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Ganesha, also known as Ganapati among other names, is the Hindu deity of wisdom, writing, and beginnings. Depicted with elephant's head on a human body, Ganesha is the son of Shiva and Parvati. Ganesha is the scribe to whom Vyasa (compiler of the Mahabharata, and sometimes narrator  and vital participant) is telling the story. Lord of Multitudes, Remover of Obstacles.

Ganesha Website

A Family Chart

"It's about you . . .  If you listen carefully, at the end you'll be someone else."

The Mahabharata, in its original Sanskrit probably the longest epic ever composed, embodies much of the essence of Indian culture.  Said to be written down by the god of writing and beginnings, Ganesha (the elephant-headed god), it is a fascinating story of a feud between two parts of a single Indian ruling family (the Bharata), featuring a gambling contest in which one set of cousins is tricked out of their kingdom.  The war culminates in a vast, cataclysmic battle, told in a heroic and moral context.  In the final battle, Krishna teaches the warrior that the ultimate conflict is not about land and riches and worldly power.  The ultimate battle, waged on cosmic ground, is about the human spirit.  In the Mahabharata, the Ultimate Weapon is summoned, a weapon that if used will destroy the world of both matter and spirit. Shrinking from one's moral duty, refusal to act even when it is most difficult to act, and egotistical attachment to one's actions--these human weaknesses pose the greatest dangers to survival of the individual and the species.

Background - Plot Summary for the Mahabharata | Online Resources |
| Shiva-Parvati-Ganesha | Krishna |
Mahbharata Seminar | Peter Brook's Film Version




PANDU: younger brother of Dhritarashtra; patriarch; retired from kingdom to hunt and enjoy life.  The actor who plays Pandu also plays Shiva.

DHRITARASHTRA: blind elder brother of Pandu; becomes patriarch, king; takes charge of Pandavas after Pandu’s death. 


kunti.gif (22844 bytes)KUNTI: wife of Pandu,  Kunti uses a mantra to mate  with gods (virgin birth) and beget her four sons: Karna, Yudishthira, Bhima, and Arjuna


MADRI, second wife of Pandu, mother of Nakula  and Sahadeva

GANDHARI: blindfolded wife of Dhritarashtra, jealous of Kunti who had son first; queen mother of 100 sons (grown over 2 years in her belly to form a hard, cold ball, which is forced out of her and then split in 100 pieces and watered into human life)

The Court: the Dice Game

Bhisma, Gandhari, Dhritarashtra, Drona


karna.jpg (6259 bytes)Karna: first son of Kunti, sired by the Sun god; left to drift in a basket. Brought up by chariot driver.  Unrecognized by his mother, Kunti, Karna goes to the other side --> --> --



Yudhishthira: second son of Kunti and god Dharma; born to be king--LAW. Has a weakness for dice gambling.


Bhima: third son, son of the wind god; strong as thunder. With Hidimbi, goddess of the forest, sires Ghatotkatcha, who later assists him in war



Arjuna: fourth son of Kunti and Indra, king of gods; perfect warrior, born to conquer


Nakula and Sahadeva: sons of Madri, representing patience and wisdom

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does not know his origin, becomes bitter: fights for the Kauravas.

Duryodhana: first son of Gandhari; fierce angry leader of Kauravas, "comes to destroy".

"I love nothing. I am nothing. . . .  I want to be discontented."



Dushashana: Son of Gandhari; drags Draupadi by hair; she later washes her hair in his blood


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: daughter of Panchala kings; won by Arjuna in a contest; wife of the five Pandavas (Yudishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva)



KRISHNA: Cousin of Kunti, Krishna serves as spiritual and military counselor and friend to the whole family--both Pandavas and Kauravas.  Offers his services to both Yudhishthira and Duryodhana--giving them this choice: Krishna himself, alone, or all Krishna's warriors and weapons.  Yudishthira chooses Krishna.  And so Krishna becomes the charioteer for the Pandavas' chief warrior, Arjuna.

SHAKUNI: uncle of Duryodhana, younger brother of Gandhari.   An expert dice player; suggests and plays the dice game with the Pandavas

BHISHMA: uncle and noble counselor to King Dhritharashtra; raises both Padavas and Kauravas, but leads in battle for the Kauravas. The Gods have given him the power to choose the time of his death.







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second teacher of cousins.  Cares for both Pandavas and Kauravas, but  fights for the Kauravas

shiva.gif (6086 bytes)BHARATA: from "Bharat"=Indian; King Bharata. KRISHNA: Avatar of Vishnu, god of preservation who takes on human form when chaos threatens; serves as charioteer for Arjuna and delivers the Bhagavad Gita. SHIVA: God of destruction (also creation and preservation); provides the ultimate weapon to Arjuna. GANESHA: elephant-headed Hindu god of education and learning, knowledge and wisdom, literature and the fine arts, Lord of success, prosperity, and peace. and "good luck"; scribe for the Mahabharata, recited by Vyasa: "Listen to stories: It’s always pleasant and sometimes it improves you." VYASA: Krishna Dvaipaiyana Vyasa, 4th century B.C.E. Written text attributed to him. (Vyasa means "collector.") According to legend, Vyasa and Ganesha worked together to get the text fully recited and written down; the epic is said to have been originally written with a tusk. HISTORY: The events (the war) in the epic is based on a historical event, just as the Iliad portrays an actual war (Trojan War). The date of the Bharata war has been variously set at 5000 BCE, 3000 BCE, 3138 BCE (the Indus Valley Civilization dates are c. 3200-2000 BCE). ORAL TRADITION: It is believed that all the ancient stories, songs, and epics were preserved through recitation, performance, storytelling (in the oral tradition) before the technology of writing was invented.

The Mahabharata: Part I

1. Look for examples of the motif of sight and blindness. In what ways are the various characters blinded or in the dark? In what ways do they see the light?

2. "I compose everything," Vyasa tells the boy toward the end of Part I. "Nothing is written down and I hesitate in moments when thought escapes me." Note the various techniques used by the filmmaker to evoke the storytelling roots of the Mahabharata, the oral tradition represented by Vyasa, who enters the narrative at various points, describing action and feeling, sometimes even talking to his characters. Pay special attention when Vyasa intervenes between the Kauravas and Pandavas, saying "Put down that weapon! No crime should corrupt this poem!"

3. Note the use of dark and light by the filmmaker. What are the most brightly lit scenes? Does Part I end in light or darkness? What do you make of this?

4. The feud between the Kauravas and Pandavas takes up only about 25% of the whole book (the rest is poetry, lengends and myths, instruction in the worship of Shiva and Vishnu). Why does Peter Brook make it seem like the feud is the epic?

5. What characteristics of the epic are apparent in the Mahabharata?

6. Compare and contrast Arjuna and Odysseus.

7. How does Gandhari finally bear her 100 sons?

8. How does Duryodhana get Karna’s loyalty?

9. After Draupadi is humiliated before the Kauravas and Pandavas, King Dhritarashtra grants her favors. She asks nothing for herself. What does she ask for and why doesn’t she ask anything for herself?

10. Note the curses and prophesies made: Draupadi curses the Kauravas; she says that Duryodhana’s death will come when he is struck in the knee. Bhima predicts that he will eat the heart of Duhshasana, and Draupadi vows to leave her hair down until the moment when she washes it in Duhshasana’s blood.

Arjuna promises to kill Karna, and Bhisma predicts that Karna will forget the formula for the ultimate weapon at the moment of his death. Krishna says, rather matter-of-factly, that the Pandavas will be victorious in the end. What is the function or meaning of these curses and prophesies?

11. Consider Bashupadha, the ultimate weapon, given to Arjuna by Shiva, also given (in formula) to Karna by Bhisma. It is an absolute weapon that can destroy the world; it is a weapon that can be launched with a bow, an eye, a word, a thought. Once released, it cannot be recalled. It cannot be disposed of, nor given back. The Earth shakes when it hears the name. In what ways does this 4000-year-old story foretell the fate of the 20th century?

12. Both Duryodhana and Arjuna visit Krishna to ask for his allegiance in the war. Krishna says he will not fight, and cannot take sides because he loves them all equally. But he does give them a choice: one may have all his men and armies and chariots, the other may have him—unarmed—by his side. Arjuna chooses Krishna, and Duryodhana is happy to have 11 armies to the Pandavas’ 7. What do these choices say about the two leaders? And when Duryodhana refuses to give the Pandavas 5 villages to avoid war, Krishna shouts: "You will have your glorious death. We will see a glorious massacre!"—and then reveals his fire to Dhritherashta, who momentarily sees the light. What is the effect of ending Part I at this point?

For film students: What other cinematic techniques (photography, mise-en-scene, movement, editing, acting, etc. do you notice as particularly effective or ineffective?

The Mahabharata: Part II

1. Why does Karna ask his mother to keep the secret of his birth from his brothers?

2. Why does Arjuna, a warrior, hesitate to blow the conch signaling the beginning of battle?

3. Why does the filmmaker have Vyasa say what Krishna is saying to Arjuna, even when the image shows Krishna’s lips whispering into Arjuna’s ear? What does Vyasa say that Krisha is telling Arjuna here about action and detachment? In this same scene, the filmmaker has the character Krishna talk about Krishna (himself) in the third person. ("To reply to this question," Krishna says, "Krishna led Arjuna through the tangled forest [to teach him] the ancient yoga of wisdom. . . the mysterious path of action. . . ."

4. What secret knowledge does Arjuna get from Krishna that enables him to blow the conch shell?

5. Note the curses that come to pass: Duryodhana's death comes when he is struck in the knee, as foretold by Draupadi. Bhima does as he predicts: he eats the heart of Dushassana.

And Draupadi does as she says she will: she leaves her hair down until the moment when she washes it in Dushassana’s blood. Arjuna, as prophesized, kills Karna, who—as Bhisma foretells—forgets the formula for the ultimate weapon at the moment of his death. And the Pandavas are victorious in the end. What is the function or meaning of these fulfillments of curses and prophesies?

6. It is known that the war will continue until Bhisma is killed, but because of the blessing of life given to him, no one believes it is possible to kill him.  When Arjuna asks how Bhisma can be killed in order to end the war, Bhisma identifies Sikhandim as a warrior who can kill him? Who is Sikhandim?

7. In Part I, Bhima’s son Ghatotkatcha promises to help him when he needs him. Krishna claims that no one can stop Karna except Ghatotkatcha, and asks him to offer Karna to the gods. But Karna throws his spear into Ghatotokatcha’s heart and kills him. Was Krishna wrong?

8. "When dharma is protected, it protects. When dharma is destroyed, it destroys." What does this mean?

9. "Death doesn’t exist. Death is powerless against eternity." What does this mean?

10. After the battle, Gandhari, mother of the Kauravas, curses Krishna, telling him he will be killed and rejected. He says to her, I know, and tells the story about how in 36 years a hunter, mistaking his feet for the ears of a deer, will kill him. How is it possible for a god to be killed?

11. Near the end of the film, Krishna says, "Even if you can’t see it, the light has been saved." What does he mean here?

12.  Note the use of dark and light by the filmmaker. What are the most brightly lit scenes? Does the film end in light or darkness? What do you make of this?

13.  Vyasa tells the boy that all the Pandavas died without children, except for one of Arjuna’s, saved by Krishna. The boy comes from this child. At the end of the story Ganesha gives the boy the book, and the boy takes it out of the cave while Ganesha and Vyasa talk with one another. What meanings lie in these final words and images?

For film students: What other cinematic techniques (photography, mise-en-scene, movement, editing, acting, etc. do you notice as particularly effective or ineffective?

Gloria Floren, Letters Department, MiraCosta College,
One Barnard Drive, Oceanside, California 92056. U.S.A.
E-mail:  ENGLISH | |
Created February 2000. Revised 22 September 2003. 
Contents Copyright 2000-2003 Gloria L. Floren.  All rights reserved
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