"Atha shri Mahabharat katha . Katha hai purusharth ki, yeh svaarth ki, parmarth ki."
(This is the story of Mahabharat. It's a tale of honour, greed, the ultimate truth.)
The title track of that series, B. R. Chopra's made-for-TV "Mahabharata" (1987), ended in a crescendo, with a famous Sanskrit shloka (a verse of two lines) from the Bhagavad-Gita:
Yada yada hi dharmasya glanir bhavati bharata
Abhyutthanam adharmasya tadatmanam srjamy aham (Gita 4-7)
(Whenever and wherever there is a decline in righteousness, O Bharata, And a predominant rise of unrighteousness, then I manifest Myself)
Paritranaya sadhunam vinasaya ca duskritam
Dharma-samsthapanarthaya sambhavami yuge yuge (Gita 4-8)
(To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, To re-establish the principles of religion, I manifest myself era after era)
I think I guessed the gist of the shloka, with my rudimentary Sanskrit skills. But I doubt I knew it was from the Gita, or that it was Krishna telling the warrior Arjuna about His incarnations on earth. Nevertheless, something about the songs sent a slight shiver up my arms. I couldn't wait for the next episode of the story to unfold.
When I recently saw Chopra's "Mahabharata" series on Toronto's OMNI TV channel, I remembered our Sunday morning family ritual. My family-made up of my father, mother, aunt, sister, domestic help, and I-would sit in the living room and watch the weekly episode. My father was a strict parent and is a devout Hindu, and the "Mahabharata" series was one of the few TV programs he encouraged us to watch.
One of the two major Hindu epics, the "Mahabharata" principally focuses on the dynastic struggle and civil war between two groups of kin, the Pandavas and the Kauravas on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The tale is set in about 9th century BCE, and contains the text of the "Bhagavad-Gita," numerous subplots, and interpolations on theology, morals, and statecraft. The "Mahabharata" is often compared to other epics such as the "Iliad" or "The Odyssey."
When I was a child, my family spent our summer vacation at my paternal grandparents' house, where there was very little for me to do besides read the large volumes of religious texts filled with stories of ancient kings and queens, gods and goddesses. The texts satisfied my voracious reading appetite, and I got brownie points for being able to chat with my grandmother about this incarnation of Lord Vishnu or that manifestation of Parvati.
But as much as I devoured those texts, I owe much of my relationship to the "Mahabarata" to the film and television versions so popular in my youth.
Chopra's "Mahabharata" series certainly doesn't have the highest production values, and it is easy to find it cheesy. The gaudy costumes of papier-mâché gilt crowns are second only to the mullet-like hairstyles in garishness. The acting is over-the-top (even by Bollywood standards), with heroes frequently talking in booming voices and demons laughing maniacally. The special effects are low-budget, with arrows colliding mid-air and exploding into fireworks.
But as a 10-year-old, I was fascinated. Watching the ancient text come alive for the first time was a neat moment in an enduring relationship with the epic.
As a young child, I was familiar with many of the Hindu mythological stories. To me, they were just like Hans Anderson or Enid Blyton stories, only indigenous. The Hindu mythological stories were full of beautiful goddesses and handsome gods, nefarious and ugly demons, and the gods and demons were constantly scrapping. I especially loved the "Amar Chitra Katha" series of comic books that illustrated the stories with lovely drawings.
The stories of the "Mahabharata" and the "Ramayana" are usually told by grandparents to children. They are a non-didactic way to inculcate Hindu values such as dharma (righteousness) and karma (duty), as well as ethos such as the respecting elders and the importance of family, illustrated by exemplar characters such as Rama or Krishna.
The "Mahabharata" was always one of my favorite stories. The epic has a "Neverending Story" feel to it, with the close to 100,000 verses narrating many, many subplots. The subplots intertwine to tell the tale of the descendants of Bharata, said to be the king who founded Bharatvarsha, or modern day India.
At the heart of the "Mahabharata" is the clash of the Pandavas and the Kauravas, over the throne of Hastinapura. The Pandavas were five brothers: Yuddhishtir, Bhima, Arjun, Nakul and Sahdev. The Kauravas were 100 brothers, led by Duryodhana. Each of the Pandavas had a special characteristic. Yuddhishtira was known to never speak a lie, Bhima was the strongest man on earth, Arjuna was the best archer and warrior, and Nakul and Sahdev are said to have had the ability to talk to animals. Duryodhana was always characterised as the evil cousin, jealous of the Pandavas and especially Bhima.
The story of sibling rivalry that leads to eventual war will make sense to any child. But the sheer complexity of the "Mahabharata" has made its relevance enduring.
The flawed characters...
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It was Peter Brook's version of the "Mahabharata" (1990) that opened my eyes to such complexities of the epic. Brook's film had a multiethnic cast, underscoring the universality of the epic. The costumes and props were minimal. Monochromatic clothes replaced yards of shiny outfits, and hand-drawn carts replaced chariots. But the stark stage magnified the drama of the epic. I can still remember the Japanese taiko drums heralding war.
The film really provoked me to reflect on the characters. Brook's "Mahabharata" has its share of critics who point out the departures from the text. But Brook's film made the epic less fantastical. Although I was still attentive to details such as divine boons and gods vanishing into thin air, I started to look at the "Mahabharata" as the story of men who fought the battle of all battles over jealousies and insults.
Eight of the "Mahabharata"'s 18 volumes are devoted to war. It's said that the battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas lasted for 18 days, in which some 18 million men participated. And at the end of the war, only 11 men are left standing, making it a very hollow victory for the Pandavas.
Another interpretation of the epic that I like is the art-house film "Kalyug" (1980). Director Shyam Benegal sets his version of the epic in modern day India. I was intrigued by the way in which "Kalyug" shows the currency of ancient quarrels. The princely cousins from the epic became rival cousins of a business family. The intrigues and machinations of the royal courts were substituted with import quotas, tax raids, and labor unrests.
Over the years, I got to see other versions of the "Mahabharata." Most traditional Indian performing arts groups enact scenes from the "Mahabharata" in dance or dramatic form. Since the story is so vast, and parts of it are so well-known to most Indians, various plots find their way into even popular culture art forms such as movies and TV shows, just as Shakespeare is often referenced in the West.
The epic is even referenced in daily life. A sly conniver is compared to Shakuni, the Kauravas' maternal uncle, who organized the gambling match that led to the downfall of the Pandavas. A steadfast man is equated with Bhishma, who never wavered from his vow of celibacy.
One of these days, I hope to get back to the text. With a lot more worldly experience and deeper appreciation for complexities, I hope to gain much more out of the "Mahabharata" than I have in previous readings.
Tradition has it that the "Mahabharata" was told over 12 years during a sacrifice. Each night, the audience sat and listened to the tale of the Bharatas and the eventual battle full of grotesque and stomach churning details. At the end of the epic, those listening to it were transformed by the powerful story.
Perhaps I can get started on my transformative journey with an abridged version.