Reading Bulgakov's the Master and Margarita from the Perspective of Hinduism

By Balasubramanian, Radha | International Fiction Review, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Reading Bulgakov's the Master and Margarita from the Perspective of Hinduism


Balasubramanian, Radha, International Fiction Review


Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (1966-67)(1) has been praised highly for both its literary merit and its spiritual significance. Many critical studies explain the complex nature of the interrelationship between the natural and supernatural in the novel. The unexpected roles that otherworldly beings play in the novel, the resulting satire, and the fantastic in the plot create a certain inevitable puzzlement about the structure and meaning of the novel. Attempts to explain the implications of the spiritual elements underpinning the fantastic span through various belief systems, but given the complexity of Bulgakov's novel, a coherent, conclusive explanation has been elusive.

Central to my reading of Bulgakov's novel is the recognition that divinity's presence in The Master and Margarita is more complex than its apparent Christian representation. This reading draws upon an older religious tradition, namely, the Hindu system of belief, to establish correspondences between Hindu images of God and Bulgakov's portrayal of otherworldly entities. Because these correspondences are scattered across a variety of Hindu myths and beliefs, it is difficult to draw a coherent picture and claim that Bulgakov based his fictional divinity on any specific Hindu system. However, various ancient beliefs of Hinduism can be seen to illumine the relationship between different worlds that are brought together, the role of God and the devil, and the nature of divine intervention in the lives of ordinary mortals in Bulgakov's novel. I will restrict myself to the portrayal of the devil, the Master, and Margarita, whom I will compare to relevant images from Hindu mythology.

Hinduism offers much potential for such an exploration through its myths and legends. In Hindu mythology, God is incarnated in this world in different forms, at different times, and for different purposes.(2) Hindus firmly believe God's declaration that he will manifest himself whenever the forces of evil threaten to destroy positive human virtues.

Similar to Hinduism, other religions have also offered a means of closing the distance between man and God by admitting various celestial beings such as demi-gods, angels, saints, and others. In Hinduism and Christianity, "there is a common belief that there has been a divine descent through which God has sent his surrogate to the earth and graced us with His presence in a being known as the God-man."(3) In Christianity the incarnation is Jesus Christ, as both human and divine, while in Hinduism there are several such incarnations. Following this prototype, at the very beginning of Bulgakov's novel, the divine incarnation that appears in Moscow is a devil. This devil, Woland, fulfilling a role similar to that of the God-man in mythology, takes it upon himself to expose the moral degradation of 1930s Moscow. Bulgakov's depiction of the devil contains unmistakable allusions to, and echoes of, not only Christianity, but also other ancient, pre-Christian systems of belief and their gods. Woland, who has been shown to exhibit "traits not only of the Christian devil, but also of the pre-Christian gods,"(4) is reminiscent of messengers of God and intermediate beings who moved between heaven and earth upon his service in ancient, pre-Christian religions.(5)

There have been many attempts to explain the Woland's role in Moscow and Pontius Pilate's in Jerusalem in the novel through the Old and New Testaments, apocryphal texts, and Rabbinical literature, including ancient Middle Eastern mythology. In this context, it has been observed that although the novel is "profoundly religious,"(6) "the variety of critical commentaries has already shown the impossibility of reducing Bulgakov's novel to one single interpretation."(7) It is clear that the novel's spiritual conception is broader than that of Christianity.(8) Bulgakov is a religious writer, but the question of which religious view of life and the world he adhered to, remains unanswered.

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