The Hindu Mahabharata is the longest and greatest story ever written. Most people in the West know of only the tiny and barely representative fragment called the Bhagavad Gita (Song of God). That's lovely poetry but it's totally meaningless unless you have deeply studied the entire saga. I have been so enchanted by this amazing, incomparable thing (the MB) that I wrote an entire novel around the basic elements of it (Nagendra).
The Mahabharata is so huge you could spend many lifetimes studying it and never exhaust the fascination and beauty of every single page of it. I synthesized ten different English translation versions in compiling Nagendra (<shill> which, despite its scriptural roots is actually a thrilling, exotic and sexy beach read</shill>).
Anyway I was asked by somebody not so familiar with the story, what is the greatest lesson or teaching to be had from it? Whoa, what a question, how could even a great pandit or pundit who know the book much better than I do even begin to answer that. But in a flash the only possible answer hit me.
The most profound teaching of the Mahabharata is also one of its simplest moments, in the final section. It is when Yudhishthira, the greatest of the Pandava princes (the five brothers who are the heroes of the whole book, the most righteous core members of the warrior caste) dies. When he first arrives at the great feast and council he finds the supreme gods all assembled in heaven to greet him. They offer him a red carpet entrance moment, but as he looks around he spots the evil Duryodhana, his cousin and the main villain of the entire saga, seated among the immortals enjoying himself, feasted, honored and praised by all the gods and saints on the scene. At that point, Yudhishthira gets super pissed off and indignant and refuses to enter heaven if it contains that asshole, his arch-enemy Duryodhana.
Here's the text:
Listen now to what thy grandsire, Yudhishthira, did after having attained to Heaven, that place of the deities. Arrived at Heaven, King Yudhishthira the Just, beheld Duryodhana endued with prosperity and seated on an excellent seat. He blazed with effulgence like the sun and wore all those signs of glory which belong to heroes. And he was in the company of many deities of blazing effulgence and of Sadhyas of righteous deeds. Yudhishthira, beholding Duryodhana and his prosperity, became suddenly filled with rage and turned back from the sight.
"He loudly addressed his companions, saying, ‘I do not desire to share regions of felicity with Duryodhana who was stained by cupidity and possessed of little foresight. It was for him that friends, and kinsmen, over the whole Earth were slaughtered by us whom he had afflicted greatly in the deep forest. It was for him that the virtuous princess of Panchala, Draupadi of faultless features, our wife, was dragged into the midst of the assembly and shamed there before all our seniors. Ye gods, I have no desire to even behold him. I wish to go there where my brothers are.’
"Narada, smiling, told him, ‘It should not be so, O king of kings. While residing in Heaven, all enmities cease. O mighty-armed Yudhishthira, do not say so about king Duryodhana. Hear my words. Here is King Duryodhana. He is worshipped with the gods by those righteous men and those foremost of kings who are now denizens of Heaven. By causing his body to be poured as a libation on the fire of battle, he has obtained the end that consists in attainment of the region for heroes. You and your brothers, who were veritable gods on Earth, were always persecuted by this one. Yet through his observance of Kshatriya practices he has attained to this region. This lord of Earth was not terrified in a situation fraught with terror.
"‘O son, thou shouldst not bear in mind the woes inflicted on thee on account of the match at dice. It behoveth thee not to remember the afflictions of Draupadi. It behoveth thee not to remember the other woes which were yours in consequence of the acts of your kinsman Duryodhana ,—the woes, viz., that were due to battle or to other situations. Do thou meet King Duryodhana now according to the ordinances of polite intercourse. This is Heaven, O lord of men. There can be no enmities here.’
"Though thus addressed by Narada, the Kuru king Yudhishthira, endued with great intelligence, said, ‘If these eternal regions reserved for heroes be Duryodhana’s, that unrighteous and sinful wight, that man who was the destroyer of friends and of the whole world, that man for whose sake the entire Earth was devastated with all her horses and elephants and human beings, that wight for whose sake we were burnt with wrath in thinking of how best we might remedy our wrongs, then I shall never enter."
That, more than the mysticism of the Gita, is the hard human core of the Mahabharata, its greatest lesson. That is what we're here on Earth to learn. We have so many passionate hatreds, or even simple distaste, of all the people we think have personally wronged us, or even distant figures that are extremely revolting to us, repugnant in every way, so that we shiver with disgust and burn with thermonuclear hate at the mere mention of their names, not to mention any glimpse of their vile evil faces. They are scum, they are dirt, they aren't even human, right? Right. Now, imagine them all equally in heaven, with you there, with everybody there, all honored and enjoyed as amiable companions, rocking the after-party all together. Unthinkable! Unbearable! Isn't it? So there's your lesson. There is no other.