An Analysis of the Characters of the Mahabharata by D.V. Gundappa

This is the first episode of a series analysing the characters of the Mahabharata penned by the legendary DVG about 50 years ago.
An Analysis of the Characters of the Mahabharata by D.V. Gundappa


ONE OF DVG’s lesser-known works of non-fiction is a sublime bouquet of literary essays innocuously titled Kāvya-svārasya or The Delights of Poetry. However, this rather simple title conceals a veritable trove filled with invaluable treasures in the form of meditative expositions on the purpose of literature, the nature of talent, contemplations on Rasa, the function of poetry, the triad of aesthetics, elucidations on Joy (Ananda) and a superb investigation into the inner human impulse that creates poetry.

This anthology was published on January 14, 1975, nine months before DVG shed his mortal coils. In fact, Kāvya-svārasya deserves wider circulation in our own time given how the Arts have been coarsened and vulgarized beyond belief. In one sense, Kāvya-svārasya is akin to a companion volume to DVG’s more renowned work, Sāhityaśakti (Strength of Literature).

The essays in the Kāvya-svārasya anthology were written over the course of several decades. Some had been stashed away and forgotten, and retrieved later with the efforts of DVG’s well-wishers and close associates like Kudli Chidambaram and Dr. S.R. Ramaswamy. The extraordinary essay titled Mahābhāratada pātragaḷu or The Characters of the Mahabharata belongs to this category. DVG himself writes that in its original form, these were notes that he had randomly scribbled as part of his preparations for his weekly Bhagavad Gita discourses delivered over the course of a quarter century. When these “notes” were printed, they took up sixty-five pages!

The Characters of the Mahabharata is the typical DVG fare marked by stylistic élan and expository clarity, suffused with tonal warmth. It is also beguiling in the sense that his prose endearingly masks his awesome sweep of erudition and his distinctive eloquence. DVG is brief when brevity begets itself and elaborate when expansiveness elicits itself.

As the essay will unravel, DVG’s analysis of the characters of the Mahabharata has a highly unique and a rather original demeanor to it. Instead of being one among the countless and forgettable products of the well-oiled and fecund factory of “Mahabharata analyses,” DVG’s contribution is singular in the widest and profoundest sense of the term.

This is the first instalment of an English translation of The Characters of the Mahabharata.

Happy reading!

Characters of the Mahabharata

IN THE WORLD OF LITERATURE, the prestige of Bharatavarsha has occupied the highest summit and has attained immortality owing to two Kāvyas: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. After the Veda, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are the finest agglomerations of life-ideals.

Of the two, the Ramayana is akin to the Himalaya—extremely elegant and endowed with a sky-kissing quality. The Mahabharata resembles an ocean—vast and turbulent, throwing up a complex range of knotty circumstances of life.

Both epics are superb spectacles. Both are life-purifying. No other work in the entire corpus of world literature has performed the kind of investigations into life that these two have done.

What is the meaning of human life? What is Dharma? What is the essential human quality or impulse? People who patiently and exhaustively study the Ramayana and the Mahabharata will find answers to all such fundamental questions.

Although the two epics are characterised as poetry in common parlance, they are Samhitās (philosophical treatises) in reality—they are brilliant corpuses comprising all ingredients of life itself.

Part 1: Backdrop


The age or period of the Mahabharata is known as the Dvāparayuga. We can briefly examine some characteristics of that age.

The word Dvāpara means “twofold” or “dual-natured.” Just like how daylight and nighttime are mixed up at twilight, just like how the threshold of a house is both within and outside it, the Dvāpara Age contains characteristics of its previous and subsequent Yugas in equal measure. It is an age of confusion and mishmash. It is an age of uncertainty. It is an age of duality. It is an age of doubt and suspicion (sandēhadvāparau cā tha – Amarakosha). It is an age of delusion. It is an age of greed. It is an age permeated with a spirit of gambling.

The term Dvāpara also has another meaning. It is the name given to the two dots on the dice used in the game of dice (Akṣakrīḍa).

Suspicion and avarice are carefully hidden in the mind. The ruthless deceit that comes to the fore while gambling marks the outward behavior of the people of that age. Judgement and justice are delivered based on pure luck—this was the trait of that era.

Our Puranas have classified Time into four Yugas for the sake of convenience: Kr̥ta, trētā, Dvāpara, and Kali. This categorization is based on the condition of Dharma in each Yuga.

Kr̥ta Yuga is also known as Satya Yuga. In this Yuga, Dharma was all-pervasive. Punya or virtue or spiritual merit was complete, total. In the Trētā Yuga, the share of Dharma was three-fourths and that of Adharma was one-fourth. In the Dvāpara, both had equal share. In the Kali, Dharma’s share was one-fourth and that of Adharma was three-fourth. In this manner, with Time, Dharma or Sattva declines and then re-ascends.

The Episode of Naḷa

The Age of Dvāpara lies between the Age of Sri Rama and the (ensuing) Avatara of Kalki. The advent of Kali-Purusha had already begun in the Dvāpara Yuga, long before Duryodhana was even born. It had occurred in the reign of Maharaja Naḷa. The divine protectors and regulators of the world such as Indra and other Devatas had taken part in Damayanti’s svayamvara (a form of marriage where the bride selects her prospective husband on her own from among an assemblage of suitors after putting them through one or more tests).

This is a story we are all familiar with.

As the Devatas got ready to depart after the function was over, Kali-Purusha appeared on the scene along with the Dvāpara-Purusha. When the Devatas asked him the purpose of his visit, he said that he was besotted with Damayanti and wanted to marry her. At this, Indra laughed and said that Damayanti was already wedded to Naḷa and that all the Devatas were witnesses to it.

Kali was furious.

The Friendship of Kali and Dvāpara

After the Devatas had left, Kali addressed Dvāpara: “I am unable to console my mind, I am unable to subdue my anger. Henceforth, I will stay with Naḷa and ensure that he loses his kingdom. I will stop him from leading a happy life with Damayanti. You must help me in this endeavour. You must manipulate the pawns used in the game of dice played as gambling. Please favour me.” Dvāpara acceded to the request.

After this, Kali kept a tight watch over Naḷa for twelve years and one day after Naḷa finished attending the nature’s call (urination), he forgot to wash his feet. In that unclean state, Naḷa sat for his sandhyāvandanam. Using this as the perfect chance, Kali entered Naḷa’s Being. He then provoked Naḷa—who was fond of the game of dice—to invite his relative Pushkara for a bout of gambling.

And now, because Dvāpara had already inhabited the dice, the pawns began to move in Pushkara’s favour. In the end, Naḷa lost the match, lost everything and had to wander in jungles suffering terrible difficulties. The story that unfolds after this is extremely heart-rending. The immortal poet Veda Vyasa has described this in an enchanting and moving fashion.

karkoṭakasya nāgasya damayaṃtyā nalasya ca |
rutuparṇasya rājarṣeḥ kīrtanaṃ kalināśanam ||

Singing in praise of the Karkotaka serpent by Damayanthi for Nala, and in praise of Rajarshi Rutuparna leads to the destruction of Kali.

However, that story is irrelevant to our present context.

To be continued

The Dharma Dispatch is now available on Telegram! For original and insightful narratives on Indian Culture and History, subscribe to us on Telegram.

The Dharma Dispatch