From what I’ve read about it in Intro to India, it repeats the point that the dharma is ‘subtle’ (sūkṣma), and it ultimately leads to the evil Kauravas to heaven and the virtuous Pāṇḍavas to hell, among them Arjuna, who followed Kṛṣna’s orders directly. I also read Kṛṣna is mentioned as just a minor character in the Upaniṣad, as someone who learned a mysterious doctrine from his spiritual teacher (if memory serves), rather than a god, and it’s actually his brother Balarāma who is the reincarnation of Viṣṇu, not Kṛṣna, contrary to common belief.
This led me to believe that according to the text, Kṛṣna just happened to be someone with knowledge that gave him divine abilities rather than a god, and the whole text was meant as a form of subtle satire.
When I told my TA about this, he said that was a very controversial conjecture, and I was wondering how much water it holds.
Answer by Raakhee V. Menon:
Thank you for the A2A.
At the outset, I must tell you that there are umpteen number of interpretative works based on the Mahabharata. The very grayness of the work facilitates this. Each person who reads the work arrives at their own conclusion about it.
Some view it as satire. Some as mythology. Some as an elaborate set of lessons on morals. And some others as a slice of history. Some people think Krishna was divine. Some don’t. Some people think that the Kauravas were righteous and that the Pandavas were cunning. The permutations, combinations and options are endless. This is the true beauty of the masterpiece. It lets you see it in the way you wish to see it.
I have read several of these adaptations and interpretations. The only one I consider closest to the original work is the translation by K. M. Ganguli. It is not an interpretative work. It is just a straight translation.
To me, whatever is described in the text holds true…because that’s the way I see it. The concept of dharma is a very sensitive one. It takes a lot of mental courage and integrity to be able to be righteous all the time. It is this internal turmoil that has been highlighted through every character in the work.
Coming to certain parts of your query…
About why the Kauravas attained heaven while the Pandavas went to hell…it was nothing but an illusion and a final test of righteousness for the eldest Pandava Yudhishthira. All of them had, in fact, attained Heaven.
About Balarama…is it mentioned in the original text that he was an incarnation of Ananta, and that after he discarded his earthly body, he went back to the netherworld.
About Krishna…Krishna was an avatar or incarnation of Narayana, also known as Vishnu, Hari, Purushottama, etc. After his time on earth, Krishna returned to become one with his original form. Narayana took form on earth for a purpose. The purpose has been clearly stated in the Bhagavad Gita as well…
The Upanishads are a philosophical text, one of the best there is. It talks of the various paths to attain salvation. Whether Krishna’s name appears in them or not is not relevant to the larger scheme of things of the text. It talks of higher subjects.
It’s up to you what you would like to think of it. The Mahabharata aims at touching your soul. If it has in one way or the other, then it has served its purpose 🙂
May we all live blessed!