Some thoughts on Dharma from the Mahabharata

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Wed May 15 23:10:38 CDT 2002

a while ago I said to Malolan I would write about this but I kept
forgetting to do so for which I'm sorry.  But today is akshaya tritiya
(akkha trij) which is a good day to begin as it is the day when Maharshi
Veda Vyas began composing the Mahabharata (with Ganesh Bhagawan as his

I criticized a person a while back for taking a few lines chosen at random
from the Mahabharata and passing them off as the final word on
the subject.  (Allegedly from the Mahabharata.  As I mentioned then there
are doubts about the provenence of the stuff he quoted.)  So I'm not about
to do the same thing.  I'll offer my interpretation but draw your own
conclusions.  Because the Mahabharata is a different type of work than,
say, the Vaidyanathadikshitiyam Ravi mentioned.  The latter tells you "do
this" or "don't do that"  The Mahabharata also tells you about what
happens when two right actions conflict.  Or what to do when you can only
choose between the lesser of two evils.  The Pandavas are the heroes
certainly and have many good qualities but they are also shown to be
imperfect human beings--vain, bad-tempered, and sometimes just plain
foolish.  Just like us.  that's why I think the Mahabharata is especially
resonant for us who are also flawed human beings struggling to do the
right thing in a time of confusion.

Anyway, the passage I am quoting is from the aranyaparvan[1].  The
Pandavas have lost the game of dice and have been exiled to the forest.
They pass their time visiting the ashrams of the Rshis who live their.
One such is the Rshi Markandeya.  Yudhisthira asks him  some questions.

Vaishampayana said:

Then King Yudhisthira the best of the Bharatas questioned the lustrous[2]
Markandeya concerning a difficult matter of Dharma.

Yudhisthira said;

  Sir I wish to hear you ell of the greatness of women and the subtleties
of Dharma O Brahmana. For best of Brahmarshis, Sun, Moon, Wind, Earth,
Fire, Father, Mother, Cows, and Vidhis are the visible Gods, Bhargava.[3]
I regard them all as Gurus and likewise do I regard faithful wives.  The
obedience of women who are devoted to their husbands seems to me to be
very difficult.  Pray, my lord, tell of the greatness of devoted wives who
continuously think of their husbands as Gods, while restraining their
senses and controlling their minds.[4]  This appears to me to be quite
difficult, my lord, a woman's obedience to her father, mother, and
husband.  I do not see anything harder than the terrible Dharma of Women.
Alas, fathers and mothers aggravate the tasks virtuous women always
perform assiduously.  What is more marvelous than to be born a woman who
is devoted to her husband,speaks the truth, and carries a child for ten
months in the womb?  after exposing themselves to great danger and
suffering immense pain, women give birth to sons with great hardship, and
rear them with great love, best of Brahmans.

  I also think that men who are engaged in cruel tasks and are loathed for
that, yet continue to perform those tasks have a difficult life.  Tell me
truly of the observance of kshatriya dharma Brahman.  Dharma is hard to
carry out for a cruel man of evil spirit.  I wish to hear from you sir who
are most knowledgeable about questions, about this question o chief of the
Brghuvamsha whose vows are always fruitful.

[to be continued]

[1] It is based on the BORI critical edition and the English translation
of the late Prof. J.A.B. Van Buitenen which I have mostly repeated but
amended here and there.

[2] Tejasvi.  Teja is power as well as light.

[3] Belonging to Brghu gotra

[4] This is pativrata the idea that a woman should serve her husband as
God.  Such ideas have gained notoriety in some circles as "proof" that
Hinduism oppresses women.  Although I think it is totally bogus to try and
prove any such thing based on a book (if you want to know if Indian women
are oppressed, dont read about it, ask them.) I must point out that even
in that very passage, service to ones husband is not seen as the be all
and end all of a womans spiritual life.  Restraining the senses and
controlling the mind are also mentioned.  That isn't enough for the type
of person who believes any restriction on an individuals ability to do as
they please is oppression but mature people recognize this as a very
infantile view.  Life in any but the most primitive of scoieties would be
impossible if we did not restrict certain aspects of our behavior.
Indeed even those champions of freedom know this and are quite happy to
start restricting other people.  Such hypocrisy often ends up being more
oppressive than any situation it is putatively solving as the sordid
history of the 20th century shows.  I don't doubt there are oppressed
women out there and in some cases it may well be because of religion but
looking around me, at the women in my life, I don't see it.  My wife does
not do the same kind of religious activities I do but that doesn't mean
the ones she does are not fulfilling to her.  Just last Friday she
completed a vrata which she did not because someone made her but because
she wanted to.  My conscience is clean so faced with such wild
accusations, I remain unmoved.  Instead I will try and support her
while remaining steadfastly true to Dharma.  Todays feminists do not have
a monopoly on concern for women as the words of Yudhisthira show.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at>
It's a girl! See the pictures -

More information about the Advaita-l mailing list