Then Saunaka, chief of the seers, asks Ugrasravas to tell the Mahabharata tale as he heard it from the seer Vyasa at king Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice, and so he does. Here, we slip into another layer of narration, sort of like the dream-within-a-dream sequences of that movie Inception.
The noble seer Vyasa went to the court of king Janamejaya for his snake sacrifice. There, the king asked Vyasa to tell the story of the war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas (the main action of the Mahabharata). Not only did Vyasa compose the Mahabharata, he also witnessed the events it describes.
Before telling the tale, however, Vyasa’s pupil gave a meditation on the spiritual value of the Mahabharata. Basically, hearing and reciting this sacred history brings spiritual benefit and instruction. It’s not just a good story—it’s a story that has real power to change, heal, and protect people. The Mahabharata, interestingly enough, begins with the story of the author’s ancestors and birth, which is as follows.
Once there lived a king named Vasu who, at the god Indra’s instruction, conquered the beautiful region of Cedi. Indra also gave Vasu a cool flying chariot. Thankful, Vasu instituted a festival in Indra’s honor which is still celebrated today.
Vasu had five sons, who each became mighty kings of different regions. Vasu took as his wife a woman who was literally born from a mountain. Her name was Girika, or Mountain-Girl.
Once, when king Vasu was hunting in the forest, thinking lusty thoughts about his wife, he ejaculated on a leaf. Sensing that it was the opportune time, he blessed the semen and told a hawk to carry it to his wife. Unfortunately, another hawk mistook the semen for a piece of meat and the two hawks fought it out for the cum-leaf. In their fighting, it fell into the river Yamana. There, it was swallowed by a fish-woman named Adrika (she’d been cursed by Brahma to become a fish, and the only way the curse could be broken was if she gave birth to two human children). After swallowing the semen, Adrika conceived.
After nine months, a fisherman caught her, cut her open, and removed two human children (a boy and a girl)! Adrika’s curse was immediately lifted. King Vasu took the boy (whose name was Matsya), and the fisherman kept the girl (whose name was Satyavati), and raised her as his daughter. Because she lived among fishermen, and was born of a fish, Satyavati smelled of fish.
Years later, when Satyavati had grown into a beautiful woman, a seer named Parasara saw her and fell in love. He promised her that, if she slept with him, he would give her a boon (a special gift). She agreed, and chose as her boon to no longer smell like fish, but to have a sweet-smelling fragrance. Then Satyavati and Parasara made love. She conceived and gave birth to the great seer/poet Vyasa, compiler of the sacred Vedas, and author of the Mahabharata. Vyasa told his mother, “Think of me at times of need, and I shall appear to you and help you.”