Mahabharata: The enigma of War and the Paradox of Dharma

Topics: Mahabharata

The Mahabharata, a Hindu epic about a great war is also known as the Kurukshetra War. The decisive war was fought between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas, and Pandavas; in a struggle for dynastic succession to the throne of Hastinapura. This war that is also revered as ‘Dharmayuddha’ (war waged for Dharma) was fought on Kurukshetra or ‘Dharmakshetra’ (the ‘field of Dharma”), or field of righteousness; a site chosen due to the belief that sin committed on this land was forgiven on the account of the sanctity of this land (Lath, 1982).

Written in a narrative form the story describes individual battles and deaths of various heroes of both sides, military formations, war diplomacy, meetings and discussions among the characters, and the weapons used.

Weaved around great narratives of Dharma and Karma, the Mahãbhãrata is complex, heterogeneous, and composite. It is highly intertextual and has many narrative strands and levels of meaning (Reich, 2011). Mahabharata embodies multiple epistemes on which the war premises.

The central argument revolves around the struggle for power where, the cousins (Kauravas and Pandavas) fought for the succession of the throne of Hastinapur a Kingdom in Kuru, India. However, this struggle for power that is central to the epic reproduces a saga of ego, insult, honor, pride, justice, and duty. For this paper, these epistemes will be explored with a fundamental emphasis on justice (Dharma), duty (Karma), and power. The multiplicity of meanings embedded within these epistemes is the major challenge in the process of analysis.

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Mahabharata touches on ethical, spiritual, social, and historical dilemmas basic to all humankind. All characters in this epic manifest complexity of real human beings involved in a prolonged moral struggle resulting in a terrible war called Dharma Yuddha or war with justice at stake (Lath, 1982). Wars in the past centuries the been driven by a sense of duty and defense of another of the family and the citizens. Like Arjuna in Mahabharata Homer’s Iliad represents Hector as the warrior that symbolizes obligations of duty. Hector tells Andromache, ‘I would die of shame to face the men of Troy and the Trojan women trailing their long robes if I would shrink from the battle now, a coward (Lebow, 2008). Hector hence symbolizes, the act of dharma of a warrior when war becomes the last resort towards the defense of his family and subjects and above all his duty. This is also reflected in Arjuna’s realization after a prolonged dilemma of identifying the right course of action in a rather perplexing scenario of a war waged against one’s kins.

The core of Mahabharata lies within Bhagwat Gita. The conversation between Arjuna and Krishna embodies the fundamental elements of Dharma and Karma in choosing the right path in times of crisis. Gita advocates a third route to stand up as neutral for one’s rightful place in the world. Therefore, Mahabharata elucidates the vexed relationship between the moral reality of war and the strategic reality. The big question that confronts is what ought to be done? (Walzer, 1977). Arjuna thus stands for each one of us. His challenges symbolize ours, which transcends all the boundaries of orthodoxy and us the right to be utterly and spectacularly ourselves. This entails crucial similarity with what Homer in Illiad explains in the context of the formation of self. Homer, explains the intricate connections that an individual shares with not just the significant other (family or ethnic group) but with humanity at large. This in turn provides the ethical foundations of worthwhile human existence (Lebow, 2008). This Homer presents a compelling picture of what constitutes the human’s sense of worth. Krishna’s wisdom, for Arjuna, on the other hand, is about unraveling the unprecedented self-worth that is derived from standing with one’s Dharma which is also one duty towards oneself and the others, for someone caught in a paradoxical dilemma, both fighting and escaping lead to endless complications. This is further unraveled in the dialogues between Arjuna and Krishna in Bhagwat Gita which is explained below.

When war becomes Dharma:

Dharma belongs to the realm of action with Karma being the action itself. Man has no choice but to act, as the Gita, considered by many to be central to the Mahabharata, expresses it. Arjuna’s dilemma thus can be rightfully argued to be moral anxiety and not a political calculation that has led him to question the effectiveness of the course sought (Walzer, 1977) i.e. war. has been addressed by Krishna through the teachings of the Gita. Dharma is about the universal principles of religion and ethics – truthfulness, compassion, cleanliness, justice, goodness, enlightenment, and cooperation among all to support society and the universe. The word dharma in its ancient usage denoted the moral realm in its widest sense, meaning both moralities as an ideal— man’s eternal quest for the good, the right, the just—as well as the given, actual framework of norms, rules, maxims, principles that guide human action (Lath, 1982) or Karma. Thus one’s specific Dharma consists of doing one’s duty in the best possible way according to one’s abilities and a particular position in time and space. The following verses from Gita explain Arjuna’s dilemma and Krishna’s wisdom that makes Arjuna overcome his dilemma.

“I have explained this (point) to you by the (analytical method of examination called) Sankhya. Now listen to this (concept) as (observed from the perspective of) (the practice of intelligence, called) Buddhi Yoga. O Partha, through this Buddhi Yoga (application of intelligence and correct understanding) you will be released from the bondage of karma (actions and reactions).”[footnoteRef:1] [1: Retrieved from: (]

Arjuna’s anxiety has thus been reduced or even addressed by a friend or the ‘significant other’ creating the framework for moral authenticity and recognition (Lebow, 2008). Therefore a communicative action that constitutes emancipative communicative and the strategic or instrumental reasoning is central to an understanding-oriented communicative action leading to success-oriented strategic action or rational behavior (Schafer, Heinze, Rotte & Denke, 2013). The truth and rightness claim thus emerges through argumentative justification from the dialogical process between Arjuna and Krishna. The dialogue is premised on the interlocutor’s embrace of opposing metaphysical truths but affirms the contestable and uncertain nature of these truths. ‘Forbearance’ and ‘thoughtfulness’ in the relations with others lead to the rise of ethics and truth through meaningful interactions (Lebow, 2008)

Arjuna’s plight at the beginning of the war resulted from years of hardship he had undergone preparing for it, knowing it could not be avoided. He had to fight if he wished to defend cherished values and rights. Yet he realized with a shock when it came to engaging in battle, that to fight meant to sacrifice equally cherished values. The fight itself, we discover, was a dharma-buddha not only in the sense of a battle for values but also a conflict between them. Arising out of moral issues, it was a struggle that hit at and undermined the ethical framework within which it arose: the most honored chivalrous codes and the deepest human values were cruelly and wilfully flouted in the heat of war (Lath, 1982). Mahabharata derives its discursive justification from the idea of valid moral rules and principles that rest on empirical truth claims and moral rightness. The moral point of view derives its legitimacy from the perspective of the actor. This perspective is recaptured when making moral judgments. The moral reality of war is not fixed however the meaning is accorded by the people considered morally higher that give shape and structure to the experience that makes it plausible for the actors involved (Walzer, 1977). Relevant reasons and empirical inductions in principle acceptable by a reasonable agent justify the claims of “higher morality” of “higher men” (Schacht, 1983; pp. 466–469) that is also a universal morality worthy of universal consensus.

Thus Krishna, who in this regard is considered the moral agent of higher morality encouraged Arjuna to fight the war against or destroy Adharma and Arjuna successfully performed his dharma of being a Kshatriya or a warrior. The pain that Arjuna endured thus is real, however, his agony is the product of his moral views. The moral judgments thus are also directly contingent on one’s understanding of the strategic realities of his position (Walzer, 1977). Therefore beyond considering the duty of a warrior, the informed participation in the war was fighting for the upholding of righteousness and justice. Mahabharata thus depicts a moral struggle that leads to war and is central to Dharma (Justice at stake) while also determining Karma or the course of action. Justice or just is morally acceptable. A moral person, endowed with the basic moral powers is thus capable of choosing what they wish to possess materially as well as intellectually at their discretion and capability (Rawls, 1971). This is precisely what governs the open and meaningful dialogue central to contemporary international moral philosophy.

The underlying alliances, war diplomacy, and the just war:

Mahabharata in reality embodies multiple dynamics of war; diplomatic bargaining, alliance behavior, and crisis management. This war was an epitome of great alliances each stood for a certain side due to loyalties and kinship. Many ancient kingdoms participated as allies of the rival groups in the battle that occurred in Kurukshetra, Central Matsya – Their king Virata and his sons were allies of the Pandavas. They joined the Pandavas because Virata’s daughter Uttara was married to Abhimanyu. While camping at Upaplavya in the territory of Virata the Pandavas gathered their armies. Contingents arrived from all parts of the country and soon the Pandavas had a large force of seven divisions. The Kauravas managed to raise an even larger army of eleven divisions. Many kingdoms of ancient India such as Dwaraka, Kasi, Kekaya, Magadha, Chedi, Matsya, Pandya, and the Yadus of Mathura were allied with the Pandavas; while the allies of the Kauravas comprised the kings of Pragjyotisha, Kalinga, Anga, Kekaya, Sindhudesa, Avanti in Madhyadesa, Gandharas, Bahlikas, Mahishmati, Kambojas (with the Yavanas, Sakas, Trilinga, Tusharas) and many others. While marriages and friendships played an important role in alliances, campaigns and conscious efforts of striking alliances and loyalties also earned the alliances.

Alliances have always been central in International relations. An alliance as a strategy for collective security dominates the international order. Necessary and sufficient conditions for an alliance system of countries are determined by structures, that can play the role of the balancer (Niou & Ordeshook, 1994). States expect their allies to help militarily and diplomatically during the time of conflict. The commitment entered into entails aspects of formal or informal treaties between the parties allying. These treaties embody mutual interests and ideological issues. The alliance is invariable entered to maintain the balance of power (Dwivedi, 2012). War is a result of the pursuit of power and wealth (Gilpin, 1988). However, there is a fine difference between the contemporary wars and the Mahabharata, that is the placement of Dharma and Karma that defines moral duty towards oneself and others. A war fought in defense of justice and pursuit of moral action against evil and injustice. Despite this, it is important to also highlight that human beings are driven by three fundamental passions-interest, pride, and, above all else, fear-they always seek to increase their wealth, a power until other humans, driven by like passions, try to stop them (Gilpin, 1988). It is also important to bring to attention that justice is also relative; what is just to one may be an injustice to the other, however, justification is sought through ‘just cause’ and, war thus is defined as an extreme case of the anarchy of moral meanings or ‘justly severe’ (Walzer, 1977). Mahabharata is inherently underpinned by the aforementioned human qualities that are lucid in Arjuna’s dilemma as well as narratives of the become dharma dharmaa of a warrior and the responsibility of upholding righteousness. Therefore, it would not be wrong to argue that the victory thus attained in Mahabharata was a hegemonic victory of the Pandavas.

Mahabharata’s principles of war to uphold justice also resonate with the contemporary just war discourses. The underlying war diplomacy where Krishna’s persuasion fails miserably at curbing the war also holds direct bearing with the narratives of last resort that become, apparent in the following;

“I can come into this earth as a snake, but when I enter the world in the form of a snake I can do nothing outside the possibilities and limitations of a snake.’ He can be the best snake ever but he can’t do more, he can’t get up and sing a song or walk  God, with every possibility of God, seeing the horror, the misery, all the sufferings of this war, but he’s a man, a superman indeed, but a man, so he can only do what a man can do. He uses his eloquence, his powers of persuasion, his understanding, and his authority, to beg, challenge, and shapes the people around him to prevent the war. But in the en even he has to accept that it is impossible. He has tried; he has done everything to thwart the war, but when he sees that the forces in play are stronger than those of any man, even a god-as-man, he then sees that there is only one thing to do: win that war” (Brook & Kalb, 2010; pp. 65).

The last resort was the war as all had been tried to stop the war, this, resonates with the core just war principles of just cause, last resort, proportionality, and noncombatant immunity (Lango, 2014). The paradox lies in the stringent principle of last resort that justifies the use of armed force that erects itself on the security equally equivocal idea of moral constraint. For instance, The United Nations (UN) Charter endows the security council with extraordinary powers to determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken to maintain or restore international peace and security. The Security Council has the power to decide to ‘take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security which is largely premised on responsibility, justice, and the ultimate values (Tufts, 1918). This is again inherently, underpinned by the discourses of universal morality.

Such morality is reinforced by factors of competition for power and shifting national interests within the realm of international relations. States have been furnished with moral personalities by great philosophers of the seventeenth century the seventeenth-century such as Grotius, Hobbes, and Pufendorf sought to constrain them through a reciprocal set of rights and duties. The development of the law of nations and the concept of sovereignty justified the pursuit of national interests by force beyond their legitimizedborders so long as it was in accord with the laws of war. This legitimized legitimisedidealization international relations as a zone of war. The question that however remains intact is when, if at all is war ethically justified? Ethical discourse is thus beyond the confines of our cultural, religious, social,group-based, and national group-based ideals. Despite deep contestations on what is ethically right, ‘ethical’ retains its value through its bearing with reasons meaning ‘not an arbitrary choice or decision’ but rather a choice based on reason (Frost, 1998). Especially in the international system ‘reason’ justifies the course of action.

Therefore complex characterization, value, spiritual knowledge, structural complexity, recursive narrative, historicity, and the analysis of human conduct that are presented in Mahabharata bears large significance even today in the everyday lives within the international realm. Mahabharata emphasizes the unavoidable nature of suffering that arises from the violence in which humans indulge, while God himself may allow that violence to happen for the order and regularity of the world. Arjuna’s identity as a warrior justifies his engagement in war and his enlightenment is inherent in his realizatio that this is what endealizatio dharma calls for. The highest virtues are exemplified by no hesitation to fight the demons and evil people for the order and regularity of the world protecting. The idea of protecting the world from cruel and violent people and taking extraordinary measures for the same is also what informs the fundamental principle of the UN charter.

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Mahabharata: The enigma of War and the Paradox of Dharma. (2022, May 12). Retrieved from

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