I was reading this book called ‘Sapiens: A brief history of humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari. It suggested that one of the major factors that humankind was able to create and sustain such a large society, (probably larger than any animal on the planet) is because of their rapid pace of imagination and their ability to collectively believe in it. According to him the law and order, religion, ideas of justice, and human rights all are a part of human imagination and do not exist in the real or natural world. Since we, Homo sapiens, have been successfully able to share and collectively believe in these ideas quite strongly, they have become part of our reality or as he calls it “the imagined reality”. One such imagined reality which humans have believed for ages is the mythological stories. Both Greek and Indian mythology like Mahabharata, Ramayan, Achilles, etc have been important and held a significant place.
Mythologies in different religions of the world have influenced our societies for centuries. What is interesting to note is that these imagined stories, which have developed independently in different parts of the world when cultural exchanges were not possible (as per the evidence available), most of them have striking similarities. Why is it so? In this article, we’ll try to explore such similarities between Greek and Indian mythology through the story and character analysis of Achilles and towards the end try to understand the reasons for this similarity.
Achilles is one of the main protagonists from Homer’s Iliad, born to a sea nymph Thetis and King Peleus. His character of a tragic war hero, filled with pride and the way he died can be paralleled to several characters from Hindu mythology the Mahabharata, which like the Iliad is a story of war, hyper-masculinity, and violence considered to be instigated by women.
Achilles’ character appears to be perfect and praiseworthy but it is flawed as most of the characters from the Mahabharata. Achilles was filled with pride and was considered to be stubborn just like Karna (which was one of the major reasons for his tragic fate). When Agamemnon takes away the woman named Briseis who was supposed to be Achilles’ war prize, this hurts his ego. Achilles prays for the devastation of the Agamemnon and his army, which is why he refuses to fight the Trojan War from their side.
This is very similar to what Karna had experienced when he was rejected by Draupadi before getting married to Arjuna, hurting his pride. Therefore, even though he was given a chance to fight alongside the Pandavas, he declined. His ego and his feelings of vengeance towards Arjun were important factors influencing this decision. Another way one can draw parallels between Karna and Achilles is that they were both loyal friends. Achilles initially abstained from the war until his best friend Patroclus died. Karna too didn’t want the war to happen but he was a fiercely loyal friend of Duryodhana and thus, fought for his side.
The famous proverb “Achilles heel” comes from the mythology that the mother of Achilles Thetis dipped him in the river of Styx. This made him invincible except the part of his heels from which his mother held him in the water. During the war, stopping Achilles had become the priority for the Trojans as he was destroying their army aggressively. Eventually, Paris killed him with a poisonous arrow in his heel. In Mahabharata, Duryodhana had received a similar boon from his mother Gandhari.
Before the war, she asked him to come and see her without clothes as she had been blessed with the ability to turn such person invincible who she sees first after removing bandages from her eyes. But, Shri Krishna tricked Duryodhana by saying that it would be indecent to go in front of your mother in that state and convinced him to cover himself with at least a loincloth.
When Gandhari opened her eyes and saw Duryodhana, her boon made his entire body invincible apart from the lower body, and later in the war, Bheema killed Duryodhana by attacking his weak spot. In both the war stories craftiness of using the enemy’s weak spot has been presented. So the Indian and Greek mythology are not just similar by a certain character’s personality (like Achilles) but also the way the story has been plotted and the essence of what happens in a war. Ironically Krishna, who tricked Duryodhana to help Pandavas, dies from a poisonous arrow in his heel after the war was over.
It’s fascinating to observe that at the time these mythologies of Achilles and Mahabharata were written there is no evidence that one was influenced by the other, rather they might have developed independently. This kind of similarity was first observed by the British Philologist F. Max Muller in 1856 and he then introduced comparative mythology. His observation was based on the Indo-European language and that many of its ancient words and names in texts and mythologies were very similar.
He assumed that rather than these languages being distantly related they might have originated from the same one. So, there are two possible theories for it, one, there could be a common heritage which later diffused and second, given by Jung’s theory- that humans have a certain archetype of thinking whereby the mind creates similar answers for similar kind of existential questions raised.
Critics of comparative mythology say that the similarities in the mythologies are just superficial. It might be true, but, it is still important to look at them in this view because it reveals that despite differences in our socio-cultural practices, the way we think and the essence of our mythologies are so strikingly similar that they continue to influence our societies till today. As perplexing as it sounds but our imagination and its capacity to create “imagined reality” share a deeper relationship than we realize and the heroic story of Achilles is just one of them.