Mahabharata Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Lotus (Symbol)

The lotus plant has a long-running significance in the Hindu faith. The flower is often used to evoke beauty, but it can also represent a kind of blossoming of the soul. Often in the Mahabharata, the lotus is described as an adornment to someone's garb or as a decoration in a house.

Snakes (Motif)

Snakes appear over and over throughout the book, from the giant sacrifice of snakes in a fire to the stitching on tiger-skin garment worn by a terrifying monster guarding the Pandava camp. Throughout the book, snakes represent something dangerous yet not entirely wicked. We read stories of people getting turned into snakes or having to encounter snakes, and while there is always some trouble afoot, it's clear that these creatures are nonetheless dominated by humans.

The Kauaravas Birth (Allegory)

The Kauravas are born when their mother Gandhari gives birth to a single embryo, which she splits amongst 100 pots, each of which bears a son. The unnatural and unsettling nature of the Kauravas' birth foreshadows an unholy existence lived in adharma, and the tale stands as an allegory of how evil can quite literally multiply when fostered by people who are acting out of greed. Here, those people are Dhrtasastra and Gandhari, who are not capable of bearing children but defy what should be their dharma to remain childless and bring the children into existence regardless.

Fire (Motif)

Fire recurs throughout the Mahabharata in moments of destruction, but modulates based on the merit of that destruction. For example, early on Duryodhana tries to burn down the Pandava brothers' house to kill them, and he is clearly acting in adharma. But we also see funeral pyres, sacrificial fires, and various supernatural characters spewing fire. In these situations, fire is conjured as a force that draws a link between the material world and the cosmos, be that by the gods demonstrating their awesome powers using fire or by humans making offerings to the celestial beings to consecrate various rites.

The Clubs (Allegory)

While the Mahabharata is full of allegorical tales meant to demonstrate some ethical conundrum or dictate a moral, "The Clubs" is the only book in the epic almost entirely dedicated to one such allegory. It portrays the Vrsnis, who face imminent destruction by Time and descend into a sinful free–for–all. They cast aside all decorum and dharma, committing to drunkenness and violence as the world turns increasingly bizarre around them. The story illustrates an apocalypse, allegorically depicting how the world is turned upside down when societies decide to live in defiance of virtuous and dharma. Contrast this allegory with the elders descended from Bharata who assent to their demise by choosing to live out their days as ascetics in the forest hermitage.