Physics and the Mahabharata

Aditya P. Singh
8133/5 Stadium Road, Opposite YPS,
Patiala-147001, Punjab (India)


Among the most important groups of Hindu narrative traditions available in oral and written texts are the two epics—the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (Flood, 2009). The Mahabharata is a treasure of Hindu deities, stories, yoga, rituals and theologies, and is oriented towards the traditions of Vishnu.

The Mahabharata

Since I want to discuss a few instances where I think the laws of Physics find application in Mahabharata, and thus prompt future discussions on such developments and thinking, at the present moment I am confronted with two types of audiences: 1. there are the physicists who know very little about the Mahabharata, and 2. there are the class of people very familiar with the broad outline of the epic but unfamiliar with the Physics.

Since I cannot attempt a treatise on Physics, given the broad nature of the subject, I am necessitated to write an article designed more in keeping with the needs of the former audience. So, very briefly, below, I quote from Flood's short description of the Mahabharata, from his popular text titled 'Introduction to Hinduism', in an attempt to render a universally appealing, acceptable yet authoritative account of the Epic:

'The Mahabharata is an epic of universal proportions with appeal across centuries and across cultures, as the popularity of Peter Brook's nine-hour English stage production has attested. It is the longest epic poem in the world, comprising over 100,000 verses. According to tradition, the author of the text was the sage Vyasa, whose name means 'an arranger', though from the first half of the first millennium B C E, reaching its established from by the first century C E, though still being formulated by the fourth century. There were probably two major stages in its composition. The first, a version of about 7,000 verses or slokas, attributed to Vyasa, the second an elaboration by Vaisampayana. By the medieval period the Epic existed in two major recensions, one northern and one southern, and was retold in a Tamil version. The critical edition of the Sanskrit version was produced by scholars at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute at Poona, in India, who compared many different manuscripts. Their version is the one formulated by the Brahmin family of Bhargava, descended from the ancient sage Bhrgu, who rewrote the epic incorporating into it much material on dharma. Indeed, the central hero of the Epic, Yudhisthira, is the son of Dharma personified as a deity. The text itself is divided into eighteen parts of varying length, the longest comprising over 14,000 verses, the shortest having only 120 verses. The text is further sub-divided into 98 sub-portions. There is also a supplement to the Epic, the Harivamsa, a text about the life of Krsna.

Apart from the northern and southern recensions, there are regional variations of the text and it is important to emphasize that the Mahabharata exists not only as a 'critical edition' or as an object of scholarly study, but also as a vital and fluid part of contemporary Hinduism, still in the process of being recast in different modes. The Sanskrit narrative traditions of the Mahabharata are also acted out and recited orally in vernacular languages throughout the villages of India at popular festivals. The Mahabharata lives in these presentations and recitations, not to mention in a television series which presented the story to rapt audiences throughout India in the 1980s.

The origins of the Mahabharata lay in non-brahmanical social groups of the 'Aryan homeland' (aryavarta), namely the Ksatriya aristocracy, and it gives us some understanding of the life of those groups, though the story was quickly appropriated by orthodox, Sanskritic Brahmans and overlaid by the Bhargava family with a brahmanical ideology which emphasized the performance of social duty (dharma). While the text is enjoyed simply as a story, it is also understood to have different levels of meaning and to be a metaphor for the ethical battle on the human plane, and for the battle between the lower and higher self on a world-transcending plane.

The story is as follows. A king of the lunar dynasty, Vicitravirya, had two sons, Pandu and Dhrtarastra. Dhrtarastra, the elder prince, should have succeeded his father on the throne, but as he was born blind, a particularly inauspicious karma, he could not. Pandu reigns and has five sons, the Pandavas or the 'sons of Pandu'. When Pandu dies, his blind brother Dhrtarastra takes over the throne and the Pandavas (namely Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahdeva) grow up with their 100 cousins, the sons of Dhrtarastra, the Kauravas. The eldest of the Kauravas, Duryodhana, claims to be the rightful successor to the throne and has the Pandavas, and their common wife, Draupadi, exiled. Duryodhana becomes king and his father abdicates. The Pandavas, however, challenge his right to the throne, so, to avoid, conflict, the blind old ex-king divides the kingdom in two, with Duryodhana ruling in the north from Hastinapur, and Yudhisthira, the eldest Pandava, ruling in south from Indraprasta (modern Delhi). Duryodhana pays a visit to Indraprasta, but while he is there he falls into a lake which provokes laughter from Yudhisthira. Duryodhana cannot abide this insult and challenges Yudhisthira to a game of dice at Hastinapur for the entire kingdom. Yudhisthira who has a passion for gambling, loses everything to Duryodhana, including his wife Draupadi. She is publicly humiliated by the Kauravas who try to tear off her clothing, but it miraculously never unfolds due to the power of Krsna's grace. They play one further game of dice, the loser having to go into exile in the forest for twelve years and spend a further year incognito. Once again Yudhisthira loses and so begins the Pandavas' thirteen-year exile with Draupadi.

In the forest many adventures befall them, all recorded in the Mahabharata, and there are stories within stories told by different characters. They spend the thirteenth year in disguise in the court of a king and emerge from exile in the fourteenth year to reclaim their kingdom. By now, however, Duryodhana is no longer willing to give up his kingdom and so the stage is set for war. The war lasts eighteen days. On the field of Kurusksetra the two armies are lined up and the eve of the battle sets the scene for the Bhagavad Gita, the famous dialogue between Krsna and Arjuna. The battle is fierce and all the Kauravas are killed. Although the Pandavas win, they are filled with sorrow at the loss of so many allies and relatives, even though they were their enemies. Yudhisthira abdicates, leaving the kingdom under the sovereignty of a younger relation, and with his brothers and Draupadi leaves for the realm of Indra's heaven in the Himalayas. Draupadi and four of the brothers die along the way. Only Yudhisthira, accompanied by a devoted dog which had attached itself to him, continues the journey. Indra in his chariot meets Yudhisthira and invites him into heaven, but Yudhisthira will not go without the dog who has been devoted (bhakta). The dog, however, turns out to be the god Dharma himself, who then leads Yudhisthira into heaven where he is astonished to see Duryodhana, the cause of so much suffering, enjoying heaven because he had fulfilled his dharma as a warrior. Yudhisthira, the exemplum of dharmic conduct, has yet to be reborn on earth because of his affection: a last attachment to be purged before liberation can be attained.

Within this basic narrative structure many other stories are embedded which may originally have been independent tales, such as the love story of Nala and Damayanti and the story of the nymph Sakuntala. The famous Bhagavad Gita, 'the Song of the Lord', dated to not before the second century B C E, may well have been inserted into the Mahabharata, though some scholars think that it was composed as part of the text. This dialogue between Arjuna and Krsna, narrated by sage Sanjaya to the blind king Dhrtarastra, becomes one of the most important texts in Hinduism. As the dialogue unfolds, Krsna responds to Arjuna's doubts about the war and gradually reveals himself as a supreme Lord, the creator, maintainer and destroyer of the universe'.

The Physics of Suffering

The role of suffering or penance in everyday human life is very important. It takes us closer to our Object of Affection and helps us fulfill our dharma. It is not without reason that Yudhisthira lived the longest, a mark of good karma, or that Duryodhana reached heaven too. Furthermore, our earlier analysis on the flow of 'janma' stands validated as Yudhisthira who loved his faithful companion, the dog, at the very last had to be born again. True mokshya for ordinary mortals is to be attained through suffering, penance, meditation or worship!

We have visualized suffering or penance in friction. Friction is a dissipative force. On Earth, while we live, it accompanies us wherever we go. In some instances it is a God-sent gift; it helps us walk; yet it dissipates so much of our energy. God, taking pity on us, put an idea into Man's head that rolling friction is lesser than ordinary friction, leading to the discovery of the wheel. The wheel finds mentions in the Mahabharata too: 1. Yudhisthira's chariot rides 2 inches above the ground until he mutters a lie; 2. Karna's, the Kaurava's chief of the army (senapati), chariot gets stuck in mud—he comes down to dislodge it and gets killed; 3. Abhimanyu (Arjuna's son) penetrates the special battle formation of the Kaurava's—the chakravyuh (the formation of the wheel)—but knows only to penetrate it and not come out; 4. and, lastly, Abhimanyu dies shielding himself from arrows with the help of his chariot's wheel.

Is there a metaphysical meaning behind the representation of the wheel? It certainly seems very unique and lofty for Yudhisthira to ride his chariot in air! Yet, perhaps, it means that since he was always truthful, he suffered the least—as demonstrated by a smaller friction coefficient. Karna, the great warrior, has his chariot wheel stuck in mud. He forgets all the knowledge he learnt as a disciple in his dying moments, keeping with his Guru's curse. Perhaps, this muddy affair means that a greater friction is to be seen for those who must suffer. Yet suffering at the very last, frees his spirit and Karna becomes one with his father the Sun God.

The physics of friction or suffering produces the same results as those achieved by ritualistic worship, as described by Ramanuja in his commentary on Brahma Sutra. Unfulfilled desire or suffering or rituals of religion by their very observation are good karma (within limits of course; I do not advocate or justify a sect that e.g. says kill a hundred people on a certain day to please the gods); hence they prolong lives or result in longevity of janmas. What about our stay in heaven? First, stay in heaven or merger is temporary, since heaven itself is subject to the cyclic laws of Universe creation. So we must look to shorten the Aeon and merge with the Being—that is more appealing—now since, desire or unfulfilled desire or rituals of worship are acceleration then the time to this merger is indeed shortened!


Flood, G., 2009, An introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge University Press, First South Asian Edition—Reprint


Source: By E-mail (25/11/2011)



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