Who is the hero of the Mahabharata?

Mahabharat_Illustrations

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

Comments

  1. For me that’s ‘Karna’. the fearless.

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  2. An interesting analysis of the great epic, Sharath – Mahabharata has been a saga of many heroes (and heroines). To my mind, Bhisma can be one of the contenders for the “hero” slot. He was at the center of most of the twists and turns which unfolded into the culmination of the great war. Had he broken his vow of celibacy and married Amba, Aryavarta’s history would be different. Bhisma was highly ambitious – and his ambition was not the throne of Hastinapur, but the fame that was guaranteed to him till posterity due to his grand vow. He was a hero, but his failings were as monumental as his vow. He chose to ignore Dhritrashtra’s insidious proclamations as the king of Hastinapur, and the injustices heaped on the Pandavas, precipitated by his undying love of his son Duryodhana. Bhisma was also silent when Draupadi was being disrobed in the court. Upholding the promises given to his stepmother Satyawati were his higher priority than upholding righteousness. However, never once did he raise a weapon against the Pandava brothers, when in fact, he was in a position to slay all of the Pandava brothers, except Arjuna, in the battlefield and would have ended the war as soon as it began. And in the end, he was full of remorse for his actions, and chose to atone for his sins, by choosing to suffer on the bed of arrows, Failed hero, but a hero indeed!

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    • You call him a failed hero. Why so? From your comment, it’s quite clear that you admire him. What are some of his failures, in your opinion? Is it that stubbornness to stand by his promises in spite of real, practical calamities taking place all around him? Or is it his partiality towards the Pandavas? As you say, he could have finished the whole thing by leaning one way or the other in many instances. But he always chose to sit on the fence. Is that his biggest failing, in your opinion?

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      • I admire Bhishma for his courage, his character and for being a great warrior. But he also made poor judgments. Whenever the situation demanded that he should rise to defend justice, he chose to take cover of the oath given to Satyawati. He never once argued with or advise Dhritrashtra, and for that matter Duryodhana, against their unjustified actions. He was extremely sarcastic towards Karna and his roots, even though he had defeated Arjuna in the archery contest. And the most important of all, he chose to look the other way, when Draupadi’s was dragged and her modesty was being outraged by the Kauravas. He was adamant towards protecting his vow, even at the cost of righteousness, which makes him a failed hero.

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  3. That’s quite an interesting question you have posed there Sharath. And here’s my take on it.

    To me, the ‘hero’ of the Mahabharata is the human emotion of ‘revenge’. Some versions have it that Shakuni nurtured revenge against Bhisma and the entire Kuru clan for having killed his entire family and getting Gandhari married off to a blind king and that he made deliberate moves to sabotage Dhritarashtra’s reign and Duryodhana’s ambitions by purposely pitting them against Pandavas who had Krishna on their side.

    It is also the story of Duryodhana’s revenge against being laughed at by Draupadi in Indraprastha, the story of Karna’s revenge against Draupadi’s refusal to allow him to participate in her swayamvara, the story of Draupadi’s revenge against the Kauravas for her disrobing incident, the story of Bhima’s revenge against Duhshasana and Duryodhana, the story of Arjuna’s revenge against Jayadratha, the story of Amba’s revenge against Bhishma and so on.

    Not to say that the Mahabharata is only about revenge and also has a whole lot of other positive emotions as well, but to me, revenge is one emotion which stands out tall amidst all other emotions in this book.

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    • Interesting to think of the whole story as one big saga of revenge. Thinking in that way, Bhishma is probably the only main character who isn’t besotted by revenge. (Even Drona, at various stages, obsesses about Drupada.) What is the one emotion that propels his story forward, you think? In other words, you referred to some ‘positive’ emotions in the tale. If you had to pick the most prominent one, which one would it be?

      I am asking because this idea of thinking of the story in the form of emotions is quite useful.

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      • Revenge is one of the villians, not hero (if we choose to look at emotions as characters). The main villian in that sense would then be the skewed sense of the main characters to think that dharma is constant in spite of situations. Hero then is dharma itself. Coming to characters I think that If we do not take god into account, the closest to being the hero would be draupadi. Pandavas being her means of seeking justice, main villian is shakuni and anti hero karna…

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      • Hi Vamshi,

        Yes, one of the most often-repeating scenes in the story is of people debating what exactly Dharma is. Bhishma has his Dharma, Draupadi has hers, Duryodhana has his, Karna has his, even Shakuni has his etc. That is probably the one difference from Ramayana, where the concept of Dharma is rigid and unyielding. And it resonates well with our times, I think, because we live in a (largely) democratic world which believes in the idea of personal ethics, choices and journeys.

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  4. Such an interesting topic to discuss.

    Mahabharata to me is a story of the characters’ struggle to find and validate their position in society (Isn’t it everybody’s struggle?).

    Pandavas fighting to regain their place as rulers. Kauravas fighting to keep what is theirs and more.
    Bhishma trying to establish himself as the patriarch. Karna wanting acceptance into his family and social ranks. Shikhandi/Amba wanting acceptance for who she is/was. The list is endless.

    Also, the hero to me is the author himself, since most issues in modern day are relevant and have been discussed or referred to in the story – art of war, LGBT issues, violence against women, art of politics, pre-marital sex, again, the list is endless 🙂

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    • Hi Aparna,

      First of all, welcome to the blog. I don’t think I’ve seen a comment from you before this. Hope this becomes a regular feature 🙂

      And I think you hit the nail on the head. The story resonates with most of us because it happens to resonate with our current times, where everyone is on a journey to find themselves and to define their position in society, in their families, in their peer group etc. And it’s interesting to see that you pick Vyasa as the hero. A few other readers have also said the same thing, pointing out that the story itself is the hero since we’re debating and analyzing it to this day.

      I read the post on your blog about how you and your husband met, and also some of your notes to Sahiti. Love the idea, and hope you keep it going until she grows old enough to read 🙂

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      • Thanks for the kind words, Sharath! I’ve come to terms with the fact that a high stress job, family, childcare and long commutes do not fit well with maintaining a blog.

        I’m a huge fan of Mahabharata love any opportunity to discuss. Your blog has been a treasure cove! Over to debate your pick on the topic

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  5. Hello Sharath,

    I am first timer on your blog. I just happen to read this blog of yours through another one. I have become quite a fan of your writing style already with one blog. I want to post a comment on the blog and bear with me if it gets a little too long. Before I go into the same, I wanted to make a point about your reply on Dharma which I find in a few comments above mine. As far as my learning goes from a few teachers and contemporary philosophers, I strongly opine that dharma cannot be individual or customized. Hence Karna, shakuni, yudhishtira or whomsoever, cannot have their own dharma. They can have their own belief and their thought of being righteous. But this can be a small delta or a world of difference from the universal Righteousness. As far Bhagavatam goes, Dharma is simply put as that derivative of karma (Kriya) what you perform which is in line with the almighty or which gets you closer to HIM and which does not is not Dharma. This is purely from what stand point of view one has. If one looks upon Krishna as God, then the above mentioned holds good or if one views Mahabharata from a pure objective point of view, then it can be more or less concluded that if one’s actions are aligned with the greater good of the community or society, so shall it be called Dharma, if not then so it be not.

    Furthermore, now coming down to who my hero of Mahabharata is, it would be a very common name. It would be Krishna. To understand the character of Krishna, again as far as my learning and understanding goes, one cannot judge and fix just by having read Mahabharata. But one needs to also read the Bhagavatam. It is where truly the character of Krishna can be tried to understand to an extent. If Krishna were to be looked at a purely materialistic stand point of view and absolutely not attaching any spirituality of religious feelings, then he can be looked at great statesman, a man with great business acumen, a charming gentleman, a cunning manipulator, a complete goto man for many an many, A creator, A protector and a destroyer all merged in one through various acts of his that he performs through the length of mahabharata since the beginning of his incarnation or the introduction of the character into the Epic.

    I think enough has already been said about Krishna if one has to look at him from Spiritual and religious stand point of view through out India and from generations of aeons till date.

    My two pence on your wonderful blog

    Regards
    Suresh

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    • Hi Suresh,

      Thank you for commenting, and I hope we see more of you in the future too. About what you said about Dharma, I find that the over-arching theme of the Mahabharata is this quest for Dharma. Everyone speaks about Dharma, but there are debates and questions raised by different characters, and there are long conversations about what actually constitutes Dharma.

      An example being whether Draupadi’s being dragged to the court was in accordance to ‘Dharma’ or not. Another example is whether killing Bhishma and Drona in the battlefield was ‘Dharma’ or not.

      I think in the Mahabharata, there is acknowledgement that there is no such thing as absolute ethics. Ethics are just an arbitrary set of rules set by society (or the majority of society). One man’s ‘good’ may be another man’s ‘bad’. Duryodhan has his own reasons – and good ones – for hating the Pandavas.

      So I think this act of debating is very important in all of our ethical dilemmas. We must not shy away from asking the question: What is good? Why is it good? Whom is it good for?

      As our society evolves, new ethical rules will come into the fold and old ones will be discarded. If you and I were to return to 22nd century India, I would bed that we would be shocked by what passes for ‘ethical behaviour’.

      So my conclusion is: there is no absolute ‘Dharma’. Dharma evolves as a consequence of a society debating its ethical dilemmas and reaching a consensus. That debate is constantly changing, though, and the consensus too, so ‘Dharma’ is also constantly changing.

      Our personal ‘Dharmas’ may not change. But what is known as ‘Dharma’ at a societal level keeps changing. Whether we accept it or not is our prerogative, of course 🙂

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  6. hey i am also a first timer in your blog!!loved to read many of your post on mahabharat!! according to me the hero of mahabharat is nar-narayan jodi. arjun with all his weakness and strength signifies common man who is always in a dilemma,the one who could be a coward at one time,brave at other ,focussed at one time and egoistic at other.he was a perfect choice for upholding dharma(whatever it may mean).he is the best character in mahabharat through which a message to humanity could be given regarding ‘karma’. narayan(krishna) on his part signifies a philosphical mentor, a guiding force to a confused,in dilemma nar(arjun). dharma according to me relates to “greater good”.considering krishna only entity capable of seeing whole picture dharma according to him could have only meant greater good of society. i think the message mahabharata tries to give to humanity that a comman man(struggling from dilemma of what to do and what not do ) will performs his best when guided by a divine philosphy ,a philosphy capable of seeing larger good of the society! it puts you in place of arjun and motivates you to find your karma,so that you better contribute to society!
    i have not read whole mahabharat,my thoughts are only based on what i have came across through telivision media! looking forward to read it fully to look into other aspect of this epic!!

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    • Hi Dhruv! Thanks for your thoughts. You’re definitely in the majority there, because many people think of Krishna as the hero of the story, with Arjun probably being second-in-charge. He’s at least the hero among the Pandavas. But it’s always good fun to play this game, just for kicks. In fact, one of the most interesting books I’ve read on this topic is Buddhadeb Bose’s ‘The Book of Yudisthir’, where the author makes a case for Yudisthir to be the hero.

      Doesn’t matter who is right or wrong. It’s fun to debate 🙂

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  7. Though considered bad, Shakuni, makes a very reasonable point thorough out the life, ‘dharma’ is what benifits you.
    Even krishna agrees to this point but adds to it by saying without hurting others.
    ‘dharma’ he says is based on love and not vows.
    When talking to his elder brother (in mahabharata) he says sticking to the vows is great, but when one sees the harm they are causing to others personal vows have no importance.

    Regarding the spot for the “hero”, Krishna had it all planned and under control. Starting form the worship of indra dev without understanding the meaning to killing shishupal, from the start of draupadi’s swayamwar to death of duryodhan, he has taken care of every turn and road through out.
    So I guess he is the true hero, of course he is vishnu’s avtaar after all 😛

    Also one can not compare “mahabhartha” to “Ramayana”. They both have their own messages to convey very rite for the time of occurance. Krishna has always said, its the nature of time to change itself. No one (not even the great Bhishma) can and should stay same, stuck to old rituals and methodology.
    Yes taking lessons from old values is great but following them blindly is not acceptable.
    This is what “mahabharta” teaches.

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  8. I feel its Draupadi, as the distruction of the kauravas and other emenies was necessary to balance the world with peace and just rule. In Mahabharat the war that could make all this possible was caused mainly by her. If she hadn’t been the way she is there would be no much conflict between the pandavas and kauravas resulting in such a massive and necessary war.

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  9. Playing Gambling by keeping own Kingdom and Wfie at the stake is not at all Dharma. It is Worse ever Sin by Yudhisthira for which the Pandavas+Draupadi who supported him also suffered 13 years of exile.
    Even in Kaliyuga nobody Accepts it as Dharma. How come 4 Brothers Accepted it in Dwapura Yuga?
    Play Gambling for Money is Crime in Kaliyga

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  10. Abhishek lagusani says:

    Undoubtedly without a second option its Sri krishna….its him without whom pandavas wud not have won the Mahabharata war….inspite of the kauravas vast army and many powerfull warriors by their side…. its the dharma factor ‘Dharmo rakshati rakshitaha’ ultimately dharma triumphs over adharma!

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Trackbacks

  1. […] is a follow up to the previous post on the same topic. I said I will tell you who my choice is for the hero of the epic, and I […]

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  2. […] is a follow up to the previous post on the same topic. I said I will tell you who my choice is for the hero of the epic, and I […]

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