Similarities Between the Characters in the Iliad and Mahabharata

Similarities Between the Characters in the Iliad and Mahabharata

By Milana Carse

When discussing classical epics, little consideration is given to their overlap. Often, a line is drawn between the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean Sea and those further east. The cultures of Ancient Greece and India are viewed as independent and unrelated, and are treated as such.

Historically, however, these two cultures interacted significantly, most notably with the arrival of Alexander the Great of Macedonia in western India in 326 BCE. Such overlap is apparent in the
similarities between two of the most famous ancient epics: the Iliad and the Mahabharata. The Iliad is an Ancient Greek epic that tells the story of the Trojan War between the neighboring Greeks and Trojans. Similarly, the Mahabharata tells the story of the Kurukshetra War, between two groups of cousins for the kingship of their land.

The key heroes in each, Achilles (in the Iliad) and Karna (in the Mahabharata), both feature as tragic characters in their respective stories. Each is a skilled, glory-seeking warrior, doomed to perish. In addition to being demigods, both heroes are closely linked with rivers: Achilles with the river Styx that granted him his near-immortality, and Karna with the Ganges river, which his
mother put him into as a child. It is notable that both tragic heroes were demigods exposed to rivers by their mothers, though for divergent reasons: Karna’s mother sailed him down the Ganges to get rid of him, and Achilles was dipped into the Styx with the goal of making him invincible.

The similarities between the two tales do not end with Achilles and Karna, however. Another striking similarity is between Krishna and Achilles. Both died due to an arrow piercing the foot,
the only vulnerable parts of their bodies.

Even the gods that appear in the epics are similar. Comparisons are often drawn between Zeus and Indra. Zeus, the Greek god of the sky and storms and king of the Greek pantheon, is quite similar to Indra, the Hindu god of the sky and storms and king of the other Hindu deities. Furthermore, the gods are each said to reside at the top of a mountain, with Zeus making his home atop Mount Olympus and Indra residing atop Mount Meru. Both deities feature heavily in their respective epics, each playing a role in the wars.

In both epics, prophecies are an important component of the plot. In the Mahabharata, a wise leader, Vidura, predicted that the warrior Duryodhana would be the cause of the destruction of
his clan, which eventually came to pass. Similarly, in the Iliad, an oracle prophesied that Prince Paris of Troy would be the downfall of his city, which also came to be. Both Duryodhana and
Paris are of weak character, embodying arrogance, and the epics use similar devices to point out the perils of their flaws.

With such striking similarities and significant overlap between the two cultures, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that one of the epics may have influenced the other. Is it possible that the Iliad was inspired by the Mahabharata or the Mahabharata by the Iliad? Considering that these two cultures collided in 326 BCE, and that history was shared through oral tradition, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the epics were shared between the two civilizations. More research may definitively establish a direct link between the two.