After Draupadi’s abduction by Jayadratha and the subsequent rescue by the Pandavas, sage Markandeya begins to narrate the story of a similar abduction in the distant past: of Sita. What is thus presented is an abridged version of the Ramayana story inside the Mahabharata. In this retelling, after the mutilation of Shurpanakha by Laxmana, Ravana goes to Gokarna and meets sage Maricha, who in the subsequent plan takes the form of the deer that entices Sita. Sita asks Rama to hunt the deer for her, and when Rama takes too long, sends Laxmana away as well.
Ravana abducts her then, after crushing the brief resistance offered by a vulture named Jatayu. Rama, upon learning of the events, enters an alliance with Sugriva, the lord of the monkeys. Readers will remember that the Pandavas’ movement from Dvaitavana to the Kamyaka forest was what brought them in the path of Jayadratha and, arguably, caused the series of events leading to the abduction of Draupadi. That movement was in turn caused by a dream that Yudhistira had, in which the deers of Dvaitavana had urged him to leave their forest and let their species survive.
The dots are here for us to connect: deers play an important role in the abductions of Sita and Draupadi. But while communication with animals in the Ramayana happens in the real, in Mahabharata it happens through the medium of the dream. One can perhaps say that there is a stronger tendency towards what may be called realism in the Mahabharata than what is found in the Ramayana. This is, of course, not to discount the fantastical things that happen in the Mahabharata. Sugriva’s alliance with Rama is predicated on the eldest prince of Ayodhya killing Sugriva’s number one enemy, his brother Vali. Meanwhile, in Lanka, Ravana tries to entice Sita with his riches and celestial adornments.
Seeing Sita’s dedication towards her husband, though, he decides not to force himself upon her. The Ramayana story continues, as narrated by sage Markandeya, and ends with the final battle between Rama and Ravana. Markandeya’s objective, we must recall, is to provide solace to the Pandavas, who feel that the misfortunes of the world have hit them one after another. Markandeya’s Ramayana convinces the Pandavas that circumstances similar to theirs—of exile in a forest, of the difficulty of finding nourishment, of not being able to ensure the security of one’s wife—are not things that they alone have faced.
These have been faced by Rama—Vishnu’s avatar—himself. And just as Rama was successful in recovering his wife, so are the Pandavas. From the throes of despair, then, we seem to be arriving at something akin to a cause for celebration. But Yudhistira’s despair is deep. After Markandeya to finishes the Ramayana story, Yudhistira clarifies that he is saddened not by the Pandavas’ plight, but by the plight of Draupadi, who has suffered continuously since getting married to the princes. Markandeya has a story in response to that, too: of Savitri.
The writer is reading the unabridged Mahabharata