The Mahabharata: Unforgettable Lessons in An Indian Epic of Family Fighting
Poets have told it before, poets are telling it now, other poets shall tell this history on earth in the future.
- (The Book of the Beginning), Mahabharata
The Mahabharata (which may be translated from Sanskrit to mean ‘The Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty’) is one of the two major Sanskrit epic poems of ancient India, the other being the Ramayana. In a nutshell, the Mahabharata is about the Kurukshetra War (known also as the Mahabharata War), which was a conflict for the throne of Hastinapura between two groups of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. This epic poem is considered to be of immense significance and is often called one of the great literary works of humanity.
Ancient Origins of the Mahabharata
It is generally thought that the Mahabharata took its present form around the 4th century BC. It has also been argued that the composition of this epic took place at an earlier date, perhaps around the middle of the 1st millennium BC. During that time, the epic may have existed in the form of popular tales of gods, kings, and seers, and it may have been transmitted orally by priests, ascetics, and traveling minstrels.
In any case, the present form of the Mahabharata contains about 100,000 stanzas, and about 1.8 million words in total, making it the longest epic poem in the world. To put this into perspective, the Mahabharata is approximately 10 times the length of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey combined. Whilst it is unlikely that a single person wrote the entire epic, tradition states that the author of the Mahabharata was the sage Vyasa, who dictated the verses, whilst Ganesha wrote them down.
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Vyasa and Ganesha writing the Mahabharata . ( Public Domain )
Early Stories in the Indian Epic
The Mahabharata begins with the blindness of Dhritarashtra, the older son of Vichitravirya (the ruler of Hastinapura), and the father of the Kauravas. Due to his blindness, Dhritarashtra could not inherit his father’s throne, and his younger brother, Pandu (the father of the Pandavas), became the new ruler of Hastinapura when Vichitravirya died. Due to a curse placed on him by the sage Kindama, Pandu would die if he had sexual intercourse, and therefore he was not able to have children without risking his own life. After being cursed by Kindama, the king retires to the forest, and his blind brother becomes the new king.
The blind Dhritarashtra attacks the statue of Bhima north India, 1616 – 1617. ( Public Domain )
Pandu’s first wife, Kunti, prays to the gods that she may be impregnated by them, so that she could bear children for Pandu. Her prayers are answered, and she bears three sons – Yudhishtira (fathered by Dharma), Bhima (fathered by Vayu), and Arjuna (fathered by Indra). Pandu’s second wife, Madri, also bore children through this process. Her two sons were the twins Nakula and Sahadeva (fathered by the Ashvins). On the other hand, Dhritarashtra and his wife, Gandhari, have 100 sons, the Kauravas, and a daughter.
When Pandu and Madri have sexual intercourse, the former dies due to the curse, and the latter commits Sati out of remorse, leaving Kunti and the five young boys to fend for themselves. The Pandavas and their mother return to Hastinapura, and the boys, along with their 100 cousins, were entrusted to a teacher, Kripa. Later on, they would also be educated by Drona. A bitter rivalry soon developed between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, resulting in the exile of the former, not once, but twice.
Pandavas journeying with their mother. ( Public Domain )
After their second exile, the Pandavas prepared for war against their cousins. Emissaries were sent to the Kauravas to demand the return of Indraprastha, the land granted by Dhritarashtra, and developed by the Pandavas, but lost to the Kauravas during a dice game. The attempt to settle the issue peacefully was a failure, even though Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu and a maternal cousin of the Pandavas, went on the mission himself.
As a consequence of this, the Kurukshetra War broke out. Scholars are divided in their opinion as to when this war took place, and even the historicity of this war is a subject of much debate. In any case, according to the Mahabharata, the Kurukshetra War lasted for 18 days, during which most of the characters in the epic are killed. Arguably the most famous episode in the epic, the Bhagavat Gita , occurs here, just before the fighting begins.
A manuscript illustration (18th c.?) of the Battle of Kurukshetra, fought between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, recorded in the Mahabharata Epic. ( Public Domain )
Seeing his loved ones on the opposing side, Arjuna wavers in his resolve and intends to quit the field of battle. Arjuna asks Krishna, who was serving as his charioteer, to take him back, and the avatar of Vishnu begins a philosophical discourse which expounds the impermanence of life, the importance of fulfilling one’s duty, and keeping on the path of righteousness.
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On the left, Karna with Salya as chariot driver versus Arjuna with Krishna on the right, Cirebon wayang glass painting, Java, Indonesia. (Gunawan Kartapranata/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Life Off the Battlefield
At the end of the war, the Pandavas emerge victorious, though the losses on both sides are almost total. On the side of the Pandavas, only eight survivors are named, whilst only four survivors are named on the side of the Kauravas. The war, however, is not the end of the epic.
The Mahabharata goes on to narrate that the Pandavas became the rulers of Hastinapura and Indraprastha, and it was to Janmejaya, a great-grandson of Arjuna, that the entire epic was recited by Vaishampayan, a disciple of Vyasa during a snake sacrifice.
The frame story for the epic Mahabharata is its telling on the occasion of a huge "snake-sacrifice" by the king Janamejaya. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Mahabharata War. Source: william jon/ CC BY 2.0
By Wu Mingren
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