Wednesday, 5 February 2020

The Mahabharata - SHRUG EMOJI

Not that I'm indifferent to it, or undecided about whether I like it, but that I cannot resolve the moral riddle at its core. Thence the shrug.

For anyone not already aware, I'm reading the Doring Kindersley illustrated edition. This is almost certainly slimmed-down but does have the benefit of having lots of excellent images, historical information and a lot of social and cultural background that helps to make sense of the context of the characters decisions.

Draupadi - poorly scanned

I gave up doing chapter by chapter reviews as each chapter was so thick with incident and the moral and religious consequences and meanings were so complex and interlaced that I didn't really feel I could say anything meaningful about it quickly.

Wrote about the Adi Parva Here

The Sabha Parva Here

And the Vana Parva Here


A feeling I kept getting through reading this was that it was a little like if Rome had never fallen

Apparently a huge amount of the texts inside the Library of Alexandria were commentaries on the Illiad, something that would already have been ancient history to Rome, but which people were still writing about and talking about in some depth a long time later.

The Illiad, with its opposing clans, charismatic warriors, complex personalities, curses, fates, gods turning up to do stuff etc. is probably the Western story most like the Mahabharata.

Every character and incident (almost it seems) in the Mahabharata has some temple somewhere in India or some tribe or subculture or grouping that is really into it and has a particular view of it, so if you walk around India (I would guess), its a little like walking around a vast encoding of cultural information in stone and ritual, all bound together by these stories, of which the Mahabharata is a primary one.

If Rome had never fallen I imagine Europe would be the same way. We would have shrines to Hercules and Achilles and whoever, and every local town would have a story about when Hercules visited and those stories would have expanded through the psychogeography of the culture and be a shared point of contact.


As a whole the moral ecology is really different but it did turn out to be a little bit like the Horus Heresy, or at least, the parts centred around the Kurukshetra war did.

It’s about touchy, martial high-status men taking extreme offense at each other. And insecurity.

The war itself is very wargamy, The exact disposition of forces, the weapons, elephants, horses, squad makeup, the power levels of the heroes, all are exactly and precisely described. You could literally make a wargame out of it and I'm surprised no-one has, but maybe they have and I just don't know about it? Or maybe it would be a blasphemous wargame? What if the Kauravas win?

SUPER-WEAPONS - Plenty of these dudes. Super-armour. Nuclear arrows. Super-spears. Captain-America murder-discs. Fucking womb-poisoning mega-arrow missile demon things. If you like insane super-weapons you are in for a treat.

There are also special-super tactics like labyrinths of moving chariots and stuff. The DK version didn't go super-deep on the military stuff, I need to read one of the nerd-boy versions which focuses on important matters like exactly who's super-spear was more or less powerful that who's chakram so I can argue with other nerds about it online = PRIORITIES.

Tragic - Not only is it about family vs family and brother vs brother, but the war itself leads to the Pandavas rule, which is good, but falls apart and the Kali Yuga happens. This is One of the huge super-cycles of the cosmos and its one of the bad ones where everyone is fated to be an absolute dick to each other. That is the one we are living through now so in Hinduism it seems we live in a 'fallen world' also.

Krishna murderfucking a demon guy with his super-Chackram


There are sooooo many characters and incidents. Here are a few that stuck out in my memory;

Arjuna - The Pandava I had most sympathy for in the end.

Starts as a shallow hyper-talented super-archer who all girls want to bone, after his time hanging out in Swarga learning dance from the Apsaras he seems to become less of a tool.

Arjuna chilling in Swarga
Then he takes on the role of a dancing trans/eunuch while the Pandavas are hiding out for a year and learns to view the princess he's teaching as a friend (or relation really. At least he has expanded his inner social map to include 'girls who are not my mother that I am not currently trying to fuck).

At the start of the Kurukshetra war, Arjuna seems to be the only Pandava who wants to turn back, correctly realising that even if they win they will have slaughtered siblings and loved ones. Then Krishna comes in with the Bhagavad Ghita and changes his mind.

Towards the end of the story he tries to save the remaining people of Krishnas city after they nearly get annihilated, and finds his powers have fled.

Judged by his actions, he seems to change the most during the story.

Bhima - A big strong dude who loves food and his wife and who is loyal to his brothers and who pretty much remains that way till the end and that's about it.

The coolest Pandava in the stories opening parts where his strength saves his family a bunch of times, but the fact that he never really changes or grows makes him feel more and more childlike, simple and boorish as time goes on and moral complexity mounts up.

Yudhishratha - A guy who is meant to be born super-wise from his God heritage.

He has one of the best scenes in the story where his undiagnosed gambling addiction completely crashes the Pandavas lives. Which is both psychologically interesting in the modern sense but also theologically and philosophically interesting since for Vedic rulers gambling is meant to illustrate that they are living within Dharma.

During the Padnavas exile he takes time out to apparently become even more wise, and seems to have done rehab at least as he doesn't repeat the gambling thing.

The most interesting part of his story is the end. Leading his family up into Swarga, one by one, all of them fall down into hell for their various failings. He doesn't turn around. In Swarga he finds his enemies already there in (lesser) heaven and his family in Hell. He travels to hell and wants to stay with his family. He ultimately ends up in (better) timeless philosophers heaven, free at last from Dharma and Adharma I suppose.

Yudhishrathas story is one of many point where the exact nature of renouncing attachment is thrown into really sharp relief as, considered from the point of being alive, a lot of its consequences are extremely creepy, and hard to reconcile with a human concept of 'good'.

Duryodhana - The 'bad guy', and a really good portrait of a man with capacities, but ruled by fear.

Duryodhana could never feel safe and could never escape his feelings of inferiority, and those lead him to his most shameful actions. A man in that danger zone of being powerful enough to cause trouble and vulnerable enough to act out.

He ends up in Swarga with the rest of his clan, I guess according to Karmic rules he 'did his job' and so gets entry. But we also learn that Swarga is no escape from the wheel and the everyone in (lesser) heaven will eventually end up in hell over several reincarnations and visa versa...

Karna - Probably my favourite character and the one who comes closest to be an Actual Hero.

Secretly the oldest Pandava brother, and the son of a God, abandoned by his mother out of shame he is raised by a charioteer, which according to the caste system makes him a charioteers son for life and nothing else ever.

His own brothers (and almost everyone else) mock and degrade him. The only person who every really values him fully and treats him well is Duryodhana.

And why does Duryodhana treat him well? Out of the goodness of his heart? Or because Karna is one of few people who can actually threaten the super-powerful Pandava brothers with his own abilities? The complexity of this realationship is fascinating.

Nevertheless, Karna remains loyal to Duryodhana, loyal to the one person who was ever loyal to him, throughout. He has one of the other great scenes when his mother comes to him during the war and he's like "have you come to acknowledge me? To love me, finally? Or do you want something from me?", and she asks him to spare the lives of his secret brothers.

Societies usually know what their flaws, are, tacitly and intuitively if not stated outright. Karna is an example of the flaws in the caste system and what Vedic society considers the necessity of social cohesion. But his story isn't a reform story ("we need to change this") but a grieving and acknowledgement story I think ("yes this is terrible, but do you want _chaos_?")

Krishna - Holy fuck this guy is weird. An avatar of Vishnu, and the speaker of the Bhagavad Ghita, the religious text at the centre of the story (hiding scripture in a war story = good work Vedic sages), so a kind of combined prophet/demigod/hero/wizard/supervillain?

Krishna embodies the arguable, or at least, perceived from the human point of view, (from my point of view), moral darkness at the heart of the story.

He's divine, which a lot of characters partially are, but he seems to be much more in touch with the divine aspect of himself, which makes him somewhat frightening and inhuman. His reasons for doing things always stretch across different layers of reality and his purpose seems to be as much fulfilling fate and bringing about the Kali Yuga as much as anything else.

But as a person, as a human being, holy fuck is this guy creepy.

Both sides in the Kurukshetra war are headed up by super-powered badasses, and as we know from the Marvel universe, when two equally powered heroes fight the only way to win is with a cunning trick.

Krishna provides the cunning and trickery for the Pandavas that allows them to win and which also causes them to break every rule of Dharma and battlefield conduct they agreed to at the start (which both sides do, but the Pandavas break _more_)

So to take out the Karuvas Main Guys they, let me see if I can remember;

- Bring a fated transgender/male-presenting female warrior into the field (not meant to do that) so the enemy general pauses in confusion and is shot by super-arrows.

- The 'pure' Yudhishrata lies (for the first time) to another Hero, telling him his son is dead, causing him to lose hope and thus become vulnerable.

- Karna gets shot in the back by Arjuna while trying to fix the wheel on his chariot. (Not meant to do that).

- Duryodhana gets hit below the belt (illegal) by Bhima, having his thighs broken and genitals crushed and dying slowly afterwards.

All of this is planned, organised and engouraged by Khrishna. Which serves his complex purposes of ending the war and making sure the Pandavas win it.

Krishna being, in human terms, incredibly creepy and manipulative, and also being the most 'holy' figure and delivering the core religious text of the story is clearly meaningful in some way but I'm damned if I can understand it. My intuition would be that just as Karnas character is built on an irresolvable societal faultline of caste, Krishas story is "this is what it takes to truly serve divine ends, to be really holy, you up for it?"


At the start of the book, the opening story is about a King who wants to take revenge on some Naga (Snakes and/or Snake-people) for his fathers death, and who is sat down by a sage and told this story, the Mahabharata. The sage tells him to look for wisdom in the complex Labyrinth of its narrative.

So the fact that it is morally and personally, and historically complex, and thick with incident is part of the point.

I haven't read the Ramayana but my friend says its much more classically a legendary moral guide text, where a super good dude fights super-evil.

Most of the main characters in the Mahabharata are highly multifaceted. Most of them could be perceived as villains or heroes at different points in the tale, and seen from different perspectives.

The story that's being told, over all, I felt, was not the story of the Pandavas or the Kauruvas or any of the people, or even groups in the narrative, but about the complex, winding, endlessly shifting moral nature of the world. The close relationship between Dharma and Adharma.

Exactly what counts as Dharma and Adharma is perhaps the key theme of the story, and if it has an answer that I can perceive, it’s that they flow endlessly into each other, opposing and renewing each other. One being the parent of the other, and that the only way to escape from this Labyrinth of Dharma and Adharma is to renounce attachment to the world, when, hopefully they let you in to the slightly better heaven for philosophers which lies above Swarga which is Disneyland-heaven for peasants and normal people.

For as long as you remain attached to, and interested in, the world, you will be doing good and creating evil, or doing evil and creating good.


  1. The first RPG I ever played had super-weapons (in shape of spells that creates a weapon) that were heavily inspired by divine weapons from this book, as it was what the author of this RPG had read. Basically, the end 'reward' for mage was to get hold on some of WMD like that and they were usable X times per life only, with little ladder on what can counter what.

    There is also a trilogy by H. L. Oldie ("Black Trouble-Maker", I don't think it is translated) which looks at Mahabharata from human perspective (basically, a retelling of it, quite close to the course of the story), and yes, Krishna appears entirely very manipulative and creepy, although the novels give him specific motivation (he wants to change Yugas because he wants to be his own person instead of avatar, who, in that re-telling, is like a vessel for god, losing their personality and identity if god chooses to inhabit them, and left on puppet strings in the rest of life)

  2. But it is interesting to see that (whatever his motivation was) Krishna, basically, saw seeds of future Kali Yuga, as he always urged Pandavas to act in their opportunistic interest when they are pressured between honour and survival, only using Dharma in words but not in spirit, to help them to justify their actions (alleviate their consciousness, maybe). In western tradition such person could even be understood as devil.

    In contract, AFAIR, Karna skinned himself as he was born with invulnerable armour on his body, because he thought not giving his opponents a fair chance and be on god-mode was inappropriate.

  3. Grant Morrison has done a cosmic superhero version of the Mahabharata called 18 Days. He gets into all that super weapon stuff and interprets it as Kirby-esque god-tech.

  4. Krishna's black color (the name Krishna meaning 'dark' or 'black') is a rather interesting symbol, especially when taken in relation to the name Arjuna (meaning 'white', being cognate with the term 'argent' i.e. silver).

    In traditional religious symbolism, black and white are the colors corresponding to the inner and the outer, or the conditioned and the unconditioned. Krishna therefore in the unconditioned Self of Arjuna, who respresents the conditioned 'ego'. It is the same reason why in Shaivism you see the depictions of a white Shiva laying prone with the dark skinned Kali on top of him 'riding' him so to speak.

    The mystery of the divine, which is beyond both good and evil, utterly amoral.