Mahabaratha and its modern day relevance

Mahabaratha is one of the two great epics of Indian literature,  the other being Ramayana of course.It’s a story of a rivalry between two sets of princely cousins which finally culminates into a full-fledged war on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The ‘Bhagavad Gita’ which is basically a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna during the battle is considered by many to be a profound philosophical text is a part of Mahabaratha.The Mahabaratha unlike like ‘The Iliad’ or ‘The Odyssey’ is not a dead literary text but continues to be alive and revered by millions. The beauty of Mahabratha lies in the fact that the dialogues or the events in the epic do not have any clear answers or neither it deals with simplistic rights and wrongs. All the characters are constantly faced with contradicting claims of their sense of duty and on questions of what is right and wrong. These are the questions and challenges we face every day,.

So, for starters, Mahabaratha is a struggle for the throne of Hastinapur, between the Kuru clans of Pandavas and Kauravas.Pandavas includes the 5 brothers (Yudishistir, Bhim, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva) and their mother Kunti(a widow of late king Pandu). Pandu and Dhritarashtra are brothers. Dhritarashtra, although, being the elder brother was forced to abandon his claim to the throne because he was born blind. So, Pandu becomes king. However, Pandu is also forced to renounce his title later since he is cursed by a sage that he can never have children and retires to the forest with his wife Kunti. Thus, Dhritarashtra becomes king again. However, Kunti has a boon of invoking any god(she can invoke the boon a total 6 times) and has 5 sons with them and that’s how the 5 Pandavas are born. Meanwhile, Dhritarashtra himself has 100 sons with his wife Gandhari, all born after Yudhistir the eldest Pandava. After Pandu dies, Kunti and the 5 Pandavas return to Hastinapur, and Yudhistir is made the Crown Prince by Dhritarashtra after considerable pressure from the Kingdom. However, he secretly desires for his eldest son Duryodhana to be the King. Meanwhile, an already jealous Duryodhana is further corrupted by his uncle Shakuni and they make a plan to get rid of the Pandavas. They lure the Pandavas into playing a game of dice, where Shakuni uses his chicanery to defeat Yudhistir. Yudhistir at one point, not only loses all his wealth, he gambles away his brothers, himself and finally his wife Finally, the Pandavas are forced into exile by the Kauravas into the jungle for 14 years, with a condition that if they are discovered anytime during these 14 years, they will lose all rights over their kingdom forever. Pandavas manage to stay hidden and return after 14 years to claim back their kingdom. However, Duryodhana retracts on his previous word and refuses to offer back the kingdom to Pandavas. War now becomes inevitable. Lord Krishna tries to intervene but his peace terms are rejected by Duryadhona. Bhisma (great-uncle of both Kauravas and Pandavas) also tries to mediate a truce and so does Dronacharya (The Guru of Pandavas and Kauravas), both are rebuffed by Duryadhona.However, Bhisma and Dronacharya, both of whom have pledged to fight for the crown no matter what, were forced to take the side of Kauravas in the war. Of course, with Lord Krishna on the side of Pandavas, the defeat of Kauravas was inevitable and they were killed in the war and Yudhistir becomes king of Hastinapur.

In this blog, I would be writing about the characters of Bhisma, Draupadi, Duryadhona, Karna, Ashwatamma, and Yudhistir as there is enough literature on the exploits of Krishna and Arjuna. We shall look at their virtues and try to draw a parallel with the contemporary world

Bhisma :

Bhisma was the ancestor of Pandavas and Kauravas. He had given the claim to the throne long ago to his stepbrother and vowed to support the kingdom of Hastinapur in whatever way possible. He loved both the Pandavas and Kauravas dearly. He had also taken a vow of celibacy throughout his life.Bhisma is possibly the strongest warrior in Mahabaratha. During the war, Bhisma had to choose the side of Kauravas because of his vows to the throne but made desperate attempts for a truce. During the war, Bhisma was accused by Duryadhona of going soft on the Pandavas after which Bhisma fights with great vigor slaughtering thousands on the Pandavas side the next day. Pandavas, realizing they are fighting a losing cause with Bhisma on the other side go to Krishna who comes up with an idea. Bhishma had earlier made a vow that he wouldn’t lift weapons against any woman/transgender. So Lord Krishna brings Shikandhi(a transgender) to the battle, and Bhishma drops his weapon and is later pierced with arrows by Arjuna. Bhisma leads a selfless life, but his selflessness had its own limitations. Bhisma didn’t protect Draupadi when she was being dishonored on the court, instead chooses to base his Dharma on supporting the King of Hastinapur no matter what. Bhisma became so selfless and committed to his duty, that he lost his conscience in the process and that he longer could differentiate between right and wrong. This lead to his downfall. Bhishma’s story teaches us that there are things beyond duty/societal norms and we must always act as per our conscience when faced with a moral dilemma.

Draupadi :

Draupadi is the wife of all 5 Pandavas . After Yudhustir gambles away his kingdom, himself, brothers and his wife, Draupadi is forcefully dragged onto the court and disrobed by the Kauravas. When she protests, Duryodhana tells her she belongs to him now as Yudhistir had gambled her away .Draupadi asks the court a difficult question – ‘ Whom did Yudhistr lose first, himself or her? If he lost himself first, then she was no longer his to lose’. This belief of women being a property of the husband is still strong in all cultures. We have been such a patriarchal society that we can’t accept women as equally capable of being independent and most of the times there is a character assassination of strong and independent women in society. And for Draupadi to call out on this hypocrisy in those times was very courageous.

Duryodhana :

Duryodhana, the eldest son of Dhritarashtra, was considered to be an efficient administrator and was known for his strong friendship with Karna.However, he grows up with a strong hatred towards his cousins. He doesn’t believe them to be the son of Pandu, calling them Kunti Putra(Kuntis sons) and believes they have no right to the throne. However, the main reason for his hatred towards the Pandavas is envy.Duryodhana obsesses over Pandavas skill and wealth. He grows anxious, pale and decides he cannot be happy unless he destroys the Pandavas. Duryodhana is finally killed by Bhim in the war. Duryodhana tendency to compare himself with his cousins is the cause of his distress. This trait of envy is dangerous and has been the reason for most of the wars in history. Envy is dangerous in relationships as well, for people with envy have a tendency to come up with imagined slights which affect the relationship in long run. Duryodhanas downfall teaches the importance of letting go of envy for us to make any sort of rational judgment and most of all, for our inner peace.

Karna :

Karna was actually the eldest son of Kunti. Kunti had used the boon once before her marriage to Pandu, and afraid of the consequences of having a baby before marriage, she abandons him.Karna is raised by a charioteer. Though extremely skilled, he was continuously insulted throughout his life for being low-born. His own brothers(The Pandavas) insult him during a tournament of archery calling him a low standing man(Though the Pandavas are unaware that Karna is actually their brother at this point ). Duryodhana recognizing Karna’s talent makes him King of Anga and for this act, Karna stays loyal to Duryadhona throughout his life. Sometime before the war, Karna is visited by Kunti and Krishna individually and asked to switch sides after they reveal his true lineage. Karna refuses despite knowing the fact that he was potentially the rightful heir to Hastinapur and instead chooses to stick with Duryadhonas friendship. He vows to Kunti not to kill any of the Pandavas except Arjun and assures Kunti at the end of the war she would still have 5 sons. Karna like Bhisma was selfless but also arrogant and filled with pride. His arrogance stemmed up from a deep struggle over his identity in the society. Karna being raised by a charioteer always felt shadowed and believed he never got his due recognition for his skills. When Duryodhana made him king, he felt extremely grateful. His inferiority made him boastful and arrogant and anything he did, he felt the need to validate it externally. Karna’s boastfulness represents the common problem of mankind, a need to feel validated by everyone other than us. We all like flattery and be pampered with excessive praise and care. The lesson here is that, to be happy we must not be too concerned with the opinion of others and what counts is our inner validation and satisfaction. Karna’s social status also posses a challenge to the Indian caste system, it raises a question whether a person status in society should be defined by birth or some sort of accomplishment. Of course, the answer is easy, and it is sad most Indians still believe in the rigid caste system.


Ashwatamma is the son of Dronacharya. He is friends with both Pandavas and Kauravas and like his father chooses the Kauravas side during the war.Dronacharya is killed by deceitful tricks of Lord Krishna and Ashwatamma swears vengeance on the Pandavas. He attacks their camp at night(According to war rules in MB it is illegal to attack an enemy after sunset). He slaughters the entire army while they are asleep and kills Draupadi’s five sons as well in his rage. All, but the Pandavas and Draupadi are killed in his moment of madness.He was well aware of the karmic consequences of his actions but justified his vengeance as a mechanism to satisfy his rage/anger. Ashwatamma is cursed by Lord Krishna for this act. Ashwathamma is made immortal and cursed by Lord Krishna to roam the earth for eternity with incurable diseases all over his body. We can draw a parallel of this with the current system of capital punishment. Lord Krishna reasoning of cursing Ashwatamma with immortality was that he believed a death sentence would have been too kind of justice for his heinous deeds.

During the past fifty years, public opinion around the world, including in America and India, has shifted from efforts to reform and rehabilitate offenders to retribution and incarceration.The debate today is about ensuring that the sentence is fair, deserved and proportional to the crime, which is also the key issue in Ashwatthamas revenge. Ashwattammas behavior also gives us an important lesson , that vengeance doesn’t bring us inner peace nor does it change anything .

Yudhistir : 

Yudhistir, the eldest of the Pandavas and Kauravas is the epitome of an honest, peace-loving and honorable man . However, with all his good virtues, Yudhistir had a fatal flaw. He was addicted to gambling and hence lost the kingdom to Kauravas who used his weakness against him. After they are exiled into the forest, his wife Draupadi is furious and asks him to declare war on the Kauravas. Yudhistir calmly replies that he has given his word to Dhiratarasra and he intends to honor it. He reminds Draupadi of the importance of patience and goes on to say that fighting is always an easy option,  but to forgive is what takes courage and seeking peace or forgiveness is by no means a sign of a weakness but rather the trait of the wise one. Yudhistir even goes to the extent of forgiving Ashwatamma and his actions.There are a number of reasons why I support Yudhistirs idea of forgiveness – first, that revenge is wrong, it uses the suffering of another human being to satisfy oneself, it is connected with obsession, rage, and a growing tendency to violence—all of which are objectionable. Also, those against whom we take revenge are unlikely to agree with our perceptions of the wrong, finally, revenge goes against our duty to respect human beings. This is the Dharma of Yudhistir. Throughout the war, Yudhistir is always reluctant in his mind in fighting a war against his own cousins and even after the war is over, he has an emotion of melancholy surrounding him.  Yudhistir firmly believed that consequences and results desired do not in any way justify the means and that any action should be done in an honest and peaceful manner. In the contemporary world, we have an example of Gandhi who revolted against the British through peaceful means and still managed to bring the downfall of the British Empire. Also, a case can be made out of the Yudhishthirs habit of gambling. Humans are flawed, even the most courteous and altruistic personality would have some flaw in him and Yudhistir was no different. Yudhistir learned his lesson after losing everything, and never resorted to gambling after he became king. But he never went lamenting about his mistake, instead, he decided to never do it again after realizing the consequences of it.Same applies to all of us – when people realize their flaws/mistakes/bad habits or gain a feedback on their flaws, it only makes sense to learn and correct them, but in no way, we should be judging ourselves for it. Mistakes are part of human nature and we should move on after learning from the experience and making conscious efforts to correct them in future.

To conclude, as someone who was raised in a Vaishnavite family, I grew up listening to the stories of Lord Krishna and his exploits. In fact, Lord Krishna was my favorite God till I was a theist. However, growing apart from the concept of God has given me a new perspective. I would value Yudhistirs ‘Strong sense of forgiveness and non-violence‘, Karnas and Bhismas ‘Selflessness’, Drauapadis courage and Duryodhanas and Karnas ‘Idea of friendship without social status’ anyday over Lord Krishnas actions during the war.

I’m also reminded of a quote of Achilles from Troy – ‘That humans being mortals is what makes us special unlike Gods ‘.I have a different analogy from that .Unlike Lord Krishna who could effortlessly decide between wrong and right, we are confused about our choices and morality, we make bad decisions all the time but making a conscious analysis of choices whether it ends up right or wrong is what makes us special and different from the concept of flawless Gods .

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