Mahabharata: The Great Indian Epic Story

      Mahabharata is definitely the longest poem of the world, the Sanskrit version credited to Vyasa Muni, contains about 75000 verse, three million words and about 15 times in size to Hebrew Bible. But the whole of the material available under the title is very fluid as hundreds of different versions, in different languages, giving different importance to characters, incidents and arguments are found in different parts of the country. The number just multiplies once the verbal versions are also get added. Many commentators, for this reason, call it a work in process.

Mahabharata is definitely the longest poem of the world, the Sanskrit version credited to Vyasa Muni, contains about 75000 verse, three million words and about 15 times in size to Hebrew Bible. But the whole of the material available under the title is very fluid as hundreds of different versions, in different languages, giving different importance to characters, incidents and arguments are found in different parts of the country. The number just multiplies once the verbal versions are also get added. Many commentators, for this reason, call it a work in process.

      Let us recall the Mahabharata serial being shown some 25 years back on Indian TV on every Sunday morning bringing the entire nation to halt for one hour. It used to start proclaiming

"main samay huin. mera janm samay ke saath hua.....main pichhale yug main tha, ees yug main hoon aur aanewale yug main bhi rahunga"

      Which actually means that unlimited in age and space, time is eternal and infinite. Poets have told it before, telling it now and will also tell it in future .... meaning that multiplicity and multi-versions are integral part of the story and very well accepted since the very beginning.

      It is historical narrations having a very loose main plot with so many sub plots getting discussed that the main story needs to be recollected, sometimes with efforts. A number of sub stories are remotely linked to the plot and looks like an after thought forced in an attempt to establish connectivity with some past incident or character or for justifying/providing credence to actions of the main actors of main plot. The focus is to show that every normal living person has weaknesses and limitations and is prone to deviate from the right path recommended for him by Shastras. Undoubtedly, this argument is certainly to point to the holes in the teachings and efficacy of Buddhism and Jainism who were engaged in teaching non-violence and idealism at that very time of history. The Mahabharata deals with innumerable testing conditions where it is practically difficult for a normal person to survive without making some twists and turns to the established virtuous behaviour. As far as the main plot goes, it is but a fight of succession within the family where situations take complex turns and forces group of claimants to stand before each other leading to violent confrontation. This is a very common situation and most people were simply able to relate to either sides looking to get bigger size of the cake.

      The sub stories would have certainly been initiated in oral tradition, as was a common tradition of that time. After some acceptance and liking, the same would have induced writers to consign the portions into writings. Such writings were again giving rise to more verbal popularization and so on. The iterations of verbal and writing would have remained continued for generations with each contributor adding carved pieces and polished gemstones and widening the mosaic in all directions. We will later see the same pattern being followed for scripting another great volume of scriptures, the Puranas. Looking to the large volume of material under discussion, surely; no single author would have lived long enough to put it all together.

      This was yet another beautiful example of people who have remained, in conversation with each other over generations, knew each other well, had full empathy for others, adopting sub plots from other contributors and than building over such borrowed plots, bringing even silent partners to be part of conversation, listen to every new situation in social life and come forward with new solutions without losing connection with the set of traditions and constantly holding on the main plot. Are we not reminded instantly of Wikipedia? Indeed, the way final shape of Mahabharata has been floating in the history; Wikipedia seems to be based exactly on that very pattern with the exception that contributions in Wikipedia are only written whereas Mahabharata absorbed contributions both in written and verbal forms. Another feature of Mahabharata is liberal absorption of numerous recycled Vedic incidents with newer adaptations.

      Multi dimensions of the main story allowed enough space for the new contributors to bring in hybrid narratives. The strong cultural traditions supported the integrity of the text, which allowed the rubbish getting thrown out, and good material being absorbed in the main text. The ground rules for making contributions would have been restricted to simple points like supremacy and infallibility of Vedic injunctions. While one could reinterpret the Vedic stories or provide an extension to that but no one could counter or go against the basic spirit which has been included any where in Vedic literature. In spite of this, there are few contradictions remaining in the final product but it is safe to take such situations as genuine irresolvable issues beyond the capacity of composers reflecting internal dilemma of human nature.

      Reflecting prevailing social condition, Mahabharata provides many references where key characters are shown justifying violence. At one place Arjuna tells Yudhishthira after being questioned for an unwanted killing —

"people honour many gods who are killers. Rudra has resorted to killings and so is the case with Skanda, Indra, Agni, Varuna, Yania. I don't see anyone in this world with non-violence."

      These sentiments seem building an argument against total non-violence promoted by Buddhism at around that very time in history. Then we got Gita. This appears a very smart move by Brahmin redactors to insert a text that accepted political violence of the real world as an inevitable truth ... and in a way projects Hinduism as more practical faith in comparison to Jainism or Buddhism. The insertion of Gita in the centre of the battle-field is like a direct confrontation with others as to what they will say now? Taking as a direct borrowing from life of King Ashoka who was really torn between pursuing violence or shunning it altogether (post Kalinga war), the core story of Mahabharata is woven around the dilemma between violence and non-violence. Surely, Hinduism was under pressure to find faults with the complete non-violent doctrine of Buddhism being highlighted at the same point in history. Mahabharata composers need to be complimented for bringing in lots of twists and turns to justify wars occasionally as an unavoidable or inevitable compromise. Surely, real politics and competing kings could not be expected to opt for non-violence completely. But to the credit of this great plot that Mahabharata does not indicate to any one squarely responsible for frequent violence.

      Now let us look at some other important points. Many Hindus may not believe that immediately but look at the similarity of the character of Yudhishthira being a replica of Ashoka. King Ashoka who ruled between 269 BC and 233 BC belong to the period just around beginning of circulation of Mahabharata's plot. Undoubtedly, the character of Yudhishthira represents many shades of actual life of King Ashoka. Actually; there are several other parallels between the text of this epic and Ashoka's edicts which cannot be ignored. In any case, writers always had the real life situations reflecting in their writings and a great personality like King Ashoka, who had so significant influence over the society of that time could not have skipped out of their attention.

      The dialogues of Arjuna and Krishna at the battlefield expressing his doubts about the war also draw a parallel with dilemma of King Ashoka post Kalinga war. It is like directly advocating the need of violence for the warriors. Bringing in the argument about the soul not getting killed is but a lame duck ploy of authors to cover up the deep disgust against killing prevailing in the general mood of the public at that time. Krishna's answers are also rather abstract and complex. The fact of the matter is that composers are bringing in best out of them to justify violence which is actually against the common man's own perception at that time in the history.

      All said and. done, Gita is to be considered only for its philosophical context. Its language, its content and quality of teachings could not have happened in the midst of a battle field with millions of soldiers standing lined up waiting for the dialogue between one warrior and his charioteer to get over. Personally, I am inclined to agree with the people holding view that Gita must have been an independent book by itself which either could not get popular of its own or its composers preferred it to piggy ride on the popularity of Mahabharata to get more eyeballs or ear holes for that matter and decided to throw it in as a part of War Story of Mahabharata.

      At this moment, let us draw some light on the plot of the famous poem.

      A fisherman catches a fish, finds a baby girl in her belly and raises her as her daughter—she is Satyawati. A sage seduces her while crossing over the river and impregnates her—the son so born is named Vyasa, the attributed composer of the long poem. He gets abandoned on an island of the river. Illustrious king Shantanu saw Ganga, the river at her own bank and impressed with her beauty, proposes her to marry him. The river Ganga agrees to his proposal. They start living happily but every time she delivers a child, she offers the child to river's current. When Shantanu finally questions her after the eighth child, she leaves the child behind and goes back to be the river. Their eighth child is Bhishma. King Shantanu later falls for Satyawati, gets married, have a son who is married to Ambika and Ambalika but dies without having a child.

      To continue the lineage, Satyawati invites her abandoned son Vyas (ugly and unusual physical features and fishy smell) to father children with widows of her deceased second son. In the process of unwanted love making, Ambika keeps her eyes closed to avoid seeing ugly Vyas and gets a blind son, Dhritarashtra. During a repeat of this effort, Ambalika, second wife turns pale and gives birth to a weak child with pale complexion and that is how Pandu is born.

      Not satisfied with the results, Satyawati invites Vyas again who is sent to Ambika a second time but she is not willing to go thorough the ordeal again and, to avoid her own embarrassment, orders her maid to switch place with her. The maid goes through the ordeal with pleasure and makes Vyas very happy and so is born Vidur, the only normal child out of all the efforts. But he is born to a lower class through a dispensable and stand-in maid and so he becomes ineligible to become a Kshatriya king. As one can see, Vyas is instrumental in bringing all characters to life and also gets credited as the composer—it is like a single person credited for being producer, brings the main actors into existence (both literally and figuratively), director, writer, narrator and lyricist of a mega movie all by himself.

      Going forward, Dhritrastra gets married to Gandhari and together they are blessed with one hundred sons. Actually, Gandhari delivered a still lump after two years of pregnancy. But Vyasa cut that lump into hundred pieces and each of that pieces was put in ghee (refined butter) filled jar for two more years before the boys were taken out of the jars. Who says that surrogacy is already fully developed; the science of procreation has a long way to go before catching up with the imaginations of composers of Mahabharata.

      The weak and pale boy is named Pandu and gets married to Kunti and Madri. To make the matters worse, he is also cursed to die no sooner he makes love to any woman. Fortunately; Kunti knows the art of seeking pregnancy with divine Gods as she is shown having already tried her boon or knowledge during her younger days when she mistakenly invoked Surya who, in spite of her refusal makes her maiden mother of a son. For protecting her respect and name and for coming out of the shame of being unwedded mother, she is shown to desert the child by flowing in the river. A charioteer and his wife ultimately raise this boy. They name him Kama.

      With need of the hour (plight of Pandu) and guided by past experience, Kunti separately invokes Dharma, Vayu and Indra to be blessed with sons named Yudhishthira, Bhima and Arjuna respectively. She also shares her secret art with Madri who invites Aswins (twin brothers) in pair and was blessed with twins who are named Nakula and Sahadeva. Interestingly; all these Gods are not to become fathers in their divine life (due to some curse). But Mahabharata allows them this possibility. The combination of 'curse' and 'boon' work like trump cards and are always available to be used by composers everytime they get stuck in a tight situation. In addition of helping the receiver to come clean of tight situations, the mythological expansion of any such boon gives further sub stories to expand the ever stretching mosaic of mythological literature of this period. The proverb of "one things leads to another" is not sufficient and needs to be changed to "one thing leads to many others".

      The number of events of seductions, forced sex, sex among human and animal, surrogating, illegal impregnation, pre wedlock child birth, inter racial sex, etc., in addition to greed for power and wealth, again goes to indicate the troubled social situations of that time. Any literary creation is known to reflect the prevailing chaos on the social stage of the time of its creation and our Mahabharata is no exception to that rule.

      The addition of Draupadi brings more twist to the interesting beginning. She emerged during the yajna performed by Drupada to avenge his defeat at the hands of Arjuna on behalf of Drona. She is described as divinely beautiful girl with shiny black locks, shiny nails, soft eyes lashes, swelling breasts, shapely thighs and a compelling complexion ... the story goes that in her previous life she desired fourteen qualities in her husband from Lord Shiva. And since even God Shiva was unable to find all those qualities in one single person, she is blessed to have five husbands, who among all of them do possess the fourteen virtues desired by Draupadi. But to save her from being polyandry; she is blessed with a boon to have her virginity restored after every sexual encounter. She comes out a lady of her own mind as she dares to remind Kama, at her Swayamvar when Kama also gets up to take aim at the eye of the moving fish by seeing its shadow in the oil below, of being a son of charioteer and stops him from trying his luck and thus picks up a life time animosity with him.

      Again reflecting social customs of those days, Mahabharata shows many women having multiple partners, inside or outside of marital bliss. And it was not the women alone as many men also have been described as having multiple partners. All the Pandavas, except the eldest, have wives other than Draupadi. Arjuna has three. This goes to suggest that in that time of the history; at least in Kshatriyas, polygamy was common.

      I don't wish to narrate too much for the main story is well known. Thanks to non-stop screening of many TV serials by the same name and many other movies which still get immense viewership and regularly bind people to the TV sets in most Hindu households or movie halls, as the case may be. But I must share a few of the many injustice stories contained therein.

      Most dramatic figure of entire Mahabharata, of course, is Krishna Vasudeva. He is Lord Vishnu incarnated in human form and is shown to have descended to the earth to establish the Dharma and ensure Right and Virtues winning over Wrong and Bad deeds. He meets Pandavas at the time of Draupadi's marriage and starts working as their advisor almost instantaneously. He arranges situation wherein Arjuna marries his sister and finally Krishna is shown as a mentor and charioteer of Arjuna all through the wrar days. Interestingly, the character of Krishna is portrayed as some one who on one hand is trying to avoid war and let the peace has its chance while on the other hand he is shown at several instances as someone very eager to see that war is not avoided and some one who uses Pandavas as his human instruments for fulfilling that desire.

      Tragically, the Epic paints Lord Krishna as an active agent for carrying out many clever strategies which result in killing of Bhishma, Drona as well as Kama, each of whom were supreme commander of Duryodhana's army. Krishna is shown convincing time and again that these methods are just and fine and necessitated by the circumstances at hand, an argument for a very short term view on situations which is diametrically opposite to the teachings of Sanatan Dharma. This will allow many wrongs to get justified in later Hinduism. Basic idea of the composers was that assuming a perfect human being, as suggested by Buddha or Mahavira, is incomplete and real life situations required a vicious and flexible character like Krishna to help his followers.

      This ethical gap remained unresolved well until the end of war where both sides can be held responsible for committing numerous violations of established social laws. As an effort of recovering from ugly situation, Bhishma is shown teaching morality from his death bed including duties and responsibilities of a good king which among other things, justifies violence of war, the ambiguity of righteousness in normal circumstances and the corrective practice of Moksha that transcends the opposite forces of good vs. bad, right vs. wrong and pleasant vs. unpleasant. It is a different matter that his real life has many instances where he failed to practise what he preached.

      Beside the main plot, there are ample stories involving just and not so just actions at the hands of many characters of the main plot. One such tale of injustice is of Ekalavya, son of a Nishad chieftain. He self learned archery and excelled in his art to the extent that both Drona and Arjuna got scared of his powers. As the story goes, Drona demanded 'guru dakshina' of his right thumb to ensure that the poor guy can never stand in competition with Arjuna. Drona, a seasoned and learned Brahmin is clearly at fault of being partisan. Why should he demand a tuition fee when in reality there was never a tuition given? How Arjuna is to be remembered as a great archer of all times if he gets scared from a self trained jungle prince?

      The reason is that Eklavya is a man with great commitment, clean heart, full of benevolence and a clear consciousness but he is from a lower class of society. Just because he is a Nishad, higher-class people can manipulate him without many tears being shed for him. If this was indeed the accepted social norm at that time, no wonder Hinduism is blamed for suppressing lower classes at the pleasure of higher classes. It is a different matter that the society had to pay a great price in later centuries when the entire society got weakened and allowed the external invaders to come in and loot the treasures.

      Now comes the million-dollar question. How many Indians think that Mahabharata is a work of pure fiction and how many believe it to be a stone solid reality? Most people I have come across say that it can't be a fiction altogether as we still have so many evidences to connect with remains and remnants of the actual fight at Kurukshetra. Actually; we have been trained all our life to believe it to be an actual story forcing us to look other way every time situation presents itself to the contrary. Yes, there was Yaduvanshi King Krishna who ruled from Dwarka. Yes, Dwarka has been since found as a coastal city in west Gujarat. Yes, Bharata was a Rig-Vedic clan ruling in and around present day Kurukshetra and there are records that royal race of Kurus were related to Bharatas. The name of Purus is also there in history but not as the relative of Kurus and not originating the way, Mahabharata tells us to be. Surely, there would have been war among competing cousins for establishing supremacy and surely, there were other influential kingdoms like Panchala, Yadus, Tritsus, Gandhar, Mujavats, Magadh, Aryas and many of these were indeed grouped against each other. And their capitals are indeed have had names as mentioned in the epic but that does not mean that the entire story is real. Infact Bharatas are regarded very high even in Brahmanas and have been presented as models of correct conduct.

      But that is the beauty of the great plot that it incorporated so many physical symbols, stories and landscapes and its weaving together is so powerful that a pure work of fiction continues to spellbind most Indians and many more outside as a historic reality. But can we ignore literature of Buddhists and Jinas (which do mention all important actual events of the period to which Mahabharata belongs because that history is shared by Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism as a common heritage) which carry no mention of Kurus and Purus or Krishna? Leaving aside literature of other religions, even all other Vedic scriptures came into being in the interim period of the event of Mahabharata and its compositions, carry no mention of any clues which can be taken as a secondary evidence of any reality to the events mentioned in the epic.

      In yet another twist and bringing the Dharma back to life, the end of the story is very disgusting. Many years after the war Dhritrastra, Gandhari and Kunti see the end of their lives in forest as Sanyasis, Krishna's unruly clan kills each other and he himself leaves his body in a secluded place. After learning all this, the Pandavas decide to embark great journey by walking to polar mountains in north until they get dead drop one by one including Draupadi. Finally, Yudhishthira is all alone with a dog that followed him all through his journey right up to the gates of heaven. In the final twist of the tale, the dog is shown to be reincarnated God of Dharma who is accepted at heaven along with the Yudhishthira.

      Moral of the story is that we should be happy to get what we are blessed with. Aiming for something belonging to others is full of devastating risk of losing everything we have. Also, that we should always seek the help and guidance of God and make him partner in all our endeavours. Let the God be always on our side—except him nothing is permanent. Duryodhana believed that he was his own master and that he owns power and resources to deal with his enemies. If we look around, we will certainly find people who will resort to any means to achieve success and popularity—they don't believe in God or believe that their actions can go unnoticed by the Supreme. Such people have scant respect for relationship, family; traditions and values. They see only money, power, fame and wealth. They will hardly assign credit to others or appreciate contribution by others. Another most important learning from Mahabharata, clearly; is the risk of gambling under any situation. It took away all the wisdom from some one like Yudhishthira, forget about a common soul. Surely; gambling can never produce a winner; ultimately; all the people involved in gambling are destined to be losers.

      But Mahabharata deserves the credit of being brutally honest about the human being so frail as it does not shy away from highlighting follies of human characters without any effort to hide or by putting that under the lid. It is for this reason that many people are against study of this great epic lest there is a fight in the family. But most Indians are trained to take it as a scripture and we are genetically tuned to look aside whenever there is a negative side characterized by its characters.

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