Writing about the foundations of Indian culture which were laid thousands of years ago and recorded in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Itihasas and the Puranas, Sri Aurobindo said:
“The Mahabharata is the creation and expression not of a single individual mind, but of the mind of a nation; it is the poem of itself written by a whole people. It would be vain to apply to it the canons of a poetical art applicable to an epic poem with a smaller and more restricted purpose, but still a great and quite conscious art has been expended both on its detail and its total structure. The whole poem has been built like a vast national temple unrolling slowly its immense and complex idea from chamber to chamber, crowded with significant groups and sculptures and inscriptions, the grouped figures carved in divine or semi-divine proportions, a humanity aggrandized and half uplifted to super-humanity and yet always true to the human motive and idea and feeling, the strain of the real constantly raised by the tones of the ideal, the life of this world amply portrayed but subjected to the conscious influence and presence of the powers of the worlds behind it, and the whole unified by the long embodied procession of a consistent idea worked out in the wide steps of the poetic story.” 1 Such a compendium is not easily summarized. The main narrative, also known as Jaya, concerns the history which led to the fratricidal conflict on the field of Kurukshetra. But there are innumerable branch-stories, ethical teachings, moral perspectives apart from the fact that we find ourselves in an atmosphere that is totally different from the world view we have come to possess today. Whatever be the reality, we do affirm at least verbally, the need for democratic governance, gender-equality and the rest. In the Mahabharata-world Dharma is invoked for almost everything. It was dharma to wage war and win, but dharma also insisted on the use of fair means in war; it was dharma to honour and cherish women but the same dharma is invoked to consider her as a domestic chattel that can be bartered away.
After inditing the tremendous epic, which had used a massive spread of events through eighteen parvas, Rishi Veda Vyasa wonders whether the human being is capable of learning lessons from history. And yet, the wise among the earth-born must not stop repeating what is dharmic and chide what is not conducive to dharma. His conclusion is revered as ‘Bharata Savitri’:
“Thousands of mothers and fathers, and hundreds of sons and wives arise in the world and depart from it. Others will (arise and) similarly depart. There are thousands of occasions for joy and hundreds of occasions for fear. These affect only him that is ignorant but never him that is wise. With uplifted arms I am crying aloud but nobody hears me. From Righteousness is Wealth as also Pleasure. Why should not Righteousness, therefore, be courted? For the sake neither of pleasure, nor of fear, nor of cupidity should anyone cast off Righteousness. Righteousness is eternal. Pleasure and Pain are not eternal. Jiva is eternal. The cause, however, of Jiva's being invested with a body is not so.”2
One can understand the anguish of Vyasa. Also, understand the need to cry out again, with uplifted arms, that only from Dharma can one gain real pleasure and prosperity, not otherwise. The grand cast of characters from the epic are each of them a teacher to all the future generations. Meanwhile, here and now, we have to restate the imperatives of Dharma through the humans, birds and animals found in the Mahabharata. This is no imagined tale. It is ‘itihasa’, history; this is how it happened. Vyasa was no armchair philosopher. He took an active part in the critical times that caused immense destruction in a cataclysmic internecine struggle; one who had seen wrong action, and had sought to uphold the right action; one who was close to actuality in the experience of day-to-day life. This deep involvement saw to it that Vyasa would be no dreamer of impossible utopias. Hence, too, his conclusions, with suitable modifications, are capable of direct application to a number of our own conditions today. A century ago, Sri Aurobindo had noted the social relevance of the Mahabharata for our own times. The characters of the epic, then, stand before us either as shining examples or as dire warnings:
“His very subject is one of practical ethics, the establishment of a Dharmarajya, an empire of the just, by which is meant no millennium of the saints, but the practical ideal of government with righteousness, purity and unselfish toil for the common good as its saving principles…Vyasa’s ethics like everything else in him takes a double stand on intellectual scrutiny and acceptance and on personal strength of character; his characters having once adopted by intellectual choice and in harmony with their temperaments a given line of conduct, throw the whole heroic force of their nature into its pursuit. He is therefore pre-eminently a poet of action.”3
Not a purveyor of distant possibilities but a recorder of current reality! We are in this world, and an ascetic denial is not going to help us or the world. But by living boldly and wisely adhering to Dharma, we can yet find the peace that is the reward of the contemplative man. This is no doubt the message of the Gita that is revealed in the Bhishma Parva. But, as Sri Aurobindo points out, even earlier, in the Udyoga Parva, Krishna imparts the same teaching to the assembled warriors of the Pandava group. Sanjaya comes to Upaplavya on behalf of Dhritarashtra and Bhishma to deliver a message of peace to the Pandavas. Yudhistira, however, says that Krishna alone can speak with total knowledge about the nuances of action and renunciation, of Dharma. Krishna indicates his willingness to be an ambassador of peace to the Kuru Court but speaks out against renunciation. The world revolves on action. Even the unwinking gods– Vayu, Surya, Chandra, Agni, Bhumi, the river goddesses and a host of other divinities– engage themselves in action to attain the highest: