Mahabharata Essays and Criticism

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The Role of Dharma

(Epics for Students)

The Mahabharata holds a place of special veneration in Indian society. An ancient tale, thousands of years old, it inspires poets, writers, and artists across the globe. Its creator is unknown, except as the mythic figure of Vyasa, a poet and seer who appears in the verses he is supposed to have written. Likely the poem was authored by countless writers who grafted its many tales and moral stories onto the skeleton of this epic tale of the five Pandavas, five brothers. Foremost among these brothers is Yudhishthira, the eldest. He was born to be a king. A pillar of morality, intelligence, restraint, and confidence, he possesses a small weakness, his love of fortune. He is a gambler at heart, or else he longs to test his luck at the throw of the dice in order to escape from the walls of sacred duty that surround him. Yudhishthira is the model Hindu hero. He encapsulates the tenets of this great religion, and is so well-versed in them that they have become part of his soul—a soul that is immortal, destined to eternal joy in Indra's heaven. Still, Yudhishthira has a price to pay. He must lead his brothers in battle. He must fight the great war of the Bharatas, the Mahabharata.

Fortunately this Hindu king has his four brothers and their shared wife to accompany him. Bhima, a mighty warrior indeed with the strength of a dozen men or more, is a man of passions, yet faithful and steadfast. Bhima may be easily moved to revenge, but he always has a good justification for his actions. But when his rage is enflamed it is not easily quenched. He has a thirst for blood, a substance he spills more often than any other man, good or evil, in the poem. Arjuna, Yudhishthira's next brother, ultimately proves himself a warrior without equal. He possesses a skill with a bow so great that his foes tremble in his presence. Yet there exists a match for Arjuna, a mysterious soul named Karna. Karna is a brother of Yudhishthira and Arjuna, though they do not know it.

Karna suffers from the fact that his mother will not acknowledge him as her son and the half-brother of the Pandavas. Without such public acknowledgment, Karna has no choice but to honor his obligation to fight the Pandavas on the side of the Kauravas when asked to do so by the prince Duryodhana.

The twins Nakula and Sahadeva appear as reflections of their oldest brother. Without saying or doing as much as either Arjuna or Bhima, they exemplify the same restraint and quiet power that will one day restore Yudhishthira to the throne. And, finally, the wife of all five brothers, Draupadi. She is woman personified. Strong, noble, and beautiful, she matches each of her husbands in intelligence, will, and respect for the sacredness of right action. She knows the ways of dharma.

For dharma, one's sacred duty, is truly the subject of the Mahabharata. Called a monstrosity by some critics because of its sheer size, the national epic of India nevertheless has a consistency of vision. Employing the numerous voices of varied storytellers, sages, priests, demons, and heroes, the poem describes the Hindu ideal of sacred duty. Similar ideas can be found in western philosophy. Plato's conception of the ideal state in The Republic placed each individual in his or her specific place in society, each with duties and responsibilities that assure happiness for everyone. The Greek philosopher also elaborated an idea of the transmigration of the soul, reincarnation or samsara. The ancient Indians knew of the existence of the Greeks, and quite possibly Plato and his predecessors received their ideas from the east without bothering to give credit for these acquisitions—as philosophers rarely do. The Indians, however, much more than the Greeks, seem to have had their vision fixed on preparations for the next world. Happiness in this life is an important good, but the Mahabharata calls to mind more important struggles of cosmic significance. The poem details an imbalance between the forces of chaos and order. Thus, the mighty god...

(The entire section is 7,307 words.)