Dharma in Mahabharata
Ramayana, basically, is a story of chaste love between a husband and wife; and their unwavering adherence to Dharma throughout their trials and tribulations. The main characters in the story are not many in number; and the story covers a period of about fifty years. The evil was easily identifiable with its grotesque exterior and it had its base in far off lands. Ramayana demonstrated that a person of steadfast faith established in Dharma would eventually vanquish evil and ignorance. Fundamental to the defense of that Dharma was the sanctity of a Sati, a pure woman. Indeed the entire nature, its elements and animal world made common cause with Rama in re-establishing the Dharma. What characterizes the Dharma in Ramayana is its innocence, purity and nobility.
The canvass of the Mahabharata on the other hand, is much wider; the subject matter is rather sullied and its characters are too many in number, spread over several generations. They have a very complicated mental makeup too. The evil is neither easily identifiable nor is it far away. The evil in fact had entered the hearts and minds of almost all of its men and women, who came from the common heritage. The most brazen act of evil by the Kauravas was threatening a woman’s chastity; and with that, the Kauravas sank to the lowest level of adharma. The conflict that eventually took place was not between the absolute right and the wrong; but between two groups of cousins and their supporters; with a sprinkling of the noble among the crowds of not- so- noble. Pandavas themselves were not perfect, either. The stepping in of Krishna alone rescued the epic from degenerating into internecine family feud; and elevated it into a conflict of great significance to uphold Dharma. He taught the world that the ultimate conflict was not about land, riches or power but about the human spirit , the Dharma.
Vyasa says the purpose of writing Mahabharata was to ” engrave Dharma on the hearts of men”. Mahabharata , among other things, makes some great statements on Dharma ; such as :
”Our bodies are short lived, wealth does not last long, death is constantly knocking at the door; therefore accumulate Dharma”
(anityani sarirani vaibhavo naiva sahvataha, nityam sannito mrtyuh kartavyo dharma-sangrahah)
“It is Dharma since it upholds. Dharma is that which upholds the people of the world.”
(Dharanath dharmam ityahuh dharmo dharayate prajaah)
“Dharma, cultivated, preserves; Dharma, violated, destroys.”
(Dharma eva hato hanti, dharmo rakshati rakshitaha);
“Where there is Dharma, there victory also is”
(Yato darmah thatho jayaha);
Yet, the Dharma pictured in Mahabharata is ambiguous, uncertain and often disputed. For instance, Draupadi after the dice game, demands to know whether Yudhishtira had a right to stake her in the game after he had staked and lost himself. It was so difficult a question that even Bhishma, the recognized authority on Dharma, when pointedly challenged by Draupadi, confessed his inability to decide the issue.
“What a strong man says often becomes the only dharma. A weak man may have dharma on his side, but who listens to him? To tell you the truth, I do not know what to say” (Sabha Parva. 69.15-161).
”I am unable to answer your question because Dharma is subtle”, he says
(na dharmasaukshmyat subhage vivektutm shaknomi te prasnam imam yatthaavat).
Dharma is subtle (sukshmam) because its essence is concealed in a dark cavern
(dharmasya tattvam nihitath guhaayaam).
On another occasion, Draupadi wonders why they have to suffer so, if they were the righteous ones. If everything happened by the will of god, why then do the virtuous suffer? She exclaims, it seems only the powerful escape harm, not the righteous. Yudhishthira tries to explain: “None should ever perform virtue with a desire to gain its fruits.. … Do not doubt virtue because you do not see its results. Without doubt, the fruits of virtue will be manifest in time, as will the fruits of sin. The fruits of true virtue are eternal and indestructible”.
Years later, Yudhishthira has similar doubts. Soon after the war, he was overwhelmed by a sense of horror and melancholy; and was much troubled by the death and destruction caused by the war. His grief was inconsolable. Bhishma lying on his deathbed consoles him by teaching Dharma and the duties of a king, which includes rightful violence without greed. He also talks about Dharma in abnormal circumstances; and the absolute perspective that transcends the duality of good versus bad, right versus wrong, pleasant versus unpleasant. Yet Yudhishthira is unconvinced and decides to perform Rajasuyaga as penitence for the acknowledged wrongs of the war.
Mahabharata introduces the concept of Apad_Dharma, a sort of safety valve in an emergency when every other normal measure seems to have failed. It relates to stressful times of extreme distress or calamities, which threaten to endanger Dharma. In such circumstances, it might become necessary for Dharma to abandon its usual course, for self-protection. Apad_Dharma is that deviation from the normal. What is Adharma in normal circumstances might be deemed Dharma in Apad_Dharma. That is in the larger interests of the Dharma and for the benefit of others (loka) but not for personal gain. The logic behind this principle is, the ultimate Dharma (larger picture) has to be protected at any cost. That is why Dharma is profound and subtle. It is context sensitive.
Krishna guided the Pandavas to victory on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, often by miraculous intervention, avenged Draupadi and restored Dharma. Unlike Rama, Krishna did not adhere to conventional exterior of the Dharma. Rather, he judged the gravity and significance of each situation; and devised innovative methods to preserve and protect the essence of the Dharma. This often put him on a collision course with the conventional adherents of Dharma. Nevertheless, he justified his actions by insisting that the intense desire to protect the larger interests of the Dharma was at the core.
Pandavas, under his guidance, eventually broke each rule of the war: Arjuna shoots Bhishma when he lays down his arms before Sikhandin; Arjuna kills Jayadratha at “night” when Krishna simulates darkens; Arjuna shoots Karna when unarmed and Bhima crushes Duryodhana’s thigh (hitting below the waist).
On one occasion, Krishna tells Yudhishthira: “Sometimes one protects dharma by forgetting it.”
Duryodhana accuses Krishna of unfair conduct; Krishna responds with two defenses: that it was his own deceit at dice that began this conflict, and the apparent unfair conduct was meant to defeat a greater evil: “The gods destroyed demons in the past in this way to protect Dharma”
Duryodhana bitterly replies that the Pandavas could never have won without cheating, to which Krishna agrees; right does not always triumph by ideal and unsullied means. “There are limits to the extent an individual can be moral in an immoral society”.
Karna laments as death nears him; his righteousness did not make him victorious: “Knower’s of dharma have always said, ‘Dharma protects those devoted to dharma.’ But since my wheel sank today, I think dharma does not always protect.”
Krishna taunts Karna, asking him whether he was referring to the same Dharma that prevented him from rising above his sense of obligation to Duryodhana, despite being aware of his evil designs; terming Draupadi a harlot and ordering her to be stripped in public.
That is precisely what the epic is about: the replacement of the dharma of a lower understanding by one of a higher level. It was that outdated, severely limited view of Dharma that Krishna was trying to root out and replace with a pragmatic Dharma. He emphasized, as he did in Gita that Dharma was in living and experiencing it; and not just in talking about it.
It is a validation of this fact we find in Bhishma who from his bed-of-arrows advises Yudhishthira on the duties, responsibilities of a king and the need to protect Dharma. Bhishma in fact had not practiced what he preached. He remained a mute witness to the aggression of Adharma. His inaction illustrated that Kshatriya’s “witness” stance brings about the destruction of the kingdom and of the Dharma. The Kshatriya must fight to protect the weak, for that is his dharma, the truth of his nature. Not being true to his Dharma because of inaction, brought destruction and misery to not only himself but also the society of which he was a pillar. Had Bishma acted in the true spirit of his Dharma, Mahabharata would have been a different epic.
[There is an interesting comparison between Bhishma of Mahabharata and Vibhishana (younger brother of Ravana) of Ramayana. In either case, the person who occupied the throne they served tried to violate the chastity of a pure and a virtuous woman. Both those kings (Ravana and Duryodhana) had sunk to the lowest level of adharma. Both Vibhishana and Bhishma strongly disagreed with the acts of their respective kings. But, it was Vibhishana who had the courageous detachment to disassociate himself from the immoral regime of his king, his brother, and to join the forces of Dharma which his brother opposed. Vibhishana‘s unpopular decision was open to controversies and even to ridicule. Yet, Vibhishana was steadfast; he stood by his decision which according to him was the right one, by all counts.
In contrast, Bhishma the old-guard needlessly chose to cling to what he did not approve, because of his misplaced sense of loyalty. And, he eventually brought grief on to himself and unto others around him by his indecision and inactivity.His life too ends in a sort of irony with his past haunting to wound him mortally and thereafter prompting him to render lengthy discourses, from his death bed, on the things that he did not practice in life .His listener, too tired, too listless and disillusioned scarcely had time or opportunity to put into use what he learnt from the savant on a death bed of arrows.
Bhishma, it is said, was gifted with a boon to choose the time of his death. The death dare not approach him till he accorded it his permission. Yet, I sometimes wonder why he chose to live so long. It is sad to see a self-sacrificing , almost a god getting bogged in the mire of this world , meddling with everyone’s life and finally living on and on , unwanted and uncared when he could have chosen to end the agony. Bhishma endured so much pain in life and in battle that even the bed of arrows did not hurt him anymore. It was sad for one who didn’t even want to be born.
There is perhaps a lesson here , too much attachment and involvement in where it is not needed is not merely unrewarding but is dangerous too ; while at the same time sheer inactivity renders one irrelevant. Our texts have always talked about a sense of balance that life should have.]
Worse is the case of Drona who abandoned his swadharma and mortgaged his self-respect in exchange for royal patronage. Bhima taunts Drona, pointing out his selfishness and failure in life.
Yudhishthira exclaims, it is extremely difficult to ascertain who the good are and whose conduct could be taken as the standard of righteousness. Bhishma explains that the concept of Dharma is difficult, subtle and defies easy grasp. Bhishma, after explaining the difficulties in defining it, goes on to say, Dharma was ordained for the advancement and growth of all creatures; therefore, that which leads to advancement and growth is Dharma. Dharma was ordained for restricting creatures from injuring one another; therefore, that which prevents injury to creatures is Dharma. It is called Dharma because it upholds all creatures. Dharma is that which is capable of upholding all creatures. That which elevates is Dharma.
That which is called the conduct of the good may at times be stained by some errors. Fools, led by this, give up righteousness itself. On the other hand, wise men, avoiding those errors, take what is good and save themselves.
Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that in the Kali Yuga that had just stepped in, “dharma becomes adharma and adharma, dharma.” Somewhat paradoxically, he continues, “If one fights with trickery, one could oppose him with trickery. But, if one fights lawfully, one should check him with dharma … One should conquer evil with good. Death by dharma is better than victory by evil deeds.”
There is a touch of desperation in the voice of Vyasa as he comes towards the end of the epic. In Swargarohana parva he cries out with anguish, “With raised hands, I shout at the top of my voice; but alas, no one hears my words which can give them Supreme Peace, Joy and Eternal Bliss. One can attain wealth and all objects of desire through Dharma. Why do not people practice Dharma? One should not abandon Dharma at any cost, even at the risk of his life. One should not relinquish Dharma out of passion or fear or covetousness or for the sake of preserving one’s life”
The treatment of Dharma in Mahabharata is remarkable for its erudition, complexity and clarity of thought. The deeper you go into the epic the more you are impressed with its concern for the values of life, quality of living and for the wellbeing of the individual in harmony with the society. It touches almost every facet of human life. Its anxiety to safeguard the virtues and wellbeing of the coming generations is explicit in its every debate. The principle characters such as Krishna, Yudhistira are ever concerned how their actions might be perceived by the future generations; and are cautious not to set wrong precedents. The accent on healthy growth of Dharma and its perpetuation is primary to the unfolding of Mahabharata. This concern stems out of the strong faith that Dharma, the essence of right thinking and right living, is the law of being and is the basis of our existence. Our wellbeing and that of our future generations depends on that Dharma. It has therefore to be protected and perpetuated in the right way for the benefit of all, at any cost.
Because man is free to select his options, he needs to think and understand that any human activity, including in action, has the potential to cause a chain of consequences. It is therefore important to choose an appropriate path. If he had no options or if he was not free to choose, that is another matter. Mahabharata seeks to awaken the essence of Dharma within us, to learn to distinguish Dharma from its opposite. One has to look within oneself, grasp the true intent and spirit of Dharma in order to judge a situation and act in the best interests of the self and of the fellow beings. One may not always find ready answers to the problems at hand, in the external forms of Dharma; one may necessarily have to innovate the appropriate approach and action to safeguard the larger interests of Sathya and Dharma. That was the genius of Krishna, who was far ahead of his times. It was he who stressed that the essence of Dharma was in living, practicing, experiencing it.
Shrinking from ones moral duty, refusal to act when it is difficult to act,attachment to objects and confusion- these weaknesses hinder the development individual and the society.
Introspection and innovation in order to experience, to protect and perpetuate a living Dharma, at all costs, is the message of Mahabharata and Krishna.
Dharma in Bhagavad-Gita
In Bhagavad-Gita, we find Dharma in a crystalline form. The term is employed in a more definite and clear sense. Dharma here is righteousness; the basis of all purusharthas (18.34).It is ones duty in the context of ones stage and calling in life. By performing his Dharma with diligence and skill, a person attains Abhyudaya, the well-being in this world and Nissreyasa, the highest good (4.8, 18.31, 1.40, 7.11 etc.).Dharma is also a synonym for Atma-jnana, Self-knowledge (9.30 and Karma yoga (2.40).
The Lord proclaims whenever Dharma is in decline and Adharma is on rise, I manifest myself (4.7).Here, Dharma connotes righteousness and the cherished values in life.
Bhagavad-Gita introduces an interesting concept of Swa_dharma, which broadly suggests : inherent aptitude or talent or interest or ability; authenticity or individuality; or that which comes naturally to you or your calling in life. It is the question of being and becoming. It asks you to realize your strengths, interests, aptitudes and call in life; and to develop your potential instead of wasting your time and energy on- things that are unnatural to you; or in imitating others or borrowing someone else’s ideas and goals. That could potentially lead to “fear inside”.
Swadharma underlines the importance of ones individuality, creative ability and authenticity in life; letting your potential to flower into something truly wonderful (Gita 3.33, 3.35).It is a commitment to yourself, to your potential and to your purpose in life. It is the art of living.
One of the ways to perceive your Swadharma is to engage in Swadhyaya, self-analysis, as suggested in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The Self-analysis is both intellectual and intuitive, with the intuition leading the intellect. The accent is on realizing for oneself, for the sake of ones welfare.
Krishna asks Arjuna the warrior to perform his Swadharma and to fight on. How does a warrior perform his duty without doing wrong, not polluting himself with the blood of his fellow beings? The answer is detachment: do your duty without concern for the personal consequences. “Victory and defeat, pleasure and pain are all the same. Act, but do not reflect on fruits of the act. Forget desire, seek detachment.”
Apart from the way of undivided loving devotion, with mind fixed on the person of the Lord, with supreme faith and surrender, the Gita says there are two paths to liberation : renunciation and performing ones duty without desire. Since most cannot renounce all actions and intents in life, it is better to work without attachment (nishkama-karma). Gita emphasizes pravritti (engagement); and puts work , sense of duty and detachment in the hub of life.
Bhagavad-Gita thus highlights and develops a concept of work, ethics and detachment, as had not been elaborated in the earlier texts. It lays enormous stress on work, on practicing what you truly believe, on authenticity in life and on experiencing that in your life. That is the Dharma. It has scant respect for mere talk and not putting your belief into practice.
Dharma in Dharma Shastras And After.