Where There is Dharma there shall be Victory

Written by  //  July 8, 2011  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  6 Comments

[A guest post by Kunal Ambasta. Kunal, a final year student of law, writes about Karna’s death, one of the most complex, heart-rending and fascinating sub-plots of the Mahabharata]

“Yato dharmastato jayah” (Where there is Dharma, there shall be victory). This statement arises out of the Mahabharata, where Gandhari blesses Duryodhana before battle. Its true import, however, lies outside the Duryodhana’s direct experience at battle. It would be more aptly used to analysed Karna’s experience throughout the Mahabharata.

Karna, was in every way, an equal if not greater than Arjuna. His skills at archery were more than a match for his foe. As a human being, he surpassed all characters in the Mahabharata when it came to being kind and grateful. Indeed, Krishna himself tried to sway Karna towards the Pandavas, knowing fully well, that without Karna’s support, Duryodhana would not dream of waging war. Krishna was not the only one who knew this, and Karna refused the offer. Once battle was set, Karna had to be taken out of the way, and it was not humanly possible to do so. So, Krishna summoned all the tricks up his sleeve, Indra robbed him of his armour and Kunti took from him the promise that he would not kill any Pandava apart from Arjuna.

Throughout the Mahabharata, and especially towards the latter part, one sees the interplay of Dharma and practice, which is quite at odds with each other on several occasions. The rules that bind others are inapplicable to Krishna. This firstly must be understood in terms of the fact that the incarnation of Krishna, in Hindu theology, is considered to be one where Vishnu manifested all his sixteen gunas (qualities). He is therefore, in the form of the absolute Supreme at will. Unbound by all human duties and cares, it was the purpose of the incarnation to manifest the ultimate victory of Dharma through the Divine Will. Compare this to the incarnation of Rama and you will find startling differences. That incarnation was that of Maryada Purushottam (the perfect duties of man) and we see Rama choosing the course of his duties and their precedence over one another. He suffers as a result, as all humans are bound to, but the point was not to swerve from his duties.

Krishna, in addition to the advantages that Supreme Power brought to him, also qualified his actions by the tests of sthitipragya and nishkaam karma (unmoved by circumstance and unmotivated by the fruits of labour). Once these tests are satisfied, any action to uphold Dharma would be justified. Karna, for all his greatness and all his valour, picked the wrong side, it is as simple as that. He lived, fought, and treated his enemies in accordance with the requirements of Dharma. Rama would have done no less and no more were he in Karna’s position. But, Karna fought for the wrong, he protected the wrongdoers, he was a beacon of hope for humanity, but he stood with Duryodhana. Once that choice was wrongly made, he had to be defeated.

In many ways, the battle of Kurukshetra could not have been won without Krishna’s active and overreaching tactics. Dronacharya and Bhishma were defeated against the principles of battle. So was Karna. At all these times, we see that Krishna was responsible either directly or indirectly for the actions that have been questioned. One must ask whether such conduct is justifiable, or whether it is meant for emulation. The answer would be yes and no respectively and they must be answered together.

Krishna had indicated that the battle at hand at Kurukshetra was one of Dharma. So Krishna invokes the duty of Dharma placed on Arjuna to initiate him into battle. This is the story of the Mahabharata, it is the lesson of placing rules of Dharma in precedence. Much like the Ramayana itself, where Rama had to choose between his duties as a husband and those as a king, the personal duties that Arjuna owed to his cousins and his gurus were to be relegated to perform what Dharma enjoined him to do, viz raise arms against them. Thereafter, Dharma ensures his win, and win he must.

What one must take away from the Mahabharata is that the conduct of Krishna in battle is not for humans to emulate independently. A human may only follow the same path if he is on the side of Dharma and is cumulatively in accordance with the conditions of sthitipragya and nishkaam karma. If Krishna had not resorted to directing the Pandavas to act as they had done, the battle of Kurukshetra would have definitely fallen in favour of the Kauravas. The Pandava army could never have defeated the likes of Bhishma, Drona and Karna. So, for each of these great warriors, Krishna had to ensure that victory fell in the right direction, His own.

Karna and Krishna are the two antagonists in the Mahabharata. It is the battle of the supreme man against the Supreme Being. Arjuna and the others are mere instrumentalities in this war between them. It is an unequal battle, of course, and therefore, it prompts many to use the term, an “unfair” one. Karna, bound by duties and goodness, flounders as Krishna, decides on achieving ultimate victory. The final battle between Arjuna and Karna where, unarmed, unsheathed and uncharioted, Karna is finally vanquished, is a farce. The battle had already been won by Krishna and Arjuna was left to perform the final ceremonies.

The story of Karna shines like a beacon of hope in the Mahabharata. He follows his duties to the hilt, does not fall or falter for any reason but for being beholden to the wrong man. But it is equally clear that Karna holds his special position due to the fact that he has never faltered. He is the manifestation of a perfect human; his gratefulness towards Duryodhana can be justified as well. And the story of the Mahabharata is that no matter how great a human one may be, Dharma would prevail over him. As the great poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar evocatively concludes through the lips of Krishna in his epic work Rashmirathi,

“Yudhishthir! Bhooliye vikraal thha wah,

Vipakshi thha, hamara kaal thha wah.

Ahaa! Wah sheel mein kitna vinat thha?

Dayaa mein, dharm mein kaisa nirat thha.

Samajh kar Drona man mein bhakti bhariye,

Pitamah ki tarah sammaan kariye.

Manujta ka naya neta utha hai.

Jagat se jyoti ka jeta utha hai!”

6 Comments on "Where There is Dharma there shall be Victory"

  1. Shivprasad July 8, 2011 at 3:22 pm ·

    Great piece Kunal! You bring out ( and clarify) the paradox at the heart of Krishna’s apparently contradictory advise to Arjuna. It is only all to easy to misunderstand ‘dharma’ unless one also remebers that a still and equanimous mind free from its latent tendencies (sthithipragya and nishkamya) is a must for acting on dharma . Once in that state whatever a person does is Dharma itself. But the common man is far from that state. This reminds me of Kant’s categorical imperative which is the ‘right conduct’ for which Kant says you have to detach yourself from all your wants passions and desires- and act. Isnt this requirement as close to ‘nishkamya’ as it comes. You will find that, thought in a very pared down sense, even 20th century neo Kantians still try to use this ‘detached’ decision making process. The best example perhaps is Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ which is a precursor to his theory of justice.

    This paradox is also the theme of the climax of the Mahabharata. In svargarohanaparva a dejected and depressed Yudhistira is seen cursing ‘dharma’ – which he says he has followed all his life but which has not given him any tranquility. This is a beautiful paradox. Dharma will never lead you to tranquility of mind; it is the other way around. Tranquility of mind leads you to dharma.

  2. Alok July 8, 2011 at 5:37 pm ·

    Karna’s story in the Mahabharata is something that has troubled me a lot for almost as long as I remember.

    He was abandoned by his birth mother, deprived of opportunities because of a “low” birth, and when he got the chance to study under Parasurama, he invited the great warrior’s curse because he had to lie to him to study under him. Should Karna have accepted his circumstances unquestioningly?

    The one person who accepts him for what he is, and sees the qualities in him is Duryodhana. Duryodhana delivers a powerful speech denouncing the slotting of people based on their lineage alone and proceeds to crown Karna King of Anga knowing fully well that he was not of Kshatriya birth. When the Mahabharata is replete with examples of people rising out of the circumstances of their birth (consider Drona and Shikhandin) was Karna utterly unjustified in seeking to reach his fullest potential?

    When he first took up arms against Arjuna, Karna did not know Arjuna was his own brother, and almost until the war is upon the family, did not know that the Pandavas were his brothers. Yet, he kept the vow that he gave Kunti that he would not kill any of them (save for Arjuna) in battle, knowing fully well that none of them would show him the same consideration. Didn’t Karna, here, behave far more honourably than the nominal “winners” of the war, and yet face an ignominious end?

    Of him, it could be justly said, that he was more sinned against, than himself sinned.

    I don’t think the author of the Mahabharata intends for us to see Krishna’s conduct as being beyond reproach. Krishna too faces the consequences of his actions by having to witness the self-destruction of his clan and meeting a violent end. Indeed Balarama (just as divine as Krishna) thoroughly rebukes him at the end of the war upon Duryodhana’s death. Was Krishna also succumbing to the fallacy of “Do as I say, don’t do as I do?”

    The Mahabharatha deeply problematizes Dharma and I don’t think intends its readers to accept Dharma as an uncontested concept. The examples of the lives of the characters of the Mahabharata are, I think, a perfect example of the constant moral struggle that goes on within each person to live a life according to Dharma. While few of us may find the state of tranquility that allows us to lead a life of perfect accordance with Dharma, the Mahabharata is for those of us who, nonetheless want to live a life according to what Dharma dictates.

  3. Kunal July 12, 2011 at 7:03 am ·

    Dear Shivprasad,

    Thank you for your comment and apologies for the delay in my response. The connect which your have drawn with Kantian philosophy is very interesting indeed. It is of course, a very close test to that of nishkaam karma. The requirement of nishkaam karma is essential for the actions to be in accordance in Dharma. One must realise that deviance from the state of nishkaam occurs as soon as a person becomes involved in a situation and then as and when circumstances change, the requirement is that a person remain steady in his conduct and thought. This is what Krishna aims to inculcate in Arjuna.

    As you have put beautifully, Dharma may not necessarily lead to tranquility. I would draw again to Rama, who suffers almost continuously because of the decisions he has had to make. Shriramavtar is considered to be a tragic one in many traditions. Rama led his life in accordance with Dharma and suffered. Perhaps, living in accordance with Dharma can only be attained when one becomes sthitipragya to his own condition in life and not be moved by considerations of achieving peace of mind or tranquility. Dharma for Dharma’s sake then, and no other way would seem feasible.

  4. Kunal July 12, 2011 at 7:27 am ·

    Dear Alok,

    Thank you for your response and apologies on my part for the delay.

    You have clearly enumerated the myriad instances of injustice that Karna underwent. Yet, I feel that Karna holds his special position in the Mahabharata exactly because he acted the way he did in never swerving from the line of duty and in never refusing to do what Dharma enjoined him to.

    We must locate Karna’s experience not just in terms of what happened to him in his physical life but also the high regard he held and continues to hold even today. While each of the Pandavas failed to act in accordance with Dharma sometime or the other, Karna did not. Karna’s end may not be characterised as ignominious but as the martyrdom of the greatest warrior and the greatest human character in the Mahabharata. The end is also, much better than the one which the Pandavas meet later.

    We must understand that Karna acted in accordance with Dharma upon his own volition. He could have refused to give Indra his armour, could have refused to make that vow to Kunti. But, the choice was made by him, always, against his own immediate interest. He had attained that level which allowed him to be sthitipragya and nishkaam. Dharma, however, does not grant well being and tranquility. And that state can only be attained when a person is unaffected by such considerations.

    Krishna’s is the conduct of the Supreme Being who attains what he desires. Krishna himself could be said to have foreseen that his human incarnation would have to atone and therefore the violent end, but he was unaffected by that and chose to still act the way he did.

    I agree with the concluding part of your comment. Very few of us may in fact attain that state of mind which would allow us to act in accordance with Dharma. Let us remember that Karna did do so, and therefore his hallowed position.

  5. Kunal July 12, 2011 at 7:27 am ·

    Dear Shivprasad,

    Thank you for your comment and apologies for the delay in my response. The connect which your have drawn with Kantian philosophy is very interesting indeed. It is of course, a very close test to that of nishkaam karma. The requirement of nishkaam karma is essential for the actions to be in accordance in Dharma. One must realise that deviance from the state of nishkaam occurs as soon as a person becomes involved in a situation and then as and when circumstances change, the requirement is that a person remain steady in his conduct and thought. This is what Krishna aims to inculcate in Arjuna.

    As you have put beautifully, Dharma may not necessarily lead to tranquility. I would draw again to Rama, who suffers almost continuously because of the decisions he has had to make. Shriramavtar is considered to be a tragic one in many traditions. Rama led his life in accordance with Dharma and suffered. Perhaps, living in accordance with Dharma can only be attained when one becomes sthitipragya to his own condition in life and not be moved by considerations of achieving peace of mind or tranquility. Dharma for Dharma’s sake then, and no other way would seem feasible.

  6. Your Student May 8, 2015 at 10:43 pm ·

    See, it isn’t as easy as one dharma. Vibheesana and Kumbakarana are two prime examples of this. Both of them realised the wrongs that their brother was indulging in and both of them chose opposite sides- both abiding by dharma.

    Karna, too, had too opposing dharmas to choose from. The ‘supreme man’ as you call him, chose the dharma of friends over family. Arjuna does the opposite, by persuasion from Krishna. Both, again, abiding by dharma.

    Also. I think you’re mistaken when you point out that Karna’s death does not come by dharma. It is the same dharma that killed Abhimanyu that killed Karna. It is the dharma of retribution.

    The deaths of Dronacharya and Bheesma are undoubtedly adharma. Yudhistra’s lies and taking advantage of Bheesma’s weakness to fighting transgenders is well known and I don’t want to debate that.

    ‘Where there is Krishna, there is Victory.’

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