Ancient stories such as Mahabharata and Ramayana have been re-written and misinterpreted so many times that it becomes a little difficult to get to the truth. Therefore it becomes necessary to piece together the salient points after looking at them individually and by using other sources of information and knowledge.
The current popular versions are judgements made in kaliyuga, mostly during the times of Mughal rulers when gurukuls had been shut down and people relied on each other for education. For example, the main form of government in those days was the kshatriya or warrior style. So, it is obvious that their lifestyle, mind-set and psychology would be of that sort. The very fact that they did so many seemingly supernatural deeds implies that they were spiritual warriors.
The Buddha had opposed rulers like Ashoka who was destructive and Chanakya had opposed Dhanananda for being tyrannical, although it is falsely believed that it was because he was not prepared to fight Alexander. This is because according to Marshal Gregory Zhukov, the legendary Russian commander, the Macedonians had suffered a catastrophic defeat in India.The Greeks had been brought up and trained in a different climate and terrain with inferior bronze age weapons. Ancient Bharat was geographically too different for them to be able to put up a good fight. Also, Bharatiya kings were formidable and had more advanced weapons. Therefore it is wrong to jump to the conclusion that he was a threat to any Bharatiya raja.
However, it does appear to be true that a monk or guru named Kalanus accompanied Alexander back. He was highly venerated by the Greeks and he eventually ended his life by self-immolation. From the Bharatiya point of view it was not a major incident which is why one does not find any mention in Puranas. Strabo, the Greek historian wrote: “Generally speaking, the men who have written on the affairs of India were a set of liars…Of this we became the more convinced whilst writing the history of Alexander.”
Also, Buddha and his group who were trained in the vedic tradition had travelled to China to preach and teach and had formed institutions like the Shaolin Temple. These trained people to be spiritual warriors, so we can safely conclude that ancient Aryas were similar.
Many people wonder whether it was necessary to do the Mahabharata war and also about the meaning of swadharma. Someone said it is about choosing one’s career, while one lady of the Brahmakumari group said it means peace and then she gave a vague explanation that it is the goal of all religions because we all have the same soul. Sri Sri Ravishankar of The Art of Living said:
“Dharma is that which holds the mind, intellect, memory and our inner soul together in harmony. Growth comes when we follow our swadharma.”
This is true but dharma does all of the above only when we work towards our development and make it happen. Also, our mind, intellect, memory and soul can live together in harmony if we struggle/work by doing correct karmas. Right karmas are those that involve fighting for truth and Sanatan Dharma because the fabric of maya, in which we exist, is made of truth which comprises of ethics, morals and good values. It is about being sattvic! It is not simply about choosing a career to suit one’s nature. Take for example a sick person. His entire body is trying to fight off the disease. He too will eat medicine to aid that. So, one might say that it is the swadharma of his body’s white blood cells. Other parts of his body will be doing their role to maintain the body’s health too. The goal does not change. If the heart says it wants to do stomach’s job or vice versa the body will not work.
Careers are usually chosen on the basis of various psychological and socio-economic factors. Most of the time it is difficult to decide whether one’s choice was based on nature or nurture or a combination of both. Of course, one would always wish that one can do the job one loves or is really good at but life does not work that way. Karmic flaws and prarabdha karma are bound to manifest. If for example, I love playing the sitar and have always got a good response from my audience, does it mean that I should leave my job and let my family starve in the hope that one day I shall be a successful musical genius and make millions? Or, that perhaps I shall attain god via my music? That would be foolishness because neglecting my duties of providing for my family will make it worse karmically. Material wealth is not supposed to be the goal of a good karma yogi. The Vyadha Gita says that a decision on what is true under difficult circumstances should be made by sticking to that course of action which leads to the highest good of beings. It teaches that no duty is impure if done correctly and sincerely, and that ahimsa (non-violence) and satya (truth) are the two main pillars of dharma through which the highest good of all can be achieved.
There is a misconception that swadharma is based on the varnashram system which is decided from birth. This is wrong. Gitaji mentions that Sri Krishna in his Yogeshwar form is explaining the system to Arjuna. This means that when a person’s inner chakras have been activated after proper training in gurukuls, and he is in tune with his inner divine, or Krishna, he will be able to perform at a particular level depending on his present karmas and past karmas or prarabdha. This will determine his varna or position in society. The colour of the auras projected by the chakras must have played an important role in determining this. A possible meaning of varna could be ‘var’ meaning acceptance (as stated by Pandurang Shatri Athavale), and ‘arna’ meaning stream or wave. Combined, it could mean that which the inner rivers of energy have accepted. In other words, a person doing sattvic karmas, japa, tapa, and sadhna positively affects the flow of his inner rivers of energy which activate his chakras and further increase his potential. The word could also be broken up into ‘va’ + ‘arna’. So, how the inner vayu propels the spark of consciousness forward along the inner rivers of energy and nadis would affect the activation of the chakras, therefore the performance of the sadhaka. Both nature and nurture play an important role.
In ancient times rishis were experts and better able to guide people when choosing their swadharma. In the Mahabharata, Pandavas are fighting Kauravas because as Kshatriyas that is their swadharma. They are doing it for the good of the majority, and in a way that would leave behind the smallest carbon and psychic footprint. A country needs people to defend it and maintain law and order. Others ‘fight’ in their own way. For example, a writer would fight with a pen rather than a sword because he may not be naturally inclined to it. But having said that, if he sees something wrong happening, it does become his moral duty to fight with a sword, (within sense and reason), even though he may not have been trained to do so. For example, if some woman is being harassed one should be allowed to defend her honour with a weapon rather than wait for the police. In some countries one is allowed to do a citizen’s arrest. Our current society has been organised wrongly.
A rajah is one who has reached that particular calibre and not just one who is crowned king. To use a simple analogy, many people are highly qualified managers but only one gets chosen for a particular post. The others can do that job and may compete for it too. While that one person is manager his job is to work as a team with the other managers in his company. Similarly, one of the duties of a raja was to facilitate the practice of dharma in society. Thus, since the Kuru seniors were senior rajas, their duty was to ensure that the Pandavas too were allowed to do their duty of being good rajas. Since everyone is entitled to get a chance at becoming a karma yogi and attain moksha and their swadharma was to be a rajah, they were demanding their rights.
It is highly likely that people took on apprentices in those days. The candidates could or could not have been biological children. This is a variable that cannot be overlooked. This is because theoretically everyone was to be allowed to progress along the path of karma yoga by doing his swadharma. This would not be possible if rajas selected only their own offspring. For example, Kunti was said to have been adopted. This should not be read in terms of a modern day adoption. In those days every child went to the gurukul and lived there until his education was complete and he was ready to join society. This would be equivalent to modern day graduation. After that, the logical stage would be to get an apprenticeship, which is probably what happened. Mentors were expected to share their knowledge and their homes with the mentees which is why they were referred to as children. Since people did not own properties but worked on their post, the mentees were said to be the heir of that position after successfully completing their apprenticeships.
Srila Prabhupada, in the ‘Bhagavat Gita As It Is’ 1.36 mentioned that:
“According to Vedic injunctions there are six kinds of aggressors: 1) a poison giver, 2) one who sets fire to the house, 3) one who attacks with deadly weapons, 4) one who plunders riches, 5) one who occupies another’s land, and 6) one who kidnaps a wife. Such aggressors are at once to be killed, and no sin is incurred by killing such aggressors.”
It was the duty of the kshatriyas to serve and protect, and they were trained to fight such aggressors. A part of being spiritual is that you don’t own property so it was unlikely that the Kurus were fighing over land per se but for the right to govern. Since Pandu had abdicated and retired, it is not possible for his sons, who had not even been born at the time, to be entitled to anything, even if he had been the owner. They governed land like the government today and had similar quarrels about who could be the better ruler. Therefore it would be incorrect to think that a country would be a property of any one group or have hereditary rule. This sort of false thinking comes from observing the lives of Mlecchas, Mughals and then the British who were tyrants and not rajas in the real sense of the word.
The meaning of Pandavas could be ‘pa’ meaning power and ‘anda’ meaning egg. Thus, the Pandavas were always arguing their case in front of the Kurus by saying that they had the power to rule and so should be given the opportunity. Also, Sri Krishna and Balbhadraji of the Yadava clan were their allies. They had a republic form of government. So it is possible that the Pandavas too preferred to rule like that unlike the Kauravas. This could have been another point that they may have disagreed on. The Kauravas were preventing the Pandavas from getting political power and had also resorted to foul means numerous times by trying to kill them. Also, since many people in society tend to follow the example of its leaders the Kauravas’ corruption was probably adversely affecting society.
Bhisma was a formidable warrior and the Kuru grandfather. According to the popular stories Bhisma had pledged to always help the ruler of Hastinapur. So it is unlikely that the Pandavas would want to antagonise Bhisma by asking to rule Hastinapur instead of Dhritarashtra. In those days the rulership was given to the most suitable candidate. It was not hereditary rule. Bhisma had declared himself regent and had made his less able step-brother and his children rajas. He had also attended the swayamvar of Amba, Ambika and Ambalika and forcibly brought them for Vichitravirya against their wishes. Then, Amba had pledged revenge and had been born again as Shikhandi. Thus, Bhisma had broken some rules and behaved like a bully.
Another point being that while the Kauravas were jealous and wanted the Pandava’s ‘assets’ namely their virtues and popularity, the Pandavas too craved power and that desire was being their downfall. So, from that point of view they were in the same boat. But they were not preventing them from practicing their swadharma in other far-flung areas which was the idea of the vanavas. All their adventures involve the duties of kshatriyas which they do quite successfully such as killing of various rakshas or anti-social elements and protecting people. Just like today, a registered doctor can work anywhere including villages. He does not need to work only in a prestigious hospital. It is due to these reasons that it was a dharma yudha and Krishna, (can be also read as the inner divine), encouraged the Pandavas. He was not inciting them to mindless violence.
I think that the whole story has been read with a negative twist. It also makes good sense if one reads it as the development process of a sadhak who is doing tapasya or vanavas to overcome his negative inner qualities (Kauravas). The meaning of Shakuni that I found from vedictime.com is as below:
Shakuni (Shakuna) is Pāpa (malefic), fixed Karana, ruled by Kali (or Kaali, deity, who’s name means “the Time” or “Death” and is considered the goddess of time and change of the state under the influence of Moksha (transformation), suitable for:
- medicine (taking / making of),
- healing process,
- initiation into Mantras related to “black magic”,
Shakuni is the ‘healing or development process’ that makes them go to vanavas. Each period of this was making them that much stronger since they were working selflessly for society. And I am sure that people who understand different mantras may be able to explain each of their adventures in those terms. In the final year they had to go in agyatvasa. I think this has been misinterpreted as going in hiding and wearing disguises. This could be wrong because they were so famous it would be a little difficult to remain incognito for long. It probably means that they had to live like non-kshatriyas.
Being a kshatriya was their identity just the way being a doctor is. One cannot easily ‘switch off’ especially since they used to take a pledge just like the hypocratic oath. So the level of difficulty was to live in such a way that they would not do duties of a kshatriya and at the same time also not break that pledge. So they chose those roles that they had trained to do as cadets. In those days, in gurukuls cadets did all the work so as not to become arrogant or power crazy and also to develop a well rounded personality. Looking after animals or cooking, for example, the tasks done by Nakula, Sahdev and Bhima are not to be considered easy tasks since level of expertise required was high and not to be confused with a ‘poor cowherd’ or cook of kaliyug. One only has to look at big businesses to understand the ramifications involved. Towards the end, when king Virat had to fight the Kauravas they could no longer neglect their pledge and had to take up arms to help their host and friend. This is why they were declared losers.
Kshatriyas were trained to fight battles like duels with pre-arranged conditions just like duels in other countries where people fight for honour and it ends once first blood is drawn. Otherwise, Bharat would not have had such a glorious history since most people would have been dead and society would have deteriorated long ago. For example, when a surgeon does an operation he is not killing the patient but just removing a diseased organ. The idea being to remove something rotten with minimum loss and expense. In a similar manner, the kshatriyas were expected to fight only when they felt it necessary to remove any adharmic ‘dirt’ from society. They were supposed to do so with an attitude similar to that of a high class surgeon, with equanimity and good intentions and without feelings of lust, greed and anger. That sort of attitude may be referred to as ahimsa.
In later years the Buddha who was also a kshatriya had to preach ahimsa mainly because many mlechha rulers like Ashoka had started indulging in corruption and mindless violence. Buddha’s followers were all experts at martial arts and didn’t hesitate to use them as and when required, but without causing undue damage. There is a lot of information regarding this on the internet. Most famous martial arts schools in the west and the orient acknowledge this debt and pay homage to the Buddha. Some people have misunderstood ahimsa and explain it in terms of someone who never lifts a finger even in self-defence. But this is wrong because their concepts of violence and non-violence are incorrect. Western history praises cruelty of Romans and Vikings among others. They revelled in violence and worshipped soldiers who went berserk. Even their knights who have been projected in a good light were the same. The quote below demonstrates that:
“We have ravaged women, burned houses, slain children, exacted ransom from everyone, eaten their cows, oxen, sheep, stolen their geese, pigs, capons, drunk their wines, violated churches……..For God’s sake, let us march on the pagans!” — Bertrand Du Guesclin- Legendary Fourteenth Century Knight
So it is surprising why they would suddenly choose to praise non-violence, (or turning the other cheek), among the Indians.
The method chosen by the Kurus obviously happened to be with weapons simply because it was necessary at the time although initially they had fought on paper, or, what are erroneously referred to as the dice games. These games were probably not the same as a game of chance but more sophisticated and probably like calculus. Even other ancient societies like the Chinese played complicated games similar to chess using dice, for example the one called ‘Go’. So there is no reason to believe that the Kurus were playing a game of chance. They were intellectually more superior and would have found it abhorrent. Even today we use metaphors such as ‘staking one’s everything’, or gambling one’s life away’. So why take it literally?
In ancient Bharat, when wars were fought great care was taken not to endanger the civilians. They chose a field away from civilized areas so as not to harm others who just went about their business as usual. But, having said that, it was a military society and everybody was a trained soldier although of different calibres. So the lower ranks who did not participate in war used to do supportive duties in society but were well aware of what is war. It was like a kung fu school of ancient China or even an army of today. Many do other jobs like washing, cleaning, cooking etc. These were not considered menial jobs because they used herbs and other natural material for everything, which required expert knowledge of these products and so a high level of education and training.
People were allowed to work towards getting a promotion just like in an army. But, at times when more staff were not required it was not permitted because there is no point in having many highly qualified managers with no-one willing to do a lower level job. Who will do those? And, while one is working towards getting a promotion who would do that job? In a real life scenario if a soldier is not ready for war because he is busy preparing for promotion, it could be disastrous. This is why everyone was advised to do their duties. Even today, would it be permitted for a junior to do a manager’s duty? He could be allowed to give his opinion but not take decisions. Also, one does not need a high position to progress on the path of sadhana as is evident from many case studies of bhaktas such as Kabir, Gorakumbhar, Narsinha Mehta and Tukaram, to name a few.
What perhaps went wrong in the war was that they did not anticipate that the Kauravas would start bending and then breaking the rules by bringing out the ‘big guns’ and this led to the more deadly nuclear war. In those days for safety of the ‘go’, which means prithvi, they did not fight with harmful weapons although they did have them. That is why many people today may be wondering why they did not surrender and give up. Was doing their dharma to society more important than doing dharma to prithvi? Which would have been the better solution; letting society deteriorate or preventing the more harmful nuclear war? The history of the people before the Yadavas and the Kurus, such as the Nagas, who were their ancestors and also the Kesins and Munis who were infinitely superior in terms of yogic powers, showed a state of gradual corruption and deterioration. So, would the war have inevitably happened in the future as it was their destiny? After all, in the system of the chaturyuga there is always a steady decline in conditions by the time one reaches kaliyug.
One important message that we can take on board is that if you are good, you may find yourself to be in a minority just like the Pandavas and in order to win, improve karmas and make progress on the path of sadhana you will have to fight the vast majority of the Kauravas by tuning in with the inner divine Sri Krishna, and by putting aside sentimental attachments. It would help to remember the wise saying ‘dharmo rakshati rakshita’- dharma protects those who protect it.