Cutting the Red Cord of Vengeance
The Oresteia and the Mahabharata
In a production of the Oresteia for the Court Theatre at the University of Chicago in 1984, a production directed by Nick Rudall, for which David Grene and I provided a new translation, the chain of revenge was expressed in a literal red thread, beginning as a long narrow piece of red cloth that flowed from Iphigeneia’s fatal wound in the style of the Noh theatre, then becoming the purple carpet of hubris that Clytemnestra lures Agamemnon into stepping upon, then the cloth soaked with Agamemnon’s blood, and so forth. In contemplating this imagery and this chain, I was struck by the contrast with the meditation on the chain of revenge that occurs at the end of the great Sanskrit Epic, the Mahabharata, closer to Homer than to Aeschylus, but part of the same world. The Mahabharata invents a way to put an end to the endless killings, when the gods do not intervene to stop the war on earth (on the contrary: they constantly intervene to keep it going) but, in the aftermath in heaven, offer a revolutionary challenge to the warrior ethic on which the entire text is based: a call to the warriors in heaven to abandon their manyu, an untranslatable word that encompasses the concepts of bravado, machismo, pride, arrogance, hot temper, aristocratic arrogance, ag-gressive volatility, warrior pride, and vengeful anger.
Wendy Doniger, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, is the author of over forty books on Hinduism and mythology. Her work on mythology addresses themes in cross-cultural expanses, such as death, dreams, evil, horses, sex, and women; while her publications on Hinduism cover a broad spectrum that, in addition to mythology, considers literature, law, gender, and zoology. Doniger has written hundreds of articles in journals, magazines and newspapers. She edited (together with Jack Miles) the volume Hinduism for the Norton Anthology of World Religions (2014).