BMCR 2016.02.17

Tragic Views of the Human Condition: Cross-Cultural Comparisons between Views of Human Nature in Greek and Shakespearean Tragedy and the ‘Mahābhārata’ and ‘Bhagavadgītā’

, Tragic Views of the Human Condition: Cross-Cultural Comparisons between Views of Human Nature in Greek and Shakespearean Tragedy and the 'Mahābhārata' and 'Bhagavadgītā'. New York; London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. 572. ISBN 9781501305788. $40.00.

Minnema asks whether the views of the human condition implicit in the Mahābhārata and, within it, the Bhagavadgītā are tragic in the same sense that Oedipus the King, Antigone, or Hamlet is tragic. To answer this question he considers these texts from several points of view, one per chapter: narrative; “artistic-communicative,” which includes considerations of genre; social and political; literary and cultural; martial, which includes ideas of honor; psycho-ethical; and religious. This is more a philosophical study than a literary one; Minnema is more concerned with the world-view implicit in each text than with its language or style. He also suggests that the texts’ world-views reflect those of their cultures, and that we can therefore get a sense of “Western and Indian views of the human condition and human nature” (p. 405) from this analysis, though he does not push this last argument further than his evidence allows. The book is particularly strong on the ethical systems of these texts, and has useful observations about all of the texts; I found myself marking lots of points that I can use when I teach these texts. It is a thought-provoking comparison, and generally well done.

The essential observation, I think, is that the Mahābhārata is not really tragic because it frames a human story of war, suffering, and death with a cosmic perspective from which everything ends correctly and order is restored (p. 39–50, 406–407). Although all the principal characters are dead, we see the “good guys” escape eternal punishment and ascend to heaven. The great war turns out to have been merely a normal part of the cyclic destruction and regeneration of the world. Similarly, the Gītā is tragic at first — Arjuna realizes the war has set him against family members and teachers; his warrior duty and his family duty conflict — but Kṛṣṇa’s revelation overcomes Arjuna’s dilemma on a super-human level (p. 60). Minnema suggests this juxtaposition of the human perspective and the divine is “a Hindu version of Western tragedy” (p. 60). Indeed, there are no tragic plays in Sanskrit literature: in Sanskrit drama, the crisis is always averted and the lovers always get back together.

By “tragedy,” of course, Minnema means a plot in which bad things happen. Not all Greek tragedies are tragic in this modern sense, and it’s really not necessary to try to prove that “even if there is no actual destruction in the end, there is an impending destruction” in a play like Iphigenia in Tauris, or that this play and similar ones leave the audience in a “disturbed mood” (p. 23). It’s also not necessary to try to fit all extant Greek tragedies into a mold deduced from Aristotle’s Poetics. Minnema has sensibly restricted his main discussion to two Greek plays and one of Shakespeare’s that certainly are “tragic” in the modern sense; the side discussion about Aristotle and so on is a bit of a distraction. Similarly, Minnema insists on referring to “epic drama”; while neither the Mahābhārata nor the Gītā is a theater piece, this really doesn’t matter to the philosophical argument, and it’s not necessary to worry about performance practices for the present purpose.

More useful is Minnema’s analysis of how the “bad things happen” plot works, in the plays and in the epic. All of these stories involve a conflict that can’t be solved in any simple way, arising from previous actions and decisions, including those of previous generations. The conflict threatens to loose chaos on the society (p. 62–66). Destiny, fate, and duty contribute to the conflict: Oedipus must kill his father, Hamlet must avenge his father, Arjuna must fight. Chapter 2, on narrative, analyzes the story patterns. Minnema finds “recognition” and “reversal,” in Aristotelian terms, in the Bhagavadgītā, and concludes that this text is therefore like a Greek tragedy (p. 56–60). This is cleverly done, and goes some way toward making literary sense of Kṛṣṇa’s epiphany to Arjuna. Minnema also shows that the Gītā fits nicely into the Mahābhārata; though it is presumably not part of the original bards’ conception of the epic, it does reflect and connect to the main story of the war, and to other embedded narratives in the epic (p. 55, 111).

The third chapter considers artistic-communicative aspects of the texts, with particular emphasis on dialogue, which Minnema calls “a power struggle between dominant males” (p. 80). This certainly applies to arguments between Oedipus and Tiresias, or Hamlet and Claudius, but what about Antigone? Minnema takes “competitive dialogue” as “typically tragic” (p. 92), but surely the agon of an Old Comedy is also a competitive dialogue, and typical of this different form. He also suggests that “whereas epic heroes engage in riddle-solving dialogues, tragic heroes, such as Oedipus and Antigone, engage in failed dialogues doomed to turn dialogical partners into lonesome drifters” (p. 93). It’s hard to conclude this from just Oedipus the King, Antigone, and the Iliad, since the failure of dialogue may be due more to plot than to genre: if we had the cyclic Oedipodea we would have a fairer comparison. Or one could consider Odysseus, who appears in both Homeric epics and two Sophoclean plays; in Philoctetes, he does contribute to “failed dialogue,” but in Ajax, he succeeds.

If competitive dialogue ending in failure is the basis of tragedy, then the Gītā cannot be a tragedy: Kṛṣṇa’s discourse “is not meant to represent a failed dialogue and there is nothing tragic about it” (p. 124). More precisely, if (as Minnema argues) this text is an Indian analogue of tragedy (p. 60), then Sanskrit “tragedy” is not quite the same as Western tragedy. This chapter also contains a good overview of Sanskrit aesthetic theory based largely on Ānandavardhana’s ninth-century Dhvanayāloka (p. 94–101).

In chapter 4, Minnema takes up social and political aspects of the stories, and how they work as “historical products of their time” (p. 129). Here he begins from Hegel’s theory of tragedy and his reading of Antigone (p. 128–130). Clearly the state, the family, and religion can all be sources of conflict, and one or more of these is at the root of the conflict in each of the texts under study. Whether the Greek plays “reveal a shift from aristocracy to democracy” (p. 154), though, can be debated; Minnema takes the position that Athenian tragedy is “a political affair” and plays may refer obliquely to current events (p. 130).

Chapter 5 is called “Literary-cultural aspects,” and discusses how the texts do or do not reflect the worlds that produced them. The main idea in this chapter is that fifth-century Greece, Renaissance England, and classical India are all involved in revising their cultural ideas of what a person is: in each of these societies, we see “a newly developing self-awareness of the human being as a morally and individually (and spiritually!) responsible being” (p. 214). The chapter is particularly strong on the “problematic hero.” Karṇa in the Mahābhārata is one example; so is Hamlet (p. 208–211).

The sixth chapter deals with martial aspects of these stories. The martial elements in the two Sanskrit texts are easy to see, but Oedipus, Antigone, and Hamlet are not soldiers and are not engaged in a war. One of the main ideas here is honor. Minnema’s reference to “the Attic civil war” and to the fifth century in general as “an age of civil war” (p. 226) is curious, though I suppose the idea of the Peloponnesian War as a type of civil war within the Hellenic world could be further developed.

The strongest chapter is the seventh on the psycho-ethical aspects of these texts and their world-views. Here also we have the most direct comparison between the Western and Sanskrit texts. Minnema argues that intentionality is essential to all these texts, though in different ways. In the Greek and Hindu texts, “the starting point and focus is not on intentionality as such, but on action and the results of action” (p. 347), exactly as Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna over and over. But then “the human being discovers that his individual intention does not necessarily coincide with the social effects of his action” (p. 347): now what? For Hamlet, the result is near-paralysis; for Arjuna, the problem is solved by Kṛṣṇa.

Finally, the eighth chapter considers the religious aspects of these stories, including in particular the place of the gods. Minnema has chosen Greek plays that do not have divine characters, but that is not to say that the gods are absent from them. In addition, all the texts under study have a notion of fate (what must happen), as distinct from fortune (random chance), though as Minnema correctly points out, fate is more prominent in the Greek and Indian texts than in Shakespeare, who makes more use of fortune (p. 397). He concludes that “all these texts share the religious belief that human and divine action takes place against the background of a universal order whose rules, boundaries, and workings cannot be ignored without someone suffering fatal consequences” (p. 403) — a tidy summary of tragedy if there ever was one. The book ends with a ninth chapter by way of summary and conclusion.

Although Minnema includes sections labelled “summary of the plot,” readers who aren’t already familiar with the story of the Mahābhārata may be rather confused. The summary (p. 37–38) is accurate as far as it goes, but never clearly explains that the two warring factions are cousins, five sons of the previous king (Pāṇḍu) and 100 sons of his elder brother (Dhṛtarāṣṭra, who could not rule because he is blind); that the dispute over succession is thus at least somewhat legitimate; that in the crucial dice game, the Dhārtarāṣṭra cousins win by cheating; and that Draupadī is wife to all five Pāṇḍava brothers at once. There’s rather more to the plot of the epic than this, of course, but it’s not crucial to Minnema’s argument.

The book is quite carefully structured. Each chapter begins with a section analyzing the Greek and Shakespearean texts from a given point of view. Next, the Sanskrit texts are considered from the same point of view. Finally, a section called “cross-cultural comparisons” sums up and compares. The last chapter reviews each of the previous ones in order. Minnema is quite good on prior scholarship, making, among other things, this book a good way into the literature on Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, and Sanskrit epic. The texts are always quoted in English, making the book accessible to non-specialists. In short, there is much here of value, and though I don’t agree with all of Minnema’s points, I very much appreciated the opportunity to think about them.1


1. Such an interesting book deserves better design and typography. The text is set in a rather spidery sans-serif font; titles and emphatic words are in a sloped roman that isn’t very different from the plain roman; and underdots are missing in words like prakṛti. Footnotes are relegated to the back, and often are mere citations which could have been in the text.