“Modern stories, fiction and histories are different from the transcendental pastimes of the Lord in that one will tire of hearing mundane stories, but one never tires of hearing about Krishna. It is for this reason only that the history of the whole universe is replete with references to the pastimes of the incarnations of Godhead.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 10.18 Purport)
There is a famous proverb stating that those who don’t learn from history will be doomed to repeat it. The saying has a double meaning, with one side being humorous. When taught to history students, the warning is that if they don’t study the material presented, they will have to learn it again in the following year. The same rule applies to pretty much any class, but with history the statement has a deeper meaning, as lessons can be taken away from historical events. In addition to the potential for acquiring knowledge on what to do and what to avoid, history is studied as a discipline to learn about great men, to honor them, and to delve into their characteristics. Lest we think spiritual life is lacking such detailed information, the Puranas, and most notably the famous Mahabharata, give us all the history we could ever absorb in one lifetime. The men documented within these texts are the greatest of the great, and their journeys through life provide the most valuable lesson of all, namely of how to escape from the clutches of material existence.
How history is eligible to be an academic pursuit can be revealed through studying any time period, so for this example we’ll take the recent Revolutionary War. The men who founded the United States of America are referred to as the Founding Fathers, and their lives have been well documented, studied, honored and even criticized in the two hundred plus years of the nation’s existence. The notable personalities of this group, like George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, are quoted from regularly by politicians and historians, for their statements carry much relevance even today. But if we delve a little deeper into the matter, what do we actually learn from the examples set by these great men? For having founded a nation which has been the most materially prosperous in recent history they are certainly noteworthy personalities, but what are the real lessons to take away from their behavior?
The result of their hard work was the Constitution, which was preceded by the Declaration of Independence. Both of these documents represent an abject rejection of the style of government endured by the colonists prior to the founding of the country. The British ruled over America, with different colonies having their appointed governors. The issues of taxation without representation and control and command coming from far overseas were eventually unbearable for the colonists. Therefore when they finally gained independence, they crafted a style of government which was unique, or so they thought. All of the issues previously encountered were addressed in such a way that the same situation would hopefully never repeat itself.
The Constitution strictly limited the powers of the central government, essentially making the largest governing body in charge of just the military and seeing to it that foreign enemies did not break up the union. The central government wasn’t even given the authority to tax citizens’ income. Add to this the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and what you get is a framework document that explicitly prohibits Congress from doing so many things, such as infringing on the freedom of religion, press and protest, and the ability to carry firearms. The individual colonies, now known as states, were given almost full autonomy, essentially making them smaller countries. This style of government was known as federalism, and it was intended to ensure that the same policy mistakes made by the British wouldn’t be repeated.
Fast forward to today and it’s understandable why the Revolutionary War, the Constitution, and the men responsible for them are studied and their works often cited from. The style of government was certainly unique, but it definitely wasn’t free of flaws. The most obvious indication of this is that the government today bears almost no similarities to the country that was originally founded. The prohibition on levying income taxes went by the wayside in the early 20th century, and federalism now is virtually absent. The issues today don’t revolve around what activities government will be allowed to undertake, but rather on how the government will spend the trillions of dollars that annually pour into the treasury.
Since over two hundred years have passed since the nation’s founding, obviously modern politicians and their voters can’t be blamed for the stark contrast, but if we delve a little deeper into the matter, we see that with a framework document and a system of government put into place, there is every chance of all possible outcomes occurring in the future. Therefore in one sense today’s massive government is a direct byproduct of a system enacted by famous men who are studied and honored. The Constitution was crafted after much compromise, debate and consideration made by flawed human beings. Whatever document they would have come up with would have had issues. After all, the government of England did not start out hated by the colonies. It took a sequence of events to raise the ire of the colonists to the point that they demanded independence.
Since the flaws from the Constitution and other famous governing documents haven’t been permanently addressed, it’s safe to say that the history classes and the attention given to past notable figures haven’t really been fully learned from. History as an academic course is meant to provide education after all, so if the subject matter and the people studied are themselves flawed, the potential for knowledge is immediately limited. The same goes for the study of any historical personality, be they a famous politician, singer, inventor, athlete, etc.
A human being is naturally inclined towards honoring others, towards heaping praise upon their fellow man, which includes historical personalities. Therefore the interest in history is completely understandable. Even if there is no one around in the house, sometimes it is seen that a dog or cat is brought home so that the lonely person has someone they can direct their loving sentiments towards.
When it comes to the bona fide discipline of spirituality that is the Vedas, every single issue known to man is addressed, including that of wanting to offer praise. With historical personalities devoid of full God consciousness, the praise offered to them is always checked. But with personalities fully dedicated to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, their glories are never ending. Studying about them from famous texts like the Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharata brings endless joy and renewed thought, concern and care.
Out of all the Vedic texts, the Mahabharata is the most inclusive in terms of history. In one sense it can be considered the greatest history book, for it contains details of events that are found in many other books. Even the events documented in the Ramayana, the famous Sanskrit poem composed by Maharishi Valmiki many thousands of years ago, are included in summary in the Mahabharata. Every kind of person, from political leader to yogi, from child to dedicated wife and mother, is accounted for in the Mahabharata.
Since the work focuses on history tied to spirituality, the lessons that can be learned are unmatched. For starters, there is the main subject line of the work: the plight of the five Pandava brothers to regain their kingdom. They were the rightful heirs to the kingdom in Hastinapura, but their cousins, known as the Kauravas, had unjustly usurped control and tried to kill the Pandavas on many occasions. Through the travels of the five brothers, much can be learned about Vedic culture, how to deal with political enemies, how children should be raised, how to treat elders, when violence should be used and when it shouldn’t, and, most importantly, what the meaning of life is.
How do we figure out the meaning to our existence by studying about warriors roaming the earth some five thousand years ago? How is reading about people who fought with bows and arrows going to help us solve today’s problems? Aside from the obvious lessons learned from the different activities documented, the hidden jewel in the Mahabharata is the one very small chapter describing a conversation between Arjuna, the lead warrior for the Pandava side, and his charioteer. The chariot driver is a subordinate, someone who takes orders from the fighters. Similar to a caddy in golf, the driver makes helpful suggestions every now and then, but they are certainly not as skilled in the task at hand as the person in charge is.
Yet in Arjuna’s case, his charioteer happened to be Lord Krishna, the Supreme Lord, Bhagavan, the person most of us call God. How the Supreme Lord, the most worshipable person in the world, the one entity who never has to listen to anyone or succumb to lowly tasks, could take on the role of a subordinate in the face of a massive opposing army is a mystery known only to those who practice the ancient art of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. A yoga studio is a classroom-like environment where an instructor demonstrates different postures and helps their students attain a similar level of ability. These studios are very well patronized today because they deliver tremendous health results.
Bhakti-yoga, however, is so powerful that if a person were to practice it during these same sessions in the studio, they would find benefits applicable to every part of life, not just to their physical wellbeing. Meditational yoga leads to benefits in health, flexibility, and longevity in life, but bhakti tackles the very consciousness of the individual, allowing them to be fit, ready and in shape for any type of mental condition, both peaceful and distressful.
Unfortunately, the massive array of bhakti-yoga studios doesn’t exist. There are no regular classes given to teach paying students how to practice divine love, how to surrender their thoughts and desires over to God in a mood of pure love. Fortunately, we can just consult the one small part of the Mahabharata to find out all we need to know about bhakti. The conversation between Arjuna and Krishna would go on to be known as the Bhagavad-gita, or the Song of God. Since the Mahabharata stores this wonderful keepsake, it is known as the fifth Veda, or the supplement to the four primary Vedas, which are the divisions of spiritual knowledge passed down from the beginning of time by Shri Krishna Himself.
What is so remarkable about the Bhagavad-gita? What can we learn from that short conversation that we can’t find anywhere else? Reincarnation, the true position of the soul, the identity of the individual, the temporary nature of loss and gain, how to deal with distress, elation, heartache, pain and misery, and so many other issues are addressed in the advice given to Arjuna. Lord Krishna is the fountainhead of knowledge after all, so when He speaks the whole world should gather around with their recording devices and take notes.
Though there wasn’t such technology around back then, the wonderful Vyasadeva, the most prolific writer of spiritual works in history, documented what went down on the battlefield that day. The Mahabharata was compiled by him, so anyone who is fortunate enough to hear from the sacred work can be supremely benefitted. The words spoken by Krishna that day have been studied by many since that time, but only the devotees, those who either follow in the line of Arjuna or reach the same conclusion that he did, will be able to make full use of Krishna’s words.
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.66)
The final conclusion of the Gita is that Arjuna should simply surrender unto Krishna and abide by His orders. This would eliminate his doubts and any chances of incurring sin as well. Krishna protects the surrendered soul. Therefore this recommendation applies to every single living entity, existing past, present and future. One who accepts the conclusion of the Gita and makes it their way of life follows bhakti-yoga. They can also teach others how to follow the same art. From studying the history of the Mahabharata, and the most wonderful Bhagavad-gita contained within, the enthusiastic listener of Vedic wisdom constantly shines light on an otherwise dark universe, which is filled with so much information that bears no impact on the spirit soul, the essence of identity.
Just as the Bhagavad-gita is glorious for its profound wisdom, so its speaker is forever worthy of praise and adulation. His position as Partha-sarathi, or Arjuna’s charioteer, was not Krishna’s only pastime enacted during His brief time on earth during the Dvapara Yuga. The crown jewel of Vedic literature, the Shrimad Bhagavatam, highlights the many important pastimes Krishna enacted, especially those from His youth in the farm community of Vrindavana. While the skeptics may take the accounts found within these works to be mythology, we know that fictional superhero movies and novels are well patronized. Glorifying the characters in these works doesn’t help us in any real way, for at best we can learn that material existence involves a constant struggle with evil elements lurking around every corner.
But even if one isn’t apt to believe in the reality of Krishna’s existence, just hearing about His exploits and His teachings on a regular basis can provide so much clarity of vision. The Pandavas were devotees of Krishna, so their being the main subject matter of the Mahabharata proves beneficial to anyone interested in sincerely studying the work. Shri Krishna knows man’s propensity to learn about great men and to offer praise to their fellow man. Therefore He kindly gave us the voluminous Vedic literature to ensure that we would always have something worthwhile to hear about and learn from. Even if there is no interest in studying Vedic history, simply reciting Krishna’s names on a regular basis through sacred mantras like, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, is enough to keep the bhakti spirit alive.
From mundane history we can learn why perseverance is important, what types of government to avoid, where and when certain colonies and countries were founded, and why past notable figures are worthy of praise and attention. Studying Vedic literature, however, can teach us about how to perform bhakti and make the most out of the valuable human form of life. In this way not only will the mistakes of the past be avoided, but so will rebirth. Reincarnation stops for the Krishna conscious soul, thereby eliminating the chances of ever having to take to knowledge gathering again. Arjuna found sublime wisdom by tapping into Krishna consciousness, which happened to be right next to Him in the form of the Lord. Similarly, by dovetailing our thoughts and desires with Krishna’s interests, everything we could ever want in life, including an object of praise who never leaves our side, can be found very easily.