Who knew Mahabharata was written before Ramayana! Don't think I did so that came as an interesting surprise.
Of course Ramayana is the story of an older time (Treta Yuga) than Mahabharata (Dwapar Yuga) but the story itself seems to have been written around 2800 years ago whereas Ram's story seems written much later around 2000 years ago. If you put that into perspective - a more unified Hindu religious theory around the trinity (Brahma the creator, Vishnu the sustainer Shiva the destroyer) and the 10 Avatars and unification of Gods is a relatively recent phenomenon specially considering that Buddh (300 B.C.) also shows up as the 9th, and last Avatar. Which makes sense because the unification of Gods under trinity and the reduced role of Nature Gods and the Avatars is a rich, deliberate and sophisticated theory.
Shyam Benegal's approach to filming of Mahabharata is unorthodox. He strips of most of the glamour and focuses on key issues about the battle for land. He emphasizes that in ancient India - the battle at Hastinapur (the real-life source for the story of Mahabharata) - near modern Delhi - was the first struggle over land ownership. All prior struggles during the earlier Vedic period were mostly over cattle and animals. This also indicates the ascent of agriculture and the creation of city states. Duryodhan is given top billing here. Pandavs are mostly silent with Krishna as their voice.
There is a big emphasis on the importance of maintaining social norms and social order at all costs. A case in point is Yudhisthir’s baffling decision - not once - but twice - of putting literally everything at stake in a silly game of gambling. I’ve always struggled to make sense of this. It seems hard to believe that someone would do such a thing, not so much out of morality but practicality. He knew he would lose and he had advisors who’d tell him not to do it. However, it appears that Yudhisthir didn’t quite have the kind of choice in the matter we’d naturally expect him to have from today’s point of view. As established in "Episode #3: Vedic People", Mr. Benegal clearly shows that gambling was an important social norm and a king, of all people, had no way to say no. Hard as this may be to believe today, it actually is very true that we are exremely tied to our prevalent social norms. Just 210 years ago - Alexander Hamilton - treasury secretary and a founding father of The United States - was challenged to and killed in a pistol duel by his staunch political rival Alan Burr. Dueling with guns was a practice that sounds beyond preposterous today but was a norm only 210 years ago. (To say nothing about keeping slaves). Hamilton had no say in the matter. Neither did Yudhisthir. I get it now.
I thought the treatment of Gita - was a bit glossed over. We do hear the core concept - that we don’t die but take new forms and that we don’t control the outcome so we need to focus on our work - and again - the hidden message is that we must follow the path, walk the line even, and do what’s considered ‘right’ for that time. And we largely need to rely on a God who will descend occasionally to make the wrongs right.
Finally, a great comment from Nehru on the nature of the Epic. Mahabharata is the beginning of an uniquely Indian style of storytelling where everyone gets something. There is action and war, great dialogue and ideological discourses, there is love, sex, titilation and gentleness and complicated family values and strange relatives and stranger bedfellows. There is stuff for the intelligentsia and for the uneducated and everyone in between. There is something for everyone. That is a typically Indian story - one that is being told even today 2,500 years after its birth - in all its rich variations.