The Mahabharata is a great epic poem of India that was written by Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa, compiler of the Vedic scriptures, about 5,000 years ago. One of the longest poems in the world, it has eighteen parvas or books and about 220,000 lines. It is not only a moralistic and philosophical story but also a historical one. Though filled with intrigue, excitement and adventure, it nonetheless stands as a glorious primer for learning how to achieve spiritual enlightenment.
Not only does the Mahabharata contain a main story—in which virtue fights against, and ultimately triumphs over, evil—but it also has many peripheral stories. These teach us, through the exemplary deliberations, decisions, and actions of the chief characters, how to acquire noble characteristics, virtue and culture, peace and wisdom, and inner, transcendental happiness.
This particular presentation consists mainly of some of the peripheral stories, although it also contains a few instructive incidents from the main plotline. These twenty tales are about famous ancient heroes and heroines—kings, queens, sages and saints—who, when confronted by disturbing and harrowing situations, acted in ways that are outstandingly exemplary and inspirational. Thus the stories have the uncanny ability to challenge and motivate us to live up to, in our daily living, the highest principles of virtue. This can impart a sublime and tranquil quality to our otherwise stressful and confused lives. And in today's world of intense speed and pressure, we should fina this quite welcome.
The poet Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa recited the Mahabharata to his student Vaishampayana, who later narrated it at a sacrificial ceremony to King Janamejaya for the king's spiritual enlightenment. The main subject of the story was the colossal war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. They were descendants, through King Bharata, of King Puru, a glorious ancestor of one branch of the lunar dynasty. The basis of the monumental conflict was rulership of the kingdom, the capital of which was Hastinapura, located fifty-seven miles north-east of today's New Delhi.
Perhaps a brief summary here of the Mahabharata will help us to better understand why the peripheral stories were introduced into the epic and what value they served.
Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa not only wrote the Mahabharata but was the source from whom the main characters of it originated. He was born from the union of Parashara, a great sage, and Satyavati, a beautiful maiden. But just after birth, he miraculously became a full-grown youth. Then, with his father, he left his mother and resided in the forest to perform spiritual austerities. However, by Parashara's mystic power, Satyavati's virginity was completely restored.
The reigning monarch of Hastinapura at that time was King Shantanu. He had been married to Goddess Ganga, who had borne him a son named Devavrata. This son later became famously known as Bhishma. But when the king violated an unusual agreement he had made with Ganga, she abandoned him and, with her son, left for the heavenly world. About sixteen years later, Ganga returned Bhishma, now fully educated, to his father and again departed. Then King Shantanu, after meeting Satyavati, and with his son's help, married her.
The king's wife gave birth to two sons—Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. The former became the next king, but was soon killed in battle. The latter succeeded him on the throne but shortly afterwards died, leaving two childless widows, Ambika and Ambalika. Fearful that the dynastic line might become extinct, Satyavati summoned her saintly son Vyasa and begged him to impregnate the widows on behalf of his deceased half-brother. Even though her request was totally inharmonious with his ascetic lifestyle, out of respect for and obedience to her, and because her petition at that time was scripturally lawful, he assented. Vyasa had been living the harsh life of a recluse in the forest, and this had made his countenance unsightly. Ambika, during sexual intercourse with him, became so horrified by his looks that she shut her eyes. Consequently, she gave birth to a blind son named Dhritarashtra. Ambalika, during sex, became similarly revolted and turned frightfully pale. Thus she delivered a very pale-complexioned sort named Pandu.
Satyavati, anxious about the children, desired that her daughters-in-law produce offspring that had no defects. She thus urged Ambika to try again to become pregnant. But Ambika, still repulsed by Vyasa's appearance, asked a gorgeous maidservant to substitute for her. Acting very respectfully towards the sage, the maidservant gave birth to a flawless boy named Vidura.
The children were raised by their uncle Bhishma, who acted as regent until they grew up. When the sons were of age, the older Dhritarashtra, because of his blindness, was considered incapable of ruling. Consequently, Pandu assumed the throne. Defeating many enemies, amassing large amounts of wealth and property, and maintaining the stability of the country, Pandu proved himself to be an exceptional king. Sometime later, on a hunting expedition, Pandu fatally shot a deer while it was involved sexually. For this offense, the deer, who was empowered, cursed Pandu to die during the next time he would be involved sexually. To avoid an untimely death, Pandu took a vow of abstinence and, with his two wives, Kunti and Madri, retired to the Himalaya Mountains. During this time, Dhritarashtra, with Bhishma's assistance, acted as the interim king.
Since Pandu could no longer produce progeny, he became worried as to who would succeed him on the throne. There appeared to be no solution until he learned that his wife Kunti possessed a mystical power. When she had been a teen at her foster-father's palace, she had served a visiting yogi, Durvasa, very devotedly. In gratitude, he blessed her by giving her a mantra which, if uttered, could invoke the physical presence of any god for the purpose of producing a child.
After Pandu urged her to use this power on his behalf, she gave birth to three sons— Yudhishthira, Bhima and Arjuna—fathered by the gods of righteousness, wind and rain respectively. And later, after she conveyed the mantra to her co-wife, Madri gave birth to twin sons, Nakula and Sahadeva, sired by the twin physician gods, the Ashwini Kumaras. These divine children came to be known as the Pandavas [Pandu's sons]. They developed into virtuous, strong, courageous, generous and chivalrous youths.
The hernic Pandu kent his vow of abstinence for many years but one balmy spring day, he lost his self control and, forcing himself on his resisting wife madri , died in her arms. A funeral pyre was then prepared. Madri, quite saintly and fully devoted to her husband, voluntarily lay on it beside pandu. After the fire was lit and the flames enveloped them, she happily joined him in the afterlife.
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