Dharma and The Mahabharata

Poetry to a modern day person’s eye is often mostly thought of a shorter text, works that are now more popular and modern being works that are only about a page or two long, getting published in larger collections. A popular one, while not the best one, being something like this one:

This kind of poetry is usually feeling-filled, but in a way that seems less personal and more universal to be able to relate to a larger crowd. Often, when we think of poetry of today, the less we can say with the more impact the better. However this use to not be the case. Poetry was once mainly composed of longer and complex stories of literal epic proportions that were also filled with emotion but in different ways when compared to today, like Milton and Homer’s epics we are all more than likely at least a little familiar with. However, these do not even cover half the story when compared to what is considered to be the longest poem ever written, The Mahabharata. With this massive work extending over 200,000 lines, the easiest way to fully picture the grandiose of this story is by thinking of it as “eight times the combined length of the Iliad and the Odyssey” (Norton 1186). Completely the opposite of something a consumer of western culture of this century would be familiar with in concern to modern poetry or even some of the older poems we know of.The Mahabharata was written about 2000 years ago, and while it is a work we may have never heard of through our own pop culture (unfortunately), it still remains a work that is multi-faceted that influences the Hindu culture from 2000 years ago to today still. It is full of stories, stories within stories, many different characters who all have their own lessons to teach each other and the audience, all helping the work become a massive book about humanity that describes how Hinduism deals with aspect of personal decision and moral law, as well as the history the religion was built upon. It’s relevance still persists today in eastern cultures, in fact, the Norton Anthology goes as far to say that “Every Hindu is familiar with at least the outline of the narrative and with the main subsidiary stories” (Norton 1187). That is pretty impressive when considering the many layers of this story, and how it had to last through thousands of years of storytelling and changes and additions to still give modern audiences of today the important lessons that is withholds.

One of the reasons why this text is studied by modern day practicers of the Hindu religion is due to the text dealing with the notion of dharma, which is a term not easily defined within the culture for Western audiences to understand, but basically boils down to how cosmic law handed down from the gods that governs our ethical understanding of the universe, and takes into account of our personal everyday choices that govern morality. It is also described as not exactly easy to follow due to how subtle and expansive the law is, in fact the Norton goes as far to say “the probability of breaking them- and hence perpetuating evil-is high” (1188). For example, look at a modern rendition of an example of how hard it is to stay morally centered, due to the fact that you cannot control everything:

An important idea to remember about dharma, according to the “officially credited” author Vyasa is that “human beings on their own cannot resolve the moral dilemmas of dharma; they need the intervention of the gods” (1188). This idea is essential to remember throughout the story because sometimes it seems that the cosmic law can contradict itself in order for some aspect of it to still be followed and carried out however, it is because it was built by gods who were able to understand and carry out way more complex plans than humans were able. On the other hand, it is also interesting that Vyasa stresses this point in his story due to the fact that gods do not have to be morally perfect, in fact many are not. This is illustrated when a character who is a god, Vishnu-the literal god of preserving moral order- has come to Earth in a mortal form as Lord Krishna, a prince who becomes a confidant to other characters in the story but sometimes also takes part in morally wrong acts. (1188).

The set up for the main arc of the Mahabharata also illustrates how dharma can make certain situations impossible when trying to do the right thing. When rulership is left to two brothers, Dhritarashtra and Pandu, it becomes a matter of complex rules that creates the long war in the poem. Basically it was what we might think of as an old Game of Thrones.

 

Everyone believes wholeheartedly they have a complete claim to the throne, some in moral ways, other in harmful and negative ways. You see, in the Mahabharata, Dhristarashtra was suppose to be the next in line to rule, however his disability apparently made him an unfit ruler, and therefore Pandu became the next king. However, Pandu had been cursed to die whenever he touches his wives with sexual intention, so it made getting a proper successor to the throne hard. He did end up having five sons, however they were birthed from gods, so it may have been unclear who is actually the ruler of bloodline, which is what the argument of Dhristarashtra’s 100 sons have and why the war started (Norton 1188-1189). This problem is created by dharma due to the fact that once a vow or prediction is stated it has to be fulfilled. Dhristarashtra was meant for the kingdom but his disability disqualified him, and Pandu cannot have successors in his own right so it really is not clear who the true ruler should be, therefore making it impossible to completely follow the “right” path. The reason why this story setup is so complex and unclear as to who the real villains and heroes are is because life is that way, hardly ever is it super easy to distinguish what is the ultimate right and wrong, because you cannot account for the unexpected consequences it may bring. It is not black and white for everybody, no one is wholly good or wholly evil, in the end it has to do with personal choice and actively trying to follow your dharma by what you believe is right and help from the universe/gods.

Dharma is certainly an aspect of this text that is not easily understood, however it is important because it shows humans trying to actively follow something they do not understand all the way and make individual decisions that they hope to do with the right intention. This is something the text wanted to teach audiences of the past when it was being told, and it is certainly teaching us this same message today. While the Mahabharata is a poem that has many stories and characters, they all boil down to intention and human fault, and how we can use characters faults to learn and improve ourselves, even now.

Sources:

Milk and Honey image: “Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur (Paperback).” Target, https://www.target.com/p/milk-and-honey-by-rupi-kaur-paperback/-/A-50116659.

Dharma the cat image:“Dharma 5.” Stories from All around the World!, 13 Dec. 2012, https://mythologystories.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/dharma-the-cat-buddhist/dharma-5/.

Game of Thrones image: “Game of Thrones – Official Website for the HBO Series.” HBO, 4 Nov. 2019, https://www.hbo.com/game-of-thrones.

Norton Anthology: Puchner, Martin, editor. The Norton Anthology of World Literature . 4th ed., A, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.