By Dr. Peter Singer
The Sanskrit Reading Room welcomed Dr Simon Brodbeck from Cardiff University on 17 January 2018. It was the second time we had hosted a scholar from that institution and, as on the previous occasion (with Dr James Hegarty), we were treated to a fascinating and illuminating presentation based on a work-in-progress translation of a classical Sanskrit text – this time the Harivaṃśa of Vyāsa.
In strikingly lucid and thoughtful style, Dr Brodbeck, after first outlining the nature and structure of the Harivaṃśa (and drawing our attention to the basic issues in the text’s manuscript tradition), presented us with a detailed analysis of one particular episode, from section 83 of the work – the dragging of the river Yamunā by Balarāma – which he also contextualized within the broader narrative structure in order to highlight its salient themes. Three major strands in recent interpretation of the text were identified, and Dr Brodbeck’s own analysis – focussing especially on sexual violence as well as on psychological or psychosocial themes in the text – placed in relation to those.
The Harivaṃśa is a tailpiece to the Mahābhārata; it can be characterized in a way as a supplement containing the episodes of the legend not found elsewhere in the great epic (those which had nothing to do with the war between the Kauravas and the Pāņḍavas), and offering a range of other stories concerning Kṛṣṇa.
Our session had one particular episode from the Harivaṃśa at its centre, namely that in which Kṛṣṇa’s brother Balarāma drags or ‘ploughs’ the river Yamunā. At one level, the story is clearly an aetiological myth explaining the present course of the river and the fact that it fertilizes the plains of Mathurā and Vṛndāvana. But the narrative is replete with sexual imagery – Yamunā becomes a woman whom Balarāma violently assaults – as well as raising questions of the role and function of Balarāma in the narrative, especially in relation to his brother Kṛṣṇa; and it is these aspects especially that were explored.
Here, we considered Balarāma as an elder brother whose deeds and status are problematically ‘overstepped’ by the younger brother, Kṛṣṇa (with reference to parallel cases of such overstepping, e.g. that of Yudhiṣṭhira by Arjuna, which is central to the Mahābhārata). There is a psychological dimension here – how does Balarāma react to his younger brother’s exploits? – and it is relevant to observe how differently their exploits and experiences are presented in the narrative.
The Yamunā episode is immediately preceded by fight scenes against Jarāsandha, in which Balarāma’s plough plays an important role, and by Balarāma’s return to Vṛndāvana, which is presented as a sort of coming-of-age.
We may, however, contrast the depiction of Balarāma ‘enjoying himself’ in the forest with that of Kṛṣṇa. In an extraordinarily sensual scene, the latter is shown revelling in pleasures, including sexual ones, in a way that Balarāma is not. There is significance, too, in the way that the consensual nature of the activity is highlighted in this scene of Kṛṣṇa’s sexual abandon – he is presented, in quite explicit terms, as the object of sexual attention of a large number of cowgirls – and that this is thrown into relief by a scene immediately following (with bulls and heifers) highlighting the possibility and nature of non-consensual sexual activity.
When we come to the episode involving Balarāma and Yamunā itself, the sexual as well as the non-consensual nature of the encounter is clear. The plough itself seems clearly to be represented at some level as a phallic image. On some levels it is an incongruous choice of weapon, but one constantly associated with Balarāma in literature and iconography; indeed the name Halāyudha, one of several used for him in the narrative, derives from this. It is also conceived (from as early as the Ṛgveda) as distinctively the weapon against the wilderness, that which tames – again with specifically sexual connotations.
In this context it was interesting to consider the myth of Sītā emerging from a furrow ploughed by the king, her father Janaka, and the various interpretations that can be placed upon it. Should such a mythical account be taken ‘at face value’ – or perhaps as somehow co-existing with a natural birth account? Or should it be taken as purely metaphorical? In discussion some pointed to the prevalence of such non-sexual accounts in divine births throughout Indian mythology, and it was also suggested that there are kings who plough and sow in other Indian myths; Dr Brodbeck pointed to the sexual imagery in play in this use of ‘ploughing’, as well as to the standard linguistic usage associating ‘field’ with ‘wife’, and suggested that we should take the myth of Sītā’s birth as metaphorically representing natural, sexual reproduction.
To return to the episode itself: Balarāma’s importunate address to Yamunā, her intriguing response to it – where, in her reluctance to comply, she is described as ‘confused by her nature as a woman’ (strīsvabhāvena mohitā) – and the further verbal exchange between them at the end of the episode all rewarded further exploration.
Dr Brodbeck drew attention especially to the interpretive approaches of Couture, Vemsani and Sanford. Couture emphasizes the nature of Balarāma and Kṛṣṇa as aspects of Viṣṇu, and, in a deep theological interpretation, suggests that the destabilized behaviour of Balarāma in our scene – his tendency to invert the natural cosmic order – is due to his temporary separation from his brother. Vemsani meanwhile stresses Balarāma’s association with fertility cults, suggesting (what is not explicit in the text) that his main purpose was to reroute the river through Braj. Dr Brodbeck’s own interpretation was closer to that of Sanford, who pays attention to the psychosocial aspect of the episode, pointing out its violent dissonance with the ‘Braj pastoral’, and highlighting the themes of rape and of the plough as phallic image.
What, though, are we to make of that puzzling phrase strīsvabhāvena mohitā, with its implication that things could have been different if Yamunā’s response had been different – or, indeed, of her impassioned plea to be returned to her previous course after the assault (something dissonant with the sexual metaphor, since sexual acts in their nature cannot be undone)? Problematic, too, is Balarāma’s response to this, which seems to suggest that she should be happy, or at least at peace, because his fame will endure through her.
The first of these problems is particularly challenging. It seems to be implied that some response was possible whereby Yamunā was neither taken by force nor complied voluntarily – but what response? And is it that she does not see this possibility because she is a woman, or that she does see it, but because she is a woman, decides not to pursue it? The text is mysterious. Whatever the precise interpretation, it seems unavoidable to conclude that some deficiency is being attributed to the female Yamunā – a ‘deficiency’ which can, for the contemporary reader, serve at best as the mote which throws into violent relief the beam of Balarāma’s transgression.
Those present were grateful to Dr Brodbeck for a highly engaging textual analysis which at the same time provoked thought in relation to a number of areas – brother-brother relations, sexual imagery and sexual violence, metaphorical or literal interpretations of birth narratives, patrilinearity, the religious and psychosocial function of mythic characters – far beyond the confines of this particular text.
Dr Peter Singer is Research Fellow in Classics at Birkbeck, University of London.
For further work by Dr Brodbeck please see:
Brodbeck, Simon Pearse. The Mahabharata Patriline: Gender, Culture, and the Royal Hereditary. Routledge, 2017.
Brodbeck, Simon, and Black, Brian, eds. Gender and Narrative in the Mahabharata. Routledge, 2007.