One of two great epic poems in Indian literature, the other being the Rāmāyana. It consists of more than 100,000 couplets, which make it the longest epic poem in the world. It deals with the vicissitudes of the descendants (Bhāratas) of the mythical first king of India, Bharata. His ninth descendant was Kuru, hence the kingdom in the story is known as Kuruketra (Kuru’s land). It is thought to have been located in north central India, although kuru is the imperative form of the Sanskrit root k (do, cause, make, etc.), so its mythological interpretation deals with human behavior — from a theosophical standpoint with human involution and evolution. It would, therefore be more appropriate to interpret the epic metaphorically.
In this long story, the throne of the kingdom passes, generation after generation, to a younger son, rather than the elder as was the custom, signifying theosophically the involutionary cycle, up to and including the 18th generation. At this point, the oldest brother is the blind king Dhtaratra (whose name implies a fixity of palace, i.e., rigidity or conventionality), therefore he is unfit to inherit the throne which passes to his younger brother Pāndu. Dhtaratra marries Gandhar… who blindfolds herself in order not to be superior to her husband. Therefore, their offspring are all born of blindness, symbolic of ignorance. Their sons are 100 in number, the eldest being Duryodana (whose name literally means “ill bred”); in fact all the sons’ names begin with a Sanskrit prefix (dur-, du-, duƒ-) which means “bad” (cf. Latin mal- or Greek dys-), hence they represent allegorically our bad habits or bad behavior born of our ignorance or moral blindness. The “sons” of Pāndu, on the other hand, are not really his offspring because he had been cursed with death if he were to have sex. Rather, they are the offsprings of various Vedic gods: the eldest, Yudithira, by Yāma-Dharma, the god of righteousness; Bh…ma by Vāyu, the wind god; Arjuna by Indra, the warrior god; and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva by Indra’s horsemen, the twin Avins. In other words, they are all semidivine. Being five in number, they represent symbolically our personal nature: intuition, intellect, k€ma-manas (“lower” or desire-mind), vital body (“etheric double”), and its “twin” the physical body. The mother of the five brothers is Kunti, the sister of Sri Krishna, who invoked the gods (with her husband’s approval) by means of mantras.
Naturally, Duryodana believes he should be the successor to the Kuru throne rather than Yudithira. He first tries to kill the five brothers, called Pāndavas, by burning a wax home built for them to attend a religious festival. They escape disguised as brahmins and during their exile in the forest, they jointly marry Draupad… (who would represent, metaphorically, the soul or j…va). They also gain allies, so Duryodana and his brothers, called Kauravas (i.e., descendants of Kuru), are reluctantly forced to give the Pāndavas back half of their rightful kingdom. Duryodana then challenges Yudithira to a dice game (using loaded dice) and succeeds in sending his five cousins (with their mother and common wife) back into exile for twelve years. At the end of that time, he refuses to relinquish the kingdom, so the Great War is fought on the kingdom’s traditional battlefield, Kuruketra, between the Kauravas and their allies and the Pāndavas and their allies, one of whom is Sri Krishna. Arjuna, the greatest warrior of his day, leads the Pāndavas; Krishna declines to fight, but agrees to act as Arjuna’s charioteer and counselor. The Bhagavad-Gitā is set at the very beginning of that battle, which lasts for 18 days and involves enormous bloodshed. The Pāndavas finally win, symbolizing man’s predestined victory over his ignorance-born imperfections. In fact, Sri Krishna intimates this in the Gitā (cf. 18.59-61).
The Mahābhārata is traditionally ascribed to the sage Vyåsa (cf. G…t€ 18.75), although he may have been merely the compiler of a myth that had been in existence long before him. Scholars believe the epic reached its present form about 400 CE. Helena P. BLAVATSKY has written quite a lot about the epic, pointing out that it contains an ancient esoteric philosophy akin to theosophy (see various entries in the consolidated index to her writings). It is also noteworthy that the “Golden Rule” in Christianity (“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Matt. 22.39) is foreshadowed in the Mahābhārata as “Treat others as thou wouldst thyself be treated” (Śanti Parva, 167.9) and as “Do nothing to thy neighbour which hereafter thou wouldst not have thy neighbour do thee” (Anuāsana). A few other quotations also illustrate the high ethics mandated by this poem: “There is no greater virtue than kindness. They who have their minds under control never come to grief. Friendship with the holy never ages” (Śanti Parva, 313.70). “Kindness is desiring happiness for all. Straightforwardness is mental poise. Holy is he who is kind to all. Wicked is he who is cruel” (Vana Parva, 90). These quotations are taken from Śriman Mahābhāratam (Gorakpur: Gita Press). See also BHAGAVAD-GITĀ.
An English translation of the entire epic has been published in 18 volumes, but there are also some summarized translations, including one by Annie BESANT entitled The Story of the Great War, (1899; reprinted as Mahābhārata: the Epic Story of the Great War, TPH, 1927, 1978).
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