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"Alas, having vanquished the foe, we have ourselves been vanquished in the end!

The course of events


is difficult to be ascertained even by persons endued with spiritual sight. The foes, who were vanquished
have become victorious! Ourselves, again, while victorious, are vanquished! Mahabharata

Sauptika Parva Section 10


In the grand itihas (all that is, a history of ideas) that this epic embodies, no individual however noble
their deeds might be, and no idea, despite its seeming idealism, is perfect and pure. This grand text of
Indian civilization, even as it appears to be out measuring space and outlasting time, invites every
generation living within the confines of its culture and facing the forces of history, to the semantic field of
uncertainties and ambiguities.
That Kurukushetra is being fought now in the mind of every man, woman and child in psychological war
1
is, as Rohin Mehta reminds us, the lesson of the Gitas first discourse. Bllind Dhritarshtra could see the
battle in his mind as told objectively by Sanjaya. But the designs of Duryodhana meant he could not
detach from them so war ensued.
The Gita helps us find an inner Sanjaya to avoid own inner psychological war.

If the Gita is a gospel of life then the Mahabharata is a panoramic epic of it. Like the great texts of the
Bible and Quran, it addresses lifes joys and uncertainties with a vast breadth greater than its more
concise bretheren.
The Mahabharata is an honest mirror but its reflection will not please everyone. We readers live in
different times and each of us will read the accounts differently. For this reason, some people do not like

the Mahabharata. They prefer their scriptures to be sanitised, devoid of human frailties, as if past saints
and devotees were faultless.
The Mahabharata covers every aspect of human life. It is brutally honest and yet not fuzzy in its

idealism. There are the ideals of forgiveness and fraternity, as well as their absence in the real world.
That which occurs here occurs elsewhere, that which does not occur here, occurs nowhere else.
(Swargarohanika Parva , Section V )
India is complicated.
Britain had a narrow view of nationhood, and dismissed the idea of India as united country. Their ideas
of nationality were shaped by the French Revolution, and a feudal Europe that merged under competing
overlords. In India, before Bollywood and the internet, people a few hundred kilometers down the road
diverged more in custom and dress, than say an Englishman did from a Spaniard or a Russian.

Rohin Mehta Mind to Supermind- A commentary on the Bhagavad gita, T C Manaktalaand Sons, Bombay,,1966.

To the British mind it made sense to say, as did Gandhi that India was many Indias. They seemed to
miss that India was more a civilization with an overarching broad cohesiveness that that held together
differences by social negotiation.
India is complicated.

Gandhiji said the Ramayana and Mahabharata are a must study for all Hindu to
understand the human psyche..
No wonder

After all, a true patriot will examines the quality of his country, promoting the
common good and seeking to change by orderly means what does not support it. Flag
waving that ignores problems helps nobody.
True love of country prepares for a very positive spiritual benefit.
Now, I know some of you may dislike my being Western (whatever that means). So to support my
thesis I call upon two points. When I left India I was more precisely able to see the faults of my
Australian roots, just as Indias Diaspora can see Bharat with a fresh perspective. Secondly, I will call on
the principles of the great Sanskrit grammarian Bhartrihari.
Mahabharata as mirror
Reading the Mahabharata is a dynamic interaction between the individual and cultural heritage. So we
expect tension between how we read the Mahabaratas meta language and its past cultural history.
The barriers we put up between past and present are similar to the barriers we pace between east and
west.
It is only in the eyes of another culture that foreign culture reveals itself fully and
profoundly wrote the linguist Bakhtin. Travel to another country and what seems self evident at
home may be seen a fallacy elsewhere. The cultural matrices of our life are complex. What we call
everyday commonsense is many layered. Cultural materials shape identities and cultural histories shape
character.
I ask you, like Arjuna, to place the chariot between the two opposing world views, as conch
shells call your mind to battle.
As the Gita begins, battle seems suddenly detached as a morose soldier talks to his mentor, god and
charioteer. The great complexity of the occasion was greater than his mind, like lifes complexity
exceeding our own facilities.
It is as if the blowing of conch shell before the battle disturbs Arjunas mind. He places the chariot
between two armies like a mind caught between two opposites. Fear based decisions are not good. When
we cannot decide on freedom we fall into dejection and depression. Arjuna seeks to escape decision,
asking Krishna to tell him outright. But we cannot truly remain action less says the Gita. After all life is a

series of relationships with all their karma.


Abstain from activity and act when necessary in detachment without rude displays of virtue.

The return to ones true nature is designated as devotion Sankaracharya wrote in Viveka-Chudamani.
The Mahabharata and the Gita, of which it is part, are for spiritual transformation and not just moral

reform . Therefore transcend the call for independence but include it. The path way is finding our identity
on the pathway between personal and cosmic will. If we trod this path we can be free from tensions.
For the battle is between the armies are Sri Krishnas cosmic will versus and Arjunas individual will.
Arjuna is the mind in its active alert condition, not aware of its limitations. Arjuna is like Jesus asking
may this cup pass from me, says Dr Radhakrishnana in his commentary, but then uttering Thy will be
done.
So many of us prefer ritual than reflection. We see solutions but are not prepared to any the price. We
are like a monk robed in renunciation, but concealing deep fears and self destructiveness.

Hindus would rather worship rather than study the great epics. The Ramayan and Mahabharata on sit
on a pedestal, but rarely read, analysed or critiqued. They are long texts. It is easier to listen to a gurus
summary, watch a television series than read them. It is easier to bow, garland, offer incense and wave
arti in front of these great epics, than to read them and learn their lessons.
Perhaps that is why we get defensive of Western science attempt to place the epics in time. We like it
when a discovery gives us ancient credibility, but dismiss any critique as colonialism, or claim they dont
understand our cultural history (meaning you guys invaded us) . It is easier to look at the invader than
our self.
That is the point. The Mahabharata is a mirror to force us to look!
How a Grammarian shaped my views of the Mahabharata

Bhartrihari, who probably lived in the fifth century, developed theories of space-time
and language-cognition we would call poststructural and Einsteinian. Bhartrihari2
examines how language, thought and reality relate that reflect contemporary questions
of language use, and communication asked by Chomsky, Wittgenstein, Grice, and
Austin.
Bhartrihari asserts that cognition and language at an ultimate level are ontologically
identical concepts that refer to one supreme reality, Brahman.
In his first verse Bhartrihari wrote:
The Brahman is without beginning and end, whose essence is the Word, who is the cause of the
manifested phonemes, who appears as the objects, from whom the creation of the world
proceeds.
The cyclical creation and dissolution described in the Vedas, leaves a seed or trace
(samskra) from which the next cycle arises. This seed is called a "Divine Word" (Daivi
Vk). If language is of divine origin, says Bhartrihari , then it Brahman expressing and

embodying itself in the plurality of creation. The shabda tattva, "word principle," is part of
unity of all existence with Brahman.
Although Brahmin is "without beginning and end" (andi nidhnam), and not subject to
the attributes of temporal sequence, we recognize the manifestations of Brahmin
through the power of Kala (time) and dik (space). The universe is not sequential, but the
action of kala makes it appear so. The past is a form of darkness and the past can only
be experienced from the present. Being and world are inseparable but are interpreted by
their own histories.
Bhartrihari concludes that knowledge is constructed by language and meaning is made
by the words that interpret it. This differs from Buddhist belief that pre-conceptual
cognition or pure perception (nirvikalpa-pratyaksha) is distorted by language created
constructed perception (savikalpa-pratyakasha). It also differs with the Nyaiyayikas
who agreed word and thing correspond, but distinguished between language and its
object-referents. Perception is a two-step process, argue the Nyyas, involving initial
apprehension of an object and then awareness that results in mental and
syntactic/linguistic representations of the first moment of awareness.
Bhartrihari argues that the word makes the thing an individual. As one
moves further and further along the refined categories of what is
conventionally known as denotation, the word makes the thing what it is. ..
[it] make meanings of all kinds, mundane ones and religious ones, contingent on the
circumstances and speaker. if perception is innately verbal, no perilous bridge need
be suspended over some supposed abyss between vision and truth, both in our
mundane lives and for the rishis who pronounced the Vedas. The word then makes
the thing, and Brahman makes the world, and so it is entirely proper to
speak of words as the creator of all things (shabda-Brahman). Lakshmi
Bandamudi2
Similarly, Heidegger wrote that the relationship of self to the other is shapes what we cell knowledge by
phenomenological intuition. He rejects Kants idea of utopia of transcendent logic.

In the same way, as we read the Mahabarata we meet our multiple histories, those of the
individual, the recent cultural and the ancient. During the interpretive encounter, the boundaries
between here and now and what lies beyond in time and space, shift. As Bandamudi 2 suggests, some
read the Mahabharata to discover dimensions about self, text and history, while others evade the flow to
make sense of the text in a detached manner.

These are cultural parameters of meaning: The Mahabharata is not about purity, since it captures the

pathos of human existence in its most sordid form and seems to assert that it is one of the most insoluble

Lakshmi Bandamudi, Logistics of Self: The Mahabharata and Culture.

disharmonies of existence. The Mahabharata is not about hopelessness and despair, but it directs our
attention to the unfinalizability of ideas and ideals.
Indeed the text itself continued t evolve and is called a chakra and each generation a cognitive spoke in
the wheel, we see synergistic evolution of self and the text.
All roles are reversed at some point the valorous warrior Arjun becomes despondent and turns into a
pacifist, and the godhead Krishna resorts to human tactics and counsels on warfare. Even the most
profound treatise on salvation is not Utopian in nature and does not necessarily rescue the individual
from the abysmal world ...; instead, they are instruments for shaping and reshaping individual and social
consciousness ... by repeatedly directing our attention to the complexity and multiplicity of truth.
If we look into the Mahabharata as a mirror, like the characters of the epic, we must also face our
shadow eventually or we will face karma later on.
Why it matters
Everyday behaviour can become codes of identity when society grapples with its identity. As
India grapples with identity in the rush of progress, dress codes are given meaning that
otherwise would have passed unnoticed. An Indian of the diaspora, more often a woman than a
man, may be more Indian abroad than at home.
I think religion offers a language, a vocabulary, for self exploration. All too often its symbols
become blocks in the politics of ego.
Some see the Mahabharata as Scripture, but it calls itself an itihas history and not a scripture. The
Gita implies its message is a scripture has its own agenda to deliver a spiritual message, explain the
philosophy of a particular darshan and affirm the readers faith in a particular deity. An itihas, on
the other hand, has to lay out the facts of historical events for all to see without judgement or
prejudice. Some Hindu scholars, such as Swami Dayananda, argue the epic is corrupted. Making Krishna
God, or physical avatar is inconsistent with the formless Brahman of the Vedas he claimed.
How people remember the epic, retold is the village or recast for the screen, distorts, and repeats
distortions. Untruth becomes facts with no foundation. Truths become legends guide posts to a past
not quite accurate either. They are fractals of the past, but not a hologram. Our personal life, a
microcosm of the macrocosm, repeats the same distortions. The same karma.
But the eternal truth the culminating focused in the Gita itself remains transcendental and
untouched.
The Gita (18:66) asks us to abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver
you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.We must accept communion with the unborn and unmanifest
the whisper of the soul can be heard.
As Dr Radakrishnan says the spiritual is not an extension of the ethical, but is a new dimension all
together, dealing with things eternal.

In a democracy like India this point is even more important.


A democratic consciousness operates in the synecdochic mode writes Bandamudi and
therefore conflicts in the epic are framed not between the powerful and the weak, but between justice
and injustice. In the ironic mode, the interpreter recognizes the fine line between justice and injustice. As
the boundaries between right and wrong dissolve, the interpreters recognize multiple dimensions to
truth and justice and therefore, are capable of saying things about themselves and the text in alternate
ways and reflecting on why they choose these alternatives.
I find myself by finding the i for myself, finding the I or others other and then, being willing to let the
other find me.
The Mahabharata is a carnival ride of raunchy and ribald characters where distinctions of high and low
culture, self and other, sacred and profane are erased : of split, fragmented multiple subjects and
identities and collectivities.
If we seek to understand a people, we have to try to put ourselves, as far as we can, in that particular
historical and cultural background...It is not easy for a person of one country to enter into the
background of another country. So there is great irritation, because one fact that seems obvious to us
is not immediately accepted by the other party or does not seem obvious to him at all...But that
extreme irritation will go when we think ... that he is just differently conditioned and simply can't get
out of that condition. One has to recognize that whatever the future may hold, countries and people
differ...in their approach to life and their ways of living and thinking. In order to understand them, we
have to understand their way of life and approach. If we wish to convince them, we have to use their
language as far as we can, not language in the narrow sense of the word, but the language of the mind.
That is one necessity. Something that goes even much further than that is not the appeal to logic and
reason, but some kind of emotional awareness of other people (Jawaharlal Nehru, Visit to America)
Consider an Indian who moves to the USA. In India he may see the Mahabharata as the text of India, but
by moving the text is also a way of engaging with his past.
Just as a child grows up and sees things differently, a change takes place in individual and cultural
history.
So when re look into the mirror of the Mahabharata, we see through the lens of our own experience. It
remains for us to see our self in part of our society, karma and history, so we can reassess our society, and
inevitably lead to a change in mans consciousness and behavior.
However, the Mahabharata also reveals that for every social force there is simultaneously its opposite. The

serious purva-paksha analysis of the past died with the birth of neo-Hinduism. Hindu philosophy
declined from serious and systematic critiquing of differing systems to then merely serving as a
pseudo-intellectual tool and a political agenda. It is easier to blame (at times rightly) former colonial
masters than look at our self.

Others debate important issues but are so stuck in the minutiae that they forget the large more
important picture.
Notice how you feel when you read a book. Now read the same text from behind a computer screen
or kindle. Do you feel differently?
Similarly, the domination of one group (Hindu, Muslim, White, Black, Brown, Straight or gay) shapes
how we react to what we hear or see.

Living in the past will not do. Bhakti saints have even argued that the traditions of the past, are of no use
in the age of Kali.
For example, Bhakti saints like Lord Chatanya3 argued that in the age of Kali there is no longer a
justification for caste. In the age of Kali the varnasrama-dharma is so degraded that any attempt to
restore it to its original position will be hopeless. He also rejected varnasrama-dharma because it has no
value in relation to pure devotional service.
The second, more important consideration is that even if the varnasrama system is observed strictly, it
still cannot help one to rise to the highest plane of transcendental service to Godhead. The virat-purusa is
a material conception of the Personality of Godhead and is just the beginning of spiritual realization. Any
tradition, is not an end in itself.

True, India also has a tradition of freedom and equality that supposed Greeks for its equality.
Unfortunately, it was forgotten and distorted.
The heroism of the past must be reignited, by reconciling the monumental culture of legend, with
democratic principles of the modern world. If I may borrow from Emerson, there is properly no
history, only biography. The epics of history are what we make of them when they inspire a
passionate self reliance to service, dispassionate of the outcome, between cosmic love and human
apathy.

Facing modernity, we should remember we do not enculturate mechanically. How we respond to


another culture reveals the depth of our own cultural history, mannerisms, and myths which we then
internalize.
To read the epic is to inherit, transform and transmit a tradition. A lesson the Mahabharata lays bare for
us to see.
If Indians lived by the "Laws of Karma", we would remember that even the victors at Kurukushetra paid
bad karma for their violence.. If we had internalised its message they would realise the consequences of
hate anger and unforgiveness. If we understood the enormity of our karmic actions, there would be no
bribery or corruption. We have not learned from our itihas.
People dont like the Mahabharata because it tells it like it is. Most of us dont like to see ourselves as
we really are.
3

Sri Ramananda Samvada, In Search of the Ultimate Goal of Life, By His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
Prabhupada.

The Mahabharata is a must read because it is a mirror for us to evaluate ourselves and see where we
are being reflected in its myriad characters. If we dont like what we see in the mirror, there is no point
in blaming the mirror or throwing it away, that is not a credible solution. Ideally, we should change
ourselves to make and reflect those values and characteristics we do like in the Mahabharata.
Issues between science and scripture, or East and West would be irrelevant. We would understand the
complexity of relationships, why and how people play subtle mind games, understand the bigger picture
so you can rise above such pettiness, understand human society, ourselves and our purpose in life.
In that sense, spirituality is like art, Its outer form comes from within.
Art and life are not one, but they must become united in myself in the unity of my unanswerability
wrote Mikhail Bhaktin. Art he argues must not just inspire, but also reach the prosaic in life. Or as
scholar Lakshmi Bandamudi suggests that Bhaktins observations of shared answerabiity and mutual
blame in art applies to the vast relationships of karma that are mirrored back to us in the Mahabharata.
Meanwhile, in my own life I try and remember Kalidasas words they whose minds are not disturbed
when the sources of disturbance are present, are the truly brave.
We must accept communion with the unborn and unmanifest the whisper of the soul can be heard.