The Distilled Essence of the Mahabharata: The World as a Kurukshetra

This article is part 3 of 5 in the series Meaning of the Mahabharata

The Philosophy of Virtue is Worth Pursuing

The Mahabharata continues to occupy a preeminent place because it offers the great ideal of the elevation of one’s character. Exhortatory phrases such as “yato dharmastato jayaḥ” (Bhishma’s discourse to Karna) will unfold their true and full meaning only at the level of philosophy and not in the folds of the Mahabharata story.

Our experiences of joy and sorrow have a finish; however, the flow of Satya and Dharma is endless.

It appears that the purpose of Bhagavan Veda Vyasa was not to merely provide a spectator/audience-like enjoyment to the readers of the Mahabharata. He has provided the episodes therein as material for our inner contemplation. By giving us the picture of the conflicts in the epic, he has shown us the nature of the vast flood to which these conflicts belong.

The mutually opposing impulses of the Deva and the Asura occurring on the mundane plane when viewed on the philosophical plane show that they arise from the same root, and that both dissolve in the same endlessness.

The dynamism of Dharma does not occur according to our will and whim; neither does it proceed with the speed we expect it to. Dharma has no need for running at a fast pace. The most that humans can do is to traverse in tandem with its pace.

The Unremitting Flow of the World

It is but natural that in the human life we have ups and downs, hostilities, fury and enmity as a result of the imbalance in the Trigunas (Sattva, Rajas and Tamas). It is equally natural for us to be disturbed by all these. But the wise path in the journey of our inner life is to develop a philosophical attitude of regarding these (disturbances) as aberrations that we must transcend. It is clear that developing such an attitude is far from easy. However, attempting to form a value system based solely from the perspective of such aberrations will become an obstacle for our inner elevation. While it is quite obvious that we face difficulties in the eternal and endless flow of the River of Dharma, it is also equally obvious that on a much vaster scale, this flow is unremitting. When we cultivate the maturity and wisdom to grasp this world-principle, it becomes relatively easy to bear the numerous troubles and tribulations that befall us in our worldly life. This cultivation will become the path of ennoblement and pave the way for the pursuit of the Purusharthas (the fourfold path of Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha). It is the unshakeable conviction in the nature of the eternal Dharma that gives us both the strength and the hope amidst the vagaries of daily life.

The unmoving permanence of Dharma derives from its innate element, Satya (loosely, Truth). The system of Dharma establishes balance and in turn, is itself self-established. Because it has no parallel, we can claim that Dharma is the only stable law in all of Creation. As far as the Mahabharata is concerned, the symbol of eternal truth is Sri Krishna.

Human Effort is Always Unsatisfactory

If we regard the Mahabharata as merely a historical narrative and proceed to examine it as such, doubts such as “has the divine will been fulfilled?” might arise. The message of the Mahabharata is for us to surpass, by rising above and beyond success and failure, and reach a plane from which we get a revelation of the eternal flow of Truth. Viewed from the backdrop of this flow of Truth, the historical aspect will occupy an insignificant place at best.

Mention of destiny and the unsatisfactory nature of all human effort occurs in the work by way of a pretext. Thus, it is useful only as a temporary balm. This is because what is commonly known as destiny is simply the consequence of things that an individual did or failed to do.

We must observe a nuance. The Mahabharata has for its goal not just lofty tenets but an eternal philosophy. It is quite natural that nobleness and its accompanying behavior earn praise on several occasions. The value judgement of such episodes normally occur on the plane of what is known as morality and ethics. However, there is a boundary for the ambit of this perspective; because in such cases, the emphasis lies on the factor of who suffered and who was benefitted. If this was the only goal, the plotline of the Mahabharata would end with the familiar theme of “the good emerged victorious,” found in numerous works of creative fiction. However, realizing the limitation of this factor, Bhagavan Veda Vyasa has portrayed all conflicts and clashes of the world in vivid and extraordinary detail with a definite aim: when the readers realise the true nature of such a tumultuous world, they will turn away from it in a sense of profound defection and embrace a spirit of philosophical inquiry. The pleasant and the unpleasant; the joyous and the depressing—all such situations are merely temporary visitors. The highest spiritual truth is the only permanent reality: this is the message of Bhagavan Veda Vyasa. In fact, even the classifications and interpretation of pleasant and unpleasant, truth and falsity are subjective.

In the routine course, these are regarded as definitive and uncompromising. However, this is the field of inquiry and continuous refinement. Indeed, there exist numerous instances where telling the truth harms others or the ignorance of it benefits others. It is based on such everyday realities that such magnanimous verses have ensued:

yad bhūtahitamatyaṃtaṃ tat satyamiti dhāraṇā  || (Vanaparva 209:4)

That which results in the well-being of all of creation should be regarded as Truth.

 The field of truth is that which is directed by the Sastras; the field of well-being of all of creation is that of morals and ethics. The author of this Smriti has merged both these domains in this verse. We must observe this magnanimity purposefully.

The Battlefield of the World

From another perspective, we can see that the author of the Mahabharata has woven the characters which would befit any narrative. However, it contains a greater message than just this. The Kurukshetra war symbolizes the incessant clash between the good and evil impulses occurring within us. The history of the world is just an expression of this clash. In the word, “Kurukshetra,” the suffix, “Kshetra” denotes a battlefield. In the Bhagavad Gita, “Kshetra” has been used as a technical term for the human body (13:1).

The Inner Witness (or conscience) exists in everyone. Several people simply oppose its voice. Vidura was the personification of Dhritarashtra’s conscience. Out of his own voilition, Dhritarashtra sincerely seeks Vidura and listens to and genuinely appreciates Vidura’s noble discourses and his expositions of Dharma.

The trait of Dhritarashtra listening to sage advice, then promising to implement it and doing the exact opposite and ultimately blaming fate for his failure is the true portrayal of human weakness. We see this in him repeatedly. Although he knows the virtuous path and in spite of perfectly understanding it, the contemptible and the repugnant which are rooted in selfishness, gain the upper hand. Although some temporary gains accrue on this path, what ultimately remains is sorrow and self-inflicted gloom.

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.

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