The rage of the warrior in literature

A battle scene from the Mahabharata – Wikimedia Commons

I previously discussed how strong emotions such as grief and rage well up from a very deep place within the self, expressing themselves in ways which go beyond the usual range of human expression, and how, according to the Indian tradition, the first poetic verse utterance emerged as an expression of deep sorrow.  We see this particularly in the expression of rage on the battlefield, as will be described here.

In Indian literature, curses by spiritually powerful figures are potent enough to change the course of events, perhaps because it is the culmination of a long period of solitary meditation by the sage, which has strengthened his own inner resolve and focus.  When the sage Durvāsa, acting in sudden anger, lays a curse upon Śakuntalā, he is compared to a blazing fire in the following words –

“This is not just anybody.  This is the great sage Durvāsa who is quick to anger … Who else but fire [personified] is capable of burning.”

[from Abhijñāna-Śākuntalam Act 4; my own translation]

Warriors in battle are similarly frequently compared to a burning fire or to the blazing sun in their terrible and glorious energy.  As Vaughan Pilikian explains –

“Though the action of the battle appears profane, war is connected to sacrifice as ritual, a correspondence the epic’s bards well understood.  Warriors blaze like pyres or suns and in doing so bring to mind the burning heat generated in the austerities of holy men or the ritual fires of the sacrifice. … The very plain on which the two sides contend is described in he Veda as the altar of the gods.”

[Mahābhārata Book 7 Drona Volume Two, Introduction, p.xviii]

Thus when Abhimanyu enters the battle, his effect on some enemy fighters is vividly described as follows –

“They were greatly afraid, like villagers in a forest when a wildfire comes burning through the palm-tree forests all around them … As he slew enemies with supreme weapons, his brilliant splendour was seen burning in all directions.”

[from Mahābhārata Drona Parvan; my own translation]

When Abhimanyu is slain, his father Arjuna is filled with intense rage and vows to take his revenge by killing Jayadratha in the following harrowing terms –

“Nothing can protect that enemy of mine, not the moving or the unmoving, not what is in this world or what is beyond, not Brahma, not the gods, not the sages, not the ancestors, not spirits that move around at night, not snakes, not birds, not asuras, suras or humans.”

[from Mahābhārata Drona Parvan; my own translation]

The subsequent fury of Arjuna on the battlefield is depicted in vivid language and graphic detail, as we see here –

“At the ferocious muhūrta, Arjuna appeared alongside thousands.  Wild beasts gave terrifying screams, and inauspicious jackals appeared.  A clamour broke out on the south side of our army.  Sparks flew all around, burning with destruction.  The whole earth shook as dreadful fear arose.  Winds in all directions blew up a harsh hail of pebbles that caused destruction to the armies …

“‘This is Arjuna!’ – ‘Where is Arjuna?’ – ‘Here is Arjuna!’ [they cried out] as Arjuna moved ghost-like among your soldiers in that battle.  They even slew each other, themselves and others, confused by the moment into thinking it was Arjuna.  Many heroes fell, calling out for their friends, screaming, bloody, numb, in agony.  With javelins, with arrows, with spears, swords and axes, with helmets, with knives, with quivers and lances, with arrows, armour and jewellery, with maces and armrings, with iron-studded clubs, they writhed and twisted like great snakes all over the battlefield.”

[Mahābhārata Drona Parvan Chapter 64 verses 3cd-7 & 42-47ab; my own translation]

We may compare similar depictions of rage in other epic literature, such as the rage of Achilles after the death of Patroclus, which is equally intense, as he addressed the slaughtered and dying Hektor with the following words –

“I just wish there was a way for my raging heart to let me
carve your raw flesh and eat it, in return for what you’ve done …
not even if they were ordered to pay me your weight in gold
by Priam, Dardanos’s son: not even so
will your lady mother lay you, the son she bore, on a bier
and mourn you: no, dogs and birds will eat every last scrap of you.”

[The Iliad: A New Translation by Peter Green; Book 22 lines 345-346 & 349-354]

Likewise, there is  the rage of Beowulf in the battle with Grendel’s mother, which is similarly motivated by a desire for revenge for the slaughter of his allies –

“Then, in a fury, he flung his sword away … and laid about him in a battle frenzy … The warrior determined to take revenge for every gross act Grendel had committed … Beowulf in his fury now settled that score …”

[Beowulf, a new verse translation by Seamus Heaney, pp.107-109, lines 1531, 1539, 1577-8, 1584-5]

Indeed, in all these various examples, although the intense rage and fury that is manifested on the battlefield in scenes such is a sudden outburst from a previously calm state, nevertheless it is motivated by a previous experience that has deeply impacted the mind of the warrior.  In this sense, the rage of the warrior is the result of a process of psychological build-up of emotion to such a degree that it is capable of manifesting an intensity that is seemingly beyond the normal range of human expression.

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