Thus, in a swift movement, by unveiling the core-message of the Mahabharata,Sri Aurobindo proved that it was a total mistake to think of the Indians as given solely to contemplation, a myth which is often used to explain away the poverty and non-development which keeps India down. The nation has always believed in dharmic righteousness, which is the subject of the Mahabharata. Which is why the Indians have never tired of retelling the epic tale in various ways. Sublime epic poetry or lilting folk songs, each work has made the characters of Vyasa alive and very, very close to the Indian psyche.
The Central Story
While it is a near-impossibility to indicate even the central thread of the Pandava-Kaurava conflict in a brief resume, we can take a cue from Chakravarti Rajagopalachari’s marvellous condensation of the epic which places the starting point of the epic in the incident of Bhishma taking up his sublime vow.
King Shantanu of the Kuru dynasty was one day walking along the banks of the Ganges river when he came across an extraordinarily beautiful lady. For him it was love at first sight. He proposed marriage to her even without knowing her antecedents. She agreed, but on one condition: Shantanu must not question any of her deeds, even if they appear distasteful. He agreed and there followed a time of bliss. Soon he noticed that his wife was in the habit of drowning their children as soon as they were born. Horrified, yet love-struck, the king kept silent. He could not bear it any more when she proceeded to the Ganges to drown their eighth child, also a handsome male baby. When he remonstrated, she told him that she was the Goddess Ganga. The eight heavenly Vasus had been cursed to be born as mortals. On their request she minimized the tribulations they would have to undergo on earth by killing them as soon as they were born. However, she would not kill the eighth child but return with him to King Shantanu after a while. Ganga kept her word, brought back the son Devavrata as a young man, a full-fledged hero. Handing him over to the father, she withdrew.
King Shantanu later on married Satyavati of the fishermen’s community. The marriage could not take place till Santanu assured her father that her son alone would become the king and not Devavrata. Devavrata took a vow of life-long celibacy and helped the conduct of the marriage. Devavrata’s terrible vow made the gods react with cries of “Bhishma” which means one who has achieved a wondrous act. In the epic of Vyasa, it is Bhishma who is with us from these beginnings till the end of the Kaurava-Pandava conflict on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura were the sons of Shantanu’s son Vichitravirya. Apparently their births seemed auspicious for the land of Kurujangala, Kurukshetra and the Kuru race. The shlokas placed here by Vyasa bring us a rare peace: God is in his heaven and all is right with the world!
guided by Dharma.”6 Dhritarashtra was wedded to Gandhari and Pandu married Kunti and Madri. Since Dhritarashtra was born blind, Pandu became the king. Guided by Bhishma, Pandu expanded the empire. At the height of his power and fame, he became the victim of a curse. He renounced the empire and retired to the forest. Kunti gave birth to Yudhistira, Bhima and Arjuna. Madri had Nakula and Sahadeva. When Pandu died, Madri committed suttee with him. Kunti returned to Hastinapura with her young sons and they grew up together with the one hundred sons of Dhritarashtra who was now the king. Dhritarashtra’s eldest son was Duryodhana. From their student-days onwards, Duryodhana and his brothers could not get on with their cousins, the Pandavas. As the years went by, things became worse since Duryodhana tried to kill the five brothers.
Unfortunately, Dhritarashtra favoured his son’s ways, though outwardly he acted as if his sympathies lay with the Pandavas. Meanwhile Arjuna won the Drupada princess Draupadi in a contest and she became the wife of all the Pandavas. Bhishma was happy and proud of the Pandavas and successfully persuaded Dhritarashtra to share power with them. Though in the division of the kingdom the Pandavas did not get a fair share, they did not mind. Instead, they set out to improve what had been given to them. The inaccessible Khandava forest was burnt down and there arose in its stead the handsome capital of Indraprastha. The Pandavas conducted a magnificent Rajasuya Sacrifice which only increased the frustration of Duryodhana. He was particularly jealous of Arjuna and Bhima and thought his own shame was written in the gaze of the manly Arjuna and the giant Bhima! In his Panchali Sapatham,Subramania Bharati points out how Duryodhana’s heart was corroded: