by Swami Krishnananda
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.