Comparative Mythology…. The Romans’ purpose in life and Krishna’s

Comparative mythology – the systematic comparison of myths from different cultures – seeks to discover underlying themes that are common to the myths of multiple cultures. In some cases, comparative mythologists use the similarities between different mythologies to argue that those mythologies have a common source. This common source may be a common source of inspiration, such as a certain natural phenomenon that inspired similar myths in different cultures or a common “protomythology” that diverged into the various mythologies seen presently.

Nineteenth-century interpretations of myth were often highly comparative, seeking a common origin for all myths. However, modern-day scholars tend to be more suspicious of comparative approaches, avoiding overly general or universal statements about mythology.

However, there is much that leads one towards comparitive mythology. Take the case of a certain natural phenomenon –  The deluge or flood myth is a mythical story of a great flood sent by a deity or deities to destroy civilization as an act of divine retribution. It is a widespread theme among many cultures – vanished or existing, though perhaps best known in modern times through the biblical account of Noah’s Ark – which has also been taken into Islam (with some variations), the Hindu Puranic story of Manu, through Deucalion in Greek mythology or Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

A lot of common motifs can be found when one compares two mythologies – take a particular case of Indian and Greek mythology concerning two of the most well-known gods and heroes of these traditions.

Krishna is considered either the eighth incarnation of Vishnu – the sustainer in the Hindu trinity – or the manifestation of the Supreme Being  himself, depending on what tradition you believe (I remember one account that argued Balrama, his brother, otherwise thought an incarnation of Vishnu’s Sheshnag, was actually the incarnation while Krishna was the full manifestation… but that is entire matter.  Appearing across a broad spectrum of Hindu philosophical and theological traditions, Krishna is portrayed in various perspectives: a god-child, a prankster, a model lover, a divine hero or the prince giving direction and guidance as in the Bhagavad Gita (which is the aspect I will consider but later).

From the Greek tradition, we will take Achilles, the tamer of horses. Achilles (Ancient Greek: Ἀχιλλεύς) was a Greek hero of the Trojan War, the central character and the greatest warrior of Homer’s Iliad.

Later legends (beginning with a poem by Statius in the first century AD) state that Achilles was invulnerable in all of his body except for his heel. Since he died due to an arrow shot into his heel, the “Achilles’ heel” has come to mean a person’s principal weakness. However none of the sources before Statius makes any reference to this general invulnerability. To the contrary, in the Iliad Homer mentions Achilles being wounded: in Book 21 the Paeonian hero Asteropaeus, son of Pelagon, challenged Achilles by the river Scamander. He cast two spears at once, one grazed Achilles’ elbow, “drawing a spurt of blood.”

However, we will go with the Statius version, since this how Achilles’ death is attributed to. Interestingly, this how the death of Krishna (or the way of leaving his mortal body when his divine mission on earth was completed, if you prefer) took place.

Much after the battle of Kurukshetra, a fight broke out between the Krishna’s Yadavas who exterminated each other. Balrama then gave up his body using Yoga. Krishna retired into the forest and sat under a tree in meditation. While Vyasa’s Mahābhārata says that Krishna ascended to heaven, Sarala’s Mahabhārata narrates the story that a hunter mistook his partly visible left heel for a deer and shot an arrow wounding him mortally.

Well this may be attributed to the connections between Indian and Greek civilisations bedfore and after Alexander the Great’s invasions and so on, but I will add a thought that came to my mind, years back.

Since we were already talking about Krishna, we will begin with him only…..

In the Bhagvad Gita,  Krishna advising his cousin Arjuna, who is paralysed by the thought of fighting his own kin, reveals his own divinity to him and says:

“Paritranaya sadhunam
vinasaya ca duskrtam
sambhavami yuge yuge”

(A free-wheeling translation will be: To provide succour to the good and vanquish the wicked, to uphold the structure of dharma (morality), I appear age after age).

A most worthy purpose…. Interestingly, the first two lines used to be painted on the signboards of every police station in Uttar Pradesh once upon a time. However…. 

The same sentiments and objectives were appropriated by the Romans – not for one of their pantheon of deities but the people themselves –  a major shift in attitude -even as they moved to take the world under their control and bring civilising ways and peace – the Pax Romana. And they did succeed to a great deal. However, the reference itself – Virgil in his Aeneid:

“Tu regere imperio populos Romane memento
Hae tibi erunt artes pacisque imponere morem,
Parcere subjectis et debellare superbos . . .”

(“Roman! let this be your care, this your art; to rule over the nations and impose the ways of peace, to spare the underdog, and pull down
the proud.”)
Aeneid VI. 851


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