The Mahabharata is the most important book for India as a nation as well for Hindu Dharma, and has been so for many centuries. The Mahabharata has endured the long test of time and withstood the adversities of foreign rule. Even today, the Mahabharata remains, in spite of its length, one of the most commonly studied books in India.
The traditional idea of India, the India that is Bharat, is largely that of the Mahabharata. Indian culture as Bharatiya Samskriti is rooted in the teachings of the Mahabharata on all levels.
Mahabharata is a massive national epic. It addresses the dominant Kuru Empire of India of that ancient era, but also notes the geography of the country from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka.
Mahabharata uniquely covers both spiritual and mundane topics from Samkhya and Vedanta philosophy and yogic practices to the ways of the kings (Raja Dharma). It is not simply a religious scripture, nor a mere cultural or historical account. Its scope is encyclopaedic, creating a model that the later Puranic literature followed. It is a literary monument to Dharmic thinking and sets forth India's civilizational values.
The Mahabharata embraces a wide view of history going back to the Vedas, its Rishis and Yogis. It portrays human history is part of cosmic time, and the human being is an integral part of the entire universe.
The Mahabharata provides an alternative view of India than what is found in textbooks today - and a view that is more monumental, complex, and intricate. It shows a vast cultural unity woven of spirituality, art, customs and politics behind the diversity of peoples and languages.
No other nation has such a comprehensive and ancient literary record as the Mahabharata. Europe has no comparable ancient document, nor do any of the countries within Europe with their smaller national epics and briefer historical accounts. The dominant book of the countries of Europe to a few centuries ago was the Judeo-Christian Bible that did not derive from Europe at all. China does not have any comparable such text either. Nor does the Islamic world that remains rooted in the Koran and its era.
Sri Krishna in the Mahabharata
Sri Krishna is certainly the most important, influential and charismatic figure of the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata is centered on the Kuru Dynasty and its two rival factions of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, but in the process brings in all the main kingdoms of India from Gandhara to Magadha. Krishna is the central figure behind this great battle, assuming different roles from a skilful diplomat who tried to avert it, to a determined visionary who made sure it occurred.
The Mahabharata War, though based upon a conflict within a dynasty, becomes a civil war within the country. The tragedy, magnitude and destructiveness of the battle required addressing all aspects of Dharma and human behaviour. The Mahabharata has a brilliant, evocative and contradictory set of characters, displaying all the strengths and weaknesses of human nature.
Krishna is certainly the guru of the Mahabharata, teaching how to understand both its political and spiritual implications through the subtle ways of Dharma and Karma. The Mahabharata addresses the harsh realities of life, the grey zones of human behaviour, where all the gunas collide within us.
Implications for today
The Mahabharata portrays the most difficult situations, with Arjuna on the battlefield having to fight against his own friends, family, and gurus, in which action is required but no ideal choice exists. Yet, not to fight would let the forces of Adharma take over the country and lead to fragmentation and perhaps disintegration.
Our human world is a realm of limitation and duality that forces us to grow through adversity. Anything we do may have negative consequences. But not doing anything and standing back may have even more negative consequences.
The birth of Krishna began a resurgence of Dharma yet facing a constant threat from the forces of Adharma. The Mahabharata War was only the culmination of this great drama from Kamsa to Duryodhana. Sri Krishna, much like the Goddess Kali, brought about the destruction of the forces of Adharma to create a more peaceful future for all.
Today, we are living in another difficult era fraught with powerful and unpredictable dangers. Confusion and conflict grip the world and strain the resources of humanity. Will our new information technology merely create terrible new weapons and more debasing forms of mind control? Or, can its new devices free us from outer drudgery so that we can explore our own deeper consciousness with wisdom and grace?
Today, India as a nation is struggling to renew its older Dharmic heritage and link back to the Bharata of its classical age of cultural expansion, as well as to develop economically and militarily, and regain its place of strength in the community of nations. Surely, we need the adaptability of Krishna to deal with these teeming forces of either transformation or destruction, whether at personal or collective levels.
Let us call upon the wisdom of Sri Krishna, noting the psychological astuteness that he provides in the Bhagavad Gita, to overcome our human problems and manifest our deeper Divine potential - to connect with Krishna within us and discover our true Self that is the master and Lord of all Maya. Jai Sri Krishna!
(Dr David Frawley, or Pandit Vamadeva Shastri, is a Western-born Vedacharya, who teaches an integral approach to Yoga, Vedanta, Ayurveda and Vedic studies. He is the author of 50 books published in 20 languages, and is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan from the Government of India. He is the director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies.)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)