Mahabharata is one of the greatest besant in the introduction to this book.
It is the story of the Aryan race in India some five thousand years ago and includes an account of the epic war between the Pandavas and Kauravas two groups descended from king Bharata from whom India takes its name Bharata.
This book is based on notes of lectures delivered by Dr Besant (deep scholar in Hinduism as well as comparative religion and international president of the theosophical society 1907-33) at the central Hindu college Benares (now Varanasi) in the first decade of this century.
Dr Besant describes the Mahabharata as a great teacher of ethics and philosophy and it is also history. The original in Sanskrit verse, Dr Besant say is the greatest poem in the world. There is no other poem so splendid as this so full of what we want to know and of what is good for us to study.
It is so beautiful in its language and tells so interesting a story that every Hindu boy should know something of it so Dr Besant narrated it to the student of the central Hindu college in words of this book.
We are going to study the book called the Mahabharata one of the greatest books in the world. To do its usefully we must begin by seeing what sort of book it is that we are going to study and what sort of mind we are to brings to the reading of it. For the mind of the student has a great deal to do with understanding the books. If his mind be properly prepared he will understand more easily the book he is going to read than if he comes to it with his mind in a wrong attitude. If you want to see a thing you must look at it with your eyes open not shut. You must turn your face to it, not your back. And so with the mind; its eyes must be opened and its face turned to the book. We must know how to read it. So we will begin by getting our minds ready and putting them into the right attitude. We must find out how to our book. Then we all takes up Parva (volume after volume) picking out the most important parts and stringing them into an orderly story we and stringing them into an orderly story we shall try to get a clear idea of the whole book what it is meant to teach the kind of people whose story is told in it what they were doing and trying to do how the gods helped or hindered them and the working of the gods in the event that took place.
When you go out into the world you will meet people who do not believe that gods are shaping event and guiding the worlds. Those who do not believe in the Hindu religion will also attack your scriptures your sacred books. It is therefore part of the duty of a Hindu boy to understand a little about the sacred book of his religion so that he may not be shaken by what ignorant or foolish people may say against them.
The Mahabharata has a high value as literature that is when judged from a literary literature that is when judged from a literary standpoint. Even nation has a literature books and some stand high and some low in this respect. They have poems histories stories philosophic and religious books. The place that a nation hold in the mind of the world depends very largely on its books. If a nation produces great books that nation is looked on as great by other nations. If it has no great books it is despised. These is no nation which has greater books than the Indian.
You read about the Greeks with their poet homer who told the story of a ten years war and with manu splendid writers of philosophy and history people now read their books and say what a great country Greece was to produce such writers. People in the west are beginning to say what a great country Greece was to produce such writers. People in the west are beginning to read your books written in Samskrit and to say what a great nation the Indian must have been in the old days to write such books. The Mahabharata is the greatest poem in the whole world. There is no other poem so splendid as this so full of what we want to know and of what it is good for us to study. It is so beautiful in its language and tells so interesting a story that every Hindu boy should know something about it. It is not good to grow up without knowing a little of this greatest poem in the world written by and for our own forefather. So we are going to begin its study.
There are three things in which its greatness chiefly consists: (a) Its Ethics; (b) Its philosophy; (c) Its History.
(a) Ethics means morality dealt with systematically good conduct and the ruler of good conduct. When you learn arithmetic you are given certain ruler and if you follow the ruler and apply them properly the sum comes out right. So it is with ethics the science of morality. It deals with right and wrong what it is good to do and what it is bad to do. There are definite rules. Ethics does not say: You ought to be good or you ought not to be bad’; but it gives rules showing what is good and what is bad what you should do and what you should avoid. All these rules and the principles underlying them are called ethics.
The Mahabharata is great as a teacher of Ethics showing us how to behave ourselves. It teaches everybody. It teaches children boys and girls men and women and it teaches them what to do at each part of life. It teaches Brahmanas, Kashattriyas, Vaisyas, sudras, and people without casts as well so that all may learn how to behave themselves in everyday life. It teaches how to live in business in the family as husband father and son wife mother and daughter. It teaches the common things of everyday life and does this in a very interesting way by means of stories. Instead of saying: you ought to tell the truth it tells us a number of stories about people who told the truth and what happened to them. Instead of saying: you ought not to tell a lie it tells us a number of stories about people who told lies learn how to apply the people who told lies and what happened to them. In this way we learn how to apply the rules of conduct and thus to understand them much better. When one of your professor teaches you a rule in arithmetic he gives you a number of sums to be worked out by that rules and that helps you to understand it much better than if you had only the rule and no examples.
Good behavior is a more important thing than some people think: success happiness about prahlada who by the merit of his good conduct took from Indra the sovereignty of the three worlds; then Indra disguising himself as a Brahmana went and served Prahlada as his disciple until Prahlada pleased with him offered to grant any boon he desired.
Then Indra asked that prahlada would give him his behavior and though filled with fear as to the consequences Prahlada gave it, bound by his word. As prahlada sat brooding over what had occurred a flame with a shadowy form issued from his body and when the king asked who art thou? The form answered: I am the embodiment of the Behaviour caste off by thee. I am going away to dwell with the devoted disciple the Brahmana. And another form left the king body and when asked said: I am righteousness I live where Behaviour dwells. And in the same way went forth Truth Good deeds might and prosperity; and the last named said: O Prahlada it was by the Behavour that thou hadst reduced the three worlds to subjection. Knowing this the chief of the celestials robbed thee of thy behavior. Righteousness truth Good Deeds might and myself O thou of the great wisdom all have our root verily in behavior had gone.
Another important principle we learn from many stories in the Mahabharata is that morality is relative. This means that what is right conduct for one person is not always right conduct for another and that duty depends on what a man is. If you are a boy if is right for you to do what your teacher tells you. If you are a teacher it is right for you to tell others what to do. If you are a father it is you duty to train your sons. If you are a son it is your duty to follow your father advice. The usefulness of a man depends on his knowing and doing the duties belonging to his place in life. To you as boy in school and college it is not of importance to know the duties of the head of a household. It is very important that you should know and do your duties as student. The Mahabharata lays great stress on this relation between conduct and position.
Further this book gives all that is needed by everybody in the way of moral teaching. Some books are meant only for special people. A very difficult book is only for a learned man: the ignorant man cannot understand useless to a peasant. Some books on religion are only for advanced people. But this book sis for everybody and however little a man may now there is something for him here. It can be read by everybody and everybody can profit by it. If they read no other book they can learn from this all they need in religious and moral knowledge.
(b) Philosophy is addressed to the intellect the reasoning and judging power in man. It deals with truths about God, man, the world and the universe and arrange these things in an intellectual system. The Mahabharata teaches a great philosophy that which underlies all the Hindu religion. There is one Supreme Being god the oneself in everybody and in everything. This god is everywhere in the sun moon and stars in gods and men in animals vegetables and minerals. There is one life in all and that life is god. Therefore all creates are one they are not really separate; what is good for one is good for all; what is good for all is good for one. Because of this we should be kind to all and love all; there is a common life and we hurt it in ourselves when we hurt in another. The life in the ox in the bird is your life is yours. You should take care of it and protect it as your own. Let me tell you the story about kind Usinara and the pigeon who sought his protection. The chief duty of a kind is to protect all in his kingdom and two of the goods Indra and Agni wished to text Usinara in his discharge of this duty. Indra took the pigeon chased by the hawk took refuge on the ground that the pigeon had sought his protection. Then the hawk argued that deprived of food he would perish and that in protecting one life the king failed to protect many. The king refusing to give up the pigeon offered other food but all was reufsed until at last the hawk offered to give up his claim if the king would give of his own flesh as much s equaled the weight of the pigeon. The king gladly consented and placed a piece of his own flesh in the balance against the weight of the pigeon; but the scale rose. So he cut off piece after piece and still the pigeon was the heavier until at last he placed his own mangled figured in the scale. Then the gods revealed themselves and blessed the king who saved a suppliant at the cost of his own flesh.
(c) The Mahabharata is a history although it is more than a history. This big book in eighteen volumes tells a story about things that really occurred some five thousand year ago. Five thousand years ago Sri Krishna the blessed lord put off his mortal body. Then began the Kali yuga. The story told in this book ends soon after he left the earth. That is the first tale but a history. The mighty Kshattriya caste the warrior caste of India was. Her soldiers that kept her safe and made an iron wall around her were slain in this war and that caste ceased to exist as a powerful order and was carried on only by scattered families. It destruction opened the way for India conquest and fall.
The kali yuga is a time in which people lose belief in the gods and their work and become more and more the servant of outer things. They believe in the things that they can see, hear, touch, taste or smell the things your bodily senses tell you about. You believe in a table because you can see and touch it. You believe in a house a person the objects round you because you can see and handle them. But many people do not believe in things that they cannot see or touch in gods that are round s all the time in the supreme self whose life is our life. Most people here are half way. They will not say they do not believe in the gods but their lives show that they do not believe in the gods every day among us are not seen as their work. you talk on nature of the sun rising the moon shining the water matters of course. But in every one of them a god is at work. when the fire burns on the god is at work. when the fire burns on the hearth in the jungle a god is at work and the fie is his way of showing himself. The fire is not a mere chemical thing but it is the way the god Agni has of showing himself down here. In other worlds he shows himself in other ways but there as fire. When the water of Ganga rises a goddess is there in svarga she shows herself differently but here as a rushing stream. If you cannot believe this the Mahabharata will always puzzle you; for it relates thing as they really happened instead of in the way in which they look to our eyes. Instead of saying the fire burned the forest of Khandava it says Agni burned it. It talks always of what believe in the gods think that that who do not believe in the gods think that that is a fanciful way of putting things. Few people believe that such things happen now and yet they do happen as much as ever they did. In other ages the gods would often show himself at work and let people see him. Now the gods hide themselves because the people have become materialistic and do not care for them. Now and then a person who is pure and loving sees them as in the old days and such a person believes in a book life this and its stories do not seem strange to him.
Men now often speak of the invisible side of nature as supernatural. That is a mistake the greater part of nature is made up of the worlds and the beings that are invisible to ore physical sense but who move this lower world.
In the old days the gods thought men sometimes directly sometimes through great men called sages or rishis. Mantras that is a word or a sentence of which the sound has power in the invisible world were given to men to sue and great effects were produced by these mantras. Men were taught how to think so that their thought had power. We read how a man thought of a god and the god appeared. How he thought of a weapon and the weapon came to him. Thought ahs the same power now and scientific men are beginning to make experiments with it. Every one could not use it in the old days to call a god or a weapon but only great men could use it who had been taught by the gods. Nowadays some yogis can use thought in this way for the gods have not changed nor have they changed their laws; it is only men who have grown weak because they are unbelieving.
The gods guide the world. As a coachman guides his horses so the gods guide the world. As you might sit in a carriage and pull the reins this way and that the horse obediently moving the carriage so the gods sit over the world and pull the forces one way or the other and then world is moved. They are always trying to drive the world the best way. The world is making a long journey and there are many side road off the main track. We call the main track evolution the way of the world from the beginning to the end of it if you go from here (Benares) to Allahabad you pass many side roads but going the truck road you reach Allahabad in the shortest time. The gods drive the world along the trunk road evolution but men often want to turn down side road that look pleasant. But the gods have dug ditches and put up signposts along the main road and when men willfully try to leave it they fall into the ditches and knock up against the posts and then we say they are suffering pain and the very best things that can happen to them for it the gods had not made the wrong way full of pain men would wander away and lose themselves.
Something a whole nation goes wrong then the gods place in its way a great war or a famine or a plague. The nation is going wrong and must be driven right or has gone wrong and must suffer so as not to go wrong again. And the great war the story of which we are going to study was brought about by the gods because it was necessary for the evolution of the nation. We see many men and animals killed in a war and say: how terrible! How shocking. But men and animal are only killed when the bodies they are in are of no more use; when a man cannot do my more in a particular body the gods strike it away so that the man may have a better one we call the death. The body is like a coat that we wear and when we outgrow it, it is torn up. Instead of regarding a god a cruel when he strikes away a body you should think of him as kind setting the man free to grow. Many of the men who were killed in this great war went from their bodies to sit in svaga with the gods.
The work of the god is to carry out the law of the supreme lord of Isvara who is manifested to us as a Trinity Mahadeva Vishnu and Brahma. This law is that the universe shall evolve into an image of God; and the work for that end and not for furthering separate personal aims. This makes their duties different from the duties of men. They have to test people so they put difficulties and temptations and trials in their way in order that men may grow strong and learn wisdom and gain virtue. In this work they must often do thing that men ought not to do and they are not examples for men to conduct any more than a king or judge or magistrate in punishing a man has committed a crime is an example that your are to follow. If a man steals your shoes the magistrate puts him in prison for breaking the law though he has stolen nothing from the magistrate and the magistrate is not angry. But if you from whom he has stolen the shoes get angry and lock him up and keep him as a prisoner you would be doing wrong. When you are older you will learn that all things that are wrong are wrong because they are done from what is called a personal motive that is from thinking and acting in your own way to please yourself instead of doing the will of God.
We also learn from the Mahabharata that when a nation goes wrong it suffers. This is what we call a moral law and this law is worked out by the gods. If India is to become rich strong and free as she once was it can only be by Indians becoming pure and religious and good. There is no other way. For the gods rule the world and they make because greatness the reward of doing right because that is the law. If people do wrong the great nation becomes small and the small nation that does right grows great.
When the time comes for a vast change in the life of a nation as it come in India five thousand years ago great men are born into that nation. Some of these men are born into that nation. Some of these men are great in goodness some are great in evil strong bad men. These men are born because they are wanted in the nation and they are men who have prepared themselves in past lives for important themselves in past lives for important work. these great men good and bad are not here for the first time. In former lives the good ones had grown god and bad are not here for the first time. In former lives the good ones had grown good and strong till they were fit to be born at a critical time to work with the gods. Other the bad ones had been selfish cruel revengeful and they had fitted themselves to resist the good law of evolution and by their resistance to bring on troubles that would teach the nation it was going wrong. Both the good and the bad men had made their own fates one set to work with the gods the other set to work against them. There is no favoritism on the part of the gods but suitable men are guided to the places they have earned and are born in them.
We are told in the Adi Parva the first volume of the Mahabharata about the preparation that were made in svarga for the great war. The gods consulted and decided that certain men should be born as leaders; four men were chosen who in the past had filled the office of king of the gods; the king of the gods is called Indra and these four men had all been Indra. The present Indra had one day behaved proudly and had been condemned by Mahadeva to lost his power for a while. Those that are of disposition like thine said Mahadeva never obtain my grace. And he went on to say that he and four other Indras should be born as men and perform a certain task and then return to svarga. Then four of these Indras prayed that they might have divine fathers when they were born of women and the fifth Indra said that he would create from himself the fifth man who was to fulfill the task. To this Mahadeva agreed. When the time came the four indras were born as Yudhistthira and Bhima and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva the gods Dharma (Justice) Vayu (wind) and the twin Asvins being their fathers; and Arjuna who had been Nara a great rishi was born as the son of the present Indra. And these were the five mighty warriors whose deed we are going to study and who were the conquerors in the Great war.
And as a new age was to begin after the war even the great God Vishnu Himself took the eternal serpent as His brother Balarama. An avatara is a special manifestation of the supreme being in a physical form appearing in order to destroy evil when it has become so strong that it threatens to stop evolution.
The Mahabharata contains the story of the race descended from a powerful king named Bharata. He was the son of Dushyanta and Sakuntala whose story you must read some day (Sakuntala a drama by Kalidasa.) Bharata means great so our book is the great story of the descendants of Bharata. One of these descendants was named Kuru and he was a king who was also an ascetic. He carried out austere practice in a field that was named after him Kurushetra or the field of Kuru and it was on that field that the field of Kuru and it was on that field that the great battle took place. Among the descendants of Kuru were three brothers: the blind king Dhrtarasthra whose sons fought on the wrong side in the great war; Pandu the nominal father of the five princes who fought on the right side; and vidura a very wise and just man holding high office in the kingdom. The story of the lives and deeds of these men is told in this great poem of eighteen volumes or parvas. Each parva takes its name from the part of the story told in it.
This poem was recited to a number of ascetics resting themselves in the forest of Naimsiha by Ugrasrava the son of Lomaharshana surnamed sauti. One of these rshis asked him whence he had come and the answered that he had come and he rshis asked him whence he had come and he answered that he had come from attending a great sacrifice the snake sacrifice of king Janamejaya. There he had heard recited the poem called the Mahabharata and he had himself called the Mahabharata and he had himself learned it. It was composed by a himself learned it. It was composed by a famous sage named Krishna Dvipayana Veda Vyasa Krshna because he was so dark; Dvaipayana because he was born on an island Veda Vyasa because he had divided i.e., compiled and arranged the Vedas. The rshis asked Sauti to recite the poem to them and he did so. That is the story which we shall begin to study in the next chapter.
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