I have an old, well loved, hard-bound copy of The Mahabharata by Kamala Subramaniam. It’s followed me for so much of my life, it’s like one of those magic books that’s always been there. I’ve pulled it out from the top of the closet to flip through it when I feel I’m growing the most in my life. I’ve wrapped it up gently when I’ve moved. That kind of book.
I’ve perused other versions and I still like this one the best. Her chapters are short, easy to digest, with to-the-point sentences that creep up on you with their descriptive delicacy. I’ll keep the series in line with the chapter break down of the storyline that she follows.
I’d like to say first that although my take on things in this epic masterpiece might seem slightly irreverent as I look at it with my millennium eyes in this new time, place and circumstance, no matter what I say or the views that I take, I mean no disrespect toward this work, the legendary characters within it or the great country from which it has come.
Ready? No turning back now 🙂
So the story begins with a king. Shantanu. A king who loves hunting, seems pretty run-of-the-mill. He arrives at the banks of the Ganges River and comes across the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. They fall in love at first sight, quite literally and he tells her that he simply cannot live without her. She agrees that she was meant to be his. She tells him that she is called Ganga And she agrees to become his queen on one condition: that he not question her or displease her at any time. The minute he crosses her, she says that she will leave, never to return.
If only things were this easy in relationships. No dating, no weird instances of people shouting out to you trying to get your number. Just immediate, soul-deep attraction spurring you to make a decision to spend the rest of your life with another person. Interestingly enough, it is a promise that they both intend to keep…unless of course Shantanu questions or displeases his lady. And what I wouldn’t give to have that bargain in some of my past relationships.
So things are going well for the King and his mysterious, but beautiful Queen, and she is everything that he has ever wanted. Months pass and a son is born to them. The king has an heir and feels as though every dream he has ever had has come true. He races to Ganga’s chamber to see his wife and child and is informed that she isn’t there. She’s gone to the river which bears her name. By the time he reaches the banks of the river, Ganga has flung the newborn into the lapping waves and the child is easily sucked into it’s murky depths with only a small gurgle. The child is gone. Dead. Ganga has an enigmatic look on her face as though a great load has now been lifted from her and she turns to the king, waiting to see if he will question her.
Shantanu remembers his promise and remains dumbstruck even as he is sure he feels his heart breaking so painfully in two that Ganga also must have heard the sound. The king is horrified and so am I. The character of Ganga is interesting here. She always seems so aloof. She walks past the king and then does the same thing again the next year when they have a son. Seven of the King’s sons are thrown into the river by Ganga, and all the while Shantanu is silenced by his promise and his love for Ganga and Ganga, is mysteriously quiet on the subject.
Finally, when their eighth son is born and he is threatened with the same fate as his brothers, the king intervenes. He finally questions Ganga, he stops her and pleads with her to tell him what is going on and why she would continue such monstrous behavior. My question is also…why did he continue to make babies with the woman after he saw the pattern developing? Such is the dangerous and heavy allure of the big V.
Once the king stops Ganga, she turns to him, a sad smile on hr face and she says that the time has come for her to leave him. She tells him that she is the goddess of the river and originally lived in the heavenly realm with the other gods and goddesses as did he in another life. They saw each other in the court of Indra the king and chief of the celestial gods. They had fallen in love at first sight then as well, however, the other celestials did not like it and Ganga and the king were both cursed to live for a time on the Earth as mortals. They found each other on Earth and continued the love story that had begun in the heavens. But that still leaves the question of the children.
Apparently the children had been sages in their previous lives. They had been wise-men who also lived among the celestials but had been cursed to take on mortal lives. Horrified with the curse and the actions that caused it, the sages came to Ganga and begged her to help them. She agreed and promised that she would do what she could to speed up their mortal existence as much as she could. So she releases them from the curse and their mortal life as soon as they are born by drowning them in the river.
She thinks about the eighth son that she holds in her arms and says sadly that this last great sage seems to have been cursed with a longer time on the earth than the others. She promises the king that she will take wonderful care of their son in the heavens and return their child to him when the boy is ready to become the heir to the great throne.
“When the veil of illusion is torn and the eyes are allowed to look on the truth, the eyes, we find are not strong enough to do so. It was so with the king.”
Shantanu is heartbroken and he doesn’t know how he will go on without his beloved Queen and his son. But he journeys back to the kingdom with a shred of hope. He does indeed have a son and an heir to the throne. And there is no doubt that he will be a worthy heir in time. But he struggles with the fact that now Ganga whom he worked so hard to please will leave him forever, just as they agreed.
I’ve often thought about re-incarnation, especially when I see the “bad things happen to good people” scenario. Within eastern philosophy, our previous actions, good an bad often affect the current lives that we have and the hand that we are dealt within that life. I’ve thought about that when babies die, and when children suffer. I’ve thought about it in my own life, and this one segment between Ganga and Shantanu brings so many thoughts to mind.
There seems to be so much going on behind the cosmic scenes that we as people just cannot see, just as poor Shantanu watched his seven sons drowned in the river without explanation. But, as I said, I also found Ganga confusing, because, if she really loved the king, she could have easily told him what she had to do. It wouldn’t have stopped the sages from being born as her children and she wouldn’t have had to test Shantanu’s patience by killing his children one after the other and along with them, his hopes for a future with her. It seemed as though Ganga had orchestrated this entire situation from the very beginning when she asked him to promise that he would never question her. It seemed as though she knew he would have to question her at some time, and when he did, she would be free from her mortal life, and able to go back to her home in the heavens. So it would seem that her love for Shantanu that spanned not only lifetimes but worlds and realms, was not more important to her than ending her Earthly, mortal existence.
So, then what does that say about the human, mortal existence within Indian philosophy? In a way, from the very beginning of the Mahabharata it seems that things are set up to teach us that this human existence is something to be beat. Almost like a game used to get to the next level. Something to be endured until we can get to where we are really meant to be. Everyone was at one time something else, and that is their real identity, not so much the lives that they are living at the current moment. Destinies are intertwined and history is carried out, but from the very beginning as with both Ganga and the eight sages born to her, everyone wants to leave this place. Everyone wants to get out of their mortal human existence.
I’ve been feeling tired, lost and a bit depressed the past few days, so I feel like right now, I can really get with that idea that really this life is to be used for getting away from this life somehow. But most days, I want to hope that there is some happiness to be had. Even though it seems like everyone thus far has been cursed to come to the Earth from whatever realm they were previously in. I want to be hopeful that there is some amazing measure of lasting happiness meant to be had here. That this life can be made meaningful in some immeasurable immortal way. And maybe I wind up just sounding like poor Achilles in the Iliad hoping for immortality and eternality in a mortal, temporary world.
But on the good side of things, I am undeniably hooked to the story.
Look for the next chapter and loads more musings next Monday.
And if anything in here sparked a thought with you, or even a question, let me know what you think!
Until next time,
Another really beautiful rendition is by Ramesh Menon. It’s in two volumes though.