Mahabharata by C. Rajagopalachari


“Man is a slave to power…” says the Mahabharata,”…but power is a slave to no one.” The puzzle of power in its acquisition, intrinsic contradictions, disillusionments and disappointments, transience, arbitrariness, loss and questionable legitimacy is one of the principal themes of this monumental epic, and its ultimate pessimism and absence of any viable solution to that puzzle makes this touchstone classic of World Literature as modern as it is ancient.

The Mahabarata, or “Great Battle of the Men of Bharata” is an epic war story of equal stature with the “Iliad” of Homer, and like the Iliad and Odyssey, is not only a classic of Sanskrit and Indian literature, but similar to them has become constituative in the shaping and defining its own culture and civilization. Thus no educated person in the world today who wishes to understand the living world around him or her can remain ignorant of at least the broad outlines not only of the Mahabharata, but its included and related component works, the Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, which together consciously or unconsciously move and animate the understanding and motivations not only of the of the billion and one-half people of the Indian subcontinent, one fifth of all humanity, but also across the extended sphere of Indian cultural influence over five millennia, from Indonesia to Persia, to Japan and China through Buddhism and abroad in the wider world.

How can we then approach the Mahabharata? One initial problem is its gargantuan size and bagginess. It is ten times the legnth of the Iliad and Odyssey combined, and its shape, reflecting its origin of evolution from a cloud of orally transmitted sagas to transformation into a coherent literary work is understandably intimidating for many. For those of us coming from the Western tradition a thumbnail analogy describing the Mahbharata might be to imagine gathered into one book the Iliad, the Odyssey, Hesiod’s Theogony, an anthology of selected works and dialogues of Plato, Socrates, the Pre-Socratics, Aristotle, Plotinus and a grabbag of “Popular Books & Passages from the Bible.” The Mahabharata, even more than the Homeric epics aspires to offer not just a story, but a total account of a culture, announcing in its opening: “Whatever is found here may well be found elsewhere; what is not here is nowhere.”

The Bhagavad Gita, (Song of the Blessed One) often read as a separate work but in reality but one section of the Mahabharata is included in this sprawling mass, and presents the philosophical dilemma of the warrior Arjuna on the eve of the horrific war, contemplating the moral and spiritual question of whether participation in the savagery, horror and waste of war can ever be morally justified or spiritually condoned, and the answer of Krishna that one must do one’s duty (dharma) even if violent and wasteful, and acheive a spiritual state of detachment in so doing. A shortened version of the third great classic, the Ramayana, presenting the story of the abduction of Sita, virtuous wife of Rama at the hands of the evil Ravana, and her rescue by Rama with the aid of Hanuman, the magically gifted Monkey-King, a tale known not only to every child in India but also echoed across China, Japan and East Asia in the incarnation of Hanuman as Sun Wu Kong the Chinese Monkey-King, is also part of the sprawling whole.

Though I have read the complete Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, I have to confess that while I have read the great bulk of the Mahabharata, I have never completed reading it from page one to its end, a feat perhaps as comparable and as little accomplished as reading the complete Bible from page one and Genesis to the last page of Revelations and the Apocrypha, another feat I have fallen short of. Nonethelsss even falling short of total completion in either case is well worth the effort.

The core of the Mahabharata, like the Iliad, is a saga of a great war from its origins to its all-consuming escalations, to its horrific end and consequences, and like the Iliad, it constitutes a great story. The saga begins in “The City of the Elephant,” Hastinapura with a conflict of princely succession to the throne between two branches of the royal family, the Kurus, being the Kauravas and the Pandavas. I will not attempt to give all the details which are too convoluted for such an introduction such as this, but relate some of the more striking salient points.

The Pandavas are five brothers, sons of one main scion of the royal lineage, Pandu. Pandu has two wives, Kunti and Madri, but is stricken by a curse that should he ever have sex he would be stricken dead! He rules briefly then retires to the forest wilderness with his wives, Buddha-like, for spiritual reasons. His wives, not to be undone by the curse, nevertheless succeed in producing children, who are fathered not by Pandu but by various gods, Dharma god of Law, the Wind god, Indra, and the Ashwins–Divine Horsemen. These five Pandava Brothers grow up in the wilderness until the death of Pandu their father, upon which the drama of conflict and war begins when they return to the kingdom, in the interim dominated by the other branch of the royal family the Kauravas, to claim their patrimony, power and right to rule.

As if the conception and birth of the Pandava Brothers were not perplexing enough the tale of their marriage en route to their ancestral home kingdom is even more bizarre and mythically charged. Whilst they were in hiding the Pandavas learn of a competition which is taking place for the hand of the Pāñcāla princess Draupadī. The Pandavas enter the competition in disguise as Brahmins. The task, Odysseus-like, is to string a mighty steel bow and shoot a target on the ceiling, which is the eye of a moving artificial fish, while looking at its reflection in a pool of oil below. Most of the princes fail, many being even unable to lift the bow. One of the Pandava Brothers, Arjuna, succeeds however. The Pandavas return to inform their mother that Arjuna has won a competition and to look at what they have brought as grand prize. Without looking, Kunti asks them to share whatever it is Arjuna has won among themselves equally. On explaining the previous life of Draupadi, she ends up being shared as the common wife of all five brothers!

Needless to say, the rival Kauravas are little pleased by the reappearance and claims to rule of the five Pandava brothers and their wife-in common, Draupati. They first attempt to asassinate them by sealing them in a wooden palace, the House of Lac, and setting it afire, a plot foiled by a divine tip-off that allows them to dig an escape tunnel. The stakes are then upped when the Kauravas plot to invite one of the brothers,Yudhishtira, to play “A Friendly Dice Game” albeit with loaded dice. Yudhishtira first loses all his wealth, then the Kingdom. Fatally addicted to the passion of gambling and desperately hoping for a comeback, he then even gambles away as ultimate stakes his brothers, himself, and finally his wife, condemning all by his loss into servitude and slavery.

The jubilant Kauravas insult the Pandavas whom they now own as chattel slaves in their helpless state and even try to strip naked Princess Draupadi in front of the entire court as a common house slave, but her honour is saved by Krishna who miraculously creates lengths of cloth to replace the ones being removed. The royal elders, are aghast at the situation, but Duryodhana, leader of the Kauravas is adamant that there is no place for two crown princes in Hastinapura. Against his wishes the elders order another dice game, ending in a stalemated compromise. The Pandavas are required to go into exile for 12 years, and in the 13th year must remain hidden. If discovered by the Kauravas, they will be forced into exile for another 12 years.

The Pandavas spend their thirteen years in exile; many adventures occur during this time. They also prepare alliances for a possible future conflict. They spend their final year in disguise in the court of Virata, and are discovered just after the end of the stipulated year. At the end of their exile, they try to negotiate a return. However, this fails, as Duryodhana objects that they were discovered while in hiding, and that no return of their kingdom was agreed. Both sides accuse the other of cheating on the agreement and distorting it and the law in bad faith. War becomes inevitable.

From there, like the Iliad, the core story is an account of the protracted, bloody and ultimately hopeless internecine war. Both sides recruit allies and warriors, and as in the Iliad the gods look on, with Krishna, like Athena in the Iliad, favoring but not directly fighting for one side, the Pandavas, serving as Arjuna’s chariot driver. On the eve of the culminating battle of Kurukshetra, however, Arjuna begins to have moral and spiritual qualms about killing not only his kindred but thousands of innocents in their quest for power, and considers deserting or conceding the conflict and withdrawing into spiritual exile.

It is this section that constitutes the Bhagavad Gita, centered on the god Krishna’s answers to Arjuna’s pacifist sentiments. He counsels rejection of the “Tolstoyan” pacifist sentiments Arjuna has allowed to gain influence over him and urges upon Arjuna the primacy first of duty, Dharma, and secondly a need to cultivate spiritual detachment in fulfilling one’s fate. Arjuna accedes to his counsel, though he clearly sees that this war will have no winners, only losers. regardless of outcome.

The battle rages for eighteen days, and though at the beginning all pretend to chivalrous ideals of genteel and honourable battle, by the end both sides have resorted to dastardly, dirty and dishonourable tricks and tactics. By the end, everyone’s fates are sealed, and even those who are fated to be victors, the more they hold onto their victory, the more they realize they have also lost everything they might have hoped for. “We now live,” they say even in their triumph, “dead in life.” The black Ragnarokian or Hamlet-like ending is that of a universal bloodbath and Armageddon, with only the Pandava brothers, Krishna and a handful or individuals barely surviving. As in Shakespeare’s melancholy ending, “the rest is silence.”

After the carnage, Ghandari, mother of the ninety-nine Kaurava brothers, all slain, curses the god Krishna, despising that as a god he had the power to stop the war but failed to do so. Krishna accepts the admonishment. The Pandavas rule, but their victory is a feast of shells, and in the end they abandon everything to go back to the wilderness and live in skins, then undertake a pilgrimage into the Himylayan mountains, which becomes an allegorical journey. They are joined by a stray dog, Mephistoopholes-like, who proves to be Yama, god of the Underworld. One by one they perish in falls on the steep slope of the ascent, Yama revealing this as allegorical justice for their sins and shortcomings. Only one Pandava brother,Yudhisthira, who has been found the sole virtuous protagonist in the whole saga and the dog remain. On topping the Himalayas, Yama then takes the virtuous Yudhisthira on a sojourn to the Underworld, Odysseus or Dante-like, observing his brothers and wife there, before escorting him to Heaven. Yama in the end, Dante-like, reveals to Yudhisthira that the fate of his brothers and wife is only temporary, their sojourn in the Underworld being more akin to Purgatory than Hell, and that after they have atoned for their sins and shortcomings they will ultimately join him in Heaven, it having been necessary for even the virtuous Yudhisthira to visit the Underworld, because all kingly personages must witness the Underworld at least once before becoming true Kings in Heaven.

The Ramayana appears in an abbreviated form in the Mahabharata, later to be reformulated as a classic Sanskrit masterpiece by the poet Valmiki. The oral origins of the Ramayana tale are underscored by Valmiki in the epic in the passage where the virtuous wife Sita insists that she must accompany her husband Rama in his exile in the wilderness, from which she will be eventually abducted by the arch-evil villain Ravana. Rama insists that she should stay safe behind in the holy city of Ayodhya. The impasse is broken when Sita metatextually cries out: “Thousands of Ramayanas have been composed before this one, and there isn’t one in which Sita doesn’t go with her husband!” Rama thus gives in before this narratological destiny. Just as Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides took over immorial sagas of heroes and the gods in composing their Greek tragedies, so Valmiki used pre-existing lore to craft his superb artistic masterpiece, far more refined and elaborated than the cursory account of the tale in the Mahabharata. The Ramayana of Valmiki, in addition to being a surpassing artistic reformulation of the prior treatment, also is an attempt at an ethical answer to the nihilistic and doom-laden worldview of the Mahabharata.

The narrative conflict of the Ramayana begins like that of the Mahabharata with a potential clash over succession to royal power when the aged King Dasharaatha, Lear-like, decides to abdicate the throne, leaving the two sons, Rama and Bharata in potential contention over the succession. But no conflict occurs as both brothers prove equally willing to defer to the other, as if neither really wanted the throne.

Instead, the conflict is deflected and re-directed outside the social heirarchy when the demon-king Ravana lusts for and abducts the beautiful and virtuous wife of Rama, Sita. Ravana is seemingly invincible, as he has been granted a divine wish by the great god Shiva. He uses this wish in a way that he believes will insure his immortality: he asks to be invincible and invulnerable to gods, demons, men and animals, and is granted his wish. However, Achilles-like, Fate has left one chink of vulnerabiity in his armor. Rama like Achilles and Hercules has been born half divine and half human, and does not fit into any of the stipulated terms and categories from which Shiva has made Ravana invulnerable. Thus, Rama as a “liminal” being between the divine and human slips through this contractual loophole to deal him a fatal blow, with the aid of the magically gifted Monkey-King Hanuman who helps him in his epic far-flung campaign to recover Sita from imprisonment on the island of Ceylon.

In the course of this campaign Rama, like Arjuna has moral qualms about the morality of the slaughter needed to oppose Ravana. Can any reasonable definition of dharma—law, right, duty—require the slaughter of one’s people and innocents in war? Tolstoy, Ghandi and many pacifists would answer in the negative. Krishna had answered in the affirmative citing soldierly duty and detachment even in yielding to a horrific fate. Rama, however comes to invoke a higher law, somewhat Confucian, in heirarchial obedience—son to father, younger brother to older brother, wife to husband, lower to higher caste. This heirarchical imperative, already stressed in the edicts of the Indian emperor Ashoka, serves to preserve peace amoung contestants for power. Anyone outside or threatening this chain of heirarchy, such as Ravana, has ceased to be human, and becomes a barbaric demon who with justice can be destroyed.

Thus even today, the Ramayana provides a moral role model for ordinary people in India, with young girls striving to be like Sita, and following a common proverb stating: “Act always like Rama, and never like Ravana.” The Ramayana thus has a moral authority comparable to Biblical parables, quite unlike the Mahabharata, regarded as a “dark book” and nihilisticly dangerous.

Of the authors of the two works, Valmiki is considered a progenitor of Sanskrit and Indian poetry and a revered figure. The Mahabharata itself declares itself to be authored by Vyasa, who is also a character in the story. Its writing is uniquely and picturesquely recounted in its pages, as Vyasa asks the elephant-god Ganesh to write down the epic from his dictation. Ganesh agrees, on the condition that Vyasa recite it without stopping, which Vyasa furthers counter-conditions to do, with proviso that he may stop long enough to confirm that Ganesh can understand what he hears.

The motifs of the Ramayana of Valmiki had some influence on the composition of my own contempory epic, Spiritus Mundi(Spiritus Mundi, Novel by Robert Sheppard.) In Book II, Spiritus Mundi, The Romance, the more mythic of the two books, the heroes, led by Sartorius and his pregnant wife Eva, must enter a Portal in the Temple of the Mothers, Verne-like located at the center of the Central Sea of “Middle Earth,” a realm at the Center of the World, from which portal they can transit a “Cosmic Wormhole” through Space-Time and arrive at the Black Hole at the Center of the Milky Way Galaxy, where is convened a Council of the Immortals whose aid they need to save the human race from annihilation in a threatened nuclear World War Three.

Access to the Portal is, however, subject to a fatal restriction: no man or woman may open the portal and once closed behind them no one may return. The heroes, however must bring back the Sylmaril Crystal for use in the Crystal Bead Game which will determine human destiny. The liminal loophole through which the dilemma is resolved is similar to the hidden vulnerability of Ravana. Eva, who is pregnant with an unborn son, is both a woman and a man, both a female and the manchild within. In that liminal status, being something greater than either a separate man or a woman, she can open the gates of the portal and keep them open until the heroes return—that is in her pregnant state she is not a man or a woman but a transcendent hybrid fusion of both and as such an exception to the “either/or” rule. This universal Archetype of Liminality is found in both works and many other works of World Literature.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:

For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit

Robert Sheppard


World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Spiritus Mundi, Book I: The Novel:
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance

Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *