The Implications of Destiny and Dharma in the Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is one of the two great Indian epics, the other being the Ramayana. Composed in Sanskrit, it embodies the quintessential definition of the word epic with length of roughly 90,000 verses and a clearly defined hero upon whom his tribe depends. The hero of the Mahabharata is Yudhishthira, the son of Dharma and leader of the Pandavas. This hero, as is true of many epics, must fight heroic battles against an anti-hero, the role of which in the Mahabharata is played by Duryodhana, the leader of the Kurus. Complicating this struggle between good and evil is the fact that these two sides do not begin as sworn enemies but are rather kinsmen. While the conventions used are traditionally epic, the work takes on a uniquely Indian tone as the struggle between the Pandavas and the Kurus is further muddled by issues of destiny and dharma. These two themes surface repeatedly throughout the Mahabharata culminating in an exchange between King Dhritarashtra and his subjects as he requests that they allow him to resign from the kingship to live out his days in the forest. In William Buck’s retelling of the epic, his subjects accept his resignation and stand in agreement that his sons died not because he was a poor ruler, but because of the role of destiny in the battle and the righteous and strict adherence to Kshatriya caste dharma that his sons so bravely exemplified as they respond to the king, “The destruction of the Kurus…was not brought about by you [Dhritarashtra]. Such a thing could never happen without the influence of dharma. Kshatriyas especially should kill enemies and meet their deaths in battle.” The Hindu ideas of destiny and dharma arise consistently throughout the Mahabharata and often allow characters to shed responsibilities for their actions and consequences that arise as a result.The tension between the Pandavas and the Kurus is caused by the fact that the clans borne of two brothers, Pandu and Dhritarashtra, are vying for control of their family’s kingdom. Dhritarashtra, the blind and levelheaded king, intends to give the Pandavas rule over half of the kingdom in order to keep peace within the family. He plans to do so as a wedding present to the five Pandava brothers, all of whom have married Draupadi. His stubborn and heavy-handed son learns of this plan and responds with an impassioned speech regarding how unnecessary such an attempt to restore harmony would be. He enters the room and begins, “What do we need with the Pandavas? If the whole world is against you, you will keep your kingdom if that is your destiny, although you exert yourself only to breathe air! And if you are destined to lose a throne—do what you will, with all your strength, you shall fall” (Buck 75). This is one of the first instances in which a character will remove himself from all responsibility and liability for the outcome of his actions, blaming fate rather than his own poor choices. Duryodhana claims that it is pointless to give land to the Pandavas, for if war is to occur under the laws of destiny, then it will occur no matter what preventative measures are taken. It is this sentiment that is echoed when the subjects proclaim Dhritarashtra and his son Duryodhana blameless in the war that destroyed the Kuru clan.When Duryodhana travels to the kingdom given to the Pandavas, he falls into an invisible pool of water and is mocked by an unknown onlooker. In order to recover his pride, he challenges Yudhishthira to a game of dice. Yudhishthira responds, “Like a brilliant planet cast down from the sky, reason is overthrown, and man bows to his fate” (Buck 91). In this way, he absolves himself the repercussions of the dice game, may they be good or bad. He acknowledges that a throw of the dice cannot be reasoned with. The dice are subject to fate alone. It is in this game of dice, which Yudhishthira gambles away the Pandavas’ possessions, kingdom, wife, and the Pandavas themselves. Given the chance at one more dice throw, with the victor taking all the kingdom and the loser forced into exile for thirteen years, Yudhishthira says, “Success or misfortune will come to me whether I play or not…I am not afraid” (Buck 103). Once again in this final dice throw, Yudhishthira acknowledges that the outcome for the Pandavas will be the same whether he throws the dice a final time or not. This is because all outcomes, for Yudhishthira, are the result of destiny and not of his inability to stop gambling when he is losing. The dice game itself can be construed as an embodiment of destiny. Yudhishthira, with his apparent gambling problem, continuing playing even after he has bet and lost himself, is merely expressing his desire to control his fate and the fate of his clan. The fact that he fails is also significant as his attempts to control fate are unsuccessful. In addition to allowing characters to shirk responsibility for the outcomes of their actions, destiny also acts to levy a sense of hopelessness upon the Kurus and causes a general discontentment within the clan. In a conversation between Duryodhana and Karna on the current direction of the war, they discuss their failings as they continue to be defeated by their enemy. When Duryodhana claims that Drona’s affection for his clansmen clouded his judgment as he failed to capture Yudhishthira, Arjuna rebuts, saying, “Where is the wonder in that? Seeing how destiny defeats us whatever we do, how many have not died or left us?” (Buck 287). Once again, the main characters are blameless as it is the role of destiny that resigns them to failure. In this worldview, it is not the fault of the Kurus that they have failed to achieve victory up to this point but the fault of destiny, which has consigned unto them a war full of defeats.In addition to the role that destiny plays in the Mahabharata, another strong, equally important Hindu theme is reflected not only in the subjects departing words to their well-loved king but also throughout the epic: the role of dharma, specifically the dharma of the Kshatriya, or warrior, caste. This, too, gives men cause to shed the outcomes of their actions by claiming that in order to act according to dharma, they have no choice in most matters because to make one choices acts in accordance with dharma while the other is forbidden by dharma. The use of dharma to excuse one’s poor actions is first seen in an exchange between Duryodhana and Krishna, in which Krishna tells Duryodhana that he will lead a richer life if he simply returns the Pandavas’ land. Duryodhana, in his usual stubborn way, responds by saying, “Krishna, what need of many words? Have you never heard the Kshatriya Dharma: Stand straight and never bow down, for this alone is manliness. Rather break at the knots than bend” (Buck 242). In addition to destiny, Duryodhana is also acting according to dharma, neglecting whatever complications may arise as a result of his actions. In his view of the world, one should act solely according to their dharma and leave the rest to destiny for the outcome will be the same anyway.Another shift away from the individual’s choice to the choice demanded of them by dharma comes as Sanjaya is relaying to the blind King Dhritarashtra what is occurring on the battlefront. He begins his description of the brutality and carnage that warfare has brought to the Pandavas and the Kurus by saying, “Kshatriya Dharma is cruel, Dhritarashtra, for in the blink of an eye those two armies had rushed together in hopeless confusion” (Buck 265). This once again removes blame from the individual soldiers who have chosen to kill their own kinsmen and from Duryodhana who has ordered them to do so, and places it squarely on the soldiers of Kshatriya Dharma, personified by Sanjaya as a “cruel” force. Once again, this absolves all of the main characters of any wrongdoing, much in the same way that the personified force of destiny allowed them to make poor or unreasonable choices with no worry of the eventual consequences.A final example of the Kshatriya Dharma acting to absolve a character of moral responsibility for their actions comes in the Bhagavad-Gita, a long discourse between Arjuna and Krishna that is notably removed from Buck’s translation of the Mahabharata. In this conversation, Arjuna is conflicted as to whether or not he should take the lives of his fellow kinsmen in battle:Annihilate a family, and with it/Collapse the eternal laws that rule the family. /Once law’s destroyed, then lawlessness/Overwhelms all [we know as] family. /With lawlessness triumphant, Krishna, /The family’s [chaste] women are debauched;/From debauchery of the women [too]/Confusion of caste is born. (Zaehner 318).Krishna spends nearly the entirety of the Bhagavad-Gita trying to communicate to Arjuna in various ways that it is okay to kill your brethren in time of war, especially if you are in the Kshatriya Varna. While Arjuna sees murdering his kin as the catalyst to caste confusion, Krishna sees it as an action that not only will leave the Kshatriya caste intact but also help to preserve it:Consider thine own (caste-)duty (dharma),/Then too hast thou no cause to quail;/For better than a fight prescribed by duty/Is nothing for a man of the princely class. /Happy the warriors indeed/Who become involved in war, —/ [A war] like this presented by pure chance/And opening the gates of paradise! (Zaehner 323).Krishna’s argument to Arjuna is that there should be no greater desire for a man of the Kshatriya class than to be forced to fight in a war. The only wrong that can be done in this situation, is failing to live up to one’s own caste dharma. By refusing to fight, Arjuna would be “casting off both honour and (caste-)duty” (Zaehner 323). Therefore, the consequences of his actions no longer rest with him, but with his dharma, allowing him to shift responsibility from himself onto his caste.The Mahabharata may seem like a traditional epic story of good versus evil, but the elements that give it a uniquely Hindu perspective also make it extremely interesting and complex. Without the roles of dharma and destiny, both of which allow the characters to sidestep responsibility, surely the subjects would not have been so understanding and willing to except the losses and destruction that came at the hands of Duryodhana. However, because these forces are continuously invoked and personified, many of the poor, rash, and stubborn decisions that led to war and countless deaths are excused as they were in accordance with the Kshatriya Dharma or were destined to occur by the ways of fate.

For Love: A Comparison of Revelation of Love and the Mahabharata

In the year 1373 A.D., thirty-year-old Lady Julian lay on her deathbed in Norwich, England, after suffering for weeks from an unknown illness (Julian VII). Around the year 3100 B.C., the war of Mahabharata broke out in India, leaving villages in devastation and the people of India in despair (Gita IX). These two events, separated by thousands of years, seemingly have little in common. However both events led to deep, theological texts that have been read for centuries: Lady Julian’s Revelation of Love and the Hindi Mahabharata. These texts seem to be as different as the events that produced them. Lady Julian shaped her work as a devout Christian in the Middle Ages; her ideas would seemingly never be comparable to the holiest text of a Middle Eastern religion. However, Julian’s views on the transcendence of God’s love and the drive beyond human suffering continually parallel the ideas and values expressed in the Mahabharata’s most famous book, The Bhagavad Gita. Both Revelation of Love and The Bhagavad Gita deal with human suffering and the necessity of God in moments of despair. Julian focuses on God while she is in great pain: “… I felt my body was dead… [but] I thought to myself that I was well, for my eyes were set [to God and] heaven, where I trusted to come…” (Julian 6). She expresses, however, that “…left to myself with all the heaviness and weariness of life- I was burdened with myself so that I barely had patience to live” (34). Without God, she clearly states, her despair would have defeated her. In The Bhagavad Gita, a warrior named Arjuna turns to Krishna, a human manifestation of the Hindu God Vishnu (essentially the Hindi equivalent to Christ), seeking help through his desolation in life and in his metaphorical war between soul and despair:Arjuna was overcome with great compassion and sorrowfully spoke these words: O Krishna… my limbs fail and my mouth becomes dry. The bow slips from my hand, and my skin intensely burns, O Krishna… It would be far better for me if my cousin brothers kill me with their weapons in battle while I am unarmed and unresisting. Having said this in the battlefield and casting aside his bow and arrow, Arjuna sat down on the seat of the chariot with his mind overwhelmed with sorrow and despair. (Gita 1:30-47)By throwing down his bow, Arjuna is not just giving up his mortal life, but is giving up his faith for despair. Neither Julian nor Arjuna, however, is truly overcome. Both are granted visions from God, Julian in the form of Jesus, Arjuna in the form of Krishna. To Arjuna’s grief, Krishna responds, notably by laughing, “You grieve for what is not worthy of grief. The wise one grieves neither for the living nor for the dead. There was never a time when these monarchs, you, or I did not exist; nor shall we ever cease to exist in the future… therefore, why grieve, Arjuna?” (Gita 2:11-15). Krishna continues to state what is now a characteristic Buddhist and Hindu saying: “Life is dukkha [a Hindi word that is loosely translated as despair or sorrow]” (Gita 4). It is said in both of these Eastern traditions that our great goal in life is to rise above this sorrow. However, the term is really more than simply a type of grief. Many translators have defined this as a deep angst in life, which is usually associated with mortality or a separation from the Lord, an idea that is reflected many times in Julian’s revelations. In one of Julian’s visions of Jesus, he says to her, “Where now is there any point in the pain or your grief?”- “[w]hatever you do, you will have sorrow. Therefore I want you to understand… that all this life is a penance that is for your benefit…” (Julian 45; 168). Besides the troubles of despair being comparable in the texts, both Krishna and Jesus point to love as being the key to the end of their disciples’ suffering. Both Julian’s revelations and Krishna’s teachings focus on the theme of universal love between God and His creations. Julian states: “For before he made us, he loved us; and when we were made, we loved him… and thus the human soul is made of God and in the same point knit to God. All the souls… without end are knit in this knot and oned in this oneing, and made holy in his holiness” (Julian 118-19). This absolute love is equally expressed in The Bhagavad Gita, as Krishna states: “Brahman [the Ultimate Spirit] is equally present in all beings. There is no one [that is] hateful to me. But those who love me with love and devotion are very close to me and I am close to them” (Gita 9:29). This idea, while common in Eastern religions, is rarely mentioned in Western Christianity. Usually, God is separated as “other,” and not in connection with oneself. However, this conception of God or the Spirit (Brahman) being present in all is wholly expounded on in both The Bhagavad Gita and in Julian’s revelations. Moreover, there is the theme that God/Brahman is in every action and is, in fact, the “true doer” of that action: “One beholds one and the same Lord exiting equally in every being… The one who perceives that all works are done by the powers of such a Nature truly understands, and thus does not consider oneself as the doer” (Gita 13:28-29). In fact, according to the Krishna’s verses: “The wise one who knows the truth thinks: ‘I do nothing at all.’ In seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, walking, sleeping, breathing; and speaking, giving, taking, opening and closing the eyes, the wise know… this is all Brahman” (Gita 5:08-9). Likewise, Julian says: “…I saw that [God] is in all things… I saw clearly that God does all things, even the very least…It is easy to understand that the best things are well done: yet as equally well as the best and highest deed is done, so too is the least thing well done; and all because it belongs to the order God ordained… for he is the only doer” (Julian 26-7). Seeing this highly Eastern concept in a Western text is unexpected and rather astonishing. Julian expresses a highly intuitive and open mind and soul, accepting this highly foreign ideology and putting it to her own beliefs. Julian continues with this idea, stating: “…I saw no difference between God and our substance, but as it were all God… We are enclosed in the Father, and we are enclosed in the Son, and we are enclosed in the Holy Spirit. And the Father is enclosed in us, and the Son is enclosed in us, and the Holy Spirit is enclosed in us…” (120). God being present in all things is important to the idea of love in both The Bhagavad Gita and Julian’s Revelations. For instance, whenever there is love between people, there is love of God, because God is in those people. Therefore, for the love of God, we love all of His people. This idea is the link to a universal peace and also makes the love of God much more personal. By worshipping God as a person, The Bhagavad Gita explains: “…the wise are able to assume human-like relationships with Brahman” (Gita 9). D. Platt, in his introduction to The Bhagavad Gita, expounds on this belief, saying that there are : “[many roles of] God as parent, devotee as child; God as Lord, devotee as servant. It is also much easier for many people to develop love toward God when He is regarded as a person. Such love is capable of triggering a spiritual awakening once it is a pure, selfless love” (Gita VI). Julian expresses this as well, in her mention of Jesus as Brother, Mother, Savior, lover, both Lord and Servant, and dear friend (Julian 121-29). This personal love makes one’s devotion to God much more natural and open. It is this sense of love that pulls both Julian and Arjuna out of despair and pain, and it is the point of the Revelation of Love and The Bhagavad Gita. The amazing similarities between Julian of Norwich’s spiritual revelations and the text of The Bhagavad Gita still amaze me. It is hard to comprehend that centuries have passed since these texts were written, and that the division between the ideas of Christianity and Hinduism has grown to such an extent. Now there is barely any semblance between the two, even though both of the fundamental ideals are so similar. Though I saw merit in the ideal before, I now more than ever believe in the transcendental unity of all religions. It is just as Julian stated in her final revelation: “Would you know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well: love was his meaning. Who showed it you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Wherefore did he show it you? For love. Hold yourself therein and you shall know and learn more in the same; but you shall never know nor learn another thing therein without end” (Julian 181). While these two texts are far from the same, their messages are corresponding. Their message is Love. Their message is to turn to that Love in times of despair, and to believe in that Love of God.Works CitedJulian of Norwich. Revelation of Love. Trans. Skinner, John. New York: Doubleday. 1996.The Bhagavad Gita. Trans. The American and International Gita Society. Khapara Mohal: Bhavan Books. 1992.