The Universal Canvas of the Mahabharata:

This article is part 4 of 5 in the series Meaning of the Mahabharata

Complexity of Characters

This selfsame impulse is visible in the characters of Duryodhana and such others in a tangential fashion. Nobody regards Duryodhana and Dusshyasana as fools. There is no dearth of “analysts” or critics who regard Duryodhana as a tragic hero based on the premise that his behavior and actions are natural to his basic character. The dense intensity of blind attachment that pervades a person who is driven by desire and anger is depicted in the Mahabharata in an eye-arresting manner.

We observe the same complexity of character even in Bhishma. Sri Krishna himself praises Bhishma’s sagely wisdom and instructs Yudhishtira to receive this wisdom from him and contemplate upon it so that such valuable knowledge is not lost. Even such a sagely person fails to perform his Dharmic duties owing to self-declared oaths and a sense of indebtedness to the person who has given him food.

The intellect supplies the necessary faculty to distinguish between right and wrong. However, it is not certain that one can depend solely on the directions of the intellect in all situations. This is because, most of the time, the intellect works like a machine in the fashion of “input-output.” If we wish to derive the maximum utility, the intellect must be refined by culturing it.

Both Dhritarashtra and Vidura are “intelligent” at one level. The difference is this: Dhritarashtra’s intellect is influenced by attachment and base impulses while Vidura’s intellect is shaped by refinement. Bhagavan Veda Vyasa has nicely highlighted this dichotomy.

There is no dearth of stark situations like that of the public disrobing of Draupadi in the epic. It is far more life-enriching to interpret such grim events as the bubbles of that great life-flow than try to assign them meanings at the superficial level. This approach and attitude is the ultimate fruit of studying literature (in the sense of Kavya).

Dharma is Multistoried

Maharshi Vishwamitra had to consume meat during extreme famine, when there was acute scarcity of food just so that he could survive. Such incidents themselves teach us the lesson that one must transcend the letter, raise up to the level of the spirit and interpret them from that higher plane. Dharma is multistoried. “gahanā karmaṇo gatihi (Bhagavad Gita 4:17)” and other well-known maxims convey the same message. The summary—the form of external situations are not decisive. The hidden purpose of these events which seem bizarre at the superficial level is to show the fact that the continual flow of Dharma is dynamic and deep. When we embark on an investigation of the symbolic, the instructiveness of the Mahabharata’s characters becomes easily accessible to the mind.

As an illustration, we can examine the character of Dhritarashtra. The meaning of his name: “He who has taken the overlordship of the kingdom in his embrace.” In other words, he has owned that which does not rightfully belong to him. Indeed, Dhritarashtra’s overlordship is in name only. Although he called himself the king, the reins of the administration actually were in the hands of his evil sons.  The tenet that immediately flashes to us from this is this—people who think that they have accomplished many great things in this world are actually living an illusion. In fact, Dhritarashtra also stands as an unparalleled example of the supreme difficulty of overcoming such delusions. Equally, Dhritarashtra himself declares the power of this blind attachment which in his case manifests as fatherly love:

svam vai dehaṃ parahitostyajayate
ko nu brūyāt samatāṃ anvavekṣya ||

“In the name of impartial thinking, how is it correct to sacrifice one’s own body or that which is born from one’s body for the benefit of others?”

The Divine and Destiny

Now we can examine the characters of Sri Krishna and Arjuna.

Arjuna is the symbol of the Jivatma (Individual Self) and Sri Krishna as the symbol of the Paramatma (Universal/Eternal Consciousness). Although Arjuna is far nobler than ordinary people, in the overall assessment, we observe purely human elements in him. The message of the Mahabharata is to elevate oneself from that level. Even Sri Krishna subjected himself to an inner discipline and followed worldly rules and elevated himself. Although he was omnipotent, throughout the Mahabharata, we notice how he placed great importance to following manmade laws and rules. Thus, we observe Sri Krishna at various stages and on various planes: from the mundane to the divine.

At one point, Krishna says with great emotion, “Pandavas are akin to my life.” The same Krishna elsewhere dispassionately declares after the Yadavas annihilate themselves through infighting, “The weight of the earth has thankfully reduced.” Sri Krishna’s character has been created to show the unity of instructive qualities. The Krishna who fought the war on Arjuna’s side is different; the Krishna in his True Nature is different.

Similar to how in the Upanishads, the Guru helped Svetaketu get the revelation of the Absolute Blissful nature of the Atman through the “tat tvam asi” phrase, Sri Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita helps Arjuna to realise the unity between Jivatma and Paramatma. It is also pertinent to recall that “Krishna” is one of the names of Arjuna. When the veil of Maya that blocks the Jiva is lifted, the Paramatma is realized.

The Mahabharata has a Universal Canvas

nārāyaṇaṃ namaskṛtya naraṃ caiva narottamam |
devīṃ sarasvatīṃ vyāsaṃ tato jayamudīrayet ||

The Mahabharata begins with this invocatory verse. While this customary, auspicious verse appears like a prayer to Deities on plain sight, when we get into the depths, we discern a greater insight therein. By means of this invocation, Bhagavan Veda Vyasa has hinted at the universality of the work by fusing the elements of Jiva, Paramatman, and the ardent seeker (Sadhaka) together in one place; he has suggested that all three are the manifesting ingredients of the same, indivisible Principle.

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

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, Śatāvadhāni 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...


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...