THIS article is meant for tracing an invisible and conceptual common thread — upholding the dignity of human soul confronting generations after generations’ man-made tortures and the supreme power’s punishment — produced from intermingled elements of different concepts such as religion, mythology, heroism, individualism and absurdity prevailing within the range of my having studied such a few selected masterpieces as the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf, Shahnama, the Canterbury Tales, the Paradise Lost, Meghnadbadh Kavya, Tilottamasambhava, Padmavati, the Pilgrim’s Progress, Anna Karenina, the Trial, Waiting for Godot, the Bald Soprano, the Outsider/the Stranger, the Soldier in an Attic, the place of the star worthy to be woven into the canopy of invaluable world literature. I have tried to add a common thread to this canopy, keeping the following steps in mind: first, tracing back the past literary elements hidden into the literary treasures preserved by the connoisseurs of the pre-Christian era. Second, synchronising the inner knots of concepts derived from different events that occurred in the lives of different characters of these pieces of literature. Third, identifying an overall change visualised through the comparison—mythology versus Semitic religion especially with the advent of Christianity. Fourth, investigating the motifs behind the development of abstract philosophical mentality. Fifth, taking an initiative to highlight the common motif behind the conjuncture of the literature of pre-Christian and post-Christian era with the absurd literary set. Finally, showing how the synthesis of philosophical insight, mythological heroism and religious values leads gradually its path to an absurdist worldview through the vicious circles influenced by the human activities, the godly whimsicalities of the mythology and controlled by the Absolute Creator of the Semites.
From the oral and audible past, versatile threads of human feelings and thoughts having crisscrossed through different religions, pantheistic views, rituals, cultural, traditional and the borrowed conceptual and literary materials came like different tributaries to be merged into an invisible ocean-like canopy with which the world literature was being covered into such a canopy that continued to be interwoven through various thought-provoking, pragmatic and aesthetic expressions and ideas every moment until being able to produce a visible pattern, ie a written form of literature, mostly epics, like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid of the pre-Christian era. Indeed, ‘most great epics are widely considered to be embodiments of oral tradition, folk poetry, myth and ritual (Lauri Honko, ‘The Kalevala and the World’s Epics: An Introduction’, Religion, Myth and Religion in the World’s Epics, ed Lauri Honko, Berlin; NY: Walter de Gruyter & Co, 1990; p 1). However, these Aryan and Homeric treasure-mines opened such a gateway through which began to come out different literary treasures expressing the feelings gushing from millions of minds of different parts of the world. That bountiful dissemination was the turning point of the world literature of the post-Christian era. That was such a scope from which different literary talents of different nations absorbed, into their hungry hearts with careful and pragmatic genius, elements of religion, mythology, heroism, individualism depending on and observing the trends of their own generation’s zeal and perspectives. When that kind of human intelligentsia did stand at the juncture of Indo-European and Indo-Iranian literature, they became so much curious, interested and amused as well to produce their own thread of feelings embedded in their own culture and tradition. But some of them did dare to show their feelings by following and sometimes even simulating the literature of their predecessors. Not that they began to hate their own cultural beauty and appeal; they were actually hypnotised with the innovative and exceptional beauty of the other domains of different taste. And that undiscovered appeal encouraged different authors and poets of different languages to try heart and soul to produce something different with foreign elements. Such a trend of being different and unique made the literary genius, generations after generations, develop a ‘modus operandi’ to produce such masterpieces as the Aeneid, the Beowulf, the Shahnama, the Paradise Lost, Meghnadbadh Kavya, Hektarbadh, Tilottamasambhava and Padmavati though these literary works were produced in different languages through centuries.
As the characters and ideas of the literary works originated from the same literary domain rooted deep into different languages, the nomenclature and its related issues seem to be different, though common in ideas and styles. Many similarities have been traced in the collective consciousness behind these works and the interaction among different nations in spite of their having apparent differences. There have been common mythological beliefs among ancient human beings that still manifest themselves in their psyche (thoughts and dreams) and artefacts (art and literature). As a result, the literary masterpieces of the world, including epics, often share common motifs, symbols, and mythological foundations.
Whatever genre or form — be it epic, poetry, poem, novel, play or any other form — these literary works possess, their inner knots of concepts are linked with each other in a common thread in the sense that heroes, heroines, gods, demigods therein perform their duties in the same manner using their own mother tongues. So thanks to the originals or the lesser means like translation, it would be possible to grasp the universal enlightenment from the religious values, mythological beauty, heroism and destructive wars visualised in the themes. We cannot help being astonished while observing in Shahnama the legendary Persian king Keyumars’ urges to the hero Hushang to take revenge for his own son Siyamak’s death against the ferocious demon (Abolqasem Ferdowsi. Sec 1: ‘The First Kings’, Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, trans Dick Davis, Washington, DC: Penguin Group, Mage publishers, 1997, 2000, 2004) in the same manner as having been shown by Hrothgar in the contemporary Anglo-Saxon literature, the legendary king of the Danes, to the hero Beowulf to take revenge for his people against the Biblical character, Cain’s (‘Qabil’ in Islamic History) descendant, the monster Grendel (Anonymous, Le Poème Anglo-Saxon de Beowulf, Vol II. Sec IX: p 416–422, trans Hubert Pierquin. Paris: Alphonse Picard & Fils Editeurs, 1912). Keeping aside the apparent difference between these two myths, it can easily be observed that their ‘esprit de corps’ is prominent — the heroic effort for the betterment of the humanity. As Pouneh Saeedi in his study of ‘the heroic’ in Beowulf, The Shahnameh explores:
‘Studies of the heroic enjoy a long history and a large degree of diversity with most of them concurring on the hero’s significant role in the history of the human race in terms of bringing about new patterns of power and major social changes.’ (Pouneh Saeedi. ‘Corporeal Configurations of the Heroic and Monstrous: A Comparative Study of “Beowulf”, “The Shahnameh” and “Tristan”’ Diss, Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Toronto, 2010)
Heroism, sacrifice and adventure through the activities of different characters like Rama, Ravana, Meghnad, Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Aeneas, etc have been visualised in the same energetic and heroic manner. Rama’s taking his heroic venture in Ramayana to fight against Ravana who, kidnapping his wife Sita (Sadguru Sant Keshavadas. ‘Aranya Kanda (Bk 3 out of 7 kandas in Ramayana, Ramayana at a Glance. Calcutta: Motilal Banarsidass Publications, 1988, p 23, 211) raised a conflict which led ultimately Ravana’s son Meghnad to death (Dutt, Michael Madhusudan. Meghnadbadh Kavya in The Complete Works of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Canto I, Verse: 1–3 and 270–273) can be compared with Hector’s having to sacrifice his life to Achilles for his brother Paris’ act of eloping with Helen (Homer, The Iliad, Episode 3, lines 53–54, trans Original by EV Rieu, revised and updated by Peter Jones with DCH Rieu, Penguin Classics; revised edition, 1988.) Not only their heroism but also their religious sacrifice to their own gods has caught our eyes in the same manner as has been observed in the speech of Odysseus regarding his sacrificial activities in the Odyssey:
‘Perimedes and Eurylochus restrained the sacrificial victims while I drew my sharp sword from its sheath, and with it dug a pit two feet square, then poured a libation all around to the dead, first of milk and honey, then of sweet wine, thirdly of water, sprinkled with white barley meal. Then I prayed devoutly to the powerless ghosts of the departed, swearing that when I reached Ithaca I would sacrifice a barren heifer in my palace, the best of the herd, and would heap the altar with rich spoils, and offer a ram, apart, to Teiresias, the finest jet-black ram in the flock. When, with prayers and vows, I had invoked the hosts of the dead, I led the sheep to the pit and cut their throats, so the dark blood flowed.’ (Homer, The Odyssey, XI: 1–50; translated into English prose by ASKline. Poetry in Translation: A complete English translation with hyper-linked index.)
Whereas, Aeneas’ speech regarding his sacrificial activities in the Aeneid:
‘I was offering sacrifice to Venus the mother and to other deities who might favour my undertaking, and also to the Supreme King of all the dwellers in Heaven. I was just about to sacrifice a handsome bull by the sea-shore.’ (Virgil, The Aeneid, III: 1-26; translated into English prose by WF Jackson Knight,. NY: Penguin Books, 1956.)
It is to be noted that the gods of Mahabharata, Ramayana, Iliad and Odyssey plot against each other for the sake of making their own worshippers win over the other worshippers. Besides, the same heroism can also be traced in the adventurous voyages made by the heroes — Aeneas in the epic Aeneid by Virgil and Odysseus in the epic Odyssey — in the perilous oceans confronting heroically untoward perils with their companions after the fall of Troy. However, Aeneas from the Trojan and Odysseus from the Greek, both the heroes have been seen to fall in the wraths of the goddess Juno and the god Poseidon respectively and treated by them in the same posture, i.e. making them fall in the storms to be drifted away. Such wrath of Poseidon towards Odysseus we observe in Poseidon’s thought in the Odyssey:
‘But now Lord Poseidon, the Earth-Shaker, returning from visiting Ethiopia, saw him far off from the Solvmi range, as he came in sight over the water: and the god, angered in spirit, shook his head, and said to himself: “Well now, while I was among the Ethiopians, the gods have certainly changed their minds about Odysseus!” Here he is, close to Phaeacian country, where he’s fated to escape his trials and tribulations. But I’ll give him his fill of trouble yet.’ (Homer, V: 262–332)
On the other hand, Juno’s wrath towards Aeneas has been clear at the time of Juno’s making her submissive appeal to Aeolus, the King of the Winds, to endanger the life of Aeneas in the sea- voyage in the Aeneid:
‘Now a certain people whom I hate are sailing on the Etruscan Sea, and conveying Troy itself and the vanquished gods of Trojan homes to Italy. Smite fury into your winds. Sink their ships; make the sea close over them. Or drive them apart, pitch out their crews, and scatter them on the deep.’ (Virgil, I:51–82)
So, through all these epics gods and goddesses are seen to walk sometimes in the even line with the human race. These human attributes of the mythological gods and goddesses indeed signify the respect for the victory of the agonised soul of the human race.
However, this direct link between the human race and the gods and goddesses of Hindu, Greek and Roman mythologies had to be confronted with the advent of one of the Semitic religions — Christianity! Later on, it is seen that the Hindu mythology is still being regarded as religion in Hinduism; whereas, the Greek and the Roman mythologies seem to be regarded as just stories and legends without historical backgrounds. This is how the outlook of literary themes of the two parts of the world began to move to two different directions. This change began to affect differently the mind-set of some occidental and oriental writers of the world. As a result, some writers of the eastern part continued to create their epics, novels, plays, poems, etc based on the mythological themes up to the 19th century; whereas, in the western part some writers began to turn gradually their mind-set from the influence of Homeric mythology to the era of Christianity-based themes. That gradually changed and developed the mentality of the western part and became prominent while being caught into our eyes with a common thread of mythological and ancient religious values between the Bengali literature of the nineteenth century and Greek literature or English literature of the seventieth century.
In creating such a common thread, Michael Madhusudan Dutt played a unique and dominant role in Bengali literature, as he was able to show his mastery over Greek and Hindu mythologies by inserting lots of elements thereof in his plays like Tilottamasambhav, Mayakanan, Krisnakumari and Padmavati; and prose works like Hektarbadh and especially his epic Meghnadbadh Kavya. Among them, Hektarbadh and Meghnadbadh Kavya are the brightest examples of that era to show the common heroic spirit embedded in those two mythologies. Even the act of quarrelling between goddesses like normal human beings for a simple matter like beauty-contest is interestingly and surprisingly supposed to be almost similar. It is observed that in his play Padmavati, based on the Hindu mythology, three goddesses like Murja, Sachi and Rati took part with a flower ‘padma’ in their beauty-contest in front of a king named Indraneel (Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Padmavati in the Complete Works of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Act I, lines: 62–69, ed Tapan Rudra, Dhaka: Salma Book Depot, 2012, p 237), whereas, in Iliad three goddesses, Hera (Juno in Roman), Athene (Minerva in Roman) and Aphrodite (Venus in Roman) took part with an apple in their beauty contest in front of a prince named Paris (p xiii of Peter Jones’ translated portion of the Iliad, and Herbert Jordan’s prologue to Homer’s Iliad). In another epic Tilottamasambhav, the Hindu gods and goddesses call in their blacksmith named ‘Vishwakarma’ to implement their plans (Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Tilottamasambhav in the Complete Works of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Canto iii, Verse: 328–333, ed Tapan Rudra, Dhaka: Salma Book Depot, 2012, p 29) just like Greek and Roman gods and goddesses’ getting help from their blacksmiths named ‘Hephaestus’ and ‘Vulcan’ respectively to implement their plans (Homer, the Iliad. Ch I: Verse: 605–608). We cannot even avoid the subtle similarity between the wife of Bath having five husbands in the Chaucerian literature the Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer. the Canterbury Tales. ‘Fragment iii’,Verse: 5–6, a verse translation by David Wright Oxford: OUP, 1985, p 150) and Draupadi’s having five ‘pandavas’ as husbands in Mahabharata (Manmatha Nath Dutt, Vana Parva, Bk 3 out of 18 books in Mahabharata, Ch: I-X, A Prose English Translation of the Mahabharata (translated literally from the original Sanskrit text), Calcutta, 1896, p 1-14). Such is the similarity which indicates the same tone prevailing in the activities of gods and goddesses of the mythologies in the two parts of the world.
Therefore, through these literary works of the occidental and the oriental parts of the world, it can easily be realised that the universal feeling and viewpoint towards religion, mythology and heroism had a common base prone to pantheism within which gods and human beings were inter-related before the advent of Semitic religions all over the world. Of these gradually expanded religions, Christianity worked as the most influential impulse for literary thoughts and insights of the intelligentsia for more than thousand years all over the western part of the world, especially, the Anglo-Saxon literature. Andrew Lang in his Myth, Ritual and Religion explores the background showing how Christianity remained influential over other myths:
‘When Christianity became powerful, the Christian writers naturally attacked heathen religion where it was most vulnerable, on the side of the myths, and of the mysteries which were dramatic representations of the myths. “Pretty gods you worship,” said the Fathers, in effect, “homicides, adulterers, bulls, bears, mice, ants, and what not.” The heathen apologists for the old religions were thus driven in the early ages of Christianity to various methods of explaining away the myths of their discredited religion.’ (Andrew Lang, Myth, Ritual and Religion, two volumes in one, NY: Cosimo Inc, 2011. p 19)
From these religious values and thoughts emerged out such masterpiece as the Paradise Lost in which John Milton produced Biblical effects absorbing the required themes from the Old Testament of the Bible signifying the revolting role of Satan against God. That was really a bold step at that time to portray ‘the rebel against the God’ as a hero committed to realise the downfall of the mankind without denying the nobility of the almighty God. Satan declares ‘Here at last [in Hell] | We shall be free; the almighty […] will not drive us hence: […] Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven!’ (John Milton, Paradise Lost, Ed Christopher Ricks, London: Penguin Books, 1968, bk I: 258–260, 263). The same motif is to be noted in the masterpiece Meghnadbadh Kavya the theme of which was selected from the required portion of Hindu’s religious book, Ramayana. In this epic, Madhusudan dared to uphold the dignity of Ravana as a hero committed to cause the downfall of Rama and Laksmana, the representatives of the mankind though they were always under the mercy of the Hindu gods. Whatever the difference between Christianity and Hinduism remains, the common spirit of heroism against the logical downfall of mankind has been reflected through the artistic and eloquent contribution made by John Milton of the 17th century and Michael Madhusudan Dutt of the 19th century.
Despite such different viewpoints and insights provoked by the literary genius like John Milton, some special literary works were created with the full zeal for Christianity by John Bunyan who directly encouraged the readers in the Pilgrim’s Progress to understand the Bible and to become a true Christian. Christian, the protagonist who represents a role of a follower of Christianity, in the very beginning, realises his deplorable condition in the City of Destruction from his reading of the book in his hands which represents the Bible and tries to find out his questions ‘What shall I do?’ (John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress. NY: Penguin Books, 1965, 1987, p 51) and ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ (ibid, p52): ‘Sir, I perceive by the book in my hand that I am condemned to die, and after that to come to judgment; and I find that I am not willing to do the first, nor able to do the second.’ (ibid, 52) Christian, directed by Evangelist who represents true spiritual guide, eventually finds his answer and starts his journey for spiritual salvation to the Celestial City crying out ‘Life, life, eternal life.’ (ibid, 53) But Bunyan’s sticking to the preaching of Christian belief had not been able to convince Leo Tolstoy’s Christian mind of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century while it is observed that in Anna Karenina, Constantine Dmítrich Lévin remembers:
‘—if the principal proof of the existence of a deity is His revelation of what is good, why is that revelation continued to the Christian church alone? What relation to that revelation have the Buddhist and the Mahomedan faiths, which also teach and do good?’ (Lev Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, Vol 2, Part viii, Ch xviii; trans. Louise & Aylmer Maude. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1995, p 802)
Although Bunyan was 200 years away from Tolstoy, these two religious minded literary genius had actually nurtured a common belief of religious good in two different perspectives and been common in thinking of the importance of religious influence for the welfare of mankind.
However, it is also true that this type of religious zeal has been distracted by the tendency of preferring to yield to self-damnation to follow the will of God to uphold individualism. So, this audacious attitude of being anti-God has been visualised by Christopher Marlowe in Doctor Faustus in which Faustus utters such words: Che sera, sera, ‘What will be shall be’ (Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 1.1.46, Dover Thrifth Editions, ed Thomas Croft. NY: Dover Publications, Inc, 1994), has been ultimately damned and doomed for his individualistic mind-set and limitless pride for his own intellect like the proud Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Satan has invited his damnation uttering: ‘Evil be thou my God’ (John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed Christopher Ricks, London: Penguin Books, 1968, B IV, Line 110). Deliberately, Faustus and Satan have chosen the wrong refusing to submit and to repent, knowing fully what they are doing.
This sort of anti-God haughtiness was getting gradually rooted deep into the minds of some writers of the next generation of Marlowe and Milton along with the alluring existence of materialism and destructive wars like the World War I and the World War II, one after another through the centuries, paved in the world literature the way to welcome those types of literary genius who began to observe the human life from a very different, neutral and critical way believing only what they can see, feel and sense. They wanted no more the inexplicable religious issues, heroism in wars for upholding the human dignity and mythological fancies or the unseen. They began to take refuge in the domain of introvert, self-opinionated and individualistic mind-set where they would be able to explain on the basis of the true circumstances created by the predecessors and the contemporaries as well around them. From that mind-set emerged out a common thread of ungodly existentialism nurtured as brain-child of some literary genius like Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Albert Camus, Akhteruzzaman Elias, Patrick Modiano creating another knot to be linked with the very common thread worthy to be woven into the vast canopy of world literature.
To be concluded.
Mohammad Khabir Uddin is an instructor of English and French and a researcher.
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