Mahabharata: Understanding the Essence of Hinduism
Understanding a religion can be a difficult task because it encompasses a complex web of interrelated tangible and intangible features. Thus, the key to gaining a better understanding of a religion lies in studying the aspects that constitute it. In this paper, I will be examining an aspect of Hinduism – the Mahabharata – in order to understand Hinduism as a religion. Using Ninian Smart’s dimensions of religion, the Mahabharata highlights the important mythological, social and ritual dimensions of Hinduism. The Mahabharata is a significant way to understand the Hinduism belief of fulfilling one’s dharma because the influence of its stories are deeply integrated into the daily lives and the social order of the Hindus. Thus, this shows that the Mahabharata can be used to understand Hinduism and its beliefs.
The Mahabharata which is known as the ‘Great [Epic of] India’ or ‘Great [Sons of] Bharata’ is one of the two epics of Hinduism that are the best-known literature among the Hindu texts. Being passed down through songs, dance, books, performances and even television series, the Mahabharata remained an essential force for shaping both the traditional and modern lives of the Hindus. The Mahabharata told of the “great (maha) struggles among the descendants of a king named ‘Bharata” (Narayana, p.285). In particular, the most famous extract from the Mahabharata would be the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ and its copies can be found in many Hindus home (Narayana, p.285).
According to Ninian Smart, the mythological dimension encompasses the stories about the sacred, religious phenomena or significant events that the followers of the religion believe in (Smart, 1996, p. 4). The most important feature of the mythological dimension is that these myths and stories are what the followers believe (Smart, 1996, p. 4). Hence, in Hinduism, the Mahabharata is the main source of motivation and teachings on the importance of the fulfillment of one’s dharma.
Professor Birkenholtz summarized that the Mahabharata can be referred as the tale of ‘flawed’ dharma where the failure to discern and fulfill the characters’ dharma can lead to chaos and disorder (“Smirti Literature &Dharma”, 2014 Sept 9). For example, Duryodhana of the Kauravas family was not able to discern his dharma and as a consequence, blood was shed between the two families and disorder filled the kingdom (Beck). The stories also underlie that one’s dharma is not always straightforward to discern (“Smirti Literature &Dharma”, 2014 Sept 9). Therefore, many Hindus strive to fulfill their dharma as it is illustrated in the Mahabharata; the downfalls of the protagonists as they could not discern and fulfill their dharma. Thus, with reference to the mythological dimension, the Mahabharata is significant in understanding why Hindus regard fulfilling their dharma as one of the most important duties in life.
In the social dimension of Smart, there are some overlaps from the mythological dimension on the importance fulfilling one’s dharma. The social dimension concerns how the beliefs of a religion play out in the community settings and how the beliefs influence the lives of the followers (Smart, 1996, p. 9). In the Mahabharata’s main scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, it narrates Krishna’s teachings to Arjuna to encourage him to fight the battle against his cousins. Krishna teaches Arjuna that he “must fight for righteousness” (Narayana, p.286) as the prince because that was his true dharma.
Thus, Krishna’s teachings reflect the vitality of discerning and fulfilling one’s proper dharma despite the competing interests that an individual might face (Narayana, p.286). Hence, as Bhagavad Gita is one of the most popular texts that Hindus study and revere, it has a huge impact on how they see their dharma. For that reason, the stories of the Mahabharata reinforce the importance of proper discernment of one’s dharma and that all individuals have a role of maintaining the balance of the community.
For the last dimension of Smart, the ritual dimension, it can be most commonly seen in the households through the influence of the Mahabharata. The ritual dimension can be understood in terms of the conventional processes which the followers perform according to the beliefs of the religion (Smart, 1996, p. 6).
In the Bhagavad Gita, it highlights Krishna’s teachings to Arjuna about the Three Ways (Yogas) of Liberation from the samsara which is the cycle of birth and death. Out of the three yogas, he emphasized the Bhakti yoga (Narayana, p.287). The Bhakti yoga is evident in the lives of the Hindus through the puja which is an “act of respectful honoring of the (personal) gods and goddesses” (Birkenholtz, “Deities, Darshan, & Worship in the Hindu Tradition”, 2014 Sept 11). The puja entails treating the gods and goddesses as honored guests and their presence is considered a blessing to the individual and to the family. The puja can be performed by both priests and lay people, both at home or at temple. (Birkenholtz, “Deities, Darshan, & Worship in the Hindu Tradition”, 2014 Sept 11). Hence, in accordance to Krishna’s teaching of the Bhakti yoga towards liberation, Hindus perform the puja daily and adhere to his teachings. Therefore, the Mahabharata is considered essential in understanding Hinduism through the puja performed in nearly all Hindu households.
In conclusion, the Mahabharata is crucial in understanding the importance of the proper discernment and the fulfillment of one’s dharma. Through Ninian Smart’s mythological, social and ritual dimensions, many Hindus regard the Mahabharata as the sacred teachings of the dharma. The influence of the Mahabharata also shapes the lives of the Hindus and their communities and is visible in the daily ritual of the puja performed by the followers of Hinduism.
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