Epic quest
The Mahabharata: An inquiry in the human condition
by Chaturvedi Badrinath
Orient Longman. Pages 683.
Rs 1095.

Chaturvedi Badrinath shows that the Mahabharata is the most systematic inquiry into the human condition. Its principal concern is the relationship of the self with the self and with the other. This book not only proves the universality of the themes explored in the Mahabharata, but also how this great epic provides us with a method to understand the human condition itself. Badrinath shows that the concerns of the Mahabharata are the concerns of everyday life — of dharma, artha, kama and moksha. It is through this everyday-ness, with its complexities as much as with its simplicity, that the Mahabharata still rings true.

This book dispels several false claims about what is today known as ‘Hinduism’ to show us how individual liberty and knowledge, freedom, equality, and the celebration of love, friendship and relationships are integral to the philosophy of the Mahabharata, because they are integral to human life.

Using over 500 shlokas of the original text that he supports with his own lucid translations, Chaturvedi Badrinath’s the Mahabharata is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of this epic, not in the least, for his elegant scholarship and humanistic approach.


The concerns of the Mahabharata are the concerns of everyday life every where. In its inquiry into the human condition it raises those very questions the answers to which we all seek in the diverse circumstances of our lives. What is happiness? What is unhappiness? What is health? What is sickness? In what relation does the mind exist with the body? What is pleasure? What is pain? What is the nature of sexual pleasure? What kind of energy is sex? What are the conditions in which it flourishes, and what are the conditions in which it dies? What is wealth? What is poverty? What is truth? What is untruth? Are they absolutes? And also, whose truth? What is violence? From where does violence arise? What kind of relation is there between what one does and thinks and what one becomes? What is freedom? What is bondage? Who is wise? And who is a fool? What is it to be a saint? What is purity? What is pilgrimage? Why did a thing happen the way it happened? And, conversely, why did a thing not happen when there was every reason to believe that it would happen? Is one free to make oneself what one is? Or is one determined by some other force: Fate, or God, or History? What is the right ordering of one’s relationship with one’s self and with the other? What relation does it have with time and place? What is governance? What are its foundations? What is order? And what is disorder? What relation do they have with time and place? What is death? And what is that which is deathless? These and related questions are the substance of the Mahabharata; as, indeed they are the substance of human life.

In its opening chapter, the Adi-parva, the Mahabharata provides us with a very detailed table of contents. Stated in its brief outline, the inquiry is into the four ends of human life.

Related at all times intimately with each other, they are: dharma, or the foundations of all relationships, personal and social; artha, or the material conditions of life; kama, sexual happiness, or, used in a wider sense, fulfilment of desire; and moksha, freedom, liberation. No one of them would have meaning without the other three. And all of them give rise to very many questions, which all of us ask, with varying degrees of intensity, at one turn or the other of our circumstances. And they are the questions the Mahabharata takes up in their concrete expressions.