Okay, it’s the really really complicated one! And it’s supposed to be complicated, the Mahabharat is a challenge to us to understand the complexities of the world and the choices we make in it.
The Ramayan and the Mahabharat are essentially two schools of philosophy, two alternate ways of viewing the world. According to Hinduism, the world exists in a series of “Yuga”, each one broken down into 4 sections of progressive darkness. The Mahabharat ends at the start of our current darkest Yuga. The Ramayan takes place in the Yuga before the Mahabharat, a slightly brighter time. In the Ramayan, most people are good and the world is therefore generally a simple place, the choice is between order and chaos and it tends to be a clear choice.
The Mahabharat exists in a world where there are no clear choices. There is no “good” choice, it is just a “less bad” choice. No one is clean of sin, no one is perfectly wise, no one is perfectly just. What there are in the Mahabharat are consequences. Every mistake, every small sin, lingers in the world and causes repercussions down the line. If Ramayan is about questions of “Dharma”, finding the just and correct action at every moment, the Mahabharat is about Dharma and Karma, the price the world pays for your incorrect actions. Not you yourself, that is the simple version of Karma, but the overall pain of the world which is added to every time anyone does anything incorrect, anything against Dharma.
(This doesn’t really explain Karma, but I thought you should have one bright happy moment before digging into all the wrongness that is the Mahabharat)
The Mahabharat starts with Bhishma. The perfect prince, the perfect man, destined to be the perfect ruler. But his father wished to remarry and the woman his father desired requested a guarantee that her children would rule, not her stepson or his descendants. And so Bhishma took a terrible oath, he would live his life in celibacy thereby removing himself and any potential descendants from inheriting. He did this out of obedience and loyalty to his father, which was correct. But it was not the most-correct choice, and it was not most-correct for his father to so desire a woman that he ignored the laws of primogeniture and the obvious truth that his oldest son was the most virtuous. Once Bhishma made this choice, the inheritance of the kingdom was thrown into a confusion and disorder that played out for generations to come. Lust (on the part of his father) greed (on the part of his stepmother) and shortsightedness (on the part of Bhishma) lead to a terrible Karmic judgement suffered by all their family and their kingdom for decades to come.
Bhishma’s brother became king instead. We will call him King 1. He had two wives, but before he could make them pregnant, he died. And so a wandering sage was brought in to impregnate the two queens and ensure that the royal line would continue (according to the ancient rules, a woman’s child is the legal son of her husband no matter who the biological father is). The two women were not in agreement with this decision, they were raped. Because of this, the first son (Son 1 we will call him) was born blind, as his mother kept her eyes shut during the rape. The second son (Son 2 we will call him) was born weak and frail because her mother forced herself to pass out during the rape. Son 1 was declared unfit to rule because of his blindness. Son 2 became king but then his problems were compounded when, while hunting, he accidentally killed a priest and his wife, and therefore was cursed that he would die immediately upon making love to his wife. Son 2 and his two wives retired to the forest and Son 1 ended up ruling despite his blindness.
(Yes, this is very similar to the plot of Bahubali. Not a coincidence)
Son 2’s first wife was named Kunti, she is very important. When she was a young woman, a sage visited her house. She was tasked to care for him and treated him so well that in gratitude he gave her a mantra which would call to her any God to give her a child. In curiosity, she called to her the sun god Surya, and he gave her a child and then restored her virginity. Kunti hid the child, who was found and adopted by a charioteer. I will come back to this child in the next section, he is important enough to deserve his own section.
After Son 2 went into the forest, Kunti revealed to her co-wife that she had this power. They both called on the Gods to give them sons. Kunti had 3 sons, the other wife had 2. The oldest son was wise and perfect and meant to be king, he was Yudhishistra. The second son was Bhima, who was strong and emotional. The third son was Arjun, the best warrior and tactical mind. And the two youngest were less interesting and important. Son 2 died while in exile, when he was overcome with lust and attempted to have sex with his wife despite the curse. His second wife killed herself after his death. Kunti was left alone, with her 5 sons, to fight for her right to their inheritance.
Okay, let’s pause here. Do you see how very human this story is? The Ramayan tells us an ideal to look up to, sacrifices to emulate. The Mahabharat gives us warning that everyone can fail, everyone can fall. And the price for those sins will more often be visited on those you love, the innocents, than on yourself. And yes, most often the sins will be sexual. Bhishma’s father wished to remarry and his desires set in motion all the other wrongs. Because Bhishma could not inherit, the two widows were raped in order to create heirs (and in addition Bhishma is sent around to bring back unwilling brides for his brothers and later his nephews, setting off more Karmic debt). Those heirs were born weak because they were products of rape. The wrong was righted in the next generation by wives who were willing mothers, but the sin could not be fully erased, the problems it caused still lingered.
(I love Hulchul for many reasons, one of which is that it is very Mahabharat in how the innocents of the youngest generation are left to suffer because of the decisions made by their elders)
This is both a philosophical discussion to consider, where was the “original sin”, where was the first crime that caused the rest of the Karmic collapse of the kingdom, and a lesson as to how the world works. One miss-step, one forgivable sin, will last and last without end. Especially within a family. We are all paying the price of the sins of our grandparents, and our grandchildren will pay the price for our sins. That’s Karma, inevitable and unfair.
All these little sins, all these little moments of un-Dharmic actions, all come together with this generation, Kunti’s sons and their cousins. Kunti returned from exile with her 5 sons, to be raised in the palace with their cousins, children of the blind Son 1. Kunti’s sons are collectively known as the “Pandavas” (after their father “Pandu”, Son 2) and their cousins are know as the “Kauravas” (after their grandfather, the last legitimate king they can claim descent from since their father’s rule is disputed). The Kauravas according to legend were 100, but only a few (notably the oldest Duryodhana) receive a name and a character in the epic. Most interpretations agree that the 100 sons were a metaphor for the power of the Kaurava side versus the lone 5 sons of Kunti on the Pandava side.
Duryodhana was born after Yudhishistra. And was born to an unofficial king, while Yudhishistra was born to a father who, though living in exile, had been crowned king. For all these reasons, and because of pressure from the ministers, Son 1 (Duryodhana’s father) declared Yudhishistra as the crown prince. Duryodhana lived in jealousy, and planned his revenge. He built a grand house out of flammable materials and gave it as a gift to Kunti and her sons. Kunti and her sons learned this was a death trap and escaped through a secret tunnel as the house burned down around them. They fled the kingdom, leaving Duryodhana to believe he had killed them. Duryodhana was then made the Crown Prince.
Kunti and the Pandavas are now presumed dead and gain time and freedom. They begin to wander together and their bond grows. During this time, they hear of a grand Swayamvar for the hand of a beautiful wise princess, Draupadi. The 5 sons attend and Arjun achieves the impossible challenge, shooting out the eye of a flying fish with an arrow while only looking at it’s reflection in a pool of water. Draupadi is given to him and he brings her home to Kunti. He tells her that he has brought home something and she orders him to “share it with your brothers”. Thus Draupadi has 5 husbands, each of the Pandavas takes turns sharing her bedchamber year by year and always treats her as their first wife.
(Draupadi and her 5 husbands in the most recent television serial version)
Draupadi is special. She represents the intelligence and power of the Pandavas, while she is with them they cannot lose. Draupadi’s Swayamvar is the moment that their eventual victory is guaranteed.
Now that they have Draupadi, the Pandavas return to their kingdom and reveal they are still alive. The elders of the family organize a truce and a compromise. The kingdom will be split in two, half given to Yudhishistra to rule with his brothers, half to Duryodhana. Yudhishistra and his brothers leave and found their own kingdom. Soon their kingdom is a shining jewel, the best in the land. And Yudhishistra is recognized as the King of Kings. Duryodhana seeths with jealousy.
Duryodhana is helped in his jealousy by his angry uncle, Shakuni. Duryodhana’s mother was married to his father after her kingdom was defeated in battle. Her brother Shakuni resented that his sister was married to a blind man, and that their kingdom had been defeated and all his brothers killed by her husband. He came to live with her and gained an outsize influence on her kingdom and her sons. And now Shakuni has his final plan. He brings out the dice he had made from the bones of his parents, their spirit inhabiting them., and suggests that the Pandavas be invited for a dice game, a game which Shakuni cannot lose.
(Gandhari, the Queen, blindfolded herself after marriage. This is generally seen as the greatest possible gesture of wifeliness, to purposefully handicap herself in order to not experience anything her husband could not. But there is a minority view that it was a gesture of silent protest against being forced into marriage with a blind man.)
The dice game is one of the central scenes of the epic. The Pandavas are twice doomed, first by Shakuni’s hatred that is backed by his loaded dice. And second by their loss of Draupadi. She is menstruating, which means upon her arrival with them at the palace she is taken away to the menstruation room to sit in isolation because of her “uncleanliness”. And therefore she is not there when the game begins.
Yudhishistra rolls the dice and loses. But he must keep playing, it is his Dharma, as a noble he cannot turn away from a game of chance once he has accepted it. He loses his kingdom, and then even himself, and his brothers, and finally he gambles and loses Draupadi herself. She is called out from her room, forced into public. Draupadi strenously defends herself, arguing that Yudhishistra staked his own self before he staked her, therefore he had no right to stake her. She was still a Queen while he had turned himself into merely a slave and had no right over her. Draupadi’s argument is supported (surprisingly) by one of Duryodhana’s own brothers who objects that not only is Draupadi right, more over no man has a right to treat a woman as an object to be gambled away, it is against all morality. She is also supported by the prime minister, the illegitimate brother of Son 1 and Son 2 (not a child of rape, child of a willing serving maid and thus the wisest and strongest of them all).
Another moment in which the heroes and villains are unexpected. The Pandavas who are supposed to be the “good” people have just gambled away everything, including their wife. Draupadi is defended by the “bad” people, the brother and uncle of the villain, the ones on the wrong side of the debate who are, in this moment, more aware of the greater morality and rightness than the “good” people.
The scene reaches its peak when Duryodhana orders one of his brothers to remove the rich clothing of Draupadi and the other Pandavas as they have gambled their clothes away with all their other wealth. Draupadi is furious and calls on God to save her. Krishna, the God Avatar who protects the Pandavas (he’ll get his own section later too), rescues her by making her sari never ending, no matter how much it is pulled it just continues unrolling.
(The makers of Maya Bazaar couldn’t resist putting in a little cameo appearance of this moment in their unrelated film plot)
At this moment, the noble Queen mother appears and is shocked by what is happening. She orders her husband to grant Draupadi a boon in order to redeem their family and prevent a terrible curse. The king (blind Son 1) gives Draupadi a boon and she uses it to restore the wealth and freedom of her husbands. Draupadi is still angry, declares that her unbound hair will not be tied again until after she has washed it in the blood of her enemies. She rejects the Dharma of her husbands and the other nobles which failed to protect her and calls on an older stronger power of vengeance and choas.
Draupadi has saved them, but the Pandavas cannot resist one more roll of the dice. And of course they lose again. The Pandavas will give everything they own to the Kauravas. And they will leave the kingdom for 13 years. For 12 years they will wander, and for the 13th year they will go into disguise. If their disguise is penetrated during that year, they will lose everything and never return to their kingdom. The Pandavas and Draupadi leave the court.
And that is how it starts, with sins and moments of grace from both sides. With a series of compromises that only delay the inevitable conflict. With one last crime against womanhood that results in the greatest anger and cry for violence on a level no man could imagine. The Mahabharat. It’s dark!
(This image is from Dichotomy of Irony’s blog and the article on Mom and the Mahabharat. Worth a read!)