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ILAS 225
Southeast Asia: Crossroads of the World

Professor Patricia Henry
Dept. of Foreign Languages

I. (Hindu) Cultural Concepts Underlying Mahabharata

A. Karma: every action has a result.

B. Rebirth: after death, one is reborn according to one's karma in one's     previous life.

C. Caste: humans are born into a particular caste which they cannot   change except through rebirth.
         1. brahmana = specialists in religion and ritual
         2. ksatriya = specialists in war and governing
         3. vaisya = artisans
         4. sudra = peasants

D. Dharma: dutry, virtue, righteousness; doing what is appropriate to one's position in life.

E. Meditation: concentration on the inner truth of fundamental reality; not being distracted by the multiplicity of the world as it appears through the senses; seeing this world as an illusion.

F. Release: through meditation as a result of the power gained to remove oneself from the circle of karma and rebirth.

G. Powerful language: instead of being of being used for release, this power may be used in this world; words of a powerful rishi (holy man), who has gained strength through meditation, can modify the world.

II. The Story

A. Conflict among two sets of cousins over the throne of Hastinapura.
          1. The Pandawas: five sons of King Pandu (actually they are of semi-divine origin).
              Yudisthira (son of god of Justice, Dharma)
              Bhima (son of god of Wind, Vayu)
              Arjuna (son of god of Rain, Indra)
              Nakula & Sahadeva (twin sons of twin gods, the Asvins)
          2. The Kauravas: 100 sons of King Dhritarashtra, Duryodana, and others
          3. Krishna: kinsman of both sides, ally of the Pandavas.

B. Childhood and youth of the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
          1. Early conflict
          2. The wax-palace plot
          3. The dividing of the Kingdom; Indraprastha for the Pandavas

C. The Dice-game.
          1. The Kauravas cheat, with the help of Sakuni
          2. Humiliation of the Pandavas and their wife Draupadi.
          3. Banishment of the Pandavas.

D. The return of the Pandavas.
          1. Attempts to avert war are in vain.
          2. The Bhagavad Gita: "God's (i.e. Krishna's) Song", a dialogue between Arjuna,

              who can't face killing his kinsmen, and Krishna, who persuades Arjuna that he 
              must do his duty as a ksatriya.
          3. The Baratayuddha: "Bharata-war." There is a great loss of life of both sides; the                 Pandavas eventually destroy the Kauravas.

E. The restoration of Hastinapura to the Pandavas.

III. The Sages (rishis) who speak in the story

A. Vasishta's curse: results in birth of the hero Bhisma, the King Santanu and Gangga.

B. Sanatanu's promise to the goddess Gangga: She leaves him after giving birth to Bhisma.

C. Bhisma's oath of chastity: Satyavati, grandmother of P's and K's, marries King Santanu.

D. Vyasa's curse: handicaps of King Pandu and King Dhitarashtra.

E. Kunti's boon: divine fathers of Pandavas.

F. The Curse of Pandu: hadicaps of king Pandu and King Dhritarashtra.

G. Draupadi's vow: eventual destruction of the Kauravas.

IV. The Sages who Speak in telling the Story

A. Vyasa dictates the story to the god Ganesha. Vyasa is in the story itself as the father of Pandu and Dhritarashtra.

B. The sage Vaisampayana tells the story to the King Janamejaya, the great-grandson of Arjuna.

C. Another sage, Suta, tells the story to the sages in the Naimisa forest.

V. The Role of Language in the Mahabharata

A. The main events of the story are motivated by language: blessings, curses, oaths, especially those spoken by sages who by the power of their asceticism must speak the truth; whatever they say comes true.

B. The telling of the story itself is an auspicious use of language. reading it, especially aloud, and listening to it, are seen as good in and of themselves. Those who read it are protected, benefited and taught about the reality of the world.


Link to Cover Page

ILAS 225
Southeast Asia: Crossroads of the World