Mahabharata Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Describe the importance of the passage of the text known as the Bhagavad Gita.

    The most enduring segment of the Mahabharata is a passage known as the Bhagavad Gita. This text is central to the Hindu tradition in which it holds similar importance as the original Vedic texts, and it also has more contemporary significance in the 20th century as an influence on the philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi. The Bhagavad Gita is dictated in Book 6 of the epic, titled "Bhisma," by Krsna to Arjuna. In it, Krsna outlines the importance of performing one's dharma through actions with a sense of detachment. Krsna's speech lays explains how each person is supposed to follow his own dharma and no one else's, and how the correct actions to take under dharma reveal themselves.

  2. 2

    Analyze how specific characters live in accordance with or violation of their dharma, and what importance this has for the story.

    The main conflict of the story is the one between Yudhisthira and Duryodhana. Yudhisthira is painted as a noble character who lives strictly in accordance with dharma, to such an extreme that he agrees to a dice game he doesn't want to participate in because he feels it is his duty, which ultimately leads to him and his brothers losing everything. After a long exile, war, and period of wandering, Yudhisthira is ultimately rewarded for his life lived by dharma with admittance to heaven alongside his brothers. Duryodhana, on the other hand, lives in violation of dharma, driven by his own selfish motives. In turn, his army is defeated in an bloody battle and he loses all of his closest friends, brothers, and commanders. He dies like a coward after trying to hide in a lake. Those living by dharma in this book are dignified (such as figures like Drona), while those living against it are driven to shame (such as the various people noted in myths early in the story who are transformed into various animals, rivers, or trees).

  3. 3

    What significance do narrative frames play in The Mahabharata and what function do the various stories within the story serve?

    The Mahabharata is narrated entirely by Vyasa, which is the initial frame of the story. Within it, almost all major events are secondarily framed as being recounted from one character to another. For example, we learn of much of the terrible war that is the center of the story through Samjaya recounting it to Dhritarashtra. These types of frames used to relay the meat of the narrative reflect the oral storytelling tradition that was the prime method of passing along literature prior to the advent of writing. As an early epic in the Indian written tradition, it is also an artifact of a different strain of the literary tradition, the narrative one. But there are also a number of tangential, allegorical stories told throughout the epic, as well as key speeches, such as Krsna's Bhagavad Gita and Bhisma's death oration. These stories within stories serve to underpin the philosophical and moral core of The Mahabharata, by demonstrating the various tenets of dharma and providing constructive lessons to the audience regarding right and wrong in the Hindu faith.

  4. 4

    Describe the significance of the various ways that fire plays into the events of the Mahabharata.

    Fire is such an important motif in the Mahabharata that the god of fire himself comes to confront the five Pandava brothers when they set out on the journey that will ultimately result in their deaths. It plays a complicated role in the epic, appearing in both acts of evil and in acts of divine will. Duryodhana uses fire to attempt to kill the Pandavas in their home early in the story, while the fire at the hermitage set by Dhrtarastra, which ends up killing him and all of the elders that have retired there to live an ascetic life, is a purifying blaze. In the first case, the fire is set out of envy, and in the second, it fulfills an act of fate. Fire also appears many times as a ritual tool, such as in the funeral pyre where Duryodhana's body is burned or during the horse sacrifice. Here, it becomes a way for humans to commune with the celestial and deliver sacred rites.

  5. 5

    What is the significance of heaven and hell in the Mahabharata? Use at least two books to explore the topic.

    Heaven and hell are mentioned many times throughout the epic, but they are made especially concrete in the books "Instruction" and "The Ascent to Heaven." In "Instruction," Bhisma tells Yudhisthira about the difference between heaven and hell, and how there are many different heavens and hells for all sorts of deeds that would lead people there. He also discusses how people have to break free from a cycle of rebirth in order to finally reach one of these, and outlines the process for becoming a brahmin on the way to seeking that freedom. In "The Ascent to Heaven," Yudhisthira is freed from life, but offered a strange version of heaven where Duryodhana resides but not any of the virtuous people that Yudhisthira knew in life. He then visits hell, where he finds his brothers, and resolves to stay. It ends up being a test, and Yudhisthira goes to heaven with all of his brothers, and many more. All in all, this illustrates that even though heaven is something the virtuous earn, everyone earns at least some time in hell. It speaks to the essential flaws of humans who, no matter how pure their ways, will always commit some error that dooms them, at least for a time.