(A companion article to “The Bhagavad Gita and the Path to Justice” appearing in ISKCON News on June 26, 2020.)
Mahabharata works on many levels. It is itihasa – history, that which occurred. It’s also good literature with wonderful stories. Mahabharata is also a book of knowledge, classified as the fifth Veda. Mahabharata is specifically meant to help us understand and appreciate the nuanced meanings and principles of dharma.
Dharma impacts us in many ways: through our religion, morals, laws, family, profession, and personally as well. Beyond these, dharma addresses our personal relationship with the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna. Mahabharata, which includes the Bhagavad-Gita, is intended as the basis for our moral and spiritual compass.
One of the major concerns today is the quality of justice available to the citizens of society. This is also an element of dharma. The news today is filled with reports of injustices being committed on many levels. How should devotees respond to these concerns? Are these cries of injustice worthy of response, or should citizens be told that these are simply mundane considerations, and it would be much better for them to focus on their spiritual lives.
The devotees, of course, have no difficulty being advocates for citizens like the cows, trees, and children within the womb of their mothers. In a similar way, why should devotees not be advocates for people who are plagued by life threatening injustices. In the Mahabharata, when Narada Muni visits Yudhisthira at Indraprastra, he explains that justice is one of the ingredients of a well run society.
There are many instances in the Mahabharata where the concepts of justice are boldly displayed, and no one would fault the Pandavas for taking action. At one point, the Pandavas and their mother are staying with a family in Ekachakra. Kunti finds out that the family is in dire difficulty. It’s their turn for one of the family members to be sent off into the woods as a sacrifice to a local rakshasa. Kunti is infuriated when she learns that it’s too much of a botheration for the king of the land to protect the citizens of Ekachakra. She herself is a queen, but not the queen of their land. Nevertheless, she takes it upon herself to send her mighty son Bhima into the forest to correct this injustice.
'The mace fight to Bhima and Dushasan' a sketch by Pushkar Das.
Another instance of injustice is the famous dice match wherein Draupadi is dishonored. The blind king Dhritarastra appeals to Draupadi to excuse his sons for their offenses against her. As a proper gesture, the king nullifies the dice game and returns to the Pandavas all the property they lost in the game. But the Pandavas vow to ultimately correct these wrongs, and Arjuna is sent to the realm of the demigods to procure celestial weapons for the battle to come.
Another example is the injustice to Draupadi when she and the Pandavas reside incognito in the kingdom of Matsya. There, Keechaka, the topmost general, desiring Draupadi’s affection, begins to stalk and harass her. He finally becomes impatient and pulls violently at her hair and kicks her. Does Draupadi simply tolerate this injustice and accepts it as “Krishna arrangement?” Definitely not. That night she approaches Bhima who kills the wicked general. Draupadi is then satisfied that justice has been served.
Of course, in the varnashrama system it is not the brahmanas but the kshatriyas, the leaders and warriors, who maintain and administer justice. The brahmanas encourage and direct the kshatriyas to do the right thing. But even then, there is the example of the wicked, uncontrolled and unreasoning King Vena. Vena had a habit of killing and torturing innocent citizens. When he stubbornly ignores the brahmanas’ plea that he reform himself, they resort to killing him, although not with any weapon, but by the use of mantra -sound vibration.
In ancient times, when the varnashrama system was intact, the brahmanas and sages taught the kings and leaders, as well as the citizens in general. Srila Prabhupada wanted the devotees, as best as they could, to reestablish the varnashrama system in order to purify and elevate the citizens. In this way, they can gradually come to the stage of transcendence. That means teaching dharma in its totality. Srila Prabhupada specifically wanted the Mahabharata to be used for this training: how to function peacefully within society and at the same time how to reawaken our eternal relationship with Lord Krishna.
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Sankirtana Das is a longtime resident of New Vrindaban and an award-winning author and storyteller. He is the author of the much acclaimed Mahabharata: The Eternal Quest. For more info about this book and his work see www.Mahabharata-Project.com
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