The Religious Significance of the Mahabharata

By: Alison Hill

Shredding her Paideia paper into tiny bits, my roommate yelled, "Who cares about Homer anyway? It’s just a stupid story about a bunch of people who never existed!" At the time, I sympathized with her plight, yet the more that I learned about Western history, the more I realized that many of the themes in Homer were applicable to the modern world, lending a sense of universality to a work that is otherwise highly topical in nature. The virtues of hard work, knowledge, trust, honor, fidelity, and courage found in The Odyssey are not far removed from virtues of today. As long as these ideals are revered in Western culture, it is likely that students will encounter this epic story for decades to come.

Much like The Odyssey seeks to explore Western ideals and values, the Mahabharata is highly useful in explaining many of the values of Hinduism. Though the main story line is the fight between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, a theme that is highly topical and limited, there are also those underlying themes that bridge the gap of centuries, such as those of duty (dharma), action (karma), worship (bhakti), yoga, and non-violence (ahimsa). As translator of the Mahabharata, Chakravarthi V. Narasimhan outlines some of these themes that are universally important to all Hindus, past and present: "…it was intended to be a treatise on life itself, including religion and ethics (dharma sastra), polity and government (artha sastra), philosophy and the pursuit of salvation (moksa sastra)." Within these categories lie the fundamental tenets of Hinduism that are creatively expounded in the form of an epic story.

If it is to be thought of as a story that is applicable to all Hindus, it is necessary that the Mahabharata concern itself with the most essential premise for understanding the Hindu notion of existence: the all-pervading Self (Atman). Through the story of Krsna’s explanation to Arjuna of his duty to fight, we see also a treatise on the imperishable nature of the Self that conveys this important message to the recipients of this story, both past and present. This paper seeks to explore the notion of Atman in the Mahabharata through the use of textual examples and by placing the story of Arjuna’s delay in battle within the greater scope of Hinduism as a whole.

It is first necessary to tell the story of Arjuna’s delay and Krsna’s entreaty before launching into its implications on Hinduism. The story takes place at a pivotal point in the Mahabharata: the camps of both the Pandavas and the Kauravas have assembled and are prepared to fight for the kingdom. Before beginning the battle, Arjuna wishes to view the armies, at which point he is struck with doubt and incertitude. He casts aside his weapons and sits down, "his eyes filled and oppressed with tears." It is strange that a battle scene—something that should inspire and ignite Arjuna—causes his distress. We find that the reason for his despair lies in the fact that it is his family that will be engaging in battle. He says to Krsna,

"O Krsna, when I see my own people ready to fight
and eager for battle, my limbs shudder, my mouth is
dry, my body shivers, and my hair stands on end.
Furthermore, I see evil portents, and I can see no
good in killing my own kinsmen…How can we be
happy if we slay our own people?"

It seems that all hope is lost for Arjuna as he abandons his duty (dharma) as a ksatriya and chooses the path of inertia over the path of action.

At a time when it seems that the mighty hero of this epic has faltered and cannot attain glory, Krsna calls upon a fundamental epithet of Hinduism to allay Arjuna’s fears: Atman. As that imperishable and unchanging force behind all, Atman alone is reality, yet Arjuna has forgotten this and laments the lives that will be lost. Krsna reminds him, "Thou mournest those that deserve not to be mourned." Because Atman is the eternal soul behind everyone, it is futile to mourn for individual lives lost. The individual does not exist except as a manifestation of Atman. Much like the sea manifests itself as waves, bubbles, and foam, the Atman manifests itself within every person in a different outward manner. The appearance of individuality is reconciled with the oneness of Atman. Thus, as everyone belongs to that same underlying and unifying soul, there is no distinction between those who perish in battle and those who remain alive, according Krsna. Arjuna is deluded in thinking that his family will perish in battle because, under the unity of Atman, they will always be together.

After his initial chastisement of Arjuna’s inaction, Krsna launches into a philosophical explanation of Atman that is critical to the Hindu concept of Self. He says, "Know that [the soul] to be immortal by which all this [universe] is pervaded. No one can compass the destruction of that which is imperishable." He goes on to describe the attributes of Atman as "eternal, indestructible and infinite." These descriptions are similar to the description of Atman found in the Katha Upanisad: "…bodiless among bodies, stable among the unstable, the great, all-pervading Self—on recognizing Him, the wise man sorrows not."

Krsna continues his argument by calling upon a battle metaphor to relate Atman to Arjuna, saying, "He who thinks it (the soul) to be the slayer and he who thinks it to be the slain, both of them know nothing; for it neither slays nor is slain." Again, nearly identical rhetoric can be found within the Katha Upanisad: "If the slayer think to slay, if the slain think himself slain, both these understand not. This one slays not, nor is slain." Krsna ends his discourse by a final concise statement that serves to summarize his message: "The Embodied (soul), O Bharata, is ever indestructible in everyone’s body." Through his explanation of Atman, Krsna hopes to incite Arjuna into battle so that he will fulfill his duty as a ksatriya and attain glory for his actions.

To fulfill one’s duty is the highest perfection of the Self and to resist one’s specific role in society at a critical time is unacceptable to Hindus. What if Arjuna chose not to heed the advice of Krsna and opted instead for the path of inaction? He would then not attain glory and perfection in his duty and would thus lose his appeal as a model of the ksatriyas. Throughout the epic, Arjuna and the other heroes are tested, much like Odysseus in The Odyssey, and through their correct choices, we are called to make the same decisions in our lives. While no modern Hindu is likely fighting battles as a mighty car-warrior like Arjuna, they must realize from this story that it is the belief in Atman that permeates the disparity in time and calls Hindus of all epochs to realize this unity.

To further solidify this unity, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan expounds various Hindu philosophical and religious traditions to readers as he places the notion of Atman found in the Mahabharata in a modern context. Radhakrishnan identifies Atman as "ultimate reality" and goes on to define it as "an unborn and so immortal element in man." With rhetoric similar to the Mahabharata and to the Katha Upanisad, Radhakrishnan calls Atman "that which neither lives nor dies, which has neither movement nor change and which endures when all else passes away." Much like Krsna speaks to Arjuna, the writings of Radhakrishnan speak to Hindus and bring the Mahabharata into the present world.

What, then, must the modern Hindu take from the notion of Atman found in the Mahabharata and the writings of Radhakrishnan? First, he is linked in spirit to all people, past and present, through Atman. This unity is inescapable and thus he is called to act in such a way that reflects this unity. If the modern Hindu believes himself to be equal in spirit to all people, he is less likely to do them harm, for in doing others harm, he is ultimately harming himself. Wars would not occur if everyone subscribed to this view of Atman, nor would anyone wish injury on their neighbor. Second, if the Hindu does not realize the unity of Atman, he is condemned to the cycle of deaths and rebirths (samsara) that govern the world. Continuing to see disparity, the Hindu will be reborn until he finally realizes unity and through it obtains liberation (moksa). Finally, the notion of Atman calls the Hindu to expound these ideas to others. Much like Krsna was there to help Arjuna in a time of doubt, so must the modern Hindu be prepared to defend this tenet and help others to understand its significance.

Thus, we can surmise that the messages found in the Mahabharata transcend time and appeal to modern Hindus as well. The notion of the Self, Atman, as the all-pervading, imperishable spirit is central to Hindu beliefs and is important both in an epic setting and also in present-day philosophical writings, helping believers to discover an element that unites them despite the seeming disparity in time. As long as there are epics like The Odyssey and the Mahabharata to teach and reveal virtues to those willing to hear them, they will have an appeal that is beyond the topical, placing them within the grasp of the modern reader and assuring their survival for centuries to come