The Mahabharata – An Introduction

As an attempt to keep this blog going, and as part of the efforts to keep myself occupied, I have decided to give myself the exercise of writing more often.

I have always wanted to listen to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. When I was a kid, my Dad used to narrate short stories from the epics often and I fell in love with the stories – or rather the way he used to narrate them. That is why I prefer listening to stories to reading them, especially our mythology. I am currently listening to an audio discourse on the Mahabharata by one Krishna Premi*. I thank my cousin Mahallakshmi for recommending it to me.

However, I found that despite listening to it more than once, I kept forgetting the details. So I made notes of it. Now that I am looking for something to do to keep myself occupied, I thought I might as well do myself and everyone else a favour by making blog posts out of the notes. This is the first of such posts. I am trying my best to keep them short as well as do justice to the discourse.
So if you are interested in the Epic too, you are welcome to read the posts and comment on them. If you think something is not right, please bear with me and feel free to point them out.

*Note: I am not a devotee of his. These blog posts have no connection whatsoever to people per se. It is only to do with the discourse on the Epic and in no way an endorsement to any person or groups.

Part 1: Why listen to the Mahabharata
A great thing I like about this audio discourse is that the narrator begins with WHY one has to listen to the Mahabharata.
He begins with an example.

Everything in this world has an attribute that is very unique to it, something which differentiates it from other things. A bird is a bird only if it flies. A flower is a flower only if it has petals. On the same lines you and I can be called human beings only if we abide by our “dharma”. If we don’t follow our dharma, we might as well be called dogs or donkeys, for they eat, walk and sleep – the same things that we do, too. What differentiates us from them is the dharma we abide by.

So what is dharma?
There is no direct translation of the word dharma in English, per se. Wikipedia says, “In Hinduism, dharma signifies behaviours that are considered to be in accord with order that makes life and universe possible, and includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and right way of living’’.

For example, a king’s dharma is to do justice to his people. His people’s dharma is to listen to the King. A husband’s dharma is to protect his wife and the wife’s dharma is to serve the husband. Every person must listen to his conscience and behave in accordance with it. If he doesn’t, then he cannot be called a human being.

So, it is clear that to be called a human being, we need to abide by our “dharma”. But how do we know what dharma is?
Dharma is an abstract and intangible concept. It is possible for us to go wrong while differentiating dharma from adharma. So there should be something that helps us when we are trying to make judgments.

If we go in search of what teaches us dharma, we arrive at two primary resources.

  1. Ithihaasam
  2. Shastram (Shruthi and Smruthi)

Ithihaasam – This is nothing but history. By studying the history and lives of people who did and didn’t abide by dharma, it is possible for us to understand dharma.

Shastram – If you want to know, say a checklist of “dharmas”, you can refer to our Shastras. Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita recommends the Shastras to understand dharma. Shastras are essentially of two types – Shruthis and Smruthis.

“Shruthi” talks about two things: (strictly avoid trolls please)

  • Dharma Shastras – which talks about the dharmas one needs to follow
  • Brahmavidhyai – which talks about God

Smruthis are a written set of rules and laws derived from the Shruthis in an attempt to bring dharma into practice. This can be compared to any legal system in a country today. Manu and Aapasthambar have helped frame the Smruthis.
Shruthis and Smruthis are said to have been guiding us since ancient times. Given below is an illustration I tried to come up in order to break this down, based on the content in the discourse.

Dharma - hierarchyIn the Vedas, the part that talks about dharma is called Karma Kaandam, which is referred to as Samhithai. The part that talks about “The Paramatha” is called Gyana Kaandam, which is nothing but the Upanishads.

So to sum up, we have three things to look out for – History, Shruthis and Smruthis – in order to lead a life of principles and abide by our dharma.

Going back to why read the Mahabharatha, here is the answer:

The Mahabharata is, as we all know one of the two great Indian Epics. The other is the Ramayana. These two form the “ithikaasaas” we talked about earlier. It is a good idea to read/listen to the Epics to understand dharma from the lives of people who followed it.

They each have myriad morals in them but the two main take-aways are as follows:

  • Ramayanam: “Do not mess with another man’s woman”
  • Mahabharatham: “Gambling could ruin one’s life, possibly an entire lineage”

These are the dharmas portrayed in these two epics. Today, a lot of things have changed and there may be several arguments and debates on various aspects of the epics. We’d tend to digress if we get into all that here. My objective here is to jot down the gist of the various parts of the discourse and that is what I am doing here.

The Mahabharata is said to be so exhaustive you could get lost in its branches. However, the major incidents and morals have been covered in this audio discourse which I am trying to jot down and write about in the following blog posts. Stay tuned for them.


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