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The legendary author of the Mahabharata is Vyasa, who is also given credit for compiling the Vedas and writing the Puranas. The 24,000 couplets of the Bharata were gradually expanded to become over 100,000 making the Mahabharata the longest poem in the world and probably the work of many hands. Vyasa managed to portray himself in the poem as the progenitor of the two kings whose sons fight for the kingdom of Bharata, as his mother asks him to father sons on a widow and the wife of the celibate Bhishma and a third on a low-caste servant maid. Dhritarashtra is born blind because his mother closed her eyes, and Pandu is pale because his mother Ambika was pale with fear. Ironically the third who is of low caste, Vidura, turns out to be the wisest, resembling the god Dharma (justice, virtue) even more than Yudhishthira, who is the son of Dharma. Because of Dhritarashtra's blindness, Pandu was made king. One day while hunting Pandu shot a deer that was coupling with its mate and was cursed with the fate that if he ever mated with his wife he would also die. So Pandu was celibate and practiced austerity in the forest along with his wives Kunti and Madri after they gave away their royal wealth to charity. Pandu asked Kunti to give him sons from a man equal or superior to him. Kunti had been given a mantra by which she could summon any god she desired to father children. She had already given birth to Karna, whose father was the sun; she had put him in a basket, and he not knowing his parents was raised by a charioteer. Then through Kunti Dharma (Justice) became the father of Yudhishthira, Vayu (Wind) the father of Bhima, and the powerful Indra father of Arjuna. She told the mantra to Madri, who gave birth to Nakula and Sahadeva, twin sons of the Ashvins. However, Pandu made love to Madri and died, joined on his funeral pyre by Madri. Kunti raised the five Pandava sons, while the blind Dhritarashtra ruled the kingdom. Meanwhile the latter's wife gave birth to a hundred sons with Duryodhana the oldest. Vidura prophesied that Duryodhana would bring about destruction, but his warnings were ignored. Duryodhana tried to kill Bhima but failed. Bhishma arranged for the Brahmin Drona to teach all the princes. Arjuna excelled in the martial arts and was given special attention by Drona. Karna was also a great warrior and became a friend and supporter of Duryodhana. For Drona's tutorial fee Karna, Duryodhana and his brothers captured King Drupada. Dhritarashtra declared the oldest and most honest Yudhishthira heir to his throne. So Duryodhana and his brothers planned to burn to death Kunti and her five sons, but the Pandavas discovered the plot and escaped through underground tunnels from the burning house. Arjuna won a beautiful bride in Draupadi, but when he told his mother he had a gift for her, she said that he must share it with all his brothers. Since the mother's word could not be broken, all five brothers married Draupadi, a practice forbidden by the Vedas. Both Bhishma and Drona advised Dhritarashtra to give the Pandavas a share in the kingdom with his own sons. The Pandavas were given the city of Indraprastha from whence they could rule their half of the kingdom. Accidentally breaking in on his brother Yudhishthira with their wife,
Arjuna had to go into exile for twelve years and practice chastity (brahmacharya). But the maiden Ulupi persuaded Arjuna that his celibacy only related to his wife Draupadi, and he eventually married Krishna's sister Subhadra, who gave birth to their son Abhimanyu. Draupadi also had a son by each of her five husbands, while Arjuna's efforts gained him divine weapons from Indra. Krishna, who later was made into a god, urged Yudhisthira and his brothers to attack Jarasandha, who had captured some kings. Bhima defeated Jarasandha in single combat, and Krishna released the imprisoned kings. Then Yudhishthira sent his four brothers in the four directions to conquer India. Krishna is criticized by Sishupala for killing women and cattle, but Krishna slices off Sishupala's head with a discus. To win the Pandavas' territory Duryodhana invites Yudhishthira to the palace to play dice with the skilled dice-cheater Shakuni. Yudhishthira's weakness for gambling causes him to lose everything he owns and even his four brothers, himself, and finally their wife. When Draupadi is summoned, she is in retreat because of her monthly period. She is dressed only in a single blood-stained garment, but she is dragged by the hair into the hall by Dushasana. Draupadi questions what right her husband had to stake her when he had already lost his own freedom. Nonetheless she is insulted by Duryodhana and his brothers, who try to disrobe her; a miracle is performed by Krishna so that the cloth pulled from her body never ends. (In the past Draupadi had bandaged the wounded Krishna.) Spared this ultimate humiliation, Draupadi is given three boons by King Dhritarashtra and asks only for the return of Yudhishthira and his four brothers. Finally they decide to play one more dice game for the kingdom, the loser of which will have to go into exile for twelve years and be in hiding without being discovered for one year after that. Once again Yudhishthira loses, and the Pandavas depart for the forest. Vidura pleads with his brother to allow the Pandava sons to return or else ruin will result, but once again he is ignored. In the forest Yudhishthira learns the value of forgiveness. Draupadi is a model and devoted wife to the brothers. Of the many stories there is one in which each of the brothers drinks water and dies at a river before answering a question, but Yudhishthira wisely answers all the questions and brings his brothers back to life. Nonviolence is considered the highest duty. During the thirteenth year they take on disguises and live in Virata's kingdom. A general tries to molest Draupadi, but he is killed by Bhima. After this dangerous year is completed, Krishna is sent as an envoy to ask for the Pandavas' half of the kingdom. When this is refused, everyone prepares for the great war. Krishna offers one side his army and the other himself though he will not fight. His army fights with Duryodhana, and Krishna becomes the charioteer for Arjuna. As the war is about to start, Arjuna refuses to fight his cousins; but in the Bhagavad-Gita Krishna encourages him to fight as a warrior and teaches him about yoga and nonattachment to the fruits of action. Arjuna then decides to fight, and Yudhishthira approaches both Bhishma and Drona, asking for their blessings, although they are on the opposite side. After eight days of battles Yudhishthira also wants to stop fighting and retire to the forest; but
Krishna tells him to ask Bhishma how he can be killed, because Bhishma has control over his own death. Shikhandin, reincarnation of the woman Amba, who had been rejected by Bhishma and swore to kill him, is able to attack Bhishma because he will not fight a woman. Tired of all the killing Bhishma wants to die, and he is mortally wounded by Arjuna's arrows. Drona is given command of Duryodhana's armies. He is practically invincible, but he is discouraged by the lie that his son is dead. Yudhishthira, who is known for his truthfulness, says that Ashvatthaman is dead after Bhima kills an elephant with that name, but the intent is clearly to mislead Drona. Drona lays down his weapons, and his head is cut off by Dhrishtadyumna. In a family quarrel Arjuna is on the verge of killing Yudhishthira, but Krishna intervenes and says that nonviolence (ahimsa) is even more important that truthfulness. Truth is the highest virtue; but when life is in danger, even lying is permitted. Karna has sworn to kill Arjuna, but he is killed by Arjuna after his chariot gets stuck in the mud. The rules of fair fighting are increasingly being ignored. On the eighteenth day of the war Duryodhana is wounded in the legs by Bhima even though this was also a violation of the rules they agreed on before the war. Krishna responds to Duryodhana's taunts by reminding him that the dice game was crooked, how Draupadi had been insulted, and how Arjuna's son Abhimanyu had been killed. All of Gandhari's sons have been killed, but the five Pandavas have miraculously survived a war that was supposed to have had millions of warriors involved. In revenge Ashvatthaman violates another rule of war by attacking the Pandava camp at night and kills all of Draupadi's sons. In anger Arjuna readies the weapons that could destroy the three worlds of heaven, earth, and hell, but the sages Narada and Vyasa appear to dissuade him from this use of omnicidal weapons. Most of the rest of the poem after the great war is probably stories and ideas added later. Vidura explains that the story of the man enjoying a few drops of honey while in a well caught between a carnivore and a monstrous snake, hanging by a vine eaten away by rats is told by the knowers of liberation to suggest serenity in the midst of troubles. The long twelfth book called Peace (Shanti) has been discussed in relation to Samkhya philosophy. Bhishma, before he dies, gives his teachings. Ironically the nine duties common to the four castes seem to have been much violated by the characters in this poem; they are: controlling anger, truthfulness, justice, forgiveness, having lawful children, purity, avoidance of quarrels, simplicity, and looking after dependents. According to Bhishma the duty of the warrior (Kshatriya) is to protect the people. Truth is the highest duty but must not be spoken if the truth actually covers a lie. From desire comes greed and wrong-doing, wrath, and lust, producing confusion, deception, egoism, showing-off, malice, revenge, shamelessness, pride, mistrust, adultery, lies, gluttony, and violence. Vidura believes that justice (dharma) is more important than profit (artha) or pleasure (kama) ; but Krishna argues that profit is first, because action is what matters in the world. However, Yudhishthira chooses liberation (moksha) as best. Bhishma says that nothing sees like knowledge; nothing purifies like truth; nothing delights like giving; and nothing enslaves like desire. By being poor one has no enemies, but the rich are in the jaws of death; he chose
poverty because it had more virtues. Giving up a little brings happiness, while giving up a lot brings supreme peace. Before Bhishma dies, the preceptor of the gods, Brihaspati, appears and explains that compassion is most virtuous, because such a person looks at everyone as if they were one's own self. He teaches them the golden rule that one should never do to another what one would not want another to do to you; for when you hurt others, they turn and hurt you; but when you love others, they turn and love you. Brihaspati ascends to heaven, and Bhishma realizes that ahimsa (not hurting) is the highest religion, discipline, penance, sacrifice, happiness, truth, and merit. Yudhishthira performs the kingly horse sacrifice and rules over a wide realm his family has subdued before he passes on the kingdom to Arjuna's grandson Parikshit and retires with his brothers to seek heaven. On their divine ascent each of the brothers dies because of their shortcomings, but Yudhishthira will not leave behind his faithful dog, who is allowed into heaven with him as a symbol of dharma. Yudhishthira is thus able to enter heaven alive where he finds Duryodhana. Narada explains that there are no enmities in heaven, but Yudhishthira asks to see his brothers. He is led to a stinky unpleasant place, but he prefers to be in hell with his brothers. This too is a test, and he is reunited with Draupadi, who was an incarnation of Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity. The author concludes that profit and pleasure come from virtue. Pleasure and pain are not eternal; only the soul is eternal. This poetic story of a great war that probably took place in the late tenth century BC is filled with stories and situations that describe the culture of ancient India and has been an entertaining schoolbook for millions. Along with the virtues it also reveals the vices of the conquering and warlike Aryans and their racist caste system. Even the divine Krishna becomes a spokesperson for the warrior mentality, as a nearly apocalyptic disaster destroys millions and threatens their whole world. Still a heroic epic of military glory like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata contains much more real and well defined characters and portrays many aspects of life. If only humanity could learn from its negative lessons of violence and ambition, perhaps the peace of the sages could be found.
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