Arjuna, the iconic hero of the Mahabharata

The Mahabharata refers to Arjuna using 14 different names. One of which is Savyasachi.

Do you know what the name means?

Watch the YouTube video for the answer and to know what makes Arjuna the iconic hero of the epic.

Drona’s cruelty to Ekalavya

Why did Drona refuse to teach Ekalavya?

Was it because Ekalavya was not a Kshatriya? Because Ekalavya was supposedly a low-born compared to his other students?

Why did he extract a bloody sacrifice from Ekalavya?

Check the video on one of the most debated issues from the Mahabharata!

The Mystery of the Missing God from the Mahabharata

(A 5-minute read)

The Shanmatha traditions

Hindu religion, as we know it today, is mostly an aggregation of what used to be six independent sects called the Shanmatha, which included the worship of the Sun (Saura), Vishnu (Vaishnava), Shiva (Shaiva), Kumara or Skanda-Karthikeya (Kaumara), Devi (Shakta) and of course, Ganapati (Ganapatya).

The Missing Deity of the epic

The third and the fourth parvans of the Mahabharata namely the Vana parvan and the Virata parvan refer to the worship of many of these deities. But there is one deity, whose worship references are conspicuously absent in the epic. Which deity is that?

Let’s first start with the deities that the epic knew.

Vishnu: As everyone knows, Krishna, considered an avatar of Vishnu, plays an overarching role in the epic. The Bhagawad Gita clearly presents Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu, as the supreme god.

That is not to say the other equally large Shaivite tradition does not find representation in the text.

Shiva: References to Shiva can be found in the Vana parvan where Arjuna performs a penance to please Shiva and obtains divine weapons such as the Pashupathastra from him. Of course, who else, but the destroyer God, to grant Arjuna weapons of mass destruction!

Shakti: While Shakti, as Parvati, does make a cameo appearance in the Pashupatastra episode of the Vana parvan, she finds greater representation in the Virata parvan. Just before the Pandavas enter the kingdom of Virata to complete the last year of their exile incognito, they pray to Durga, the goddess of war. The Pandavas, led by Yudhishtra, sings praises of goddess Durga seeking success in their mission. She appears before them and blesses them with successful completion of the incognito year without being recognised by the Kauravas and eventual victory over them in the war.

Surya: While in exile in the forest, Yudhishtra is faced with the responsibility of not just feeding his brothers and their wife, Draupadi, but with also ensuring that all the Rishis and Brahmins who have followed him into the forest are fed. So, he performs several austerities to the Sun god, Surya, who blesses him with the Akshaya patra, the vessel that ensured unending supply of food for the Pandavas and their retinue through their stint in the forest. Yudhishtra knew very well, which God to please, when it came to asking for bountiful food!

Karthikeya: The story of the birth of Skanda, the son of Shiva, his childhood exploits and his slaying of Tarakasura are narrated by sage Markandeya in detail in the Vana parvan. Stories about the exploits of Karthikeya, the war God, may have inspired the Pandavas to prepare themselves for the impending war.

Thus, we find that the epic, through its period of evolution, accommodated several existing and emerging religious sects in the form of stories about their chief deities. All deities of the Shanmatha, except one!

So, which deity is absent from the epic’s narrative?

It is Ganesha!

Why are there no stories about his worship in the epic?

Mystery solved

One reason may be that for a long time, Ganapati worship was concentrated in the Western parts of India where he was considered a farmer’s god. Ganapati worship became more mainstream and widespread only around the 5-6th century CE by when it started to emerge as a large and independent sect. Interestingly, by this time, the Mahabharata, as a text, had more or less completed its period of evolution and had reached its final written form. That can explain why stories of Ganesha did not find themselves into the epic.

However, as the worship of Ganesha became popular over time, his devotees could not be disappointed. So, the story about how Vyasa requested Ganesha to be his scribe while composing his magnum opus, was inserted as a frame story in a later-period manuscript, written in Devanagari and belonging to India’s North-Central region.

Who knows? The clever interpolator who inserted the story, may have been a Ganpati devotee himself. But as an elephant-headed God of wisdom, he could not have found a better scribe to pen down Vyasa’s magnum opus!

Om Ganeshaya Namaha!

For more on the Vyasa and Ganesha story, watch this 2-minute video!

Krishna: Five lesser-known facts from the Mahabharata

The story of Krishna is narrated in several texts including the Hari Vamsa and the Bhagawata Purana. In these texts, he is God – omnipresent and omnipotent.

But in the Mahabharata, he comes across as a complex character in varying shades of white, black, grey and blue. Here, he is not always god, but often a thinker-philosopher and war strategist.

Presenting five lesser-known aspects of Krishna from the Mahabharata.

Mahabharata Series 3 | The epic’s violent beginnings

The Mahabharata is narrated for the first time at a horrific snake sacrifice conducted by Arjuna’s great grandson and Abhimanyu’s grandson, Janamejaya.

But how does the snake sacrifice relate to the core story of the epic? How does the Sarpa Sattra or the snake sacrifice set the perfect context for the epic?

Click to find out!

The Riddles of Vyasa

There are several difficult expressions and riddle-like verses in the Mahabharata. They are called the Vyasa Kutas.

Legend has it that it is these difficult Vyasa kutas that made Lord Ganesha pause and ponder over while writing down the great epic.

But, the story of Ganesha writing down the Mahabharata serves a larger purpose.

Click the link to know the whole story!

Women Heroes in the Mahabharata

Damsels in distress and knights rushing to rescue them from the clutches of wily witches, scheming step-mothers and dangerous dragons has been the common theme of most fairy tales from our childhood.  These stories from medieval Europe have largely presented women as delicate, helpless beings, incapable of defending themselves, and waiting for a valiant prince to arrive and liberate them from their miserable existence.

Surprisingly for a patriarchal society, this theme of men rescuing women is quite rare in Indian mythology, other than, of course, the famous story of Rama who goes out in search of his kidnapped wife.

On the contrary, Indian mythology is full of stories of women who go all out to rescue their lovers or consorts, with or without their shining armour. These women often save their beloveds from tricky tribulations and sticky situations, accompany them to the warfront, and at times even bring them back from the dead. 

And the Mahabharata, unlike any other work of world mythology, is replete with stories of women champions. Here are some stories of gutsy women who displayed enormous valour in their quest to bring back their loved ones from the brink and beyond of disaster. What is interesting about these stories is that, unlike men, these women chose to rely entirely on their moral courage, wit and wisdom rather than swords and daggers to assist them in their quest.

Ulupi

Let’s begin with Ulupi, who revived her dead lover Arjuna with the Mrithasanjivani gem. As Arjuna lay dead, killed by his own son Babruvahana owing to a curse of the Vasus, it was Ulupi, Arjuna’s Naga wife, who summoned the jewel of the Nagas, placed it on Arjuna’s chest and brought him back to life. According to one version of the story, Ulupi plotted the entire drama of the son killing his father in order to redeem Arjuna from the curse of the Vasus for having slain their brother, Bhishma.

Shachi/Indrani

Shachi or Indrani, Indra’s consort, was yet another courageous woman, who was believed to be the source of Indra’s powers. Once, after having killed the demon Vritra treacherously, Indra was so overcome with guilt and shame that he fled Amaravathi, and hid himself in the stem of a lotus in a pond so far away, where he could not be found by other gods.

Unable to find Indra, the gods replaced him with a human, Nahusha. Unfortunately, Nahusha turned out a bad choice as he harassed the gods and the sages, and also tried to persuade Shachi into marrying him.However, clever Shachi managed to get rid of Nahusha by having sage Agasthya curse him into becoming a serpent. She also sought out Indra and convinced him to come out of his hiding and resume his position as the lord of the Devas. Thus, Shachi not only saved her husband from eternal damnation and but also became a kingmaker of sorts, giving back the Devas, their leader.

What makes Shachi’s story interesting is that, in her search for Indra, she is described as having undertaken a long and arduous journey, navigating high mountains and deep seas through darkness and difficulties, very similar to the journey undertaken by Joseph Campbell’s hero.

Damayanti

Equally critical was the role of Damayanthi in tracking down Nala, her husband, who had been banished from his kingdom and forced into hiding. Damayanthi hatched a clever plan to track down Nala. Using a difficult riddle which only Nala could solve, she traced him to King Rituparna’s court. There, Damayanthi’s messenger spread false news about her second swayamvara. Hoping to prevent Damayanthi’s remarriage, Nala rushed to her, and was thus reunited with his family.

Savitri

Of course, the list of heroic women from the Mahabharatha cannot be complete without the mention of Savithri, who got none other than the Lord of Death to rewrite the destiny of Satyavan, her beloved. After Satyavan’s death, Savithri followed Yama over long distances on his journey to the land of the dead, till he was forced to yield to the persuasive Savithri and agree to return Satyavan alive to her.    

To conclude, it would be unfair to dismiss these mythological women as pativratas, to be lauded merely for their sexual fidelity. It is feminine nature to fiercely protect the loved ones, whatever the cost! And loved their men, these women did! To the extent of even choosing them over gods (Damayanthi) and mighty kings (Savithri) sometimes!

More importantly, like Campbell’s hero, many of these women (Savithri, Shachi) stepped beyond their conventional role, crossing the threshold from the ordinary into the extraordinary, thus undergoing a significant transformation in their personalities in the course of their quest.

In light of these stories, maybe our perception of Indian mythology as having no female heroes needs a serious rethink!

Click the link to listen to the stories of the Panchakanyas, who were as bold as they were beautiful!

Goddess Lakshmi – Story & Symbolism

Goddess Lakshmi finds mention in an annexure to the oldest of Indian texts, the Rig Veda – the Sri Suktam to be precise.

What is interesting is that she continues to be depicted in popular art based on the descriptions given in the Sri Suktam. And so, we find her sitting on a red lotus in a pool of water, carrying a pot on her hands while two elephants stand on either side showering water on her.

This video explains the significance of each of these elements – the waters, the kumbha/pot, the lotus and the elephants.

Ardhanarishvara, the God who is both Man & Woman

Vikriti evam Prakriti‘ – The unnatural is indeed natural – The Rig Veda

Ancient Indians did not shy away from the gender fluidity seen in nature.

The idea of Ardhanari – the androgynous god – is also a reflection of their non-binary view of this world.

Click to know more about how the idea of Ardhanari was born, and how its symbolism has evolved with time.

When the Mother showed the moon to save her son…

Kalidasa’s great epic Kumara Sambhava opens with a salutation to Shiva and Parvati where he refers to them as the parents of the world who are as inseparable as a word and its meaning.

In Indian thought, the title of mother is not just restricted to Parvati but to all our goddesses. They tend to their devotees as a mother tends to her child.

Here’s a sthalapurana of a temple from deep down south, where the goddess rushed to the help of her devout son when he needed her most.

So the story goes that sometime in the 18th century AD, there lived a Brahmin named Subramanyam Iyer in a small town called Thirukadaiyur in Tamil Nadu. His town had a famous Shiva temple where the presiding deity was Lord Amrithaghateswar and his consort was Goddess Abhirami.

Subramanyam was a regular visitor to the temple. He was deeply devoted to Goddess Abhirami. So intense was his faith that he saw the goddess in every woman and much to the discomfort and annoyance of the women in his town, he chased them around and showered them with flowers before prostrating at their feet. This quirky behaviour of his earned him the title of a lunatic.

On one new moon day, the local king Sarfoji, came to the temple for a darshan of the goddess. At the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, he found Subramanyam  deep in meditation. Now, the king was used to having people rushing to his beck and call. So, Subramanyam’s complete oblivion to his presence angered him. Sarfoji enquired the locals about Subramanyam and was told that Subramanayam was a mad man.

The king decided to run a test of his own on the man sitting before him. He nudged the meditating Subramanyam and asked him if he knew what day of the lunar month (thithi) it was. Now, everyone knew it was the new moon day (Amavasya), when the night sky would be moon-less and dark. But Subramanyam, whose eyes were fixed on the face of the goddess that looked as bright as the glow of a thousand moons, blurted out that it was a full moon day (Purinma).

Angered by the wrong answer, the king ordered that Subramanyam be punished. As per the king’s order, Subramanyam was to be suspended on a wooden deck hung over a blazing fire with the help of ropes. The deck hosting Subramanyam was to be purged into the fireplace below, at dusk, if the moon did not rise, as he had predicted.

But, as happens with all men of god, Subramanyam remained unperturbed! It is said that, it was while hovering over the blazing fire that Subramanyam composed and rendered over a 100 hymns in praise of Goddess Abhirami.

After each hymn was rendered, the deck was lowered further. The onlookers waited with bated breath to see what would happen!

Legend has it that just as Subramanyam finished rendering his seventy-ninth hymn, Goddess Abhirami appeared before him, removed her resplendent earring and threw it at the sky where it shone like the silvery moon!

Subramanyam’s words had indeed come true!

On a supposedly no-moon night, there was now a round silvery moon that shone like a brilliant jewel, turning an otherwise dark night sky into a brightly lit celestial canvas.

The king, who witnessed this miracle, realised the extreme devotion of Subramanya Iyer, sought his forgiveness, and set him free.

From that day, Subramanyam came to be known as Abhirami Bhattar. The hymns he composed are known as Abhirami Andhadhi, an exquisite piece of devotional poetry, where every verse starts with the same word that the previous verse ends in.

Abhirami Andhadhi is still read and rendered by millions of Tamils even today. It is believed that rendering these hymns on full moon and new moon days can make the great mother grant the most impossible of her children’s dreams!