Mahabharata is not a tale of war — it is the tale of the futility of war – Dev Dutt Pattanaik



Critics of Mahabharata have always described it as a story of war and violence. But when a reader, who is not a slave of any ideology or –ism, closes the Mahabharat after completely reading it, realizes the futility of war and violence. He will take to the path of non-violence and this is what happened with King Janamejaya, who first heard the entire Mahabharata during the Snake Sacrifice from the mouth of Vyasa's student Vaisampayan.

King Janamejaya, who was conducting the Snake Sacrifice (Sarpasatra) to kill all the snakes on the earth to avenge the killing of his Parikshit by Snake Takshaka, changed his mind after hearing the Mahabharata tale.

But modern narrations of Mahabharat focus only on war. An aspect of Kali Yuga (the present age as per Hindu tradition), is that people will focus more on the negative aspects, which gives momentary pleasure. War, violence and victory provide momentary pleasure to the readers. Modern writers and interpreters are interested in the war episodes of Mahabharata and quite often ignoring several important details on what happened before and after the war.

Dr Devdutt Pattanaik, a medical doctor by training and a mythologist by passion, had written on the topic in February 2009 and it was republished recently in the Star of Mysore. Dr Devdutt Pattanaik lectures and writes extensively on the relevance of Hindu sacred stories, symbols and rituals in modern times.

Dr Devdutt Pattanaik says ‘Vyasa called his poem not Mahabharata, which means story of the great Bharata clan, but Jaya, which means victory. There is another word for victory — Vijaya. What is the difference between Jaya and Vijaya?

Jaya means pure victory— one where there are no losers while Vijaya means victory where someone is defeated. A victory without losers is a victory over one's own self.’

Unfortunately there is no direct link to this highly wonderful and thought provoking article. So I am publishing the entire article. You read more about Dr Devdutt Pattanaik and his articles here at his official website.

The Article - The Snake Sacrifice

Mahabharata was written not to describe a war or to despair about it, but to tell the world how futile it is to fight.

It is said that the Mahabharata should not be read inside the house because it is the tale of a household divided. But incredible as it sounds, Mahabharata is not the tale of war or violence — it is the tale of the futility of war and violence. It was first narrated by Vyasa's student Vaisampayan to calm the rage of Janamejaya, king of Hastinapur, great grandson of Arjuna the Pandava during the Sarpasattra or snake sacrifice.

Janamejaya was angry because a serpent had killed his father Parikshit. To punish the serpents, he decided to perform a horrific yagna that would destroy all the serpents in the land. So powerful was this ritual that it dragged the serpents from the farthest corners of earth and flung them inside the sacrificial pit where a huge fire blazed. The cry of serpents filled the air. Everyone was shocked by the cruelty of the king.

A sage called Astika, whose mother was a serpent but whose father was a human, intervened and begged the king to stop.

'Why? They deserve to die,' said the king.

Astika replied, ‘Parikshit died because he was cursed for insulting a sage. He asked the sage for water not realizing the sage was meditating and hence not hearing what was being asked. In his impatience and irritation, your father put a dead snake around the sage's neck and so was cursed that he would die of snake bite within seven days.'

'That explains why my father died. But it does not explain why the snake bit my father,' said Janamejaya, refusing to stop his murderous ritual.

'The city of Indraprastha that was built by Pandavas was once a forest called Khandavprastha which belonged to the serpents. Your forefathers set aflame the entire forest to clear the ground for their city. One snake survived the blaze and swore to avenge the destruction of his home and his family. That snake whose name was Takshaka killed your father as punishment for the crime committed by your great grandfather Arjuna and his brothers,' explained Astika.

Janamejaya realised how misplaced was his righteous indignation against the snakes. He thought he was the victim when in fact, his ancestors were the victimisers. 'Tell me more,' he begged the half-human half-serpent sage.

The sage advised him to call Vaisampayan. 'His teacher Vyas has composed the epic that tells the full story of your forefathers who belonged to Bharata clan. You will realise how all events are created by other events. No one is truly innocent. No one is actually guilty. We are all victims of circumstances. So before you judge others, think — maybe you are not as innocent as you think.'

Vaisampayan narrated Mahabharata to Janamejaya. At the end of the narration, Janamejaya realized life is not simple as it seems. It is easy to blame people, hate and kill people; it is difficult to forgive people and let go of anger and hatred.

Vaisampayan revealed that Vyasa called his poem not Mahabharata, which means story of the great Bharata clan, but Jaya, which means victory. There is another word for victory — Vijaya. What is the difference between Jaya and Vijaya?

Jaya means pure victory— one where there are no losers while Vijaya means victory where someone is defeated. A victory without losers is a victory over one's own self. Thus for Vyas, the purpose of his story was not to glorify the Bharata clan nor to describe the Vijaya of Pandavas over Kauravas. It is to realise the path to Jaya, conquest of one's ego, for it is the ego that makes people fight over property and makes kings like Janamejaya perform the dreaded Sarpasattra.

We must remember that only six of the eighteen chapters of the epic are devoted to the war. There are six chapters before the epic describing the buildup to the war and six after that introspecting on the war. Typically, storytellers focus on the first twelve chapters and end with the coronation of Yudhishtira.

But there is more to the epic, stories that are not heard because people are so bedazzled by stories of war that they ignore stories of peace. For example, in the Anushasana Parva, Bhisma tells the Pandavas the story of a fowler called Arjunaka who catches hold of a serpent that has killed the only child of a woman called Gautami. ‘Shall I kill this serpent?’ asks the fowler.

‘No,’ says the grieving Gautami holding the lifeless body of her son, ‘It was fate that killed my son. The snake was just a medium. Why kill the medium when it cannot change my son’s fate.’

With this tale, Bhisma tries to allay the guilt of the Pandavas. Tales such as this, which are found across Mahabharata, narrated over centuries, is what has made Indians a tolerant people.

Sadly, newer narrations ignore this side of the epic and celebrate only violence and righteous outrage, the screaming of Draupadi is heard by all when her clothes are pulled away by the Kauravas, but no one hears her weep when all her five children are killed in the terrible 18-day war.