Venu Payyanur

We can learn many lessons from the great Mahabharata book particularly from the Great War itself. As mentioned in my previous article, Mahabharata can be considered equivalent to other management bibles. Whether it is man management, human/organisational behaviour, game theory, management by objectives, all aspects of modern management can be discovered in various characters and episodes of the great epic. To get the right perspective and understanding, for the benefit of those who are not so familiar with the Mahabharata, given below is a summary of the 18 day war. Further explanations based on incidences or case studies will be given in my subsequent articles. (There is also a short but nice book available in individual story format written by Dr Rajagopalachari, available in the net free to download.)


The Kauravas have eleven divisions (Akshouhini) to stand against the seven of the Pandavas. The two armies are described as two oceans, crashing against each other. Both sides agree to abide by certain rules of war: no fighting humans with celestial weapons, no fighting at night, do not strike someone who’s retreating or unarmed, or on the back or legs. All these rules will eventually be broken.

Just as the battle is about to start, Arjuna falters at the sight of his relatives and teachers, now his sworn enemies. He breaks down and refuses to fight. “How can any good come from killing one’s own relatives? What value is victory if all our friends and loved ones are killed? … We will be overcome by sin if we slay such aggressors. Our proper duty is surely to forgive them. Even if they have lost sight of dharma due to greed, we ourselves should not forget dharma in the same way. Arjuna fears that acting out his own dharma as warrior will conflict with universal dharma: how can killing family members be good, and not disrupt the social order? Herein lies an unresolved conflict in Hinduism between universal dharma and svadharma (an individual’s duty according to caste and station in life). A warrior must kill to fulfill his duty, whereas a brahmin must avoid harming any living creature. One person’s dharma may be another’s sin. This doctrine distinguishes Hindu thought from other religions.  His charioteer Krishna addresses him as they pause in the no-man’s land between the two armies. This passage is the celebrated Bhagavad Gita, the guide to firm and resolute action.

Unlike many epic heroes, at this point Arjuna thinks before he acts. Arjuna hesitates before such killing, wanting to retreat from life and responsibility (tension between dharma and moksha), but Krishna tells him as a warrior it’s his dharma to fight. How does a warrior perform his duty without doing wrong, polluting himself with the blood of his enemies? The secret is detachment: do your duty without concern for the personal consequences. “Victory and defeat, pleasure and pain are all the same. Act, but don’t reflect on the fruits of the act. Forget desire, seek detachment.” We must always do what is right without desiring success or fearing defeat. Krishna tells Arjuna that good deeds will not get one to heaven if the desire for heaven is the sole motivation for good deeds. Desire is responsible for rebirth; if any desire.

On a hill overlooking the battlefield, Dhritarashtra hears the words of Krishna through his aid Sanjaya, who has been granted the ability to see and hear everything that happens in the battle, to relate these things to the blind king. Dhritarashtra shudders when he hears of Krishna’s theophany, fearing that nothing can stop the Pandavas with such a powerful being on their side. But he takes some comfort in knowing that Krishna cannot accomplish everything he wants, as he failed to arrange a peaceful solution to the conflict. Before the battle, Yudhishthira goes to both his teachers, Bhishma and Drona: “O invincible one, I bow to you. We will fight with you. Please grant us your permission and give us your blessing.” For this sign of respect, both men pray for the Pandavas’ victory, even though they must out of loyalty fight on the side of the Kauravas.

The Battle Begins

Bhishma compares the invincible Arjuna to “the Destroyer himself at the end of the Yuga.” In one confrontation, Arjuna splits Bhishma’s bow with four arrows, and Bhishma praises him: “O son of Pandu, well done! I am pleased with you for this wonderful feat.  Now fight your hardest with me”. However, he is unable to overcome Bhishma. After nine days of fighting, the Pandavas visit Bhishma by night; they tell him that, unless he is killed in the war, the carnage will carry on until the end of the world.  When asked how he can be defeated, he advises them to place Sikhandi in the front line, from where he will be able to fire freely at Bhishma. Sikhandi is actually a woman, Amba whom Bhishma had refused to marry and who vowed to be his death. Amba practiced asceticism, standing on one toe in the snow for 12 years to learn the secret of Bhishma’s death. Amba threw herself into the fire and was reborn from flames as Drupada’s second daughter, later changing sex with a demon to become a man. The next day, confronted by Sikhandi, Bhishma refuses to fight a woman, and he abandons his weapons. Against the rules of war, the Pandavas strike the unarmed warrior with thousands of arrows. There is no space on his body thicker than two fingers that is not pierced. He falls from his chariot, and lies fully supported by the arrows, with no part of his body touching the earth. Bhishma does not actually die until much later, at his choosing. He remains lying on a bed of arrows until the end of the battle.

Drona takes command

Drona positions the armies in a formation known only to him, the Chakravyuha, which nobody knows how to break open, apart from Arjuna. If only Arjuna can be diverted away from the central battle, Drona promises victory. Arjuna has a 15-year old son, Abhimanyu, who, by listening to his father while still in his mother’s womb, has learned to force an entry into Drona’s battle formation. As Arjuna is called to a diversionary battle far away, Yudhishthira entrusts Abhimanyu with the task of opening a breach in the Vyuha. Abhimanyu succeeds, but when Bhima and Yudhishthira try to follow him into the opening, they are stopped by Jayadratha, a brother-in-law to the Kauravas, and the breach closes behind the young Abhimanyu. In spite of his bravery, he is killed.

Earlier during the time of exile, Jayadratha had tried to kidnap Draupadi, thus another reason for the Pandavas to hate him. At this point Arjuna returns to the camp. Inflamed with rage and grief at the sight of his son’s body, he vows to kill Jayadratha before sunset on the following day. He solemnly swears to throw himself into the sacrificial fire, should he fail. Even Krishna is alarmed by this terrible oath. On the next day, Jayadratha is heavily guarded, and Arjuna is unable to reach him. Krishna causes a momentary eclipse of the sun, convincing the enemy that, since night has come, Arjuna must have killed himself because he hasn’t kept his vow. Rejoicing, they lay down their arms, leaving Jayadratha vulnerable to Arjuna’s arrow. Jayadratha’s father had pronounced a curse on anyone who killed his son, saying that whoever caused his son’s head to fall to the ground would die. Using magical mantras, Arjuna causes his arrow not only to sever Jayadratha’s head, but to carry it miles away to fall into his father’s lap. Being in prayer, he doesn’t realize what’s happened; he stands up and the head falls, thus he dies from his own curse.

The following day, Karna hurls himself into the battle. Kunti tries to persuade him to join the Pandavas, but Karna is inflexible. However, he does promise Kunti that he will only kill Arjuna, for one of them must die. In this way, she will still have five sons after the war. Karna possesses a magic lance, the gift of Indra, which will kill any living being but can be used only once. He keeps it in reserve for Arjuna. To dispose of this lance, Krishna calls upon Ghatotkatcha, son of Bhima and the rakshasa. During the night, he fights an epic battle against Karna, who can destroy the demon only by resorting to his magic lance. Ghatotkatcha is killed, but Krishna dances for joy. With his lance now expended, Karna is vulnerable and Arjuna can kill him.

Drona continues to challenge the Pandava armies, slaying thousands. But the Pandavas know his weakness: the love of his only son Ashvatthama. Bhima slays an elephant, also called Ashvatthama, then deceitfully tells Drona of the death of his son. Suspecting a lie, Drona asks Yudhishthira for the truth: is his son dead or not? Drona will lay down his arms the day an honest man lies. Krishna tells Yudhishthira: “Under such circumstances, falsehood is preferable to truth. By telling a lie to save a life, one is not touched by sin”. Yudhishthira speaks a half-lie, “Ashvatthama – (and muttering under his breath) the elephant – is dead.” Before his lie, Yudhishthira’s chariot rode four inches off the ground, but now it sinks back to earth. Drona lays down his arms. Drupada’s son Dhrishtadyumna cuts off Drona’s head, having sworn to avenge his father’s humiliation.

Meanwhile Bhima sees Duhsasana coming towards him. Bhima had sworn to drink the blood of this avowed enemy for what he had done to Draupadi. Bhima knocks Duhsasana to the ground with his mace and rips open his chest. He drinks his blood, saying that it tastes better than his mother’s milk. Bhima, who kills many Rakshasa (and has a son by one), often acts like the man-eating ogres himself—the bloody deaths of Kicaka and Duhsasana, both to avenge Draupadi; Bhima is her most passionate defender. Bhima kills most of the 100 Kauravas, who were demons incarnate.

The Death of Karna

Duryodhana asks Karna to avenge his brother Duhsasana, and he finally meets Arjuna in the decisive confrontation. Arjuna and Karna both have celestial weapons. Karna has an arrow possessed by a Naga (serpent) spirit who holds a grudge against Arjuna (his family had died in the forest consumed by Agni). When Karna shoots at Arjuna, his charioteer warns him that his aim is too high, but he refuses to listen, and hits Arjuna’s coronet only. When the spirit-possessed arrow returns to him and says try again, this time he will not miss, Karna won’t admit failure by shooting the same arrow twice, even if he could kill 100 Arjunas. As the fight continues, the earth opens up and seizes Karna’s chariot wheel, in fulfillment of a curse. In desperation, Karna tries to invoke his ultimate weapon, but the magic words escape him. He remembers Parasurama’s words: “When you life depends on your most powerful weapon, you will not be able to summon it.” In his last moments, Karna questions his beliefs: “Knowers of dharma have always said, ‘Dharma protects those devoted to dharma.’ But since my wheel sank today, I think dharma does not always protect”. As he struggles to release his chariot, he cries out to Arjuna: “Do not strike an unarmed man. Wait until I can extract my wheel. You are a virtuous warrior. Remember the codes of war.” But Krishna taunts him: “Men in distress always call on virtue, forgetting their own evil deeds. Where was your virtue, O Karna, when Draupadi was brought weeping in the Kuru assembly? Where was it when Yudhishthira was robbed of his kingdom?” Karna’s head sinks to his chest, and he remains silent, while continuing to struggle with the chariot wheel. Krishna commands Arjuna to shoot, and Karna dies. A bright light rises out of Karna’s body and enters the sun.

Stubborn but loyal, Karna could have been king, as eldest of the Pandavas, but he remained with the Kauravas. He always fights fair, and keeps his promise to Kunti not to kill any brothers but Arjuna. Their rivalry echoes the mythic conflict between their divine fathers Indra and Surya.

The Death of Duryodhana

Over the eighteen-day war, Duryodhana has seen his generals and their armies fall to the Pandavas, but to the very end he refuses to surrender. He hides in the waters of a lake, which he has solidified over him by magic. Ever the gambler, Yudhishthira tells Duryodhana that he can fight any brother he chooses, and if he wins, the kingdom will be his again. It says something of Duryodhana that he fights with Bhima rather than one of the weaker brothers. In a close battle between equals, Bhima wins only by treacherously striking Duryodhana on the legs, forbidden in the rules of war. Gandhari had put a protective spell over Duryodhana’s body, but because he wore a loin cloth for modesty before his mother, his thighs were not protected.  Duryodhana accuses Krishna of taking sides unfairly and encouraging Bhima’s treachery. Krishna responds: “Deceit in battle is acceptable against a deceitful foe. Even Indra used deceit to overcome the mighty asuras Virochana and Vritra.” An onlooker remarks, “Bhima has sacrificed dharma for the sake of material gain. This can never lead to success and happiness.” Krishna replies that Bhima was merely keeping his earlier vow, a sacred duty: “There is no unrighteousness in Bhima. He has carried out his promise and requited the debt he owed his enemy. Know that the terrible age of Kali is at hand, marked by fierce acts and the loss of dharma.” Duryodhana responds bravely: “I am now dying a glorious death. That end which is always sought by virtuous warriors is mine. Who is as fortunate as me? With all my brothers I will ascend to heaven, while you Pandavas will remain here, torn by grief and continuing to suffer.” As Duryodhana lies dying, Ashvatthama, Drona’s son, tells him how he sneaked into the camp of the victorious Pandavas at night to perpetrate a hideous massacre, killing the remaining warriors and all the children while asleep, leaving the Pandavas without any heirs. Rather than welcoming the news, Duryodhana dies disheartened that the race of the Kurus appears to have no future.  Thus all those on both sides die in the war, except the five Pandavas. When Yudhishthira learns of the massacre, he mourns: “We the conquerors have been conquered.”

When the Pandavas seek revenge, Ashvatthama launches the most fearsome celestial weapon in his arsenal. Arjuna counters with his own weapon, which Drona taught both of them; it was only to be used against divine beings, or else it could destroy the world. Ashvatthama deflects his into the wombs of the remaining Pandava women, making them sterile, but Krishna promises that Arjuna will nonetheless have descendants. As punishment, Ashvatthama is cursed to wander the earth in exile for 3000 years.

The Aftermath

After the war, when Krishna exits the chariot, it bursts into flames; only his presence kept the celestial weapons from destroying it earlier. Krishna reveals that the gods allowed this war to relieve Earth of her great burden.

Yudhishthira reports the death toll at six million. Appalled at such losses, he has a personal crisis similar to Arjuna before the battle. He doesn’t want to rule because it requires the use of force and more violence. He sees that life itself is painful, as men are always searching for more material wealth and power, never satisfied. The man who prizes gold and dirt equally is happiest. The others convince him he must rule and fulfill his duty.

In his dying speech, pierced by many arrows, Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that in Kaliyuga, “dharma becomes adharma and adharma, dharma.” Somewhat paradoxically, he continues, “If one fights against trickery, one should oppose him with trickery. But if one fights lawfully, one should check him with dharma … One should conquer evil with good. Death by dharma is better than victory by evil deeds.”

Significance of Mahabharata   – Venupayyanur

The Mahabharata is undoubtedly one of the greatest works of the world, unique in many ways – unique for the deepest philosophic truths, for the wide range of human life covered by the ethics and for the high spiritual stimulus provided in this epic.

It is a whole literature in itself, containing a code of life; a philosophy of social and ethical relations, a speculative thought on human problems that is hard to rival; but above all – it has for its core the Bhagavad Gita, a perennial source of spiritual strength. It is a story of love, courage, truth, lies, deceit, selfishness, foolishness, and every other human emotion. It showcases human emotions so totally that you need not study anything other than Mahabharata to understand human nature. The Mahabharata dwells on the aspect of the important goals of a human being in his mortal life. The epic aims at making people realize the relation between the individual and the society and how they both are inter dependent on each other. This is a treasure house for those interested in building and developing inter-personal relationships. You can learn how to treat and interact with your wife, husband, brother, sister, father, mother, son, daughter, boss, subordinate, rich person, poor person, generals, soldiers, kings and common man, owners, servants, drivers, neighbors and more in this book. The great epic is besides a storehouse of ancient knowledge. Philosophy, religion, customs and rituals, polity, science, social life, geography, history, economics, code of conduct, etc., find place in it.

Apparently it is the story of a war between two rival sections of a dynasty, but it’s very much more. It is the story of evolution of all life, it is a treatise on cosmogony, a code of universal ethics; it is also a history of the human race in its most general sense.

The Mahabharata describes the ideal polity and culture and religion and may be called the Epic of Society and State. It is called Jaya as it describes the victory of righteousness. There is scarcely a single human situation that it leaves untouched, and it covered most contingencies that mankind could experience till about a few hundred years ago.

It exposes the secrets of leadership and the path to success. Mahabharata can be considered equivalent to other management bibles. Whether it is man management, human/organisational behaviour, game theory, management by objectives, all aspects of modern management can be discovered in various characters and episodes of the great epic. In today’s modern management when ethical judgment and importance of recognizing the ethical dimensions is talked about, Mahabharata gives excellent analogies to identify the ethical boundaries. Lord Krishna himself advised the Pandavas that no action can be perfect in an ever-changing dynamic world and hence he casually advocated them to keep the overall ethical standards in view and then act according to the contingency which may require provisional deviation from strict ethics.  If there is a single lesson from the war, it is that competitors must try to find areas of alliance wherever is possible, group their resources for research and development and offer innovative solutions for customer’s money. 

The great Indian epic is a big storehouse of stories. There are stories inside a story. Each story in itself is the source of knowledge and new learning in various fields of human life esp. management. Every character of Mahabharata teaches us something. It is for us to understand the lesson and follow a path in life that brings joy and peace in life. The story also tells the consequences of giving too much indulgence to children and how things get ruined therefore. The story tells of the bond of friendship through the Duryodhan and Karna relationship. It also tells how a wicked and scheming person (as Shakuni) can poison not only grownups (as Dhritarashtra), but children as well (Duryodhana and Dushshasan and all Kauravas).  It tells of the ills of gambling, the protective nature in a sibling relationship, the woes of the mother, the pain of children in broken families(as of Karna), the disastrous consequences of excess sexuality, tells of inferiority complex, devotion, truthfulness and honesty, Valor, pride and how events and situations may humble the mightiest. It tells of treating the cunning with equal cunning, of peace, of war and strategies, of human patience and how it wears thin leading to breaking of rules (as in the war …. as it grows longer, more and more rules get broken and baser and baser methods get used).

It teaches us of God, of universe, of science, of philosophy, of social relationship, of morals and codes of conducts in different situations. It talks of perseverance and concentration in acquiring skills, it tells of women and their problems. Mahabharata tells about politics, about teachers, about common men and their behavior, of courage, of cowardice, of jealousy, of generosity, of lies, murder, of truth and how God works through men.

It contains the history of ancient India and all the details of its political, social and religious life. The stories, songs, nursery tales, anecdotes, parables, the discourses and sayings contained in this epic are marvelous and highly instructive. It contains the brilliant records of mighty heroes, warriors of great prowess, deep thinkers, profound philosophers, sages and ascetics and devoted wives of chastity. The ancient system of political administration under the directing principle of dharma finds elaborate elucidation in the Raja dharma section of the Santi Parva in the Mahabharata. The Vidura-Niti is a renowned book on political ethics.

The sufferings of the Pandavas and Draupadi, Nala and Damayanti, Savitri and Satyavan, clearly explain to us the fact or hard truth that the goal of life or perfection can only be attained through pain and suffering. Pain is the means through which man is moulded, disciplined and strengthened. Just as impure gold is turned into pure gold by melting it, so also the impure and imperfect weak man is rendered pure, perfect and strong, by being melted in the crucible of pain and suffering. Therefore, one should not be afraid of pain and sufferings. They are blessings in disguise. They are eye-openers. They are silent teachers. They turn the mind towards God and instill mercy in the heart, strengthen the will and develop patience and power of endurance, which are the pre-requisites for God-Realization.

Perhaps the most important theme in the Mahabharata is that of Dharma. In fact, the author Vyasa says himself that the purpose of the Mahabharata is “to engrave dharma in the minds of men.” Dharma is essentially the principle of righteousness, following the correct moral way. The great epic produces a moral awakening in the readers and exhorts them to tread the path of Satya and Dharma (Truth and Righteousness). It urges them strongly to do good deeds, practice Dharma, cultivate dispassion by realizing the illusory nature of this universe and its vainglories and sensual pleasures, and attain Eternal Bliss and Immortality. Dharma is supreme in this world. Dharma brings material prosperity (artha), fulfillment of wishes (Kama) and final liberation (moksha). It is surprising that people do not pay attention to the need for practice of dharma, when everything can be achieved through it.

This book teaches us that an individual may have to be abandoned for the good of a group, or family; the group for the good of a larger community; the community for the good of the country or nation; and, even the whole world for the realization of the Atman.  

If you want to gain extensive knowledge on many topics by reading just one book, then it is Mahabharata for you. As Sage Vyasa himself has told in this book “Whatever is there in this world to be known concerning the various ways and goal of life is there in this book; and whatever is not here is nowhere to be found. This book is for humanity, not just for Indians or Hindus as anyone who reads it gains wealth of practical knowledge that leads him to success, happiness and prosperity.

Lord Ayyappa – Part 3

Venu Payyanur

The pilgrimage to Sabarimala is a symbol of love, equality, and devotion. The outstanding feature of the pilgrimage is that it is not at all sectarian. Anyone notwithstanding the caste, creed or religion he belongs to, can unhesitatingly join the pilgrimage, subject to the observance of the prescribed austerities. As a devotee of Ayyappa there exists no discrimination between the rich and the poor or the high-born and the low-born. This unique aspect of the pilgrimage conveys to the people the message that all men are created equal. Once a devotee wears the garland round the neck and black attire round the waist as the preliminary ritual of the pilgrimage, he identifies himself with the Lord. He is addressed as ‘Swami’ or ‘Ayyappa’ and on his turn he addresses others in same terms. He sees everyone including himself as the image of ‘Ayyappa Swami’, thus upholding the Vedic dictums of ‘Aham Brahmasmi’ and’ Tattwamasi’.

Why does one wear black colour clothes and mala’s etc during the Vrata period? – The colour black signifies no colour. This is also the real state of the world as at night we do not see any colour. Only in light we see the colour and colour also gives us the feeling of differences. (For example White man, black man, etc). Therefore the colour black signifies that there is no difference between you and me, the rich and the poor, the high born and the low born and as well as “GOD” and man, as everything is god and god is everything. By not shaving, cutting your nails, not combing, etc, you are strengthening your “tapasya”. This also means that you are not interested in anything else in the world except seeing “GOD”; you are not interested in getting attracted by others or in physical pleasures as your pursuit is purely spiritual.

Significance of the posture of Ayyappa and the “Yogapattam” (something that is tied to the God’s legs and back) – As you can see, the posture of Lord Ayyappa is significantly different from any other gods that you would see. In this case the lord is neither sitting fully nor standing. This is called “Yoga Padasanam”. As per scriptures, the left thigh is for the wife to sit and right thigh for the children. Since lord Ayyappa is a confirmed “brahmachari, he give no place for a wife or children and by tieing it with the yogapattam, he declares that there will never be any place for a wife or children.

The sacred 18 steps (Ponnu Pathinettampadi). The inner meaning of   these 18 steps is as follows: – The first five steps represent the Five Senses (Panchendriyas) i.e. visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory and tactile. These signify the mortal nature of one’s body.  The next eight steps represents the eight Ashtaragas viz Kama, Krodha, Lobha, Moha, Madha, Maltsarya, Asooya, Dhumb (Love, Anger, Avarice, Lust, Pride, Unhealthy Competition, Jealousy and Boastfulness). The next three steps represents the three Gunas (nature-born qualities), Satv, (perspicuity, discernment), Rajas (activity, enjoyment) and Thamas (inactivity, stupor). The last two steps represent Vidya (Knowledge) and Avidya (Ignorance).

It is believed that, those who detach themselves from all these worldly pleasure can see the Lord Ayyappa in real sense. It is considered that after climbing up these eighteen steps reverently, one symbolically detaches oneself from all the worldly ties that bind one physically and mentally to the world. It is only then that a person will be in a receptive condition to be one’ in consonance with the concept of ‘The Ultimate Creator’. There are many other opinions also about the inner meaning of the   holy steps.

Tattwamasi i.e. ‘You are that’ – when you reach the “Sannidhanam” the first thing you see is the word written in Malayalam and Sanskrit at the sanctum sanctorum. What does this mean? You reach the temple complex in search of “GOD” and there you read this, means that you are “GOD” yourself and no need to go anywhere in search of him, because the GOD resides with in you and always.

Irumudi – Before starting the pilgrimage to Sabari Hills, each devotee prepares an Irumudi (A bag with two separate compartments and with two knots) for the long and strenuous journey through jungles.  The front compartment contains the ghee-filled coconut and the other one includes food and personal belongings.  The devotee walks by foot all the 8 miles from the shore of the Pampa River to Swami Sannidhanam (the open hall in front of the Sanctum Sanctorum), crosses the 18 steps and pours the ghee over the idol of the Lord.

The walk by foot through the jungle symbolizes that the path to spirituality requires greater efforts.  The coconut represents the human body, the outer shell of the coconut symbolizes ego, and the ghee is the Atman (human soul).  Coconuts have three eyes: two eyes represent the intellect and the third eye is the spiritual eye.  The idol represents Brahman.  The rear compartment of the Irumudi symbolizes ‘Praarabdha Karma’ (accumulated worldly possessions).  The devotee exhausts all the worldly possessions during the journey and reaches the Sannidhanam with the ghee filled coconut.  The devotee is reminded that worldly possessions hinder the progress of liberation. The devotee opens the spiritual eye of the coconut, breaks the coconut and pours the ghee (Atman) on to the idol (Brahman).  At this time, the devotee has detached the ego and worldly possessions.  He or she has developed an attitude of total surrender to the Lord (infinite love for the Lord).  The devotee begs Him to grant the total Unity of Atman with the Brahman.  This liberation of Atman from Ego and Wordily Possessions is the Message of Vedanta in Symbolic Language. This Symbolism is flawless and complete. 

Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa