Pandava_Brothers_by_Nigami

Pandavas- Deviant Art

 

What do you feel when you read a larger than life, a remarkably grand tale?-  Exhilaration? Amazement? Inspiration?  I felt them all when I recently finished reading the epic saga called the Mahabharata.  2nd only to the other epic tale- the Ramayana, both of these are embodiment of our Indian culture, a testament to our creativity. The sheer scale, the imagination, plot lines and of course the ultimate objective meaning of it all leaves the reader really thinking and perhaps that’s the outcome of a great book. It should arouse these emotions in you, make you think, realize, feel all possible things, it should leave you thrilled.

The Mahabharata is often equated with other great epic of all times ie The Iliad and the Odyssey. There are in fact many parallels between the two epics, most notably the fact that they both were composed as poems, created almost around the same time, both were passed down orally and hence resulted in various characters and plot lines being added with each passed down version. They both are laced with characters immortalized by myth, fantasy, virtue and vice and hence a great example to human thought and creativity.

There are countless sources one can read to understand the Mahabharata. So why am I writing about this? Well mostly because I’m moved to write and recount my version of this great epic and perhaps in some way motivate the reader of this post to pick up a copy and experience this for themselves.

Establishing Major Characters

The Pandavas 

Pandu– Father of Panadavas, son of Vyasa and Ambalika

Kunti– First wife of Pandu

Madri- Second wife of Pandu

Yudhishtra– First son of Pandu and Kunti

Bhima– Second son of Pandu and Kunti

Arjun– Third son of Pandu and Kunti

Nakul and Sahadev– Twin sons of Pandu and Madri

The Kauravas

Dhritarashtra– Father of Kauravas, son of Vyasa and Ambika

Gandhari-Mother of Kauravas

Duryodhana and Dusshasan– Eldest twins of Gandhari and Dhritarashtra

98 other Kaurava brothers

Other main characters

Draupadi– Wife to all 5 Pandavas

Bheeshma– Grand uncle to Kauravas and Pandavas

Drona– Teacher of Pandavas and Kauravas

Krishna– Supporter of Pandavas, Avatar of Vishnu

Karna–  Warrior and supporter of Kauravas

SETTING UP THE STAGE

Long ago Hastinapur was the capital city of Bharata (Ancient India) ruled by Shantanu. Shantanu fell in love with the beautiful Ganga and wanted to marry her, Ganga agreed to his proposal only on one condition that he will never question her actions, Shantanu agreed and thus they were married. Ganga bore him 7 sons but every time she used to give birth to one she drowned and killed them immediately. Shantanu staying true to his promise never questioned her until the birth of his 8th son when he stopped her and asked why she is killing her sons? At that moment Ganga was furious that Shantanu broke his promise and questioned her. She then tells him that her children are cursed to be born and suffer as humans if alive and now his 8th son will have to bear this curse. This son was named as Bheeshma.

Soon after Shantanu wishes to marry another woman- Satyawati, she too puts a condition that only her sons will rule Hastinapur not Bheesma’s. Shantanu agrees and gets his son to promise celibacy so that he can marry again. Satyawati and Shantanu thus marry and go on to have two sons. Now the time comes to marry the eldest and the only son- Vichitravirya as the second one dies at an early age. So Bheeshma goes and abducts 3 sisters- Amba, Ambalika and Ambika to be married off to him. Out of the 3, Amba resists to this marriage as she was in love with someone else. Bheeshma lets her go but her beloved would no longer accept her because she was abducted by another man and neither would Bheeshma accept her because he has taken a vow of celibacy. So Amba swears revenge that she will kill Bheeshma for doing this to her. (Here you see the first sub plot developing between characters)

Time goes by but Satyavati’s son is not able to give her any grandchildren (possible indication towards homosexuality or impotency) So she gets her other son Vyasa (also the narrator of the epic) from previous marriage to do the needful. Vyasa was a mendicant, ugly and unkempt so when he goes to impregnate Ambika she closes her eyes out of disgust and thus Dhritarashtra was born- blind. When he goes to Ambalika she turns pale and hence Pandu was born- pale and weak. When they both grew up Pandu was declared the king as Dhritarashtra was handicapped (thus brewing resentment between brothers)

SO far so good but here comes the plot twist. One day Pandu goes hunting in the forest and accidentally kills a gazelle in act of mating who turns out to be a Brahman in disguise. The Brahman curses Pandu that should he ever try to make love to any of his wives he will die instantly ( one of the things that appear throughout the epic are the curses and boons on various characters which keeps the story going). Pandu unable to produce an heir resigns himself into the forest with his wives. Dhritarashtra is thus declared the king of Hastinapur. Now wandering in forest dejected and hopeless, Kunti tells Pandu that she can still have sons as she has a boon from a sage which allows her to invoke the gods and have children by them ( indicating towards surrogacy rules in those times where relative of the husband was allowed to impregnate the wife ritually). Thus  3 sons were born to her Yudhisthira ( who stood for righteousness) Bhima (who stood for strength) and Arjun (great warrior). Madri too availed of this boon and gave birth to two twins Nakul and Sahadev ( who would stand for beauty and intelligence respectively) The Pandu family was now complete and ready to contest the throne.

However at the same time Gandhari also was pregnant and gave birth to Duryodhana and 99 other Kauravas. Duryodhana was about the same age as Yudhisthira so neither of the sons had an upper hand in claiming the throne. Before Pandu could do anything, in a moment of weakness, Pandu makes love to Madri and suddenly dies after that as the Brahmans curse takes effect, Madri too dies with him. Kunti is now left with 5 sons to take care of, she returns to Hastinapur however only to live in the sidelines as her bother in law Dhritarashtra was still the king.

Years go by and the rivalry increases between the boys in different ways, Bheeshma however ensured that they were brought up as equals.  He ensured that they were given the same lessons in warfare and statecraft. At this stage, Drona is introduced as the common teacher to both Pandavas and Kauravas. Another character appears around same point- Karna- who comes to Drona to learn archery but Karna was son of a charioteer and Drona refused to teach as he belonged to a lower caste* and Drona only taught Brahmans and Kshatriya . Karna then goes away dejected to look for another teacher, he was truly gifted at archery its just because of his caste status he was turned away. He wanders around the forest and finds sage Parashurama (who was also Drona’s teacher)  lies to him that he’s a Brahman and becomes his student. However soon Parashurama finds out that he’s not who he claimed to be so out of anger he curses Karna that he will not be able to summon the astras (spells) he has learnt when he needs them the most.  This instances and ones to come would project Karna as the tragic hero of this tale.

The story progresses and the boys turn into handsome princes ready for marriage and the next stage in life. We will get to this in the next post.

*Varna Caste System

Brahmans: Priestly class

Kshatriya: Warrior class

Vaishya: Trader/Merchant class

Shudra: Low class/untouchables

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