The Mahabharata: a neverending story

People sleeping with their brother’s wives. Threesomes. Murder. Intrigue. Sex changes. Gambling. Near-rape (possible actual rape, but I haven’t gotten to those parts yet). Teen pregnancy. Killing your relatives. No, I’m not talking about an episode of Passions, but rather the Mahabharata, by Veda Vyasa. Largely acknowledged as one of the oldest epic poems in the world — and certainly the longest, clocking in at over 1 million words — this piece of classic literature is as head-trippy and screwed up as they come. It’s awesome.

The basic plot is the splintering of a family dynasty into two factions and how it all leads to a big, bloody war. Rocks fall; everybody dies (no, seriously, there are over 1 million deaths) — that’s karma and dharma for you. But that’s a wholly simplistic summary. There are thousands of little stories; the entire framework, in fact, is that of a story-within-a-story.

I’ve been familiar with the text my whole life, reading various sanitized versions over the years, and watching the multi-part mini-series that aired in India from 1988 to 1990. I’m currently tackling the story again. It houses a seminal, central Hindu religious text, the Bhagavad Gita, and also many parables that have been retold over the years — with people probably not even realizing that the Mahabharata is where they came from. (Nala-Damayanti, Shakuntala, Savitri and Satyavan are just a few examples.) It’s fascinating, because it is both standalone literature and yet part of a culture and a religion. The meta aspect of the Mahabharata blows my mind: from Krishna, the 8th Avatar of Vishnu, being a central character to the purported author, Vyasa, actually being a character in it, too. (The world’s first self-insert fan fiction? IDEK.)

We’re talking about a story that dates back to at least the 8th or 9th century B.C. and it’s that complex. Much like The Bible, there’s a lot of emphasis on lineage and “begats,” and there is a lot of dry, historical record. But it’s also a damn good fantastical yarn, with metaphors and science and weapons of mass destruction. And also like The Bible, it works on multiple levels. You can choose to read it straight, or you can choose to interpret and analyze everything on a secondary and even tertiary level.

For instance, when I was reading the children’s versions, and even C. Rajagopalachari’s celebrated 1951 abridged version, I had no idea of the adult content. It went right over my head that the princesses Ambika and Ambalika being sent to Vyasa for a “boon” to give them healthy sons meant they were actually getting a little bow-chicka-wow-wow action. See, Ambika and Ambalika are married to Vyasa’s younger half-brother, who has not sired an heir. Vyasa’s mother, Satyavati, urges him to help. When Princess #1 comes to him, she is so frightened by his ugliness she closes her eyes. Her son, Dhritarashtra, is subsequently born blind. Princess #2 turns pale and faints. Her son, Pandu, is born extremely pale. After those two attempts, one of the princesses is asked to try again. She goes, “Oh, Hell, no!” and sends her maid in her place. The maid actually has a great time with Vyasa, and her son, Vidura, grows up to become a wise chief minister. As a kid, I was like, “Oh, a boon! Okay! I don’t really know what that means, but cool!” And now that I realize that Vyasa is the alleged author of the epic poem and he bedded two princesses and a maid in the beginning states of the saga, I’m incredibly amused. There are probably millions of people who have seen/read/heard the Mahabharata who still think Vyasa waved his magic wand (heh) and bestowed sons on these three women. Because you can read it that way if you want.

It’s brilliant, smutty, symbolic, tragic, and also, in parts, incredibly inspiring. There are some great characters in this story. (Eklavya, Karna, Draupadi, Abhimanyu, Chitrangada.) My mom always says, “Jai nai Mahabharat-ey, tha nai Bharat-ey,” meaning, “What doesn’t exist in the Mahabharata doesn’t exist in India.” And that’s pretty spot-on. There is so much in this saga; it covers almost every aspect of the human condition.

They don’t build ’em like this anymore. I mean, I shudder to think what the modern equivalent would be. The Harry Potter saga? Twilight? Vishnu forbid…

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2 thoughts on “The Mahabharata: a neverending story

  1. I think you had it in your opening graf. What about soap operas as the modern equivalent? Say, GUIDING LIGHT as decades-long, complex, generational story-telling full of characters of every stripe. Okay, I’ll grant that soaps probably cannot be interpreted on a tertiary level, but there are lessons to be learned: Honor your family; DNA test results will ALWAYS be switched by somebody; etc.

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    • I think that’s a very, very astute observation. Rather than print fiction, it probably is episodic television that has inherited the storytelling style of the epic. The long-term, multigenerational saga, the global themes and the subtler elements.

      I think what soap opera and other episodic television lack, of course, is the explaining-concepts-in-nature-and-science factor that most early epic poetry and literature involved. Probably because in this day and age, those things require no symbolic representation and explanation.

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