It is impossible to conceive of a more difficult, and yet a more fascinating, problem than that presented by the Mahabharata generally believed to be an Epic or "history" of the Bharata race. The field it covers is so varied and vast, and the subjects it treats of so wide and diverse, that the mind is easily dazed by the splendour, mystery, and confusion of it all. History, and Philosophy, Sociology and Politics, Geography, Physiology, and Medicine, Astronomy, Science, and Religion there is nothing that it does not claim to examine; and all this is woven into a wonderful drama of love and war, life and deaths with mighty heroes, lovely maidens, and great sages to fill each scene and then that Krshna, half man, half God, yet wholly elusive, inexplicable, infinite.
The whole idea is baffling to a degree. The Mahabharata claims to be an essence of all the Sacred Books of the Hindus, from the Vedas downwards, and it is said to be the fifth Veda itself, the source of all knowledge and wisdom, dealing with all that has been or can be known. "That which is in this, is elsewhere that which does not occur here, occurs nowhere else!" Thus it is said and yet how far does the actual Story bear out this claim? Beyond the Celestial Song of the Bhagavad Gita repeated in the Anugita, and the discourses of Bhishma and others in the Santi and Anusasana Parvas, and a few scattered references to philosophy, morality and religion, there is little in the Story itself that can justify it at all. Indeed, from a purely spiritual point of view, there is much to repel in the life-history of the Kauravas and Pandavas and their deeds of adventure and war in the Epic as it is ordinarily understood. From beginning to the very end strange and extraordinary events take place, and not a few of them shock the moral sense and tend to dull and deaden the higher sensibility in man and it is only a vague, undefined feeling that the whole conception is somehow divine, and that somewhere there is a missing link, now lost, and a mysterious meaning, at present understood, that has prevented the work from tainting the very springs of Hindu life : for the Mahabharata, together with that other great Epic, Ramayana, is to this day the great gospel of popular Hinduism, and is more widely known and read than the Vedas, Upanishads, and other Sacred Books.
The problem is, indeed, an extraordinary one. We have strange accounts of the birth of the principal characters of the Epic the Kaurava and Pandava brothers, Vyasa, Karna, Drona, Krpa and the rest. Sages lose self-control, nor hesitate to practise Niyoga, I and even the great Sun himself compels a young, innocent maiden to his will. The unnatural Ganga drowns her sons as soon as they are born, and separates from her husband when he remonstrates; the great Bhishma carries away by force the daughters of the king of Kasi to get them married to his brother; and the mighty Arjuna, going out to practise Brahmacharya, marries three wives instead, carrying away by force the sister of Krshna, the supreme Creator of the universe himself, and that too at the latter's suggestion. Then there is the Gambling Match, played openly with deceit; and Yudhisthira, knowing that it was so, stakes away his wealth, kingdom, brothers, himself, and his wife Draupadi, everything and then that spectacle of the insult and exposure of Draupadi in the very presence of heroes, kings, elders and preceptors; and, in spite of her protests and appeals, not a single voice is raised to protect her or prevent that disgraceful deed.
It is unnecessary to refer to more instances of this kind, or even to the marriage of five persons with one woman, contrary to all laws and customs of the Aryan race. We might pass on to the great battle of Kurukshetra, fought to gain not a kingdom or its half, but for five villages or towns, where the Pandavas might pass their days in peace. Millions of men are said to have been slain, and millions of homes made desolate for an object so trifling as this; and one might ask if there was not a man in that great assembly of heroes and kings, who came with their hosts to the battlefield, who could give to the Pandavas, out of his own, but five villages or towns, and spare his country all the havoc and horror of war!
And then, what of Krshna himself? He is said to be the sole, Supreme Creator of the universe, and yet it is he who urges the Pandavas to fight; it is he who rouses the doubtful and despondent Arjuna to engage in deeds of blood; it is he who is responsible for the battle from beginning to end its cause, course, conclusion everything. Not a law of honour but was scorned, not a rule of battle but was broken not so much by the Kauravas as by the Pandavas and all at the instance of Krshna himself. Drona is killed by means of a lie uttered by Yudhisthira at his suggestion; it is he who leads Arjuna to shoot down Bhishma, when the latter has laid down his arms and refuses to fight; it is he who clouds the last rays of the setting sun to deceive Jayadratha and enable Arjuna to slay his foe; it is he who presses Arjuna to strike Karna dead when the wheel of his chariot sinks in the ground and he begs for a little time to set it free; and it is he who suggests that Bhima, contrary to all rules of war, should strike Duryodhana on the thigh and slay him and then, by a strange irony, as if this were not enough, Krshna is hailed as the supreme Creator of the universe by the very people he has helped to slay!
Judged by the standards of civilized people, many of the actions attributed to Krshna and other heroes and gods are so reprehensible that there are not a few who hold that the Mahabharata refers to a semi-barbarous age, when the very idea of God was based on the low standards of contemporary life, and Krshna was perhaps a great prince, a popular hero, and a shrewd man of affairs, deified in after time. This, according to them, is a common characteristic of all the great, ancient Epics of the world; and they would explain away the episode of the Bhagavad Gita and other moral, philosophical and religious discourses, scattered throughout the work, as interpolations of later times, introduced to partake of the popularity of the Epic, and so pass current all the more easily among the people.
But the real character of the Mahabharata is as is described in the Epic itself, a wonderful picture of the universe, a sacred work, logically composed and consistent throughout, containing the essence of the teachings of the Vedas, Upanishads and other Sacred Books, and explained by means of them too, treating of Man, Nature, and God, the problems of life and death, Science, Philosophy, and Religion, indeed, all that the ancients knew and understood in their day. It is written in a peculiar form of Sanskrt; and, while it appears to be a simple narrative at first sight, it is found to be a picture of great ideas and systems of thought, when interpreted in the light of the ancient method of Letter-analysis and in conformity with the teachings of the Sacred Books of the Hindus and then all the strange and extraordinary events, and disgraceful and dishonourable deeds are seen to be but a beautiful exposition of great and sublime thoughts, and all the error is due to a misunderstanding of the original text. The following pages will show how far this can be maintained.