Mahabharata as a manual of Advaita Vedanta

It won’t be an exaggeration to state that Mahabharata is a manual of Advaita Vedanta, an Upanishad for the masses composed in a narrative format.

I recently attended a four-day workshop titled “The Mahabharata as Itihasa”, which was not only enlightening for its exposition of the Mahabharata, but was also life-transforming at a very personal level. The workshop, which was organized by the Indic Academy at IGNCA, New Delhi, was conducted by Prof. Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee, who have studied the text for many years.

Their lectures on Mahabharata, included among other things an exposition into how the text was both a manual of Dharma and Moksha and why it rightly deserves the name Panchama Veda.

Adi Shankaracharya in his famous introduction to Gita Bhashya, speaks about how Vedas expound two-fold Dharma for people: Pravritti Dharma or the path of action for those with desire and Nivritti Dharma or the path of knowledge and dispassion, for those who have turned away from desire. In other words, Pravritti and Nivritti Dharmas form the two-fold essence of Veda.

And Prof. Adluri and Bagchee demonstrated to the audience that this two-fold essence of Veda is also the very essence of Mahabharata embedded deeply into the very structure of the text and hence rightly designated as “Panchama Veda” by the tradition. The epithet is also meaningful because Vyasa by composing this phenomenal text made the Vedic knowledge accessible for all masses, even those who otherwise did not have competency for Sruti.

The learned scholars showed how the narratives within Mahabharata have been weaved with certain recurring themes like Ascent-Descent, Kaala-Sattva, and Devayana-Pitryana.

The characters of Garuda and Shesha, for example, beautifully represent the theme of ascent and descent. This theme is, in fact, delicately brought forward by the narratives associated with those characters itself. The story appears in the Astika Parva of the Adi Parva of Mahabharata. The account begins with Vinata, the mother of Garuda being tricked by her sister Kadru- the mother of the snakes, into slavery. After Garuda is born, wishing to free his mother from slavery, Garuda asks Kadru and the snakes, what they want in return for freeing Vinata. They ask them to bring Soma, the Elixir. Garuda then ascents from one height to another and finally reaches Swarga to fetch the Elixir. There, he fights with various deities and finally procures the Soma. But, he does not consume it. Next, in his ascent, he meets Narayana, who grants two boons to Garuda. One, he would always stay above Narayana; two, he would become immortal even without the Soma. Garuda in turn grants the boon to Narayana that he would remain as the mount of Narayana.

Shesha, the eldest son of Kadru, on the other hand, deserted his mother, who had cursed all her thousand sons to die at the snake sacrifice of Janamejaya. He performed very severe austerities for many years and pleased Lord Brahmaa. Brahmaa asks Shesha to descend into the bottom of the earth and uphold it and maintain its stability. The Mahabharata, further adds that while Shesha dwells underneath holding the earth up, the Garuda also acts as his helper in this endeavor.

There are a number of interesting themes and philosophical connotations embedded in this account. The first is that of Ascent and Descent. While Garuda takes up the ascent of Nivritti towards Moksha, Shesha descents into the bottom and upholds the Universe. While, Garuda denotes Moksha, Shesha denotes Rta/Dharma. And the fact that Garuda and Shesha work together in this whole Lila of Srishti, point towards the two-fold essence of Veda: Nivritti and Pravritti Dharma, which are complementary to each other. Garuda’s fetching of Soma, but not consuming it denotes the value of Vairagya/dispassion in the pursuit of Moksha. Narayana’s boon that Garuda will always stay above it denotes Garuda’s attainment of Turiya, the transcendent state, while his boon that Garuda will remain immortal despite not consuming Soma, denotes Garuda’s attainment of Jivanmukti. And finally Garuda becoming the vehicle of Narayana denotes how Garuda has taken up the role of Guru, who helps Narayana manifest within the competent Shishyas and impart to them ultimate Jnana. Shesha and his austerities, on the other hand, denotes the importance of Karma, Tapas, and the practice of Svadharma, for those who are not competent for practicing Nivritti. Then, there are the Kadru and other Snakes, who indulge in one sensual pleasure after another without a care for its utility or consequences. They keep wishing to travel from one attractive island to another to fulfill their desire for sensory pleasures, but are all eventually destined to perish in the Snake Sacrifice. A good representation of those, who are neither eligible for Nivritti path, nor choose to practice Pravritti path of Svadharma.

What is interesting is the fact that this entire narrative of Garuda-Shesha and other snakes beautifully bring out the essence of Isha Upanishad. Garuda’s flight first from being a slave to Snakes to the realm of deities and then transcending even the Devas to attain true immortality represent the journey from Avidya to Vidya and then transcendence of Vidya itself mentioned in verse 9-11 of the said Upanishad. This is what Prof. Adluri referred as “Double Transcendance”. Shesha’s journey on the other hand, is a good depiction of Verse 2 of Isha Upanishad, wherein those who are not competent for Nivritti path and have wish to live for long can do so by renouncing Adharma and performing Svadharma. The fate of snakes is well depicted in the verse 3 of Isha Upanishad, which says how those who are slaves to their desires and as if slay their inner Self, enter Asuric realms and hence suffer.

Then, we have the theme of Kaala and Sattva, which occurs again and again in Mahabharata. While Kaala represents time and hence Jagat (universe), which is impermanent and subjected to change (birth, growth, transformation, decay and death and again rebirth and so on), Sattva represents the supreme Brahman, which the Upanishads describe as Satyam-Jnanam- Anantam, the infinite, eternal, and changeless whole. This contrasting nature of Brahman which is birthless and Jagat, which undergoes birth, etc. is beautifully brought out by characters such as Vasu and Vasudeva, Bhishma and Krishna, etc. While Vasus represent the primordial elements, the building blocks of Jagat, Vasudeva- the Lord of Vasus represent the unchanging Purusha, the eternal Brahman, in whom the Jagat manifests, is sustained, and then dissolves into. The Battle of Kurukshetra is another beautiful example of this theme. While the battle itself is comparable to universal Yajna, Krishna, who does not lift a weapon and hence directly participate in it represents Para-Brahman. And just as Brahman, though transcendent, yet by its mere presence manifests Jagat as Lila or play, Krishna, by his mere presence, facilitates the war and its outcome. On the other hand, all other players, including Bhishma, Arjuna, etc. are players within the Jagat of Kurukshetra war, who are limited by their self-identities and take part in Karma. Thus, while Krishna represents Sattva in the Kurukshetra war, Bhishma and other participants are those who are subjected to Kaala, while the war itself is the personification of Kaala in the form of Rana Yajna. Prof. Adluri mentioned how Mahabharata, in fact, utilizes four dynamic paradigms of Srishti (creation), Rana (War), Yajna (Sacrifice), and Vamsha (lineage) to bring out the nature of Kaala.

Returning to Garuda, contrasting the path taken by Garuda with that taken by Mandapala and sons is also revealing in their philosophical reference to Devayana and Pitrayana. While Garuda as we have seen above, took the path of Devayana to Moksha, Mandapala had to remain satisfied with attaining Pitrloka through the path of Pitr-yana. Then, there are many other accounts like Nara-Narayana, which can serve as a motif for Jivatma and Paramatma, represented as two birds in one of the Upanishads.

But, what was most revealing to me was when Prof. Adluri demonstrated how Mahabharata has embedded within its core structure a means to transcend our body-mind complex by breaking down the barrier between the physical transactional universe and the world of mental formulations: imaginations, dreams, etc. Our conventional wisdom dictates that the physical universe is different from our thoughts and imaginations. In the Vedanta tradition, the physical universe is termed as “Vyavaharika” and the thoughts and imaginations are called as “Pratibhasika”. Vedanta posits birthless changeless Brahman as being separate from both these ever changing impermanent manifestations and calls it “Paramartika”. Thus, Vedanta enunciates a three kinds of reality: Transactional, Imaginative, and Absolute. A seeker of Moksha must travel from this transactional reality into Absolute Truth and this is only possible when he resolves Transactional and Imaginative realities into one category “Mithyam” and discard them to become established in Absolute self-existing Brahman. This journey is called as “Self-enquiry” and has been enunciated in considerable depth in Mandukya Upanishad and Gaudapada Bhashya on the Upanishad. Gaudapada, in fact, spends considerable time in showing how the dream state is no different from worldly universe, as far as its unreality is concerned.

It is this breakdown of Vyvaharika and Pratibhasika that Vyasa achieves in his Mahabharata by physically entering the text and impregnating the characters in it and continuously playing a physical role in how the fate of its characters unfolds. This breakdown of the barrier between the physical and imaginative universe, between action and thought, is also the reason, why it is difficult to determine which elements of it is epic based on history and which are mythology and metaphors. In any case, what is relevant to a reader of Mahabharata is that the text overcomes the duality of the physical world and mind by reducing the three planes of reality into two and paving a way for transcending the body-mind complex. In other words, perception is creation and transcending one means transcending the other. This approach to attaining Moksha was termed as “Drishti-Sristi” prakriya in the latter Advaita tradition.

The text also embeds in itself many other motifs, which at a very later period became associated with Advaita tradition. For example, the very name of “Astika” means “There is”, which reminds of the Upanishadic Mahavakyas like “Tat Tvam Asi” or “Aham Brahmasmi”. Then, we have the episode of Ruru beating Ruru, which is a demonstration of Rope-Snake analogy from Advaita tradition. In the story, the Brahmin Ruru, whose wife was once bitten by a snake, had vowed to kill every snake he encountered. Once, when he was in a forest, he saw a lizard named Ruru and mistaking it for a Snake began to beat it. Just as the Rope-Snake example, wherein the rope is mistaken for a Snake due to dim light, Ruru mistakes the lizard for a Snake due to his animosity towards Snakes. The lizard narrates one more story, in which he had himself frightened a Brahmana by creating a snake form out of straws, another good example of rope-snake analogy. The doubling of names like Ruru-Ruru or Jaratkaru-Jaratkaru (the parents of Astika) also serves as a metaphor for “Pratibimba”, an Advaitic concept which became very popular in latter Advaita tradition.

Then, we have Mahabharata itself speaking about its Advaitic foundation. In the Adi Parva, when the bard Ugrasravas speaks about the utility of the text, he says: “In this book, Krishna Dvaipayana has uttered a holy upanishad…That which concerns the Jiva shall be heard here, and that which consists in the five elements and the three properties, the unmanifest cause and its products are sung here, and the One who transcends it- that which the greatest of mystics…see lodged in their own selves, as an image in a mirror.” Thus, it won’t be an exaggeration to conclude that Mahabharata is a manual of Advaita Vedanta, an Upanishad for the masses composed in a narrative format.

Those interested to explore Prof. Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee’s exploration of the philosophical basis of Advaita Vedanta in the Mahabharata, read (1) (2)

Some other papers on Mahabharata: (1) (2) (3) (4)

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With a degree in civil engineering, and having worked in construction field, Nithin Sridhar passionately writes about various issues from development, politics, and social issues, to religion, spirituality and ecology. He is based in Mysore, India. His latest book “Musings On Hinduism” is provides an overview of various aspects of Hindu philosophy and society. Tweets at @nkgrock