The greatest epic of india is undoubtedly the Mahabharatam, to give the proper Sanskrit name, also called Jaya, or Mahabharata, as it is more commonly known.
To give a rough idea of its size, it is four times as long as the Ramayanam, the second epic poem of India, and ten times as long as the Iliad and Odyssey combined! The Mahabharata is described as the longest epic poem as well as the longest poem ever written in the world. It is divided into eighteen Parvas or books. The work which is well known in the West as the finest example of classical Indian thought and which is also the holiest book of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita, is an episode in the Bheeshma Parva- the first part of the great battle.
Put very simply, the Mahabharata is the story of the great battle for the throne of Hastinapura, fought between two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the circumstances which led to this battle and the aftermath. The former were a hundred in number and the latter just five. As is the way with epics, it has stories inside stories, convoluted and interwoven, old rivalries which refuse to die and the narration moves between cities and forests, heaven and earth.
(Image courtesy: Pixabay)
But paradoxically, while most literate Indian Hindu homes have copies of the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita, not necessarily in Sanskrit but translations in their respective spoken languages, it will be difficult to find the Mahabharata. If one were a pious Hindu and if one were on the deathbed, the Gita would be chanted aloud in the house, so that its message accompanies the departing soul on its journey across the Vaitarani river, (the Indian version of the river Styx of Greek mythology, makes one wonder), which all souls who have sinned need to cross; meaning almost all souls. The Vaitarani marks the boundary of the kingdom of Yama, the god of Death. No water flows in the Vaitarani; what flows is a revolting mixture of blood and filth. The Holy Cow comes in handy here- if the sinner has ever donated a cow to a Brahmin, then the crossing gets easy; just hold the tail of the cow and your crossing gets easier!
Despite its epic status, in India, the common man still keeps the Mahabharata at a distance. Probably no religiously inclined Kerala Hindu home keeps a copy of this (purportedly) strife-filled story of bloodshed. Hardly any Indian little girl is named after Draupadi, the beautiful queen of the Pandava princes. One will find a few Indian men who are named Arjuna and Karna and probably none at all who are named Yudhishtira and Bheema. And absolutely no Duryodhanas and Dusshasanas, which is understandable.
I grew up reading random stories from the Mahabharata- some heroic, some funny, some inexpressibly sad. Somewhat politically correct snippets, but never the original.
Stories of Yudhishthira and his conscientious adherence to truth, Bhima, who could turn a block of iron to powder with his bare arms and his great love of food, Arjuna winning the hand of Draupadi at her Swayamvara with his archery skill where so many great archers ahead of him had failed, the dark skinned beauty- Draupadi, who was wife to not one, but five, valiant husbands, all of whom stood silent after gambling her away, while she was disrobed by Dusshasana at the Kaurava court (quite an easy task- the saree is an unstitched garment and one good tug is more than enough) but who had forgotten that she was as beloved as a sister to Krishna, in whom she sought refuge; Dusshasana pulled and pulled and finally collapsed in exhaustion on a mountain of fabric; Draupadi’s saree was still intact! Of the eldest Kaurava, Duryodhana, embarrassing himself at the palace of Maya- designed to trick whoever looked at it with jealousy- by hitching up his lower garments where the floor was so finely polished that it resembled the surface of a pool and failing to hitch them up where there was actually a pool. The fearless Abhimanyu, darling son of Arjuna and nephew of Krishna, who was taught how to enter the Padmavyuha, the most formidable formation of an army, designed like the petals of a lotus, but not how to exit it, who broke open an entrance to that supposedly impregnable Vyuha; Abhimanyu singlehandedly fought all the great and battle scarred heroes of the Kaurava side and kept them at bay; he was ultimately killed by deceit and unfair fighting, six armed veteran warriors against one weaponless boy in the end- he was all of sixteen years old!
I could read the Mahabharata in its entirety, only in 2007. Not in Sanskrit, sadly having never learned even the rudiments of it, but a very wonderful and true translation to English by the late Mrs. Kamala Subramanyam, published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, described as a “free translation” by the author in all humility. It is not a literal translation; many Sanskrit terms do not lend themselves readily to another language. For example, a lovely woman would be described in Sanskrit as Gaja Gamini- which in English would be “she who moves with the gait of an elephant” which sounds totally ridiculous, but would make perfect sense if one has seen the slow, majestic, even graceful way an elephant walks.
As I see it, the Mahabharata is special among epics as it is not entirely about good and evil guys; there is no single hero or lovely damsel in distress who is in need of rescue. Come to think of it, there is not even a happy ending, even though good did triumph over evil ultimately. There is logic and there is fuzzy logic, there are moral dilemmas, there are situations where the line between right and wrong is blurry!
What we do have in this epic is a vast tapestry of humanity in all its glory, failings, good, evil and the in between, uncomfortable situations, and a rainbow assortment of personalities. Here is an unwed mother, Kuntidevi, floating away her baby son, born of the Sun God, down the river in a fragile wooden box, who then marries an impotent king, Pandu, and presents the world with three more sons, all valiant heroes, all born from a different father. Collectively, the Pandavas, the five sons of Pandu, three born of Kunti and the twins born of Madri, embody the five qualities of a perfect king- honesty, strength, skill, beauty and wisdom.
The Mahabharata features probably the first transgender in an epic, Shikhandi, born a woman, raised as a man and who later changed to a man, borrowing the manhood of a Yaksha, vowing to kill Grandfather Bheeshma, who had spurned the love she had offered him in her earlier incarnation as the abducted princess-Amba. Shikhandi faced Bheeshma in the last laps of the Kurukshetra battle; Bheeshma, knowing the truth of his birth, would not fight a woman and lowers his bow. Arjuna, who stood behind Shikhandi, waiting for this moment, shoots a hundred arrows into Bheeshma’s body, suspending him on the Shara-Shayya, or bed of arrows!
There is the evil, lame genius, Sakuni, uncle to the Kauravas, who masterminded the game of dice, which cost Yudhishtira his kingdom, brothers, wife and all possessions, including clothes. The dice were doctored, made from the finger bones of Sakuni’s dead father, filled with his rage and which would turn only the way Shakuni willed them to turn.
The comforting thought during difficult times, that everything has a divine purpose, even though it may not readily be apparent to the sufferer, is also wonderfully illustrated in the curse of Urvashi, the lovely Apsara, on Arjuna. Apsaras, heavenly nymphs, are amazing beauties- dancers as well as ageless beings. Arjuna was the son of Indra, Lord of heaven, and had gone to meet his father. Now his fame as an archer had already reached the heavens and the man himself in person was so handsome that Urvashi, the most beautiful of all Apsaras, was smitten by lust. Unfortunately for her, Arjuna respectfully addressed her as “mother” because in a way she was in the position of an ancestress to Arjuna in an earlier descent to earth. All Arjuna’s efforts to make her understand were in vain and the spurned Urvashi cursed Arjuna, manliest among men, to become an eunuch and spend his days dancing in the midst of women, entertaining them.
The anger of Urvashi cooled down a bit and while a curse is a curse and cannot be withdrawn, on the combined request of Indra and Arjuna, she reduced it as effective for just an year instead of till the rest of his life. The curse ultimately served poor Arjuna in good stead during the last year of the anonymous exile that the Pandavas had to undergo after losing that fateful game of dice. And so it was that the brave and mighty warrior Arjuna, unchallenged archer in the three worlds, the twang of whose great bow, the Gandiva, would strike terror into the heart of the most ferocious opponent, was transformed into the eunuch dancer Brihannala, half man-half woman, with long dark tresses and feminine curves, ruby lips and fluttering eye-lashes, draped in red silk and adorned with pearl and coral jewellery was assigned to teach dance to the young princess Uttara and her companions at the court of the Virata king. A foolproof transformation indeed!
But the central figure of the Mahabharta is Krishna, who is supposedly neutral, who donates his army to the Kaurava side and himself to the Pandava side, with the stipulation that he would not lift a single weapon but will just act as the charioteer of Arjuna. This is Krishna with many celestial weapons at his command, the battle rallying conch- Panchajanya, the deadly, serrated, spinning disc- Sudarshana, the heavy mace- Kaumodaki and the divine sword- Nandaka, yet deploys none except the conch.
As the story progresses we see that Krishna, the God incarnate, is most certainly not impartial and bends rules without actually committing Adharma, so as to ensure that goodness and truth triumphs. When Arjuna vows to kill Jayadratha, the chief architect of Abhimanyu’s death inside the Padmavyuha before sunset, or else immolate himself, it is Krishna who darkens the face of the sun with his Sudarshana Chakra, fooling Jayadratha to think that the sun has set and drop his guard in jubilation. In the very second in which Arjuna releases his arrow to find its target, Krishna uncovers the sun; it is bright daylight- there is no Adharma involved, technically. It is Krishna who sits watching the equally matched Gada-yuddha, mace fight, between Bheema and Duryodhana, senses the indomitable Bheema tiring before the superior skill of Duryodhana, looks Bheema straight in the eye and slaps his own thigh. Bheema understands; his mace strikes Duryodhana below his waist, shattering his thighs- a clear violation of the rules of war. Justice needs to be established, despite the means, says Krishna.
The Mahabharata does not hold up an impossibly high standard of behaviour to the world- not even from Yudhishtira, the ultimate righteous man who uttered a lie as an aside! It rather reminds us that as humans we are ever fallible and need to be vigilant. That we are constantly making choices which determine the course of many lives, including ours.
Mahabharata also poses wise questions, the Yaksha Prasna, as asked by the Lord of Death, masquerading as a gruesome Yaksha (celestial being, not necessarily benign) to Yudhishthira on the banks of the magic lake, where all four of his brothers lay dead. He answered the questions correctly, thus redeeming the lives of his dead brothers. The questions and their answers are so profound in their wisdom.
What is faster than the wind? asks the Yaksha. The mind, answers Yudhishtira.
What is more numerous than grass? The thoughts that arise in the mind.
The most valuable of all possessions? Knowledge.
The best of all gains? Health.
The best of all kinds of happiness? Contentment.
Greatest deed? Non-violence.
Renouncing what, makes one wealthy? Desire.
By what does one become a Brahmin? Behaviour? Birth? Study? Learning?
What is true ablution?
Washing the mind clear of all impurities.
And the most profound question of all-
What is the most amazing thing in this world?
Every day, countless beings enter the Temple of Death. Even watching this spectacle, those who remain, believe themselves as immortal. What could be more amazing than this?
The Mahabharata speaks of eternal truths in the Bhagavad Gita, Song of the Lord, the conversation between Arjuna and his charioteer, Krishna, in the midst of battle. It speaks of the soul, which does not kill and which cannot be killed, which changes bodies like we discard worn clothes; the ideal man, the Sthitha-prajna, One whose consciousness is constant, for whom joy and sorrow, good and evil, a clod of earth, a stone or a piece of gold are all identical and about the roots of any action- which determine whether it is worthy or unworthy.
The Gita also states the ultimate promise of the Divine- Sambhavami Yugay Yugay…- when there is a dearth of righteousness in this world, when lawlessness becomes prevalent, the Divine incarnates. The Divine is born Yuga after Yuga to protect the good, to destroy the wicked and to establish Dharma or righteousness.
The world is a very disturbed place, violence, unrest, corruption- all types of Adharma abound, as I write this.
There is slaughter in Syria, even of small children, which goes largely ignored in the mainstream media in the rest of the world while leaders of powerful nations resolutely look the other way.
The President Elect of the US has actually got a significantly lesser number of votes than his opponent, yet the system decrees him as the next President. So far he has been handpicking to positions of power in his Government, mostly Christian, rich, straight, intimidating looking, white men.
There is a huge and abrupt demonetisation drive in my own country, ongoing still, which the government says will strike at the root of counterfeit currency notes and black (non-tax paid and/or illegally earned) money but which has severely inconvenienced ordinary, non-cyber savvy citizens. There have been quite a few reported deaths of the old and infirm, queuing up in front of helpless and empty handed banks and dry ATMs.
Sambhavami Yugay Yugay…. Perhaps the time has come to redeem that old promise, Lord?