Mahābhārata and its Place in Indian Culture – Part 3

Just because the Mahābhārata was narrated in the period of King Janamejaya it doesn’t make it an ancient tale; it is fresh even today and it will forever be new because when will there not be disputes between cousins? Although it is a story of the kṣatriyas, such disputes exist in all communities around the world. The problem is described with great imagery and we feel as though the events are happening right before our eyes. Who doesn’t like a story? Everyone irrespective of their age—the young and the old—around the world, from times immemorial, have been fond of stories. Any poem across the globe has some story as its core content. The Mahābhārata is a celebration of such stories. What a variety of stories occur in the epic and what different tastes they kindle in our hearts! The stories of the devatās, rākṣasas, heroes, pious women, animals, birds, snakes, and mongooses are all contained in the epic. Stories from the Purāṇas; stories that teach ethics; stories of ṛṣis, tapasvis, yogis, and of peace-loving men – the magnum opus of Vyāsa is full of such tales. These served as the raw material for all later storytelling traditions of Sanskrit and other languages of India. Several stories went beyond the borders of India and blended with the culture of those lands too. The world famous Abhijñāna-śākuntalam, a play composed by Kālidāsa is based on a story that appears in the Mahābhārata. Such sub-stories in the epic are called upākhyānas. It is interesting to note that Rāmāyaṇa too is [included as] an upākhyāna in the Mahābhārata. It is not just Kṛṣṇa’s childhood pastimes that occur as a part of the Mahābhārata but the epic also speaks of his role as the charioteer of Arjuna and the brain behind the Pāṇḍava victory as well as the affection he had for the brothers. He loved the Pāṇḍavas more than his own life and he holds the reins of the Bhārata. In sum, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Bhāgavata are parts of the Mahābhārata. Just as Kṛṣṇa, an avatāra of Nārāyaṇa is close to Arjuna’s heart, so is Śiva. Impressed with Arjuna’s valour and steadfastness, Śiva offered him the pāśupatāstra. Thus, the Mahābhārata is equally revered by both the śaivas and the vaiṣṇavas. Everyone in the landmass starting from the Himalayas in the North until Kanyakumari in the South have great appreciation and respect for the epic. The epics Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata have helped Indians realize that they are all one. Our epics are like Kāśi and Rāmeśvara – they are the puṇya-tīrthas for Indians.

The Mahābhārata is the story of the kṣatriyas and of warfare. It is thus full of tales about heroes and their valorous deeds. The Kauravas too were as powerful as the Pāṇḍavas. The Pāṇḍavas had to prepare hard to counter the Kauravas. It is said that the strength of the army on the Kaurava side was greater than that on the Pāṇḍava side. The Pāṇḍavas had seven akṣauhinis while the Kauravas were the overlords of eleven akṣauhinis. All these battalions were completely annihilated in the great war. There is an adage in Kannada that goes, “ಏಳು ಹನ್ನೊಂದು ಆಗಿಹೋಯಿತು” (lit. “The seven and the eleven are gone.”) An akṣauhini consists of 21,870 chariots and an equal number of elephants. The number of horses is thrice the number of elephants and the infantry are five times the number of elephants. The subordinate kings who had brought their large armies were also reduced to ashes. The Yādavas also kill each other after getting intoxicated. What is witnessed at the end of the epic is not the enthusiastic valour of the heroes but demotivated spirits at the large-scale destruction. The epic is peppered with śṛṅgāra, hāsya, and other rasas too. Yet, once a person reads the epic in its entirety and closes the book, he develops a sense of detachment – vairāgya. This was voiced by Kṣemendra, a poet from Kashmir. He says –

रत्नोदारचतुस्समुद्ररशनां भुक्त्वा भुवं कौरवो
भग्नोरुः पतितः स निष्परिजनो जीवन् वृकैर्भक्षितः।
गोपैर्विश्वजयी जितः स विजयः कक्षैः क्षिता वृष्णयः
तस्मात् सर्वमिदं विचार्य सुचिरं शान्त्यै मनो दीयताम्॥

The Kaurava, i.e., Duryodhana
who ruled the land between the four oceans,
fell down with a broken thigh;
with nobody beside him,
he was eaten by wolves even as he was alive;
the world-conqueror Arjuna was defeated by a few cowherds
and the Vṛṣṇis destroyed each other;
therefore, contemplate on this deeply
and give your mind to peace.

There is a proverb in Kannada which says, “ಅಂತೂ ಇಂತೂ ಕುಂತಿ ಮಕ್ಕಳಿಗೆ ರಾಜ್ಯವಿಲ್ಲ!” (“This way or that, finally Kuntī’s children don’t get the kingdom!”) This is true to an extent. At first, the Pāṇḍavas didn’t have any kingdom and later procured a share of it. Even after gaining it, they couldn’t rule in peace for a long time. They had to undergo a great deal of misery. Although Duryodhana possessed the entire kingdom, it was akin to sitting on a thorn for him. He cheated the Pāṇḍavas and sent them away to the forest. Once they were back, he again had his crooked plans and sent them away once more. He wanted to eternally rule the entire kingdom. How long can anything that is acquired through adharma sustain? Duśśāsana, Śakuni, Karṇa, and other men, full of malice joined him and fed his already wicked mind. None liked the words of wisdom Vidura constantly spoke. Though Dhṛtarāṣṭra had some good sense in him, out of his immense love for his son, turned a blind eye towards dharma and supported Duryodhana in all his activities. Thus, Duryodhana couldn’t spend even a day with peace of mind and met with untimely death. His death was terrible and gruesome. Did he die all alone? He brought the entire Kaurava clan to ruins. The entire nation was filled with the loud cries of the wailing women and children. Is this the fate that a people who rely on their king are deemed to meet with?  The king should always keep the welfare of his people as his first priority and give up all selfish motives. The king should never take to adharma and anyāya. The citizens mirror the king in their actions. If the king adheres to dharma, so will his kingdom and his people. He will be then hailed as a rājarṣi. His dhārmic nature and tapas will make his kingdom bountiful in wealth and resources. There will be peace and happiness in such a kingdom. The saying, “राजा कालसय कारणम्” (“The king is the cause of his era”) that occurs in the Mahābhārata captures this spirit. People should tread the path of dharma. Dharma means whatever is right and good for the individual and the society. Dharma sustains the world and runs it. The following is the firm belief of us, Indians – “यथो धर्मस्ततो जयः” (“Where there is dharma, there is victory.”)

When I handed over a copy of my recent work ‘Vacana-bhārata’ to my teacher Prof. M Hiriyanna, he expressed his happiness and told me, “In the Mahābhārata, we find the essence of the Indian culture in a nutshell. You have done a great job by composing this work!” His words are absolutely true. The Mahābhārata contains the distilled essence of the lives of the people of ancient India. It is like the chunk of butter that floats on the surface when the lives of people belonging to greater India are churned. The butter is pure, pristine, and of the highest quality. This is because when the Mahābhārata took its birth, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism hadn’t stepped into our land. The men who founded those [Semitic] religions, namely Jesus Christ and Prophet Mohammed weren’t even born. Buddha was born in India and was an offshoot of its eternal culture of Sanātana-dharma. He was one of the fruits of Indian culture and grew in its backdrop. After a few centuries of its composition, the Mahābhārata too grew in parallel with Buddhism. Just as Buddhism absorbed the essence of the Mahābhārata, the epic too could have borrowed some aspects of Buddhism. Yet, the culture, lives and thoughts of our ancients as captured in this grand epic is unparalleled. No other work of this land gives it in such length and detail. For anyone taking up a study of human history will need to refer to the Mahābhārata. L D Barnett says, “Study of the Mahabharata is indispensable for those who would learn to understand the spirit and culture of ancient India.”

The Mahābhārata has mostly captured the lives of the inhabitants of the northern regions of India. The story took place in the plains of the Gaṅgā and Yamunā. Kurukṣetra is today near the capital city of Delhi. The war between the Kauravas and the Pāṇḍavas took place in this region. Back then, southern India was covered with thick forests, known as the ‘Daṇḍakāraṇya.’ We don’t know much about this region. It was probably inhabited by monkeys and rākṣasas – it is also said that a few ṛṣis performed their tapas there too. The author of the Mahābhārata, Vyāsa was born in an island of the river Yamunā. His student Vaiśampāyana narrated the story to Janamejaya in Takṣaśilā. Yet, the influence of the Mahābhārata is not merely limited to north India but just like the Vedas, it has had its mark on the whole of our land. It is an invaluable gem for the people of India. It is a text that reflects the ancient culture.

The word ‘saṃskṛti’ means culture and refinement. The term was, in fact, coined as an equivalent to the English word ‘culture’ by the Kannada speakers. Culture originated from agriculture. To grow crops, we will need to cultivate land, sow seeds, and reap the harvest. Similarly, our mind, intellect, ātmā – are the lands which need to be cultivated to procure the fruits of puruṣārthas – this is saṃskṛti. Just a culture of the physical body is not real culture. This is because man is not merely the body. The sūkṣma-deha is more important than the sthūla-deha. If the physical body is healthy and the blood is well-fed with nutrients, the person’s face radiates the inner health. That is the real culture of the physical body. If the body houses a disease, cheeks and lips lose their lustre – a person might colour his face to mask these shortcomings and this might also be called a kind of culturing. This, however, is impermanent, unreal, and out of place. Thus, while contemplating over a land’s culture, one will need to analyse how the minds, hearts, and the intellects of its people evolved. We will need to take a look at the śāstras, literature, arts, dharma, and systems of knowledge that have led to the evolution.

The literature of India is usually classified into three categories, namely – Veda, śāstra, and kāvya. Veda is extremely ancient and contains the seeds for all the future śāstras and kāvyas. The śāstras grew as the primary and secondary limbs of the Vedas. Some śāstras grew without much connection with the Vedas and are worldly in their content. The world of creative literature is similar too. In sum, ancient India didn’t have anything that could be termed ‘pure’ poetry and absolutely ‘worldly’ science. The Mahābhārata grew sometime after the Vedas and before the prominent śāstras and kāvyas took their form. The epic was certainly composed before 400 BCE. The Mahābhārata is hailed as the fifth Veda. Some call it an itihāsa and some others classify it under a category called itihāsa-purāṇa. Itihāsa is usually the valorous lore of the kṣatriyas. In the past, however, the word ‘itihāsa’ was used in a broader sense to include purāṇa, stories, udāharaṇas (examples), dharma-śāstra, artha-śāstra, and much more. The Mahābhārata belongs to this genre. In the later days, however, darśanas and śāstras grew independently. Their roots and fundamental concepts can be found in the Mahābhārata. (An expert in rājya-śāstra – political science – was of the opinion that today’s polity hasn’t grown much from the times of the Śānti-parva. The rāja-dharma that is narrated in the Śānti-parva is the basis for all future developments in political science). Additionally, for those who desire to have devotion to the deities, there are a host of them that appear in the Mahābhārata. Staring from Vedic deities such as Indra and Varuṇa, deities such as Śiva, Viṣṇu, Rāma, and Kṛṣṇa are found in the epic. For those who wish to pursue philosophy, the epic contains sections which are closely related to the principles of advaita-vedānta. There is a segment called the sanat-sujātīyā that is purely Vedāntic in its content. The different sects and belief systems that existed in those days, especially the paths of bhakti and karma are delineated in the Bhagavad-gītā. As mentioned earlier, the Mahābhārata contains the story of Rāmāyaṇa and Bhāgavata.

“What is here, is elsewhere; what is not here, isn’t anywhere else!” This has been said in the anukramaṇikā of the Mahābhārata as well as in the parisamāpti ślokas of the epic. This is true in a sense. The reason being, when the Mahābhārata took birth, it included the distilled essence of all the works that preceded it, like the Vedas, smṛtis, itihāsa, and purāṇas; it propagated the varṇāśrama-dharmas and rāja-nīti in particular, which is a part of rāja-dharma [A rāja (king) belongs to the kṣatriya-varṇa and thus, rāja-nīti falls under varṇāśrama-dharma.] In that era, dharma-śāstra, artha-śāstra, kāma-śāstra, śilpa-śāstras, and other such worldly śāstras had not taken birth; nor had Tarka, Mīmāṃsā, Vedānta, and other darśanas; nor had the kāvyas and nāṭakas of great poets like Kālidāsa, Bhavabhūti, and others. The Purāṇas that came more recently went further ahead of the traditional characteristics of a purāṇa and went on adding a great deal of diverse information. The intention of those works was to inform the people of all aspects pertaining to here and hereafter, or worldly and otherworldly matters. It is the Mahābhārata that showed them the path, enabling them to become such treasure-troves of knowledge.

To be concluded…

This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada article "ಮಹಾಭಾರತ ಮತ್ತು ಭಾರತೀಯ ಸಂಸ್ಕೃತಿಯಲ್ಲಿ ಅದರ ಸ್ಥಾನ" by Hari Ravikumar and Arjun Bharadwaj published in a serialized form. The original article appears as a part of the anthology "ಭಾಷಣಗಳು ಮತ್ತು ಲೇಖನಗಳು." The original Kannada article is available for free online reading here. To read other works of Prof. Krishna Shastri, click here.



Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His Vacana-bhārata and Kathāmṛta are classics of Kannada literature while his Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka and Bankimacandra are of unrivalled scholarship.



Arjun is a poet, translator, engineer, and musician. He is a polyglot, well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, Hindi, English, Greek, and German. He currently serves as Assistant Professor at Amrita Darshanam - International Centre for Spiritual Studies at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Bangalore. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature.


Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.