Leadership & Managing Power:

Insights from Mahabharata 1

urdhvabahurviraumyesa na ca kashcicchrnoti me /
dharmadarthashca kamashca sa kimartham na sevyyata //

“I raise my arms and I shout—
but no one listens!
From Dharma comes Artha and Kama:
Why is Dharma not practised?” 
– Svargarohana Parva [“Ascent to Heaven”][1]

Six figures etched on the Himalayan skyline. As they inch up the steep bleak heights, suddenly the last figure, a woman, crumbles. A slight pause, then the five labour on upwards. One by one, four fall. “Why? Why?” the shrieking wind whistling down the icy gorges tears the question to shreds. The lone survivor does not look back. He vanishes from sight on Mount Meru—Exeunt, followed by a mongrel.

‘The first spectacle that Yudhishthira saw when he entered heaven was Duryodhana gloriously ensconced in a beautiful seat and radiating a heroic sun-like splendour….
‘Yudhishthira said, “This is not heaven.” [2]
Alone on the slopes of Meru, dragging in the thin icy air in short agonizing gasps, waiting for the end, Yajnaseni-Draupadi watches the past flash by in iridescent vignettes. Finally empress of Bharatavarsha indeed: all children and kin slaughtered; sakha Krishna and his clan decimated in internecine strife, the Yadava women abducted by staff-wielding robbers from the custody of Gandiva-wielding invincible Arjuna; mother-in-law Kunti retiring to the forest and dying in a forest fire; and now not one of her five husbands has turned back to be with her in her last moments. Nathavati anathavat, five-husbanded indeed, but ever without protection! What was Kurukshetra all about? A struggle for power, a wreaking of vengeance, a righteous war to establish dharma? 

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images…”[3]

Power is craved because of the pleasure it brings, but the history of kingship recounted in the epic brings home a very different perception: individual power has to be given up in the interest of public welfare. The epic tells us that when the unhindered play of individualism led to the strong oppressing the weak [matsyanyaya], with none enforcing the rules agreed upon, the vexed people decided to give up their individual power in the interest of general welfare and approached Vaivasvat Manu for assuming overlordship. For his pains they offered one-fiftieth of their herds, one-tenth of their agricultural produce and one-fourth of the merit that the subjects would accrue by observing dharma.[4] The massive corpus of the Shanti Parva is devoted to Bhishma’s discourse on the intricacies of Raja dharma, the way of the king, in which the key pronouncement is:

atma jeyah sada rajna tato jeyashca shatravah /
ajitatma narapatirvijayeta katham ripun //

“First the raja shall conquer his own self.
He who has not conquered himself,
how will that raja succeed in conquering enemies?”[5]

In another account the epic throws significant light on the implications of exercising power in governance. The first king was Ananga, and it is with his grandson Vena that we come across the record of what power brings in its wake: one cannot have enough of it. That is why power is said to corrupt, and when it is absolute in nature, the corruption it brings about is also total. Vena became a tyrant, oppressing the people so that they slew him and in his place chose Prithu as king, for he had mastered the science of danda, chastisement, that upholds Dharma. It is Prithu who cultivated the earth, made it yield its fruits so that it was called “Prithivi” after him. Because he protected all from harm, he was called Kshatriya, and because he pleased all the people he was renowned as raja:

ranjitashca prajah sarvastena rajeti shabdoyate // [6]

From one point of view, Vyasa’s epic is a study of the use and abuse of power. It is not that in itself power is good or bad. It is essentially a force, a weapon that can be used to save and foster or to harm and extort:

“Desiring power first as an instrument for the achievement of other ends, he falls in love with and retains it as an end in itself… the man who has drunk of the draught of power loses his wisdom and, forgetful of the end which power should have achieved, dictates for the sake of dictating.”[7]

This, indeed, is what Vyasa recounts.

Essentially what the epic depicts is the fortunes of the dynasty founded by Yayati, and the struggle between his descendants for the hegemony of Bharatavarsha. As a dynast, he is a watershed in Pauranik history. Of his five sons the Yadavas, stemming from the disinherited eldest son, Yadu, and the Pauravas descending from the youngest son Puru who gets the throne, are the most important. One branch of the family establishes itself in Hastinapura, while another rules in Magadha. The Kauravas, Pandavas and Panchalas are all Pauravas, battling amongst themselves on Kurukshetra with the Yadava Krishna presiding over it all.

The first attempts to establish tyrannical supremacy are made by Jarasandha of Magadha (modern Bihar). He makes Kansa, son of the head of the Mathura oligarchy, his son-in-law, and then manipulates him into imprisoning the titular head, his father Ugrasena. Kansa becomes tyrant of Mathura. One by one Jarasandha imprisons eighty-six princes, his goal being to sacrifice a hundred to Shiva to celebrate his coronation an emperor, samrat. Around him he builds a circle of like-minded abusers of the people’s trust: Dantavakra of Karusha and Sishupala of Chedi in central India, Bhishmaka of Vidarbha in the south-west, Kalayavana beyond the western borders, the ruler of Kashi (Benares), Paundraka Vasudeva of Pundra (Bengal) in the east, Naraka of Pragjyotishapura and Banasura of Shonitapura (Assam) in the north-east. The only person with the statesman’s vision to perceive Jarasandha’s design is Krishna. To save the Yadavas from being enslaved, he persuades them to abandon Mathura, which was being repeatedly attacked by Jarasandha, and to re-establish themselves in the fortified city of Dvaraka on the western seashore. From here he cast an eagle eye over Bharatavarsha, seeking desperately for a countervailing force.

In the natural course of things, this force should have been available in Hastinapura, for it was here that the great righteous monarch Bharata—son of Dushyanta and Shakuntala—had ruled, after whom the country took its name “Bharatavarsha”. But here, again, personal lust was allowed to cloud a ruler’s vision of public welfare. Bharata the eponymous dynast had displayed the true qualities of greatness. Finding all his sons unworthy to rule, he discarded blind adherence primogeniture, adopted the Brahmin Bharadvaja and, renaming him Vitatha, gave him the kingdom. This over-riding concern for the welfare of the people instead of caring for the claims of one’s progeny is what sets Bharata apart. It is precisely the lack of this in his descendants Shantanu and Dhritarashtra that heralds the doom of the dynasty. The contrast Shantanu presents to his ancestor Bharata is astonishing. Like his ancestor Yayati, in pursuing the gratification of his personal desire for the intoxicatingly fragrant and dark fisher-maiden Kali, Shantanu is blind to his dharma as raja whose paramount consideration is the welfare of his subjects who already have in Devavrata a completely qualified heir-apparent. He eagerly concurs in Gangadatta-Devavrata’s vow to abjure the throne and marriage. By way of appreciation he confers on his son the boon of choosing the moment of his death. And this becomes the bane of Bhishma’s life.

Shantanu dies before his sons from Satyavati reach majority. The eldest, Chitrangada, is killed fighting a Gandharva, with no sign of his invincible foster-brother fighting at his side. Vichitravirya becomes king as a minor, makes no mark whatsoever, and is prematurely provided by Bhishma, at the insistence of queen mother Satyavati, hungry for progeny, with two voluptuous brides. Vichitravirya dies without issue, as “driven by passion, (he) became a kamatma,/a victim of his own lust.” These are words which will be echoed by his foster-son, Pandu who laments:

Noble blood is of little help
Deluded by passions, the best
of men turn wicked, and reap
the punishment of their karma.
My father was deep in dharma,
his father was too.
But kama was his ruin, he died
while still a youth.
And in the field of his lust
I was sown
by a truth-honouring rishi,
bhagavan Krishna Dvaipayana.
And I am a victim of the hunt!
My mind is full of killing,
shooting down deer.[8]

Bhisma: Power Unused

It is the death of Vichitravirya that leads to the first exposition of Bhishma’s superhuman qualities. When Satyavati pleads with him to satisfy the craving of Ambika and Ambalika for sons (a typical case of desire transference, for it is she who is desperate for grandsons), and thereby save the dynasty from extinction, this is his response:

I will give up the three worlds
I will give up the kingdom of heaven,
I will give up more than the three worlds and heaven,
But I will not give up my truth.
Earth may give up fragrance,
water its rasa,
light clarity,
wind movement,
Sun may give up splendour,
fire its heat,
moon coolness
akasha-sky its shabda-ether,
Indra, Vritra-slayer, may give up valour,
Dharma-raja give up dharma,
But I will not break my vow of truth.
Now comes an extremely revealing declaration:-
Let doom overtake the world!
Immortality cannot tempt me,
nor lordship of the three worlds!
I will not break the vow. [9]

This is the essence of Bhishma’s dharma. His attachment to the vow of celibacy takes over-riding precedence over everything else, including the public weal. He is not bothered about the chaos that will occur in Hastinapura with no one to inherit the throne. His major concern is that his vow must remain intact. The motivation is highly complex, for in it play a number of factors: resentment against his mother Ganga for depriving him of paternal love from birth and then of maternal love from the crucial adolescent age onwards; disgust for a father who dotes on a teenaged fisher-girl oblivious of his obligations to the people; anger against Satyavati, the cause of the terrible sacrifice he has had to make. Once more, the end result is self prized above service.

What is the nature of this famous vow? It is not only the giving-up of a Crown Prince’s right to the throne [which had been done by some of his ancestors like Yati and his uncle Devapi] but also the incredible sacrifice of a Kshatriya right to beget progeny in order to subserve a father’s infatuation for a fisher-girl. The futility of it all is that the vow is adhered to long after its purpose has been served and even when it becomes dysfunctional to the extent of threatening the very existing of the dynasty of which Bhishma is the sole remaining representative.

Of a piece with this obstinate adherence to his vow is Bhishma’s peculiar attachment to Hastinapura itself. He is the same age as Satyavati, if not older, but she does not follow her into vanaprastha in the forest after the death of Pandu, when Vyasa advises his mother and her two daughters-in-law not to be witnesses to the suicide of their race. Bhishma is entombed in a perpetual brahmacharya ashrama, the first of the four stages in a human being’s life. He eschews the stage of a householder, does not retire to the forest, and fails to become a sannyasi. With this goes an obsession with Hastinapura, so strong that he can bring himself to support the Pandavas only verbally, but needs must ally himself physically with the Dhartarashtras despite knowing them to be in the wrong. And that he does to the extent of leading their armies against the Pandavas in a cause which he believes to be wrong! Truly, he is a man divided against himself. The only rationale he provides for his behaviour is that he and Drona are borne on the Hastinapura monarch’s exchequer and hence bound to serve him. Yet, Yuyutsut, son of Dhritarashtra, has no hesitation in rising above loyalty to his brothers to cross-over to the side he knows to be in the right. It is Gandhari who points out to her husband at the time of Krishna’s peace-mission that the warriors on whom their son foolishly depends will not lead him to victory because, although they will fight on his side being rajapinda bhayat (borne on the state’s payroll), their hearts will not be with him.[10] Bhishma himself echoes this when he tells them that he, along with Kripa and Drona, are bound to the Kauravas “by need”, that is, they are borne on the Kaurava exchequer.[11]

It is Bhishma who is instrumental in bringing about the deaths of the successors to the Hastinapura throne, albeit unwittingly. We have already seen that his over-eagerness to provide his stepbrother with a surfeit of brides resulted in Vichitravirya’s premature demise. This was followed his going out of his way to procure a second bride for Pandu, whose very name (anaemic, jaundiced) indicates the state of his health. It is significant that the blind Dhritarashtra was not provided a second wife by Bhishma. Pandu had gone to a svayamvara (bridegroom-choice ceremony) on his own. No Kuru king is found attending any prior to this. Bhishma paid considerable bride price to procure Madri who becomes the direct cause of Pandu’s death.

It is significant that when Pandu leaves Hastinapura on a self-imposed exile, Bhishma does not protest. Nor does he ever enquire after the welfare of this scion of the dynasty in the Himalayan wilderness. Even news of the birth of the sons to Pandu, cursed with death in intercourse, does not arouse curiously or lead to any embassy from the capital to the forest to celebrate the birth of hairs to the sterile throne. The same indifference was displayed during the battle in which his stepbrother Chitrangada died. It is an though Bhishma were pleased to have the consumptive Vichitravirya engrossed in his wives, and then blind Dhritarashtra on the throne, as titular monarchs with himself as the all-powerful Grey Eminence actually his alone. Unfortunately, the coming of Shakuni, accompanying his sister to her life-long immurement in darkness in Hastinapura compelled by Bhishma, changed the entire completion of the situation. Is it not symptomatic of Bhishma’s insensitivity to human feelings that he should never have enquired of Gandhari the reason for bandaging her eyes permanently, or have asked her not to do so? It is as though, having suppressed his strongest urge and failed to sublimate it, Bhishma became the ultimate misogynist, automatically stonewalling against awareness of feelings of others, particularly women. This is consistent with his indifference to the predicament in which he places Amba that ends in her suicide. The price has to be paid by Hastinapura, whose vitals Shakuni worms into, exuding that poison which corrodes the dynasty. Incredibly, Bhishma yet again remains a silent spectator to the poisoning of Bhima, the gutting of the House of Lac, the division of the kingdom, the cheating in the dice-game, the disrobing of Draupadi, the refusal to restore Indraprastha after the exile is over. It is the supreme example of the “Witness” stance, suddenly broken when war begins. Then the Witness unaccountably turns into the Fighter against those in whose cause he believes, yet whom he will, perversely, not support.

In tragic life, God wot, no villain need be;
Passions spin the plot. We are betrayed
By what is false within. [12]

It is supremely ironic that the prince who earned the sobriquet of “Bhishma” and came to be renowned as the greatest of renouncers should be so hopelessly bound to his father’s throne as not only to preside over the suicide of the dynasty, but to actually participate in it on the side he knows to be in the wrong! Indeed, Devavrata-Gangadatta-Bhishma is another Prometheus, bound in adamantine chains to the icy Caucasian peaks of the Hastinapura throne, wracked in immortal agony as the Dhartarashtra-Pandava fratricidal strife eats into his vitals endlessly. For, perversely, he cannot, or will not, die till liberation comes in the form of mortal arrows showered by a grandchild who loves him.

It speaks volumes for the much-vaunted wisdom of Bhishma that he never cast a glance eastward of Hastinapura towards the alarming imperialistic ambitions of Magadha’s Jarasandha despite the phenomenon of nearly a hundred kings having been captured and nearby Mathura attacked repeatedly. A contingent from Hastinapura even accompanied the Magadhan army’s onslaught on Mathura. One gets a sense of Bhishma presiding over a small and weak kingdom, worried only about the traditional enemies—the Panchalas.[13] That is why he immediately takes into employment Drupada’s sworn enemy Drona. He is blind to the growing threat of the Jarasandha-Kalayavana-Shishupala-Dantavakra-Kashi-Paundraka-Naraka-Bana combine gathering forces to the south, the east and the west. Bhishma merely made sure of the north-western border through marital alliances with Madra and Gandhara, and of the west by marrying Dhritarashtra’s daughter Duhshala to Jayadratha, the Sindhu king. He was unaware that the tenuous link down the Ganga with Kashi, whose princesses were the Queen-mothers of Hastinapura, had already been snapped by Magadha. It is young Krishna who puts paid to these imperialistic designs by killing each of the tyrants separately, without any assistance from Bhishma, renowned as the greatest statesman of the age.

This failed statesman, and this misogynist par excellence who abuses his Kshatriya prowess to ruin the lives of Amba, Ambika, Ambalika, Kunti, and watches, without protest, the attempted disrobing of Draupadi, is also a Commander-in-Chief who deprives his army of its best warrior, Karna, by insulting him so grossly that he withdraws from battle. Further, he announces that he will not slay any of the Pandavas and will befriend them in his thoughts at night, although he will fight against them during the day. What a splendid morale booster for his army! Over a period of ten days he kills thousands of innocent soldiers but not a single Pandava. Unlike Drona, Bhishma does not even think of capturing Yudhishthira as a way to end the war. It is as though he were trying to tire out Duryodhana till he agrees to a truce. Repeatedly Duryodhana voices his anguish over Bhishma’s half-hearted leadership, which he will not relinquish. A peculiar dharma indeed!

It is a fact that Bhishma bestrides the epic like a colossus and it is because of this that he has been celebrated over millennia as the repository of statecraft and the embodiment of the warrior code, kshatriya-dharma, to be looked up to by all succeeding generations. This aura is like the upanishadic golden lid veiling the face of truth. What Vyasa shows us is Bhishma standing as the last bulwark of the ancient dharma in which loyalty to the clan over-rode all other claims; in which fidelity to one’s word was the be-all and end-all; into which considerations of the larger public weal did not enter. The deceptive aura of perfection is ruthlessly dispelled in the Draupadi-vastraharana episode. Never have the limitations of Bhishma’s way of life been exposed so mercilessly as when Draupadi challenges him to stand by those very tenets of nobility which the Kuru court supposed to uphold. Let us listen to that traumatic exchange of words:

Draupadi said:

“It is most wrong, most wrong
to drag me in my period
before the Kuru heroes.
But none here finds it wrong.
Dhik! Shame on you!
If all these great Kaurava heroes
find nothing wrong here,
then the dharma of the Bharatas is dead,
the dharma of the Kshatriyas
is dead.
Drona, Bhishma, mahatma Vidura,
and the great raja Dhritarashtra
have lost their greatness—else why
are they silent on this great adharma?…
You cannot have a sabha without elders,
You cannot have elders without dharma
You cannot have dharma without truth,
You cannot have truth with trickery.”…
Bhishma said: “Fortune-favoured lady….
What can I say?
It is all very puzzling.
Dharma is very subtle…
Very confusing.
I don’t know what to say.”[14]

Here is Bhishma prefiguring Hamlet in mulling over a philosophical dilemma while a queen’s honour is at stake! Within Bhishma plays, subconsciously, that deep seated grievance against mother and stepmother because of which he treats women as chattel. He is wholly oblivious of his obligation, as the patriarch in society, to set an example for others to follow. That is why, pointing to his silence, Karna argues that Draupadi must have been duly won and orders watch in a silence that is stupefying for its callousness. As she is about to be dragged away to the servants’ quarters, Panchali makes a last attempt to arouse the soporific manhood of the Kuru Court whose guardian Bhishma is supposed to be:

Never before have we heard
of a dharma-devoted woman forced to stand
before a sabha. The Kauravas have broken this rule
of sanatana dharma.…
Something must be very wrong with the times
if the Kauravas defile
their innocent daughter and daughter-in-law
in this way!...
Where is your sense of dharma?...
Bhishma said, “Fortune-favoured lady,
I have already said
that Dharma is subtle. [15]

What Bhishma says now is of very great importance, for it speaks of the breakdown of a system of values, of dharma having become an empty shell:

What a strong man says
often becomes the only dharma;
a weak man may have dharma on his side
but who listens to him?...
To tell you the truthI do not know what to say. [16]

The face of Truth is hidden by, not a golden lid, but a sadly tarnished one. Here is the greatest of patriarchs enmeshing himself in the dialectics of reason: whether Draupadi has been won or not. As if that issue is of more importance than protecting her modesty and saving the reputation of the Kuru Court whose code enshrines protecting the weak as a central tenet. The confusion in Bhishma becomes evident as he abruptly swings to asserting that the family which has taken Draupadi as daughter-in-law will not stray from the path of dharma. Yet he does not lift a finger to free her from brutal Duhshasana’s clutches. Instead, he voices a meaningless approval of her stance:-

Your conduct now, O Panchali,
is worthy of you—
for though you suffer,
you appeal to the truths of dharma.
Our elders, learned-in-dharma
Drona and others,
sit here with lowered eyes like dead men
with life-breaths gone. [17]

Indeed, the life-breath of this dharma is gone. What exists is a putrefying corpse kept artificially alive, shown ultimately in Bhishma’s death-in-life on the bed-of-arrows. It is revealing that explicit prohibition, disgust at the proceedings and warning is voiced finally not by the Kshatriya Bhishma, protector of Hastinapura, but by the son of a mixed-caste sage and a maid servant, Vidura:

Now they insult a woman
Nobility is dead.
The Kauravas conspire viciously…
violated in an assembly,
Dharma destroys the assembly.…
O Kauravas,…
do not abandon dharma. [17] [18]

The problem is that Vidura is powerless. He can merely advise, exhort, and plead with the blind Dhritarashtra who, obsessed by his desire that the throne must be his son Duryodhana’s, is deaf to all appeals. Before the war begins, on the battlefield Bhishma and the two other patriarchs Drona and Kripa confess to Yudhishthira, “a man is the slave of need…I am tied to the Kauravas by need…I say this like a eunuch; I am a servant. (VI.43.41-42)” Later Drona and Bhishma recall their obligation to the bread eaten in Duryodhana’s house (VI.77.71; 109.29) and redouble their attacks.

In the very beginning of the epic we are told that the Kauravas are a giant tree of passion whose root is the weak-minded Dhritarashtra. Its seed is infatuation, its branches are anger and pride rooted in ignorance[19] The state power remains reined in, for

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of a passionate intensity.”[20]

Bhishma’s failure as a leader of the polity lies in his never having practised the raja-dharma he speaks of at length to Yudhishthira on his bed-of-arrows which seems to become his penance for inaction. In a Kshatriya the “witness” stance only brings about the destruction of the policy. The Kshatriya must use power to protect the rights of the weak, for that is his dharma, the truth of his nature. To abjure this because of a self-imposed vow and turn into the Egotistical Sublime of the age brings destruction and misery in its wake not only for oneself, but also for the entire society of which such a person is the corner stone, the pillar of strength. Withdrawal from the rightful use of danda and exercising state power for lokasangraha, holding the people together in the way of dharma, is abdication that betrays the Kshatriya code. Indeed, in Bhishma, between the ideal and the reality falls the shadow. Here is a leader fallen by the way.


When the celestial sage Narada visits Dhritarashtra, he tries to instruct him in the dangers that wielders of state power are prone to. In this attempt he recounts the example of Yayati, the founder of the dynasty. In Yayati’s own words:

I have lived in many realms,
Offered puja by the gods,
I shone like the gods,
I was powerful like the gods…
for millions of years I made love
to apsaras in the Nandana-gardens,
under clustering, lovely trees
ornamented with flowers
shedding sacred scent upon us…
Then a fearful-faced messenger of the gods came
And shouted loudly, thrice:
‘Lost! Lost! Lost!’
And I fell from Nandana. [21]

Yayati states the reason for his fall: his overweening pride in the merit of his virtuous acts and his self-love:-

Ill deeds cancel good deeds.
Pride is the road to hell…..
I was virtuous once---
All gone— irrevocably.

It is, therefore, not enough to be virtuous. Once must also be wise: “Be wise and virtuous— learn from me/who finds heaven?”[22]

Here it is important to recall that Yayati need not have learned all this the hard way. His father was Nahusha, the only human selected by the gods to rule over them. The power surrendered by the gods to Nahusha is manipulated by him into a means for satiating his craving for Indra’s wife. Those qualities of head and heart which had led the Devas to elect Nahusha to rule over them are submerged in the tidal waves of arrogance and lust that obliterate all nobility and lead to loss of the celestial throne. Strangely enough, the son does not learn a lesson from his father’s predicament. Instead, he repeats that tragic tale of pride and lust and the doom to which they drive men, particularly those who wield power over others. Yayati gives in to the advances of his wife Devayani’s friend-turned-maid Sharmishtha, daughter of the Asura king Vrishaparva. The result is the terrifying affliction of instant decrepitude visited upon him by the furious sage Shukra. But the king is inveterately prey to the hungers of the senses, and pleads pitifully with son after son to take on his senility and gift him youth for some time more. It is only Puru, the youngest, who agrees and inherits Yayati’s throne, with the people being summoned and explained at length why the custom of inheritance by primogeniture has not been followed. Yayati frolics in the forests with Apsaras till he realizes that desire cannot be quenched, and comes back to return Puru his youth, accepting his own senility. Yayati is extremely important to us as an archetypal symbol of Lust in Action, and his words to Puru pulsate with a wisdom born of anguish and tortured experience:

Kama never ends,
Kama grows with feeding.
Like sacrificial flames
Lapping up ghee.
Become the sole lord of
The world’s paddy-fields, wheat-fields,
Precious stones, beasts, women---
Still not enough.
Discard desire.
This disease kills. The wicked
Cannot give it up, old age
Cannot lessen it. True happiness
Lies in controlling it. [23]

What follows is of extreme importance to each of us imprisoned for birth after birth in “This earthly hell/which seems to offer no release.”[24] For, Yayati is Everyman who has reaped the fruits of his toil, but then falls victim to his innate hubris and loses all that he has so painfully built up, till fellow-men come to his rescue. This is the essence of the wisdom Yayati has extracted from his vastly varied experience of life here and in the hereafter, which he narrates as the answer to the question, “Who finds heaven?”:-

He who has wealth yet does yajna,
He who is learned yet humble,
He who, knowing the Vedas, does tapasya.
Shun pride of wealth,
Shun vanity of Veda-wisdom …
shun pride, and cast off grief.[25]

Yayati’s attack is squarely on pride:

The wise say: Seven massive gates,
Tapasya, charity, serenity,
Self-control, modesty, simplicity,
And compassion for all creatures, lead to heaven…
Pride cancels all these..
Study, control of speech,
Agnihotra, performance of yajna—
These remove fear. Mixed with pride,
These four create fear,…
‘I gave so much,
I performed many yajnas
I am learned,
I keep my vows’ –
All vanity, all pride.
Give it up, absolutely. [26]

Yayati urges the equanimity celebrated generations later by one of his descendants, Krishna:

The wise are always serene,
Not sorrowing in sorrow, not rejoicing in joy…
O Ashtaka, I do not fear fear,
I do not grieve over grief. [27]

When we study Mahabharata for lessons in the use of power, it is three male figures who spring to mind side by side with three women: Bhishma is flanked on either side by Krishna and Karna; Satyavati forms a trio with Kunti and Draupadi.

Karna: I am myself alone — Self-destructive power

Karna, like Bhishma, harbours grievance against his mother and is chained by an outdated concept of loyalty to a benefactor, regardless of the innate merit of the situation and the superordinate goal of lokasangraha. The mainspring of his actions is, however, not even this dharma, but an obsession with himself. For Karna it is social status and recognition that constitute the source of power. Indeed, he is the true counterpart of Bhishma’s Egotistical Sublime. The fact of his inferior birth is a poisonous ulcer eating into his soul and impelling him to acts of incredible prowess, conquering single-handed for Duryodhana all the territories that the four Pandavas had won for Yudhishthira’s rajasuya yajna. Once he had even worsted the mighty Jarasandha, who gifted him the town of Malini in appreciation. For the same reason he took the vow of never refusing a mendicant, thereby knowingly depriving himself of his invulnerability and his benefactor Duryodhana of sure victory. Thus, as in the case of Bhishma, it is inflexible determination to stick to one’s word, whatever the consequences, which leads to doom. In both their cases, their own self is prized above all else [in the case of Karna, even above his much vaunted loyalty to Duryodhana and his goal of slaying Arjuna]. Although Karna does not emerge victorious in his encounters with Arjuna and even with the Gandharvas when Duryodhana is captured, yet he alone saves the Kaurava host from annihilation at the hands of Ghatotkacha. It is of him that Yudhishthira is the most apprehensive. Krishna sets much store by Karna, knowing that if he stands aside Duryodhana would not dare go to war. On more than one occasion Krishna tries to persuade Karna to join the Pandavas, the last being just before the battle when Karna, Achilles like, had withdrawn from the battle because of Bhishma’s insult. Even Bhishma regarded him as a great warrior and deliberately insulted him to take advantage of his hypersensitive self-image and keep him from fighting his brothers. Bhishma provides a valuable psychological insight into Karna’s character when he informs him that because of his birth against the law of nature—supra-human-and-mortal intercourse not sanctified by marital rites—he developed an unhealthy envy of nobility of character which was accentuated by his keeping company with a mean individual like Duryodhana. The question arises, however, why should the same stigma not apply to the Pandavas who are engendered similarly?

It is this warrior who publicity terms Draupadi a harlot, asks that she be stripped, and joins six others to attack the teenaged Abhimanyu jointly, against all canons of fair fight. It is Karna who seals the fate of this mighty teenager by cutting his bowstring from behind. Unfortunately, Vyasa does not tell us of the inner workings of Karna’s mind and heart. In lending a hand in killing his rival’s son did he feel he was in some way avenging his many defeats at Arjuna’s hands? In calling Draupadi a whore about whom it is of no concern whether she be clothed or naked, was he taking revenge for having been publicly rejected by her in the svayamvara on account of his caste?

All this shows his confusion over what dharma and power are all about, and it is this confusion about dharma that is flung back at him by Krishna when he entreats Arjuna to wait till has extricated the chariot wheel from the mud, and can take up arms again. Karna, too, is a man divided against himself, yet undoubtedly noble in his silence about his mother’s secret and wise in his judgement. For, he tells Krishna not to reveal the secret to Yudhishthira who will invariably offer the kingdom to him and he will inexorably hand it over to Duryodhana. All his tremendous power has throughout been put in the service of adharma because of his profound sense of a lacerated ego. Here is a hero who knows, like Bhishma, that he is on the side of wrong, but is a slave of his word and will not shift to support what he knows to be the right. His greatness as a man shines radiantly in the fact that while he knows that he is battling his blood brothers, and is promise-bound not to slay them, they are all eager to kill this charioteer’s son! His slicing off the skin-armour and flesh earrings is an external symbol of the inner splitting-in-two of his very psyche. One part of him knows that Duryodhana’s plans are evil. This part in Karna is all that is admirable in a human being. It is the “Surya” part of him, shining in an effulgent glory which rivets all attention on him right from the beginning. This it is that catches the eye of Duryodhana who grapples Karna to his breast with hoops of steel. It is this part of him that defeats each of his brothers in turn, except Arjuna, and lets them go unharmed (even with a caress on the infuriated but helpless Bhima’s cheek) although by killing them or by capturing Yudhishthira for Duryodhana [as Drona had planned] he could have ended the war.

However, a miasma of intrigue and evil envelops this sun in Karna. The chariot-wheel of Karna’s life is, as it were, entrapped in a quicksand, being sucked under slowly but surely, as he connives in the heinous abuse of state power by Shakuni and Duryodhana, with the blind monarch Dhritarashtra eagerly acquiescing. The helping hand of succour offered by Krishna is rejected on egotistic grounds alone. As Krishna points out:

The world is doomed because you do not accept
my advice.
When the world’s doom nears, my friend,
wrong appears right,
wrong gets embedded in the heart
and stays there. [28]

All that Karna is concerned about is that his reputation must remain unsullied at all costs and he must find out who is better: Arjuna or himself. Karna has waded in too far by now to return. Perhaps death is his only salvation.

Krishna: Power used to change the polity

Krishna presents a total contrast. He has no hesitation in surmounting loyalty to kith and kin in slaying his maternal uncle Kamsa who has become a tyrant and his cousin Shishupala who has allied himself to the imperialistic ambitions of Jarasandha. Free from greed for personal aggrandizement, Krishna refuses to become the ruler of the Yadavas, and puts old Ugrasena back on the throne. The opposite of Jarasandha in his goal, Krishna would be no samrat, for his status is that of svarat, he removes the tyrants and aggrandisers of public wealth. Finally, the killing of Jarasandha restores independence to nearly a hundred chieftains, freeing the Yadava clans and indeed the country as a whole of the spectre of the all-constricting Magadhan python. Here is the idea of lokasangraha exemplified. Krishna’s use of power is precisely what should have engaged Bhishma: protect the virtuous and destroy the wicked, paritranaya sadhunam vinashayaca dushkritam.[29]

Krishna respects Bhishma, but prefers to stay with Vidura, for he is aware of the narrow confines of the old dharma which he has made it his mission to demolish. In this task the unknown Pandavas are chosen by him as the instruments for setting up a state founded upon the ancient principle of the raja being the person who ensures the welfare, the happiness, of the people. They are linked to him through their mother Pritha, his paternal aunt, and are free from dysfunctional traditional concepts of dharma because of the very nature of their diverse paternity. He binds them closer to himself by arranging his sister Subhadra’s abduction by Arjuna, and by training their son Abhimanyu to become a great warrior. He builds up the numerous Yadava clans into a confederacy to be reckoned with by the time of the battle of Kurukshetra, which is why both sides vie for their patronage. He also gifts considerable wealth to the Pandavas and guides them into becoming rulers in their own right. He gets them recognized as benevolent, righteous rulers because of their role in the removal of Jarasandha. He ensures that in each conquered kingdom they restore the ruler to his throne, asking for his allegiance only through presence in the rajasuya yajna. After the exile is over, he advises a peace-mission, despite the vociferous protests of his favourite sakhi Krishnaa, so that the Pandavas cannot be faulted for having precipitated a war.

Krishna’s leadership in the war itself is too well known to need recital. In each case the over-riding concern is that those who use power rightfully for the new dharma of lokasangraha must be victorious. He does not suffer from the limitations of Bhishma or Karna regarding attachment to a vow as a be-all and end-all. Where necessary, he breaks his vow of not taking up arms and rushes to kill Bhishma. It is again Krishna who dexterously finds a way to prevent Arjuna killing Yudhishthira out of blind adherence to a vow. Knowing that a fresh Karna may overwhelm Arjuna, he avoids a confrontation till Karna is tired, and then browbeats Arjuna into killing him when afoot and unarmed, regardless of what others might say, because with Karna alive the Pandavas cannot win the war. For the same reason, he gets them to pursue a tired –out Duryodhana, denying him time to recuperate. With unerring instinct he takes the victorious brothers away from their camp, otherwise they would also have been slaughtered by Ashvatthama in his manic frenzy. It is he who saves Bhima from being killed by the Narayana weapon, losing to Duryodhana in the final duel and being crushed in furious Dhritarashtra’s embrace at the end.

Yet, this supreme leader of men failed with his own people. The confederacy he had so laboriously built up destroyed itself in an internecine strife as tragic and as totally annihilating as the Kurukshetra holocaust. Its seeds lay in the unrestrained indulgence in liquor and sex and the arrogance of wealth that led to flagrant insults to sages. Once again it is unfettered individual liberty that spells doom. We are reminded of Plato’s discourse that it is the “democratic man” who is the source of the tyrannical man, for in him all impulses are allowed free indulgence and he considers himself entitled to indulge whichever solicits him most powerfully at the moment instead of being ruled by a superordinate marshalling vision that pursues ends valuable in themselves, namely goodness, beauty and truth. Of these the power impulse is the strongest and establishes a tyranny over the rest.[30]

The intensely human nature of Krishna’s own predicament is revealed in an amazing disclosure to Narada (my translation):

I live listening to the bitter comments of kinfolk, despite having given them half my wealth. As one anxious to make fire keeps rubbing the kindling, similarly my kinsmen constantly churn and scorch my heart with their harsh words. Sankarshan is mighty but drunk; Gada is delicate and averse to labour; Pradyumna is engrossed in his own beauty. Despite such persons and others among the Andhakas and Vrishnis being on my side, I am passing the days helplessly. Ahuka and Akrura are excellent friends of mine, but if I show affection for one, the other becomes furious. Hence, I do not express affection for any. And because of friendship it is very difficult to discard them… whoever has Ahuka and Akrura on his side is miserable beyond compare, and he whose cause they do not espouse is also immeasurably sorrowful…O Narada! because of the need to control them, I suffer like one forced sail in two boats at once.[31]

The utterly human nature of Krishna’s dilemma does not, surely, need any gloss. Krishna himself states:

aham hi tat karishyami param purushakaratah /
daivam tu na maya shakyam karma karttumkathancna //

“I can express human prowess to the utmost;
but I do not have the slightest power to alter what is fated.”[32]

It is the very human-ness of Krishna which is part of the secret lying behind the irresistible fascination he exercises over millions even in the closing years of the twentieth century. Even without going into the Gita, reading the epic brings out powerfully the remarkable qualities of head, heart and hand which make Krishna pre-eminent among leaders of men. The finest account of this is given by Bhishma himself when he announces why Krishna ought to be honoured above all during the rajasuya yajna:

The sun shames all shining things,
so Krishna shames all with his
wisdom, strength, and fame.
Like the sun shining where
there is no sun,
like the air blowing where
there is no air,
Krishna comes among us,
illuminates and gladdens..
Some of the greatest Kshatriyas
have been defeated by
Krishna in battle…
Which is why we revere Krishna
though there are other
great kings and elders…
O king of Chedi, do not think
we are whimsical in
revering Krishna, or that we
want benefits from him,
or that we think of him
as a relative…
We revered him first keeping
his heroism, success,
and glory in mind…
There are two reasons for
revering Govinda Krishna.
All the Vedas and Vedangas
are known to him,
and he has shown boundless prowess.
Who else but Keshava can boast as much?
Generosity, shrewdness, immersion in
shruti, bravery, gentleness,
humility, enterprise, intelligence, handsomeness,
firmness, joy and success – are Krishna’s. [33]

And yet, what is the end of this supreme human, “Purushottama”? The Empire of Righteousness he has established is a veritable field of ashes peopled by wailing widows and infants, which Karna had so vividly figured forth in a dream he related to Krishna:

“Powerful Yudhishthira climbed a hill
Of human bones,
smiled and ate sweet ghee-curd from
a golden cup.”[34]

Did Duryodhana have the last word when he told the Pandavas and Krishna, after being felled by a blow below the belt?

I have studied, given gifts,
ruled the sea-girt earth,
Placed my foot on the heads
of my enemies.
Who has done as much?
The fulfilment
desired by Kshatriyas
who follow their sva-dharma—
That fulfilling death
is mine today,
Who is more fortunate than me?
What gods enjoy,
what kings find hard to get,
those human pleasures
I have enjoyed.
I have achieved the peak of power.
Who is more fortunate than me?
O Achyuta-Krishna,
I go to heaven
with my friends and followers,
And all of you stay back here
with grieving minds
and shattered hearts. [35]

Here it is Duryodhana who appears to represent the successful leader! We recall the undying loyalty of Karna and Ashvatthama, and of those hundreds of kings who willingly laid down their lives in his cause. When the Pandavas scoff at Karna’s low birth, they are overshadowed by the radiance of Duryodhana’s nobility as he rises to present a rousing defence of innate worth as the true measure of nobility instead of one’s birth. This is precisely the beauty of Vyasa’s epic. There are no easy answers in life. But we must not be swept away by the grandeur of this dying speech. His end itself depicts what happens when power is used for serving egotistic urges. It may bring immediate, illusory success but ultimately the misuser has to share the ruinous fate of Nahusha and Yayati.



More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

Top | Hinduism

Views: 3386      Comments: 1

Comment I have read total Mahabharata many times from y childhood, but this Review really gives a thought on the characterization all the Heroes of the episode.
I think, my next reading wiil definitely be from a different perspective.
Vyasa in Mahabharata or Valmiki in Ramayana have just made presentation of characters without mentioning the thoughts in their inner hearts.
Only by seeing these characters from proper perspective, the great epics can be undersood.

27-Oct-2012 19:31 PM

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