On war in Ukraine and in the Mahabharata

Dronacharya as commander in chief – Wikimedia Commons

In the ancient Indian epic Mahābhārata, we read about a shocking and devastating war at Kurukṣetra that seems to have many parallels with the ongoing war in Ukraine.  In this summary of some key points about the Kurukṣetra war, we may perhaps find some revealing similarities.

The Kurukṣetra war was caused by disagreement between two related groups with a contentious history, and the war divides families between the opposing factions.  In this case the war is between the Pāṇḍava brothers and the Kauravas, who were led by the domineering Duryodhana.  The entitlement of the Pandavas to peacefully rule over a small state with a small amount of territory was bitterly opposed by the Kauravas, who ruled by brute force over an immensely large and powerful state.

At the same time, this war quickly became a ‘global’ war that sucked in all states from across the interconnected world order, in this case that of the ancient Indian people.  Many well-known states (mahājanapadas), such as Pānchala, Pāṇḍya and Ceḍī, formed a powerful alliance with the Pāṇḍavas, all united under the leadership of the Pānchala king Dhristadyumna throughout the war.  Many other states, such as Trigarta, Bāhlika and Kāmboja, sided with the Kaurava forces.  Very few leaders or states were able to remain neutral.

We first read in the Mahābhārata about the period leading up to the war, as tensions between the two parties mounted.  An earlier small battle has already taken place, and now attempts are made to resolve the conflicts through diplomacy.  On the Pāṇḍava side, certain voices are more in favour of diplomacy than others.  As the Pāṇḍavas debate the best approach to ending the conflict, Krishna and Balarāma urge that they send an envoy to find a compromise with the Kauravas –

“We want to avoid war with the Kauravas, so speak to Duryodhana with conciliation.  What can be got through conciliation is worth getting.  War is a tragedy.  That is not what we want.”

[Mahābhārata Udyoga Parvan Chapter 2 Verse 14]

However, Sātyaki furiously disagrees, urging that they prepare for war immediately –

“To fight against enemies who threaten you is not against any dharma.  But going begging to those enemies is against dharma and dishonourable.”

[Mahābhārata Udyoga Parvan Chapter 2 Verse 21]

However, tragically, whereas the Pāṇḍavas are in earnest about finding a negotiated settlement, Duryodhana, the Kaurava leader is not.  Whereas the Pāṇḍavas send a senior figure from their side with a genuine desire to negotiate and compromise, he is not taken seriously, and when a return is sent from the Kaurava side, Sañjaya, he is not such a senior figure and he is not given any meaningful authority to reach any negotiated settlement with the Kauravas.  Still, Sañjaya tries to be as persuasive as he can when he meets the Pāṇḍavas, although twisting the truth and trying to misleadingly portray the situation –

“Why have you made the forces opposing you larger?  Why have you weakened your own alliances?  Why do you want to fight now after wasting so much time living in the forest for all those years?  Only an ignorant person or someone who doesn’t know what is dharma, or someone who forgets their own wellbeing would want to go to war, or an intelligent person who forgets their own wellbeing out of pride.”

[Mahābhārata Udyoga Parvan Chapter 27 Verses 20-21]

Indeed, there was perhaps a grain of truth here inasmuch as the Pāṇḍavas had some difficulties in marshalling together the widest possible coalition of allies to act together in the most coordinated and efficient way.  Rukmi and his army were spurned and turned away from the Pāṇḍava side, and Śalya and his army were tricked and coerced into fighting for the Kaurava side.  Even Krishna ended up by pledging his own troops to the Kaurava side.  Further, Balarama, the brother of Krishna, absented himself from the war and went on a long pilgrimage, returning only as the war was ending. 

As a result, the Kauravas managed to assemble a much larger army on the battlefield.  However, this is a battle where numerical strength is very far from being the key factor.  Some of these Kaurava troops have been roped in on false pretences, such as the troops from the Madra state headed by Śalya, and others would hardly be eager, such as the troops pledged by  Krishna.  One can thus easily imagine a serious lack of motivation among the Kaurava infantry.

As envoy, Sañjaya for his part is well aware that his own side are taking the course of action, and when he returns to the Kauravas, he urges restraint and compromise.  Speaking to King Dhṛtarāṣṭra, he says –

“Just think, King, what you have done is against civilised behaviour, which is about acting for the sake of dharma … This action, which is known across the whole world as not dharma at all, is not the right thing for you, King!”

[Mahābhārata Udyoga Parvan Chapter 32 Verses 16ab, 17cd]

Nevertheless, Duryodhana, the Kaurava leader, and his closest advisors, are supremely confident in their ability to quickly defeat the Pāṇḍavas, and a few voices of moderation on the Kaurava side, such as those of Bhiṣma and Droṇa, are quickly dismissed.  Even a second diplomatic visit from the Pāṇḍava side, this time by Krishna himself, does not help.  Indeed, as the war is about to start, some leaders on the Kaurava side are supremely confident of quickly defeating the Pāṇḍava army.

“Duryodhana asked great-vowed Bhiṣma how much time it would take to defeat the Pāṇḍava army.  He told the son of Dhṛtarāṣṭra that it would take a month.  Droṇa agreed that it would take that length of time.  Kṛpa said that it would take twice that time.  The well-armed son of Droṇa [Aśvatthāman] thought that it would take ten days.  When powerfully armed Karṇa was asked the same thing in the Kaurava assembly, he thought it would take five days to destroy the [Pāṇḍava] army.”

[Mahābhārata Udyoga Parvan Chapter 197 Verses 3-5]

Unfortunately, despite the heroism of the Pāṇḍava forces, the Kauravas were able to inflict huge damage on them, and the war turned into a devastating tragedy for both sides.  We can only feel horror at how one single leader, Duryodhana, in a position of tyrannical power, was able to inflict such devastation in such a needless and all-consuming war.  Indeed, parallels with the war in Ukraine could be found, based on the points summarised above, or even through a more detailed analysis.

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