Gita Life

Prerequisite for the Bhagavad Gita: Mahabharata for Beginners

Before we learn the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, let's understand the backstory of the Kurukshetra or Mahabharata war. What was the reason for the Mahabharata war? Who was responsible for it? While it is next to impossible to do justice to the entire story of the epic poem in one blog, this short synopsis might help you understand the story behind the war.

Scene 1: Kurukshetra Battlefield

The Bhagavad Gita is an epic dialogue between Krishna and his friend Arjuna. This dialogue happened in the battlefield of Kurukshetra when the warrior Arjuna was faced with fighting against his cousins and other elder family members. When Arjuna saw his relatives standing on the other side, he got an anxiety attack; he dropped his weapons and asked his friend Krishna, “How do you justify this war? This violence? And the killings of millions of people, including some good men like my grandfather and my teacher?” to which Krishna simply replied, “Because you are faced with no other choice, and you now must fight against them because it is your duty.”

Arjuna asks Krishna, "Why should I fight against my loved ones?" (Picture Credit: Italian painter Giampaolo Tomassetti)
Arjuna asks Krishna, “Why should I fight against my loved ones?” (Picture Credit: Italian painter Giampaolo Tomassetti)

Scene 2: Bhisma’s Oath

The story goes back when Arjuna’s grandfather was a young crown prince of Hastinapur – the most powerful Kingdom in the continent. Being the son of the king was not enough to be the Crown Prince of Hastinapur. All princes had to go through several exams on ethical standards, war training, self-discipline, and mastery in fighting skills, yoga, weapons before the Council.

Young Bhisma’s mother Ganga was long gone, and his old father was in love with a young and beautiful daughter of a fisherman, Satya Devi. The fisherman wanted her daughter’s unborn son to rule Hastinapur, but the king rejected the demand. She broke up with the king, leaving the old king dejected and heartbroken.

Not able to tolerate his father’s sadness, Bhisma promised Satya Devi that her son would be the king, not him. Satya Devi further demanded, “You are a noble soul. You love your father. But your sons might take away the Kingdom from my son in the future.”  This is when Bhisma decided to sacrifice his life for his father’s happiness and took his terrible oath, I would never marry or seek the company of women.  I will protect your son and his descendants (whoever sits on the throne of Hastinapur) and follow his order no matter what.”

The great empire of Hastinapur
The great Empire of Hastinapur. Picture Credit: Giampaolo Tomassetti

Scene 3: Two brothers and their sons

Fast forward 25 years, the king was long dead. Bhisma, the most powerful warrior of his time, was protecting the throne of Hastinapur. His half-brother born from Satya Devi had already died, leaving two infant sons, Dhritarashtra and Pandu. The elder son Dhritarashtra was born blind; so, he was rejected by the Council to be the king. The younger brother Pandu became the King of Hastinapur. Pandu was devoted to his uncle Bhisma. Everything was going well in the Kingdom until one day when Pandu accidentally killed a sage during hunting.  He was cursed and died. Reluctantly, the Council made the blind Dhritarashtra the King of Hastinapur.

Pandu had five sons (known as Pandavas), and Dhritarashtra had a hundred sons (known as Kauravas)

The conflict between these two groups of cousins Pandavas and Kauravas for the throne of Hastinapur led to the epic Mahabharat, also known as Kurukshetra War.

Arjuna was one of the five sons of Pandu. Cousins Pandavas and Kauravas were trained under the supervision of the same teacher Drona. They were masters with their weapon of choice. Like Pandu, his sons Pandavas were devoted to their grandfather Bhisma. Dhritarashtra’s sons Kauravas were extremely jealous, greedy and selfish, and hostile towards Pandavas.  They tried to harm and kill Pandavas multiple times. Despite knowing his sons’ unfair treatment towards his nephews, King Dhritarashtra never reprimanded his sons. Instead, he chose to remain indifferent.  

Scene 4: Pandavas – Kauravas and the Game of Dice

As per the tradition, the princes went through several exams, and the Council selected Yudhishthira, the eldest son of Pandu, the Crown Prince of Hastinapur. Not happy with this decision, King Dhritarashtra divided the Kingdom.  Dry, infertile, and arid land was given to Pandavas, and the fertile land was given to his sons.  Pandavas worked hard and turned the parched ground into a prosperous Kingdom in no time.

Kauravas could not tolerate this prosperity and started plotting to take the new Kingdom from the Pandavas. They planned a friendly game of dice. Whenever challenged, the kings at that time could not refuse to take it up. Additionally, Yudhishthira, who followed the path of Dharma, had vowed to follow the instruction of his elders. So, as it was the instruction of his uncle Dhritarashtra, Yudhishthira agreed to play the game and not stop it till his uncle Dhritarashtra concluded the game. Yudhishthira gambled away his possessions, his Kingdom, and finally his brothers and their wife, Draupadi.

Pandavas losing in the game of dice in Mahabharat
The game of dice, and the Pandavas losing. Picture Credit: Giampaolo Tomassetti

Scene 5: Dishonor of Draupadi

Draupadi, the common wife of the Pandavas, was gambled away by Yudhishthira. On losing his brothers and his wife, they were all redeemed of their royal status to lowly slave status. All their weapons were taken away.  Kauravas ordered Draupadi to leave the Queen’s chamber and come to the court as a slave girl. Draupadi refused. Enraged, one of the Kauravas dragged her with her hairs forcibly all the way to the court, where many revered seniors like Bhisma and teacher Drona were present.

Draupadi questioned the court about her dishonor on which everyone kept quiet, including the mighty Bhisma. He could have fought with the Kauravas to save a woman’s dignity, but he chose not to do so because of his oath that he would take an order from the King only. And the King Dhritarashtra had chosen to remain indifferent. Kauravas then ordered to disrobe Draupadi in public. She was, however, saved by Krishna.

After she was saved by Krishna, Draupadi was enraged, and she wanted to curse everyone. That’s when King Dhritarashtra got scared of a woman’s curse. He promised Draupadi that he would return everything to Pandavas on a condition that they must first spend thirteen years in the forest; and the last year of exile must be in incognito to avoid another twelve years of exile in the woods.

Pandavas and Draupadi exiled to forest.
Pandavas and Draupadi exiled to forest. Picture Credit: Giampaolo Tomassetti

Scene 6: War was inevitable

After 13 years, Pandavas returned, but they were not given the Kingdom on a basis that they were recognized in the thirteenth year. The reality was the year of incognito had ended five months prior to the day the Pandavas were recognized as per the lunar calendar; and six day earlier as per the Solar calendar. But the Kauravas believed that they discovered the Pandavas before the end of the 13th year and they maintained that stand.

War was now inevitable. Krishna volunteered to meet Dhritarashtra and his sons for a truce to avoid the family feud. Krishna told Dhritarashtra and his sons, “We will forget everything that you have done to Pandavas. Just give their Kingdom back. Even if you cannot give the entire Kingdom, just give them five villages. That’s their basic rights.”

But Dhritarashtra’s sons refused to part with even an inch of land. They challenged that Pandavas should take away their country (or their rights) by fighting for it, not begging. So, Pandavas had no choice but to take up the challenge.

Pandavas planning the strategies of Mahabharat Kurukshetra war
Pandavas planning the war with Krishna. Picture Credit: Giampaolo Tomassetti

Scene 7: Bhagavad Gita

Now coming back to the Kurukshetra battlefield. Both the parties were ready for war. As war was about to begin, Arjuna got confused about the righteousness of war. Foreseeing the imminent death of people who had been close to him, especially his teacher and his grandfather, Arjuna had a panic attack.  He believed that to fight and likely kill, these men would be to commit grievous sin and could bring nothing good even if he were to win the Kingdom back. This is when Arjuna asked Krishna to guide him leading to the epic conversation, which we know as the Bhagavad Gita.

Krishna then presented the spiritual rationale for battling his enemies, one that encompasses a discussion of the karma, jnana, and bhakti Yogas. He also spoke about the nature of divinity, humankind’s ultimate destiny, and the purpose of mortal life. This epic conversation in the Bhagavad Gita is very relevant in today’s context, and our daily lives too. In the coming days, we will share blogs and podcasts discussing the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. Join us for the discussion of the Bhagavad Gita.

Pictures Credit: All these pictures are painted by an Italian painter Giampaolo Tomassetti, who was  fascinated by the Indian mythological epic Mahabharat. 
Featured Picture Credit: Dean Moriarty Pixabay


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