Uttaṅka’s Quest

(Abstract from: Paolo Magnone, “Uttaṅka’s Quest”. Paper read at the XIII World Sanskrit Conference (Edinburgh, 10-15 July 2006)

Uttaṅka, one of the lesser known epic ṛṣis, makes his first appearance as a brahmacārin in the Ādiparvan of the Mahābhārata in a context devoted to initiatory stories illustrating the virtue of obedience (śuśruṣā) as paramount in the master-disciple relationship. Unlike his immediate predecessors’ (Aruṇi, Upamanyu and Veda) however, the gist of Uttaṅka’s story — at his master’s wife’s behest, the perilous quest for a pair of wondrous earrings, won at the risk of life, stolen, carried to the underworld and finally regained — is not confined to exemplifying the attitude of the ideal disciple, as becomes all the more apparent by a comparison to an alternative version in the Āśvamedhikaparvan (and its Skanda Purāṇa abridgement). Whereas in the Ādiparvan (= A) version the narrative appears to have undergone an extensive brahmanization, stressing the values of loyalty and obedience to the master as well as of ritual purity, and bringing out by contrast the respective social stands of brāhmaṇas and kṣatriyas, in the Āśvamedhikaparvan (= B) version there come to the foreground some typical features of the folktale more or less suppressed in the alternative account, such as the magical objects (the earrings, only here described as such), the ogre (king Saudāsa, the owner of the earrings, only here characterized as man-devourer), the difficult questions, the swift mount etc.; and even more the underlying structure, evidencing the specific functions of the folktale. On closer investigation, however, there glimpses through the surface layers of the edifying story and the folktale an even deeper level, seemingly presenting us with an Indian version of the universal myth of the hero’s descent to the netherworld in quest of immortality. Several clues are there: a prologue (in B) mentioning Uttaṅka’s despair upon realizing his approaching old age; an incongruous hint at his rejuvenation; the vivifying properties of the kuṇḍalas; Saudāsa’s and his queen’s characters, displaying features (grim appearance, anthropophagy, invisibility) typical of the guardians of the dead; the ordeal; the theft of the kuṇḍalas by a serpent; the time symbolism of the netherworld, etc.
This interpretation is corroborated by the odd re-emergence of some key themes and motifs in the most diverse contexts in other narratives featuring Uttaṅka as a ṣi in his post-discipleship career, among which most prominent are the story of the killing of the asura Dhundhu and the aetiological myth about the origin of so-called “Uttaṅka’s clouds” (uttaṅkamegha). Although to unravel the complex net of relationships linking these stories with one another as well as with sundry narratives pertaining to other mythical characters would exceed by far the limits of the present paper, a couple of especially noteworthy instances may be pointed out. The theme of ambrosia disguised under loathsome appearances is common to both the quest and the aetiological myth, under reversed circumstances: either readily offered and reluctantly (and unwittingly) accepted, or reluctantly offered and unwittingly refused. The motif of the netherworld and the fiery subterranean stallion (elsewhere the fiery submarine mare) links the quest and the Dhundhumāra myth in an even more elusive yet intriguing fashion, while evoking other well known destructive underworld stallions, such as Sagara’s missing aśvamedha horse responsible for the burning of his sixty thousand sons (to mention but the most obvious)