The great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, has guided the moral and spiritual life of Indian society for thousands of years. As a spiritual allegory, the Mahabharata might be compared to the great epics of Western culture, plus the Bible, all rolled into one.
No devotee can escape the battle
One of the main actions in the Mahabharata is a great battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two sets of cousins, over the rulership of a kingdom. Yogananda explained that the Battle of Kurukshetra, as it’s known, is an allegory for the battle between materialism and spirituality. The Kauravas symbolize the forces of materialism, while the Pandavas represent the forces of spirituality.
Our true home is in God and our destiny is to return to Him. But, as devotees, we can only fulfill that destiny by fighting the battle against materialism, and reclaiming the kingdom of spirituality within us.
On the eve of battle, Arjuna, one of the Pandavas and the greatest of warriors, asks Krishna, his Guru and charioteer, to take him to the battlefield between the two armies. When Arjuna sees that the opposing army is composed of the Kauravas, he becomes faint of heart and says to Krishna, “How can I kill my own relatives?”
Understanding why Arjuna felt this empathy for relatives who were committed to his destruction will help us in our own battle against materialism. For like Arjuna, we don’t always want to kill the forces of materialism.
Often you hear people on the spiritual path say, “I put out a lot of effort but I don’t seem to be making spiritual progress.” Yogananda said that people who have this complaint still believe that their joy can be found outside themselves through material involvements, rather than within themselves in spiritual attainment. They are caught in this struggle and they don’t necessarily want to “kill” their materialistic tendencies.
We are loyal to materialism
When we think of materialism, we tend to associate it with sense pleasures and acquiring goods. But there’s a subtler form of materialism that manifests in the thought that this world is our true home and that we can find happiness through our careers, our relationships, the good opinion of others, and other things external to our true selves.
One of the most touching stories in the Mahabharata is when, Karna, (or Radheya, as he is also called) a great warrior fighting on the Kaurava side, discovers that he is really a Pandava prince. He’s encouraged to join the side of the Pandavas but refuses because of his loyalty to Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kaurava brothers, who represents material desire.
Karna stands for the quality of seeking happiness in the material world. Superficially, his loyalty appears to be a good thing, but he made the wrong choice in siding with material desire. We often find ourselves in Karna’s position. We make the wrong choice and give our loyalty to materialism.
And why is that? It’s because we like materialism. We enjoy it. I remember a country western song I heard years ago. The main line went “How can something that feels so right, be oh so wrong.” Well, yes! That’s why it’s called delusion!
We need to have a comparison
Delusion is basically ignorance. We’re loyal to what we know until suffering or a glimmering of something higher opens us to the possibility of another reality. Even after we’re on the spiritual path, we tend to prefer what we know over something we’ve only heard about or experienced merely as glimmerings. Before we can slay materialism we need to have a comparison. The experience of divine upliftment in meditation gives us that comparison.
Dispassion—intense ardor for God
There is a character in the Mahabharata named Drupada who represents the quality of dispassion. The term “dispassion” tends to conjure up the image of a negative kind of keeping one’s distance from the world. But it’s not that at all.
True dispassion, Yogananda explained, is intense ardor for God, coupled with a disinclination for worldly or sensual enjoyment. The hallmark of the saints is divine ardor—the ability to dedicate one’s life to God with wholehearted fervor: St. Francis, who danced with joy while shivering in the cold and snow; St. Anthony of the Desert who spent decades alone praying to God; Ramakrishna who rolled on the ground with intense longing for Divine Mother.
Our job on the spiritual path is to summon up this quality of divine ardor, because that’s what ultimately will enable us to win the battle against materialism. It’s ardor for God that gives us the tenacity of purpose, and level of intensity, needed to experience divine upliftment in meditation.
Whatever form our upliftment takes—a feeling of bliss, deep calmness, the melodies of Aum—whenever it comes, we need hang onto it. That becomes the string we follow to get out of the labyrinth of material attachments. As we follow that string back to the divine source within ourselves, we begin to experience what Swami Kriyananda describes as a “constantly flowing fountain of joy.”
Little by little, the experience of divine upliftment intensifies our longing for God. As that happens, a disinclination for worldly fulfillments arises naturally. We don’t want to be in a worldly or sensual environment. We’re not attracted to restless situations. We see things more clearly. And our path becomes easier.
Spiritual power and divine insight
Spiritual success is virtually assured once we achieve true dispassion. For with dispassion comes the awakening of kundalini and divine insight. Kundalini gives us the spiritual power to overcome great obstacles, and to hold firm to the battle against materialism to the end. By alerting us to spiritual dangers and potential wrong choices, the calm inner light of intuition guides our “spiritual army” to success.
In the Mahabharata, Drupada’s two children, Draupadi and Drishtadyumna, symbolize the fruits of dispassion. Draupadi represents the kundalini power and Drishtadyumna, the clear light of intuition.
There’s something else that’s important to remember from the Mahabharata. When Arjuna positioned his chariot between the forces of materialism and the forces of spirituality, he was not alone. Krishna, representing God and Guru, was with him.
And so also for us. We too are not alone. We have the Guru there guiding us. And even if we forget, as Arjuna did, the Guru is still there. He may admonish us, as Krishna did Arjuna, but he will guide us ultimately back to our home in God.
Excerpted from a 1998 talk. Jaya Helin and his wife, Sadhana Devi, currently serve Ananda’s work in India. Jaya can be contacted at Jaya@anandaindia.org.