The Story

Stories from the Mahabharata are as familiar to people in India as the stories of Genesis or The Lord of the Rings are to people in the United States.  And because some traditional theatre forms rely exclusively on epic stories, the student of Indian theatre must become familiar with the Mahabharata’s basic narrative.

The epic’s central conflict revolves around the throne.  A succession of decisions and circumstances throw legitimate claim to the throne into dispute, and the cousins who both exercise a claim to the throne eventually lead their families to war with each other.  The war kills off nearly everyone on both sides.

How It Starts

Although the epic begins with creation stories and other preliminary tales, we will begin with Bhishma, whose apparently noble choice creates the confusion that, ultimately, only war can resolve.

Bhishma, the undisputed heir to his father’s throne, commands everyone’s respect and draws everyone’s love by being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, and all of the other things on the boy scout’s twelve-point list.  But when Bhishma’s father marries again, Bhishma sees that his legitimate claim to the throne could come into conflict with children from this new marriage.  To ensure the peace, Bhishma officially relinquishes his right to rule, and, when alerted to the possibility that his own children could exercise a claim to the throne and engender the very conflict his own abdication was to avoid, Bhishma vows never to marry and never to have any children.  Problem solved.

Unfortunately, Bhishma’s step-brother died young—married to a couple of nice girls named Ambika and Ambalika, but without children—which circumstance put the throne in jeopardy, in spite of Bhishma’s efforts.  Bhishma refused to reneg.  The only solution was to bring in a surrogate to produce an heir through Ambika or Ambalika.  (Incidentally, a third girl, Amba, was supposed to marry Bhishma’s step-brother, but that plan went south.  Amba blamed Bhishma and went away.  But watch for her: she comes back later.)

The surrogate turns out to be up to the task (so to speak), but did not, apparently, have the softest face.  When Ambika meets the surrogate, she shuts her eyes.  When Ambalika meets him, she turns pale.  As you may have already guessed, Ambika’s son from the relationship, Dhritarashtra, is blind, and Amabalika’s son Pandu is, well, pale.  They decide they ought to try one more time and send the maid to the surrogate.  She’s not so delicate, and her son Vidura turns out to be just about the most clear-headed character in the story.  Too bad he’s born of the maid.  He can’t sit on the throne.

Common consent is that a blind man can’t be king, so Pandu marries and takes the throne, but makes some poor decisions and winds up the object of a curse that he’ll die if he ever tries to have kids.  Pandu retires from the throne, takes his two wives, and trudges off into the forest to live a life of renunciation.  Dhritarashtra, blindness notwithstanding, marries and takes the throne.  When Gandhari, Dhritarashtra’s bride-to-be, learns that she’s about to marry a blind man, she ties a blindfold around her eyes so as to join her husband’s world fully.

The Rivals

Out in the forest, Pandu learns that, through convoluted events already past, his wife Madri can call on the gods for favors.  Seeing a way to circumvent the curse and get some heirs, Pandu prevails on Madri to call on the gods to provide some children.  (Paternity, as Ambika and Ambalika episode has already demonstrated, is not as important in the Mahabharata as maternity.)  Through three distinct deities, Madri obtains three sons.  Pandu’s other wife Kunti convinces Madri to let her in on the deal, and Kunti obtains another two sons, twins, in the same fashion.  Shortly thereafter, Pandu and Madri die.

Dhritarastra, meanwhile, is pursuing heirs of his own.  His wife Gandhari gives birth to a big ball of iron, but by employing some creative devices, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari manage to get one hundred sons of their own.

This is a problem.  Dhristarashtra shouldn’t be on the throne because he’s blind.  But Pandu willingly ceded the throne.  Now they both have kids.  Bhishma’s renunciation proves useless, after all.  Now we have the two families of cousins whose struggle for power results in the deaths of everyone we’ve encountered so far.  On the one side are the five sons of Pandu—the Pandavas.  On the other side are the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra—the Kauravas (or, those who sit on the throne of Kuru).

After Pandu’s death, the Pandava brothers move into Dhritarashtra’s palace with Kunti, and grow up alongside Duryodhana.  The boys who will be rivals eat together, play together, and have the same tutors growing up, including Bhishma, who’s still around watching his noble sacrifice come to naught, and Drona, a brahman who diverted his remarkable competence away from religious learning and applied it to martial arts, instead.  Drona teaches all the boys to fight.

In these lessons, Arjuna excels.  At one point, Arjuna returns from a martial competition shouting to Kunti, “Guess what I won, Mom!”  In true mom-fashion, Kunti responds immediately, “Whatever it is, you’ll have to share with your brothers.”  It turns out that Arjuna has won a woman named Draupadi, which causes some brief consternation.  But the boys are dutiful, so they all do as their mother has told them and settle down.  Draupadi becomes the common wife of all five.

In another circumstance, a stranger calling himself Karna shows up to challenge Arjuna’s martial prowess.  Karna proves himself a mysteriously gifted warrior, but the Pandavas reject his challenge on the grounds that as the son of a chariot-driver, Karna does not have the requisite social standing to extend a formal challenge to Arjuna (who is partly divine, after all).  Duryodhana, on the other hand, sees Karna differently, and adopts Karna as a kind of brother-in-spirit.

Well, the boys spend their adolescent years racing chariots, chasing girls, trying to burn and poison each other—all those things that boys do.  But, boys grow up, and, eventually, Yudhisthira, the oldest of Pandu’s five sons, decides to make a play for the throne.  Yudhisthira announces his intentions by arranging an enormous sacrificial rite, the successful accomplishment of which has, in the past, signified the right to rule.  Duryodhana, who’s nervous by nature, getsreally nervous, and goes hunting for a way of undermining Yudhisthira’s objective.

The Game of Dice

Yudhisthira, Pandu’s oldest heir, and the offspring of Divine Order, is perfect in almost every way.  He’s honest to a fault, just, temperate, wise—all the things a proper king should be.  But he does love a good game of craps.  At the height of Yudhisthira’s popularity, Duryodhana challenges him to a game, and employs an incorrigible cheater, Duryodhana’s uncle Shakuni, as Yudhisthira’s opponent.  This is a big deal.  A special pavilion is built.  Dignitaries from all the surrounding regions are invited.  In some ways, the game of dice is a warped counterpart of Yudhisthira’s royal sacrifice—only with Yudhisthira himself on the altar.

Notable among the visiting dignitaries is Krishna.  At this point in the Mahabharata, Krishna is a somewhat mysterious figure.  A well-respected warlord with great wealth and power, Krishna is not merely the peer of everyone in the room.  Most all treat him with deep respect and defer to his opinion on things, but he also seems like an outsider: he’s just a little different in the way he looks, acts, talks, and thinks.  It’s as though Krishna’s from a country far, far away and enjoys a special diplomatic immunity.  Krishna comes to the dice game, and is, perhaps, the most honored among guests.

To make what could be a long story short: Yudhisthira loses.  Badly.  Round after round.  He loses his money.  He loses his lands.  He loses his cattle and his servants.  But he can’t stop.  He stakes and loses his children.  He stakes and loses his brothers.  He stakes and loses himself.  With nothing left to lose, he stakes and loses Draupadi.  Duryodhana sends his really degenerate brother Dushasana to retrieve Draupadi from the women’s quarters so they can all ridicule her as a slave.  Draupadi’s no fool.  When Dushasana drags her to the pavilion she demands that the assembled wise men tell her if a man has a right to stake his wife after he’s already lost himself.  What follows is a lot of hemming and hawing.  Among the voices, only Vidura’s argues plainly on Draupadi’s side.  But he’s the son of a servant girl, so what he says doesn’t matter so much.

Duryodhana tells Dushasana to remove Draupadi’s fancy clothes, since now she’s only a slave, and he’s more than happy to oblige.  Bhima, the second of the Pandava brothers, and the most excitable, swears to tear Dushasana open, tear out his guts, and drink his blood if he touches Draupadi.  Draupadi, not to be outdone, swears not to tie her hair up again until she has washed it in Dushasana’s blood.  Dushasana is not impressed.  But, though he yanks at Draupadi’s garments, and though he pulls yards and yards of fabric from her body, he cannot manage to remove her clothes.  Everyone agrees it’s a miracle.

Everything settled, then, the Pandava brothers and Draupadi enter into a life of abject servitude to the cousin that has harassed them all their lives.  It’s just too much to bear.  The authorities in the pavilion come up with a compromise, and Yudhisthira comes back to the table for one last round, which he loses.  The consequence is that the brothers and Draupadi must spend twelve years in exile out in the hinterlands, and they have to spend a thirteenth year in disguise.  If they are discovered during that last year, they have to enter into another twelve-year exile.  If they manage to keep themselves secret during that last year, they could return to claim their legitimate rights.

Exile

Exile goes well.  The Pandavas have a lot of adventures, and then they go into disguise in the royal court of King Virata.  The brothers’ respective disguises derive in literal and sardonic ways from their true identities.  Yudhisthira advises the king as a brahman priest.  Bhima works in the kitchen.  Nakula runs the stables and Sahadeva keeps the cattle.  Draupadi becomes the queen’s hairdresser.  The most curious of these disguises is Arjuna’s.  The most able warrior of the brothers teaches music and dance as a eunuch to the women of the court.  Due to one of his adventures in exile, Arjuna, during this period, is, in fact emasculated.

Whether they really manage to keep themselves disguised throughout this year is a little open to debate.  But no one really expects Duryodhana to yield an iota to the Pandavas’ claims, which he doesn’t, so whether or not their identity is found out as the thirteenth year concludes is moot.  Duryodhana refuses to cede anything to his cousins and digs in.  The Pandavas gather their allies.  And everything is set up for a cataclysmic war.

War

All of the supporting characters at this point in the story have to make a choice: fight with fine, upstanding Yudhisthira and his brothers, or with bitter, bothersome Duryodhana?  Most everyone, believe it or not, stays with Duryodhana.  Bhishma, whose decision to abandon the throne altogether started this whole mess, chooses to fight for Duryodhana.  Though he seems to be well aware of Yudhisthira’s strengths and of Duryodhana’s weaknesses, Bhishma resolves that loyalty to Duryodhana is the best way to fulfill his vow of dedication to whoever sits on the Kuru throne.  Drona, the boys’ tutor, also, somewhat reluctantly, takes up with Duryodhana.  Karna, of course, sticks with the person who defended him in spite of his social position.  The leaders of surrounding kingdoms pledge their allegiances one way or the other.  Rather than choose like everyone else, Krishna makes Arjuna choose: Krishna, only as an advisor, not as a fighter, or all of Krishna’s powerful armies?  Arjuna chooses Krishna.

Thus, the combatants in the epic are arrayed thus:

Pandavas

  • Yudhisthira
  • Bhima
  • Arjuna
  • Nakula
  • Sahadeva
  • Krishna
Kauravas

  • Duryodhana
  • Dushasana
  • 98 Brothers
  • Karna
  • Bhishma
  • Drona

Incidentally, Karna (the premier warrior on Duryodhana’s side), by this point, has discovered that he is not the son of a chariot driver, after all.  Rather, he was born to Kunti and a god during her reckless days before marrying Pandu.  Karna is, thus, both of divine origin and the oldest of six Pandava brothers.  The revelation does not change him.  Resenting the Pandavas for treating him badly in their first encounter, Karna recommits to Duryodhana.  Kunti does not inform the five Pandava brothers.

The War Begins

Once the armies are gathered, the combatants meet to discuss terms.  They are all to obey a litany of rules, including, among others, not to fight at night, not to fight the unarmed or wounded, and, in face to face combat, not to strike below the belt.  Of course, the rules are systematically broken by both sides over the course of the battle.

On the designated morning, the opposing armies line up opposite each other in an open plain named Kurukshetra.  The order of business calls for Arjuna to ride into the no-man’s-land between the armies and blow the conch-shell horn that signals the opening of hostilities.  Behind the reins of the chariot, Krishna drives Arjuna into the open space, where Arjuna has a sudden change of mind.  He looks back and forth.  He sees family and friends, respected and loved authorities, the nameless enlisted, on both sides, and Arjuna realizes that the note from his horn will send them all to their deaths.  Arjuna throws down the horn, throws down his weapons, falls the ground, and refuses to begin the war.

This is the moment of the renowned Bhagavad Gita, the religious text that Gandhi described as “the gospel of selfless action”, and which has had more influence on the West than, perhaps, any other text written in India.  Here, Krishna berates Arjuna for failing to see the big picture, and charges him to get up and do his duty as a warrior.  The “big picture” on which Krishna elaborates in this short selection from the Mahabharata is a distinctly theatrical reading of physical existence.  Mortality, says Krishna in the Gita, is just a play in which we’re all playing.  So do what your role calls for, and don’t take it too seriously.

Apparently, Krishna convinces Arjuna, who picks himself and everything else up, blows the horn, and sends everyone to their deaths.

The War

The Mahabharata recounts the eighteen-day war in an episodic way.  In the way that the narrative of Homer’s Iliad proceeds in sporadic accounts of individual duels and specific, often traumatic, events, the Mahabharata focuses on the implications of individual encounters.

Bhishma dominates the first days of the war.  Leading Duryodhana’s army, but pledged not to engage directly with any of the five brothers, Bhishma blasts through the Pandava formations like a tornado, not only because he is well-versed in the art of warfare, but also because the cosmos has rewarded him for his unfailing virtue with the blessing that no man can kill him.  But here’s where the woman Amba returns.  The Pandavas send Shikhandi, a reincarnation of Amba, out into the battlefield to confront Bhishma.  Faced by Amba, the reminder of how he himself set the world on this path to war, Bhishma lays down his arms and submits to death.  Shikhandi fires on Bhishma, and Arjuna, from behind Shikhandi, sends so many arrows into Bhishma that the arrows protruding from Bhishma’s body form a bed on which Bhishma lays down to die.  But he manages to talk at great length about proper governance before he finally cashes in.

In another episode, Duryodhana’s army develops an impenetrable formation that moves inexorably through the Pandava lines.  While Arjuna is distracted by events in another part of the battlefield, his son Abhimanyu breaks into the formation, but cannot break out.  Duryodhana’s forces assault and kill Abhimanyu, contrary to rules against attacking solitary and wounded foes.

But Duryodhana’s forces are not alone in bending and breaking the rules of engagement.  The Pandavas send Bhima’s half-rakshasa (demon) son against Duryodhana’s army after sunset.  And, in order to kill Drona, the Pandavas cook up a brazen lie that Drona’s son has been killed on the battlefield.  (Not a lie, some say, but a partial truth: the Pandavas send word to Drona that Ashwatthaman has been killed.  Technically, the message refers to an elephant named Ashwatthaman, and not Drona’s son, who is also named Ashwatthaman.  The partial truth has the desired result: in depair, Drona lays down his arms and invites death.)

As much as anyone else, Krishna is in the middle of the the gray-area ethics to which each side resorts.  At one point, Krishna causes a magical, artificial eclipse to convince Duryodhana’s forces that night has fallen and they must stop fighting.  In the final duel between Karna and Arjuna, Karna calls for a lawful time out when his chariot wheel sticks in the mud.  Krishna tells Arjuna to strike while Karna is occupied.  Arjuna complies, and Karna dies, rather ingloriously, and from treachery he never expected from Arjuna, fierce as his hate for Arjuna may have been.

Bhima tracks down Dushasana, and fulfills his promise.  Bhima tears open Dushasana’s belly, chews up his entrails, and swallows his blood.  Draupadi appears on the battlefield to wash her hair in Dushasana’s blood.  Then, finally, after more than a decade, she ties up her hair.

In the last couple of days, both armies are depleted and exhausted.  The surviving Pandavas discover Duryodhana, hiding in a lake.  Duryodhana and Bhima duel with clubs, and Duryodhana begins to get the best of his cousin.  As Bhima falters, Krishna recommends surreptitiously that Bhima strike Duryodhana below the waist.  Bhima breaks Duryodhana’s leg, and the Pandavas leave their erstwhile foe to die.  (See a summary of Bhasa’s short play about this moment.)  Drona’s son Ashwatthaman comes to Duryodhana and promises to make a last stab of vengeance at the Pandavas.  Under voer of darkness, Ashwatthaman enters the Pandava camp and kills all of the brothers’ remaining allies.

Only a handful of people survive.  For what good it does, Yudhisthira takes the throne and rules for three decades.  Then he retires, and he, his brothers, and their wife Draupadi go into self-imposed exile.  While traveling into the Himalayas, each of the Pandavas die, leaving Yudhisthira alone.  Finally, Yudhisthira’s divine father calls him into the next world.

Mahabharata Media

The Mahabharata stories get told, re-told, and re-re-told in every medium imaginable. Among the most ubiquitous re-tellings of the epic are the comic books, which can be found in nearly every bookstore and newsstand in nearly every market, mall, and train station in India.

Amar Citra Comic

Amar Chitra Comic Cover

Anant Pai’s Amar Chitra Katha comics were once the staple of the genre, and, indeed, grown-ups still regard these adaptations of Mahabharata tales as definitive.  The increasing global popularity of comics has motivated additional comic adaptations of the epic, including Liquid Comics’ recent graphic novel 18 Days, created by Grant Morrison and Mukesh Singh.

Mahabharata Figures

Indonesian Action Figures

By the end of the first millenium, CE, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana had both taken root in cultures beyond the subcontinent.  A version of the Ramayana is Thailand’s national epic, and the Mahabharata informs traditional puppet theatre and dance-dramas in Indonesia.  The popularity of the Mahabharata has infiltrated youth culture in Indonesia enough to inspire a set of action figures based on the epics main characters.

An ambitious, ninety-four episode adaptation of the epic produced by B. R. Chopra aired on Indian television beginning in 1988.  The series was immensely popular in India, and proved popular in England, as well, when the series aired on BBC television in the early 1990’s.  The production aimed at a broad audience in India, recreating the look of Amar Chitra Katha’s rendering of Mahabharata scenes, and reiterating the conventional, melodramatic style of traditional theatre forms, such as Ram Lila.  Below is a scene from episode eighty-eight, in which Bhima kills his cousin Dushasana and then tears open his belly and eats Dushasana’s entrails in revenge for an earlier incident in which Dushasana insulted Bhima’s wife Draupadi. Bhima then goes to Draupadi, who has vowed to wash her hair in Dushasana’s blood.

Mahabharat: Episode 88

The Mahabharata has seen itself adapted into a variety traditional theatre forms, each with unique styles and aesthetics.  Compare B. R. Chopra’s television adaptation with the telling of the very same story from the Mahabharata by way of Kathakali theatre.

Kathakali: Dushasanavadham