Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1042
Dharma: Responsibility and Sacred Duty
Despite its size and complexity, the Mahabharata explores one over-arching theme predominantly: the observance of one's sacred duty, called dharma. All other thematic issues in the work relate to the question of dharma obeyed or ignored. The characters who satisfy the dictates of dharma are eventually rewarded, while those who consciously refuse to obey their dharma are inevitably punished. According to Hindu law, each individual has a special place in society and must behave in strict accordance to the requirements of that position, called caste. In the Mahabharata, all the important characters belong to the Kshatriya or warrior caste. Individuals such as Yudhishthira, Arjuna, Bhima, and Duryodhana must obey the dharma of warriors. They must be courageous, honorable, and respectful of their opponents. They must never take unfair advantage; for example, attacking an unarmed or unprepared enemy. Duryodhana, for example, fights fairly against Bhima, who wrongly strikes him "below the belt" in their combat. At the end of the narrative, we see that Duryodhana, despite his often evil and unkind actions, gains admittance to heaven because he always adhered to the code or dharma of the warrior.
More than any other figure in the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira represents the proper observance of dharma. This is underscored at the end of the narrative, when he will not abandon the faithful dog who accompanied him on his final journey. It is revealed to the reader that this dog is the god Dharma in disguise, testing his son's worthiness one last time. Thus symbolically Yudhishthira is shown refusing to forsake his dharma and therefore demonstrating that he is deserving to enter into heaven at his death. Likewise, most of his actions throughout the poem are those of a man committed to engaging in right behavior as a king and a warrior. When he does fail to live up to these high ideals—as, for example, when he continues gambling until he has lost his wealth and kingdom as well as his wife and his own and his brothers' freedom—he suffers greatly and pays a high price.
In additional to depictions of the importance of dharma embodied in specific characters, the Mahabharata contains passages that teach specific lessons about social and spiritual responsibility. Bhishma's speeches to Yudhishthira focus on the dharma of good leadership and effective ruling. Ultimately, the Mahabharata observes that existence and happiness depend less on courage and destiny than on an understanding and acceptance of the rules and responsibilities of dharma.
Virtue and Truth
The concepts of virtue and truth are closely related to that of dharma. The Mahabharata includes the story of a great, epoch-spanning and empire-establishing war, and so often stresses the virtues of bravery, honesty, and nobility that form the basis of Kshatriya dharma, the code of warriors in ancient India. The narrative also shows many instances of individuals violating various codes of conduct. Sakuni, for instance, cheats in order to defeat his guests, thus violating codes meant to govern rules of hospitality and of fairness. This event stands as a telltale sign to original hearers and readers of this epic that Sakuni and his family are destined to be defeated in the coming war.
Truth and truthfulness are also prominent in the Mahabharata. Krishna, an incarnation of the god of truth Vishnu, reveals many important truths to the moral characters. Most importantly, he sings the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna before the great battle begins, revealing to the reluctant fighter the essential truths about the illusory nature of death and the cyclical nature of life. By itself the Bhagavad Gita is a sacred Hindu test; in the plot of the Mahabharata it has both sacred and secular functions, serving to fill Arjuna with the confidence and conviction of divine truth so that he may pursue his dharma. His destiny is to fight for the Pandavas and to defeat the Kauravas.
Order and Disorder, Good and Evil
On a symbolic level, the Mahabharata tells an ancient story of a mythic, primal conflict between opposing forces of light and darkness. Pandu, the pale, and his sons the Pandavas, represent order and goodness in opposition to the blind Dhritarashtra, his son Duryodhana, and the Kauravas, who represent darkness and disorder. As an allegory, then, the poem shows the classic conflict between the forces of good and evil. In the end, of course, the forces of good triumph, aided by the god Vishnu, who comes to earth as Krishna to ensure the ultimate triumph of good. But in the process of winning, the Pandavas themselves are nearly destroyed. They also find themselves using deception and dishonorable tactics to defeat their opponents. This fact has often been seen as an indication that assessments of absolute good and absolute evil are difficult to make; further, that sometimes a rightful end can only be reached through unrighteous means.
In the Mahabharata, the desired and rightful end is for a lasting peace. Yet to attain this goal, the Pandavas and Kauravas must engage in the great war. Many are killed horribly on both sides. The people suffer and their nation is impoverished as the two groups fight. The symbolic goal, however, is the defeat of evil and the restoration of order.
Hinduism—The Flesh versus the Spirit
Perhaps the most important transcendent or spiritual theme of the Mahabharata is primarily embodied in the Bhagavad Gita, and entails the basic teachings of Hinduism. In particular, this section of the poem transmits information about reincarnation and the possibility of ascension into heaven. As Krishna explains in his song to Arjuna, death is not the end of life. Human souls are immortal and are reincarnated through a process called samsara, or transmigration. Further, according to the concept of karma, those who have lived their lives in proper accordance with their dharma will be rewarded in each subsequent life. The final step in the life cycle is that of nirvana: both karma and samsara are transcended. The soul that attains nirvana moves beyond desire and individual consciousness to a pure, enlightened state, freed from the cycle of reincarnation. To accept this endless cycle of purification is to see that physical life and death on earth are only a small part of the true cycle of human existence.
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