I remember reading the epic as a kid, as part of the curriculum in school, wondering what I was supposed to learn from it. I couldn’t quite figure out what it had to say in the end, if there was a moral of the story I was missing. All I took away from it at that point was that there were a few good guys and a bunch of bad guys, who happened to be brothers. They ended up on opposite sides in a war for the throne. Eventually, the good guys won, albeit by cheating.
Now, that is no summary of the magnificent story, but an idea of how it was imprinted in my mind. The way it was taught in schools, there was a clear division between the good and the bad and yet if you read closely, you could see that the good people weren’t so good after all. Every character in the story had shades of grey and yet the Pandavas earned respect while the Kauravas were vilified.
Today, after all this time, reading ‘The Difficulty of Being Good’ by Gurcharan Das, I could see what I was missing. The book explores what ‘Dharma’ means in today’s world and what the Mahabharata had to say about it. It brilliantly revisits the epic and delving into individual traits of the primary characters, explores what it takes to be good in a world that is inherently bad.
The Mahabharata profoundly proclaims– “What is here, is everywhere. What is not here, is nowhere”, and does full justice to the statement. At no point does it try to explain away any of the character’s actions to blind faith, making it anything but a religious document. At every stage of the story, the author (a secular, himself) observes, the epic takes time to dwell upon the implications of the characters’ actions and resists the urge to pass moral judgements. It neither glorifies its heroes, nor does it put down the losers. The most important lesson it has for us is to follow one’s ‘dharma’ (loosely translated, it means an “ideal version of ones’ own character”) and to be compassionate, which is what ultimately leads the central character to heaven.
Definitely worth a read, with or without judgements!
I think we all have, at some point or the other, wondered aloud about the need for religion in our lives. Rising intolerance towards minorities and the incessant clashes between various communities make us question if religion is indeed doing any good for us after all. Can we live without it? Can we imagine a world where there is no God, no conception of a universal being and all the rituals associated with it? Can we live only on the basis of a notion of brotherhood and the essential tenets of humanity? Would it suffice to say that we are all just a species called Sapiens who happen to be rulers of our planet today?
Looks like we aren’t wired to think that way.
In his book, ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’, Yuval Harari masterfully tackles the fundamental question – ‘What makes us superior to other mammals?’, dwelling deep into the many mysteries that surround our evolution from our closest ancestors. The ability to form large and stable communities within our species, he says, is the single most important trait that distinguishes us from others. This was made possible, not by brute force, but by developing common myths, legends and beliefs that were accepted as true by people of a particular community. Thus, the ability to generate and believe in fiction is what makes us truly ‘human’.
Elaborating further, he explains how it was important to form strong bonds between Sapiens in order for them to work together and contribute towards expanding their knowledge. As it is not possible to intimately know more than 150 people so as to trust them, he argues that the Sapiens had to rely on developing common myths that they all believed in. These beliefs, then formed the basis of religion as also money, corporations and other fictional entities.
Now, that doesn’t quite explain why religion is indispensable for some people and not so much for others, but it certainly helps one understand why it came up in the first place and why people continue to feel strongly about it. The idea of a collective consciousness and the need to form bonds with people beyond boundaries of space and time exists even today. Just ask any Harry Potter fan why they are passionate about him and you would know.