"Moreover, that king of astonishing power and heroism who maintained purest dharma considered what would confer benefit on all people; best of all experts in dharma, Yudhisthira showed kindness to all his subjects and worked for the benefit of all, with no discrimination. So the people flourished under his paternal care, and no one hated him; hence he was known as Ajatasatru, 'Man without enemies.'"
While the Mahabharata is, in terms of content, a story about war, the book is truly a discursive text on a variety of matters. One of the central concerns of the epic is how a ruler should rule. Such is the point of this quote, articulating that a king who treats his subjects with kindness and makes no enemies will be adhering to his dharma. The subject comes up against throughout the epic, most famously during Yudhisthira's conversation with the dying Bhisma.
"Great king, if this blood from my nose had fallen on the ground, you and your kingdom would have perished, make no doubt! But I do not blame you for striking someone blameless, O king, for harshness quickly takes possession of the powerful."
Spoken to King Virata, Yudhisthira is forgiving the king for striking him out of rage when Yudhisthira suggests that Uttara did not save his cattle, but rather Arjuna, disguised as eunuch. Yudhisthira's act of forgiveness is a kingly one, but more important it speaks to the conflicted nature of holding power. Those in power can exercise their whims and sometimes succumb to them, but they, just like their subjects, must be offered forgiveness from time to time.
"Even the seers are perplexed about what is action and what is inaction, so I shall explain action to you; when you know it, you will be freed from evil."
This quote comes during Krsna's recitation of the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna, and his explanation of action is one of the most philosophically potent and influential aspects of the Bhagavad Gita on Hindu culture and thought. Dharma is a way of life where one lives in accordance with his destiny, but action is the specific way that men exercise it, in turn abiding by their dharma and freeing themselves from evil. As Krsna will go on to explain, the best way to act is with detachment and careful consideration, but always in the way that is most clear and in harmony with dharma given a situation.
"I am Time, destroyer of worlds, fully developed, and I have set out here to bring the worlds to their end. Even without your presence in battle, all these warriors arrayed in opposing ranks will cease to be."
"I am Time, destroyer of worlds," is not just the most famous and quotable line from the entire Mahabharata, but a beautiful, profound one that poetically if plainly states the indiscriminate nature of the cosmos. The fact that time will kill all men, even warriors who achieve glory on the battlefield, is offered to Arjuna to encourage him to carry out his dharma without concerns for the deaths he will cause. Everyone meets the same ultimate fate, yet is Arjuna's duty to carry out his. In this segment of the Bhagavad Gita we also get a sense of the dharma of the gods, with Krsna as time carrying out his own actions with detachment.
"Many enemy heads, with fine noses, faces and hair, free from wounds, decked with lovely earrings, their lower lips bitten in rage, flowing with much blood, covered with beautiful garlands, diadems and turbans, resplendent with diamonds and jewels, seeming like stemless lotuses, or the sun or moon, well-perfumed heads that once spoke kind words to friends, were scattered by Arjuna's son upon the earth."
Describing Abhimanyu laying waste to the Kaurava army, Samjaya offers a decadent account of the carnage on the battlefield. This detail reminds us that these are people—human beings—who lay slaughtered, but also illustrates a kind of grandeur of this war. After all, this is slaughter that is fated, and the way these men are made up make it seem as if death on the battlefield is a resplendent occasion.
"His vital energy destroyed by a weapon, Bhurisravas, the pure and most worthy granted of boons, quit his body on the great field of battle and rose aloft, filling heaven and earth with the excellence of his dharma."
As Samjaya is describing Jayadratha leaving his body to Duryodhana, Samjaya is reminding Duryodhana of the privilege it is to die in battle, countering Duryodhana's despair over losing yet another fine warrior. The quote here illustrates the principle that for a warrior, dharma means battling, and if one dies while battling, then one's soul will ascend in dharma.
"Stretching forth both his arms, King Salya fell to the earth before the lord of dharma like a toppled Pole of Indra. The earth herself seemed to rise to greet with affection that bull-like hero, wounded in every limb as he was, and doused in blood, like a dear wife greeting her beloved as he fell upon her breast."
Here, we see the last of Duryodhana's commanders slain. Like the above quotes, this one articulates a kind of splendor and sacredness in dying during warfare, but it's also interesting for its reference to Salya as "bull-like." The bull is among the most sacred creatures in the Hindu faith, implying that Salya's death is one to be treated with deep reverence.
"All the joyful womenfolk of the lion-like Bharatas praised Krsna the stirrer of men, like shipwrecked travelers rescued by a boat; Kunti, Draupadi, Subhadra, Uttara and all the other women rejoiced in their hearts. Then wrestlers, actors, prizefighters, storytellers, bedside attendants and throngs of Suta and Magadha bards all praised the stirrer of men, O bull-like heir of Bharata, and uttered blessings praising the Kure lineage."
In the most apocalyptic potion of the Mahabharata, when the world has been left in ruins by a harrowing, and as more shocking tragedies await the Pandavas, comes this celebration of life. The cycle of rebirth is central to the Hindu religion, and even in a moment of widespread devastation and death, there is still an opportunity to praise Krsna for bringing life to the heir Pariksit. Note that most who celebrate Krsna here are creators, be that in a literal way as women or in a more figurative way as storytellers. These are the people who see to the sustenance and continuation of the human race.
"Cows gave birth to asses, mules to elephants, dogs to cats, and mongooses to rats. The Vrsnis began to sin without shame, showing hostility to Brahmins, ancestors and gods; apart from Balarama and Krsna the stirrer of men, they now despised their elders."
Here, the entire order of nature is overturned as the Vrsni people descend into sin. The shocking images serve to evoke the total state of disorder that arises from an entire society living in flagrant disregard for dharma. This passage augments the feeling that the end of the Mahabharata illustrates something like the end of the world.
"Now you acted deceitfully towards Drona in the matter of his son; therefore, O king, you have yourself been deceived into seeing hell."
This line comes during Yudhisthira's brief visit to hell before he and his brothers ascend to live in heaven. Indra reminds Yudhisthira of a deceit that he committed to explain why even Yudhisthira must spend some time in hell. But what this line really seems to say is that even the most virtuous individual imaginable errs in his ways. This is supposed to show us that no man is perfect in the pursuit of dharma, that striving for such perfection is a fool's errand because not even Yudhisthira could achieve it.
Mahabharata Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Mahabharata is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
This is actually a complex question. There are actually hundreds of themes. Mahabharata is a powerful text which provides an insight into traditional Hindu culture. I might consider dharma, cosmic order, to be a central theme.