Mahabharata Characters 01 – Three understandings of the timeless classic

by Chaitanya Charan dasMay 21, 2014

This talk is a part of the “Fascinating Mahabharata Characters” series. To know more about this course, please visit:


Transcription :

Transcribed by : Sadananda Das

Welcome to the Mahabharat Character Series. In this series we will be discussing fourteen fascinating characters from the Mahabharat spanning over four generations.

The Mahabharat is among the two most popular and influential books in the ancient literature of Vedic India. The Mahabharat and Ramayana have together shaped the hearts and inspired the lives of billions of people for millennia. What is so special about these two books?

In the Vedic Canon – Canon refers to the body of literature that is considered sacred, or is considered authoritative in a particular tradition. In the Vedic canon there are a vast number of books all of which have their importance.

In the Itihasas the specialty is that what is taught in principles, logic and through analysis, in the srutis and in the Upanishads that is taught through real life demonstrations.

There are two ways of instruction: one is didactic and another is demonstrative. Didactic means, “Though shall not kill, though shall not steal, and though shall not commit adultery.” So, it is didactic or it is instruction. Didactic is important no doubt, but the heart doesn’t connect with didactic instructions so easily, but to what is narrational and what is demonstrative. If instead of saying, Though shall not be greedy, if one tells a story, “Once upon of time there was a person…” and then we discuss how that person is greedy and how that person caused ruin to others and ruin to oneself; then that same lesson is demonstrated in a way that the heart and the head can both connect with.

In the Vedic canon there are these two broad bodies of literatures: the srutis and the smriti. The srutis give the principles in terms of analysis; especially the Upanishads are very abstract philosophical books where there are a few stories, but it is a lot of analysis. Now the same principles that are taught in sruti are taught in smritis; the smritis have two broad bodies of literatures. In the smritis there are the puranas and then there are the itihasas. The Puranas refer to those bodies of literatures which are compilations of narratives from vast periods of time; the puranas are a thematic anthology from multiple historical epochs; they don’t focus on one particular face in history.

The world Itihas means history in our context and it means much more. Just like in

Sanskrit there is the word called Prana. Prana Vayu isn’t just oxygen. Oxygen is definitely very important for our life and our survival, but prana vayu is much more. It is the whole composite of all the gaseous elements and their interactions which makes life possible. Similarly, Itihas is not history in the sense in which it is understood in today’s educational and academic setting. The Itihas are history definitely in the sense that there is a focus on a particular dynasty, person or a set of person, but that is narrated in such a way that instructions are conveyed. It’s not just a dry anthology of dates and events. It’s a living transforming narration of incidents that may have happened millennia ago, but those incidents demonstrate principles which hold true even today, and by the understanding of those incidents and their underlying principles we can get inspiration and guidance for our life even now. That is the significance of the epics – the Itihasas. The Itihasas and the Puranas both focus on history, but Itihasas focus on one particular character, dynasty or a set of people. The Ramayana focuses primarily on Lord Ram. Ayana means journey; so Ramayana is the journey of Lord Ram. That focuses on the story of the descendants of King Bharata called the Mahabharata.

Bharat was an illustrious king in the dynasty of the Kurus long before the Pandavas and that is why those descendants in the dynasty are called as Bharatas. In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna repeatedly refers to Arjuna as Bharatarsabha; Best among the Bharatas.

Mahabharat is the story of the greater Bharata. Bharat was a king and also Bharat refers to a place. In the word Bharat Bha is connected with the word Bhaskara; Bhaskara means sun, that which gives light. In Bharatak Rata means that which one who is absorbed in; Bharata is that which is absorbed in light. Bharata refers to that part of the world which is absorbed in the light of spiritual knowledge. So, spiritual culture was always present and prominent in India. The land that we call India has many names. In the Vedic culture it is referred to as Bharat or Bharatvarsha and the story of the greater Bharata. So, it refers to both the person Bharat and his descendants and the area that he ruled, and the events that transpired in that area at that particular time when some especially significant people were living and ruling. This is Mahabharata. Now the word Maha is not just in terms of the greatness of the country or of the greatness of the people who were the descendants of Bharata, but the Maha also applies in terms of the sheer size of the book.

The Mahabharata is hundred and ten thousand verses. Comparatively Srimad Bhagavata is ten thousand verses and the Ramayana is about twenty four thousand verses, whereas the Mahabharata is a mind boggling ten thousand verses. And prior to the Western world’s discovery of the Vedic civilization and the discovery of the Mahabaharat there were certain poems and compilations which came in the Greco-Roman tradition from which modern European civilization has come and those

compilations are considered to be majestic, massive and mind boggling. Iliad and Odyssey were among the two massive poems or literary compositions in the European tradition, but the Mahabharat is seven to eight times longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined together. That is how big it is, and just reading through it can be a whole lifetime of joyfully absorbing engagement.

Now the Mahabharata is divided into eighteen parvas. A parva is a division of a literary work, and the parvas are – just like we have chapters in a book, and then if the book is very long, then sets of chapters are brought together in sections. A book may have four sections, and each section may have four chapters. Like that there are many chapters within each parva, but overall there are eighteen chapters. The word eighteen has a lot of significance in the Mahabharata. There are eighteen parvas in the Mahabharata; the war that is the central pivot or the climax of the Mahabharata in one sense, although the Mahabharata goes for much longer time after the war, but that is the heart of the Mahabharata in one sense. The war lasted for eighteen days, and similarly the Bhagavad-gita which is the most important nugget of wisdom; there are treasures of wisdom scattered throughout the eighteen parvas of the Mahabharat, but the most precious nugget of wisdom that is present in the Mahabharat is the Bhagavat Gita and the Bhagavat Gita also has eighteen chapters in it.

When we look at the Mahabharat how do we related with it? Actually Srila Madhavacharya has been amongst the various Acharyas; he has studied and commented on the Mahabharat quite extensively, and he has written a very important analytical study on the Mahabharat called as the Mahabharat Tatparya nirnay. Tatparya means meaning, nirnay means deciding or ascertaining. So, what exactly is the meaning of the Mahabharat? That has to be ascertained, and that is what he does in this book. Therein he describes that the Mahabharat can be understood at three different levels. One could be the literal or the historical, second is the ethical and the third is the transcendental. Let’s understand this one by one.

First is the literal or the historical. Now literal or historical means that this is how the events happened, and because these events are connected with great personalities – there is the supreme Lord who is present as Krishna and there are great devotees present. Just the literal narration of these events is potent and purifying and it can free us from our many past sins and can give us exciting and absorbing matter for thought which as we contemplate on purifies us, and helps us to move forwards towards our spiritual journey, towards wisdom, enlightenment and towards pure love for Krishna; and his devotees to perform extraordinary and enlightening pastimes in this great classic. That is the first level where even if one doesn’t do any analysis and one just hears the stories; that will be purifying.

For the Ramayana it is said, and the same thing applies for the Mahabharata also.

Eke asharam pumsam mahapataka nasanam – for one letter what is the characteristic? Mahapataka nasanam; pataka is sin and mahapataka is great sins. Great sins are destroyed by the recitation and the submissive oral reception or the hearing of the Mahabharata or the Ramaya; it applies for the both. Beyond that there is the ethical level. Ethical level means that we learn ethical lessons from what has happened over here. From the events that have happened over there we see that Duryodhana was so greedy, arrogant and evil minded; and one who become like this will meet destruction. On the other hand the Pandavas were virtuous and still they suffered so much. Although they suffered, eventually they were redeemed and attained the Lord.

By studying the ethical dilemmas or by studying the various characters of the Mahabharata we can understand how ethical truths are demonstrated though history; how those who are virtuous are ultimately protected, redeemed and delivered; dharmo rakshati dharma. Dharma protects those who are adherents of dharma. That is demonstrated at the ethical level. Beyond that we can also learn from the specific ethical dilemmas that the characters in the Mahabharat face. Ethical dilemmas means situations where on is not able to decide what is the right course of action, and how one who chooses a wrong course of action can bring ruin upon oneself and ruin upon others even to the extent of ruin for the whole world, and then beyond that there is the transcendental, and the transcendental is in two senses transcendental. One is that it is focused on the glorification of the supreme Lord. That means that whatever happens in the Mahabharat is ultimately the arrangement of the Lord for the glorification of his wisdom, his love, his glory and his grace, and this transcendental explanation can also involve some metaphorical explanations. Metaphorical means that something can be a symbol of something else. One thing can be used as a representation for teaching something else. For example, Krishna in the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita repeatedly explains that the soul is indestructible. In Gita (2.17) he says that the soul is avinashi or it can never be destroyed. Then a few verses later in Gita (2.23 & 2.24) he explains that the soul cannot be destroyed, and yet the same Bhagavad-gita in the sixteenth chapter says when talking about lust, anger and greed that they are three thing that are the gates to hell and they destroy the soul. Now if earlier it was described that the soul cannot be destroyed, then how can lust, anger and greed destroy the soul? The Bhagavatam as well as the Isopanishad also use the word atmaha, the killer of the soul. What does this refer to? It refers to not the killing of the soul in the literal sense because the soul is eternal and it cannot be killed, but in the metaphorical sense it means that the soul’s spiritual awareness, propensity and capacity for spiritual development is choked, suppressed and throttled, and that is what killing of the soul refers to. In some cases there are metaphorical explanations of the Mahabharat also.

The metaphorical explanation should supplement and not supplant the literal explanation. Supplement means to add to, and to supplant means to replace.

Supplement means add to; it means that the literal events actually happened, but through the literal events there is some further significant thing also that can be learned. Supplant means to replace. At the heart of the Mahabharat there is a massive destructive fratricidal war and this makes people very uncomfortable. The idea of a book which is filled with so much violence – why should such a book be glorified? And is it calling everyone to do violence like that? We will discuss about what is the role of violence in Mahabharata later, but it is significant that there are two parvas – shanti parva and anusasan parva which happen after the conclusion of the war.

As I mentioned there are eighteen parvas in the Mahabharat; five parvas – six to ten focus on the war, and after that there are parvas where Bhisma and Yudhisthir discuss extensively, and the focus in on non-violence. Just now a war has been fought and both of them have fought in the war, and yet Bhisma says over there that nonviolence is an extremely important principle of dharma. What does it mean? That means that it is not that the Mahabharat is thoughtlessly or wantonly endorsing violence. There is a lot of deliberation. In fact we see that in the fifth parva, Udyog Parva; Udhyog is industry and work. The industriousness of the Pandavas and of Krishna is in trying to avoid the war. They all tried to avoid the war. The war was by no means the first recourse. After all other courses of action were tried and they turned out to be unsuccessful; only then the war was taken as a last recourse.

Some people try to say that the Kurukshetra war did not take place at all, and in this way they try to say that the Mahabharat is not actually talking about violence. Srila Prabhupada who was one of the greatest teachers in the modern times explained that this sort of explanation where we reject the historicity of the war does violence to the message because the Bhagavad-gita which was spoken just before the war had happened is a very grave mood and it is analyzing the course of action, and then it eventually describes how one can act at an enlightened level even in this world; and even an activity which is as seemingly anti-enlightenment as a war.

Generally when people fight we don’t think of them as very cultured, civilized or enlightened people. We will think, “They are fighting like animals.” So, normally war would be considered as anti-enlightenment, but even an enlightened person may have to sometimes fight. Now even when we want peace sometimes, the United Nations has to deploy a peace keeping force. So, force is required to have peace. But force involves violence, but peace involves lack of violence or absence of violence. Now just to maintain peace and to prevent violence some amount of force and violence may be

required. Violence is a fact of life and Mahabharata doesn’t fight shy of that in the name of some Utopian Pacifism. Utopian Pacifism means some unrealistic idea that everyone should be peaceful and there should not be any violence. That sort of thing is not practical in real life. The Mahabharata does not fight shy from the unpalatable realities of life, but at the same time it also gives abundant caution and wisdom about how to act and how to never rush into war thoughtlessly. We are discussing all these because we are focusing on the point of metaphorical explanation. The metaphorical explanation can be used to supplement and not supplant.

Can the Kurukshetra represent the human consciousness where there is a war going on between the forces of evil and the forces of good? The forces of good are outnumbered by the forces of evil; the virtuous desires within us are outnumbered by the vicious desires and there is a confrontation. But there is God on the side of virtue, and those who take shelter of God, even if they are outnumbered, still they emerge victorious. Can such a metaphorical explanation be accepted? As long as it is not supplanting, as long as it is not used to replace the literal explanation, it can be used. The important point is that this is something which the Bhagavad-gita talks about. The Bhagavad-gita uses the metaphor of fighting for an inner war also. Krishna talks in the Gita (3.43) how one should conquer over selfish desire and one should conquer over lust with determination. There he uses the language of war. Here he uses the word shatru, nimi, jahi- win over, durasadam-formidable. All these words are referring to the inner war which is what the Bhagavad-gita is talking about also. So, there is an inner war and the Mahabharat setting can also be used to demonstrate, illustrate or understand the principles that are active in the inner war that happens in our own consciousness.

Kurukshetra is like the territory of our consciousness; and who is going to conquer that territory? Is it going to be virtue or is it going to be vice? That is what is to be decided, and if we take shelter of the supreme Lord Sri Krishna as the Pandavas did, then we will be able to ensure that virtue triumphs our heart and then we live virtuously, and then attain life’s supreme perfection of pure love for God, and then we return to him for an eternal life. So, the Mahabharat can be understood in a metaphorical level also, but that is something which is secondary. That is not primary in terms of replacing the historical. It is something which does not supplant the literal understanding. So, there is the literal, the ethical and the transcendental. In the transcendental we will see how they demonstrate the glories of Lord Krishna and also there are deeper meanings which apply to our lives also.

When we will be discussing the Mahabharat we will be focusing on the characters. The eighteen parvas span a hundred and ten thousand verses, and is a massive book. The Adi Parva talks about the background and the birth of the Kuru elders, the birth of the

Pandavas, the death of Pandu, the return of the Pandavas to the Kurukshetra and Hastinapur. All that happens in the Adi Parva. The second parva is the Sabha Parva where Draupadi is disrobed and Pandavas lose everything, and then they are exiled. The third Parva is the Vana Parva. In the Vana Parva the Pandavas are exiled and their adventures in the forest are described. Their meeting with many great sages and many philosophical discussions are described in this also. Then the fourth Parva is the Virat Parva where the Pandavas live in ajnata vas in the kingdom of Virat. Fifth Parva is the Udyog Parva in which the Pandava’s finish their thirteen years of exile and they are staying in the kingdom of Virat and they are making various arrangements to try to avoid war, and at the same time considering the possibility and even the probability of the war they are also planning to get allies so that they will be equipped for the war. The sixth parva is the Bhisma parva. This is the time when Bhisma was the commander. It is in this parva that the Bhagavad-gita was also spoken, and Bhisma was the commander for ten days, and he was the longest reigning commander for the Kauravas. Then the next parva is the Drona Parva which is the seventh parva; Drona was the commander for five days, eleven to fifteen. Then there is the Karna Parva. Karna was the commander on the sixteenth and the seventeenth day. Then there is shalya parva. Shalya was the commander for the eighteenth day. That is the ninth parva. The tenth parva is called the Sauptik Parva. Sauptik means sleep. In sleep Aswathama brutally assassinated all the Pandava warriors except for the Pandavas and a few others. That is described in this parva. Then there is the Stri Parva; all the woman are devastated and heart broken by the immense massacre that has happened; and their lamentation is described in this. And then there is Shanti Parva and Anusasan Parva in which Bhisma gives instruction to Yudhisthir. Then after that there is Aswamedhik Parva in which Yudhisthir Maharaja performs the Aswmedha Yajna, and before that in the Adi Parva he had performed the Rajasurya Yajna. But in the Aswamdhik Parva he performs the Aswamedha Yajna. The fifteenth is the Ashramvasik Parva where Dhritarastra and Gandhari renounce the world after getting the instruction from Vidura. Sixteenth is the Mausulya Parva in which the Yadu’s fight and they destroy each other and Krishna also departs from the world. The seventeenth Parva is the Mahaprastanaik Parva in which the Pandavas after hearing about the departure of Lord Krishna also depart towards the North. Mahaprastan means the great departure; the departure from which one never returns. And the last is the Swargarohan Parva where the Pandavas attain higher destination. We will not be able to go through all the Parvas systematically, but we will focus on the central incidents in all the Parva’s with respect to the most important characters.

We will discuss characters from four generations. Bhisma and Drona from the older generation; there are many generations in the Mahabharata who are all there interacting. Then we will discuss about Dhritarastra, Vidura and Gandhari from the next

generation. Then we will discuss about Yudhisthir, Arjuna, Bhima, Duyodhana, Karna Aswathama and Draupadi, and then we will discuss Abhimanyu from the next generation. About Ghatotkatch and some other characters in the next generation we will discuss while we are discussing about Bhima or others with whom his interactions were there. In this way we will go over the main story of the Mahabharata, and while discussing each of these characters we will discuss some of the controversial aspects of their lives and we will try to clarify their controversies, and we will also look at how they demonstrated ethical principles that hold true for us even now, and we will see how they also in their own way play some role intentionally or unintentionally in the unfolding of plan of Lord Krishna, and how he although is not the central character in the Mahabharat; the Pandavas and their activities are primarily described in the Mahabharat.

There is an appendix to the Mahabharata called as Harivamsha in which the activities of Lord Krishna right from his childhood are described. In the Mahabharata it is not described much, but still although Krishna was not a central character, he was in many ways the most important character, and how his role was so significant. And how ultimately the Mahabharata which has many principles teaches the principle of pure devotion?

In the Mahabharat itself it is said that whatever is found elsewhere will be found here, but whatever is not found here will not be found anywhere else. That means that the Mahabharat is like a compendium. So, if one wants one can have principles of material religiosity, and there can be principles of pure devotion. It is all there and it is a massive compendium. We will look at all these and we will focus while we are looking at the biographical analysis of the important characters of the Mahabharata; the principles of pure devotion which more than everything else in the Mahabharata hold true now and hold true for ever because they address the hearts innermost longing for love and life eternally, and that ultimately is the promise of the scriptures, that those who hear the scriptures and understand the principles can attain life and love eternally. From our next episode we will start discussing about the oldest character who has a very important role in the full Mahabharat; that is Bhisma Pitama.

Thank you very much.

About The Author
Chaitanya Charan das

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