Ramayana and Mahabharata have been a part of storytelling since childhood in India. The stories of the heroes and anti-heroes have been going around since ages. Yet, many are unaware of, or maybe seem to avoid knowing about Mahabharata due to its lengthy nature. To help remove the ignorance between the people known and unknown to the epic of Mahabharata, here is the briefing of the epic shared by the renowned author, V Raghunathan.
Please Note: This is the epic originally written by the sage Ved Vyasa. However, there are many versions of this epic.
The Mahabharata, along with the Ramayana, ranks among the greatest epics of ancient India. Set some five millennia ago, the Mahabharata is a collection of nearly 100,000 shlokas or double that number in dual verses – which is about seven times the length of the Illiad and Odyssey combined. It evolved over a period of nearly a millennium, through contributions by innumerable and anonymous contributors. However, the origin of the epic is traditionally ascribed to Sage Vyasa who, as the grandfather of the Kaurava clan, himself plays a significant part in the epic. Apparently, Vyasa, who is said to have dictated the verses to Lord Ganesha, meant the text to be itihasa, which in Sanskrit means ‘this is what happened’. In other words, the text is intended to be ‘history’ rather than ‘mythology’.
While several references to early Vedic times and practices give the epic a history-like credibility, the lack of verifiable historical facts places the text in a distinctly mythological space.
This real and surreal character of the epic makes it one of the most important ancient texts of mythology painted in historical hue, while the segment of Gitopadesha – a didactic sermon about dharma (higher duty) – gives it a moral character.
The epic captures the story of two sets of paternal cousins – the Pandavas and the Kauravas – in the Kuru kingdom of Hastinapura. The sum and substance of the story is the heroic struggles of the Pandavas against the excesses of the evil Kauravas, leading to the ultimate victory of the heroes. The Kauravas are the sons of King Dhritarashtra, who is blind, while the Pandavas are the sons of Pandu. Dhritarashtra and Pandu are half-brothers, sharing the same father. Since Dhritarashtra, the elder of the two, is blind by birth, the reins of the kingdom are handed over to the younger brother Pandu following the death of their father. However, as Pandu cannot beget children, he abdicates the throne and leaves the kingdom accompanied by his two wives Kunti and Madri, repairing to the Himalayas to undertake rigorous penances. At this point, Dhritarashtra ascends the throne. Duryodhana (originally named Suyodhana), the eldest of the Kaurava brothers, is hoping to succeed his father.
However, in a few years, Kunti returns from the Himalayas with five sons, the Pandavas. In time, she claims the throne, or at least a share of the Hastinapura kingdom, for her eldest son, Yudhisthira, who is also the eldest of the Kaurava and Pandava cousins put together – the Kurus.
From here on, Duryodhana spares no effort – fair or foul – to thwart the exertions of the Pandavas to secure a share of the kingdom. In due course, Dhritarashtra prevails upon his eldest son to let the Pandavas have the wild end of their kingdom, namely the forest of Khandava. By dint of hard work and sagacity, the Pandavas establish their capital city of Indraprastha and turn the land into a powerful kingdom and go on to conduct the rajasuya – the declaration of sovereignty over the surrounding kingdoms, including Hastinapura. This, Duryodhana is unable to stomach.
Together with his maternal uncle Shakuni, he invites Yudhisthira for a game of chance – chaupar. Yudhisthira ends up wagering and losing not only his kingdom, but also himself, his brothers and wife, Draupadi, aka Panchali. In a climax of the dark deeds ascribed to the Kauravas in the usual version of the epic, Draupadi is sought to be disrobed by one of Duryodhana’s brothers in the court of Hastinapura.
Following these losses, the Pandavas are exiled for twelve years, followed by one year of incognito existence, with the promise that Indraprastha would be handed back to them upon their return, provided they are not discovered during the last year of living undercover.
When the Pandavas return after thirteen years, Duryodhana refuses to meet his end of the bargain on the grounds that they violated the conditions of the thirteenth year. This inexorably leads to the end-game, which culminates in the epic war of Kurukshetra in which brothers, uncles, teachers, cousins and friends fight each other, and the lives of millions of men, women and children are lost, and many others widowed and orphaned. In the ultimate vindication of their dharma, the great war is won by the Pandavas.
It is as a prelude to the war – when one of the Pandava brothers, Arjuna, refuses to fight his cousins, teachers, uncles and grand-uncles who are arrayed on the other side against him and his brothers – that Lord Krishna gives the Gitopadesha, which contains an ocean of wisdom relating to choices that one is constrained to make in life.
More versions of Mahabharata to be shared in future. Keep updated and posted regarding the same.
Peace, Poetry and Power.