A Wonder of Ancient India: The Mahabharata

By Nhilde Davidson

Daunted by its size and a misconception that an intimate understanding of Hinduism was needed, I never considered taking the Mahabharata off the shelf. By accident I tuned into an episode of an Indian television production of the Mahabharata (subtitled in English) -- and I was hooked. Ninety-six one-hour episodes later (and many more hours of reading) I am still enthralled and continue delving into this fascinating epic. Its appeal is on many different levels and, through the ages, ascetics and scholars alike have dedicated their lives to studying, collating, and translating the varied and voluminous material. When the series aired on Indian television, railway schedules had to be adjusted as each week almost the entire country sat in front of a TV. Similarly, most things ground to a halt when the Ramayana was serialized. We all love a hero -- heroic action appeals to children and adults alike -- and these epics are heroic. On a deeper level it is the philosophical depth and the psychological profundity that endure, keeping the stories alive in the soul, drawing one back again and again.

The epic is about a Holy War fought on the fields of Kurukshetra at the junction between the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron or Kali Age. The Kali Yuga is said to have begun with the death of Krishna on February 17, 3102 BC -- thus dating the war to 3138 BC (in the epic Krishna died 36 years after the Great War). However, dating the epic is an ongoing debate. The extant written versions can be traced to the period 400-100 BC when the present form was settled on. The Mahabharata has eighteen major chapters or parvas which are, in turn, subdivided into many smaller parvas or sections. There are hundreds of different versions, adjusted by various sects to include their own individual religious biases (for example there are 300 known versions of the Adi Parva).

Krishna-Dvaipayana (also known as Veda Vyasa for his work in synthesizing the Vedas in their present form) is said to be the author of the original 24,000 slokas (verses). Sloka meter is characterized by 32 syllables divided into 4 pada or quarter verses of 8 syllables each, written in either 2 or 4 lines. It is the metrical form commonly used in Sanskrit epics. (1) The present form of the epic contains around 100,000 slokas, though it has been estimated that it may include as many as 150,000. Critical editions intended to discover the pristine material are only a few decades old, the best work having been done by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona.

While the accrual of additional material is ongoing, the age of the texts and questions about the historical accuracy of accounts in the epic are hotly debated. Many believe that the Mahabharata and also the Puranas give the history of not only the peoples of India but of humanity. Scholars have established that the parvas were written at different times -- some being much older than others.

One of the parvas contains the Ramayana. According to Hindu tradition the Ramayana recounts the history of Rama and Sita, and is believed to have taken place at the beginning of the Treta or Silver Age, i.e., shortly after the end of the Satya Yuga (Golden Age) -- roughly two million years ago by Hindu reckoning -- thus potentially very old indeed. The current archaeological dating of the age of humanity prevents scholars from giving credence to the Hindu chronology.

The known history of India does not include verifiable records of a war where millions of soldiers fought and died, or the destruction of Dvaraka (the region governed by Krishna) by tidal waves and cataclysms of the proportions described in the Mahabharata. This leads some to believe that the epics may not be historical. However, corroborating evidence in texts from other sources and countries suggests that these writings are a blend of accurate history, myth, and soul memory, as well as ethical treatises.

The crux of the matter is that the entire Mahabharata has one obvious aim -- to awaken a love of truth and right action. The core story is the thread that ties together a profound philosophical content. Embellished by substories to clarify various ethical premises, the central theme always leads in one direction -- the ascendancy of right over wrong, justice over injustice, truth over untruth. In the war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas it is made clear that the side of Truth (represented by the Pandavas) will ultimately win. The reasons for this war and the human aspects of the story are what make the epic ever fascinating -- its slokas are the mirror whereby we see into our own souls, and the consequences of actions, both gross and subtle, are laid bare for scrutiny.

The cast of characters is large, but one soon finds oneself relating to and caring about them: Draupadi, the virtuous, beautiful wife of the five Pandava brothers; Vidura, the wise younger brother of Pandu and Dhritarashtra; Kunti, the mother of the three eldest Pandava brothers -- Yudhishthira, Bhima and Arjuna; Madri, the mother of the younger twin sons of Pandu -- Nakula and Sahadeva. As all the characters come alive, the strange names and customs become familiar and comfortable.

The wisdom of the Pandava and Kaurava princes' tutors -- Bhishma, Drona, and Kripacharya -- enrich the text at every turn. Bhishma, patriarch of the families on both sides of the conflict, has a magnificence and stature which make him beloved and respected by all the characters, while his all-encompassing wisdom and virtue still earn him the love and reverence of Hindus today.

The central story concerns the rivalry for the throne of Hastinapura, where the ancient dynasty of India has its domain. As jealousy goes unchecked the dynasty is finally destroyed. Pandu, the second son of Santanu, becomes king because his elder brother, Dhritarashtra, was born blind and thus considered unfit to rule. However, when Pandu dies Dhritarashtra, already an able administrator of the country during Pandu's many absences, proceeds to reign. It is the line of succession that is the bone of contention. Yudhishthira, virtuous son of Pandu and eldest of the Pandava brothers, is heir-apparent, but Duryodhana, eldest of Dhritarashtra's and Gandhari's one hundred sons, wishes to be king. Gandhari has a gambler brother, Sakuni, living at court who helps inflame Duryodhana's jealousy and envy of the five Pandava princes.

Known as the Kauravas, the family and supporters of Dhritarashtra are spearheaded by Duryodhana, his brother Dushasana, Sakuni, and Karna (a protege of Duryodhana whose lineage is mysterious and who, ironically, is finally shown to be linked to the Pandavas). These four try many ways to eliminate the five sons of Pandu. As Dhritarashtra and Gandhari fail to curb Duryodhana's hatred of the Pandavas -- and more especially of his birthday twin, Pandu's second son, Bhima -- the peoples of Hastinapura are inexorably propelled into war.

Through the popularity of the Bhagavad-Gita the third son of Pandu, Arjuna, is perhaps the best known of his five sons. This parva recounts the discussion between Arjuna and Krishna just prior to the Battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna asks Krishna why he should fight. Krishna, having sworn not to fight himself but to steer Arjuna's chariot during the battle, explains to Arjuna his duty -- in reality the duties of all who seek for truth.

One may read the epic just as an excellent tale, for it has all the elements of good storytelling, yet it also includes the psychological dilemmas inherent in life, though the meaning behind some of the episodes is not always clear -- each reader must interpret the episodes according to his own insight and vision. Like a diamond sparkling in the sun, each time a passage or an episode is reread new illuminations and nuances come into focus.

The Mahabharata says that even before the Battle of Kurukshetra the caste system had effectively come to an end. No longer were people to be considered as being born in a particular class, miscegenation having broken the old ways and codes. With the advent of the Kali Age all reflect, by their own actions, what class each act belongs to -- the determining factor being whether the motive arises out of wisdom and truth, the passionate or emotional nature, or from ignorance and darkness (avidya or untruth).

The Kshatriya, or divine warrior class, as represented by Arjuna and his peers, died out in this Holy War on the fields of Kurukshetra and the unholy aspects of life during the Kali Age are prescient. It was incumbent upon these godlike men -- whose concentration was on dharma (duty), artha (right resolve or motive), karma (action), and vidya (wisdom/truth) -- to be just, benevolent, and charitable at all times -- always protecting and honoring truth. As the eighteen-day war drags on, all partake of unrighteous acts eroding the old codes of honor and ethics. Finally, at the end of the war, with the loss of the ancient value system and their loyalty solely to truth destroyed, the link with the past is broken. After Kurukshetra a limited age of justice was reestablished and the sun of truth shone briefly -- but the Kali Age had begun.

Fortunately for us the old truths remain accessible in this vast storehouse of wisdom from ancient India. The Bhagavad-Gita, the best loved of all Hindu writings, is a profound treatise on the causes and results of action and stands on its own, yet coupled with the entire epic, it acquires an additional lustre -- for the Mahabharata has much to say about the qualities and duties of every aspect of life. B.R. TV's Indian production of the Mahabharata shows the veneration that the Hindus have for this work and their understanding of its effect for good on individual lives.

Use this epic tale as an inspiration to solve your problems. The story is your armour and also your weapon . . . Be heir to Light, to Justice and to Truth. Turn the Kurukshetra of your heart into Holy Ground -- That is Salvation!
Whatever there is in the World / Whatever this World is -- / Sage Vyasa's epic tale narrates all that the World is! -- From B.R. TV English subtitles
  • (From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press)

  • World Spiritual Traditions Menu


    1. Mahabharata, produced and directed by B. R. Chopra and Ravi Chopra. Marketing Agents for India, J. Electronics, 258 Palika Bazar, Cannaught Place, New Delhi - 110001. (return to text)