25. The Mahabharata: the Devaraja/God-king

(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 saw compelling indications that the Mahabharata illustrates the innately destructive nature of the warrior dharma. Let us continue with our summary of the tale to reveal the novel’s solution to this global problem.

Bhishma’s High Standards

We left the story after the first day of battle. Sanjaya, representing the all-seeing eyes of the author, first reported about the senseless mayhem and destruction that occurred on the battlefield. He then goes on to relate that the hero of the first day was Bhishma, one of King Duryodhana’s two divine warriors. Bhishma is so invincible that the opposing king, Yudhishthira, wants to retreat into the forest with his army to escape the destructive onslaught.

Arjuna, the primary divine hero of Yudhishthira’s army, dissuades him from this course. Then Arjuna himself goes into battle against Bhishma. Yet when he reaches Bhishma, Arjuna does not attack. Instead he throws himself on the ground and kisses his beloved teacher's feet. Arjuna even tackles Krishna, his own charioteer, as Krishna attempts to slay Bhishma.

It is obvious that Bhishma's many students have so much respect for him that they can't engage him in battle. Duryodhana is, of course, overjoyed to see his cousin's army in such disarray. More importantly, the universal admiration for Bhishma neutralizes the military prowess of the many divine heroes of Yudhishthira's army, as epitomized by Arjuna. Duryodhana feels that his victory is certain.

Crowing his delight, he counsels Bhishma: "Our army is the shoreless sea, irresistible, crested with waves in a terrible storm. Do not spare the Pandavas [his cousins] from [because of] kindness ."

Bhishma answered, "Be silent, Duryodhana. Man may be the slave of wealth but wealth is no man's slave. So I am fighting for you. But I will never slay the innocent, or those without weapons, or chariot drivers, or women, or those who run away or surrender or are fighting with others." (Mahabharata, p. 162)

In other words, Bhishma will fight for Duryodhana, but he is not his slave. He will not violate his warrior dharma, i.e. shed his high standards, in order to win. He will not slay the defenseless despite the orders of his king.

By Duryodhana’s calling for the slaughter of his own cousins, he demonstrates his willingness to place victory/results above the warrior’s code of behavior.  Duryodhana’s corruption of the warrior code is yet another reason that Bhishma must be disgusted by the results of his martial instruction. Even the most honorable of intentions, when confronted by the raw pursuit of power, are subject to grave misuse. 

A woman slays Bhishma, as male chauvinist pig.

Although universally admired, there is yet one who hates Bhishma and he knows it. After accepting leadership of Duryodhana’s army, Bhishma follows with a disclaimer, which reveals his weakness. He discloses that his ethic will not allow him to fight or even look at a warrior who was born a woman. Enigmatically, Prince Sikhandin was born a woman and as such poses a unique threat to Bhishma. To understand Prince Sikhandin's animosity towards Bhishma, let us recall the context of the Mahabharata.

The aging king decides to retreat into the forest and turns the kingdom over to this son. Even though the son is not yet an adolescent, Bhishma finds an opportunity to to acquire suitable wives for the new king.

The 3 daughters of a local king are having their swayamvara, their self-choice ceremony, when they get to choose their husband from competing suitors. Suspecting that the youth of the king will prevent his selection , Bhishma goes in his place. However, instead of allowing the prospective brides to choose their husbands, Bhishma steals them from under the noses of many suitors, saying:

"Know that the Kurus do not compete with your kind, and know also that the wife is most dear who is stolen by force." (Mahabharata, p. 14)

This is a caveman statement. Grab the woman by the hair and have your way with her. Bhishma’s apparent lack of respect for women probably has a strong appeal to the macho men warriors of any era. It is equally apparent that strong and independent women would object to this attitude as  prototypical of male chauvinism.

Two of the three princesses accept this questionable fate. The remaining princess says that she has already been promised to another king. At this point, Bhishma behaves in a manner that would be uncharacteristic of the typical chauvinist. He graciously sets her free. Unfortunately, the king to whom she was betrothed suffers from a different ugly facet of the chauvinistic ethic. Feeling that the princess’ association with Bhishma has somehow tainted her, he rejects her as a bride.

This assumption is not unreasonable under the circumstances, but a patriarchal stance nevertheless. It is similar to the Ramayana’s portrayal of Rama's initial suspicions about Sita after she has been kidnapped by the demon Ravana. (A prior chapter – Rama, lover and soul mate, deals with this topic in more depth).

In her grief, the rejected princess retreats into the forest and meets a hermit. She expresses her absolute hatred for Bhishma, who she blames for destroying her life. To get revenge, the hermit tells her to make an arrow. After the princess makes the arrow, Shiva wraps it in cloth. He then tells her that she will discover this same arrow in her next life and will remember its purpose.

The princess dies and is reborn once again as a princess. Having expected a son, her father the king follows an unusual course. He chooses to raise his princess daughter as a warrior prince. The ruse is inevitably discovered when the young princess, acting as a prince, marries a princess from an adjoining kingdom.

When this deceit is discovered, the angry neighboring king threatens war. The princess/prince in question goes into the forest and meets a Yaksha [spirit]. This compassionate spirit sympathizes with her plight and exchanges his male sex for her female sex. Now, as a real prince, Prince Sikhandin finds the arrow and remembers its predicted role.

On the second day of the battle, Prince Sikhandin gets his/her revenge on Bhishma. Bhishma refused to look upon the prince because he was born a woman. With Arjuna and Krishna running interference, the young prince takes advantage of this situation and fires his arrow. A thousand arrows follow. Although he does not die, Bhishma is put permanently out of action. The mighty, nearly invincible, teacher/warrior falls prey to the present incarnation of a woman that he had treated in a patriarchal fashion in her past life.

Warrior Dharma rejects Bhishma's Plea for Peace

After Bhishma falls, the entire battle stops. All his students pay their respects. Arjuna places Bhishma on a bed of arrows. Karna, the child of the Sun, who had conflicts with Bhishma, stops by to honor his teacher. On his deathbed, Bhishma makes a final plea for peace.

"Bhishma: "I do not hate you, Bharata. But you wished for war while I tried to find peace. That is why I spoke harshly to you. But the wheel will not stop turning. Yet listen to me what you have heard before: live with your brothers in peace. You are the best warrior in the world, but let the war end with me. You have the courage and the kindness, more than anyone else, to do this for me."

Karna answered, "Even against them will I fight. I have come here that you may give me your permission, and your pardon for my past unkindness to you, done in anger."

”I give both,” said Bhishma, "and I have failed again. …" (Buck's Mahabharata, p. 154)

The ultimate warrior, Bhishma pleads for peace and is rejected by Karna, the child of the Sun. Karna, Duryodhana's last divine warrior, is the only one who could stop the war. As long as Karna remains, Duryodhana has hope. Karna, presumably motivated by the warrior dharma, desires to test himself against the other divine warriors in battle. Duryodhana’s aspirations are buoyed by Karna’s rejection of Bhishma’s last plea for peace.

“When Karna had gone, Krishna walked unseen beside Bhishma, and in a dream loosened the chains of hope that tie life.” (Buck's Mahabharata, p. 154)

Recall that Bhishma was given the power to choose the moment of his own death due his father's blessing. Karna's rejection of his plea for peace 'loosened the chains of hope that tie life'. With his hope gone, Bhishma prepares to die. It is Karna's obstinate warrior attitude that ultimately kills Bhishma, not the arrow.

Krishna, God of the Warrior Dharma, loves Duryodhana's militant attitude.

As Bhishma lies dieing on his bed of arrows, Krishna crows that he slays one after the other.

“I am the Lord: This I have; This I will get; This one I have slain; That one I will slay tomorrow; I am rich, and noble and happy; Who else is like me!" (Buck's Mahabharata, p. 154)

One gets the distinct impression that Krishna is more associated with the premature death that often accompanies war. He seems far less interested in the natural death cycle that often accompanies old age. He rewards warriors with a swift death to escape the slow decline of a long life.

Krishna's last boast is intriguing. "I am rich, and noble and happy; Who else is like me!" This statement suggests that Krishna, as the master of war, revels in the opportunity to provide young men a glorious death in battle. This premature death trades the suffering associated with ordinary life for the glory of heroic death. Is Krishna’s offer of a heroic death actuallythe coward’s way out of the innate difficulties of life?

Die young and in battle, rather than going through the trials and tribulations of fulfilling one's personal dharma. It is far more mundane to merely raise a family and pursue a productive career. Krishna is constantly smiling because human ignorance regularly provides him with fresh young warriors ready to die in battle. Does Krishna play the role of a war god, who perhaps becomes rich upon the naivety of men eager for glory?

There are other indications of Krishna’s innate military nature. Both Krishna and Arjuna are warriors, not artists or craftsmen. They are an integral team, an archer and a charioteer. Indra, the war god, is Arjuna’s father, and Krishna is Vishnu’s incarnation.

There is a strong suggestion that Vishnu/Krishna may simply be, if not the same god, a more sophisticated, updated version of Indra. As evidence of this interpretation, Krishna says on multiple occasions that he and Arjuna are fundamentally the same. Although Krishna frequently attempts to prevent war, he gladly reverts to his aggressive Indra-like nature once hostilities have become inevitable.

The possibility of this unflattering interpretation of Krishna's role as God of the Warrior Dharma is even revealed in the Bhagavad Gita. He counsels Arjuna to go to war, rather than to lay down his arms. It is certainly possible to interpret Krishna’s comments to Arjuna in a benign fashion. Many view Krishna’s counsel to Arjuna as nothing more than a reminder that all we all have the duty to fulfill our dharma.

However, it is also possible to conceive of Krishna’s advice as encouraging the upcoming conflict by arguing that war is inevitable. Could the ethic that embraces the preparation for war also pave the way toward armed conflict? Perhaps the Mahabharata suggesting is that the only alternative to war lies outside the warrior ethic.

The victorious King Yudhishthira, the son of Dharma, reflects this viewpoint in a conversation with Krishna after the senseless destruction of the Great Battle.

“This victory seems to me like a great defeat. There is only one foe and not another, and he is ignorance. … You are like a leather bag of words and wind! … The truth is, that like grass and straw covering a pit, your Dharma is too often a mask for deceit. You are an unborn god, but in a hundred years I could not exhaust the tale of your felonies if I spoke day and night.”

Krishna attempts to justify his behavior as the inevitable movement of Time that absorbs all into his breast. Yudhishthira rejects this rationalization for war with an understandable reluctance to accept the inevitability of armed conflict:

“Oh heartless Krishna, only men who are like thieves give counsel to a King that he make war and win victory. See for yourselves how kings have of all men the least wits! By what right have I murdered everyone?” (Mahabharata, pp. 215-6)

Ultimately Yudhishthira accepts his dharma and becomes one the kings that he, at that moment, reviles. Yet his words have a haunting ring of truth to them. By what right do we murder everyone?

Yudhishthira’s cousin, the opposing king Duryodhana, epitomizes the warriors, human and divine, who crave the insanity of war to fulfill their kshatriya/warrior dharma. Krishna loves them all. Is it because Krishna honors those who must inevitably prepare for and die in battle? Or could it be that warriors are required to satisfy his insatiable appetite for armed conflict?

If Krishna is a lustful war god, then Duryodhana becomes his tool. Duryodhana’s very human urges give all the many heroes a chance to earn glory in battle – their exploits immortalized by Vyasa. From this Krishna perspective, Duryodhana is the hero of the tale, for it is his energy that inevitably drives the drama to the Great Battle. Without him, there is no Mahabharata, no heroism, no dramatic tension, and no story.

Inevitable violations of the Warrior Code lead to retribution.

The opportunity for heroism in battle does not appear to be adequate justification for the destructive idiocy of the warrior dharma. This theme is exemplified by the Great Battle. Many powerful voices, such as that of the revered Bhishma, the wise king Dhritarashtra, and the charioteer Sanjaya (channeling for the author Vyasa), repeat this theme. Each in his turn curses the destructive nature of the warrior dharma and their blind participation in its code. Yudhishthira articulates the innate lack of morality in the warrior ethic:

"I am a Kshatriya, very cruel, without the least compassion; I have a narrow heart – to me there is not right or wrong; when I am in any difficulty I care nothing for the very gates of heaven. Choose a weapon." (Mahabharata, p. 186)

Indeed, the end of the Great Battle indicates how easy it is to abuse the warrior dharma. A single abuse leads to massive retribution. In the heat of battle, a soldier violates the warrior code and slays one man in a dishonorable fashion. To avenge this perceived wrong, an entire army is slaughtered in their sleep and their camp burned down. Let us examine this particular incident in detail.

Drona is one of the great and revered heroes of Duryodhana’s army. A yell from the battlefield is heard, “Aswatthaman is slain.” Thinking that his son is dead, Drona lays down his weapons in grief. A warrior from the opposing army takes advantage of this situation and kills him. The slaying of an unarmed warrior was clearly a violation of their code. Arjuna comments on this breach of ethics, “Shame to you, who do not know what warriors are.” (Mahabharata, p169)

After the slaughter of the Great Battle, only a few of Duryodhana’s mighty warriors remain. Aswatthaman, Drona’s son, is one of those. Ironically, it wasn’t his father that had died in battle, but an elephant of the same name. The son’s desire to avenge his father’s unjust death consumes him.

To fulfill his morbid passion, he sneaks into the camp of the victorious army at night. He and some followers then slay the sleeping warriors and set fire to their camp. Aswatthaman returns to Duryodhana to brag about what he has done.

Instead of being impressed by the news of this revenge on his enemies, Duryodhana is appalled. Lying on his deathbed, he responds weakly,

“My quarrel was not with them. You have no permission to fight for me. You have killed the innocent and left my enemies standing. No more … no more … now flee these ruins and save yourselves. I almost won …”

After expressing his disapproval, Duryodhana dies, seemingly demoralized by the knowledge that his honorable conflict has devolved into senseless cycles of revenge.

Does the warrior dharma inevitably lead to this type of abuse? Could it be that in the midst of battle our judgment becomes distorted, the code is violated, and retribution is the inevitable result? Does the pain of loss inevitably lead to a cry for escalation? Can the warrior code ever limit the inherent desire for revenge?

Solution: a Devaraja/God-king to channel the Warrior Energy

What is the solution to the innate barbarism of the warrior code? The Mahabharata’s storyline suggests that the kshatriya/warrior dharma may be necessary, but it is not sufficient, to protect the welfare of the kingdom. The warrior code left to its own devices tends to lead to an attitude that glorifies war. The skills of the warrior require a field of action, which is frequently the battlefield. Duryodhana represents the type of warrior king who is inclined to lead his country to war in pursuit of the opportunity for valor and heroism. This ethic may be odds with the best interests of the general populace. A devaraja, a god king, is required to keep the excesses of the warrior ethic in check.

The primary concern of the devaraja is to maintain a peaceful environment that enables the citizens of the kingdom to attain ‘merit’. Merit leads to the fulfillment of the spiritual potentials of the citizenry. Attaining merit enhances personal karma, both in this life and the next. As such, a central feature of the devaraja’s dharma is to protect the peace.

The devaraja is needed to contain and channel the destructive tendencies of the warrior mentality. He does this by subordinating the lust for battle and redirecting this powerful energy toward protecting and strengthening the kingdom. This strategy paves the way for everybody, rulers and populace alike, to attain merit.

Bhishma, while not a devaraja, is a warrior who has risen to the point where he epitomizes the productive potentials of the warrior dharma. If all warriors were Bhishmas, perhaps there would be no need for a devaraja. Alas, this is not the case.

After the Great Battle, Yudhishthira becomes king. He exemplifies the notion of devaraja. He is exceedingly generous and dispenses justice to the populace. He enforces the peace with his warriors, which leads to abundant prosperity and the ability to attain merit. Rama is another example of a devaraja. He employs his martial talents to fight injustice. Both of these characters provide excellent examples of the ideal devaraja. These kings placed the welfare of their kingdoms above the intoxicating glory of the warrior ethic.

The people of Southeast Asia frequently embraced this interpretation of the Mahabharata. This notion of a devaraja had a great popular appeal that was often reflected in the approach of the ruling class. Instead of catering to the destructive inclinations of the warrior culture, leaders attempted to become devarajas for their people

It has been a tradition throughout Southeast Asia for the devaraja to provide an environment that maximizes the potentials for attaining ‘merit’. This task includes working with spiritual leaders, whether Hindu or Buddhist. Temple building is a particularly significant feature of this interaction between the devaraja and the religious community. Angkor Wat and Borobudur stand as magnificent examples of the success of this divine intention.


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