The Bhagavad Gita as an Integral Part of the Epic Mahabharata
The Bhagavad Gita is an integral part of a vast epic, the great Sanskrit poem, The Mahabharata. According to the scholar J.A.B. van Buitenen the Mahabharata has had an immense influence, more than any other text, on Indian civilization. The Mahabharata is not just another tale of the ceaseless human drama, but it is ‘the storehouse of political wisdom, philosophical doctrine, religious doctrines, and a splendid work of literary art’ (M.N. Dutt).
Indian tradition has accepted Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa as poet author of the Mahabharata. Krishna means dark in complexion, Dvaipayana refers to his birth in a river islet as dvip means Island, and Vyasa means the compiler of texts. Most scholars agree that the main story was the conscious composition of one poet, or at least a small group of poets. But over time there were many additions to the Mahabharata and therefore versions or what is termed recensions.
Before paper was introduced in 1000 AD, the Sanskrit texts were written on birch bark in the upper north India and palm leaf in the south (J.A.B. van Buitenen). You can imagine how perishable these manuscripts were and so they were transcribed regularly. With so many versions, the quest for a definitive version had to be undertaken and was finally achieved in 1970 under the direction of scholars at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute at Pune India.
With 100,000 couplets, the Mahabharata is the world’s longest poem and the longest literary work. It is several times the length of the Bible and eight times longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey put together. The epic itself says that the Mahabharata is like ‘an ocean which carries out all types of compositions pertaining to all kinds of knowledge’ (M.N. Dutt).
The dates for the writing of the Mahabharata vary. Van Buitenen gives the origin between the 8th and 9th century BC. Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair accepts 150 BC as the date for the Bhagavad Gita. M.N. Dutt states that the date of the original events of the Mahabharata is at least 1000 BC, but Indian tradition finds the events of the war near 3100 BC, thus the epic was composed after 3100 BC.
According to Alain Danielou the Dawn of the Kali Yuga began in 3,606 BC and the Kali Yuga’s official arrival was in 3,102 BC. The Puranic tradition is that the Kali Yuga began when Krishna, the great hero of the Mahabharata, left the earth.
While I appreciate scholars delving deeply into the historical facts of the Mahabharata, I don’t feel that it is useful to approach this epic with a western biased critical attitude. The Mahabharata is a resource, a fountain, an ocean of wisdom, knowledge, and insight into human character that reflects a time before our current Kali Yuga amnesia, when density has literally ‘cooked’ our consciousness in Time and left us totally dependent on the five senses.
As the poet author of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita, Vyasa possessed a higher consciousness and intelligence not seen on this planet for thousands of years. For me, India’s genius is her acceptance of historical events mysteriously morphing, moving, and slipping into what we in the west call myth. What is out-of-this-world is perhaps more real than the so-called real. The Irish also have a talent for this blurring of worlds.
We westerners suffer serious spiritual depravation and poverty of imagination through the adherence to a confining definition that relegates to mere myth all experiences which take place beyond the scope of the five senses. Our current inability to access and flow in consciousness into the higher dimensional realms is a symptom of the Kali Yuga and a result of the imprisonment of our consciousness within the limitations of what can be quantified by our five senses. Thus we are cut off from the Invisible Realms.
As Hamlet says: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
The stories in the Mahabharata, and the other great Indian epic the Ramayana, make it abundantly clear that we humans once had ongoing interactions with other worlds through experiences which gave meaning to our lives, and yet now are considered ‘myth’ or mumbo-jumbo. But anyone who has spent time in meditation, or for that matter any artist or poet, will tell you that such worlds do exist and that they are often the finest source of artistic inspiration.
In my view, facts are often spurious or merely the product and filtered opinions of whoever collected them; facts are whatever the group agrees upon at any given time. Arthur Koestler’s brilliant book, ‘The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe’ is acute evidence of this ‘fact’! In the Kali Yuga such addiction to quantification can be perilous and sometimes humorous, because this is the time when people prefer false ideas and esteem those who are without virtue. I offer Rene Guenon’s equally brilliant ‘The Reign of Quantity’ as evidence. History is written by the conquerors. In this age of the unbalanced ego and its skewed subjective hologram, the Mahabharata offers an oasis of eternal wisdom along with really the best stories you have ever read!
It is said of the great epic The Mahabharata that “Whatever is here is found elsewhere. But whatever is not here is no where else.”
While the above statement may sound a bit proud to anyone who has not dived into the Mahabharata, once you start to get a feel for the story and the characters, you have to realize it is true. Every possible human drama is portrayed in the epic and there are interactions with the non-human realms, the gods, Apsaras, Asuras, and so many others that draw your imagination into realms unknown.
These superb otherworldly adventures are not just for the sake of a tale-well-told, they contain wisdom. The Mahabharata is filled with the highest level of spiritual consciousness at every turn, along with some grand love stories, including a lady with 5 husbands, and a bloody war between families which is complicated by generations of decisions, deeds, oaths, and envy - a war with some intriguing very sci-fi sounding weaponry.
Over the years the Mahabharata has become my favorite book and reading Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair’s work ‘The Mahabharata, A Literary Study’ has greatly deepened my understanding. This esteemed Indian scholar seems to have quietly adopted the poet Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa as his mentor and father-in-spirit. Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair is passionate about the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita. He understands the poet in a unique way, which I suggest is as one genius to another. He feels strongly that the Gita should not have been ‘torn lose from the matrix of the epic and regarded as another treatise on philosophy’ by what he calls ‘schoolmen’, meaning Sankara, Ramanuja, and others. (See The Betrayal of Krishna/Part 4)
With his considerable intellect and insight, Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair observes, ‘There is nothing cultist about the theism of the epic and the Gita; only something far greater, a great poet’s intuition of a divine intentionality behind creation, evolution, history.’ The epic gives the reader the opportunity to see and understand the world as a fabric of cosmic proportions woven in time - the Matrix. Ineluctably the events of the past emerge in the present to create the future. Sometimes we are aware of the threads that weave our hologram, and more often we remain unconscious of how our every act creates what will be. We become precisely what we do.
Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair sees quite correctly that the Mahabharata is as valid today as it has been through all of written history. The characters are as complex and fatally human as any 21st century man or woman. To my mind, the epic holds the blueprint of every intricacy and event possible in the human drama during the Kali Yuga. The battlefield at Kurukshetra is no different than any battlefield that holds the promise of Armageddon to a civilization.
He internally remembered himself ...
One fine example of how the Bhagavad Gita is an pivotal part of the Mahabharata is in the Karna Parva, or the Book of Karna. The moment has arrived for a great battle between two great warrior heroes - Arjuna is a Pandava and Karna fights for the Kauravas. The scene is unbearably tragic because Karna is in fact Arjuna’s older brother and the eldest Pandava by birth, but Arjuna does not yet know that he is about to kill a truly great and noble soul whose mother is also his mother.
The description of the battle between these two men is riveting and right out of sci-fi fantasy. The sky is darkened with arrows and each hero, even Krishna who is Arjuna’s charioteer, receives countless wounds from 100s of arrows. The arrows eventually cover Karna ‘like the rays of the sun’ and blood flows down his entire body. Snakes transform themselves into arrows that burn through and shatter Arjuna’s gold diadem. Deities and other celestials such as the Apsaras observe, cheer, and now and then shower flower petals down on Karna, Krishna and Arjuna when they have performed some particularly brave or virtuous act.
In the early stages of the fight, Karna cuts downs Arjuna’s arrows in the sky above. It seems that both men have magical weapons, which have been given to them by gods or imbued with power by their own penance and consciousness through mantras. Their arrows are far from ordinary and often have the effect of electromagnetic pulse weapons, lasers, or destructive sonic wave forms. They can instantly multiply so that one arrow has the effect of 100s or 1000s, and yet these arrows can be nullified by the other warrior’s arrows in the air when he too has the power.
Seeing his friend Arjuna ‘confounded’ by Karna’s admirable defense, Krishna once again urges Arjuna on by first taunting him a bit and then showing him the wisdom of his destiny. Krishna tells Arjuna that he will kill Karna ‘this day’ and ‘with the same energy that you have shown in Yuga after Yuga in killing persons possessed of dark weapons and fierce Rakshasas (demons)...’ (M.N. Dutt Ch.89.44).
Thus we are lead to understand that Arjuna is one who transmigrates through time to defeat the dark-side again and again, and works for the well-being of the world - LOKASAMGRAHA - as the scholar Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair advocates. Inspired by Krishna’s words, Arjuna has an adrenaline enhancing epiphany and Arjuna, who was considered the greatest warrior of the time, ‘internally remembered himself and for what he had come to the world ...’ (M.N. Dutt Ch.89.49).
This incident not only expands Krishna’s discourse with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, but also explains why the conversation took place. Krishna knows Arjuna. Indeed Krishna has always known him in Yuga after Yuga and he is there to remind Arjuna of who he really is, meaning the God deep within him, and spur Arjuna on to his intended destiny.
Remembering our true identity as a portion of the Creator and allying our consciousness with the God within us in the ultimate cosmic partnership, liberates us from the veils of density and delusion, and empowers us to work for the weal of the world in a way that no ambition or material reward or psycho-babble behavioral training ever could. Krishna empowers his beloved friend Arjuna to Remember who he is!
A window back into Time ...
The Mahabharata is said to have taken place around 3100 BC, at the end of the Dvapara Yuga. For me this epic offers a window back into time and gives us a glimpse of what the world might have been before the Kali Yuga. An interesting episode in the Vana Parva, or the Book of the Forest, reveals a tantalizing clue concerning the variations in material manifestations that occur as our consciousness moves through Time from Yuga to Yuga.
One of the Pandava brothers, big strong Bhima, meets the great monkey-hero Hanuman from the days of the other great Sanskrit epic, The Ramayana. The Ramayana takes place in the Yuga previous to the Dvapara, the Treta Yuga. In the Ramayana, the hero Rama, an incarnation of the deity Vishnu, engages an entire army of monkey-men (shades of Planet of the Apes) to fight off Ravana, the Rakshasa demon king who has abducted Rama’s precious and pure wife Sita. The high-souled monkey chief Hanuman becomes the greatest devotee and friend to Rama.
Bhima is deeply honored to meet the heroic Hanuman. ‘None is more fortunate than me ...’ (M.N. Dutt). He asks Hanuman to reveal the form he assumed long ago when he leapt across the ocean to find the lovely bereft kidnapped Sita, who was bravely fighting off the demon king Ravana’s repulsive advances. Hanuman smiles at Bhima and explains to him that because the Treta Yuga has passed, no one can see him as he was in that time. Hanuman no longer possesses that form in this moment of their meeting, a time of deterioration and diminution.
Everything in the world is affected by the passage of Time and as the frequencies change, so does the ‘strength, size, and capacity’ (van Buitenen - 3.148.5) of everything - including the natural world, the rivers, trees, and mountains. The world and we humans are smaller in every respect, consciousness, substance, integrity, and physical size. ‘The Siddhas, the celestials (gods), the great Rishis (seers), all conform to Time, as it comes to be in the different Yugas’ (M.N.Dutt - Vol.2, Ch.149). Even the great hero Hanuman is susceptible to the immutable alteration in the frequencies of Time as they affect consciousness and thus the visible world.
Later Hanuman relents and does show Bhima his ability to assume ‘a gigantic body’ the size of a mountain. The monkey-hero ‘pervaded space’ (van Buitenen) It is because Bhima is sinless that he can see Hanuman’s expanded form and although Hanuman says he could grow even larger, he warns Bhima that he can only stand to see this much.
The Law, meaning Dharma, deteriorates in each Yuga. Time controls the Matrix. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that he is Time grown old to destroy the world. (Bh.G. XI.33)
God’s Perfection is Dynamic
Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair has what I perceive as an insider’s view of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita. His deeply comprehensive insights into the poet author Vyasa have made me realize how subtle these works are, and in turn how subtly intricate this world is, in spite of our insistence on seeing things in terms of polarities, black and white, good and evil. The world and each person in it is a highly complex weave of contrasts, colors, nuances of tones and feelings that are quite out of reach of the ‘sound-bite’ we are fed by the monopoly media, which only seeks to titillate, pacify, and numb - or the latest quick-fix self-help books that come and go in our consumer gimmick-loving culture.
Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair has forced me to grow and to think in a new way, to realize a more authentic approach to God. This eminent Indian scholar has led me to understand that, as he says, ‘God’s perfection is dynamic.’
Most of us think of God as an absolute, something already perfect, already attained. But if you contemplate this assumed state of absolutism and stasis simply in terms of your own experience - and are we not at least a partial reflection of our creator - in terms of what we as human beings thrive on and enjoy, God would not be stasis. God would be dynamic force ever expanding and renewing and recreating itself in new forms, higher consciousness, and conceivably new universes.
Thus God is not static, not one perfect stasis that we must forever seek and achieve. God’s perfection is in every changing fluctuation, the oceanic drifting flow, and each oscillating waveform. God is the dynamic force that emanates from within us and moves us to expand, experience, and incorporate ever fresh, new, higher and deeper expressions as the Cycles of Time weave themselves around, into, and through the Oneness that permeates All.
It is obvious to anyone with even a taste of experience that life is not only some peaceful pastoral scene, a saccharine-sweet Hollywood ending, or the songs of sentiment. The Sanskrit texts understand the titanic supernova power and violence of universal creation and destruction. In his book on the Mahabharata, Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair quotes the Katha Upanishad:
‘The whole world, whatever there is, springs from and moves in life which is a great terror (mahad-bhyam), an upraised thunderbolt (vajramudyatam).’
The poet Vyasa wrote the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita in the form of a poem - not as some philosophical or religious treatise as the ‘schoolmen’ might. The texts are great literary works as well as being the source of an authentic primordial wisdom. Vyasa uses the epic story to convey the dynamic nature of Creator and to illustrate how we may Become and achieve a ‘qualitative’ similitude - SADHARMYA - with deity (Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair).
The characters in the Mahabharata are forced to evolve through stressful circumstances, and the ‘strings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ either make them great or break them. It is all dependent on the choices they make, for as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says:
‘Even as one acts, even as he behaves, so does he become ... The doer of good becomes good, the doer of evil becomes evil.’ (4-4.5.)
Great spiritual need is often camouflaged as emotional suffering
In his book ‘Freedom and Transcendence,’ Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair argues that man does not ‘strive for pleasure, but for a meaning.’ He suggests, using the work of Victor Frankl, that the conscious pursuit of pleasure is neurosis and that whenever we deliberately pursue our own pleasure, our attempts fail. Pleasure for its own sake is somehow sour, shallow, and unfulfilling, leaving us in that state of constant craving, empty and addicted to our desire for more.
The truth is that ‘genuine and enduring pleasure’ emerges as a result of the natural course when we pursue a goal that makes us better. When we strive for wisdom, self-mastery, and to become something higher, finer, and enlightened, we experience pleasure as an enduring joy that gives us the strength of self-confidence to endeavor and Become even more.
It is the great tragedy of our time that we do not understand the value of suffering. Conventional psychotherapy and the endless plethora of mood altering suppressant drugs provided by a profit motivated pharmaceutical industry has convinced most people that their emotional angst should not be felt. The truth is that depression and heartache and even guilt are messages from your soul to look deeply into your life and rethink your outfit!
‘A great spiritual need is often camouflaged as emotional suffering ... The superficial allaying of symptoms is metaphysically irresponsible.’ (Freedom & Transcendence - Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair)
Evolve into A Finer Grain of Being
Yudhisthira is a man of Dharma, with supposedly impeccable morality and yet he foolishly gambles away his wealth, kingdom, and even his brothers and wife, Draupadi. The Dice Game is a cosmic symbol for Life and its metaphorical implications are not shallow (Handelman & Shulman). Each dice stands for one of the four Yugas and in Shiva stories it is understood that the Lord throws the dice and loses himself into the manifestation of creation. Yudhisthira has much to learn, not just to be a better dice player, but he must learn through experience to become a wiser man who does indeed deserve to be the ruler of his kingdom. Yudhisthira and the others in the epic must, as Krishna Chaitanya/KK Nair says, ‘evolve into a finer grain of being.’
As we pass through the cycles of time and these ‘finer grains of being’ evolve, primordial metaphysics would imply that a deeply darker and more insidiously refined evil would also emerge. Thus we see the shadows of malevolence permeating our leaders in convoluted ways, such as spin and the manufacture of false image, that were never imagined by men like Thomas Jefferson or even a Napoleon. We see greed saturate our everyday lives as the leaders of industry shock us with their crass unthinking short sighted aggression, so much so that it appears that the very chemicals man has invented to preserve life, may be the source of our extinction.
Life will never end completely. Life is eternal and will return as the Cycles of Time begin again and again. God is akshara - the Imperishable. The Mahabharata gives us a grand cosmic roadmap, the blue print for our current age, the Kali Yuga. For those who tune their hearts to hear, the Bhagavad Gita reveals the wisdom to live it with integrity, decency, and a true elegance of being.
While the Gods Play
Shaiva Oracles & Predictions of the Cycles of History & the Destiny of Mankind
Inner Traditions International, 1987, Vermont
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
With the Commentary of Sankaracarya
Translated by Swami Madhavananda
Advaita Ashrama, 2004, Kolkata
Freedom and Transcendence
Manohar, 1982, New Delhi
The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe
The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times
Sophia Perennis; 4th Rev edition (June 9, 2004)
God Inside Out: Siva’s Game of Dice
Don Handelman & David Shulman
Oxford University Press, 1997