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The Role of Dharma

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The Mahabharata holds a place of special veneration in Indian society. An ancient tale, thousands of years old, it inspires poets, writers, and artists across the globe. Its creator is unknown, except as the mythic figure of Vyasa, a poet and seer who appears in the verses he is supposed to have written. Likely the poem was authored by countless writers who grafted its many tales and moral stories onto the skeleton of this epic tale of the five Pandavas, five brothers. Foremost among these brothers is Yudhishthira, the eldest. He was born to be a king. A pillar of morality, intelligence, restraint, and confidence, he possesses a small weakness, his love of fortune. He is a gambler at heart, or else he longs to test his luck at the throw of the dice in order to escape from the walls of sacred duty that surround him. Yudhishthira is the model Hindu hero. He encapsulates the tenets of this great religion, and is so well-versed in them that they have become part of his soul—a soul that is immortal, destined to eternal joy in Indra's heaven. Still, Yudhishthira has a price to pay. He must lead his brothers in battle. He must fight the great war of the Bharatas, the Mahabharata.

Fortunately this Hindu king has his four brothers and their shared wife to accompany him. Bhima, a mighty warrior indeed with the strength of a dozen men or more, is a man of passions, yet faithful and steadfast. Bhima may be easily moved to revenge, but he always has a good justification for his actions. But when his rage is enflamed it is not easily quenched. He has a thirst for blood, a substance he spills more often than any other man, good or evil, in the poem. Arjuna, Yudhishthira's next brother, ultimately proves himself a warrior without equal. He possesses a skill with a bow so great that his foes tremble in his presence. Yet there exists a match for Arjuna, a mysterious soul named Karna. Karna is a brother of Yudhishthira and Arjuna, though they do not know it.

Karna suffers from the fact that his mother will not acknowledge him as her son and the half-brother of the Pandavas. Without such public acknowledgment, Karna has no choice but to honor his obligation to fight the Pandavas on the side of the Kauravas when asked to do so by the prince Duryodhana.

The twins Nakula and Sahadeva appear as reflections of their oldest brother. Without saying or doing as much as either Arjuna or Bhima, they exemplify the same restraint and quiet power that will one day restore Yudhishthira to the throne. And, finally, the wife of all five brothers, Draupadi. She is woman personified. Strong, noble, and beautiful, she matches each of her husbands in intelligence, will, and respect for the sacredness of right action. She knows the ways of dharma.

For dharma, one's sacred duty, is truly the subject of the Mahabharata. Called a monstrosity by some critics because of its sheer size, the national epic of India nevertheless has a consistency of vision. Employing the numerous voices of varied storytellers, sages, priests, demons, and heroes, the poem describes the Hindu ideal of sacred duty. Similar ideas can be found in western philosophy. Plato's conception of the ideal state in The Republic placed each individual in his or her specific place in society, each with duties and responsibilities that assure happiness for everyone. The Greek philosopher also elaborated an idea of the transmigration of the soul, reincarnation or samsara . The...

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ancient Indians knew of the existence of the Greeks, and quite possibly Plato and his predecessors received their ideas from the east without bothering to give credit for these acquisitions—as philosophers rarely do. The Indians, however, much more than the Greeks, seem to have had their vision fixed on preparations for the next world. Happiness in this life is an important good, but theMahabharata calls to mind more important struggles of cosmic significance. The poem details an imbalance between the forces of chaos and order. Thus, the mighty god Vishnu, the Preserver, has once again appeared.

Hindu legend includes nine manifestations of Vishnu on earth, eight of which have occured by the time in which the Mahabharata is set (the incarnation as Krishna is in fact the eighth; the ninth has not yet appeared). Many of these are contained in the ancient stories, or puranas, attributed to the prolific poet Vyasa. In each instance the god has appeared to restore the careful balance of harmony and dissonance in the world. The Mahabharata represents the eighth and final visit of Vishnu. He takes the form of Krishna. Chief of the Yadavas, Krishna hails from western India, but is well known along the Ganges river in Kurujangala where the dispute between the Kauravas and the Pandavas takes place and escalates into a great cleansing war. Krishna represents wisdom and the true path of dharma. Therefore he does not engage in battle himself, but he makes his presence known. He drives Arjuna's chariot, and spurs the Pandava prince to fight, even though he will slaughter his kinsmen: Duryodhana, Karna, and many others. Krishna speaks the sacred words of Hindu law, reciting the Bhagavad Gita, a work known worldwide as the central text of Hindu doctrine. Scholars, likewise, have noted his affinities with Jesus Christ from the western religious tradition. He epitomizes truth, giving it a human form, and provides the Mahabharata with a spiritual center.

Still, the Mahabharata is a poem about human suffering and war. It requires a link between the spiritual and the worldly. It needs an individual that focuses the qualities of human sacrifice, follows the most difficult path of dharma, and explains the proper way to achieve success in this world and the next. This man is Bhishma. The celibate warrior, Bhishma renounces his birthright to the throne of Kurujangala in order that his father might satisfy his desire for a woman. He cannot die, except by his own choosing, and therefore is above the world of the flesh and indifferent to many of the baser motivations of human beings. He represents the observance of dharma on an almost superhuman level, without fear for his neglect of worldly pleasures. His spreads his wisdom even after he should be dead. Lying on a bed of arrows each of which pierces his body, Bhishma recites the ancient knowledge of rulership to Yudhishthira, thereby preparing the Pandava to be king. The irony, of course, is that the Bhishma might have made a greater king than any of the other men who sit on the throne of Kurujangala during the course of the poem. And, had he presided over Kurujangala in place of the weak-willed Dhritarashtra, the great war might never have been fought. All of this because his father wanted another woman.

Bhishma's total renunciation of desire and near flawlessness make him more a symbol than a real person. Tradition, however, requires internal struggle of the epic hero. Thus, Bhishma cannot provide the heroic center of the work. Vyasa reserved this role for Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, Sahadeva, and Draupadi—a hero split into six important, if unequal, sections. As commentators have noted, these individuals represent the human in all of its capacities: thought, action, wisdom, mind, body, emotion, and will. Each of these characters contains these aspects of human nature mixed in different proportions. Bhima represents violent power and strength, Arjuna symbolizes skill and grace. Yet Bhima's strength sometimes becomes savagery, as when he drinks Duhsasana's blood. Likewise Arjuna doubts himself when called to fight his kinsmen in the great war. Yudhishthira, who combines the superb qualities of his brothers with wisdom and restraint, also suffers from very real defects. When gambling with Sakuni and Duryodhana he loses everything that he owns. He even stakes his wife after he has already lost himself. The remainder of the Mahabharata can be interpreted as Yudhishthira's effort to regain what he has squandered, a process that results in incredible destruction. Yudhishthira has obeyed his dharma as a warrior in accepting the challenge of Duryodhana, but betrays the dharma of a king by allowing his kingdom to be lost in a game of dice. What truly has been lost is order, sacrificed to the randomness of dice rolls. Yudhishthira has forsaken the wisdom of order so that he might engage in a game of chance. In so doing he—a symbol of order—unleashes great chaos into the world. As Yudhishthira, the epic center of this immense poem, learns of his mistakes and conquers them, the wisdom of the Mahabharata unfolds.

Source: Sean McCready, for Epics for Students, Gale Research, 1997.

Dharma as the Goal: The Mahabharata

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The Mahabharata is a jayagrantha, as is said in the mangalacarana (salutation to God before undertaking any task) as well as in the Adi Parva. Jaya is a technical term for the whole of the eighteen Purana(s), Ramayana, Visnudharmasastra(s), Sivadharmasastra(s), and the Mahabharata (the "fifth Veda") composed by Vedavyasa Krsnadvaipayana. Vaisampayana, a disciple of Vedavyasa, recited the one hundred thousand verses of the Mahabharata at Taksasfla (now Taxila in Rawalpindi district, Pakistan) in the presence of King Janmejaya, great grandson of Arjuna. Without the episodic and didactic diversions, the story of the Mahabharata extends to twenty-four thousand verses. A shortened form comprising one hundred and fifty verses was also written. Sauti Ugrasrava, a bard by profession, retold it in Naimisaranya (now Nimsar in Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh) before the ascetics there who wanted to hear this "great history and great sastra" in one book. Vedavyasa says that the Mahabharata "principally" records the rise of the Kuru dynasty, Gandhari's righteousness, Vidura's wisdom, and Kunti's patience, Krishna's glory, the Pandava(s)' adherence to Truth, and Duryodhana and his companions' ill treatment toward them. It was composed around an epic war that destroyed the Kuru dynasty.

[The] Mahabharata is a document of the life and ideas of the people of India up to the turn of an epoch.

It gives us the picture of a highly complex society compared to that of the Vedas and Ramayana. Undoubtedly the Mahabharata is guided by the Manu Smrti (canonical laws laid down by Manu), by the common and particular duties of the four varnas) (Brahmin, Ksatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra) prescribed by it. Yet the society of the Mahabharata appears to be very liberal. Drona and Asvatthama were Brahmins turned Ksatriya(s). Yudhisthira tells his curse-stricken forefather Nahusat that it has become difficult to decide the varna because of cross-marriages. A Brahmin must be truthful, benevolent, forgiving, honest, amiable, strictly religious, and kind. One who lacks these qualities is not a Brahmin. A Sudra having these qualities is a Brahmin. Vidura was born of a Sudra mother and neither in marriage nor in varna was ever given the status of Brahmin or Ksatriya or Vaisya; and Dharmavyadha the hunter was born of Sudra parents and yet was engaged in his traditional profession. Yet Vidura was not only a most pious man, an unstained character in the gallery of characters in the Mahabharata, but he was held in high esteem by all—except, of course, Duryodhana, and was believed to be the God Dharma born as a man, on account of a curse given by an ascetic. And Kauslka the Brahmin took lessons in dharma from Dharmavyadha (Vana Parva).

Performing the duties of the station of life one belongs to by trivarga (dharma, artha, kama) and ultimately attaining worthiness by niskama-karma (duty for the sake of duty) or by sa. nyasa (renunciation) man could attain paramagati, that is, salvation. It was by this faith and philosophy that the culture and society of the Mahabharata flourished. Through all the vicissitudes of historical events the Mahabharata carried this message of the good life, a life of duty as prescribed in the sacred books, and expressed a faith in human capability to achieve the greatest value in life. For over and above the differences in varna, profession, social placement, etc., it is the ethical being of man that stands supreme. The Mahabharata is not a tragic record of the futility of man's life and purpose, a record of the holocaust of a fratricidal war. At the passing of the Vedic age, it liberalized the Brahmanic religion, disciplined life and society by laying down prescriptions in the form of rajadharma, that is, a king's duties as well as the duties of a common householder, moksadharma, etc. The novelty of Mahabharata is that all these duties of particular stations of life have not been made ends in themselves but subordinate to a concept of dharma. While the Vedas became the prerogative of the Brahmins and were thus closed to the larger section of the people, the Mahabharata came as the fifth Veda surpassing the Upanisad(s) and four Vedas in scope and size and encompassing all their teachings. Bringing together for the people both the archaic and the historical material, it has given every Indian his cultural and historical identity. As dharmasastra it has revealed to man his duties and purpose in life. The epic war that it depicts may be regarded as a saga. In ferocity, suffering, and heroism, it was unrivaled. Only ten persons, seven on the Pandava side and three on the Kaurava side, survived. Magnificent heroes fought and fell on both sides. But what made all the difference was neither fate nor heroism but adherence to dharma. Gandhari said before the war that irrespective of advantages and disadvantages the balance of dharma was in favor of the Pandava(s). The Mahabharata is much more than a narration of an epic war. Throughout the ages it has taught a philosophy of life and practice. It has been a source of innumerable poetic creations in all ages, (Abhijnana Sakuntalam of Kalidasa is only one example).

In a general way dharma means prescriptions, the observance of which keeps human beings from falling from their station of life or from their own true selves. This is what Krsna says in the Mahabharata. Adherence to dharma protects men from evils created by men. This Sanskrit word dharma can be derived from the root r with dhana and mak as prefix and suffix respectively. It also is derived from the root dhr with man as suffix. In the Mahabharata it has been used in both the senses. By the first, dharma is a means to attain dhana, that is, value, both material and spiritual. By the second derivation it means that which preserves creation and protects it from harm and bestows good. In a very important sense dharma is the law of both human and non-human existence, the rta in the RgVeda. The prescriptions define dharma in the human situation, for man's material and spiritual good. Dharma has two ways, one prescribes actions leading to the achievement of artha (the economic good) and kama (the hedonistic good). It is sakamadharma, that is, observance of dharma with desire for artha and kama. Dharma with artha and kama is called the trivarga and is prescribed for a householder. By artha is meant riches, might, skill, family, health, fame, and enjoyable objects. Kama is enjoyment itself; it is desire for pleasure. To achieve artha and kama by means other than the prescribed dharma is to commit a wrong—that is, sin. To acquire them in the prescribed way is good—that is, merit. Dharma in its other way is niskama, that is, without a desire of anything for one's own. Sakamadharma earns the performer merit to enjoy earthly and heavenly pleasures as long as the merit lasts. Niskamadharma brings the performer salvation and breaks the chain of life and death. Thus it is said in the Vedas that we shall perform sacrifices (yajna) and drink soma to enjoy heaven; this is the practice of sakamadharma. The heavenly pleasures will wear out in time for one to reenter the cycle of life and death.

Regarding the relative merit of dharma, artha, kama, and moksa, there is a dialogue among Vidura and five Pandava(s). Yudhisthira opened the dialogue by saying that with dharma, artha, and kama is carried out our daily life. Of these three, which is superior to which? To this Vidura said that learning, asceticism and meditation (tapasya), forgiveness, simplicity, kindness, truthfulness, and restraint are the elements of dharma. Taken severally, dharma is the highest value. Artha is subservient to dharma. Kama, taken by itself, is inferior to the other two. Then Arjuna said that artha is the principal value because it is the aid to karma, pursuits of life like farming, trade, dairy, industry, etc. With artha one can achieve enjoyable objects in life, can perform the prescriptions of dharma in a better way. Also the motivation to acquire artha is very strong in man. Nakula and Sahadeva said that dharma and artha should go together. Man must adhere to dharma and earn artha without transgressing dharma. It will then be like nectar mixed with honey. With dharma-artha one should go for enjoyments of life. Bhimasena's answer was a notable one. He said kama or desire is the driving force of life. It is by desire for the pleasures of heaven that great sages are motivated and are engaged in religious performances, austerity, etc. It is by desire that the trader, the farmer, artists, and artisans are engaged in their respective professions. Kama is the essence even in all our prescribed behaviors and our efforts at earning riches, fame, etc. Dharma and artha, that is, prescripts and riches, are useless without kama. But it is best to pursue the trivarga, the "triple" value, that is, dharma-artha-kama. To pursue only one of them is worst, two only better. Thus, Bhimasena is advocating sakamadharma, though taken severally kama is the best of the three values. An intriguing point in this discourse is that he is looking for a driving principle in our behavior of all kinds. This principle, he says, is kama, desire or love for happiness and enjoyment, but at the same time he does not want to override dharma, that is, prescription.

Yudhisthira spoke last. Moksa is the highest value, he said. One should do the duties of his station of life without any self-seeking. This is practicing dharma with indifference to sin or merit, riches or poverty, pleasure or pain. Such is niskama dharma, which alone can break the cycle of life and death, supersede merit and sin, and lead to salvation in the absolute (moksa, brahmaprapti). Bhisma also told them that moksa is the highest value for man (parama purusartha). Quoting ancient tales, he told them that both pain and pleasure are transitory, one following the other in a causal cycle driven by persisting desire. Of the two—happiness gained by effort driven by desire and happiness gained by forsaking desire—the latter is preferable because it frees man from the cycle of pleasure and pain. Bhisma said that once King Yayati, one of the great forefathers of the Kurus, asked the sage Bodhya how he acquired the wisdom that gave him a quietude such that nothing could disturb him. Sage Bodhya replied that he learned from the tale of Pingala the prostitute that hopes of desire brought pain and frustration; from the tale of the heron that killing for one's own pleasure invited antagonism from others; from the snake that there was no compulsion about building a home and that a mendicant should live without one: from the bee that an ascetic need not bother about food for living and that he could collect alms from the householders; from the tale of the arrow maker that if he did his job with necessary attention and devotion nothing could distract him, not even the presence of a king; from the tale of the maiden who threw away the extra bracelets because they were resounding too much that if one wanted to avoid disturbance one could get away from it by leaving the company. The teaching is that one can take to the niskamadharma of sa. nyasa (renunciation) and practice yoga, or one may take to the niskamadharma of a grhi (householder, family man) that Vidura practiced. For others, it should be trivarga, dharma-artha-kama. Bhisma's instructions to Yudhisthira and others covered both.

The supreme teaching of the Mahabharata is dharma in the sense of both sakama and niskama dharma. It taught King Yudhisthira how to become an ideal ruler. The fundamental point in these instructions was that a king was bound by law (dharma, prescriptions), and his commands were only rules of law. As a matter of dharma, a king must look to the welfare of his subjects, secure the kingdom from external attack, keep men to their stations of duty, decide carefully on war and peace, maintain a well-trained army and efficient police and intelligence services. If necessary, the king shall take to a scorched-earth policy in the face of an enemy attack. So long as one remains a king he should follow the trivarga guided by dharma, not by kama as Bhimasena had said, like an ideal householder. Then Bhisma talked about the personal qualities that a king should have, like earning riches without cruelty, being brave without being a braggart, etc., and the qualities that a king must not have, such as showing charity to the greedy, trusting a man of ill will, indulgence in sex, etc. The king shall also be a shrewd ruler and shall put up a show as is necessary like actors. Pretension of friendship with a strong enemy and at the same time preparing secretly for war at an opportune moment against him was a valuable piece of advice that Bhisma gave Yudhisthira as a matter of dharma. Bhisma also gave such advice as abjuration of anger, adherence to truth, proper distribution of wealth and earning, forgiveness, having children by one's own wife, purity of thought and action, non-violence, simplicity, and care for the dependents—the nine-fold dharma. During the war Krsna told Arjuna that non-violence (not to injure others) is a great dharma and that telling a lie is preferable to violence. In the same place he says that there is nothing greater than truth. In this context, Krsna's reply to Sanjaya, Dhrtarastra's envoy to Yudhisthira just before the war broke out, is quite interesting.

Sanjaya, trying to dissuade Yudhisthira from war in the name of dharma, said that one who takes dharma as superior to kama and artha is great. Desire for artha binds one to sorrow. Therefore, Yudhisthira, the champion of dharma, had better live by begging than killing such men as Drona, Asvatthama, Kripa, Salya, Vikarna, Duryodhana, Karna. War is evil, desire is a blemish on the pious soul. That war has no necessary connection with virtue or vice, but that war is unmitigated evil is evident from the fact that a senseless fellow or a sinner may win wealth by war while the sensible and virtuous may lose. Why should, therefore, Yudhisthira wage a war and leave the path of dharma? He must not be led by ill-advising ministers. They are really his detractors in his journey to moksa, the highest dharma. To this Krsna replied that no one could abandon his station of duty. One must act, and act according to the injunctions, prescriptions of dharma. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is really empty; it must guide action. The whole universe is in activity without respite, nothing is at rest. Indra is the king of gods because he is untiring in his care and concern for them and sticks to truth and dharma, looking to others before looking into his own happiness. Brhaspati is the supreme guru because he practices perfect reticence and rectitude. Yudhisthira is a Ksatriya and had his duties already prescribed. Along with study of scriptures and performances of religious rites he was engaged even more with arms. A Ksatriya living a good life of a householder would attain the merit of heaven if he fell in battle. Yudhisthira, called by the duty of his station in life, was going to war. He must get back his kingdom. As for moksa, he would attain it ultimately by pursuit of niskamadharma and learning the scriptures and thereby living a holy life. No one could therefore accuse him of any deviation.

On his return Sanjaya told Dhrtarastra that Yudhisthira, a perfect follower of dharma and well versed in scriptures and generous as a man, only wanted to get back the part of the kingdom that Dhrtarastra had given him (although the entire Kuru kingdom legitimately belonged to him). To escape from one's station, that is, to neglect the duties that define a station of life in this creation, is a fall from one's true being. Arjuna was goaded to pick up arms again and fight by the Lord Krsna when the warrior became stricken by the thought of the Doom looming large and the thought of killing the near and dear ones. After the war Yudhisthira, in a melancholy mood, wanted to abandon his kingdom and take to a forest life. Bhisma, Vyasa, Krsna, and others consoling him in his sorrow nevertheless reminded him of his duties as a king. Krsna even told him that he, the Dharmaraja (Yudhisthira) was becoming too occupied with his personal sorrow and bereavements. (It reminds one of Rama's deciding to abandon his beloved queen Sita. Ramachandra could very well abdicate the throne and live with Sita like a common man, but Ramachandra the king could not leave his place of duty on account of personal love and sorrow.) Only by fulfilling the obligations of his immediate station in life can man take the next step to his journey to salvation. Till the realization of moksadharma, man has to act and enjoy or suffer the fruits of his own acts. Charity, religious devotion, knowledge of the Vedas, composure, compassion, non-violence, etc., help life flourish in dharma and help preserve the creation. Action negates action and thus man ultimately goes beyond pleasure and sorrow, friendship and enmity, sense of loss and gain, etc., and becomes indifferent to the vicissitudes of life, leading to self-realization and moksa. In this context one may remember what Yudhisthira himself had once told Draupadi during their hard days in the forest—that he did his duties without any expectation of return, observed charity, and performed religious rites because he should and that he did the duties of a householder by the prescriptions and by the ways shown by the virtuous. This he said when Draupadi complained, like an unbeliever in a moment of sorrow and distress, that dharma was not protecting one who would rather forsake her along with the brothers than deviate from the path of dharma. Then he told Draupadi that he himself caused the sorrow to them by his own acts. He had very well detected the fraud of Sakuni but lost his composure and was led to irrational acts by his anger, something that he should not have done.

It may appear paradoxical that the concept of dharma in the Mahabharata teaches non-violence yet does not consider war an evil, teaches truth along with deception, and so on. Critics of the ethics of the Mahabharata have called it dubious and its great character Machiavellian. For did not Sanatsujata, one of the twelve great teachers of dharma, say that an act of sin is a necessity where one must commit it for the sake of dharma itself? Does it not appear then that dharma and sin might go together? Instances can be multiplied. The incident of Drona's killing is often pointedly referred to. After the fall of Bhisma, Drona was made the supreme commander and threatened to destroy the Pandava army. To contain or rather eliminate him, a course of deception was devised and adopted at the insistence of Krsna. It was known beforehand that Drona could be killed only if he would involuntarily give up his arms at the loss of one dearest to him. Next to Arjuna, the dearest to this great guru was his son Asvatthama. Bhimasena, simple-minded as he was, killed the giant elephant of the same name which King Bhagadatta rode and started shouting that Asvartthama was dead. Drona did not believe him, for he knew that his son was an invincible warrior like Arjuna. He asked Yudhisthira, the Dharmaraja, the champion of dharma, if it were true. Yudhisthira would not tell a lie, but Krsna pleaded with him. Reluctantly, Yudhisthira told the lie that Asvatthama was dead. In grief Drona left arms and armor and sat down with a will to die (prayopavesana) a ritual suicide. Being thus vulnerable, he was killed.

One may also point to the four accusations made by Gandhari. It may be recalled that each day of the eighteen-day war when Duryodhana came to ask for the blessings of his mother he was told that victory would be on the side of dharma. Before the war broke out she gave her last warning that, other things being equal, the balance of dharma was on the side of the Pandava(s). Therefore her accusations bore weight. She said that Bhimasena, encouraged by Krsna, hit Duryodhana below the belt to kill him and win; that Arjuna without any warning cut off the right arm of King Bhurisrava engaged in fighting Satyaki (the great Yadu warrior); that Satyaki killed the incapacitated Bhurisrava when the latter had abandoned arms and sat down with a will to die; and that Krsna was indifferent to the fate of the Kuru dynasty (Pandava(s) and sons of Dhrtarastra are all Kurus) in this self-annihilating war, even though he and he alone could stop it, if necessary, by force. Gandhari cursed him that he would be instrumental in a similar destruction of his own people, the Yadus. Incidentally, the same accusation was made against Krsna by sage Uttanka. Yet the epic war of Mahabharata was said to be a war for the sake of dharma, and the Pandava(s) deservedly won it. How can we explain that in spite of her grief over the death of her sons and the massive destruction on both sides and the four very legitimate accusations, Gandhari had no doubt that the Pandava(s) had won a war of dharma?

This great concept of dharma delineated in the Mahabharata deserves indeed more careful attention than a passing remark. Dharma and rules of morality are different, and they may or may not go together. Violation of a moral rule does not necessarily imply a deviation from dharma, though there is a necessity the other way. Dharma commands absolute obligation, whereas the rules of morality are contingent on their situation of application. In a case where violation of rule is also a violation of dharma and calls for punishment, it is retributive in nature: the suffering clears the guilt to bring back the person to the path of dharma. When it is said that truth is the locus of dharma, this Truth does not mean the same thing as truth-telling. Bhisma tells Yudhisthira that Truth is the highest dharma, and it has thirteen elements—impartiality, control of the senses, absence of avarice, forgiveness, modesty, endurance, freedom from envy, generosity, contemplation, simplicity, patience, kindness, and non-violence. Upon these rests dharma. Moral rules are related to merit and sin, dharma with moksa, that is, salvation. Some of the moral rules are, in fact, rules of dharma. As specific laws they replace the general ones in specific cases.

Krsna says that the Vedic prescriptions are the main source of dharma. But one may have to decide about dharma in a given case not covered by the Vedic injunctions. Here one must decide starting from the premise that dharma makes possible the rise and prosperity of the people, ameliorates sufferings, and ultimately leads to moksa. Bhisma says that the injunctions of the Vedas, the smrti (canonical scriptures), and ways of the pious men (sistacara) show the path of dharma. In case of doubt, these three again shall be the means of right decision. For the common people, of course, the ways of the pious and virtuous men are the best. The hunter's sermon to Kausika the Brahmin, retold to Yudhisthira by Markandeya elucidates the meaning of sistacara (way of the pious men). Performance of religious rites (yajna), charity, meditation, reading scriptures, and behavior in accordance with truth are the marks of piety. The pious abjures pleasure, anger, deceit, greed, crookedness and remain contented in the way of dharma. The essence of the Vedas is the element of truth; the essence of truth is control of the senses; the essence of the control of sense is the sacrifice of self-interest. All these three are eminently characteristic of pious men.

Source: Arun Kumar Mookerjee, "Dharma as the Goal: The Mahabharata," in Hindu Spirtuality: Vedas through Vendanta, edited by Krishna Sivaraman, Crossroad, 1989, pp. 127-47.

Introduction to Mahabharata

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The Mahabharata is the story of a dynastic struggle, culminating in an awesome battle between two branches of a single Indian ruling family. The account of the fight between the Kurus and the Pandavas for the fertile and wealthy land at the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges rivers near Delhi is enhanced by peripheral stories that provide a social, moral, and cosmological background to the climactic battle.

We do not know exactly when the battle took place. The Mahabharata (pronounced with the stress on the third syllable: maha-bhar-ata) was composed over a period of some four hundred years, between the second century B.C. and the second century A.D., and already at that time the battle was a legendary event, preserved in the folk tales and martial records of the ruling tribes. The Indian calendar places its date at 3102 B.C., the beginning of the Age of Misfortune, the Kaliyuga, but more objective evidence, though scanty and inferential, points to a date closer to 1400 B.C.

At that time Aryan tribes had just begun to settle in India after their invasion from the Iranian highlands. The land from western Pakistan east to Bihar and south not farther than the Dekkhan was occupied by Aryan tribes whose names are often mentioned in records much older than the Mahabharata. The tribal communities varied in size and were each governed by the "prominent families" (mahakulas) from among which one nobleman was consecrated king. The kings quarreled and engaged in inter-tribal warfare as a matter of course, their conflicts were sometimes prolonged affairs, sometimes little more than cattle raids.

It is in this context that the Bharata war took place. The Kurus were an ancient tribe who had long been rulers of the area in the upper reaches of the Yamuna River. The Pandus, or Pandavas, were a newly emergent clan living in Indraprastha, some sixty miles southwest of the Kuru capital, Hastinapura. According to the Mahabharata, the new aristocrats were invited to the court of the ancient noble house of Kuru to engage in a gambling contest. There they were tricked first out of their kingdom and then into a promise not to retaliate for twelve years. In the thirteenth year they took refuge at the court of the Matsyas, where they allied themselves with the Kurus' eastern and southern neighbors, the Pancalas. Together in a vast host they marched up to Hastinapura, where they were met on Kuruksetra, the plain of the Kurus. Here the Kurus and their allies were defeated.

In bare outline that is the story of which the bard sings. But the composer of the Mahabharata has portrayed the actions of the warriors in both a heroic and a moral context, and it should be understood as a re-enactment of a cosmic moral confrontation, not simply as an account of a battle. Unlike our Western historical philosophy, which looks for external causes—such as famine, population pressure, drought—to explain the phenomena of war and conquest, the epic bard views the events of the war as prompted by observances and violations of the laws of morality. The basic principle of cosmic or individual existence is dharma. It is the doctrine of the religious and ethical rights and duties of each individual, and refers generally to duty ordained by religion, but may also mean simply virtue, or right conduct. Every human being is expected to live according to his dharma. Violation of dharma results in disaster.

Hindu society was classed into four castes, each with its own dharma. The power of the state rested with the Ksatriyas: kings, princes, free warriors and their wives and daughters. Their dharma was to protect their dependents, rule justly, speak the truth, and fight wars. The priest caste was not socially organized in churches or temples, but consisted of individual Brahmins in control of religion. Among their other duties, they officiated at great sacrifices to maintain the order of the world and accomplish desired goals. They were also in control of education, could read and write, and taught history according to their outlook on life. The Mahabharata in its final form was largely the work of a Brahmin composer, so we find in the peripheral stories an emphasis on the power and glory of the Brahmin caste, although in the main story of the epic there is not one powerful Brahmin. The Vaisyas, of whom we hear little in the Mahabharata, were merchants, townspeople, and farmers, and constituted the mass of the people.

The three upper castes were twice-born: once from their mothers and once from their investitures with the sacred thread. The lowest caste, the Sudras, did menial work and served other castes. They were Aryans, however, and their women were accessible to higher-caste men: Vyasa was the offspring of a ksatriya and a sudra, and so was Vidura. Outside the caste system were the "scheduled castes," the tribal people of the mountains, such as the Kiratas, as well as the Persians and the Bactrian Greeks.

Besides their caste dharma, people had a personal dharma to observe, which varied with one's age and occupation. So we find a teacher-student dharma, a husband-wife dharma, the dharma of an ascetic, and so on. One's relation to the gods was also determined by dharma. The lawbooks specify the various kinds of dharma in detail, and this classifications and laws still govern Indian society.

The Hindu system of eschatology is often expounded in the Mahabharata. In brief, it is the doctrine of the cycle of rebirths (samsara), the doctrine of the moral law (dharma), which is more powerful than even the gods. The moral law sustains and favors those creatures that abide by it, while thwarting those who trespass. Its instrument is karma, the inexorable law that spans this life and the after-death, working from one lifetime to another, rewarding the just and making the evil suffer. In this Hindu universe those in harmony with dharma ultimately reach a state in which rebirth is not necessary any more. If, however, the forces of evil are too strong, the moral law reasserts itself and often uses forceful means to restore harmony where it has been lost. To accomplish that, often a being of a higher order, a god, who in his usual manifestation has no physical body, takes birth among the people and becomes an avatara, a "descent'' of his own power on earth. Often the physical manifestation is not aware of his divine antecedents, but discovers them in the course of his life on earth. Therefore an avatara has many human qualities, including some that by our own standards would be less than divine: hostility, vengefulness, and an overwhelming sense of self-importance. These qualities are necessary for him to confront confidently the forces of evil, the asuras, who have taken flesh also and appear as bitter enemies committed to a battle to the end.

The emphasis on morality in the Mahabharata brings with it considerations of the nature of the divine. There are many gods; the Indian pantheon is overwhelming in its diversity and vagueness. At the highest level of creation are the gods (devas), who are in continual conflict with the demonic forces, the asuras. Among the gods, Visnu, Siva, and Indra are especially important. Visnu is mainly manifest through his incarnation as Krisna. He is a supreme god worthy of love and devotion. Siva is also a supreme god, but represents the ascetic side of Indian religion. He dwells on a mountain, dresses in a tiger skin, and wears a characteristic emblem, the trident, still carried by Indian mendicants. The third eye in the middle of Siva's forehead scorches his enemies. Indra is in name the king of the gods, but in fact his importance had declined by the time of the Mahabharata; although he remained a principle god In the Mahabharata he is the god of rain and father of Arjuna, a Pandava.

Less powerful are the elemental gods of fire (Agni), wind (Vayu), water (Varuna), sun (Surya), and moon (Soma). Kama is the god of love. Unlike the gods in Western mythologies, the prominent Indian gods are difficult to characterize. Although they are assigned obvious functions as powers, their spheres of power and their characteristics overlap because they are ultimately all manifestations of the universal principle, Brahman, the universal soul or being to which individual souls will be reunited after the illusion of time and space has been conquered.

At a lower level, still divine but progressively less lofty, are the hosts of the Gandharvas, Apsarases, Siddhas, Yaksas, and Raksasas. The first three classes are usually benevolent to mankind. Gandharvas play heavenly music to which the nymphs, the Apsarases, dance. Indra also uses the Apsarases to seduce ambitious ascetics who, by their severe self-castigation, have accumulated so much spiritual power that it becomes a threat to Indra's supremacy; as a result of seduction the anchorite loses his power. Yaksas are sprites, dryads, and naiads. Raksasas are malevolent demons who prowl around the sacrificial altars or in other ways disturb human beings.

Humans look at the gods as powers to be appeased or controlled, with the exception of Visnu, who is simply adored. Gods often interact with humans, marry them, give them weapons, invoke their assistance or aid them. At times gods interact with men through the intermediary of wise old men, sages whose advice was obeyed by prudent warriors who would not violate the will of the gods in order to avoid incurring the sage's curse. Upon his death, the ancient hero expects to go to Indra's heaven, where there is feasting and rejoicing.

Rivers and other landscape features are personified and function as both divine or semi-divine beings and as natural phenomena. In the Mahabharata gods communicate with men, animals talk and are sometimes real animals, sometimes human beings or gods. The story often moves into an idealized land where heroic feats, deeds of valour and physical strength are regarded with awe and fear. These incidents foster a sense of marvel in the reader: we are transported into an idyllic world where illusion and reality cannot be separated.

The Mahabharata should be understood as a moral and philosophical tale as well as an historical one. Only in this way can we appreciate the significance of the Bhagavad Gita, the "Song of the Lord," which is part of the Mahabharata, but which is usually excerpted and read as an independent religious work. In India, the Mahabharata as a whole has been regarded for centuries as a religious work, to awesome battles and gruesome deaths as tragic yet natural events in human experience, these are just a few of the features that have found response in the hearts of millions of Asian people.

Source: B. A. van Nooten, in an introduction to Mahabharata, by William Buck, University of California Press, 1973, pp. xiii-xxiii.


Critical Overview