(For best on the go experience, click on the red audio icon at the beginning of the post to stream narration.)
The Mahabharata is an epic poem compiled between 300 BC and 300 AD by the great poet Vyasa. Consisting of one hundred thousand 2-line stanzas, it is the largest single literary work in the world. To put the size of the epic in perspective, the Mahabharata is eight times as long as Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad put together and three time as long as the Bible.
The name ‘Mahabharata’ is a combination of the Sanskrit word ‘maha’ meaning great and ‘bharata’ which is the Sanskrit name for India. Therefore, Mahabharata literally translates to ‘the great (story of the) Bharata’ or ‘the great (story of the) India’. The entire literary piece is written in Sanskrit. It narrates the story of two sets of cousins waging war on one another in pursuit of riches and right to the throne of Hastinapur.
King Santanu, the emperor of Hastinapur married the beautiful river goddess, Ganga. She had disguised herself as a common woman. She asked the king to vow to never question her actions. He agreed happily. As the years went by, they sired many children together. Strangely, each time a child was born, the goddess immediately drowned them. The king was distressed, but honored his promise by not questioning or challenging her behavior. However, when the eighth child was born, he could not control himself. He stopped Ganga from drowning the child. Santanu confronted her and demanded to know the reason behind this bizarre behavior. She revealed her true self. Ganga said that their children had been celestial beings in their previous lives and were punished to be born as humans. She had terminated their sentences by immediately drowning them at birth.
Since Santanu had questioned her actions, Ganga left him and their eighth child named Devarata, who later on became Bhisma (meaning, the one with a firm oath). Years later, Santanu fell in love again and wanted to marry Satyavati (mother of Vyasa). But she too had her own conditions (tough luck for poor King Santanu). She said that she would only marry Santanu if their child will be the future king to his empire, leaving Bhisma out in the cold. Bhisma was the elder son of the king and the rightful heir to the throne. Fortunately, Bhisma was totally cool with this and promised to remain celibate for the rest of his life. Thus, he guaranteed that neither he nor his son would proclaim their rights to the throne.
Few years later, one of Bhisma’s half-brother dies on the battlefield and other named Vichitravirya, comes of age to marry. On their behalf, Bhisma abducts three sisters (I mean, why not!), fighting off all their suitors. When he arrived home, one of the sisters named Amba reveals that she was in love with one of the suitors. Bhisma allows her to leave. Vichitravirya marries the other two sisters named, Ambika and Ambalika. Humiliated by defeat, her betrothed refused to marry her. She returned back and demanded that Bhisma marry her instead. But Bhisma being a man of his words, refused her offer. Amba vowed to kill him someday. But the gods were kind enough on Bhisma to grant him one boon. He could choose when or where he will die.
Soon after, Bhisma’s half-brothers and father, King Santanu die leaving the family heir less. With no one to claim the throne, Queen Satyavati began to worry. She asked Bhisma to sire children with his half-brother’s wives, but he refused. The queen then revealed that she was born a fish and once after an encounter with a sage, had given birth to her first-born son, Vyasa (the same dude who has written this epic). Vyasa was not technically an heir, but she decided that he should sire children with Vichitravirya’s two wives.
Vyasa was a poet and lived as an ascetic. He decided to uphold his mother’s wishes. When he went into the room of the first wife Ambika, she immediately closed her eyes seeing him all filthy and smelling. The second wife, Ambalika turned pale seeing him. Embarrassed by their behavior, Vyasa cursed the two sisters. The one who shut her eyes seeing him will give birth to a blind child. The one who’s skin turned pale will give birth to a pale-skinned child.
In a few months, Vyasa’s curse turned into reality. Ambika gave birth to a blind child named Dhritarashtra and Ambalika gave birth to pale-skinned Pandu. Dhritarashtra was elder born but blind, which made him unfit to rule the kingdom. Thus, Pandu became the ruler of Hastinapur. Years later, their offspring will fight relentlessly for the throne. This epic battle between the two sets of cousins is the Mahabharata.
If you liked this origin story, you’re in for a treat! Up next cousin feuds, a woman marrying five men at once, gambling addiction, an 18 day long battle, and bloodshed/carnage for all the gore fans out there!