Though we have a great deal of material connected with dharma, it is not easy to decide what constitutes dharma and what would be adharma when faced with challenging situations. Draupadī, while being humiliated in the court of the Kauravas hurls a scathing remark at Bhīṣma and questions him about the nature of dharma. Bhīṣma replies that it is beyond his capacity to assess what is dhārmic under the current circumstances.
One can assess the situation only when he transcends the context at hand and sees it from a higher (philosophical) pedestal, i.e. he must have a clear picture of the hierarchy of the puruṣārthas. This needs some elaboration.
Situations in which it is hard to determine what would be righteous need to be examined by standing a step away from the context at hand to get a wholesome perspective.
Let us continue examining the episode of Draupadī’s humiliation at the royal court of the Kurus. If we were to only examine the incident only from a superficial perspective, we are bound to come up with questions such as – was it right for Śrīkṛṣṇa to wait for so long before he blessed Draupadī with endless clothes? Did he have to wait until she was insulted and faced endless humiliation in the court? Is this what Divine empathy is all about? Was there something lacking in Draupadī’s devotion? Is there some shortcoming in Śrīkṛṣṇa’s omnipotence? Why couldn’t Śrīkṛṣṇa eliminate Duryodhana and Duśśāsana right there? These and similar questions may arise in a common man’s mind.
The incident under consideration has other dimensions as well. It had been pre-determined by the Creator, Brahmā that Duryodhana’s death would take place through Bhīma’s mace and not by Śrīkṛṣṇa’s cakra, just as Rāvaṇa’s death was to take place at the hands of Śrīrāma.
We will need to go ahead with the understanding that the activities of the avatāra-puruṣas are functions of the situation at hand. No one questions the omniscience and omnipotence of the Divinities Śrīrāma and Śrīkṛṣṇa. Many subtle norms dictate the functioning of avatāra-puruṣas too. This is the essence of the statement which says that the meaning of dharma is hidden deep within a dark cave.
The internal conviction and steadfastness of a person can be evidenced through the attempts he makes at arriving at a solution adhering to dharma and the actual solution he arrives at. We must view the entire Epic as a metaphor for a man’s journey to the realms of higher and more exalted values. It is a detailed description of this journey of man. The Mahābhārata does not end with its last Parva but continues forever.
Portrayal of Eternal Conflicts
Conflicts between sāttvika and tāmasika tendencies are seen at all times and their portrayal is one of the purposes of the composition of the Mahābhārata. Such conflicts are not limited to a particular place or time, but occur at all places and times. In this sense, the concepts presented in the Epic transcend the material world. The tattva that is hailed as Para-brahman in Vedānta and as Īśvara in the Purāṇas is embodied in Bhagavān Śrīkṛṣṇa in the Mahābhārata. The words ‘avatāra’ and ‘avataraṇa’ carry the sense that they are physical manifestations of the Ultimate Value. The Mahābhārata makes it evident that the Pāṇḍavas were the avataraṇas of different deities. Duryodhana was the avataraṇa of Kali-puruṣa. It is well known that the Bhagavad-gītā is a conversation between Nara and Nārāyaṇa – human and Divine. The creative framework of the Mahābhārata is to transcend the limitations of the personality of each character. Thus, we cannot say that the Gītā was merely a conversation between Arjuna, the son of Pāṇḍu and Kṛṣṇa, the chief of the Yādavas. What lies there is the principle of jīvātmā and paramātmā. It is only by keeping this broader picture in mind that we can evaluate the Epic.
The ‘samatva’ or ‘sama-darśana’ that the Bhagavad-gītā talks about and is elaborated in detail in the Mahābhārata constitutes the essence of dharma. This is termed as ‘yoga-sādhana’ in the lore of the darśanas. The composer of the Epic was well aware that this principle is not easy to comprehend or to put in practice, so he had to substantiate it with complex plots and sub-stories.
Wisdom for Eternity
In only a few lines in the Bhārata-Sāvitrī, the seer-poet Vyāsa has captured the essence of the philosophy that transcends space and time. He has elucidated its principle and has succinctly defined the concept. He captures the essence and working of dharma, the heart of Indian culture, as the basis of worldly life. He also portrays its dynamism. The brevity with which he has put together these profound thoughts helps in making the verses of Bhārata-Sāvitrī easy to memorise. It is because of this reason that the collection of verses of the Bhārata-Sāvitrī is hailed as the pinnacle of the Epic.
How relevant are these principles of dharma, which were taught several millennia ago? Many may raise this question. The fact that surfaces on deep contemplation is that though the external nature of man’s problems changes from time to time, the inherent nature of human beings that lies underneath all such problems is unchanging. The idiom of the issues might change but their fundamental nature doesn’t. Each activity has the dimensions of the physical, mental, and philosophical. Though the Kurukṣetra war is an external phenomenon, the events that caused the war are rooted in man’s mind and emotions. The primary characters that occur in the Epic are merely the embodiments of different human traits and this structure of the Epic that personifies character traits is evident from even a cursory glance at the work.
Thus, looking at this from a philosophical perspective, the inherent nature of time and space have remained unchanged. It is only the external and superficial parameters that undergo changes with time. The position occupied by the king in the past is now occupied by the government. What used to be social classes in the past is now metamorphosed into economic classes. The descriptive nature of the law that existed in the past could have taken the form of prescriptive rules today.
The Philosophical Backdrop
Just a rudimentary materialistic solution does not suffice for several problems. A wholesome solution is only possible when viewed from a philosophical perspective – this does not need much substantiation. For example: ahiṃsā (freedom from inflicting injury) and naiṣkarmya (freedom from selfish action) are not states devoid of activity that are filled with tamas. The teaching is: Should the situation demand it, it’s fine to pick a fight or even wage a war. One must bear in mind that this fight is not a selfish one and is meant for the greater good. One must make note of these intricate details to understand the profundity of the Mahābhārata.
Śrīkṛṣṇa taught the Bhagavad-gītā to Arjuna to help him understand the meaning of action and non-action from a philosophical perspective. The framework of duty and action can be understood better from the pedestal of philosophy. Whatever is inevitable and has been predetermined by Fate cannot be changed; it is even futile to do so – this is yet another message of Śrīkṛṣṇa. It is also evident from the teachings of the Epic and Bhagavad-gītā that if some ethical and moral values today differ from those of the past, and those of the past appear to be improper today, we need not fret over it. Today’s world demands equality only at the material level and if this can be achieved by some means, no one is going to object it. However, we should never forget that it is only the internal harmony and equality that can prevail. Only if this philosophical standpoint is strengthened and things are viewed from that perspective, several aspects that appear to be important today will seem insignificant.
Perspective Towards Governing the World
We can gather from several day-to-day situations that these concepts are not merely fictional but they play a vital role in our daily interactions with the world. For instance, a doctor using a knife or scalpel (in order to cure a person of illness) does not amount to violence; killing the enemy in battle does not count as murder. The smṛtis say that an ātatāyin—one who attacks us without reason—should be eliminated forthwith.
Ahiṃsā and such other concepts are only relative to the situation and to the person. The smṛtis also say that the establishment and sustenance of dharma in complex situations might need daṇḍa-prayoga, i.e. the use of force. Thus, scholars well-versed in the śāstras should concern themselves with the right action that needs to be taken under different situations for the establishment of dharma.
If these subtle details are ignored, it will seem like the Pāṇḍavas were greedy about possessing the kingdom. There is no dearth of ‘literary critics’ who have (mis-)interpreted the characters of Rāvaṇa and Duryodhana as possessors of great measures of self-respect.
The Kauravas not only wanted to be the rulers of a vast kingdom but also desired the destruction of the Pāṇḍavas. When these points are kept in mind, we will develop a better understanding of the Epic.
An Endless Process
The world does not work in a linear fashion and its workings are not always transparent. The flow of a river is bound to encounter obstacles from time to time. The flow somehow tackles them and continues to move forward. It is important to look at the world with this metaphor in mind – it will help us overcome the anxiety that dharma is getting destroyed today. The eternal flow of human life and culture is significant and the small clinks in its civilization are rare and to be ignored in the bigger picture. This perspective will make our lives more tolerable and we can live more peacefully.
Freedom, Equality, and Brotherhood are amongst the values upheld by today’s civilizations. Though we can inculcate these values and have them as our guiding principles, we cannot deny that there are some natural limitations in putting them to practice. It is only to bring a balance between such apparently opposing elements that judiciary and governance are found to play important roles.
Contentment of every individual and equanimity with no hindrances are ideals that mankind can aim to achieve. Human history is all about reducing the gap between the ideal state and the reality. This is not a pessimistic view, of course, because if not for these ideals, humankind would not have had the motivation to achieve the heights it has so far reached.
This natural reality of the world is hidden behind the statements – ‘it is difficult to decipher the intricate nature of dharma’ and ‘the dynamism of karma is hard to comprehend.’
This is the fourth part of a four-part translation of Dr. S R Ramaswamy's Kannada essay ಭಾರತ ಸಾವಿತ್ರೀ, which was written with the express view that it should be translated by us for the English adaptation of his writings on the epic, Evolution of the Mahabharata.
 na dharma-saukṣmyāt-subhage vivaktuṃ
śaknomi te praśnam-imaṃ yathāvat।
“O noble woman! I’m unable to explain this subtle nature of dharma.
Hence cannot give a befitting answer to your question!”
(न धर्मसौक्ष्म्यात्सुभगे विवक्तुं
शक्नोमि ते प्रश्नमिमं यथावत्। – Sabhā-parva 60.40)
 The traditional definition of an ātatāyin is –
agnido garadaś-caiva śastra-pāṇi-rdhanāpahaḥ।
kṣetra-dārāpahārī ca ṣaḍ-ete ātatāyinaḥ॥
An ātatāyin is one who tries to kill another
using fire, poison, or weapon;
or illegally seize another’s money, land, or wife
(अग्निदो गरदश्चैव शस्त्रपाणिर्धनापहः।
क्षेत्रदारापहारी च षडेते आततायिनः॥)