Friday, October 4, 2013

Mahabharata - The Story Begins 2 0f 2

My new book Mahabharata: The Eternal Quest reads like you're watching a movie and begins with short scenes in rapid succession to introduce many of the characters, to foreshadow events and to gradually set up the main storyline. This continues throughout the first and second chapters. The first seven or so pages conclude with this second installment. 

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Chapter 1  

The Vow

“Your sons and their forces are ready,” Sanjaya told the blind king. “As ready as they’ll ever be.”  
King Dhritarastra listened with both expectancy and regret, hovering in a world of his own, molded of past and future. If only he had listened to Vidura, it would not have come to this.  He feared for his sons, the Kauravas.  What would happen to them now? If he could, he would make Duryodhan give back all the land he had taken from the Pandavas. But of all his sons, Duryodhan had always been beyond his control. Surely, Providence would now have its way.
Sanjaya, the king’s aid and confidant, sat in the royal palace at Hastinapura by his side.  Though Sanjaya’s gaze was drawn within, he looked far beyond the city’s streets and walls. With Vyasa’s gift of mystic vision, he beheld the valley of Kurukshetra over a hundred miles away. There, as the two armies prepared for battle, Sanjaya could observe every aspect and scan every detail. He could hear any conversation and even know someone’s thoughts.
“This is quite unusual,” Sanjaya continued, and he paused in disbelief.
Dhritarastra impatiently stamped his jeweled cane for attention.  “What is it?” He insisted on knowing.
 “Yudhisthira has stepped off his chariot. He proceeds across the valley on foot and unarmed toward your sons.”
“Unarmed?  Does he mean to seek a truce or to surrender?”  Dhritarastra inquired. His mind hoped against hope. Could there still be time for reconciliation, for peace?
The morning air was crisp. Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, walked toward the expanse of Kaurava warriors and their allies. The army Yudhisthira beheld far outnumbered his own.  In the distant ranks, amid his sworn enemies, he spied Bhismadev’s splendid chariot, decorated with many weapons. He headed straight for it. Bhismadev was the respected Grandsire of the dynasty, the eldest and wisest. He was also Yudhisthira’s ever well-wisher and like a father to him. Even now Bhismadev observed the solitary figure with pride. Yudhisthira took each step with such ease and grace. Bhismadev knew the last thing Yudhisthira wanted was this fight. 
Bhismadev was surrounded by men impatient for battle, for blood and glory, for the sweet taste of victory.  Duryodhan, Dushasana, Karna, Sakuni, and Ashwattama. They had waited years for this moment.  The horses drawing their chariots whinnied in anticipation. The nobles snickered upon seeing Yudhisthira approach. Maybe this would be easier than they thought. Had Yudhisthira lost his nerve when he saw the sight of their intimidating forces? After all, he had retreated to the forest to spend thirteen years in exile without a word of complaint.
 Bhismadev’s mind drifted away from the moment at hand and settled into the past. How had he let it come to this, a civil war that would rip apart this exalted Kuru dynasty? It was the one thing he sought all his life to avoid. His mind wandered back to his youth, and to his father, King Santanu.

*  *  *  *  *

Santanu followed the maiden from the river to the far end of the village. She was of slender waist and golden skin, but above all, a remarkable fragrance emanated from her being.  Santanu could not take his eyes off her. Actually, he could have closed his eyes and followed her just by her enchanting scent.  He would do anything to have her as his wife. She looked back at the king riding upon his silver-encrusted chariot. She welcomed his unmoving gaze. This was the man and the world she would have. She smiled at Santanu and entered the house of her father, the chief of the fishermen. 

*  *  *  *  *

King Santanu returned from his trip markedly sullen. No matter how much he tried, he could not hide his mood from his son. He was pensive for days afterwards. Time and again, Bhismadev tried to find out what weighed upon his father’s mind. But Santanu only looked down and remained silent to all of his inquiries. Santanu loved his son. Bhismadev was the only surviving child born of Santanu and the goddess Ganga – the Ganges River personified. In his childhood, Bhismadev received his education and training from the Celestials, and especially from the sage Vasistha, in the heavenly regions from where Ganga had come. After his multifaceted education, Ganga brought the boy back to Earth to reside with his father. All the citizens knew this boy as Gangadatta – Son of Ganga – and they considered him the most blessed and fortunate person to walk the earth.
The king was unabashedly proud of Bhismadev and he continued to groom the youth with utmost care to become the future lord of the Kuru dynasty.  In turn, Bhismadev loved his father, and as a faithful son, he would do anything and go to any length to ensure his father’s happiness. 
Bhismadev privately questioned the king’s chariot driver about his recent excursions. When he informed the youth the king had lingered at the village of the fishermen, Bhismadev hastily proceeded there.

*  *  *  *  *

“Yes, your father came here seeking the hand of my daughter, Satyavati, in marriage,” explained the fisherman curtly. He eyed the young man suspiciously. Had he come to make trouble for him and the village?
After a moment of strained silence, Bhismadev inquired further. “And what happened?”
“I told your father, the king, my terms for marriage.” The fisherman paused again to gauge the youth’s response and continued. “He can marry my daughter with the condition that her children must ascend to the throne and inherit the kingdom.”
Bhismadev had not expected something like this, but now he understood the reason for his father’s despondency. He considered the proposal and what it meant to the well-being of his father.
“If that’s all you’re worried about,” he said rather nonchalantly, “I promise you here and now, and I will swear it before anyone you wish to bring forth as witnesses, that I relinquish all rights to the royal throne.”
 “This is indeed a generous offer,” said the fisherman,  “but it is not enough.”
“Not enough!” Bhismadev’s voice trembled with anger.
The fisherman continued cautiously. “Please. Let me explain. You’re a handsome and courageous young man. In due course, you’ll marry a woman worthy of you. In the future, you’ll have children, and when they grow up, your children will become envious of my daughter’s children. Your children will certainly feel they have been cheated out of a throne that is rightfully theirs. Their enmity would rip apart the dynasty and lead to a war that would only threaten to destroy this great kingdom.”
Understanding the human condition even in his youth, Bhismadev conceded, “It’s a point well made. Therefore, for the sake of my father’s happiness, and to preserve peace in the future, I make a vow to never marry and to never have children. I make a vow of lifelong celibacy.”
When Bhismadev spoke these words, a thunderous applause was heard from the heavens and flower petals fell from the sky. The Celestials were amazed one of their own would make such a vow.
When Bhismadev returned home with his father’s bride, Santanu was overwhelmed with happiness. The king was so grateful toward his son, he summoned all the power at his command to give Bhismadev a supreme benediction: he could choose the moment of his death.