The Mahabharata


1. General Character of the Work

The philosophy of the Epics is to be chiefly found in the Mahābhārata which, with its large mass of legendary, mythological and didactic material, gives greater scope to it, and even directly inculcates certain philosophical and religious doctrines.

But the work itself, in this aspect, baffles systematic or consistent analysis, for it hardly contains, in its jumble of conflicting ideas, any system or consistency.

The reason for this is that, although ascribed to one author, the Mahābhārata is a vast and composite work spreading over many centuries and stages of growth and expansion.

While the epic substance was enlarged and embellished, the ultimate form of the work became, more or less, that of a huge dharma- śāstra in the epic garb, containing as it does a mass of legends, myths and fancies mixed up with morality, religion and philosophy.

Some of the myths and legends go back to Vedic times, but some of the parables and moral narratives are of later growth; while the philosophical and religious ideas are as much survivals as accessions.

Throughout the Epic we find religious and philosophical ideas curiously intermingled. But what is more interesting is that here we have a fairly large number of professedly philosophical and religious discourses.

These are the Sanatsujātīya (in the Udyoga-parvan); the Bhagavad Gītā (in the Bhīṣma-parvan); the Mokṣa-dharma (in the Śānti-parvan), including among miscellaneous discourses a series of nearly a dozen so-called Gītās and the Nārāyaṇīya section and the Anu-Gītā (in the Aśvamedha-parvan).

All these are, of course, episodic and do not pretend to be systematic treatises.

2. The General Philosophical Thought

It is natural to find in the Epic a tacit acceptance of older thought, and echoes, not systematic but eclectic, of Vedic ritualism and Upaniṣadic ātmanism.

The way of karma (ritualism) is not indeed denied, but the attitude of the Epic towards ritualistic religion is quite indefinite: Passages can be cited which glorify it, but there are also other passages which are distinctly unfavourable and even antagonistic.

The way of knowledge (jñāna) forms the central teaching of the Upaniṣad and is similarly presupposed in the Epic.

In an atmosphere of intense military activity, it cannot be expected that the Upaniṣadic teaching of self-control (nivṛtti) could have been accepted in actual practice;

but there are passages which reflect the view that activity (pravṛtti), whether ritualistic or otherwise, is not necessary for those who have reached the absolute realization of “the One with many names.”

Indeed, the idealistic Absolutism of the Upaniṣad underlies most of the Epic teaching in its theoretic aspect; but it is difficult to determine what particular form of it is accepted. Both the cosmic (sa-prapañca) and acosmic (niṣ-prapañca) views appear.

But having regard to the essentially popular character of the Epic, the general tendency appears to be towards the more realistic cosmic conception, which believes in the provisional separateness of the world as a con­ditioned emanation from the unconditioned Brāhman (pariṇāma-vāda).

From the empirical standpoint this view would make a greater appeal than the extremely idealistic acosmic doctrine, which maintains that Brāhman is the only reality who does not evolve into, but merely appears as, the world of experience (vivartta-vāda).

While aiming at unity, the Epic attitude thus clings to the double notion of God and the world.

But the idea of divine immanence is utilized to explain the diversity of number­less Epic gods, who have now been added to the Vedic pantheon, as different emanations of one Supreme Being.

The older polytheism was hard to die in the popular belief; but under the influence of Upaniṣadic teaching, the Epic faith is fundamentally monotheistic, whether the object of adoration be Viṣṇu, Nārāyaṇa or Kṛṣṇa-Vāsudeva or one of their numerous incarnations.

It is recognized that the unconditioned Absolute is superior to these conditioned manifestations; but since the new theistic faith required an object of personal love and worship, the impersonal Brāhman of the Upaniṣad is invested with a distinct per­sonality, being transformed into Īśvara appearing under various names.

This feeling of one supreme personal god in the individual consciousness, however, is often accompanied by a popular polytheistic reverence for “other gods”—Brahmā, Śiva and others—who are also admitted, properly classed and given well-defined powers and functions.

The waning belief in Vedic ritualism as such probably explains the absence of Epic reference to the tenets of the Mimāṅsā, if this School of thought had at all come into existence.

The word vedānta occurs, generally in the wider sense of Upaniṣad-Āraṇyaka but the system of the Vedānta, as we have it, was probably unknown.

As in the earlier Upaniṣad, so also in the Epic, there is little trace of an explicit māyā-theory. Even if māyā be regarded by implication as the principle which shows the unconditioned Brāhman as conditioned, it appears to have no place in the Epic scheme of creation.

In the same way the Epic is unaware of the specific teachings of the Nyāya Vaiśeṣikā. Kaṇāda's name appears for the first time in the supplementary Harivaṁśa in a different context, while there is no mention of Gautama as the teacher of the Nyāya.

The word nyāya generally signifies logic, but not any particular system of logic. Even if the Epic mentions a pentad of argumentative group, it has hardly any affinity with Gautama's syllogistic constituents.

The only sources of knowledge (pramāṇas), acknowledged in the Epic, are perception (pratyakṣa), inference (anumāna) and traditional wisdom (āgama or āmnāya); but as a theistic faith, the Epic religion believes ultimately in the enlightening divine grace.

The five current Schools of philosophy (jñānāni) which the Epic directly mentions are:

the Vedas, the Sāṁkhya, the Yoga, the Pāśupata and the Pañcarātra.

Of these, we have already referred to the Epic attitude towards the Veda; but it is noteworthy that the Epic names Apāntaratamas, otherwise called Prācīnagarbha, as the original teacher of Vedism.

The Sāṁkhya, Yoga, Pāśupata and Pāñcharātra are said to be revealed by Kapila, Hiraṇyagarbha, Śiva and Nārāyaṇa respectively.

Among other teachers mentioned is Ātreya, lauded as a teacher of unconditioned Brāhman; Sulabhā instructing Janaka; Sanatkumāra instructing Dhṛitarāṣṭra in the Sanatsujātīya;

authors of the various Gītās interspersed, including Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa; Kapila and his pupils Āsuri and Pañcaśikhā, teachers of Sāṁkhya-Yoga;

Asita Devala, Jaigīṣavya,  Parāśara, Vārṣagaṇya, Bhrigu, Śuka, Gautama, Arṣṭiṣeṇa, Garga, Nārada, Pulastya, Śukra, Kāśyapa and Sanatkumāra mentioned in a comprehensive list as teachers of the twenty-fifth Principle.

Of these, Kapila and his School, teaching Sāṁkhya-Yoga, appear to be the most important.

Indeed, this ubiquitous system occupies a prominent place comparable only to the prevailing theism of the Epic Kapila, author of the Sāṁkhya, is said to be the most ancient seer, identical with the gods Agni, Śiva and Viṣṇu; while his work is repeatedly declared to be the oldest.

The originator of the Epic Yoga is not Patañjali, but Hiraṇyagarbha, although Śiva is spoken of as a Yoga-lord and Śukra as a Yoga-teacher of the demons.

The Yoga had some difference of opinion from the Sāṁkhya, but the difference is nowhere emphasized as involving a distinction.

Perhaps originally they constituted a single doctrine, and therefore sometimes declared to be identical; at least the Sāṁkhya is taken to be the norm.

The chief difference between the two Schools of thought appears to be that while the Yoga laid stress on practical discipline, the Sāṁkhya on knowledge.

The Yoga was perhaps more orthodox, but the Sāṁkhya is the philosophy of knowledge per excellence which did not adhere strictly to traditional views.

While both are dualistic and accept spiritual aloofness (kevalatva) as the goal, we are told that the Sāṁkhya, unlike the Yoga, is devoid of a belief in a supreme personal god (nir- Īśvara).

Since this is the essence of Epic theism, the difficulty is got over by adding a twenty-fifth Principle, called Īśvara to the twenty-four of the Sāṁkhya. Partly in its metaphysics, and certainly in its cosmology and psychology, the Epic accepts the Sāṁkhya speculation.

This Epic Sāṁkhya has all the essentials of classical Sāṁkhya, and some would regard it as full-fledged Sāṁkhya itself in the epic garb. But it would be preferable to take it as proto-Sāṁkhya in the making, just as the Epic Yoga doctrine is similarly proto-Yoga.

3. Heretical Schools

But the old heterodoxy, like the old orthodoxy, continued to develop on its own lines. There are numerous references in the Epic to heretical views.

Ordinarily, the word nāstika (negator) means in the Epic a dissenter from received opinion in regard to transcendental entities or to the authority of hallowed tradition.

We have also mention of the Lokāyatika (naturalist), the hetumat (Rationalist) and the Pāṣaṇḍa (reviler of the Veda); but from the meagre references it is difficult to determine the exact scope of their teaching.

The Epic often stigmatizes heretical opinions as demoniacal (āsura); and in view of the continued revision of the text it is probable that they came under the review of unsympathetic editors and suffered distortion and even elimination.

Nevertheless, they represent an important stream of thought; and to half a dozen such views the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad already refers.

In the midst of the diversity of heretical teaching two views, known also to the later history; of Indian thought, stand out prominently and can be distinguished:

They are the yadṛcchā-vāda (also called animitta-vāda) or Accidentalism and svabhāva-vāda or Naturalism, the last of which is ascribed to the demon Prahlāda.

In sharp contrast to both Vedic super­naturalism and Upaniṣadic transcendentalism, both are positivist in character, repudiating supernatural sanction for their views and rejecting the idea of any transcendental power behind the world (adṛṣṭa-vāda).

While the one denies causation and regards the world as a chaos, the other ascribes whatever order there is in it to mere chance, which is a necessity inherent in the very nature of things and not imposed by an external agency.

In this sense, the views can be called Lokāyata or a heterodox philosophy of the mundane, and are opposed to the orthodox adhyātma-vāda or philosophy of the spirit.

Perhaps they believe in a self-lasting as long as life lasts, but they certainly deny immortality of the self and, as a corollary, the law of karma and rebirth.

4. Mixture of Doctrines

Thus, with regard to theoretic teaching, the Epic reveals a somewhat incongruous mixture of doctrines. It would be profitable to indicate here briefly the general philosophical thought which dominates.

In meta­physics, there is an interaction of diverse ideas. We have, on the one hand, the polytheistic ritualism of the Veda and the Brāhmaṇa and the monistic idealism of the Upaniṣad;

but all this is coloured by the naturalistic dualism of proto-Sāṁkhya and the disciplinary deism of proto-Yoga, although much of it, it must be admitted, is neither the Sāṁkhya nor the Yoga.

On the other hand, we have the monotheistic devotionalism of the Pāśupatas, the Vaiṣṇavas, the Nārāyaṇīyas and the more important Bhāgavatas, which derives its speculative ideas from diverse sources.

In cosmology there is a similar blending of more or less conflicting views:

While the Vedic idea of the cosmic egg and the creator Prajāpati still survives, the Epic appears to favour that shade of Upaniṣadic teaching which would regard creation of the world not as an instance of illusory appearance (vivartta) but as an instance of transformation (pariṇāma) of the Absolute;

in this view, the manifold world of experience receives a more real place in the Absolute which, in theistic terms, is called God.

On the other hand, we find a general acceptance of the Sāṁkhya scheme of creation, although there is no uniformity of Epic teaching in this respect also.

The activity of prakṛti and non-activity of puruṣa, and the doctrine of guṇas and elements, which consist of twenty-four principles, are recognized; but, as we have said above, a twenty-fifth, or even a twenty-sixth, principle is added.

Apart from these divergent theories of personal-impersonal creation, there are also references to the theory of emanation or Vyūha, which is a curious medley of myth and speculation, and of which we shall speak more hereafter as a distinctive Epic doctrine.

The psychological ideas of the Epic are similarly coloured by proto- Sāṁkhya teaching.

It accepts sense-perception, the five senses of sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell being connected respectively with the five primary elements of light, earth, ether, water and air.

The manas is the transmitting agent of perception arising from the contact of sense with sense-object, while buddhi is the deciding factor.

All the processes of sensation, perception, thought, emotion and will are material processes conditioned by prakṛti.

The soul is conceived as the Upaniṣadic ātman when in bondage and Paramātman when free; but it also corresponds to the puruṣa of the Sāṁkhya as a fettered and passive spectator of the activity of prakṛti, which is the source of sensation, thought and action.

The Epic theistic faith, however, adds to the plurality of individual souls or puruṣas, a supreme soul, called Uttama-Puruṣa.

The bodily constituents are the three so-called dhātus (vāta, pitta and kapha); but as constituents of the conscious ego the three guṇas form the deciding factors of the individual,

in accordance respectively with the qualities of inertia (tamas) causing ignorance, of energy (rajas) producing desire, and of equilibrium (sattva) leading to stability of existence.

As the literal sense of the word implies, the guṇas are fetters as well as qualities. They determine the variety of human activity, just as they give rise to the variety of natural phenomena, by the interaction of equilibrium, motion and inertia.

In Ethics, a moral interpretation is given to the Sāṁkhya doctrine of three guṇas as determinants of individual character:

the sattva being conceived as the goodness-mood, rajas as the passion-mood, and tamas as the darkness-mood.

But the implications of earlier thought are also to be found.

The ritualistic duties enjoined by the Veda are admitted as duties to a certain extent, just as caste-duties are ordained as means to an end;

while we have also the basic idea of the Upaniṣadic ethics, which does not inculcate sacrificial rectitude but conceives evil as ahaṁkāra or affirmation of the finite self, a deluded attitude which sees variety where it should see unity of the universal self.

But in the traditional enumeration of the four ends of life (catur-varga), mokṣa or emancipation alone does not figure; it speaks also of dharma, artha and kāma.

Artha and kāma constitute profit and pleasure, but they spring from dharma which, as a goal off human endeavour, represents the principle righteousness as a means of salvation.

Artha and kāma are legitimate because worldly activity is not to be despised, but dharma is the ultimate object.

In the pursuit of happi­ness, however, the conception of dharma is not hedonistic; it does not consist of mere satisfaction of desires, but it is an effort which involves striving and suffering.

For practical discipline purification of body and mind is a preliminary necessity; and a great deal of positive moral precepts is inculcated, and long-recognized aberrations condemned.

The theory of āpad-dharma or expediency, no doubt, which lays down a practical course of conduct, not usually proper but allowable in times of extreme necessity or distress, shows that the idea of virtue and vice was admitted to be relative and dependent on circumstances.

But, at the same time, cardinal virtues and fundamental vices are recognized in accordance with the general trend of traditional piety.

Whatever might have been the actual conduct of fighting warriors on the savage battle-field, there can be no doubt that the Epic as a whole upholds a high standard of morality both in theory and practice.

It is also fully recognized that purification is not only an individual preparation but also a social endeavour.

The dharma has always a social implication, its watchword being devotion to duties rather than assertion of rights. The obligation, again, is not confined to human society alone, but it extends in universal fellowship to the whole of creation.

This social and humane attitude naturally disfavours the ascetic ideal, and the dharma is characterized by activity (pravṛtti) rather than by abstention (nivṛtti); but here also uniformity of opinion is not found.

The idea of disciplinary austerity (tapas) and renunciation (sannyāsa) is prominent, particularly in the heretical Schools; but retirement from the world before one's legitimate duties are fulfilled is also deprecated.

Both views are illustrated by the parable of dialogue between a father and a son, in which the father insists that detachment is unattainable without a preliminary social attachment, but the son argues that it should be achieved at once in a mood of disillusionment, for dilatory discipline is only a hindrance.

Nevertheless, renunciation or sannyāsa was by no means universal in the normal scheme of life, and the greatest value appears to have been attached to individual and social duties.

A spirit of renunciation is indeed enjoined by the teaching of disinterested action, but the way of karma is considered to be better than every other way.

The Epic accepts all the implications of the inexorable karma-doctrine and believes in the fatality of human acts as much as it believes in fate itself as divinely ordained.

But it also asserts that fate is “for eunuchs,” and that the fruits of action can be modified by Human effort. The idea of karma, however, is not here a blind and mechanical determinism, but an intrinsically ethical conception of a cosmic, but divinely directed, law of justice.

As the Epic faith is not mere intellectualism nor mere moralism, and bases its essential teaching on the loving adoration of a personal god, devotion to the deity and his saving grace are regarded, theistically, as supremely capable of nullifying the otherwise unavoidable fruits of karma.

The ethics, therefore, is not divorced from religion. Morality is regarded as necessarily religious and religion as necessarily moral. The ethical and the devotional are inseparable; right is right because it is divine; the question of sanction is solved in the terms of the postulate.

In the same way, on the question of the state after death there is no consistent account. The heretics do not naturally look forward to a future life, but the view does not predominate.

It cannot be said that death had no terrors; for the idea of total annihilation, as well as of hell and punish­ment, heaven and reward, was a part of the popular belief.

The widely accepted karma-doctrine had its definite eschatological implication.

The well-known parable of Mrityu and Prajāpati represents the god of death as the god of justice, for punishment does not come from any external agency but the deed itself recoils upon the doer.

At the same time the rigours of the karma-doctrine are sought to be mitigated, as we have seen, by the theistic postulate of divine grace and deliverance.

The pursuit of mokṣa or release from bondage of karma and samsāra (rebirth) is undoubtedly the ideal, but regarding the kind and means of escape there is much uncertainty.

The Vedic promise of heaven and future prosperity is as much believed in as the attainment of passionless serenity, whether in this life or after death, by Upaniṣadic Brāhman-realization.

But we have also references to the dualistic Sāṁkhya doctrine of the release of the puruṣa from empirical existence on realization of its distinction from prakṛti, as well as to the deistic Yoga view of kevalatva by means of severe self-discipline.

There is also the theistic faith in a personal god which involves belief in various stages and processes of emancipation, leading finally to a glorified sectarian heaven, whether the heaven be that of the Pāśupata, the Pañcarātra or the Bhagavata.

But however divergent be the eschatological ideal, the general tendency is to believe that liberation (mokṣa) is a condition which can be attained, not only hereafter but also here, if one wills (jīvan-mukti). It does not consist of becoming but being, and the present life is considered adequate enough for that purpose.

5. Religious Tendencies

In spite of this bewildering diversity of philosophical thought, the religious tendency of the Epic is unmistakably clear. It is predominantly theistic and frankly dualistic.

It believes in the intimate realization a personal god in the individual consciousness through symbols (pratīkas), manifestations (prakāśas or prādurbhāvas) and incarnations (avatāras), in living adoration and worship (bhakti) and in complete surrender (prapatti) to divine grace (prasāda).

This mystic and emotional mood, which goes by the general name of bhakti or devotion is given supremacy over mere moral sufficiency or intellectual conviction.

The religion is monotheistic in essence, but distinct attempts are made to justify the innumerable gods, old and new:

The ancient Vedic gods survived; but some of them, like Indra and Varuṇa, were reduced in stature; some, like Yama, changed their character; some, like Prajāpati, were left untouched; while others, like Viṣṇu and Rudra, were raised and invested with a new glory.

The idea of tri-mūrti (the word itself does not occur in the Epic) or Trinity was slow to evolve; but Brahma, Viṣṇu and Śiva as the Triad practically dominate the Epic, henotheistically as supreme deities in turn, polytheistically as co-ordinate deities and monotheistically as aspects of one supreme deity.

It is not necessary to trace the evolution of these gods here, nor dilate upon the shifting character of Epic theism; a few words on the general Epic conception of these deities will suffice:

The grandsire Brāhma, youngest god in the Vedic pantheon but oldest in the Epic, who had his origin and basis in abstract speculation rather than in concrete nature myth, was a full-fledged deity only in the later Vedic period.

As such, he never had much prestige and gradually dwindled in significance. Whether there was any Brahma-sect is very doubtful.

It is Viṣṇu and Śiva who are alternately supreme. But more than the ascetic and terrible Śiva, the gracious and benignant Viṣṇu is the central figure of Epic religion.

Hopkins is right in stating that the ultimate emphasis is not on trinity, nor on multifariousness, but on unity; and Viṣṇu is the vivid personification of that unity.

But as Nārāyaṇa and Bhāgavat (Kṛṣṇa-Vāsudeva), coming from other sources, became identi­fied with the supreme Viṣṇu, the original but elusive Viṣnuism of the Epic took more definite shapes as Nārāyaṇa-ism and Bhāgavatism re­spectively.

These cults may have been intrinsically connected, but they are distinguishable in origin and growth as well as in doctrine and ceremonial.

6. Rise Of Sectarianism and Its General Character

It is difficult, in the absence of tangible evidence, to trace the rise and growth of sectarianism in the post -Vedic period.

Although they swayed the lives of a larger population and had been of greater living force, the sectarian faiths were possessions of the people which, being dissociated from the sympathy of the hieratic orthodoxy, appear to have left no records of their own.

But when one considers the general trend of thought and practice, however obscure it may be, one can presume that,

while in the intervening Upaniṣadic period the formal sacrificial religion of the Brāhmaṇa was being gradually replaced by a more intellectual theosophy,

within this intellectual theosophy itself, not only theistic but devotional tendencies were slowly developing.

This is evident especially in the younger group of the major Upaniṣads:

In the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, for instance, the word bhakti, signifying devotion to a god (deva), distinctly occurs; and a theistic tendency, bordering almost on the devout, emerges.

It centres round a somewhat inchoate sectarianism, which does not indeed reject the impersonal Brāhman but tends towards its more personalized form in a new great god, Rudra-Śiva, derived partially from orthodox mythology and recreated partially by popular belief.

This presumably indicates a compromise between the high speculation of the Upaniṣads, which was never discredited, and the popular faiths, which now demanded recognition.

The common Āryan people must have had their own beliefs and practices, but these must have been profoundly modified (as the very notion of Rudra-Śiva itself indicates) by the cultural ideas of the non- Āryan people of the Ganges plain.

We have as yet no means to determine the exact nature and extent of the influence which contact with non- Āryan culture exerted on the Āryan;

but it is now generally admitted that the fusion of races and cultures, which probably began even in the Vedic period, must have been a great factor in the development of the philosophy and religion of the post-Vedic times.

The so-called popular element, as distinguished from the hieratic, was thus a strange blending of polygenous ideas and fancies.

In course of time a mutual reaction between the two was inevitable, and the barrier, which was probably never a rigid barrier, broke down.

An exclusive ritual and a highly philosophical creed had to be relaxed so far, even for their self-existence, as to adopt deities and countenance practices to which the heterodox popular religion inclined;

while the mass of people, having little time or interest in elaborate ritual and philosophical abstraction, allowed their larger emotions and sentiments to be recognized and re-interpreted by the intellectual aristocracy in order to obtain the stamp of orthodox authority.

Thus, about the time when formal heresies, which came to a head in Jainism and Buddhism, were assailing the very core of the Śrauta religion,

the orthodox ritual and creed were faced with the no less difficult task of remodelling themselves by assimilating and moulding the current popular beliefs and practices of the new environment.

These popular cults, centring round the worship of Rudra-Śiva, Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa or Kṛṣṇa-Vāsudeva, were strongly marked by a tendency towards emotional devotionalism, which must have had a disintegrating and even disruptive effect on the older ceremonial and theosophic religion.

The emergency led, on the one hand, to a practical codification of the older tradition and stricter regula­tion of daily life and conduct in the Śrauta gṛhya and dharma sutras;

on the other hand, it resulted in a renewed and systematic philosophic activity, sometimes keeping more faithfully to the old Upaniṣadic spirit (Vedānta), but sometimes starting from a different point and diverging more widely (Sāṁkhya).

But all this did not prove enough, and an entire re-shaping of the older religion gradually began.

The elasticity of orthodox philosophy admitted a whole world of new personal gods as a temporary reality into its idealistic scheme;

and the old placid theology, disturbed by the new worship of the sectaries, conceived their old gods anew as wielding power of love and grace.

There may not have been any deliberate theological attempt; but the result of gradual compromise is seen not only in the fully developed sectarianism of the Mahābhārata in general, which is a mixture of the old and the new,

but also in particular in the syncretic theism of the Bhagavad Gītā, which cannot be satisfactorily explained as an isolated phenomenon.

---> Read Next The Philosophy of Bhagavad Gita

As there was a strain, original or developed, of theism in the Upaniṣads themselves, it could easily, if not perfectly, mingle with the theistic element of the popular cults.

If the one was predominantly reflective and the other essentially emotional, both theistic streams had their source in the same hopes and longings of the human heart; and this fact could partially reconcile, if not fully obliterate, the incongruities of a strange alliance.