Mahabharatha – The Context of the Narration

Let me continue from where I let off in the previous post.

To quickly recall, the story goes that Sage Vyasa’s Mahabharata was written by Lord Ganesha with his tusk on the caves of the Himalayas as Vyasa dictated it. To this day, you can visit the Vyasa Guha in Mana, a small village situated in the Indo-Tibetean border. The Mahabharata, after it was written, was narrated to Janamejayan who was Parikshit’s son. And Parikshit was Abhimanyu’s son, Abhimanyu was Arjuna’s son. It was narrated to Janamejayan by Vysampayanar, a disciple of Sage Vyasa.

But who are all these people? How did they come into the picture? And what led Vysampayanar to narrate the epic to Janamejayan? This blog post explains.

As we saw in the previous post, Parikshit was saved by Lord Krishna from the clutches of the Brahmastra even when he was a foetus in his mother’s womb. Parikshit grew up to become the next King.

One day, as he was passing by a forest, he felt thirsty and called out to a man that he saw. The man turned out to be Maharishi called Sameekar. The Rishi was meditating. So he obviously did not respond to Parikshit’s call, because he was not aware of it. But the king got so angry that he threw a snake around the Maharishi’s neck, laughed and walked away.

Sringi, Smaeekar’s son got furious when he came to know that King Parikshit had insulted his father. He cursed Parikshit. According to the curse the king would die in 7 days bitten by a snake. However, when Parikshit got to know of this, he did not worry; he did not fear death. Nor did he seek forgiveness so that the curse would be taken back. He was ready to face the consequences of his actions, but all he wanted in these 7 days was a satsung. He wanted to listen to the praises of  Lord Krishna as he was a great devotee of His. Parikshit was also known to be Krishna’s favourite as he was saved when he was all but a foetus. So he did die at the end of 7 days, but not before he listened to Sukacharyal’s satsung.

Parikshit’s son Janamejayan grew up to become the next king. He had lost his father as a kid, and so never knew him. As he grew older, he was very aware of the fact the he did not have a father to guide him and that he never knew his father. Janamejayan, like an ideal son, wanted to know what his father was like and follow in his footsteps. So one day, he asked his ministers and courtiers to tell him everything they knew about Parikshit.

The courtiers began with how Parikshit was a great devotee of Lord Krishna. When they reached the part about the curse and the snake’s bite, Janamejayan decides to burn all the snakes in the entire world.

Here we digress a bit.

This is an interesting bit of story. The snake that bit Parikshit was called Thakshakan, a Naga king. Following Sringi’s curse Thakshakan was on his way to “bite” Parikshit. On the way, he meets Kashyapar, another sage. Kashyapar stops Thakshakan and tells him that he has acquired a new power via meditation – he can bring back anything and anybody from destruction. Thakshakan is taken aback. Really? He says he is going to reduce a tree in front of them to ashes, which he does. Kashyapar mutters a mantra under his breath and woah! The tree comes back to life, complete with branches and leaves. Thakshakan is speechless. Now he is a threat for him. If Kashyapar is going to bring back a person bitten by Thankshakan to life, then Thakshakan loses face. So he asks Kashyapar not to interfere with his business. Kashypar says, of course, he will because he would receive a lot of riches if he were able to bring back a king from the dead. Thakshakan tells him that he would bestow on him more wealth than Parikshit could, and so Kashyapar withdraws.

Here, it is important for us to understand that it was not because Kashyapar was interested in wealth that he withdrew. This is just for the sake of the story. In essence, he was aware that “everything happens for a reason”. God wanted Parikshit to face the curse, so he could listen to a satsung and so on. When God has a plan, it has to be executed and Kashyapar was nobody to interfere with the Almighty’s intentions. So he kept this power of his to himself and let Thakshakan do his job.

Coming back to Janamejayan’s story, as he listened to how his father was bitten by a snake, he decided to have all the snakes in this world destroyed. He arranged for a huge ceremony for this and raised a homakundam where all the snakes of the world fell in bunches to be consumed by the fire. Janamejayan sat there watching, with a satisfied look on his face.

But did Thakshakan die yet? He looked at his ministers. No.

But shouldn’t he be the first snake to die? He killed his father! His ministers tell him that Thakshakan is already dead and has sought refuge in Indra’s palace, the Deva King. He remains curled around Indra’s cot, so to speak. “Then bring him down along with Indra!” says a furious Janamejayan.

Brihaspati, the Guru of the Devas, appears before Janamejayan and says that he cannot slay Thankshakan as he is already dead, and that it is not right. He tries to reason with the King but the King remains adamant. Everyone who has arrived to witness the ceremony is watching all of this unfold in front of them, watching and waiting. What is going to happen?

At this point, enters a man. His name is Asteekan.

Who is Asteekan?  

We digress again. The Mahabharatha has a lot of “branch stories” so please do not be surprised or upset every time a background story needs to be told. Once there lived a Rishi called Jaratkaru. He assumed celibacy and was busy leading a life of spirituality that he forgot about all bonds with family. One day he chanced upon a very disturbing scene as he was passing through a forest. Some really old, weak ancestors (Pithrus) were hanging upside down from the branches of a tree. It was a pitiable sight and Jaratkaru was stricken when he saw them. When he enquired who they were and how he could help them, the ancestors replied that they were the forefathers of someone called Jaratkaru. Because he did not marry and procreate, there was nobody to do the mandatory rituals that have to be done for the dead (Tharpanam). Hence the ancestors were left in this state. Jaratkaru, overcome with guilt decides to marry. He looks for a bride with a name as his own. Vasuki, the serpent King has a sister, also known as Jaratkaru. So Jaratkaru marries Jaratkaru and they have a son called Asteekan. Technically, the Nagas become Asteekan’s uncles. Now that the serpents’ lives are in danger, they all appeal to Asteekan. For a detailed account of this story, click here.

So Asteekan approaches Janamejayan in his court during the ceremony. He begins by praising Janamejayan. He says that he has witnessed a lot of Yagnas in his life, but nothing comes close to Janamejayan’s. What a great deed the King is doing – he is doing the people of the world a favour by destroying snakes. Only if there are snakes can they bite people. What if they could destroy all snakes!

That leaves Janamejayan pleased with Asteekan. Finally someone who agrees with him! He is so pleased that he tells Asteeken that he is ready to give him anything that he asks for; it’s a promise. He asks Asteekan to name what he wants.

Stop this yagna right now”, says Asteekan.

Aha! Well, Janamejayan has no choice but to stop. Living up to his word is more important than anything else. But he is worried that the purpose of the ceremony is lost. He has people waiting for him, people who respected his invite. He cannot simply turn them away without providing them with an alternative. So he decides to use this opportunity to request anyone from the audience to narrate the story of his forefathers. Everyone gathered would be pleased to listen. Who were Janamejayan’s ancestors? Who were the Pandavas, Kauravas?

Amidst the gathering were also Sage Vyasa and his disciple Vysampayanar. Sage Vyasa asks Vysampayanar to narrate the Mahabharatha to Janamejayan.

And so the epic was first narrated then – with Vysampayar narrating it to King Janamejayan.

We will continue in the next post.



One thought on “Mahabharatha – The Context of the Narration

  1. […] And with that I end this post. Details of the context in which the epic was narrated will be mentioned in the following post. […]


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