Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Mahabharata, The Greatest Indian Epic

It has been called the national epic of India, and it is that, in very much the same sense that the Illiad is the national epic of Classical Greece. The Mahabharata is the story of a great war that ended one age and began another. The story has been passed down to us in a classical canon of Sanskrit verses some 100,000 stanzas long; that is about 12 times the length of the Western Bible. The best scholarly evidence indicates that the earliest layers of the epic were composed between 2500 and 3000 years ago. The text had reached pretty much its present form by about 300-400 C.E.

Mahabharata has also been called the Hindu bible. It is important at the outset to recognize that epic and bible are both Eurocentric terms. The former implies the kind of single-minded focus on the hero and his deeds that characterizes the stories that we Europeans learned as epics in our schooling. And the latter term implies a certain iconic status for the book in its society; our bible is not something we know so much as it is something we swear on. None of that is particularly true for the Mahabharata, although it is not completely false either. It just misses the point.

Epic and bible together imply an absolute division between the sacred and the profane - one pure fable and the other Holy Truth - that simply doesn it exist in the Hindu vision. Our Eurocentric minds, trained in a Jahwist tradition of good and evil, true and false, demand that the story go into one slot or the other, and if it is too big, then we will reduce it to fit. The Hindu mind, I think, rather than force the story into any single category, conceives a story big enough to encompass all categories.

The Mahabharata itself says it quite positively.

What is found herein may also be found in other sources,
What is not found herein does not matter.

The Mahabharata contains virtually all the lore and legend of the Classical Hindu Tradition - which is also, in typical Hindu defiance of simple-minded historicity - very much a living tradition. Here are the great creation stories - Manu is flood, the churning of the milk ocean, the descent of the Ganges. Here are the favorite myths and fairy tales. Here are the jokes. Here are the codes of law - moral, ethical, natural. One of the best things about the Mahabharata is its wonderful richness of episode and detail.

But Mahabharata is not a random collection of tales, like the Medieval gestes (to further prove the habit of thinking Eurocentrically). Every digressive bit of the Mahabharata is there to shed light on a central story. The core event of that story is the great battle that was fought on the field of Kurukshetra between the five sons of King Pandu and their allies on the one side and the hundred sons of King Dhritarashtra, with their allies, on the other side. The battle was the culmination of a long history of struggle and diplomatic maneuvering, and it involved virtually every tribal king and every powerful city-state in Central and Northern India at the time.

It was a tragic war, that pitted brothers against brothers, sons against fathers and uncles, brave noble men against brave noble men. And it was devastating. Nearly all of the best men died in the long battle. The Pandavas, the sons of King Pandu, survived, but there was no victory, for the war had destroyed the world that they knew, and the emptiness of what they had won colored the rest of their lives.

Now to say that the Mahabharata is the story of a great battle is to say that Hamlet is the story of an unsuccessful usurpation, or that Moby Dick is the story of a whale hunt. Hindu cosmology is sweeping, and the story of the Mahabharata war has cosmological significance, in that it marks the end of one yuga and the beginning of another. There are four yugas in every great cycle of existence, each one diminished from the one before. The yuga that ended with the Mahabharata war was the dvapara yuga - the age of heros, during which noble values still prevailed and men remained faithful to the principles and tasks of their castes. The age that follows the battle is the Kali yuga, the last age of the world; in it, all values are reduced, law becomes fragmented and powerless, and evil gains sway. We live in the Kali yuga.

The breadth of its vision is one of the things that makes the Mahabharata the best story I know. But there are other reasons. Mahabharata has a riveting plot and a compelling dramatic structure. Its characters are complex and real, with depth of personality that is unmatched in any other epical or biblical story I have heard. Finally, I have found the Mahabharata to be full of wisdom.

In the next few minutes, I am going to try to give you a sense of how the Mahabharata story goes.

Since the story has cosmic significance, its ultimate beginnings are lost in the mists of time and the minds of unknowable immensities; a wealth of family histories, myths, and fables lead up to the events that I will tell you about. I will jump into the story at a point where the succession to the kingship had come into question.

The old king had died without issue, but sons had been fathered on his two widows by his half-brother; by the Hindu laws of the levirate, those sons became the legal heirs of the dead king.

To complicate the situation further, the elder son, Dhritarashtra, although he was renowned through all the world for his wisdom and strength, had been born blind and so was not eligible to assume the kingship. His younger brother Pandu, then, assumed the throne of Hastinapura.

Then one day, before either of Pandu’s wives had conceived her first child, the king was out hunting, and he shot and mortally wounded a stag in the act of copulating with his mate. Before the stag died, he cursed Pandu.

"Oh King, what you have done is unlawful. The next time you attempt intercourse, your head will break apart and you will die."

Pandu was devastated. In the world of the Mahabharata, such curses always come true, and Pandu realized that the stag’s curse meant that he could never have sons. So he stepped down from the throne; he and his wives put on the garb of wandering hermits and went to live in the forest, leaving the kingdom under the stewardship of blind Dhritarashtra.

Then, in the woods, Pandu’s senior wife Kunti revealed that she possessed a secret mantram, a magical incantation, that would invoke a God to fill her womb with his power.

Pandu was delighted. Another section of the levirate laws declared that sons fathered on one’s wife by a god were lawful sons. With the aid of the mantram, Pandu had five sons, known collectively as the Pandavas, the sons of Pandu.

Yudhisthira, the eldest, was conceived by Dharma the god, who embodies dharma the law which is constant through all time and circumstance. Yudhishtira grew to be the wisest and most law-abiding of men; indeed, he is known as Lord Dharma. And he was a champion chariot warrior.

The god father of Bhima, Pandu’s next son, was Vayu, the wind, and Bhima grew to be enormously strong, with a voracious appetite; he is known as Wolf-belly, and he had fame in three worlds for his strength as a club fighter.

Finally, Kunti bore Arjuna. Arjuna’s father was Indra, King of the gods, Thunderbolt-Wielder, Destroyer of Cities. Arjuna grew to be a master of weapons, the Left-handed Archer, the Lord of Victory.

Pandu’s second wife, Madri, also used the mantram. She conceived twin sons by the twin physician gods, the Aswins, and Nakula and Sahadeva grew to be expert swordsmen.

While all this was going on in Pandu’s forest exile, the blind king Dhritarashtra, back in Hastinapura, had found miraculous intervention for his own issue, and his wife, the virtuous Gandhari, had born 100 sons. The eldest and chief of Dhritarashtra’s sons was Duryodhana, and he had assumed the role of crown prince in Hastinapura.

Then back in the forest, one spring day, Pandu happened upon Madri bathing, and she was so beautiful, so desireable, that he could no longer control himself, and Madri lacked the strength and the will to prevent him. He had her, the murdered stag’s curse kicked in, and Pandu paid his karmic debt. Madri was so unbalanced by Pandu’s death and her complicity in it that she threw herself on the funeral pyre and left the story to Kunti.

Kunti, for her part, packed up the five boys and took them to Hastinapura. "Here," she said to Dhritarashtra, "are the sons of Pandu."

"Move over."

Mahabharata covers the years following the Pandavas' arrival in Hastinapura in rich and inviting detail - the growing rivalry between Duryodhana with his 99 brothers, on the one side, and the five Pandavas, with their supporters, on the other; Duryodhana’s attempt to assassinate the Pandavas by burning the house in which they are visiting; their escape and their subsequent period of exile. For the purposes of plot advancement, the two most significant events of that period were the arrival on the scene of Draupadi, who became wife to the Pandavas, and Krishna, who became their most trusted friend, counselor, and ally.

The Arrival of Krishna

Arjuna actually won Draupadi’s hand at her svayambara, the Maiden’s Choice festival at which suitors contend for the love of the princess. Arjuna was the only one in the arena who could string and fire the massive bow that Draupadi’s father had made to test his daughter’s suitors. The family was living in exile at the time, disguised as brahmanas, student priests, and begging for their food. When Arjuna arrived with Draupadi at the door of the hut in which they were living, he jokingly called out to his mother, "Come see what I got in my begging bowl today." And Kunti, without looking up, gave a mother’s typical response: "Whatever it is, be sure to share it with your brothers."

A mother’s word is law.

So Draupadi married all five brothers.

Krishna had also been at Draupadi’s svayambara, up from his city of Maratha, and he had watched with keen interest as the stranger dressed as a brahmana had leaped into the arena and bested the finest warrior kings. Krishna was Kunti’s cousin. He knew of the Pandavas’ exile, and he thought he knew who the unknown warrior priest might be. Shortly after the festival Krishna found his way to the potter’s shed where the Pandavas were living with Kunti. He greeted his cousin Kunti, and clapped Arjuna on the shoulder.

"I knew that you were Arjuna."

"And you must be Krishna. We have never met, yet I feel that I have known you."

"Perhaps," said Krishna, "we have been friends in other lives."

"We will be friends in this life," said Arjuna.

"Yes," said Krishna, and they embraced.

The Krishna who found the Pandavas after Draupadi’s svayambhara is the same Krishna who is the object of the Hare Krishnas’ worship. In India, there is a whole canon of myth and legend surrounding Krishna, all of it later in origin than the Mahabharata, that emphasizes his godhead, as an avatar of the great god Vishnu, the Preserver. But in the Mahabharata, Krishna’s humanity is to the fore. His divinity is visible - he receives more honor and deference than his position, as the younger son of a distant king, would seem to warrant. And he performs several quick miracles, of the "Did-I-just-see-what-I-thought-I-just-saw?" sort. And there is a persistent sense of mystery that dwells in Krishna’s presence in the story. And the Pandavas acknowledge his godhood on several occasions, but it’s treated almost casually. Mostly Krishna is in the Mahabharata as a trusted counselor, an honored friend of the Pandava’s family, and Arjuna’s best friend. Arjuna and Krishna spend long stretches of the story away from the main action, off having adventures somewhere else that sometimes we learn about and sometimes we don’t. It’s easy to believe that they are playing parts in other stories than ours. In our story, however, Krishna is a friend and counselor, and shortly after he enters the story, at the end of the first long book of the Mahabharata, he helps the Pandavas effect a reconciliation with their rivals.

The Assembly Hall

King Dhritarashtra, in fact, agreed to split the kingdom in half. He would remain as King in Hastinapura, with Duryodhana as his crown prince. The Pandavas would take over the undeveloped eastern part of the country.

The Pandavas established a capital city, which they called Indraprasta, and their fortunes flourished, while those of the Kurus remained stagnant. After twelve years of growing prosperity and steady expansion of his influence, King Yudhishtira was ready to conduct the most powerful Vedic ritual, the Royal Sacrifice, which would make him lawful king of all the known world.

The sacrifice required thousands of brahmin priests and took years to perform. Yudishtira’s brothers had to secure allegiance to his reign from every king in all four corners of the world. And when it was all over, and Yudhishtira had won the right to be called Great King, maharaja, he invited all of the kings in his dominion to celebrate with him in the magnificent assembly hall that he had built just for this event.

Duryodhana came, and he was green with jealousy. What is more, he made a fool of himself in front of the assembled kings, and the Pandavas laughed at him. He returned to Hastinapura in a black funk; striding into the Kuru’s assembly hall, Duryodhana, with an angry swirl of his cape, sat on the floor.

"I am finished with life. The Pandavas have everything, and I have nothing. I will take no food, no drink. I will stay here until my hatred has become my funeral pyre and consumed me totally."

"Duryodhana," said his brother Duhsasana. "You must not."

Duryodhana said, "Yudishtira has the world, and Arjuna got it for him."

"We can defeat the Pandavas," said Duhsasana.

"All the kings of the world have tried, and all have failed. Yudhishtira does not stir from the Law, and nothing can defeat him."

"I know how to defeat Yudhishtira."

The speaker was Sakuni...

Dharma, as we saw at Yudhishtira’s conception, is a god. Dharma is also Law - not only the law that governs the states and affairs of men, but also moral law and natural law. Dharma is the field on which all karmic action unfolds. This we sow, thus we tend the crop, so we reap. Dharma controls all that; it is dharma in which it all happens. The concept of dharma is not rigid, like the western concept of Fate, but it recognizes the power of individual determination. That determination is expressed through sacrifices and austerities, and if it is intense enough, it can alter the karmic balance.

At this point in the story, if Duryodhana had followed through on his vow, released hold of everything but his hatred, and nourished that until his body rose in bright flame, the Pandavas could have been goners, and we would have had a different story. But now Duryodhana listened to Sakuni, and we have the Mahabharata.

The Game of Dice

Sakuni was Duryodhana’s uncle, younger brother of Dhritarashtra’s wife, the virtuous Gandhari. He was shrewd and unscrupulous, well known in the courts of Hastinapura and Indraprasta as an expert dice player. He proposed to invite the Pandavas to a game of dice and exploit Yudhishtira’s inability to resist a challenge. Sakuni was confident that he could defeat Yudhishtira, and Duryodhana could take in a game what he could not take on the field of war.

They sent old Vidura with the invitation to play. Vidura was honest as the day is long and boring as scripture. Tiresome as he was, he loved the Pandavas.

"They want you to come to a game of dice, " Vidura told Yudhishtira.

"How kind of them," said Yudhishtira. "Of course we will come."

"But you must not play the dice, Yudhishtira. Gambling is wrong."

Yudhishtira said, "Uncle, you know that I may not refuse a challenge."

"You know they will cheat," said Vidura.

"I may not refuse a challenge."

Duryodhana built a new assembly hall in which to hold the contest, and he invited all the kings to attend. The Pandavas travelled to Hastinapura with their wife Draupadi, but without Krishna, who was busy fighting other wars elsewhere. Draupadi retired to her quarters, and Yudhishtira and his brothers entered the assembly hall.

"Have you come to play dice," demanded Duryodhana.

"A king may not lawfully refuse a challenge from another king," said Lord Dharma.

"I challenge you," said Duryodhana.

"I will play."

"My uncle Sakuni will cast the dice for me," said Duryodhana.

"Isn’t that a bit unorthodox?" asked Yudhishtira.

"Do you refuse to play?" challenged Duryodhana.

"What will be, must be," said Yudhishtira. "Let us play. I will offer this magnificent golden chain as my stake."

Yudhishtira lost, of course. The dice they played was not our modern game of pure chance, but a game that involved number skills and quick hands, and Sakuni was an expert. And he cheated. Probably. It’s impossible to know for sure that he cheated, and it is really beside the point anyway. Yudhishtira lost everything - his palaces and lands and herds, his chariots and his servants, the very clothes on his back.

Sakuni said, "Do you want to play again?"

"I have nothing left to stake," said Yudhishtira.

"You have your brothers."

There was an audible gasp from the audience. Yudhishtira was clearly shaken, but he remained steady. He spoke to Duryodhana.

"Prince, consider. Is this lawful and wise?"

Duryodhana gave him that look, between a smile and a sneer.

"You are Lord Dharma. Do you refuse to play?"

"So it will be," said Yudhishtira.

In quick order, they were all gone. Steadfast Nakula and Sahadeva, the splendid swordsmen; mighty Bhima, Wolf-Belly; Arjuna, Lord of Victory, the Left-handed Archer; each in turn was stripped of his weapons and his warrior’s garb and sent to kneel among the servants. Yudhishtira had only himself to lose, and when Duryodhana challenged him to stake his own liberty, he lost that too.

Sakuni said, "Do you want to play again?"

"What is left?" said Yudhishtira, wearily.

"Your wife."


"No!" "Yudhishtira, you must not!" "Yudhishtira, you have carried this too far." "This must not be allowed." Murmers of protest and repulsion came from the assembled kings. But the fierce insanity of the gambler on a roll blazed from Sakuni’s eyes, and Duryodhana was virtually trembling in anticipation of his total triumph. With a sweeping, humiliating gesture, Sakuni played.

"There, I’ve won again," said Sakuni.

Duryodhana crowed. "We will make her into a serving maid, and she can clean the palace. Vidura, go fetch Draupadi."

But Vidura refused, chastising Duryodhana. "Fool, don’t you realize that you are playing with fire. You are behaving like a child; you are a deer rousing tigers."

"Vidura still fears the stupid Pandavas." Duryodhana summoned a servant. "Pratikami, go fetch Draupadi."

But when Pratikami went to fetch her, Draupadi refused to come. "First," she commanded the servant, "ask Yudhishtira this question - did you lose me before or after you lost yourself? Bring me his answer, and I will come with you."

When Pratikami returned to the assembly hall without Draupadi, Duryodhana was furious. "Duhsasana!" He called his brother.

"Yudhishtira’s whore demands an answer. Go, tell her that she is legally won, and bring her here."

Duhsasana had to subdue Draupadi by force. He dragged her out of the women’s quarters and into the assembly hall by her hair. And there, in front of all the kings and the defeated Pandavas, he mocked her, called her whore for having five husbands, and vowed to have his way with her. Then, as Draupadi stood helpless, clad only in a nightgown, weeping with shame and rage, Duhsasana ripped her gown from her to expose her nakedness.

But she was not naked. She was still clad in her simple shift. Cursing, Duhsasana reached out again and ripped it off.

And Draupadi was still not naked.

Again and again Duhsasana ripped Draupadi’s clothes away, until the floor of the assembly hall was littered in a rainbow of gowns. And she was still not naked.

Absolute silence descended on the assembly hall. There were only two people in the whole world. There was Draupadi, clothed in the lawfulness of her rage. There was Duhsasana, exhausted and suddenly afraid. And then Bhima rose. In the silence, the vow that he spoke then echoed through every corner of the three worlds.

"Duhsasana, when the final battle comes, I will tear your chest open and drink your blood"

"King!" Draupadi broke in and addressed Dhritarashtra directly. "Father-in-law I call you, for you have been a law-wise father to your brother Pandu’s sons, my husbands. When Yudhishtira lost himself, he lost the right to lose me. My husbands are lost, but I am free. Will you protect your daughter-in-law when she has lost her husbands? Great king, you must answer."

"Father!" Duryodhana interrupted her. "Draupadi is lawfully won. You must not listen to her harlot’s tricks." And he flashed his left thigh at Draupadi - the Sanskrit equivalent of an obscene gesture - and glared at Bhima.

Again, a shocked silence fell, and all the worlds shook with Bhima’s second vow.

"Duryodhana, I will crush that thigh with my club before I kill you."

Dhritarashtra, deep in his blindness, lost in his love for his sons, his and Gandhari’s, suddenly felt cold with fear, fear for his sons.

"Draupadi, daughter, you are free. Ask a boon."

"Set Yudhishtira free."

"Yudishtira is free," said the King. "Ask another boon."

"Nakula, Sahadeva, Bhima and Arjuna - set them free."

"They are free; let their chariots and armor be returned. Draupadi, you may ask a third boon."

"With my husbands free, I need no further boon. Everything I need, they will win for me with their strong arms."

"Excellent answer, excellent answer," murmered the assembled kings.

"All that Yudhishtira lost will be restored," said King Dhritarashtra. "You may return to your kingdom in safety, your fortunes intact."

"Old blind fool," muttered Duhsasana.

"Scared rabbit," sneered Sakuni.

"I can’t believe he did that!" moaned Duryodhana.

"Father," he pleaded. "Send after them; let us have one more round of dice."

These were the stakes that Duryodhana proposed to settle the game. They would play one round; the losing party must spend twelve years in the forest, in exile, clothed as hermits, then a thirteenth year among the people, in disguise. If they should be discovered during the thirteenth year, they would have to spend another twelve years in exile. If they are able to escape detection, then the kingdom becomes theirs.

Of course Yudhishtira agreed to play, and of course he lost again, and a new phase of the Pandavas’ lives began, the years of forest exile. In many ways, this is the happiest and generally sunniest part of the story. The Pandavas travelled with their retinue all over northern India, visiting the sacred places, meeting all sorts of sages and saints, and hearing the most wonderful stories. Draupadi gave all of her husbands a fair amount of grief for what they put her through, with Yudhishtira taking the worst of the heat. And she egged them toward revenge. But there was no real hardship, and they lived comfortably and well in the forest.

If the story of the Forest Exile is pastoral, the next part of the story, telling of the Pandavas’ thirteenth year, is high burlesque, as the Pandavas sign on as palace servants in the court of King Virata, a minor-league cattle baron with social ambitions. Yudhishtira, having learned the science of dice from a wandering troubador in the forest, signs on as Virata’s tutor in that game. Bhima is employed as the king’s cook, and Draupadi becomes the Queen’s hairdresser. Arjuna, through a boon from Brahma himself, becomes a transvestite; drawing on what he had learned during a visit to his father Indra’s heaven, he/she signs on dancing-mistress to the Princess. In a year full of delightful episode, all the comedy in that situation is exploited.

But then the year was over, the masquerade ended, and Duryodhana, predictably, refused to relinquish the kingdom.

The Bhagavad-Gita

Both sides recruited allies and prepared for war. Diplomatic efforts persisted; Krishna offered a most reasonable compromise, and presented it most persuasively, but Duryodhana refused to give the Pandavas even enough land to cover the head of a pin. It is strange, but even now, even after two thousand years, readers of the story get the sense that at any time, right up to the end, if Duryodhana had come to his senses, then we would have had a totally different set of stories; there would have been no Mahabharata.

He did not come to his senses, of course, and the great war began. It was held on the broad plain of Kurukshetra - the field of the Kurus. There were 18 armies on the one side, the allies of Duryodhana and Dhritarashtra. The Pandavas and their allies mustered 12 armies. An army from Krishna’s tribe of the Vrsnis fought for Duryodhana. Krishna himself was a non-combatant; he had agreed to drive Arjuna’s chariot.

The day of the battle dawned clear, and the armies drew up on opposite sides of the field. Every warrior had his conch shell trumpet, and all were sounding. Imagine the shofar, twice or ten times as loud, and hundreds of them sounding at once. That is what it must have been like.

Arjuna told Krishna, "Take us out between the armies."

Krishna positioned the chariot halfway between the armies, and stopped. It was quieter there; both armies were distant; Arjuna looked out.

"I see my brothers there, my cousins, my uncles, the beloved sons of my beloved friends."

He swung around.

"And there also, there are my cousins, my uncles, the beloved sons of my beloved friends. They are all my brothers, Krishna. It cannot be lawful to kill them. I cannot kill them. I will have no part of this action."

Krishna answered. "There can be no blame for law-minded action, if you act with the proper dispassionate attitude. You must do the right thing, and be heedless of consequence."

Arjuna said, "Krishna, all those people are going to die. I will not be responsible for their deaths."

"Quite right," said Krishna.

"What do you mean?"

Krishna explained. "We act as instruments of dharma. Everybody on this field today is working out karmic dramas that extend back through lifetimes upon lifetimes. You and I, my best true friend, have been preparing for this battle for hundreds of lifetimes. I remember every one of them. You don’t."

Arjuna studied his friend.

"Krishna, who are you?"

And there was a flash of light, bright as a thousand suns, and Arjuna saw Krishna’s cosmic form as Narayana, one of the great gods. There, all at once, were all of the planets and all of the stars and all of the gods and all of the demons and spirits, gandarvhas and apsaras, all of the sages and saints, all of the priests and warriors, all that is and all that ever was and all that will be. Arjuna saw, and felt, endless perfect love swelling to fill the everything that Krishna had become. And he saw all the gory deeds that were ever done and the carnage that must come with time; he saw Krishna tall as mountains, black as night, his eyes blazing as he waded through rivers of blood, the mangled corpses of Duryodhana and his brothers dangling from his bloody jaws.

"Krishna, stop!" Arjuna fell to the chariot floor, his head in his hands. "Be just my friend again."

"But you see how it is, Arjuna," said Krishna, as he helped his friend up. "You cannot kill them, because they are dead already; their own actions have doomed them. You cannot be responsible for their deaths, because each one is responsible for his own death. In each lifetime, each one does what he has to do, and if he does it selflessly, in love of me, without regard for gain or loss, he may come finally to rest in my perfection and be free of the cycles of action and death.

"You are a warrior. You must fight. And you will bear the pain of action because you will be steadfast in your love of me."

"Let us continue," said Arjuna, and he sounded his great conch Devadatta.

The war lasted eighteen days, and it was every bit as ugly as the vision Arjuna had received, every bit as ugly as any war has ever been. The war was corrupting: at some point or another during it, virtually every warrior, including Yudhishtira and Arjuna, resorted to trickery and deceit to accomplish his purpose. Bhima fulfilled his vows; he killed all hundred of Dritarashtra’s sons, and broke the old blind hero’s heart.The great war of the Bharatas destroyed all the promise in the world and all the best hope.

When it was over, only the Pandavas and a handful of others survived. But the world had changed. The Pandavas spent a large part of the rest of their lives trying to understand the laws that governed the post-war world, and the long chapters in the Mahabharata that follow the story of the war itself are dry and didactic. The law that is explicated here seems more contrived and considerably more abstruse than the dharma that governed the behavior of warriors and kings before the war. The final chapters of the story are elegiac in tone.

The Final Journey

Krishna, after a vigorous and heroic life, retired to the forest to sit in meditation, and a hunter mistook him for a deer and fatally wounded him. Arjuna was griefstricken when the great sage Vyasa brought him the news.

"Krishna’s time had come," Vyasa told him. "Remember what he taught you."

"Every man is responsible for his own death," said Arjuna.

"Arjuna," said Vyasa, "this age has nothing left in it for you. Bhima, your part in this story is done. Yudhishtira, is it not time to take your brothers home?"

So the Pandavas went on their last journey, north, into the great mountains. It was a small troup this time - just Draupadi, the five brothers, and Yudhishtira’s faithful dog. One by one they fell, victims of time and their own distinctive frailties. Draupadi went first, then Sahadeva and Nakula, then Arjuna, and finally mighty Bhima. Yudhishtira and his dog continued through the high mountain passes against the vicious wind and swirling snow.

And suddenly, there was Indra, in his chariot, offering Yudhishtira a hand up.

"Welcome, Yudhishtira, hero. You have won to my heaven. Come aboard and I will take you there."

Yudhishtira whistled for his dog.

"Hold on." Indra smiled fondly at Yudhishtira and wagged his finger. "No dogs in heaven."

"He is a faithful and true companion," said Yudhishtira.

"Sorry, old chap. Just gods and human heros in my heaven."

"If he cannot come with me, then I will stay with him." And Yudhishtira stepped down from Indra’s chariot.

"But, Yudhishtira, old warrior, great king. You are the great hero of a great story. Your place is in my heaven."

"My place is where dharma is constant. This dog has been companion, protector, friend. I will stay near him."

"Yudhishtira," said the dog as he transformed into the embodied form of god Dharma. "My son, I have been with you through your long sad journey, and I am well pleased with your devotion. Draupadi and your brothers await you in Indra’s heaven; they have all left their bodies behind. You alone, great king, alone in all the ages, will enter Indra’s heaven in this body."

But Indra’s heaven was not quite what Yudhishtira had expected. Duryodhana was there, for one thing, in a place of prominence and honor, surrounded by luxury. And there was Duhsasana, along with the 98 other sons of King Dhritarashtra, and the deceitful Sakuni, all in noble places, partaking of Indra’s glory. Karna was not there, nor Dhritarashtra, nor Drona; there was no one to be seen who had held Yudhishtira’s love and admiration on earth.

"Where are my brothers," demanded Yudhishtira. "Where is the sinless Draupadi?"

There was an embarrassed silence. Then Indra spoke. "They are elsewhere, Yudhishtira. Now you must try to be friends with Duryodhana, and put the past behind you."

"Take me to my brothers."

Indra sent his servant to guide the great king to his brothers. They travelled down, into a foul gloomy realm, where corpses littered the path and rivulets of blood etched a barren landscape. They came to the edge of a broad deep trench, from which rose waves of heat, and rank odors, and the cries of the damned.

Indra’s messenger stopped. "They told me not to go any further than this. You may stay or return with me."

"Where are my brothers?" And then Yudhishtira recognized their voices, thick with pain, rising from the foul pit.

"Yudhishtira, stay with us," pleaded the voice of Nakula.

"Your presence cools us, and soothes our pain," cried Bhima.

"Stay with us, Yudhishtira." The voice was barely recognizeable as Arjuna.

And then Draupadi, wavering, "Stay."

"Will you return," asked Indra’s servant.

"I belong with those who have been true to themselves and have done the right thing. I will stay here," replied Yudhishtira.

And then he felt a cool breeze, and the light rose, and the air became fragrant, and Yudhishtira became aware that the sky was full of gods, radiant in their chariots, their banners waving, their smiles broad. Arjuna was there, and Bhima, and Draupadi and the twins, and their mother Kunti, and Pandu and Madri, and Karna, and King Dhritarashtra, all the god-like heros.

Once again, god Dharma descended and spoke to Yudhishtira. "All the deceptions are ended now, Yudhishtira. You are home."

"But why..."

And Dharma explained. "There is some good and some bad in all beings. All kings must have a glimpse of hell. You had your glimpse and were not shaken from your truth. Now you have come home, and the adventure ends in peace at last."

Of course the Mahabharata doesn’t end with Yudhisthira's welcome to heaven, any more than it began with King Pandu’s killing of the stag. The story resonates. It is not that it never ends, but that it is always ending, always beginning. It is an easy story to step into; when Peter Brook staged his nine-hour dramatic realization of the Mahabharata in New York several years ago, the New Yorker faulted him for making the story an allegory about the dangers of life in a nuclear age. But Brook didn’t work that allegory in; Jean-Claude Carriere’s script is actually very straight and faithful to the original epic story in its structure and its details. What the New Yorker critic felt was the story’s resonance. It has always been a current story.