Ethics in the Mahābhārata

The disrobing of Draupadi, attributed to Nainsukh, c.1765 — Wikimedia Commons

Dharma and the difficulty of moral deliberation

Why do bad things happen to good people? What is the best way to respond to sufferings or difficulties in life? How can we maintain faith in a moral standard in the face of the challenges and complexities of everyday life? The challenges of living a morally good life have been grappled with most deeply, most broadly and over the longest period of time in religious traditions. Such traditions provide individual figures who play the role of moral exemplars or moral teachers, as well as stories or parables that depict morally good behaviour in a particular context. Such stories can provide a framework for our own moral reasoning in our own particular situations. The behaviour of Rāma in the Rāmāyaṇa is held out to be such a moral paradigm in the Sāhitya-darpaṇa for example. In the Christian New Testament, the figure of Jesus and the characters in the parables provide us with inspirational examples that have guided the moral lives of Christians over a very long time. However, in the Mahābhārata, questions of ethical behaviour and moral deliberation take on a more nuanced and unsettled aspect.

That the Mahābhārata is an itihāsa is well-known. However, it describes itself as also being a text about Veda, Yoga, Vijñāna, Kāma, Artha and Dharma [1.46–48]. Most importantly for our present purposes, however, is that it describes itself as a text about dharma. The discussions of dharma in the Mahābhārata are rich and sophisticated, and go far beyond simplistic ideas about some kind of supernatural carrot-and-stick mechanism. As Dr. Rachana Bhangaokar writes

“Dharma in the Mahabharata is constantly problematized and deconstructed, exposing the unavoidable turbulence of moral life”

Some of the more focused discussions about dharma are the Yakṣapraśna, the Bhagavad Gītā and the discussion of Rājadharma by Bhiṣma in the Śāntiparvan. However, almost every episode in the text provides some new insight into the nature of dharma. In this article, I would like to discuss the famous episode where Draupadī is forcibly dragged into the assembly hall after the Pāṇḍavas gamble and lose everything to the Kauravas. The events to be described below take place in Sections 59 to 62 (or 66 to 69) of the Dyūta Parvan of Book 2, the Sabhā Parvan.

Having gambled and lost everything including all the wealth and then the lives of the five Pāṇḍava brothers , Yudhiṣṭhira then gambles and lose the life of their single wife Draupadī. Chapter 66 opens with Duryodhana addressing the wise Vidura in contemptuous terms as follows –

“Come here, attendant, bring Draupadī, the beloved wife of the Pāṇḍavas.

Let her clean the house; let her provide us with pleasure; let her be one of the servant women”

[Mahābhārata 2.59.1; my own translation]

Vidura however is already in no mood to comply with this order, and instead replies with a stinging speech beginning as follows –

“[Your situation] is hard to comprehend by [a person] like you; [you] fool, bound by cords, you do not understand

You do not perceive [that] you are hanging from a cliff-edge; due to [your] extreme immaturity, you are a deer angering tigers

Very poisonous vipers [are] on your head, [their venom-]sacks filled

[You] very foolish person, do not anger [them]; do not go to the abode of Yama [god who rules over the dead]”

[Mahābhārata 2.59.2–3; my own translation]

Interesting here are the metaphors and descriptions used for how immoral and reckless actions, perhaps through some supernatural effect, including the reference to being bound with cords, which is a Vedic metaphor for sin. Vidura also provides his own view on the outcome of the gambling match in respect of Drapaudī as follows –

Vidura also provides his own view on the outcome of the gambling match in respect of Drapaudī as follows –

“To explain, it is not the case that Draupadī has fallen into slavery, Bhārata!

For, this one cannot be staked in gambling by a king [who is] powerless — this is my opinion”

[Mahābhārata 2.59.4; my own translation]

When a more junior servant is then sent by Duryodhana to fetch Draupadī, she immediately sends him back to the hall with the relevant question for Yudhiṣṭhira –

“Draupadī asks you, whose master were you when you lost me?

That is to say, who did you first lose, yourself or me?”

[Mahābhārata 2.60.8; my own translation]

As Vidura had already noted, the idea is that, having lost sovereignty even over himself, he would no longer have any standing to make a stake in the gambling match. When the servant is sent back by Duryodhana with more firm instructions to actually bring Draupadī to the hall, again she sends him back a second time in the same way, this time reflecting on her predicament as follows –

“Certainly, the saṃvidhātṛ arranged thus; both [pleasant and unpleasant types of] feelings in respect of [both] the wise and the immature. On the other hand, dharma is said to be the one primary [thing] in this world; being protected, it gives us peace. Truly let that [which is] this dharma not abandon the Kauravas. Going to the assembly hall, ask my question about dharma. I will certainly do what they tell me what the excellent morally wise individuals [of the assembly] advise me.”

[Mahābhārata 2.60.13; my own translation]

In the first sentence, the term ‘saṃvidhātṛ’ appears to refer to a deity, perhaps identical with vidhātṛ or dhātṛ who are both addressed by Draupadī in another very interesting passage in Book 3 of the Mahābhārata that I will write about in a future article.

In the Rig Veda and a lot of subsequent literature, vidhātṛ and dhātṛ are terms used to name either independent deities or other Vedic deities such as Indra and Agni under specific aspects. Vidhātṛ and dhātṛ name deities who control the fate of humans, either deterministically or in some other way.

Here, then, Draupadī seems to reflect on the fact that the moral universe in which we live is not so simple as to directly reward the good and immediately punish the bad. Nevertheless, outcomes are not indifferent either to the moral quality of our actions. A similar thought has been expressed by Bill Gates as follows

“On one hand, it’s nihilistic to think that every outcome is simply random. I have to believe that the world is better when we act morally, and that people who do good things deserve a somewhat better fate on average than those who don’t. But if you take it to extremes, that cause-and-effect view can be hurtful.”

The third time it is the more brutish Duḥśāsana who is sent to fetch Draupadī. Although he physically drags her to the assembly hall, he does stop to tell her that “you have been obtained according to dharma” [2–67–26]. Despite the degradation with which she is treated, she understands the power of her words to judge the actions of the Kauravas, and she responds that dharma has in fact not been upheld, perhaps insinuating that Duḥśāsana is not the type of person who could discern dharma –

“Dharma is subtle, to be discerned by careful thinking … Shame on [you]! The dharma of the bhāratas and also the way of life of the knowers of power [the kṣatrīyas]”

[Mahābhārata 2.60.31b and 33ab; my own translation]

In the assembly, Bhiṣma now tries to address her question but is unable to give an answer, again referring to the subtlety of dharma –

Dear lady, I cannot rightly decide this question of yours owing to the subtlety of dharma

To explain, one who is not his own master is ineligible to gamble what is not his

Yet a wife is considered under the control of her husband

He may renounce the entire world, but Yudhiṣṭhira will not abandon the truth

And [Yudhiṣṭhira] has said “I have been won”, so I am not able to decide this.

[Mahābhārata, Sabhā Parvan 2–60–40,41; my own translation]

Ultimately, it is only Vikarṇa and Karṇa who provide their own, contrasting, opinions on Draupadī’s question. Carefully reviewing all the circumstances of how Draupadī came to be staked and lost, Vikarṇa concludes that she is not in fact won by the Kauravas. Karṇa, however, seriously insulting both Vikarṇa and Draupadī, concludes that she has been won.

When Duḥśāsana starts to pull off the single piece of clothing she is wrapped in, the following miracle occurs –

However, for every piece of clothing of Draupadī that was pulled off by [Duḥśāsana]

Another piece of clothing of the same form repeatedly appeared

[Mahābhārata, Sabhā Parvan 2–61–41; my own translation]

This miracle seems to embolden not Bhima but also other members of the assembly. Vidura returns to the question at hand with a speech that seems to clarify the moral obligations of each individual to speak out about what is right as they can best discern it. Vidura’s speech involves a rather detailed story, which in short seems to invoke supernatural punishment for those who do not discharge such moral obligations. As the character Kāśyapa in the story explains –

[One who despite] knowing does not answer a question, whether from desire, anger or fear,

Fastens onto himself one thousand nooses of Varuṇa

When one year is completed, one of his nooses is released

So the truth must be spoken right away by one who knows the truth

To explain, whenever dharma wounded by adharma resorts to the assembly,

Then the members of the assembly [should] cut out the arrow [causing] the wounds of that [person]

[Mahābhārata, Sabhā Parvan 2–61–67,68,69; my own translation]

As I noted about, the Mahābhārata engages with ideas about morality and ethics in ways that are rich and sophisticated, and not easily summarized in terms of some absolute moral commandments. Thus as Dr. Bhangaokar explains

“the Mahabharata gives a variety of contexts in which Dharma can be interpreted differently, like apaddharma or Dharma during emergencies (apattikala), or the Dharma for kings (rajadharma) or varnasramadharma — Dharma that is applicable to various castes and life stages. … Another variant of Dharma is svadharma, an individual’s Dharma situated and determined by birth in a particular caste (jati), or social class, based on changing familial roles across life stages and mediated by gender.”

Indeed, the moral development of humanity is perhaps not a story of successive leaps of progress as some academic researchers have assumed. Rather, concepts and models of moral action and moral deliberation have continued to be adapted to different ages with different circumstances of living. The Mahābhārata seems to advocate for this view, taking place as it does at the juncture of two eras, that is, between the dvāpara yuga and the kali yuga, with their own distinctive dharmas.

The episode where Draupadī speaks in the assembly hall that is described here stands as one example of the sophisticated moral reflection found throughout this work. Indeed, as Prof. Emily T. Hudson explains in a careful study of the Mahābhārata as a whole –

“the epic’s answer to the problem of suffering … is not the direct or literal kind of answer that conceptual categories such as karma or fate would provide. Instead, the text’s strategies of rupture create a cognitive space in the sensitive reader/ spectator where a revelation of the tragic structure of existence may take place … the epic’s aesthetic of suffering is attempting to reorient the sensitive reader/ receiver toward a notion of dharma that is divested of the idea of rewards (heaven is the ultimate reward according to the logic of dharma in the first sense) as well as stripped of the notion that dharma would, or could, provide protection from suffering”

The term ‘religion’ in the context of Abrahamic religions implies a binding of one’s own will or volition to some external source of law or authority. The concept of dharma as explicated here seems to present a similar conception of an external source of authority. However, rather than a straightforward set of laws or commandments, the Mahābhārata seems to suggest that dharma is something that requires sharp intelligence and careful deliberation to discern in particular cases. Indeed, the idea of moral laws that are in some way fixed, generalizable and universally applicable has been cast into doubt in much modern philosophy, from Existentialist philosophers such as Sartre and Camus who assign the individual a radical moral independence from any external moral law, to virtue ethicists such as Alasdair MacIntyre who prioritise moral virtues of individual character over the formulation of character-independent moral rules.

Thus, for the development of our moral sensibilities in a way that is adequate to address the complexity of the moral world in which we live, we may perhaps turn to art and literature. For example, perhaps even a text such as the Mahābhārata.

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