The Mahabharata is the world’s longest epic poem, consisting of eighteen books, eight times as long as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey put together. The poem is said to have been written by an ancient sage named Ved Vyasa who played a prominent role in the history of the Bharatas. Though the English call it an ‘epic’, the Mahabharata states that is is an ‘itihasa’, a ‘history’ – a history of the descendants of Bharata, the legendary king from whom India takes its name, Bharat. Woven into the main theme, the power struggle between the princes of two houses, are lengthy dissertations and treatises on philosophy, ethics, morality, statecraft and metaphysics. The text in fact states that “what is in the Bharata is everywhere and what is not is nowhere”. (Meera Uberoi)
Part One: The Backdrop
King Santanu married Goddess Ganga, who killed seven sons and left one son alive, who was named Devavratha, but was changed to Bhishma, meaning “one of firm vow,” after he took the vow of celibacy in order that his father could marry Satyavati. Bhishma, the genuine heir to the Kuru clan, remains sonless all his life.
However, later his death was sought after by Amba because she was made barren by Bhishma’s act of bringing her to Hastinapura, City of the Elephant, the capital of Bharata.
Is Bhishma a genuine hero?
King Santanu married Satyavati, who gave birth to two sons who died young without having any heirs, even though Bhishma brought back three women, Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika, to be the brides of the Vichitravirya, the younger son. To keep the Kuru clan alive, Satyavati summoned her son, Vyasa, to be the biological father of the two sons, who became the heirs of Santanu’s kingdom. These two sons were Pandu (the pale) and Dhritarashtra (the blind). A third son, Vidura, was produced by the servant maid; he owned outstanding wisdom, judgment, and courage in speech and action.
What is the significance of Vyasa being the father of the two heirs of the Kuru clans?
Satyavati was born of a fish mother and the seed of a gandharva, her body always clinging with an odour of fish. The odor was dispelled by a rishi, Parasar. In return, Satyavati gave birth to Vyvasa.
Compare Goddess Ganga and Satyavati.
Vyasa actually was the author of the epic poem and God Ganesh was the scribe of the story. Vyasa also participates actively in the storytelling. He would step into the plot to influence the development of the story.
What kind of story is created out of this type of narration?
Pandu married Kunthi and Madri. Pandu was cursed because of the killing of a deer, which was engaged in love play with its mate. The deer was actually the form taken by rishi and his wife. In consequence, he would suffer enforced celibacy because he would die when trying to unite with his wife.
Does Pandu deserve such a severe punishment for seeing the love play?
Rishi: “My anger stems from the fact that you could kill a creature when it did not have a chance to flee, when it was in the act copulation. You could have waited till we had finished. Sexual intercourse is procreative and for the good. There is a time for slaughter and a time to refrain. Your act was unworthy of a Bharata.”
Pandu’s first wife, Kunthi, invoked Yama, the God of Death and Ultimate Justice. Their union gave the birth of Yudhistira. The second invocation of Vayu, the God of Wind got a child, named Bhima. For the third time, Kunthi invoked Indra, the Chief of Gods, giving birth to Arjuna. The second wife, Madri, also used mantra to invoke the gods Aswins, and thus gave birth to the twins, Nakula and Sahadeve.
What do these five sons represent?
Before Kunthi’s marriage, she tried the mantra taught by Sage Dhurvasa, and invoked the presence of Surya, the Sun God. The union between them gave birth to Karna, who became the fatal opponent to Arjuna.
Why does Karna want to kill Arjuna?
Dhritarashtra married Gandhari, who had borned a hundred sons, a grotesque, demonic birth, the eldest being Duryodhana, the second Dussasana. They were born out of an egg, monstrous children whose birth was accompanied with evil omens, the cause of destruction of the kingdom.
What aspect of human nature do Dhritarashtra, Gandhari, and their sons symbolize?
Part Two: The Main Plot
The main plot of the story began with the conflicts and rivalry between the two sets of paternal first cousins of the family, Pandavas and Kauravas.
The first crucial event was the training of the art of archery by Drona. Arjuna proved him the best that mastered the art, but was challenged by Karna, who did even a better job. Duryodhana this established an alliance with Karna, who engaged himself in a constant combat with Arjuna.
Drupadi: The bride for the Pandavas.
“In the vision of a god there is no joking; everything works according to a scheme. Nalayani was reborn as Drupadi, without being conceived in a womb, but out of a sacrificial fire. Justice and goodness have to be reinstated in this world. The Kauravas are evil incarnate; powerful, clever, and accomplished. For the good of mankind, they must be wiped out, and Draupadi will play a great role in it.” (58)
The malice of the Kauravas displayed itself most dramatically when they took advantage of the eldest, Yudhishthira, in a game of dice. Yudhishisthira lost all of his possessions, including his brothers and Draupadi. The Kauravas humiliated all the Pandavas and physically abused Draupadi. They drove the Pandava party into the wilderness for twelve years, and the twelve had to be followed by the Pandavas’ living somewhere in society, in disguise, without being discovered for one me year.
Yudhistira: “One should forgive every injury. There can be no limit to forgiveness. Forgiveness is God and Truth and it is only through divine compassion that the universe is held together.” Draupadi: “ Sometimes God’s behaviour is bewildering. He sees noble, virtuous persons persecuted beyond endurance, but keeps sinners happy and prosperous.” (95)
The most dramatic figure of the entire Mahabharata is Krishna Vasudeva, who was the supreme God Vishnu himself, descended to earth in human form to rescue Law, Good Deeds, Right, and Virtue (all of these refer to different aspects of “dharma.”