Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata Read online



  An Illustrated Retelling of the





  Author’s Note: What Ganesha Wrote

  Structure of Vyasa’s Epic

  Prologue: The Start of the Snake Sacrifice

  1. Ancestors

  2. Parents

  3. Birth

  4. Education

  5. Castaway

  6. Marriage

  7. Friendship

  8. Division

  9. Coronation

  10. Gambling

  11. Exile

  12. Hiding

  13. Gathering

  14. Perspective

  15. War

  16. Aftermath

  17. Reconstruction

  18. Renunciation

  Epilogue: The End of the Snake Sacrifice

  The Idea Called Dharma



  Copyright Page

  I dedicate this book to all the scholars, authors, archivists,

  playwrights, film-makers and storytellers, both ancient and modern,

  who have worked towards keeping this grand and ancient epic

  alive through their songs, dances, stories, plays, novels,

  performances, films and teleserials for over 3000 years

  Author’s Note

  What Ganesha Wrote

  They were perhaps whispers of God, or maybe insights of the wise. They gave the world meaning and life a purpose. These chants relieved vedana, the yearning of the restless human soul, hence became collectively known as the Veda. Those who heard them first came to be known as the Rishis.

  Based on what the Veda revealed, the Rishis created a society where everything had a place and where everything changed with rhythmic regularity. The Brahmans were the teachers of this society, the Kshatriyas its guardians, the Vaishyas its providers and the Shudras its servants.

  Thanks to the Veda, everyone in this society knew that the life they led was just one of many. In other lives, past or present, the Shudra of this life would be a Vaishya, and the Kshatriya would be a Brahman, or perhaps a rock or plant or beast, maybe even a god or a demon. Thus everything was interconnected and everything was cyclical. The point of existence in this dynamic, ever-changing world then was not to aspire or achieve, but to introspect.

  Then there was a drought, a terrible fourteen-year drought, when the river Saraswati dried up, the society collapsed, and the Veda was all but forgotten. When the rains finally returned, a fisherwoman’s son, born out of wedlock, took it upon himself to compile the scattered hymns. His name was Krishna Dwaipayana which means the dark child who was born on a river island. His father was Parasara, grandson of the great Vasishtha, one of the seven Rishis who heard the Veda first. In time, Krishna Dwaipayana became known as Veda Vyasa, compiler of the books of wisdom.

  Vyasa classified the hymns and created four collections—Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. On completing this monumental task, Vyasa had this inexplicable urge to write a story, one that would convey the most abstract of Vedic truths to the simplest of men in the farthest corners of the world in the most concrete of forms. The gods liked the idea and sent the elephant-headed Ganesha to serve as his scribe.

  Ganesha said, ‘You must narrate without a pause.’ This would ensure that what Vyasa dictated was not adulterated by human prejudice.

  ‘I will,’ said Vyasa, ‘provided you write nothing unless it makes sense to you.’ This ensured that all that was written appealed to the divine.

  The characters of Vyasa’s tale were people he knew. The villains, the Kauravas, were in fact his own grandchildren.

  Vyasa called his tale Jaya, meaning ‘the tale of a victory’. It had sixty portions. Of these, only one part reached humans through Vyasa’s student, Vaisampayana. Thus no one really knows everything that Vyasa narrated and Ganesha wrote down.

  Vaisampayana narrated Vyasa’s tale at the yagna of Janamejaya, the great grandson of the Pandava Arjuna. This was overheard by a Sauti or bard called Romaharshana, who passed it on to his son Ugrashrava, who narrated it to Shonak and the other sages of the Naimisha forest.

  Vyasa also narrated the story to his son, the parrot-headed Suka, who narrated it to Parikshit, Janamejaya’s father, comforting him with its wisdom as he lay dying.

  Jaimini, another of Vyasa’s students, also heard his teacher’s tale. But he was confused. Since Vyasa was not around to clarify his doubts, Jaimini decided to approach Markandeya, a Rishi blessed with long life, who had witnessed the events that had inspired Vyasa’s tale. Unfortunately, by the time Jaimini found Markandeya, the sage had renounced speech as part of his decision to renounce the world. Markandeya’s pupils then directed Jaimini to four birds who had witnessed the war at Kuru-kshetra. The mother of these birds was flying over the battlefield when she was struck by an arrow that ripped open her womb. Four eggs fell out and fell to the ground. The ground was bloodsoaked, hence soft. The eggs did not break. The bell of a war-elephant fell on top of them and protected them through the battle. When they were discovered after the war, the Rishis realized the birds had heard much during the war and knew more than most humans. Their perspective and insights would be unique. So they were given the gift of human speech. Thus blessed, these birds were able to talk and clarify Jaimini’s doubts. They also told Jaimini many stories that no one else knew.

  As Vyasa’s tale moved from one storyteller to another, new tales were added, tales of ancestors and descendants, of teachers and students, of friends and foes. The story grew from a tiny sapling into a vast tree with many branches. At first it was about an idea. Then the idea changed and it came to be known as Vijaya. Before long it became not about any idea but about people. It was retitled Bharata, the story of the Bharata clan and the land they ruled.

  The expansion continued. Detailed conversations on genealogy, history, geography, astrology, politics, economics, philosophy and metaphysics were included. The Bharata came to have eighteen chapters and over a hundred thousand verses. Even the story of Krishna’s early years, the Harivamsa, was added as an appendix. That is how the Bharata came to be the Mahabharata, the ‘great’ epic of the Indian people.

  Over the centuries, the Mahabharata has been retold a hundred thousand times, in temple courtyards and village fairs, in various languages, in different forms, by dancers, singers, painters, wandering minstrels and learned scholars. As the epic spread from Nepal in the north to Indonesia in the south, old plots were changed and new characters emerged. There was Arjuna’s son, Iravan, also known as Iravat or Aravan, who was worshipped by the transgender Alis or Aravanis of Tamil Nadu and Bhima’s son, Barbareek, who was worshipped in Rajasthan as Khatu Shyamji. In the Mahabharata of Bengal, there surfaced a tale of Draupadi leading an army of women and routing the Kauravas after the death of Abhimanyu. Theyyam performers of Kerala sang of how the Kauravas compelled a sorcerer to perform occult rites against the Pandavas, and how this was reversed by the sorcerer’s wife.

  In the 20th century, the epic cast its spell on the modern mind. Long essays were written to make rational sense of its moral ambiguity, while its plots were used by novelists, playwrights and film-makers as potent vehicles to comment on numerous political and social issues—from feminism to caste to war. Its wisdom has often been overshadowed by its entertainment value, its complexities oversimplified by well-meaning narrators, leading to ruptures in the traditional discourse.

  With so many retellings and so widespread a popularity, some argue that the Mahabharata actua