“Alas, having vanquished the foe, we have ourselves been vanquished in the end! The course of events is difficult to be ascertained even by persons endued with spiritual sight. The foes, who were vanquished have become victorious! Ourselves, again, while victorious, are vanquished!” Mahabharata Sauptika Parva Section 10
In the grand itihas (all that is, a history of ideas) that this epic embodies, no individual – however noble their deeds might be, and no idea, despite its seeming idealism, is perfect and pure. This grand text of Indian civilization, even as it appears to be out measuring space and outlasting time, invites every generation living within the confines of its culture and facing the forces of history, to the semantic field of uncertainties and ambiguities.
That Kurukushetra is being fought now in the mind of every man, woman and child in psychological war is, as Rohin Mehta reminds us, the lesson of the Gita’s first discourse. Bllind Dhritarshtra could see the battle in his mind as told objectively by Sanjaya. But the designs of Duryodhana meant he could not detach from them so war ensued.
The Gita helps us find an inner Sanjaya to avoid own inner psychological war.
If the Gita is a gospel of life then the Mahabharata is a panoramic epic of it. Like the great texts of the Bible and Quran, it addresses life’s joys and uncertainties with a vast breadth greater than its more concise brethren.
The Mahabharata is an honest mirror but its reflection will not please everyone. We readers live in different times and each of us will read the accounts differently. For this reason, some people do not like the Mahabharata. They prefer their scriptures to be sanitised, devoid of human frailties, as if past saints and devotees were faultless.
The Mahabharata covers every aspect of human life. It is brutally honest and yet not fuzzy in its idealism. There are the ideals of forgiveness and fraternity, as well as their absence in the real world.
“That which occurs here occurs elsewhere, that which does not occur here, occurs nowhere else.” (Swargarohanika Parva , Section V )
India is complicated.
Britain had a narrow view of nationhood, and dismissed the idea of India as united country. Their ideas of nationality were shaped by the French Revolution, and a feudal Europe that merged under competing overlords. In India, before Bollywood and the internet, people a few hundred kilometers down the road diverged more in custom and dress, than say an Englishman did from a Spaniard or a Russian.
To the British mind it made sense to say, as did Gandhi that “India was many Indias.“ They seemed to miss that India was more a civilization with an overarching broad cohesiveness that that held together differences by social negotiation.
India is complicated.
No wonder Gandhiji said the Ramayana and Mahabharata are a “must study” for all Hindu to understand the human psyche..
After all, a true patriot will examines the quality of his country, promoting the common good and seeking to change by orderly means what does not support it. Flag waving that ignores problems helps nobody.
True love of country prepares for a very positive spiritual benefit.
Now, I know some of you may dislike my being “Western” (whatever that means). So to support my thesis I call upon two points. When I left India I was more precisely able to see the faults of my Australian roots, just as India’s Diaspora can see Bharat with a fresh perspective. Secondly, I will call on the principles of the great Sanskrit grammarian Bhartrihari.
Mahabharata as mirror
Reading the Mahabharata is a dynamic interaction between the individual and cultural heritage. So we expect tension between how we read the Mahabarata’s meta language and its past cultural history.
The barriers we put up between past and present are similar to the barriers we pace between east and west.
“It is only in the eyes of another culture that foreign culture reveals itself fully and profoundly” wrote the linguist Bakhtin. Travel to another country and what seems self evident at home may be seen a fallacy elsewhere. The cultural matrices of our life are complex. What we call everyday commonsense is many layered. Cultural materials shape identities and cultural histories shape character.
I ask you, like Arjuna, to place the chariot between the two opposing world views, as conch shells call your mind to battle.
As the Gita begins, battle seems suddenly detached – as a morose soldier talks to his mentor, god and charioteer. The great complexity of the occasion was greater than his mind, like life’s complexity exceeding our own facilities.
It is as if the blowing of conch shell before the battle disturbs Arjuna’s mind. He places the chariot between two armies like a mind caught between two opposites. Fear based decisions are not good. When we cannot decide on freedom we fall into dejection and depression. Arjuna seeks to escape decision, asking Krishna to tell him outright. But we cannot truly remain action less says the Gita. After all life is a series of relationships with all their karma.
Abstain from activity and act when necessary in detachment without rude displays of virtue.
“The return to ones true nature is designated as devotion” Sankaracharya wrote in Viveka-Chudamani.
The Mahabharata and the Gita, of which it is part, are for spiritual transformation and not just moral reform . Therefore transcend the call for independence but include it. The path way is finding our identity on the pathway between personal and cosmic will. If we trod this path we can be free from tensions.
For the battle is between the armies are Sri Krishna’s cosmic will versus and Arjunas individual will. Arjuna is the mind in its active alert condition, not aware of its limitations. Arjuna is like Jesus asking “may this cup pass from me”, says Dr Radhakrishnana in his commentary, but then uttering “Thy will be done.”
So many of us prefer ritual than reflection. We see solutions but are not prepared to any the price. We are like a monk robed in renunciation, but concealing deep fears and self destructiveness.
Hindus would rather “worship” rather than study the great epics. The Ramayana and Mahabharata on sit on a pedestal, but are rarely read, analysed or critiqued. They are long texts. It is easier to listen to a guru’s summary, watch a television series than read them. It is easier to bow, garland, offer incense and wave arti in front of these great epics, than to read them and learn their lessons.
Perhaps that is why we get defensive of Western science attempt to place the epics in time. We like it when a discovery gives us ancient credibility, but dismiss any critique as colonialism, or claim they don’t understand our cultural history (meaning ‘you guys invaded us’) . It is easier to look at the invader than our self.
That is the point. The Mahabharata is a mirror to force us to look!
How a Grammarian shaped my views of the Mahabharata
Bhartrihari, who probably lived in the fifth century, developed theories of space-time and language-cognition we would call poststructural and Einsteinian. Bhartrihari2 examines how language, thought and reality relate that reflect contemporary questions of language use, and communication asked by Chomsky, Wittgenstein, Grice, and Austin.
Bhartrihari asserts that cognition and language at an ultimate level are ontologically identical concepts that refer to one supreme reality, Brahman.
In his first verse Bhartrihari wrote:
The Brahman is without beginning and end, whose essence is the Word, who is the cause of the manifested phonemes, who appears as the objects, from whom the creation of the world proceeds.
The cyclical creation and dissolution described in the Vedas, leaves a seed or trace (samskâra) from which the next cycle arises. This seed is called a “Divine Word” (Daivi Vâk). If language is of divine origin, says Bhartrihari , then it Brahman expressing and embodying itself in the plurality of creation. The shabda tattva, “word principle,” is part of unity of all existence with Brahman.
Although Brahmin is “without beginning and end” (anâdi nidhânam), and not subject to the attributes of temporal sequence, we recognize the manifestations of Brahmin through the power of Kala (time) and dik (space). The universe is not sequential, but the action of kala makes it appear so. The past is a form of darkness and the past can only be experienced from the present. Being and world are inseparable but are interpreted by their own histories.
Bhartrihari concludes that knowledge is constructed by language and meaning is made by the words that interpret it. This differs from Buddhist belief that pre-conceptual cognition or pure perception (nirvikalpa-pratyaksha) is distorted by language created constructed perception (savikalpa-pratyakasha). It also differs with the Nyaiyayikas who agreed word and thing correspond, but distinguished between language and its object-referents. Perception is a two-step process, argue the Nyâyas, involving initial apprehension of an object and then awareness that results in mental and syntactic/linguistic representations of the first moment of awareness.
“Bhartrihari argues that the word makes the thing an individual. As one moves further and further along the refined categories of what is conventionally known as denotation, the word makes the thing what it is. .. [it] make meanings of all kinds, mundane ones and religious ones, contingent on the circumstances and speaker…. if perception is innately verbal, no perilous bridge need be suspended over some supposed abyss between vision and truth, both in our mundane lives and for the rishis who pronounced the Vedas. The word then makes the thing, and Brahman makes the world, and so it is entirely proper to speak of words as the creator of all things (shabda-Brahman).” – Lakshmi Bandamudi
Similarly, Heidegger wrote that the relationship of self to the other is shapes what we cell knowledge by phenomenological intuition. He rejects Kant’s idea of utopia of transcendent logic.
In the same way, as we read the Mahabarata we meet our “multiple histories, those of the individual, the recent cultural and the ancient. During the interpretive encounter, the boundaries between here and now and what lies beyond in time and space, shift. As Bandamudi 2 suggests, some “read the Mahabharata to discover dimensions about self, text and history, while others evade the flow to make sense of the text in a detached manner.”
These are cultural parameters of meaning: The Mahabharata is not about purity, since it captures the pathos of human existence in its most sordid form and seems to assert that it is one of the most insoluble disharmonies of existence. The Mahabharata is not about hopelessness and despair, but it directs our attention to the unfinalizability of ideas and ideals.
Indeed the text itself continued t evolve and is called a chakra and each generation a cognitive spoke in the wheel, we see synergistic evolution of self and the text.
“All roles are reversed at some point – the valorous warrior Arjun becomes despondent and turns into a pacifist, and the godhead Krishna resorts to human tactics and counsels on warfare. Even the most profound treatise on salvation is not Utopian in nature and does not necessarily rescue the individual from the abysmal world …; instead, they are instruments for shaping and reshaping individual and social consciousness … by repeatedly directing our attention to the complexity and multiplicity of truth.”
If we look into the Mahabharata as a mirror, like the characters of the epic, we must also face our shadow eventually or we will face karma later on.
Why it matters
Everyday behaviour can become codes of identity when society grapples with its identity. As India grapples with identity in the rush of progress, dress codes are given meaning that otherwise would have passed unnoticed. An Indian of the diaspora, more often a woman than a man, may be more “Indian” abroad than at home.
I think religion offers a language, a vocabulary, for self exploration. All too often its symbols become blocks in the politics of ego.
Some see the Mahabharata as Scripture, but it calls itself an itihas – history – and not a scripture. The Gita implies that it is a message is a “scripture”. It has its own agenda – to deliver a spiritual message, explain the philosophy of a particular “darshan” and affirm the reader’s faith in a particular deity. An “itihas”, on the other hand, has to lay out the facts of historical events for all to see – without judgement or prejudice. Some Hindu scholars, such as Swami Dayananda, argue the epic is corrupted. Making Krishna God, or physical avatar is inconsistent with the formless Brahman of the Vedas.
How people remember the epic, retold is the village or recast for the screen, distorts, and repeats distortions. Untruth becomes facts with no foundation. Truths become legends – guide posts to a past – not quite accurate either. They are fractals of the past, but not a hologram. Our personal life, a microcosm of the macrocosm, repeats the same distortions. The same karma.
But the eternal truth – the culminating focused in the Gita itself remains transcendental and untouched.
The Gita (18:66) asks us to “abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.”We must accept communion with the unborn and unmanifest the whisper of the soul can be heard.
As Dr Radakrishnan says ”the spiritual is not an extension of the ethical, but is a new dimension all together, dealing with things eternal.”
In a democracy like India this point is even more important.
A democratic consciousness operates in the synecdochic mode” writes Bandamudi “and therefore conflicts in the epic are framed not between the powerful and the weak, but between justice and injustice. In the ironic mode, the interpreter recognizes the fine line between justice and injustice. As the boundaries between right and wrong dissolve, the interpreters recognize multiple dimensions to truth and justice and therefore, are capable of saying things about themselves and the text in alternate ways and reflecting on why they choose these alternatives.”
I find myself by finding the i for myself, finding the I or others other and then, being willing to let the other find me.
The Mahabharata is a carnival ride of raunchy and ribald characters “where distinctions of high and low culture, self and other, sacred and profane are erased” : of split, fragmented multiple subjects and identities and collectivities.
If we seek to understand a people, we have to try to put ourselves, as far as we can, in that particular historical and cultural background…It is not easy for a person of one country to enter into the background of another country. So there is great irritation, because one fact that seems obvious to us is not immediately accepted by the other party or does not seem obvious to him at all…But that extreme irritation will go when we think … that he is just differently conditioned and simply can’t get out of that condition. One has to recognize that whatever the future may hold, countries and people differ…in their approach to life and their ways of living and thinking. In order to understand them, we have to understand their way of life and approach. If we wish to convince them, we have to use their language as far as we can, not language in the narrow sense of the word, but the language of the mind. That is one necessity. Something that goes even much further than that is not the appeal to logic and reason, but some kind of emotional awareness of other people
– Jawaharlal Nehru, Visit to America)
Consider an Indian who moves to the USA. In India he may see the Mahabharata as the text of India, but by moving the text is also a way of engaging with his past.
Just as a child grows up and sees things differently, a change takes place in individual and cultural history.
So when re look into the mirror of the Mahabharata, we see through the lens of our own experience. It remains for us to see our self in part of our society, karma and history, so we can reassess our society, and inevitably lead to a change in mans consciousness and behavior.
However, the Mahabharata also reveals that for every social force there is simultaneously its opposite. The serious purva-paksha analysis of the past died with the birth of neo-Hinduism. Hindu philosophy declined from serious and systematic critiquing of differing systems to then merely serving as a pseudo-intellectual tool and a political agenda. It is easier to blame (at times rightly) former colonial masters than look at our self.
Others debate important issues but are so stuck in the minutiae that they forget the large more important picture.
Notice how you feel when you read a book. Now read the same text from behind a computer screen or kindle. Do you feel differently?
Similarly, the domination of one group (Hindu, Muslim, White, Black, Brown, Straight or gay) shapes how we react to what we hear or see.
Living in the past will not do. Bhakti saints have even argued that the traditions of the past, are of no use in the age of Kali.
For example, Bhakti saints like Lord Chatanya argued that in the age of Kali there is no longer a justification for caste. “In the age of Kali the varnasrama-dharma is so degraded that any attempt to restore it to its original position will be hopeless. He also rejected varnasrama-dharma because it has no value in relation to pure devotional service.
The second, more important consideration is that even if the varnasrama system is observed strictly, it still cannot help one to rise to the highest plane of transcendental service to Godhead. The virat-purusa is a material conception of the Personality of Godhead and is just the beginning of spiritual realization.” Any tradition, is not an end in itself.
True, India also has a tradition of freedom and equality that supposed Greeks for its equality. Unfortunately, it was forgotten and distorted.
The heroism of the past must be reignited, by reconciling the “monumental culture” of legend, with democratic principles of the modern world. If I may borrow from Emerson, “there is properly no history, only biography.” The epics of history are what we make of them when they inspire a passionate self reliance to service, dispassionate of the outcome, between cosmic love and human apathy.
Facing modernity, we should remember we do not enculturate mechanically. How we respond to another culture reveals the depth of our own cultural history, mannerisms, and myths which we then internalize.
To read the epic is to inherit, transform and transmit a tradition. A lesson the Mahabharata lays bare for us to see.
If Indians lived by the “Laws of Karma”, we would remember that even the victors at Kurukushetra paid bad karma for their violence.. If we had internalised its message they would realise the consequences of hate anger and unforgiveness. If we understood the enormity of our karmic actions, there would be no bribery or corruption. We have not learned from our itihas.
People don’t like the Mahabharata because it tells it like it is. Most of us don’t like to see ourselves as we really are.
The “Mahabharata is a must read because it is a mirror for us to evaluate ourselves and see where we are being reflected in its myriad characters. If we don’t like what we see in the mirror, there is no point in blaming the mirror or throwing it away, that is not a credible solution. Ideally, we should change ourselves to make and reflect those values and characteristics we do like in the Mahabharata. “
Issues between science and scripture, or East and West would be irrelevant. We would understand the complexity of relationships, why and how people play subtle mind games, understand the bigger picture so you can rise above such pettiness, understand human society, ourselves and our purpose in life.
In that sense, spirituality is like art, Its outer form comes from within.
“Art and life are not one, but they must become united in myself – in the unity of my unanswerability”– wrote Mikhail Bhaktin. Art he argues must not just inspire, but also reach the prosaic in life. Or as scholar Lakshmi Bandamudi suggests that Bhaktin’s observations of shared answerabiity and mutual blame in art applies to the vast relationships of karma that are mirrored back to us in the Mahabharata.
Meanwhile, in my own life I try and remember Kalidasa’s words “they whose minds are not disturbed when the sources of disturbance are present, are the truly brave.”
”We must accept communion with the unborn and unmanifest the whisper of the soul can be heard.”
 Rohin Mehta Mind to Supermind- A commentary on the Bhagavad gita, T C Manaktalaand Sons, Bombay,,1966.
 Lakshmi Bandamudi, Logistics of Self: The Mahabharata and Culture.
 Sri Ramananda Samvada, In Search of the Ultimate Goal of Life, By His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.