Sunday, June 8, 2014

Reading Guide for Narayan's Mahabharata, Parts A and B

Reading Part A for Week 1 is Narayan's Mahabharata, pp. 1-39 (page numbers may vary by edition). Check the Overview for the various ways you can access this book, including free access in Bizzell Library. (Go to Reading Part B.)

p.1 Shantanu and Ganga.

Shantanu is the king who rules from the city of Hastinapura. He falls in love with a woman whom he meets by the river. The woman agrees to marry him provided that he never question her actions. She then proceeds to drown their newborn babies one by one in the river. When the eighth child is born, Shantanu protests. His wife then explains that she is the river Ganga incarnated in this form to give birth to eight gods, the Vasus, who are being punished with a human incarnation for having stolen Vashishtha's cow. By drowning the babies, Ganga returns them to heaven. She takes the eighth child with her when she disappears into the river and later returns him to his father when he is grown. His name is Devavrata, although you will know him by the name Bhishma.

p. 3. Shantanu and Satyavati.

Shantanu then falls in love again with a woman who is a fisherman's daughter named Satyavati. He wants to marry her, but her father objects because Bhishma has already been designated as Shantanu's successor. Bhishma therefore renounces his claim to the throne to help his father, and he also renounces the possibility of having children of his own. Satyavati and Shantanu have two sons, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Chitrangada becomes king, but he dies soon after. After his death, Bhishma rules as regent for the young Vichitravirya. Meanwhile, the king of a neighboring kingdom holds a swayamvara for his daughters: Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika. Bhishma seizes all three for Vichitravirya, but Amba had promised herself to the king of Shalwa. Bhishma sends Amba away, but the king of Shalwa rejects her because she has been in another's man's house. Amba vows that she will take revenge on Bhishma. Meanwhile, Ambika and Ambalika both marry Vichitravirya.

p. 5. Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura.

Vichitravirya dies without having fathered any sons. Satyavati begs Bhishma to father sons with Vichitravirya's widows Ambika and Ambalika. Bhishma says he cannot break his vow of celibacy, so Satyavati proposes another solution: the widows can sleep with her son Vyasa. Before her marriage, Satyavati had ferried a rishi named Parashara across the river. He fell in love with Satyavati, even though she smelled like a fish (that was because she had been conceived when the sperm of a gandharva had fallen into the river and been swallowed by a fish). Parashara changed Satyavati's fish smell to a lovely perfume. He then slept with Satyavati, and from that union she had a child: Vyasa. Satyavati summons her son Vyasa to sleep with Vichitravirya's widows. He looks very strange because he has been practicing severe austerities and religious rituals. Ambika is repelled by Vyasa's appearance and closes her eyes, so their son, Dhritarashtra, is born blind. Ambalika turns pale with fright when she sees Vyasa and their son, Pandu, is born looking very pale. Then Ambalika has her maid sleep with Vyasa in her place. The servant likes Vyasa and reacts to him positively; their child, Vidura, is born without any flaw.

p. 9. The Pandavas and the Kauravas.

Dhritarashtra marries Gandhari, who covers her eyes to share her husband's blindness. Pandu has two wives, Kunti and Madri, but he cannot have children because of a curse. While he is out hunting, Pandu shoots at a deer as it is having sex. This deer is a celestial being in disguise. The dying deer curses Pandu so that he will also die when making love.

Kunti, however, has a mantra for obtaining sons from the gods. She got this mantra from the sage Durvasa as a reward for her kindness to him. Kunti knows that the mantra works because previously she had summoned Surya, the sun god, and conceived a child with him. That child was named Karna. Kunti had set her son Karna adrift in a basket in the river (he was rescued and raised by a charioteer and his wife).

In order to get sons, Pandu asks Kunti to summon the god Yama first and have a child by him. Yudhishthira is the son of Kunti and Yama. He is characterized by Dharma. Next, Kunti summons Vayu, the god of the wind, and she has a son called Bhimasena, or Bhima, who is enormously strong. [Be careful not to mix up the characters Bhishma and Bhima!] The third son, Arjuna, is the son of Kunti and the storm-god Indra, and he is an expert in weapons. Pandu wants more sons, so Madri uses the mantra to summon the Ashwins, the twin gods, and has twin sons by them: Sahadeva and Nakula. These five sons of Pandu — Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva — are called the Pandavas. Meanwhile, Pandu's brother Dhritarashtra has one hundred sons, the eldest of whom is called Duryodhana. The sons of Dhritarasthtra are known as the Kauravas (because they are descended from Dhritarasthtra's ancestor Kuru). Pandu eventually cannot resist his passion for Madri, and he dies while making love to her. Madri climbs into his funeral pyre, leaving Kunti behind to raise their five children.

p. 11. Drona trains the boys.

Kunti and the Pandavas go to live in Hastinapura, where Pandu's brother Dhritarashtra is now ruling as king. He brings the sons of Pandu into his household, and the Pandavas and Kauravas (who are cousins to each other) are raised together. Duryodhana, however, resents the tricks that his cousins play on him, especially Bhima. Duryodhana has Bhima drugged and thrown in the river, but Bhima survives. Drona is the boys' guru, and he trains the Pandavas and the Kauravas, together with his own son, Ashwatthaman. As a test, Drona's pupils have to shoot at an artificial bird. Only Arjuna is able to focus on the bird with enough attention to pass the test. Later, when Arjuna rescues Drona from a crocodile in the river, Drona rewards Arjuna with a secret weapon. After their training, Drona holds a public ceremony for his pupils. Arjuna gives an amazing performance. Then a stranger arrives: it is Karna, and Kunti recognizes him. Karna has come to challenge Arjuna, and Duryodhana is delighted to find an ally in Karna. Kripa, another guru, asks Karna about his parents. When Karna cannot prove that he is of royal descent, Duryhodhana makes him King of Anga. Before Karna and Arjuna are able to fight, the day comes to an end. As his teacher's fee, Drona wants his pupils to capture King Drupada. Drona and Drupada had been friends, but Drupada had betrayed Drona. Now Drona wants revenge. Drupada is captured and brought back as a prisoner to Drona. Drona keeps half of Drupada's kingdom and returns half to Drupada.

p. 21. The escape from the fire.

Dhritarashtra had designated Yudhishthira as his heir, but he is disturbed by Yudhishthira's popularity with the people. Duryodhana and his brothers are not as popular with the people as the Pandavas. Duryodhana urges his father Dhritarashtra to exile the Pandavas, and Dhritarashtra decides to send Yudhishthira to Varanavata. Purochana, an agent of Duryodhana, builds a House of Joy for the Pandavas, and Vidura warns the Pandavas about this trap: the house is made of oil, resin and straw to make it easy to catch on fire. The Pandavas set fire to the house and escape the house through a tunnel, although everyone thinks they have died.

p. 27. Life in hiding.

In the forest, Bhima kills a dangerous rakshasa. The sister of the rakshasa, Hidimbi (also called Hidimbā), falls in love with Bhima, and together they have a son named Ghatotkacha. Kunti and the Pandavas travel into the forest, away from Hastinapura. Vyasa urges the Pandavas to disguise themselves as brahmins and thus to conceal their identity as kshatriyas. They beg each day, and in the evening Kunti divides the alms that they have gathered. Bhima battles with another rakshasa named Baka, and everyone is surprised that a brahmin is able to defeat such a savage demon.

p. 31. Draupadi's swayamvara.

Meanwhile, King Drupada is holding a swayamvara for his daughter, Draupadi (Drupada also has a son, Dhrishtadyumna). The Pandavas go to the swayamvara, and so do Karna and Duryodhana. Krishna (an avatar of the god Vishnu) is also there, together with his brother Balarama. Krishna recognizes that the brahmins are actually the Pandavas in disguise. During the contest, Arjuna is able to string the bow and hit the target, so he wins Draupadi as his bride.

As usual, Kunti tells the brothers to share whatever they have acquired that day. This means the five brothers must share Draupadi as their wife. Drupada is stunned to find out his daughter will have five husbands. Vyasa explains that Draupadi had also had "five husbands" in a previous lifetime, when she was a woman named Nalayani married to a sage who slept with her in the guise of five different men. After her husband left her, she prayed to the Lord Ishvara [Shiva] to give her these five husbands back again. This prayer is answered in the lifetime of Draupadi when she marries the five Pandava brothers.

* * *

Reading Part B for Week 1 is Narayan's Mahabharata, pp. 41-83 (page numbers may vary by edition).

p. 41. The Pandavas at Indraprastha.

Duryodhana is distressed to find out the Pandavas are still alive, although his father, Dhritarashtra, cannot bring himself to hate the Pandavas as his son does. Bhishma and Vidura encourage Dhritarashtra to make peace. Karna denounces both of them as traitors and urges war. Dhritarashtra is confused by all the conflicting advice. He sends Vidura to the Pandavas with an invitation to come back to Hastinapura. Dhritarashtra gives the Pandavas a part of his kingdom. There the Pandavas build a magnificent city called Indraprastha. The sage Narada visits the Pandavas at Indraprastha and warns them to be careful of potential conflicts that might arise from sharing Draupadi as their wife. Because Arjuna intruded on Yudhishthira and Draupadi during the year that Draupadi was Yudhishthira's wife, he goes into exile for twelve years. During this time, he marries Ulupi, a naga princess, and he also marries Subhadra, the sister of Krishna.

p. 47. The coronation of Yudhishthira.

Yudhishthira is crowned as a king at Indraprastha. Krishna attends as a guest, and so does Duryodhana, together with his maternal uncle, Shakuni. Duryodhana is deeply jealous of Indraprastha. Shakuni urges Duryodhana to leave the Pandavas alone since they possess great power and weapons, such as the Gandiva bow which was the gift of the fire god Agni to Arjuna as a reward for help him to burn the Khandava forest. Maya was saved from the fire, and he built the assembly hall of the Pandavas at Indraprastha. This hall has many optical illusions, and the Pandavas laugh at Duryodhana when he is fooled by the illusions. Draupadi also laughs at Duryodhana, which enrages him.

p. 50. Shakuni and Duryodhana.

Shakuni suggests to Duryodhana that they can get their revenge on the Pandavas in a game of dice. Shakuni is an expert player, and Yudhishthira has no talent for the game. Vyasa comes to visit the Pandavas and warns them of the bad omens that he sees. Dhritarashtra, meanwhile, agrees to build a great assembly hall, the Crystal Palace, to rival the hall of the Pandavas. Vidura comes to invite the Pandavas to the Crystal Palace for a game of dice. As a kshatriya, Yudhishthira cannot refuse this challenge, so he and the Pandavas go to Hastinapura.

p. 55. The first game of dice.

Shakuni is going to play in the dice game in Duryodhana's place. In a frenzy, Yudhishthira loses everything he owns. Vidura urges Dhritarashtra to put a stop to the dice game, but the game continues. Yudhishthira then gambles away his brothers, and then himself. Then he gambles away Draupadi. Duryodhana sends his brother Duhshasana to fetch Draupadi. Draupadi wants to know how it is possible for Yudhishthira to gamble her away if he had already staked himself and lost. Moreover, she has her menstrual period and does not want to appear in public. Duhshasana drags her by her hair into the assembly hall, and Draupadi protests loudly. Karna orders the Pandavas to strip off their princely robes, and Duryodhana then orders Draupadi to undress. In desperation, Draupadi shuts her eyes and calls on Krishna for help. As Draupadi's sari is pulled off, another sari replaces it.

Bhima swears he will get revenge on Duryodhana. Meanwhile, Duryodhana continues to taunt Draupadi. Dhritarashtra gives Draupadi a wish, and she asks that Yudhishthira be set free. Dhritarashtra gives her another wish, and she frees her other four husbands. When he gives her a third wish, Draupadi declines. Dhritarashtra then gives back all the Pandavas' possessions and sends them back to Indraprastha in peace.

p. 66. The second game.

Duryodhana, Shakuni and Karna confer after the Pandavas' departure. Duryodhana is furious and urges his father to invite them back for a second match. Duryodhana's mother, Gandhari, urges Dhritarashtra to reject Duryodhana's proposal. But the invitation is made, and Yudhishthira again accepts. The stake is thirteen years of exile: twelve years in poverty, followed by one year in disguise. Yudhishthira loses, and the Pandavas go into exile. Vidura offers to take care of Kunti while her sons are away. The Pandavas go to the Ganga river. Yudhishthira urges the people following them to go home, but some insist on staying. Yudhishthira prays to Surya, the Sun God, who gives Yudhishthira a copper bowl with an endless supply of food. This allows Yudhishthira to feed the people who are with him. The Pandavas go to live with hermits in the wilderness. Shakuni, Duryodhana and Karna urge an attack on the Pandavas, but Vyasa urges peace instead.

p. 76. Weapons for the future.

Meanwhile, Krishna comes to see Yudhishthira and promises that Duryodhana and his allies will be punished. Draupadi criticizes Yudhishthira for being so willing to forgive their enemies, while Yudhishthira urges Draupadi to be patient. As they speculate about the future, Vyasa assures Yudhishthira that all his enemies will be slain in battle, and he teaches Yudhishthira a great mantra that makes it possible to get weapons from the gods. Yudhishthira teaches this mantra to Arjuna, who uses it to get weapons from Indra, Varuna, and other gods. When Arjuna goes to the Vindhya mountains to meditate, he gets the weapon Pashupata from the god Shiva. Arjuna also visits Amaravati, the heavenly city of Indra. A gandharva teaches Arjuna music and dance, and an apsara named Urvashi falls in love with Arjuna, but he rejects her advances. Urvashi curses Arjuna to live among women as a eunuch. Indra, however, is impressed with Arjuna's self-control and tells him that this curse will turn out to be a blessing later on. Arjuna rejoins the Pandavas after five years, and they are delighted to learn of the weapons that he has acquired.

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