How the Mahabharata’s key messages reflect society today

The Bhagavad Gita is the ancient Indian holy book that became an important work of Hindu tradition in terms of literature, spirituality, and philosophy. The Bhagavad Gita became a section of a massive Indian epic named “The Mahabharata”, the world’s longest epic poem – it covers every aspect of human life from our relationships, weaknesses, character flaws, the stupidity of society, jealousy, friendship, rage and betrayal.

The Mahabharata holds a mirror up to life and it gives society and Indians a model for looking at the world that has deep roots in their civilization. It has been elaborated and presented in many forms to teach us the lessons of life. Here are some examples of how the story of the Mahabharata can relate to our society today.

Following rules of honour isn’t always morally right

In the Mahabharata, the Pandavas – five brothers who were the sons of a king – felt their reputation was on the line when asked to gamble and play a game of dice with their cousins, the Kauravas. The Pandavas put their personal honour and reputation before thinking about their kingdom and their queen. As a result, they lost everything in the name of honour and were sent into exile. Being a slave to honour can still be seen in many parts of South Asian society today  – in the rules of caste-based discrimination, honour-based violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Many victims following these cultural norms do not wish to criminalise or dishonour their parents, families or cultures and in doing so become isolated – similar to how the Pandavas were exiled from society. Social norms are unwritten rules of behaviour that dictate how individuals react in specific situations, which are enforced by peers using social punishments. If following such strict principles can lead to actions that are immoral, then isn’t it better to evaluate the beliefs that underpin our sense of duty and honour?

Greed, jealousy and revenge leads to misery

The core problem of the Mahabharata war was greed, jealousy and revenge. Dhritarashtra wanted his son, Duryodhana, to be the next king, and Duryodhana was greedy enough to take the throne and exile the Pandavas from the kingdom. Instead of sharing with them – his cousin brothers – he allowed revenge and jealousy to overpower his intelligence. Shakuni, the evil uncle of the Kauravas – cousins of the Pandavas – teaches us that greed can consume an entire civilization and blind you from reality. Krishna himself also reminds the Pandava’s of their moral responsibility to the throne and the people they ruled – was this advice to control their greed for power and their lust for the throne?

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The bond of friendship

Krishna’s unconditional love and support for the Pandavas and his unique friendship with Arjuna are things all of us can relate to and desire. When, during the gamble of the dice game the Pandavas watched the Kauravas, their cousins, undress their queen, Draupadi, it was Krishna that rescued her while her husbands gambled her away to disgrace. There was nothing that Krishna and Arjuna did not do for each other; Krishna sacrificed others to ensure Arjuna’s safety; Arjuna put his life in danger for Krishna. They stood by each other from the moment Krishna first entered Arjuna’s life to the moment Krishna died.

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Dehumanising women

Draupadi, the heroine of the Mahabharata epic, is courageous and strong even in unrobdifficult, patriarchal times. Her husband, Yudhisthira, ends up gambling with the Kauravas and losing everything, including his wife. Duryodhana, the winner of the bet, insists that Draupadi is indeed his and orders her to be undressed. This significant moment in which Draupadi is gambled away and thrown around, highlights how both the Panadvas and the Kauravas did not view her as a human being, but as a possession, an object for men to do with as they please. This attitude can still be seen today in modern-day India. Reports of rapes will often mention the marital status of the woman, especially if she was a newlywed, carrying the suggestion that the crime against a married woman is more serious than if she were single, because it is also a crime against the man she is married to – the rapist commits a crime against his ‘property’.

Last year, a 13-year-old girl was raped in Uttar Pradesh. She gave birth to the child. A month later, she was married off to her rapist. Village elders intervened and felt that this was the honourable course of action.

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War can be justified

Hinduism has a reputation for being a non-violent religion, largely due to Gandhi’s influence, however the Mahabarata accepts the idea of a ‘just’ war. According to the evil uncle Shakuni, war is an option that should only be resorted to after all political solutions fail. Krishna also tells Arjuna that once a war breaks out, it is not only justifiable but it is a requirement to fight for what is right. The Mahabarata explains that war should aim to bring about a desired conclusion, and we should not walk away from justified violence solely on the principle of non-violence.

What else could the Mahabharata symbolise?

Many believe that Draupadi symbolises the human body – the five Pandavas to whom she is married reflect our five senses. And the Kauravas, a family of 100 members, are presented in the form of tendencies of the mind such as jealousy, revenge, love, compassion etc. The senses also think that they can win over the tendencies of the mind (Pandavas vs Kauravas). The Pandavas keep gambling till they lose everything and Draupadi is ordered to be undressed, but Krishna rescues her – which reflects how the body does not abandon us, even when we lead it into exile. Once the Pandavas and Kauravas decide to go to war, Krishna tells Arjuna to kill all of those that are Kauravas, even if they are good people. This implies that all tendencies must be exterminated – in order to gain enlightenment you must overcome the tendencies of the mind, both good and bad – a war rages inside us between our senses and our mind’s tendencies.

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Conclusion

The Mahabharata still has a lot to teach modern India, South Asian culture, and society as a whole – everyone could learn a lot from the key messages of the story. The Mahabharata continues to be relevant and widely popular still. Its timeless lessons continue to lead our thinking, always pulling us away from extremes of idealism and immoral values and keeping us on a path of moderation and virtue. And sometimes life can be hard and full of hurdles that must be overcome if we are to achieve justice.

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