Once, when I was telling a friend the story of Mahabharata, I was interrupted by a question. “Before you begin, does Krishna always have that round thing behind his head?” It took me a while to even figure out that she meant the golden halo that appears behind the heads of deities.
I assured her that there was no mention of any such halo in the book. But her questions did not stop there. (“Didn’t Kunti get her children magically?” “No she didn’t, they were all born the perfectly natural way.”) After a while, a pattern emerged: all the questions could be traced back to one source— the television serial that many of us grew up watching. (“Why doesn’t anyone help that man sleeping on arrows?” “He made a vow…” “To sleep on arrows?” “Umm it’s complicated…”). My curiosity piqued, I began collecting the instances where the TV serial differed from the book. Some of them were easy to spot, like the ones mentioned above. Others, taken from already popular folklore, are so important in setting the theme and tone of the story that they have now come to define Mahabharata.
For example, imagine how different the story would be if Krishna did not save Draupadi from being disrobed. According to the original text, when Dushaasan starts pulling at Draupadi’s sari, she cries out to Krishna, who comes running from wherever he is. But after that, no more mention of him is made, and we don’t know where he disappeared to. Instead: “While Yajnaseni (Draupadi) was crying aloud to Krishna for protection, the illustrious Dharma, remaining unseen, covered her with excellent clothes. Owing to the protection of Dharma, hundreds upon hundreds of robes of many hues came off Draupadi’s person.” (Quote from K.M. Ganguly’s 1896 translation of the Mahabharata).
As we can see, somebody else called “Dharma” saved Draupadi from being humiliated. This name has confused many readers before me, and I found people advocating that Dharma could mean either Yudhishthir or Vidur, as both are addressed by the name “Dharma” throughout the text. However, this does not make sense, as neither Yushishthir nor Vidur have magical powers to remain unseen and supply clothes to Draupadi. Instead, an abstract interpretation of “Dharma” as goodness makes better sense, meaning that Draupadi was saved by her own innate purity.
Krishna’s absence from this scene is corroborated by several circumstantial statements, the most reliable of which occurs at Krishna’s next meeting with the Pandavas. Draupadi pours her heart out to him, after which Krishna regrets his absence that day, since he was busy battling his minor nemesis Shalva. The contradictions in Krishna’s alibi can be attributed to the fact until centuries after it was written, continuous additions to the text of Mahabharata were made by different people, resulting in the inconsistent tome that we have today.
Mahabharata stands out from most mythological texts because it does not shy away from its heroes’ moral failures or from the valor of its villains. All characters are gray, the villains just slightly darker. In contrast, by manipulating the tone and tampering with story angles, the TV serial manages to completely villainize the antagonists. Among many minor tweaks, one incident stands out: the final battle between Duryodhan and Bheem. The popular perception is that Duryodhan had a boon from his mother that made his body rock hard, leaving only his upper thighs unprotected. In the original text, there is no mention of Gandhari’s tapasya that gave her the power to strengthen her son. Duryodhan enters the arena with no superpowers, and with only his wounded pride for strength.
Before the battle, Krishna gravely opines that though Bheem may be stronger, Duryodhan is the better fighter, and Bheem would never, ever, gain victory in a fair fight. The decision to incapacitate Duryodhan by targeting his crotch was therefore made in cold blood, but according to the television serial, Bheem was forced to forego the rules of lawful battle because Duryodhan cheated in the first place. By rendering this incident in stark black and white, this version undermines the story’s potential for reflecting reality, and unfairly glorifies the protagonist.
To change the topic, while Brahmins far and wide hotly debate the issue of meat eating, and some even don’t partake of onions, garlic, and tomatoes, Mahabharata is quite clear on this issue: Brahmins, and everyone else, are supposed to rejoice in the nutritious values of meat. In one example, Illwala and Vatapi are asur brothers who enjoy killing Brahmins. Illwala has the power to transform human beings into other animals. He changes his brother Vatapi into a sheep, and cooks the meat. He then feeds it to Brahmins, and after they have eaten, simply says “Vatapi, come forth”. From within the stomach, pieces of Vatapi begin taking human form, bursting the eater’s stomach and killing him. The brothers try the same trick on Rishi Agastya, but Agastya instead kills Vatapi by digesting him before Illwala calls out to him.
This story clearly depicts Brahmins eating meat with relish. It has been said that Illwala disguised the meat as a vegetarian dish to make Agastya eat it, but the original text does not support this idea: it clearly states that the meat was disguised as sheep. Sure, Brahmins are said to be mild in disposition and are recommended to eat satwik food, but those are just recommendations and not rules. Meat is mentioned as the best bali (sacrifice) because of its nutritious value. (The purpose of bali is for human beings to eat what is offered to deities.)
Some of these variations may have been popular even before the highly glamorized TV series. The concept of vegetarian Brahmins, for example, was deeply entrenched in our society long before BR Chopra’s television opera. But what the TV series did is to firmly establish these variations in the minds of an entire generation that got their religion from televisio