Mahābhārata - Ahiṃsā

This article is part 17 of 22 in the series Vacana Bhārata by Prof A.R. Krishna Sastri

Mahābhārata - Ahiṃsā

The trait of sattva does not mean non-activity or lack of valour. The same can be said of ahiṃsā too. We have seen earlier that ahiṃsā is one of the first pre-requisites for the practise of yoga. It is not sufficient merely staying away from violence but one must also show compassion. That is the very first ātma-guṇa laid out by the author of the dharma-sūtras (see Gautama-dharma-sūtra). But the Mahābhārata is a story of war; where there is war, there will be killings; in eighteen days, eighteen akṣauhiṇis were decimated. A red river of blood flowed. When Arjuna says that he will not fight, Kṛṣṇa replies – “This attempt of yours is useless. Your fundamental nature will make you fight. If you do not fight, you will get a bad name and incur sin.” Thus, using various lines of reasoning, Kṛṣṇa coaxes Arjuna to fight the war. Even a person like Dharmarāja fought the war. He killed as many people as he could and as a result, what he got was vīra-svarga (place in the heaven reserved for the brave).

While in the forest, they hunted animals and ate meat. Not only them, but everyone, of all social background, was a meat-eater. Once, the animals of Dvaitavana came to Dharmarāja in his dream and begged him not to kill them; his heart did not melt at those words to the extent that he turned vegetarian. He merely took his family members to a different forest. The killing of animals was a part of yajñas and yāgas. ‘Dharma’vyādha was butcher, but with time, the mindset for non-violence and compassion increased. Meat eating reduced. This is also one of the reasons why the yajñas and yāgas reduced. None need to feel bad about this change, nor feel proud about it. There are many non-vegetarians in India and abroad. Even so, it is virtue to have given up meat eating. It is natural for man to take to drinking alcohol and eating meat; therefore, those are not wrong; but, giving up of these practises is certainly a virtue – thus says Manu.

न मांसभक्षणे दोषो
न मद्ये न तु मैथुने।
प्रवृत्तिरेषा भूतानां
निवृत्तिस्तु महाफला॥
(It is but natural for humans to eat meat, consume alcohol and engage in sex. This is not wrong. However, letting go of these is a great virtue.)

Manusmṛti 5.56

Image Courtesy:- Google image search

Ahiṃsā is like gold; pure gold cannot be turned into a coin; it will be of no practical use. It needs to be mixed with robust and firm copper. Similarly, in a king, a certain amount of firmness is essential. It is only the Rāja-daṇḍa (the rule of the king) that protects dharmaartha, and kāma. It is only for the fear of punishment that people abstain from crime. For bringing the evil under control, a certain amount of cruelty and violence are required. Such violence is not violence in the real sense, but it is for strengthening the foundations of dharma. Even in the ideal kingdom of Rāma, killing of rākṣasas took place. It is certainly violence to put at stake the lives of the youth of the country for selfish ends and not the practise of cruelty and violence for the sake of maintaining order.

Therefore, the intent behind an act takes precedence over the actual act of violence. Further, the causes of violence – greed, pride, lust, anger and others should be given up. When a surgeon operates on the body and saves a life – that does not count as violence; it is not a sin. However, if a criminal uses the same instrument and kills someone, that is a sin; therefore, in acts that seem violent, it is important to raise the questions of Who, Why, and How – and provide answers for them. If not, ahiṃsā remains an eye-wash and does not benefit anyone.  Even if we wish to milk a cow, a certain amount of violence is involved.

“The emphasis on violence, here and elsewhere, is interesting; for no obvious contradiction appears to be noticed between this and fighting for a righteous cause. The whole epic centres around a great war. Evidently the conception of Ahimsa, non-violence, had a great deal to do with motive, the absence of the violent mental approach, self-discipline and control of anger and hatred, rather than physical abstention from violent action, when this became necessary and inevitable.” – Discovery of India, p. 113

Ahiṃsā means absence of cruelty. It is not lack of vigour; it is not tamas (lethargy, indifference); it doesn’t mean unconditional compromise; the more we bend to the whims of others, the more we get buried under. A spineless and helpless individual ends up there, after all. But a person who is strong and has the will to survive will certainly fight life’s battles. The reason being that man craves for happiness, not for death. If we bend to evil forces at all times, we will only get strangled in the end (one might recall the story of Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway). The more we submit to a greedy person, the more he will exploit us. However a good a person may be, there is always a limit for his tolerance and his exercise of non-violence. Thus, at some level, violence is essential. This is how wars have taken place. When two parties battle each other, each one claims to be fighting for justice, for the establishment of dharma, and to save the civilization; but it only results in a bloodbath of the entire nation, loss of property and wealth, barren lands, famines, despair, and helplessness.

In the past, King Pāṇḍu ruled over all the kingdoms; after his death, the Pāṇḍavas merely asked for half the kingdom – only the portions that he had won over in addition to what existed before his time. Then they reduced their request to five villages. But in response, the Kuru prince said that he would not part with even the space occupied by the tip of a needle. What should the Pāṇḍavas do? They would have to return to the forest; and that is exactly what Duryodhana wanted. His lowly mentality and adharma-mindset does not end there. He is not content merely with his happiness. He also desires the unhappiness of his neighbour. He seems to be more enthusiastic looking at their pathetic state rather than enjoying his comforts. It is for this reason that Duryodhana goes to the forest under the pretext of a Ghoṣayātrā (roughly translated as - ghoṣa = cowherd colony, yātra = trip) with an exorbitant display of his wealth and marches in front of the Pāṇḍavas, who are residing there. Duryodhana loses faces at the hands of the Gāndharva king. It is only Arjuna’s courage and Yudhiṣṭhira’s compassion that allowed him to live; disgraced, he returned home. However, Yudhiṣṭhira’s nobility, compassion, and goodwill were akin to pouring water into a cauldron of boiling oil. This episode only agitated Duryodhana further; his hatred for the Pāṇḍavas only became more intense. In the end, his loss was due to such display of bad character, and due to his inherent failings like jealousy, intolerance, deception, hatred, and pettiness. [Ghoṣayātrā was a pompous trip made by Duryodhana and the others under the pretext of visiting the cowherd colony to do a census, but with the ulterior motive of a vulgar display of their glory]

Duryodhana’s plans failed. Victory did not come to greed and deceit, nor to betrayal and hatred, nor to evil machinations and sadism, and neither to injustice and atrocity; what won in the end was justice and dharma; not the army of eleven akṣauhiṇis but the one with seven; not to the armies that fought the war but to the charioteer who did not – this Duryodhana finally realized. This is the great teaching of the Mahābhārata to kings and statesmen.


To be continued.

Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his astute feedback.



Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His Vacana-bhārata and Kathāmṛta are classics of Kannada literature while his Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka and Bankimacandra are of unrivalled scholarship.



Arjun is a writer, translator, engineer, and enjoys composing poems. He is well-versed in Sanskrit, Kannada, English, Greek, and German languages. His research interests lie in comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Sanskrit literature. He has deep interest in the theatre arts and music. Arjun has (co-) translated the works of AR Krishna Shastri, DV Gundappa, Dr. SL Bhyrappa, Dr. SR Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh


Hari is a writer, translator, editor, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in philosophy, education pedagogy design, literature, and films. He has (co-)written/translated and (co-)edited 35+ books, mostly related to Indian culture. He serves on the advisory board of a few educational institutions.

Prekshaa Publications

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the fifth volume, episodes from the lives of traditional savants responsible for upholding the Vedic culture. These memorable characters lived a life of opulence amidst poverty— theirs  was the wealth of the soul, far beyond money and gold. These vidvāns hailed from different corners of the erstwhile Mysore Kingdom and lived in...

Padma Bhushan Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam represents the quintessence of Sage Bharata’s art and Bhārata, the country that gave birth to the peerless seer of the Nāṭya-veda. Padma’s erudition in various streams of Indic knowledge, mastery over many classical arts, deep understanding of the nuances of Indian culture, creative genius, and sublime vision bolstered by the vedāntic and nationalistic...

Bhārata has been a land of plenty in many ways. We have had a timeless tradition of the twofold principle of Brāhma (spirit of wisdom) and Kṣāttra (spirit of valour) nourishing and protecting this sacred land. The Hindu civilisation, rooted in Sanātana-dharma, has constantly been enriched by brāhma and safeguarded by kṣāttra.
The renowned Sanskrit poet and scholar, Śatāvadhānī Dr. R...

ಛಂದೋವಿವೇಕವು ವರ್ಣವೃತ್ತ, ಮಾತ್ರಾಜಾತಿ ಮತ್ತು ಕರ್ಷಣಜಾತಿ ಎಂದು ವಿಭಕ್ತವಾದ ಎಲ್ಲ ಬಗೆಯ ಛಂದಸ್ಸುಗಳನ್ನೂ ವಿವೇಚಿಸುವ ಪ್ರಬಂಧಗಳ ಸಂಕಲನ. ಲೇಖಕರ ದೀರ್ಘಕಾಲಿಕ ಆಲೋಚನೆಯ ಸಾರವನ್ನು ಒಳಗೊಂಡ ಈ ಹೊತ್ತಗೆ ಪ್ರಧಾನವಾಗಿ ಛಂದಸ್ಸಿನ ಸೌಂದರ್ಯವನ್ನು ಲಕ್ಷಿಸುತ್ತದೆ. ತೌಲನಿಕ ವಿಶ್ಲೇಷಣೆ ಮತ್ತು ಅಂತಃಶಾಸ್ತ್ರೀಯ ಅಧ್ಯಯನಗಳ ತೆಕ್ಕೆಗೆ ಬರುವ ಬರೆಹಗಳೂ ಇಲ್ಲಿವೆ. ಶಾಸ್ತ್ರಕಾರನಿಗಲ್ಲದೆ ಸಿದ್ಧಹಸ್ತನಾದ ಕವಿಗೆ ಮಾತ್ರ ಸ್ಫುರಿಸಬಲ್ಲ ಎಷ್ಟೋ ಹೊಳಹುಗಳು ಕೃತಿಯ ಮೌಲಿಕತೆಯನ್ನು ಹೆಚ್ಚಿಸಿವೆ. ಈ...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the fourth volume, some character sketches of the Dewans of Mysore preceded by an account of the political framework of the State before Independence and followed by a review of the political conditions of the State after 1940. These remarkable leaders of Mysore lived in a period that spans from the mid-nineteenth century to the...

Bharatiya Kavya-mimamseya Hinnele is a monograph on Indian Aesthetics by Mahamahopadhyaya N. Ranganatha Sharma. The book discusses the history and significance of concepts pivotal to Indian literary theory. It is equally useful to the learned and the laity.

Sahitya-samhite is a collection of literary essays in Kannada. The book discusses aestheticians such as Ananda-vardhana and Rajashekhara; Sanskrit scholars such as Mena Ramakrishna Bhat, Sridhar Bhaskar Varnekar and K S Arjunwadkar; and Kannada litterateurs such as DVG, S L Bhyrappa and S R Ramaswamy. It has a foreword by Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh.

The Mahābhārata is the greatest epic in the world both in magnitude and profundity. A veritable cultural compendium of Bhārata-varṣa, it is a product of the creative genius of Maharṣi Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana Vyāsa. The epic captures the experiential wisdom of our civilization and all subsequent literary, artistic, and philosophical creations are indebted to it. To read the Mahābhārata is to...

Shiva Rama Krishna

சிவன். ராமன். கிருஷ்ணன்.
இந்திய பாரம்பரியத்தின் முப்பெரும் கதாநாயகர்கள்.
உயர் இந்தியாவில் தலைமுறைகள் பல கடந்தும் கடவுளர்களாக போற்றப்பட்டு வழிகாட்டிகளாக விளங்குபவர்கள்.
மனித ஒற்றுமை நூற்றாண்டுகால பரிணாம வளர்ச்சியின் பரிமாணம்.
தனிநபர்களாகவும், குடும்ப உறுப்பினர்களாகவும், சமுதாய பிரஜைகளாகவும் நாம் அனைவரும் பரிமளிக்கிறோம்.
சிவன் தனிமனித அடையாளமாக அமைகிறான்....

ऋतुभिः सह कवयः सदैव सम्बद्धाः। विशिष्य संस्कृतकवयः। यथा हि ऋतवः प्रतिसंवत्सरं प्रतिनवतामावहन्ति मानवेषु तथैव ऋतुवर्णनान्यपि काव्यरसिकेषु कामपि विच्छित्तिमातन्वते। ऋतुकल्याणं हि सत्यमिदमेव हृदि कृत्वा प्रवृत्तम्। नगरजीवनस्य यान्त्रिकतां मान्त्रिकतां च ध्वनदिदं चम्पूकाव्यं गद्यपद्यमिश्रितमिति सुव्यक्तमेव। ऐदम्पूर्वतया प्रायः पुरीपरिसरप्रसृतानाम् ऋतूनां विलासोऽत्र प्रपञ्चितः। बेङ्गलूरुनामके...

The Art and Science of Avadhānam in Sanskrit is a definitive work on Sāhityāvadhānam, a form of Indian classical art based on multitasking, lateral thinking, and extempore versification. Dotted throughout with tasteful examples, it expounds in great detail on the theory and practice of this unique performing art. It is as much a handbook of performance as it is an anthology of well-turned...

This anthology is a revised edition of the author's 1978 classic. This series of essays, containing his original research in various fields, throws light on the socio-cultural landscape of Tamil Nadu spanning several centuries. These compelling episodes will appeal to scholars and laymen alike.
“When superstitious mediaevalists mislead the country about its judicial past, we have to...

The cultural history of a nation, unlike the customary mainstream history, has a larger time-frame and encompasses the timeless ethos of a society undergirding the course of events and vicissitudes. A major key to the understanding of a society’s unique character is an appreciation of the far-reaching contributions by outstanding personalities of certain periods – especially in the realms of...

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhānī Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective to every discussion. These essays deal with the philosophy, history, aesthetics, and practice of...


इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

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...