“What is found in the poem [The Mahabharata] I have recited —
Concerning dharma [righteousness], riches and enjoyment,
As well as the path to final liberation —
May be found elsewhere. But anything
It does not contain will be found nowhere.”
–The Mahabharata, 18.5.38, English adaptation by Carole Satyamurti
What can one really say to that? The Mahabharata, the world’s longest epic poem, composed in Sanskrit by Vyasa, is ten times the combined length of the Iliad and Odyssey and three times the length of the Bible. It is more than just a fixed text. It has been told and retold, in a million versions, oral, written, and on screen; as people say in India, one never really hears it for the first time. (See Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik).
The Mahabharata is the living link to my ancestors and their culture, the compendium of their wisdom, a sort of Wikipedia of ancient times, a work that contains many works within it: treatises on politics, philosophy, warfare, ancient history, and the Bhagavad Gita, the divine song which came directly from on high, culminating in the most beautiful of epiphanies (Chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita). How do we make peace with the world and the things we have to face in it? Is it by realizing we’re just actors in a drama, instruments in a divine play? As the Gita puts it, beautifully:
“I am almighty time, the world-destroying,
And to destroy worlds, I have arisen!
Those warriors arrayed in lines opposing
Your men, even without you, will have perished.”
–The Bhagavad Gita, 11.32 (located in book 6 of The Mahabharata), Translation by Gavin Flood and Charles Martin
All that’s great. That gives The Mahabharata enormous historical, cultural, and religious value. But The Mahabharata is more than just that. Though set in the most distant of times and places for an individual living in 21st century America, it is relevant today. Like the works of Shakespeare, the stories it tells and the emotions and dilemmas experienced by its characters are timeless and speak to the core of what it means to be human, anywhere, anytime. When do we stop turning the other cheek and stand up for ourselves? What are the limits of loyalty to our friends, especially if they’re veering off the path of good? Is it ok to break the rules for the greater good? How do we keep going when the times get rough? These questions are addressed within this great and ancient book. Some questions stay with us humans forever. I am fortunate to have had this book as a companion throughout my life.