Vyāsa is said to have presented to Brahmā the topics discussed in the Mahābhārata thus – “In this work there are several secrets of the Vedas; my definitive siddhāntas on them; several details and descriptions of the Vedas compiled from the ṣaḍaṅgas and the Upaniṣads; matters pertaining to the three time periods – past, present, and future; unambiguous descriptions about the nature of the origin and destruction of birth, death, fear, and disease; the characteristics of the various varṇāśrama-dharmas; the vidhānas (methodology) of tapas and brahmacarya; the movement of the earth as well as the sun and moon; the varied movement of the planets, stars, and constellations; the duration of yugas; the adhyātma-jñāna (wisdom pertaining to the inner Self) that is propagated in the three Vedas – Ṛk, Yajus, and Sāma; nyaya-śāstra (the science of epistemology and reasoning) and vaidya-śāstra (the science of healing); the nature of wisdom; the Pāśupata-vrata; the categories of divinities as well as the boons they can render; tīrtha-kṣetras that help attain puṇya; streams, rivers, seas, oceans, mountains, and forests; cities; the kalpa-bhedas (the various time cycles); the skills in warfare; the method of travelling in the world; and that which has been hailed as the all-pervading vastu (brahman), that has been propounded in this treatise!”*
In the scope of this essay there is no opportunity to discuss which of these aspects actually find a place in the extant text of the Mahābhārata, to debate as to which of the verses belong to the original text of the epic, or to speak about the various siddhāntas; it will suffice if we use this quote as a pointer to what the Indian people expected from the Mahābhārata epic.
A primary characteristic of bhāratīya-samskṛti (Indian culture and heritage) is inclusive evolution, i.e. digesting anything new that appears and growing by including the new in itself; not to oppose (the new) and destroy it or destroy itself. Is the tattva (philosophy, essence, truth) one, or is it two, or is it zero – all these quarrels are recent. The tattva propagated by the Mahābhārata can be one, or it can be two; Śiva and Viṣṇu are both eminent in its vision; both are expressions of the universal consciousness. Therefore it has become a treatise worshipped by all, respected by all; it has become a means to bring everyone together. The yoga-śāstra that has been spoken about in the Mahābhārata presents is common to the Vedic culture and even to the sects of Jainism and Buddhism that are thought to be ‘opposed’ to Vaidika dharma. ‘Ahimsā,’ which the first step (of sāmānya-dharma) is the supreme dharma for all (these groups). Bauddha-dharma did not get destroyed in Bharata-khaṇḍa; it was distributed, dissolved, and it disappeared. Buddha became one among the daśāvatāras. Several Buddhist stories (first) appear in the Mahābhārata and in the Bṛhatkathā. In the Jaina purāṇas, we find several stories from the Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata, and the Bhāgavata. The primary reasons for this are partiality towards high quality, patience, intellect driven by dharma, deep examination of tattva. Swami Vivekananda told the westerners that we understand Christ better than you understand him! This is the conduct of one endowed with a magnanimous temperament that believes in going along with the people of the world and in being inclusive. This one land, Bharata-khaṇḍa, has constantly endeavoured to adhere to this in its local governance, in its laws and society, and in international relations. Even if one were to look at the Mahābhārata purely as a sāṃsārika (worldly) story, it is instructive in matters of relationships between children and parents, husband and wife, siblings, relatives, elders and youngsters, as well as teachers and students. It teaches us that friendship and love lead to sukha; hatred, jealousy, pettiness, and the like don't lead to sukha. In relations between husband and wife, if one of them, primarily the wife, can conduct herself with patience, that family will be filled with the ambrosia of love. Gāndhārī, Sāvitrī, Damayantī, and others have attained immortality for this reason alone. The love between the Pāṇḍava siblings is a high ideal for all times, all peoples. In the Mahābhārata, a terrible war was waged by the end of it. But all the wise people tried their best to avoid war and brokered for peace. When the mind was pure, everyone lived in sukha; the land was prosperous; the citizens lived in peace, without worries. When foolishness and evil gained in strength, when adharma raised its ugly head, everything was destroyed. However, that is also a sort of saṃskāra (refinement) for life; unless an iron rod is heated and then struck upon, it doesn't take the desired shape. It is said that in the end, in this manner, wisdom took birth in Duryodhana too. And in the hereafter, he too attained vīra-svarga just like the Pāṇḍavas.
Let difficulties arise or let there be sukha, let there be sorrow or overwhelming tragedy – whatever happens, should we adhere to dharma? Whatever happens, should we attain only sukha? Even by taking a loan – without any thought or repaying it – should one partake of ghee (i.e. enjoy worldly pleasures)? This is the worldly problem. Because ultimately everyone craves for sukha. Those who believe in paraloka (hereafter) – at all times, in all places – say that it is only through dharma that one reaches the Ultimate Good. But the path of dharma is a difficult one, it is one filled with obstacles and constraints. Mahābhārata leaves out these extremes and says, “Definitely, go ahead and attain artha and kāma (i.e. go on, fulfil your desires, find enjoyment, earn money, etc.) but let them be earned through the path of dharma; by this, one attains both iha (here) and para (hereafter)!” It doesn't ask us to discard all that is worldly and to be prepared to lift the cross on one’s back, walk ahead with it, be crucified on it, and die a ghastly death; nor does it tell us to forsake one’s wife and the child growing in her womb. Let us accept the difficulties or the comforts that come our way, to the extent that we obtain those experiences and to the amount allotted to us; but let us not make sukha as our [only] goal and try to attain it through unfair means; if everyone takes such a path the country will become a dacoit-infested den; there will be neither peace nor happiness; it will be filled with mistrust and fear; comfort without peace – what sort of comfort is that? That's what the Gītā asks, “Aśāntasya kutassukham?” (2.66) It is the Śānti-parva that is the biggest parva of the Mahābhārata (with 14,525 ślokas).
Our well-wishers speak with our welfare in mind – whether they declare with authority, inform with gentleness, or inspire by love and affection. Literature is something that people write for people, based on the life of people, sharing what they have seen, heard, and experienced. This is the reason any literature, from any part of the world, is something that aids in the cultural and emotional refinement of people; it is a catalyst for saṃskāra; it all depends on the calibre and worth of the person who puts it to use. That's the reason the ancient people made divisions based on the level of the person, the "adhikārī," just like how certain books are assigned as textbooks for students of a certain class in school; Vedas for some, śāstra for some, kāvya for some, and in that, poetry for some, prose for some, drama for some. The Mahābhārata contains vedārtha, śāstrārtha; it is also a kāvya – a mahākāvya, a huge literary work, a most ancient treatise that is offered the highest worship. Poets like Māgha, Bhāravi, Kālidāsa, and others who wrote mahakāvyas as well as [aestheticians like] Daṇḍi, Bhāmaha, and others who gave the characteristics of a mahakāvya are of a later period. During the period of the Mahābhārata, perhaps drama had not originated. But in one sense, it is a drama indeed. Because the Mahābhārata is an ocean of rasa, a treasure-trove of stories, and a universe of otherworldly people. From beginning to end, it is in a conversational format – the lifeline of a drama is dialogue, conversation. Although it is in a poetic meter, it is akin to prose; actual prose is seldom seen in the work; the language is simple, it is not complex like the prose of the Bhāgavata. Although it is called an itihāsa (historical treatise), it is filled with sweet kāvya-rasa and milk-like nīti. This is the vīra-kalaśa borne and carried forward by Draupadī – that one Draupadī, one Kṛṣṇa, one Vidura suffice to make Vyāsa, the Mahābhārata, and Indian literature immortal in the world. The composer of an epic such as the Mahābhārata lifts his arms in desperation and wails, “Oh! Nobody is listening to my words,” akin to an old man caught in family life; overcome by pain and sorrow, he shouts, “Dharmādarthaśca kāmaśca sa kimarthaṃ na sevyate?” This is the quintessence of bhāratīya-samskṛti – Bhārata-sāvitrī.*
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."