The works in this chapter were written down starting around the 4th century B.C.E., but the three stories date back to much earlier in the oral tradition. All three works remain influential and ubiquitous in Indian society to this day: common knowledge that everyone knows, at least in some part. Rather than offering a list of values and beliefs, the stories demonstrate them in action: how to approach complicated moral issues, and what to do when life seems unfair. The answer is not always easy, and sometimes the choice is between two options that are not ideal. The best choice is often the most difficult one, and the expectations of society for these characters can seem overwhelming. The intervention of the gods in these cases becomes absolutely necessary. The Bhagavad-Gita is the most directly religious work, containing as it does the teaching of the god Vishnu through his avatar Krishna, but the other two texts include direct participation of gods (and their avatars) in the stories. Therefore, some basic information about Hinduism is necessary for a clear understanding of the texts:
The one god is Brahman, who both binds the universe together and transcends it. The consciousness of Brah- man is divided into three parts, which worshippers address individually:
- Brahma, the Creator
- Vishnu, the Preserver
- Shiva, the Destroyer
Each of them is represented by hundreds of minor Hindu gods, who represent aspects of these three and can function separately while still remaining part of the whole (and all of them are part of Brahman). Gods also can send down avatars—pieces of their consciousness that are born, live, and die as humans—to intervene when neces- sary.
In all three works, a belief in samsara—the cycle of reincarnation—drives the characters’ behavior. An individ- ual can move up or down the hierarchy in society based on their karma (the sum of their good and bad deeds), but only in their next reincarnation. For each person, the concept of dharma (doing what one is supposed to do, right behavior, Law) is slightly different: A warrior who takes an oath (no matter how crazy an oath it is) must fulfill his oath, because keeping one’s word is part of a warrior’s honor. Not fulfilling an oath is adharma (described as Unlaw in the texts). A farmer, however, should behave like a good farmer, rather than a warrior, and good farmers do not take crazy oaths or act in ways that could damage their ability to plant and harvest a crop. Farmers also should not try to become warriors. Social mobility, therefore, is not only discouraged, but irreligious in that context. This idea drives the caste system, forcing people to remain in their caste or face being made an Untouchable.
Each character is born into a caste, or Varna, which determines what they can and cannot do, and each Varna is broken down into numerous Jats, or communities:
- Brahmins, the priests and scholars, are the highest Varna.
- Kshatriyas, the rulers and the military, are the next level.
- Vaishyas are the farmers, landlords, and merchants.
- Sudras are peasants, servants, and workers in non-polluting jobs.
The Dalit, or Untouchables, are workers in what are considered polluting jobs. In some places, even contact with the shadow of an Untouchable was considered polluting. In some parts of India (mostly rural districts), the caste system continues, despite government attempts to stop it.
Characters need to be the best they can be (following their individual dharma) in the Varna and Jat into which they were born in order to move up the hierarchy in their next reincarnation. They are expected not only to work in their Jat, but to marry within it. Certain problems in The Mahabharata are a direct result of characters who do not stay in their Jat (or even their Varna), and the story warns us that trouble, and even disaster, will follow.
As you read, consider the following questions:
- What is this society’s definition of an epic hero? How do we know, based on examples from the stories themselves?
- How do the characters view the gods, and how do the gods treat humans?
- What do we learn about what this society considers proper or improper behavior, again based on the text itself? Who is punished or rewarded, and why?
- Is family love or romantic love more important in the text, and why?
Written by Laura J. Getty
Thumbnail: The Rajarani Temple is an 11th-century Hindu temple located in Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha, India. Image used with permission (CC BY-SA 3.0; Lnm8910 via Wikipedia).