Sunday, June 07, 2020

Mahabharata : Part 2


The basic story plot has already been explained in the previous parts. But it is the associated discussions that show why MB has become so core to Indian discourses even today. In that sense it is quite different from an Iliad or Odyssey or any other western classic. Many of these are likely only taught in specific courses in universities. However epics in India lives even to this day - across political, cultural, historical, theatrical, cinematic, poetic and pretty much all stages of art. These days there are even attempts to bring MB into the fold of science with varying degrees of success and oftentimes incredulous failures.

When we enter, what I call the "ecosystem" content, which leads the path from Jaya to MB, there is proliferation of myths, local stories, tall tales, clan history, political geography and explanations of local ways of life. Hence even talking about scientific history of MB as such is futile and I would not even try to do so.

Given this, it is still worthwhile to know the overall plot genesis and progress, as confusing as it might get at times.

The Kuru Clan

There was once a king Shantanu who is at the top of Kuru clan pyramid. Shantanu marries a river, Ganga (Yes!). They have a son named Bhishma (actual name Devavrata). Later Shantanu falls in love and also marries Satyavati whose mother is a fish and foster father is a ferry driver. However for this to happen, Devavrata has to promise Satyavati's parents that her son and not himself, will sit on Kuru throne after Shantanu. This gives Devavrata his famous name of Bhishma - the one who makes difficult promises! Oh and by the way, Satyavati's actual father was a king whose semen was dropped in river by a hawk which was carrying it to his original wife, whose father was mountain and mother a river. This dropped semen was responsible for Satyavati's mother being a fish. Satyavati had a pre-marital relation with a sage from whom she had another sage as son, who is Ved Vyas, the first assumed author of Mahabharata (or for more precision,  let us say Jaya). Confusions are typically pardoned at this juncture !

Satyavati had a son named Vichitraveerya, who had to be put upon the Kuru throne in line with Bhishma's pledge to Satyavati's parents. Bhishma steals three girls for him to procreate and thereby progress the Kuru clan (not a lot of feminist ideals then, you see !) These were Amba, Ambika, Ambalika. Amba pleads Bhishma to let her go, since she is in love with another King. Bhishma leaves her but her lover refuses to accept her and she suicides, but not before getting a boon that she will be reborn as a transgender, Shikhandi, who would later become the cause of death of Bhishma in the Mahabharata war.

Meanwhile Vichitraveerya marries Ambika and Ambalika. Unfortunately, he dies without fathering any children with the two queens. Now as per the tradition of the land, Satyavati invites Bhishma to father kids on behalf of his half brother with his half-sister in laws ! But since Bhishma is known never to waver from his pledges, he refuses his step-mom. Instead, she invites Vyasa (her son from her extra marital affair, the author who writes MB/Jaya - probably) who was wandering the forests to father kids with the queens. She asks the two queens to be ready in the night for receiving a man. Queens believe (as per the tradition) Bhishma has agreed and is mentally prepared to receive him at night. However, to their shock they see an uncouth, forest dwelling sage in their bed at night. First it was Ambika, who closes her eyes at the moment of coitus unable to look at her partner. Hence the son born in this union (Dhritarashtra) turns out to be blind.

Next is the turn of Ambalika. She faints at the sight of the sage instead of the prince in her bed. Hence the union produces an offspring (Pandu) who is pale (likely an albino). I'm sorry - I know it's bullshit, but bear with me. We will get to the meaty content in a bit !

Unhappy with the end products from Vyasa's activities, Satyavati asks Ambika to be ready to take him again. This time, Ambika tricked everyone by asking one of her servant maids to be her body double. Voila, Vyasa has an amazing time and the union produces an intelligent human - Vidura who would go on to become the prime minister of Hastinapur. Unfortunately, since he was born of a low class maid (and hence not from the kshatriya /warrior class) , he would never be accorded the respect he is due - and never considered for leadership positions or the throne itself. It's worthwhile to note that everyone defers to his words, especially, the senior most Pandava prince, Yudhishtir, but he cannot take important decisions or define the future of the kingdom or the clan.

Bhishma now arranges brides for the blind Dhritarashtra and pale Pandu, namely Gandhari and Kunti, the former he brought from Afghanistan (Gandhara in those days) not divulging the fact that she would marry a blind man. When Gandhari gets to know that she has been cheated by Bhishma, she ties her eyes with a bandana promising never to open it again. She accepts blindness as a mark of protest - a slap on the face of Bhishma and others who led her to this life of being queen to a blind king.

In due course, Pandu is made king of the Kuru kingdom (albinism over blindness, both albinism and blindness over lack of kshatriya blood)

Soon Dhritarashtra and Gandhari have many sons (the myth says 100 sons, not impossible though unlikely) the eldest one and rightful owner of the throne being Duryodhan. These 100 brothers came to be known as Kauravas (the rightful heirs of Kuru clan). Pandu could not have children with Kunti. Meanwhile he falls in love with another princess named Madri and marries her also (but again no kids). So he takes both queens to a forest with a few trusted lieutenants. They live in the forest for a period of time during which Pandu requests Kunti and Madri to spend time with various sages. Through these "interactions" Kunti gets three sons (Yudhishtir, Bhim and Arjun) and Madri gets two (Nakul and Sahadev). They form the mighty pancha pandavas (The five born of Pandu, though Pandu is not their real father), cousins to Kauravas.

Events leading to war

Multiple events happen over time ; Pandavas are defeated in a gambling match and have to go to forest for 13 years. They lose everything to the wily fox Shakuni (who is the brother of Gandhari and came to stay with her from Kandahar, with the sole motive of destroying the house of Hastinapur as revenge for Bhishma destroying the life of his sister by forcing her to marry a blind man).

Once Pandavas come back they request for land where they could live as kings. When Kauravas refuse to yield land to them, they send Krishna (Their mother Kunti's brother's son, and hence their first cousin) to negotiate with Kauravas. He was given the mandate to even agree for five villages for Pandavas to avoid war. Kauravas reject even that. With no options available in front of them, Pandavas go into the war with Kauravas to get back what they think is rightfully theirs.


Anuradha Sridhar said...
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Anuradha Sridhar said...

This made me laugh at several points! Lovely :)

Regarding the Pandavas, didn't Kunti have to "interact" with Dharma, Vayu and Indra? The medium were sages, is it?