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Shanti Parva: On the “Burden” of Rajadharma

Shanti Parva

The Mahabharata war has ended with the victory of Pandavas. However, the victory has come at the cost of the enormous loss of lives. The survivors of the war have had to witness the tragic scene of helplessly wailing widows and orphaned children. In an already somber mood, Yudhishthira learns that Karna was the eldest son of Kunti which makes him his elder brother. This only adds to his pain and guilt of killing his kith and kin all out of “greed for the kingdom”. He is now disgusted with himself. Blaming the ideals of rajadharma to be responsible for this tragedy, he describes the task of running a kingdom to be an inherently evil one and resolves to give up the throne, retire to the forest and follow true dharma. Yeah, he concludes that administering a kingdom is essentially in conflict with dharma. This dilemma of a morally conscious king sets the context for Bhishma’s discourse in the Shanti Parva. This essay is an attempt to shed light on Bhishma’s response to Yudhishthira’s dilemma.

When Yudhishthira remains steadfast on his decision to retire to the forest even after being persuaded otherwise by his brothers, Draupadi and Vyasa, Krishna manages to convince him to assume the throne and suggests that he learn about dharma from Bhisma to get his confusions cleared. The Pandavas, together with Krishna, reach out to Bhisma who is lying on the bed of arrows. But Yuddhishthira is afraid of approaching Bhishma, lest he is cursed for killing his own relatives and preceptors. Bhishma assures that Yuddhishthira has only performed his dharma in killing them, as they advanced against him with false motives. He adds that “there may be wicked seniors who are avaricious and abandon agreements.

If a kshatriya kills them in a battle, he is following dharma. If kshatriya relatives challenge one to a battle, one must always fight.” With that, Yudhishthira gathers the courage to appear before Bhishma. He requests for instruction on the “great burden” that is Rajadharma. While Bhishma delivers a lengthy discourse, the crux of his message is conveyed by the following analogy; Just as a pregnant woman gives up her personal likes and dislikes to ensure the embryo’s wellbeing, so too, a king should abandon his personal comfort and strive for the welfare of the world. He also narrates a story about the origin of dandaniti which would guide the king in his duty. The story goes that in the beginning, people were taking care of each other through dharma without the need for any regulating authority. However, with the passage of time, delusion entered into their minds. The delusion gave rise to passion. Soon people “were no longer aware of what should be done and what should not be done.” There was disorder all over! Devatas ran to Brahma and prayed for a solution. Brahma composed a text “full of intelligence”. It was “like newly churned butter” which had “emerged from the Sarasvati.” It was called dandaniti. Brahma assured the devatas that the dandaniti “will protect the worlds. It will reward and punish and roam around the world.”

As the discourse proceeds, Bhishma narrates another story showing the importance of the king. As per this story, afraid that an authority like king could end up being an oppressor, people come together and decide to live without a king. They come to an agreement to treat all the varnas equally and take care of themselves without a king. However, “having arrived at this agreement, they did not abide by it.” Unhappy, they assembled before Brahma with a request: “O illustrious one! Without a lord, we are being destroyed. Appoint a lord for us. He will be one who will protect us and all of us will honor him.” Brahma appoints Manu. But Manu is afraid to take up the duty: “I am scared of performing cruel deeds and ruling a kingdom is an exceedingly difficult task. In particular, men are always engaged in false conduct.”

We find that Yudhishthira has a companion in Manu. While Manu is not prepared to perform “cruel deeds” which might be inevitable when the subjects engage in “false conduct”, Yudhishthira has experienced this firsthand in fighting the Mahabharata war where he has had to resort to lies and deceit to win. Guilty of those actions he has now turned a pacifist. In Manu’s case, people assure him that they would support him in fulfilling his task and succeed in getting him to be the king. As far as Yudhishthira is concerned, Bhishma tries to convince him by pointing to the fate of the subjects who are deprived of a king’s protection: “If a king does not protect, the strong will abduct the possessions of the weak and kill them when they resist. If a king does not protect, the wicked will violently seize many kinds of vehicles, garments, ornaments, and jewels. If a king does not protect in this world, everyone will say, “This is mine,” and there will be no property. There will be the destruction of the universe. If the king does not protect, wicked ones will oppress and kill their own mothers, fathers, elders, teachers, guests, and preceptors. If the king does not protect, many kinds of weapons will descend on those who follow dharma, while those who follow adharma will be accepted.”

However, Yuddhishthitra is not impressed. His main concerns are not addressed: “I agreed to the kingdom for the sake of dharma, but there does not seem to be any dharma in it. Since there is no dharma in it, I have had enough of the kingdom.”  As said before, this is probably spoken in reference to the prevalence of enmity, the inevitable use of violence and deceit that he has also resorted to in the war. But Bhishma insists that he has to accept the “burden” of Rajadharma which destiny has placed on him: to “Protect the righteous and slay the wicked”. He also assures that “When a lord of the earth applies the [danda] well, there is no adharma in this.” The problem is only when “a king uses [danda without discernment] and uses it according to his whims…” Such a king “goes to hell”. Once again, Bhishma repeats that it is the task of the king “to protect the subjects”, to “arrange yoga and kshema for” the unprotected, the miserable, the aged, and the widows. But these arguments still do not address Yudhishthira’s concern.

Finally, when Yudhishthira asks about the course of action for a king in distress: someone who is abandoned by allies, left with a depleted treasury, whose ministers have turned traitors, and so on, Yudhishthira gets his answer. Bhishma responds that such circumstances require “secret kinds of dharma”. The tactics used in the Mahabharata war to kill Bhishma and Drona and the violation of rules in the killing of Karna and Duryodhana can be typical examples of this secret kind of Dharma, also called as apaddharma. A subject of much debate and criticism, these tactics are considered anything but dharma. The following scathing criticism of Krishna, the brain behind these tactics, is noteworthy. The unknown author describes Krishna as:
A cynic who preaches the highest morality and stoops to practice the lowest tricks, in order to achieve his mean ends! An opportunist who teaches an honest and godfearing man to tell a lie, the only lie he had told in his life! A charlatan who declares himself to be the god of gods descended from the highest heaven for establishing righteousness on earth and advises a hesitating archer to strike down a foe who is defenseless and crying for mercy.

Before taking the criticism at face value, if we may delve into the priorities and motivations of the supposedly wise and righteous elders like Bhishma and Drona, the concept of appaddharma which is going to be explained becomes much appreciable. We find that Bhishma and Drona were more concerned about fulfilling their personal obligations than standing for justice. When Yuddhishthira invites them to fight on his side, they both decline, saying that they are under the debt of the Kourava-s: “I am tied to the Kouravas because of wealth. O descendant of the Kuru lineage!…the words spoken by me are those of a eunuch. The Kouravyas have robbed me through wealth.” Throughout the Mahabharata they turn a blind eye to the injustice done to the Pandavas: attempt to poison them, burn them in the Wax house, usurping their kingdom through fraud game of dice, the humiliation of Draupadi, and so on.

After all that, and knowing well that it is Duryodhana’s greed, arrogance, and refusal to accept the peace treaty extended by Krishna that has brought forth the war, they go on to fight alongside him on such flimsy ground as being under the debt of the Kouravas. Not surprisingly, they prove to be disastrous for the Pandavas. As Sanjaya narrates, “thousands of kings fell down like insects, led to the fire of the angry Bhishma.” About Drona’s exploits, he says: “Drona roamed amidst the Pandavas, like a fire consuming deadwood. He burnt those soldiers as if Agni himself had arisen.” As if that was not enough, Drona even becomes a party to the unjust killing of Abhimanyu. Sanjaya narrates to Dhritrashtra: O lord of the earth! On seeing the brave one fallen down (Abhimanyu), …beings were heard to speak in the firmament: “With Drona and Karna at the forefront, this single one has been slain by six maharathas from the side of the sons of Dhritarashtra. It is our view that this is not dharma.

In circumstances like these when the high and mighty disregard morality and side with injustice, when “dharma” as understood in the normal times cannot lead to justice, Bhishma would say, it’s time to modify the definition of dharma. In his own words: “There is one kind of dharma for those who are capable and another for those in distress.” He adds that “in times of hardship, adharma may acquire the characteristics of dharma.” This may lead to a decline in the universal dharma, but there is no choice: Dharma must not be made to decline, but nor should one come under the subjugation of the enemy. Nor, because of the action undertaken, should one allow one’s own self to be destroyed. If one is destroyed, one can perform no act of dharma, either for one’s own sake, or for the sake of someone else. It is certain that one must use every means possible to preserve oneself. O son! This has been determined by those who are knowledgeable about dharma and skilled about the means of dharma.

This could be an answer to Yuddhishthira’s dilemma. But no doubt this notion of apaddharma with the admission that here dharma acquires characteristics of adharma can pave way for mischief. But Bhishma makes it clear that all actions of the king are for sake of the welfare of the people and never for meeting his selfish ends. A king is therefore advised to “discard his own likes and dislikes”. Elsewhere, it is said that “For the welfare of the world,  A  king must abandon everything that he likes.” Thus, apaddharma has to be employed only to avoid being trapped in the evil designs of the enemies and never for furthering the king’s personal likes.
Bhishma places a high bar on the character of the king and presents the quality of self-sacrifice as the core of rajadharma. He says that rajadharma is always about renouncing (the self for the welfare of the subjects?). As such, one who “follows the dharma of the righteous and is ready to renounce” alone deserves to be the king. On the contrary, “If a king has a desire in his soul, is always fraudulent in his mind, or is violent and extremely avaricious, he will be incapable of protecting the subjects.”

To conclude, we may say that there is no perfectly moral way of doing things, especially when the outer world is unfair. Yudhishthira’s decision to give up the throne on account of this is but shirking responsibility something which Arjuna wanted to do before the war and got a rebuke from Krishna. Nor is it desirable to go to other extremes of acting without principles. An ideal king is one who, in a given situation, takes the best possible course in the interest of his subjects: “When the king bears that excellent burden and supports the subjects with a great deal of strength, the world is pleased…A king who bears a burden for the happiness of all the people and is engaged in their pleasure and benefit conquers both worlds.”

1. The Mahabharata, translated by Bibek Debroy, Vol-8
2. Krsna: In Defence of a Devious Divinity by B.K Matilal
3. On the Meaning of Mahabharata by V.S Sukthankar, page- 95

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