23. The Mahabharata: An Introduction

(Hidden: Although located in Travelogues SEA2 Chap folder, this article is part of SEA Empires. These 7 chapters, 10>16, belong between SEA5:Ch8a & SEA6:Ch09.)

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Religious Philosophy of Mahabharata & Ramayana accessible in Story Form

The Mahabharata along with its companion novel, the Ramayana, transformed the cultures of India and Southeast Asia in numerous and intriguing ways. Their influence could be somewhat akin to the Bible in the West. Like the Bible, each literary work integrates a religious philosophy into a great story. In this case, the religion was that of Brahmin India.

Bards told and retold the tales in an infinite number of inflections. The many narratives contained within the greater story have provided and continue to provide inspiration to a wide range of artistic individuals, including actors, musicians, visual artists, architects and dramatists. Countless aspects of the tale are put to music, sculpted into stone friezes, and transformed into theatrical performances. It appears that there is a concerted artistic effort to create an accessible and memorable experience from these stories.

The entire community is still to this day engaged in the grand endeavor of communicating the seemingly divine message contained in these two religious novels. In addition to the creators, spectators also experience(d) the stories contained within the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. As such, everyone in the community participate(d) in some manner in these famous stories.

Because of the immediate accessibility of these multi-sensory art forms, the complex themes of these tales spread quite rapidly. These motifs began in the royal courts and then expanded into the cities, and then to the outlying towns and villages. Within a few centuries of their composition, the works were translated from the original Sanskrit into other Indian languages. These languages included Dravidian in the south and the Aryan-languages that succeeded Sanskrit in the north.

Bards accompanied Dravidian merchants into Southeast Asia. The stories were sung and performed from campfires to ports along established trade routes. Gradually, the stories along with their books were embraced by the populations in all the diverse territories of Southeast Asia – from Burma in the west, to Vietnam in the east, and to the Indonesian islands in the south. A few of the cultures actually developed a Sanskrit-based script of their own – notably the Khmer and the Javanese. Perhaps these classic Hindu novels played a significant role in the development of these related scripts.

It takes 11 volumes to contain the complete 5800-page Mahabharata. This is a work that tells the mythic tale of the events surrounding the ‘Great Battle’. Most of the work however is commentary on the story, which presents Brahmin religious philosophy. But this religious commentary is not, the primary way by which the Mahabharata was transmitted to the bulk of the population. The story was the vehicle that popularized these classic works for the vast majority of its audience.

The following introduction will focus primarily on the dramatic tale that is central to the book. Rather than reading Brahmin religion into it, we will take this amazing allegory at face value. Presumably, the relating of the story’s plotline is the manner in which the majority of the people were introduced and converted to the message behind the Mahabharata.

Bards pass on the story of the Great Battle for over a millennium.

While the Ramayana was probably composed by one author circa 400 BCE, the Mahabharata, like the Bible, was composed by multiple authors. The Mahabharata reached its final form in the first centuries of the Common Era. The initial versions of the story were those told by bards after the Great Battle. For centuries, the basic narrative was passed on and embellished by subsequent storytellers.

Indeed, this word-of-mouth style is employed to tell the story. In the Mahabharata, a wandering storyteller, Sauti, comes upon a forest dweller, Saunaka. The bard tells Saunaka a story he heard at King Janemajaya's Snake Sacrifice. It is not just any story. It is an epic that asks the audience to reflect on the values of the dominant warrior culture and its attendant dharma/ethic. The plot of the story relates how Yudhishthira, King Janemajaya's grandfather, came to power – how he became ruler of the Kuku kingdom.

This storytelling motif is reinforced in a number of ways. According to the Mahabharata, Vyasa is the original teller of this tale. In the story, he witnesses the battle through the eyes of the blind king’s charioteer and after much reflection decides to tell his interpretation of events.

Evidently, Vyasa spent three years composing the entire story in his mind. He then related the tale to the elephant-headed god, Ganesha. It is Ganesha who is credited with ultimately transcribing the verbal story into the printed word, the book that is the Mahabharata. The story relates that Vyasa chose Ganesha for this task because of his reputation as the god who overcomes obstacles.1

As fate would have it, Vyasa, the original storyteller, is another member of the audience at the Snake sacrifice. Vyasa is now 150 years old, as he watches his young companion bard tell the tale to the audience. In other words, the original bard is witnessing a younger bard relate the story, while a third storyteller, Sauti, learns this tale in the classic manner of the oral tradition. Sauti then contributes to this tradition by continuing to relate the tale first told by Vyasa.

Even from the beginning, the Author is playing with the Reader's mind. When a tale is passed down from generation to generation via the spoken word, the role of storyteller becomes more complicated than that of mere historian. Are the bards telling a historical story or is Vyasa telling his own story? Did Vyasa make up the tale 'in his own mind', or did he relate events that actually occurred? Are these facts left deliberately vague to emphasize the ambiguous nature of knowledge?

Did Vyasa ever really exist or is he a metaphor for the processes that are at work in the oral tradition? The use of ambiguous symbol, the individuality of style, and the memory of listeners, all contribute to the oral tradition. We believe that for most audiences the metaphorical transmission of the wisdom behind the story was and is of primary significance. The underlying wisdom of this myth is not dependent upon the historical accuracy of the tale.

The Historical Setting: Battling Aryan Kingdoms circa 1400 BCE

The Indian calendar places the date of the Great Battle upon which the Mahabharata is based at 3102 BCE. This date on their calendar signals the beginning of Hinduism’s Age of Misfortune, the Kali Yuga. Scholars place the date of this battle far differently. While only scant evidence exists, most scholars estimate the date at 1400 BCE.

During this time period scholars believe that Aryan tribes from Persia conquered India and had begun to settle. The warrior-based kingdoms engaged in constant squabbling that frequently led to war. Warfare and border disputes were endemic to that period. Kingdoms formed and broke alliances in order to expand or defend their control of territory. This constant hostility is typical of warrior cultures. Battling is the manner in which personal courage and martial prowess are tested.

This was the historical setting for the Mahabharata, the Great Epic. 'Mahat' means great, while 'Bharata' is the name of the traditional North Indian homeland of the Aryans. It consists of the fertile plains along the Ganges River and her tributaries. The mighty Himalayan mountain range determines the northern boundary and the Vindhya Mountains the southern boundary. Western deserts and eastern swamps provide the remaining borders.

In the 2nd millennium BCE, this river valley supplied the agricultural needs of myriad tribal kingdoms. Each tribe was ruled by a king chosen by the great families. The society was organized into castes. The ruling class belonged to the warrior caste, the ksatriya caste, while the priests and religious leaders belonged to the Brahmin caste. In essence, the Mahabharata is the story of the ksatriya/warrior caste told by the Brahmin/priestly caste.

Obviously not all members of Hindu society belonged to these two castes. Merchants, farmers, craftsmen and servants represent other castes in Hindu culture. The members of each caste were by definition Aryans and intermarriages between castes were allowed. However, royal, ksatriya, blood furthered one's potentials tremendously.

A significant example of the value of royal blood lies in the background of Vyasa. Vyasa plays two roles in the Mahabharata. Not only was he a major participant, he was also the official storyteller. This mythic tale enhances Vyasa’s credibility by explaining his origins. Vyasa’s connection to royalty can be traced to a fish that inadvertently swallowed a king's sperm and gave birth to a baby girl. The girl grew to womanhood, mated with a wandering minstrel, and eventually gave birth to Vyasa. This circuitous mythic event grants Vyasa special status in the Mahabharata.

Feuding Cousins: The Dynamic Tension that drives the Mahabharata

Here is but one example of Vyasa's importance to the tale. His fish-born mother with her royal blood eventually marries the powerful Kuru king. She gives birth to a boy. The aging father abdicates in favor of his young son. The child dies before reaching puberty. The queen bemoans the fact that there is no heir to the throne. A warrior reminds the queen that although she and the king have lost her son by the king,  she, the queen,  had given birth to another son, Vyasa, by a different father, the minstrel.

Before the young king died, he had been betrothed to two princesses, as well as a maidservant of the queen. When Vyasa is summoned to court, he assumes the role of the queen’s only living offspring and impregnates each of the women. Three sons are born of these couplings, each a prince. Because the eldest son, Dhiritarashtra, was born blind, Vyasa's second son, Pandu, was initially chosen to be king of the Kurus.

While hunting in the forest, Pandu killed a stag and doe that were in the midst of mating. As the stag was dying, he placed a curse upon the king. This curse was not laid upon Pandu because he was a hunter, but because he had slain them in the midst of their great happiness. The subtext regarding dharma is clear. Fulfilling one's duty, for instance as a hunter, must be shaped by a sensitivity to context.

Stag: "Death will strike you down when you next make love."

Immediately understanding the implications, Pandu states. "I am under a curse and now I must live alone in the forest and be at peace. Then joy and sorrow will not stick to me, nor fear dare be in my presence." (William Buck, Mahabharata, p18)

Great passage: the quietude of the forest allows one to find a special sort of peace. To Pandu, peace excludes joy, sorrow and fear. From this perspective, peace and joy are mutually exclusive. Remaining in the midst of the swirl of humanity, while not exactly peaceful, allows one to experience joy, as well as its fellow travelers, sorrow and fear. The peace of the forest appears to eliminate all emotions, not just the negative ones. Because Pandu pursues this sort of peace, he will not become emotionally aroused, have sex, and die.

Obviously Pandu’s ‘peaceful’ life will prevent him from fulfilling the duties of a king. Pandu chooses to abdicate in favor of his brother, Dhiritarashtra. He then retires to the forest with his 2 wives, who choose to remain with their celibate husband.

The blind Dhiritarashtra reluctantly becomes king. Grieving over the loss of his brother, he seeks solace in the arms of the princess Gandhari, 'as a river is lost in the sea.' Gandhari becomes pregnant, but the birth is long overdue. They call in Vyasa to explain what is happening.

Vyasa, in typical mythic fashion, tells them that Gandhari is pregnant with 100 sons and provides instructions. After 2 years, she gives birth to a ball of flesh. The flesh is pulled apart section-by-section and grown in individual bronze jars filled with clear butter. After another 2 years, the princes emerge from their jars, a prince per day. Duryodhana is Dhiritarashtra's first-born son and Vyasa's grandson. He becomes the antagonist of the Mahabharata.

Before the birth of Dhiritarashtra's children, Pandu's 2 wives had circumvented the curse and given birth to a total of five sons. These are the circumstances. Pandu, Vyasa's son and Dhiritarashtra's brother, was sad that the stag's curse prevented him from having children. Feeling his pain, Kunti, one of his two wives, proposed a solution.

Years before their marriage, Kunti, as a princess, had been kind to a wandering hermit, 'clad in rags and ashes'. Due to her kindness, the hermit provided her with a mantra. She could use this mantra to call down any god in order to father her son. The mythic circumstances surrounding sex with a god enable   the child to be born in just one day.

Pandu was overjoyed. Employing the mantra, Kunti first called down Dharma and gave birth to Yudhishthira, the protagonist of the Mahabharata. She next mates with Vayu the wind god, resulting in the birth of Bhima, while her subsequent union with Indra the war god yielded Arjuna. Pandu's other wife employed the same mantra to call down the twin gods of dark and light and gave birth to twin boys. As is evident, although Pandu will raise these 5 sons as his own, they are not his at all, but are instead the children of the gods.

Alternately, the 100 offspring of Pandu’s brother, Dhiritarashtra, are pure human, in the sense that they have no divine blood. Perhaps these 100 princes represent the human aspect of the warrior caste. The fact that there are so many sons and that each of them was born from the same ball of flesh in the exact same manner is suggestive of a generic quality. Indeed although Duryodhana is the leader, the princes tend to act, not as unique individuals, but rather as a unified group. Could this apparent herd effect be another metaphorical statement about human nature in general, and/or the nature of military behavior in particular?

Because Vyasa's 2 sons, Dhiritarashtra and Pandu, are brothers, their respective children are nephews. Due to the genetic ambiguities, each set of brothers has a right to the Kuru kingdom. To solve the problem, the blind, yet wise, King Dhiritarashtra suggests that they split the large kingdom in half.

Although Pandu's divine sons readily agree to the plan, Dhiritarashtra's human sons, with Duryodhana as their spokesman, reject the settlement. The human princes want it all, while the divine princes are happy to share the wealth and power of the kingdom. This dramatic tension between the 2 branches of the Kuru clan is the driving force behind the Mahabharata.

The Consequences of Battling Dharma

It is easy to imagine the historical roots of the Mahabharata's allegory. Two branches of the same clan vie for power. Rising tensions lead to a great battle in which many of the mighty warriors on both sides are killed. Perhaps one branch attempted to promote negotiation and compromise to avoid conflict. Overconfident in its military strength, the other branch refused to compromise and eventually lost everything, including their lives.

The Brahmins turned this semi-historical event into the Great Epic, a battle between divine forces and human obstinacy. In this case, Yudhishthira, the leader of Pandu's 5 sons, is the son of Dharma, while Duryodhana, the leader of Dhiritarashtra's 100 sons, is the son of Man. Ultimately Duryodhana, the man, is fighting divine dharma. The story graphically illustrates the fatal flaw in resisting the divine order represented by dharma.

Dharma applies to a wide set of circumstances. Dharma can mean duty. Every caste has its own duty. For instance, the dharma of the ksatriya/warrior caste is to rule and provide protection for the other castes. A desired objective of the warrior dharma is to keep the general peace, rather than pursuing personal objectives. Duryodhana failed miserably in this regard, in that his obsessive pursuit of power led to war.

There is social dharma and personal dharma. The social dharma of every father and mother is to raise their children to become responsible adults. The parent dharma includes providing nutrition, education and love to their offspring. The parent dharma also includes helping their children to uncover and realize their personal dharma.

As well as the duties of friend, worker, and family member associated with our social dharma, each of us has our own personal dharma. This personal dharma presumably arises from unknown, perhaps divine, sources. Every parent knows that each of their children is unique, with their own proclivities. Most books on parenting suggest enhancing these natural tendencies, rather than forcing the parent's will on the child.

No one knows where these natural tendencies come from, but almost everyone believes that they do exist. These natural tendencies help guide us to fulfill our life's potentials – our personal dharma. When we are on the dharma path, we are on the perfect course to fulfill our personal destiny. This is the sense in which the parent's dharma is to assist the child to fulfill his or her personal dharma.

How do we discover our personal dharma? This Author suggests that listening to and following our inner urges is certainly part of the formula. But, we do not live in social isolation, and therefore part of the formula must also include an awareness of the potential for changing external circumstances. When we find ourselves at odds with the rest of our community, including those we respect the most, perhaps its time to reevaluate our course of action.

Unfortunately Duryodhana was unable to temper his inner urges despite much advice to the contrary. His father, his mentor, relatives, and even gods, all suggested that he change course. Failing to listen, he entered the gates of Hell. His obsessive obstinacy eventually led to the Great Battle in which his clan lost everything, including kingdom and lives. 

The theme is seemingly straightforward. Because Duryodhana fights Dharma, symbolized by his divine brother Yudhishthira, he and his family are ultimately destroyed. One obvious interpretation of the Mahabharata focuses upon of the consequences of resisting social Dharma. A stubborn refusal to consider the validity of anyone else’s viewpoint may very well lead to destruction. .

Duryodhana, the ultimate Warrior/Kshatriya, plays his role to perfection.

On the surface, the Mahabharata is the story of the downfall of an arrogant prince and his followers because they fail to follow the will of the gods – the divine Dharma. Ignoring all signs to the contrary, Prince Duryodhana leads his people into an unnecessary war and everyone suffers the consequences.

However straightforward interpretations of plotline the Mahabharata merely scratch the surface of possible meanings. Once we begin to reflect on the levels of mythic meaning in this great work, we are faced with ambiguity, paradox and Mystery.

Despite good advice and Divine Signs, Duryodhana's obstinacy leads to the fateful war between clans. At the end of the Great Battle, when all his brothers are dead and his branch of the clan destroyed, Duryodhana crows with his dying breath:

"Why should Death not come to me before all your eyes? I laid my commands on great kings. I have been killed in battle and not made into a slave. I see you all escaped alive from my war. Certainly I shall gain heaven, for I have learned all books, I can read and write. I have given gifts and ruled the Earth and stood over the heads of my enemies. I lived life like a god; whatever I wanted to enjoy was easily mine. What man in the world would not wish in his secret heart to be free from laws and rules, able to follow himself whatever the cost, able to do whatever he will. Krishna could not tempt me to peace." (Mahabharata, p 193)

In other words, Duryodhana has no remorse for what he has done and instead revels in it. He had a great life, until the last few days. He led the life of a free man; unbound by laws, even divine law. He died in battle, the perfect death for a warrior. He escapes to heaven and leaves the grief and mass destruction for the survivors.

Confirming his analysis of events, Yudhishthira, the leader of the conquering army, has a dream where he finds Duryodhana in heaven, much to his dismay. But why, we ask, would Duryodhana go to heaven when his fight with Dharma led to the mass destruction of the Great Battle? For the answer, let us look at an exchange at the end of the novel.

Dhiritarashtra, Duryodhana's blind father, is about to retire into the forest. Before a great audience, he makes his apologies and says his goodbyes:

"But foolish as my son was, he did not oppress you. He caused a great war from pride, the death of warriors and Kshatriyas and kings, but whether this is good or bad I do not know."

After conferring, the citizens respond:

"The destruction of the Kurus was not caused by Duryodhana. It was not brought about by you. Such a thing could never happen without the influence of destiny. Kshatriyas especially should kill enemies and meet death in battle." (Mahabharata, p. 234)

In other words, Duryodhana played his role to perfection. He was necessary as the dynamic antagonist to create this great story. He received an Academy Award for his performance, in the sense that he went to heaven after he died. Even though he claimed freedom, he fulfilled his personal dharma, albeit in a destructive fashion. He personified the innately destructive nature of the Kshatriya caste, the warrior class.

The gods chose him to play the villain in this play. He had no choice. Shortly before the Great Battle, Duryodhana is humiliated and chooses to die. The terrible Goddess Kali appears before him with her necklace of human skulls dripping blood down her breasts.

“Duryodhana, do not die. … I myself made your body. … Brave warriors will fight with you against the Pandavas. I will harden their hearts. Those who live by weapons I will destroy. I am going to kill the warriors who kill.” (Mahabharata, p.107)

In other words, Duryodhana is a tool by which the Goddess Kali will destroy ‘those who live by weapons’ – ‘warriors who kill’.  

It seems that Duryodhana, instead of choosing to be obstinate, was merely fulfilling the role the gods assigned him. As such, he was following his personal Dharma, not really fighting it. If so, what is the theme of the Mahabharata?

The Consequences of Greed

Again, we listen to the wise blind king Dhiritarashtra. Duryodhana, his first-born son, has just died. Sanjaya, his charioteer, has come to report what has transpired:

"I have told you how all the Kurus and Bharatas are dead, how all the Panchalas and Gandharas and Matsyas and Madrakas are slain, how all the men and elephants and horses have fallen. Very few are left alive – only seven among the Pandavas and three of our army, and Yuyutsu. They survive, the rest are perished. The whole world has been destroyed by Time."

Dhiritarashtra, (Duroydhana’s father) ‘in his grief exhaled smoke’ and said:

"My heart's core is diamond since it does not break. Shame to Kshatriya [warrior] Dharma, shame to anger itself! Shame to man, who has such an end. Oh child, my son loved to fight; his advisors were fools; he had no wisdom, but was vain to think himself wise. He could not see things even when he looked at them.” (Buck's Mahabharata, p. 197)

Dhiritarashtra has just expressed the Reader's overall impression of the story, independent of religious philosophy. Innumerable men, young and old have died in a senseless battle. If Duryodhana's clan had cooperated with Yudhishthira's clan, this massive carnage would never have occurred.

What was the purpose, the motivations, behind this destructive military engagement? Why didn't Duryodhana cooperate? More importantly, why did everyone else join in the fray?

On a basic level, Duryodhana and his many brothers, the siblings that symbolized human warriors, were guilty of unmitigated greed. They were motivated to go to war because they didn't want to share the fertile plains of Bharata with their cousins, the divine warriors. Although there was plenty for all concerned, Duryodhana's clan wanted it all for themselves. In this sense, obsessive greed, placing personal gain above the welfare of the society was the root of the misery.

We certainly see too many examples of this type of behavior in this modern world of ours. Too often rapacious economic interests drive nations towards military conflict. Fortunes are made by preparing for, engaging in, and rebuilding after the armed conflict. President Eisenhower characterized these interests over a half century ago as the ‘military industrial complex’. He warned that an excessive economic attachment to the war industries was unhealthy for the future of planet. He is a great warrior who recognizes that material greed is a dangerous companion of a powerful military.

Eisenhower’s words also reflect a cautious attitude towards the role of the warrior ethic in society. He suggests that it will take an extraordinary effort to curb the military appetites that can accompany such great power. It is tempting for a society to glorify the warrior ethic as a means of serving economic interests. It is also tempting for the powerful military of an affluent society to want to test its skills and technologies in real battle. When we look deeper into the Mahabharata, we see a concern similar to that of Eisenhower’s regarding the role of the military in modern society.


1 Indian mythology relates that the elephant-headed god Ganesha's own life began with a huge obstacle. As Ganesha was guarding his mother from intruders, he blocked his father, Shiva, from entering the family home. Not recognizing his own son due to his wanderings, Shiva cut off Ganesha’s human head. Upon learning of his mistake, Shiva replaced this missing head with an elephant's head.

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