Friday, March 28, 2008

A meditation on the Mahabharatha.

Sri gurubhyo namaha.

I am sure most of you would know of or atleast have heard of the Mahabharatha (the supreme epic) and more importantly the Gita (Bagawad gita). The Mahabharatha tells a story, rather many stories, of extraordinary proportions. Each time I read the book I see a different picture, a different message, a different moral. I am not going to go into the depth of the story here but I will just mention a thing or two here.

One of the most commonly asked questions about the Mahabharatha and the Gita is why is such a superior and sublime spritual book / discourse obsessed with war? Why is there so much fighting, so much treachery and so much violence in such a book? Is Hinduism really non violent or not in its core belief? If I were to list all questions in a similar vein, I am sure I can be filling pages and pages. But now that you have the gist of what I am saying, I wont repeat myself.

There are many reasons why such a spiritual masterpiece, one so sublime and yet so immanent as the Gita should precisely be set in such a context. A bit of internal meditation on the book and its message will tell you quite a bit of it and the great souls and gurus with their own insight and experience in the path of yoga and meditation garner an even deeper depth. Here though in this post, I am not going to attempt to answer this question - rather, I am going to put a question to you, the reader! Thats nice, I hear you say.....thats a good way of getting out of tricky questions. Let me assure you, I am doing nothing to deflect the question. Instead I am attempting to guess the depth of your ideologies and ethics (if we have any) much like the situation in the great epic of Mahabharatha.

Before I pose the question, let me throw in some context for those less familiar with the setting of the scene for the Bagawad gita. In the middle of the battle field called Kurukshetra the two armies have been stationed opposite each other. The army of the Kauravas (the bad guys put simply:please read the story for yourself to realise they arent actually all that bad) with eleven Akshauhinis (a military unit comprising of cavalry,elephant troops, foot soldiers, charriot troops, etc each) on the one side and the Pandavas (the good guys put simply : please read the story for yourself to realise they arent actually all that good!) with their seven Akshauhinis and Krishna on the other side. Now, these Pandavas and the Kauravas are heirs to the same throne, that of the great house of the Kurus. They are actually first cousins - Pandu the father of the Pandavas and Dritharashtra the father of the Kauravas are brothers (though born to different mothers). Since the death of Pandu in the forest while the Pandavas were still only young children, the Pandavas and the Kauravas grew up together in the city called hastinapura. Their grand father, the grand sire Bheeshma watched over their education and rearing. The acharya Drona was the guru who taught the use of the various astras and shastras (the weapons and missiles used in warfare) to the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The Pandavas were five brothers and the eldest of them was Yudishtra, the very personfication of Dharma or righteousness. The Kauravas were 100 brothers and the eldest was Duryodhana, a good man apart from the fact that his heart was consumed with jelousy at the thought of the Pandavas. The great war which forms the bulk of the Mahabharatha in all its gory detail was fought between the two camps as a result of the jelousy of Duryodhana which over time grew into a horrible hatred for the Pandavas.

The Pandavas wanted a rightful share in the kingdom of the Kurus as was their due. The crown prince Duryodhana did not want to hand them their share of the land. To cut a long story short, the Kauravas attempted many things to get rid of the Pandavas and the Pandavas did many things to give peace a chance. This was not to be and finally things came to such a boil that the great war was announced. The two armies faced each other in the battlefield called Kurukshetra. Arjuna (one of) the star(s) of the story had his bow and his inexhaustible quiver of arrows and was ready for the war. He was in a charriot yoked with handsome powerful horses and the Lord of the world, the supreme Krishna was guiding him by being Arjuna's charrioter. This is the scene. Now imagine in your minds eye (call on the special effects of the Gladiator/Tipu sultan or anything else you fancy to help the visuals) this scene. The Pandavas are on the one side, at the front line are Arjuna and his brothers backed by an immense army of heroes. The Kauravas on the other side with the veteran Bheeshma in his silver charriot yoked to white steeds commanding the immense army of heroes on the side of Duryodhana.

Just as the great war is about to begin, Arjuna looks across to the other side and sees the array of heroes ready and waiting to begin the fight. He sees there assembled against him, his dear grandfather Bheeshma, his beloved guru the acharya Drona, their uncle Salya, and many of his friends who studied with him under Drona, his cousins the hated Duryodhana and his brothers, the acharya Kripa and many other heroes who Arjuna held in high regard. Opposite Arjuna were arrayed his family and friends, his teacher, his elders - those very people he had been used to venerating and holding close to his heart. When he sees this, his legs go weak under him and give way. Arjuna collapses to the side of the charriot and is choked with tears. His mind is paralysed by the fear of the understanding that whether he won or lost the war, he would be a loser. Gasping for breath and trying to acchieve some amount of composure (he is a kshatriya after all) Arjuna speaks to Krishna. He says, '' O Krishna, my limbs fail me and my courage and valour desert me now at this moment when I see those arrayed against me. O Krishna, of what use is the kingdom, why, of what use is the lordship over the entire world, when it has to be obtained by slaying those who are so dear to me? Against me, my lord, are assembled the elders and the scions of the Kuru house. Against me is my guru, the acharya Drona. How O Krishna, can I bring myself to kill these very people who have been objects of my love and devotion all along? How O Krishna can I enjoy the kingdom by destroying those very people who make it meaningful for me to enjoy that kingdom?''

The lord spoke then to Arjuna to address this his dilema (which was so powerful that it was in the way of him performing his duty), so the despondency and confusion in the heart of Arjuna will vanish. These words of the Lord Krishna which were spoken to clear the mind of his devotee and friend Arjuna is what is known as the Gita. Here at the climax stage, where the armies were waiting to tear each other apart, where many incredible and exceptionally powerful weapons and missiles were armed and at the ready, where the drama which would spell the end of the days of darkness (if it went well) and which might result in the total anihilation of the world (if it didnt go well), where we the readers are waiting with bated breath to see the way the events would unfold, here at this most high point Krishna utters the Gita!!

This so far is the context. Now to my question - It has been made extremely clear that the war to be fought is going to be the mother of all wars. Ferocious, intense and arduous. Innumerable heroes make up the two armies and each one is an opponent you would not want to face if you intend to live! Those heroes have the most unimaginably powerful weapons. One side represents dharma (what is righteousness) and the other adharma (what isnt righteousness). This is the external war we all know.

On the other hand is the internal dilema faced by Arjuna (and it goes without saying that such a dilema will be faced by anyone with an ethic and conscience). Every rule, every precept whether traditional (sampradaya) or injunction from the Vedas (pramana) has always made it extremely clear that one's elders and one's guru etc are verily the manifest form of God. They deserve respect, devotion and the love of disciples and children. A student is forbidden to deride the guru even in jest and thought, never mind fight a battle on opposite sides. Have you ever heard of sastras or scriptures advocating one to fight with and to go against the wishes of the elders like one's grandfather or guru?? I am sure though you would have heard of many stories and scriptures which detail the gory states of hell and the netherworlds obtained by one who goes against his guru. And yet as Krishna tells Arjuna, knowing all this he has to fight his guru and those who are close to his heart to fulfil his duty as a kshatriya to prevent the rise of adharma.

Meditate on it. Think about it. And then tell me which is the bigger and greater war? The externally violent one fought with the weapons and missiles or the inner war where one is pitted against one's own set of ethic and moral codes for the sake of a 'bigger' justice?? Tell me, which war did the author want us to be aware of before spilling the beans on the nature of this world and the intricacies of dharma, karma and yoga in the form of the Gita? When you deliberate and find the answer for this one, think more! Then we will begin to answer the question that originally brought us here. Until then....................


Kanna said...

Lovely commentary - a great 101 on a great epic. I think comparing the two wars to decide which is "bigger" or "greater" is a fairly fruitless exercise, even if we are comparing apples and oranges :)

On face of your explanations, it seems fairly self-evident that the "real" war, the one with the missiles and troops, is presented purely as a background against which to set the premise for the internal conflict. If the author wanted to really only talk about the external war, the Gita comes across as a jackhammer for cracking a walnut. On the other hand, without the drama of imminent devastation, the Gitopadesham would not appear nearly as powerful as it does today. Of course, I am sure my naivette is glaring through here, considering my limited knowledge or exploration in a matter that has doubtless been investigated so thoroughly over the ages as to not have missed a single one of its nuances.

mooligai sidhan said...

Sri gurubhyo namaha.
Indeed comparing them per se is a fruitless exercise - I meant in the context of the epic, the outer and physical war was a backdrop for the more intense inner war. The comparing between them is to identify which plays importantly in the epic.
One war is ithihasa (history) and the internal war is philosophy,dharma sastra and serious methaphysics.
In fighting his guru Arjuna goes against the core dharma prescribed for a disciple. But Krishna tells him that when Drona, Bheeshma etc are on the side od adharma (i.e Duryodhana)it is but Arjunas duty to defy such adharma. This goes to show the multi level and complex thing that is dharma and also goes to show that the establishment of dharma superscedes any other objective.

Arjuna would not have quaked merely at the size of the army or the strength of the opponent. It is the ethical dilema (made worse by the mind which has not yet reached chitta shuddi or internal purity)that disturbed his poise.Nor would the greats like Bheeshma, Drona etc openly favour adharma. They too do so only in following their own dharma - that is, as both of them are living in the kingdom of Hastinapura and have eaten the salt of Duryodhana so to speak, it is their duty and dharma to fight for their king!

Actually it is very tricky to point the blame anywhere here. There is a story antecedent to any of the events in the Mahabharatha which gives us an idea that all concerned were merely like actors acting out their predetermined roles in this complex play.

The battle of Mahabharatha is something that happens everyday inside each and every one of us and the Lord Krishna is the paramatma or pure self and Arjuna is the jivatma or the embodied self.The many heroes in the war are caricatures of the various emotions experienced by us at all times provoking us into reacting and inciting us to act. Thus the battle goes on endlessly until the time when Arjuna (or embodied self)just is shocked into inaction (by becoming aware of the result of ones actions)and surrenders completely to Krishna (supreme self)- then the cycyle is put to rest by way of gnyana (supreme wisdom). The Gita is nothing less than this supreme wisdom that knocks the wind off the sails if samsara.