The Hindu Mahabharata – Holy War, Emotionless Killing or Self-Help Manual?


The Mahabharata is widely recognized as a classic Indian epic from the Puranic period of Hindu mythology. It is attributed to the sage Vyāsa.

Krishna and Arjun on the chariot, Mahabharata,...
Krishna and Arjun on the chariot, Mahabharata, 18th-19th century, India – Wikipedia

Scholars believe that its origins can be traced to about the 8th and 9th centuries BCE, and it evolved up to 400 BCE.

The plot involves two related families: the Pandavas (representing goodness) and Karavas (representing evil).

Losing a game of dice, Arjuna and his fellow Pandavas are banished to the forest, stripped of their rightful kingdom.

The ensuing war¹ between the two families of Book VI is described in the Bhagavad Gita.

Manuscript illustration of the Mahabharata War...
Manuscript illustration of the Mahabharata War, depicting warriors fighting on horse chariots – Wikipedia

Many scholars believe the Gita is a later addition to the lengthy epic. Apparently its literary style and philosophical content are too condensed and refined to belong to the older part of the epic.

Aside from the issue of authorship, the Gita remains controversial. For many, it represents the highest expression of the Hindu faith, synthesizing various strands of religious practice—devotion (bhakti), knowledge (jnana) and action (karma). For others, it’s a bellicose political tract that attempts to justify emotionless killing in the name of God.

Some say it’s the New Testament of Hinduism. But nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus advocate killing. In fact, Jesus advocates turning the other cheek and loving your enemy.

Before Christians can get too high and mighty, however, they have to remember that the New Testament is part of the Bible, which includes the incredibly bellicose Old Testament. And Catholics embrace the notion of the Just War Doctrine. So the debate about the similarities and differences between the Gita and New Testament is potentially complex.

Image – Pinterest

Mahatma Gandhi loved the Gita, saying it could untie any spiritual knot.² But he also said “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind,” which makes one think that psychological and not literal interpretations of the Gita are not only possible but preferable.

¹ Known as the Kurukṣetra War, which scholars cannot determine if real or legendary.

Whether a bitter war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas ever happened cannot be proved or disproved. It is possible that there was a small-scale conflict, transformed into a gigantic epic war by bards and poets. Some historians and archaeologists have argued that this conflict may have occurred in about 1000 BCE. » https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurukshetra_War

² See https://www.mkgandhi.org/ebks/gita-according-to-gandhi.pdf

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