The Balance of Dharma and Adharma in the Mahabharata

Cover Photo
Karna on the Kurukshetra; Image source:

As an epic, The Mahabharata is a narrative focused on describing the struggle to return balance to the ever shifting dynamic of dharma (right) and adharma (wrong), just like most other major wars that take place in Hindu mythology. The war itself was fought on magnificent proportions with supernatural intervention and the use of divine weapons throughout. During the time period described within the epic, adharma has so strongly overtaken dharma that Lord Vishnu himself was forced to come down to Earth in the form of Lord Krishna to restore the balance, “Yada yada hi dharmasya / glanir bhavati bharata / abhyutthanam adharmasya / tadatmanam srjamy aham (Bhagavad Gita , Text 7)”. This roughly translates to say that when there is a drop in righteousness and a rise in evil, God himself shall descend. A common point of discourse is about the so called acts of adharma committed by the characters and inspired by the Lord himself. How could dharma be brought to balance if the protagonists themselves engage in adharma? Through many examples from the epic, it is visible that without engaging in some acts of adharma, the Pandavas would never have been able to restore dharma. Dharma is indeed restored to balance at the end of the epic as a result of the various balancing acts of dharma and adharma by either party.

Stephen Jacobs writes that the Pandavas are considered to represent dharma and the Kauravas represent adharma in his book, Hinduism Today: An Introduction . To fully understand the premise of the great war, we must first look into the transgressions against dharma committed by the Kauravas. The root cause of Duryodhana’s actions come from his jealousy and material desire for the throne of Hastinapur. In the earlier parts of their lives, the two sets of cousins have an unfriendly relationship with one another. Duryodhana attempts to kill his cousin Bhīma by poisoning him and then trying to drown him. Another time, the Kauravas attempt to annihilate the Pandavas and their mother by setting fire to a Palace they are staying in, but again to no avail. Duryodhana’s jealousy of his cousins’ accomplishments along with the negative influence of his maternal uncle Sakuni led him to commit many acts of adharma along his path to the throne. He describes his anger towards the Pandavas to Sakuni before the gambling match is proposed, “I have seen this whole earth obedient to Yudhishthira’s will, …, and I am so full of resentment that I burn day and night… (Mahabharata, 122:18-22).” As is later revealed in Bhisma’s sermon to Yudhishthira at the end of the war, anyone who seeks to gain power, wealth and the throne for the sole purpose of material gains is not practicing dharma and cannot be a good king. Duryodhana always strove to outdo his cousins using his power, and wanted power for the sake of showing off. This background provides us with a good idea of where the adharma begins. Now we will examine various examples of adharma committed by both sides and identify how they affect the balance of dharma in the context of the war.

The first major acts of adharma to identify in the epic lie in the hall of Hastinapur’s kingdom during the gambling match between Yudhishthira and the Kauravas. Sakuni had intentionally planned the match for the sole purpose of cheating Yudhishthira and the Pandavas out of their fortune and kingdom of Indraprastha. By engaging in blackmail, Duryodhana and Sakuni convince Dhritarastra to allow for the evil game of gambling to be pursued for the sole purpose of stealing the wealth of the Pandavas. No scripture is needed to emphasize the adharma of stealing or taking goods from another by improper means. During this time, Duryodhana’s ideology of life comes to light, when he mentions to his father, “… a Kshatriya should further his own interests, whether this involves dharma or adharma (Mahabharata, 128:50).” While he cites deception by Lord Indra to defeat an enemy, he fails to see that Indra pursued a mild action of adharma for the purpose of restoring dharma. This foreshadows the future of the epic itself. When the Pandavas receive the invitation to the gambling match at Hastinapur, Yudhishthira cannot turn it down because his personal dharma dictates he cannot back down from a challenge. When the gambling begins, the text makes no attempt to hide the deceit Sakuni engages in to win the wealth from the hands of Yudhishthira. Yudhishthira himself makes the claim that “Gambling is deceit, it is evil and there is no Kshatriya valor in it (Mahabharata, 131:53).” By engaging in this vice, the Pandava king and lord of dharma makes a transgression against dharma. The cheating and manipulation of the dice is the ignition factor of the adharma to follow. Though Sakuni continues to engage in treachery to win, Yudhishthira keeps playing and losing, eventually gambling off his brothers and himself. Another improper act on his part. However, the biggest transgression comes when he wagers and loses Draupadi. According to Anant Altekar’s book , there was no question to the rights of Yudhishthira on gambling his wife away. Bhīma on the other hand seems to find fault with his eldest brother for gambling their wife away. He threatens to physically attack his brother and forgo his own dharma to find justice for his beloved wife, before being stopped by Arjuna. Though it may have been in Yudhishthira’s rights to gamble his wife away, it definitely was not the right thing to do and the consequences were dire.

Draupadi’s vastraharan, or disrobing, is one of the worst acts of adharma committed by the Kauravas. Not only is it improper to manhandle and disrespect a woman in the way that Duhsasana and Duryodhana did, but none of the elders or Kuru men stood up for her. They simply stood by in silence as she was disrespected during a sensitive time of the month. Lord Krishna himself identified the adharma and was forced to use his divine powers to intervene and protect his friend Draupadi from the evil of the Kauravas. It is at this point that the adharma reaches its farthest extreme. A woman has been insulted, assaulted in a public court, and left defenseless. The righteous Pandavas have been cheated of all their wealth at the stake of an immoral and jealous individual’s greed and desire to ruin his adversaries for everything they have earned. Adharma truly has extended itself into too many parts of the kingdom, as is visible by the Kauravas actions and inactions, as well as the vows Bhīma made to ensure the violent deaths of Duryodhana and his brothers. Bhīma’s vow to drink Duhsasana’s blood and break Duryodhana’s thigh are both against the rules of battle, but he carries them out anyways, as we shall see later in the book. Adharma is so strong that it has seeped into the lives of the Pandavas at this point. Beyond being returned all of their wealth and kingdom, the second gambling match forces the Pandavas into exile for thirteen years. The fourteenth would bring about the shift in dharma so desperately needed.

The Pandavas had spent their years of exile preparing for war, gaining strength and celestial weapons beyond man’s imagination. However, when they returned, their commitment to dharma led them to attempt peace but one more time. They pleaded for peace with Duryodhana and the Kauravas by simply requesting their rightful lands back at the end of their exile. Their request for control of Indraprastha was seen as yet another Pandava success by Duryodhana, and he refused to return the property. Krishna accuses the Kauravas of turning their backs on dharma and pleads with Dhritarastra to return the property and avoid war. When Krishna requested not more than five villages, Duryodhana roughly declined, leaving the Pandavas with no choice but to go to war. This final act of adharma pushed the Pandavas over the edge and they could not bear to endure the continuous insult by the Kauravas, nor their constant infraction of dharma. The war induces the restoration of balance to dharma in the universe.

Throughout the war, there are many infractions of dharma committed by both sides. This is one of the most controversial topics when it comes to judging whether dharma is truly restored to the society at the end of the bloody war. Both the Pandavas and the Kauravas commit acts of adharma on the battlefield, breaking simple principles such as attacking an unarmed warrior, killing individuals not taking part in the war, and breaking individual weapon rules . As we will examine, the transgressions committed by the Pandavas were necessary for them to achieve their cause.

The Kauravas often times sent multiple warriors after Bhīma at the same time, a violation of the rule that states that only one warrior could fight another at the same time. Bhīma manages to fight each and every one of these battles successfully without being killed. At the beginning of the war, the transgressions against dharma are minimal. Each side attempts to fight a fair battle to champion their cause. However, as the war continues to develop, Krishna became frustrated with the course of action and nearly took up arms himself, an unacceptable decision for Arjuna. On the ninth day of the battle, Bhisma reveals the secret to defeating him is to bring a woman to face him, as he would not attack a woman because this would be against dharma. On the tenth day, Arjuna brings a woman to the battlefield to prevent Bhisma from striking back and through this trick, they are able to disarm and defeat Bhisma, though he is not yet killed. This action marks the first of many transgressions against dharma by either side. The next major violation of the dharmayuddha , or the rules of war, happens when Abhimanyu, Arjuna’s son, enters the Chakravyuh. The young boy knew only how to enter the formation but not exit. When he made it to the center, Drona instructed six warriors to attack Abhimanyu. This order already violated the rules of the war because no more than one warrior can attack another warrior at any point in time. The Kaurava warriors disarmed Abhimanyu of his shield and main weapons, and he was left to battle these skilled warriors on his own. With no other end in sight, Abhimanyu was mercilessly killed by these warriors which to Arjuna, was an unforgivable transgression of the dharmayuddha. The following day, Lord Krishna helped Arjuna with some trickery by falsifying a sunset to reduce the coverage on Arjuna’s enemy Jayadathra. While this seems illegal, it was necessary for the war to continue on as Arjuna had vowed to kill himself if he had not slain Jayadathra by sunset. Yet both armies broke the rules of the war by continuing the fight past the actual sunset and fighting through the night.

Perhaps one of the most significant violations of dharma on the Pandavas side came from the king of dharma Yudhishthira himself. In order to slay Drona, Drona would have to lay down his arms. Already this is not allowed because one cannot kill a warrior who has laid down his arms according to the dharmayuddha. At the advice of Krishna, Yudhishthira lies to Drona about the death of his son by speaking of the death of an elephant with the same name. This treachery leads Drona to believe his son is truly dead and he lays down his arms in despair, and is then killed by Dhristadyuma. While we will later see that this adharma does not go unpunished, it is important to see that again, without the use of adharma in this situation the Pandavas would have stood no chance at winning. Furthermore, Drona was guilty of adharma himself in his inaction to Draupadi’s insult at the gambling match. Drona’s unwavering loyalty to the Kaurava clan led to his ultimate downfall as he knew that he was on the side of adharma but was bound by loyalty to fight for Dhritarastra’s family.

The final two acts of Pandava adharma are against two of the greatest warriors remaining on the Kaurava side. First, Arjuna is faced against Karna in an intense battle of archery. Karna had lost his sacred armor from the Sun God to Lord Indra prior to the war, but was still a remarkable archer with skills parallel to those of Arjuna. When they dueled, Karna’s chariot became stuck in the mud, and Karna forgot all of his skills of archery through a curse from a Guru. For Arjuna to attack Karna while his chariot was broken and he was disarmed would have been against the Kshatriya code of conduct on the battlefield. However, Krishna was quick to remind Arjuna of how Karna had so ruthlessly killed Abhimanyu while engaging in similarly horrendous acts on the battlefield. Karna’s death is also unknowingly another violation of the dharmayuddha because he is Arjuna’s brother, and the rules of war state that one cannot fight against their own elder brother. Each act of adharma has its repercussions in the form of karma as we are starting to see from the various examples. Karna’s death marked the end of an era for Duryodhana’s army, and soon the King Duryodhana had no one left to protect him or fight for him. The second and final act of adharma committed by the Pandavas was one by Bhīma on Duryodhana. When the two meet on the final day of the battle, Duryodhana has no one left to protect him and is forced to fight Bhīma alone. With Duryodhana’s near invulnerability, Bhīma finds there is no way to defeat him and continues to fight but to no avail. With a subtle reminder to Duryodhana’s insult to Draupadi by calling her to his thighs, Krishna inspires Bhīma to strike Duryodhana below the groin. This is against the rules of mace fighting as well as a strict violation of the dharmayuddha. What is in fact surprising to the reader however is how Duryodhana finds fault in Krishna for inspiring the Pandavas to commit these acts of adharma and blames him for his unprecedented defeat. However, it must not be forgotten that Duryodhana himself had engaged in similar, and sometimes worse acts of adharma throughout his life. In order to end his undeserved role as King of the new empire, Lord Krishna deemed certain acts of adharma necessary. At the end of the day though, karma still existed in the act of restoring balance to dharma and did not leave the Pandavas unpunished for their actions in the war.

On the final night of the war, Ashwatthama conducts an illegal and most despicable crime of attacking the Pandava camp on unarmed and sleeping soldiers and people. Beyond slaughtering all of the Pandava children and soldiers, he goes so far as to killing the fetus in the womb of Arjuna’s daughter-in-law. This child ends up being the sole survivor of the Pandava lineage due to Lord Krishna’s divine intervention. This night raid was amongst the most heinous of acts committed throughout the war as it violated many rules and went beyond fighting soldiers but also killed children and women, an unspeakable crime in the eyes of a Kshatriya warrior. Ashwatthama claimed the night raid was in revenge of the adharma committed by Krishna and the Pandavas during the course of the war. Yet, he was blind to see the crimes committed by himself and his fellow Kauravas due to his devotion to Duryodhana. But it should also be noted that Ashwatthama’s crime did not go unpunished, as he was cursed by Lord Krishna to live a deathless, painful life with no solace and no peace. At the end of the slaughter and death on either side of the war, the Pandavas are not left with much in terms of the people they loved and served to protect. When they go to visit Bhisma for the final time after winning the war, he explains to the men their duties as leaders and rulers, and how they must carry on the values of dharma into their leadership. He outlines the aspects of dharma that should play into each aspect of the Pandavas lives and how the respect for dharma will propel their people to success, as should be the goal of every benevolent king and leader.

The climax and conclusion of the epic are well known around the world, as the Pandavas defeat Duryodhana and the Kauravas are left with no army to fight and no leaders to duel. The results came at a high cost in terms of human life and dharma. An argument can be made to support the requirements of the dharma transgressions by the Pandavas to achieve the goals they set out to complete. At the end, the Pandavas take over their rightful kingdom of Indraprastha along with the original empire of Hastinapur that was their birthright as sons of Pandu. This reclamation of power, authority, and rule by Yudhishthira and his brothers is a large step in the restoration of dharma. All of the adharma conducted by Duryodhana and his uncle Sakuni to prevent the Pandavas from taking their rightful places on the thrones of the lands they earned and conquered through righteous battles had ultimately failed. One of the major morals of the epic is to show that the best way to combat adharma is to prove its efforts futile and fruitless. The grave adharma committed by Duryodhana and Duhsasana against Draupadi in the court of Hastinapur were punished by Bhīma himself, and although he had to violate the laws of Kshatriya fighting to accomplish this, it was a requirement to bring the Kaurava brothers to justice. Furthermore, the actions were recommended by Lord Krishna himself, and the Bhagavad Gita clarifies that where Lord Krishna is, there dharma is. Each of the noble warriors who sided with the Kauravas was equally brought to justice in some way or another. The irony lies in the fact that Bhisma, Duryodhana, Drona, and Karna, who engaged in adharma through actions or inactions, were all killed through adharma committed by the Pandavas during the war. These actions of adharma committed by the Pandavas were indeed necessary to restore balance to dharma, and as it is seen at the end of the epic when Bhisma gives the sermon to Yudhishthira on how to rule the kingdoms with dharma. Yudhishthira and his kin rule over the empire for thirty-six more years before retiring to the heavens above. Having completed their task of restoring dharma, they passed the throne on to the next generation, leaving them the responsibilities of maintaining dharma across the empire.

Shivam Parikh Software Engineer at Flexport. UC Berkeley Class of 2020 - Computer Science, Data Science, Environmental Economics and Policy. Avid photographer, engineer, and community member.

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