TRAGEDY OF BHISHMA

WISE OLD MAN OF THE KURUS

Bhishma’s virtues of self sacrifice and loyalty resulted in holocaust of the Mahabharata War

Navaratna Rajaram

BHISHMA, THE WISE OLD MAN OF THE KURUS

Bhishma’s virtues of generosity and self-sacrifice led to the holocaust of the Mahabharata War. It was a case of misplaced loyalty.

 

Navaratna Rajaram

Background

            Bhishma, known as pitamaha (grandfather) was a key figure in the historical epic The Mahabharata. Here is his story of how his act of renouncing his noble position as king had tragic consequences. We begin the story with his birth some five thousand years or more ago.

 

 

Origins of Bhishma and the Kuru princes

 

Shantanu was a famous king of the dynasty of Bharata ruling the Kuru kingdom from his capital of Hastinapura (north of modern Delhi). Being fond of hunting he used to spend a lot of time in the forests in pursuit of wild animals. During one of his hunts by the River Ganga (the Ganges), he came across a young woman of extraordinary beauty decked in beautiful clothes and jewelry. Dazzled by her beauty, the king was attracted to her. She too was drawn to him.

 

“Who are you, beautiful lady,” Shantanu asked her. “A goddess, a superhuman being descended from the heavens?”

 

“Whoever you may be, will you agree to be my wife?” the king asked her. Hearing his proposal made by the smiling king with a pleasant demeanor, the woman gently replied: “I am known as Ganga, the daughter of sage Jahnu, so known as Jahnavi.

She soon bore him a son who was named Devavrata. But she soon left him and returned to her parents.

 

I am willing to be your queen but on one condition. You must never object to anything I do, no matter how good or evil it might seem. I’ll be with you along as you follow this condition. But the moment you violate it, even once I’ll leave you.”

 

Bhishma’s vow of celibacy

Shantanu agreed to her condition, and lived happily with her as queen, greatly enjoying her company. He was faithful to his word to never object to anything she did but his tolerance was soon put to the test by her extraordinary conduct. In the course of time she gave birth to seven sons. To Shantanu’s horror, she killed each one of them by drowning it in the River Ganga.

 

On Satyavati

Satyavati according to tradition was a daughter of the Chedi king Vasu (also known as Uparichara Vasu) and a cursed apsara (celestial nymph)-turned-fish Adrika, Satyavati was raised as a commoner – the adopted daughter of the fisherman-chieftain Dasharaja (who was also a ferryman) on the banks of the rivers Yamuna. Due to the smell emanating from her body she came to be known as Matsyagandha (“She who has the smell of fish”), and helped her father in his job as a ferryman. Following a liaison with sage Parashara she was blessed by him lose her fish oder and be fragrant. The liaison produced a son called Krishna Dvaipayana (Krishna the Island-born), later to attain fame as Veda Vyasa.

 

When she soon gave birth to their eighth son, which too she took to the river to drown him. Shantanu could no longer keep silent and cried out. “Stop, you murderess of sons. Whose daughter are you. Why are you incurring the great sin by killing innocents?”

 

“O King, I see you have this great love for your son. So be it. I won’t kill him. But I must leave you because you have broken our solemn agreement. I will no longer be able to live with you. I am Ganga, the daughter of Sage Jahnu for which reason I am known as Jahnavi (Jahnu’s daughter). These children were the seven Vasus who were cursed by Sage Vasishta to be born and suffer on the earth as ordinary humans. By killing them I was only releasing them from their earthly bondage and sending them back to their heavenly abode.”

 

 

Before leaving them, Ganga told Shantanu: “I wish you well but I must leave you now. Take good care of this son of great will, who will attain to greatness.” Shantanu named the boy Deva-vrata. With these words Ganga left them.

 

Shantanu continued to rule his kingdom from Hastinapur as a truthful and just king. With the looks of a bright moon, sun-like in brilliance, speedy like the wind and like Yama the Death God in anger, and earth-like in forebearance, he ruled for thirty six years living the life of a bachelor. In this period the king spent much time in the forests in pursuit of wild animals which was his favorite pastime.

 

The son Deva-vrata too grew up to be like his father—handsome in appearance,

alike in learning, skilled at arms and strong in warrior skills, truthful and of fine character. As his qualities and conduct had endeared him to everyone, Shantanu had him anointed as crown prince to succeed him to the throne.

 

During his wanderings in the forests by the River Yamuna (or Jumna) Shantanu was intrigued by a fragrant smell that seemed to be emanating from a young fisherwoman of striking appearance. Shantanu asked her who she was and what she was doing by the river. She replied:

 

“I am Satyavati, daughter of Dasharaja, chief of the fishermen here. I also help him ferry people across the river. It is a responsibility my father has given me.” (See the box item above for a fuller account.)

Shantanu was attracted to her and decided to see her father and ask for hand in marriage. He sought out her father Dasharaja and expressed his wish to marry her. Dasharaja was happy at the great match but had a condition.

 

“Dear King! Where am I going find a husband to match you, but I have a request you must honor. Only then can I let you marry my daughter. I say this because you are a truthful man who may be trusted to keep your word. You must promise that any son born to my daughter will be anointed your successor to the throne.”

This Shantanu found impossible having already anointed Deva-vrata, his son by Ganga to succeed him. But Shantanu could not get Satyavati out of his mind and was spending days and nights pining for her. Young Deva-vrata suspected something was amiss and tried to find out what was the problem. Shantanu told him:

“Dear son, you are right, I am unhappy. Ours is a great and ancient ruling house, and you are the only heir. We are all motal. If any harm comes to you, it will mean the end of our line going back to Kuru and Bharata. Though you are dearer to me than a hundred sons, I have no wish to burden myself with a new wife for the sake of an heir.”

Deva-vrata was a perceptive young man and guessed there was more to his father’s unhappiness than this abstract explanation. He pressed his father and learnt the truth— his infatuation with the young fisherwoman. Deva-vrata then took some of his royal companions and went to see Dasharaja, Satyavati’s father. He greeted the prince and his companions cordially and said to him:

“As King Shantanu’s eldest son, you are the fittest person to discuss this matter with me. I as Satyavati’s father cannot wish for a better match for my daughter than King Shantanu. At the same time, as her father, I am worried that it might become the source of future conflict between you and her sons. No one can survive the wrath of a warrior like you. I don’t want her son to be put in such a position.”

 

Bhishma’s vow of celibacy by Raja Ravi Varma

On hearing this, Deva-vrata stood before his princely companions and Dasharaja and proclaimed: “I will say before all something that has not been said in the past and will not be said by anyone in the future. Dasharaja, I will grant your wish. I will promise that the son born to your daughter will be the one to succeed my father as king. I renounce all claim to the throne for the sake of my father’s happiness.”

The fisherman said, “Dear Prince, you have every right make such a fierce vow for the sake of your father’s happiness. I have full faith that you will be true to you word. But what about your sons, yet to be born. Will they be as generous as you are. That is now my concern” Deva-vrata said:

“Dear chief, with these noblemen as witnesses, hear me. I have already given up my right to my father’s kingdom. Now for the sake of your daughter’s children, I will make another vow. I promise to remain celibate and never marry. So there will be no sons of mine to challenge your daughter’s sons. So, have no fear.”

This greatly pleased Dasharaja and he said. “I now agree with happiness to give my daughter in marriage to King Shantanu, your father.”

Then everyone, the princes, angels, gods and demigods hailed the noble prince as Bhishma– the maker of fierce vows. Henceforth, Deva-vrata was known as Bhishma. He then turned to Dasharaja and said to Satyavati: “Dear Mother, please get into my chariot. I will take you home to my father, now your husband.”

 

Shantanu was highly pleased by his son’s sacrifices for the sake of his happiness.. In gratitude he granted Bhisma, as he was now known a boon. “On the basis of accumulated merit of my long and just rule, I bless you to live as long as you wish. You will have the power to choose the time and place of your death. No one will be able to kill you before that.”

 

Shantanu, now happily married had two sons by Satyavati. They were named Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Shantanu soon died. Bhishma had Chitrangada crowned king and loyally helped him rule the country as regent, all the while remaining obedient to his stepmother Satyavati.

Soon Chitrangada was old enough to marry and Bhishma looked for eligible princesses for him. But Chitrangada did not rule long. He was challenged by a Gandharva chief also called Chitrangada and killed in combat. Vichitravirya succeeded him to the throne, with Bhishma continuing as regent. It was Vichitravirya who now needed to be married for the Kuru royal line to continue.

He learnt that the King of Kashi had three daughters for whom he was arranging a swayamvara—or assembly of eligible princes—from whom the princesses would choose their husbands. This usually involved a feat of arms at which each prince would demonstrate his fitness to marry the princess. Bhishma decided to attend the contest on Vichitravirya’s behalf and win the princesses for his brother. This was not regarded as unusual as Bhishma explained to the assembly.

“Marriages among people follow different rules, all of which are lawful (according to dharma). Princes favor being chosen by the bride. Dharma (law) says, winning princess(es) by superior arms is also lawful.) I am taking these princesses in my chariot to be married to my brother. Those objecting to it can fight me and win them.”

Bhishma was a warrior of renown and few were willing to challenge him. The few who tried to contest him were defeated in short order. Bhishma took the three princesses—Amba, Ambika and Ambalika—to Hastinapura to be married to Vichitravirya.

What Bhishma did might have been lawful as things then stood but there was an unforeseen difficulty. Amba, the eldest had already given her heart to the Subala prince Shalva and did not wish to marry Vichitravirya. When she explained this to Bhishma, Bhishma decided to honor her wish and sent Amba to Shalva with a retinue and gifts appropriate for their rank. But Shalva refused to marry her.

He told Amba, “Bhishma has won you lawfully by defeating me in combat. You lawfully belong to him.” Shalva may also have been driven by fear that by Marrying Amba he might antagonize the formidable Bhishma who wanted her for his brother, to produce an heir for the Kuru kingdom. He also suspected that Amba might be attracted to the brave and handsome Bhishma. This introduces an interesting twist to the Amba-Bhishma relationship that had fateful consequences for the future of the Kurus. (See box on Bhishma and Amba, the Avenging Angel.)

Bhishma and Amba the avenging angel

 

The tragic figure of Amba, twice scorned by Shalva and then Bhishma, and her tangled relationship with Bhishma and the fate of the Kurus has not received the attention it should have. This at least is my view, a student of the Mahabharata for twenty years and more.

We do know that Salva was not convinced of her fidelity following her abduction by Bhishma and rejected her. It is not unlikely that others felt the same, feeling that Amba would have been impressed by Bhishma’s great superiority over his rivals including Shalva.

When she went back to Bhishma asking him to marry her, he too declined citing his oath of celibacy.

 

The Mahabharata says that the twice scorned Amba then practiced severe austerities (tapas) praying to God Shiva to make her be the cause of Bhishma’s death whom she held responsible for her unhappiness. The Mahabharata also says that she was reborn as Shikhandin, first a woman, who later became a man, and raised as a royal prince by the Panchala King Drupada. In the Great War, Bhishma refuses to fight Shikhandin citing as reason that he was born a woman and throws away his arms. He is then killed in his unarmed state by Arjuna using Shikhandin as shield. I suggest the following more plausible (to me) scenario.

 

I suggest (without proof) that this may be a way of telling us that Shikhandin might have been Bhishma’s own son born to Amba during their brief sojourn together following her abduction, and that is the real reason Bhishhma refused to fight him. When I mentioned the possibility to a Sanskrit scholar, she rejected it saying that the epic would have mentioned it, quoting, “What is not here is nowhere.” I am not persuaded by that argument but I leave the final judgment to the reader.

 

There is, however, no disputing the fact that the Mahabharata does record Shikhandin as causing Bhishma’s death, so my reading     is not without plausibility.

 

Amba pleaded with Salva, whom she considered her true love, to accept her. But Salva was not convinced of her fidelity during her abduction by Bhishma and rejected her plea to marry him. Amba went back to Bhishma, explained and asked him to marry her, telling Bhishma she held him responsible for her predicament. This Bhishma declined to do, reminding her of his solemn oath of celibacy. But the Mahabharata his little to say on this beyond the implausible story that Amba was reborn as the mighty warrior Shikhandin who was responsible for Bhishma’s death in the Great War many years later.

The twice rejected Amba went to Bhishma’s teacher, the great warrior sage Parashurama, who in an earlier age had destroyed a whole generation of Kshatriyas (warrior princes like Bhishma) begging him to persuade Bhishma to marry her. This too proved fruitless as Parashurama failed to convince Bhishma even in combat where Bhishma more than held his own against his famous teacher. . Parashurama finally told Amba, there is nothing more I can do for you. Bhishma is invincible even by the gods. It was then that Amba began her severe penance praying to God Shiva to grant her the power to avenge Bhishma which she did through Shikhandin. (See box item on Bhishma and Amba above.)

Bhishma married sisters Ambika and Ambalika to his half-brother Vichitravirya who had succeeded Chitrangada as King at Hastinapur. But tragedy again struck the ill-fated Kuru royal house. Vichitravirya, who seems to have been a sickly child soon died of tuberculosis and the kingdom was again without king. His wives were now widows and Satyavati was distraught feeling herself responsible for the grave misfortune that had fallen on the great Kuru house. She tried to correct it and appealed to Bhishma:

“The princesses are young and fit to bear heirs which they are willing and eager to do. So, please help them by marrying them and save the Kuru line from extinction. This is my wish and your duty.” Bhishma replied:

“Dear Mother, what you say may be right and proper to save the dynasty from extinction, but I cannot break the solemn oath I gave at your marriage. I will only repeat what I then said: Even the overlordship of three worlds, or even greater reward will not make me break my oath. I cannot go against truth and my word by breaking my oath.”

“I know your truthful nature,” Satyavati retorted, “but see this as a situation where resort to aapat-dharma (extreme crisis resolution) is called for to save the Kuru line from extinction. So, in this grave emergency, please follow the course I suggested that will bring happiness to friends as well as to kith and kin.” To this Bhishma responded:

“Mother, I will suggest to you a way out of the predicament. A course that is fit and dharmic (lawful) for Kshatriyas (warriors) like us to adopt in such an emergency. Please confer with scholars learned about aapat-dharma and do as follows if you deem it proper: invite a worthy Brahmin, reward him suitably and make him beget heirs from the princesses.”

On hearing this, Satyavati replied with a bashful smile: “I agree with you. With full confidence in you, I’ll let you in on a secret. Everything good and honorable in this house resides in you. Hear me and do what you feel is proper.”

“Years ago, my father used to own a boat which he used to ferry passengers across the Yamuna River.” “It was legally his duty. Occasionally I used to help him.”

“I was then in the bloom of youth,” she continued speaking shyly. “One day, it fell to my lot to take the great sage Parashara of the Vasishta clan across the river. As I was taking him across the river, he became attracted to me. He went on to seduce me with his brilliance, flattery and promises of gifts. I found myself caught between my father’s anger, committing a sin and the sage’s wrath. He overcame my resistance with his brilliance and granted me a boon that rid me of my fishy smell, giving in its place the fragrant smell that I am now known for. The child born of that union is Krishna-Dvaipayana (Krishna, the Island-born) who organized the Vedas by dividing them into four Samhitas, for which he became famous as Veda Vyasa.”

“My son Vyasa is truthful, gentle, studious and without sin. If agreeable to you, I can call on him to beget heirs from the widowed princesses. He will come whenever I call him.”

With folded hands, Bhishma respectfully replied, “This is both in accordance with Dharma and beneficial to our dynasty. So I consent to your idea.” On hearing this, Satyavati hailed her son Vyasa by thinking about him. When he arrived, she came directlyto the point.

“Dear son,children are born from the union of parents. This makes the mother as worthy of worship as the father. A fateful encounter made you my eldest son. LaterVichitravirya was born my youngest. Now he has died without a heir to succeed to the throne.”

“This son of Ganga (Bhishma) is not prepared to break his oath of celibacy even go get heirs for the kingdom.”

“I want you to think of the welfare of the land,” and “the security of the people now without a king. Please fufill my request. Your brother’s wives are endowed with beauty and youth and eager to bear children by lawful means. I ask you therefore to beget children through them.”

Vyasa consented to his mother’s wish and said. “I’ll do as you wish, but first ask the princesses to follow the course that I am about to prescribe for a year. Then they can obtain children from gods like Mitra and Varuna.”

But Satyavati was not willing to wait a year. She told Vyasa, “The country is kingless. Without a king to make offerings to the gods, there will be no rains or crops. So whatever is to be done let it happen immediately, without any delay.”

Vyasa replied, “If things need to happen before the auspicious time, the queens must be prepared to withstand my forbidding physical presence. That will serve as their ritual.”

“Let me know if the queens are prepared to put up with my ascetic, even repulsive personality and spend a night with me. On hearing this, Satyavvati went to her daughter-in-law Ambika and explained to her the urgency of the situation and her need to cooperate with Vyasa to produce an heir for the ruling dynasty to continue. Ambika agreed and awaited Vyasa’s arrival in her bed. As soon as he came, she was repelled by his dark, gaunt appearance and flowing beard and bloodshot eyes and shut her eyes to avoid seeing him. This made her shut her eyes when he joined her in the bed. Her son was born blind. He was named Dhritarashtra.

Ambalika was equally repelled by his appearance but reacted differently. She forcibly kept her eye open but her face blanched in disgust. She gave birth to a son who was white all over—an albino. He was named Pandu, which means white.

Distraught by this bizarre development, Satyavati spoke to Ambika While seeming to agree, she had no wish to go through the ordeal again by sharing her bed with him. So Ambika agreed but had a maid servant decked in royal clothes and jewelry to make her look like a princess. This simple servant woman endured Vyasa without complaint and gave birth to a normal son. He was named Vidura.

Ambika’s blind son was called Dhritarashtra and Ambalika’s albino son Pandu. Bhiishma took them under his care and had them raised in the manner appropriate for boys of their rank. This included physical training, warfare, learning the Vedas, warfare and rulership. Though blind, Dhritarshtra grew to be very strong, while Pandu excelled in weaponry and warfare. Vidura became known for his learning and sense of justice whose views were sought and respected by everyone. Soon Bhishma began to look for suitable wives for the two princes.

At a suitable time, Bhishma had Dhritarashtra married to the daughter of Subala the king of Gandhara. She was known as Gandhari. Though having misgivings about giving his daughter to a blind man, Subala agreed in view of Dhritarashtra’s family reputation and character. Gandhari chose to be blindfolded all her life so as to share her husband’s handicap. This was hailed as an act of great devotion. Her one weakness which shared with her husband was overindulgence of her eldest son Duryodhana.. But her devotion and sense of justice are apparent throughout. At the same time she is a tragic figure. She could not stop her son from listening to the evil counsel of her brother Shakuni who was instrumental in provoking the Mahabharata War that led to the defeat and death of her sons.

Pandu had two wives. The first was Pritha, daughter of the Yadava ruler and Krishna’s father Vasudeva. She had been adopted by his kinsman Kunti-Bhoja and brought up in his household for which reason she was known as Kunti. Pandu married her in a svayamvara in which Kunti chose Pandu in preference to other princes present. Pandu married also Madri the princess of Madra. She was renowned for her beauty. Bhishma was said to have paid a very large bride price to get her for Pandu.

Dhritarashtra being blind, Bhishma enthroned Pandu as the king. He proved an active warrior king. He went on a victorious campaign, receiving tribute from the rulers of Sumha, Pundra, and possibly also Gandhara. He brought home a large retinue bearing valuable tribute. He surrendered all this to Bhishma and his mother and also worthy citizens with generous gifts, bringing tears of joy to Bhishma and his mother. Though not ruling, Bhishma was the patriarch and acted as regent.

Like his father Shantanu, Pandu too was fond of hunting. One day, while hunting in the forest he came across a deer couple mating. Being a highly skilled archer, Pandu killed the stag (the male) archer by discharging five deadly arrows. The stag which was really Rishi Kidama enjoying his wife in his own way cried out in its death throes in a human voice: “O King, though born into a noble house, greed and passion seem to have made you lose all sense. Fate can make you lose judgment but thought cannot change fate. Why would anyone want to kill a couple enjoying themselves in the forest. I who live in the forest subsisting on fruits and roots, what harm have I ever done? You who killed me while enjoying my mate will suffer a similar fate. This is my curse.” So cursing Pandu, Rishi Kidama in the form of stag died.

This grieved Pandu who was a pious and God-fearing man who had great respect for sages. This tragedy made him feel as though he had lost a near and dear one. “Those of noble birth no less than those of mean origin can fall into evil ways. My father Vichitravirya was of noble birth proved a debauch and died prematurely.”

“It is said that Sage Krishna-Dvaipanaya begot me though my mother. My mind is now in grief following my ignoble act. It is like a prison holding me.”

I’ll try to escape this prison by becoming an ascetic and engage in austerities like a hermit.” Pandu said to himself. “I will give up my kingly comforts and live in the forest like the sages.” Pandu thought that by this he could wash himself of killing the sage and escape the curse. With this idea, he decided to give up his royal comforts and move to the Himalayan mountains to do penance. His wives insisted on joining him. They did not want to stay back living in comfort while Pandu was engaged in austerities. “We will accompany you and share your hardships and join you in your tapas (austerities.)”

Saying this, Pandu’s wives Kunti and Madri gave away all their wealth and fine jewelry to the poor and accompanied their husband on his journey to the Himalayas. Pandu headed north and traveled beyond the Himalayas. He and his wives reached the Indradyumna Lake filled with swans and soon reached the Shata Shringa mountains (meaning (hundred peaks mountains). This could be the Pamir region where several great mountain ranges including the Himalayas and the Karakorums meet. In Sanskrit works, Himalaya is used to describe all snow covered mountains including the Karakorum and the Hindu Kush.(See box on Pandu and the Trans-Himalayan regions.)

 

Pandu, Pandavas and their Trans-Himalayan abode.

 

The Mahabharata account suggests that Pandu and his wives lived in the trans-Himalayan regions near the Pamirs (Hundred peaks or Shata-Shringa) where several great mountain ranges meet.

 

In his Sri Krishna Charitra Bankima Chandra Chatterji states that Greek writers Plinny Celinas note that Sogdiana, the Trans-Oxus region beyond the Himalayas has a place known as Pandu and its inhabitants are called Pandyas. (Not to be confounded with the Pandyas of South India).

 

This according to Bankima Chandra is supported also by Buddhist sources and by Lakshmῑdhara in his śaşţabhāşa candrika. According to them Pandavas refer to the mountain people living to the north of the Trans-Indus countries of Kekaya, and Bāhlῑka.

 

In this context it worth noting that Pandu and the Pandavas too could be called Kauravas as descendants of King Kuru of Hastinapur with which they are associated. The Mahabharata uses the term Pandava only to distinguish them from the sons of Dhritarashtra who are always called Kauravas.

 

None of this precludes their being of trans-Himalayan mountain origins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mahabharata also notes the Pandavas were born and grew up in snowbound mountainous regions (Haimavate girou). Ancient Indian works like the Mahabharata do not distinguish between the Himalayas and other great Central Asian mountains like the Karakorams and Pamirs that are modern geographical designations. All are called Himalaya or himavat) which means snowbound.

The region was desolate and nearly uninhabited save for a few scattered hermits. A few of them approached Pandu and asked, “Why are you taking your wives to such a god forsaken place?”

“What else to do,” Pandu asked in reply. “How am I to beget children the way I was born to my father?”

“If fate favors,” they replied “You too can have noble sons. But for that to happen, you must first practice severe austerities. You can then have sons who will make you happy.”

“This set Pandu thinking. How to beget children while the shadow of the curse hangs over my head? He approached Kunti when she was alone and said:

“Dear Kunti, we have practiced austerities and given generously to charity. None of these can match the blessing of a son. Children are of many kinds. A son born to one is the best blessing. This I am denied because of the curse. Under Aapat-dharma (resort in a crisis situation), one can have children invoking the help of a noble individual. So I give you permission to invoke the help of a noble Brahmin.” But Kunti was not agreeable.

“Dear king,” she protested “How can you knowing dharma suggest this? Am I not your lawfully wedded wife? I will not think of anyone for the sake of children? There is no one who is equal to you. I believe you can still have sons through the Yogic powers of your penance as Vrishatashva did in the past. I will accompany you to heaven”

“What you say is right and just,” Pandu replied. “But Vrishitashva was a near immortal. The rules then were less strict those days and women had a lot more freedom. It is the wife’s duty to obey the husband,especially with regard to progeny and succession. So please have sons as I told you, so I can go to heaven the way men with sons do.”

Then Kunti told him something that was both agreeable and beneficial—answering his prayer: “When I was still a young girl living in my father’s house, we were visited by a Brahmin sage called Durvasa. He was greatly feared by everyone for his fiery temper and readyness to pronounce curses when angry. But I served him well during his stay and he was greatly pleased with me for my dedicated and patient service. In gratitude he taught me these mantras (prayers) and told me:

“Using these mantras, you can invoke any god you wish. He will have to answer your call and serve you whether he wants it or not. Such is the power of these mantras.”

“I think the time has come,” Kunti told her husband, “to put the mantras to use. I will invoke those mantras to call on the gods to grant me sons.”

“Whom do you want me to call?” Kunti asked. “Invoke Lord Dharma,” Pandu said. “He is the Lord of duty, law and justice. “Any son granted by him will embody those qualities. Such a son will not deviate from the path of truth and justice.”

Kunti invoked Dharma and through Yogic union with him obtained a son He was named Yudhishtira (Yudhi sthira meaning one resolute in battle).

In the meantime back in Hastinapur, Gandhari became pregnant. She had heard the news of Yudhishtira’s birth earler but was unable give birth for nearly two years. Finally when the pain became unbearable, she forced the foetus out. What came out was just a formless lump of flesh. She wanted to throw it away but Veda Vyasa stopped her.He made Gandhari wash it in her tears when the lump of flesh broke into a hundred pieces. Vyasa had each piece stored in a pot filled with ghee (clarified butter). In the courseof time, each piece transformed itself into a human child— a hundred boys and a single girl. The eldest son was called Duryodhana. The daughter was called Dusshala. The youngest son was called Yyutsu. Yyutsu was not Gandhari’s son however but the son Dhritarashtra had of Gandhari’s waiting woman when it was feared she might never have any children.

Back in the forest, Pandu hailed Kunti and said: “You have given birth to a son who will embody Dharma, but I also need sons with kshtriya (warrior) qualities of strength and skills that a ruler needs. Kunti then invoked Vayu, the wind god and gave birth to a large and strong looking boy whom they named Bhimasena often shortened to Bhima. One day, Bhima rolled off his mother’s lap and fell on a rock. Instead of hurting him, the rock was smashed to pieces.

It was clear that Bhima would grow to be a strong man. But Pandu was still not satisfied. He told his wife:

“I would now like a son who will prove superior to all others. Indra is the king of gods. He can grant such a son. So let us pray to him. They prayed to Indra by performing a penance for a year. Greatly pleased Indra granted them a son they named him Arjuna. He was to attain great fame as a peerless warrior. After the war, following Yudhishtira’s death, the Kuru dynastic line was to continue through his grandson Parkshita.§

Pandu wanted one more son but Kunti declined saying: “Aapat Dharma (crisis resolution law) does not permit more than three sons. If I violate this rule to have more children I would be open to the charge of licentiousness.”

Now both Kunti and Gandhari had children but Madri was still childless. When alone, she told Pandu: “Master, I have never complained of being your junior wife or being subordinate to Kunti. If Gandhari had a hundred children, so be it. If Kunti can be generous, I may be granted children also. It is better that you approach her with my request instead of me.”

On hearing this, Pandu replied, “I too have been thinking along the same lines. I’ll ask Kunti. Being an obedient wife, I am sure Kunti will agree.” Pandu went with the request to Kunti. She taught Madri the mantra, telling her she could only use it once. And she would have a wonderful son.

Madri however prayed to the twin gods the Ashvini pair. By this she had twin sons who were named Nakula and Sahadeva. They became renowned for their beauty.

When Pandu asked for more favors for Madri, kunti rejected saying, “Dear King, even though I told her to have only one son, Madri tricked me by praying to the Ashvini twins to have two sons. I cannot now allow her to have more sons that I do.”

So Pandu now had five sons blessed with divine attributes. They began to grow with Dhritarastra’s sons.

Soon it was spring, with flowers and fruits in full bloom. One day Pandu was wandering in some woods with his young wife Madri. The combination of the spring season and her beauty made her irresistible and Pandu overcome by passion tried to possess her in a secluded spot. She tried to stop him but found she lacked the strength to hold him back. Soon the curse of Rishi Kidama whom Pandu had killed taking him for a stage came into effect and Pandu died in Madri’s arms as the rishi had told him. She cried out but no one came and Pandu died as he was fated to according to Kidama’s curse.

Distraught by the tragedy, Kunti said to Madri: “Knowing the rishi’s curse, I always took care to protect the king. How could you allow this to happen? Why did you take him to a secluded place where the two of you would be alone.”

“You are blessed,” Kunti continued. “You are more fortunate than me who has to spend the rest of my life as widow. You at least got to see the king being happy.”

“I could not stop him though I tried my level best,” Madri replied.

“As the senior wife, I’ll join my husband on the funeral pyre,” Kunti said.But Madri would not allow it.

“You are the senior wife,” Madri protested. “I know that you’ll take better care of my sons that I ever would. So, let me go with my husband soI can be with him in the next world.” With these words, Madri mounted Pandu’s funeral pyre and committed saha-gamana (joint-passage to heaven) and left Kunti with her children.

The sages and hermits of Shata-shringa performed the necessary funeral rites but wondered,”What to do with this young widow and the children of this noble Pandu who gave up everything to perform severe penance in this desolate place.” They decided their only course was to take Kunti and the children to Bhishma and Dhritarashtra and leave them under their care. Bhishma the patriarch though not king, still made most decisions.

When they reached the gates of the Kuru capital Hastinapura, a large crowd assembled to see this strange group of sages and Kunti and the princes. They were soon joined by the Kuru elders Bhishma, Dhritarashtra, along with Satyavai, Amba and Ambalika and Gandhari. Asking everyone to be quiet, Bhishma honored the visitors. The seniormost of the hermits said:

“King Pandu of the Kuru royal house gave up royal comforts to lead a life of celibacy in our company. By divine grace, Kunti had sons—Yudhishtira from Lord Dharma, Bhima from Vayu the wind god and Arjuna from Indra the king of gods. Madri had twin sons, Nakula and Sahadeva from the divine pair the Ashvini twins. Pandu left this world seventeen days ago, leaving behind Kunti and the five sons. Madri immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Saying this, the hermits left leaving Kunti and the children behind.

 

Forebodings of evil future

After all the necessary rituals and rites for Pandu were completed Vyasa told Satyavati:

“Dear mother, the days of happiness are gone. What the future holds is nothing but hardship and sorrows. Time will only get worse by the day, bringing illusions, greed and deceit getting stronger each day. Dharma will go into decline. It is best you give up this royal life and spend the rest of your life dwelling in the forest where these misfortunes cannot touch you.

This appealed to Satyavati who prepared go to forest. Her daughters-in-law Ambika and Ambalika decided to join her to lead their lives as hermits, free from the pleasures and pains of royal life. In due course, all three died as hermits.

The sons of Pandu, known as Pandavas even though they too were princes of the Kuru royal line, received the rites according to Vedic tradition and grew up as playmates of Duryodhana and other children of Dhritarashtra known as Kauravas to distinguish them from their Pandava cousins. Among these Bhima surpassed all other boys with his size, appetite for food and strength. His playfulness sometimes hurt others which offended them, especially Duryodhana who saw him as a bully and found him intimidating.

 

Even though Bhima’s antics were meant to be playful and he never hurt anyone with malicious intent, his superior strength and skill in physical activities aroused Duryodhana’s envy and fear that soon turned into hatred. This envy and hatred and other Pandava princes was shared by Duryodhana’s brothers also. This was made worse by the popularity of the Pandavas due to their fine personal qualities.

Also, Duryodhana became fearful that Bhima’s power and Yudhishtira’s reputation for honesty and justice might deprive him of the kingdom the way his father had been replaced by Pandu. This was made worse by Bhishma’s decision to anoint Yudhishthira as Yuvaraja (crown prince). Bhishma was guided by the fact that Yudhishthira was committed to Dharma—truth and justice and was popular with the people and had the support of his strong and loyal brothers. Now Duryodhana began to act like one possessed by paranoia.

“If I can somehow eliminate this powerful Bhima,” Duryodhana thought, “I can become king and rule this kingdom by imprisoning his brothers.” With this goal, he began to look for ways to eliminate Bhima.

One day, all the prices—the Pandavas and the Kauravas—went to a place called Pramana-Koti for picnic and recreation. Following a sumptuous meal, they occupied themselves in strenuous games after which they went to rest in the camps. Bhima, who had been more active than all others was tired and fell into a deep sleep. Seeing this as an opportunity, Duryohana had Bhima bound with ropes and had him thrown into a deep part of the lake expecting him to drown. But Bhima managed to break loose and escape unharmed. On another occasion, Duryodhana tried to get Bhima killed by releasing venomous snake to bite him while asleep. But their fangs could not penetrate his tough skin, and Bhimma woke up and managed to wake up and kill the snakes.

Bhishma ensured that the princes received the education, especially in arms and warfare fit for princes of their rank by engaging Drona, known as the greatest teacher of the age. Among his pupils, Arjuna excelled all others in archery and warfare while Bhima proved the strongest and most formidable in individual combat.

“Then give me your right thumb,” Drona demanded. Without a moment’s hesitation, Ekalavya cut off his right thumb and gave it Drona. Though he continued to practice, his arrows lacked their former force. This greatly pleased Arjuna, for now he was without a rival.

Among Drona’s pupils, Bhima and Duryodhana concentrated on fighting with the gada or the mace*. The twins Nakula and Sahadeva became adept at fencing with the sword. His son Ashvatthama mastered the use of astras or secret magic weapons. Yudhishthira became expert at fighting from chariot. Arjuna excelled at all aspects of warfare, as well as the use of different astras or secret magical weapons. His dedication to the art and devotion to his master were unmatched.

“Pandu’s son Partha (Arjuna) has entered the stage in his armor,” so all this excitement Vidura explained.

Arjuna displayed his mastery, producing fire with agni-astra (fire missile) and then putting it out with water from varuna-astra (water missile). He produced other extraordinary effects like blowing wind with vayu-astra (wind missile)#.

Kunti and Karna

Pleased by her devotion and service, Sage Durvasa had given young Kunti a boon that she could invoke any god, which she had invoked to obtain her sons while living in the forest with Pandu. But just to test its effectiveness, she had invoked Surya, the Sun God even before her marriage to Pandu. Karna was the son born as a result of that. Fearing censure, Kunti abandoned the boy in a basket in the river. The child was rescued by Athiratha, a suta or chariot driver and his wife Radha who raised him as their own son.

As Arjuna reached the end of his performance, there was a thunderous noise near the entrance. As everyone turned wondering if there was a thunderbolt or an earthquake, they saw a handsome young man decked in natural shining armor brilliant ear ornaments. His name was Karna, and unbeknownst to anyone at the time, Kuniti’s pre-marital son. (See box.) Only Kunti recognized him as the son she had abandoned long ago.

Karna entered the ring, saluted Drona and Kripa and addressed and addressed Arjuna as follows: “Stop Partha, I will show I can do everything you just did but better.” The audience was spellbound. Arjuna felt insulted while Duryodhana was filled with joy. Then with Drona’s permission, Karna displayed his skill and showed he was a match for Arjuna.

Duryodhana was delighted. He embraced Karna and said: “O Hero, It is my good fortune and save the day for me. My kingdom and I are at your service. Tell me whatever you want.” Karna repled:

“I want only two things: your friendship and a duel with Partha.” Duryodhhana said, “So it will be. From this day, you may enjoy everything I have. You now put your foot on my enemies’ head make them bite the dust.”

Arjuna was offended by their presumption. “Karna, I will send you where unwelcome guests and those who talk without being asked are supposed to go, by killing you.”

Karna was not to be undone. “This is a public place,” he retorted, “Not something built for your personal use. Kshatra-dharma follows the strong. Abusive talk is not a substitute for solid achievement. Instead of words, fight me with weapons and arrows, Arjuna. I’ll separate your head from your body, and play with it like a ball.”

“Drona consented to the contest. The Pandavas gave leave to Arjuna by embracing him. Just then dark crowds appeared in the sky, with Indra the god of rainclouds casting his shadow on his son Arjuna; at the same time, Sun broke through and cast its light on his son Karna.” The Kauravas were behind Karna, while Bhishma, Drona, Vidura and the Pandavas were behind Arjuna. Kunti who recognized Karna as her son she had abandoned at birth swooned seeing the possibility of a deadly combat between him and Arjuna.

Kripa who knew the rules of such challenge and rules of combat, came forward and announced: “This Arjuna is the son of King Pandu and the Yadava Princess Kunti.”

“Please tell us who you are. What is your ancestry? On this Arjuna will decide whether he can fight you.” On hearing this, Karna bowed his head as if in shame.

On seeing Karna’s seeming discomfort, Duryodhana announced. “Master, if Arjuna cannot fight one who is not a prince, right here and now I crown Karna king of the Anga country, which lies in my kingdom.” He sent for Brahmin priests with light, water and vessels to perform the ceremony of anointing Karna king of Anga.

Overwhelmed Karna asked, “What can I do in return? What do you want?”

“I want nothing from you except your friendship,” Duryodhana replied.

Just then, Athiratha, a sūta or cart driver came out of the crowd, approached Karna and said “dear son.” On seeing him, Karna set aside his weapon and touched the old man’s feet rverentially like a son greeting his father. The old man embrace karna, again addressing him as his son.

Bhimasena approached the two men and said disdainfully, “So you are a sūta-putra, the son of a cart driver. You don’t deserve even to be killed by a noble prince like Arjuna. Can a dog partake in the offering made to the gods. Grab a whip and go driving a cart, which is what you were born for. How can you be made king of the Angas?” Duryodhana felt outraged and told Bhima:

“O Virkodara (Bhima), it is unworthy of a Kshatriya warrior to talk like this. A Kshatriya is distinguished by his strength and valour as a warrior, not his origin or birth. Can you judge the greatness of a river by its origin. The same holds for a Kshatriya. Didn,t Indra kill asura demons with his weapon Vajra fashioned from Sage Dadhichi’s bones. Our teacher Drona was born in a vessel and Kripa in a bundle of hay. How can Karna, shining in his natural armor and brilliant ear ornaments not be fit to be king of the Angas? Is a tiger ever born in the womb of a deer?”

“Anyone who disagrees with what I just said can fight Karna standing on foot or riding a chariot. I give permission to Karna whom I have anointed King of Anga to fight anyone.”

This was received with excitement all around. Duryodhana called for a light and left, taking Karna with him. Drona, Bhishma and the Pandvas also left the arena. The crowd also dispersed, excitedly talking about the events of the day. Some praised the Pandavas while others praised Karna and Duryodhana.

The just concluded war exercise had shown Arjuna to be the most skilled warrior and Bhima to be the strongest in individual combat. Seeing this, Duryodhana who was suspicious by nature, was filled with envy and fear for his own position. Increasingly he turned to his newfound friend Karna and his cunning uncle (mother Gandhari’s brother) Shakuni trying to hatch schemes to somehow remove the Pandavas from the scene. The Pandavas too were aware of it and depended on Vidura for help and guidance.

To make things worse for Duryodhana the people were increasing expressing their appreciation for the Pandavas for their fine qualities. At gatherings in public places like town squares and temples, many were openly saying:

“Dhritarashtra was not made king because he was blind. How can such a man be king now? Bhishma is ruled out because his vow renouncing kingship. And he will never break it. So Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava should be crowned king. Though young in years, he is mature and old in wisdom. Being just, he will treat Bhishma and Dhritarashtra with respect, and also take good care of the Kaurava princes.” Such talk made Duryodhana burn with fury.

Finally when he could not stand it anymore, Duryodhana cornered his father when he was alone and told him:

“Father, did you hear the impious talk of our subjects. They are calling for pushing aside Bhishma and you to crown Yudhishthira as king. This is what Bhishma too wants. That is the reason why he gave up his right to the kingdom. People don’t seem to like us. Pandu was made king after your father’s death because he was believed to be virtuous. You were denied your due because you were thought to lack his virtuous qualities. Now there is talk that Yudhisthira should succeed his father Pandu as king because of his fine qualities. Should that happen, his son grandson the whole line will inherit our kingdom, and you, I, and our descendants will be consigned to oblivion and forever held in contempt. No one respects a prince who is without kingdom.

On hearing this Dhritarashtra replied, “ Dear Child, Pandu was also dear to me, being always just, fair and respectful. Though he was fair to all our relatives, he treated me with special consideration. He never did anything without first telling me, even when it came to taking his meals. His son is also just and fair like his father and justly respected for it. This being the case, how can he be denied the kingship that he inherits from his father and grandfather? He also has strong support among the people and the officials and the army. Also, Pandu while king, had been generous with the officials and the army, rewarding them with gifts and rewards. These and the citizens who benefited from Pandu’s generosity won’t let us alone if we tried to push aside Yudhishthira.” Duryodhana told him not to worry. He said:

“I am aware of all that. I too have been taking steps to gain the loyalty and support of officials and people with gifts and honors to leading citizens and officials and courtiers. They are now with me. And the same is true of the wealthy and influential citizens.”

Explaining this, Duryodhana told his father, “Now that I have this under control, find some way of sending the Pandavas away from the capital to Varanavarta§.. Once the capital is safely in my hands, Kunti can come back with her sons.” Dhritarashtra agreed with his son and said:

“I too was thinking along similar lines. But just and loyal men like Bhishma, Drona and Vidura will never agree to our sending aways the Pandavas and Kunti.” But Dhuryodhana brushed away his father’s concern:

“Bhishma can be expected to be neutral. Ashwatthama will follow me. His father Drona will go where his son is. So will Kripa, his brother-in-law and Ashvatthama’s father-in-law So they will not leave us to join them. And Vidura is our dependent. He can’t trouble us even if he joins the Pandaavas. So send the Pandavas away to Varanavarta as soon as possible.”

Dhritarashtra knew that he needed some pretext to ask the Pandavas to leave the capital and go to Varanavarta. He learnt that there would soon be an Ishvara festival in Varanavarta that might serve the purpose. Learning of this he began to praise the beauty of Varanavarta before everyone and the glory of its Ishvara festival, making sure that it would reach the ears of the Pandavas. They too became curious and wanted to know more about it.

Seizing the opportunity, Dhritarashtra took Yudhishthira aside and told him: “I am daily hearing reports regarding the beauty of Varanavarta and the glories of the Ishvara festival about to be held there. So why don’t you and your family go to Varanavarta and spend a few days and enjoy the festivities.”

In his helpless condition, Yudhishthira had no choice and agreed. He went and met the elders, Bhishma, Drona, Kripa and told them, “Obeying our uncle’s wishes, we will be going to Varanavarta for a few days. Please bless us so we may be safe. The power of your blessings will protect us. No harm can come our way.” They blessed the Pandavas with the words: “O sons of Pandu, we wish you well. May God ensure that nothing untoward comes to you.”

Duryodhana made several attempts to eliminate the Pandava brothers including setting fire to their mansion in Varanavarta where they were living in virtual exile. This was the handiwork of Duryodhana’s agent Purochana, the Governor of Varanavarta appointed by Duryodhana. They managed to escape them and made it to the Panchala kingdom. Along the way Bhima married a Rakshasa princess called Hidimba and had a son named Ghatotgaja. In the Pachala kingdom, ruled by King Drupada, Arjuna won the hand of his daughter Draupadi by performing an extraordinary feat of archery. On their mother Kunti’s advice, all the five brothers married Draupadi as their common wife.

With the powerful king Drupada as ally, Kunti and the Pandavas returned to Hastinapur to claim their rightful kingdom for Yudhishthira. Sensing trouble, Bhishma arranged to have the kingdom partitioned with Yudhishthira ruling half from Indraprastha while Duryodhana and the brothers got Hastinapur.

Duryodhana and the Kaurava princes who had thought that the Pandavas had perished in the fire had now to deal with the reality that they had survived and were now back much stronger with two powerful allies—the Panchala king Drupada and Krishna and his Yadavas. People on the other hand were pleased, and they denounced Bhishma and Dhritarashtra for trying to eliminate the Pandavas using Purochana.

Duryodhana was distraught that his plan to eliminate them had come to naught. The Pandavas had not only escaped unharmed, but had come out of it stronger than before with powerful allies—Drupada and their feared cousin Krishna. Drupada was not only a powerful ruler, his sons Shikhndin and Drshtadyumn were capable warrior princes who were fated to play a major part in the Mahabharata War. On learning this, Vidura told Dhritarashtra of Arjuna’s success and advised him to give Yudhishthira his rightful share of the kingdom.

The Pandavas were given a tract in a forest called Khandavaprastha. The Pandavas soon developed the land and built a magnificent capital called Indraprastha. Their wise rule turned it into a prosperous kingdom that attracted many traders and artisans. So there seemed to be peace between the rival cousins

But Duryodhana’s fears and doubts were not stilled. He still feared that it was only a matter of time before he would have to fight them to save his kingdom. With the help of his cunning uncle Shakuni (Gandhari’s brother) he ensured that the Pandavas were sent into exile again by defeating Yudghishthira in a game of dice. Even when they returned from their allocated thirteen-year exile, Duryodhana refused to return the Pandavas their rightful share of the kingdom.

 

Prelude to war

So the war became all but inevitable. Since all the rulers in India were allied on one side or the other, such a war meant a catastrophe for the whole country from the Himalayas to the southern ocean. Recognizing this Bhishma and Krishna tried their best to make Duryodhana come to senses. Krishna made a visit to Hastinapur advising them that Yudhishthira was prepared to accept even five villages as his fair shre. But even this Duryodhana was not prepared to grant. So the dreaded war was now a reality.

 

As the seniormost warrior, Bhishma was made commander of the Kaurava armies.

 

Bhishma the old warrior

(Duryodhana’s) armies. Bhishma had a poor view of Karna as the one on whose strength Duryodhana had embarked on his destructive venture. He made no secret of his dislike. So for the ten days when Bhishma led the Kaurava forces, Karna refused to join the battle. With their greatest warrior on the sideline, the Kauravas were faring poorly. Krishna though on the side of the Pandavas, refused to bear arms but became the counselor to the Pandavas while acting as Arjuna’s charioteer. In effect Krishna was the Chief of Staff of the Pandavas even while not bearing arms. His advice proved invaluable on numerous occasions. Without Krishna the Pandavas would not have prevailed.

But Bhishma, though old proved to be a problem because none of the Pandavas, Arjuna in particular wanted to kill him. For ten days when Bhishma led the Kaurava forces, the war was quite uneventful. This might have been Bhishma’s wish also, to keep a holding pattern until the two sides agreed to peace. But this was not agreeable to Krishna who knew that Duryodhana would never agree to a peaceful resolution.

Here is where Bhishma’s old enemy Amba came in as the avenging angel. After she had been spurned by Bhishma, she or her son called Shikhandin was raised as a warrior by the Panchala king Drupada. So Shikhandin was a foster brother to Draupadi. Her brother Drushtadyumna was the commander of the Pandava force. So Shikhandin joined Arjuna in his chariot, fighting Bhighting Bhishma. Seeing him (or her) Bhishma threw away his weapons saying he would not fight someone who was or had been a woman. Using Shikhandin as shield Arjuna fired arrows that brought Bhishma down Bhishma fell on the tenth day, pierced by arrows, lying on a bed of arrows.

The original Mahabharata says that Bhishma died on the tenth day of the battle, but some traditional accounts claim that he survived for two more months, until the arrival of the auspicious month of Magha two months later.

     Bhishma lying on the bed of arrows

The war was over in eighteen days with the destruction of the Kaurava armies and the death of Duryodhana. Yudhishthira was crowned king of Hastinapur. Krishna advised Yudhishthira to visit Bhishma on the bed of arrows to seek his advice on how to be a just and effective ruler.After advising Yudhishthira and reciting the famous Vishnusahasranama, the mighty warrior and sage prince Bhishma took leave of the world.

It is an irony that Bhishma’s generosity and self-sacrifice came to be responsible for such a great tragedy. Had he not renounced the kingdom and succeeded Shantanu as king, none of this might have happened. He was in many ways the most tragic figure of the Mahabharata. His virtue was not rewarded.

This is the tragic story of Bhishma, the eldest of the Kurus whose virtues were responsible for the holocaust of the Mahabharata War. Had he accepted the kingship that was legally his, the war might have been avoided.

  • Strictly speaking, as descendants of King Kuru, Pandavas and Pandu were also Kauravas. But the Mahabharata reserves the word Kaurava for the Dartrarashtras sons of Dhritarashtra). The Kuru line continued through Arjuna’s grandson (Abhimannyu’s son) Parikshita. Interestingly the correct name of Cyrus the founder of the Persian Empire was Kurvesha (or Kuru-esha). Is there a connection?

# These are supernatural effects supposedly produced by magical chants to the gods in question— Agni (fire god), Varuna (sea or water god) and Vau (wind god).

THE MAHABHARATA STORY

THE MAHABHARATA, ITS CREATION AND DEVELOPMENT

The Mahabharata is an Itihasa or a chronicle of events iti-hasa (as it happened), meaning a near contemporary account, unlike a Purana, which indicates record of events long ago.

Navaratna Rajaram

Itihasa

The two great epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabhararata are called itihasa meaning they were contemporary meaning eyewitness accounts. It may seem strange to see a work claiming to be historical to be composed in verse, but this common in Sanskrit. Even many scientific works are in verse form. So it is not surprizing to see history in worse. This is probably because writing was not widespread then and most works were transmitted orally from memory. So they were composed in poetic form which is easier to memorize.

According to a widely followed tradition, the Mahabharata was dictated by its author Vyasa to his scribe Ganesha who wrote it down. Ganesha agreed but put down the condition that Vyasa should dictate non-stop since Ganesha was a very fast scribe. Vyasa agreed but put down the condition that Ganesha had to understand every passage before writing down. So, the story goes, Vyasa created a particularly hard to follow passage whenever he needed a pause. This apparently is the reason for many puzzling passages in the Mahabharata. Vyasa inserted them to gain breath.

Vyasa dictating the Mahabharata to Ganesha

They are called itihasa or contemporary accounts because they are supposed to be eyewitness accounts. Vyasa, the supposed creator of the Mahabharata is a key figure as the father of Dhitrashtra and Pandu, while Valmiki the author of the Ramayana was the guardian of Sita and her twin sons, Lava and Kusha during Sita’s exile. For the present, we focus on Vyasa and how he happened to compose the Mahabharata and the many turns and twists it underwent until it has come down to us in the form we know it today.

But the actual story of its composition and dissemination is more complex and the version we have today is not the one that Vyasa is said to have dictated to his scribe. Here is the story according to the Mahabharata itself.

An old Mahabharata manuscript

Vyasa was born Krishna-dvaipavana (Krishna the island born) was born to Satyavati the daughter of the chief of a fishing tribe. She later went on to marry the Kuru king Shantanu and became the grandmother of the Pandava and Kaurava princes who fought each other in the Mahabharata War. Vyasa was her premarital son, born to sage Parashara of the Vasishta clan. He was said to have been ‘born an adult’ meaning he was a child prodigy. He came to be known as Vyasa (organizer or divider) because he mass of the Vedas dividing and organizing it in the four-fold form we know it today.

The Yajurveda has two main branches: (Shukla or white) and Krishna (or black, or could be the handiwork of Krishna-dvaipavana Vyasa). The Krisha Yajurveda is commonly known as Taittiriya Samhita or the one compiled by Tittiri, probably a Vyasa disciple.

So Vyasa was a natural to record the Mahabharata as an eyewitness. But the story is not so simple. When the war ended in the victory of the Pandavas, with Yudhishthira being crowned king at Hastinapur. He ruled for thirty-six years. He was succeeded by Arjuna’s grandson (Abhimanyu’s son) Parikshit.

Though the Mahabharata makes a distinction between Pandavas and Kauravas, in reality both branches were descendants of the same ancestor, King Kuru of Hastinapur after whom Kurukshetra was named.

The Naga rulers based in Takshashila (Taxila, now in Pakistan) bore a longstanding enmity towards the Kuru rulers. Arjuna and Krishna had driven out the Naga chief Takshaka from Khandava to build Yudhishthira’s old capital of Indraprastha. A Naga ruler known as Takshaka killed the Kuru king Parikshit in an ambush or deception. (This is my interpretation of the statement that Parikshit died when snake king Takshaka’s bite.)

In any event after Parikshit’s assassination (as I read it), his still young son Janamejaya was crowned king with some senior ministers and sages assisting him in the running of the state. When Janamejajaya  came of age he learnt of his father’s killing by the Naga king Takashaka and decided to lead a campaign against him. Since the Nagas and their chief Takshaka was a regular menace, Parikshit and his advisors felt the best course was attack their seat of Takshashila itself and eliminate them in large numbers. This campaign against the Nagas was called ‘Sarpa Yaga’, punning on the word Naga which means snake (sarpa).

Yaga can mean sacrificial offering, which in a way the campaign against Takshashila was. It is was a fierce campaign in which not only Takshakas but many Nagas were mercilessly killed.  The Mahabharata states this metaphorically by saying the Nagas were made to fall into the sacrificial fire. It is possible that Janamejaya was prepared to depopulateTakshashila when a young Naga Brahmin by name Aastika came and appealed to him to stop the slaughter, flattering the king in the following stirring words.

Janamejaya’s Snake Sacrifice

Somasya yajno varunasya yajna, prajaptiryajna prayage ca aasit;

tatha yajno’ayam tava bhaarataagra, svasti priyebhya no’astu paarikshita.

Campaigns of Soma, of Varuna the peerless,

Of prajapati at prayag’s confluence;

So too is yours, O Lord of the Bharatas.

Save my loved ones O son of Parikshit.

This passage from the minor book of Adiparva known as Aastika Parva is one of the most moving, of which I hope my translation gives some idea. Janamejaya stops the campaign against the Nagas. He had promised the young Naga Brahmin, a youth but with the wisdom of an elder’, anything he wanted but Aastika only wanted only to save his people from further slaughter. Such Brahmins still exist, in the Punjab and are called Nagar Brahmins as names like Bhatnagar suggest. These were western Nagas, not to be confused with the Nagas of eastern India in Nagaland.

The assembled sages compliment young Janamejaya for avenging his father’s killing. Janamejaya wants to learn the story of his ancestors. Then, Vyasa’s pupil Vaishampayana, present at the assembly narrates the Mahabharata story that he had learnt from his teacher Vyasa or his son Shuka. He then taught it to his pupil Lomaharshana. When they visit the assembly of scholars headed by Shaunaka in the Naimisha woods, they are requested by the assembly to narrate the wonderful story they heard in Janamejaya’s court. This was done by Lomaharshana’s pupil Ugrashrava who may have learnt it from his teacher Lomaharshana. This narrated by someone is the version of the Mahabharata known to us as the epic.

What about the version of the epic dictated by Vyasa to Ganesha. It may simply indicate the first written version. No copy of any such manuscript has survived, if it ever existed. It was first narrated by Vyasa’s pupil Vaishampayana before Janamejaya’s court after the sacking of Takshashila. It was then taken by Vaishampayana’s disciple Lomaharshana to Shaunaka’s group in the Naimisha forest where it was narrated by Lomaharshana’s pupil Ugrashrava. All the versions of the epic today are derived from this with a greater or lesser degree of distortions though many attempts have been made to extract Vyasa’s original, but with scant success.