As the Festival of India spreads around the world, epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata grow in popularity. For example, a recent dramatic rendition of Mahabharata was acclaimed as "a triumph of sustained inspiration and high intelligence." Devotees of Lord Krsna are particularly pleased to see the Mahabharata made popular, since Mahabharata is known as "the Veda of Krsna" and contains the Bhagavad-gita as its most important chapter. But as with all spiritual subject matters, the original intention of the Vedic epics must be preserved. If in a rendition of Mahabharata the scripture is misunderstood, one goes away from it thinking that Krsna is but an incidental character or a faulty human being.

Mahabharata literally means "the story of the greater kingdom of Bharata-varsa." It describes the history of the ancient world empire, formerly known as Bharata-varsa. Comprising some one hundred thousand couplets, the Mahabharata is the longest poem in world literature. The epic relates how the pious Pandava brothers overthrew the demoniac dynasty of the Kurus. The Kurus had cheated the five Pandavas of their right to the throne, exiled them to a forest and, on their return, denied them their land. The work centers on the ensuing eighteen-day battle between the Kurus and their cousins, the Pandavas.

The Mahabharata is Vedic scripture, but it was especially composed for the uneducated classes. The essence of what is presented in Vedanta-sutra as terse philosophical codes is given in the Mahabharata as a saga of palace intrigues, chivalry, and the loves of heroes and heroines. But the Mahabharata should never be treated as a mundane literature or as fiction. The status of the Mahabharata is described in Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.4.25):

Out of compassion, the great sage Vyasadeva thought it wise to edit the Vedas in order to enable men to achieve the ultimate goal of life. Thus he compiled the great historical narration called the Mahabharata for the less intellectual masses.

The statement that the Mahabharata is intended for the less intelligent should not be considered a slur on either the work or its audience. The profound subjects of the Vedas had to be carefully explained even to the greatest sages. Unless one practices yoga and purifies one's mind and senses, one cannot understand the Absolute Truth. The ultimate goal of Vedic knowledge is to know Lord Krsna as the Personality of Godhead, but this Personality is rarely understood. Therefore for the general mass of people the powerful, kind-hearted sage Vyasadeva presented the Mahabharata. This does not make the Mahabharata less important, but rather, as Srila Prabhupada writes, "In this age, the Mahabharata is more essential than the original Vedas."

The purpose of the Mahabharata is to administer the philosophy of the Vedas, and therefore within the Mahabharata the summary Veda, known as Bhagavad-gita, was placed. Srila Vyasadeva is the author of all the Vedic literatures, and he is considered an incarnation of Lord Krsna. So Vyasadeva and Lord Krsna, who are both on the transcendental plane, collaborated in doing good to the fallen souls of this age by givingBhagavad-gita, the essence of all Vedic knowledge. It is the first book of spiritual values and contains all the sublime teachings of the Upanisads and the Vedanta-sutra, but in a way that can be assimilated quickly and easily.

Still, Vedic literature must always be understood with the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master or pure devotee. One of the most critical issues to be understood rightly is the identity of Lord Krsna. Although Krsna is repeatedly addressed in the verses of Bhagavad-gita as "Sri Bhagavan" (the Supreme Personality of Godhead), nondevotees often try to dismiss Krsna or relegate Him to minor importance. This gross misinterpretation renders the actual meaning of Bhagavad-gita incomprehensible. Sri Krsna states the conclusion of Bhagavad-gita: "Give up all religion and surrender to Me. I will release you from all the reactions to your sins; do not fear." Without understanding that Krsna is the Supreme Truth and the object of devotion, we miss the Bhagavad-gita's unifying goal.

Although Bhagavad-gita is the essence of Mahabharata, set within the epic like a jewel within a ring, the activities of the Pandavas take up more verses than the direct activities of Krsna. This is in tune with Vyasadeva's intent: to give his readers interesting instructions that bring them to the level of understanding Bhagavad-gita. Yet whenever Krsna does appear in the Mahabharata, we should understand that He is the same Supreme Person who speaks the Bhagavad-gita. The Pandavas never misunderstood Krsna to be an ordinary person, and neither should we. But commentators throw doubt on some of Krsna's activities in theMahabharata, such as His advising Maharaja Yudhisthira to tell a lie.

When Krsna asked His devotee Yudhisthira to lie, Yudhisthira hesitated because he had never told a lie. Krsna was testing His devotee, and only because of Yudhisthira's ultimate surrender to Krsna did he keep his reputation as a pure devotee of the Lord. Krsna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and all His actions are absolute. When to the mundane vision He appears to steal butter from the householders in Vrndavana, when He dances at night with the gopis, or when He asks Yudhisthira to transcend ordinary morality, these are all lila, or pastimes, of the Supreme Lord. They are not acts that can be imitated.

In presenting Mahabharata, Vyasadeva intended to give spiritual instruction, and yet he was criticized by his spiritual master, Narada, for his undue emphasis on ordinary topics. Narada said that human beings already have a strong inclination to act for sense gratification, and if this is sanctioned by religion, then it will be a great disservice to humanity and to God.

Narada therefore advised Vyasa to compile another scripture, which would be free of all material forms of religion, and which could elevate people to pure love of God. Vyasadeva then meditated and received the divine vision for describing the ultimate Vedic scripture, Srimad-Bhagavatam.

In an age where time is short and we cannot pore over voluminous scriptures, we should concentrate on scriptures that can elevate us directly to pure love of God. Bhagavad-gita, the essence of Mahabharata, will serve this purpose excellently. For further study, Srimad-Bhagavatam gives us the full pastimes and teachings of Lord Krsna. And when we find time to read the Mahabharata, it should be with an understanding that Krsna is the Supreme Lord. Having understood this conclusion from the Bhagavad-gita, we can then enjoy readings or theatrical renditions of Mahabharata, provided they are performed by those who know the conclusion of the Vedic literature. – Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami