The Mahabharata was, according to a legend, first recited by a seer, Vyasa (who was also the Pandavas’ actual grandfather), to Ganesha, who wrote down the story. Ganesha, however, agreed to write it down only if Vyasa never paused during his recitation. Vyasa agreed, saying that Ganesha would jot down his words only after understanding them completely.
We all are aware of the basic facts of the Mahabharata – we know about the animosity between the five sons of Pandu, and the hundred sons of Dhritrashtra. We are aware of how this hatred played an important role in the game of dice between the two parties, and how, consequently, the Pandavas lost their land and their common wife, Draupadi, to the Kauravas. After being in exile for 13 years, when the Pandavas returned, Duryodhan refused to give them back half of their land, which they were entitled to. This called for war. It was during this famous Kurukshetra war that Lord Krishna gave his ethical lecture to Arjuna, which we know as the Bhagwad Gita. After winning this Great War, the Pandavas, out of remorse and guilt of killing their own relatives, embarked on the ‘Great Journey’ to the Polar Mountains where all but Yudhisthira, who made it to the Gate of Heaven, died on the way.
But there is more to the story than just that. These are facts that we have been told over time. There are stories, or rather excerpts, from the epic, that most of us are unaware of. So, we enlisted some of these lesser known tales from the Mahabharata.
#1. Hiranyaksha, Hiraeyakasipu; Ravana, Kumbhakarana; and Sisupala, Dantavakara – all were the reincarnations of brothers Vijaya and Jaya, who were at once the gatekeepers of Lord Vishnu’s abode!
There is a story in the Mahabharata which connects three epics – the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Bhakt Prahladh – in a wonderful way.
According to this story, once, Vijaya and Jaya, the gatekeepers of Lord Vishnu’s abode (Vaikuntha Lok) were cursed by the four Kumaras of Brahma when the latter were mistaken for being children (kumaras looked like children due to the strength of their tapas!) and were not allowed to meet Narayana. In accordance to the curse, the gatekeepers had to give up their divinity and live as mortals on earth. The news of the curse fell on Narayana’s ears, and he felt sorry for his gatekeepers. He also apologised to the Kumaras and assured Jaya and Vijaya that he will do something to reciprocate.
Narayana put forth two options: they could either be born seven times as His devotees, or three times as His enemies on Earth. Since seven lives was a greater time span, which the two brothers could not bear, they chose the latter.
In the first birth as enemy to Vishnu, they were born as Hiranyaksha and Hiraeyakasipu who were killed by Varaha and Narasimha (both avatars of Vishnu). In the next Treta Yuga, the two brothers were born as Ravana and Kumbhakaran, and were killed by Rama, avatar of Vishnu. In the Dwapara Yuga, the brothers were born as Sisupala and Dantavakara, and were killed by Krishna, avatar of Vishnu. Hence, with each life, they moved closer and closer to their God.
#2. The Mahabharata war could have been averted, if only Duryodhan had listened to the Gita.
Krishna had tried to narrate the Bhagwad Gita to Duryodhan, but he had refused to listen, saying that he already knew right from wrong. He argued that there was some force within him that did not allow him to choose the right path. Had he listened to Krishna’s words, the entire war could have been averted.
#3. Draupadi was, in fact, Goddess Durga’s avatar.
Once, Bhima saw Yudhistira washing Draupadi’s feet in her chambers, and complained to Krishna, not knowing that Draupadi was actually Goddess Durga’s avatar. Krishna took him to the jungle and asked him to sit quietly on a tree top and witness what happens below.
Late in the night, Bhima saw that Draupadi, as Goddess Durga, was asking for Bhima’s blood in her empty bowl, since he had entered her chambers despite being forbidden from entering. Bhima, scared to death, narrated the entire story to his mother, Kunti. Kunti then asked Draupadi never to hurt Bhima. Being a mortal, Draupadi had to promise her and in the act, she bit her lip hesitantly. Kunti wiped off the blood from her lips with the edge of her cloth and promised her that Bhima will fill the bowl for her. This did happen, when Bhima killed Dushashan for humiliating Draupadi and filled her bowl with the blood from Dushashan’s chest.
#4. One of the Pandavas already knew that the war was coming.
Pandu’s dying wish was that his sons should eat his flesh after his death to gain knowledge and experiences. Sahadev devoured three pieces and became the greatest astrologer, who could foresee events. But he could not tell anyone about the war, because it would bring about his death.
#5. How Shakuni, Dhritarashtra’s brother-in-law, became the reason for his downfall.
Dhritarashtra’s wife Gandhari had been cursed that her first husband would die, which led to her family secretly getting her married to a goat, and later killing it. She then married Dhritarashtra. When he got to know about this several years later, Dhritarashtra put the entire Gandhara family, King Subala and his hundred own sons in prison to die. They were only given a bowl of rice to eat. King Subala, who wanted to take revenge on Dhritrashtra, advised everyone in prison to give their food to his youngest son, Shakuni, so that he becomes strong enough to fight Dhritarashtra. He also convinced Dhritarashtra that Shakuni can be a guide for his hundred sons, thus asking him to release Shakuni.
Before dying, Subala asked Shakuni to make a dice from his backbone with such powerful magic that it could spin the requested number; he also broke one of Shakuni’s bones from the leg so that it reminds him of the pain his family went through before dying. And this is how Shakuni became the reason for Dhritarashtra and his dynasty’s downfall.
#6. Bhishma’s five powerful arrows could have helped the Kauravas win the war.
Duryodhan was certain that Bhishma was not fighting to his full abilities due to his bias for the Pandavas. After accusing him of this, Bhishma created five powerful arrows and promised that he would slay the five brothers at one go the very next day. Doubting this, Duryodhan took the five arrows to use them on the Pandavas himself.
Krishna got to know about this and advised Arjuna to go and ask Duryodhana for those arrows, as the boon that Duryodhana had granted him once, when Arjuna had saved his life. Duryodhana had to comply with his request and unwillingly, parted with the arrows. When Duryodhana asked Bhishma to create five more arrows, he refused, saying that he had used his lifelong merit to create them and thus, they could not be recreated. Duryodhana thus lost his only chance of winning the war.
#7. Krishna and Arjuna fought against one another in a battle once.
It began with Gayan, the gandharva, flying his chariot impulsively and close to Dwarka, where Krishna resided. He flew so close to Krishna that Krishna fell down and Gayan did not even apologise for his reckless behaviour. Krishna, furious, vowed to hunt him down and kill him. Gayan, scared, ran to Brahma and Mahesh for help, but they asked him to apologise to Krishna instead. Naradmuni then asked him to reach out to Arjuna, Krishna’s close friend, to seek help. After much convincing and manipulation by Naradmuni, Arjuna agreed to help Gayan, albeit reluctantly. When Krishna and Arjuna meet for battle, Brahma stopped them and found a solution. He asked Arjuna to hand over Gayan to Krishna, who then killed Gayan.
Krishna then told Arjuna that war was near, and he should be prepared to fight even his own brothers and relatives; this battle was meant to prepare Arjuna to fight for the Kurukshetra war.
#8. All of the Pandavas were extremely powerful; and each of them had their strengths.
Nakul and Yudhishtira had great powers. Nakul could ride a horse so fast that he could never get wet in heavy rain. It is said that he travelled with such great speed that he could dodge rain drops between successive falling drops. And Yudhishtira was said to have so much power that if he got angry, everything within his line of sight burnt.
#9. Ramayana & Mahabharata don’t overlap for just once. There was an incident when Krishna saved Arjuna’s life at the Rama Setu in presence of Hanumana.
Krishna once told Arjuna that Rama was the greatest warrior ever – even better than him. When visiting Rameshwaram, seeing the Nala Setu, a doubt arose in Arjuna’s mind. He wondered why Rama, who was supposedly the greatest warrior, needed the Vanara Sena to create the Setu, when he could have just created a bridge with arrows using his powers.
Hanuman found Arjuna engaged in such doubts and went up to him, disguised as an aged Vanara. He explained to Arjuna that the bridge of arrows would not be able to withstand the weight of the Vanars. Challenging Hanuman, Arjuna said that he would create such a bridge and if the Vanara could walk on it, he would win. Otherwise, he would burn in the bridge of arrows. After building the bridge with his powers, he asked the Vanara to walk on it. Hanuman uttered the name of Rama, and merely kept his tail on the bridge. The bridge collapsed.
Keeping his word, Arjuna burnt the bridge and turned to walk in it. That very moment, Krishna appeared in the form of a saint and asked them to perform the task again, with him as a witness. But this time, the bridge did not crumble. When they turned around, they saw that the saint was supporting the foundation of the bridge with his shoulders bleeding. In the saint, Hanuman saw Rama and Arjuna saw Krishna. Krishna hugged Hanuman and thanked him for what all that he had done for him.
#10. The most powerful warrior in the Mahabharata was a mere spectator.
The battle of Kurukshetra was viewed from atop a mountain by Barbarik, whose head was placed on the mountain. Just how did his head end up there?
Barbarik, Bhima’s grandson and Ghatotkacha’s son, was a brave warrior who was blessed by Lord Shiva and bestowed with three powerful arrows and a special bow from Lord Agni. The power possessed by Barbarik was such that he could kill anyone he wished using just one of those arrows. Krishna tested this virtue of the arrows and found it to be true. This scared him, because this inherent power would prevent him from saving the Pandavas on the battlefield; Barbarik’s arrows could easily destroy any or all of them without Krishna’s knowledge.
Krishna, therefore, asked Barbarik which side he would be on. Barbarik had earlier promised his mother that he would side with the weaker army, and therefore, to that extent, replied that since the Pandavas have a smaller army, he would be on their side. But here, Krishna explained the paradox of the situation: given the fact that Barbarik was so powerful, whichever side he chooses will only weaken the other side and he will have to take the latter’s side, eventually oscillating between the two sides and destroying everyone but himself. Thus, Krishna asked him for his head so that his involvement in the war could be avoided. Before giving his head to Krishna, Barbarik expressed his desire to view the war, leading to Krishna placing Barbarik’s head atop a mountain overlooking the battlefield.
Editor’s note: While the author and the editors involved with this story have went to great lengths to verify the actuality of these incidents, epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are themselves so conflicted in the popular culture and in the media that it is almost impossible to thoroughly verify such lesser-known stories. Having said that, we find these stories fascinating, amazing and of value for our readers, and hence we cosidered important to share them with you.