Living Gita: 38: Abandoning Swadharma is Hell

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atha chet twam imam dharmyam samgraamam na karishyasi
tatah swadharmam keertim cha hitwaa paapam avaapsyasi ll 2.33 ll

“But if you do not fight this war for dharma, you will be abandoning your swadharma and keerti and will incur sin.”


Bhagavad Gita is moksha shastra, a scripture whose subject is freedom from bondage. In that sense it is a book of nivritti dealing with the spiritual path of withdrawing from the outer world and focusing on the inner world. But at the same time, it is also a book of wisdom for living in the world wisely even if your interest is not in the final freedom it talks about. It teaches us how to excel in whatever we do, how to remain calm and poised under all circumstances, how to keep our turbulent minds under control, how to live in the world with a winning mindset, how to respond rather than react to people and situations, how to deal with wicked people, what happens to us and the world around us when we allow wickedness to flourish in our hearts, how to sharpen our intellects and awaken intelligence, how not to be a slave to our emotions, how to understand ourselves and find our place in the world and the purpose of our life and a thousand other things needed to live our lives wisely.

One of the special interests of the Gita is leadership – leadership of men and organizations. The teacher of the book is a leader of the kind the world has rarely seen, the greatest leader of the day, a leader of leaders and a kingmaker before whom crowned kings bowed and who was offered worship as the greatest leader among leaders in his days, who constantly lived in the world of leaders and knew their lives and their problems intimately. And the student is a great prince, a scion of a glorious dynasty as old as the sun, the greatest warrior of the day, with impeccable morals and ethics, a partner with his brothers in ruling a vast Indian kingdom to which tributes came from distant lands as far away as that of the Vikings, the Chinas, the Romakas and the Yavanas, apart from every corner of India such as the Keralaputras in the extreme south, the Pragjyotishas in the east, the Gandhara and the lands beyond in the west and the Himalayan kingdoms in the north and from all kingdoms lying between them.

And Krishna himself says the teachings of the Gita were originally meant for rajarshis – the highest kind of leaders, the philosopher-kings, the saint-kings or the king-saints.  He says the teachings were given in the beginning to King Vivaswan, who gave it to his son King Manu, who gave it to his son King Ikshwaku, the founder of the royal dynasty in which the greatest king India ever produced, Rama, was born. These teachings, says Krishna, were lost over vast stretches of time, and it is exactly the same teaching he is now giving to Arjuna – the yoga for rajarshis that teaches them how to do good to the people using the power invested in them, how to live for others, how to live for the common good, how to achieve glory as leaders and how to transform their job as leaders into a means for growth and awakening.

True, India has always held that the ultimate aim for all men is spiritual freedom, moksha. But India also repeatedly said that service to others could become a path leading to moksha. As far as leaders are concerned, said India, what is right for the common man is not right for them. For instance, India taught people in general to practice contentment, santosha, but India said a king should never be contented with his dharma, with his artha or kama, he should never be contented with the amount of friends he has and the amount of knowledge and intelligence he has:  na poorno’smeeti manyeta dharmatah kamato’rthatah, buddhito mitratah chaapi satatam vasudhadhipah. [MB Shanti Parva 92.12].

All people can transform pravritti, worldly pursuits, into nivritti, inner pursuits, taught Krishna, and added that as far as leaders responsible to the masses are concerned, rather than pursuing nivritti, they should transform their job as leaders of men and organizations itself into nivritti. Leaving no doubt about his stand he said both sannyasa and karma yoga can yield nishshreyasa, the ultimate human goal, and then added: of the two, karma yoga is superior to karma sannyasa, the renunciation of action, the path of pure nivritti.  [sannyaasah karmayogashcha nisshreyasa-karaav-ubhau; tayos tu karma-sannyaasaat karma-yogo vishishyate.] [BG 5.2]

India also asks rhetorically kim tasya tapasa rajnah kim cha tasya adhvairapi, supaalitaprajo yah syaat sarvadharmavideva sah: “What use is tapas to a king, and what use are sacrifices? If he has looked after his subjects well, he has already attained all that he can ever attain.” [MB Shanti 69.73]. To India, service to his people was his religion to a king, his highest spirituality, his highest dharma; it was his yajna, his yaga, his homa, his pooja, everything. There is nothing that a king cannot attain by performing his duties in the spirit of yoga, Krishna says, and he gives us the example of kings like Janaka who attained the highest through this: karmanaa eva him samsiddhim aasthitaah janakaadayah. [BG 3.20]


While nisshreyasa or mukti was always the highest human goal for India, at a lower level, at the worldly level, keerti was considered a highly desirable goal for all, both men and women.

It is this keerti as well as his swadharma that Krishna says Arjuna would lose if he refuses to fight the war.

“But if you do not fight this war for dharma, you will be abandoning your swadharma and keerti and will incur sin.”

The paths that lead to keerti are many, said India.

Marutta was a king who became a legend in his own times. He was the son of king Avikshit and the grandson of King Khaaninetra, both celebrated rulers who served people with devotion. Such was Marutta’’s glory that it eclipsed the glory of Indra, the  lord of the gods. The Indra that we are speaking of is the Indra of the Puranas, a symbol of the ordinary human mind full of lust and anger, power hungry, unprincipled, cunning and cheating, with no hesitation to stoop to any level for saving his power, unlike the glorious Vedic Indra who is the symbol of the enlightened mind: calm, serene, unaffected by the winds of samsara, beyond success and failure, beyond raga and dvesha, longing and hatred, beyond jealousy and anger, with nothing to achieve for himself and working only for the good of others. So this Indra, the symbol of the ordinary mind, says the story of Marutta, became jealous of the king. In those days Brihaspati had not yet become the guru and priest of the gods but was Marutta’s priest. When Marutta wanted to conduct a Vedic sacrifice with Brihaspati as the chief priest, Indra approached the priest and gave him the position of the chief priest of the gods and told him that since he was now the priest of the gods, he should not serve Marutta, a mere mortal, as his priest. Brihaspati agreed.

When Brihaspati refused to be his priest for the sacrifice, Marutta approached his brother Samvarta who was a greater priest than Brihaspati himself and was not obsessed with power and position and loved roaming free of attachments like a homeless avadhoota. After a lot of persuasion Samvarta agreed to  be Marutta’s priest with just one condition: the jealous Indra and Brihaspati are going to do all they can to stop the sacrifice and at that time Marutta should not become afraid and abandon the sacrifice in the middle, which is a great sin.  

Marutta agreed to this condition and refused to bow down to the thousand things Indra and Brihaspati did to obstruct the sacrifice, including asking Agni not to go to the sacrifice and as we all know, without Agni, fire, no sacrifice could be conducted. Indra attacked the sacrifice with fierce thunder and lightning but fearlessly Marutta went ahead with the sacrifice and eventually Indra bent before Marutta’s determination and was forced to accept the king’s invitation and come for his sacrifice.

Maruta’s sacrifice became a glorious success. The lord of the gods himself was forced to bow down before the unshakeable will of a human being and Marutta achieved immortal keerti for his courage and unshakeable determination.


Shakuntala’s is the story of the fearless independence of an abandoned girl brought up by a rishi who achieves immortal fame on her own apart from being the mother of Bharata after whose name this land of ours is known. She is woman as fire who represents the highest in Indian womanhood. To quote from one of my articles available online called Shakuntala: Flaming Indian Womanhood, “Shakuntala stands for all that is beautiful in Indian womanhood. She would risk her honour as a woman for the love of a man, and yet she would not take one harsh word that goes against her dignity from that man. She has the softness of the softest flower and yet she is as fierce as fire itself. She is strength that knows how to bend. She is the courage to trust. She is silence that knows how to be eloquent when the need arises.”


She gives herself to Dushyanta who meets her in the ashram but after marrying her by the gandharva rites, he abandons her in spite of his promise to send his people to escort her to the palace when he reaches back there. Thirteen years later when she comes there on her own with her son, he refuses to acknowledge her and insults her publicly in the royal court. Shakuntala, abandoned by her mother and father at birth, now abandoned by her husband, becomes an enraged snake and raising her voice in the assembly fearlessly tells the king that culture demanded that a wife who has come to her husband’s place for the first time needs to be honored; she needs to be offered worship. “You err by not worshipping me as I stand here,” asserts Shakuntala, demanding from her man the obeisance that is every woman’s right by Indian culture. “I deserve to be worshipped. And you do not offer me worship that is my due.”  

She asserts that a wife is not a man’s plaything – she is an equal half of his being, his best friend in the journey of life, the root of his dharma, artha and kama [virtue, wealth and pleasures]. And for a man who wants to cross the ocean of samsara and reach moksha, she is his most powerful ship.

Not content, not caring that he is a king and is surrounded by his courters, this woman who grew up in an ashram and knows no fear tells Dushyanta that she has not come to him for his charity – she does not need it. What she demands is justice – what is hers by right. In fact, she herself does not need even that, she tells him. She is perfectly willing to go back to the ashram from where she has come – she will always be welcome there. She does not care for the comforts of the palace – such things do not tempt her. She needs just one thing: that his child be acknowledged as his. And she warns him of dire consequences if he ignored her.

Dushyanta calls her a liar for claiming she is his wife and the child is his. He calls all women liars. And Shakuntala’s voice booms in the royal court once again – with the power of truth, as the voice of truth. No, she is not lying, she tells him. Truth is sacred to her. “Truth,” she tells him, “is superior to a thousand ashwamedha sacrifices; the study of all the Vedas, bathing in every sacred tirtha in the world – nay, even these are not equal to the sixteenth part of the truth.”

Shakuntala calls Dushyanta a fool for rejecting her. And even under the tremendous stress she is in, she shows her culture by apologizing to Dushyanta for doing so, in spite of Dushyanta’s use of the word whore for her and her mother.  

As she turns around to leave, she tells Dushyanta she did not bring her son to Dushyanta in the hope of his inheriting the kingdom. No, he does not require it. For, her son will rule over all the earth even without his help.

Gods and celestial sages interfere here on Shakuntala’s behalf. They appear and testify that she is indeed Dushyanta’s wife and Sarvadamana is his son and suggest that he should now be renamed Bharata. 

The women who people our epics are shaktis: each one of them is endowed with power, sure of herself, sure of the choices she makes, sure in her speech, protective, passionate, loving, giving, hungry for life, filled with adventurousness, a fearless wanderer in life’s vast fields. They inherit their spirit from our Vedic women: Independent, assertive, strong winners, who took responsibility for themselves; authentic women who participated in all fields of life as men’s equals, who debated on the meaning of life with the best of philosophers, who explored the mysteries of existence just as the men of their times did, who composed poems, sacred and mundane, poems of the soul and of the flesh, singing of spiritual ecstasy and sexual longing, that survive to this day.

Shakuntala’s is keerti achieved through fearlessness, through assertiveness, by her refusal to accept that women are less than men, by her refusal to bow down before a king’s unrelenting might.


Our next story of keerti too is of a woman fearlessly walking into a royal court and demanding justice from the king: that of Kannaki [Kannagi], the heroine of the greatest ever south Indian classic, told in Tamil at least two thousand years ago by Prince Ilanko Adigal who became a Jain monk: the story of an unfortunate woman who refuses to bow down to misfortune, whose righteous anger raises her to the level of a goddess worshipped by millions and is today identified with Goddess Kali, the embodiment of righteous, divine anger.

Because of the treachery of a greedy goldsmith, Kannaki’s husband Kovalan is accused of stealing the queen’s anklet and is condemned to death by the Pandya king of Madurai. When Kannaki hears of this, she reaches the court while it is in session and openly accuses the king of murder – Kovalan is innocent and he had put to death Kovalan without a proper enquiry. She tells the king and the court that the anklet found with Kovalan was not the queen’s but hers, and she has the other anklet of the pair with her. Kannaki asks the king what was inside the queen’s lost anklet and he says pearls. She then raises the other anklet of hers, the one still with her, and throws it on the floor of the court.Out springs from it rubies that scatter all over the court floor, proving that the anklet confiscated from Kovalan was not the queen’s.

The king famous for justice is shocked by what he has done unknowingly and blaming himself for gross injustice falls down dead, hearing which the queen too dies. But still in a rage, Kannaki walks out of the court into the city of Madurai, her eyes spitting fire. Standing at the heart of the city, she plucks out one of her breasts and flings it on the ground. A roaring fire blazes up from where the breast fell and engulfs the city of Madurai, reducing it to ashes, thus punishing the whole city for the sin of its king.

Legends in Kerala tell us that Kannaki, her anger still unappeased, walked all the way to Kerala from Madurai. She stopped at a place called Attukal where local women received her and fed her. In memory of this event, a temple has been built for her at Attukal, where a festival called ponkala is celebrated every year when women gather in what has become the world largest women’s only gathering with around five million women participating in the festival annually. They cook food by themselves on the spot and offer it to Attukal Amma, Kannaki, commemorating the original event.

Kannaki proceeded further to the ancient city of Kadungalloor in Kerala where she is identified with Goddess Kali. Her temple there draws huge crowds for the festivals every year, festivals that are unlike any other in the world, with thousands of women dancing ecstatically in ritual intoxication with Devi’s swords in their hands.

Kannaki is a symbol of marital constancy. She achieves immortal keerti for standing with her husband in thick and thin and avenging his unjust killing by the king. Subsequent culture, as we saw, raises her to the status of a goddess worshipped by millions, including in the largest all-women gathering in the world, as certified by Guinness Book of World Records. 


Rama had immense keerti even before he was crowned the prince regent of Ayodhya. People praised his virtues and his conduct in the highest possible terms. For Rama truth and dharma are the highest, they said. He is like the moon in showering happiness on the people, they said, like the earth in forbearance, like the guru of the gods in intelligence, and like Indra in valour. He knows fully what the right thing to do is under all circumstances for all including himself; his character and integrity are of the highest order, he is beyond the touch of jealousy, always ready to forgive, consoles everyone in times of distress, gentle, full of gratitude even for the smallest things done for him and a master of his senses. He is soft in speech and in his dealings with people, has a steady, unwavering mind, is serene, knows how to speak sweetly keeping the good of the people in mind even when he has to tell them harsh truths, He has served learned and wise men and learnt from them sitting at their feet. He is a master of the weapons of the gods and the asuras, apart from being a master of the weapons of men. He is a master of different sciences and of the Vedas along the subsidiaries of the six Vedas, they said.

And then he does something and with that single act of his, his keerti soars into the skies and he becomes the maryada purushottama of Indian culture, the ideal man of principles for all times to come: He refuses to cling to power and willingly leaves the throne to is younger brother to keep his father’s word, in spite of the fact that all his life he had been readying himself to become a king who will set standards for kings for all times to come.

When he does that Rama was not only showing his commitment to truth, but also to his dharma as a son, his putra dharma. His immortal keerti rests not just on these two but on many more: ethical integrity, renunciation, fearlessness, rootedness in dharma, generosity, treating all as equals, forgiveness...the list is long. Krishna in the Gita calls Rama the greatest warrior ever: raamas shastrabhrtaam varah.


As we saw, there are many ways of achieving keerti and kshatriyas sought it through battle, especially battles fought for dharma. The Mahabharata says there is nothing more shameful for a kshatriya than dying of old age and disease in his bed. It is this opportunity for keerti through a war fought for dharma that Arjuna would be abandoning if he refuses to fight and runs away from battle. That is why Krishna tells him that if he does not fight this war for dharma, he would be abandoning his swadharma and keerti and incurring sin.

Before we conclude the discussion of this verse, a word about sin. The old definition of sin is doing something forbidden or not doing something you are enjoined to do. Tradition also said that sin is something you carry with you into your future existence when you leave this body and the consequence of sin is suffering. India gives us an endless list of sins and the suffering that follows as the punishment for each, including the hells to which you go to undergo punishment – hells like tamisra, andhatamisra, raurava, maharaurava, kumbhipaka and so on. These hells are described like ‘geographical’ places, though in other dimensions of existence to which the living have no access, specially created to meet out punishments for sinners.

As we know, sin is not in the action, but in the feeling and intention behind the action. Lying is sin, but if it is done to save a life, it is not. Killing is sin, but killing an enemy soldier in battle is not. Adultery is sin but not when it is done as niyoga.

When Bodhidharma reached China, the Chinese emperor told him that he has been feeding thousands of  Buddhist monks and looking after numerous monasteries. He then asked the master if he would go to heaven when he died. Bodhidharma told him there was not a chance of that, heaven is not the reward for greed. When asked to explain himself, the Zen master told him he has been doing all his charity as a bargain, so that he can go to heaven when he dies. By giving a small part of his wealth to monks and monasteries, he wanted to get heaven – that was greed and heaven is not the reward for greed.

But just as heaven need not be after death, hell too need not be after death and punishments for our sins need not necessarily come after we die. Modern understanding, which I find very sensible, is that we are punished not for our sins, but by our sins. An evil act is its own punishment, an evil thought is its own punishment.

Hatred, anger, jealousy, intolerance, vengeance, greed, lust – these are their own punishments. They make those who harbour them in their hearts suffer, apart from causing suffering to others. A man whose heart is filled with anger, with hatred, with jealousy, vengeance, greed or lust knows no peace of mind. These feelings are like fire that consumes the wood that it gives birth to it.

Hell is not out there and after death, but it is in our heart and now, as anyone who has lived through hatred or other asuri sampada knows. A man filled with vengeance is always remembering the past and plotting the future. His mind is never in the present. And all joy is in the present.

When Krishna says Arjuna will incur sin for not fighting the war for dharma as he is supposed to do as a kshatriya, Krishna could be understood as saying Arjuna will suffer hell in his heart – the guilt, the shame, the sense of failure and other feelings that will follow his desertion and torment him like furies the rest of his life.

If swadharma is heaven, abandoning swadharma is hell.

And so is akeerti.

Continued to Next Page 


More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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