The Bhagavad-Gītā is a chapter in the grand epic Mahabharata. This epic treats of many themes, recounts many events and refers to many episodes from India’s sacred history. The central thread of this longest epic in world literature is the rivalry between two families of cousins: the noble Pāṇḍavas and the ignoble Kauravas.
The conflict between the forces of good and evil is the motif in many epics. In many works, as in Greek and Babylonian myths, as also in Indic Purāṇas, the manifestations of good and evil are often mythic beings. But in others they are earthly men and women like the rest of us. John Locke perceptively wrote that “good and evil, reward and punishment, are the only motives to a rational creature: these are the spur and reins whereby all mankind are set on work, and guided.”
The Mahabharata also has several supernatural elements. The principal characters, Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas, are endowed with superhuman strengths, but they are still very human. The epic talks, not about wars between demons and angels or asuras and devas, but about the perennial struggles that are part of human history.
Then again, Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas are not strangers: they are cousins. The French thinker François Fénelon wrote: Touts les guerres sont civiles; car c’est toujours l’homme contre l’homme qui répand son propre sang, qui déchire ses propres entrailles: All wars are civil wars, for it is always man spilling his own blood, and tearing his own guts.” So is the war in the Mahabharata: it is between kith and kin.
The first word in the Gītā is dharma: a term that is as untranslatable into English as filibuster into Sanskrit. Dharma has been variously rendered as duty, religion and righteousness. The term is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning to support. Etymologically, therefore, dharma signifies a framework in which one is at peace with oneself and with the world around. It also refers to what one should do to achieve this. Thus, dharma is what one ought to do, whereas karma is what one does. If and when, karma and dharma coincide in a person’s life, that would be ideal. The sheer simplicity in this ethical, religious, philosophical concept is remarkable.
Inner peace and harmony with the world around are not easy to achieve, but they are what sane and healthy people strive for. The Gītā offers pointers towards them even as it reveals much about the human condition. When it refers to the field of dharma, this could be taken as referring to ourselves. But it adds right away the field of Kurus which includes both Pāṇḍavas and their current enemies, the Kauravas. This suggests that our physical existence is the field of both healthy and unhealthy forces.
Therefore many commentators interpret the Battle of Kurukshetra not as a historical encounter between enemies on a battlefield, but as symbolic of the ethical tug human beings often experience. Gandhi accepted this interpretation. Some enlightened Muslims of our times interpret the jihad of their tradition in similar terms. In these instances we see how ancient religious texts may be given different interpretations. Non-literal interpretations can be very meaningful, and they can free us from untenable doctrines when taken literally. All interpretations depend on the context where they are applied, the goals for which they are meant, and on the personal philosophy of the interpreter.
The blind king Dhrithirāshtra asks helplessly, “What are they doing?” As we, in our state of ignorance and confusion may be wondering: What are we doing in the context of ethical confrontations? Jidda Krishnamurti once remarked: “Hitler and Mussolini were only the primary spokesmen for the attitude of domination and craving for power that are in the heart of almost everyone. Until the source is cleared, there will always be confusion and hate, wars and class antagonisms.” This ancient truth is illustrated in the behavior of the Kauravas in the epic, as of so many throughout history. In reminders like this we recognize why the Gītā embodies perennial truths. Like the laws of nature, there are aspects of the human mind and heart that transcend age and culture, religion and nationality, and even periods of history.
Dhritarāshtra is blind and cannot see. Saṃjaya has eyes with which he can see events occurring at a distance, he has ears with which he can hear conversations far away. We realize that our eyes and ears may not always be helpful in what they are meant for. In Mark (8:18) we read: “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” On occasions eyes and ears may also do much more than what they normally do. We are all Dhritarāshtras sometimes, and Saṃjayas at other times. With an appropriate Saṃjaya even a Dhritarāshtra could see and hear.
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