Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Maha Bharata - Some Hidden Gems - 1

All of us who grew up in India have experienced story-telling in its glorious form in our villages and towns. They are called Katha-Kalakshepam, which means spending time (kala-kshepam) telling stories (katha). The tradition of story-telling is universal. Even tribes living in isolated communities spread their culture and myths through story-telling. (Please read a book by Mario Vargas Lhosa called The Story Teller. It is a fiction, but captures the essence of this tradition)

Wandering story-tellers are a special breed. They go from village to village and entertain people in the evenings with their stories, songs and legends. From what I know, there is still one such family left in India). Our own Puranas, particularly Mahabharatha and Ramayana lend themselves to story-telling remarkably well. Indeed, the tradition at the time when our puranas were written was for the king’s retinue to move from place to place performing sacrifices (yagna). In the evenings everyone gathered around when someone recounted puranic stories. The famous Mahabharatha itself is written in that mode, as stories told during the sacrifices performed by Janamejaya.

As a child I enjoyed those stories and, without being aware, learnt (imbibed is a better word) plenty of morals from our heroes Rama, Krishna and King Sibi and Karna. As I grew older I was not satisfied because our Bhagavathars (the name for the story tellers in its traditional form) were telling only the stories and perpetuating myths without telling us the many gems buried between the stories.

Yes, when you go to the originals, there are several conversations between the various characters in these epics which are profound. They teach morals, state-craft, deep philosophy and many more. These are left out by the story-tellers. It is particularly sad because it is accepted that if you cannot find a subject of importance in life (dharma, artha, kama and moksha) dealt with in Mahabharatha, you will not find it mentioned anywhere else either.

 Since most of us enjoy hearing stories, we go away happy at the end of the kalakshepam. The bhagavathar knows that if he (or she) started moralizing, he will lose the audience. But very few of us go to the original and read what is written in between these stories. I wish to correct the void.

Here is a book purely based on the gaps in the stories that we are told. Enjoy.

Here is the first of my series. This one is out of order. It is also from a different source. Later, I hope to cover these episodes, in sequence if possible from the Mahabharatha. My source is a website where the entire Mahabharatha can be found in Sanskrit ( with a scholarly verse-by-verse English translation by Prof. K M Ganguli).

In between these stories, other thoughts will also be shared, as my inspiration dictates .  

Arjuna’s Doubt – Same question, different answers 

Here is an episode from Mahabharatha as told by the famous Tamil Poet Subrahmania Bharathiyar in his book of short stories (Gayathri Publications, Thiruchi 3rd Print 2012, pages 262-264)

All the questions are from Arjuna about war and peace. He asks different people and gets different answers with different explanations.

Arjuna asks Karna: Which is better – war or peace?”  Karna says that peace is better. When asked for the reason, Karna says: “If there is a war I will have to hurt you. You will suffer and I cannot bear to see you suffering. Therefore, both of us will suffer. That is why”. Arjuna says that his question was not personal but universal. Karna says that he does not spend time thinking about universal matters. Remember, Karna is a brother of Arjuna and neither of them know it. Indeed, if Indra did not “cheat” Karna to part with his armor with which he was born, he could not have been killed by anyone.

Arjuna then asks Drona, his archery teacher the same question. He replies that war is better because it is the duty of the warrior caste. Besides in war one gets famous by winning or dies, in which case he reaches “heaven”.

Arjuna goes to his wise grandfather, Bhishma and askes the same question. He says that peace is better because only the warriors class benefits by wars whereas the entire humanity benefits in peace. Arjuna says that he does not agree. Bhishma asks for a reason. Arjuna says that Karna thinks he is better than Arjuna and only if there is a war (between the Kauravas and the Pandavas) will the world know who is truly better. Bhishma advises Arjuna: “Child, Dharma (righteousness) will establish itself and will always win – by war or by peace. Therefore, control your anger. Consider all lives as your siblings and seek peace. Let there be love all around”.

Later, Arjuna meets Sage Vyasa, who wrote the Mahabharatha and asks the same question. Vyasa says that the preference depends on the circumstances. “Sometimes, war is better and other times peace is”.

Finally, Arjuna asks Krishna (Arjuna’s Divine counterpart) the same question just before Krishna is getting ready to go to Hastinapura as an emissary for the Pandavas. Lord Krishna says: “At present, peace is better. That is why I am going to Hastinapura to seek peace”.

No comments: