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The Epic Political Philosophy & State-Craft…

The Mahabharata is one of the two major Sanskrit Epics of Ancient India, the other being the Ramayaṇa. It is the longest epic poem known, as Mahabharata has been described as “the longest poem ever written“, consisting of over 200,000 individual verse lines and long prose passages. At about 1.8 million words in total, this Epic is roughly 10 times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. W J Johnson compared the importance of the Mahabharata in the context of Global Civilisation to that of the Bible, the Quran, the works of Homer, Greek drama, and even to the works of William Shakespeare.

Traditionally, the authorship of the Mahabharata is attributed to Vyasa, a legendary Hindu sage. According to Indian Mythology, Lord Ganesha wrote the Mahabharata upon Vyasa‘s dictation. However, it is believed that more than one person wrote the epic. Although there have been several attempts to unravel its historical growth and compositional layers of the Epic, researchers have failed to trace the actual time of the creation of Mahabharata. The bulk of the epic was probably compiled between the 3rd Century BCE and the 3rd Century CE, with the oldest preserved parts not much older than around 400 BCE. The original events related by the epic probably fall between the 9th and 8th Centuries BCE, while the text probably reached its final form by the early 4th Century CE.

The Mahabharata narrates the struggle between two groups of cousins in the Kurukshetra War and the fates of the Kaurava and the Paṇḍava princes and their successors. Apart from narrating the struggle, it also contains Philosophical materials, such as a discussion of the four “goals of life“. Bhishma, also known as Pitamaha (Grandfather), Gangaputra and Devavrata, was one of the lead characters of the epic. He was a statesman of Kuru Kingdom, and was one of the most powerful warriors. He was the eighth and only surviving son of the Kuru King Shantanu and the River Goddess Ganga. Although he was made the heir-apparent of the kingdom, Bhisma ceded his rights for his father’s happiness and took the vow of lifelong celibacy. Due to this terrific oath, he came to be known as Bhishma and was blessed to live as long as he wanted. Bhisma, who played a major role in the Political Affairs of the Kuru Kingdom, took part in the Kurukshetra War from the side of Kauravas. On the 10th day of the war, Pandava Prince Arjuna pierced Bhishma with numerous arrows, and paralysed him on a bed of 1000 arrows. After spending 51 nights on the arrow bed, Bhishma left his body on the Uttarayana (winter solstice). Before his death, he handed down the ‘Vishnu Sahasranama’ to Prince Yudhishtira.

Bhishma has a large significance in Ancient Indian Culture, as he narrated the Raj Dharma (the duties and responsibilities of a ruler) in details. One can find Bhisma’s views on Political Matter in the chapter, titled ‘Shanti Parbha’ (or the ‘Period of Peace’), of Mahabharata. While lying on the bed of arrows, Bhisma was being questioned by Yudhishtira, the hero who triumphed in the Battle of Kurukshetra. The Philosophical Discussions on Politics between Bhisma and his grandson Yudhishtira took place after the end of the war, and the tragic memories were too fresh to be forgotten. Significantly, the chapters that dealt with Politics are part of the Shanti Parbha. This obviously implies that the Politics should promote peace and harmony in the society. This Political Teaching of Mahabharata is in sharp contrast with Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’, an ancient Indian Sanskrit treatise on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy, where abundant space was devoted to warfare and the spying system. It may be noted that the Mahabharata discussed about an ideal Political System centuries before English Philosophers Thomas Hobbes (April 5, 1588 – December 4, 1679) and John Locke (August 29, 1632 – October 28, 1704), and French Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (June 28, 1712 – July 2, 1778) established the basic foundation of Liberal Democracy through their respective Social Contract Theory!

Battle of Kurukshetra

Raj Dharma means the duties and responsibilities of a ruler (or King in Ancient India). However, it can also be applicable in modern-day Politics, as the majority of the political leaders are not performing their duties in a proper manner, thus creating various global crises. The Dharma Sutras prescribed a number of duties for the ruler, and these are supposed to have Vedic sanctions. The ruler was to exercise the sceptre of punishment and if there was any miscarriage of Justice or if the culprit escaped, the ruler was not only to compensate for the loss, but also to perform the penance. This involves the notion of Extra-Political sanctions on the ruler for the violation of his duties. There is a great emphasis on Raj Dharma or the idea of protection of the fourfold Social Order.

The Mahabharata gives primacy to Raj Dharma because it groups the chapters dealing with the political matters under the title of Raj Dharma. Raj Dharma, according to Bhisma, is the refuge of all living creatures, and not only the threefold end of life. The Kingly Duty (Dharma) is held to be the means of controlling the world. In other words, the Raj Dharma should destroy all social evils. Bhisma stressed on human values while discussing Raj Dharma with Yudhishtira. He said that much was achieved for the World of Mortals at the outset by the Kshatriyas (Rulers), fulfilling the highest duty (Dharma). (Chapter 63, Shanti Parbha). Bhisma also quoted Vedic statements, saying that all the duties of the three Upper Classes – (Brahmins (scholars), Kshatriyas (rulers, warriors or administrators) and Vaishyas (agriculturalists and merchants) – together with their auxiliaries spring out of the ruler’s Dharma. All other Dharmas (duties), Bhisma explained, were swallowed up in Raj Dharma. He further observed that while all other Dharmas offered little relief and produced small benefits, the Dharma of the Kshatriya alone brought much relief and conferred a great benefit. Bhisma added that all Dharmas should have Raj Dharma as their chief, stating that all religious enunciation and exercises were fixed in Raj Dharma.

The above mentioned view of the uniqueness of Raj Dharma was justified by Bhisma in the first instance by the conception of its preeminent function in relation to the community. Should Dandyanity (or the Art of Punishment… here significantly identified with Raj Dharma) be last, where the three Vedas would sink and all Dharmas would be mixed up, he added. According to Bhisma, all Dharmas would disappear in the absence of Raj Dharma. He used to believe that Dharma of four orders and those of the four Varnas – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras (laborers and service providers) – were established upon the Dharma of Kshatriya. It may be noted that Varnas are a different form of class concept in Ancient India.

In this connection, Bhisma quoted the discourse of Lord Vishnu to King Mandhata. The King said: “I have won immense and immeasurable regions, and established my fame by means of the Dhrama of Kshatriya.” Mandhata further said: “However, I do not know how to perform the highest Dharma, deriving from the primeval deity.” Lord Vishnu replied: “The Dharma of Kshatriya originated from the primeval deity, and then came other Dharmas which are as they were their appendages. All other Dharmas are included in t]the Dharma of Kshatriya and therefore, it is declared to be the highest.” By means of the Kshatriya Dharma as it is explained by divine examples, Lord Vishnu crushed his enemies and provided Gods and sages with security. If the incomparable God had not killed all his enemies, then neither Brahmins nor Lord Brahma, the creature of the world, nor the good and its primeval laws would have come into effect. Had the God not conquered this world with his military skills, all the duties of four Varnas would have ceased to exist.

Bhisma Kund, Kurukshetra, Haryana, India
There is a legend attached to this water tank, which says that when Bhishma lay on his bed of arrows, he felt thirsty and asked for water. To fulfil his desire, Arjuna immediately shot an arrow into the ground and let loose a stream of gushing water. This is how the Bhishma Kund is believed to come into existence.

Bhisma told Yudhishtira that the Ruler’s primary duty was to protect his subjects from dangers. Those, who are without restraint and are swayed away by the passions of lust and anger, should be prevented from committing sin by the ruler. At the same time, the ruler should allow others, who are cultured, endowed with all virtues and devoted to good practices, to perform their duties in a proper manner. Bhisma claimed that Raj Dharma was the foremost of all Dharmas, and people would be ruined without it. He concluded that the ruler, by protecting his subjects, could win the hearts of people. Finally, Yudhishtira, assured Bhisma that he would acquire the merits of four Varnas by wholeheartedly devoting himself to the task of protection.

The Ancient Indian concept of Raj Dharma is the fundamental, social and political principle that ensures complete fulfilment of human ends, as well as universal security. It represents quantitatively the most comprehensive, qualitatively the most fundamental, and ethically the most perfect group of human activities. This high estimate is primarily justified by its two-fold functions in ensuring Collective Security, as well as stability of the Social Order founded upon the law of its constituent units. It is justified subsidiarily by the agreement that the ruler sets the standard of virtuous behaviour by exercising the qualities of compassion and renunciation, as well as by hindering the Bad and helping the Good. The authors of Mahabharata clinched their arguments by declaring in effect that Politics was the most comprehensive branch of Individual and Social Ethics. One can find the essence of this Social Ethics in Rousseau’s Social Contract Theory, but not in Hobbes and Locke’s works.

W J Johnson, The Bhagavad Gita – Oxford World’s Classics
B N Prasad, Political Ideals and the Ideas in the Mahabharata
D K Chatterjee, Government Service-holder in the period of Mahabharata

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