Who are some neglected characters of the Mahabharata?

As some of you may know, I’ve just begun a series of novels telling the stories of some of the ‘bit-part’ players of the Mahabharata. The first book, The Winds of Hastinapur, looks at Ganga and Satyavati, the two people who, as mothers of Bhishma, sire the race of the Kurus. The book ends with the births of Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidur, so calling a retelling of the Mahabharata would not be completely fair, I realized a little bit into the piece, because when someone mentions the epic the first thing most of us think of is Draupadi being disrobed in open court.

To those whose expectations were thus dashed: well, sorry.

I intend to continue this trend, though. For instance, the second book of the series focuses on Amba, Kunti and Gandhari. While we hear a lot about Kunti’s travails with the Pandavas and how noble and long-suffering she was, we never get to see how her childhood was, what she must have gone through as an adopted daughter who has a child out of wedlock. Amba is also similarly distanced from the reader, and in the canon she’s dispensed with in a few quick paragraphs.

But perhaps the unfairest of all is how little space Gandhari is given. Has any main character in any story been treated with such disdain? After all these long years of analysis on the tale, have we had one character sketch of Gandhari? We hear of Draupadi ad nauseum, about Krishna, Arjuna, Karna and Duryodhana, but why, I ask, do we confine the mother of the Kauravas to the backstage immediately after she blinds herself?

During some launches and interviews people have asked me who my favourite character in the Mahabharata was. I’ve taken to reply that it’s Gandhari. Maybe it is the kind of love a mother feels for her handicapped,ย forgotten son. Nonetheless, if market forces allow me to complete the series, I do hope to have looked into Gandhari a little bit more closely than at the usual public disrobing scene, the Bhagavad Gita scene, or the oft-mentioned revenge of the fire-born Draupadi.

If that dashes your expectations some more, well, sorry again.

But I asked this question in a book club meeting a few weeks back and got some interesting responses. There are some people, I saw, that were interested in the underdog. So I will ask it again here: who is your favourite female character from the Mahabharata whose story you’d like to know in greater detail?

I will leave you with a timeless picture of Satyavati and Shantanu at the banks of the Yamuna. My Satyavati is a little less bashful than the lass that Ravi Varma chose to depict, but hey, why argue in the face of such beauty?

Ravi_Varma-Shantanu_and_Satyavati

Comments

  1. That is an extremely interesting point that you talk about here, the underdog in the ensemble cast of characters this great epic has.

    To me, some of the most interesting women characters would have to be Hidimba, the wife of Bhima and mother of Ghatotkacha, Uttara, wife of Abhimanyu, Bhanumathi, Duryodhana’s wife, Gandhari and Kunti and their interpersonal dynamics…. the list goes on, but I have listed the ones that immediately come to my mind.

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    • Hi Jairam. The entire story of Ghatotkacha and the marriage of Sasirekha and Abhimanyu could be told from the two ladies’ points of view. Interesting to see that you also mention Bhanumati. She’s probably THE most neglected character of the epic, so while it should be revealing to do a novel based on her, the author will need to do a lot of work himself to work her into the story somehow.

      Not complaining about that, of course. Just saying ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. Madri is yet another character who requires attention. Kunti blames her Pandu’s death. It was her death that unites the pandavas under Kunti. Bhanumathi and Subhadra too require attention. One is a wife of a much reviled man in Aryavarta and the other is the wife of a hero. Subhadra plays a much important role in her later years as she takes on the role of a regent after the Pandavas retire to forest.

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    • Welcome to the blog, Sumeetha. Madri is a brilliant choice, I think, for a fiction writer, because she is always present in the midst of action (among Pandu, the princes, Kunti) and is always shown as an extra. How nice it would be to delve a little deeper into the younger (and yet more desirable) queen and listen to her speak?

      Bhanumati’s story will be more challenging because she’s always in the background, never taking the stage in the real story. So the writer has to find believable ways to bring her out and make her more involved with what’s going on. Subhadra can also be a good choice, but runs into the same problem. If we have to describe Draupadi’s disrobing scene through Subhadra’s eyes, we have to first figure out a way to make her be present at the court on that day.

      Does ‘Ajaya’ have much of Bhanumati, by any chance? Did you read the book?

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      • Thanks Sharath. Yes. I have read Ajaya. But neither Bhanumathi nor any other character (including the protagonist) made an impression on me. I feel that Ajaya has a different agenda for its readers. The author is more interested in showcasing the caste inequalities that existed in the society so all the characters are seen through their actions pertaining to ‘caste’. You should check out K.M. Munshi’s Bhanumathi in his series – Krishnavatara. She play a minor role in the third and fourth book but makes a great impact.

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  3. Hi there every one, here every one is sharinbg these familiarity,
    so it’s pleasant to read this web site, and I used to go too see tis blog daily.

    Like

  4. Yagyaseni Draupadi says:

    I think bhanumati, durshala, vrishali need more attention

    Like

  5. sonic jump fever hack no survey says:

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say excellent blog!

    Like

  6. Yagyaseni Draupadi says:

    My favourite character of mahabharat is none other than the draupadi. I would like toknow about bhanumati in detail

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  7. Ravi verma’s concept would be to fit in with raj ideology of his era.

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  8. You should perhaps try writing from some totally off beat characters point of view, for instance, someone like Radha, Karna’s adoptive mother. She is not a queen, but she also witnesses events from a distance, but in a uniquely near way, because of her son’s proximity to events. What does she feel raising up a baby, which she knows is special. What does she feel when her son becomes a kind. When does she reveal the truth to her son. What does she feel when Karna finds out about Kunti. Radha does figure in many Karna retellings like Mrityunjaya, but we never get her point of view on anythin.

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    • Hi Divya,

      Welcome to the blog. Thanks for your comment. I do have ‘plans’ to tell the Mahabharat story from the point of view of all the neglected characters. Winds of Hastinapur is from the point of view of Ganga and Satyavati, for instance. Never before in literature have we heard long tales from these two women.

      Radha is also a great contender for a story. All these ‘silent watcher’ type characters will probably tell a great story if given the opportunity. I will make a note of this and re-visit it when I’m writing a stand-alone mythology novel. In the meantime, please feel free to write your own version of Radha’s tale. Beat me to it! ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • I dont think I have either the energy or the discipline to actually write it up, but who knows. But thanks for the suggestion. Who knows, I may one day get down to doing it.

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  9. hi,
    i am doing some writing about bhanumathi. i was wandering, if any of you would like to help me completed the story of her? as duryodhana’s wife and also Arjuna’s lover. her story was too short to be told and there is no enough analysis of her character, her thoughts, and feeling. it will be a great help if you don’t mind. thank you very much for your kindness

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    • Hi Rebecca, I agree with you that there is not much analysis on Bhanumati. The main story only refers to her in passing, and I was not even aware until now that she was Arjuna’s lover.

      So that gives you almost full freedom to explore and create her character as you wish, and tie her life back to the Mahabharata as we know it. My version here will be as good as yours ๐Ÿ™‚

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  10. I am presently writing a piece where Mahabharata is being retold from Subhadra’s POV. It is basically like her memoir. she describes her early life, her love for Arjuna, her pride of Abhimanyu, her respect for Draupadi, and her later role of guiding Parikshit…Let me see where this takes me..

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    • Should be interesting. The main challenge of writing a lesser-known character like Subhadra is that you have to make up a lot of the story yourself. It’s almost like writing something original. Plus, you have the added challenge of tying the story back to the original and – hopefully – give some insights on the main story.

      It’s a fun experience, though. All the best! ๐Ÿ™‚

      Like

    • aishwarya says:

      Please let me know once u finish your litany on subhadra ๐Ÿ™‚

      Like

  11. I like Dusshasan’s wife Bhanumati.

    Like

  12. venkataraj says:

    thank you sir,the hole astinapur story very intrstng ,pls notified abhmanue s battle field chakravuha pls deeply explain stories.

    Like

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