Mahabharata: how the narration begins

Posted on May 27, 2010


It is well known that entire epic of Mahabharata is structured in the form of a narration, recited by Ugrashrava Sauti unto a group of sages in the Naimisha forest who have been performing a yagna under the head of Shaunaka Kulapati.

Ugrashrava Sauti is none other than the son of Romaharshana, a disciple of Vyasa. Shaunaka Kulapati is a rishi from the dynasty of Brighu.

Ugrashrava Sauti visits the sages during the 12th year of their yagna at Naimisha. The guest, after having attended Janamejaya‘s snake sacrifice, visited several holy places including Kurukshetra before arriving at this place. At the sages’ request, he starts narrating the Bharata as he heard it from Vyasa’s disciple Vaisampayana in Janamejaya’s snake-sacrifice.

The sages in the Naimisha forest

However, Sauti does not get into Bharata straightaway. At Shaunaka’s request, Sauti first narrates the history of Shaunaka’s forefathers, starting with Brighu. Soon, storytelling branches into complex and sometimes parallel layers. The listener is taken through several narrations including  (in no particular order)

  • The curse upon Janamejaya by Sarama – the celestial dog
  • The encounter between brahmana Utanga & snake Takshaka
  • Ruru‘s encounter with the Dundubha snake
  • Samudra-manthana (the chruning of the ocean for Amruta)
  • The curse upon the race of snakes by their mother Kadru
  • Birth and story of Garuda
  • Kashyapa‘s yagna for parenthoold where Valakhilya rishis  attempt to create a second Indra
  • Meeting of Jaratkaru rishi with his ancestors of Yayavara lineage
  • The origins of Astika
  • The curse upon Parikshit, etc.

In addition to the above, there are many minor narratives such as Brighu’s curse on Agni, Surya‘s affliction at the hands of Rahu after Samudra manthana, story of Adisesha, story of Supratika and Vibhavasu (elephant and tortoise), etc.

All the above narrations come together to culminate in Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice. This section of the Adi Parva, called Astika Parva, is woven together like a novel in itself. It is only after narrating all these does Sauti move on to recite the Bharata as he heard from Vaisampayana.