The Wonder that was Mahabharata! (ma-hA-bhA-ra-ta)

V. Vemuri

"It is personalities, not principles that move the age," said Oscar Wilde. If personalities stood also for a principle, they become not just movers and shakers but legends. Mahatma Gandhi, in recent times, was one such personality. Sankaraacharya, the great Advaita (non-dualistic) philosopher is another. Buried in the misty past, there is yet another legendary figure of India. He towers over Gandhi and Sankara. He is fondly remembered even today as if he lived only yesterday. It has been said that "what has not been touched by his intellect has not been found elsewhere." According to historians, this remarkable man lived in India about 3,500 years ago. "India would not have been what it has been but for him," it was said. The great grandson of the sage Vasishta (va-si-shTa) , the son of sage Parasara (pa-rA-Sa-ra)  and the fisher-girl Satyavati (sa-tya-va-ti), he was called Krishna Dvaipayana; Krishna, probably because he had a dark complexion and Dvaipayana (dvai-pA-ya-na), probably because he was born on an island.

Impelled by a quest for order, he gathered all the knowledge of his time, available in the form of Vedic (vE-di-k^) hymns and rituals. He edited the material and organized it into four massive volumes, after redacting and giving them standard form and meter. The result is the four Vedas, the earliest source of information on Indian thought, and perhaps the earliest recorded knowledge available to mankind. So profound and monumental is this task that a grateful generation honored him with the title Veda Vyasa (vE-da vyA-sa), or the Editor of Knowledge. To ensure the preservation and transmission of this knowledge from generation to generation, Vyasa founded the legendary forest university in Naimisaaranya (nai-mi-SA-ra-Nya), a place not too far from the railway station bearing that name, north of New Delhi. With the help of his four disciples, Sumanu, Jaimini, Paila and Vaisampaayana, and his son Suka -- all five being great scholars in their own right -- Vyasa established a tradition of teaching and learning that lasted to this day as Veda Pathasalas or Schools for Knowledge. The intellectual output from this forest university was prodigious. Vyasa alone wrote the Brahma Sutras, eighteen Puranas (pu-rA-NA-s^) totaling about 4,00,000 verses and the epic masterpiece, the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata is such a treasure trove of worldly wisdom that it is being touted the Panchama Veda (paM-ca-ma vEda), the Fifth Book of Knowledge. This book is more than twice as large as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey combined. Many western scholars tend to label this work as mythology, although Indian scholars hold the opinion that there is no myth about this monumental epic. The Mahabharata is not a mere epic; it is a romance, it is a story of heroic men and women, it is a treatise containing the code of life, and it expounds the philosophy of social and ethical relations. It can also be thought of as an autobiographical reflection, as a recounting of a great dynastic history that was coming to an end, and as a final message to mankind from the great master. It is not an exaggeration to note that the history, culture, customs and traditions of ancient India can be found here. As the sole encyclopedic source for these items, it would have drawn enough strength to survive the onslaught of time. That this epic stole the hearts and souls of generations of Indians is because it also has a gripping plot.

The Plot

In a nutshell, the central plot of The Mahabharata revolves around the legitimacy of the succession rights to the kingdom of Kurukshetra (ku-ru-kshE-tra). The kingdom was the ancestral realm of King Bharata (bha-ra-ta), from whom the epic derived the name Bhaarata (bhA-ra-ta). The last king whose succession was unclouded was Santanu (SaM-ta-nu). He sired three sons; the first, Devavrata (dE-va-vra-ta), born to river goddess Ganga, was the legitimate heir. King Santanu's subsequent infatuation with the low-class girl Satyavati results in two younger sons, Chitraangada (ci-trAM-ga-da) and Vichitraveerya (vi-ci-tra-vI-rya). Complications arose with this second alliance because Satyavati's father drove a hard bargain for the alliance by demanding that prince Devavrata shall promise to stand aside and allow Satyavati's sons to inherit. Not only that! The heir to the throne was also asked to promise that he will not have any sons that could rival the junior branch. By making both these promises, Devavrata earned the title Bhishma (bhI-shma).

Chitrangada dies unmarried (killed by a wild animal) and Vichitravirya leaves two widows and no heirs. When the royal line is thus threatened with extinction, Queen Satyavati begs Bhishma to give up his vow for the sake of continuing the royal line. Citing obligation to duty (dharma), Bhishma refuses. Then Satyavati beckons Vyasa, her son from a brief encounter with sage Parasara (pa-rA-Sa-ra) prior to her formal commitment to King Santanu, and demands -- citing the law of levirate -- that he service the wives of Vichitravirya for an offspring. Vyasa obliges. By the elder widow Ambika (am-bi-ka), Vyasa fathers Dhritarastra (dhri-ta-rA-shTra), the heir, and by the younger widow Vyasa begets Pandu (pAM-Du). Because Dhritarastra was born blind, Pandu ascends the throne. By a strange twist of fate, the succession rights are complicated when the eldest of King Pandu's sons, Yudhistira (yu-dhi-shTi-ra), was born moments ahead of the senior Dhritarastra's son Duryodhana (du-ryO-dha-na). This situation eventually leads to the Great War between the cousins and the sons of Pandu prevail. This core of a story grew, over a period of time of telling and retelling, until it stabilized at about 1,00,000 stanzas and assumed the name The Mahabharata or the great story of the Bharata dynasty.

Analysis of the Plot

The plot of The Mahabharata is so well laid out that one invariably wonders whether the epic is a deliberate design by a master story teller or it simply is a narration of a dynastic history. Diversity of characters and their truthfulness to nature which characterize Shakespeare's plays are to be found in this epic also; what Shakespeare exhibits in many plays, Vyasa has brought together in one vast plot. If it were a design, what perplexes the casual observer is the complexity of the plot and the intricate web of genealogical relations among the players -- a complexity not warranted to create an exciting story. For example, tracing the succession rights of the male descendents is a genealogical nightmare. This observation alone can be used to lend credence to the theory that the epic probably resulted from a confluence of accidents of dynastic and literary histories. If this were true, then it is hard to explain the recurring patterns of symmetries in the evolving plot. The symmetries are so perfect that it appears that the poet is playing with patterns, just for fun.

One recurring pattern that can be discerned throughout the epic is the difficulty experienced by the kings in producing heirs to continue the royal line. The elders of that time were continually required to produce fairly complex re-interpretations of the rules of Dharma (the Law) whenever the royal line is threatened with extinction. This is not too unlike the role of the Supreme Court of the United States in interpreting the constitution. These interpretations and re-interpretations, occurring over a stretch of time, can lend enough ambiguity to provide the necessary "conflict" element to a good story. One may wonder why a country which appears to have no problem in over populating itself in the twentieth century suffered from this royal impotence. Over population is a phenomenon of modern technological times. Not long ago, during the nineteenth century, the British in India exploited a similar problem of royal impotence by making it illegal for a childless rajah to pass on his kingdom to an adopted child.

Another recurring theme is the so-called "disqualification of the eldest." Throughout the central core of the story, starting from King Santanu's ascendency to the throne all the way to the passing of the baton to King Pariksheet (pa-rI-ksheet^), the trend is too clear to ignore. Although Santanu was the junior brother of Devaapi, it was the latter who was sent to the forest to do penances thus clearing the way for the junior Santanu. Next comes the disqualification of Bhishma, undoubtedly a critical figure in the great epic. In a way, it can be said that the essential parts of the story begin with the births of Vyasa and Bhishma and end with their deaths. Bhishma, the eldest son of Santanu and the river goddess Ganga is eminently qualified an issue to become heir to the throne.

Just as Bhishma, the eldest surviving son of Santanu (although not the eldest sired by Santanu) was disinherited so was Chitraangada, the eldest son of Santanu with Satyavati. Chitraangada had no significant role in the epic; the youth meets his death from a wild animal. At first sight, it appears as though this character was created to fit the pattern of disqualifying the eldest. If this is a symmetrical plot, killing Chitraangada would have served the poet's purpose. Vichitraveerya (literally, the one with a strange sperm), the younger brother on whom the mantle fell, need not die. Incredulous it may seem, this fellow dies of "sexual exhaustion," before fathering any children. See the problem of royal impotency raising its head once again! Had the poet been trying to weave a pattern, he would not have killed Vichitraveerya also by invoking such a bizarre cause. The lineage of King Bharata did come to an end here. Had it not been for Vyasa's peculiar intervention, the royal line also would have come to a dead end with Vichitraveerya's death.

Continuing on the "disqualification of the eldest" theme, notice how King Dhritarastra, the son of Vichitraveerya's eldest widow Ambika and Vyasa, was disinherited due to his blindness and King Pandu, the son of the younger widow Ambalika and Vyasa, rules the land until he retires to the forest. With a strange twist of delayed justice, history repeated itself here. King Pandu, who suffered from leucodermia probably inherited the disease from his once-removed great grand father Devaapi, the older brother of Santanu. Although Devaapi had been disqualified to ascend the throne, after King Vristisena, because of a skin disease, King Pandu was allowed to stay on the throne in spite of the same disease. It is also possible that King Pandu could not sire any children, not because of any divine curse as we were told, but because of some side effect associated with his leucodermia. King Pandu's approval to let others service Queen Kunti to continue the lineage is not unprecedented either. Only in the previous generation Vyasa serviced the Queens Ambika and Ambalika to avert a lineage crisis. This practice apparently was common in those times.

Indeed Queen Kunti (kuM-ti), in this generation provides a mirror image to Queen Satyavati of the previous generation. Karna, the eldest son of Kunti -- once again an extramarital issue like Vyasa, was disqualified to succeed and the mantle falls on the junior prince Yudhistira, the eldest of the five Pandava brothers. Although all the five Pandava brothers bore children with their common wife, Draupadi (drau-pa-di), it was Abhimanyu (a-bhi-ma-nyu), a junior Pandava's son by his junior Queen Subhadra (Su-bha-dra) that claims the lineage. It is well known that it was Abhimanyu's son Pareeksheet that gets killed by the Naga King Takshaka (ta-ksha-ka) and it was Abhimanyu's grand son that performs the Great Naga Sacrifice. Sometime after the Great War and before this Naga Sacrifice, Vyasa wrote the epic and it was recited at this sacrifice.

Looking closely at the marriage between Santanu and Satyavati, whose offspring fought the Great War, we can see an interesting symmetry. With reference to this central line, just as King Santanu had a "premarital" son in Bhishma, so did Queen Satyavati in Vyasa. Thus Bhishma and Vyasa, the two giant pillars on which the epic stands, are extramarital sons on either parent's side. Both these central figures are better known by their titles, Vyasa and Bhishma, than by their respective given names, Krishna Dvaipaayana and Devavrata. Both these giants are deeply involved in the well being of the dynasty. Bhishma, the disinherited Kshatriya warrior of devine lineage, always on center stage, provides physical protection to the kingdom but finds himself helpless to protect the lineage because of his vow of celibacy. Vyasa, the ascetic of mixed lineage, finds himself compelled by fate to take the responsibility to sire sons on the widow of Vichitraveerya. It is a strange twist of fate that the Kauravas, who really inherited their genetic material from Vyasa, the author, eventually were vanquished in the Great War and left no heirs. The Pandavas, who prevailed, did not have any biological link to King Bharata or King Pandu; they inherited their common genes from their mother Kunti, a cousin of Lord Krishna who may be regarded as the third pillar of the tripod that supported the edifice of The Mahabharata. No wonder, Krishna supported the Pandavas. After all, blood is thicker than water!

One cannot but wonder at the consistent patterns of symmetry in this epic. Perhaps the whole episode was a figment of a great poet's imagination. Perhaps events of epic significance occur only at epochal times. Perhaps people living at some distant future look back and wonder at the patterns of symmetry associated with the people and events surrounding the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy and attribute some supernaturalness to these very much historical events.

Notwithstanding the apparent dilemmas and doubts one may still find with this epic, humanity cannot but wonder at the marvelous man from whose pen such a fascinating piece of work was produced. One should remember that this massive epic is only the coda in a lifetime of work orchestrated by a genius. No wonder, Lord Krishna, while disclosing his divinity to Arjuna on the battlefield of the Great War, singled out Vyasa from his contemporaries with these words: "Among the sages, Vyasa is Me."

Further Reading

1. Munshi, K. M., Bhagavad Gita and Modern Life , Fourth Edition, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chaupatty, Bombay, India 1955.

2. Van Butinen, The Mahabharata , The University of Chicago Press, 1973.