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Why Should We Read Mahabharata Part I – Civilisational Philosophy


Few epics have captured the imagination of the world in the way Ramayana and Mahabharata have. They have seen many retellings over the last 1000+ years in India and outside. In particular, the last 200 years have seen translations galore. There is hardly a country without a version. Mahabharata had reached as far as Indonesia by 10th Century CE.

A small region like Indonesia has two versions – a Javanese and a Kavi version. India, of course, is the focal point of Mahabharata. The epic continues to be a guiding light for the society – scholars and commoners alike. Despite the onslaught of modernity and secularism, successive generations remain fascinated by Mahabharata.

But then there is a battle ongoing. Traditionalists look at it as a sacred book and a riverine flow of our Civilization. Modern secular intellectuals are equally interested but for an ulterior reason. They attack the epic to transform it into forms for easy assassination with their ideology.

They force-fit the epic into their narrative of history. In the process, they obfuscate the ancientness of our civilization. They deny access to the philosophical and civilizational brilliance flowing in the epic. Nevertheless, people continue to learn from Mahabharata much more than modern history.

It is a cruel irony for the kind of investment that goes into History as a discipline. Modern academicians can neither gulp nor refute this harsh reality.

However, they have certainly obstructed the flow of brilliance from the epic to society. The grand river of Mahabharata has been reduced to a small stream. In some ways, this is akin to River Saraswati gradually fading away after the Mahabharata times.

However, she never disappeared from the minds of people. She remains embedded deep in our subconscious as an invisible river, always guiding the civilization. What more, satellite images have clearly established her flow in ancient times.

The geographical area retains her riverine brilliance deep beneath. She was simply waiting for us to discover her through modern technology. In a similar vein, we need to rediscover Mahabharata and bring it back to the mainstream. It must be restored to the full glory of her traditional perspective but through modern means.

Our Civilizational Duty

We have to gradually achieve two things. Firstly, bring Mahabharata into the household conversation. Secondly, integrate the epic into the formal education system at multiple levels. However, this must precede with an appreciation of why we must study Mahabharata.

In its entirety, it consists of nearly 1 Lakh shlokas. This is a significant ask whether it is an abridged version study or the complete. Such a question would have never risen even in the 17th Century.

Mahabharata was part of Bharateeya Shiksha Paddhati in traditional Pathshalas. The British themselves have recorded this in the detailed study between 1800-1825. However, there is a need to answer this question today.

The British policy and education weakened traditional education and created a void. The post-independence education, though, has been a bigger tragedy than the colonial era. We now must face this crisis with full confidence. This is our own Kurukshetra.

The stories of Mahabharata are fantastic. On the one hand, they capture the imagination of all alike with its imagery. On the other hand, there are obvious moral values with good winning over the bad.

However, there are bigger reasons and deeper insights, related to the very core of our civilization. These stories provide access to thought processes that shaped our civilization. The key to rediscovering that civilizational thought is within these epic stories.

This must be unlocked for the real genius of the nation is hidden within. It contains a force within, which continues to apply itself to the nation. Anything that we seek to achieve can be done so with greater effectiveness if that force is rode upon. The converse is also true.

Civilization continuity (sAtatya) is extremely necessary for our yearning for modernization. The change we seek must be in harmony with the architecture and force of civilization. The beauty of Mahabharata is that complex thought is locked into metaphors of mesmerizing stories.

They first make a deep impression at a perception level. Perception pushes for reflection and develops intuition. Intellect then build structures around it. In comparison, Modernity pushes complex intellectual structures as the first step for philosophy. On the contrary, Mahabharata achieves the same through stories, with far greater effectiveness.

In this essay, we shall discuss 3 aspects of Mahabharata that is compelling enough for us to study the epic in detail

  • Philosophy and the perspective of life
  • The Key holds to access other Indic Civilizational Texts
  • The Civilizational thought in contains within

The Philosophy

Civilizations differ from each other in many ways. But the most fundamental way in which they differ is in the very objective and purpose of life. Across all communities in Bharatamandala, at all times, something has stayed intact and common, binding all communities in their differences and conflicts.

The Objective of life in Bharatamandala has always been Purushartha. It is the bedrock of life, the path, and the very destination. Mahabharata explores Purushartha in its intricacy, depth, and multifacetedness. In particular, it explores

  • How does Moksha sustain Dharma
  • How does Dharma sustain Artha, Kama
  • The Rightful Place of Artha, Kama in life

Mahabharata’s exploration of Dharma in relation to Artha and Kama is recognized and evident. But, often, the gems are not displayed in the right measure for appreciation. This requires continuous study. Further, Dharma’s relationship with Moksha is not recognized at all.

In the colonial and post-colonial era, Moksha has been rendered an impossible imagination and value. Its relationship with Dharma is loosened. This is in particular due to the confusion created by Modernity.

However, it has a strong relationship with Dharma and hence with Artha and Kama. The stories of Mahabharata present them in complete grandeur and intricacy.

As far as Dharma is concerned, Mahabharata espouses the cause of it in every verse. Dharma is that which holds everything together in harmony. Mahabharata explores all aspects of Dharma in all walks of life – the elusive, the subtle, and the obvious aspects of it.

It does not present Dharma as a set of rules or code of conduct. Instead, it presents Dharma as principles that one must realize through Tapas. These principles can be learned and put to writing only to an extent.

Penance alone makes one see everything. In addition, one has to deduce these rules of Dharma and rightful decisions by one’s own self through a good understanding of the principles. There is no shortcut.

As a result, Mahabharata provides a framework to explore ethical issues and complexities of life. It presents a grand scheme of ethical issues that one may face in life, but through a fascinating spectrum of stories. In each story, there is an ethical crisis.

There is a subtle hint for what leads to the crisis. After an explicit mention of what the person does, the story nudges us to think if the action was ethical. It does not stop at ‘Did he/she act according to Dharma?’. It pushes to think ‘why did he/she fail to act according to Dharma’?

Mahabharata champions productive ways of thinking about Conflicts in order to achieve a resolution – through the framework of Dharma. In addition, it is very encouraging of the person to decide the ethicality of actions by self. This philosophical framework is relevant for all times.

A Hub of all Indic Civilization Texts

Nearly everything that is dear to Bharatiya Parampara has a foot-print in Mahabharata. It is not easy to conclude the direction of flow. It may be from Mahabharata to other works or the other way. Suffice to say that there is a way to seamlessly access our tradition through Mahabharata, from its length and breadth. Our future generations must reap the benefits of it.

King Bharata, son of Dushayanta, is arguably the most celebrated of the Chandravamsha. Our nation came to be known after him for a reason. It is under his aegis that the formalization of RigVeda began. This much is quite acknowledged today. Bharata is much venerated in RigVeda. Apart from him, a Pantheon of Kings in Mahabharata finds reference in Rigveda.

The Puru-Bharata Kings Bharata, Srinjaya, Vadhrashyva, Divodasa, Pijavana, Pratardana, Sudasa, Somaka, and Sahadeva are referred to in the Rigveda. Many of these Kings are from the Panchala dynasty to which Draupadi belonged.

They have made a significant contribution to the formalization of RigVeda. The Pantheon of sages mentioned cannot even be listed; it is that big. What more – many incidents narrated in Mahabharata have a parallel in the Rigveda.

Some are common references and others are complementary stories. The Samavarana story in the Adi Parva of Mahabharata is quite famous. It is related to the Dasharagna Yuddha of RigVeda. King Pratardana, who is hailed in RigVeda, is equally venerated in Mahabharata. His divine valor transformed a perennial war-monger, King Veetahavya, into a Sage.

It is in the line of Veetahavya that Sage Shaunaka of Naimisharanya is born. It is Shaunaka who performs a Yagna where Sage Ugrasrava Souti narrates Mahabharata. Suffice to say that there is a route to the Philosophy of RigVeda from Mahabharata. This path must be nurtured, it is perfect for a modern mindset.

Mahabharata is also the gateway to enter the grand universe of Bhagavata. The Krishna Katha part of Bhagavata is quite famous. However, Bhagavata is much more than that. The Philosophy, metaphoric brilliance, and semi-historical content in Bhagavata is mind-boggling.

Thankfully many stories are common with Mahabharata. The latter provides a context from which one can enter Bhagavata. Mahabharata is a great springboard to fly to the celestial heights of Bhagavata. Bhagavata provides a panoramic and distant view of everything in life at once.

Mahabharata contextualizes Bhagavata and relates it to us through experiences of the ground. Tradition says that Sage Vyasa experienced disturbance after composing Mahabharata. Sage Narada urged Vyasa to compose Bhagavata to free himself from that pain. It is at once real and metaphorical.

It is also a nudge for us to step into Bhagavata from Mahabharata. In a similar vein, Mahabharata is also the key to enter the 18 Maha Puranas. The tradition holds them as being composed by Vyasa. Many accounts are common with Mahabharata but with a different narrative.

The purpose of Puranas is a philosophy and hence the difference in narratives of the same account is normal. They do contain historical accounts but one must carefully extract them. Fundamentally they are metaphorical. In summary, Maha Puranas together present a spectrum of philosophical concerns that are complementary, along with Mahabharata and Bhagavata.

Mahabharata contains rich Civilizational Thought of Ancient India

The Purushartha perspective of Mahabharata has two dimensions – one for the individual and the other for society. For the individual, it presents a spiritual evolution towards Moksha. But, we have never separated the spiritual from the social, political, and material.

In the second dimension, it is about the organization of life at a collective level that fosters the Purushartha journey of the individual. This results in immense political, social, and economic thought. Mahabharata presents this thought architecture based on Dharma.

This has not just remained in our texts but has actively and uniquely shaped our civilization. In its stories, in its huge number of conversations, Mahabharata explores what is right in the realm of society, politics, economics, and so on.

The Shanti Parva stands testimony to this immense thought. Bheeshma imparts ancient knowledge to Yudhishthira in beautiful conversations. Vana Parva and Anushasana Parva contain similar conversations between the Sages and Yudhishthira. Vidura’s advice to Yudhishthira, known as Vidura Neeti, is yet another gem part of Udyoga Parva.

In the Vana Parva, Markandeya narrates diverse and thought-provoking stories to Yudhisthira. In their concern, they stand in parallel and contrast with Modern Thought systems. The story of Sage Shandili is one such where Garuda is taught that the mighty has no unilateral right to think of impacting others’ lives without their consent.

Bharatamandala has explored certain Concerns a few millennia earlier than the rest of the world. Much more, they created different socio-political systems offering different solutions. That is a Thought mine waiting for us to explore and reshape for today’s world.

In addition, the stories give a deep insight into human nature and psychology. It is a rich narration through innumerable situations, characters, conflicts, implications, and resolutions. It’s a treatise on Karma Theory on the one hand and human behavior on the other.

It is possible to extract a theory of human psychology from Mahabharata stories and perform validation studies on the ground. It is analogous to the organization of the Sanskrit alphabet being an influence on Mendeleev to design the Periodic Table.

Mahabharata could be that secret vault from which many modern civilizational instruments are shaped. Just as Sage Dhadhichi’s backbones were used by the Devas to create Vajrayudha to kill Vritrasura.

The Rajadharma Parva of Shanti Parva is a treatise on the responsibilities of a King. It is a complete political thought in itself. Apaddharma Parva, again of Shanti Parva, contains principles based on which one can make exceptions to the normal code under stressed conditions. Modern Law has much to learn from these expositions.

Dharma is explored at multiple levels – at the level of an individual, within a family, in a place a living, at the level of the state, and at the level of the universe. Mahabharata provides principles of operation in each of these concentric spheres and ways and means of moving from one to the other.

It provides an insight into how one can recreate rules of law in each of those spheres based on Dharma. Every rule has an exception and one must be able to make those exceptions when required. Dharma provides a framework for it. Mahabharata in many ways is the result of that grand failure to make required exceptions even by the likes of the great Bheeshma.

In summary, Bharatamandala has a definite alternative to Modern Liberalism. It is there in our ancient texts and has shaped us for millennia. We need to bring that back to the modern world in newer ways. Just as Bhageeratha brought Ganga from Devaloka to flow on the ashes of his ancestors to provide them Sadgati. We need to provide ourselves Sadgati.

Lastly, Mahabharata is a warning to humanity. It clearly says that even the best get blind-sighted. When a lady was disrobed in the Sabha, the great elders of Bharatamandala, deeply learned, were wondering if they had the right to intervene.

Only Lord Krishna and Vidura retained the absolute clarity of action. Only action-ready knowledge is real knowledge for only that upholds Dharma. That is the grand caution of Mahabharata. Society must inculcate this sense in every generation at the right time. For such perspectives, we must turn to Mahabharata.

In the next of this series, we shall see Mahabharata’s importance from the standpoint of our History.


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