This is an excerpt from the newly-released ebook “Introduction to Mahabharata: Lessons on Life and Businesses”, currently available on Kindle. To get your copy, press here.
Let’s be honest: we all want to do the right thing. In fact, all of us are doing our best. However, “our best” is a broad expression which is heavily influenced by our understandings, our backgrounds, our desires, our needs, our education and many other factors. In the end, “our best” may not be suitable for the world as a whole, but enough for perhaps our own country, or our own community. The cold, hard truth of it is that, although it is by no means impossible, it is very rare for a dream to “change the whole world for the better” to come true.
Mahabharata understands this, and makes no pretense of the situation being otherwise. So, instead of taking the stance of “this situation is unvirtuous and therefore should not have happened,” the attitude of the characters lean more to “This situation is unvirtuous, but it happens nonetheless. So, what are we going to do about it?”
There are, of course, many other unpleasant truths in life symbolized in the epic. Here are some of them:
Fighting for righteousness is all very well, but if the opponent fights dirty be prepared to match them. Many of the tactics used by the Pandavas were sneaky at best. But, they tried to avoid the war, and when they could not avoid it they fought honorably. But, when their opponent started gaining the upper ground by cheating, they resorted to dishonorable methods as well. They had to – otherwise they would lose and the Kauravas would not hesitate to kill every last one of them. There is no point in occupying the high moral ground if you lose in the process, particularly if “losing” means losing your life, your country and people you are responsible for. There is a story of Prithivraj Chahaun who defeated and captured 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 promptly defeated, captured, and executed Prithivraj, an event which led to Muslim rule over the entire Ganges river valley. One cannot fully blame Prithivraj for letting Mahmud go. It was indeed the noble thing to do, but it cost him his life and his kingdom. Of course, it is not always the case of “kill or be killed”, but it is worth serious pondering. There are always moral conflicts and there will always be people who would mistake courtesy and kindness as signs of weakness.
War is sometimes justified. Mahatma Gandhi argued that it would be better to uphold the principle of non-violence over resorting to violence for any cause. And he was right. It is better, much nobler, and it is certainly something we should always strive to do. However, if the world was or is that noble, we would never hear news on wars or mass killings which we still hear about even to this day. On the other hand, the Mahabarata accepts the idea of a just war – where war is an option that should only be resorted to after all other solutions fail. However, once resorted to, it ought to be fought quickly to its conclusion for the sake of everyone.
There will always be dishonest people in the world, and you need to know how to handle them for your own sake as well as the people you are responsible for. Yudhisthira failed to identify and acknowledge the dishonesty of Duryodhana and lost everything he had. Turning the other cheek to something that is harmful is not righteousness – it will only lead to a bigger wrong.
Rules and customs ought to be interpreted flexibly. Mahabharata argues that that rules and customs should serve as social tools or means to enhance the quality of life and relationships. They are ‘tools’ to achieve a better life, not the ‘end result’. When rules and customs no longer serve their purpose, then we will have to think about reinterpreting them, or even discard them completely. Duty can be amended when it pursues a course of action that is inflexible or harmful. In Mahabharata, the Pandavas felt honor bound to play a game of dice to the end to appease their host, even though it resulted in the gambling away of their kingdom and their queen, as the customs frowned upon guests who refuse their host’s wishes. If following a strict sense of morality leads to actions that are immoral, then it is better to evaluate one’s notion of duty and honor.