Based on numerous talks given by Johari, thisbook presents the deeper layers of the Mahabharata, revealing its wisdom and teachings in a contemporary and often entertaining way. Examining the lessons of the main characters and how each symbolizes an aspect of human consciousness, Johari explores the lives of Bhishma and Arjuna, the vents in the Pandava and Kaurava families leading up to their battle at Kurukshetra, lesser-known stories such as the tale of Karna’s previous life as a demon, and a modern retelling of the Bhagavad Gita. Johari explains the complex concept of dharma in present-day language, shedding light on events unfolding in our current age of the Kali Yuga, and offers insights on the relationship between energy, the elements, and the chakras and on the causes for war in this epic story.
I first established contact with Harish Johari in 1978 in the Netherlands, where I had grown up in a landscape of villages, agriculture, rivers, and forest. As a teenager, I had become interested in philosophy, and the Beatles' trip to India around that time confirmed the idea that India had much to offer. So I was pleased to find in Harish Johari a teacher capable of conveying that wisdom in contemporary language. During the eighties and the nineties it was an annual feast to spend time with him during his yearly visits to Europe.
The atmosphere in the workshops Harish Johari gave was relaxed and cordial. Most people called him Dada, which means "elder brother" in Hindi. Although the people surrounding him were often discussing various subjects, he loved it when they talked less and painted yantras or the illustrations in the Chakras coloring book.* Cooking meals and dining together was an important part of every workshop day. Many times he would say, "No hurry," and on a hot summer's day his lecture might start only at 5:00 p.m.
On the other hand, he criticized students severely for not getting up before sunrise. Especially in the early years he emphasized this point with force. He was a teacher who lived according to his teachings. He stayed awake until late and still got up early. Many of us felt uneasy about getting up early, and we searched for the best excuses. Later Dada became milder in his expression, but he always considered getting up early essential for spiritual life. I tried so hard to get up early. In summertime when the nights were short I would go to bed early, and I'd miss out on lots of city social life. Then in the early mornings I would become very tense as I made all preparations for sitting clean and quietly at sunrise. I decided that it could not be the proper way and stopped trying so hard.
During the nineties, Dada gave a series of workshops devoted to the wisdom of the Mahabharata. I realized that, just as Sanskrit and most European languages share ancient Indo-European roots, the stories of the Mahabharata are ancient roots of Western culture as well. In his lectures on dharma (spiritual law, inherent nature, purpose, or duty) Dada explained that every living being and even every object has a purpose to fulfill. During one of the breaks I asked him about the purpose of my life. Since by then he had known me for about twenty years, I expected to get an answer that was tailored according to my personality and situation. He replied, "It is your dharma to live a healthy, happy, and inspired life." That answer was more general than I had expected, but I continue to find it useful, and I feel it can be useful to many who search for meaning in life.
Dada's demise in 1999 was the onset of five black years during which I could sleep only a few hours each night, followed by sheer despair. In those years I started transcribing the tapes of Dada's lectures. I was unhealthy, unhappy, and uninspired, but listening to Dada's voice and typing out his words helped me to accept the loss and find a new way of living. With the help of my friend Peter Marchand, I slowly recovered. Sleeping improved, but mostly after five hours I woke up and it still happens that way. Now getting up before sunrise has become easy! In the early morning hours my mind is fresh and sharp. I found Dada's lectures on Mahabharata a nice subject to employ my mind in the peaceful early hours. I enjoyed the process of organizing Dada's stories and comments from the different workshops and making them more accessible by rephrasing his words, dividing the stories into paragraphs, and put-ting them into linear timelines.
Part one provides the context for the story of the Mahabharata. The first chapter describes the concept of dharma and its relevance to the story and to our lives. In addition to being duty and purpose, dharma can also be understood as justice, and in Mahabharata justice fights injustice. Chapter 2 explains that the history of humankind is divided into four ages. In the first age almost everybody follows dharma. In the following ages civilization slowly decays, and in the final age hardly anybody follows dharma. Chapter 3 presents the first mythical story situated in the third age, which describes the life of the demon who later will be born as Karna, one of the major characters in the Mahabharata. The stories in chapter 4 offer delightful examples of teaching about truth with fantasy. Chapter 5 presents incidents in the prior lives of Bhishma and Ganga, which are the roots of significant events in the central story.
In part two the story of the Mahabharata begins in earnest. The first two chapters (6 and 7) follow the timeline of Bhishma, the most important character in Mahabharata, describing why he has to be born, how he is born, and how he receives his name. Chapter 8 describes the tangled dynasty into which the founders of the Pandava and Kaurava branches of Bhishma's family are born through immaculate conception. The story of Karna's birth and abandonment by his mother, Kunti, is told in chapter 9. His brothers and cousins are born in chapter 10. Chapters 11 through 14 show the maturation of the children and the expansion of the kingdom but also the growth of trickery and thirst for revenge. The Pandavas are tricked to go into exile. Chapters 14 through 16 are interludes that take place during the exile. Chapter 15 beautifully presents the human psychodrama as the eternal fight between the demons drawing our energy down and the gods trying to direct it upward. In chapter 17 preparations for war are made in earnest.
In part three, composed of chapters 18, 19, and 20, Dada clarifies the Bhagavad Gita, which contains the essence of Indian philosophy, in modern terms. As shown in the frontispiece, Krishna teaches Arjuna about individual and cosmic consciousness, culminating in a vision of everything emanating from the cosmic source and returning to it.
Chapters 21 through 25 in part four deal with the tragedies during and after the great war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Chapter 26 goes beyond the actual Mahabharata and tells about the ending of the third era and the beginning of Kali Yuga.
The epilogue explains each main character as a basic aspect of human consciousness. This gives surprising new depth to the previous chapters, as well as making it clear that the Mahabharata is eternally relevant to the game of life.
While the stories of the Mahabharata are entertaining by them-selves, it is Dada's comments and explanations that give this text its particular value. He makes it clear that the characters and stories represent human life in general. For example, he explains that Arjuna and Krishna respectively represent individual and cosmic consciousness, Duryodhana represents ego, and Karna jealousy. Other figures in the limelight are Bhishma (sacrifice), Vidura (intellect), Drona (tolerance), Kunti (primordial nature), and Draupadi (energy). Harish Johan is not the first to reveal the deeper layers of the Mahabharata, but his explanations are surprisingly modern and can be understood by people of many cultures.
Many concepts of the ancient Hindu religion are so profound that a lot of time is needed to understand them properly, maybe even more than a lifetime. On the other hand, Dada stated several times that in fact there are really no teachers and no students, since each of us has a spark of god inside; we are just travelers passing some time together. I am happy to have traveled with Dada, who helped me to catch glimpses of the light within, and I welcome you to do the same through the pages of this book.
Abridged versions in single volumes are also available; in them the story of the war remains, but most of the other stories have been left out. One of these, which is widely available, is Mahabharata by C. Rajagopalachari. He became the first governor general of India after Lord Mountbatten left India in 1947. When India became a republic, with Rajendra Prasad as the first president, Nehru as the first prime minister, and Patel as the first home minister, there was no longer any need for a governor general and the post was abolished. By then C. Rajagopalachari was quite an old man, only five feet two inches in size, who wore dark glasses, probably because he had one defective eye. He looked strange, but he was a learned scholar who adapted the Mahabharata and the other major epic of India, the Ramayana, which were then published by the Indian government. Another well-known version is by a swami of the Ramakrishna order. It has a spiritual touch because it comes from a spiritual community, while C. Rajagopalachari's book has a somewhat political touch because it comes from a politician. I mention these two books to show you that there is more than one side to the Mahabharata. In fact, there are as many sides to it as there are interpreters. Everybody sees the story from his own point of view.
The age of the Mahabharata is difficult to ascertain scientifically. The text itself contains a reference to the astronomical constellation under which the great Mahabharata war was fought and that constellation was visible in the sky 6,000 years ago. In those days people were not history conscious in the modern way. Because things wear out quickly in the heat and the rain of India, little physical evidence is left. People who study languages say that Mahabharata was written 3,500 to 4,000 years ago. But the scholars study copies of the scriptures that are less old than the originals. Texts written on palm leaves or on bark last for 3,500 years maximum. Generation after generation the scriptures have been copied over and over and in the process some things could have been changed. For example when I tell about a person informing somebody what was happening, I might say, "He phoned him," because that is the way people are informed nowadays. Still, we can safely say it is 3,500 to 6,000 years old. Compared to the 10,000-year-old stories you can find in the Greek and Persian cultures Mahabharata is not old. Compared with the age of the world or the age of Homo sapiens it is new.
The composition of the Mahabharata followed that of the ancient writings of India known as the Vedas, some verses of which might be even 10,000 years old. At first the Vedas existed as independent hymns based on experiences of rishis (poet-seers) during their samadhi (absorption in supreme consciousness). They were passed on through an oral tradition.
The saint and scholar Vyasa wanted to preserve the hymns for future generations. He knew that Kali Yuga (the "Dark Age") was coming and libraries would be needed, so he wanted to compile and preserve all the existing knowledge (veda is vidya is "knowledge"). He asked his disciples to visit different sages and collect all the hymns connected with the different branches of knowledge. When the hymns had been collected, Vyasa put them together in four volumes.
Rig Veda, the first Veda, consists of verses with meter. It tells about the world and all substances in the world. It describes plants and minerals, how they are created, their purpose, and how we can work with them. It also deals with astrology, planets, cosmos, mathematics, categories, the three qualities of nature (gunas), and the five elements (tattvas). Astrology is included as one of the sciences needed for knowing material existence because all substances are connected with planets. Knowledge of Earth, sun, moon, Mars, Mercury, and Jupiter is necessary to understand banana, guava, apple, grape. We can only understand material things by seeing them as solar or lunar energy, as hot or cold, as beneficial or detrimental to life, as sun or moon. All these things are necessary for life.
The second Veda, Yajur Veda, consists of prose verses without meter. It tells how life should be organized, the role rituals play in life, how the rituals should be performed, and how they connect human to divine energy.
Sama Veda, the third Veda, contains mantras for chanting, singing, performing rituals, and praying. It was made so that people would be able to sing beautiful mantras in praise of god or to invoke god. It also contains a notation of how the mantras should be sung. About 95 percent of the mantras originate from the Rig Veda.
The fourth Veda or Atharva Veda deals with human welfare and social life. It deals with cleanliness, purification, healing, ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine), and yoga. According to this Veda, yoga was a part of ayurveda. Much later, people who learned yoga but didn't want to learn ayurveda made it a gymnastic game. They started doing up and down, headstand, bow, or serpent, this mudra or that mudra, and they made it a separate science of body culture, glamour, better movement, nice childbirth, and all kinds of things. But yoga wasn't meant for that.
By creating the four Vedas, Vyasa had done a great job. He had edited and updated all the existing knowledge and made it more accessible for people, but he was not satisfied. He knew that in Kali Yuga people would get used to dictionaries and encyclopedias, and that they would think that knowledge lives in books. He knew that people would become unsure and become slaves of other people's opinions. He knew that the amount of knowledge available would become overwhelming. For example, if you are searching for a banana and you enter a small fruit shop, you can easily select a nice banana. But if I take you to a huge shop with thousands of bananas and many other things, you will get confused and you won't know what to take. Similarly Kali Yuga presents you with billions of books on each subject. Now it has become a problem how to know which one to trust and read. Vyasa knew this kind of nonsense would come and that his books on philosophy would have little meaning because very few people would read philosophy.
When cultures grow up to a particular limit there comes a saturation point, and if there is no way to go up, they have to slide down again. In the time of the Mahabharata, people had achieved great powers by doing sadhana (spiritual practice), but many of their achievements were destroyed during and after the war that actually happened during Vyasa's life. It lasted for eighteen days, and it was like a world war because all countries sent representatives to participate in it. Vyasa realized that all the great people and their stories would be forgotten and nobody would remember how far human civilization had reached. He decided to put the stories together in the Mahabharata, which is sometimes called the fifth Veda, to tell future generations about life and to show them how unimportant things can become important and create problems.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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