In the latest installment of his series on “Master Ideas on Indian Civilization,” Prof. Michel Danino, a French-born Indian author, scholar of ancient India and visiting Professor at IIT Gandhinagar wrote,
”Two of India’s longest texts, Mahabharata and Ramayana, are nothing but attempts to capture dharma’s meanings and nuances.”
But in fact, they are more than that. Like any good epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata convey the truth at multiple levels, not just the literal but also at a symbolic level. The Ramayana originated in the Tretha Yuga and was clearly written for simpler times. The symbolism of the main characters in the Ramayana is quite transparent: Lord Rama represents God, his brother Lakshmana represents our human body, Hanuman represents our disciplined mind devoted to God, Sita represents our soul and Ravana, the ten-headed demon, represents our material desires. When any of Ravana’s ten heads got cut off, a new one grew right away, signifying that there is no end to our material desires. In the story, Sita, our soul, is imprisoned by Ravana, our material desires, and gets rescued by Lord Rama, Hanuman - our disciplined mind, Lakshmana - our body devoted in service to God, along with a large army of animals. Isn’t that precisely the rescue effort we need to implement in these troubled times?
The Mahabharata originated in the more complex Dwapara Yuga and it was clearly derived from the Ramayana since a lot of the origin stories are quite similar. It is mainly about the battle of Kurukshetra waged by protagonists who are cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, along with their vast armies. It is said that over 4 million soldiers, almost every able bodied man in India, participated in this battle over five thousand years ago and that the battle took place over 18 days at the end of which, there were only twelve survivors!
The Kauravas were 100 brothers and one sister, born to the blind king Dhritarashtra and his queen, Gandhari. After marrying Dhritarashtra, and in sympathy with his blindness, Gandhari deliberately blind-folded herself so that she could experience the same world as her husband. She consummated her marriage to Dhritarashtra and after a two year pregnancy gave birth to a big lump of flesh. Sage Vyasa then stepped in to answer Gandhari's prayers, divided up the flesh into 101 pieces, which developed into the 100 Kaurava brothers and their one sister, Dushala.
The Kauravas were basically "bad" people. They were prideful, hurtful, shameful, treacherous and used every trick in the book to gain an advantage in the stories of the Mahabharata and in the battle of Kurukshetra.
The Pandavas were five brothers born to Kunti and Madri, queens of Dhritarashtra's brother, Pandu. Since Pandu had been cursed to die if he ever had intercourse with a woman when he accidentally killed the sage Rishi Kindama and his wife during their act of intercourse, the five Pandava brothers were born through immaculate conceptions with various Gods. Yudhisthira, the eldest, was born to Kunti and Lord Dharma and was the personification of Dharma or righteousness. Bhima was born to Kunti and the Wind God, Vayu, and was the personification of Strength. Arjuna was born to Kunti and the Sky God, Indra, and was the personification of Courage. Nakula and Sahadeva were fraternal twins born to Madri and the Ashwini twins, and were the personification of Kindness and Compassion.
Pandu himself, spent the rest of his Life meditating in the forest, to repent for his act of killing Rishi Kindama and his wife.
As you can imagine, the Pandavas were the "good" side. All five of them married Draupadi, the personification of devotion to Lord Krishna or “Bhakti”. And the true hero of the Mahabharata story is Lord Krishna, the personification of God. Lord Krishna was the ruler of Dwaraka and when the opposing cousins visited him to seek his help in the battle, Lord Krishna was sleeping in his palace. Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava brother, being arrogant and considering himself Lord Krishna's equal, chose a seat at Lord Krishna's head and waited for him to wake up, while Arjuna sat at his feet. When Lord Krishna woke up, he saw the cousins and he offered them two choices. They could choose his entire army to fight on their side or they could choose Lord Krishna himself, except that Lord Krishna would not actually wield any weapons. Arjuna chose Lord Krishna who became his charioteer, while Duryodhana chose his army. Both Arjuna and Duryodhana were pleased with their respective choices.
The symbolism of the characters in the Mahabharata becomes evident when we read through its central essence, the Bhagavad Gita. Dhritharashtra, the blind king of the Kauravas represents the human mind, the subconscious mind, his wife Gandhari represents the decision-making intellect or the rational mind, while their eldest son, Duryodhana represents the human ego. That is, when a blind mind (Dhritarashtra) is married to a blind-folded intellect (Gandhari), the result is a being with a hundred and one demonic characteristics (mostly male) and with an overweening ego (Duryodhana) that considers itself an equal to God (Lord Krishna).
Conversely, when a steady mind (Pandu) is married to a discriminating intellect (Kunti/Madri), the result is a just, courageous, strong, kind and compassionate being, who becomes God's devout favorite.
One fascinating character in the Mahabharata is Drona, the teacher of both the Kauravas and the Pandavas. He symbolizes the power of habits in a human being and though portrayed as a good person, Drona fights on the side of the Kauravas in the battle of Kurukshetra. That is because, psychologically, in a battle between uplifting and degrading tendencies in a human being, the power of habit usually sides with the degrading tendencies. While good habits are necessary for personal growth initially, the good qualities that result transcend habit and are inspired from deep within. Habits do not enslave a truly self-realized person, while habits can form addictions when acted upon mindlessly.
The battle of Kurukshetra is therefore, the timeless battle in our minds between our degrading tendencies and our uplifting tendencies. Lord Krishna counsels Arjuna, who represents courage, to fight this battle, because without courage, none of the other uplifting tendencies can be of much use. This symbolism is why the Bhagavad Gita became such a source of inspiration for a truly non-violent Mahatma Gandhi, despite its setting in a gory battleground. And it explains why Lord Krishna found it necessary to cajole Arjuna to fight this battle in the Bhagavad Gita, for our normal inclination is to give in and to let our material desires run amok within us.
In the Mahabharata, the battle was eventually won by the Pandavas, the uplifting tendencies, with the aid of Lord Krishna. It is the same battle that needs to be fought today to restructure our modern industrial civilization. For, in reality, we are all the Arjunas that Lord Krishna is trying to cajole into fighting the battle of Kurukshetra, the battle in our minds, to overcome our degrading tendencies and reach our self-realized states.
Notes: Most of the symbolic interpretations cited in this article can be found in Paramahansa Yogananda’s book on the Bhagavad Gita.