The Mahabharata, an Indian epic poem, describes a legendary war between
two sides of a royal family. The epic’s plot involves numerous moral dilemmas
that have intrigued and perplexed scholars of Indian literature. Many of these
dilemmas revolve around a character named krishna. Krishna is a divine incarnation
and a self-proclaimed upholder of dharma, a system of social and religious
duties central to Hindu ethics. Yet, during the war, krishna repeatedly
encourages his allies to use tactics that violate Dharma. This
article attempts to make sense of krishna’s actions by analyzing them in terms of
categories from Western moral philosophy. The Mahabharata revolves around the
legendary Bharata war, a war between two sides of a royal family. These two
sides are commonly called the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The Pandavas and the
Kauravas are the sons of the princes Pandu and Dhrtarastra, respectively.
Dhrtarastra is blind, and his blindness makes him ineligible for the throne. After
Pandu becomes king, he accidentally wounds a sage. The sage curses Pandu to die
if he engages in sexual activity. Pandu goes into exile with his wives Kunti
and Madri, and Dhrtarastra rules despite his blindness. Kunti and Madri bear
sons through divine intervention. The gods Indra, Vayu, and Dharma father
Kunti’s sons, Arjuna, Bhima, and Yudhisthira respectively. The Asvins, divine
twins, father Madri’s sons, Nakula and Sahadeva. Meanwhile, Dhrtarastra fathers
the Kauravas, the eldest of whom is named Duryodhana. The Kauravas are
Duryodhana wants the throne for himself. However, when the Pandavas
return from exile, Dhrtarastra makes Yudhisthira the crown prince. As one might
imagine, this creates tension between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. After a
failed assassination attempt, a failed partition of the kingdom, and a rather
extreme gambling match that results in exile for the Pandavas, the two sides of
the family prepare for war. Friends and relatives must take sides in the
conﬂict. Thus, the Pandavas ﬁnd themselves facing loved ones on the battleﬁeld.
the Pandavas “win” the war, but at a horrible cost. Only the Pandavas and a few
others survive. Moreover, the Pandavas ﬁnd themselves resorting to dishonourable
tactics in order to win.
Consequentialism is one approach to ethics. For consequentialists, the
sole aim of morality is to produce good consequences. More speciﬁcally,
consequentialists think that the sole aim of morality is to maximize intrinsic
goods. Consequentialists disagree about what counts as an intrinsic good.
According to one kind of consequentialism, hedonistic utilitarianism, pleasure
is the only intrinsic good. Other consequentialists believe that pleasure is
not the only intrinsic good. In fact, some consequentialists regard certain consequences
as good apart from their impact on people’s welfare. Besides disagreeing about
what counts as an intrinsic good, consequentialists disagree about the
use of rules. According to act-consequentialism, the right action is
whatever action maximizes intrinsic goods. According to rule-consequentialism,
right actions are actions that obey certain rules, where the rules have
been chosen based on their tendency to maximize intrinsic goods. However,
despite their disagreements, consequentialists agree that the point of morality
is to maximize intrinsic goods.
Mahabharatadalli Dharma - The Concept of Religion in The Mahabharta (An Old and Rare Book in Kannada)
In contrast, according to deontological ethics, morality is a matter of
adhering to duties. For a deontologist, if an action violates a duty, then the
action is wrong—even if the action produces intrinsic goods. A deontologist
need not believe that duties require no justiﬁcation. In fact, some
deontologists provide sophisticated
justiﬁcations for duties. For example, Immanuel Kant attempts to
derive duties from the very presuppositions that agents make when choosing
their actions. Moreover, some deontologists think that, in extreme situations,
the need to avoid bad consequences can override duties. However, to qualify as
a deontologist, one must hold that an agent has moral duties that are not
justiﬁed in terms of their consequences.
What does all this have to do with the Mahabharata? In the Mahabharat,
the concept of dharma ﬁgures prominently. Dharma is a “metaphysically
based system of laws, duties, rites and obligations incumbent upon a Hindu
according to his class and stage of life” (Dimmitt and Buitenen, 1978, p. 353).
The words “order”, “justice”, “morality”, “righteousness”, “virtue”, “custom”,
and “ritual” each indicate a part of its meaning. Buitenen
(1973) translates dharma as “Law” in his translation of the Mahabharata. Dharma’s
negative counterpart is adharma, “non-dharma”, which can be roughly deﬁned as
violation of dharma.
Shri Krishna Arjuna Samvad- Bhagvad Gita (An Old and Rare Book)
At the same time, krishna’s primary goal is apparently to restore dharmic
behaviour. In the Gita, krishna says that he comes to earth “whenever the law of
righteousness [i.e. dharma] withers away and lawlessness [i.e. adharma]
arises”. Vishnu says the same thing in another part of the epic: “Whenever,
sage, the Law languishes and unlaw rears up, I create myself”. (Recall that
krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu.) If krishna’s mission is to restore dharmic behaviour,
then why does he encourage adharmic behavior? Here is one possible answer:
perhaps krishna is a “threshold” deontologist. That is, perhaps he is a
deontologist who believes that, in extreme cases, the need to avoid bad
consequences can override duties. Suppose that krishna is a threshold deontologist.
Further, suppose that horrible consequences will ensue if the Pandavas lose the
war. In that case, krishna can violate dharma in order to help the Pandavas
win the war.
Here is another possible answer: perhaps krishna values dharmic behavior
merely as a meansto good consequences. According to the Mahabharata, the rules
of dharma are designed to produce good consequences: “Dharma is created for the
wellbeing of all creation. All that is free from harm to any created being is
certainly Dharma”. Thus, dharmic behaviour tends to produce good consequences.
In that case, perhaps krishna has come to earth to restore dharmic behavior, but
only because dharmic behaviour is a means to good consequences. If so, then
nothing prevents krishna from acting adharmically whenever doing so will produce
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According to a widespread Hindu tradition, dharma is one of
the purusarthas, or goals of man. The other purusarthas are kama,
sensual pleasure, and artha, worldly prosperity. Here dharma means not the set
of rules called dharma but, rather, adherence to those rules: “As an aim
in life, rather than as a rule of conduct, dharma refers to ‘being
established in dharma. Thus, according to this tradition, dharmic behaviour is
one of life’s goals. This tradition appears in the Mahabharata. Moreover,
the Mahabharata repeatedly says that dharma is more valuable
than kama and artha. Thus, at least within the epic, dharmic behaviour
seems to be the most valuable of earthly goals. This implies that dharmic
behaviour is an intrinsic good. If dharmic behaviour were good only as a means
to other goods, then it would not be one of life’s goals; rather, it would be
only a means to those goals. But in the Mahabharata, dharmic behaviour is one
of life’s goals. Tus, dharmic behaviour is not a purely instrumental good. Is
dharmic behaviour some other kind of purely extrinsic good? That is, does
dharmic behaviour have value only in relation to other things? Tis strikes me
as unlikely, given the Mahabharata’s claim that dharmic behaviour is
the most valuable of earthly goals.
The Mahabharata’s characters also seem to view dharmic behaviour as an intrinsic
good. In many cases, they go out of their way to adhere to the letter of dharma.
In one passage, the Pandavas trick Drona, a warrior for the Kauravas, into
thinking that his son Asvatthaman is dead. At krishna’s suggestion, they kill an
elephant named Asvatthamanand then tell Drona, “Aswatthaman hath been slain”.
As a result, Drona withdraws from the war to grieve. Now, whether or not the
Pandavas had killed the elephant, the outcome would have been the same: Drona
would have been tricked into thinking that Asvatthaman was dead. However,
truthfulness is a supreme norm in Hindu thought. By killing the elephant, the
Pandavas ensure that they are technically speaking the truth when they say,
“Aswatthaman hath been slain.”
Why do Krishna and the Pandavas go out of their way to qualify as
“truthful” here? Afterall, their “truthfulness” has no obvious good consequence.
A rule-consequentialist might argue as follows: “A rule that requires
truthfulness at all times will tend to produce good consequences. Tus, one
should adhere to that rule, even when it is does not appear to have good
consequences.” Tus, perhaps krishna and the Pandavas are rule-consequentialists:
perhaps they are always truthful, but only as a means to producing
good consequences. If so, then they view truthfulness as a purely
instrumental good. However, its implausible that krishna and the Pandavas view
truthfulness as a purely instrumental good. As we have seen, the Mahabharata appears
to describe dharmic behaviour as an intrinsic good. Thus, it seems more likely
to me that krishna and the Pandavas regard the dharmic behaviour of truthfulness as
an intrinsic good. If they do, then it makes sense for them to go out
of their way to qualify as truthful, even when truthfulness has no obvious
good consequence apart from truthfulness itself.
Arjuna (Saga of a Pandava Warrior-Prince)
As we have seen, the Mahabharata’s characters seem to regard
dharmic behaviour as intrinsically good. If dharmic behaviour is intrinsically
good, then it is something that a consequentialist would want to
maximize. In that case, a consequentialist might violate dharma if doing so
would maximize the dharmic behaviour of others. After all, a consequentialist
might sacriﬁce his own welfare to maximize others’ welfare. In fact, the
upright character Bhisma does precisely that, renouncing sexual activity so
that his father can marry a ﬁsher-girl. Likewise, if a consequentialist
believes that dharmic behaviour is intrinsically good, then he might
sacriﬁce his own dharmic behaviour in order to maximize the dharmic behaviour
of others. krishna is a “dharma-consequentialist”, a consequentialist who sees
dharmic behaviour as intrinsically good.
Interpreting krishna as a dharma -consequentialist seems to give
us everything we want. If the Pandavas lose the war, then adharma will
triumph in the world. Tus, as a consequentialist who sees dharmic behaviour as
intrinsically good, krishna helps the Pandavas to win the war, even by means of
adharmic behaviour. krishna violates dharma for the sake of dharma itself. Thus,
his adharmic actions do not conﬂict with the Mahabharata’s claim that dharma
is supremely valuable. Nor do they conﬂict with his claim that his primary goal
is to restore dharmic behaviour. But If krishna and the Pandavas are violating dharma for
the sake of intrinsic goods, then are they really violating dharma?
Perhaps krishna and the Pandavas never actually violate dharma. Perhaps dharma ultimately
commands that an agent do whatever will maximize intrinsic goods. In other
words, perhaps the dharmic action is whatever action will maximize intrinsic
goods. If so, krishna and the Pandavas do not violate dharma during the war.
Life Is As Is - Teachings From The Mahabharata
An action is not dharmic simply in virtue of maximizing intrinsic
goods. By winning the war by any means necessary, krishna and the Pandavas do the
right thing from a consequentialist perspective, but they are not thereby doing
the dharmic thing. What is the relationship between dharmas and Dharma? The
concept of dharma as acosmic principle seems to have evolved from the early
Indian concept of ‘rita’. Rita is the cosmic order. But it has amoral aspect,
for people can deviate from the cosmic order: the wicked man does not follow
the path of rita. Likewise, in the Mahabharata, dharma seems to be a
principle not only of morality but also of cosmic order. As dharma declines,
the natural world deteriorates: “The cows will yield little milk, and the
trees, teeming with crows, will yield few ﬂowers and fruits.” Thus, it appears
that Dharma is a principle of cosmic order, and that the dharmas are the
diﬀerent rules that diﬀerent people must follow in order to be in harmony with
Dharma. As one scholar puts it, “all ordinary human dharma is only an aspect of
the universal dharma, and is justiﬁed not in itself, but only in the function
of the universal dharma.” As another scholar puts it, to violate one’s own dharma is
“to be out of step with the universe.”
Now we can explain exactly why krishna authorizes the Pandavas’ adharmic
actions. When krishna comes to earth, the universe is out of order: demons have
incarnated themselves as the Kauravas. Now we can explain exactly why krishna
authorizes the Pandavas’ adharmic actions. When krishna comes to earth, the
universe is out of order: demons have incarnated themselves as the Kauravas. To
restore the cosmic order—Dharma—the Pandavas must win the war, exterminating
the demonic incarnations. Tus, krishna encourages the Pandavas to violate dharmas
when doing so will help them to win the war. By violating dharmas, the Pandavas
deviate from the cosmic order themselves, but they help to preserve order in
the universe at large.
To grasp this point more clearly, we can use the metaphor of a dance
routine. The cosmic order is a huge, coordinated dance routine with many
diﬀerent assigned roles. Demons have started to run amok on the dance ﬂoor,
interfering with the dance. To save the dance routine from being completely
ruined, the Pandavas must stop the demons. But to stop the demons, they must
perform actions (e.g. running after the demons) that deviate from their
choreography within the dance routine. From a consequentialist perspective,
that is exactly the right thing to do: if the cosmic order is intrinsically
good, then one should sacriﬁce one’s own participation in the cosmic order in
order to save the cosmic order.
The krishna of the Mahabharata holds a complex moral outlook. He
urges the Pandavas to violate dharma, to deviate from the cosmic order.
But for krishna, conformity to the cosmic order, conformity to dharma, is
intrinsically good. He urges the Pandavas to violate dharma only because their
adharmic actions will help to restore dharmic behavior in the universe at
large. In short, krishna is a consequentialist, but he holds a peculiar form of consequentialism
in which dharmic behaviour itself is intrinsically good. This dharma -consequentialism
probably will not ﬁnd many adherents in the philosophy departments of Western
universities. The majority of Western philosophers are neither Hindus nor
Indians. Hence, the majority of Western philosophers do not believe in the principle
of cosmic order called dharma. Nonetheless, the dharma-consequentialism found
in the Mahabharata is a coherent moral theory and represents an
alternative to the kinds of consequentialism known in the West.
& Moore, M., 2007. Deontological Ethics. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
K.M., trans., 1883-1896a. The Mahabharata, Book 7: Drona Parva: Drona-vadha Parva:
Mahabharata, Book 9: Shalya Parva: Section 61. [online] Sacred-texts.
B., 2008. Rule Consequentialism. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
R., 2007. Virtue Ethics. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
W., 2003. Consequentialism. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
Y., 1992. ‘The Meaning of the Purusarthas in the Mahabharata.’ In B.
Matilal, ed. Moral Dilemmas in the Mahabharata. Shimla:
Indian Institute of Advanced Study, pp. 53-68
J.A.B. van, ed. and trans., 1973. ‘The Mahabharata’. Vol. 1. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
C., & Buitenen, J.A.B. van, eds. and trans., 1978. ‘Classical Hindu
Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas’. Philadelphia: Temple
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