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the mahabharata

The Indian Mahabharata has been called the longest epic in the world. Spanning over 74.000 Sanskrit verses (about ten times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined!), it is one of the founding mythologies of Indian culture, with immense religious and philosophical breadth and depth. Though its vast and sprawling narrative probably grew over a long period of time, it was completed in its final form in the first century. Some events described in the story may date as far back as the 12th century BCE.

The Mahabharata had already been made into a popular television series in India, when Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière adapted the story, first into a nine hour play, and then into a five hour miniseries, from which in turn a cinema version was made. The series is an awesome introduction to the story, as long as you keep in mind it was adapted from a play (it has a bit of a stagey feel at times). With its timeless atmosphere, its careful and imaginative depiction of mythological events, and the great touch of having actors from all over the world portray the different characters, it is truly a world production.

Mahabharata - 01

Narrator of the story is the sage Vyasa, who documents events as well as participating in them. The beginning of the Mahabharata describes how Vyasa conceived the story in his head and asked Ganesha, master of wisdom, to act as scribe. Ganesha agreed, on the condition that Vyasa never pause in his dictation. Vyasa accepted, but with the counter-condition that Ganesha should first understand whatever Vyasa recited before writing it down. This way, Vyasa hoped to buy himself some time in formulating the verses.

The story itself centers around a great war between two opposing branches of a royal family, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The family relations are incredibly complex, spanning multiple generations and including many divine origins. It all builds up to the point where it is inevitable that the virtuous Pandavas, five brothers who share one wife, the beautiful Draupadi, will have to battle the Kauravas for dominion of the realm. Even Dhritarashtra, the blind king, is unable to prevent war.

Mahabharata - 02

Both parties assemble vast armies, they stand ready on the battlefield, but then Arjuna, bravest of the Pandavas brothers, has doubts. How can he wage war on his own family, on people he has known since childhood? Here, on the very brink of war, the narrative pauses and the divine Krishna, Arjuna's chariot driver, teaches him about devotion to duty, without attachment or desire of reward. This is the Bhagavad Gita, the most famous section of the Mahabharata, and (roughly) the equivalent of the New Testament in Hinduism.

Prepare for war with peace in thy soul. Be in peace in pleasure and pain, in gain and in loss, in victory or in the loss of a battle. In this peace there is no sin.
Mahabharata - 03

The Pandavas finally win the war, but victory is bittersweet with so many dead. In the end, the Pandava brothers leave their kingdom behind and go on a pilgrimage to the Himalayas, where one by one they pass to heaven.

Mahabharata Online has a complete translation as well as an excellent summary.


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