What Mahabharata tells us about ‘Dharma’

The Mahabharata teaches us to overcome our ideas of self-righteousness and see the legitimate claims to justice of those whom we fight.

The Mahabharata has inspired movies, writings and popular thought like no other single source of inspiration. With its colourful palate and intense drama, utter realism located in a world full of human imperfection, and the most complex discourse on ‘dharma’ or the path to conquering one’s self, it has held the field.

My understanding of the epic fashioned through oral narrations by elders, and the popular series on Doordarshan, was primarily through the lens of the Pandavas. The Pandavas were ‘good’, and the war was justified as it was intended to vanquish the Kauravas who represented ‘evil’. The theme was simple – triumph of the good over evil. The instances of the Pandavas’ morally unjustified decisions such as the gambling away of their kingdom and Draupadi, did not cast them so much as villains as victims of circumstances.

My interest in the epic was recently re-kindled with Devdutt Pattanaik’s ‘Jaya’ – an Illustrated re-telling of the Mahabharata. Drawing primarily on Vyasa’s classic, the author’s interpretation is complex, diverse, and thoughtful. The references to the various parallel Mahabharatas – the versions shaped through innumerable folk traditions and local legends add to the rich tapestry. Apart from being a fine example of the plurality of versions and interpretations that have sustained Hindu mythology as a living culture, they tell us how people have, in diverse ways, tried to discover themselves and their understanding of life through the epic.

In my re-discovery of the epic through Pattanaik, the narrative of Draupadi emerges as central to the justification for the war. In contrast to the Pandava brothers who evoke no sympathy, having voluntarily fallen into the trap of addiction, Draupadi who ostensibly has no role to play in their decision, does. It is her wail for justice that falls upon Krishna’s ears, and it is her vow that she will not tie her hair until she washes it in the blood of Dusshasana (brother of Duryodhana) which portends the war to come.

For a reader who looks for some definitiveness on which side Dharma lies, the Mahabharata eludes. Just as the reader thinks that Draupadi in the gambling episode can clearly be seen as the victim, Krishna explains to her that she is entirely responsible for her situation. He reminds her of the fact that she rejected Karna (one of her suitors at the Swayamvara) purely on the grounds of caste, believing he was not born into a family of warriors. She had instead chosen a priest (Arjuna appears in the Swayamvara disguised as a Brahman), who turned out to be a prince, who shared her with his brothers and could not protect her either. The caste system which you would believe Krishna rejects in this episode, receives a tinge of legitimacy in other instances.

Krishna’s worldview and therefore the narrative, hinges on the theory of Karma. Krishna repeatedly emphasizes the fact that changes in the material world are all reactions of past actions, and no event is spontaneous. While this theory usefully enlightens our cosmic insignificance, it raises questions on how man is to transcend his base instincts to achieve a better self. If everything is already pre-ordained, you ask yourself what remains of a man’s free will. How is human intellect and reason, which according to Krishna distinguishes man from the beast, to find agency?

Even if one rationalizes this to contend that this only implies that we have no control over external actions and circumstances, while we retain control over ourselves, it still leaves us wondering if this is an excuse to not fight unjust structures and circumstances that we confront. Could we simply exonerate ourselves by believing that we individually did nothing to create or contribute to them?

This question has immense relevance to today’s world, where much of the oppression and injustice we witness can realistically be attributed to our collective failure as human beings and citizens. The somewhat ambiguous and elusive nature of the Mahabharata’s notion of Dharma plays itself out in several instances. Karna, for instance, is stated to have been condemned by the elders of the Kuru clan including Bhishma. This is not just because they believe he had egged on Duryodhana to fight the Pandavas, but also because they consider him as unworthy of being a warrior, having been born to a charioteer. His death in the war is explained as the effect of the Karma of acts he had committed in the past, and his aspiration to be a warrior seen as unbecoming of a son of a charioteer. Similarly, in the case of Dronacharya, the rules of varna-dharma (following the profession of the father) and ashrama-dharma (behaving as per one’s stage in life) are invoked to justify his death at the hands of Krishna, arguably through the use of morally questionable tactics, in this case a small lie by Yudhishtra to throw him off-guard. Krishna argues that Drona though born as a Brahman, lived as a Kshatriya for wealth, power and vengeance, and therefore deserved to die so in the battlefield.

Dharma in these cases is embedded as much in formalistic rules and structures, as in notions of rising above one’s self. The endorsement of, in particular varna-dharma, poses particular problems considering the oppressive nature of the caste system, and the possibility of the upper castes deriving legitimacy from the Mahabharata and other Hindu scriptures. It also runs counter to the definition of Dharma as victory over one’s self, which can be rendered meaningless by ideas of one being pre-ordained for a certain life based on birth.

The emphasis on rules and structures we see in these episodes gets substantially diluted on the battlefield. Krishna resorts to several strategies which can be justified only if one submits to the idea of the Kauravas representing ‘adharma’ who are to be vanquished at any cost, and even then, by subscribing to the principle that means justify ends. The lie uttered by Yudhishtra to deceive Drona, Bhima’s striking of Duryodhana below his waist, and Arjuna’s killing of Karna when he was unarmed, are some of these strategic measures.

Krishna redeems the Kauravas who are discovered to Yudhishtra’s surprise, to have entered heaven or Swarga. When questioned by Yudhishtra, Krishna explains that their death on the holy land of the Kuru-kshetra had wiped out the effects of their misdeeds and earned them enough merit to enter heaven. This redemption raises questions of its own. On one hand it makes you realize that the characterization of the Kauravas as ‘adharma’ is simplistic and flawed, and they were as human as the Pandavas, equally susceptible to folly and greed. If they were, and their mistakes were as human as that of the Pandavas (the Mahabharata abounds with examples of the foibles of the Pandavas as well), the primary justification for the war is that it was pre-ordained. However, this would seem to ignore the fact that Krishna labours before the war is declared to convince the Kauravas of the injustice that would be caused by their actions, and failing to convince them, sees war as the only possible recourse. Thus, the Kauravas are shown the path of Dharma in an attempt to enable them to conquer themselves, their base yet human emotions of greed and vengeance. Their rejection of this path becomes Adharma, against which the battle of Kuru-kshetra is waged.

The complexity of the notion of Dharma as defined in the Mahabharata leaves not just us but even the descendants of the Pandavas, asking themselves agonizing questions of what is good and bad. Janamajeya, the son of Parikshit (grandson of Arjuna) organizes a ritual to sacrifice all the snakes in his kingdom to avenge the death of his father who was killed by a snake. He is stopped mid-way in this ritual by Astika, the nephew of the king of the Nagas. Astika explains to Janamajeya that his grand-grandfather Arjuna burnt a forest to clear land for his kingdom. The forest was the home of many Nagas (serpents) who were left homeless. The killing of Parikshit was to avenge the wrong done to the Nagas. He points out that Janamajeya by sacrificing more Nagas was only perpetuating the cycle of revenge and violence. The sacrifice would create more orphans, who would be thirsty for the blood of Janamajeya and his descendants.

When Janamajeya seeks to justify his action by calling it a measure of justice, Astika responds that what the snake did to his father was also seen as justice, as will be the refrain of the Naga orphans who would in the future avenge the wrongs done to them. Confused at this thought, Janamajeya hesitantly asks him if justice was not on the side of the Pandavas in the Kuru-kshetra. Astika tells him that the war was only about Dharma, and not about justice. Dharma is not about defeating others but conquering one’s self.

This somewhat elusive, and complex thought is what the Mahabharata leaves us with. Perhaps one thing that it speaks to us clearly about is the need to overcome our ideas of self-righteousness and accept the world in all its complexity, and to always try and see the legitimate claims to justice of those whom we fight.


Preeti Mohan is a practising lawyer in the courts in Tamilnadu. She is deeply interested in socio-legal issues and their impact on the evolution of the law, and juxtaposes academic analysis with the real-life experiences of court practice. She is interested in the study and analysis of the Indian constitution, its values and norms and has published papers on the same. Preeti is drawn naturally to ... more


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Preeti Mohan is a practising lawyer in the courts in Tamilnadu. She is deeply interested in socio-legal issues and their impact on the evolution of the law, and juxtaposes academic analysis with the real-life experiences of court practice. She is interested in the study and analysis of the Indian constitution, its values and norms and has published papers on the same. Preeti is drawn naturally to ... more
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