Why should we read the Mahabharata

  • By Dr. Subhasis Chattopadhyay
  • July 31, 2022
  • This article tells what the Mahabharata teaches us about our Dharma and only on reading it that the true purpose of the Holy Gita is revealed.

The greatest danger to our spiritual lives is the danger of a crisis of Faith. We do not know who is telling the truth, or where the truth can be found. Most of us find more truth in addictions, our families, and careers.


Information overload from social media platforms delude us into thinking that only ourselves and our families matter. The more connected to others we are, the more lost we are. The internet is a valuable tool when used rightly. This same internet is a bad master of our minds if we let it take control over our lives. We try to multi-task, talk too much online and try to keep up appearances for the sake of online peer pressure. Often, we have lost the spiritual battle even before we could start overcoming ourselves.


So where do we begin our search?


The search begins when we start reading our shastras. Now what are our shastras? Often, we are told to begin reading the Bhagavad Gita, the major Upanishads, and the Brahma Sutras of Badarayana and proceed thence to the Yoga Sutras.

This reading programme is all well and good but if one is truly intent in knowing our Faith, one should read the Mahabharata first.


The best English translation to date is by Kishori Mohan Ganguli and it is available in public domain. It is a long read and will take many months to complete. But unless one reads the Mahabharata one cannot understand that the Bhagavad Gita is a call to battle and not an invitation to retreat from the world when our Dharma is endangered.


Also read War and non-violence in the Bhagavad Gita


Further, one cannot understand that the sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita is recapitulated in the Yoga Sutras. So, one might mistakenly think that the Yoga Sutras are asking us to sit in a corner somewhere and keep meditating for the rest of our lives when we are needed to fight those who want to destroy Dharma.


In reality, both the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras which derive from the Bhagavad Gita are manuals for action in the present moment.


They are not only Vedantic or monastic texts. They are part of a larger text, the Mahabharata, which is a real call to war without losing self-mastery. Our Dharma is not one of inaction or retreat from the battlefield called life. Our Dharma is a positive affirmation to fight for the cause of what is right rather than what is pleasurable. In the Katha Upanishad we are asked to choose the right over the pleasurable. Though this choice needs to be made at great personal sacrifice. Yudhishthira learnt too late and at a huge cost how harmful his addiction to gambling was. He was honesty personified but he was an addict.


The Mahabharata is a therapeutic text which will help everyone with wrong habits to conquer themselves while being within the woof of life.


What does the Mahabharata teach us about our Dharma? 


One cannot summarise its teachings here. The gist of the Mahabharata is that fleeing the battlefield of life and the world to meditate in some cave somewhere is actually wrong. The Mahabharata teaches us to stand up for our rights and for our land. We cannot and should not give up what is rightfully ours. Yet we should do that calmly and with dispassion. We should not give up our morals to fight since the end cannot justify the means. The Mahabharata teaches us that we should not lose our own souls to win any war. Immorality has no place even when the result sought is righteous.


Lord Bhisma gave religious advice to the Pandavas while he was lying on a bed of arrows. Pitamah Bhisma did not run away from the battlefield to lecture on our Dharma. He fought as he should have without losing control of his own self and then after discharging his duties as a warrior, he spoke at length about our Dharma. The Bhagavad Gita taken out of context can become a major source of confusion because the Gita’s commentators differ from each other. 


Only when the Mahabharata is read the Gita’s true purpose is revealed.


Then the commentators can be seen not to contradict each other. Their goal is the same, but they approach the text apparently at odds with each other. It is only when one reads the Mahabharata in its entirety, can one begin to understand, for example, the Isha Upanishad. Without reading the Mahabharata one will find the Isha Upanishad self-contradictory and difficult while this Upanishad, as long as it is not seen in its right context, is an affirmation of action over inaction and a life of dry arm-chair knowledge.               


Reading the Mahabharata, one will see that Lord Rudra annihilates Arjuna’s enemies even before his arrows reach the Kauravas. It is an illusion that Arjuna kills anyone. This same Lord Rudra is found in our Shakti texts like the Rudra Yamala Tantra and the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra. One has to remember that in both these Tantras, we have the fierce form of Mahadeva teaching the Mother of the Universe how to control one’s self and fight. Not how to sit still for hours and do nothing. 


There are many commentators who think these Tantras are about the controlling or awakening of the Kundalini Shakti.


What they miss is that in reality, without great and self-less action and even war, the Kundalini does not rise. The Upanishads, the Tantras are all connected, and this connection will not be clear to anyone who has not read the Mahabharata. These two Tantras are post-Buddhist; so, they definitively call for an engagement with the world in the here and the now and reject the Buddhist concept of the Sangha. They teach us to practice techniques for self-mastery while within a battle. Not in a quiet and cosy nook in a forest.


This is why it is important to read Kishori Mohan Ganguli’s translation of the Mahabharata to begin the preliminary journey into our Dharma. Then one should study other texts. Kishori Mohan Ganguli’s translation is free of jargon, is the closest to the Sanskrit original and is dignified in its tone. Other translations are not as serious in their faithfulness to the original text.


Om Namah Shivaya.


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Author Subhasis Chattopadhyay has a Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Calcutta. His reviews from 2010 to 2021 in Prabuddha Bharata have been showcased by Ivy League Presses. He has qualifications in Christian Theology and Hindu Studies and currently teaches English Literature in the PG and UG Department of a College affiliated to the University of Calcutta. He also has qualifications in Behavioural Sciences. 

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