Why the Mahabharata Can Be Read As an Indictment of War

By Upinder Singh | 18 October 2017

In her latest book, Political Violence in Ancient India, the historian Upinder Singh traces the subject of “violence” and how it came to be viewed and implemented in ancient India. Singh looks closely at the manner in which kings such as Ashoka and Chandragupta Maurya viewed political violence, as well as the ideas espoused on the subject in ancient texts such as the Arthashatra, and the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. She discusses the various approaches to understanding the concepts of “dharma” and “ahimsa,” and why these must be viewed in the specific context of ancient Indian history. In her introduction to the book, Singh notes that “rather than essentializing, simplifying and comparing ‘Indian’ and ‘western’ perspectives,” she argues that “the long and intense intellectual engagement with the problem of political violence in ancient India demands attention and needs to be understood in all its diversity and nuances … as it unfolded in its changing historical contexts.”

In the following extract from the book, Singh discusses how the postwar narrative of the Mahabharata allows the text to be read as an argument against war.

In a sense, the outcome of the Mahabharata war flies in the face of realism. We are told that the Kaurava forces outnumber those of the Pandavas. Yudhishthira has seven armies, Duryodhana has eleven. Nevertheless the Pandavas are invincible because of the sheer presence of Krishna and Arjuna. At the end of the eighteen-day war, thousands have been killed on both sides. There are seven survivors on the Pandava side—the five brothers, Krishna, and Satyaki. Only three warriors survive in the Kaurava camp—Ashvatthama, Kripa, and Kritavarma.

The Mahabharata contains an eloquent exhortation to warriors to fight, but it also contains a powerful lament on the consequences of war. The extent of the devastation is matched by the intensity of grief that follows. The victors do not live happily ever after. Yudhishthira secures the throne, but the world continues on its cyclical moral decline. The heroes trudge through life, dispirited. Dhritarashtra mourns the death of his hundred sons. Arjuna is exhausted. Yudhishthira is racked with guilt and sorrow because of his responsibility for killing his kinsmen for the sake of a kingdom. He wants to fast unto death. He wants to go off to the forest and renounce the world. He is constantly counseled and pulled back by the other characters. Familiar arguments are made: He must rule in order to fulfill the duties of a king; renunciation is not part of the Kshatriya way; warriors who die on the battlefield must not be mourned because they go to heaven. Further, Yudhishthira was not responsible for the war and its consequences—it was fate, or it was Time (kāla). Yudhishthira was only their instrument.

The postwar narrative of the Mahabharata is suffused by the sorrow experienced by the survivors. There is little relief from their incessant pain. The one night of joy they experience is when Vyasa, using his divine powers, unites the living with the dead, by creating a vision of the dead heroes. The latter rise out of the waters of the Ganga River, and this reunion is the only brief episode of happiness that the victors experience. It is only after death that the protagonists achieve peace of mind. The war was necessary, but it does not lead to happiness.

So the Mahabharata can also be read as a powerful indictment of war. The most concentrated lament is contained in the Stri Parva. In this book, there is universal lament at the death of loved ones; bitter accusations of responsibility; acknowledgments of guilt; and attempts at consolation and conciliation. Grief, guilt, and remorse are on display. There is a regular blame game as Dhritarashtra, Yudhishthira, Gandhari, Duryodhana, Krishna, and fate are variously held responsible for the disaster. Ultimately, anger makes way for grief and for an acceptance of what has come to pass.

The intensity of anger and grief are reflected most of all in the description of the emotions of women. And here, the Mahabharata eloquently presents a chilling and powerful women’s perspective—especially that of mothers and widows—on the carnage of war:

Along the bank of the Gaṅgā . . . Yudhishthira beheld women in throngs, shrieking like stricken ospreys. At once they surrounded the king in their thousands, weeping, waving their arms aloft in their distress, speaking without caring whether their words were soft or harsh. “How can the king know dharma and yet show such cruelty that he slew fathers, brothers, elders, sons and friends?”

The queen Gandhari has lost all one hundred of her sons, and Yudhishthira is rightly afraid of her anger. He trembles as he approaches her with folded hands, admitting his culpability:

“Lady, I am Yudhishthira, the cruel slayer of your sons. I deserve to be cursed, for I am to blame for this devastation of the earth. Curse me! For I am a friend-betraying fool, and having slain such friends, I have no use for life, or wealth, or kingdom.”

A tiny sliver of her furious gaze from the corner of her blindfold burns the tips of Yudhishthira’s fingernails. Gandhari describes her hundred dead sons and curses Krishna for contributing to their death—he will meet a violent death thirty-six years hence at the hands of his own kin.

Unaccustomed to the dreadful spectacle of war, the women are dazed as they stumble over the battlefield, muddy with flesh and blood:

The earth itself seems overspread with fallen hands and other limbs, mingled in heaps. The blameless women see dreadful headless bodies and bodiless heads, and unaccustomed to such sights, they are struck senseless. Staring distractedly, they join a head to a body, failing in their misery to see that it is another’s and does not belong there; full of woe, they also join up arms and thighs and feet that have been separated again and again.

Who is to blame for the slaughter? This is a question that is raised repeatedly, including in a conversation between Sanjaya and Dhritarashtra. Sanjaya is the plain-speaking caustic war reporter, who can see what is happening on the battlefield due to the divine vision granted to him, and he narrates all the events to the blind king. Every now and then, Dhritarasthra moans that this is all because of fate, and Sanjaya retorts that it is actually entirely his, Dhritarashtra’s, fault. But the larger perspective of the epic is that things that happen because they are destined, and war and happiness are incompatible.

This is an extract from Political Violence in Ancient India, by Upinder Singh, published by Harvard University Press.

Upinder Singh is a professor in the department of history at the University of Delhi.

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