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he innermost narrative kernel of the Mahabharata tells the story of two sets of paternal first cousins — the five sons of the deceased king Pandu (the five Pandavas) and the one hundred sons of blind King Dhritarashtra (the 100 hundred Dhartarashtras) — who became bitter rivals, and opposed each other in war for possession of the ancestral Bharata kingdom with its capital in the “City of the Elephant,” Hastinapura, on the Ganga river in north central India. What is dramatically interesting within this simple opposition is the large number of individual agendas the many characters pursue, and the numerous personal conflicts, ethical puzzles, subplots, and plot twists that give the story a strikingly powerful development.
The five sons of Pandu were actually fathered by five Gods (sex was mortally dangerous for Pandu, because of a curse) and these heroes were assisted throughout the story by various Gods, seers, and brahmins, including the seer Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa (who later became the author of the epic poem telling the whole of this story), who was also their actual grandfather (he had engendered Pandu and the blind Dhrtarastra upon their nominal father’s widows in order to preserve the lineage). The one hundred Dhrtarashtras, on the other hand, had a grotesque, demonic birth, and are said more than once in the text to be human incarnations of the demons who are the perpetual enemies of the Gods.
The most dramatic figure of the entire Mahabharata, however, is Krishna Vasudeva, who was the supreme God Vishnu himself, descended to earth in human form to rescue Law, Good Deeds, Right, and Virtue (all of these words refer to different aspects of “dharma”). Krishna Vasudeva was the cousin of both parties, but he was a friend and advisor to the Pandavas, became the brother-in-law of Arjuna Pandava, and served as Arjuna’s mentor and charioteer in the great war. Krishna Vasudeva is portrayed several times as eager to see the purgative war occur, and in many ways the Pandavas were his human instruments for fulfilling that end.
The Dhartarashtra party behaved viciously and brutally toward the Pandavas in many ways, from the time of their early youth onward. Their malice displayed itself most dramatically when they took advantage of the eldest Pandava, Yudhishthira (who had by now become the universal ruler of the land) in a game of dice: The Dhartarashtras ‘won’ all his brothers, himself, and even the Pandavas’ common wife Draupadi (who was an incarnation of the richness and productivity of the Goddess “Earthly-and-Royal Splendor,” Shri); they humiliated all the Pandavas and physically abused Draupadi; they drove the Pandava party into the wilderness for twelve years, and the twelve years had to be followed by the Pandavas’ living somewhere in society, in disguise, without being discovered for one more year.
The Pandavas fulfilled their part of that bargain, but the villainous leader of the Dhartarashtra party, Duryodhana, was unwilling to restore the Pandavas to their half of the kingdom when the thirteen years had expired. Both sides then called upon their many allies and two large armies arrayed themselves on ‘Kuru’s Field’ (Kuru was one of the eponymous ancestors of the clan), eleven divisions in the army of Duryodhana against seven divisions for Yudhishthira. Much of the action in the Mahabharata is accompanied by discussion and debate among various interested parties, and the most famous sermon of all time, Krishna Vasudeva’s ethical lecture and demonstration of his divinity to his charge Arjuna (the justly famous Bhagavad Gita) occurred in the Mahabharata just prior to the commencement of the hostilities of the war. Several of the important ethical and theological themes of the Mahabharata are tied together in this sermon, and this “Song of the Blessed One” has exerted much the same sort of powerful and far-reaching influence in Indian Civilization that the New Testament has in Christendom.
The Pandavas won the eighteen day battle, but it was a victory that deeply troubled all except those who were able to understand things on the divine level (chiefly Krishna, Vyasa, and Bhishma, the Bharata patriarch who was emblematic of the virtues of the era now passing away). The Pandavas’ five sons by Draupadi, as well as Bhimasena Pandava’s and Arjuna Pandava’s two sons by two other mothers (respectively, the young warriors Ghatotkaca and Abhimanyu, were all tragic victims in the war. Worse perhaps, the Pandava victory was won by the Pandavas slaying, in succession, four men who were quasi-fathers to them: Bhishma, their teacher Drona, Karna (who was, though none of the Pandavas knew it, the first born, pre-marital, son of their mother), and their maternal uncle Shalya (all four of these men were, in succession, ‘supreme commander’ of Duryodhana’s army during the war). Equally troubling was the fact that the killing of the first three of these ‘fathers,’ and of some other enemy warriors as well, was accomplished only through ‘crooked stratagems’ (jihmopayas), most of which were suggested by Krishna Vasudeva as absolutely required by the circumstances.
The ethical gaps were not resolved to anyone’s satisfaction on the surface of the narrative and the aftermath of the war was dominated by a sense of horror and malaise. Yudhishthira alone was terribly troubled, but his sense of the war’s wrongfulness persisted to the end of the text, in spite of the fact that everyone else, from his wife to Krishna Vasudeva, told him the war was right and good; in spite of the fact that the dying patriarch Bhishma lectured him at length on all aspects of the Good Law (the Duties and Responsibilities of Kings, which have rightful violence at their center; the ambiguities of Righteousness in abnormal circumstances; and the absolute perspective of a beatitude that ultimately transcends the oppositions of good versus bad, right versus wrong, pleasant versus unpleasant, etc.); in spite of the fact that he performed a grand Horse Sacrifice as expiation for the putative wrong of the war. These debates and instructions and the account of this Horse Sacrifice are told at some length after the massive and grotesque narrative of the battle; they form a deliberate tale of pacification (prashamana, shanti) that aims to neutralize the inevitable miasma of the war.
In the years that follow the war Dhritarashtra and his queen Gandhari, and Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, lived a life of asceticism in a forest retreat and died with yogic calm in a forest fire. Krishna Vasudeva and his always unruly clan slaughtered each other in a drunken brawl thirty-six years after the war, and Krishna’s soul dissolved back into the Supreme God Vishnu (Krishna had been born when a part of Vishnu took birth in the womb of Krishna’s mother). When they learned of this, the Pandavas believed it time for them to leave this world too and they embarked upon the ‘Great Journey,’ which involved walking north toward the polar mountain, that is toward the heavenly worlds, until one’s body dropped dead. One by one Draupadi and the younger Pandavas died along the way until Yudhishthira was left alone with a dog that had followed him all the way. Yudhishthira made it to the gate of heaven and there refused the order to drive the dog back, at which point the dog was revealed to be an incarnate form of the God Dharma (the God who was Yudhishthira’s actual, physical father), who was there to test Yudhishthira’s virtue. Once in heaven Yudhishthira faced one final test of his virtue: He saw only the Dhartarashtras in heaven, and he was told that his brothers were in hell. He insisted on joining his brothers in hell, if that be the case! It was then revealed that they were really in heaven, that this illusion had been one final test for him. So ends the Mahabharata!