I started re-reading the Mahabharata, courtesy Amar Chitra Katha. This is an epic I am very familiar with. I read it in my kiddie days, watched the TV series every Sunday, knew the names of the characters by memory, knew how it all began, and knew how it ended. I even knew many of the obscure tales that thread their way through the main story arc, linking back and forth in beautiful sync, without missing a single character. Yes, I was quite an expert on the Mahabharata, even as a child.
Yet it is amazing that as I begin my nth reading of the epic, there are a host of new realizations that come to me. As a child, they never struck me as being particularly salient or meaningful but in my ripe middle age, they acquire a whole new meaning.
Time and again, I am reminded of how brave and courageous the Kuru Princes were. Oh, we take it for granted that Kshatriyas are bold individuals; doesn't it come with the territory? But fear is a palpable sensation and it spares no one. There are moments of intense fear, a wish to run away. But there is no running away from one's duty. You might make it once but not every time. You gotta do what you have to do, and the Mahabharata is a beautiful illustration of this cardinal principle.
As a reader, it was a foregone conclusion for me that victory is in store for those who tread the path of Dharma and righteousness. But as I read the earlier parts (where the Pandavas escape from the burning house at Varnavata), I was surprised to read that they experienced anxiety, fear even. They wondered how far they should flee so that they wouldn't be killed by the henchmen of their wicked cousin, Duryodhana. It was new to me because I had never imagined that the Pandavas could go through such "human" emotions; they always seemed superhuman to me.
I was also struck by the respect accorded to the preceptor, learning and knowledge. Today, we don't see many instances of that. Teachers are given scant respect and it breaks my heart. One who embodies knowledge, shares it freely without compunction, expects nothing in return (yes, I have been fortunate to meet many such luminaries) deserves to be worshipped, really. Learning is an illuminating process. It sharpens and softens the intellect; it brings the Universe within alive, sets it ablaze. To me, the one who facilitates such a life-transforming process is a precious blessing, worthy of respect and gratitude.
I also realized the importance of discipline. Many youngsters fall in and out of love during their years at school/college. It is but natural to experience such emotions at that age. But wisdom lies in realizing that there is a time and place for every thing, and there is great value in waiting. In fact, wisdom and intuition will also tell you when the right time and place arrive. Many a student has forsaken his/her studies in pursuit of the heart. It is such a foolish endeavor! Lack of discipline and focus drives people to distraction. The Mahabharata is a beautiful lesson about discipline, focus and devotion to one's goal.
I was touched by how the elders on the Kaurava side – Bheeshma, Drona, Kripa – fought bravely, knowing fully well that they'd be slain at the hands of their beloved students. Bheeshma knew himself to be invincible, yet he shared to the Pandavas how he could be felled. Without that benevolent knowledge, there was no way the mighty warrior could be defeated. Everyone who fought in the war was staring Death in the face. Yet each one fought without fear or compulsion. It was their dharma, their rightful duty.
It also struck me that there was no middle path. There was no question of sparing anyone's life; either you slay them or you get slain. The Pandavas knew that they had to slay all their family members, else they wouldn't be victorious. Imagine the pain and suffering experienced while killing one's own cousins and family members, yet fully committing to the act and responsibility! It blows my mind, every time I think about it.
As a reader, I knew that war was inevitable. And I thought that the characters also saw it that way. So, I was surprised to see how hard everyone (except Duryodhana) tried to avert the war. But it was so not to be. Yet everyone put in their best efforts because they could see the large scale destruction and death that the war would bring.
Ultimately, I realized that the Mahabharata was a conflict between love and duty. What will you choose, my dear one?
"Do what you have to do." It seems to me that that is the essence of the Mahabharata.
On a second note, here is an excellent introduction to the Mahabharata. Totally enjoyed reading this one.