The Iliad is a Greek epic poem that was written sometime between the 6th and the 8th centuries B.C. in ancient Greece. The Mahabharata is an ancient epic poem as well, but from India, dating back to the 6th century B.C. Due to the fact that the two were written in separate countries that had minimal or no contact with each other during that period, there are many differences in themes and values within the two stories. However, along with these differences exist numerous similarities as well.
Both The Mahabharata and The Iliad are about wars that started mainly because of kings or princes and their flawed characters. In The Iliad, the Trojan War began because Paris, a prince of Troy, stole King Menelaus’ wife, Helen. However, the war was also driven by the greed of Agamemnon, a powerful and fearsome king. Meanwhile, in The Mahabharata, the war began mostly because of Duryodhana’s jealousy of the Pandavas. The royalty of both stories have flaws in their characters that force their countries and people into war. In conjunction, the two stories both contain important moral lessons. The Iliad demonstrates the negative consequences of greed and selfishness, characteristics of both Paris and Agememnon, while The Mahabharata discourages jealousy, a trait of Duryodhana.
The two stories also possess religious aspects, and stress the importance of listening to and heeding “prophecies”. In both pieces of literatures, a king is informed of a prophecy predicting the destruction that would be caused by one of his sons. In The Iliad, the prophecy was about Paris, and foresaw him as the cause of Troy’s destruction. Meanwhile, in The Mahabharata, it was about Duryodhana. It was foretold that Duryodhana would bring about the destruction of the entire universe. During the times in which these two stories were written, people truly believed in prophecies and their ability to predict the future. Therefore, an intended lesson in both stories could be that it is important to listen to and prophecies. However, another possible message is that being observant and thinking about consequences is crucial; one must always think about one’s actions and their possible impacts on the future, as well as whether they are morally correct.
As mentioned previously, The Mahabharata and The Iliad both possess religious elements. In both stories, religion is very important to the characters, and the people worship multiple Gods. Prior to the wars, Radheya prays to the sun while Briseis prays to the Sun God, Apollo. Moreover, in both, the Gods occasionally interact with the humans. In The Illiad, for example, Achilles is the son of a goddess and a mortal king. When he wants to kill Agamemnon, he is stopped directly by Athena, goddess of war. In The Mahabharata, Radheya is the son of Kunti and the sun (a God). Krishna himself is the Lord of the Universe, and was born in human form to protect the good and “destroy the wicked”. Both pieces of literature contain the idea that multiple Gods exists, and that these Gods care about mankind enough so that they concern themselves with human affairs. In both stories, the Gods favor certain mortals and protect them. Therefore, it is implied that worshipping the Gods and striving to please them is important, and in fact was a tremendous part of the lives of ancient Greeks and Indians. These facts are depicted in both The Mahabharata and The Iliad.
Both The Mahabharata and The Iliad display people as belongings of the king; the king possesses everyone. In the game of dice between Yudhisthira and Duryodhana in The Mahabharata, Yudhistera wagers his four brothers, as well as their wife, Draupadi. They all belong to him since he is the eldest brother and the king, and therefore he cause use them as possessions to bet with. This is very similar to The Iliad and King Agamemnon’s view of his people. Agamemnon arrogantly believes that everyone belongs to him and should obey his every command. This is depicted in his dishonorable treatment of Achilles, his most skillful fighter. Furthermore, both stories present women as prizes that men can do anything they want with. When Duryodhana wins Draupadi in the game of dice, he exclaims, “This is the happiest day of my life, Draupadi is our slave.” In The Iliad, captured women are given to soldiers as prizes for their brave and skilled fighting. For instance, Briseis, a Trojan, is awarded to Achilles during the Trojan War because of his tremendous contributions to the Achaean army.
Another similarity between The Mahabharata and The Iliad is the high esteem in which skilled warriors are held. In both stories, great fighters are respected and honored, and it seems that the ability to fight is one emphasized for men, especially for those of royalty. The Pandavas and Duryodhana are all skillful warriors, as are Hektor, Agamemnon, and Menelaos. Many of these characters are labeled as “the best” in their kingdom for a certain aspect of fighting. It seems that in the ancient Greek and Indian cultures, great emphasis was placed on learning how to fight. Related to this is the “glory” with which war is associated. Bheesma, of The Mahabharata, addresses his troops right before the war, saying “ ‘It is not glorious for a warrior to die in his bed, to die after an illness. A warrior should die only on the battlefield.’” In this story, dying while fighting is depicted as honorable and “glorious”. The same occurs in The Iliad, where Helen is ashamed when Paris doesn’t want to battle in the war. The fact that Paris doesn’t want to fight is viewed as a sign of weakness and cowardliness, two extremely undesirable traits in men. Achilles also seems to possess the opinion that dying in war is the only honorable way to die, since he fights in the Trojan War despite his mother’s prophecy that he would not live to return home.
An interesting similarity between The Mahabharata and The Iliad is that the friendship between Duryodhana and Radheya seems to mirror that of Achilles and Patroklus. In The Iliad, Achilles refuses to fight for the Trojans after he is disgraced by King Agamemnon. However, after his close friend, Patroklus is killed by Hektor, Achilles’ desire for vengeance overpowers his anger at Agamemnon, and he returns to the war to avenge his beloved friend, Radheya. He claims that he cannot live without Radheya, and says all he wants now is death. There are various interpretations of the friendships between these men, some of which hint at them possibly having homosexual relationships. However, the more common interpretation is that they were simply very close friends, and the death of one had a traumatic impact on the other.
Another intriguing similarity between the two stories is the great emphasis placed on the “beautiful women” in them. Both pieces of literature utilize vivid imagery to describe these women, and the women are always called the “most beautiful in the entire kingdom”, or something to that effect. Helen of The Iliad is considered the most beautiful woman in the world, and the Trojan War is in part, fought because of her. In The Mahabharata, Hidimbi, Draupadi, and Subhadra, the wives of various Pandava brothers, are all described as “beautiful” as well. It seems that beauty was highly esteemed in both the ancient Greek and Indian cultures, and stories were written simply to describe the beauty of certain women.
Although The Iliad and The Mahabharata were written and set in vastly different cultures, they share many similarities such as the themes and values they possess. War is considered honorable and glorious, women are possessions, and all-powerful Gods interact with mankind.