Monday, August 20, 2012

Mahabharata (2): An Indian Epic Mythology

This is the second part of Mahabharata, one of the longest epic mythology in the world, depicted a rivalry between two families: Pandavas and Kauravas, which would cause one of the greatest wars in Indian ancient mythology. I read the graphic novel version, retold by one of the greatest Indonesian illustrators, and it was illustrated in Indonesian folklore. In the first part we have learned about Pandavas and Kauravas ancestors, how they were born and brought up by the elders. We have got to know how Kauravas always had envy towards Pandavas, which had begun from their mother Gandhari. In the end of part one we knew that the Kauravas—especially Duryodana—decided to take revenge to their cousins. This part two began with an invitation from King Duryodana to the Pandavas to return the visit to Hastinapura palace.

Without any prejudices, Yudhisthira as King of Indraprashta along with the Pandavas, Kunti—their mother, and Draupadi arrived at Hastinapura, and welcomed by Kauravas with all hospitality. The elders, Bhishma, Dhritarashtra and Vidura happily watched their children lived as a big happy family. Little did they know that behind all the hospitalities, Kauravas—helped by their uncle Shakuni—has an evil plan to take their revenge. Until then I always see Yudhisthira as a perfect human being with all his nobleness quality, however in this part two, Yushisthira’s weakness was revealed: he was a severe gambler! Shakuni knew this, and set a trap for Pandavas through a dice game. Of course, it seemed at first like a fun game, while they let Yudhisthira won huge pile of gold coins.

Actually I sensed that his brothers at first disagreed with Yudhisthira’s decision to play the game, however they were taught by their mother to always respect their elder brother (the King), so they just sat down and take a wait-and-see attitude. However, winning after winning had affected them all, so that they finally even supported Yudhisthira to raise the bet using all the money he had won. At that crucial time, when the air of greediness had enveloped everyone, Shakuni silently replaced the dice with a false one (though I can never imagine how this particular dice could mechanically serve his evil purpose). And now, with the false dice, Pandavas lost the game, coin after coin that they had won previously have moved to Kauravas’ hands. And finally without any money left, Duryodana challenged poor Yudhisthira to bet on their Kingdom, Indraprashta! This has become absurd, I could not understand how wise people like Pandavas could agree thing like that. From this scene, I had learned when I was first read Mahabharata as a child, that greediness is one of men’s biggest sin, that it is difficult to reject a fortune when it seems so close to reach.

Of course Pandavas finally lost, not only their Kingdom, but also their freedom, for now they were not princes any longer, they were just slaves. But the worst part has not yet come because Draupadi had become one of the objects of the bet, and now that they have lost, Durshasana (Duryodana’s second brother) dragged the poor Draupadi, then began to disrobe her in public because Duryodana wanted to see her naked. Fortunately the gods saw this and prevented Draupadi from being humiliated through the help of Dharma (the god, Yudhisthira’s father). Despite of Durshasana’s effort to disrobe Draupadi, the cloth had never come to end. Finally Durshasana gave up, leaving Draupadi with her body still covered, but her soul was wounded by the biggest humiliation a woman can take.

The scene of Draupadi humiliated

It’s interesting to see how the Pandavas reacted to Draupadi’s humiliation. You will think that Yudhisthira would be enraged by his wife’s humiliation, but surprisingly, he was just as calm as a lamb! Actually almost all the Pandavas just watched the humiliation in silence because they were slaves now. How ridiculous it was! I’m glad that at least Bhima, although he was a slave too, turned away from the scene that hurt his feeling. At least he showed that he was agitated by the scene, not as passive as the husband! After I reread Mahabharata as an adult, I begin to think that Bhima had perhaps a kind of affection for Draupadi. Despite of his rough manner, Bhima showed tenderness to Draupadi. He always stood by to protect her, and was willing to do anything for her, even if it was only to search for flowers for Draupadi’s hair; something I had never seen in Yudhisthira.

It concerned me too that the elders—Bhima and Vidura especially—who supposed to maintain the peace between their children, failed to see the evil plan Kauravas had set all those times. They were blinded by Kauravas kindness and hospitality, which astonished me. Vidura at least must have seen it, must have suspected it, for he once had detected Kauravas evil plan to murder Pandavas and saved them (see part one). How could he now think that Kauravas had treated Pandavas as their true brother? Or have they been blinded by the comfort of living they got from the Kauravas? With Dhritarashtra I could understand, I think deep in his heart he have always wanted his own sons to protect Hastinapura throne. But ironically, after Duryodana became a King, Dhritarashtra did not have authority towards his sons, he even feared of them (there were hundred of them anyway!), that he could not defend Pandavas at the end. Tragically, Bhishma and Vidura did not have the authority also to guide them; Duryodana trusted Shakuni more than anyone else in the world.

Anyway, it was finally decided that Pandavas should be exiled to a forest for twelve years and during the thirteenth year they must live in undercover and must not be found by Kauravas, or otherwise they must through another twelve years exile. The Pandavas and Draupadi lived their exile in patience; they got through every sorrows and obstacles together in silence. Along the thirteen years their friends never left them, especially Krishna who had been their worthy advisor and true friend they can put their trust. It was Krishna too who instructed Arjuna to meditate to gods to get weapons. As a result of his meditation (he was the best in meditation among men), Syiva granted Pasopati, and Indra granted Pancaroba.

There are a lot of things happened during Pandavas’ exile, it seems that the exile was to purify their soul and strengthen their characters to prepare them for the big war to come. For the gods have already known that the Kurukshetra war must happen in the future between Pandavas and Kauravas, and as Vyasa said, it was not from Pandavas part that the war must take place, it was from Kauravas’. From Hanuman (Bhima’s brother from Vayu) Pandavas learned that the gods could have helped them to punish Kauravas and released them from the great sorrow if they have wanted it, however Pandavas must keep getting through all the hard times, with honesty and wisdom. And isn’t that how men should regard their life too? We often asked God why all these bad things should continuously happen? Can’t God do something with His almighty power to destroy the evils? But it was God wish for men must get through all the sorrows and hard times during their life to prepare them, to purify them for eternal life. That was one deep reflection that I found in Mahabharata which make it valuable, the wisdoms of life.

There was also a wise quote from Sthuna, a giant who exchanged sex with Shikhandi. Shikhandi was born as a female, however gods has planned her to carry the oath of Amba to end the life of Bhishma (you must read about this in part one). When she has grown up, gods instructed her to go to a wise giant called Sthuna and they prayed to gods together to exchange sex. Sthuna became a woman, and Srikandhi became a man. Sthuna’s King thought it was stupid of him to let the sex exchange happened, for “women are weak creatures who often being the cause of wars between men who fight for them”. However Sthuna stood for women, saying that it was not women’s fault, it was men who were greedy and cannot control their passion; that they enjoyed killing each other. Human being should live their life in what God have given them; and they must accept it with pure heart. What a lesson!

From Dharma (the god of wisdom, Yudhisthira’s father) we also got another lessons:
1. The enemy that is most difficult to beat is passion.
2. The worst human being is he who likes to slander others.
3. The best human being is he who accepts God’s will.
4. The illness without cure is avariciousness.
5. The perfect human being is he who always cautious towards the nature even before he was born.

One irony that justified the evil of Kauravas and the kindness of Pandavas took place in the forest during the exile. The Kauravas got a ridiculous idea to see the sorrows of Pandavas while they would show off their richness by having a party in the middle of the forest darkness (very stupid, eh?). While they were drunk, a group of evil forest creatures attacked them mercilessly. When Pandavas heard the noise and realized that the Kauravas were attacked, they came to help fighting the creatures and released the Kauravas. They did all this in silence, because they knew they were obliged to help others who were in need, even if it was their enemy who have unfairly caused their sorrows for twelve years! What a beautiful lesson for us to love others, including our enemies.

And finally the last year of their exile came, Pandavas must go in disguise. They all served the Virata kingdom, Yudhisthira as a historian, Draupadi as a maid servant, Arjuna as an arts and dancing teacher—I can’t imagine him, the best swordsman in the universe must disguise as a coquettish man :). Nakula and Sadeva would be horsemen, while Bhima would serve as a butcher. Really, I think Bhima’s disguise was the weakest because he always fit the humble life of the Sudras (the lowest level in Indian society). This period of disguising was quite comical and entertaining….

In short they could get through the one year period of disguising safely. Now it was time to ask Kauravas to give Indraprashta back to them as they have successfully served the exile. It was Krishna who volunteered to be Pandavas’ ambassador. Here again I see the weak personality of Yudhisthira. He was a King, and it was he who should take the initiative to ask for his rights. But no, when Krishna asked him what he would do next, he said that he would be pleased to take anything that Duryodana would give them, even if it’s only the half of the kingdom. What?? Have you lost your mind? After all they did to you, and that was because of YOUR mistake that your wife and brothers should take the sorrows! And now you just want to wait for Kauravas kindness? Oh…how I want to slap his passive face!! And don’t be surprised if Arjuna and Bhima had not the courage to contradict their elder brother. It was finally Draupadi who ‘slapped’ them all with what she said. Yes! It was Draupadi who suffered the most, and it was—ironically—a woman who was braver than all the best knights in the kingdom, who finally opened their eyes! What Kauravas did to them was beyond any sense, and yet they did all their wish in patience, but now it is time to ask for their rights, they must fight now, once and for all, they must not beg again for their kindness, because Pandavas had the same right as Pandu’s sons.

Krishna had the same idea too, but he must half push them to make their mind. Here, again, Yudhisthira still could not make his mind, he moved the obligation of making decision to Bhima and Arjuna. And fortunately this time, both of them firmly stated that they will ask for their rights, and would fight for it if it was needed. Whew…finally! With that decision, Krishna met with Kauravas as Pandavas’ ambassador. Here you would feel the tension, because, as Vyasa had predicted earlier, it was Kauravas’ decision that would make the war must take place. The Kauravas, despite of their promise, refused to return Indraprashta to Pandavas, and with that the war was inevitable! To describe Kauravas stubbornness, Krishna—burned with rage—suddenly transformed into a huge giant (this is the sign of Vishnu when he was in severe anger), that need Dharma to calm him down before he crushed Hastinapura by himself. And so this is the end of Mahabharata, the Kurukshetra war would be depicted in the next sequel Bharatayuda.

From this mythology we knew that from the beginning, greediness was always the cause of human disputes. They killed each others because they were never satisfied of what they had, because they wanted more. All the sorrows that happened in life were because men could not control themselves. Mahabharata was told and retold beautifully for centuries, and the lessons and values taught us of the most essential aspects in life.

Five of five stars for Mahabharata and the beautiful illustration by R.A. Kosasih, Indonesian senior illustrator who has just passed away last month.


  1. I love mythology, but really don't know much of Indian myths. I have an old textbook from college on world mythology and I'm going to take a look and see if I can't become more familiar. Thank you!

    1. You should try Mahabharata, Sarah! I personally found it more entertaining than Iliad & Odyssey.

  2. Hi Fanda! I'm Miko, do you have any story or synopsis about Ramayana? Well, I think your posting about Mahabharata is great, but I think that Bharathayudha War was really happened and all the story about Mahabharata or Ramayana is true

    1. Hi Miko! No, unfortunately I haven't read Ramayana. I have read Bharatayuda long time ago, and I have meant to reread it someday. Well...maybe next year :D It's good to know you who share the same great stories as Mahabharata.


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