Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mahabharata (1): an Indian Epic-Mythology

If you are familiar with Greek mythology, Iliad and Odyssey from Homer, Mahabharata is an Indian mythology which is ten times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined into one book. This ancient epic tales was predicted to be written around the year of 500 BC by a monk called Vyasa. It’s a kind of family saga, the Pandavas and Kauravas. I read the graphic novel version, re-told by one of the greatest illustrator in Indonesia: R.A. Kosasih (recently passed away). The most interesting thing of this graphic novel is that Kosasih put the Indian mythology into Indonesian folklore nuances, from the clothes and the names they called each other, that when I first read it as a child, I have always thought that Mahabharata was an Indonesian tale! Apart from the cultural aspects, Mahabharata was a beautiful epic about love, brotherhood, sacrifice, greediness and revenge.

Like Greek mythology, there were alliances between gods and human. The gods always monitor and control every thing happened on earth from their place “up there”. When men were in danger or sorrow, they could meditate and called the gods to help them with their maneuver. When men hated each other, they could spell a curse towards another, and when the gods approved, the curse would be affected right at that moment.

This graphic novel were divided into two volumes, the first one depicted the ancestors of Pandavas and Kauravas. Mahabharata was the early setting of one of the greatest wars in epics between the two families: Pandava and Kaurava; here we learned about their ancestors and the seeds of hatred that would turn into war. The war itself was told in Bharatayudha. 

It all began with a kingdom named Hastinapura, which was ruled by King Shantanu. One day, the lonely king went hunting in a forest and met a very beautiful girl whom he fell in love with. The girl was actually the Ganga goddess. They were married and had a son named Devavrata before the Ganga goddess finally returned to heaven. Devavrata grown up as a courageous, wise, strong, handsome, and smart young man (he was half god and half man anyway). He loved his father very much, but noticed that his father was not happy recently and finally got very ill. He asked him why, and King Shantanu told his son that one day he had met a beautiful girl named Satyavati—a daughter of a fisherman—whom he has fallen in love with. He could not marry her because Satyavati had had an oath that she would only marry a King, and that their son must heir the throne and become the future king. As Shantanu has made Devavrata his successor, he knew he could never marry the woman he loved.

Satyavaty was actually a princess from a kingdom, but has been put into an exile because of a strange and humiliating illness. She married a monk and had a son who was called Vyasa. That was how she had that oath. Devavrata, being a devoted son, promised that he would release his right of the throne so that his father could marry the woman he loved. But what about his future children, what if they demand their rights?, asked the dying father. And then Devavrata made an oath that he would take a lifelong celibacy so that the throne would always be safe. The gods heard and admired the great sacrifice Devavrata has made for his father’s sake, and gave him a new name: Bhishma. King Shantanu then married Satyavati and had two sons: Chitrangada and Vichitravirya.

Chitrangada—the future king—died suddenly in a very young age, left Vicitravirya who was not as good as his died brother in swordsmanship. At that time there was a competition held by a King to find a husband for his three princesses. Satyavati wanted a wife for King Vicitravirya, but knowing that he was not a good swordsman, Bhishma volunteered to fight in the name of the King. Shortly, Bhishma won the three princesses: Amba (the eldest), Ambika and Ambalika. Amba felt she was too old for Hastinapura’s King, and has fallen in love with Bhishma instead. She asked Bhishma to marry her, but Bhishma—who has sworn not to marry—refused her. Amba kept approaching Bhishma, and the later, in order perhaps to fight his own passion accidentally shot Amba with his arrow. In her last breath, Amba begged the gods that her soul would transformed in the body of a woman who would take Bhishma’s life in the future. And the gods approved it.

A sudden death came to King Vicitravirya, leaving the throne of Hastinapura without a successor. In desperation, Satyavati called for his son, Vyasa who agreed “to father children” with Ambika and Ambalika (this was a common practice in India when a man cannot have child). Vyasa was pictured as a man with terrifying looks, so when he came to Ambika, the girl kept shutting her eyes. Later on she gave birth to a blind child (because she kept shutting her eyes during the process). Ambalika has been warned by Vyasa not to shut her eyes like Ambika, however the disgust made her face grew pale during the process, and her child born with pale skin. Unsatisfied with the result, Satyavati asked his son to father one more child with one of the princesses. However, both Ambika and Ambalika did not want to have another session with Vyasa, so they arranged a maid to replace them. From her, born the third child. They were named: Dhritarashtra (the blind), Pandu (the pale skin), and Vidura.

Pandu—despite the fact that he was a second son—was made King because a blind man cannot rule a Kingdom. When they were grown up, Pandu went to a competition to get a wife, Dhritarashtra and Vidura came with him. Pandu, helped by Dhritarashtra, won the competition and brought home Princess Kunti. However there are two other contestants who were not satisfied with the result; they challenged Pandu to do another fights, and if they were lost, they would give their sisters to Pandu. In short, instead of one wife, Pandu brought home three princesses: Kunti, Madri and Gandhari. Satyavati instructed Pandu to share one of them with Dhritarashtra while Vidura refused to have a wife. Then came the selection day, and of course the three princesses were terrified they would be chosen by the blind young man instead of the handsome Pandu. The three secretly prayed to their gods to help them, however in a strange coincidence, Gandhari was chosen by Dhritarashtra.

One day Pandu went hunting to the forest and shot a pair of deer who were making love. The deer turned out to be a monk who transformed himself and his wife to a pair of deer to have privacy when they made love. The monk then cursed Pandu that he won’t be able to have sex for the rest of his life, for whenever he had passion to his wives, he would soon die. Pandu retired to be a monk together with his wives, and left the throne to Dhritarashtra while he was away. Now being a queen, Gandhari was never satisfied because she knew when Pandu returned, she won’t be queen anymore. She prayed to gods to give her a lot of children to protect the throne. The gods answered her prayers, Gandhari was soon pregnant.

However, instead of a baby, Gandhari gave birth to a piece of flesh when she was walking at the garden one night. She kicked the flesh in disgust, and the flesh divided itself to many pieces. The god instructed Gandhari to cover the fleshes with leaves, and went to sleep. In the morning, the fleshes had turned into babies, one hundred babies! Now Gandhari has her protector for Hastinapura throne, and the one hundred children were called the Kaurava. The news came to Kunti and Madri, they too wanted to have their own children, however as Pandu was unable to give them child, they prayed to their gods. The gods fulfilled their wishes, Kunti was given three sons, one from Dharma (the god of justice) and born Yudhisthira, one from Vayu (the god of the wind) and born Bhima, and one from Indra (the lord of the heaves for sons) and got Arjuna. Madri gave birth to twins: Nakula and Sahadeva from Ashwini (the twin gods). Te fifth of them were called the Pandava. However, Pandu could not keep his passion towards Madri, and when they made love, Pandu died.

Lived in the same palace, Pandavas and Kauravas grew up as different characters. While Pandavas became good and polite young men, Kauravas who were being spoiled by their mother has become villain and greedy. Dhritarashtra made Yudhisthira a crown prince, but he kept the ambition to made his own son Duryodana (the eldest of Kauravas) to be the king of Hastinapura (he might have been persuaded by the greedy Gandhari). Kauravas, helped by their evil uncle Shakuni (brother of Gandhari) made a plan to get rid of Pandavas in a fire accident. Luckily for Pandavas and their mother Kunthi, their wise uncle Vidura has made protection for them by instructing his men to dig a tunnel beneath their palace. Saved from the fire accident, the Pandavas returned to Hastinapura only to find that Duryodana has been made King. The elders had a meeting, and decided that the Pandavas should build their own kingdom which was called Indraprashta. When they were on pilgrimage to return from fire accident, Arjuna has won Draupadi as a wife. Here there are ambiguities, in the version I read, Arjuna refused to marry Draupadi and gave Draupadi for his brother Yudhisthira, who finally agreed to marry her. However, in the original version, Kunthi asked Arjuna to share Draupadi with all his brothers. Draupadi finally married all five of Pandavas (this too, a common practice in India, a woman can have more than one husband).

Draupadi & her five husbands-the Pandavas

One day when Indraprashta has become a big kingdom, they invited the Kauravas to the palace. There Duryodana grew envious of the elegant palace of Pandavas. It was added with a humiliating accident where Duryodana splashed in the water when he thought it was glossy floor. The Kauravas came home with revenge in their head, and since then they could not think other than a perfect plot to humiliate the Pandavas.

It was long, I know! :) And this is just PART ONE of Mahabharata, there will be part two! I write the entire plot here to memorize them myself. From the story, I just realized that the four elements of life: love, hatred, greediness and revenge are always the plot of most stories of human lives. And those were also the most causes of wars. I read Mahabharata as I was a child, and I re-read it many times after that. One thing I just realized as adult reader (and after I can browse the internet) that Vyasa is believed to be the same person as Krishna Dvaipayana. It was not mentioned here in the graphic novel I read; Krishna here was the King of Dwaraka, an advisor to Pandavas, whose main concern was to keep the whole kingdom in peace. He was invincible in fighting, because he was the incarnation of Vishnu god. To imagine that Krishna and Vyasa was the same person would be interesting. I think I should keep reading the Part two (and perhaps continue on to Bharatayudha) to learn more about this.


  1. This was one of my favorite story when I was a kid. And I guess it's still up till now.
    I first read the comic version by Teguh Santosa and then another version by R.A Kosasih.
    I love Teguh Santosa's drawings which made me in love with the story at the first place.
    I was captivated since.
    I remember that time I hate Satyavati (Setyawati), kinda like Kunti, and had a crush on one of the Pandawa twins.. LOL
    Mahabharata is rather more complicated than Ramayana, I think. That's why I love this more than Ramayana.

    1. Yeah, I hate Satyavati too for her greediness, that caused Bhishma to take his oath.
      You had a crush on one of the twins? Wow..they have never been on my radar since the first I read it, LOL! For me, it's always Arjuna, I don't know why... :)

  2. This was a fascinating post. I was completely unfamiliar with the story of the Mahabharata although I had heard of it, so I enjoyed reading about it. Reading a graphic novel must be a great way of getting familiar with the story of a classic.

    1. I haven't read the abridged novel version in English, and a bit curious about how the stories would go, would it be the same as the graphic novel I read? Anyhow, I think Mahabharata is worth to read, Sam. I like the moral value, especially during the war (Bharatayudha), I like it more than Homer's Iliad or Odyssey.


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