Sponsored By: Infinity Foundation

The Central Philosophy Of The Mahabharata

The Central Philosophy Of The Mahabharata
by Sitansu S. Chakravarti, PhD

The author expresses his thanks to the Infinity Foundation for support toward writing this article, which will form the final chapter of his book in progress on the ethics in the Mahabharata. The translations from the original Bengali and Sanskrit have been done by the author of this article.

I: The Universal Message Of The Mahabharata

In its all-comprehensive dimension the Mahabharata compares with, and owes its existence to, the Vedas. Economics, sociology, politics, accountancy, the art of war, chemistry, astronomy – all this is included in here along with philosophy and spirituality1. If the roots of them are to be found in the Vedas, the studies have taken a concrete shape in the epic. The novelty in the Mahabharata, as compared with the Vedas, is that it is itihasa, which, the Vedas are not. The definition of itihasa is this:

Itihasa combines both old happenings, as well as words of advice regarding dharmaarthakama and moksa.2

In other words, in order for history to be itihasa, the chronicles must be dealt with in a setting of the four vargas, i.e., the four ends of human life: dharmaarthakama and moksa, indicative of all the dimensions of spirituality that they encompass in their interrelation. It is in this sense that Hindu history is not secular in its absolute severance from the spiritual setting. However, it is secular in that spirituality is acceptable here in its various expressions, in conformity with the individual’s psychological leanings, as well as his aptitude to follow a path leading to the goal. In the Gita Sri Krishna says to Arjuna:

In whatever way one worships me, I reciprocate accordingly. O Partha! People follow my paths in all directions.3

Secularism can be found present in the Vedas in its own way. The mantras in them are meant for the well-being of the whole of humanity, extending even to the world beyond the sub-human level. Thus, although the Mahabharatais a continuation of the message of the Vedas, its setting in the format of itihasa anchors it to the everyday life situation.

In the Mahabharata the two theistic traditions – Sattvata and Pasupata have received attention in detail.4 The narrator of the story, however, does not indicate preference for the one over the other. Sri Krishna is of Sattvata descent, and is trying to restore the practice to its old glory, adding his own touch of genius to it. He never expresses disapproval to any other spiritual schools except by way of offering constructive suggestions to help strengthen their spiritual moorings. It is interesting in this context of overall acceptance and inclusiveness to refer to the following sayings of Vaisampayana to Janamejaya in the ‘Moksadharma’ part of the Mahabharata:

Samkhya, Yoga, Veda, Aranyaka and Pancaratra – they are all but one, being limbs of one another. All of them taken together contribute to the practice of the Ekantins, for whom Narayana is the supreme. As the waves, originating in the ocean, go back to it, in a similar way, these great waves of knowledge, indeed go back to Narayana.5

Just a little later he says again:

O the wise king! Accept all of the following: Samkhya, Yoga, Pancaratra, the Vedas, and Pasupata – as embodying knowledge, even though their ways vary.6

One does not need to speculate in order to see the perception of the underlying unity in the different ways in the above excerpts from the Mahabharata.

This broad secularism within the parameter of spirituality, and certainly not outside its periphery, is what is distinctive of Hinduism since ancient times. The overall thrust toward optimism, as inherent in spirituality as such, has been the first principle of truth in the Hindu system. Even apart from Sri Krishna’s own contribution, viz., giving one’s maximum toward the good of all, the literal truth, i.e., satya, has never been accepted in the tradition as divorced from rta, its spiritual base. It is little wonder that the excellent literary work that has been produced in the tradition, including the Mahabhahrata, has no place for a tragic ending. It is worth repeating that according to the great aesthetician Anandavardhana, the dominating mood of the Mahabharata is peace, and not chivalry. In the social psyche, death, however imposing or violent it be, is not the last word, but is precursor to prospective well-being of the agent in peace and harmony in future lives. Rta was considered so much part and parcel of one’s being, till the other day, that the social psyche would not allow display of ‘gross’ things on the stage like killing, even when it would come to acting. We must keep in mind that this is not legal censorship, but social stigma based on preferences in life with a view to enhancing its quality, the way it was perceived by the people. Other religions originating in the Indian sub-continent, like Buddhism and Jainism, would share such broad features with Hinduism. Although they claim to embody exclusive truth in their own ways, they bear the influence of the Mahabharata, which embodies the spirit of tolerance and synthesis, in having avoided physical combativeness with the other religions, in tolerance of these other faiths. The Mahabharata, as we have noted, has not given the stamp of exclusive finality to any specific spiritual path.

In the Mahabharata we see examples of tolerance not only regarding the other ways of spiritual pursuit, but even in actual war situation where violence is supposed to be practised. There are definite rules to follow in the battle, like not killing or injuring the women or children. In the words of Christopher Isherwood:

In the first place, it is sometimes said that the battle of Kurukshetra cannot possibly be compared to a battle in modern war. It was, in fact, a kind of tournament, governed by all the complex and human rules of ancient chivalry. A soldier mounted upon an elephant may not attack a foot soldier. No man may be struck or shot at while running away. No one may be killed who has lost his weapons. And we are told in the Mahabharata, that the opposite armies stopped fighting every evening, and even visited each other and fraternized during the night.7

Even Duryodhana and his associates would go by these norms! It is indeed hard to imagine this happening in today’s ‘civilized society’. All this was a cumulative effect of a continuous effort on society’s part over millennia that had come down to the times of the Mahabharata in spite of the fact that overall moral standards have taken a nose-dive signifying emergence of dictators like Jarashandha, Kansa and Sisupala, even in the democratic setting. The relevance and importance of the Mahabharata is in taking the stride on, in order to reestablish the age-old value, at a time when discord is tearing apart the social fabric. Thus the mantras that have been revealed in the Vedas have taken an interpretation in light of the itihasa that the poem is, signifying a new value system on the basis of the old. Moksa, we have seen before, does not rob the other vargas of their legitimate place in the Mahabharata. We are reminded of the famous saying of Bhima:

Dharma, artha and kama are to be pursued on an equitable basis. Those attached to one of them exclusively are certainly to be despised.8

Our simple claim is that in view of the overarching presence of the parameter of the vargas, which is included in the concept rta, pointing to an orderly functioning of the apparently divergent dimensions of well-being in their connected move to freedom, the Mahabharata‘s message is after all spiritual. It is the thread of the Vedanta, which is the other name for the Upanisads, that binds the Vedas and the Mahabharata together with this message. This indeed is where the importance of the Gita lies in so far as it is the connecting bond in the Mahabharata which takes the message of the Vedanta even further. If artha and kama are important in so far as they tie with dharmaleading ultimately to moksa, all the sciences and other studies dealt with in the Mahabharata after all point to the Gita where actions in all directions are encouraged from the perspective of karma yoga toward holistic benefit. Even the rigid caste system in society is not considered as ultimate here.

The Gita is looked upon as so important an interpretation of the Upanisads, as well as a continuation of the thoughts contained therein, that in the Vedantic tradition it is taken as occupying the position of one of the three main scriptural texts. According to Shankara, the Gita contains ‘the essence of the Vedas’9 The Gita is described in the Mahabharata as ‘comprising all the studies’.10 It ‘is the milk from the cow that all the Upanisads are’. Nilakantha in his commentary on the Mahabharata says:

The interpretation of all of the Vedas is to be found in the Mahabharata; the interpretation, however, of the Mahabharata is to be found in the Gita in its entirety. No wonder she is considered as embodiment of all knowledge.

According to Tagore,

It does little good to say that the Mahabharata is an indiscriminate compilation of hearsays. … As the magnifying glass on one of its sides contains the sunrays as they are, while the other side reflects their concentrated beam, similarly, the Mahabharata on one side contains the vast amount of hearsays, while on the other it has the concentrated glow of it all. The Bhagavad Gita is that glow. The final message of the history of India is indeed the synthesis of jnana (discrimination between the true and the false), karma (action) and bhakti (devotion).11

He says at yet another place that ‘India has expressed herself in the Bhagavad Gita‘ and ‘the preacher of the Gita has given a unified shape to the thought of India at one single place’ here.12 This certainly refers to the unification of the ways of jnana and bhakti in the new value system with that of karma, and the mode of action as crystallized in karma yoga that takes into consideration all in a holistic way, transcending the narrow limits of one’s own. Tagore emphasizes:

Nobody can disregard the greatness of the Gita. However, when the great Kurukshatra war is impending, at that moment there would be no country in the world other than India that can listen to the Bhagavad Gitawith rapt attention.13

Tagore thinks:

The Bhagavad Gita has not become old today, it will never be. However, to recite the whole of it putting a halt to the Kurukshetra war is undoubtedly a fault according to the literary standard. There are literary ways to attribute the ideas of the Gita to Sri Krishna. Nevertheless, to say that exception has been made here in consideration of the great ideas involved means no discredit to the Gita after all.14

In fact, it was quite ‘needed that the ideas (of the Gita) be introduced in the vast canvas’ of the Mahabharata, ‘in the forefront of the Indian psyche.’ For, ‘in the Mahabharata it is the Gita that adds a lustre to the ancient thesis of synthesis,’15 held so dear to India’s heart, signifying to Tagore her very special characteristic. ‘History, according to many,’ Tagore says, ‘is only the history of the trodden path; there is there is no aim or ultimate goal involved. However, India saw a Truth of her own history, which the Mahabharata has hung at the four-way intersection as the lamp marking the ultimate destination. The Gita is that lamp. … There is a message of unparallelled unity of a great people in it ‘16 Indeed, this message is universal to all human beings. This message finds a concrete shape where the story of the Mahabharata ends. Tagore says:

A European poet would have ended the Mahabharata with the victory of the Pandavas in the war. Our Vyasa, however, said: ‘The end does not come with assuming monarchy, but with renouncing it.’ Our goal was where everything ended.17

He says again:

The war of Kurukshetra evaporated in the final chapter. The Mahabharata did not stop where it should for the story lover; it moved on having demolished the great story in a moment’s pace, like a playhouse made of sand. Those, who have a detachment to the world as well as the story, got their truth through this, and did not grumble.18

This is because

The fixed gaze of a great detachment is steadily imbedded in the midst of all the upheaval of action present in the Mahabharata. Action here does not end with itself. In all the chivalric grandeur, affection and hatred, violence and counter-violence, attempt and achievement in the epic, the detached tune of the great exit at the crematorium can be heard.19

‘Although about the whole of the story of the Mahabharata,’ he says, ‘is occupied by description of fights, fight is not the end of it. There is no description here of the violent rejoicings of the Pandavas after they rescued the lost wealth from the ocean filled with blood. The story shows instead the victorious Pandavas abandon the conquered riches beside the ashes of the funeral pyres in Kurukshetra, and take the path of detachment toward the land of peace. Such is the final dictate of the epic, which is addressed to the humanity of all times.’20

The interesting thing about all that we have said here is that the literary analysis that helps Tagore arrive at the final message of the Mahabharata, is after all a legacy he inherits from Anandavardhana, taking the process of analysis started by this ancient aesthetician to a subtler depth. In the fourth part of his Dhvanyaloka, Anandavardhana says:

And in the beautiful poem the Mahabharata, the great sage has pointed to freedom as the final aim by depicting the extinction of the Yadavas as well as the Pandavas, which elicits a feeling of detachment to the world. Peace is indicated as the main mood of the poem.

According to him, the other moods in the epic, including chivalry which is so prominently present here, are but subsidiary to the main one. Nilakantha, the commentator on the Mahabharata, has inserted a moral to the beginning of his commentary to each and every chapter of the epic as pertaining to the specific chapter. At the beginning of the seventeenth chapter he says that human beings are not satisfied even after having enjoyed the world in so many ways; the way to peace opens only with forsaking all the desires. At the start of his commentary on the final chapter he points to freedom as the ultimate aim of human life, wherein lies its culmination.

All this clearly shows Tagore’s words on the epic to be part of the continuing tradition of the Indian psyche. However, the superb way he presents the thoughts, in combination with the subtlety of his analysis, takes the ideas to a new height. They perfectly fit in with what Sri Ramakrishna, the nineteenth century spiritual figure of India, used to say over and over again, viz., that one gets the meaning of the Gita through the meaning of the title of the scripture done in the reverse order. ‘Gi-ta’ reverses to ‘Ta-gi’, which means the renunciate, and derivatively, the attitude of renouncing.21 It is important to emphasize that by renunciation Sri Ramakrishna would not necessarily mean the literal, but more importantly, the attitudinal kind, so that with it in place comes the real enjoyment in the world, not at the sensual level, but at the spiritual, – an enjoyment which is very much missing otherwise.22 This indeed is the spirit of the original Gita where examples of kings like Janaka, who would practise renunciation in the world, are cited to show how the message of the scripture takes concrete shape in accepting all actions as yajna or sacrifice.

II: The Place Of The Gita In The Mahabharata

The first stumbling block in the way of finding the intimate relation between the Gita and the Mahabharata is the occidental scholars’ position to the effect that the former is an interpolation into the latter. The reason offered is as follows: The war is going to start. The mood in the battlefield is tense. How can there be room for such a high-flown philosophical discourse at such a highly charged situation? Moreover, it is too long a discourse, running into hours, to take place at the stipulated moment when both sides are ready to charge. In reply we can say this. The dialogue between Sri Krishna and Arjuna, which comprises the Gita, got started when Yudhisthira, the leader of the Pandavas, was making a ceremonial visit, unarmed, to the stalwarts of the opposite side, viz., Bhishma, Drona, Kripa and Shalya, asking for their formal permission to begin the fight. The visit must have taken some time to cover all four. Although they belong to the opposite side, Yudhisthira has an intimate relation with them, and there is a mutual feeling of respect between them. Fixing of the war procedures to follow has not been formalized between the two sides yet, prior to the start of the fight, which takes its own time, too. The words of Sri Krishna are the words of counsel to his dear friend Arjuna who is well-versed in the scriptures, having studied the Vedas and the Vedangas as a Ksatriya, and has succumbed, all of a sudden, to the prospect of fighting his near and dear ones. Sri Krishna finds that the best way to offer counsel is at the philosophical plane accessible to the subject. Even granted that the actual discourse could have been shorter than the final form it takes in the hand of the narrator, it indeed does not follow that the ideas contained in the Gita as found today were not originally there, even in a less elaborate form, or that the initial written version was itself interpolation. True, the original version of the Mahabharata, known as Jaya, consisting of 24,000 verses composed by Vyasa, eventually developed into 100,000 in the Vyasa tradition, specifically with additions made by his disciples Vaisampayana and Sauti Ugrasravas. However, this does not mean that anything and everything found its way in, keeping in view the rigourous way tradition used to be maintained in India. The main point to take into consideration is not simply what was originally there to start with, holding its stamp of historical authenticity. We have to take into consideration the whole of the Mahabharata, the southern recensions included, that took shape over a period of time, and assumed authenticity of the tradition, reflecting as well as moulding it through millennia. It is this Mahabharata that is of interest to the Hindu as itihasa, with the system of values imbedded, and not the possible historical one.

Anantalal Thakur advances a final argument in favour of the intimate textual relation holding between the two scriptures. He shows at some length that a vast number of the verses of the Gita are present elsewhere in the Mahabharata, some times more than once, verbatim, if not just in spirit. Thus he takes the challenge of reconstructing the Gita from out of the rest of the Mahabharata even if we prune it off the main poem taking for granted, for argument’s sake, that it is interpolation after all. According to Thakur, this demonstrates that a relation of inseparability obtains between the scriptures, as tradition will have them. Pending the final working out of the project as indicated by him, it may be worth our while to have a taste of a few of the examples he cites in order to have a feel of what the project is all about.

One of the main tenets of the Gita is that caste is determined according to one’s specific nature and the activities one pursues.23 This view has been found, at least in a partial form, advocated at various places in the Mahabharata. For instance, in the Ajagara Parva, Yudhisthira defines a Brahmin in terms of the virtues he possesses,24 a point of view we find Nahusa in agreement with. In Araneya Parva he repeats the stand that presence of the requisite virtues alone is determinant of Brahminhood.25 In the dialogue between Bhrigu and Bharadvaja we see Bhrigu take the same stand.26 Thus, we not only find the idea mentioned in the Gita present elsewhere in the Mahabharata, we get a thorough interpretation of it in the latter where caste is not defined by birth. Although commentators later would like to take Sri Krishna’s view in light of their own specific leanings, in terms of caste by virtue of birth, it appears that the interpretation offered by Vyasa in the Mahabharata is more authentic and consequently more fitting, too.

Here are some more examples of references of utterances or events in the Gita that Thakur cites as traceable elsewhere in the epic.

The dejection of Arjuna, and Sri Krishna showing his universal form, in course of offering him counsel, have been referred to in 1/1/18. The Parva-samgraha-parva, i.e., the table of contents of the Mahabharata (1/2/67-68), places the Gita-parva (that deals with the Gita) in-between the parts designated as the Bhumi-parva (that deals with the land, i.e., the kingdom that the fight is on) and as the Bhishma-vadha-parva (that deals with Bhishma’s murder). The table of contents specifically mentions that when Arjuna was found infected with defects having their roots in infatuation, Sri Krishna removed them with reasons. (1/2/246-7). Subsequent to the Gita in the Mahabharata, the part Bhishma’s Murder starts with five and half verses dedicated to the greatness of the Gita.27 In the southern recension of the epic, during Bhishma’s final oblations to Sri Krishna, specific mention has been made of his exhibiting his universal form to Arjuna during the discourse that the Gita is.28 At the beginning of the Anugita, Arjuna refers to the advice he received from Sri Krishna in the Gita, and requests him to repeat it, as he has forgotten it by now (14/16/5-7). Sri Krishna obliges by giving a plain summary. At the end of the Anugita, the sage Uttamka asks Sri Krishna to show his universal form as he had done to Arjuna during the discourse in the Gita.29

The Moksa Dharma part of the Mahabharata contains the Narayani sub-part where the genesis of the philosophy in the Gita has been related. It is called Ekanta Dharma which was introduced by Narayana who gave it to Narada, from whom Vyasa received it.30 At the beginning of the Kalpa seven, Brahma gave this way to Daksa who introduced Aditya to it. From Aditya it went to Vivasvan, who passed it on to Manu, from whom Iksaku received it. The passage of the philosophy from Vivasvan to Iksaku via Manu is related in the Gita.31 The Mahabharata gives further details on the origin of it. There is more information about its nature there. The philosophy in the Gitaaccommodates human urges and impulses (pravrtti), as does the Ekanta Dharma.32 The long dialogue between Bhishma and Yudhisthira, known as the Varsneya Adhyatma Sastra,33 i.e., the spiritual message of the Vrsnis, centering around moksa, parallels the Gita in many ways, for the practice of the general philosophy of the Gita was in vogue among the Vrsnis for a long time. Bhishma is its follower as well as propagator. When Bhishma relates to Duryodhana the greatness of Sri Krishna,34 the ideas bring to mind those present in the Gita. In the Sabha Parva, Bhishma establishes Sri Krishna as the greatest of all men.35 In 2/38, the verses 10, 20, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28 and 29 remind one of the verses in the Vibhuti Yoga (The Divine Glory, chapter ten) in the Gita.

The above indicate in some general ways that the Gita is present elsewhere in the Mahabharata, bearing an intimate relation with it. Detailed evidence for presence of specific expressions, as well as ideas contained in the Gita can be worked out on the cues supplied by Thakur. The process of finding out that the Gita is imbedded in the Mahabharata has the added advantage in positing the Mahabharata as the support base for required interpretation on the Gita, even to the disregard, if needs be, of the traditional commentaries offered by the various schools, when they tend to be parochial to their respective points of view. Thakur gives a specific example of how the traditional commentators could possibly have been misled when clues from elsewhere in the epic provide the required help. This only shows that the two scriptures are organically related, and hold each other together in the psyche of the Hindus.

The example pertains to Sanjaya relating to Dhritarashatra, the king, the state of affairs in the battlefield prior to the start of the fight. He relates to the king that Duryodhana approaches Drona and mentions about the soldiers present on the Pandavas’ side. In course of his conversation with the great fighter, Duryodhana uses the adjectives ‘paryapta’ and ‘aparyapta’ to compare the strength on both sides.36 In Sanskrit, ‘paryapta’ means sufficient, and the other word, which is its negation, means just the opposite.37 Taken literally, Duryodhana’s use of words should mean that he feels the strength of his own side to be insufficient, whereas that of the opposite side appears quite sound. However, Anandagiri and Madhusudana Sarasvati think that because of the greater number of soldiers on Duryodhana’s side, in comparison with the count on the other, Duryodhana means that he has greater strength himself. We must not lose sight of the fact the dictionary meanings of the words here have been twisted to convey the intended meaning. Therefore, both commentators are tempted to offer an alternative version of interpretation, according to which the strength on Duryodhana’s side is ‘paryapta’, that is, sufficient, sticking to the regular meaning of the word, whereas that on the opposite side is not so. Here the adjectives are not being linked to their adjacent nouns. Keeping the meanings of the words whichever ways they go, the commentators want Duryodhana to express the supremacy of his own strength in the verse in comparison with that of the opposite side. First, the meanings are twisted; alternatively, the connections of the words are, keeping the meanings intact. However, this interpretation does not conform to Duryodhana’s previous description of the Pandava army as ‘mighty’ when he seems to express his apprehension of its arrangement by Drona’s ‘able student, the son of Drupada’,38 who is well conversant with Drona’s fighting techniques, and by implication is possibly able to out-maneuver it. We must emphasize that there is a special reason for apprehension here. Drupada is Drona’s great enemy. The latter had got a son through performance of sacrifice for the purpose of killing Drona who had usurped half of his kingdom. The interpretation of the commentators does not tie also with the evidence of Duryodhana and his associates’ deep anxiety and loss of courage triggered by the war cries from the Pandavas’ side a little later, as cited in the Gita. The exact expression used is: ‘The (severe) sound (of the conch-shells from the Pandavas’ side, in response to Bhishma sounding his own conch-shell) pierced the hearts of Dhritarashtra’s sons.’39 In fact, just after uttering the verse under consideration to Drona, the interpretation of which is being questioned, in the next verse, Duryodhana makes an imploring appeal to the great general for coordinating with Bhishma, the commander-in-chief, in a united effort to fight the enemy. The appeal does not make much sense if he is confident of the strength on his side. Sridhara Swami and Visvanatha Chakravarti take the literal translation without twisting the meaning or arrangement of words. This seems to be in keeping with the spirit in the rest of the Mahabharata. Duryodhana knows that the chiefs on his side are not united for a cause, some of whom he himself holds suspect. His great friend Karna is at odds with the other stalwarts – Bhishma, Drona and Ashvatthama. Even the ordinary soldiers do not hold Duryodhana in high esteem. The picture on the other side is glaringly opposite. There is absolute unity there. There were only two instances of discord documented on the Pandava side – once between Yudhisthira and Arjuna, just before Karna was killed, and the other time between Sattaki and Dhristadyumna, after the killing of Drona. Both are instances of hitches on the spur of the moment, without any deep-rooted discord lying there, and the situations were readily brought under control with the able management leadership of Sri Krishna.

The Mahabharata emphasizes that only physical or numerical strength or courage do not lead to victory, the victorious must take to truth, non-violence and an abundance of enthusiasm.40 Elsewhere it is said that the king can conquer the world with the help of a small number of soldiers who are attached, well-meaning and satisfied.41 Also, the king whose soldiers are well satisfied, consoled, pure in dharma and are disciplined, can win a battle even with the help of a small number of soldiers.42 Fifty soldiers can destroy a mighty army if they are well coordinated, joyful, dedicated to sacrifice their lives, and are charged with determination. Even five or seven nobles can defeat the enemy with solid mutual understanding and adequate determination.43 War is not won only with numerical strength of soldiers.44 Certainly these sayings in the Mahabharata count toward determining the meaning of the words in question and their syntactic connection following the way of Sridhara Swami and Chakravarti.

III: The Message Of The Gita

Christopher Isherwood points out a contrast between the settings of the Gita and the New Testament. He says:

To understand the Gita we must first consider what it is and what it is not. We must consider its setting. When Jesus spoke the words which are recorded as the Sermon on the Mount, he was talking to a group of followers in the most peaceful atmosphere imaginable, far from the great city, far from all strife and confusion. He was expressing the highest truth of which man’s mind was capable, in general terms, without reference to any immediate crisis or problem. And even in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he told Peter to sheathe his sword, he was addressing a dedicated disciple, a monk, a man who was being trained to preach and live the spiritual life. For Peter, there could be no compromise. He must learn to accept the highest and strictest ideal, the ideal of non-violence.

The Gita is very different. Krishna and Arjuna are on a battlefield. Arjuna is a warrior by birth and profession. He corresponds to the mediaeval knight of the Christendom. His problem is considered in relation to the circumstances of the moment. The Gita fits into the epic poem, the Mahabharata, and must be read in the light of previous happenings. It is not simply a sermon, a philosophical treatise.

This, I believe, is the cause of much misunderstanding. We all tend to remember most clearly the part of a book which we read first. The opening chapters of the Gita deal with a particular case: they are concerned with a soldier and the duties of a soldier. Later on Krishna passes from the particular to the general, and utters the same truth which were afterwards taught by Jesus and the Buddha. But the first impression is apt to remain. The superficial reader closes the book and remembers only Arjuna and the battle. He says to himself: “Krishna tells me to fight.

Krishna, it must be repeated, is not talking to a monk. We must be glad of this, not sorry. The vast majority of mankind are not monks, but householders. What a great teacher has to say to a married man, a soldier, is of immediate interest to the world at large.45

Just prior to the passage quoted above, Isherwood says:

Personally, I prefer to forget the Kurukshetra and ancient India altogether, and imagine a similar dialogue taking place today, in a plane over the European front or the Japanese positions in the Pacific island. If the Gita has any validity, its relevance is equally to this war and this very year.46

What Isherwood says, to my mind, is that the Gita relates to everything that we do in life, including the war, in favour of or against it, from the perspective of doing it well and right. He wrote the essay ‘The Gita and War’, where the above excerpts are from, in 1944, when the World War II was on. There is war going on all over the world today, in its every part. The relevance of the Gita to us today is not only regarding how to live and carry on our duties in such a world, but more importantly, regarding what we must live for, and how one must live for the livable. We are taking part in the war today, everyone of us, though not necessarily in the battlefield, as in the olden times. This is but apparent after the happenings of 9/11. The Gita is friendly advice, a series of sermons, and above all, a philosophical discourse. It is a short, but complicated book on philosophy, amenable to new interpretations for every successive generation. This shows its vitality and richness. The philosophy to me is important in that it organizes the thoughts contained into a totality. We have seen the intimate relation holding between the Gita and the Mahabharata. The relation is all the more pronounced when we see the well-rounded discourse that the Gita is as a culmination of the whole of the Mahabharata, the devastating war and the inner peace that the conflict ultimately points to, not simply as a poetic truth, but as the truth of life, to be lived for our own sake as well as for the sake of others. If there is a message in the Mahabharata, it is that of the ithasa it is, as we have already seen. We noted that the message has found its full shape in one place, which is the Gita. However, we must be cautious in pointing out that the message of the Mahabharata that the Gita portrays must be found out throughout the epic, and not perused in an isolated way in the Gita. In fact, to repeat what Thakur emphasizes in his writings, the Mahabharata is the best commentary on the Gita, not only in supplying its base, as well as the frame of reference, but also providing specific interpretations of concepts in cases of need. We propose to end with the following excerpt from him:

It could very well be advisable to compare the concepts occurring in the Gita, which need further explanation, with their scattered mention in the Mahabharata, toward a unified understanding of both the books. We may mention only a few of such concepts here: the relation between the eternal and the ephemeral,47 the cause and the effect, the manifest and the unmanifest, the theory of creation, the knower and the field of his knowledge,48 the Brahman and its maya, the theory of action without anchorage in desires,49 the earthly ways of involvement vis-à-vis the transcendental.50 The discussions to be found in the Mahabharata on the areas would undoubtedly be of great interest to the reader of the Gita.51


1. Vyasa designates the Mahabharata in the first chapter of the first part as arthasastra, dharmasastra, kamasastra, itihasa, kavya and purana.

2. Dharmarthakamamoksanam upadesa-samanvitam, purvavrtta-kathayuktam itihasam pracaksate, Mahabharata, Chitrasala Press Edn. The sloka has been quoted in V.S. Apte’s The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, Revised and enlarged edn., Prasad Prakasan, Puna, 1957, under the entry Itihasa, and the above reference has been provided there. It appears also in Visnu-dharma, 3/15/1.

3. Gita, 4/11.

4. Satvata: Mahabharata, 12/335, 340, 344, 348. Pasupata: Ibid, 13/17,18.

5. Mahabharata, 12/348/81-3. All the practice of the Ekantins is ultimately centred in Narayana.

6. Ibid, 12/349/64.

7. Isherwood, Christopher, Bhagavad-gita: The Song Of God, Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, p. 35.

8. Mahabharata, 12/157/40.

9. Sarva-vedartha-sarasangraha-bhuta, Introduction to the Gita-bhasya.

10. sarvasastramayi, Mahabharata, 6/43/2.

11. Rabindranath Tagore, Parichay, ‘Bharatvarshe Itihaser Dhara’ (‘The Flow of History in India’).

12. Rabindranath Tagore, Prachin Sahitya (The Ancient Literature), ‘Dhammapadam’.

13. Rabibdranath Tagore, Prachin Sahitya (The Ancient Literature) ‘Kadambari Chitra’.

14. Rabindranath Tagore, Sahityer Swarup (The True Nature of Literature), ‘Satyer Matra’ (‘The of Literature’).

15. Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi.

16. Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Bharatvarshe Itihaser Dhara’ (‘The Flow of History in India’).

17. Rabindranath Tagore, Chithipatra (Letters).

18. Rabindranath Tagore, Prachin Sahitya (The Ancient Literature), ‘Kadambari Chitra’.

19. Rabindranath Tagore, Prachin Sahitya (The Ancient Literature), ‘Kumarsambhava O Sakuntala’.

20. Rabindranath Tagore, Kalantar, ‘Arogya’.

21. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Translated by Swami Nikhilananda from the original recording in Bengali, Ramakrishan-Vivekananda Center, New York, 1942, p. 255. The Gospel mentions in the original Bengali version that the word in the reverse order is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘tag’ and does lead to the desired meaning.

22. E.g., ‘… one can also turn this world into a mansion of mirth.’, ibid., 298; also, ‘… after the attainment of knowledge, the vision of God, this very world becomes … a mansion of mirth.’ ibid, p. 310.

23. ‘The four varnas I created dividing people according to their qualities as well as activities pertaining to them’ – Sri Krishna to Arjuna, Gita, 4/13.

24. Mahabharata, 3/131/21.

25. Ibid, 3/313/108.

26. Ibid, 12/189/4

27. Ibid, 6/43/1-5.

28. Mahabharata, Gita Press Edn., vol. 3, p. 366.

29. Ibid, 14/55/3.

30. Ibid, 12/348/53,85.

31. Gita, 4/1.

32. Mahabharata, 12/347/81.

33. Ibid, 12/210-7.

34. Ibid, 6/65-8.

35. Ibid, 2/37.

36.Aparyaptam tadasmakam valam Bhismabhiraksitam, paryaptam tvidametesam valam bhimabhiraksitam, Gita, 1/10.

37. Gita, 1/10.

38. Ibid, 1/3.

39. Ibid, 1/19.

40. Mahabharata, 6/21/10.

41. Ibid, 12/131/11.

42. Ibid, 12/94/4.

43. Ibid, 12/102/20-21.

44. Ibid, 6/3/85.

45. Isherwood, Christopher, Bhagavad-Gita: The Song Of God, Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, pp.36-9.

46. Ibid, p. 36.

47. ksara-aksara, Mahabharata, 12/302,305,307,308.

48. ksetra-ksetrajna.

49. niskama-karma.

50. pravrtti-nivrtti-mulaka-dharma-tattva.

51. Thakur, Anantalal, ‘Mahabharater Mul Darsan’, Adyapith Matrpuja, Calcutta, Vaisakh, 1407, B.S., (April-May, 2000). Reprinted, with corrections, under the title, ‘Srimad-Bhagavad-Gita O Mahabharater Samparka’ by Pascattya Vaidik Samgha, Calcutta, 2001.