IT is not an exaggeration to say that the persons and incidents portrayed in the great literature of a people influence national character no less potently than the actual heroes and events enshrined in its history. It may be claimed that the former play an even more important part in the formation of ideals, which give to character its impulse of growth.
In the moving history of our land, from time immemorial great minds have been formed and nourished and touched to heroic deeds by the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In most Indian homes, children formerly learnt these immortal stories as they learnt their mother tongue at the mother's knee. And the sweetness and sorrows of Sita and Draupadi, the heroic fortitude of Rama and Arjuna and the loving fidelity of Lakshmana and Hanuman became the stuff of their young philosophy of life.
The growing complexity of life has changed the simple pattern of early home life. Still, there are few in our land who do not know the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Though the stories come to them so embroidered with the garish fancies of the Kalakshepam (devotional meeting where an expert scholar and singer tells a story to his audience) and the cinema as to retain but little of the dignity and approach to truth of Vyasa or Valmiki. Vyasa's Mahabharata is one of our noblest heritages. And it is my cherished belief that to hear it faithfully told is to love it and come under its elevating influence. It strengthens the soul and drives home, as nothing else does, the vanity of ambition and the evil and futility of anger and hatred.
The realities of life are idealised by genius and given the form that makes drama, poetry or great prose. Since literature is closely related to life, so long as the human family is divided into nations, literature cannot escape the effects of such division.
But the highest literature transcends regionalism and through it, when we are properly attuned, we realise the essential oneness of the human family. The Mahabharata is of this class. It belongs to the world and not only to India. To the people of India, indeed, this epic has been an unfailing and perennial source of spiritual strength. Learnt at the mother's knee with reverence and love, it has inspired great men to heroic deeds as well as enabled the humble to face their trials with fortitude and faith.
The Mahabharata was composed many thousand years ago. But generations of gifted reciters have added to Vyasa's original a great mass of material. All the floating literature that was thought to be worth preserving, historical, geographical, legendary political, theological and philosophical, of nearly thirty centuries, found a place in it.
In those days, when there was no printing, interpolation in a recognised classic seemed to correspond to inclusion in the national library. Divested of these accretions, the Mahabharata is a noble poem possessing in a supreme degree the characteristics of a true epic, great and fateful movement, heroic characters and stately diction.
The characters in the epic move with the vitality of real life. It is difficult to find anywhere such vivid portraiture on so ample a canvas. Bhishma, the perfect knight; the venerable Drona; the vain but chivalrous Karna; Duryodhana, whose perverse pride is redeemed by great courage in adversity; the high souled Pandavas with godlike strength as well as power of suffering; Draupadi, most unfortunate of queens; Kunti, the worthy mother of heroes; Gandhari, the devoted wife and sad mother of the wicked sons of Dhritarashtra, these are some of the immortal figures on that crowded, but never confused, canvas.
Then there is great Krishna himself, most energetic of men, whose divinity scintillates through a cloud of very human characteristics. His high purposefulness pervades the whole epic. One can read even a translation and feel the over whelming power of the incomparable vastness and sublimity of the poem.
The Mahabharata discloses a rich civilisation and a highly evolved society, which though of an older world, strangely resembles the India of our own time, with the same values and ideals. India was divided into a number of independent kingdoms.
Occasionally, one king, more distinguished or ambitious than the rest, would assume the title of emperor, securing the acquiescence of other royalties, and signalised it by a great sacrificial feast. The adherence was generally voluntary. The assumption of imperial title conferred no overlordship.
The emperor was only first among his peers.
The art of war was highly developed and military prowess and skill were held in high esteem. We read in the Mahabharata of standardised phalanxes and of various tactical movements. There was an accepted code of honorable warfare, deviations from which met with reproof among Kshatriyas. The advent of the Kali age is marked by many breaches of these conventions in the Kurukshetra battle, on account of the bitterness of conflict, frustration and bereavements. Some of the most impressive passages in the epic center round these breaches of dharma.
The population lived in cities and villages.
The cities were the headquarters of kings and their household and staff. There were beautiful palaces and gardens and the lives led were cultured and luxurious.
There was trade in the cities, but the mass of the people were agriculturists.
Besides this urban and rural life, there was a very highly cultured life in the seclusion of forest recesses, centerd round ascetic teachers. These ashramas kept alive the bright fires of learning and spiritual thought. Young men of noble birth eagerly sought education at these ashramas. World-weary aged went there for peace. These centers of culture were cherished by the rulers of the land and not the proudest of them would dare to treat the members of the hermitages otherwise than with respect and consideration.
Women were highly honored and entered largely in the lives of their husbands and sons. The caste system prevailed, but intercaste marriages were not unknown.
Some of the greatest warriors in the Mahabharata were brahmanas. The Mahabharata has moulded the character and civilisation of one of the most numerous of the world's people.
How did it fulfil, how is it still continuing to fulfil, this function? By its gospel of dharma, which like a golden thread runs through all the complex movements in the epic. By its lesson that hatred breeds hatred, that covetousness and violence lead inevitably to ruin, that the only real conquest is in the battle against one's lower nature.