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3 Political Lessons from the Mahabharat

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3 Political Lessons from the Mahabharat

An ancient epic’s lessons for India ring true today.

3 Political Lessons from the Mahabharat
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This past weekend, the Indian television show the Mahabharat finished airing. The show, which began airing in 2013, was a version of the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata, and was widely successful, garnering millions of viewers daily. Its success followed that of another televised version of the epic that ran from 1988 to 1989.

The Sanskrit epic itself is the world’s longest epic poem, at 100,000 couplets or 1.8 million words. It is ten times the combined length of the Iliad and Odyssey and three times the length of the Bible. Structurally, the Mahabharata is a compendium of ancient Indian mythology, history, political theory, and philosophy, and has sometimes been described as an ancient encyclopedia of Indian knowledge. The holy Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, which is considered a summary of the vast Hindu religious and philosophical literature, is also contained within the Mahabharata. Historians believe that the epic is based on certain core events that occurred in 10th to 8th century BCE India, which then grew over time to become the epic, while on the other hand traditionalist Hindus believe it to be a true reflection of historical events. In any case, the Mahabharata is considered the most representative work of the diversity of Indian and Hindu thought in existence.

However, despite its encyclopedic nature, there is an underlying plot and storyline throughout the entire epic that holds it together. Philosophical and political works are scattered throughout the epic as dialogues between characters, most of who are involved in political and military situations. At the risk of oversimplifying an incredibly complex epic, the Mahabharata is similar to an ancient Indian Game of Thrones, with numerous factions competing for political power in a variety of states. The main story of the work is a dynastic struggle for the throne of Hastinapura (located between modern Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh), the kingdom ruled by the Kuru clan. Two branches of cousins of the Kuru family struggle for the throne: the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Although the father of the Kauravas is the elder brother of the father of the Pandavas, he is initially disqualified from ruling in favor of his younger brother due to being blind. His eldest son, Duryodhana, claims to be the rightful heir to the Kuru throne on the basis of being the eldest son of the eldest son even though the eldest Pandava, Yudhisthira, is older and is considered the legitimate heir apparent. Eventually, the struggle between the Kauravas and Pandavas culminates in the great battle of Kurukshetra, in which the Pandavas are ultimately victorious. Throughout the epic, it is implied that the Pandavas are in the right because they follow dharma (righteousness).

It is fortunate that the show, the Mahabharat was so well received because it serves as a reminder to Indians and the rest of the world that the Indian tradition contains more than just the idealism and non-violence typified by figures such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. It contains advice that is similar to the wisdom and realpolitik of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli – practical strategies that serve the ultimate goal of political and military triumph. The two main figures in the Mahabharat, who expound on these strategies are Shakuni, the maternal uncle of the Kauravas, and Krishna, the maternal cousin of the Pandavas, who is considered the avatar of a Hindu god in Hinduism. Together, these two characters expound on a variety of political strategies that could be of practical political relevance today. This is especially important, since it gives Indians a realistic way of looking at the world that is rooted in their civilization.

Here are some important political takeaways from the show and epic:

There’s no point in occupying the high moral ground if you lose in the process

Contemporary Indian politics is often saturated with an obsession over maintaining the high moral ground, no matter the cost. As the Diplomat reported previously, this mode of thinking led to a disastrous war with China in 1962. This idealism has always been present in Indian thinking, and has often been disastrous. In an anecdotal story, the Hindu king Prithivraj Chahaun defeated and captured the Muslim Afghan invader Mahmud of Ghor in the 1191 first Battle of Tarain. However, he released his prisoner as that was considered morally correct. In 1192, Mahmud returned, and defeated, captured, and executed Prithivraj, an event that lead to Muslim rule over the entire Ganges river valley, the heartland of India. In the Mahabharata, Krishna on the other hand, recommends the use of deceitful and immoral strategies in the service of moral causes.  The ends justify the means when major issues are at stake.

War is sometimes justified

The Hindu tradition has acquired a reputation for being exclusively non-violent, due to the influence of Gandhi. Gandhi argued, to an extreme, that it would be better to uphold the principle of non-violence over resorting to violence for any cause, even in self-defense. On the other hand, the Mahabarata accepts the idea of a just war. According to Shakuni, war is an option that should only be resorted to after political solutions fail, but once resorted to, it ought to be fought to its conclusion. The epic’s Krishna also tells Arjuna, a Pandava, that once a war breaks out, it is not only justifiable but mandatory to fight if it is for a good cause. It is also mandatory to resort to war to bring about a desired conclusion rather than to walk away from violence out of the principle of non-violence. Modern India’s treatment of war and its military often seems half-hearted and restrained because of its deep discomfort with power on moral grounds. However, it would do well to remember that only by accepting the use of power can it truly achieve its goals.

Rules and customs ought to be interpreted flexibly

Throughout the Mahabharat, both Krishna and Shakuni argue that rules and customs should serve certain social functions and that when they cease to do so, they should be discarded or loosely followed. Duty can thus be amended when it pursues a course of action that is inflexible. In the Mahabharata, the Panadavas felt honor bound to play a game of dice to the end, even though it resulted in the gambling away of their kingdom and their queen. In many parts of India today, a bloated sense of following a narrow rule-based honor leads to caste-based discrimination or violence against women. If following such a strict sense of morality leads to actions that are immoral, then it is better to evaluate one’s notion of duty and honor.

The Mahabharata, though an ancient epic, still has a lot to teach modern India. This is why it still continues to be relevant and widely popular today, spawning successful shows, retellings, and plays. Its timeless lessons continue to guide Indian thinking, always pulling it away from extremes – the extreme of idealism and the extreme of immorality. Rather, it argues that is sometimes better to resort to what seems to be unjust in order to achieve a greater justice.