We all learned the Mahabharata from myriad sources:— Amar Chitra Katha, Grandma's knee, C. Rajagopalachari's seminal volume, maybe even the original unabridged Sanskrit text, but mostly from the very long running TV serial. But the unfortunate truth is, all these sources fed us a censored, abbreviated version which has all the juicy parts glossed over. In fact, you're probably asking yourself right now, "What Juicy Parts ?".
Here's what I am going to do. I'll briefly skim over the whole saga, highlighting all the aforementioned "juicy" parts, starting at the very beginning. It's been widely surmised that the beginning is a very good place to start. (You'll have to excuse me. I was forced to watch [[Sound of Music, The]] recently :))
The Mahabharata starts with the story of the king Shantanu, who was of the house of Kuru and ruled Hastinapur (somewhere near present-day Meerut). Shantanu was as horny as they come. He first marries a river Goddess called Ganga and goes on to have eight kids with her, seven of whom died at birth. The eighth child was called Devavrata, and is the most interesting character in the Mahabharata. We shall come back to Devavrata in a while. At any rate, after eight kids, Ganga dumps Shantanu.
Now cut to the story of Satyavati. She's a fisherman's kid, and has grown up all her life among piles of fish. She's pretty good-looking, but the smell of fish kept the boys away. A passing mendicant offers to fix the smell issue in exchange for sexual favours. Satyavati gets laid by this mendicant, and the smell is all gone! She does get knocked up, though, and has a son. This son is entrusted to his biological father, the mendicant, and grows up to become Vyasa, the great sage who is accredited with writing the Mahabharata in the first place.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. A few years after Shantanu broke up with Ganga, he was on a hunting trip, when he sees Satyavati and falls head-over-heels. It must be noted that by now, Shantanu was quite old, and what we have here is a classic situation of "Dirty Old Man" and "Gold Digger".
There is a catch, though. Satyavati says she'll marry Shantanu on the condition that her offspring must continue the Kuru lineage, and not Devavrata. Did I mention the phrase "Gold Digger" ? It's at this point Devavrata, who is about 15 or so, renounces his claim to the throne, and vows to remain celibate his whole life to preempt the possibility that his offspring might claim the throne. This rather fearsome vow earns him the title/name Bhishma which means, literally, "terrible vow".
Shantanu and Satyavathi had two sons, Chitrangadha and Vichitravirya. When Shantanu died, Chitrangadha, the older son, ascended the throne. Chitrangadha, unfortunately, died young and heirless. Vichitravirya, who was just a child then, ascended the throne, and Bhishma ruled as regent for a while. When it was time for Vichitravirya to marry, Bhishma set out to locate a bride for him.
Bhishma invades a Swayamwara at Kashi (present day Varanasi) and defeats all the potential suitors there. He then takes off with the three princesses, Amba, Ambika and Ambalika. Amba says she's in love with someone else, so Bhishma lets her go. We shall return to the story of Amba in a while. Ambika and Ambalika marry Vichitravirya, but the silly fellow died shortly thereafter (not sure if it was battle or tuberculosis). Anyway, no children again.
Bhishma, sworn to continue the line from Satyavati's loins, locates the sage Vyasa, Satyavati's first son. Vyasa is requested to help propagate the Kuru line and get Ambika and Ambalika pregnant. (like anyone could ever turn down such a request :)
Vyasa is the typical sage, and looks intimidating in his flowing beard. Ambika closes her eyes when Vyasa sleeps with her, and her sister Ambalika turns pale when it's her turn. Their kids (Dhritarashtra and Pandu) are thus born blind and anaemic. Vyasa also does a maid (he was apparently on a roll) and her kid turns out fine. The maid's kid grows up to be the wise statesman Vidura.
Returning to the story of Amba, she returns to her beloved when Bhishma lets her go. But the poor sod is still licking wounds received from Bhishma, and declines her offer of love. She next makes a futile attempt to convince Bhishma to marry her. She then wants to have revenge and tries to locate a warrior to challenge Bhishma, but no one was brave enough to represent her. She challenges Bhishma herself, but he doesn't fight women.
In desperation, she demands to be reborn as a man so she can fight Bhishma. Once she gets this boon, she immediately commits suicide, and is born as Shikandi, son of the King Drupada. The catch, of course, is that Bhishma still considers him a woman and still won't fight him/her. Eventually, though, she does succeed, and is instrumental in Bhishma's death. But again, I am getting ahead of myself.
Dhritarashtra and Pandu grew up. Dhritarashtra married this Afghan princess called Gandhari (literally, the princess of Khandahar). Being very conscientious, she blindfolds herself on betrothal and remains blind for the rest of her life in sympathy with her husband.
Pandu married twice, once to Kunti, a princess from near present-day Lucknow, and a pahadi princess called Madri from present day Himachal Pradesh. Kunti, when she was younger, served the sage Durvasa diligently, and he taught her a mantra which would allow her to summon any god and sleep with her. She doubted the mantra's capability, and to test it, she called upon Surya, the sun god. He promptly knocked up the then unmarried princess. Frantic, she is forced to set her new-born baby afloat in a basket down the river. This baby is Karna, who's brought up by a charioteer and is superior in both strength, skill and honour to the Pandavas.
Pandu was out hunting when he accidentally kills a couple of deer in the process of copulating. The deer turns out to be a sage in disguise, and he curses Pandu to die the next time he has sex. Pandu, deeply shocked, renounces the world and retires to the forest, with his wives.
Kunti and Madri, denied the pleasures of their husband, use Durvasa's mantra and call up 5 gods between them. Kunti calls on Yama, the God of righteousness and death, Vayu the wind God and Indra the king of Gods. From these gods, she begat Yudhishtira, Bhima and Arjuna, respectively. Madri called upon the Gemini twins, and begat the twins Nakula and Sahadeva. It must be noted that if she got two sons from two gods (albeit twins) and her sons were twins, that must have been one wild threesome.
Poor Pandu seemed to have made an error of judgment. When one renounces the world, it includes renouncing wives. Pandu wound up having sex with Madri and died because of the curse. Madri, grief-stricken, commits suicide, leaving Kunti with 5 sons.
Dhritarashtra, Pandu's brother, had offspring trouble too. Like Kunti, Gandhari too had a boon, from Vyasa, granting her a hundred sons. But after a pregnancy which lasted 2 years, she gave birth to a shapeless lump of flesh. Vyasa came in at this point and divided this lump into a hundred and one parts, and put them in separate jars. Nine months later, each jar contained a son, except the last one which held Gandhari's only daughter, Dushala.
We're mostly through with all the risque business. The stories of the five Pandavas and their shared wife Draupadi are too well known, and aren't glossed over in most accounts. Arjuna-Subhadra, Bhima-Hidimbi are all regular affairs. There was this one incident where Arjuna cross-dresses and lives as a woman for a year, but even that is common knowledge.
The rest of the Mahabharata deals with gambling, lies, humiliation, debts, exile, war, death, destruction, annihilation and finally redemption, culminating in the ascent to heaven. Not risque, but a really interesting read.