I don’t see anyone living in the world with nonviolence (ahimsa). Even ascetics (tapasas) cannot stay alive without killing (12.15.16, 20-21, 24).” Similarly, Rama, defending himself against charges of foul play against an animal, the monkey Valin, argued: “Even sages go hunting.” Arjuna’s own consideration of renouncing action prompts Krishna’s reply in the Bhagavad Gita, a text that mentions ahimsaonly in the course of four lists of conventional virtues (10.5, 13.7, 16.2, and 17.14) and never discusses it.
Many Hindus continued to engage in animal sacrifice at this time, while Buddhists and Jainas and, significantly, an increasing number of Hindus rejected it. Replacing the animal slaughter included in the major Vedic sacrifices,52 ahimsa as a Hindu term claims a space closely associated with Jainism and Buddhism.53 Yet the Brahmin redactors of the Mahabharata created a text that accepted the political implications of the violence of the universe, in part precisely in order to distinguish themselves from the nonviolent Buddhists and Jainas.54
Commentators have sometimes regarded Yudhishthira as a Brahmin king (like Pushyamitra) or a Buddhist king (like Ashoka), or both, a Brahminical Ashoka, who is tempted to reject violence much as Ashoka, by the testimony of his edicts, hoped to do.fmYudhishthira’s refusal to rule after the war may have been a response to Asoka’s thirteenth Major Rock Edict or to legends about Ashoka that circulated after his death.55 (Aspects of the life and character of Arjuna too may have been created in response to Ashoka.56)
The Mahabharata, like Ashoka, is torn between violence and nonviolence, and occasionally, as in the story of Yudhishthira’s dog, rests for a moment in the compromise position of avoiding cruelty. Both Ashoka and Pushyamitra left their marks on Yudhishthira. All three kings responded, in different ways, to the challenge of Buddhists and Jainas, particularly to Jainas, who really did preach an uncompromising ahimsa. And all three kings created versions of the new ahimsa agenda that they could live with, a negotiated peace with both extremes. But nonviolence is not a Buddhist or Jaina monopoly, nor is compassion; everyone was wrestling with these problems at this time, though in different ways, and gradually compassion came to supplement, or sometimes even to replace, generosity (dana, “giving”) as the primary virtue of householders and sacrificers.
The Brahmins’ ultimate credibility as a religious elite depended on disassociating themselves from the direct cruelties of governing,57 despite their close advisory association with kings. For since the particular dharma, the sva-dharma, of Indian kings was inherently violent, they needed royal chaplains to wash off from their hands, every day, the blood of war dead and executed criminals, and they had to perform horse sacrifices to make restorations time after time (horse sacrifices that created yet more violence against animals). The ancient composite image of the royal sage or the warrior priest was compromised once and for all by that division of labor, and all of King Yudhishthira’s horses and all of his men could not put those images together again.
Even nonviolence could be violent in India; the urge to refrain from killing animals for food, for instance, or to control violent addiction, often burst out in violence against the self. We have seen the tale of the rabbit in the moon, who offered his own flesh to Indra. This is a variant of a much repeated paradigm, the popularity of which shows us how deeply embedded in Hinduism is the ideal of self-sacrifice, often to the point of martyrdom and self-torture. One of the most famous, and often retold,fn examples is this one:
KING SHIBI SAVES THE DOVE FROM THE HAWK
The fame of King Shibi’s extraordinary generosity reached the gods in heaven, and Indra and Agni decided to put him to the test. Agni assumed the form of a dove, and Indra a hawk, pursuing the dove. The dove flew in terror to Shibi. But the hawk objected, “I live on the meat of small birds; if you deprive me of my food, you are condemning me to death. Is this dharma?” King Shibi asked the hawk if he would accept some other flesh as a substitute. “Hawks eat doves,” countered the hawk, but eventually he said, “If you love this dove, cut off a piece of flesh that weighs as much as the dove.” Shibi had a scale brought and sliced off pieces of his flesh, but no matter how much he cut, the dove still weighed more. Finally, he climbed into the scale altogether. The hawk revealed that he was Indra and the dove was Agni, and he promised Shibi that his fame would last forever (3.130-31).
The Shylockian precise pound of flesh and the use of hawks and doves to symbolize military aggression and peacefulness are themes that we can recognize from our own world. In the Pali Buddhist version, King Shibi (sometimes called Shivi) vows to give his living heart, his flesh, his blood, or his eyes to anyone who asks for them; Indra, disguised as a blind Brahmin,fo58 asks him for his eyes, which Shibi has his court physician cut out, causing him excruciating pain, and gives to him; eventually Indra restores Shibi’s eyes.59 The king’s indifference to physical pain is both a macho Kshatriya virtue and a badge of ascetic conquest of the body;60 as a king Shibi draws upon the Kshatriya tradition, in which the warrior Karna, for instance, pretending to be a Brahmin and wrongly believing that he is in fact a Charioteer’s son, betrays his hidden Kshatriya blood by remaining silent and motionless while a worm eats right through his thigh. (He does not want to disturb the sleep of his guru, whose head is resting upon Karna’s thigh [12.3]).
The logical reductio ad adsurdum of the vegetarian agenda—letting animals eat one’s own body, as in the Other World in the Brahmanas—also results from a combination of the bitter realism of the Mahabharata and the challenge of nonviolence. The story of Shibi resolves the aporia by the familiar illusio ex machina: There was no dove, no hawk; it was just a test. But in a world where there are, after all, hawks who eat doves, a human may avoid personally taking animal life by eating vegetables. Extending ahimsa into a universal law, however, a Kantian sanatana dharmabeyond the human world (taking into account those screaming carrots and the trees soundlessly screaming), would make most creatures starve to death.
SACRIFICE AND ANTISACRIFICE
Nonviolence toward animals clashes head-on with animal sacrifice. The Mahabharata says there are seven wild sacrificial beasts (pashus)fp—lion, tiger, boar, monkey, bear, elephant, and buffalo—and seven domestic sacrificial beasts, which we know from the Brahmanas: the usual first four—bull, stallion, billy goat, and ram—plus ass, mule (a mixed breed, bred from a horse and a donkey) and a human man (6.5.12-14). But despite including humans as pashus, the text leans over backward to deny human sacrifice. Krishna says to a king who is threatening to sacrifice a number of captive kings, “What pleasure is there for the kings who are anointed and washed like sacrificial beasts in the house of Pashupati? You have captured kings and you want to sacrifice them to Rudra. . . . No one has ever seen a sacrifice of men. So how can you intend to sacrifice men to the god Shiva? How can you give the title of sacrificial beasts to men of the same species as yourself (2.14.18; 2.20.8-11).”
To prevent human sacrifice, the Brahmanas prescribed a course of substitutions.In the Vedic myth of the sage who used a horse head to tell the Ashvins about the soma,61 the head of a horse stood in for the head of a human in a sacrificial beheading. In theMahabharata, which rules out human sacrifice, debate centered on the horse sacrifice, the most spectacular of sacrifices, which reaches so high to heaven that it is the first place where the antisacrificial lightning strikes. Daksha’s sacrifice is a horse sacrifice, and so is Yudhishthira’s.
YUDHISHTHIRA’S HORSE SACRIFICE
After the final, victorious battle, Yudhishthira renounces his previous desire to renounce kingship and decides to perform a spectacular horse sacrifice, making public his serious intentions for the future: to rule with justice as well as with power. But the ritual also looks backward to the past, expiating his sins and exorcising his grief (as Rama’s horse sacrifice does for him). For almost everyone has been killed in the great battle; the Pandava brothers remain alive, Pyrrhic victors, to rule their decimated kingdom. Soon even they will die, after most of their remaining comrades kill one another in a stupid drunken brawl.
The great horse sacrifice of Yudhishthira should be a triumphant event. And to a certain extent it is: The consecrated stallion is set free to roam for a year, guarded by Arjuna, who, in the course of his wanderings, fights a number of battles and kills a number of people (despite Yudhishthira’s pleas to him to avoid killing whenever possible) until he himself is killed by his son Babhruvahana and revived by Babhuvahana’s mother, Chitrangada.62 Arjuna and the stallion return safely to the capital; three hundred animal victims, including bulls and birds and aquatic animals, are tied to sacrificial stakes. The Brahmins set some of the animals free, “pacify” others, and “take” and “pacify” (i.e., suffocate) the horse. Draupadi lies down beside the suffocated stallion (14.91.2). (Other wives of other Pandavas, including Arjuna’s wives Ulupi and Chitrangada, are present but are not said to lie with the stallion.) The Brahmins remove the fat (or marrow) from the horse and boil it; the Pandavas inhale the fumes, which purify them of all evils. (They do not eat the flesh.) The priests offer the remaining pieces of the horse as oblations into the fire. The ceremony is intended not only to purify the Pandavas but to fortify the kingdom for Yudhishthira and to produce an heir for Arjuna, because Draupadi’s five children, one born from each husband, all were killed at the end of the great war. The horse therefore stands not only for Yudhishthira but also for Arjuna. Yudhishthira ascends his throne.
But the success of the sacrifice is undermined by a story told right after it ends and the guests depart. A mongoose came out of his hole there and declared, in a human voice, “This whole sacrifice is not equal to one of the grains of barley that were given by a Brahmin who lived by observing the vow of gleaning.” fq He then told a story about this Brahmin: During a famine he gave his few remaining grains of barley to a guest who turned out to be Dharma in disguise; the gleaner promptly went to heaven, with his family. When the mongoose finished telling this tale, he vanished (14.92-93), and the storyteller concluded, “Indeed, nonhostility [adroha] to all creatures, contentment, clean conduct, tapas, self-restraint, truthfulness, and generosity all are regarded as equal (14.94.1).” King Janamejaya, listening to the story, then replied, “Kings are addicted to sacrifice, and sages are addicted to inner heat. The Brahmins busy themselves with pacification, tranquilization, and restraint.” He went on to argue that since Indra had become ruler of heaven through sacrifice, surely Yudhishthira, who (with Bhima and Arjuna) resembled Indra in wealth and power, was right to perform the horse sacrifice, and the mongoose was wrong to criticize him. The storyteller then told him another story:
INDRA’S ANIMAL SACRIFICE DEBATE
Once upon a time, Indra began a great sacrifice, involving the slaughter of many animals. But as the sacrificial animals [pashus] were seized for slaughter, the great sages saw how wretched they were and were overcome by pity (kripa). They said to Indra, “This is not the right way to sacrifice. Domestic animals (pashus) were not created for sacrifice. This brutality of yours is destructive of dharma, for injury (himsa) cannot be called dharma. Sacrifice instead with seeds of grain that have been kept for three years.” But Indra, God of a Hundred Sacrifices, in his delusion and pride, did not agree to their words. They put the matter to King Vasu: “What is the ruling about sacrifice? Should it be done with domestic animals that are designated for sacrifice, or with infertile seeds? With horses or with fruits?” King Vasu, without thinking, said, “You can sacrifice with whatever is at hand,” and for saying this, which was not true, he went immediately to hell. For a sacrifice performed with materials wrongly obtained, or with an evil mind, does not yield the fruits of dharma. People—Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras—do go to heaven by giving away what they have gleaned, and also by compassion to all creatures, and chastity, and sympathy (14.94.1-34).
Indra presumably completes his sacrifice, since he disregards the sages’ words. But we are told that he did this not out of wisdom but out of his pride and delusion; King Vasu too is punished for disregarding the sages’ question. Janamejaya’s pluralism (some people have one addiction; others have another) is not the right answer, but the text never tells us what the right answer would be, because there is no right answer. These stories cast a serious shadow of doubt on the glory of the horse sacrifice.
So too the unofficial “black” ritual of witchcraft, the snake sacrifice, shadows both of Yudhishthira’s official, “white” rituals, the consecration and the horse sacrifice. The Mahabharata sees a vice behind every virtue, a snake behind every horse, and a doomsday behind every victory.