Thinking about the Mahabharata

Image battle scene Kurukshetra
Scene from the Battle of Kurukshetra

I have been thinking about the Mahabharata.

Not because I am an expert. I finally acquired the new-ish huge-for-an-abridgement English translation of this epic sacred text by John D. Smith, but haven’t read it. I have read the Bhagavad-Gita, but my knowledge of that is still mostly superficial, honestly. I know the outline of the story*, and some of the episodes (the dice game; Draupadi not stripped by the Kauravas; Yudishthira at the gates of heaven with his dog …)

So my current sense that the Mahabharata is a warning for our time may be a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. The Mahabharata is, in a way, about a factional dispute that takes on literally epic proportions, and destroys everyone involved. The values of righteousness, or propriety, and of loyalty and honor, vie with the values of greed and power and control. My understanding is that there is never any question in the text that the Pandavas are the “good guys.” The Kauravas are demons, literally. The problem really is not, ever, about which is the correct side. That element of uncertainty, which often afflicts us in real life outside of epic literature, does not cause the sense of moral unease that seems to stalk the Mahabharata.

Rather, the main problem seems to be that all the possible ends are bad – no solution that doesn’t involve destroying almost everyone seems to be attainable. So all the characters are forced to choose among doing different kinds of wrong things, with different chances of success, with every success being something less than fully desirable. It would be wrong to let the Kauravas have the kingdom unopposed. They are evil and mean and cruel and will use their power to oppress people, so that would be bad. But then, the alternative is to fight a war, in which there will be losing – which will be bad – or winning, which will also be bad, because it will entail killing a lot of people, including all your relatives. So either way, the Pandavas are going to be morally compromised and be the perpetrators of terrible deeds of violence. Either way. But eschewing the violence would make them complicit with injustice and oppression.

The epic warns us: the cataclysmic violence ends the crisis, but does not really “resolve the situation.” The Mahabharata doesn’t offer an answer to the problem of how to oppose greed for power and property successfully, “morally.” It seems to tell us that when those forces are involved, destruction will ensue, one way or another.

The Mahabharata takes place right at the end of the third age, the beginning of the Kali Yuga, which, in Hindu temporal cosmology, is where we find ourselves – the most degenerate age, the one where people are moved precisely by greed for power and property, the one that will end in a general conflagration (that will then lead to the rebirth of the world in a better, more pristine state, so that’s a positive note, albeit remote). All of this takes a lot of time – I gather the Kali Yuga still has a long way to go, although estimates seem to vary. That means that we ourselves can anticipate dilemmas at least as unpromising as those faced by the emblematic characters in the epic, and presumably with a weaker grasp of dharma than they had to deal with them – understanding dharma as the guiding standard of what is right and wrong for each person, in each situation, or, possibly the same thing or possibly alternatively, according to eternal principles.

So I wonder just how much of the wisdom of this ancient tradition applies to us. I wonder just how much the Mahabharata has to teach people in the 21st century United States.

The “just war” tradition since Augustine has held that a fight needs to have a good chance of being successful before it is justified. Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna in the Gita might imply something to the contrary, that sometimes the fight is necessary, regardless of the chances of success – “nonattachment” to the results of action seems to involve a willingness to “let go and let God,” so to speak. But in both cases, the underlying situation seems to be one in which reconciliation proves unattainable – polarization is absolute, communication can’t proceed, the desire for power and control is deaf to appeals to other values. The Mahabharata is, maybe most of all, an epic of the consequences of such a situation.

So, the Mahabharata is on my mind.

*Wendy Doniger’s summary goes like this:

The five sons of King Pandu, called the Pandavas, were fathered by gods: Yudhishthira by Dharma, Bhima by the Wind (Vayu), Arjuna by Indra, and the Twins (Nakula and Sahadeva) by the Ashvins. All five of them married Draupadi. When Yudhishthira lost the kingdom to his cousins in a game of dice, the Pandavas, and Draupadi went into exile for twelve years, at the end of which, with the help of their cousin the incarnate god Krishna, who befriended the Pandavas and whose counsel to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra is the Bhagavad Gita, they regained their kingdom through a cataclysmic battle in which almost everyone on both sides was killed.

John Fitzgerald’s more detailed summary is here. Larry Brown’s even more detailed synopsis which includes one or two possibly arguable interpretive generalizations is here.

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