The failure of dharma


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FEW themes are more prominent in the Mahabharata than that of the decline of dharma; indeed, it forms one of the fundamental frames of the entire epic. In the Mahabharata’s first book (the Adiparvan), for example, we are told of a utopian period in which ‘dharma did not diminish’,1 when all classes of people acted in accordance with their dharmas, sacrifices were performed, traditions of knowledge were maintained, the seasons were regular and the crops bountiful. But then, demons, continuously defeated by the gods in their never-ending battles, came down to earth, wearing her down. When the earth came to the god Brahma to request that her burden be removed, at his direction the gods and Narayana made a pact to descend from heaven to earth with portions of themselves to crush the demonic hordes. Narayana, of course, becomes Krishna, and other gods, the Pandavas.

It is implicit through the juxtaposition with the period of utopia, and explicit in the subsequent playing out of the Mahabharata’s narrative, that with the demons’ appearance dharma goes into radical decline, necessitating the intercession of the gods whose skill in battle could logically be posited as the cause of the rise of the demons on earth in the first place. This well-known theology, which came to be known as the avatara doctrine, is most famously articulated in a passage from the Bhagavadgita, the first verse of which is often quoted (if the Sanskrit is frequently misspelt) on poster-art:

Whenever there is a decline of dharma and the rise of its opposite, then I bring forth myself. In epoch after epoch I arise to protect the good and destroy the wicked in order to restore dharma.2

But what does it mean to say that dharma is in decline, or, in the terms of this paper, that there is a failure of dharma? What, or who, declines or fails? What can be done about it? And whose dharma is it, anyway?

A beginning point is to think a little about the word dharma, and then progress to teasing out some of the implications of the above cited passages, and of the understanding of dharma in them. To start with, then, a useful way to think of dharma is as a code of behaviour. This was (and often still is) a standard understanding of dharma, a sense evident in the utopia described in the Adiparvan passage cited above and suffusing the literature dedicated to dharma’s explication. In further connecting people’s performance of dharma with supramundane forces, the same Adiparvan passage implicates people in a causal relationship with cosmic order in which regular and normative behaviour is tied (one way or another) with the patterns of seasons and the bounty of harvests (1.58.14):

And since the warrior class was dedicated to dharma, thousand-eyed Indra rained sweet rain in that place at the right time, making people thrive.

As this passage has it, the relationship between the continuous maintenance of the norms of dharma and cosmic processes connected with divine providence is unidirectional: act appropriately and the seasons will follow as they ought.


Later we shall see how the relationship between people’s pursuance of dharma and cosmic processes is, in fact, frequently causally ambivalent. But let’s stick for a moment with the notion that there is a direct causal relationship between the strict observance of a normative code (deemed to be eternal) and cosmic processes that are necessary for human populations to prosper. If pursued to its logical end, this position potentially leads in a dangerous direction. If one is convinced that one knows that dharma which is implicated in the predictable regularity of the cosmos, then one may be equally committed to its restitution if it is perceived to be in peril.

Now, of course, this is precisely how one can read the war of the Mahabharata: the wholesale slaughter of most of the world’s warriors (of all classes and regions) is a necessary prosecution of the restitution of the normative order, a restitution in which the avatara plays a formative and conspicuous role. The trouble with this position (as the Mahabharata so well portrays and interrogates) is that it can lead in only one direction. It is absolutist, and invites an uncompromising reaction.


To this casual observer, such conceptions of the ‘decline of dharma’ underpin some recent appropriations of the Mahabharata in political contexts, appropriations which invite us to re-read the Mahabharata’s own assertions of a decline of dharma. For example, in the 2007 elections, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers presented to Gujarat’s Energy Minister Saurabh Dalal on the occasion of his 50th birthday a model depicting Gujarat’s Chief Minister, the BJP’s Narendra Modi, as Krishna, with Saurabh Dalal (also of the BJP) as Arjuna. Opposed to these ‘Pandavas’ and leading the ‘Kauravas’ was Keshubhai Patel, who had been a BJP stalwart and one time Chief Minister of Gujarat, but who in 2007 had offered at least verbal backing for the opposition Congress.

Recognizing the potential for controversy in the conceits of the model’s depiction, and taking broadsides for as much from the Congress, the Gujarat BJP hierarchy quickly disowned responsibility for it, yet all the while appropriating its sentiment: ‘Every election is a "Dharmayuddh" and this one too will be,’ BJP spokesman Yamal Vyas was reported to have said.3 Even allowing for this less than emphatic attempt to distance the BJP hierarchy from the model’s implications, the conclusion is hard to avoid that the BJP workers had accurately reflected the tenor of Modi’s political style. From his grooming in the RSS, his organizational role in L.K. Advani’s 1989 Ayodhya rath yatra, to his widely condemned response to the bloody aftermath of the Godhra train ‘incident’, Modi, one could hardly be accused of thinking, has done everything in his power to be seen as a defender of ‘Hindu dharma’, and thereby milking for all its worth perceptions of the ‘decline’ of dharma, and his central role in its restitution.

But the questions remain: What dharma is this? Whose dharma is it? And who does it include and exclude? And who benefits? The BJP workers see in Modi someone who will go a long way for ‘their’ dharma. But it ought not to be forgotten how far Krishna was prepared to go to uphold the dharma prompting Narayana’s original covenant; to go so far is a decision not to be lightly taken. All this goes towards saying that both ‘dharma’ and its ‘decline’ (or, for that matter, its ‘failure’) are hardly neutral concepts. Thus claims to act for the restoration of a waning dharma – whether in the Mahabharata, in interpretations of it, or elsewhere, should be evaluated against the social, cultural and political agendas for which the claim provides rhetorical and ideological ballast.


The causal ambiguity of dharma4 means that it is not always clear which comes first – the conditions that create or inhibit the ability of people to act correctly according to dharma, or people’s violation or correct execution of the codes of dharma leading to an equivalent degradation or cultivation of the cosmic order. The former possibility creates an opening for an idea such as apaddharma, the ‘dharma for crises’ that makes allowances in abnormal times for peoples’ inability to follow normative codes. It is also reflected in a theory like kalivarjya, according to which humanity’s ability to follow dharma declines with each successive epoch in the four epochs of a Mahayuga. On the other hand, according to the logic of the latter possibility, if rulers do not act well then Indra will not rain, as is evident in stanza 1.58.14 cited above. Similarly, we are often told, the king, as if a human mirror of the divine avatara, ‘makes the age’.5 


While there is no resolution to this ambiguity, since codes of conduct and cosmic forces are nested within each other, forming an inescapable feedback loop, the latter is at least an important corrective to the often excessive stress put on the operation of fate in the Mahabharata. Something can in fact be done to make matters better for oneself or another. In this sense, to add further nuance to its edifice, dharma can be understood as the continuing decision to act within the bounds of certain specified forms of behaviour.

The causal ambiguity of dharma contributes to perceptions of its ‘subtlety’. This aspect, long recognized as one of the key leitmotivs of the treatment of dharma in the Mahabharata, is typically represented through moral conundrums involving choices between two or more paths, each of which in itself accords with a norm of dharma. The question, of course, is which is the more important. A case in point concerns the esteemed Bhishma who, as the progenitor and overseer of so many of the Mahabharata’s morally complex narrative moments, might even be understood as a hypostatisation of ‘subtle dharma’.


A typical instance occurs quite early in Bhishma’s story. Presented with a choice confronting his dedication to his father with his duty (as yuvaraja) to become king on his father’s passing, he famously trades the latter for his father’s happiness with a woman with whom he has fallen in love and lust. Every decision has an opportunity cost, and so it is with Bhishma’s, a point emphatically reinforced by the considerable period of time that Bhishma rules successfully in his reduced capacity as regent.

This is as it ought to have been. As the Mahabharata unfolds, we become aware that his choice is part of an unfolding sequence of problematic dynastic successions, one of many indicators that ‘dharma is in decline’, which will continue to mar the coming generations (for whom Bhishma will, ironically, be a great authority on dharma). In teasing out the consequences of Bhishma’s choice in facing his moral conundrum, the Mahabharata would appear to be unequivocal (if not entirely unsympathetic): Bhishma fails the code.

Yet, this would prove not to be Bhishma’s only failing of dharma. Indeed, for a figure held in such esteem, he is capable of the most astounding moral oversights. It is this double-edge to Bhishma’s character that has made him a useful figure for politicians. Thus when the current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called on the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in March 2008 to support the Indo-US nuclear deal, he referred to him as the Bhishma Pitamaha of Indian politics. The compliment, if it was that, begged the question: Which Bhishma would he be? The Bhishma wise in the ways of politics, morality and the duties of rulers? Or the Bhishma who, wedded to questionable points of principle, stands by watching on? And, of course, the question for us, as we also watch on, is which Bhishma do we want him to be? Which Bhishma serves our interests now?


Undoubtedly Bhishma’s most notorious instance of moral myopia is his silence – along with all the other Kuru elders – in the sabha during the aftermath of the dice matches when, at Karna’s command, the irredeemable Duhshasana drags a menstruating Draupadi by her hair to stand before the parties assembled in the court. While Bhishma hides behind excuses more or less equivalent to what would now be called due process, Draupadi alone, though a bevy of experts on dharma sits before her, is alert to the legal question: Did Yudhishthira have the right to stake her in the first case? Her question remains unanswered.6 According to the logic of the Mahabharata’s frame, it is for such oversights – and the consequences for dharma that his choices have entailed – that Bhishma must side with those to be swept away so that a new order may further the prospects of dharma. Bhishma knows this all too well, tipping off Yudhishthira on how to overcome him in battle.

Redemption, however, is near at hand. For his stubborn rectitude in putting his father’s desires above his duty to rule, his father grants him a boon to choose his own time of death, a choice he makes close to sixty days after the war, giving in the interim (with some help from Krishna) one of the longest and most extraordinary discourses on royal conduct, moral behaviour, religious and philosophical thought, and spiritual discipline, that literature has to offer. And so, in his redemption, Bhishma participates in the restitution of the very codes that his choices served to undermine, convincing Yudhishthira (with an artful symmetry in which the Mahabharata appears to specialize) to assume a kingship that he, too, had thought to abnegate (as once had Bhishma, though for different reasons). The sequence of displaced royal elders and disputed successions must stop. Righteous rule is the sine qua non of dharma’s upholding.


What, then, is left to be done when circumstances overtake deeds? When the general environmental, social, political (or other such) conditions render normative codes impossible, or, at the very least, difficult to pursue? A tale from one of the Mahabharata’s less well-known sections, the Apaddharmaparvan (the ‘book on appropriate conduct for crises’), which constitutes the second of the Shantiparvan’s three subsections, points the way. Like the central narrative of the Mahabharata itself, this story (found in Mahabharata 12.139) is set at the conjunction of two epochs (in this case, the Treta and Dvapara yugas), during which a drought lasting twelve years has decimated the environment and reduced people to starving desperation: brahmins are attacked, dharma is weak, people eat one another and sages abandon their observances.

The story unfolds:

The great sage Vishvamitra, starving and randomly wandering, came across a vile shvapacha (‘dog cooker’) village. After searching and begging for food without success, the sage spies dog meat in a chandala’s house and, in desperation, resolves to steal it while he sleeps. However, the chandala, woken by the commotion, is horrified to discover a famous sage stealing such impure meat. The great sage and the lowly ‘dog-cooker’ engage in a long debate on dharma and its bearing on Vishvamitra’s theft of the meat. The chandala adopts the strict position that such an act is never justified. Vishvamitra, on the other hand, argues that circumstances, and the counsel of properly learned men (people like himself), determine an act’s justification. Besides, the sage declares, he can later purify himself through austerities. Ignoring the chandala’s pleas, the sage steals the meat. Indra then rains, breaking the drought. Vishvamitra, as promised, performs great austerities and purifies himself, and eventually gains the greatest perfection.


This fascinating story, more complex in its full telling, serves this paper through two points.7 The first is to note that it is a classic demonstration of the principle of apaddharma, whereby the relaxing of normative codes of conduct enables an individual to avoid failing the demands of his or her own dharma when situations of crisis arise. An authentic situation of crisis effectively places a moratorium on the application of the usual codes of behaviour. An apaddharma, therefore, is a special kind of rule, the application of which is an admission that dharma is in radical decline. But, paradoxically, the ability to fall back on an apaddharma is also the source of dharma’s restitution, as tacitly acknowledged by Indra’s raining. Thus Vishvamitra’s correct observance of a special rule of dharma contributes to the recovery of the normative functioning of the cosmological order.

Put rather baldly, this reflects a deceptively simple truth: dharma can only be maintained if someone is around to act it out.8 However, Vishvamitra’s commendably commonsense position was apparently contentious, as is evident from the horrified reaction of the ‘dog-cooker’ chandala (a person of evidently low social status). The code-makers clearly anticipated such reactions, introducing restraints on the application of apaddharma almost whenever the topic is discussed. And so, if Indra’s rain is a measure of Vishvamitra’s appropriate observance of exceptional rules for exceptional circumstances, the sage’s resolution to perform penance is a marker of the strictly circumscribed nature of the exception.


Can dharma fail us? In his dispute with the chandala, Vishvamitra persuasively argues that it is unreasonable to deterministically derive all behavioural norms for every circumstance from the rigid codes of the shastras. Indeed, such an approach may even threaten the ongoing sustenance of dharma, since this sustenance depends on their being people able and willing to pursue it. The first prong of Vishvamitra’s argument therefore insists that dharma must be sufficiently flexible to adapt to changing circumstances. The second prong of Vishvamitra’s argument invites a reading that the authors of this particular text would most likely not endorse, or at least not to the extent that I am going to suggest here.

This reading, which is admittedly (and intentionally) out of step with much (but not all) of the Mahabharata’s posturing on the matter, asks if the ‘decline of dharma’ is not so much people’s failure to perform dharma, but dharma’s failure of people. When are the normative codes of dharma no longer sufficient in their received forms to meet the needs of the society they serve and are a product of? When do they require revising? While in one respect Vishvamitra addresses this problematic, from another he underscores the need for it to be constantly revisited. Growing increasingly frustrated with the chandala’s obstinate insistence that the shastric codes are rigidly prescriptive for individual’s actions, Vishvamitra moves to dismiss the shvapacha on the grounds of a technicality derived from the same shastric conservatism that underpins the shvapacha’s position (12.139.78):

Cows drink water even while frogs chirp. You have no authority (adhikara) in regard to dharma.


The dismissive metaphor of the first sentence coupled with the dismissive legalism of the second serves, in principle, to completely sideline the dog-cooker. Of course, the effect on a reader might be precisely the opposite, turning what appears to be reasonable about Vishvamitra’s argument on the grounds of compassion and common sense, into a suspicion that the sage is self-servingly exploiting a loophole that exists for cultural elites (like himself) alone. Would Vishvamitra have been better served to not have silenced the chandala at all, to not treat him as the outcaste that some shastric codes have determined him to be?

Arguably, for dharma to continue to flourish and be useful, it must be as incorporative and inclusive as possible, and that those who are incorporated and included within dharma must equally be allowed to participate and mediate what dharma means, in much the same way as Vishvamitra was able to justify his theft and consumption of the dog meat. Thus, while we are often told that dharma is eternal, and therefore not subject to variation or disputation, it would be wise not to take such claims too seriously, not least because of the dangerously absolutist path down which it might lead, but also because, if one were to compile a list of ‘eternal’ dharmas in a text like the Mahabharata, one would be left with an impossible melange of competing behavioural norms and ideals.

Indeed, since we can trace intellectual developments due to the wealth of texts at our disposal, views on dharma can be shown to have changed over time in response to new ideas and new circumstances. Despite the conceptual difficulties and social tensions that such change inevitably provokes, it is eminently sensible that ideas central to the structures and functions of social and cultural institutions, and to the self-understandings of those participating in these institutions, are transformed through time to remain relevant and useful.


This changing discourse of dharma can be exemplified in a term like mokshadharma, ‘conduct procuring liberation’, a term lent to the upa-parvan succeeding the Apaddharmaparvan in the Mahabharata. In a period of brahminic scholasticism earlier than the Mahabharata that witnessed the composition of the first dharmasutras, texts which attempted for the first time to systematize society wide behavioural codes, the idea of mokshadharma would have been an oxymoronic anathema. To the scholars responsible for these texts, those people who pursued dharma and those who pursued moksha were simply doing different things.9 

It didn’t take long, however, in the history of the development of ‘discourses of dharma’, for moksha to be brought within its fold, so that now it seems strange to suggest that the two might have once been at cross purposes. This example serves to show that an idea like dharma can be productively adapted to new social and cultural developments. Indeed, without being allowed to adapt to and emerge into new contexts, such ideas must quickly die.


The four points developed in the readings from the Mahabharata in the preceding discussion can be summarized as follows. First, the proposition that there is a ‘decline’ or ‘failure’ of dharma’ must be interrogated as part and parcel of broader arguments about social, cultural and civilizational values. How one thinks about such an assertion ought to take into account how that dharma and the values it implies are conceived by those making the assertion.

Though it is often treated as such, dharma is neither a neutral term nor a given. Thus, when contemporary politicians heading into electoral battles keenly evoke the Mahabharata in support of their own cause as a metaphor for a righteous battle (dharmayuddh) in which the good shall triumph, they would be wise to consider that the righteous battle in the Mahabharata decimated the good and bad alike. Such evocations should be warily treated, not least because surely not all politicians can be Pandavas.

Second, if a decline of dharma is conceded, as indeed at times it must, it is some consolation to observe that (as in the case of Bhishma) human endeavour, while playing a role in its decline, can also participate in its revival. Like dharma itself, the course of dharma is not a given, and the capacity for humanity to do something about the state of dharma constitutes an important part of its intellectual fabric.

Third, when dharma is in decline, important provisions are contained within it enabling individuals to sustain themselves and thereby participate in the restoration of dharma. If authentically applied, the principle behind this flexibility, rather than compromising the values that underpin dharma, goes towards establishing conditions in which it can thrive once again.

And, finally, to continue this line of thought, discourses concerning dharma ought to be amenable to new social and cultural attitudes and conditions. Nothing would ensure that dharma fail more than if this would not be the case.

Separating good from bad is often a specious task, and the Mahabharata, in its famously argumentative way, is frequently uncertain of such things. And if it does fall on one side or the other (as in the end it must), it at least acknowledges the price of its qualified certainty. In its long and grand exploration of a devastating fratricidal war and the moral and ethical questions it provokes, I like to think that the Mahabharata prosecutes the former so that we do not have to, and the latter in case we do not want to.


* The ‘failure of dharma’ is an intriguing topic. The Mahabharata, it is true, is more likely to speak of the decline of dharma, or of its loss (lopa) by those neglecting to adequately adhere to it, rather than of its out-and-out failure. Indeed, as we shall discover, one of the curious features of dharma is that, when all hope for its survival is seemingly lost, it is resuscitated from a seed that it itself has planted. However, the topic, suggested to me by the editors of this volume, opens up promising interpretive possibilities. The following, therefore, shall alternate between notions of the ‘decline’ of dharma and of its ‘failure’, in order to make use of the textual and interpretive points that each term suggests.



1. Mahabharata 1.58.22. All references are to the Pune ‘Critical Edition’ edited by V.S. Sukthankar, et al. (eds.), The Mahabharata: for the first time critically edited, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1927-59.

2. Mahabharata 6.26.7-8 (Bhagavadgita 4.7-8); the first stanza is also found at Mahabharata 3.187.26.

3. As reported, for example, by Meghdoot Sharon on IBNLive, 30 August 2007 (updated 17 October 2007): ‘Gujarat polls: Modi plays Krishna in the battle’,

4. As eloquently discussed by W. Halbfass, India and Europe, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1990, pp. 318-19.

5. See, for example, Mahabharata 5.130. 15-17; 12.70.6ff.; 12.92.6; 12.139.10; Manusmriti 9.301-2.

6. A. Hiltebeitel, Rethinking the Mahabharata: A Reader’s Guide to the Education of the Dharma King, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002, pp. 240-77.

7. For a more substantial discussion, see my Dharma, Disorder and the Political in Ancient India: The Apaddharmaparvan of the Mahabharata, Brill, Leiden, 2007, pp.268-80.

8. A point Vishvamitra makes in Mahabharata 12.139.59 and 61-63.

9. For a discussion of a similar distinction in the context of the Chandogya Upanishad, see P. Olivelle, ‘Dharmaskandhah and Brahmasamsthah: A Study of Chandogya Upanishad 2.23.1’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 116.2, 1996, 205-19.