Readers Write In #271: Why should we read the Mahabharata?

Posted on September 18, 2020


(by G Waugh)

I had always wanted to write exclusively about the Mahabharata. The below question from a reader Varsha Ganesh on the comments section came as an excuse for me to do it.  

“I’m really curious about your comment on the Mahabharata too. What made you read all those different interpretations on it? Why wasn’t one version enough for a story that you’d know by heart by now”

Here we go.

There is a general perception about the Mahabharata that it is just another clash between two quarreling branches of the same family. Duryodhan, the bad guy denies the rightful share of his brother’s property (Yudhishtra, the good), so they lock horns and the good defeats the bad finally. The balance of justice is restored and the world is back to normal. Even if the entire narrative of the epic is reduced to the confines of this ‘good-bad’ conflict, the philosophical dimensions and the dramatic heft that it carries are simply sumptuous to say the least. Choose a character from this ‘reduced’ conflict between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, say Yudhishtra and try to interview him for his version of the story. You still get a lot of absorbing drama through what he undergoes – his obsession with rules and traditional values that often conflict with reality, his unquestionable sense of justice often going for a toss in crucial situations, his sympathy for everyone around him including his ‘sworn’ rivals even under demanding conditions and finally an incurable addiction towards gambling that contrasts sharply with his ‘famed’ good qualities and broad knowledge of the ways of the world.

Similarly pick a character from the other camp, you will find ‘his’ story too brimming with inexhaustible potential for drama, tension and philosophy. If all these characters are mortals who are flawed and whose versions you consider to be filled with convenient lies and malice, you have a God right there in their midst in the form of Krishna whose version would offer even more intriguing insights. But as I told you earlier, the Mahabharata is not merely a story between the Good and the Bad. To reduce it to the above dimensions and judge its merits is equivalent to roaming inside some urban neighbourhood in Chennai like Adyar and pretending to give a panoramic overview about the whole of Tamilnadu.

The Mahabharata, if you would choose to zoom out slightly can also be seen as the story of a patriarch who considered safeguarding his kingdom, his family and its honour as his foremost duty, to which he gave everything in his life for.His name was Bhishma whose appearance happens close to the half-way mark in the epic. Through hard work and ‘gifted’ intelligence, he becomes the bravest man in the country and becomes proficient in all forms of fighting. He is well-versed in all the scriptures and religious texts and his sense of justice is simply other-worldly. He also acquires a ‘divine’ privilege to remain immortal something which he can choose to terminate according to his convenience. At a point when the reader thinks that he is the best man available to rule the country under whose dynamism and intelligence it shall prosper for generations, his father, an ageing King Shantanu falls for a beautiful, yet scheming woman who won’t consent to marriage so easily. Bhishma, the most devoted son that he is to his father vows to remain celibate throughout his life so that he or his children shall never get the chance to lay claim to the throne in the future. This convinces the woman, Satyavati who consents to marry the King and the story of the Mahabharata turns into a new direction. Bhishma remains part of the royal family as a silent guardian, the lone ‘crisis’ man overseeing the passing of generations remaining the sole voice of sanity amid the chaos that soon comes to grip the ruling dynasty.

So as one may see, the Mahabharata that had the potential to captivate the reader even merely as a clash between the ‘Good’ and the ‘Evil’ with a slight rewind turns into one man’s long-winded biography who assumed the responsibility of guarding and shepherding his family during every turn and crisis for generations together. Bhishma’s death arrives only at the end of the ‘Good’ vs ‘Bad’ clash that we saw earlier and the man’s passing marks the end of an era or even of a life that gave everything and took back virtually nothing. Even Bhishma’s foremost aim of holding the family together for which he sacrificed everything, crumbles grievously when his grandson Duryodhan declares war on his brothers. He remains alive only to suffer a life of pain and anguish bearing witness to the horrible tragedy of his children and grand-children slaying each other like blood-thirsty savages merely as a helpless spectator.

But Bhishma’s story too strangely is not all of Mahabharata. If there is one character who is witness to all that happens in the epic, it is none other than the author Vyas himself. Interestingly, Vyas too appears as a character in the epic, making cameos at the most crucial junctures. He is the son of the scheming woman Satyavati who later married King Shantanu but Vyas chooses to live the life of a hermit. When it is discovered that none of the sons of Shantanu can‘scale’ up to the task of producing an ‘heir’ to the throne, Vyas is summoned out of the blue. He fathers three children – two of whom become kings later while the third one, the son of a low-born maid and the most intelligent among them all, stays with the family acting as its guide and counsel.

This act of an author jumping into his own story when it seems to be approaching a dead-end so astotake it forward is one of the most ingenious literary tricks I have seen in classic literature. Vyas however vanishes again as the story picks up from where he left. When he is almost forgotten he makes an appearance suddenly after more than four generations at the end of the Great Yagna called SarpaSatra (snake sacrifice) organized by Arjuna’s great-grandson King Janamejaya. It is only from here the Mahabharata starts and the entire story you have seen is just one big flashback narrated by the Sage Vyas.

But again Mahabharata, cannot be reduced to merely a long story that is narrated by a sage who lived long enough to witness all that happened in the ‘great country of Bharat’. The political subtext of the story are simply too precious to be ignored. Krishna, one of the Avatars of Lord Vishnu was a Yadava chieftain whose ‘birth’ was considered to be lesser than the ever-dominant Brahmin and Kshatriya castes. Krishna’s crucial role in offering counsel to the royal family as and when required and his indispensability in the scheme of things, is often considered to be a sign of lower-caste re-assertion that happened during the Vedic times against the dominant castes. Many oppressed communities in India still regard Krishna as a symbol of rebellion and liberation. Karna and Eklavya’s stories too illustrate the tension that simmered between the oppressed and the oppressing castes in those times in delicate, touching detail. Some scholars argue that the Mahabharata depicts real events that happened between tribal families in North-Central India long, long ago and the allusions to Gods and religion might have been inserted into the story by classes that became hegemonic later.


The character of Draupadi compensates for the whole lack of female representation in the story and her insatiable instinct to rebel and question the status quo easily matches up to the ‘progressive’ standards set by feminists and social activists of today. In fact her character is the only one in the entire story that remains a rebel throughout and she keeps confounding the judgement of the reader escaping all his attempts to box her into a category. She falls instantly in love with a low-born Karna but curiously decides against marrying him. She later gets attracted to the most handsome of her suitors, the valorous Arjuna, the third brother of the Pandavas and marries him. When she is condemned shockingly to share her life with five men, she accepts the word of her mother-in-law who imposed it upon her obediently but never shies from questioning her authority time and again. She is sometimes shown to operate out of vengeance to reclaim her spoilt life, desperately by manipulating the five brothers for her own benefit. Despite her indifference to everyone except Arjuna, Draupadi also grows fond of Bhima whose intimidating giant-like persona much to her amusement,often contrasts with the respect and the subservience he harbours towards her. What makes Draupadi even more interesting is the way she continues to preserve a special place in her heart for Karna even if he has grown too distant from her. If Draupadi’s life could be made into a film adapted to suit present-day conditions, Imitiaz Ali would simply be salivating at the prospect.

If some people don’t consider Mahabharata as a ‘progressive’ work of fiction, it is because they haven’t thought about digging it enough. The character of Shikhandi is a great portrayal of gender ambivalence and Jeyamohan’s Venmurasu dedicates enough pages to illustrate the psychological pulls and pressures endured by such a confused individual. S Ramakrishnan’s Ubapandavam hints at the question of incest while describing Bhishma’s relation to Satyavati whom he initially falls for but is forced later to accept as his mother.


If you think I am dealing with the story of Mahabharata in a non-linear fashion, it is because the story itself is written sometimes in ‘circles’. Some unfortunate events that happen earlier find an echo eerily some generations down the lane, which gives you the impression of a curse that comes back repeatedly to haunt all the members of the royal lineage. Pandu, the father of the Pandavas is cursed fatally by the King of the snake-world, Takshak while his son Arjuna in an act of revenge burns down the forest of Khandava killing almost all the members of the snake dynasty. One surviving member of the snake-world, Mayan known as the greatest architect of the day secretes himself into the Pandava family assuming the responsibility of building a grand palace for them. The palace is designed with so much vengeance and malice that visitors frequenting it are often confused as to how to navigate it. It is this palace that later becomes the cause for Duryodhan’s fury against the Pandavas that morphs later into an unquenchable thirst for revenge.

But the snakes don’t disappear away once and for all. They later come to haunt the grandson of Arjuna, the King Parikshit as a result of which his son Janamejaya decides to finish their dynasty once and for all. This becomes the reason why he organizes the great sacrifice of the snakes which a surviving member of the snake dynasty, sage Astika manages to interrupt. Takshaka, the king of snakes reappears and Janamejaya is offered an opportunity to learn about his family’s historically fractured relationship with the reptile dynasty.Looked at this way, the Mahabharata can also be interpretedas a full-blown conflict that happens between snakes and human kings.

But wait, there is more to substantiate Mahabharata’s circular storytelling device. King Nahusha, the forefathers of the Kuru kingdom in the beginning of the epic hopelessly falls in love with a celestial angel and loses everything in his pursuit. The same fate befalls one of his descendants, King Shantanu who loses his everything on account of his unrequited love for the elusive Ganga, the princess of the river. Both women in these stories marry the kings based on a difficult promise to keep and none of these marriages manage to survive for long.

Also the ancient practice of Niyogais followed twice in the story on different occasions. Just like how the sons of the Kuru clan are fathered by Sage Vyas on account of Vichitravirya’s lack of virility, the Pandavas too are fathered by the Gods instead of King Pandu. The circular narration gets even more interesting when Vayu’s son Bhima, the second Pandava meets in the forest another son from his father, the great Hanuman who exits out of the Ramayana to make a cameo here.

But Mahabharata’s links with Ramayana get even more interesting if you read more texts from various regions in the country. In Ramayana, Vaali, one of the enemies of Rama curses him for having shot him from behind, an act that is totally at odds with the conventions of war-making. Rama accepts the curse and promises to get killed in the hands of Vaali in his next birth as Krishna. Later when Krishna, after the end of the Mahabharata war gets killed by mistake by a hunter named Jara, it is revealed that he is none other than the reincarnation of Ramayana’s Vaali. In some texts, the Naga who was responsible for the enemity between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the architect Mayan is believed to be the father-in-law of Ravana in the story of Ramayana.


Some parts in India treat the whole conflict-ridden relationship between the Nagas and the Kuru dynasty as a clash between the Dravidians and the Aryans respectively. Dravidians are, in some areas believed to have descended from the Nagas who are sometimes dubbed as Asuras in certain stories while the descendants of the Kuru clan are considered to be Aryans, close to the Devas or Gods who generally inhabit the sky. But historians Irawati Karwe and RomilaThapar do not believe in the persistent myth that the Mahabharata was written by a single author and the text that survives today is the one which Lord Ganesha wrote as Vyas dictated it. As many scholars have pointed out, in the text that survives today there are too many discrepancies in the way the whole narrative is structured, which could only mean one thing- the story was edited and revised multiple times over so many years by people of different origins and identities. This becomes one of the foremost reasons why we must reach out for versions written by authors hailing from different parts of the country to get a complete understanding of the ‘epic’ dimensions of the story.

But the surviving text, regardless of its ‘artificial’ shifts in tone and minor inconsistencies doesn’t fail to surprise the reader, even today. The whole story, researcher Devdutt Pattanaik says, is neither an internecine conflict between the Kauravas and the Pandavas nor is it one between the Asuras and the Devas. He says that the whole scope of the epic makes sense only with the completion of the revenge of Bhoomadevi, who had once complained to Lord Vishnu about the way successive generations of men have violated the earthly environs with abandon and impunity, for their own benefit. Bhoomadevi seemed to have begged Vishnu the privilege of drinking the blood of humans in order to teach them a lesson. Vishnu seems to have acceded to the request and the great war of Mahabharata that happened for a mere eighteen days drank the lives of close to a billion, according to Vyasa’s text. Seen this way, the epic among many of its aforementioned interpretations appears to have narrated an interesting episode in the ever-ongoing clash between man and Nature. As it always happens, even here it is Nature that finally won.