Moral Dilemmas in The Mahabharata


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Item Code: NAW740


Edition: 2014


ISBN: 9788120806030

Language: English

Size: 9.00 X 6.00 inch

Pages: 170

Other Details:
Weight of the Book: 0.31 Kg
There is something rather special about the role of epic literature in Indian life. Is it the antiquity of the text that holds people in 129 thrall or is it not rather the characters, many of whom are un-doubtedly of archetypal stature? The situations in which an Agamemnon, a Jephtha or a Brutus found themselves do not 143 seem to have gripped the imagination in the way in which the fate of a sita, a Draupadi or a Yudhisthira haunts us. Are such epic heroes and heroines role models for everyday life? Is there a something universal about the dilemmas in which they found themselves? These questions are worth discussing.

We also need to explore the whole question of the relation between the mythopoeia and the moral in the context of the Mahabharata. Here we have a story of extreme complexity, characters that are unforgettable, and a cosmic context in which gods and men alike grapple with destiny. The obligations of kinship and friend-ship jostle with each other. The women characters, as in everyday life, seem to bear a very heavy load of the burden of life and to stand in a key position in almost every conflict. We are presented with -predicaments -at every turn. At times these predicaments seem to be aggravated by social structure. At other times they are cushioned by it. At all events it may be proper to ask to what extent modern man living in the midst of a different set of social institutions can respond to all this. If he can so respond, it looks as if moral issues can be discussed apart from the context in which they arise. This would be a rather startling inference to make.

There is an aside. What exactly have audiences in Avignon, Glasgow and elsewhere responded to as they watched Peter Brook's dramatic presentation of the Mahabharata? An experimental piece of stagecraft, another piece of exotica, or what? Philosophical tangles tied up with karma and dharma is interwoven with the mythopoeia material. Perhaps philosophical issues are pin-pointed rather more than they are in Greek epic literature. This could be debated by those concerned with comparative literature and comparative philosophy. How do the events described in the Mahandrata compare with accounts of, say, the Trojan Wars, or with the story of the tribulations of Job? How much does history-city matter when we compare narratives?

In the Mahabharata, we find a portrayal of bondage and also a transfiguration of bondage. The realism of it all lies in its re-cognition that suffering continues. There is no end to it. The heroes fear neither life nor death. Their ethos is a tough-minded one. We see men, women, kings, and beggars, even gods, experiencing sorrow, hardship and disaster. Even in battle the winner has a hollow victory. The society portrayed in the epic much resembles what we find in the Iliad, with the gods of Greece rather more prone to interfere than those of the Indian pantheon. In her book on the Mahabharata, Amravati Carve, the anthropologist, writes and I quote:

All human efforts are fruitless, all human life ends in frustration; was the Mahabharata written to drive home this lesson? Human toil. expectations, hates, hardships-all seem puny and without substance, like withered leaves eddying in the summer wind.

But isn't it the case that neither philosophers, nor dramatists kept up this view? Bharata, the first dramatic theorist, laid down the rule that a play must not end tragically; and extraordinarily enough, if we think of what some philosophers think it their business to do today (verbal traps having been substituted for cosmic ones), a large proportion of classical Indian philosophers assumed it was their job to show man the way out of bondage. If it were not for the GUI", would the message of the Mahabharata be closer to that of the Stoics than to that of classical Indian philosophers? In any case, we are led back to the theme of moral dilemmas time and again. The papers in this volume deal with this theme from the perspectives of both Indian philosophy and literature, inviting the reader to ponder afresh on a very important part of our common heritage.


These papers were presented at a rather unusual colloquium at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, on Moral Dilemmas in the Mahabharata. All credit undoubtedly goes to the present director, Professor Margaret Chatterjee, who has made this possible. In 1970, when I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, I was awarded a fellowship of this Institute by the then director, Dr Niharranjan Ray. But, unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control, I was unable to come. Better late than never. I thank the present director for inviting me as a Fellow, a dream fulfilled after eighteen years.

The topic is rather an outstanding one, not a bit less daring and intriguing. It takes courage and imagination to look at this great epic with a very different, presumably novel, perspective. But Professor Chatterjee has taken the necessary steps. While the previous directors of the Institute might have had dilemmas, moral or non-moral, in conducting the affairs of the HAS, Professor Chatterjee has cut the Gordian knot, and resolved the second-order dilemma in choosing the subject, Moral Dilemmas in the Mahabharata.

Peter Della Santana’s paper gives a very illuminating appraisal of the concept of dharma as it was understood in the gramana and the Buddhist tradition. He contrasts the Brahman cal view of dharma with that of the Buddhists. He gives a brilliant analysis of the first two chapters of the Bhagavad-Gita, and interprets the con-flit therein in terms of a controversy between Buddhism and Brahmanism. I believe he is right, although Buddhism was not explicitly mentioned in the text.

Moral dilemmas may provoke two or three types of reaction from the moral agent. Either he can give up action completely and choose the path of renunciation,* preferred by the Stamina tradition, or he can choose to act without regard for the consequences. Krishna’s advice was not to give up actions but to rid one-self of one's desires for the fruits of any actions (nificeimakarma).

T.S. Rukmani's paper talks about the difficulties in identifying the cases of moral dilemmas in the Mahabharata. She talks about the conflict of duties faced by various major characters: Yudhisthira, Bhisma, Kunti, Vidura, and Gandhasi. It is interesting to note that she quotes from the Gadaparvan the list of mis-deeds perpetrated by Krishna, which were enumerated by Duryo-dhana on his deathbed. Even a man like Duryodhana should not have died in the way he did. The poet Vyasa makes up for it by relating in the last chapter how Duryodhana ascended to heaven, even before the Pandavas.

Dubey describes the epic as a representation of a major clash found in human society from time immemorial. It is the conflict between moral integrity and the need for survival as well as economic prosperity. The Kauravas did not care for what is ordinarily known as moral integrity, but they had their own pride.

Besides, they wanted to protect their throne at any cost. One feels that there was some sort of integrity even in Duryodhana, al-though he was blinded by greed for possession and hatred against the Pandavas. The Pandavas were supposed to represent the virtue of moral integrity, hut, as the story unfolded, they violated the code of moral integrity more often than not. They had, of course, suffered from regret and remorse. Duhey identifies three characters who did not experience moral dilemmas and consequently no regrets or remorse-Duryodhana, Karma. and Krishna. He is right. But I believe that Krishna perhaps did have some regret for the choices he made on behalf of the Pandavas. Unlike the other two, he fully understood the unresolvability of some moral dilemmas.

Referring to the gambling episode which is the centerpiece of the Mahabharata story, S.M. Kulkarni calls Draupadi's problem an unresolved dilemma. I believe the dilemma of Draupadi is not only unresolved but also irresolvable as most moral dilemmas chattels? Can they be gambled away? Can the husband, having lost his own freedom first, gamble with his wife's freedom? All these questions arise from the text itself. A discussion of all these issues will take a very.long time which is not available in the context.

The second point is also interesting. If gakuni cheated Yudhisthira in the game of dice and Yudhisthira did not claim that he had been cheated, even when this was openly known to him, would Sakuni be morally reprehensible? I believe he could be, but he would not be legally condemned. A fraudulent transaction would be invalid, although some would say that we should blame Yudhi-sthira equally for his actions.

Jani's paper deals with the social acceptability of the practice of polyandry as exemplified by the marriage of Draupadi. It seems that the moral repugnance against this practice was as evident in the days of the epic as it is today. Yudhisthira found it hard to convince Drupada and his son about the propriety of such a practice. Vyasa's services were requisitioned to support the proposal.

Yudhisthira referred to the practice of the ancient forefathers. However, the society that represented the metropolitan culture of the land of the Kurus and Palicalas found polyandry obnoxious, although polygamy was accepted as a norm in the royal families.

As Drupada said: 'A prince must have many wives, but a princess must not have many husbands.' At some point, Yudhisthira countered Drupada by saying that polyandry must be a dharma, because he himself thought it was right, and he never thought an adharma to be right.

Polyandry was in some form or other prevalent in many societies in ancient times all over the world. It is still present among the Toklas of the Nigeria Mountains, the Nairs of Kerala, and among some tribes in the Himalayan region. There may be many socio-logical explanations, which Jani talks about. He thinks that the Panclavas might have originally come from the Himalayan region, and so there was a conflict between the moral codes of the Panclavas and the Kauravas from the beginning. The suggestion that the Panclava family came from the Himalayan region is interesting, but the evidence to support it seems to be insufficient.

Book's Contents and Sample Pages