Unveiling The Mahabharata: 7 Lessons For The Modern Yogi

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The Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic that revolves around the Pandavas and Kauravas, the descendants of two brothers.

If you recognize these two names, that’s because it contains within it one of the most important texts within Hindu and Yogi communities alike, the Bhagavad Gita.

So, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, it’s a very long text. In fact, it’s the longest epic poem ever written!

It has over 100,000 stanzas of verse, 200,000 lines, and 1.8 million words. This makes it around 15 times longer than the Bible and 10 times as long as Homer’s ‘Iliad‘ and ‘Odyssey‘ put together!

With this much to get through, let’s get straight into it:

  • What is the Mahabharata?
  • A (very brief) summary
  • Mahabharata War
  • 7 lessons from the Mahabharata
krishna and arunja in a chariot against sunset

What is the Mahabharata?

Part narrative and part story, the Mahabharata is considered both a scripture that is itihasa (a historical account) and a text of dharma (cosmic law).

It’s equal parts devotional, philosophical, mythical, and historical.

Based on two families, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, who are also cousins, it tells the tale of a battle to gain supreme power and rule the Hastinapura throne.

And, what makes this ancient epic so unique, is that millions of people still enjoy it today. Whether this is reading the original text themselves, discussing it with friends, family, and teachers, reading its comic books, or even watching the TV series about it!

When was it written?

The composition of the Mahabharata has been dated between the 3rd-5th century BCE and the 3rd-5th century CE.

Although, some attribute a much shorter period of just 150 years, believing it was written from around the second century BCE to the year 0, whilst others say 400 BCE to 200 CE is a more accurate time period.

Who wrote it?

The text is usually accredited to Maha Rishi Veda Vyasa, who is also a character in the text.

According to Hindu belief, Vyasa, also known as Krishna Dvaipayana, is considered a Chiranjeevi (one of seven immortals). This means he is still considered living and walking the earth.

Though the text was expounded by Vyasa, Ganesha was thought to be the scribe of the Mahabharata. Some believe, due to conditions laid out by Sage Vyasa, it took them three years of continuous reciting and writing to complete.

The myth goes that Ganesha had to break off his tusk to continue writing the epic, as the feather he was originally using snapped and he had promised Vyasa he would recite the story with no interruptions.

Wall panel depicting Ganesha and Vyasa writing the Mahabharata
Wall panel depicting Ganesha and Vyasa writing the Mahabharata

A very brief overview of the mahabharata

To be clear, (and we cannot emphasize this enough) this summary will be an extreme simplification of the Mahabharata, so if you’d like to know what happens in more detail, we would suggest reading this overview. Or even the full text, which you can get here.

The beginning

  1. The story starts with the death of King Shantanu and his successor, Chitrangada
  2. Vyasa becomes the surrogate father of Pandu and Dhritarashtra (the eldest brother)
  3. Dhritarashtra (who is blind) is forced to renounce the throne in favor of his brother Pandu

The split

  1. At this point, the royal family have split into two. Dhritarashtra heading the Kauravas and Pandu heading the Pandavas
  2. The Pandavas are then exiled to the forest where they must stay for 12 years. They have multiple children during this time (one being Arjuna), born through the custom of niyoga.
  3. Dhritarashtra becomes the king due to Pandu’s exile, and also has many sons during this period (100 of them!)
  4. Due to the sheer number of potential heirs, there is increasing hostility over who will take the throne

The decision

  1. Yudhisthira (son of Pandu) is named as heir by Dhritarashtra to keep the peace in the kingdom
  2. Duryodhana (son of Dhritarashtra) is angry that Pandu’s son is named king as he believed it should have been him
  3. Duryodhana plots to kill all of the Pandavas by burning down a palace in which they are staying
  4. The Pandavas are alerted to this plot by their uncle and they make an escape plan, burning down the palace themselves and ensuring there are burnt bodies inside it to fool Duryodhana
Scenes from the Mahabharata in Hoysaleshwara Temple, Karnataka
Scenes from the Mahabharata in Hoysaleshwara Temple, Karnataka

Hiding & second exile

  1. The family is now in hiding as they are presumed dead. During this time, Arjuna, posing as a commoner, wins a competition for the hand of a princess, Draupadi. Her brother realizes that he must be, indeed, Arjuna
  2. She becomes the common wife of all 5 brothers in the Pandava family
  3. Duryodhana, now knowing the Pandavas are alive, invites them to gamble with the forfeit for the losing being spending 12 years in exile and a further 13th year incognito
  4. The Pandavas lose and must go into exile again. It is here they train and prepare for war

The war

  1. Due to a series of events, war between the two families becomes inevitable to fight for their kingdom
  2. When Arjuna begins to worry about going to war, the discourse of what is known as the Bhagavad Gita beings
  3. Almost 3 generations of men are lost in this battle

Aftermath of the war

  1. The Pandavas are victorious and Yudhishthir (Pandva son) becomes king of Hastinapur
  2. The Pandavas head to the Himalayas where they die one by one
  3. Yudhishthir refuses to enter heaven following his dogs refusal to enter heaven by the Gatekeeper
  4. Vishnu emerges, declaring that the refusal was a test of loyalty and humanity. Both him and his dog enter heaven
Painting of a Mahabharata scene in the Shiva Lepakshi temple, Anantapur
Painting of a Mahabharata scene in the Shiva Lepakshi temple, Anantapur

The Mahabharata war

The Mahabharata War, also known as the Kurukshetra War, is a war described in this ancient text. There is much discussion around whether this war is a historical event, though this remains unclear and the debate is ongoing.

Some claim the war marked the entrance of the world into Kali Yuga, our current, chaotic age which is characterized by great moral and spiritual decline.

Those that believe the war is historical rather than mythical, posit it happened around 3100 BCE. Proponents of the theory cite evidence such as:

  • the detailed mentioning of many Indian dynasties in the epic
  • Krishna’s accurate predictions of Kali Yuga
  • sites in Northern India that have discovered archaeological evidence that, some say, are conducive to the existence of ancient cities described in the Mahabharata

The war was said to take place over 18 days and takes up more than a quarter of the text itself. If it did happen, it’s likely that the story of the war has been embellished to, what is considered today, a legendary narrative.

Those that reject the idea that the Kurukshetra War was a historical event are still unable to deny the impact that the pervasive presence of the Mahabharata has had on Indian and Hindu culture to this day.

A statue of Arunja, Bali
A statue of Arunja, Bali

7 lessons from the mahabharata

1. Stand By Your Dharma

Perhaps one of the most famous lines from the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna to ‘stand up and fight‘.

He’s telling us to stand in our truth, fight for what is ours, and be determined and courageous on the battlefield of life. We all have a responsibility to be great warriors of our own Dharma and walk the path of Satya, whatever that means to us.

2. Direction Over Speed

It doesn’t matter how fast you’re going if you’re going in the wrong direction!

Tied to the first lesson, crawling in the direction of our Dharma is far more beneficial to us than sprinting away from it. Trust your deep inner knowing and give yourself the fullest permission to be an embodiment of your mission.

3. ‘Friendship Is Greater Than Life’

There is love in friendship. Friendship is greater than life. The one who wins the heart of a friend, has won the world.

Krishna to Sudama, The Mahabharata

Friendship is a central theme throughout the text; Krishna and Arjuna, Krishna and Sudama, Karna and Duryodhana, Krishna and Radha, and Dhritarashtra and Sanjay to name just a few duos!

The eternal bond of friendship is a priceless asset to our lives. Having a friend be there for us in our times of need, and being able to do the same for another, is a great act of selflessness and unconditional giving. This is, too, yoga.

pillars from a hindu temple

4. Envy Makes You Blind

And comparison is the theft of joy!

Duryodhana constantly sought what the Pandavas had and, because of this envy, sought revenge on his family. This revenge was the main driving force behind the Mahabharata War, leading to 18 days of total destruction.

True peace comes in wanting what we already have.

5. Be Careful Who You Listen To

Shakuni influenced Duryodhana to attempt to steal the wealth and prosperity of the Pandavas by challenging them to a game of dice, knowing that Yudhishthira enjoyed gambling and would struggle to turn down the offer.

What are the people in your life telling you? Do you feel empowered by their presence or do they take more from your life than they add?

The people we spend our time with will inevitably shape how we think, behave, and feel on a daily basis. The Mahabharata teaches us that there is a lot to be said for surrounding yourself with the right people, those who lift us up, help us to learn, and encourage us to do better.

6. The Ego Is Destructive

As are the attachments that it clings onto.

Duryodhana was so attached to having power that he denied the right to the Pandavas and contested all those who tried to show him the path of Dharma.

Similarly, the father of the Kauravas, Dhritarashtra, knew that his son, Duryodhana, was doing Adharma. Yet, he allowed his attachment to and affection for his son to overlook his actions.

The ego only serves to create an illusion of separation between the self and the Infinite Reality. When we become detached from this Reality and grip to material attachments, we begin to self-destruct and lose touch with the true wisdom that always resides inside of us.

Scenes from the Mahabharata in Hoysaleshwara Temple, Karnataka
Scenes from the Mahabharata in Hoysaleshwara Temple, Karnataka

7. Today’s Pain, Tomorrow’s Strength.

The Pandavas waited out their time in exile. In the Mahabharata, we learn that their exile became their rebirth.

As well as their exile, the death of their friends, family & armies lying dead on the battlefield caused great pain for the Pandavas but, they knew it was done as a result of Dharma and serving a greater purpose.

Pain, failure, and struggles are blessings in disguise. They are often our greatest teachers and become a way to direct the mind and heart toward what really matters.

Pain is a transforming agent, giving rise to what lies beneath.

More on yogic texts?

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves. www.elizabethburns.co.uk

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