24. The Mahabharata: An Anti-War Novel

(Hidden: Although located in Travelogues SEA2 Chap folder, this article is part of SEA Empires. These 7 chapters, 10>16, belong between SEA5:Ch8a & SEA6:Ch09.)


In the prior chapter, we discussed 2 potential themes of the Mahabharata. In the first, Duryodhana fights Dharma, personified by his cousin, Yudhishthira. His presumed obstinacy leads to the destruction of his branch of the clan. This theme appears to be an over-simplified interpretation due to many counter-indications within the plotline. Although he did battle his brother, Duryodhana’s fate seems to be complicated by the fact that he fulfilled his personal dharma as a warrior.

The second theme revolved around the greed that results from obsessive self-centeredness. Because one branch of the family is unwilling to share the bounty with their cousins, they ultimately lose everything. While greed is a convenient excuse for the conflagration, again it is an oversimplification of a more complex theme.

The Destructive Consequences of the Kshatriya Dharma, the Warrior Code

Please recall that the branch of the family that brought upon the massive destruction of human lives was led by Duryodhana. When his father, Dhiritarashtra, first hears of this senseless carnage,  his feelings quickly change from grief to anger. "Shame to Kshatriya Dharma!" he curses. This statement clearly reveals the king’s attitude. He views this warrior code, a.k.a. kshatriya dharma, as the real culprit. Greed may merely be the excuse for the war-like behavior that their martial training embraces.

Warriors crave the battles that are the inevitable consequence of war. They prove themselves on the battlefield. Battles provide them an opportunity to test their courage, their martial talents, and to die fearlessly. Warriors, who die in battle, are rewarded in the afterlife, because they have fulfilled their duty, their dharma. Dying Duryodhana boasts, "I have been killed in battle. …Certainly I shall gain heaven …."

The kshatriya dharma/the warrior code, understandably leads to endemic and incessant warfare. From childhood, the boys are taught martial skills. How are they to test these skills without a battle? Countries run by warrior kings embrace battle as a necessary element of foreign policy. This approach often encourages and even inflames conflict. There is little praise in the warrior culture for attempts to defuse confrontation. This is why the god of war is so prominent in warrior cultures.

Karna, a primary hero in Duryodhana’s army, states the universal warrior sentiment perfectly. Before the Great Battle, Krishna makes a plea for peace. Karna responds:

 “How is the sun brightened by a garden of virtues? Arjuna and I are born warriors. We approach battle as other men approach their wives in bed. Do not let the Kshatriyas perish miserably of disgraceful diseases or of old age. Let them take oath to their king, and their king to them, as always we have done! When is there a day or night that death may not come? Or are there any who have become immortal by not fighting?” (Mahabharata, pp. 149-150)

In other words, for the warrior, fame and immortality come from fighting, not from slowly dying of old age.

Bhishma, Protector of the Realm

The Mahabharata provides some poignant examples of this interpretation of the intrinsic motives behind the warrior culture. Let us introduce a few more of the key characters of the Great Battle, Bhishma and Karna. Their interaction is instructive.

King Santanu, the ancestor of the entire Kuru clan, fell in love with Ganga, the River Goddess of the Ganges. After giving birth to a son Bhishma, she disappeared into the river, as was preordained. For his second queen, Santanu chose Vyasa's mother, Satyavati, the one who was born after a king's sperm impregnated a fish.

"Bhishma [Santanu's first son born of Ganga] was pleased to see his father so happy, and as his marriage gift he told him, "Let your child by Satyavati rule the kingdom after you, and I will protect him and his children as long as I can."

"Why do you offer this to me?" asked Santanu.

"Majesty," replied Bhishma, "I care not to be king, nor to marry, but I would rather make our race the strongest in the land by my energy."

Santanu said, "Then take these words as my gift, Bhishma: Death will never come to you, so long as you wish to live. He will dare to approach you only when you have given him permission." (Buck's Mahabharata, p. 13)

Although relinquishing his claim on the crown, Bhishma reveals his role as loyal protector of the realm and of the king's family line. This instructive passage illustrates that Bhishma has no ambition for either territory or power. He just wants to strengthen their race, an admirable drive. He does not foresee a conflict between his loyalty to the crown and his desire to promote the welfare of their land. These dual roles inevitably result in an irresolvable conflict.

Please recall that Bhishma was King Santanu’s son by Ganga, his first queen. The aforementioned Pandu and the blind Dhiritarashtra were sons of Satyavati, Santanu’s second queen. Bhishma never married and remained childless. Dhiritarashtra had 100 human sons, of whom the first-born was Duryodhana. Pandu had 5 divine sons, of whom the first-born was Yudhishthira, the son of Dharma.

Bhishma was Santanu’s first born, son of the River Goddess of the Ganges. He is a divine warrior, yet he foregoes his legitimate claim to become the ruler of the land. He instead chooses the role of the realm's protector.

A mighty warrior in his own right, Bhishma took upon the task of training all the young princes in the martial arts. Fathers and sons on both sides of the family benefited from his sage advice, as well as from his martial training. He impeccably performed the duties of teacher and advisor without apparent attachment. Consequently, he was well loved, admired and respected by both clans, including brothers, uncles, nephews and cousins.

The Abandonment & Bitterness of Karna, Child of the Sun

Recall that Sandu's 5 sons were not really his, but each the son of a god. Because of her kindness to beggars, a hermit had given Sandu's wife, Kunti, a mantra. When recited aloud, this mantra enabled her to mate with and bear a son by any god that she desired. Before marrying Sandu, she had tested the hermit's mantra and called down the Sun God. Because she was not married, she was merely testing the potency of the mantra and did not intend to actually mate with him. Due to the Sun God’s magnificence, Kunti was persuaded to change her mind. Karna was the result of the unplanned union.

Because she had no husband, Kunti placed her newborn son in a basket in a stream. Although rescued and raised by others, Karna was bitter towards his mother for abandoning him as a baby. This bitterness extended to his divine brothers, Kunti's other sons, the divine side of the family.

Duryodhana, the leader of the family’s purely human side, exploited Karna’s animosity towards his divine stepbrothers. He eventually befriended and enticed Karna to join his side in the impending conflict. The opposing army boasted Arjuna, the son of the war god, Indra, as their prime hero. Recognizing Arjuna’s military talents, Duryodhana realized the importance of recruiting Karna, the Sun's divine offspring, to his side. Only Karna had enough martial prowess to defeat Arjuna in battle.

Although the sides of the impending conflict had been drawn, it took years for the war to actually begin. As one year faded into another, the tensions between the two sides of the family heated to boiling. Bhishma, the protector of the Kuru race, was understandably dismayed to see his beloved kingdom drifting into a destructive civil war. However, because of his warrior dharma, he was bound to serve Duryodhana, the son of Dhiritarashtra, the Kuru king. With both of these divine warriors, Bhishma and Karna, on his side, Duryodhana felt invincible.

In a war counsel, the blind king Dhiritarashtra pleaded for cooperation and compromise, but could not restrain his arrogant son. Bhishma, the martial teacher of all the heroes in the approaching battle, made a desperate and urgent plea for peace. Understanding Karna's key position in Duryodhana's army, Bhishma directed his words to this divine warrior. Angry words were exchanged between Bhishma and Karna and the two sons of gods departed on bad terms.

Krishna's Song of the Lord, the Bhagavad Gita

On the eve of the Great Battle, Arjuna, the primary hero of Yudhishthira's army, has doubts about the ensuing destruction. Krishna, his divine charioteer, declares that this war between cousins is inevitable at this point. If Arjuna abandons the fray, then all his brothers will die at the hands of Karna. In other words, if he does not fulfill his duty as a great warrior king, his whole army will be slaughtered.

As a warrior, he is bound to fight by his terrible Kshatriya dharma. Krishna counsels Arjuna about the appropriate attitude for such an occasion.  He must fulfill his dharma, while detaching from the results. In other words, slay without animosity, hatred, or anger. Engage in battle without attachment to life itself. This is the Song of the Lord. This fateful exchange is frequently excerpted as the famous Bhagavad Gita.

The theme could be generalized to mean that each of us must follow our own personal dharma in a similar fashion. Doubt can easily discourage us from embracing our role(s) and taking action. Like Arjuna, we must confront our doubts and our fears about the future. We shouldn’t abandon our course due to discouragement about disappointing consequences. Nor should we surrender our ambitions to a sense of meaninglessness in the face of Death.

This broad theme also applies to the attitude we take when we are engaged in action. Once engaged, attachment to results, such as wealth, fame, prestige, or even life, can disrupt the delicate balance of our Dharma Path. If we are following our Dharma Path, what else can fame or fortune bring us?

Many have taken this exchange as a metaphor for engaging in life without attachment. The story can also be taken at face value. In this light, the Bhagavad Gita provides a religious justification for the values of the Kshatriya Dharma. All the heroes in the ensuing battle adhere to this warrior code: fight bravely without attachment, even unto death. Facing battle unaccompanied by fear is the ultimate goal. While the Kshatriya Dharma may provide an honorable code for the warrior in battle, the greater question of the honorable nature of war is left unanswered.

The Mahabharata’s Greater Context

If we read the Bhagavad Gita while ignoring the greater context of the Mahabharata, we could easily come away with a pro-war attitude. Arjuna, a warrior worthy of praise, fulfills his duty to fight and perhaps to die in battle. This dharma is even sanctioned by Krishna, Vishnu’s incarnation. However, when the entire tale is taken into account, there is an entirely different message available to the Reader.

On the eve of the Great Battle, King Duryodhana and Bhishma, his first in command, have a significant exchange. Bhishma is understandably dismayed that his beloved kingdom is about sink into a destructive civil war. Further he is disgusted with Duryodhana for refusing to heed his advice and seek peace. Duryodhana’s abuse of the warrior code provokes Bhishma to state uncategorically,

"All the rice and grain, all the land and women and wealth on this Earth cannot satisfy even one person [meaning Duryodhana]. And to follow the Kshatriya Dharma is to follow a rule fit for butchers." (Mahabharata, p. 152)

This statement is particularly significant as it comes from the man who is the ultimate teacher of warriors.

Conveniently ignoring the subtext of these comments, Duryodhana offers Bhishma the position as commander of his army. Bhishma is unable to turn down the request, presumably because of his oath of fealty to the ruling family. This oath of allegiance is generally a significant characteristic of the warrior dharma. As a dutiful and honorable warrior, he pledges to do his best in this unpleasant role despite his serious misgivings.

Bhishma is cursed in so many ways by his code. Duryodhana’s abuse of the warrior dharma inevitably leads into a destructive and unnecessary civil war and places Bhishma at the head of his army. Further, Bhishma’s prime students are fighting against each other. He must feel some sense of responsibility for the war-like behavior of those that he has trained.

Karna, one of the divine warriors, recognizes Bhishma’s responsibility for the war when he states,

“Bhishma set rolling the Wheel of Dharma – rolling over the land, over the years. Kshatriya Dharma! Duroydhana has swallowed a hook baited with Yudhishthira’s wealth.” (Mahabharata, p.149)

The tenor of these remarks is hardly a glorification of the warrior code. Bhishma, by providing these warriors with their martial skills, simultaneously enflamed their passion for warfare.

The Innately Destructive Nature of War

Just before the Great Battle is about to begin, Yudhishthira sheds his military gear, armor and weapons, and treads unarmed into the enemy camp. Such is his respect for his teacher that Yudhishthira asks Bhishma's permission to oppose his army on the field of battle. Permission reluctantly granted and the Great Battle begins.

The author, Vyasa, has somehow given Sanjaya, the king’s charioteer, his all-seeing eyes to view the ensuing conflagration. Sanjaya reports on the events of the first day:

"Kshatriya [warrior] Dharma is cruel …for in the blink of an eye those two armies had rushed together in hopeless confusion. While I watched fearfully under the protection of Vyasa, the derangement of war was all around me: dust that dimmed the sunlight, the noise of crashing chariots and splintering wood, elephants and horses calling, bones and metal breaking, and the shouts and cries of warriors, telling their names and families, guided by costume and banner and secret words and signs."

Sanjaya's words suggest that the 'cruel' nature of the Kshatriya Dharma leads to the 'derangement of war'. Far from glorifying the warrior code that consistently leads to destructive battles, he condemns it. Heroic deeds are overshadowed by the mayhem and confusion that permeate the battlefield. The critique of the warrior dharma represented by this passage is another of the many indications that the Mahabharata is an anti-war novel. Read on for further evidence in support of this anti-war perspective. We will also discuss a constructive approach to the potentially destructive nature of the warrior dharma that is revealed in a careful reading of the Mahabharata.


Home    Southeast Asia Home    Chapters    Prior    Next    Comments