The ancients hailed Mahabharata as a compendium of supreme wisdom. Many have explored its myriad facets, and interpretative efforts continue to this day. Yet others have assimilated its ethos and live by it. Not a few see the epic as a priceless literary gem. It is also a perennial source of spiritual succour. For those who have lost their way in the dark moments of life, Mahabharata sheds the light of discernment.
Mahabharata reveals, through a 250-year-long narrative history of the kings of the Bharata Dynasty, the innermost secrets of both the physical and spiritual sciences of ancient India. At its core, the work is about seeking and finding dharma1.
There is a common and banal view of this great epic as a narrative of a disastrous family conflict. Some people even say that one should not keep the book at home so as not to disrupt domestic peace and harmony!
But Mahabharata is actually a clarion call of love and peace to humanity. Maharshi Vyasa, the illustrious author, has hidden rare and wondrous insights in its depths. It is to unearth these gems that people continue to undertake the pilgrimage of perusing Mahabharata.
As the story proceeds to unveil layer after layer of truths, at one point the author declares that truth is dharma. And at another, he says that non-violence is dharma. Yet, on another occasion, he says that to protect dharma, one must wage war, if necessary. But, at the end, the sage of profound wisdom and intense austerities declares that the truth of dharma is veiled and that it is better to follow the way of the mahatmas.
What distinguishes Mahabharata from other literary works is the way in which it magically makes the reader identify with each of its characters in turn. The author and his scribe, Bhagavan Ganesha, are also characters. Maharshi Vyasa begins this great itihasa by explaining the circumstances that led him to compose it.
More than 5,000 years ago, a yajna was held in Naimisharanya (Naimisha Forest) under the guidance of Sage Shaunaka. When Ugrashravas—son of Lomaharsha, disciple of Maharshi Vyasa, and an adept in interpreting the Puranas2—came to participate in the yajna, he was accorded a traditional welcome by the Rishis, who sat around him, hoping to hear his words of wisdom. After the initial exchange of pleasantries, Ugrashravas began his narration.
“…For some days, I participated in the sarpa-satra conducted by Janamejaya, son of Parikshit. There, I spent time listening to Sage Vaishampayana, a disciple of Maharshi Vyasa who narrated stories from Mahabharata for the benefit of Janamejaya. Thereafter, I went on a pilgrimage to several holy places. On my way here, I also went to Samanta-panchaka in Kurukshetra (where the Mahabharata War took place)…”
He continued, “What stories can I tell you, O great ones, who have performed yajnas and other austerities, and attained moksha?”
The assembled seekers had heard that Mahabharata contained the essence of the Vedas and Upanishads, and that it offered solutions to all problems. The itihasa also contains the subtlest meanings of all the scriptures. Therefore, they said that they wanted to hear the grant itihasa. Thereupon, Ugrashravas straightened his back and started the narration.
Various people have narrated the wondrous tales from the itihasa. Many more will recount them in the future.
It is said that the cosmos emerged when everything was engulfed in darkness. Thereafter, there were successive creations, each lasting for aeons. After a hundred trillion years, each cycle of creation ends and merges again into Brahman3. In this way, the cycle of the rise and fall of creation continues endlessly…
On earth were born the Kuru race, Yadava clan, the Yayati lineage and the Ikshvaku dynasty, among others, and within each of them were born innumerable generations.
Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa4, the Vyasa of the present age, was born to Maharshi Parashara and Satyavati. Maharshi Vyasa, who gained the peak of spiritual strength through his exemplary tapas, first created in his mind the stories of Mahabharata. While he was wondering how to transmit them to his disciples, Brahma, the Creator of the universe, appeared before him.
Vyasa prostrated before Brahma and shared with him the plot of the itihasa. Brahma knew that no other earthly being would ever surpass this monumental work. He asked Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, to inscribe the entire text in its full perfection.
As soon as Brahma left, Vyasa invoked Ganesha. After duly worshipping him, the Maharshi humbly requested Bhagavan Ganesha to help him record what was in his mind. Ganesha agreed, on one condition: “Once you start dictating, there should be no break in your narration that will allow me to put down my quill.”
Vyasa thought for a while and assented. “All right. If that is so, you must write only after having fully understood what I have said.”
The all-knowing Ganesha agreed. Thus began the composition of Mahabharata. From time to time, Vyasa would dictate difficult verses containing extremely subtle meanings. In the brief time it took Ganesha to hear, reflect, understand and inscribe them, Vyasa would compose the next few verses in his mind.
Human minds are lotuses mired in the darkness of spiritual ignorance. The Vedas, Upanishads and other scriptures are the moonlight that will help those lotuses blossom. The greatest of all epics, Mahabharata, which is the soul of all scriptures, is the full moon.
1. ‘That which upholds (creation);’ generally, used to refer to the harmony of the universe, a righteous code of conduct, sacred duty or eternal law.
2. Compendium of stories—including the biographies and stories of gods, saints, kings and great people—allegories and chronicles of great historical events that aim to make the teachings of the Vedas simple and available to all.
3. Ultimate truth, beyond any attributes; the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent substratum of the universe; the impersonal Godhead.
4. One of Sage Vyasa’s epithets. Krishna refers to his dark complexion. Dvaipayana means island-born. Vyasa means compiler.
Shri Sanoop Sadanandan serves as Manager, Department of Public Relations, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Amritapuri. He has acquired his masters in Human Resource Management. Alongside his job, he has a keen interest in the itihasas and puranas. He specifically focuses on Mahabharata and is well read in Ramayana as well. He has authored several articles related to Indian culture and itihasas. He is constantly featured in Matruvani, the monthly spiritual magazine of Mata Amritanandamayi Math. His articles also appear in Kesari magazine, and in newspapers as well. He also focuses on research and has presented at various conferences in India. He is a wonderful orator, and constantly speaks at various temples, forums on Indic studies and to students at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham.
Disclaimer: This article belongs to the author in full, including opinions and insights. Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham is not responsible or liable for the information contained in this article, or its implications therein