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  • The Mahabharata and Andha Yug:A Brief Summary
  • Frank Stewart

These few paragraphs—recounting events and persons in the Mahabharata referenced in Andha Yug—are necessarily brief and superficial. Composed some two thousand years ago, India's great verse epic is far too expansive, enigmatic, and subtle to summarize. In the Poona Critical Edition, published in twenty-four volumes between 1933 and 1970, the work comprises approximately 100,000 stanzas—mostly in a meter called shloka—making it approximately eight times the length of the Odyssey and the Iliad combined.

The Mahabharata's vastness is more than a matter of length: it claims to contain the cosmos itself. As scholar David Shulman writes in The Wisdom of Poets (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001):

The Mahabharata is conterminous with the world. … It presents itself not as a work of art but as reality itself. No boundary marks off this text from the world. Even in recitation, it functions not as a purveyor of dramatic illusion, nor as an imaginative venture in narrative, but as the vehicle of what might properly be termed "realistic" insight. And it is no accident that this insight, or series of insights, presents itself to us in the context of intractable dilemmas and hopelessly frustrating ambiguities.

Indeed, the beginning of the Mahabharata states that "whatever exists here exists elsewhere, but what does not exist here exists nowhere."

It is thus as difficult to say what the Mahabharata is about as to say what existence is about. The Mahabharata addresses not only the question of what exists, but who and when, and in what context: the epic proposes that individuals (not all of them human) are interwoven on the levels of the particular and the eternal, layered in the entangled weave of Time. Eras recur like the shuttle passing back and forth on a loom: worlds and beings (even the gods) are created, have endings, and are reborn. And because every era is related to all others, individual actions have a cumulative influence on the moral texture of the whole.

Cosmic Time comprises four recurring epochs, or yugs: Satya Yug, Treta Yug, Dvapara Yug, and Kali Yug. The first is an age of perfection and purity [End Page 111] lasting 1,728,000 years. With each succeeding epoch, the universe deteriorates, marred by the imperfections of the prior one. The Great Mahabharata War, the central event in Andha Yug, takes place on the cusp of the fourth yug, when the Dvapara Yug is ending. The decline of morality and goodness foreshadows the arrival of the Kali Yug, the period in which we now live.

Andha Yug is essentially a play about morality: it questions whether we are accountable for our moral choices; whether the quality of our actions can transcend the time, place, and circumstances of our existence; and whether we can be more than agents of destiny.

The Protagonists

The immediate reason for the Great War is the sudden death of Pandu, king of the Bharata empire, ruled from the capital, Hastinapur. Who should become the new king? Pandu's older brother, Dhritarashtra, cannot occupy the throne because he was born blind. The kingdom, then, ought to be passed to Pandu's oldest son; but Dhritarashtra also has sons with ambitions to rule. Dhritarashtra—who is regent while his sons and Pandu's all come of age—literally "turns a blind eye" as his voracious firstborn son, Duryodhana, refuses to divide the kingdom or to allow his cousin to become king. A catastrophic, fratricidal war breaks out, with each side joined by vast armies from throughout the realm.

At the time of his death, King Pandu had five sons—known as the Pandavas—by his two wives. Because Pandu had been cursed to die if he had intercourse, various gods fathered his sons for him. His oldest son, Yudhishthira, was fathered by the God Dharma; his second son, Bhima, by the God Vayu; and his third son, Arjuna, by the God Indra. Their mother is Kunti, Pandu's first wife. Pandu's fourth and fifth sons are twins, Nakula and Sahadeva, fathered by divine twins, the Ashvins. Their mother is Madri, Pandu's second wife.

Secretly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-943x
Print ISSN
1045-7909
Pages
pp. 111-114
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-28
Open Access
No
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