January 1, 2008

Mahabharat - a prelude

I was in Texas visiting Shrinivas, Shamli and Soumil for Diwali and in the course of our talks, the topic of the Hindu epics came up and we got a bit nostalgic about the days when B. R. Chopra's Mahabharat literally stopped India in the 90's. I remember when streets used to go silent between 10-11am on Sundays. Everyone, literally EVERYONE, whether they had a television set or not, used to sit glued to the tube in their or their neighbors' living rooms. The greatness of the show was such that it transcended economic and religious barriers. We used to have a muslim hawker regularly share one corner of our living room watching Mahabharat. Everything was excused on the pretext that, "Mein Mahabharat dekh raha tha."
Its been a while since I saw any recasts of the show and I was mentioning that to Shrinivas. He told me that www.rajshri.com aired these (and many other) episodes on their broadband site. I was ecstatic! And so, I started watching these episodes as and when I found time. And as I was watching these, I thought, why not document this great story as I watch it. Someday I might want to know Arjuna's lineage. There is a lot to learn from the great Indian epics and for some reason these great epics (and for that matter, Hinduism) are not as well advertised as they should be. As I learn more and more about the different cultures I am exposed to, I realize that there is no greater way of life than Hinduism. Thats just me and I, in no way would like to spark a debate here.
This is my attempt to put out there a brief synopsis of the Mahabharat. This is going to be no easy task. I hope my patience stands by me as I write this HUGE epic. I will try to grab some pictures to put in as I go along.
A word of disclaimer though. I will be jotting down the story as it was aired on B. R. Chopra's Mahabharat.
If I get curious about some itsy-bitsy details, I will try to look it up and add some clarifications. I do not claim that my interpretation is perfect or total.I have added my comments/thoughts to the ongoing story where I deemed I should voice my opinion. Any comments to correct / refine it would be greatly appreciated. This is for my pleasure and future reference only. Some day my grandchildren might appreciate it. :)
I also am not a professional writer, so please bear with my prosaic errors.
Also, PLEASE do not hesitate to correct them. I do not know if this will be one HUGE post or if I need to segregate the story based on certain criteria. I guess I will learn as I go along.
Without further ado, let me begin the epic.

Mahabharat - 1

'Samay' (Time) is the narrator of this epic. Samay introduces us to this Epic by stating that the Mahabharat is not just Bharat's war story. It is the story of the rise and fall of the Indian culture, a battle of good and evil, a story of light and darkness. Samay claims that none else but It can be the best narrator of this tale since It has seen it as it progressed.
Samay claims that Mahabharat is the making and breaking of relationships and its concluding outcomes and is the elixir of our lives. Every era has to go through these conflicts and there is a constant conflict between good and evil. As long as Time prevails, these battles will forever be fought. And Time is perpetual and endless. Hence, it is important that every 'present' should be told and assess this story so that it is ready for the 'future'. This battle is the duty of every 'present' era and the fate of every 'future' era. Therefore, Samay sometimes acts as a teacher, sometimes as a mother and sometimes as Rishi (ascetic) to prepare the 'present' for the 'future'.
This story does not actually begin when Lord Krishna sermonized the Geeta to Arjun or when Draupadi made fun of Duryodhan. It began much before these events. It begins when Bharat, son of Dushyant and Shakuntala, returns to the court of Hastinapur after his conquests. Bharat is haile
d as a very wise and brave conqueror and it is time for him to choose an able Yuvraj, the heir apparent, to the throne. Bharat has 9 sons but he does not deem any of them fit to take on the mantle. After due thought, he appoints Bhumanyu, son of Bharadwaj, a commoner, as his successor. This was unheard of since a king's successor, by default, was supposed to be his (eldest) son. But Bharat stands by his decision. In his opinion, the prime duty of a king is to safeguard his kingdom and subjects. He feels that a democratic society, wherein one's Karma's were to decide one standing in life, and not his/her birth, would be a just society.
However, this Democratic form of government did not last long and declined by Shantanu's reign.
Shantanu's story begins thus. Shantanu was hunting by the river Ganges when he met Ganga and fell in love with her. He proposes to Ganga and she accepts his proposal on the condition that he would not question any of her actions, however strange they may be. And if his curiosity was to get the better of him, she would answer his question and leave him. He accepts the condition and they tie the knot. Ganga bears a child
and Shantanu is jubilant. But, every time a child is born, Ganga sacrifices it into the river. Shantanu is bound by his word that he would not question her behavior. This repeats every time a child is born and Shantanu is shocked but speechless.
After the 7th child finds its watery grave, Shantanu can not hold his silence any longer and stops Ganga from drowning their 8th son. Ganga explains to him that Shantanu, Ganga and the 8 children were all living a curse. Shantanu was King Mahabhishak in his past life and Lord Indra was his friend. During one of Heaven's parliamentary sessions, Mahabhishak could not get his eyes off of Ganga, which was considered lecherous behavior and was cursed by Brahma to live a mortal's life on Earth (Mrutyulok). So was Ganga. The 8 children were 'Vasus' who were cursed by Sage Vashisht to be born on Earth. Now Ganga promised that she would help them get out of the circle of life and death by granting them a short life. Unfortunately, the 8th child, who Ganga named Devavrat, would
have to live his life on Earth. So Ganga takes off with Devavrat to the Heavens. On his way back after bidding adieu to Ganga, Shantanu finds 2 abandoned babies. He takes them with him and names them Kripa and Kripi. He hands these kids over to the Rajguru to take care of.
Shantanu awaits his son, Devavrat's return for 16 years. One day, while on his long drives, he finds that a young archer stops the flow of Ganga with a hail of arrows. On enquiry, he finds out that he is Devavrat. Ganga appears and introduces him to the Devavrat. Devavrat has been trained in the Vedas by Vashishta, political sciences from Brihaspati, and archery from Parashuram. That, apparently, was the best schooling anyone could dream of. He was an exceptionally skilled adminstrator and an undefeatable warrior.

Now, Devavrat turns out to be a very brave and able leader. He proves his mettle by single-handedly vanquishing the Salva army. Shantanu is impressed and appoints Devavrat as the heir to Hastinapur's throne.
Everything's nice and dandy and father and son are off on one of their hunting expeditions when Shantanu meets Satyavati, a ferryman's daughter and is enticed by her. He proposes to her and she accepts with the condition that her father blesses them. He approaches Dashraj, Satyavati's dad and asks for Satyavati's hand in marriage. Dashraj accepts with the condition that Satyavati's offspring would ascend the Hastinapur's throne. Now Shantanu has already promised Devavrat the throne and it would be unjust on his part to break his word. So he fumes away from Dashraj and is heartbroken. He spends most of his time thinking of Satyavati. This worries Devavrat who has no clue as to what has happened. All he sees is that Shantanu is sad and disillusioned. Shantanu does not let in on whats wrong either. So Devavrat gets some insider information from the charioteer who tells him that Shantanu spends most of the day looking at Satyavati from the banks of river Yamuna. Devavrat confronts Dashraj as to what exactly happened and after finally getting to know the conditions and that he would alleviate the problem for his dad, he takes up the bhishan pratigya - the vow of life-long celibacy and of service to whoever sat of the throne of Hastinapur. This ensured that neither he, nor his progeny would stake claim to the throne of Hastinapur.

Painting by Raja Ravi Varma

Now this was a big deal in the yesteryears when it was important for kings and princes to safe guard the royal lineage. Hence Devavrat was better known as Bhishma, meaning 'He of the terrible oath'. Even Samay salutes Bhisma and claims that there never was such an oath taken nor will there be such an oath that would move the whole universe. Shantanu blesses Bhisma with a boon that he would remain immortal for as long as he wishes to.

Satyavati bore two boys, Chitrangad and Vichitravirya. Shantanu passed on pretty soon and Bhisma put Chitrangad on the throne. Chitrangad kicked the bucket in a battle and Vichitravirya was crowned king. Time passed by and it is time for Vichitravirya to tie the knot. The king of Kashi organizes a swayamvar for his three daughters Amba, Ambika and Ambalika. Unfortunately, he wouldn't want Hastinapur's king to be present as Shantanu had rejected his sister's hand for Bhisma. So, inspite of long ties with Hastinapur (Bharat was married to one of Kashi's princess'), and repeated suggestions of his prime minister, the king of Kashi does not invite the king of Hastinapur. Bhishma is enraged and barges into the court of Kashi during the swayamvar. He says he is the representative of Hastinapur's king and is there to take what rightfully belongs to Hastinapur over the ages. Nobody dares to confront Bhisma. The king is asked for permission to let the daughters go and he concedes. The thing is that Amba already loves the king of Shalva and inteded to choose him during the swayamvara. On his way back to Hastinapur, Bhishma is confronted by the king of Shalva and is defeated and sent back home packing. On arrival at Hastinapur, Amba makes it clear that she actually likes the king of Shalva. At this Bhisma honorably sends Amba over to the king of Shalva. But the king of Shalva would not hear of any such thing. He has lost his claim over Amba during his battle and would not accept Amba. So Amba heads back to Hastinapur and now wants to marry Bhishma (since it was he who had won over the other kings in Kashi). Bhishma cannot accept her. Woman scorned! She vows that she would be the cause of Bhishma's death, come what may.
What for God's sakes was Bhishma doing trying to drag the three babes over for Vichitravirya? Why couldn't Vichitravirya go over himself? This fact just amazes me! There might be a point I am missing here.
Out of the blue, Vichitravirya dies without leaving behind any successors.
Supposedly, he contracted tuberculosis.
The question arises as to who is to ascend the throne now. Satyavati asks Bhishma to marry Ambika and Ambalika. But Bhishma is adamant about his vow and does not budge. So she sends Bhishma to Rishi Ved Vyas for an answer.
There Ved Vyas reveals Bhishma that Satyavati is his mother! While Satyavati used to ferry passengers across the Yamuna river, she'd met up with Sage Parashar and gave birth to Rishi Vyas. This was because Sage Parashar knew that the burden of history would lie on Satyavati's shoulders and that Ved Vyas would be the answer. They fornicated in the middle of the river on an island under cover of artificially created darkness/mist and a Ved Vyas was born (a.k.a
Krishna(dark)-Dwaipayana (born in an island)). Satyavati remained a virgin and Ved Vyas grew into adulthood in minutes and left with the promise that he would come whenever Satyavati needed his help. The condition that Satyavati put forth for this was that the odor of fish that clung to her (hence the previous name Matsyagandha) turn to fragrance!
Now, per the ancient Hindu customs, Niyoga is legal and moral. Satyavati instructs Ved Vyas to impregnate Ambika and Ambalika. Ved Vyaas was not much of a looker and Ambika shut her eyes while they were at it. Result being the kid would be blind. Ambalika turned pale at the sight of the dude, result being the kid would be pale and unhealthy. Satyavati wants to give this another shot but Ambika and Ambalika are scared out of their wits and send the maid. Ved Vyas goes ahead and copulates the maid and updates Satyavati that the offspring would be a learned one. (Wonder how that went along for him to say that!)
My comments: For obvious reasons, this Niyoga thing is cheesy to me. If Bharat had stipulated that the heir apparent would be determined by Dharma and not by birth, what was with Satyavati to get her illegal son to copulate her daughers-in-law? Basically, there wasn't much of the Kuru geneology strained down after all the cocktail going in. At the end of the whole tale, from the looks of it, looks like the sages had a romp. Well, thats how the epic narrates.

Mahabharat - 2

Dhritirashtra, the blind, was born of Ambika; Pandu, the pale one, was born of Ambalika; and Vidur, the righteous one, was born of the maid. Satyavati crowned Pandu as the king. Bhishma approaches the Subala, king of Gandhar for his daughter, Gandhari's hand in marriage for Dhritirashtra. This stuns her brother, Shakuni, who is insulted at the proposal for his sister. Nevertheless, Gandhari, accepts the proposal and voluntarily blindfolds herself to deny herself the pleasure of sight that her husband could never relish.
Dhritirashtra is shown as an ever-complaining, condescending person who feels he has been wronged by being born blind and the fact that he could not ascend the throne. Gandhari is always supportive. Dhritirashtra wants to beget a prince before Pandu and Kunti so as to be able to lay claim to the throne.
Meanwhile, Pandu wins over King Kuntibhoj's daughter, Kunti's hand in a swayamvara. Kunti was born as Pritha to King Shoorsen of the Yadu clan. Her childless uncle, Kuntibhoj adopted and rechristened her Kunti. Sage Durvasa paid a visit to Kuntibhoj and Kunti was a pretty good host. A pleased Durvasa grants her a mantra by which she could summon any God to beget her a child. Now curiosity got the better of her to try out this mantra. She summons Surya, the Sun God who is bound to grant her a son, Karna. Karna is born with Kavach (armor) and Kundala (earrings). The Kavach was to protect him in his battles and the Kundala were dipped in Amrit (nectar) for a long life. But Kunti, an unwed mother, could not raise Karna. She abandoned him by floating him in a river. Though not mentioned right here in this episode, Karna floated down river and was found and adopted by Adiratha, Dhritirashtra's charioteer, a sutra.
After he tied the knot, Pandu left on his conquests. He would not even stay a night with Kunti.
There is a whole load of material on Pandu on the web. One school of thought claims that he was impotent and, to hide this shortcoming, turned to a very heartless warrior conquering lands and vanquishing his enemies ruthlessly. He was cursed by a sage who he killed while he (the sage) had assumed the form of a deer and was copulating that he would be impotent and would die if he approached his wife for sex. Gosh! A whole lot of sexual undertone governed the Mahabharat. And there sure was a lot of confusion about relationships and reactions to them.
Pandu assimilated Kashi, Anga, Bengal, Kalinga and Magadh into Hastinapur. During one of his marches, he was confronted by the King of Madra who sought Pandu's friendship and gave his sister Madri's hand in marriage.
Per the counsil's suggestions, Pandu along with his wives takes off on a vacation. He hands over the kingdom's reigns to Dhritirashtra. During one of his hunting exploits, he mistakes the sounds created by Sage Kindan who was making love to his wife to that of a tiger and shoots. The dying sage spits out a curse that anytime Pandu was to get intimate with his wives, he would die.
Wow! Now THATS a curse!
To atone for this murder, Pandu comes back to Hastinapur to announce that he will be spending the rest of his life in penance for his folly and hands over the crown to Dhritirashtra. One of the main reasons for man to be live is to procreate and Pandu cannot do just this. He explains his dilemma to Kunti who remembers the boon that Sage Durvasa had bestowed to her and summons Dharmaraj, Vaayu and Indra to beget Yudhishtir, Bhim and Arjun respectively while Madri summons the Ashwin twins to beget Nakul and Sahadev. These five brothers were collectively called the Pandavas. Meanwhile, Gandhari gave birth to a 100 sons starting with Duryodhan and Dushasan and one daughter, Dushala. They were collectively called the Kauravas.
That was one helluva productive woman who never heard of birth control! On researching this fact, I found how this might have happened.
When Gandhari's pregnancy continued for an unusually long period of time, she beat her womb in frustration, at the envy of Kunti, the queen of Pandu who had given birth to Yudhishtir. Due to this, a hardened mass of grey-colored flesh produced from her womb. Gandhari was shocked and upset. She worshiped Vyasa, who had blessed her with one hundred sons, to redeem his words.Vyasa divides the flesh ball into one hundred equal pieces, and puts them in pots of ghee, which are sealed and buried into the earth for one year. At the end of the year, the Kauravas emerge." [cited from Wikipedia]

Mahabharat - 3

Mathura's King Ugrasen's son, Kansa, was a wicked and destructive dictator. He rejoiced in torturing and killing. Basically he's been portrayed as villain who needs to be eliminated. He staged a coup and usurped the throne and had Ugrasen imprisoned in the dungeons. He offered, rather ordered, Vasudev, a good friend and courtier in Ugrasen's court to marry his sister Devaki. Vasudev, inspite of his marriage with Rukmini could not veer away from this order. As soon as they were married, there was an aakashwani warning Kansa that his end was near and that Devaki-Vasudev's eight child would bring about his death. He threatens to kill the newlyweds. The couple beg for their lives and in exchange for the lives of their eight kids. Kansa throws them in the dungeons too. One by one the first six children are killed in cold blood by Kansa. The seventh child is 'transferred' to Rukmini, Vasudev's first wife, and he is to be born as Balram.
I guess surrogate motherhood by invitro-fertilization was an established process then. How this could have been feasible in a prison cell is what stumps me. I pity Vasudev, who at one point in time was happily married to Rukmini and found all of a sudden found himself with this inconsolable woman in a prison cell destined to deliver a bunch of babies who were to be murdered.
Another well-known phrase at this juncture worth mentioning is "Chup ho ja bete, nahi to tera mama Kansa aajayega."
Sri Krishna is born at the stroke of midnight on a Wednesday. This day is celebrated as
Janmashtami. A series of miracles occur when the eight child is born.The doors to the prison cells open up, the guards are knocked out and Vasudev finds a way to escape with the child across the river Yamuna to the neighboring town of Gokul. The river calms amidst torrential rains as the baby's feet touch the waters and the serpent king Sheshnaag forms and umbrella with his hood. He hands over the newborn to Nand, an old friend and the chieftain of the cowheards, who exchanges Vasudev's child with his baby girl, Nandini. Unfazed, Kansa still goes to kill the girl. Just as he is about to smash the baby against the wall, the baby slips away and the akaashwani startles him again stating that his destroyer is safe and sound.
Meanwhile, there is rejoicing in Gokul celebrating Yashoda's new born.

Very few Hindus need to
be reminded of the festivities surrounding Janmashtami. Ras Lila, a famous Manipuri dance form, and Dahi Handi, more prevelant in the state of Maharashtra, are common events marking the rejoicing of Janmashtami.

Kansa is still worried that Devaki's eight child is alive. A spy mentions that lots of revelries are in progress
in Gokul. Kansa suspects that the child is in Gokul and summons Putana, a witch, and asks her to kill this child. She decides to smear poison on her nipples and feed it to all the babies born the previous night. She goes about killing all the babies born in Gokul. Finding Nanda's baby alone, she kidnaps it and takes off into the jungle to nurse it. The baby Krishna slays Putana.

Yashoda is a very loving and pampering mother. Krishna is mischievous yet universally adored. All through his childhood, Krishna always showed different miraculous deeds. I would rather concentrate on the Mahabharat part. A few pictures I was able to collect from the web would serve to refresh some memories:

Kansa sends Akrur to summon Krishna. Krishna accepts to come over with Balram and slays Kansa in a gladiator kind wrestling bout. King Ugrasen is released and reinstated on the throne. Krishna takes off to the Sandeepani Gurukul (University) for his education.