The Mahabharata is the longest epic in the world. But how many of us have managed to read the original? We may have read Rajaji’s abridged version or R.K. Narayan’s The Indian Epics Retold but they only tell us a major part of the main story, keeping to the main plotline and not talking about the various digressions. Of course the original in Sanskrit verse is inaccessible to many of us because we don’t know the language. And contrary to popular belief there are only a handful of translations of the entire text into English. One of them is by Kisari Mohan Ganguli and was undertaken in the nineteenth century. A more recent one is by Bibek Debroy that runs into ten volumes and is published by Penguin India.
The Mahabharata is a fascinating story. No matter how many times you’ve heard the story when someone narrates parts of it we still want to listen. When someone retells it focussing on a particular character in a way different from the original, we are curious to hear their take on it. This is the reason for the popularity of all the novels in English based on some part of the epic. The Mahabharata continues to draw audiences and that explains the popularity of art forms like the Harikatha and the Kathakalakshepam even in this digital age.
If time is a test of greatness then truly the Mahabharata is a great literary work since it has survived these two thousand years and is still read or heard or watched. It has every shade of human emotion. Love, hatred, revenge, loyalty, pride, righteousness, grief – you name it, the Bharata has it. In fact the text itself claims that what is not there in it cannot be found elsewhere.
So what is the Mahabharata essentially about? Many of us think of it as the war between two sets of cousins the Kauravas and the Pandavas. We believe that the former represent evil and the latter represent good. But the actual Mahabharata is more than the story of warring cousins. Its characters are nuanced and rounded. The Kauravas are not wholly evil. Nor are the Pandavas without flaws. Duryodhana often characterised as the epitome of evil is not so two dimensional as he is made out to be in popular retellings and has many sterling qualities. Why else would Balarama, Krishna’s own elder brother prefer that his sister Subhadra marry him instead of Arjuna? Why would the same Balarama leave for a long pilgrimage because he didn’t want to take sides during the great Kurukshetra war? It is to celebrate these nuances and to reclaim the Bharata from its ‘cardboardisation’, if one may coin a word that I propose to begin this series on the Mahabharata. I do not claim any expertise for I have none. My attempt is only the self-indulgence of someone who loves telling stories. So why not the greatest of all stories?
So where does the Mahabharata begin? It actually begins long after the main events in the story have happened and is narrated in flashback. The text says that it was first narrated by Vaishampayana, one of the foremost disciples of Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa the creator of the epic at the end of the snake sacrifice conducted by King Janamejaya. It was later narrated by Ugrashrava Sauti, a charioteer bard, to the many rishis assembled during the twelve-year sacrifice in the forest of Naimisha.
A word about the author of this great epic. It is believed that the epic consisting of close to one hundred thousand verses was composed by Veda Vyasa. Vyasa was a title given in those times to a person who reordered or classified the Vedas. The Vedas are believed to be Shrutis. That is, they were revealed. No one is credited with their authorship. They also consist of abstract philosophy and for the benefit of the people it was necessary to reorder and codify them so that they may be better understood. Vyasa did just that and is revered for his scholarship. His name though was not Vyasa which is a title. His name was Krishna Dvaipayana, Krishna because he was dark, and Dvaipayana because he was born on an island. Krishna Dvaipayana himself is one among the many important characters of the epic that he wrote. He often flits in and out of his own story, helping out here; setting things right there.
Let’s start at the snake sacrifice.
Why did King Janamejaya want to conduct a snake sacrifice? It was on the advice of Rishi Uttanka his rajapurohita, or the person who advised him on religious matters. Uttanka reminded the king that his father Parikshit was killed because the king of snakes, Takshaka bit him and so in order to perform the duties of a good son it was imperative on him – King Janamejaya to destroy the entire species by conducting a snake sacrifice.
Why was Uttanka so keen on destroying Takshaka and all the snakes? There is a story behind Uttanka’s desire for revenge.
If all the snakes were indeed destroyed during the snake sacrifice, how come there are still snakes in the world? Who saved them? They were saved by a rishi named Astika. And there is a story behind why Sage Astika saved the snakes.
Why were the snakes destined for such suffering? Did hundreds of them deserve to be thrown into the sacrificial fire and burnt alive? What was the reason behind their miserable end? There is a story that explains this.
Why was Agni, the god of fire, made to burn the snakes when they were thrown into the sacrificial fire? Wasn’t Agni supposed to consume only the good things that were offered to him and not harm anybody? Agni was the victim of a peculiar curse and that is why he had to burn the snakes in his flames.
We shall see what happens in each of these stories and how they all lead to the snake sacrifice.
Let’s begin with Uttanka’s story.
Uttanka was the disciple of Sage Veda. He was a good student and followed the instructions of his guru and had great respect for him. So there soon came a time when he had completed all his studies and his guru Sage Veda said to him.
“Uttanka my dear, you have completed your studies and can now leave the ashram and go forth into the world and start your life. I am very pleased with your hard work and your exemplary behaviour and you have my blessings always. May good things happen to you.”
On hearing this Uttanka said, “Gurudeva, please tell me what I should give you by way of gurudakshina.”
In ancient India the system of education was such that there was no formal fee structure, no separate classes and no examinations. The guru accepted what payment a disciple was able and willing to make. So from the rich he accepted more and from the poor he accepted whatever could be afforded. It was quite routine for children from royal households to study along with those from the commoners. It was the guru who decided what was to be paid to him as gurudakshina. It was believed that if one went away without making any payment one’s learning would not be of any use. It was common practice for gurus to demand that their student perform some service by way of payment. So when Uttanka expressed willingness to pay whatever gurudakshina Sage Veda demanded, he thought for some time and then said these words.
“You don’t have to do anything for me personally. So I think it would be a good idea to ask my wife, your preceptress if she would like you to perform some service for her.”
“As you wish, Master,” said Uttanka and went to the guru’s wife and put the same question to her.
The preceptress thought for some time and then said, “Four days from now an assembly of Brahmins is to take place in this hermitage. I would like to wear the earrings of Queen Madayanti wife of King Pushya on that occasion. Uttanka your task is to bring me these extremely valuable and divine earrings. Be sure not to be late.”
Uttanka ever ready to be of service both to his guru and the guru’s wife set off immediately on the journey.
He hadn’t gone very far when he encountered a strange sight. An unusually large man was riding an unusually large bull and they were coming towards him. On setting eyes on them Uttanka knew at once that they were not beings of this world. So when they neared him, he paid obeisance to the man.
“Uttanka,” said the man riding the bull. “Eat the bull’s dung and drink its urine.”
This was indeed a strange request and Uttanka hesitated. When the rider of the bull saw Uttanka hesitate he said again.
“Eat of this bull’s dung and drink of its urine because your master Sage Veda has done so.”
On hearing this Uttanka did as told and the man and the bull went past him along the road and Uttanka went down to a river to wash his hands and face and when he returned though he looked left and right along the road he could find no trace of them. That confirmed his suspicion that they were not earthly beings. But though intrigued, he did not stop and think too much about it since time was short and he had to get the earrings for his guru’s wife before the end of the stipulated time period.
Belong long he reached the palace of King Pushya and made his request.
“O king, I beg of you to give me the divine earrings of your wife Queen Madayanti so that I may present them to my guru’s wife as my gurudakshina.”
“O Learned One,” replied King Pushya, “I give you permission to visit the women’s quarters of the palace. You may make ask the queen herself.”
Uttanka went into the women’s quarters of the palace and searched everywhere but he could not find the queen. He came and reported this to King Pushya.
“Have you performed your morning prayers and ablutions as set down by the scriptures? For, my queen is visible only to those who follow the strictures without any compromise.”
On hearing this, Uttanka realised that he had not performed his morning ablutions completely as he had been in a hurry to reach the palace. So he went down to the river and performed his ablutions as per the scriptures. Then he went in the search of the queen and this time he found her and made his request.
The queen had not yet performed her charity for the day and thought that this would be a golden opportunity for doing so. She readily gave Uttanka her divine earrings but with a warning.
“Learned Sir, please be careful with these earrings since the king of serpents, Takshaka also desires them. Do not place them on the ground anywhere on your journey for they are in danger of being stolen.”
Uttanka assured the queen that he would be careful and went his way.
After walking along the road to his guru Sage Veda’s hermitage for long hours Uttanka felt hungry and thirsty. But he continued walking. Soon it was time for sunset and Uttanka stopped by a river to perform his ablutions and say his evening prayers. He left his upper cloth into which he had tied the earrings along with his other clothes and went into the river. He noticed that a ragged looking beggar was hovering nearby and turning suspicious, Uttanka hesitated. Keeping his eye on his clothes Uttanka took a hasty dip in the water and when he emerged he noticed that the beggar was running away with his upper cloth. He followed him and to his surprise and anger found that the beggar had now turned into his original form. It was none other than Takshaka the king of snakes. Uttanka could not catch him as the snake disappeared into a hole below an anthill. Not willing to give up Uttanka started digging around the hole to pursue Takshaka into the realm of the snakes. But the realm was far beneath the earth and Uttanka’s digging would not get him anywhere. Indra, the king of gods, saw Uttanka’s plight and decided to help him since he was friends with Sage Veda, Uttanka’s guru. So he sent a thunderbolt and it opened up a pathway to the realm of the snakes. Uttanka went through and he was mesmerised by the beautiful world that the snakes inhabited.
He found that he was in a large city with elegant buildings and beautiful palaces with well laid out gardens. Everywhere he looked he saw signs of peace and prosperity. Uttanka was mightily impressed by the city of the snakes and being very good with words, he sang their praises in verse. He praised their artistry, their knowledge, the good governance and their prosperity. But in spite of all that praise King Takshaka was not ready to part with the divine earrings. Uttanka was worried and did not know what to do. He also felt that he had spent a lot of time in the nether world of the snakes. Thus when the worried Uttanka started looking around for help he saw a strange sight.
Two women were working at a loom and the thread that was in the loom was black and white. Near it stood six boys who were turning a gigantic wheel with twelve spokes and beside them was a radiant man with a handsome horse. Sensing that the man was divine Uttanks sang verses in adoration of the man and asked him for help.
Finally, the man with the horse said, “I am pleased with your adoration Uttanka. Now, if you want those earrings back, blow into this horse.”
Uttanka blew into the horse and from every orifice of the horse flames sprang forth and enveloped the world of the snakes with smoke. This terrified the serpent king Takshaka and he came to Uttanka and gave him back the earrings.
Uttanka said to the man with the horse, “Sir, though I have got back the earrings, it is nearly time for the feast at my guru’s hermitage and it is far away. How will I reach there on time?”
“Climb on to this horse and he shall take you to your master’s abode quickly for he gallops as fast as human thought,” said the radiant looking man.
Uttanka climbed on to the horse and immediately reached the hermitage of his guru. His guru’s wife had completed her bath and was dressing her hair for the function when Uttanka presented himself and gave her the earrings she had asked for.
“I’m very pleased with you, child since you have completed the task within the stipulated time. May success be yours always,” she said and blessed him.
Uttanka went to his guru and narrated his strange experiences to him.
“Ah!” said his guru. “It was fortunate that you met the man on the bull on your way for it was none other than the king of gods, Indra who is my good friend. He was merciful to you and that is why he insisted that you eat dung and drink the urine of the bull which was none other than Airaavata, the king of elephants and the dung you ate must have been Amrita, the divine nectar for you have survived your visit to the realm of the serpents. Very few come back alive from a visit to the nether world. I notice that Indra was kind and helped you there too by providing you with fire to scare the serpents.”
Blessing Uttanka, Sage Veda gave him permission to leave the hermitage as he had now given his guru the desired gurudakshina.
Uttanka left the hermitage and headed straight for the city of Hastinapura ruled by the just and noble King Janamejaya. His heart was set upon extracting revenge for the trouble the king of serpents, Takshaka had caused him.
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