Mahabharat: The Greatest Epic of India
The Mahabharat is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, along with the Ramayana. It narrates the Kurukshetra War, a conflict between two branches of the Kuru clan, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, over the throne of Hastinapura. The Mahabharat also contains philosophical and devotional material, such as the Bhagavad Gita, a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, one of the Pandava princes.
The Story of the Mahabharat
The story of the Mahabharat begins with Shantanu, the king of Hastinapura, who falls in love with Ganga, a river goddess. She agrees to marry him on the condition that he never questions her actions. She gives birth to seven sons, but drowns each one of them in the river as soon as they are born. When she is about to drown the eighth son, Shantanu stops her and asks for an explanation. Ganga reveals that she was cursed by a sage to bear the eight Vasus, celestial beings who had offended him, as her sons and end their human lives as soon as possible. She then leaves Shantanu with their eighth son, Devavrata, who grows up to be a virtuous and skilled warrior.
Shantanu later falls in love with Satyavati, a fisherwoman's daughter, who agrees to marry him only if her sons inherit the throne instead of Devavrata. Devavrata renounces his claim to the throne and vows to remain celibate for life, earning him the name Bhishma (the one who has taken a terrible vow). He also becomes the guardian of the Kuru dynasty and its traditions.
Shantanu and Satyavati have two sons, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Chitrangada dies in a battle with a gandharva (a celestial musician), leaving Vichitravirya as the heir. Bhishma arranges his marriage with Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, the princesses of Kashi. However, Amba reveals that she loves another king, Salva, and asks Bhishma to let her go. Bhishma agrees, but Salva rejects her as he was humiliated by Bhishma in the swayamvara (a ceremony where a princess chooses her husband from among many suitors). Amba then vows to take revenge on Bhishma and seeks the help of various kings and sages, but fails. She eventually becomes reborn as Shikhandi, a transgender warrior who fights on the side of the Pandavas in the Kurukshetra War.
Vichitravirya dies without leaving any heirs, so Satyavati asks her son Vyasa, a sage and the author of the Mahabharat, to father children with Vichitravirya's widows. Vyasa agrees, but warns that his children will inherit his physical features. Ambika closes her eyes in fear when she sees Vyasa, and gives birth to Dhritarashtra, who is born blind. Ambalika turns pale when she sees Vyasa, and gives birth to Pandu, who is born pale. A maid serves Vyasa instead of Ambika for the third time, and gives birth to Vidura, who is born wise and virtuous.
Dhritarashtra becomes the king of Hastinapura, but is guided by Vidura and his wife Gandhari, who blindfolds herself to share her husband's fate. They have a hundred sons, known as the Kauravas, led by Duryodhana. Pandu becomes the king of Indraprastha, a nearby kingdom, but is cursed by a sage that he will die if he engages in sexual intercourse. He marries Kunti and Madri, who have five sons with the help of various gods. These are known as the Pandavas: Yudhishthira (son of Dharma), Bhima (son of Vayu), Arjuna (son of Indra), Nakula and Sahadeva (sons of Ashvins). Kunti also has a sixth son before her marriage with Pandu: Karna (son of Surya), who is abandoned at birth and raised by a charioteer.
The Mahabharat then follows the lives and adventures of the Pandavas and the Kauravas, as they grow up, learn from their teachers, compete with each other, and face various challenges. The main conflict arises when Duryodhana, who is jealous of the Pandavas' popularity and prosperity, plots to exile them and usurp their share of the kingdom. He succeeds in doing so by tricking Yudhishthira into a game of dice, where he loses everything to Duryodhana's uncle Shakuni, who cheats with loaded dice. The Pandavas are forced to go into exile for 13 years, along with their wife Draupadi, who is humiliated by the Kauravas in the court. During their exile, they meet many allies and enemies, and prepare for the inevitable war.
The Kurukshetra War
The Kurukshetra War is the climax of the Mahabharat, where the Pandavas and the Kauravas face each other in a battle that lasts for 18 days. The war is fought on the plains of Kurukshetra, near Delhi. The Pandavas are supported by Krishna, their cousin and friend, who acts as Arjuna's charioteer and advisor. The Kauravas are supported by Karna, who is revealed to be Kunti's son and the Pandavas' brother, but chooses to fight for Duryodhana out of gratitude and loyalty. The war is marked by many heroic deeds, tragic deaths, and moral dilemmas. It also involves various divine interventions, such as Krishna showing his universal form to Arjuna, and Bhishma choosing his own time of death.
The war ends with the victory of the Pandavas, but at a great cost. All the Kauravas are killed, along with many other warriors from both sides. The Pandavas are grief-stricken and remorseful for the bloodshed and the loss of their kin. They perform the last rites for the dead and crown Yudhishthira as the king of Hastinapura. They then rule for 36 years, until they decide to renounce their kingdom and go on a final journey to the Himalayas, where they hope to attain heaven. Only Yudhishthira reaches the destination, after passing a test by a dog (who is revealed to be Dharma in disguise). He is then reunited with his brothers and wife in heaven, where he also sees his enemies in peace.
The Significance of the Mahabharat
The Mahabharat is not just a story of kings and wars, but a rich source of wisdom and ethics. It explores various themes such as dharma (duty), karma (action), moksha (liberation), bhakti (devotion), and jnana (knowledge). It also contains many sub-stories that illustrate different aspects of human life and culture. Some of these are:
The Bhagavad Gita: A dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna on the eve of the war, where Krishna teaches Arjuna about his duty as a warrior and a human being, and reveals his true identity as the Supreme Lord.
The Vishnu Sahasranama: A hymn that praises Vishnu with a thousand names, recited by Bhishma on his deathbed.
The Shanti Parva: A section where Bhishma instructs Yudhishthira on various topics such as politics, economics, law, morality, religion, and philosophy.
The Anushasana Parva: A section where Bhishma instructs Yudhishthira on various topics such as charity, yoga, medicine, astrology, and rituals.
The Harivamsa: An appendix that narrates the life of Krishna before and after the war.
The Mahabharat is also a cultural treasure that has inspired many art forms and adaptations in India and beyond. It has been translated into various languages and dialects, and retold in various media such as literature, theatre, cinema, television, comics, animation, and games. It has also influenced many religious movements and sects that worship Krishna or other characters from the epic.
The Mahabharat is a timeless epic that has captivated generations of readers and listeners with its thrilling story, memorable characters, profound teachings, and universal appeal. It is not only a historical record or a mythological tale, but a living tradition that continues to shape the values and aspirations of millions of people around the world.