Tonight is one of those nights when television really does function as the great American myth machine.
Most viewers will opt to watch this nation's modern-day versions heroes and heroines, gods and goddesses, princes and princesses as they descend Olympus in their glittering chariots to gather in Los Angeles for the 63rd annual "Academy Awards" at 9 on WJZ-TV (Channel 13).
But there is also another gathering of gods, goddesses, heroes and heroines on television at 9 tonight, as PBS launches the first of three consecutive nights of "The Mahabharata" on Maryland Public Television (channels 22 and 67).
The characters in "The Mahabharata" are purer, archetypal figures of myth. "The Mahabharata" is a 2,000-year-old Sanskrit poem that tells the history of the world and mankind.
It is India's version of the Bible -- only it is longer than the Bible. It is the great Indian creation myth. It is one of the stories that mythologist Joseph Campbell feasted on again and again with its abundance of wisdom and universal themes. The literal translation of its title: "The Great Story of Mankind."
The six-hour television version of "The Mahabharata" is not the first mass-media telling of the story in the West.
Director Peter Brook and adapter Jean-Claude Carriere first did a nine-hour version of the epic Indian poem for the stage. Then, last year, they released a three-hour, feature-film version in theaters across the country, as well as a cassette series of the television package, which is what PBS will start airing tonight. So, we are not dealing with a truly first-run television presentation.
But, like the great creation myths themselves, television thi grand and resonant can be as compelling on the 50th telling as it is on the first.
Brook's structure for the six hours is a set-up that will remind some viewers of Homer.
An old man, Vyasa, sits in a cave. He has the whole story of the universe in his head, he tells a young boy who stumbles upon him. As Vyasa begins, a divine scribe arrives and records what the old man says.
Brooks adds a couple of nice brush strokes to the portrait. The scribe wears a jeweled elephant head and has a goofy sense of humor, which he tries to inject from time to time. The old man, the boy and the scribe wander in and out of the story, which is dramatized by an international cast of characters as it is being told.
Like all great creation myths, it is a story full of sex and violence, divine conception and rape, births and deaths, curses and blessings, love and jealousy, prosperity and famine, great heat and bitter cold, fire and rain, thunder and sunshine, flowers and swords, war, destruction and the life force.
Watching it is as spiritual an experience as television is likely to offer. The pace, imagery, language and subject matter create a hypnotic sense of calm and peacefulness. It is the opposite of the jazzed-up, hyper feeling a television event, like the Super Bowl or maybe even the "Academy Awards" show, can leave you with.
Gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines. The line from the heroes of "The Mahabharata" to our Kevin Costner is a fairly straight one. Watch the Oscars. Tape "The Mahabharata."