Why Should we learn the Mahabharata


In the Vedic age, kids were sent to a Gurukula – a residential school, where they spent their entire years of schooling and college. During this time, children were not only taught arts, sciences, warcraft, history and so forth, but were also taught crucial lessons about life. A lesson is Algebra is important. However, it proves futile when faced with a simple dilemma like whether or not a person is right for you in a relationship. Biology could teach us a lot about plants, but not about dealing with an aging parent. In an era where iPhones and Google Glasses are rampant, in an age where Facebook is the preferred medium of obtaining news, there is a great need for a simple, powerful method of learning life lessons. One may ask if life lessons are necessary. I don’t want to be taught these things. I want to figure it out as I go along. Yes, it is perfectly justifiable to want to discover life lessons on your own. However, life lessons enable our suffering to be mitigated when we go through hardship. If we know how to react when we are bullied in school, the experience will not be as traumatic. If we know how to respond to ourselves when the person we love the most ignores us, we can smile with ease. Our life is like a train journey. We may pass beautiful forests, mountains and wonderful cities. But we cannot get down and make it our own. We are all headed towards a destination. During the journey itself, temptation kicks in and we are drawn towards the intermediate halting points. “It would be nice to live here”, is an undeniable instinct. We know in our hearts that these passing stations are only temporary. We enjoy their beauty, admire their splendor, revel in our conquest, but temporary they remain. Life presents us with many passing stations. The difficult quizzes, the extraordinary birthday gift, the perfect vacation, first love, among others are experiences we wouldn’t trade for anything else, but they need to be enjoyed and let go as we travel towards the next station. What then is the purpose? What is our destination? It is to gather the answers to this question that we need a tool. Concepts are boring. Lying is a bad quality and we know it. But how many times can we hear about it? If someone makes us sit down and tells us the rules of life listed one after another, we will want to jump off a building within the hour. Our ancestors realized that life lessons couldn’t be taught in the same fashion that they were thousands of years ago. Instead, a simple and powerful method is needed. That method has been given to us in the form of The Mahabharata. By virtue of listening to simple stories, we make these characters very much a part of our lives and take valuable lessons from them. Not as a rule. Not as a sermon. But as an enjoyable process through which the message gets so ingrained within our system, that we no longer need to put up with hours of counselling. We will simply know. For example, we know the meaning of “Gravity”. We know the meaning of a “Sunrise”. Do we need to read a definition in a book to understand them? No! We just know. Similarly, concepts about life need to be ingrained into our system. The tool to do that with is the Mahabharata. We live in a Fed-Ex generation. i.e. we have gotten used to receiving material things instantaneously – shipped overnight via FedEx. While that works for the iPhones and diamond rings, it seldom works for life experiences. I woke up on night at about 1AM dreaming of ice cream. Unfortunately, there was no ice cream in the fridge. It was too late to go out and get some. The choices I had were to either wait till morning accepting the fact that I cannot get my ice cream instantaneously, or suffer the whole night complaining that I couldn’t have it. The attitude Fed-Ex has brought into our lives is this habit of getting things instantaneously. We have started practicing the same habit in all walks of life. Why doesn’t my boyfriend understand what I am saying? Why doesn’t my mother listen to me? Yes he will. Yes she will. But it takes time. Their understanding will not arrive via Fed-Ex. Patience is one of the most important virtues to learn. But then, how can we learn patience the way we have learnt gravity? Our ancestors brilliantly devised a method. They encapsulated all virtues and vices of life into one magnificent story and just asked us to study it. The Mahabharata is 5000 years old. It is older than all American presidents. It is older than Mahatma Gandhi. It is older than the World Wars. It is older than the Bible. It is older than Jesus Christ. It is older than Gautama Buddha. It is older than Mahavira. It is older than most historic references we can think of. The Mahabharata is 1.8 million words in length. To put that in context, a typical novel we read today is about twenty thousand words. The Mahabharata is about ninety times the size of such a novel. All seven books of Harry Potter put together are about one million words. All three books of the Lord of the Rings are about half a million words. Mahabharata is bigger than any other work history has come across. It is also four times the size of The Ramayana. Our parents have told us that we should study the Mahabharata since it is one of two great epics from India – that we have to study Indian culture. While that is true, it is not the only reason. The Mahabharata is significant since it serves as a life teacher. Here is an example of a story to demonstrate this aspect of the Mahabharata. King Shantanu was walking by the Ganges River when he saw an incredibly beautiful woman. She was Goddess Ganga in human form, but Shantanu did not know that. The king was so enamored by her beauty that he at once asked Ganga to marry him. Ganga, pleased with the King’s love replied to him. “O King! I shall accept to marry you on one condition. You must never ask me where I am from or the true nature of my origin. You must also never question me on any of my actions, good or bad. You must stand by me on all counts. If you act against my condition, I shall leave you then and there.” The king was so much in love that he accepted Ganga’s condition and they got married. One may ask why Ganga would make such a condition? Which guy in his senses would agree to something like this? Ganga however, did not lie. She was upfront with her expectations. It was up to the king to either accept her as she was or walk away. Lesson: Know what you are getting into. Once you get into it, keep your commitment without question. Shantanu and Ganga lived a life of serene happiness and love. It was a perfect marriage. Time passed and they were blessed with a new born. When the child was born, Ganga took the child to the Ganges and cast it into the river, immediately drowning and killing the newborn. She then walked back to her kingdom with a smile on her face. Shantanu was aghast with horror. He could not believe what he had just seen but he stopped himself from asking Ganga any question mindful of the promise he made to her. Lesson: If you make a promise, keep it. If you don’t think you can keep a promise, don’t make it. As the years passed, Ganga gave birth to six more children and to each one, she did the same. She dropped the child in the river as soon as it was born and killed it. Shantanu, grieved as he was, asked no question and bore the pain with restraint. When the eighth child was born and Ganga walked to the river with the child in her hand, Shantanu could no longer hold himself. He cried out, “Stop! You heartless woman, stop! Why do you do this wretched act? Why do you do, what no mother would? You are as insane as you are beautiful.” Lesson: Even the best of relationships can have misunderstandings and fights. Irrespective of right and wrong, when one person does something the other does not like, a quarrel is inevitable. It is how we deal with the fight that is important. Avoiding it is impractical. As Shantanu restrained Ganga from doing this horrible act, Ganga replied, “Dear King! You have broken the promise you made to me and the time has come for me to leave you. However, before leaving, I shall answer your question; reveal my origin and the reasons for my actions. I am the celestial Goddess Ganga and am in this human form as a result of Sage Vasishta’s curse on the eight Vasus.” In Hinduism, the Vasus are eight elemental gods representing aspects of nature. Ganga continued, “These eight Vasus were, one day, traveling on a holiday with their wives when they came across Sage Vasishta’s ashram. Outside the ashram, they saw Nandini, Vasishta’s divine cow. One of the wives was taken in so much by the beauty of the cow, that she requested her husband, Prabhasa, to bring the cow to her. Prabhasa replied, “Dear! We are Devas. What use do we have for cows or cow’s milk? Even though it is Nandini, whose milk gives everlasting life; we are already enjoying immortality on account of being Devas. Most importantly, Sage Vasishta is very fond of Nandini and it would be improper on our part to violate his personal property.” Despite many attempts by Prabhasa, his wife did not yield. She made imploring requests and melted Prabhasa‘s heart. He agreed and thus, the eight Vasus took Nandini and her calf by force and disappeared before Vasishta returned to the ashram. When Vasishta returned and found Nandini missing, he, through his divine vision, saw all that had happened and cursed the eight Vasus to be born as mortal men in this world. Devas enjoy all pleasures and immortal life in the heavens. It is a horrible experience for them to be born in this world and live the life of men with the pain and suffering we go through. When the eight Vasus came to know of this curse, they ran to Vasishta and fell at his feet asking for his forgiveness. Vasishta said that the curse cannot be lifted and has to follow its course. But the effect of the curse could be reduced. He said, “Go request Goddess Ganga to be your mother on earth and ask her to relieve you of your birth as soon as you are born so that you may return to the heavens without long years of suffering. This reduction in effect I grant to the seven of you who supported Prabhasa in his act of stealing. Since Prabhasa was the one who actually stole the cow, the curse will remain in full effect for him and he will have to live his full lifetime on earth like a man.” Saying this, Vasishta went back into meditation. Relieved to hear this, the Vasus approached Ganga and requested her to be their mother on earth and throw them into the river as soon as they are born. Ganga agreed, came to earth and became Shantanu’s wife to carry out this task. Having heard the reasons behind Ganga’s act, doesn’t it all make sense? Doesn’t everything seem to fit in? Was it not proper for the Devas to go back to their place of abode as soon as possible? In order for that to happen, should they not die in this world, even though they were only just born? Could Shantanu have fathomed this reason? One may ask why Ganga did not tell Shantanu all this ahead of time. Maybe she felt that Shantanu might try to convince her against her purpose or he may be filled with grief at the certainty of loss of his first seven children. Whatever the case may be, no amount of analysis will satisfy our reasoning power. Lesson: In the realm of destiny, everything has a purpose. The purpose exists whether we are aware of it or not. This is our lesson in Karma and this is our lesson in accepting the ways of Karma. Within such a short story, there are numerous lessons. As we engage ourselves into these stories and characters, the lessons become ingrained in us – just like the concept of gravity. Once ingrained, when the situation arises, we will simply know which action to perform and why. Such knowledge is invaluable during times of distress. The Mahabharata is told in frame tales style – that is, a story within a story. It consists of tens of thousands of stories and hundreds of characters. It will take an enormous amount of time to study them all. However, taking one story a day, one step at a time, our knowledge and thus our understanding of life situation increases gradually. Sriram Raghavan


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