3

I was reading Mahabharata, the abridged version from C Rajagopalachari ji. I liked the literature aspect of it and some of the advices there. But one thing that bothered me was the hyperfocus of the text on one's varna, lineage, caste, etc. rather than his/her individuality. See, one's family and environment is important. I GET IT. It shapes one's views of the world. Unlike Abrahamic religion, especially Christianity and Islam where Jesus talks about how one should disregard their family and join him and how Muhammad talks about hating his parents for being pagans, Hinduism, like Chinese and African folk religions, respects ancestors and family. That is good.

But when I am reading the abridged version (God knows what will happen if I read the unabridged version), the text is so hyperfocused on one's family and ancestors it feels obsessive. On almost every single page, there is one reference about how one should do this or that just because he/she is a kshatriya/brahman, or because he/she is from 'Bharata' race or because he/she is the child of this or that god and so on. Krishna, when convincing Yudhisthira to fight Jarasandha, says that he should do so because of his 'noble birth and illustrous race'. This level of dependency and judgement based on one's family feels very immoral. No wonder why varna system of Vedas became corrupted to caste system in modern India. My own ancestors have done many wrongs. Does Hinduism tell me to follow my grandparents and do those wrongs? Does Hinduism tell the society to hate me because my ancestors did wrongs? Recently, one of the children of Hamas became ex-Muslim and is exposing Hamas. Will Hinduism shun him because his father, grandfather, and pretty much all his family is a bunch of terrorists?

I thought may be this is a problem only with Mahabharata but when I asked Bard (Google's AI) on whether there are varna, race, lineage references in other texts like Ramayana and Puranas, it said yes. My question is why is ancient Hindu literature THIS focused on these things?

2
  • 1
    Varna etc. are the fundamentals of Hinduism so all scriptures revolve around them
    – Rickross
    Dec 10, 2023 at 8:39
  • Because it was written by people who believed that one's race and caste were exceptionally important and mostly determined a person's value.
    – Davor
    Dec 10, 2023 at 16:44

2 Answers 2

1

But when I am reading the abridged version (God knows what will happen if I read the unabridged version), the text is so hyperfocused on one's family and ancestors it feels obsessive.

Perhaps, more clarity can be added to this question, by citing specific examples. One specific example that was cited in the question will be addressed below.

The example cited is -

Krishna, when convincing Yudhisthira to fight Jarasandha, says that he should do so because of his 'noble birth and illustrous race'.

To understand Krishna's conduct, here is a small incident - After the Mahabharata war, Krishna meets a sage called Utanka and explains to him how he behaves during his incarnations.

Mahabharata, Ashwamedhika Parva, Chapter 53, BORI edition

(Krishna says to Utanka) -...In a desire to ensure the welfare of subjects, I enter various wombs. O Bhargava! When I am born in a divine womb, there is no doubt that I follow all the acts followed by the gods. O Bhargava! In that way, when I am born in the womb of a gandharva, I then make all the efforts that are made by gandharvas. When I am in the womb of a serpent, I then behave like a serpent. When I am born in the wombs of yakshas and rakshasas, I then follow their kinds of conduct.

Since I am now a human, I beseeched them (Duryodhana and others) piteously. However, because of the delusion that was engendered in them, they did not accept my beneficial words. I instructed the Kurus with the prospects of great fear and terrified them, overcome with rage. Then I again assumed my earlier form and instructed them. But they were addicted to adharma and were overwhelmed by the dharma of time.....

It may be understood from the above that because Krishna was born as a human, he made all the efforts made by humans, in order to establish Dharma. Being incarnated as a human, he followed the conduct of humans. Since humans of the Mahabharata valued lineage, Krishna had to behave in a similar way to convince people.

Now the real opinions of Krishna may be found in the Bhagavad Gita, where he says -

vidyāvinayasaṅpannē brāhmaṇē gavi hastini. śuni caiva śvapākē ca paṇḍitāḥ samadarśinaḥ৷৷5.18৷৷

The sages look with an equal eye on one endowed with learning and humility, a Brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater.

māṅ hi pārtha vyapāśritya yē.pi syuḥ pāpayōnayaḥ. striyō vaiśyāstathā śūdrāstē.pi yānti parāṅ gatim৷৷9.32৷৷

By taking refuge in Me even men of evil birth, women, Vaisyas and also Sudras attain the supreme state.

It can be seen that lineage is not necessarily a determining factor here.

2

Let us discuss how you should understand the parts that are problematic.

You have written:

"But when I am reading the abridged version (God knows what will happen if I read the unabridged version), the text is so hyperfocused on one's family and ancestors it feels obsessive. On almost every single page, there is one reference about how one should do this or that just because he/she is a kshatriya/brahman, or because he/she is from 'Bharata' race or because he/she is the child of this or that god and so on. Krishna, when convincing Yudhisthira to fight Jarasandha, says that he should do so because of his 'noble birth and illustrous race'. This level of dependency and judgement based on one's family feels very immoral. No wonder why varna system of Vedas became corrupted to caste system in modern India. My own ancestors have done many wrongs. Does Hinduism tell me to follow my grandparents and do those wrongs? Does Hinduism tell the society to hate me because my ancestors did wrongs? Recently, one of the children of Hamas became ex-Muslim and is exposing Hamas. Will Hinduism shun him because his father, grandfather, and pretty much all his family is a bunch of terrorists?"

Mahabharata is great art and would contain elements that would appear strange to a modern reader. Would the characters speaking in modern style be believable to you? They wouldn't be. You have to read through the style and pick the gems. You have to use judgement in order to read such an ancient text. You are not supposed to accept everything in Hindu scripture. Only take those teachings that make sense to you, the essential parts.

What are the essential parts? How would I know the essential parts?

The goals of life, the purusharthas, are dharma (righteousness), artha (wealth), kama (desire) and moksha (liberation from Samsara). Mahabharata itself claims that teaching about these goals is its aim.

The wisdom of this work, like unto an instrument of applying collyrium, hath opened the eyes of the inquisitive world blinded by the darkness of ignorance. As the sun dispelleth the darkness, so doth the Bharata by its discourses on religion, profit, pleasure and final release, dispel the ignorance of men. As the full-moon by its mild light expandeth the buds of the water-lily, so this Purana, by exposing the light of the Sruti hath expanded the human intellect. By the lamp of history, which destroyeth the darkness of ignorance, the whole mansion of nature is properly and completely illuminated.

Mahabharata Adi Parva Section I

You need the first three goals to live as a householder. Does the flowery talk of race, noble birth etc. help you live a good pious life as a householder? If the answer is no then just ignore them. Treat them as simply old style of language. Only accept those parts that enable you to live a good householder life.

Examples of an essential part that will be helpful to a householder

Yudhishthira's views on Dharma

Yudhishthira said,".. I never act, solicitous of the fruits of my actions. I give away, because it is my duty to give; I sacrifice because it is my duty to sacrifice! ..I act virtuously not from the desire of reaping the fruits of virtue, but of not transgressing the ordinances of the Veda, and beholding also the conduct of the good and wise! My heart.... is naturally attracted towards virtue. The man who wisheth to reap the fruits of virtue is a trader of virtue. His nature is mean and he should never be counted amongst the virtuous. Nor doth he ever obtain the fruits of his virtue! ... if the virtues that are practiced by the virtuous had no fruits, this universe then would be enveloped in infamous darkness. No one then would pursue salvation, no one would seek to acquire knowledge not even wealth, but men would live like beasts. If ascetism, the austerities of celibate life, sacrifices, study of the Vedas, charity, honesty, these all were fruitless, men would not have practiced virtue generation after generation."

(Mahabharata, Aranya Parva XXXI)

Bhishma on Dharma

Bhishma said, ‘..it is difficult to say what righteousness is. It is not easy to indicate it. No one in discoursing upon righteousness, can indicate it accurately. Righteousness was declared (by Brahman) for the advancement and growth of all creatures. Therefore, that which leads to advancement and growth in righteousness. Righteousness was declared for restraining creatures from injuring one another. Therefore, that is Righteousness which prevents injury to creatures. Righteousness (Dharma) is so called because it upholds all creatures. In fact all creatures are upheld by righteousness. Therefore, that is righteousness which is capable of upholding all creatures. Some say that righteousness consists in what has been upheld in the Srutis. Others do not agree to this. I would not censure them that say so. Everything, again, has not been laid down in the Srutis.’

[This refers to the well-known definition of Dharma ascribed to Vasishtha, viz, “That which is laid down in the Srutis and Smritis is Dharma.” The defect of this definition is that the Srutis and Smritis do not include every duty. Hence Vaisishtha was obliged to add that where these are silent, the examples and practices of the good ought to be the guides of men, etc.]

Mahabharata, Santi Parva, Section CIX

You need the last goal, moksha, to escape from the suffering of Samsara. You need to read the Bhagavad Gita to know how to attain moksha. I will give an example of why one needs moksha.

Yudhisthira said,’… Even thus, endued with actions, creatures come into this wheel of life that is continually turning like the wheel of a car, and even thus, coming thither, they meet with their fellow-creatures. He, however, who abandons the worldly course of life, which is really a fleeting illusion although it looks eternal, and which is afflicted by birth, death, decrepitude, disease, and pain, is sure to obtain happiness. When again, the very gods fall down from heaven and great Rishis from their respective positions of eminence who, that is acquainted with truths of causes (and effects) would wish to have even heavenly prosperity? ..... Reflecting on these circumstances, this nectar of wisdom hath come to me. Having attained it, I desire to get a permanent, eternal, and unchangeable place (for myself). Always (conducting myself) with such wisdom and acting in this way, I shall, by betaking myself to that fearless path of life, terminate this physical frame that is subject to birth, death, decrepitude, disease, and pain.

Mahabharata Santi Parva Section IX

Word of Advice

You may accept or reject this advice. An ancient text like Mahabharata is like a sea bed where there are pearls hidden. You have to dive below the sea to reach the bed and find those pearls. The story is simply a frame work to teach the reader how to live.

It is a bad idea to read abridged Mahabharata. You are depending on someone else's idea of what is important to the reader. There is no substitute to reading the entire 4500 page text. The task is onerous. You will find portions of text that you will disagree with. That is perfectly fine. Just take those parts that in your judgement will help your spiritual growth.

It would have been better if you started with an introductory text.

2
  • Yudishtir was born due to the boon of Yamadeva he is no ordinary Kshatryia lol. So no that doesn't really stand for much.
    – Haridasa
    Dec 10, 2023 at 19:47
  • 1
    Your answers are always pleasant to read sir Dec 11, 2023 at 7:46

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .