pots, brahmin names, and potters

Artur Karp hart at POLBOX.COM
Mon Dec 28 22:01:36 UTC 1998

At 11:03 21.12.98 +0100, Georg von Simson wrote:

>Artur Karp wrote>

>>It's clear that heroic epithets cannot be always treated literally. Their
>>character points oftentimes to a conscious use of irony - especially if
>>they are found out of heroic context. Whenever such accents are lost in the
>>process of translation, we as the readers cannot see the narrator giving us
>>the wink - as if telling us: "look, these are pretensions, appearances,
>>disguises - but this here is reality".>>

>I doubt very much that this is a valid method of interpreting the text of
>the Mahabharata. Irony is a rhetorical device, and we may expect to find it
>sometimes in the dialogues, which are often of a polemical character. But
>does the narrator himself ever use irony in the narrative parts of the
>story? Please give convincing examples! Heroic epithets out of context can
>be explained as a feature of the formulaic style of (originally) oral
>composition and not as examples of irony, I would say.>


Agreed, <irony is a rhetorical device, and we may expect to find it
sometimes in the dialogues, which are often of a polemical character>.
However, the narrative parts themselves are embedded in a much larger
dialogical structure. (On embedding as a narrative technique employed
throughout the epic cf. C. Z. Minkowski, Janamejaya's Sattra and Ritual
Structure, JAOS, 109.3 (1989), pp. 401-420.)

>But does the narrator himself ever use irony in the narrative parts of the

The successive narrators (Ugrazravas, VaizampAyana, SaMjaya) converse with
their  listeners - who may become narrators of stories in their turn - and,
simultaneously, with other audiences, inside and outside the epic.
Considering that this is so, it would have been at the very least
surprising if traces of irony weren't to be found also in the narrative
parts of the epic. Whether it is expressed directly or indirectly, the
signs of awareness of the distance between appearances and reality are not
so hard to come by.

>Please give convincing examples!>

In each of the two examples I have selected irony is expressed directly,
using the means available within smaller narrative units, and indirectly -
via the relationship of the given episode with a similar episode contained
in a larger narrative whole.

This is in line with what I feel constitutes the basic rule for the
reception of the epic as a closed text. For the external audiences (and I
count myself among them) the Mahabharata is attractive not because it shows
the dynamics of literary-creative processes, but because its contents can
be related to their life experience. In order to establish that connection
all the elements of the text (from words to episodes to groups of episodes)
are constantly checked for their ability to carry meaningful information.
Of course, meaningfulness is a time- and place-specific concept. Which
means there will always be many different ways of interpreting the text of
the Mbh.

I.158.4, 12, 28-31. The PANDdavas interrupt a spiteful [IrSyuH] gandharva
named AGgAraparNa ('He of red wings') while he is sporting in the waters of
the Ganges with his wives. The gandharva enters into a heroic fight with
Arjuna but loses it. His wife implores YudhiSThira to spare her husband's
life. Her name is KumbhInasI ('She of jar-like nose').

As I see it, irony is related here to the opposition "heroic epithet vs.
wife's name", that is - "pretensions vs. reality". The narrator explores in
this case the well-known epic theme of "dangerous interruption". However,
by placing in it an undeserving personage, he produces the outcome that is
very different from what could be expected. [Aren't we here only one step
away from the transformation of such relativized mythological themes into
the class of popular funny tales with heroes presenting excessive
expectations, such as for example the "Tale of Two-headed Weaver" from the

I.3.52-55. Ayoda Dhaumya sends his disciple Upamanyu out to tend the cows
but forbids him to eat any kind of food. Upamanyu doesn't return, because
he has fallen into a pit [narrator: kUpe 'patat]. The teacher says to his
other disciples: "he must be angered" [sa niyataM kupitaH], using a heroic
epithet. But instead of being wrathful (kupita), as could have been
expected by the disciples, Upamanyu shows humility and behaves just like
someone who "must have fallen into a pit" (kupita = kUpe patita).

While using a heroic epithet (cf. wrathful BhRgu in I.6.9, wrathful
serpents in I.119.36, wrathful brahmins in II.72.20 and III.110.24, and so
on) to build this interesting word play, the narrator treats it without
reverence. I would add - with irony.

Let's now look again at the episode in which the "potter's house" appears.
But this time we should consider it together with a slightly earlier
episode. Both the episodes are built on the epic theme of "the hero's
taking abode in someone's house".

In the Bakavadhaparvan the PANDavas are hosted by a brahmin. The text has
brAhmaNasya nivezane I.144.18, brAhmaNasya nivezane 145.2, brAhmaNasya
nivezane 145.9, brAhmaNasya nivezane 145.12, viprasya bhavane 150.13,
brAhmaNavezma 152.7, brAhmaNasya nivezane 153.2, vezma brAhmaNasya 153.3,
brAhmaNasya nivezane 156.3. Out of the nine mentions of the house, its
owner is named eight times brAhmaNa, once vipra. The house itself is called
six times nivezana, twice vezma and once bhavana.

Although this repertoire of formulaic terms is rather poor (neither the
name nor the gotra of the brahmin are given), the relations between the
PANDavas and their host seem to be far from casual. KuntI wishes to repay
the brahmin for his hospitality 145.13; BhIma wants to know the reason of
the brahmin's misfortune 145.16; KuntI enters the brahmin's antaHpura
145.18, KuntI questions the brahmin 148.1; KuntI promises to send one of
her sons to fight Baka 149.3; the brahmin reminds KuntI of the duties hosts
have towards their guests 149.10; KuntI and the brahmin ask Bhima to act
149.20; YudhiSThira asks KuntI to disclose the secret of the PANDavas
disguise to the brahmin 150.27; the brahmin guards the secret of the
PANDavas 152.13; the PANDavas take their leave of the brahmin 156.11.

The SvayaMvaraparvan paints a totally different picture. The text doesn't
offer even one instance of contacts between the PANDavas and their host.
They have to sleep on the ground (bhUmau zayanaM 184.8; suSupurdharaNyAm
184.8; azeta bhUmau 184.10; pRthivyAM zayanam ca teSAm 185.10). It's not so
very strange, if the place where they stay is seen for what it really is -
not a house but rather a potter's work-compound located outside the town
(bAhyAM purAdbhArgavakarmazAlAM, 185.6).

Conditions prevailing in the "potter's compound" stand in sharp contrast
with the  epithet/title the narrator gives to its owner. The situation from
Bakavadhaparvan undergoes a specific transformation here: 'deserving guests
and deserving host' become 'deserving guests and undeserving host'. It
seems then that similarly to the themes of "dangerous interruption" and
"wrathful brahmin", also the theme of "the hero's taking abode in someone's
house" was used from time to time without respect, to present an ironic
view of the reality.

With a big inventory of formulas and formulaic models at their disposal,
the Indian epic makers seem to have had a freedom of choice from among many
synonyms and shades of meaning and could insert practically anything they
needed in any given (metrical) position (cf. P.A. Grintser, Drevneindijskij
epos. Genezis i tipologija, Moskva 1974, p. 70). It is highly probable then
that the choice of the title was not left to chance. The narrator leaves
several clues ("winks") that should be sufficient to establish the real
status of the "BhrRguid": he is a potter, who - although unable to receive
guests - would like to be considered as belonging to the priestly line of
the descendants of BhRgu.

I would end this rather over-long and over-due posting with a nice example
of mistaken identities, where nothing agrees with anything - just like in
the BhRguid's case, when the meaning of the title is taken literally. In
SuvaNNakakkaTaka-jAtaka a crow is caught by the neck by a golden crab.  But
thinking it to be the golden deer, he cries out: "What a strange deer! With
eyes on antennae! Has bone instead of skin! And it lives in water! And is

Best regards,

Artur Karp

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