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     

Author(s)

About:

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 greats like D. V. Gundappa and Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sharma. He is currently the honorary Editor-in-Chief of Utthana and the Honorary Secretary of the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs.

Translator(s)

About:

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.