Book Reviews

Understanding Mahabharata: The Great Indian Epic

These select tales from Mahabharata stand apart from the central narrative but are essential and integral to the basic structure and theme of the great epic, and convey a great message of love, truth, unity, righteousness and wisdom, and also reveal social, economic, political and religious life of ancient times while interpreting deep philosophical thoughts in simple language. These immortal tales speak of life and culture of Hindus as enshrined in the Holy Scriptures. When one highlights various noteworthy features and aspects of ancient wisdom, one finds unique oneness in contemporary consciousness. Precisely, for the virtues and eternal values, these tales, which many might not have read, carry immense significance for a modern man who must get rid of the areas of uncertainty and darkness, only then, light and optimism would fill life.

“What is within is invisible, is also present without that is visible. What is without is also within. He, who sees the difference what is within and what is without, which is the visible and the invisible goes more and more from death to death.” (Kathopanishad, II, 10)

These words of Upanishad speak of an eternal truth. It is search to find Oneness…the goal of human life. A human being takes birth for this purpose. If he fails, it is a journey from yoni to yoni with sufferings, and joys transitory. Effortless and stimulating would be the experience.

The objective of life would be very near, vivid and within reach. Modern minds and hearts should work towards the attainment of a conceivable functional organism, so that society follows the principles of truth and righteousness. Some repetition is inevitable but virtuous and sublime thoughts never irritate. Each time, one reads a tale new dimensions emerge and give new meanings. For the understanding of deeper meaning of life and philosophy, tales act as a sound basis and convey the message of Oneness, one realizes in the end.

I wish to share a few selected ancient tales from the great epic of Mahabharata, which I believe, many have not read. These tales identify, define and interpret essence and import of dharma (truth and righteousness), karma (actions or deeds), suffering and yajna (sacrifice). The tales stand apart from the central narrative but are essential and integral to the message of love, truth, unity, knowledge and wisdom these convey. In fact, these unusual tales reveal social, economic, political and religious life of ancient times, and interpret deep philosophical thoughts in simple language so that everyone understands.

Many principles, ethics and religious values influence, work and take concrete shape in the life of a man, notwithstanding limitations. We know the great story of the Mahabharata and its legendary characters. A number of wild beasts, animals, birds, ordinary men and women, seers, sages, saints, kings, celestial beings, ghosts, demons, gods and goddesses appear in the tales and speak of identity and existence while defining and interpreting life of man.

The Mahabharata is the longest epic. It holds interest for people of all ages. The great epic has passed through many vicissitudes and thus, one witnesses a unique pattern of changes it underwent. To go to its origin and history is not the objective here. The Mahabharata tells about Hindu (Vedic) intellectual history, philosophy, legends and values. The main story of epic revolves around the descendants of King Bharata of Lunar dynasty –pandavas and kauravas. We witness a Great War symbolizing virtuous and evil forces - the positive and negative energies.

The eternal dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna not only philosophizes on life and existence but also reveals that death is bound to deliver a man from the pains and sufferings born of karma and dharma. A journey from a sublime dawn to the ecstatic life of revelation and supreme bliss fulfills him. One encounters the grand old man Bhisma Pitamahah, the embodiment of truth and dharma. Bhisma’s wisdom dispels doubts and uncertainties. Divided into eighteen Parvas (chapters), each Parva of the epic forms a complete book. Everyone interested in Hindu myths and history knows that the main story is a fierce conflict between cousins. Through the great epic, one learns about ancient India and its history in totality.

The Mahabharata, through its various characters, talks of life and its philosophy. Each parva, if analyzed, would throw light on the historical heritage and culture of India. The most complex and long epic dwells upon life and depicts social, religious, economic, philosophic and political aspects through the meaningful little tales as the wise men of ancient times interpret Vedic thought and culture highlighting its secular and universal characteristics and therefore, the vision and wisdom of ancient times is still relevant. Modern men, particularly the teachers, religious gurus, guides, politicians and rulers listen to the value of truth and righteousness but refuse to adhere to principles of ethics and dharma, and still claim they follow ethically correct path and therefore…consequently, their karmas ignore truth and uprightness.

Undoubtedly, the protagonists of the great epic dilate upon the theory of karma and dharma, and in plain words repeat, re-emphasize and reaffirm the moral scope of social, religious, philosophical and political life. If a man wants to live life meaningfully, he must act properly. Here, karmas (actions) of a man determine the nature and character of an individual.

Karmas also determine the identity and existence of man on earth. Instincts of survival and egotism are inherent in karmas. Karmas imbued with a spirit of dharma, artha and kama are instrumental to the realization of objective of life -moksa. A life of materialistic joys is transitory whereas renunciation or detachment to worldly enjoyments fills a man with inner peace and harmony. Obvious or inconspicuous corporal delights and incongruities attract. Variations in the nature of

Karmas cause distinctive responses in the world. Righteous karmas enthuse and lead to spiritual illumination while performing obligatory functions.

However, sociability towards karmas creates bondages, and materialistic propensities predominate. Karmas for the attainment of worldly enjoyments are different. Realization, inner peace and understanding enlighten as attachment towards fruit ceases on revelation of the essence of true karmas. At this stage, a man comprehends the real meaning of dharma –a life of truth and righteousness, three gunas namely: sattva or truth or ethics, rajas or dynamism or opulence or adventure, and tamas or passion or indulgence or lethargy while the meaning of sufferings and sacrifice -yajna is apparent. Intensity of attachment to karmas and fractional knowledge of dharma cause sufferings. If a man understands the true origin of anguish and locates real joys, he elevates existence to a higher level that grants spiritual bliss. To reach a stage of celestial bliss and inner harmony, a man should make dedicated efforts to bury sufferings and pains arising out of worldly temptation and miscellaneous other reasons of enchantment.

A man is a victim of three kinds of sufferings born of karmas. Men, animals, birds and different creatures cause the Adhibhautika (physical or worldly) sufferings. The Adhidaivika anguish originates from natural phenomena such as drought, unwanted heavy rains, snowfall, storms, earthquakes or cloudbursts, lightning or famine or natural catastrophe.

The Adhyatmika miseries and agonies have roots in the intellect, ego, mind and senses and cause grief at the physical and cerebral level. A man wants pleasures but suffers from inadequate or poor understanding and at the same time, desires liberation from sufferings born of ignorance. A man may not be entirely free from the pains nature inflicts, for to control natural disaster or its wreckage is not within the potential of man despite valuable innovations in science and technology. If a man inculcates positive relationship with various created beings and natural world without eroding the beauty of identity and existence it benefits him. Faith in dharma, karma and essence of sacrifice will lead a man towards enlightenment.

A life of dharma imparts meaning to existence. A man, if oblivious of the meaning of truth and virtues, identifies life with physical reality, does not know bliss of inner peace, and therefore, delights in the transience of outer joy. Dharma, a religious act precisely means virtuous karmas originating from truth and righteousness. Scriptural knowledge provides impetus and latent energy to deeds, and an eternal truth emerges from pious deeds. If deeds are religious, ethical and virtuous, these hearten the development, growth and progress of man and humankind.

Unrighteous and unethical acts frustrate attempts to achieve objectives of pious karmas and here, a man needs principles of dharma to guide him to a path of salvation. Impure karmas lead to sufferings and obstruct authentic evolution of man.

Dharma means truth, compassion, tranquility and non-violence, Brhaddarma-Purana says. Not only it teaches the true meaning of karmas, sufferings and the three gunas but it also strengthens a man’s belief in the crucial roles prakriti and purusa play, which ultimately help a man recognize the inner man, the real self -the objective of dharma. Universality of feelings, thoughts and deeds, is the real dharma a contemporary man ought to practice. If there is merger of karma and dharma in feelings, thoughts, words and acts in a man, a genuine man on earth is born and the dawn of real radiance of consciousness fills him.

Nature of man -prakriti constitutes three invisible qualities: sattva, rajas and tamas determining the characteristics of a man. The sattvic attributes mean purity in emotions, thoughts and deeds and thus, a man of sattva or virtuous nature is an embodiment of dharma where love, compassion, truth, peace and harmony prevail and enlighten the surroundings. The virtues make everything meaningful and sacred where life acquires godly form. A man of sattva dispels negative thoughts. Qualities of rajas in a man infuse vigor, energy, passion, a sense of endeavor and material obsession but these lack wholesomeness. A man of ‘tamas’ qualities hurts and taints ‘sattva’ and ‘rajas’ as lethargy, indolence, violence and inertia guide and provoke. The three attributes determine karmas of man and the characteristics of karmas whether good or enjoyable. Ego, pride and altruistic qualities also emanate from the impact of three gunas and the degree of gunas’s intensity. The attributes practically direct a man throughout in totality while dharma and karmas stay beneath. Eventually, ‘sattivic gunas (pure worth), fill a man with celestial bliss and spiritual delight.

At another level, these qualities add humanistic approach to life encompassing philosophy and history while art of life, encrusted with various attributes, stay firm in the background to decide the nature of man’s karmas and dharma. A brief mention is essential in respect of categorization in society based on class, caste, creed and colour. The Hindu society is classified into four prominent segments namely the brahmins, the ksatriyas, the vaisyas and the sudras, keeping in view the mental, psychological and intellectual level of the people. It has nothing to do with the inferiority or superiority of a particular class or caste because for political and religious reasons the struggle among different creeds, colours, classes and castes, continues to survive.

The tales reveal vision and wisdom of life and are documents of an eternal saga of truth and righteousness. However, a man must understand that evil is integral to a worldly life. Karmas appear exciting and obviously purposeful but frustrate man’s efforts to attain freedom. Life remains a vortex where a man enjoys pleasures, peace, delight and sufferings and a chaotic existence.

Apparent consequences of dharma, karmas and three attributes of nature these are, a man harbours. Man is primarily a slave to prakriti (nature). If a man restrains nature with the subtle and mysterious strength of yajna -sacrifice, dana-charity, and tapa -devotion and penance, he can facilitate journey to the ultimate deliverance. The three acts must have the force of ‘sattva’ qualities, further fortified by the worship of gods (dev yajna), worship of men of religions (guru yajna) and dedication to Holy Scriptures, and worship of one’s ancestors or pitres or manes.

 True and dedicated service to the people and then, exhibiting love and compassion to the living are yajnas -acts of sacrifices which ennoble and glorify life, and help man attain celestial wisdom and salvation that break shackles of multi-dimensional sufferings. Serving humanity with a sattvic disposition is nar-yajna (love of man) whereas nursing warm, affectionate and reverential relations with the created beings is bhuta yajna. A spirit of sacrifice purifies a man and helps him in understanding the meaning of karma, dharma, gunas and sufferings. In other words, devoted and focused duty accomplished with austerity to bring personal or public wellbeing is termed as yajna.

A spirit of sacrifice and abandonment of attachment at the material level means self-realization and spiritual enlightenment. One experiences unique inner joy while living in the land of belief, knowledge and ideals.

In the end, a man has a feeling that he lives in the land of many gods, because from the holy land of secular and universal oneness, he gets the message of unity, love and truth. Thus, the ancient tales convey messages of eternal values evocatively and inspire man to live life in spite of prevalent greed, corruption, hatred, jealousy, political debauchery and wickedness of self-styled saints with a few exceptions. Ancient Vedic vision has tremendous contemporary relevance. A continuous struggle between the forces of good and evil reveals multifaceted philosophy of life with pragmatic approach. Karmas determine the flow of life and give a practical hint to a contemporary man aspiring for salvation amidst whirlpool of material greed, passions, lust and unethical ways of life.

In the conundrum of wealth, power, lust and passion, he prays before god. Among men of religions, he is a priest and among men, he is a beast. In the present scenario, one finds demons as gods. Thus, one lives in fallacy and fantasy. Ancient tales teach men the art of life, and speak of the purity of karmas and dharma. An effort has been to arrive at the precise meaning of karma, dharma and sufferings one confronts because of one’s karmas. The immortal tales from the great Epic of India speak of life of Hindus in totality as enshrined in the Holy Scriptures. When one highlights various noteworthy features and aspects of this ancient wisdom, one finds unique oneness in contemporary consciousness i.e. Secular Outlook and Universal Oneness. Precisely, for the virtues and eternal values, these tales, which many have not read, carry immense significance for a modern man who has lost real import of life.


More by :  P C K Prem

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