The Moral Trials of Dharmaraya

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

Bhishma’s Discourse

THE REPLY THAT BHISHMA gave can be regarded as the essence of the Bhagavad Gita.

nirmanyurgatasaṃrambhaḥ kṛtakarmā raṇe sma ha |
yathāśakti yathotsāhaṃ satāṃ vṛtteṣu vṛttavān ||

kṣatradharmajitā-llokānavāpsyasi dhanaṃjayāt |
yudhyasva nirahaṃkāro balavīryavyapāśrayaḥ |

praśame hi kṛto yatnaḥ sumahānsuciraṃ mayā |
na caiva śakitaḥ kartuṃ yato dharmastato jayaḥ ||

Fight the battle by giving up enmity and malice. Fight it solely with an attitude of duty. Follow the path of the virtuous and fight with enthusiasm in proportion to your strength. You will attain the virtuous worlds deserving of Kshatriyas through the agency of Arjuna. Forsake your ego, believe in your strength and valour, and wage war. I attempted to effect peace for a long period. However, that did not happen. Where there is Dharma, there is victory.

The mentalities of both Bhishma and Karna are clearly visible in this episode.

The Dharma of War

War is to fulfil duty, and not to satisfy one’s vengeance. There is indeed a code even in war. It should not deviate from Sattva. Enthusiasm and valour are needed; however, egotism and arrogance are unnecessary. Peace is definitely preferable to war. However, when peace becomes impossible through means of Dharma, it becomes the duty of the Kshatriya to wage a war for (the protection) of Dharma. This duty becomes necessary from the point of the well-being of the world.

The reason for the Pandava war was not enmity against the Kauravas: it was their fidelity towards Dharma. Cousins, relatives, Gurus and common people were deserving of affection. However, Dharma which is the foundation of world harmony, was far greater than all of that. This is the essence. This is also the essence of the Gita.

However, will this advice be palatable to those who believe that brute strength is greater than Dharma?

Section 4: Bhishma

It is the tenth day of the war. Arjuna is triumphing like Yama, the Deity of Death himself. But before that, it appeared to Krishna that Arjuna had become soft. Bhishma was a Guru. He was the patriarch of the entire Kuru clan. Arjuna was not comfortable to fire weapons against him. That was the reason he fought in a rather feeble manner. However, Krishna correctly understood that the Pandavas could not win unless Bhishma exited from the battlefield. Thus, in such a case, watching Arjuna fighting in a half-hearted fashion, Krishna jumped down from the chariot and charged towards Bhishma with his divine discus in hand, vowing to finish him off. At that point, Arjuna runs behind Krishna, falls at his feet and promises to fight with all his valour. Accordingly, he is now showering a rain of arrows against Bhishma. At this, the Kaurava army scatters out of sheer terror. When Duryodhana witnesses this, he rushes to Bhishma and begs him for help. Bhishma says this:

duryodhana vijānīhi sthiro bhūtvā viśāṃpate ||
pātayiṣye ripūnanyānpāṇḍavānpratipālayan |
pratijñāto jayo hyadya pāṇḍavānāṃ mahātmanām ||
pūrvakālaṃ tava mayā pratijñānaṃ mahābala |
hatvā daśasahasrāṇi kṣatriyāṇāṃ mahātmanām ||
saṃgrāmādapayāsyāmi hyetatkarma samāhitam | ...
adya te puruṣavyāghra pratariṣye ṛṇaṃ tava |
bhartṛpiṇḍakṛtaṃ rājannihatāḥ pṛtanāmukhe ||

The Pandavas do not deserve to be killed. Shikhandi who is standing before me and discharging arrows was born a woman. Therefore, I cannot fight back. For these two reasons, I can no longer give battle.

The moment Bhishma said, this, the intensity of Shikhandi’s attack escalated. Other warriors too, wounded Bhishma. Arjuna’s rain of arrows reached a crescendo. Finally, Bhishma fell down from his chariot.

That which had to be captured by death one or the other day was finally captured by death on that day. However, the Jiva which death could not capture, became immortal. Its repute became immortal. Even to this day, the world remembers Bhishma through “Bhishma’s vow.” His profound discourse has similarly become renowned as “bhiṣmānuśasanaṃ” or “the Discourse of Bhishma.” It has been accepted that his life was extremely pure and rarefied. Bhishma’s fame is the fame of Punya.

Section 5: Dharmaraya

Dharmaraya’s nature is familiar even to our people who are uneducated. He is the human embodiment of Dharma. He is truthful, he is a constant Tapasvi and he had fully escaped the clutches of lust, anger, greed, attachment, arrogance and jealousy. He is magnanimous, forgiving and virtuous. He is also Yudhishtira, meaning one who stands firm in war and fights with courage.

Despite all this, he is also human, right? The only human frailty he had was his addiction to gambling. Like Nala, whom we saw previously. If anyone invited him to a gambling match, it was impossible for Dharmaraya to refuse. He held enormous belief in his dice-play skills and took pride in his prestige as an expert dice-player. The chain of misfortune in the world of Mahabharata was the root cause of Dharmaraya’s weakness in the form of gambling addiction.

Second Gambling Match

He has already lost everything in the first gambling match. Heeding Draupadi’s demand for delivering justice for the humiliation she has suffered at the hands of Duryodhana’s group, Dhritarashtra has returned everything that Dharmaraya had lost. He has thus regained all his wealth and position. At that point, Shakuni once again gives evil counsel to Duryodhana who in turn invites Dharmaraya for a second bout of gambling. On that occasion:

evaṃ daivabalāviṣṭo dharmarājo yudhiṣṭhiraḥ।
bhīṣmadroṇā''vāryamāṇo vidureṇa ca dhīmatā।।
gāndhāryā pṛthayā caiva bhīmārjunayamaistathā।।
vāryamāṇopi satataṃ na ca rājanniyacchati।
evaṃ saṃvāryamāṇopi kaunteyo hitakāmyayā।।
devakāryārthasiddhyarthaṃ muhūrtaṃ kalimāviśat।

Caught in the thrall of destiny – that is bereft of wisdom – even when Bhishma, Drona and others were dissuading him, even when Gandhari and Kunti were imploring him, even when Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva were repeatedly stopping him, he embraced Kali in an instant as though to fulfil some design of the Divine.

This eminence who had vanquished all forms of greed and attachment was thus unable to overcome the infatuation of his repute as an expert gambler. One weakness of a great man became poisonous for the entire populace. This is what is known as tragedy in English.

Another Trial of Sattva

Now we can consider another trial of morality that Dharmaraya underwent. Dronacharya is now the commander-in-chief in the Kurukshetra war. The Acharya has now become terrifying. On that occasion, Krishna said:

āsthīyatāṃ jaye yogo dharmamutsṛjya pāṇḍava ।
yathā vaḥ saṃyuge sarvānna hanyādrukmavāhanaḥ ॥
aśvatthāmni hate naiṣa yudhyediti matirmama ।
taṃ hataṃ saṃyuge kaścidasmai śaṃsatu mānavaḥ ॥

Let everyone focus their minds solely on attaining victory. At this juncture, Dharma gets a secondary place. Else, Drona will annihilate all of you. If Drona must stop the war, Ashvatthama must die. You are so many people out here. One of you must shout, ‘Ashvatthama is dead.’

Arjuna did not agree to this. However, Yudhishtira conditionally agreed after great difficulty: kṛcchreṇa tu yudhiṣṭhiraḥ.

tato bhīmo mahābāhuranīke sve mahāgajam ।
jaghāna gadayā rājannaśvatthāmānamityuta ॥

bhīmasenastu savrīḍamupetya droṇamāhave ।
aśvatthāmā hata iti śabdamuccaiścakāra ha ॥

aśvatthāmeti hi gajaḥ khyāto nāmnā hato'bhavat ।
kṛtvā manasi taṃ bhīmo mithyā vyāhṛtavāṃstadā ॥  (Dronaparva, 191: 11)

Ashvatthama was the name of Drona’s son. Drona had excessive love for his son. Bhimasena killed an elephant named Ashvatthama and loudly announced it thereby causing doubt in the Acharya’s mind about his son’s death. He was heartbroken and contemplated on immolating himself. He also thought about annihilating the entire Kshatriya race itself. At that point, many Maharshis prevailed upon him not to undertake such a cruel act.

iti teṣāṃ vacaḥ śrutvā bhīmasenavacaḥ smaran |
sandihyamāno vyathitaḥ kuntīputraṃ yudhiṣṭhiram |
ahataṃ vā hataṃ veti papraccha sutamātmanaḥ ||
sthirā buddhirhi droṇasya na pārtho vakṣyate'nṛtam |
trayāṇāmapi lokānāmaiśvaryārthe kathañcana ||  

Recalling Bhima’s words and suspecting them, Drona asked Yudhishtira: ‘is my son dead or no?’ Drona had unshakeable faith that Dharmaraya would never utter a lie: “Dharmaraya will never speak untruth even if the wealth of the three worlds were offered to him.”

The real drama unfolded at this precise point.

What did Dharmaraya, who had earned such an unsullied reputation, do now?

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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The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...