Freud's Mahabharata

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Alf Hiltebeitel
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As one of the two major epic poems in the Sanskrit tradition, the Mahabharata occupies a position of preeminence in the literary imagination of South Asia. Its influence has been far reaching, providing a foundation for various adaptations into courtly and non-courtly performance and literary genres, as well as yielding a rich corpus of criticism and philosophical interpretation. Despite the seemingly obvious literary merit of the text however, it has, for the most part, been studied as a religious text, mostly due to its association with the Bhagavat Gitā, arguably the most important treatise on morality for the Srivaisnavā community. There is no question that the Mahābhārata is undoubtedly a dhārmic text, while also being a masterpiece of literature and therefore amenable to interpretation and query, an idea that Alf Hiltebeitel’s Freud’s Mahābhārata, engages with considerable success. The accumulation of a lifetime’s effort, the book offers a “pointillist introduction” (ix) to the epic, while engaging with the psychoanalytic approaches offered by Sigmund Freud and his Indian compatriot—Girindrasekhar Bose.

This book is a companion volume to Hiltebeitel’s Freud’s India (Oxford University Press, 2018). However, unlike the case with most companion volumes, it offers a distinct argument and works to complement rather than explicate the latter. Hiltebeitel’s own description of his work as “pointillist” is not erroneous, as the text is emphatically non-linear and contains a multiplicity of vantage points from which one might read it. As such, it mimics the hermeneutics of the Mahābhārata itself, by offering its reader an original and textually explicit form of reading, one that is perhaps counterintuitive to the standard idea of a monograph. This is not a detriment, but instead, permits readers to read across and into the subject matter, while marveling at the perspicacity of its author in allowing for such a framed reading. Hiltebeitel suggests the idea of the “pointillist” in reference to his first chapter, yet one can easily and organically extend that idea to the rest of the book.

Aimed at situating the Mahābhārata in the world of Freud and Bose, or equally, to situate Freud and Bose in the world of the Mahābhārata, the book “offers a new theory of the Mahābhārata that can be called “Freud’s Mahābhārata” because he inspired it” (ix). Whether this is ultimately what the work does is up for debate, precisely because it is so uneven in its foci as to engender a variety of theories, or conversations about the text. Hiltebeitel himself offers us a new way of engaging with Anandavardhana’s interpretation of the dominant rasa, by suggesting that the epic draws its engaged reader or sahrdya into the mood of wonder, of adbhuta rather than santa or peace. This theoretical stance runs through the text as an implicit undertone, often challenging the Freudian basis of Hiltebeitel’s claim. The use of Freud’s Uncanny in chapter 1, presents the reader with an interpretative framework that is rooted in wonder, in the moment between belief and disbelief. Hiltebeitel argues that the similarities between the Uncanny and its three classes- “of experiences drawn from individual childhood. . . , experiences of ghosts and doubles. . . [and] literary reality effects elicited by skilled authors” (6); the Mahabharata with its elements of fantasy, are more than one would imagine, and that the two bodies of work are reflective of one another. The Uncanny for Hiltebeitel, is to be found across the Mahābhārata, highlighted in an introductory excerpt from the epic that places the figure of Krishna both within a primordial narrative, and in the frame that the narrative is located in.

Thus, Krishna is doubled as both cosmogonic, and as present in the company of his friends, who are confronted with the disconcerting image of their compatriot being more than what they see. This instability between the familiar and the unfamiliar, where the recognizable becomes strange or goes out of focus, is the moment of the uncanny. The Mahābhārata itself would categorize the doubling as part of Krishna’s maya, a word that has several significations both within and without the context of the epic itself. As such, Hiltebeitel draws these two oeuvres into conversation, and opines that they “forge a new consciousness of a civilization” (32), which a reader can take to mean South Asia in the case of the epic, and the West for Freud.

Hiltebeitel then proceeds to extend his insight into psychoanalytic theory through an elucidation of various conceptual frames such as the “dead mother” and the Oedipal mother-myth, linking these ideas with anthropological studies of the Kuttantavar cult in Tamil Nadu, and the community of eunuchs who refer to themselves as Allis or Aravanis, and venerate the heroic figure of Iravan or Aravan from one of the Mahābhārata’s minor narratives. The book is less concerned with explaining the context of these narratives, than it is with the extension of its ideological and theoretical aims, which become clear as one reads through Freud’s Mahābhārata. The epic does not lead its reader towards tranquility; rather, it guides one towards a sense of surprise and astonishment at the vivacity and dynamicity of Krishna’s maya, which influences key events in the epic and acts to highlight the power of the divine through doubling, individual experience, and the force of its fantastical poetry. This last point is further developed through Hiltebeitel’s readings of the Aravani origin myth, a scene involving the doubling of the mother-figure Kunti, and Goddess figures in the epic.

Hiltebeitel is, however, cognizant of the scattered nature of his readings and offers readers a radical reimagination of the role played by the trauma of the urban space, that affected or underscored the compilation of the Mahābhārata by unknown brahmins in the early centuries of the Common Era. In doing so, the author invokes Freud’s essay on Moses and Monotheism, using its argument of underlying trauma in the constitution of religious traditions, to advance their claims. As such, the book sticks to its pointillist tone, perhaps forcing this reader to consider whether the work is aptly named at all. Indeed, one would not be remiss in reading the work as “Hiltebeitel on Freud and the Mahābhārata,” nor find oneself in an erroneous position by saying that the work is less about Freud and more about its author and his reading of the Mahābhārata itself. Freud haunts the critique like a lingering scent but adds little weight to a work that is carried by the incisive and thoughtful interpretation given by Hiltebeitel.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Manasvin Rajagopalan is a doctoral student in Comparative Literature and Religion at the University of California, Davis.

Date of Review: 
September 5, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alf Hiltebeitel is Professor of Religion at George Washington University. He works mainly on the two Sanskrit epics, the Mah.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.