Epics and Epistemes


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Epics and Epistemes

The Mahabharata

Narrative Structures of Three stories

Aakar Gupta



1. Shakuntala and Dushyanta...................................................................2

2. Bhishma’s Vow....................................................................................4

3. Yudhishthira's Final Trial.....................................................................7

  1. Shakuntala and Dushyanta (Source: Adi Parva(1))

Every story has a beginning. The Mahabharata is the story of a race descended from King Bharata, who was the son of Dushyanta and Shakuntala. Maha means great, and Bharata means the descendants of Bharata, from whom India has derived its name, Bharata. Mahabharata means Great India, or the story of the great descendants of Bharata.

The Story. Shakuntala was born of Vishvamitra and Menaka. Menaka was an apsara who had come at the behest of the Indra to distract the great sage Vishvamitra from his deep meditations. She succeeded in distracting him, and sired a child by him. Vishwamitra, angered by the loss of the virtue gained through his many hard years of strict asceticism, distanced himself from the child and mother to return to his work. Realizing that she could not leave the child with him, and having to return to the heavenly realms, Menaka left Shakuntala, just after birth, on the banks of the Malini River on the peaks of the Himalayas. Rishi Kanva found the newly born girl and named her Shakuntala.

Dushyanta was the emperor who found the Paurav dynasty. Once, while he was out on a hunt in a forest, he was engaged in pursuing of a male deer that was wounded by his arrow. The deer went into an ashram, where Dushyanta saw Shakuntala nursing the deer, her pet, and fell in love with her. He profusely begged her forgiveness for harming the deer and spent some time at the ashram. They fell in love and Dushyanta married Shakuntala there in the ashram. Having to leave after some time due to unrest in the capital city, Dushyanta gave Shakuntala a royal ring as a sign of their love, promising her that he would return for her.

Dushyanta, pursuing a male deer wounded by his arrow into the ashram, saw Shakuntala nursing the deer, her pet, and fell in love with her. He profusely begged her forgiveness for harming the deer and spent some time at the ashram. They fell in love and Dushyanta married Shakuntala there in the ashram. But Dushyanta had to leave after sometime to abide by his duties.

Shakuntala spent much time dreaming of her new husband and was often distracted by her daydreams. She gave birth to a son and when he grew up, went with him to his father’s court.

At Dushyanta's court, though he recognized her, he denied ever having seen her before, for fear of a scandal. Then heavenly voices proclaimed the boy as his son. The king was without an heir and so he gladly accepted the boy and the mother.

The narrative structure. The Mahabharata is actually being narrated to King Janamejaya, the son of Maharaja Parikshit and great-grandson of Arjuna by Vaishampayana, student of Vyasa.

The style of writing of the Shakuntala and Dushyanta story clearly shows the true characters of the people involved. It is straight forward and lucidly depicts the moral standing of the society at that time. The way in which the characters of different social status are handled with, reflects the neutral nature of the narrative bolstering the fact that it were the sutas who told the story.

Dushyanta is depicted as the hedonistic king who first falls in love with a beautiful girl, but then refuses to acknowledge their relationship when Shakuntala comes to his court in public as he is afraid of people questioning the propriety of the marriage. Shakuntala is fiery, assertive and the source of righteousness, wealth, pleasure and liberation. She is not afraid and steps forward to get Bharata his due right as a king’s son. This is in contrast to the weak, helpless maiden Shakuntala is portrayed to be in Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam; Dushyanta is conveniently brainwashed through a curse and the end is typical. Kalidasa’s story though sweet and sentimental seems unrealistic on account of illusory characterization. The story in Mahabharata, on the other hand is concise, hard, unpolished but intellectually and emotionally profoundly disturbing. The women have been depicted in a heroic and more upbeat mould, and its not just Shakuntala, but the characters of Kunti, Draupadi, Gandhari, Shakuntala, Devayani, Savitri, Damayanti later in the story, which are all reflective of the strong presence of women in the epic.

The story is a great example of how the Mahabharata set deeply embedded stereotypes into the psychology of generations of people. Consider the smaller story arc of Vishvamitra and Menaka - the fury of sages, the apsaras as Indra’s tools of distraction are classic elements of Hindu mythology. The heavenly intervention at an unjust hour for the sake of Shakuntala perspicuously sets the tone by introducing divine presence which provides justice to the distressing mother. The portrayal of each of the characters in its true ethical light shows the way it explores reality, and at the same time, in the true spirit of an epic, it tries to explore the fault lines in the existing episteme, and bridge them through the instrument of god.

The story, in its essential core obviously is one of the most important ones in the sense that it was the race descended from Bharata that formed the whole story, and hence the nomenclature of the epic.

  1. Bhishma’s Vow (Source: Adi Parva(1))

The enigma of Bhishma is supreme to any other character in the Mahabharata, all of it beginning in the celibacy vow he took for the sake of his father. In fact that was when he became Bhishma from Devavrata.

The story. Devavrata was born of king Santanu and Ganga, in an eventful story where the child is taken away by Ganga and trained in all kinds of warfare, and then returned to the king. The joyful king crowned the resplendent and youthful prince Devavrata as the Yuvaraja, the heir apparent.

But, one day as the king was wandering on the banks of the Yamuna, he saw a lovely maiden and asked her to be his wife. The maiden was the daughter of a fisherman and asked him to get her father’s consent.

The father was a shrewd man who made a condition before the king that the child born of his daughter should be the king after him. But, the king could not make this promise, as it would mean setting aside Devavrata. He therefore returned to his capital, Hastinapura, sick with baffled desire. He did not reveal the matter to anyone and pined in silence. Devavrata noticed this and found out the reason behind is father’s anguish.

He went to the chief of the fishermen and besought his daughter's hand on his father's behalf. But, the fisherman was still firm and again raised the same concern again. Devavrata assured him that the son born of his daughter would be the king. But the fisherman again raised concerns that Devavrata’s children might not withstand this arrangement and may seek to seize the kingdom by force.

On hearing this, Devavrata, who was bent on fulfilling the king's desire, made his supreme renunciation. He vowed with upraised arm to the father of the maiden: "I shall never marry and I dedicate myself to a life of unbroken chastity."

And as he uttered these words of renunciation the gods showered flowers on his head, and cries of "Bhishma," "Bhishma" resounded in the air. "Bhishma" means one who undertakes a terrible vow and fulfils it. That name became the celebrated epithet of Devavrata from that time.

The narrative structure. The narration of this story truly shows the strength of a dialogue oriented story. The minimalistic use of adjectives to describe the personality traits, but rather relying on the characters’ dialogue itself to convey the natural instincts of each character to a perspicacious reader is a definite trait in this story - The desirous king, who is ready to sacrifice his longings for his son and tries to protect him from the truth; the loyal and devoted son, who his ready to give up everything for his father; the shrewd and articulate fisherman who wants to ensure the well being of his generations.

The story again has its traditional elements of a king falling in love with a forest girl, the showering of flowers by gods and ultimately the gratified father granting a boon to his son. The Mahabharata quite obviously is a story attributed by godly presence, with hints at divine happenings driving the story forward. The death-at-will boon given to Bhishma by Santanu is a very crucial moment for the story which came upon as a result of the vow.

This actually gives rise to another point in the philosophy of Mahabharata and taking the holistic view, the Hindu mythology. The magnitude of the said word is more than anything else. It stands above the righteousness, the logic, and the greater good. Aside from the curses and boons and the akashwanis which are by definition meant to be broken only on certain next to impossible conditions (the death-at will boon, the curse to Karna, the indestructible Jarasandha, the akashwani for Krishna and Kansa) , the spoken word is a line carved in stone that can not be overstepped – a lakshman rekha. Even when the dynasty was crumbling, when Bhishma’s step brothers died and there was no one to rule, Bhisma’s couldn’t come to hold the reins of the kingdom. The words of stone have been a standard highlight of the Mahabharata – Kunti’s statement to divide the Bhiksha (Draupadi) among all the brothers wasn’t to be disobeyed, disregarding the feelings of the objectified bride. Eklavya cut his thumb and along with it sacrificed his years of devotion, and more importantly his skill, on Dronacharya’s verbal demand. The interesting to be noticed here is that considering the Mahabharata has been written through centuries common elements like these in the story, depict the common episteme of the people in that period.

But let’s take a step backward and ponder. Was the decision, a personal sacrifice really for the greater good? All that Bhishma is concerned about is pleasing his father. The Yuvaraja does not spare a thought for the future of the kingdom, nor does he consult the ministers, instead he takes a rather rash decision. Even the father blinded by concupiscence accepts the bride with indecent haste, and gifts his son with the highly dubious boon of death-at-will.

What did this result in? In the single-minded attachment to his vow, Bhishma destroys the life of Amba, who committed suicide and Gandhari whose father was pressurized by him to marry her off to blind Dhritarashtra. Bhishma watches the dynasty disintegrate, as one by one Satyavati, Ambika, Ambalika depart to the forest so as not to witness the suicide of the race. One stepbrother dies in a skirmish, the other dies of over-indulgence in sex, brought about by Bhishma providing him with two wives at a tender age. Thus, Hastinapura is left kingless. Bhishma’s attachment to his own vow surpasses the concern for the welfare of the kingdom and even Satyavati’s absolving him from the vow didn’t move him. He will not practice niyoga and save the dynasty.

Thus, Bhishma actually comes out to be practicing an intensely self-centered dharma, finding fulfillment only in self-glorification, not in reaching out to embrace the world and succor the public. Another instance of this is hidden in his being in the Kauravas’ camp for the Kurukshetra war, when Dharma had him fight on the side of vice rather than virtue, albeit in a restrained manner. Bhishma believed in the clan as being supreme and did not look beyond it to public welfare in general and the country as a whole. It was this Dharma that made him sit and watch, while Draupadi was being disrobed. This is where Krishna’s philosophy, as a herald of new Dharma that places righteousness over anything else emerged. The fine trait of an epic is greatly visible here, when a divine figure takes birth and explores and questions the existing system of beliefs, and hence brings about a change in the episteme.

Finally, coming back to the story, especially the after effects of it, they were enormous – Bhishma’s lifting off of the three princesses for his brothers was an indirect result of his compliance with the vow., which ultimately resulted in Dhritarashtra being blind. His lifting off of Amba eventually resulted in his uprooting from the Kurukshetra. But still he wouldn’t get killed due to father’s boon, again a result of his vow.

  1. Yudhishthira's Final Trial (Source: Mahaprasthanika Parva(17))

Yudhishthira, the son of Yama was one of the most intriguing character in the epic. The following story depicts one of the greatest trials faced by him.

The story. When the Pandavas received the news of Krishna’s death, they lost all remaining attachment to life on earth. They crowned Parikshit, son of Abhimanyu, as emperor and left the city with Draupadi. They went out on a pilgrimage, visiting holy places and finally reached the Himalayas.

A dog joined them somewhere and kept them company all along. And the seven of them climbed the mountain on their last pilgrimage. As they toiled up the mountain path one by one, they fell exhausted and died. First, Draupadi, Sahadeva and Nakula fell, then followed Arjuna and then Bhima too.

Yudhishthira saw his dear ones fall and die. Yet, serenely he went on. The dog still followed Yudhishthira. Finally, when he reached a great height, Indra appeared in his chariot. Indra had come to take him to heaven. But when Indra denied the entry of dog, Yudhishthira refused to enter the heavenly chariot as well.

Actually the dog was Dharma, who had come to test Yudhishthira's loyalty and he was pleased with his son's conduct. The dog vanished from sight. Yudhishthira reached swarga. There, he saw Duryodhana, but astonishingly he did not see his brothers or anyone else.

He desired to see his brothers and wouldn’t relent until he was taken to them. So, the messenger proceeded in front and Yudhishthira followed him. As they went along, it soon became dark and in the gathering gloom could be dimly seen things weird and revolting. He waded through slippery slime of blood and offal. The path was strewn with carrion and bones and dead men's hair. Worms were wriggling everywhere and there was an insufferable stench in the air. He saw mutilated human bodies everywhere. Yudhishthira was horrified and confused. A thousand thoughts tortured his mind as he proceeded.

But just then, as if divining his intention, vaguely familiar voices rose all around in loud lamentation asking him to stay as his presence provided them respite in this hell. Those were the voices of his brothers. Overwhelmed by anger, Yudhishthira cursed the gods and denounced dharma. He sent the messenger back saying that he would stay here. The messenger went back and conveyed to Indra what Yudhishthira had said.

Then Indra and Yama appeared before Yudhishthira where he stood in anguish. When they came, the darkness rolled away and the horrid sights disappeared. The sinners and their suffering were no more to be seen. A fragrant breeze blew as Yama, the god of dharma, smiled on his son Yudhishthira, and told him that it was actually just a test and they all are really not in hell.

Then Yudhishthira saw their Karna and all his brothers and the sons of Dhritarashtra also, serene and free from anger, all having attained the state of the gods. In this reunion, Yudhishthira at last found peace and real happiness.

The narrative structure. The style of writing in this story is very concise and yields to every event very quickly. The essential lesson enforced by the poet in the episode of the dog is that dharma is the only constant companion in life's journey. The story focuses on Yudhishthira’s trial and portrays his uncomplicated, righteous thinking. Yudhishthira is basically put to test twice in this story by Dharma - as the dog following him during the last journey, and finally offering him the joys of heaven instead of living in hell with his brothers.

The Himalayan ascent was actually a ‘return-to-home’ ceremony for the Pandavas as their upbringing was in the Northern Kuru areas (where, as a matter of fact polyandry was practiced) possible indicative of the circle of life.

The depiction of ‘swarga’ and ‘narka’ is also something that has been the mainstay of Hindu mythology and lays down the basic beliefs of the existence of souls in heaven, ridden of any human emotion; the strange ways of dharma which allows Duryodhana to be in heaven on account of following his kshatriya dharma.

Another notable fact is that though Yudhishthira saw every main character close to him in heaven, he did not find Krishna there, even though he had died. This reiterates the divine status of Krishna.

Tthis wasn’t the first time Yudhishthira was put to test by Dharma. Earlier, Dharma came as a stork during their exile, and lay before him the bodies of all his brothers, asking him to choose one of them to be alive again. Yudhishthira asked for Nakula to be revived, arguing that one son of both Kunti and Madri should be alive, though he could have asked for Arjuna or Bhima who would have helped him better to fight the war. Thus Yudhisthira successfully truimphed in that test too.

In this episode, Yudhishthira was asked to leave the dog behind for heaven, but he refused to do so in keeping with the company of the dog, who had traveled with him the whole distance and had braved all the hardships along with him. Yudhisthira, once again, came out truimphant in this trial. Finally, he was offered the joys of heaven as against living with his brothers in hell, but he chose the latter so as to keep his anguished brothers in relief from hell.

All of these are meant to demonstrate Yudhishthira’s profound ability to have a clear conscience and follow Dharma as it is supposed to be. Even the part where he explains to Bhima the reasons for everyone’s falling, he displays the ability to see clearly the boundaries between dharma and adharma, reiterating the fact that he was dharma’s son.

But, let’s delve into the story with a different perspective. Yudhishthira does not hesitate to stake Draupadi like any other prized possession, he had earlier gambled. But even if this is taken as an aberration, how do we explain his pardoning of Jayadratha’s abduction of her? His argument is that their cousin Dushala must not be widowed. This inexplicably generous gesture leads to the death of Abhimanyu. Yudhishthira rebukes Draupadi for “creating a scene” in Virata’s court, when Kicaka kicks her and she appeals to the king. He does not lift a finger in her defense, let alone avenge her. Yet it is him who does not hesitate to send a 16-year old to break the wheel-formation of Drona that even Bhima cannot demolish, knowing that Abhimanyu cannot break out of it. He nearly gambles away a dearly won pyrrhic victory by announcing to Duryodhana that he may choose any one of the five to fight, and if he wins, the kingdom is his! It is his good fortune that Duryodhana is too arrogant to take on anyone but his equal in strength, Bhima, otherwise the entire war would have ended differently.

And, yet, it is this same Yudhishthira who touches the depths of human knowledge and experience in his thrilling replies to the soul-searching medley of questions by Dharma or the Nahusha-turned-python who has Bhima in his deadly coils.


  1. http://www.mahabharataonline.com/

  2. M. N Dutt, Mahabharata : translated into English with original Sanskrit text

  3. C. Rajagopalachari, Mahabharata


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