The concept of heroism reflects values intrinsic to a culture. A hero embodies the values that adults admire in others and teach to their children. The literature of various cultures across Asia contributes much to the concept of a hero and sometimes varies widely in the virtues portrayed through them.
The most obvious form of hero is in the warrior. This type of hero is put directly in harm's way and is expected to exhibit great virtues of heroism. But what exactly those virtues are differs from culture to culture, even within a given region where cultures had direct contact and influence upon one another. Warriors come in many varieties and are presented in forms romanticized by the respective cultures as with the Indic Demigods, Japanese Samurai, and the Mongol Baatar.
The ancient Indic epic Mahabharata paints a picture of a hero that is duty bound to support the role in life into which the hero was born. The heroes are the children of deities and are imbued with qualities that reflect their respective deities. A certain level of detachment is necessary for them to fulfill their duties as emotions cloud their judgment. Heroic virtues are displayed by their ability to detach themselves from the misery of warfare, and fulfill their destined role in life.
The Samurai in the Japanese Tale of Heike shows a hero who is loyal to his Daimyo and stays with him through good times and bad, victory and defeat, without running away. This hero is also cultured and emotional. Whether musical or religious, to a Samurai, having talents and interests other than just fighting are crucial attributes, and they do not fear expressing their feelings about a situation.
The Baatar of The Secret History of the Mongols demonstrate qualities of loyalty and strength as well as cunning and a survival instinct. They are caring of their families and show that the men respect and heed the advice of their wives and mothers. Mongol Baatar are always masters of the three manly skills of horsemanship, wrestling and archery.
All these forms of heroes show some common traits in being warriors. Their strength and skill with weapons, as well as their ability to win a battle are critical. But the similarities tend to end there. What defines the hero are the values of the culture and these cultures vary greatly in many respects. The Indic demigods reflect the Hindu beliefs of caste and destiny, where neither of the other culture's heroes show a need to emphasize the importance of their birth station nor are they players in a greater cosmic prearranged plan.
One drastic contrast between the Mongolian idea of a Baatar and the ideal heroes of other culture's warriors, such as a Samurai, is the importance of survival. In the historical epic of Chinggis Khaan's life, The Secret History of the Mongols, the young Temujin is shown to have used stealth to escape imprisonment, run from a stronger enemy, and hide in the woods to avoid a fight he could not win. Only when he was in a position of strength did he return to fight and defeat his enemy. His ability to survive in a situation that would have overcome a weaker man is hailed as a heroic quality. This virtue of survival is expressed in the Mongol proverb "A man can tumble seven times, but he will rise once." The opposite of this notion, where a vain aversion to cowardice is considered more important than survival, is shown in the Japanese Tale of Heike where a young Samurai named Atsumori is dragged into a losing fight by a verbal challenge when he could have survived by ignoring the taunts of his enemy and continuing to avoid the fight. Perhaps it is the product of the harsh environment in which the Mongol culture lives, where temperatures can be below freezing and the ground covered in icy snow for six straight months, that pushes basic survival into a prominent role. In Japanese culture, the emphasis is on ritual and etiquette which explains the importance of the Samurai's behavior over whether or not he survives the fight.
The material culture is also expressed through the accoutrements of the culture's heroes. Indic heroes are colorful, either their skin or clothes, and show their prowess fighting on a chariot with various weapons from as simple as a club to as high tech as a bow. Samurai are adorned with elaborate armor and silk clothes with their fighting skill demonstrated through use of a sword. Mongol Baatar are typically riding a horse and proficient with a bow. All these types of heroes represent their respective cultures in their tools and dress.
The modern day may know many heroes of another sort, philosophers, statesmen and idealists who exhibit great virtues admired by society, but what are the classic heroes of this genre? Literature out of Asia also shows us this other form of heroism. A culture's virtues and aspirations are not always well expressed through warriors, but at times through teachers. These philosopher heroes face challenges no sword can beat, but rather they overcome challenges of a more intellectual nature.
Considered unusual, but none the less an important player in the Mahabharata, is the matriarchal Draupadi. She does not play a submissive role, but rather takes a stand for her rights as a person. Her defiance, coupled with a well argued and intelligent defense of her position, is rewarded with her freedom and the freedom of her five husbands. She displays a strong minded and independent virtue that is inspiration not only to women seeking equality, but to anyone resisting any form of oppression. Two millennia ago, these were qualities to be admired in a woman and the story is retold today to again promote such virtues as important to the modern culture.
The Chinese philosopher Confucius presented his own idea of what a hero of society should be like, revealed to us through the Analects, the collected notes of his students. His ideal is introduced as one who enjoys learning and teaching, interpersonal relationships with other people, and behaves as a gentleman. A deeper reading showing that to be a good person, one must do good deeds. A critical trait that makes this sort of character into heroic proportion is the desire to do good on a grand scale, to improve his society as a whole. The Confucian scholar feels the weight of the world on his shoulders and the need to be a catalyst in improving society.
An interesting correlation among this sort of heroism is the placement within the governing administration of society. The philosophical heroes do their work from within the system they wish to improve, and to do so for the betterment of other people, not just themselves. They influence leaders and laws in their society. Their approach does differ in that Confucius was obsessed with ordering everything into a proper place and function, while Draupadi defied what she saw as a corrupt order.
Here is presented two different sorts of heroes. They share a common role in literature of expressing a culture's virtues and giving examples for people to strive to live up to. They face great opposition, be it death or persecution, which must be overcome. The weapons, and the paths chosen, carefully reflect important issues in a culture.
These forms of heroes are not exclusive to ancient Asia, but can also be found in the heroes of American legend. Equally respected among the founding fathers are the warrior George Washington and the statesman Benjamin Franklin. Both embody virtues respected in American society.
Heroes not only do great deeds, but also serve a function of being a model through which a society's moral values can be demonstrated and taught. Through reading about the epic heroes of a culture, one can learn much about that culture and the qualities it values most.
Cleaves, Francis W., Trans. The Secret History of the Mongols. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1982
Lau, D. C., Trans. "Analects". The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Sarah Lawall, Ed. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York. 2002
McCullough, Helen C., Trans. "The Tale of Heike". The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Sarah Lawall, Ed. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York. 2002
Miller, Barbara S., Trans. "The Bhagavad-Gita". The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Sarah Lawall, Ed. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York. 2002
Narasimhan, C. V., Trans."The Mahabharata". The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Sarah Lawall, Ed. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York. 2002
© 2003, by Luigi Kapaj
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last updated on April 10, 2005