The Distilled Essence of the Mahabharata: Pursuit of Eternal Truths

This article is part 2 of 5 in the series Meaning of the Mahabharata

Characters are Akin to Shadows

The principles and tenets symbolized by the Devas and the Asuras in the Vedic lore have been clearly, vividly unraveled in the characters of the Pandavas and Kauravas. In the backdrop of this stream of thought, it is indeed appropriate to regard the characters of the Mahabharata as metaphors and akin to shadows.

The Kurukshetra war symbolizes that confrontation which occurs and should occur within us among the different fundamental human impulses that drive our life in this world. In the end, the only and the ultimate victory that every person must attain is the victory over oneself. It is precisely this that the crown-jewel of a sage Vidura tells Dhritarashtra:

ātmānaṃ eva prathamaṃ deśarūpeṇa yo jayet |
tatomātyān amitrāṃśca na mogham vijigīṣate || (Udyogaparva 34:55)

Victory over oneself has primacy over all other victories in this world. Indeed, all śāstras and Smritis have unambiguously affirmed that the most valuable goal or ideal is attaining victory over oneself. The truth inherent in this tenant is that the most powerful enemies that a person faces reside within and not outside.

jahi śatrum mahābāho kāmarūpam durāsadaṃ  ||

This verse of the Bhagavad Gita (III:43) clearly endorses the same.

When we contemplate on such episodes, the entire Mahabharata itself appears as one colossal metaphor. Magnanimous and honest connoisseurs who read or listen to the Mahabharata will easily grasp these metaphorical elements and symbols which have been definitively established in the work in the form of suggestions. This is the journey from definition to depth.

The vivid, eye-catching and heart-stirring portrayals of the vagaries of the nature of each character in the work is a fact. However, when we examine the overall structure of the work on the philosophical plane, all these differences dissolve and merge in the great sport of creation. There will no longer exist the need to preserve the individualities of the characters who epitomize mutually opposing temperaments. Only this message remains: we need to transcend all weakness. Both the reader and the listener will see their own reflections in it. All conflicts inherent in the story remain as symbols of the constantly-changing nature of this world.

Two Trees

In the Mahabharata itself, we find a great simile: when we stand in the centre of the deluge of the river of tradition, we spot two trees, one on either bank. On the first bank, we notice that the impulses of anger, intolerance, hubris, and avarice have transmogrified as a tree named Duryodhana. Karna is its stem, Shakuni its branch, Dusshyasana its flower, and Dhritarashtra its seminal seed. This is the tree of fury. On the other bank of the river, we spot the tree of Dharma named Yudhishtira. Arjuna is its stem, Bhima its branch, Nakula-Sahadeva its fruit and flower. The roots of this tree are Sri Krishna, the Vedic knowledge and the conduct of all wise people.

The noteworthy detail here is that the Duryodhana Tree is not (the tree of) Adharma; it is tainted Dharma. It is due to this taint that his path is filled with obstacles. In stark contrast, Yudhishtira’s path is smooth because it is devoid of vanity. Deep inside, even Duryodhana’s friends and aides do not have faith in his conduct. However, even Yudhishtira’s enemies have faith in his thought, word, and conduct. It is precisely in this contrast that we can discern the frailty of one tree and the sturdiness of the other. The support of Yudhishtira comes not just from a single person named Sri Krishna but from an entire tradition of virtue.

Equanimity is the Goal

When we consider the work in this light, it occurs to our mind that the purpose of the Mahabharata is to depict the picture of how the world has journeyed rather than a mere narration of the conflict between good and evil. In other words, the object of the work is not to simply show the victory or defeat of some or the other person but to deliberate upon the real meaning of victory and defeat. Examined from this perspective, the futility of the various questions and doubts that arise on the plane of superficialities and sloganeering becomes clear. The all-encompassing compassion and equanimity that dawns upon us after all disturbances and clashes are over is that which nourishes us. The fundamental endeavor of the Mahabharata is not to describe events that arise from anger and wrath but to deepen our understanding of these passions.

One must realise peace and contentment by constantly pursuing eternal truths after consciously transcending the stage of the transactional world—needless to say, it is crystal clear that following this precept in practice is tough. However, given the fact that this is the only path, it becomes inevitable to regard it as the shortest path as well.

The view of the picture of conflicts among various trials and tribulations that exist in this world gives us a certain density of experience. We find this copiously in the Mahabharata. However, the eternal philosophical insights that accrue from the churning of said conflicts have a quality of high refinement (saṃskāra). It appears that Bhagavan Veda Vyasa placed the greatest emphasis on revealing these insights. The main reason for most confusions is the inability or the failure to distinguish the crucial difference between the (spiritual or emotional) elevation attained merely as a result of circumstance and permanent and changeless tenets.

The ambit of truth is wide. Therefore, the examination of such philosophical vision is not easy for the proverbial common people. It requires the poise of a sthitaprajña or an equanimous person. It is the pursuit of eternal values far removed from the reaches of incidental or ordinary worldly happenings. The tumult and friction familiar to us on the worldly plane are directed by our conceptions of Dharma and Adharma within narrow confines. But when we transcend them and contemplate from the firm ground of eternal truths, the selfsame tumult and friction do not appear to have any meaning.

The pleasant and the unpleasant; the great and the contemptible—when we claim that one should inculcate the habit of moving beyond such dualities, it does not mean that one is advocating evil tendencies or neglecting virtues. Indeed, there are abundant instances in the Mahabharata where evil is punished and the virtuous are protected. There is a nuanced meaning in the claim that one should inculcate a philosophical approach. Anger and animosity are endowed with great speed but their scope is limited. But while the pace of virtue and magnanimity is slow, it is endowed with a capacity to yield lasting fruit, and its scope is not limited to just one person but is far vaster.

There exist numerous characters in the work which exhibit strength and valour. However, the one deserving the title of a hero must transcend the distinctions of “mine” and “others.” From this perspective, Yudhishtira (although he has several innate weaknesses) who is home to virtuous principles and noble living, becomes deserving of the hero’s exalted place.

To be continued     



Nadoja Dr. S R Ramaswamy is a renowned journalist, writer, art critic, environmentalist, and social activist. He has authored over fifty books and thousands of articles. He was a close associate of stalwarts like D. V. Gundappa, Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sharma, V Sitaramaiah, and others. He is currently the honorary Editor-in-Chief of Utthana and served as the Honorary Secretary of the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs for many years.



Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.

Prekshaa Publications

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the fourth volume, some character sketches of the Dewans of Mysore preceded by an account of the political framework of the State before Independence and followed by a review of the political conditions of the State after 1940. These remarkable leaders of Mysore lived in a period that spans from the mid-nineteenth century to the...

Bharatiya Kavya-mimamseya Hinnele is a monograph on Indian Aesthetics by Mahamahopadhyaya N. Ranganatha Sharma. The book discusses the history and significance of concepts pivotal to Indian literary theory. It is equally useful to the learned and the laity.

Sahitya-samhite is a collection of literary essays in Kannada. The book discusses aestheticians such as Ananda-vardhana and Rajashekhara; Sanskrit scholars such as Mena Ramakrishna Bhat, Sridhar Bhaskar Varnekar and K S Arjunwadkar; and Kannada litterateurs such as DVG, S L Bhyrappa and S R Ramaswamy. It has a foreword by Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh.

The Mahābhārata is the greatest epic in the world both in magnitude and profundity. A veritable cultural compendium of Bhārata-varṣa, it is a product of the creative genius of Maharṣi Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana Vyāsa. The epic captures the experiential wisdom of our civilization and all subsequent literary, artistic, and philosophical creations are indebted to it. To read the Mahābhārata is to...

Shiva Rama Krishna

சிவன். ராமன். கிருஷ்ணன்.
இந்திய பாரம்பரியத்தின் முப்பெரும் கதாநாயகர்கள்.
உயர் இந்தியாவில் தலைமுறைகள் பல கடந்தும் கடவுளர்களாக போற்றப்பட்டு வழிகாட்டிகளாக விளங்குபவர்கள்.
மனித ஒற்றுமை நூற்றாண்டுகால பரிணாம வளர்ச்சியின் பரிமாணம்.
தனிநபர்களாகவும், குடும்ப உறுப்பினர்களாகவும், சமுதாய பிரஜைகளாகவும் நாம் அனைவரும் பரிமளிக்கிறோம்.
சிவன் தனிமனித அடையாளமாக அமைகிறான்....

ऋतुभिः सह कवयः सदैव सम्बद्धाः। विशिष्य संस्कृतकवयः। यथा हि ऋतवः प्रतिसंवत्सरं प्रतिनवतामावहन्ति मानवेषु तथैव ऋतुवर्णनान्यपि काव्यरसिकेषु कामपि विच्छित्तिमातन्वते। ऋतुकल्याणं हि सत्यमिदमेव हृदि कृत्वा प्रवृत्तम्। नगरजीवनस्य यान्त्रिकतां मान्त्रिकतां च ध्वनदिदं चम्पूकाव्यं गद्यपद्यमिश्रितमिति सुव्यक्तमेव। ऐदम्पूर्वतया प्रायः पुरीपरिसरप्रसृतानाम् ऋतूनां विलासोऽत्र प्रपञ्चितः। बेङ्गलूरुनामके...

The Art and Science of Avadhānam in Sanskrit is a definitive work on Sāhityāvadhānam, a form of Indian classical art based on multitasking, lateral thinking, and extempore versification. Dotted throughout with tasteful examples, it expounds in great detail on the theory and practice of this unique performing art. It is as much a handbook of performance as it is an anthology of well-turned...

This anthology is a revised edition of the author's 1978 classic. This series of essays, containing his original research in various fields, throws light on the socio-cultural landscape of Tamil Nadu spanning several centuries. These compelling episodes will appeal to scholars and laymen alike.
“When superstitious mediaevalists mislead the country about its judicial past, we have to...

The cultural history of a nation, unlike the customary mainstream history, has a larger time-frame and encompasses the timeless ethos of a society undergirding the course of events and vicissitudes. A major key to the understanding of a society’s unique character is an appreciation of the far-reaching contributions by outstanding personalities of certain periods – especially in the realms of...

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhānī Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective to every discussion. These essays deal with the philosophy, history, aesthetics, and practice of...


इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...