How does Mahabharata inspire us?

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The two Sanskrit epics Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa belong to the central components of Indian culture and Hindu religiosity. Few of the texts have had such a fruitful effect on all areas of Indian art and to this day determine the repertoire of many theatrical and puppet theater traditions to a large extent.


The Mahābhārata, the "Great [story] of the Bhārata family" is considered to be the longest epic poem in the world. In India it is said that “everything” is contained in it (“What is in this book with regard to morality, with regard to practical life, with regard to sensual enjoyment and with regard to salvation - that is found elsewhere that is not here , that is nowhere in the world. "Winternitz 1908: 272).

While the Sanskrit text is traditionally ascribed to a poet and seer by the name of Vyāsa, despite many attempts to separate the history of its origin and the layers of the text, neither the authorship nor the date can be clarified beyond any doubt. It can be assumed that the oldest parts of the plot date back to the eighth or ninth century BC. Go back. The oldest surviving parts of the text, however, are hardly older than 400 BC. And the Sanskrit text is believed to have received its canonical form around the fourth century AD.

The Mahābhārata contains about 100,000 verses (about ten times as extensive as the Illias and Odyssey combined), divided into 18 parvans or "books" and an appendix (khila, the Harivaṃśa). Several levels of framing and nesting are essential features of the text: Vyāsa recites the epic for Gaṇesa, who writes it down; Vaiśampāyana tells them to King Janamejaya, Sanjaya tells the story to the blind King Dhṛtarāṣṭra. In the countless subplots, the Mahābhārata also contains historical, philosophical and religious material, including the Bhāgavadgīta, one of the central texts of Hinduism. (Fig. 01)

In terms of content, it is essentially about the struggle of two closely related sexes, the Pāṇḍavas and the Kauravas, to rule over the city of Hastināpura (after Winternitz 1908: 259ff). The Pāṇḍavas, nominally sons of Pāṇḍu but "biologically" sons of the gods Dharma (Dharmarāja / Yudhiṣṭhira), Vāyu (Bhīma), Indra (Arjuna), and the Asvin twins (Nakula and Sahadeva). (Fig. 02)

The Kauravas are the one hundred sons of the blind king Dhṛtarāṣṭra and his wife Gāndhārī. Pāṇḍu and Dhṛtarāṣṭra are brothers. The Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas grow up together at the court of Dhṛtarāṣṭra in Hastināpura and are brought up together. The eldest Pāṇḍava, Yudhiṣṭhira, is appointed heir to the throne by Dhṛtarā ,ra, but the rivalry between the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas continues to widen. The Kauravas try to burn the Pāṇḍavas with their mother Kuṇṭī in a wax palace, but fail. The Pāṇḍavas now wander through the forests as ascetics.

Arjuna proves his artistry as an archer and wins the hand of Princess Draupadī. She becomes the common wife of the five brothers. When the Pāṇḍavas are recognized, the Kauravas first share power with them. But when the power of the Pāṇḍavas extends to "world domination", the Kauravas feel disadvantaged and are thinking of a ruse. Her uncle Śakuni suggests a game of dice in which Yudhiṣṭhira eventually loses all of his wealth, then his brothers, himself and Draupadī. The dice game episode culminates in Duśśāsana's attempt to tear Draupadī's clothes off. But she begs Kṛṣṇa for help, and so Duśśāsana pulls down one piece of fabric after the other, but cannot undress Draupadī. Bhīma swears bloody vengeance. From Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Draupadī receives three wishes one after the other, but she only asks for the freedom of Yudhiṣṭhira and the rest of the Pāṇḍavas. Thereupon Yudhi bekommthira also gets his kingdom back. In a second game of dice, however, the Pāṇḍavas lose again and have to go into exile for twelve years and live undetected among people for a thirteenth year. Should they be recognized, they would have to go into exile for another twelve years. During this time of exile, Arjuna obtained heavenly weapons from Śiva and Indra through asceticism, among other things. The Pāṇḍavas spend their thirteenth year at the court of King Virāṭa. Here Draupadī is harassed by the general Kīcaka, but the Bhīma is eliminated. When the thirteenth year is over, war seems inevitable. Both sides seek as many allies as possible. Krsna becomes Arjuna's charioteer. Kṛṣṇa's peace negotiations also fail. (Fig. 03), (Fig. 04)

This marked the beginning of the eighteen-day battle on the kurukṣetra ("Kuru Field"). The first climax is the fall of bhīma from the hand of a woman transformed into a man. Resting on a bed of arrows, he hesitates to die. On the thirteenth day, Arjuna's young son, Abhimanyu, is killed. The following day, Arjuna takes revenge on Jayadratha, who is held responsible for Abhimanyu's death. Dro durcha is only killed on the fifteenth day by violating the rules of battle. He had trained the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas in the art of war and fought on the side of the Kauravas. On the seventeenth day, Bhīma takes bloody vengeance on Duśśāsana for the disgrace that Draupadī has done. Arjuna defeats Karṇa by shooting him from behind. (Fig. 05)

Karṇa had fought for the Kauravas, although he was also a son of Kuntī. On the eighteenth day there is a club fight between Bhīma and Duryodhana, in which Bhīma again breaks the rules, but keeps his vow to smash Duryodhana's thighs. As a result, Aśvatthāman, the son of Droṇa, instigated a nightly blood bath in the Pāṇḍavas' camp. Even so, the Pāṇḍavas won. After the death of the women and two more philosophically religious parvans, Yudhiṣṭhira's horse sacrifice is described, as well as the end of the remaining people, including Kṛṣṇas and the Pāṇḍavas.


The Rāmāyaṇa is the story of the "wanderings of Rāma". The Rāmāyaṇa can oppose the approximately 100,000 double verses of the Mahābhārata "only" about 24,000 ślokas in seven books (kāṇḍas). Attributed to Vālmīki, it is stylistically and compositionally more uniform and more closed than the Mahābhārata, which is why it is considered the prototype of classical art poetry in India (cf. Simson 1993: 57). Although the Rāma saga is summarized in the Mahābhārata, one must assume that the Rāmāyaṇa was written down later than the Mahābhārata, although the heroic saga may be older than the epic of the dynasty conflict. (Fig. 06)

Viṣṇu is asked by the other gods to go to earth as a human (cf. Winternitz 1908: 409ff). At the same time, the mighty and wise King Daśaratha made a horse sacrifice in the city of Ayodhya to obtain sons. Viṣṇu can now be brought into the world as the son of Daśaratha by his wife Kausalya. He is called Rama. Three more princes are born to Daśaratha from other women; Bharata of the Kaikeyī, Lakṣmaṇa and Śatrughna of the Sumitrā. Rama, the eldest, is the father's favorite. From an early age, Lakṣmaṣa and Rāma are inseparable. When the princes grow up, Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa go out to kill demons, for which they are rewarded with magic weapons by a wise man (Viśvamitra). The wise man also leads the brothers to the court of King Janaka of Videha. He had once found a girl in a field and raised her as his daughter Sītā (which means furrow). Now Sītā is to be given to the wife who can draw Janaka's magic bow. Many applicants come, but can hardly lift the bow. But Rama can draw the bow that it breaks. With this he gets Sītā for his wife. (Fig. 07)

When Daśaratha grew old, he decided to make Rama the heir to the throne. Kaikeyī, however, uses two wishes that the king once promised her to put her son Bharata (against his will) on the throne and to banish Rāma into exile. Rama submits to his father's promise without hesitation. Sītā and Lakṣmaṇa go into exile with him. Daśaratha dies from grief over the loss of her beloved son. Even when Bharata comes to Rāma in the forest dexil to tell of the death of the father and to bring Rāma back, Rāma insists on the fulfillment of the promise.

In exile, hermits ask Rāma for protection from demons, which he and Lakṣmaṇa successfully defeat. The encounter with the demon Śurpaṇakhā will be fatal. She falls in love with Rāma, but is rejected by him and sent to Lakṣmaṇa. However, Lakṣma willa does not want to know anything about her either. Śurpaṇakhā pounces on Sītā, but Lakṣmaṇa cuts off the demoness's nose and ears. To seek revenge, Śurpaṇakhā takes help from her brothers. However, Rāma and Lakṣma jedocha defeat Khara and his demonic henchmen without any problems. Then she goes to the ten-headed Rāvaṇa, incites him to take revenge on Rāma and persuades him to take Sītā as his wife. With a ruse, Rāvaṇa succeeds in stealing Sītā and kidnapping him to Lanka. There he keeps her prisoner, but she refuses to him.

In their search for Sītā, Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa first find allies: e.g. the monkey king Sugrīva, whom they help to regain his wife and kingdom from his evil brother Vālin; the monkey Hanumat (Hanuman), son of the wind god. Hanumat locates Sītā in Lanka, and so the fight against Rāvaṇa can begin. After long, hard struggles, Rāva ista is finally defeated and Sītā liberated. Rāma, however, casts off Sītā because he could no longer be married to a woman who had lived in another man's house. Only a trial by fire, in which the fire god Agni himself asserts Sītā's innocence, can induce him to accept it again.

They are retreating to Ayodhya, where the golden age of Rāma’s rule is dawning (rāmarājya). After a few years, however, Rāma heard that the people had doubts about Sītā's innocence. So he repudiates them. Twins Kuśa and Lava are born in the Vālmīkis hermitage. These become Vālmīki's disciples and perform the Rāmāyaṇa at a horse sacrifice organized by Rāma. When Rāma recognizes his biological sons, Sītā is also brought before him. With an oath of loyalty, she returns to her mother, the earth goddess. Soon after, Rāma hands over the rule to Kuśa and Lava and returns to heaven as Viṣṇu. (Fig. 08), (Fig. 09)

"Text Traditions"

So far we have spoken of the probably oldest existing texts of these epics, the language of which is Sanskrit. Actually, however, these are not codified texts either, but "text traditions", for a long time not or hardly in writing, but only passed on orally. Oral transmission remained the most important form of text dissemination even after the written record up to our present media age.

The epics also form "text traditions" through their literary dissemination in probably all regional languages, often in several versions. Where the regional language versions are not directly the textual basis of traditional theater forms, there are again literary genres that provide individual episodes. As a rule, epic adaptations in the regional languages ​​are also used for the various puppet theater traditions. These texts differ greatly in terms of form, content and scope, depending on the time they were written, the "author" and their inspiration or client. There are Mahābhāratas in which a certain king disguised as one of the Pāṇḍava heroes becomes the protagonist, Jain versions of the Mahābhārata, Buddhist Rāma sagas. The genres used as performance texts range from classic Sanskrit theater pieces to songs and verses from religious and devotional dance theater traditions to modern stage plays. Last but not least, there have also been television series of the "National Epics" in recent times.

Significance in the history of religion

Reciting, listening, looking, performing and reading the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa are considered religiously meritorious. This is what it says in the Rāmāyaṇa itself:

"Whoever reads this pure, sin-destroying, holy story of Rama, comparable to the Vedas, will be freed from all sins." (Winternitz 1908: 407).

As indicated here, the epics (along with other texts and theater in general) are designated as an additional Veda (four Vedas - the oldest religious texts that originally only Brahmins were allowed to learn and hear), especially for women and other groups excluded from Veda study . Theater as a means of religious and moral "popular education" thus has a long tradition in India. It's not just about introducing people to the stories and deeds of gods and heroes in a particularly impressive (and effective) way. The epics in particular offer a multitude of episodes that are suitable for depicting religious content and teachings.

Puppet theater in India

There are traditions of puppet theater all over India. Puppets are probably the most widespread, but there are also shadow figures, stick puppets, hand puppets and others (the internet resources listed below provide a good insight into this). Often the puppeteers come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. As with most traditional Indian theater forms, puppeteers often belong to specific caste groups and / or family associations that have been associated with a particular tradition for generations. The art of puppetry is usually transferred from father to son or from uncle to nephew. In some cases, the right and duty to perform in certain religious contexts is also inherited.

It is certain that puppet theater in India has a very long history. However, there is no evidence that any puppet theater originated in India (cf. Varadpande 2005: 32). In the Mahābhārata we often encounter the metaphor of the human being manipulated by fate like a puppet (ibid.). There is also reference to a person who makes a living by performing shadow theater (ibid.). Similar passages can be found in Pāṇini's Sanskrit grammar (presumably 4th century BC) and in poems by Buddhist nuns (Therigātha, 3rd century BC). In a rock edict of Aśoka (approx. 304–232 BC) India (Jambudvīpa) is compared with a puppet theater. Further uses of the puppet theater metaphor can be found in Sanskrit dramas (e.g. Kālidāsas Śakuntalā) and Sanskrit narrative literature (e.g. Kathāsaritsāgara), but also in South Indian texts such as the Tamil epic Cilappatikāram. In the Samarangaṇa Sūtradhāra of Bhoja from the 11th century. Finally, an abundance of mechanical puppets is described, which supposedly could dance, sing and play musical instruments (ibid.).

In classical Sanskrit drama and its theory, the Nāṭya Śāstra (200-300 BC), the theater director is referred to as sūtradhāra "thread holder". This term has fueled theories about the origins of Indian theater in puppet theater. In the Mahābhārata, Kṛṣṇa plays the role of kapaṭanāṭaka sūtradhāra - as a "thread holder in the theater of illusions" (i.e. the guide of human fate) he forms a bridge figure to the performative traditions on several levels.

It is remarkable how many puppet theaters, but also hand and shadow figures, are based on "real" forms of theater. This applies, for example, to the Yakṣagāna puppets in the coastal region of Karnatakas (gombe āṭa) or to the Kathakaḷi hand puppets (pavakathakaḷi) in Kerala. (Fig. 10)

The puppet theater traditions, in which episodes from the epics and Purāṇas are performed, are mostly those that are more or less embedded in religious contexts. Performances can be donated as votive gifts or be an integral part of temple festivals.Just like reading and reciting the epics, performing and funding such performances is considered religiously meritorious.

In religious contexts, some or all of the puppets are often worshiped in a pūjā before they are performed. In certain areas in central Kerala, episodes from the Tamil Rāmāyaṇa of Kampan are only performed as shadow theater for the goddess Bhagavatī during her annual festival in a separate "performance house" (cf. Blackburn 1996: 4-5). Some puppet theater traditions in India like this are preferably performed at night and can last from sunset to sunrise. It is interesting that the shadow theater traditions prefer to perform Rāmāyaṇa episodes.

Like most traditional Indian theatrical traditions, puppet theaters are also "theatrical complexes" in which music plays an important role in addition to the visual and the linguistic. Passages from "pieces" are often sung or recited, one or more drums are essential components, sometimes additional accompanying or melodic instruments are added.

Depending on the genre, only song texts and recitation verses are fixed in writing in the "theater pieces". Spoken passages are "improvised" on the basis of orally traditional conventions. Within this framework, there is room for flexible interpretation of epic characters and events, so that the age-old material is always given new relevance. In some cases, social and political topics (HIV / AIDS, family planning, education) are also listed today, with the relevant texts being made available by governmental or non-governmental organizations.

However, with the spread of cinema and television, many puppet theater traditions have lost much of their importance. Some are continued as tourist attractions (e.g. kathputli in Rajasthan). A big problem, however, is the offspring, as "modern" lifestyles seldom leave room for marginalized traditions, which are usually not very lucrative. (Fig. 11)

Author: Katrin Binder



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Many thanks to Dr. des. Katrin Binder.

Mandatory citation for the article

GODS, DEMONS, HEROES AND WOMEN - world (s) of the great Indian epics Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa; Dr. des. Katrin Binder; 2011; and-ramaya-a

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