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The Mahabharata is an odd book. It is revered as sacred scripture by the vast majority of its readers who nevertheless are fearful of keeping a copy in their homes on account of its reputation for sowing discord. It is also a book that has a cult following amongst non-believers and the not-terribly-religious, who are interested in what it has to say about the human condition, about ethics and about how it is often hard to determine the right course of action. Is war justified to set right injustice? Is it reasonable to behave badly if you’ve been discriminated against all your life? Is it better to do the right thing even if it achieves the wrong outcome (or vice versa)? Is “they started it” a good enough reason to do wrong? And it is perhaps the only religious text anywhere that dares raise the question – is it okay for God to violate moral laws?

The Mahabharata asks so many hard questions because it is obsessed with Dharma, the cosmic moral law, which it explores from every possible viewpoint. Dharma is the reason the epic thinks it can get away with inflicting 100,000 verses on 5000 years of mankind. But for a book that is so obsessed with right and wrong, the MB does not see the world in black and white.

This after all, is the book in which the arch villain Duryodhana is shown as a man possessing many virtues and on his deathbed gets to mock God himself.  “I have studied, made presents……… governed the wide Earth with her seas, and stood over the heads of my foes! Who is there so fortunate as myself!………… With all my well-wishers, and my younger brothers, I am going to heaven. As regards yourselves, with your purposes unachieved and torn by grief, live ye in this unhappy world!” The Gods themselves applaud his last speech and put him on the fast track to heaven.

This is also the book in which the supremely virtuous Yudhishthira (Yudi to friends) acts no better than a common gambler and loses his entire fortune, his brothers and his wife in one big gambling frenzy. And when this paragon of truthfulness finally decides to lie he turns out to be worse than most habitual liars, betraying the trust of his own teacher and causing his death. The Gods make their displeasure known by bringing his chariot, which had always been suspended above the ground, down to the earth with a thud. Every so often, the Mahabharata likes to exalt its villains and cut its heroes down to size.

But the Mahabharata does not confuse the ability to see all shades of grey with not taking a stand. It is never in any doubt that Duryodhana’s envy and greed was entirely responsible for the war and that Yudi is undoubtedly in the right in the dispute between the cousins.

It shows the Anti-Hero Karna as a great philanthrophist and giver-to-charity even at the cost of his own interest. It understands his pain at being very talented, yet constantly discriminated against. And when he spurns the offer from his own mother to switch sides with the promise of ruling a kingdom and the even greater temptation of acquiring a highborn family, the epic applauds Karna as a man who cannot be bought.

And yet, it unequivocally castigates Karna for shaming Draupadi in the Kaurava assembly and for constantly feeding Duryodhana’s enmity with his cousins. For Karna was a key piece of the Kaurava strategy and one of the main reasons Duryodhana dared to go so far.

The Mahabharata offers its readers no comfort of a happily-ever-after. At the end of the great war, just when the reader is basking in a warm fuzzy feeling that the bad guys have lost and the good guys finally get to rule the kingdom, the epic chooses to spoil the party by pointing out that they reign over a ghost kingdom and the widows and survivors are paying the price for the good guys’ victory. Still, it does not waver from its stand, acknowledging the consequences of war, but also implying that the war was the right thing to do after all other options were exhausted. And no, letting the bad guys win was not an option.

The Mahabharata’s worldview is so bleak that one wishes that it would occasionally borrow a pair of rose tinted glasses from Kalidasa. “I do not behold the creature in this world that supports life without doing any act of injury to others. Animals live upon animals, the stronger upon the weaker. The mongoose devours mice; the cat devours the mongoose; the dog devours the cat; the dog again is devoured by the spotted leopard.”, says Arjuna to his brother Yudhisthira. So if the world is such a dog-eat-dog place, why should anyone even care about Dharma? “Those who expect fruits out of their acts of virtue are like traders asking for returns of profit” says Yudi to Draupadi when she asks what exactly they are getting out of being so darn virtuous. Dharma, then, is its own reward and an end in itself.

The moral questions that the epic raises can be extremely discomfiting to those that like their ethics packaged neatly as a set of directives, preferably originating from a higher power. The Mahabharata, on the other hand subjects even higher powers to uncomfortable moral scrutiny, as Krishna would attest. But it never lets the many shades of grey stand in the way of taking a stand. Yes, says the Mahabharata, the world is a harsh place and humans are deeply flawed, but really, try not to be a jerk.

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