The Spiritual Import of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavadgita
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 1: The Plight of the Pandavas

The great sage Bhagavan Sri Vyasa wrote a world masterpiece known as the Mahabharata. It is a pre-eminent specimen of forceful literature, coupled with a supernormal power of poetic vision, philosophical depth and human psychology. The Mahabharata is primarily a magnificent narration of a great battle that took place between two families of cousin-brothers—the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Both these family groups, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, were descendants of a common ancestor. They were also known as the Kurus, generally speaking, to indicate that they were descendants of a common lineage or parenthood, originally. These brothers, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, were born of a royal family, and therefore they lived a very happy life, with every conceivable kind of comfort that can be expected in a royal family. The brothers lived as great friends, playing together, eating together, and residing in the same palace. They were taken care of, protected, and educated by reputed experts in the lore of that time—Bhishma, Drona and other persons of that calibre.

This happy life went on for some time during the childhood, we may say, or perhaps the early adolescent period of the Pandavas and the Kauravas; but this joy of life in the family could not continue for long. Emotional, diverse senses began to speak in a pronounced language among the brothers. Particularly the cousins known as the Kauravas developed a negative attitude towards the Pandavas, and there arose a marked gulf of difference in the feelings connecting the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The difference got intensified to such an extent that it was practically dissidence leading to family dissension. The Kaurava brothers were not tolerant in any manner whatsoever towards the Pandavas. There was jealousy of an inveterate type. Attempts were made by the Kauravas to destroy the Pandavas by fighting, by setting fire to their residence, and several other tactics which they adopted.

The Pandavas were few in number and they had little help from the royal family, on account of a peculiar circumstance that prevailed in the royal residence. The Kauravas were born of a blind old man called Dhritarashtra, and he was virtually the king, being the eldest. And at the same time, because of his blindness, he was only a titularly head, all the powers actually being vested with the eldest of the Kauravas, known as Duryodhana. So there was a tremendous advantage of political power on the side of the Kauravas, headed by Duryodhana as king, and the Pandavas were helpless in every respect of the term. They did not get any patronage from the elderly king, the blind Dhritarashtra, who had naturally the expected affection towards his own children, the Kauravas. The story goes that there was a deep enmity between the two groups, the Pandavas being harassed every moment, wherever they went, until it came to a point where the Pandavas had to escape for their lives.

The Pandavas went away from the vicinity of the palace and lived for a year or more in unknown places. But due to an accidental collocation of forces, by providence we may say, by chance or whatever be the name that we give to it, they came in contact with the powerful rulers of the time. By a marriage alliance which happened to take place with the Pandavas, they achieved some sense of political strength, and with the confidence of that backing from this political union, they returned to the palace. Politics is politics; everyone knows what it is. It can turn like a weathercock, this way or that way, in any direction as becomes necessary under the conditions. They were welcomed, not because they were loved or treated affectionately, but because political maneuvering required an invitation to them. They came, and as political tactics were called for, they were given a share of property in the kingdom. Their virtues were known to people; they rose up in high esteem among the public, and a time came when the chief of the Pandavas, Yudhishthira, was crowned as the ruler of the state of which he was the head. According to the tradition of the time, he performed a great sacrifice known as rajasuya which enhanced his renown far and wide, together with the embittering of the relationship of the Kauravas and the Pandavas simultaneously, for obvious reasons.

Further inimical tactics were employed—the playing of dice and what not—by the Kauravas, in which the Pandavas were thrown out of their kingdom, and they lost the moorings that they had a little while on earth. And, as we all know, according to conditions of the dice game, they had to go to the forest for years, ending with a year in incognito. Torturous life, unthinkable suffering and grief which the human mind cannot imagine, were the lot of the poor Pandavas in the forest. Here ends the Adiparva or the Vanaparva of the Mahabharata, and a sudden shifting of scene of the dramatic performance occurs towards the beginning of the Udyogaparva where the great heroes, belonging to various royal groups like Sri Krishna, came to help the Pandavas, and held a conference as to what was to be done in the future.

Sama, dana, bheda and danda were the political methodologies prescribed by the scriptures. All the four were to be contemplated. The first was sama: political conciliation, humane; dana: a political sacrifice; bheda: a threat that something unwanted may happen if proper steps are not taken to bring about a conciliation; and danda: if everything fails, there is a fight. Finally it was decided by the well-wishers of the Pandavas that the three earlier methods could not succeed, though they attempted their best in the pursuance of these policies. War took place, and details of the war are given in the Bhishmaparva, the Dronaparva, and the Karnaparva of the Mahabharata, ending with the Shantiparva where, by mysterious maneuvers and divine interventions of various types, the war was won on the side of the Pandavas. The chief of the Pandavas, Yudhishthira, was crowned king.

The search for truth by seekers on the spiritual path is a veritable epic, which is the subject of the poetic vision in the Mahabharata. The whole universe is portrayed by the masterly pen of Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa. Everything looks like milk and honey in this world when we are babies, children—we are all friends. Children belonging even to inimical groups in the neighbourhood do not realise that they belong to such factions of society. Even if the parents know the difference, the children do not. The children of one family may play with the children of another family, while the two families may be bitter opponents. The babies may not know this.

Likewise is the condition of the soul in its incipient, immature, credulous waking. The spiritual bankruptcy and the material comforts combined together makes one feel that there is the glorious light of the sun shining everywhere during the day and the full moonlight at night, and there is nothing wanting in this world. The emotions and the periods of understanding and revolutions are all in the form of an orb, where there may be a little bit of gold, a little bit of iron—the one cannot be distinguished from the other. Children, in their psychological make-up, are like an orb—their components are not easily distinguishable. So spiritual seekers lead a very happy life in the earlier stages, imagining that everything is fine. They have not seen the world; they cannot see through the world.

The psychological rift occurs when the realities of life begin to sprout forth into minor tendrils and begin to lean towards the daylight of practical experience. The psychic components of the individual are descendents of a common ancestor, as the Pandavas and the Kauravas were descendants of Kuru, the great hero of ancient times. Yes, it is true—what we call the positive and the negative are not two forces, really speaking; they are two facets or diverse movements of freeing the bound soul. In the Upanishads we read that both the devas and the asuras were born to Prajapati, notwithstanding the fact that the devas and asuras had to fight with each other. It is something like the right hand and the left hand fighting with each other, though they belong to the same common organism or being. There is a similar parentage of the deva and the asura sampat. The devas and the asuras are the Pandavas and the Kauravas, in the language of the epic. They are the sattvic samskaras on the one side, and the rajasic and tamasic samskaras on the other side.

The embittered feelings manifest themselves into concrete forms when the child grows into an adult, and there is psychological tension. Slowly, as age advances, we become more and more unhappy in life. The jubilance and buoyancy of spirit that we had when we were small children playing in the neighbourhood or playground—that joy slowly diminishes. We become contemplatives with sunken eyes and a glaring look, and a concentrated mind into the nature of our future. We begin to exert in a particular direction, while exertion was not known when we were small babies—we were spontaneous. Spontaneity of expression gives place to particularised exertion when age advances. We become more and more marked in our individual consciousness, whereas it is diminished in the baby. There is practically a rising of the ego in the child. It sprouts up into a hardened form when age advances into youth, and even earlier. These two principles are present in the individual; they are present in human society; they are present in the cosmos.

The Puranas, particularly, embark upon an expatiation of the war that takes place between the devas and asuras, in a cosmic sense. Often people say the devas and the asuras described in the Puranas are allegories of psychological functions in individuals. These are all artificial, modernised interpretations, under the impression that that reality is confined to one section of life alone. We cannot say that there is no cosmic counterpart of the individual psyche. The Puranas are right; the psychologists also are right. It is true that there is a Ganga flowing in us in the form of the sushumna nadi, and there are the Yamuna and the Saraswati in the form of the ida and pingala. There is no gainsaying; it is perfectly true. But there is also an outward Ganga; we cannot deny it. The world outside and the world inside are two faces of the single composite structure of reality. So the battle between the devas and the asuras takes place in every realm and every phase of life. It takes place in the heavens, it takes place in the cosmos, it takes place in society, and it takes place within ourselves. The Mahabharata is not merely a depiction of a human series of events that happened some centuries back—though it is also that. It is a cosmic drama portrayed before us, at the same time coordinated with the psychological advancement that occurs in the process of individual evolution.

The Pandavas and the Kauravas are especially interesting today in pinpointing the subject of the conflict of the spiritual seeker. The Pandavas and the Kauravas are inside us, yes, as well as outside. The sadhaka begins to feel the presence of these twofold forces as he slowly begins to grow in the outlook of his life. There is a feeling of division of personality, as mostly psychologists call it, split personality. We have something inside us and something outside us. We cannot reconcile between these two aspects of our outlook. There is an impulse from within us which contradicts the regulations of life and the rules of society in the atmosphere in which we live, but there is a great significance far deeper in this interesting phenomenon. The opposition is between the individual and reality, as psychoanalysts usually call it. Psychoanalysis has a doctrine which always makes out that psychic tension or psychotic conditions of any kind are due to a conflict between the individual structure of the psyche and the reality outside. Well, as far as psychoanalysts are concerned, what they mean by ‘reality’ is the social set-up. When the individual psyche inside, with its emotions, desires, aspirations, etc. comes in conflict with the rules and regulations of human society, it finds itself incapable of fulfilling its inner urges. When the urges within are not allowed to express themselves on account of the mandates of the superego—we have to put it in the language of psychoanalysis—the social forms, there is no alternative except to revolt against society; rebel against the laws operating. Or if this is not possible for reasons obvious, to push these impulses inside the subconscious and finally the unconscious. If the first alternative is taken, one becomes an antisocial person, unwanted by people. One may come across as a criminal—that is what people call such a person. But if that is not an advisable and practicable move, one becomes a maniac, a crazy person, a tense individual with obsessions inside, and writhes in sorrows and grief at that time.

Now, this is a tension between the Pandavas and Kauravas in a very low sense of the term—purely from the point of view of psychoanalysis or psychology. But the Mahabharata is not merely a scripture of psychoanalysis or psychology. It is a spiritual epic, which tells us something about our destiny in this world in the context of our aspiration for God-realisation, ultimately. This conflict between the Pandavas and Kauravas is an inner conflict within the spiritual seeker, and what the Pandavas underwent, the spiritual seeker also may have to undergo. The jubilant spirit of a youngster who knows nothing of life ceases when he is opposed by the realities of life. The realities may be social; they may political; they may be economic; they may be material—whatever they may be, it does not matter. They are oppositions of various types which put the spiritual seeker in a state of great hardship as to how to move forward when he is in the same type of position that the Pandavas found themselves. He has no other alternative than to escape from this turmoil of life, and he withdraws himself into a monastery, may be a temple, or goes to Uttarkashi or some other such place. Well, this is the life that the Pandavas led in Indraprastha—unwanted, unknown, unseen by the Kauravas. In case of any trouble just go away; one cannot bear this further.

In Uttarkashi you cannot get your stomach filled—you have to come back to Rishikesh with a hungry stomach. You say, “Thank God, goodbye to Uttarkashi.” You come back. People have tried; they cannot live there, because human nature is a very complex structure. You cannot simply tabulate it into pigeon holes. It is an ununderstandable, impossible organism, and cannot be easily handled. You cannot stay either in Uttarkashi or in Hollywood. Either place would be a failure due to the miraculous dissidence that is within us, as miraculous as we ourselves are, because it has an element of the mystery of the cosmos. And so one cannot teach it in a mathematical or scientific manner, or purely in the light of logic. It is a mystery. Life is a mystery, and it is not mathematics. It is not an equation. We cannot say that ‘this plus that is equal to that’—that is not possible in spiritual sadhana. It is very difficult task. It is an art rather than a science, we may say. Well, coming to the point, this difficulty that the spiritual seeker faces, as he advances on the path, is similar to the difficulties of the Pandavas. He comes back; he changes the outlook of life and accelerates in sadhana by new techniques, by the help that he receives from well- wishers—may be teachers, may be friends, may be books, may be libraries, may be circumstances. He gains some sort of superiority, importance, by the sadhana shakti.

But here is a caution that has to be written on a placard when we may have the complacency that we are advancing in the spirit. The rajasuya sacrifice was the crowning glory of success for the Pandavas, but that very glory was a curse upon them which increased the jealousy of the Kauravas and ended in their being turned out of the kingdom into the wilderness. So the little satisfaction, the little vision that we have in meditation, and the little satisfaction that we are on the right path may rouse the jealousy of the natural forces with whom we have not become friends, for reasons which cannot be explained at present.

The external forces, the objective forces, are the Kauravas. The forces that are subjective may be likened to the Pandavas. So the Mahabharata is a war between the subject and the object. Now, what this object is, is also very difficult to explain. It may be a pencil; it may be a wristwatch; it may be one single item in this world that we may call an object. It may be one human being who may be in the position of an object. It may be a whole family, it may be an entire community, and it may be the whole human set-up, the entire mankind or the whole physical universe—it is an object in front of us. The irreconcilability between the subjective attitude of consciousness with its objective structure is the preparation for the Mahabharata battle. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used to give a very homely example. Fire can burn ghee, as everyone knows. If we pour ghee over fire, the ghee will be no more. It is simply burned to nothing; it simply becomes vapourised. Yes, it is true, fire has the power to burn ghee and destroy it completely. But, says Sri Ramakrishna, if we pour one quintal of ghee over one spark of fire, what will happen to that fire? Though it is true, in principle, that fire can burn ghee, that one spark of the fire will be extinguished by the quintal of ghee that we poured.

So, in the earlier stages, the aspiring spiritual aspirant is like the spark, and the whole world is like a hundred quintals of sticks that are poured over it, and it cannot be faced. The world cannot be faced by the individual seeker in the earlier stages—it is too much for us. We cry, “It is too much, it is too much, I cannot bear this anymore.” Hunger on one side, thirst on another side, illness on both sides and an unhappy atmosphere of various types around us. There is nothing that we can say is okay—everything is irreconcilable, everything is at sixes and sevens. So, when this has been reached by the powerful objective forces in retaliation to the various suppressive attitudes that we have put on by the rejection of life by the so-called vairagya, sannyasa, renunciation, whatever it is; when a retaliation is set up by the forces of nature, we are in the same condition as the Pandavas. The glory of the rajasuya goes, and after the anointing on the throne that was done in the midst of all, we weep.

The seekers are not safe even at the gate of heaven, as John Bunyan put it in his Pilgrim’s Progress. There is a possibility of there being a hole leading to hell even at the entrance to heaven. A big gate leads straight to heaven and we are just there, standing. But there is a pit, like a manhole, and we fall in. And where do we go? Into Yama’s abode. Well, it is strange that there is a hole there, just at the entrance to heaven. This is possible, says John Bunyan, and says everyone. The idea is that the boat can sink even near the other shore—not necessarily in the middle. The point is that we have to be very cautious about the powers of the world. The world is not a petty cat or a mouse in front of us, and we should not be under the impression that we are great yogis who can simply tie the whole world with our fingers. It is not so. We are not Krishnas, blessing Arjuna with one hand. We are babies, spiritually. And the baby Pandavas were not an equal match to the terror of the Kauravas, who had the tactics of the time, who could counterblast the little aspirations of the spirit which were about to blossom in the hearts of the Pandavas.

Goodness does not always succeed in the earlier stages. Truth triumphs not always. In the Ramayana, Ravana appears at times to be more glorious than Rama. Valmiki describes eloquently the significance of Ravana, and many a time one could almost imagine that Ravana was Valmiki’s favourite. It looks as if Valmiki was writing from the side of Ravana. The idea behind it is that the glory of the world sometimes can obliterate the sprinkling of the fire of the spirit inside in the early stages of sadhana. It is not true that the Absolute will manifest itself in us at once, though the little spark in us is a spark of the Absolute. Let us not forget that it is after all a spark, though it is of the Absolute. The magnitude of the universe is so large that the material within us, the magnitude of the spark, is incompatible with it.

Now, quality is important, and quantity is not unimportant. While we assess the value of a thing from the point of view of quality, we are doing the right thing, no doubt, but it is not true that quantity has no value at all. It has a value. For instance, one British pound may be qualitatively more than one Indian rupee; but a hundred thousand rupees may be greater than one pound, though the quality from the point of view of foreign exchange may place the pound in a superior category to the rupee. Likewise we may say that qualitatively the spirit in us is superior to the whole world; it is true. The little spark in us is far superior to the entire physical universe. But, and it is a very important ‘but’, we should not forget that it is a spark, and it cannot, in its babyhood of innocence and credulity, face these terrible asuras of objects. When it makes the mistake of facing them prematurely, it faces the destiny of the Pandavas in the wilderness of the forest, as they were in the Aranyaparva. Well, what sufferings they had to undergo in the forest, we need not describe. The worst condition imaginable was the lot of the Pandavas. The great hero Yudhishthira wept—the man who would not weep easily. He asked the sage whom he met in the forest, “Vrihadasva, great Master, have you seen any more unfortunate being in this world than myself?”

Well, these words must have come from the mouth of Yudhishthira with a torrent of tears in his eyes. “Have you seen, great Master, a more unfortunate being than myself in this world?” To pacify the poor Yudhishthira the great sage said, “Yes, there was one who was also suffering. He was King Nala.” The great story of Nala and Damayanti is recounted in the Aranyaparva of the Mahabharata, but this is beside the issue. The point at this moment is that even after a tentative degree of success in spiritual practice, we are not out of danger until and unless we are in a position to make alliance with the divine powers, not before that, and the Pandavas had no alliance with divine powers up to that time. They were various individuals working on the strength of their own arms, which was not enough before the might of this whole world. This is a very interesting subject, relevant to spiritual practice, and will be pursued later on.