First of all, I must voice a disclaimer. The Mahabharata is not a story that conforms to the classic hero’s journey structure. There is no one character with whom we begin and whose adventures we follow right to the end where he surmounts all his hurdles and achieves all his goals through a combination of luck, fortitude, and deep inner change. The Iliad is like that. The Odyssey too. Closer to home, the Ramayana is a classic hero’s journey. (In fact, the word ‘Ramayana’ literally translates to ‘Rama’s journey’. No prizes there for guessing who the hero is.)
The hero’s journey is the most common form of story that exists in movies and popular literature today. Think of any movie that you’ve seen recently or ever, it will likely fit into the hero’s journey. Whether it’s Matrix, Star Wars, Ajooba or Anand, you will notice that there is one protagonist on whom the camera is firmly fixed throughout the story.
The Mahabharata, in contrast, is not like that. Different people come into and go out of focus throughout its long, winding path. It also takes many digressions, introducing characters and stories as it sees fit. For a reader who is used to the tight, focused plot of a hero’s journey, it can be maddening to find a common thread through it all. In this sense it is similar to Lord of the Rings, where you’re also constantly thrown off the ‘main’ story by unrelated events and people. Though the movie has made it the journey of Frodo, in the book it is quite clear that Frodo is only one of the characters, no more or less important than all the others.
Both these fall into a category of milieu stories, where the ‘hero’ is the place itself. So in Lord of the Rings, the protagonist is Middle Earth, and in the Mahabharata, it is Aryavarta (or North Country, as I call it in my book). The stories of the people populating these places are not as important as the story of the place itself, which is why both stories continue long after the main event had come and gone. (Lord of the Rings continues after the ring is returned, and the Mahabharata continues after the war is won.)
Such stories typically end with the end of the world itself. In the Mahabharata, this is signified by the end of the Dwapara Yuga and the dawning of Kali Yuga. So the reader is given the sense that the place about which she had read all this while is no more, and therefore the tale has come to an end. The same thing happens with Lord of the Rings too, with the end of Middle Earth bringing about the end of the tale.
So strictly speaking, the hero of the Mahabharata is Aryavarta itself, and to a lesser degree, Hastinapur.
But since that’s a boring answer, and because picking heroes is fun and interesting, I thought I should throw it out there and ask you, the readers of the story, who you think the hero is. In doing this I will also ask you to avoid picking Krishna if you can, because after all, his character had been tampered with extensively by Brahmanic Bhakti interpolations.
There are, of course, a lot of options: is it Bhima the powerful (but rather dim) brother? Is it Arjuna, the Achilles of his age? What about Yudhisthir, the eldest of the victors? Could a case be made for Draupadi, perhaps? Or Karna? Or could we flip the coin the way Mr. Anand Neelakantan has done and side with the ‘bad guy’ Duryodhana?
In my next post, I will write about my choice for hero, and I urge you to write about your choices too in the comments section.
Image Courtesy: Wikipedia