The Mahabharata is the longest story ever told. Not only is it a chronicle of the Pandavas and Kauravas fighting for a share of their kingdom, but it also performs the role of social commentator, religious leader, philosopher and guide all at once.
But if you’re like me, you may have wondered off and on: just why did the Mahabharata happen? What was the trigger that set the story in motion?
Here’s the answer.
The Mahabharata happened in order for good to triumph over evil. In the Krita Yuga, with Parashurama killing all Kshatriyas in order to avenge his father’s death, law and order disappear from the world. Rakshasas and other evil people hold sway. To exterminate them and to restore Dharma, the gods – led by Vishnu – decide to take birth on Earth.
Read on to learn more about the circumstances that led to the beginning of the Mahabharata.
Parashurama Kills the Kshatriyas
The seed of the Mahabharata is sown when Parashurama, the son of Jamadagni, takes a vow that he will exterminate the entire race of Kshatriyas from the face of the earth.
The reason for this terrible oath is the killing of Jamadagni by a vain and proud king called Kartavirya Arjuna. In a bloodthirsty battle, Parashurama lops off the thousand arms of Arjuna and kills all of the king’s sons to avenge his father’s death.
Not content by destroying the killer of his father, Parashurama now decrees that the whole Kshatriya order has to be annihilated. Such is the bloodlust he unleashes upon the world that he causes the five lakes of Samantapanchaka to turn red.
(Samantapanchaka is another name for Kurukshetra. At the same place where Parashurama lets loose his fury, a number of years later, another great cleansing happens in the name of the Mahabharata war.)
Because of this sudden wiping out of kings from the face of the earth, a few things happen:
- Law and order are replaced by a ‘survival of the meanest’ mentality.
- Brahmins and the Vedas are no longer protected.
- Undeserving people rise to prominent positions and become kings.
- Evil becomes rampant. Dharma begins to lose ground.
Asuras Descend to the Earth
There is another reason for the sudden rise of evil on Earth: the Asuras (sometimes called Daityas, or the sons of Diti), watching the Earth and noticing a power vacuum, decide to take birth in numerous Kshatriya families as infants.
At around the same time, the Asuras have lost yet another battle to the Devas in a bid for supremacy over heaven. So the sons of Diti plot to take over Earth instead and breed evil there.
The Earth (Bhoomi), thus oppressed by the weight of all this insolence, goes to Brahma for a solution. The Creator, having divined the purpose of Bhoomi’s visit, tells her that the time has come for a large number of gods to take birth in the land of men.
‘Do not fret, O Mother of all human beings,’ he tells Bhoomi, ‘for this state of sin will not continue for much longer.’
After Bhoomi leaves, satisfied, Brahma then calls a council of the gods and proposes that a number of them shall go down to Earth and see to it that order is once again restored. Indra agrees, and asks Vishnu to lead them in this mission.
And Vishnu replies, ‘It will be so.’
The Thirty Three Gods
Here we will take a quick detour to name the thirty three gods that attend Brahma’s council.
Brahma has six spiritual sons: Marichi, Atri, Angiras, Pulastya, Pulaha and Kratu. The son of Marichi is Kashyapa, the father of the gods by Aditi and of the Asuras by Diti.
Aditi and Diti are the daughters of Daksha Prajapati, the great sage who is said to have taken birth from the right toe of Brahma.
Aditi is the mother to twelve Adityas: Dhatri, Mitra, Aryaman, Sakra, Varuna, Ansa, Vaga, Vivaswat, Usha, Savitri, Tvashtri, and Vishnu. Vishnu is the youngest of the lot but is considered the most important.
Sthanu, who also takes birth at the hatching of the cosmic egg, has eleven sons, called the eleven Rudras: Mrigavadhya, Sarpa, Niriti, Ajaikapat, Ahirvadana, Pinaki, Dahana, Iswara, Kapali, Sthanu and Bharga.
Another son of Brahma, Manu, has a son called Prajapati who gives rise to the eight Vasus: Dhara, Dhruva, Soma, Aha, Anila, Anala, Pratyusha and Prabhasa.
The twelve Adityas, the eleven Rudras and the eight Vasus together number thirty one. With the addition of the Ashwin twins to the number we get the thirty three gods of the Vedic pantheon.
Please note that the names and composition of the thirty three bear slight differences depending on the source. Even the names of the eleven Rudras are different in the various Puranas. Here, I’m confining myself only to the Mahabharata.
During the council of the celestials where it is decided that Vishnu would be incarnate on Earth as Krishna, a proposal is made to Soma, the moon god, that his son, Varchas, should also be sent to the land of men to combat evil.
To which Soma replies, ‘O Celestials, my son is most dear to me. I cannot part with him for the length of time that is being proposed here. Listen, instead, to my suggestion:
‘Let my Varchas be parted from me for a mere sixteen years. He will make an appearance toward the very end of the long process over which all the forces of evil must be assembled before they’re destroyed.
‘Both Nara and Narayana (Arjuna and Krishna) will fight on the side of the good in this great battle, but there will come to pass one encounter in which neither Nara nor Narayana take any part. And my son will step into this void and force all his enemies to retreat.
‘All of your portions will continue to fight to the best of your abilities, but Varchas will break a complex formation called the Chakravyuya, and he shall cause a full fourth of the hostile force to be eliminated on this single day.
‘He will pay for his valour with his life, and by the time the sun sets on this fateful event, he shall leave the land of men and return to me.
‘He will also beget one heroic son in his line, who shall continue the almost extinct Bharata race. So after the great cleansing is finished, he will ensure that the blood of the celestials will be present in the monarch that will follow.
‘He will be entrusted with the enormous task of bringing the dead and fallow Aryavarta back to life.’
Varchas Becomes Abhimanyu
In agreement with Soma’s suggestion, the other gods will it so that Varchas takes birth as Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna and Subhadra.
In keeping with the prediction of Soma:
- On the thirteenth day of the Mahabharata war, Krishna and Arjuna are pulled away by the Samsaptakas to a distant edge of the battlefield.
- Drona creates an impenetrable array called the Chakravyuha that only Abhimanyu knows how to pierce.
- Abhimanyu is entrusted with the task of breaking open the Chakravyuha. Bhima and Satyaki promise to follow close on his heels.
- But Jayadratha the Saindhava king holds back Abhimanyu’s reinforcements, and ensures that the boy is left alone inside the Kaurava ranks.
- Drona, Karna, Shalya, Kritavarma and Ashwatthama together kill Abhimanyu, though the young warrior kills an entire Akshauhini of troops by himself.
- Later, as circumstances unfold, Abhimanyu’s son by Uttara, a boy named Parikshit, ends up being the sole survivor of the Mahabharata war. He becomes king of Hastinapur after Yudhishthir.
Other Prominent Incarnations
This is not an exhaustive list, but the following gods undertake to lend part of their energy to the cause:
- Prabhasa, the elemental deity that is associated with dawn, takes birth as Ganga’s son Bhishma, with Shantanu as his father. This incarnation serves a dual purpose of fulfilling a curse that Prabhasa had earlier earned from Vasishtha.
- Vishnu, of course, takes birth as Krishna and becomes a regent of Dwaraka, the capital city of the western kingdom of Anarta.
- Sesha, the virtuous serpent child of Kadru (one of the good Nagas), ventures to become Balarama, the older brother of Krishna.
- Yama, the lord of justice, owing to a curse by Sage Mandavya, is born as Vidura in the womb of a Sudra woman. He becomes half-brother to Dhritarashtra and Pandu.
- Yama also sires a son named Yudhishthir with Kunti who will go on to become the personification of Dharma on Earth during the final years of the Dwapara Yuga.
- Indra, Vayu and the Ashwin twins give birth to Arjuna, Bhimasena and Nakula and Sahadeva respectively. The first two of these are born to Kunti while the last two are brought forth by Madri.
A Rational Counterpoint
While we’re on the subject, it also bears mentioning that a rational, impassioned view of the Mahabharata does not require a reason for events happening as they did. No other reason is necessary other than conflicting human desires, ambitions and values.
Since the Pandavas are the ultimate victors of the battle of Kurukshetra, it is only understandable that they write the story such that they are shown in the best possible light. So they think of their own lives as pre-destined for greatness, their own ambitions as pure, and their own version of Dharma to be correct.
They view themselves as children of gods, and their enemies as spawns of the devil.
‘Until the lions learn how to write,’ says an old proverb, ‘the tale of the hunt will glorify the hunter.’
So we must keep in mind at all times while reading the Mahabharata that we’re reading only the hunter’s version of the hunt. The lions have been killed, and they will forever be mute.
(One readily available example of this ‘distortion by the hunter’ is in the name of Duryodhana. Duryodhana’s actual name – one assumes – is Suyodhana, but he comes to be known as Duryodhana right throughout the story. The same can be said of Duhsasana, who probably was named Sushasana at birth.)
From a rational point of view, the Mahabharata does not need a reason to happen, any more than events of any of our lives need a reason to happen. Like all narratives that emerge naturally from human societies, this one has at its heart:
- Conflicting ideas about what is right and what is important.
- Conflict between people for finite resources – like the Pandavas and Kauravas wrestling over the throne of Hastinapur.
- Conflict within a person – between forgiveness and revenge, between valour and kindness, between love and hate, and between duty and brotherhood.
No other reason is needed. When you throw a number of human beings into a group, conflict arises naturally.
From a literary point of view, however, the Mahabharata is written – and told – as a story between good and evil. The Pandavas and Krishna are on the side of good; Duryodhana and the Kauravas are on the side of the bad.
In this frame of reference, the Pandavas are children of gods. Duryodhana and his henchmen are incarnations of Asuras.
Leading the cause of the good – or Dharma – is Krishna, a human form of Vishnu. He has taken birth in the land of men to annihilate all the evil that has been accumulating in the world following the destruction of the Kshatriya race at the hands of Parashurama.
Whether you favour the rationalist view or the literary view is up to you. You may even find it helpful to hold both models in your head, switching between one to the other and back as the need arises.
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