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dehee nityam avadhyo'yam dehe sarvasya bhaarata
tasmaat sarvaani bhootani na twam shochitum arhasi
swadharmam api chaavekshya na vikampitum arhasi
dharmyaaddhi yuddhaachhreyo'nyat kshatriyasya na vidyate ll 2.30-31 ll
“What lives in the body is eternal and unslayable. For that reason, Arjuna, you should not grieve over the death of any being. Even considering your swadharma, you should not waver because for a kshatriya there is nothing superior to a war for dharma.”
While the bodies in which beings live die, no creature ever dies, Krishna once again reminds Arjuna and tells him that, for that reason, he should not worry over the death of any being.
Krishna’s purpose here is not to tell Arjuna that killing is all right, but that this declared war between two armies has to be fought for the sake of dharma which alone can sustain the society. Indian culture has always said that ahimsa – non-violence, non-killing – is the highest dharma: ahimsaa paramo dharmah. India considered ahimsa so important that it said that even if you have to do something you should not do in order to prevent the death of someone, you should go ahead and do that. To kill is wrong, India said categorically.
Yet sometimes it becomes necessary to kill – as in the case of the declared war where two vast armies are standing facing each other to fight on terms agreed upon by all. In this war, Krishna wants the side of dharma to win and the side of adharma to lose so that good prevails in the society and wickedness is destroyed, which is the reason why he reluctantly agreed to the war when he found all other means have failed and the forces of evil cannot be stopped except through the war.
Krishna has been accused of being a war monger because Arjuna wanted to run away from the war and Krishna insisted that he should not run away, but should stand and fight it. However, those who accuse Krishna of being a war monger forget that there is nothing he did not do before he finally agreed to the war. Message after message was sent to Hastinapura by him and the Pandavas so that an amicable settlement could be found to the problem but Duryodhana remained absolutely intransigent. Then Krishna himself went to Hastinapura to find a peaceful solution to the problem and begged Dhritarashtra to find some way that war could be avoided. Dhritarashtra said he was helpless, Duryodhana is obdurate and Krishna should talk directly to him.
Krishna did that too, but the adamant Duryodhana refused to listen to his pleading and advice and kept asking repeatedly who has more power, he or the Pandavas. For every argument Krishna, every advice he gave, and every please for peace he made, Duryodhana’s answer was the same: “but who has more power – they or me?”. Duryodhana understood only one language: the language of power. He tried to capture Krishna and throw him into a dungeon – an act so heinous that it should not be done even to ordinary messengers. Krishna then decided to show what power really was and showed his cosmic form, the vishwarupa, even which had no effect on Duryodhana. He stuck to his obdurate stand: forget about giving back the Pandavas their kingdom usurped through the dice game, forget about giving them five villages, not so much land will be given to them as the tip of a needle Krishna then abandoned him mission in the Kuru assembly, took Karna aside and tried to persuade him to join the Pandava side in a final attempt to avoid the war.
For the sake of peace, Krishna here stoops really low, because there is nothing Krishna would not do to avoid the war and the killings. He asks Karna to betray his friend Duryodhana and join the Pandava side. He not only offers the entire kingdom to Karna, he even promises Draupadi would have him as her husband, knowing that Karna had a weakness for Draupadi. That is to the extent to which Krishna would stoop to avoid the war – for Krishna his name and fame did not matter, his ego did not matter, that coming ages would accuse him of stooping low did not matter, that they would accuse him of trying to divide two friends did not matter. The only thing that mattered for Krishna was avoiding the war.
When Krishna offered the kingdom to Karna, he knew that he was offering it to someone who really did not deserve it. From their childhood, all their life, Karna had been a fried of Duryodhana – his only real friend. And in all Duryodhana’s evil plans Karna was as much a part as Shakuni was, whether it was poisoning young Bhima at Pramanakoti or the numerous subsequent attempts he made to poison him during their childhood, including attempts using the deadly kalakoota poison. Failing that when Duryodhana makes more attempts to kill child Bhima by other means, Karna is with him. When he plots to kill all the five Pandavas along with their mother at Varanavata by setting fire to the lacquer house, Karna is again part of the three member team that plotted it.
Krishna knew that he had no ethical right to tell Karna without Draupadi’s permission that she would accept him as her sixth husband, yet he does that. For all we know, Draupadi hated Karna – she had every reason to, in spite of certain modern romantically inclined writers in their Mahabharata-based fiction saying that Draupadi used to secretly fantasize about Karna. The Mahabharata gives us no reason to believe anything like that. This fiction, insulting to a chaste woman like Draupadi, was originally inspired by the modern idea that she was a nymphomaniac no content with five husbands and lusted for more men. True in her previous life as Nalayani she shows an insatiable desire for sex with her husband Maudgalya, but in her current life the epic gives us no reason to believe this was true – even the five husbands were really forced upon her against her will, for which the Mahabharata gives as the main reason the lust for her Kunti saw in all her five sons, including the two stepsons..
There were several reasons why the war became inevitable but perhaps the most central of them all was the attempt to disrobe Draupadi publicly at the end of the dice game, perhaps the most shameful incident in all of Indian history – and it was ordered not by Duryodhana or anyone else but by Karna.
And it was knowing all this and the implications of all this that Krishna offered Karna the kingdom and Draupadi on condition that he joined the Pandavas, such was his keenness to avoid the war!
But fortunately Karna shows the decency to tell Krishna that he wouldn’t accept his offers for which he gives the main reason as Duryodhana’s evilness. Karna tells Krishna not to make such an offer because if the kingdom was given to him, such was his friendship with Duryodhana that he would straight away give it to his friend and he, Duryodhana, did not deserve to be king!
Krishna certainly was not a war monger. But war too was an option to him if nothing else worked and if the cause was sufficiently big enough – a declared war between two armies fought according to strict laws of war. India speaks of four upayas: sama, dana, bheda and danda. Krishna was open to all four, in that order.
And now that the war has become inevitable, he wants to boost Arjuna’s mental strength by telling him that death really never happens, that nothing that has come into existence ever ceases to be.
India discusses dharma at numerous levels and one of those levels is the apad [aapad] level, the crisis level. The Mahabharata the central theme of which is dharma devotes an entire section of the epic to convince us that what is wrong under normal conditions becomes right under certain special – critical – conditions. This is called apad-dharma and the parva that explores apad dharma is called Apad-dharma Parva.
Under normal conditions union with one’s husband’s brother is a strong taboo. And yet special circumstances, with lots of rigid restrictions, and gives it a name: niyoga,[an act subsequently forbidden by the shastras for the Kali age]. Both the man and the woman uniting had to practice severe penances for a long time, the union should be sanctioned – in practice, ordered – by the elders, it should not be for pleasure but strictly for begetting an offspring, if the husband is alive but not capable of producing an offspring it should be as desired by the husband, and so on were some of the conditions. The evidence we have suggests that this was a practice confined to royal families and it was usually practiced only or begetting royal heirs who were necessary to inherit the royal throne and to continue the royal family.
So we find in the Mahabharata Sage Vyasa ordered by his mother Queen Satyavati to beget children in Ambika and Ambalika, the wives of his half-brother Vichitravirya who had died without children and leaving no heir the Bharata throne. Later we find Pandu requesting his wife Kunti to have children by union with some brahmana since he himself was incapable of having children. A very reluctant Kunti eventually agrees after a lot of persuasion but tells Pandu about the boon she has through which she could have children with gods – that is how the first three Pandavas were born. Subsequently Madri too gives birth to Nakula and Sahadeva through union with the gods through niyoga.
In the epic we also find King Kalmashapada ordering his wife Queen Madayanti to receive in her bed Sage Vasishtha because the king himself cannot beget children. The founders of the kingdoms Anga, Vanga [Banga or modern Bengal], Kalinga and Poundra were also born through niyoga, says the epic – niyoga by the sage Dirghatamas.
There is no absolute right or wrong, said India. Under certain circumstances the union of the brother-in-law and the sister-in-law, a great taboo, becomes the right thing to do. In general parastree-gamana, sex with a woman who is not your wife, is considered a sin, but under the niyoga situation, it becomes not only all right, but one’s duty. Similarly sex with someone other than your husband is considered a sin for a woman, but under niyoga conditions, it becomes her duty. A brahmana should never be killed, said ancient India, it is brahmahatya, one of the greatest sins. And yet India also said under certain special circumstances a brahmana could not only be killed but should be killed.
Bhavatyadharmo dharmo hi dharma-adharmau ubhaavapi karanaat deshakaalasya, said india: Dharma [right] becomes adharma [wrong] and adharma becomes dharma depending on the place and time, says this famous verse in the Mahabharata Shanti Parva [78.32].
Truth is ordinarily dharma, but under circumstances wherein truth kills and a lie protects, the lie becomes dharma and telling the truth adharma.
It is Krishna himself who tells the story of an ascetic called Kaushika in the Mahabharata, explaining what dharma is. Kaushika had taken a vow of always telling the truth. One day while he was in his hermitage, a group of travelers came to him, running for their life. They were being chased by a band of highwaymen and they requested Kaushika not to tell the highwaymen that he had seen them and which way they went. A few minutes later the brutes who were chasing them reached Kaushika and asked him if he had seen the men. When Kaushika said yes, he had, they asked him which way they had gone and he told them the truth, as a result of which the robbers caught them and killed them. Krishna concludes the story by saying for the only sin he committed in his life, Kaushika was denied heaven: the sin of telling the truth that caused the death of the travelers.
For Krishna, as for India, doing good was always more important than being right. According to him, you should never let your morals stand in the way of your doing good to others. To do good to others, to do good to the world, and not to do good to oneself, India approves of, under rare conditions, transcending ethical principles.
This is what Bhishma failed to do all his life, including in the dice hall. All his life Bhishma had a need to be right, exactly as Arjuna feels a need to be right as he stands facing Bhishma, Drona and other near and dear ones in the battlefield. In Bhishma’s case, it was not just a need to be right, but a fierce compulsion. As we all know, Bhishma refused to break his vows under any conditions even when those vows had become meaningless, even when the very person for whose sake he had taken those vows, Satyavati, requested him to break them. The words in which he communicated that refusal are scary. He said:
“I shall give up the three worlds, I shall give up the empire of the gods, and if there is anything greater than these, I shall give up that too, but I shall not give up my truth.
“Let the five elements give up their nature, but I shall not give up my truth. The earth may give up fragrance, but I shall not give up my word. Water may give up taste, but I shall not give up my word. Light may give up the forms it reveals, but I shall not give up my word. Air may give up the sense of touch and space its capacity for sound, but I shall not give up my word. The sun may give up its splendour, the moon its coolness, but I shall not give up my truth. Indra, the slayer of Vritra, may give up his valour and Yama, the lord of justice, give up justice itself, but I shall not give up my truth.
“Let the world end in dissolution, let everything go up in flames, but I shall not go back on my word. Immortality holds no temptations for me, nor overlordship of the three worlds.” [My free translation from Sanskrit.]
So according to him, the world can end in dissolution, everything can go up in flames, but he will not break his vows. He wanted to be called a man who never broke his vows. He wanted to be right rather than do good. And that is what exactly prevented him from doing anything to save Draupadi’s honour in the dice hall. While Dusshasana was pulling away her clothes, he was looking into whether she had really become a slave to the Kauravas according to the laws of the day and tradition and whether they had a right to do what they were doing to her. He forgot this was a special situation: a woman – that too the bride of the family of which he is the eldest – was being so shamefully disgraced and under the special situation he should have just stopped it without caring for technicalities. Because he was a kshatriya – the most powerful kshatriya present – who had vowed to save the honour of women everywhere.
Bhishma fails to protect Draupadi and the Pandavas in the Kuru Sabha, and in the long run he fails to protect the Kuru family itself and the thousands of warriors who died in the Kurukshetra war, barring just a few, because he fails to rise above ordinary ethics as the situation demanded.
And that is what Arjuna is called upon to do too – rise above ordinary ethics and do what the situation calls for. It is for that that Krishna is empowering him by telling him death is no final end, we are all immortals who will be born again and again, what he is called upon to do in the battlefield is not adharma but dharma and it is his dharma to fight the war and win victory for dharma.
India has discussed dharma everywhere. The entire Mahabharata is, as the Bharata Savitri verse says, about dharma. The Ramayana, the other epic of India, too is about dharma – Rama is called maryada purushottama, the word maryada standing for ethical boundaries. Hundreds upon hundreds of books have been written on dharma in India, maybe thousands though most of them have been lost. We have a branch of literature called dharma shastras, books on the science of dharma, the most famous of which is the Manu Dharma Shastra, also known as Mannu Smriti, today reviled by a large section of Indians for the stand it takes on people of the lower varnas and on women. Then there are dharma shastras named after Apastamba, Bharadwaja, Daksha, Devala, Samakha, Vasishta, Gautama, Samavarata, Vishnu, Harita, Shatanika, Vyasa, Likhita, Shatotraya, Yajnavalkya, Parashara, Sahunaka and Yama, all discussing what dharma is and what the dharmas of different people are.
This can be very confusing – because of the intellectual freedom India enjoyed each author held his own views about what dharma is and what adharma is. But the Mahabharata takes the stand that whatever protects is dharma. It defines dharma as whatever protects people, or whatever protects all beings in general.
dhaaranaat dharmam iti aahuh dharmena vidhrtaa prajaah;
yah syaad dharana-samyuktah sa dharma iti nishchayah.
“Dharma is called so because it sustains. Beings are protected by dharma. Therefore dharma without a doubt is whatever has the power to protect. [Mahabharata Shanti Parva 109.11].
So sometimes a war becomes dharma, particularly for a kshatriya and particularly a war for dharma. To fight for dharma is the swadharma of a kshatriya and that is what Krishna means when he says in Gita verse 2.31:
“Even considering your swadharma, you should not waver because for a kshatriya there is nothing superior to a war for dharma.”
I am leaving the word swadharma here untranslated because no translation can bring out the full meaning of the original word. The word swadharma and the word dharma carry within them so much meaning that entire volumes can be written about them. If one single word can summarize the entire Indian culture, it is the word dharma, a word with hundreds of meanings. So we have endless dharmas discussed, like rajadharma, the dharma of the king, patidharma, the dharma of the husband, patnidharma, the dharma of the wife, purusha dharma, the dharma of the man, stree dharma, the dharma of the woman, pitr-dharma the dharma of the father, and so on.
As we shall see in greater detail when we come to the verses pertaining to it, one of the several dharmas that that Gita discusses is kshatriya dharma. The eighteenth chapter of the Gita explains kshatriya dharma as:
shauryam tejo dhrtir daakshyam yuddhe cha-apy-apalaayanam
daanam eeshwara-bhaavashcha kshaatram karma swabhaavajam ll18.43 ll
“The dharmas natural to kshatriyas are: velour, tejas, firmness, dexterity, generosity, leadership competencies and not fleeing from battle.”
Kshatriyas are royal people, daring and heroic, fearless, who love conflicts and confrontations and are steadfast in their resolves. They do not run away from battles, they do not desert wars. That is their dharma, their nature. And it is this dharma that Arjuna is abandoning when he says he shall desert and live begging for alms if necessary but will not fight the war of Kurukshetra. It is for this that Krishna attacked him earlier with whipping words, calling him a eunuch, and now Krishna is putting the same thing in positive terms:
“Even considering your swadharma, you should not waver because for a kshatriya there is nothing superior to a war for dharma.”
Arjuna sees the war he is in as adharma because he has to fight against and kill his own guru and his grandsire along with so many other near and dear ones. But Krishna has no doubts: this is a dharma yuddha, a war for dharma, to establish which he has taken incarnation, along with Arjuna.
There is nothing superior to a kshatriya than a dharma yuddha. It is his swadharma, and yet Arjuna is trying to do exactly the opposite of what India says is his dharma. Instead of apalayanam, what he is trying to do is palayanam.
Deserting shames a warrior, it starves his soul, dries it up. By refusing to fight, Arjuna would be wasting an entire lifetime.
In each lifetime we have a central purpose. Some of us learn it quite early, some of us take time to understand it and some of us never learn it. In Arjuna’s case it was clear from the beginning: he was born to be a dharma yoddha, a warrior for dharma, the best warrior for dharma in the land. That was his single passion all his life: he wanted to excel as a warrior, who will fight only for dharma. It is that purpose that Arjuna would be betraying by refusing to fight.
By refusing to fight the Mahabharata War, Arjuna would be betraying the purpose of his life, the purpose for which he was born.
And Krishna, his friend, wouldn’t have it. That would be abandoning Arjuna.
Krishna never abandons you.
Krishna never abandons anyone.
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