On One Hand

December 19, 2005

The Mahabarata

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 6:46 pm
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The ancient Hindu epic goes like this:

King Pandu of the Bharata dynasty has five sons, (the “Pandavas”), and his blind brother Dhritarashtra has one hundred sons. Pandu dies, so Dhritarashtra becomes king and dutifully raises his brother’s five sons as his own. The five Pandavas are found to have spectacular spiritual and miliary gifts (for example, the oldest, Yudhisthira, always hovers milimeters above the ground for his spiritual purity), and it seems that they are due to inherit the throne of India over Dhritarshtra’s own sons. Dhritarashtra’s oldest son, Duryodhana, is insanely jealous of the Pandavas and plots to murder them.

Duryodhana builds a powder-keg mansion using every flamable material imaginable, then invites the Pandavas and their mother Kunti to a banquet there. After the six arrive, Duryodhana tells his servants to ignite the palace and then he runs away, leaving the Pandavas to burn inside. Duryodhana thinks the five brothers are dead, but secretly they and Kunti escape, and are soon living in the jungle disguised as Brahmin (priests).

This is the beginning of the Mahabharata, an ancient epic Hindu scripture that is eight times as long as the Bible. Each of its stories carry though a hundred other stories, all interwoven into a complex net of myths, understandings and parables as multi-faceted as Hinduism itself. Outside the Mahabarata are hundreds of other Hindu scriptures that connect to the story of the Pandavas in points but diverge to follow a new character, and within the Mahabarata itself are extremely elevated sacred texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita, a story of a single conversation between Krishna and one of the Pandava brothers.

The story continues with the Pandavas and Kunti living in the forest. The brothers caught word that a ruler from a nearby kingdom was holding a contest to marry off his daughter, Draupadi. The challenge was to shoot an unbeleivably tiny target with an unbeleivably stiff bow – a feat that would take considerable power of concentration. Every man of noble caste took part in the contest, Duryodhana included, and the Pandavas entered as well. No one managed to hit the target except the middle Pandava, Arjuna.

As the story goes, the losing contestants protested the fact that some strange and poor brahmin from the woods just beat the world’s most powerful princes and nobility to the prize. They hoped to call off the competition, but Krishna, who was watching, stood up and convinced the crowd and the king to honor the contest’s agreement – that Arjuna should marry Draupadi. Victorious, Pandavas took Draupadi to their home in the woods to show their mother what had happened.

“Look,” the five shouted to their mother from outside the hut, “we’ve brought something beautiful home!” Their mother Kunti, too absorbed in her work to look up at the boys, said “be sure you all share it equally.” When she finally turned away from her work, she was shocked to find a woman before her, and immediately regretted what she said. But her word was sacred to her sons, so all five Pandavas married Draupadi.

Duryodhana now knew that the Pandavas were still alive since he had seen them at the contest for Draupadi. Duryodhana’s father, Dhritarashtra, heard as well, and sent for the five brothers to offer them part of his kingdom. The land was divided in half, but the Pandavas got the worst of it.

Pandu’s sons toiled to make the ground fertile, clearing the thick jungles and plowing arid hills, and built a powerfull and beautiful city in the center of their new kingdom that drew inhabitants from all over India. They chose the oldest Pandava, Yudhisthira, as king. Duryodhana was more enraged than ever – not only did his enemies control half of the kingdom he thought he himself should inherit, but they had won a powerful princess as their bride and grew more succesfull with Duryodhana’s every attempt to destroy them. Duryodhana devised a new plan he thought foolproof – he challenged King Yudhisthira to play dice with a trickster named Sakuni, and planned to cheat. Yudhisthira was bound by honor to accept the challenge and and lost every round he played. Yudhisthira gambled away his kingdom, his wife Draupadi, and even his brothers, and was soon left with nothing.

But Dhritarashtra intervened, demanding that his son Duryodhana restore the Pandavas’ kingdom to them. Duryodhana’s compromise with his father was that he and Yudhisthira would play just one more dice match. The loser would live in exile for twelve years, then return to the city for a thirteenth year and live among its populace. If anyone recognized him, he would be forced to return to the woods for another twelve years, repeating the cycle until he could come back and not be noticed. The goal was that this would undoubtetly turn Yudhisthira’s popularity and fame to anonymity.

Duryodhana cheated again and Yudhisthira lost the match. All five Pandavas and Draupadi went off into the woods. Whole epics take place during their journeys there, as the brotheres toiled to do good deeds for many people and made many spiritual discoveries. When their exile period was over, the Pandavas returned to Duryodhana asking that, as according to the game’s agreement, their half of the kingdom be restored to them.

Duryodhana refused to uphold the agreement. Yudhisthira, in an attempt to make peace, offered that he would be content to be granted just one village for him and each of his brothers. But Duryodhana said he would give them nothing. A conflict brewed. Older members of Duryodhana’s family, remembering the days of king Pandu and knowing the wisdom and honor the Pandavas inherited, attempted to change Duryodhana’s mind. But Duryodhana was steadfast. Kings from other territories heard what was happening and involved themselves in the conflict, and soon civil war was looming over the entire continent of India.

Duryodhana wanted Krishna, who was cousin to himself and the Pandavas, on his side. The Pandavas requested Krishna’s alliance as well. Krishna was leader of a skilled and powerful militia, the Vrishnis, that would be a great military asset in the war. Krishna offered this: he himself would go to one side of the battle, while his militia would go to the other. Krishna made clear that he would not pick up a sword. He let Duryodhana and the Pandavas choose who they wanted among their allies. Duryodhana chose the Vrishnis, while Arjuna, the third of the Pandavas, chose Krishna as his charioteer.

As the two armies assembled on the filed of Kurukshetra, a sacred place of pilgrimage, Arjuna trembled. The army across the field, Arjuna noted, was larger than his own. But Arjuna wasn’t afraid of the battle – though his own army was smaller in numbers, it excelled in strength and dicipline, as everyone was aware. Arjuna was instead terrified that he would have to kill so many friends and kinsmen now gathering opposed to him. Either he would surrender and die or he would be forced to kill people he loved. He mourned the futility of war, that it should result in so much death.

Then Krishna stood up and revealed to Arjuna that there is no death. The soul is immortal, he explained, and reincarnates until it is free of desire and sin and escapes the punishment of rebirth. Arjuna’s enemies would not be killed, but rather, be slain in this life to be re-born in another, and the conditions they are born into would result from their own deeds in this life. Krishna then revealed that he was a human incarnation of the Brahman, or Godhead that transcends every object and resides within every soul. This is the conversation that makes up the Bhagavad Gita, or “Song of God.”

Hindu cosmology goes like this: The Brahman is the universal God, non-communicable to human consciousness in its own true form. The Brahman singular and infinite – it’s more of a “monotheistic” and universal God than in any other religion. When the Brahman is understood or spoken of by humans, Brahman is Ishwara, the personal God, though Ishwara is still always Brahman. Ishwara is recognized as a human invention as a way to understand the incomprehensible absolute that Brahman is. Even the word, “Brahman,” is part of the human understanding of God as Ishwara and cannot accurately describe what Brahman actually is. Ishwara can act, wheras Brahman is changeless, timeless, and motionless. Ishwara can be thought of or described, wheras Brahman is beyond all description.

Ishwara is divided into three personalities, the Hindu trinity: Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the keeper; and Shiva, the dissolver. Portrayed in art it is a single being with three heads and six arms, and each face is ruler of one of the three ages. After epochs pass, Ishwara, and the universe itself, disolves through Shiva’s act of dissolution and becomes only the Brahaman. Then, as Brahama, the Brahaman re-emerges into Ishwara and re-creates the Universe, which is maintained by Vishnu and eventually destroyed once more by Shiva. The cycle is endless.

Aside from Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, there are multitudes of other images of God, each a different manifestation of Brahman that can be understood by man in a different way. There are both male and female manifestations, taking human, animal, and mixed forms. And in addition to those manifestations are the many human incarnations of God as flesh. When the Brahman chooses, it become human to right wrongs, correct society, and lead human beings to salvation. Krishna was one of these human incarnations, and the Hindus beleive that Buddha, Jesus, and countless other prophets are as well.

Beneath these incarnations are the human saints, or normal human beings who have realized that the spark of Brahman is within them and achieved great wisdom or enlightenment. When they die, they are not re-born, but rather re-join the Brahman. There are thousands of such humans, who lived through ancient history and many are still living today as yogis. They all look and live like humans, appear to be humans, and die like humans. The Mahabarata contains a story of one, Yudhisthira, who ascended into heaven in flesh.

The Pandavas won their civil war, in an epic battle as long and complex as the Illiad. The five ruled India afterward. But eventually they evolved spiritually beyond interest in the matters of ruling kingdoms and sought out union with the Brahman. They journeyed to the Himalayas, thought to be the gate to heaven, and climbed the mountains seeking God.

One by one, on the trail through the Himalayas, the Pandavas died in the flesh because their bodies were tainted by sin and attachment to this world. In spirit they ascended, but body in four of the brothers and Draupadi fell to the ground. Only Yudhisthira reached the mountaintop alive.

On his journey, Yudhisthira was accompanied by a dog, which stayed by him faithfully and reached the peak of the mountain with him. At the gate of heaven, Yudhisthira was told that he must abandon the dog on Earth to enter heaven. Yudhisthira refused, and announced that he would stay on Earth with the dog if it came to it, since he could abandon no creature that was loyal to him.

Suddenly it was revealed that the dog was an incarnation of Brahman, and that Yudhisthira had been tested. Proving his loyalty and honor, he was allowed to enter into heaven, and was quickly absorbed into its splendor.

But to Yudhisthira’s horror, he found that Heaven was filled with his enemies: Duryodhana was there, along with every soldier who fought against him in the war. Yudhisthira looked for his brothers, and was told to look toward Hell, where they were suffering.

Yudhisthira was told that, since his enemies died during a sacred battle, their sins had been forgiven and they had gone directly to heaven, but his brothers and Draupadi had not died in battle and were being punished for their sins. Yudhisthira said, “I will join them there, for where they are is Heaven to me” and went toward Hell to spend eternity with the ones he loved. But as he arrived he found that this has been an illusion as well: Yudhisthira was being tested again, and the image of Hell faded away to reveal that his brothers were in paradise with him and everyone he knew, his friends and enemies alike.

I just discovered the Mahabarata in an introduction to contextualize the Baghavad Gita. The summary was in the beginning of the 60-year-old copy of the Gita I got in a thrift store in Hawai’i. The story is more beautiful and meaningful than anything I’ve ever read; it’s like the whole world of Greek Mythology and epics in all its intertwined complexity, but the morals are such that I can respect and understand, and the cosmology is ancient yet makes sense with modern science and philosophy.



  1. wow

    that was a very good story. something about the simplicity and certainty of old writings…

    Comment by Anonymous — December 20, 2005 @ 4:39 am | Reply

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    Comment by mroctober — December 23, 2005 @ 1:41 pm | Reply

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