Saturday, September 28, 2013

2. The Grandeur of the Epic Mahabharata

It is well known that Mahabharata was written by Sage Vyasa. But who was Vyasa?

Vyasa was the son of Parasara, another eminent sage and the author of Vishnu Purana (the Story of Lord Vishnu). Vyasa was born to Parasara, a Brahmin and Satyavati, the daughter of a fisherman. (It is my personal view that caste often finds a mention in the puranas not to justify the caste system, which was a prevailing reality, but to highlight the fact that inter-caste marriage was a normal phenomenon and that many a great man like Vyasa was the product of inter-caste union). Vishnu Purana is the first purana and is also considered the best ('purana ratna' meaning the gem of a purana)

Vyasa compiled the four Vedas. The Vedas are considered timeless entities. They were created by unknown scholars during various times in the remote past. They contain knowledge on various aspects of life and the universe. It was Vyasa who classified the Vedas into four branches Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva, each focusing on certain specialized streams of knowledge. For this reason, Vyasa is also known as Veda Vyasa. The name Vyasa itself means to divide or classify.

In addition to writing the Mahabharata, Vyasa has also composed the Bhagavatham (the Story of Bhagawan Vishnu). While Vishnu Purana speaks about the glory of Vishnu and the way of worshipping Him, Bhagavatham deals with the ten avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu. Bhagavatam was composed by Vyasa but was narrated by his illustrious son Sukha, another great Sage. Vyasa had the unique distinction of having a great father Parasara and a great son Sukha, who were on par with him in their erudition, wisdom, glory and divinity.

Vyasa also composed sixteen other puranas. The eighteen puranas (including Vishnu Purna and Bhagavatham) together with the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the four Vedas and the Upanishads form the core literature of Hinduism.

Vyasa has also authored Brahmasutra, a treatise on Hindu philosophy.

Vyasa is also a character in the Mahabharata. He is the grandfather of the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

After composing the Mahabharata, Vyasa was pondering how he should teach this treatise to his disciples. He had composed the story in his mind but had not yet given it a tangible form. He sought the guidance of Brahma, the Creator. When Brahma appeared before him, Vyasa said, "Lord! I have composed a poetical work, which contains the essence of the Vedas and the Upanishads. It deals with various aspects of life in this world. like the art of war, politics and governance, rules of behavior, problems faced by people, means to reach God etc."

Brahma said, "Your work will remain nonpareil, for all time to come. I suggest you seek the help of Lord Ganesha to transcribe it."

Vyasa prayed to Lord Ganesha seeking his services to transcribe his work. Lord Ganesha agreed, with the stipulation that Vyasa narrate the verses without any time interval so that Ganesha could write continuously. Vyasa agreed but added a rider that Ganesha should understand the meaning of each verse before transcribing it! Thus began the greatest publishing event of the world. 

Vyasa would compose the verses in a fast pace as stipulated by Ganesha but whenever he needed time to think, he would come out with a difficult verse. Ganesha would take some time to ponder over the verse and understand its meaning. Vyasa would make use of this time cushion to compose more verses in his mind. There is a story that as he was writing the verses fast on the palm leaves, Ganesha's pen broke. Having had no time to fetch another pen, with Vyasa rendering the verses in a fast pace, Ganesha cut off the sharp end of his tusk and used the broken piece to write on the palm leaf!

There is also a version that Lord Ganesha inscribed the Mahabharata on the Meru mountain. This should be understood to mean two things.

1)The Mahabharata was so vast in length that it needed such a large area like the sides of Meru to accommodate the verses.
2) The Mahabharata was etched in stone since this epic was intended to last forever.

The epic composed by Vyasa had 600,000 verses, of which only 100,000 verses are known to mankind. The remaining 500,000 had been distributed among several other worlds like the Deva Loka (the world of the celestials), Pitru Loka (the world of our ancestors) etc. 

The epic was disseminated through various channels. Vyasa first taught this to his son Sukha and then to several of his other disciples. It was Sage Vaisampayana who gave a discourse on Mahabharata to a large gathering in the Sarpa Yaga performed by Janamejaya, the great grandson of Arjuna. Sage Ugrasrava listened to this discourse and then narrated this epic to the ascetics living in the Namisaranya forest.

In fact, the Mahabharata begins with the episode of these ascetics approaching Ugrasrava and querying him on his itinerary, when he reveals his experience of having listened to the great story of Mahabharata at the site of the Sarpa Yaga performed by King Janamejaya. The excited ascetics ask him to narrate the great story to them and so he does.

Vyasa has also composed the epitome of this epic in 150 verses, as if he had to submit a synopsis to a publisher for approval! The story of Mahabharata can be learnt completely from these 150 verses. But I am deliberately refraining from giving this short version since I feel that Mahabharata cannot be served as fast food!

The Kurukshetra war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is narrated to Dridharashtra, the blind King of Hastinapura and the father of the Kauravas by his charioteer cum mentor Sanjaya. Sanjaya was a clairvoyant and was able to witness the war in his mind's eye. It was left to him to convey to Dridharashtra the news of the killing of Dridharashtra's sons Duryodhana, Duschasana and others, in the war.

On hearing the news of his the death of his son Duryodhana, Dridharashtra becomes remorseful of his own commissions and omissions. He narrates a number of incidents which should have given him the cue that his sons were bound to meet with a sad end if he didn't take the right steps to bring them back from the path of immorality and wickedness. The almost endless list of such events serving as writings on the wall, which Dridharashtra keeps giving, should be a good lesson to all of us on the need to take the clues life gives us from time to time and take corrective action without being complacent.

The Mahabharata is divided into 18 parvas (parts or volumes) named as below:
1. Adi Parva
2. Sabha Parva
3. Vana parva
4. Virata Parva
5. Udhyoga Parva
6. Bhishma Parva
7. Drona Parva
8. Karna Parva
9. Salya Parva
10. Sauptika Parva
11. Stri Parva
12. Shanti Parva
13. Anushana Parva
14. Aswamedhika Parva
15. Asramavasika Parva
16. Mausala Parva
17. Mahaprasthanika Parva
18. Svargarohana Parva.

Harivamsa, the story of Krishna which comes at the end of the Mahabharata is also considered a part of the epic but is not counted in the list of parvas.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

1. The Threshold

NaaraayaNam namaSkrutya naramchaiva narOththamam
dEvIm SaraSvathim vyaaSam thathO jayam udhIrayEth

The above is the opening sloka (hymn) of the great epic Mahabharata. This carries an invocation of Narayana (Lord Vishnu) and Saraswati, the Goddess of learning. 

It says:

 "I begin the Mahabharata (Jaya) after paying obeisance to Narayana and Saraswati."
( Jaya is another name by which Mahabharata is known.)

I have been fascinated by the story of the Mahabharata ever since I read, in my boyhood, an abridged version of this epic by the statesman-writer C.Rajagopachari (popularly known as Rajaji), a close confidant of Mahatma Gandhi. It was my mother, the late Vijayavalli who inspired me to read even when I was a boy. She herself had been an avid reader, though she did not even complete her primary schooling. I have been gaining more and more insights into this epic by reading various articles on this epic and listening to discourses by learned scholars.

It is customary to compare anything gigantic to the ocean. In the case of Mahabharata, the analogy of the ocean will be very fitting. Like an ocean, Mahabharata has innumerable and unexplored treasures buried in it. There have been explorers and deep divers who have brought out a substantial portion of these treasures. Yet, the ocean still abounds in unexplored treasures. But I am not attempting to bring out any hidden treasure. My desire is to explore some of the treasures that have been already brought out by various scholars over several centuries and present them in a simple and intelligible way so that even a layman will be able to understand and appreciate the story. The writer of this blog being a layman himself, he will be able to generate only a simple output, eliminating the florid details and other esoterica.

Sometime back, I started writing about the stories in Mahabharata. Apart from the main plot, there are innumerable short stories and anecdotes in this epic, many of which are very interesting to hear or read. My objective was to bring some of these not-so-well-known stories to the attention of people who may not have the time or the inclination to read scholarly works relating to this epic. Though I started this work with a lot of enthusiasm, this project has not been progressing well. I have to sift trough a lot of material before I could pick one story.

Then it struck me that I should start writing the story of Mahabharata itself. Along with this, I can also pursue my other project of narrating short stories found within the epic. That's how you are reading this.

I will narrate the original story elaborately but will focus only on the movement of the story leaving out the discussions, descriptions etc. so that an average reader will not be overwhelmed by the text. I will also be more comfortable in narrating the main story than presenting the esoteric concepts and descriptions. The story being told here will be faithful to the original but will be rewritten in a simple and intelligible language, focusing on the main story and keeping away from digressions and issues not needed to understand the main story.

For the authenticity of the incidents, facts and details relating to this epic, I will be relying  on

1) Rajaji's Mahabharata
2) The Tamil translation of the original Mahabharata that was serialized in Sri Nrisimhapriya, the monthly journal of Sri Ahobhila Mutt, several years back.
3) The English translation of the original Mahabharata by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli
4) The discourses (in Tamil) on Mahabharata by various scholars, I had an opportunity to listen to, in my younger days.

I have an appeal to the readers. Please feel free to offer your comments. Your feedback will help me to understand how I am doing and where I need to improve. If some inadvertent mistakes were to occur, they can also be corrected. In the print edition, the corrections can be made only in the subsequent edition of the book but the electronic edition facilitates instant updates.

I am aware of the formidableness of the task but have still ventured to take it up. I believe that at the age of 62, working on this project will add a new meaning to my life. It may take me several years to complete this. I also need to be alive long enough to complete this! I am confident that the grace of Lord Vishnu whom I worship, the blessings of my great teachers who have moulded my personality, the divine blessings of my late parents who have shown me the path of virtue through their own living, the well wishes of my friends and others I have come to be associated with during the last 62 years of my journey in this world and the encouragement and support from the people who will be reading this (who as I am writing this, are not even aware of the coming into being of this blog!), will enable me to carry on with this project and complete it in a reasonable time.

Welcome to the exciting world of Mahabharata!