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Dharma And The Mahabharata

The quest for dharma is the single most important concern of the Mahabharata. That victory — both moral and material — is bound to follow those who pursue the path of dharma seems to be a settled conviction with the characters who people the Mahabharata: yato dharmah tato jayah.

The Mahabharata also attempts to define the term in several ways:

  • that which leads to advancement and growth is dharma
  • that which prevents injury to creatures is dharma;
  • that which upholds all creatures is dharma.

But the Mahabharata is not a definitional discourse. The rich array of personages from all walks of life — rishis, kings, housewives, shopkeepers, scholars, gods, and yakshas, among others — who debate matters pertaining to dharma in the Mahabharata are not merely indulging in an intellectual pastime. Their struggles, triumphs, and misfortunes are all closely linked to their doubts, dilemmas, and bold assertions.

One of the many abstruse questions that Dharma, in the guise of a yaksha, asked Yudhishthira was this: ‘What is the way?’ The obvious answer is, ‘The way of Dharma.’ But Yudhishthira, despite his devotion to ideals, is more pragmatic here. He says:

Arguments lead to no certain conclusions, the scriptures are varied, and there is no single rishi
whose opinion is accepted by all. The truth about dharma is hidden deep; so the path that the great
have trodden is the way.

Yudhishthira’s answer is in keeping with the method of the Mahabharata. The personal histories of the characters in the epic are living lessons in ethics and values — the way of dharma — and are perhaps more instructive than what the protagonists actually tell us about dharma. We are apt to remember these epic figures as character prototypes: the versatile Krishna, the heroic Bhishma,
the righteous Yudhishthira, the impetuous Draupadi, the unscrupulous Duryodhana, the scheming Shakuni, and the forbearing Kunti. But a closer reading of the text tells us that all these personalities are far from monochromatic. The heroes are not devoid of weaknesses, nor the villains without
their share of virtue.

Through all the complexities of plot, through all its paradoxes and ethical dilemmas, one message stands out: that we can be the masters of our own destiny. We can choose to keep driving ourselves through the incredibly intricate maze of human relations, which constantly challenges our freedom and human capacities, or work to grow into our larger selves. Dharma would help us either way.

SourceExcerpts from Prabuddha Bharata Editorial November 2008