Philosophy in the Mahābhārata: A Discussion on the Supreme

This article is part 13 of 22 in the series Vacana Bhārata by Prof A.R. Krishna Sastri

We have seen earlier that prakṛti undergoes metamorphosis due to the loss of equilibrium of the three guṇas (sattva, rajas, and tamas) and this instability is instigated by the puruṣa – this cause sentient creation. Prakṛti can only be under the influence of either the puruṣa or īśvara. This īśvara-saṅkalpa (the ordinance of the Supreme Being) is destiny. This principle is given several other names such as Daivadiṣṭa, Bhāgadheya, Bhavitavya, Kāla, Niyati, Dhātṛ, Vidhātṛ, Brahmā, Prajāpati, etc. There are slight variations in their definitions but in essence, all these indicate a Supreme principle that is beyond the human abilities and drives order in the world.

According to Nilakantha’s ṭīka (gloss, commentary upon an existing commentary) on Harivaṃśa 131.7, Dhātā is pravartaka (initiator, instigator, manager) and Vidhātā is phalaprada (creator of rewards, granter of wishes). Draupadī too, in the Mahābhārata (Vanaparva, adhyāya 32), uses the word ‘dhātṛ’ synonymously with ‘īśvara’ and ‘prajāpati’– “ईश्वरं कुत एवाहमवमंस्ये प्रजापतिम्.” The Amarakośa (157) gives the followings words for ‘fate’ – daiva, diṣṭa, bhāgadheya, bhāgya (n.), niyati (f.), and vidhi (m.) –

प्रशस्तवाचकान्यमून्ययश्शुभावहो विधिः।

दैवं दिष्टं भागधेयं भाग्यं स्त्री नियतिर्विधिः॥

Vidhi, however, is adṛṣṭa, unlike Indra and other deities (who are considered dṛṣṭa, i.e. those that can be perceived). [Now however Indra and others too are adṛṣṭa for us!] This vidhi was called ṛta in the time of the Vedas and was given an exalted position; the term ṛta has remained only in the word anṛta (falsehood) today! Anṛta means ‘that which is not ṛtaṚta and ṛju are synonymous; they refer to order. In other words, ‘that which is not crooked’ and ‘that which is in its natural state.’ This has also taken the meaning ‘satya.’ This is also the dharma, which sustains and supports the world. Even science admits that the universe is governed by the laws of nature. A small imbalance in the nature can have repercussions of a high magnitude. This, however, has never happened in the past and is unlikely to happen in the future. This cosmic order includes timely occurrences of day, night, rains, sunlight, seasons, etc. Indra, Agni, Vāyu, Yama, Sūrya, and other deities too are bound by this cosmic order.

Taittīriyopaniṣad 2.7 says, “भीषास्मात् वातः पवते भीषोदेति सूर्यः। भीषास्मादग्निश्चेन्द्रश्चमृत्युर्धावति पञ्चमः।” It is due to fear of Him that the wind blows, it is due to fear that the sun rises; and it is due to fear of Him that Indra, Agni, and Yama perform their duties. (Also see Kathopanisad 6.3.)

It is only humans who think that they can refute this Fate and work against it! That it is impossible had been understood by all in the Mahābhārata. Even Duryodhana and Karṇa, who were over-confident of their abilities, also speak along these lines.

Some Western critics have brushed Indians aside as fatalists and in response, some Indian scholars have bent over backwards to somehow show that we are not fatalists or vidhi-vādis at all. If our philosophers held Free Will of humans to be supreme, we may then agree that we are not vidhi-vādis. On the contrary, our philosophers have deemed vidhi (fate, destiny) as one of the important aspects of life. Just because the Western mind proposes an idea does not necessarily make it correct. Even science is ever-growing; what is true today might be disproved tomorrow. That being the case, why should theirs be the final word in matters of philosophy? If humans accept that in front of Fate, they are helpless and weak, what’s the shame in that? Nobody knows what the truth is!

The Westerners with their golden touch found success wherever they went and this perhaps led them to believe that human effort is the highest ideal; but can we not say that it is a result of inadequate experience? With more and varied experiences, their faith in human effort might become shaky. Western scientists, philosophers, and statesmen are slowly recognizing that human effort is not the highest. Recently [c. 1950s], speaking about some instances of World War II, the Nobel Laureate Robert A Millikan said in one of his lectures in the US: “Wise men in all the ages have seen enough to at least make them reverent.” He quoted Albert Einstein as saying, “It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvellous structure of the universe which we dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.” “That,” Millikan said, “is a good definition of God as I need.”

But belief in God is not to belittle man, Millikan believes. “For while the Great Architect had to direct alone the earlier stages of the evolutionary process.” Millikan said, “that part of Him that became us – for we are certainly inside, not outside, creation’s plan – has been stepping up amazingly the pace, of vegetable, animal and human evolution since we began to be conscious of the part we had to play.”

“It is our sense of responsibility for playing our part to the best of our ability that makes us Godlike.”

Millikan cites instances in the war when in his view, “something other than any demonstrable superiority of the Allied performance tipped the scales in our favour.”

“Almost a turn of a hair in some, if not most of these events,” he said, “and civilization might have been doomed but it was saved.

“Shall I say by human agents? Yes, in part, for we are certainly a part of the great evolutionary scheme.”

“Just how we fit into the plans of the Great Architect and how much he has assigned us to do, we do not know; but if we fail in our assignment, it is pretty certain that part of the job will be left undone.

“But fit in, we certainly do somehow, else we would not have a sense of our own responsibilities. A purely materialistic philosophy is, to me, the height of unintelligence.” [Divine Ordering of Universe; The Hindu, 31 August 1948]

In this line of thought, human effort and intellect are given a place; this is only but natural.

The Mahābhārata does not deny Free Will. Humans shouldn’t deny themselves at all times. Such people will never be happy. Humans can, by their effort, find remedies to divinely created aspects like cold, heat, rain, hunger, thirst, etc. This is, however, true only in matters of day-to-day significance. And even if basic human requirements are fulfilled by Fate, then what significance will human effort ever have? What does ‘freedom’ then mean? Suppose we were to function as per natural laws under the influence of rajas and tamas, adhering to the maxim “बलादिव नियोजितः” where is the aspect of the individual? Having said, “अहङ्कारविमूढात्म कर्ताहमिति मन्यते” (Bhagavad-gītā 3.27), the Mahābhārata holds Fate responsible for everything. The individual, the tools at his disposal, the manner in which he uses the tools, the circumstances, and Fate (unknown forces) – these five are the factors responsible for the outcome of any action, good or bad (Bhagavad-gītā 18.14-16). In this manner, if a person is conscious of both Fate and Free Will, and immerses himself in an activity, then he will never be disappointed with failure or overjoyed by success. These principles can be seen in Kṛṣṇa’s words as well as actions. The Gītā is just an essence of the experiences of Kṛṣṇa. All that he advised Arjuna, he had himself practiced in his life. Did he not have the feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’ or the affection for his own people? But when the time came, he killed them while being detached, and peacefully met his own end.

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.

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