Downfall of Drona and the Subtlety of Dharma

This article is part 7 of 8 in the series Characters of the Mahabharata

Drona’s Downfall

tato niṣpāṇḍavāmurvīṃ kariṣyantaṃ yudhāmpatim।
droṇaṃ jñātvā dharmarājaṃ govindo vyathito'bravīt।।

yadyardhadivasaṃ droṇo yudhyate manyumāsthitaḥ।
satyaṃ bravīmi te senā vināśaṃ samupaiṣyati।।

sa bhavāṃstrātu no droṇātsatyājjyāyo'nṛtaṃ vacaḥ।
anṛtaṃ jīvitasyārthe vadanna spṛśyate'nṛtaiḥ।। (Dronaparva, 191: 42-44)     

tamatathyabhaye magno jaye sakto yudhiṣṭhiraḥ।
aśvatthāmā hati śabdamuccaiścakāra ha'||

avyaktamabravīdrājanhataḥ kuñjara ityuta।।
tasya pūrvaṃ rathaḥ pṛthvyāścaturaṅgulamucchritaḥ।
babhūvaivaṃ ca tenokte tasya vāhāḥ spṛśanmahīm।। (Dronaparva, 191: 42-44)    

Krishna said with a warning, “This Drona will ensure that there is no trace of the Pandavas on this earth.” It was Bhima who first delivered the news to Drona saying, “savrīḍaṃ” (bashful, ashamed). At this point, Krishna asks Dharmaraya, “save us from Drona. Untruth is greater than truth now. If you utter a lie to save your life, it won’t pollute you. If all you wish to survive, untruth is the only way,” said the Acharya of the Bhagavad Gita.

Listen to Dharmaraya’s response: he is scared to speak untruth but he is interested in victory. So he says loudly, “aśvathtāmā hataḥ” (aśvathtāmā is dead) and then whispers, “hataḥ kuñjaraḥ” (the elephant is dead).    

What happened after these words emanated from Dharmaraya’s mouth is narrated by Vyasa: till then, Dharmaraya’s chariot above the ground, it had not descended into the ground. Owing to the glory of his Punya, it was four finger spans above the ground.

babhūvaivaṃ ca tenokte tasya vāhāḥ spṛśanmahīm।।  

The moment these words left his lips, his chariot like that of the others, descended to the earth. Dharmaraya became like the rest of them.

Subtlety of Dharma

This is an episode involving a nuance of Dharma. When two principles of Dharma display mutual opposition, it becomes a question of nuance. Devotion to one’s mother is Dharma; affection for one’s wife is another Dharma. When the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law declare war, what is the Dharma that the son and the husband must follow? Nursing the patient is Dharma. Keeping a watch on the husband’s office timing is also Dharma. If both occur at the same time, which Dharma must be followed first? Giving hospitality to relatives and well-wishers is Dharma. Maintaining control over household expenses is also Dharma. When both are not possible at the same time, which is Dharma? This is the nature of the dichotomy of Dharma.

The answer: in such cases, Dharma is decided based on the importance and gradation of that particular circumstance. The most important Dharma was to ensure Drona’s exit from the war. The tactic for accomplishing that is the accompanying Dharma. If there is doubt about Adharma in that situation, that Adharma is inevitable.

The same principle applies in equal measure to the episode where Sri Rama kills Vali. Whether Vali needed to be killed is a different question. But when it is established that the killing is necessary and that there is no other recourse, the question arises as to the method of killing. However, this is not the main question; it is a circumstantial question. It is acceptable to say that the method too, must be according to a code. However, if adhering to that code becomes impossible, then that which is possible should be followed. Sri Rama conducted himself accordingly in that episode.

Duty when Faced with Dharma-Dichotomy

In the inevitability to protect a great Dharma, there might arise the need to forgo a lesser Dharma. Likewise, in the process of stopping a great Adharma, it might be necessary to endure a lesser Adharma. A small amount of dirt might stick to the hand that washes and cleans filth. If we fear of getting our hands dirty, there is no hope for cleaning the larger filth. Thus, we must take courage and put our hands in the filth. After this, the dirt that has stuck to our hands must be washed with water. This is the path of understanding and practicing the subtlety of Dharma. This is known in English as compromise, negotiation, discernment, give-and-take. To gain something, one must forgo a bit of something else.

In our worldly transactions, this sort of negotiation and compromise becomes inevitable on several occasions. This is what we call as the nuance of Dharma. Let’s say a Brahmana visits our home as a guest and sits down for a meal. Right at that time, someone else comes there and informs the Brahmana of the bereavement of his relative. Must we really tell the Brahmana such a news at that time? Or must be wait? This is the nuance of Dharma.

It is in such situations that we must instantly discern what is the proper Dharma using our wisdom. This is what our Dharmasastra says as a synecdoche:

tyajedekaṃ kulasyārthe grāmasyārthe kulaṃ tyajet ।
grāmaṃ janapadasyārthe ātmārthe pṛthivīṃ tyajet ॥ (Udyogaparva, 128)

As is evident, the process of deciding Dharma and Adharma is a knotty question. It is rarely easy. It is precisely such situations that demand the alertness of mind and sagacity of gradation: what is important, the rank of importance and the degree of importance. One must investigate this and conduct oneself accordingly.

Dharmaraya faced such a situation in the episode of Drona and Aśvathtāma. He had to accept a minor untruth in the service of a lofty purpose. This is of course, a slight failing in Dharma. However, it is our consolation that fate, destiny and force of circumstance pushed him to it. When the Divine itself places a situation opposed to Dharma in our life, what can a mere mortal do? A lofty Dharma and a minor Adharma—among the two, one must stick to the lofty and set aside the minor. This is Dharma.

Dharmaraya had to do such a thing. This is the argumentative strength in favour of Sri Krishna’s discourse. Therefore, Sri Krishna’s saying in the Gita is as follows:

yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam ||

Yoga is the skill or perfection in performing Karma.

The Sastra’s Verdict on Difficulty in Deciding Dharma

When two Dharmas are mutually conflicting, which is the one that must be chosen and upheld? The answer to such questions must be sought using the wisdom and discrimination of grading the great and the minor in each specific circumstance. The choice of which Dharma and in what proportion it should be chosen, which will successively pave the way to solution: this must be the deciding factor.

The Dharmasastra lays down as follows:

yatra dharmadvayavirodhastatra laghīya sa eva
(laghudharmasyaiva) bādha ityāha vyāsaḥ ||

avirodhetu yo dharmaḥ sa dharmassadbhirucyate |
tasmādvirodhe dharmasya niścitya gurulāghavam |
yato bhūyastato vidvān kuryāddharmavinirṇayaṃ || (Devanabhatta: Smṛticandrikā: Saṃskārakāṇḍa)

When a minor Dharma must be given up in service of a great Dharma, the courageous person will do so. If he must suffer injury on account of this transgression, he will be prepared to undergo it without tears or complaint.

To be continued



Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.



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