Map . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
Foreword . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Prologues . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Chapter 1 The Vow . . . . . . . . . 13
Chapter 2 The Curse . . . . . . . . 26
Chapter 3 Palace Intrigue . . . . . . 33
Chapter 4 The Summer House . . . 51
Chapter 5 The Contest . . . . . . . 68
Chapter 6 The New Kingdom . . . 79
Chapter 7 The Dice Match . . . . 101
Chapter 8 Exile . . . . . . . . . . . 111
Chapter 9 Incognito . . . . . . . . 139
Chapter 10 The Envoy . . . . . . . . 151
Chapter 11 The Cosmic Form . . . 167
Chapter 12 On The Battlefield . . . 178
Chapter 13 The Night Raid . . . . . 227
Chapter 14 Grandsire’s Story . . . . 237
Chapter 15 The Omens . . . . . . . 250
Chapter 16 The Final Journey . . . . 261
Epilogue. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 269
Vedic Overview . . . . . . . . . . . . 271
Glossary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 276
About Author . . . . . . . . . . . . . 281
by Subhash Kak, Ph.D.
Author and Regents Professor, Oklahoma State University
A great book needs to be retold afresh for each generation. The Mahabharata is one of those books. Known as the fifth Veda, it is quite unlike the first four Vedas which are difficult to comprehend. It is an extensive book, seven times longer than the Odyssey and Iliad combined. An epic of ancient India, Mahabharata teaches the most abstract ideas indirectly, through stories. It highlights the most complex ethical dilemmas to take the reader to the deepest levels of spiritual wisdom.
The underlining contest in the book between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, who are cousins, is like that between the good and the evil. Its central event is the battle that takes place on the holy ground at Kurukshetra; but this battle also represents the living struggle within each individual’s heart. As do the Greek philosophers, Mahabharata extolls examination of one’s life, and it gives us the most uncommon wisdom to do so. The Bhagavad Gita, a jewel of world literature, is a part of it.
Growing up in Kashmir, The Mahabharata was a living text to us for its drama, action and wisdom. We chanted the Bhagavad Gita at home. Father exhorted his children to be brave and truthful like the Pandava brothers. In particular, he wanted us to learn to concentrate like Arjuna, whose challenge was to shoot the revolving fish above him while looking into its reflection in a pan of oil. Arjuna was so focused on the task that he saw nothing but the eye of the fish.
Mother felt a special relationship with the Deity Krishna, whose appearance day – Janmastami – was a big festival at home. The stories of Krishna’s life were recounted. She decorated a swing for baby Krishna, and we fasted until midnight, the hour of His birth.
The Mahabharata is a living document in Indian and Southeast Asian culture, and beyond that, it has influenced world literature. The story continues to be relevant to contemporary issues and concerns, especially in showing the havoc that blind ambition, greed and hubris can bring upon society. There are those who argue that selfless action and protection of Dharma, the moral law, taught by Krishna to Arjuna, should be somehow incorporated in the world of business to forestall repeats of our recent financial crises. The book’s lessons on the nature and meaning of life bring enlightenment.
The Mahabharata inspires and provides strength as we go through the tribulations of life. It teaches fearlessness for it reminds us that our essence is immortal. Tulsi Gabbard, the congresswoman from Hawaii, writes that when she was on the combat tour of Iraq, the Bhagavad Gita brought her great comfort. She reminded herself that she didn’t need to worry about death because her spirit-soul would continue to exist.
I still remember Andy Fraenkel telling the story of Mahabharata at an international conference in Atlanta over fifteen years ago. A hush fell over the hall as we listened with rapt attention, and at the end, when he came to the story of Yudhisthira and his dog, most had tears in their eyes.
Andy Fraenkel is a master storyteller who, in his performances at schools, colleges, and conferences, not only charms but awakens wisdom that has been largely forgotten in modern life. His writing is as direct as his spoken stories, and his Mahabharata has a fresh, fast-paced, cinematic quality to it. In this book he has captured the scope and breath of this great epic.
Bhumi, the Earth goddess, soared heavenward, beyond the Moon and the Sun and through the starry Milky Way, up and up, all the way to Brahmaloka, the planet of Lord Brahma, the topmost Celestial. Her steps quickened as she ascended the grand, crystal stairway and entered his ethereal, multi-domed palace with its magnificent, stained-glass windows. As she knelt before the four-headed one, the grief she carried in her heart gave way and tears flowed from her eyes.
“O Brahma, born of a lotus from Vishnu’s navel, you bear all things in this world. Please hear me. The Earth, like a small craft precariously adrift at sea, has become burdened by the military might of wicked men. It seems the Asuras, the demoniac forces, wish to seize control of my world. In the guise of royalty, and driven by insatiable greed, they ravage the Earth. No one can live in peace. The people, the animals, the birds and the land suffer terrible injustices. I implore you. Something must be done!”
Alarmed by her distress, yet sustained by inner calm, Brahma rose and reached out his hand. “Come with me, my child.” Together they at once set out for Svetadvipa, Lord Vishnu’s abode in this material universe. On their journey they were joined by Lord Shiva and the various gods of universal affairs: the thousand-eyed Indra, god of rain and king of Celestials; the wind-god Vayu ; Agni, the fire-god; Surya, the sun-god; the water-god Varuna, and many other Celestials. Arriving at Svetadvipa, they patiently waited on the shores of its milk ocean. Frothy waves lapped the shoreline laden with emeralds, diamonds, rubies and gems. The Celestials appealed to Vishnu, the God of gods. The crimson sky resounded with their prayers. But no response came from the Lord. Their prayers were met only by the sound of the waves crashing on that pristine beach. Their hearts were troubled by His silence. Why did not the all-compassionate Vishnu respond? At that moment, the Celestials experienced the anxiety and sufferings of those on Earth, and they understood Bhumi’s plight and were humbled.
Vishnu channeled His message into the heart of Brahma who in turn revealed it to the gods. “The Lord of lords will descend to the Earth, into the realm of man, to alleviate the anguish created by the Asura kings and to counteract their military might. Many of His close friends and servants will also descend to assist Him, and He wishes you Celestials should assist them.”
Two/ The Stolen Cow
She had to have it.
The kamadhenu cow held extraordinary powers. A cow of plenty, one that could fulfill all wishes. Whoever drank her milk would remain youthful for thousands of years. The cow, however, belonged to Vasistha, a sage who resided among the Celestials.
“Please get her for me,” she begged her husband.
“You should not desire that which belongs to another,” he chided her.
“It’s not for me, my love. It’s for a friend who is in need of the cow’s powers. My dear husband, please.” She touched his cheek. “It will not at all be difficult for you and your brothers. You are all great heroes. And Vasistha’s hermitage is nearby. Please, Dyu. For me.”
Dyu was one of the eight Vasus – the Shining Ones, protectors of Indra’s celestial court. Dyu called the Vasus together and they quickly arrived at the hermitage of Vasistha, deep in the forest. They were cautious, and not wanting a confrontation with the powerful, mystic sage, made sure to take the cow in his absence.
Vasistha returned shortly after they left. He knew something was amiss and quickly searched the nearby meadows where the kamadhenu usually roamed. The cow was gone. To locate her, he entered samadhi, a deep meditation, and engaged the energies of the sun, clouds, trees, and the earth itself. Sitting in stillness, he projected his astral body in search of the cow and her abductors.
The skies darkened and fierce winds began to blow. The Vasus hurried along the path with their prize. They had gone some distance when a towering figure of the sage loomed before them, blocking their way.
“You dare take my kamadhenu! What insolence! I shall curse you all!”
Lightning streaked across the sky as the earth shook. The once brave Vasus fell to their knees. “Please, spare us!” they cried. Thunder boomed above the trees. Branches and leaves fell all around them.
“None of you are fit to reside in the heavens. As punishment for your reckless act, you shall take birth on the Earth for one lifetime.”
“A lifetime on Earth!” The Vasus were aghast. “No, please don’t do this to us. Be merciful. Anything else.”
Vasistha paused to reconsider. “The curse has passed my lips and cannot be revoked. You must be born on Earth. But, if you can find a way to shorten your lives, you may return to the celestial realms quickly. But not Dyu. Dyu, you are the instigator of the group, and for your misdeed you will spend a long life on Earth. So be it.”
Three/ Krishna Tells a Story
All was quiet. The night sky blanketed the valley. The stars sparkled, vying for attention.
Krishna pondered, “Can truth ever undermine Dharma? Or can a lie ever be preferable to the truth in upholding Dharma?”
Yudhisthira responded with a question. “But is not a lie under any circumstances still a lie?”
“My friend, morality might not be as easy to understand as you think. I’ll tell you a story:
“In the forest there lived a sage by the name of Kausika who took great pride in always telling the truth. He was known far and wide for this unwavering quality. One morning, when he sat outside his hut, three men went rushing past and bound into the thick woods. Shortly, a murderous gang came in search of the three men. Knowing he would never tell a lie, they asked the sage, “Which way did they go?” Kausika told them exactly where the men went. The gang took off in pursuit. They caught the three men and robbed and killed them.
“Kausika thought by telling the truth he had protected Dharma, but it led to the deaths of three travelers. In truth, he was very foolish and unable to discern the subtleties of Dharma. Dharma may point the way for moral behavior, but that doesn’t mean we should suspend our judgment when danger arises. At times, as in this story, truth may harm Dharma and falsehood may uphold Dharma. The wise men say Dharma protects us and sustains us. But we must also use our intelligence to understand the best course of action and protect Dharma.”
“Your sons and their forces are ready,” Sanjaya told the blind king. “As ready as they’ll ever be.”
King Dhritarastra listened with both expectancy and regret, hovering in a world of his own, molded of past and future. If only he had listened to Vidura, it would not have come to this. He feared for his sons, the Kauravas. What would happen to them now? If he could, he would make Duryodhan give back all the land he had taken from the Pandavas. But of all his sons, Duryodhan had always been beyond his control. Surely, Providence would now have its way.
Sanjaya, the king’s aid and confidant, sat in the royal palace at Hastinapura by his side. Though Sanjaya’s gaze was drawn within, he looked far beyond the city’s streets and walls. With Vyasa’s gift of mystic vision, he beheld the valley of Kurukshetra over a hundred miles away. There, as the two armies prepared for battle, Sanjaya could observe every aspect and scan every detail. He could hear any conversation and even know someone’s thoughts.
“This is quite unusual,” Sanjaya continued, and he paused in disbelief.
Dhritarastra impatiently stamped his jeweled cane for attention. “What is it?” He insisted on knowing.
“Yudhisthira has stepped off his chariot. He proceeds across the valley on foot and unarmed toward your sons.”
“Unarmed? Does he mean to seek a truce or to surrender?” Dhritarastra inquired. His mind hoped against hope. Could there still be time for reconciliation, for peace?
The morning air was crisp. Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, walked toward the expanse of Kaurava warriors and their allies. The army Yudhisthira beheld far outnumbered his own. In the distant ranks, amid his sworn enemies, he spied Bhismadev’s splendid chariot, decorated with many weapons. He headed straight for it. Bhismadev was the respected Grandsire of the dynasty, the eldest and wisest. He was also Yudhisthira’s ever well-wisher and like a father to him. Even now Bhismadev observed the solitary figure with pride. Yudhisthira took each step with such ease and grace. Bhismadev knew the last thing Yudhisthira wanted was this fight.
Bhismadev was surrounded by men impatient for battle, for blood and glory, for the sweet taste of victory. Duryodhan, Dushasana, Karna, Sakuni, and Ashwattama. They had waited years for this moment. The horses drawing their chariots whinnied in anticipation. The nobles snickered upon seeing Yudhisthira approach. Maybe this would be easier than they thought. Had Yudhisthira lost his nerve when he saw the sight of their intimidating forces? After all, he had retreated to the forest to spend thirteen years in exile without a word of complaint.
Bhismadev’s mind drifted away from the moment at hand and settled into the past. How had he let it come to this, a civil war that would rip apart this exalted Kuru dynasty? It was the one thing he sought all his life to avoid. His mind wandered back to his youth, and to his father, King Santanu.
Copyright, Andy Fraenkel, 2013