Living with the Mahabharata


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ON first reading, the title of this article may suggest that in the family of its author and in his later life as well, there was a war that was similar to the war in the epic, the Mahabharata. As described elsewhere, in the account of my life, Places, Times, and Relationships, no child had perhaps a happier family and childhood than I had. What is discussed here, as it is in my book, The Mahabharata. An Inquiry in the Human Condition, is the profound relevance of the Mahabharata to modern life. The classics of all civilizations have, in one way or another, relevance to modern life, but none more than the Mahabharata. And yet, no classic is more wrongly understood, indeed thoroughly misunderstood, than the Mahabharatamost of all in India where it originated.

The Mahabharata is mostly known and read as a long story of a gigantic war between the two sets of first cousins, with their powerful allies arrayed on one side or the other. Evidently that it is – a long story of a huge war. But, in its underlying meaning, it is a most systematic inquiry of the human condition, though that is not all what it is. There are, besides, countless stories of varying size that are wholly separate from the main story. But, as the main story does, they all are teaching something which is universal about human relationships.

In the words of an eminent historian of Indian philosophy, the work has been described as ‘a compendium of conflicting philosophical theories’ that are confusing. This, likewise, is a completely wrong understanding; for, the main story of the Mahabharata was a masterly literary devise to inquire into the roots of hatred and war, and to show a-himsa, not-violence, to be a foundation of happy life which all human beings aspire for. The conflicting philosophical theories in the work were designed to show that truth is many-sided and there can be no one absolute statement about it irrespective of ‘time’, ‘place’ and ‘the person(s)’ concerned, desh, kaala and paatra.


In most villages, towns and cities of India, the story of Rama, called Ramaleela, is enacted; and on its last day, what is celebrated as the festival of Dussehra, the effigy of Ravana, the main evil figure in that story, is publicly burnt along with the effigies of his two equally evil brothers, placed on his either side. Before that, a mock fight between Rama and Ravana is enacted in front of a large audience, in which Ravana is killed, signifying the destruction of evil.

Before the fight takes place, and after Ravana is killed, Rama and his devoted brother Lakshamana, both armed with their resplendent bows, are publicly worshipped by the eminent men and women of that city, and then the three effigies are put to fire, the effigy of Ravana fired with a burning arrow shot by Lord Rama. The show is over. There is no such public show for the gigantic war of Mahabharata.

However, all through the year the many stories of human relationships narrated in the Mahabharata are played by one travelling drama company or the other. The three most favourite stories taken from the Mahabharata that are played are those of Savitri and Satyavan, of Nala and Damayanti, and of King Dushyanta and Shakuntala. It is not that the main story of the Mahabharata is not known to most people in India, but it is almost completely left out. The stories from the Mahabharata that are generally played are mostly caricatures.

Take for example, the attempt to disrobe Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandavas who in a game of dice that was dishonestly played lost all that they had, including their wife Draupadi, to their first cousins, the Kauravas. They were now the latter’s slaves and Draupadi is asked to work as a slave in the household of Duryodhana, the heir apparent to the throne. When Draupadi challenges that situation, on grounds that are both moral and legal, she, draped in a single garment and in a state of menstruating, is dragged into the royal assembly and sought to be openly disrobed. Her five husbands, the Pandavas, sit there helplessly, and even the great elders like Bhishma cleverly skirt Draupadi’s moral challenge. The divine grace of Lord Krishna comes to her rescue by draping her with another garment in the place of the one peeled off and thus saving her dignity. Undoubtedly though the play is also about divine grace, yet the way it is played freezes Draupadi in that image.


I have studied the Mahabharata now for more than three decades, and it has deeply influenced my life and relationships. But, like most Indian children, it was mostly as a mythological story and not as a most systematic inquiry in the human condition that I first learnt about the Mahabharata. It was only many years later, after I was invited by a Swiss foundation to work on my history of the western encounters with Indian civilization, I also understood that both the worldview and institutions of western Christianity – liberalism, Marxism and scientific thought – had thoroughly misunderstood Indian civilization and even as they had created revolutions in many other parts of the world were quickly neutralized in our terrain. It is then that I came to the Mahabharata as a way to understanding not only India but the foundations of a sane and happy human life as such in its individual and collective expressions. But it is not with my journey through life that this essay is concerned. Rather, it discusses the foundations of law and good governance that were systematically laid out in the Mahabharata, for they occupy the single largest place in the thought and public life of practically every country in the world.


Much of Indian thought, particularly the ancient political thought, has always been, as it is even today, surrounded by very many wrong understandings and misunderstandings, western or Indian, each with a long history. However, necessary though it is to remove them, that exercise eventually becomes tiresome and, in the end, not very productive either. Who misunderstood what, or wrongly understood it, quickly involves us in what may justly be called misunderstanding of misunderstandings. The best thing to do, I believe, is therefore to state what is demonstrably true about the foundations of Indian thought beyond its diversities; state that which is clear and verifiable, and not subject to any one person’s interpretation of it; and coming to those foundations, order our social life and relationships in the same way as we should order our individual lives and relationships.

It may well be, as some philosophers have argued, that human life in its daily transactions is only a series of interpretations of truth, some of them right, some of them wrong; the mind, manas, playing its familiar tricks at every turn. In their view, the result is that we human beings can only live from one misunderstanding to another, some beautiful, some ugly, and move from ignorance to ignorance. That distinct possibility was fully taken into account, in the Yoga-Vasishtha for example, which demonstrates, step by step, how the conquest of the mind, by the mind, is the very first foundation of sane living. That is a central teaching of the Mahabharata.


It was in the Mahabharata, demonstrably for the first time in human history, that the foundations of sane living, individual and social, were laid securely – in the form of dharma. One characteristic of Indian thought has been that in the place of definitions of things, it asks for their attributes, or lakshanas. That is because all definitions are arbitrary, whereas the lakshanas, or the attributes, are what show a thing, through which a thing becomes manifest. Thus, not the ‘definition’ of truth, or of love, but the attributes of truth and love by which they are known is what is central.

The question What is dharma? is answered likewise in terms of its attributes, lakshanas, which are clear, straightforward and genuinely universal. And yet, there is, perhaps, no other word that has been misunderstood more than dharma. It has always been translated, wrongly of course, as ‘religion’. One result is that since our perceptions are governed by that wrong translation, the statement that dharma is the foundation of law and governance, is quickly interpreted to mean that that foundation is ‘religious’ in character, which it most certainly is not.

The Mahabharata says, one:

All the sayings of dharma are with a view to nurturing,

cherishing, providing more amply, endowing more richly,

prospering, increasing, enhancing, all living beings: securing

their prabhava. Therefore, whatever has the characteristic

of bringing that about is dharma. This is certain.


Two: All the sayings of dharma are with a view to supporting,

sustaining, bringing together, upholding, all living beings –

in one word, their dharana. Therefore, whatever has the

characteristic of doing that, is dharma. This is certain.


And three: All the sayings of dharma are with a view to securing for

all living beings freedom from violence. Therefore, whatever

has the characteristic of not doing violence, is dharma.

This is certain.

(Shanti-parva, 109.10-12)


Conversely, whatever has the characteristic of depriving, starving, diminishing, debasing, degrading, separating, uprooting, hurting, doing violence, is the negation of dharma. Whatever brings those about is, in one word, adharma. This is the case both in our individual relationships and in our social relationships. In whatever way one defines ‘justice’, ‘law’ and ‘good governance’, they must have everywhere as their basic attributes prabhava, dharana, and ahimsa. Dharma is their natural foundation. ‘Injustice’, ‘tyranny’ and ‘anarchy’ are likewise known by their attributes, which are the attributes of ‘adharma’, negation of dharma, all of them destructive.

What are the elements of political theory, of which law and governance are essential parts? To begin with, there is the individual, as the concrete unit of life, placed in a system of social relations. Who decides how these relations are to be regulated? In the event of conflict between the interests of the individual and those of society, what principle can settle the issue between the two? These questions are answered variously depending upon what precisely is the concept of law.


A further question arises whether law is given unto man as divine command, and is therefore immutable, and that the Church is its interpreter. Or is law an outcome of the material conditions of a society, and must keep changing even as those material conditions do? Since the idea of law is intimately connected with the idea of power; the legitimate sources of power, the manner of its use, the limits on its exercise, and the moral rightness of revolt against it when it turns tyrannical, are other questions that follow.

Next, through what institutions is the power of law exercised? The concepts of sacred and temporal powers arise in answer to that question. Their mutual relationship, the relation between the state and the church, as well as the range of authority which either may claim over the individual, are the other elements of political thought. So too is the question of ends towards which the individual person, a group, or a whole society moves, and the means through which those ends are secured. Are ends their own justification, and the question of means only a functional one? Or are means ethically as important as ends are and both require justification of a higher order which neither of them can by itself provide?

Then there are questions concerning freedom and justice. Always connected with each other, all of the foregoing questions are related, above all, with the idea of history. History is the crucible in which political ideas mature and human decisions arise. Desha and kaala, that is ‘time’ and ‘place’, are evidently the two coordinates of history: they are in a flux, and so are ideas and human decisions. In that case, can there ever be such a thing as ‘foundation’ which is not subject to the changing desha and kaala?


Most of the questions mentioned earlier, including the one mentioned the last, form part of the dharmic enquiry into the foundations of law and governance. We must make here a clear distinction, though. There are certain questions that are universal; while some questions belong only to a particular history. For example, the questions concerning the legitimate sources of power, the manner of its exercise, and the limits to which it must be subject, are questions that are universal. But the question as regards the relation between the state and the Church in their competing claims over the allegiance of the individual person, is a product only of western history. It formed no part of dharmic reflections on man and society. The issue between the sacred and the temporal power posed no challenge of the kind that it did for many centuries in the history of western societies; for dharma perceived no polarity between the two.

Similarly, the question as to whether law is given as divine command and is therefore immutable, or whether it is a product of the material conditions of a society and must keep changing with them posed no theoretical problem in dharmic political thought. The idea of dharma cuts across this issue by showing what is evident: (a) That, in its attributes of prabhava and dharana and ahimsa, dharma as the ordering reality of life is always and everywhere necessarily the basic condition of human living, and in that sense is not subject to the particularities of desha and kaala. (b) But in so far as particular time, particular place and a particular society are the determining factors of legislated law, no one set of laws can be called either universal or unchanging. And (c) The particularities of desha and kaala, undoubtedly important in their own place, cannot be invoked as decisive in going against the foundations of human living as dharma.

That is to say, no law, no custom, howsoever old, will have any legitimate authority if it tends to debase and degrade human worth, creates separations, and does violence to human dignity. Even the changing laws made in response to the changing times must at all times be subject to the unchanging dharma. What the Mahabharata had suggested in saying this is also clearly the position of the modern philosophy of law.


The chief concern of dharmic political thought was power or bala: its sources; the purpose for which it is exercised; the limits to it; and the legitimacy of revolt against it when it becomes adharma, that is, when it creates conditions of oppression and violence. The Mahabharata enquires into all these in systematic detail.

The question of power is naturally connected with the purpose for which a king, or, in the modern idiom, the state, exists. In all that follows, substitute the word ‘state’ for the word ‘king’. The Mahabharata contains teachings on this subject that are universal:

What is governance, danda? What is it like? What are its forms? What is it based on? What is its purpose? What is its origin? What is its structure?

(Shanti-parva, 121.5)


As regards the purpose of the state and governance, the Mahabharata invokes memories of a time when

There was neither the state nor the king; neither governance nor governor. Rooted in dharma, the people everywhere protected each other.

(Shanti-parva, 59.14)


But a time came when, unrestrained in their appetites, and driven only by their greed, people did violence to each other, in the wrong notion that one might flourish at the cost of the other, and there was anarchy. Since people would no longer govern themselves in self-governance, there arose the need of an external governing force so that people might not destroy each other by their self-created anarchy, and destroy human flourishing above all. The king was invested, therefore, with the authority of danda, or governance. ‘For if there were in the world no danda, people would have destroyed each other: it is out of the fear of punishment that people do not engage in mutual killing.’ ‘It is governance which establishes this world upon truth; truth secures dharma; and dharma is established in those who have the true knowledge of things.’ In brief, ‘No one is above danda – neither mother, nor father, neither brother, nor wife, nor the priest. To the king, no one is above the law of dharma.’

Given this as the purpose of creating the king, his practical goal is bound by that purpose; his discipline arises from the goal set for him; and that discipline is the discipline of dharma, to which he is at all times absolutely subject himself. In other words, although the king is invested with the authority and power of governance, the true sovereignty belongs to dharma, not to him. The Mahabharata states this again and again.

Again and again, at every turn, in every situation, the Mahabharata states that in all the acts of governance, the goal of the king, or of the state, is the protection of the people, derived from the evident truth that ‘Protected, people prosper: prospering, they endow the king in turn.’

Briefly stated,

The protecting of the people, this is the highest dharma of the king. Indeed, the protecting of all living beings with kindness towards them, is the highest dharma.


Therefore, that king who has the character of protecting with kindness, those who know what dharma truly is regard as the highest dharma.

(Shanti-parva, 71.26,27)


Governance is to ensure for the people protection from fear; for there is nothing more degrading to human worth than living in fear. The Mahabharata enjoins, therefore: ‘Let the king protect his subjects from their fear of him; from their fear of others; from their fear of each other; and from their fear of things that are not human.’ This fundamental principle of governance is then applied to all areas of public policy, always keeping freedom from fear, and from the fear of violence, the main purpose of the state. In other words, its purpose lies in ‘protecting the small fish from the big fish.’

In that process, however, the Mahabharata warns, the state must not turn itself into the biggest fish of all. When that happens, as indeed it did at different times of human history, including our own times, there is oppression and terror, the adharma by the state.

The Mahabharata says that: the one class of people who require the greatest protection of all, are those who are weak, poor, exploited, and trampled upon. Indeed, it to protect them from the strong that the king was created. That large class of the weak exists because of the power of the king.

(Shanti-parva, 91.12)


In the strongest advice to the king, and in a language that is most impassioned, the Mahabharata addresses the king thus: ‘Never, never think that the weak and the helpless are always deserving of contempt, lest their eyes burn you and your relatives to death.’ ‘Whoever is thus destroyed by the anger of the weak, nothing can then ever germinate in his family, not a blade of grass. Therefore, never oppress the weak and the poor.’ ‘The weak are, in actual fact, very much stronger than the strong. They have in them decidedly greater strength; for nothing is left of the strong who has been burnt by the weak.’

‘Where a person, he or she, who has been insulted, wounded, and rejected with a heap of abuses, does not find in the king his, or her, protector; there the law of danda will surely destroy the king.’ ‘The tears that fall from the eyes of those that are accused falsely, and are helpless, can destroy a whole kingdom.’ Harassed and oppressed, when a person is left defenceless and unprotected, there the oppressor is punished severely by some higher power.’

‘Therefore, when the king wipes the tears of those who are without means of sustenance, who have no one to take care of them, and who are old, he creates happiness among people. Such conduct on his part is called the dharma of the king.’

(Shanti-parva, 91.38)


The word raksha, or ‘protection’, has a somewhat negative meaning, in the sense that protection is always from something, or somebody, of which, of whom, one is for good reasons afraid. Or protection is against something which is not desirable. Since there is in human life so much of which one is rightly fearful, especially when it is an organized entity, the function of the state is to provide the individual protection against that. Law and governance are the instruments of that protection. But that is only one of the functions of the state, although a fundamental one.

Raksha, or protection, has also a wider meaning beyond that. In describing that wider meaning, the Mahabharata enjoins upon the king to create social conditions not only of freedom from fear but, more positively, of human flourishing, where the individual is enabled to come into the fullness of his, or her, being. That is the meaning of prabhava as an attribute of dharma. There is no denying that there can be no human flourishing where there is violence. Prabhava, or enhancing human worth, is possible only through ahimsa, or conditions of not-violence, another attribute of dharma.


But it is also true that not-violence by itself is not sufficient to create conditions of happiness. I may not do any violence to you; but I may not give you my friendship and love either. Wherever there is love, there must also be not-violence, ahimsa; but ahimsa does not create love. Trust, friendship, and caring, are the elements of human bonding, individual and social. They lead to not-violence, and not the other way round. Hence ‘protection’ has, in the Mahabharata, the wider meaning of creating conditions of personal and social happiness. That is the function of the king, or of the state.

Living in modernity, what I have most learnt from living in the Mahabharata is to have distance from experience.


* This brief note, his last, was penned by the author in hospital. Chaturvedi Badrinath passed away on 17 February 2010.

Chaturvedi Badrinath is the author of The Mahabharata. An Inquiry in the Human Condition, Orient Longman, 2006. He was recently conferred the Sahitya Akademi Award for Literature.