Webster’s dictionary defines dharma as "a. an individual's duty fulfilled by observance of custom or law; b. the basic principles of cosmic or individual existence or the divine law; and c. conformity to one's duty and nature."
It is the last aspect of dharma, which is the most difficult to interpret. What constitutes the duty of an individual? There are no easy answers. In the Hindu context, this duty is defined by several variables: the individual’s place in society and family, their stop in the cosmic hierarchy, their chosen life path, and even the time, situation, season, and place in which they find themselves. A.K. Ramanujan calls this the “context-sensitive nature of dharma,” in “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?”
Perhaps the best way to fix the meaning of dharma is by approaching it from the vantage point of the end goal, which in Indic religions is salvation, moksha, or nirvana. Dharma is that conduct which takes you closer to salvation: often this conduct is aligned with svadharma, the conduct that is right for one’s caste, class, and profession or for one’s peculiar, individual nature or svabhava. Conduct that may be pure in abstraction but is dissonant with one’s svadharma and svabhava does not lead to salvation.
The Mahabharata, the world’s longest religious epic, is at one level, a deep dive into the context-sensitivity of dharma. At one point, Vyasa, the narrator says of the text:
What is found here concerning dharma, the proper making of wealth, pleasure and final release, is to be found elsewhere too, O bull-like heir of Bharata; but what is not found here is to be found nowhere. (Book I, Adi Parva or the Book of Beginnings)
Though the question of dharma comes up in the Mahabharata at every turn, two sets of events that also theorize the nature of dharma are especially relevant. The first and most popularly discussed are those related to Arjuna’s crisis in Book 6, the Bhishma Parva or the Book of Bhishma.
On the first day of battle, the warrior’s courage begins to fail him at the field. Assembled before Arjuna is a familiar host, the Kauravas, his own cousins, and his uncles and grandfathers by blood and by marriage. Arjuna is reluctant to go to war with his own clan. Though Arjuna’s pacifist approach is by no means “wrong” in a contemporary sense, it violates his svadharma as a warrior. Dharma is often objective and fishes one out of the realm of subjectivity. So, the god Krishna explains Arjuna’s true duty to him and brings him back to conduct-compliant with his svadharma.
In the second set of events, which I’ll explore in more detail, we are the end of the great war. The patriarch Bhishma is on his deathbed, suspended mid-air by Arjuna’s arrows, which pierce his body. The son of the divine river goddess, the Ganga, Bhishma has the boon of “icchha mrityu” or choosing the time of his death. Fatally wounded at the start...
of the battle, Bhishma has chosen to linger on at the battlefield, witnessing the fall of the mighty armies of the Kauravas and the Pandavas.
In Book 12, Santi Parva or the Book of Consolation, the Kauravas have been slayed and the Pandavas have emerged as the victors. Yet, paved by corpses of internecine slaughter, this victory is more bitter than sweet. As Yuddhishthira, the oldest of the Pandavas, and the future king of Hastinapur surveys the battleground, he is filled with deep loathing. If this is what becoming a king entails, Yuddhishthira wants no part of it. As a king, there will be no rest for him even after battle. And having paid such a high price for his kingship, will Yuddhishthira be able to prove himself worthy of that cost?
Troubled by these questions, Yuddhishthira considers giving up his life as a king and a warrior for the simple, austere existence of an ascetic. Krishna advises Yuddhishthira to seek the counsel of his beloved grand-uncle Bhishma.
From his bed of arrows, Bhishma delivers the sermon “The dharma of kings,” which illuminates the path ahead for Yuddhishthira. Following the rajdharma or the dharma of a king is important for Yuddhishthira because in the absence of kingship, the weak suffer infinitely and the strong gain unlimited power. The king is the dispenser of justice, the righter of the scales, the giver of mercy, without whom civilization would collapse into the laws of the jungle. Therefore, it is implied Yuddhishthira must not give up on his rajdharma. In the excerpt that follows, Yuddhishthira asks Bhishma to explain to him the “onerous” duty of a king.
Yudhishthira said, "Persons conversant with duty and morality say that kingly duties constitute the highest science of duty. I also think that the burden of those duties is exceedingly onerous. Do thou, therefore, O king, discourse on those duties. ...
Bhishma said, "... He is the best of kings in whose dominions men live fearlessly like sons in the house of their sire ... The following verse was sung in days of old by Usanas of Bhrigu's race, in the narrative called Ramacharita, on the subject, O Bharata, of kingly duties: 'One should first select a king (in whose dominions to live). Then should he select a wife, and then earn wealth. If there be no king, what would become of his wife and acquisition'?' Regarding those that are desirous of kingdom, there is no other eternal duty more obligatory than the protection (of subjects). The protection the king grants to his subjects upholds the world.”
Thus, in describing true rajdharma to Yuddhishthira, Bhishma allays his insecurities and doubts. Knowledge of dharma often serves this clarifying purpose in the Mahabharata. However, by the very frequency with which questions about the right dharma pop up in the text, we can deduce that the text itself does not have absolute answers on dharma. Dharma is both extremely precise and elusive; and we have to constantly calibrate our own understanding of our right conduct based on present realities. Perhaps the greatest role of dharma in the Mahabharata is to remind the reader of the absence of absolutes.