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The Battle of Dharma Vs Karma

The battle of Mahabharata ended, leaving behind death and destruction. The Pandavas won, but at a great cost.

The eldest of Pandavas, Yudhishtra stood in the middle of the battlefield after the war, a forlorn figure looking absolutely dejected and grief stricken. The entire Kaurava clan was wiped out, including their great grandfather, Bhishma Pitamah, Guru Dronacharya and almost every other elder they had ever known.

He lamented again and again that it was victory for Pandavas but at a terrible cost. He cries out in pain, ‘I do not want the throne of Hastinapur. What is the point of ruling when you have got there only through deceit, sin and death?

Yudhishthira says:

आत्मानमात्मना हत्वा किं धर्मफलमाप्नुमः

धिगस्तु क्षात्रमाचारं धिगस्तु बलमौरसम्

धिगस्त्वमर्षं येनेमामापदं गमिता वयम्

Translation: Since we slaughtered our own, what good can possibly come from ruling?

Damn the ways of kings! Damn might makes right!

Damn the turmoil that brought us to this disaster!

We are often told, that the battle of Kurukshetra was fought for the establishment of Dharma on this earth. In all the eighteen chapters of Bhagwat Gita, which is also called the Celestial Song, Lord Krishna exhorts Arjuna to fight the war of Mahabharata as this was his dharma and karma. Not just Karma, but Nishkam Karma which means without expecting any fruits of your action.

Logic says if that was so, then ideally Yudhishtra should not lament after the war. Even Arjuna was in pain looking at his elders, gurus, relatives and friends among Kaurava ranks at the war. Arjuna refused to fight, saying he could not kill his near and dear ones. This was when Lord Krishna stepped in and convinced Arjuna that it was his duty as a kshatriya to fight in a war for the establishment of dharma on this earth.

Mahabharata is a tale of love, betrayal and redemption. A grand epic which explains concepts like Dharma, Karma and nature of self. It chronicles the fortunes of the Kuru clan. It is story of dynastic struggle which provides a social, moral and cosmological background to the Mahabharata war.

Did you know that Mahabharata is the longest poem ever written consisting of over one lakh verses or two lakh lines. It is roughly ten times the length of Iliad and Odyssey combined. In the Indian tradition, it is sometimes referred to as fifth Veda.

The grand epic Mahabharata is full of contradictions. It was written about five thousand years ago by the Sage, Ved Vyas. The epic represents the age when Indian civilisation was at its peak and Lord Krishna was a part of it. Looks like good and evil have always existed side by side.

The epic battle of Mahabharata between cousins Pandavas and Kauravas took place at Kurukshetra during this time. Lord Krishna himself participated in this battle as the charioteer of Arjuna. But he vowed not to use any weapons in the war. On the contrary, Krishna gave his army to Duryodhana in the fight against Pandavas. What a contradiction. Outcome of the battle was disastrous. Entire Kaurava clan was wiped out.

Aftermath of the war saw only eleven major warriors survive the war: the five Pandavas, Krishna, Satyaki, Ashwatthama, Kripa, Yuyutsu, and Kritavarma. Yudhishthira was crowned king of Hastinapura. After ruling for 36 years, he renounced the throne and passed the title to Arjuna's grandson Parikshit.

After this, the Pandavas left this earth and departed for heaven after the battle.

Let us have a look at different characters of that period:

Yudhishtra was the eldest amongst Pandavas and known as Dharmaraj, meaning protector of Dharma. If you are the protector of Dharma, how can you indulge in an evil such as gambling and put your wife on the bet? May be, gambling was an accepted social norm at that time.

Even kings and princes indulged in this evil practice. Worst thing was you could not say no to an invitation for a duel of dice, the game for gambling. The crown prince of Hastinapur, Duryodhana, belonged to the kuru clan, and invited king of Indraprastha Yudhishtra for a game of dice.

Duryodhana was evil personified. He hated Pandavas from the core of his heart. Manipulating Dice was Kauravas speciality. Biggest dice player of that time was Shakuni, brother of Gandhari, the mother of Kauravas. It is said that dice obeyed his command. Despite knowing all this, Yudhishtra still accepted the invitation, falling into the trap laid by his cousin.

Now if the dice game was between Yudhishtra and Duryodhana, why should Shakuni mama roll the dice for the crown prince? Dharmaraj could have easily left after a few games but stubbornly, he continued playing losing his entire kingdom. Looks like he had lost all sense of right and wrong. He did not stop here, he went to the extent of placing at stake wife of the five Pandavas, Draupadi and lost her.

And mind you, he put Draupadi on stake without asking her. This was not end of drama. Duryodhana asked Dusshasan to drag Draupadi by pulling her hair to the royal court where all the elders were present. He asked Dusshasan to disrobe Draupadi. All this drama took place as King Dhrishtrarashtra, Patriach of the Kuru clan, Bhisham Pitamah, Guru Drona Acharya, and other elders were present. They did not utter a single word. Why ? The argument given is that all of them owed allegiance to the throne of Hastinapur. The simple question is what is more important, allegiance to throne or dignity and honour of the daughter-in-law of the family.

Only one person listened to the desperate pleas for help of Draupadi and that was my laughing, singing and dancing god, lord Krishna. He was not in the royal court but still ensured that none of Kauravas could disrobe the Pandava queen. What sort of a society was this where king Yudhishtra lost his kingdom and his wife in gambling. Eldest of Kuru clan Bhishma was all powerful and could have ordered both Pandavas and Kauravas to put an end to this game of gambling. But for him, his allegiance to the throne of Hastinapur was supreme.

Another instance refers to Yudhisthira. Intense battle was going on between cousins at Kurukshetra and Guru Dronacharya was playing havoc on Pandavas forces. At that moment, the elephant Ashwatthama belonging to Pandavas was killed. Pandavas and Krishna took advantage of the situation and Dharmaraj Yudhisthira shouted at the top of his voice, Ashwathama Mara Gaya, and then whispered Hathi.

Dronacharya was shocked and he asked Yudhisthira, I know you will speak only truth. Tell me, is Ashwathama dead? Yudhisthira replied with a straight face, yes, Ashwatthama is no more. Dronacharya lost all interest in battle and Pandavas took advantage of the situation and killed their guru, Dronacharya. What will you call it, diplomacy, treachery or truth?

At another point in the ongoing battle, Bhishma was inflicting heavy losses on Pandavas troops. Arjuna and others went to meet Bhishma seeking his blessings. The grand old man was overwhelmed and disclosed secret of his death to Pandavas. Anyone who was woman in previous life confronts him in the battle, he will not retaliate. Pandavas were elated. They had Shikhandi, who was princess Amba in previous life.

Next morning as the battle commenced, Shikhandi stood as a shield in front of Arjuna . Bhishma refused to use arms against someone who was a woman in previous life. Arjuna showered arrows on Bhishma piercing his body. This was another extreme where Bhishma reveals secret of his death in the middle of battle. Let us take a look at Bhishma’s life. Originally named Devavrata, he was made the heir-apparent of his kingdom. He was born as son of goddess Ganga and king of Hastinapur, Shantanu. However, he renounced his birthright for his father's happiness and took a vow of lifelong celibacy.

Owing to this selfless decision, he came to be known as Bhishma, and was blessed to live as long as he wished by his father, Shantanu. It looks quite absurd that a king who is married and has a promising son, falls in love with a fisher woman and asks her hand in marriage. The girl Satyavati lays down a condition that she will marry king on the condition that her son will be the crown prince. Shantanu is devastated. He loved Devavrata and could not agree to such a condition. King went into depression. When Devavrata came to know about the situation, he took a vow of celibacy and renounced his right to the throne. This came to be known as Bhishma Pratigya. How could any father justify marrying second time while his son denounces not only the throne but also takes a vow of celibacy for life? That is why it is called terrible vow.

Looks like even epic battle of Mahabharata was fought on the principle that everything is fair in love and war. The Mahabharata represents a world of caste and class, where bloodline determines identity. Many characters try to break out of the bonds of lineage, but they usually fail in the end.

Karna suffered the biggest injustice because of bloodline identity. He was son of unwed princess Kunti and Sun God. Yet all his life, he suffered ignominy of being called a low caste. Kunti disowned him at birth and he was brought up by a charioteer and was taunted as the Suta Putra. The fact that he was the eldest of the Pandavas brothers was revealed to him by Lord Krishna and his mother Kunti as the battle was on.

Kunti urged him to join his brothers but Karna being a man of character and high values, refused to turn against his friend Duryodhana. He tells Kunti, do not worry. Tomorrow I will meet Arjuna in the decisive battle. Either of us is bound to die. You will still have five sons.

Was it not treachery telling Karna that Arjuna is his younger blood brother? Karna fought valiantly but never wanted to kill his younger brother. Arjuna, on the other hand, was fighting his biggest enemy. He had no knowledge that Karna is his elder brother. Karna died in the battle.

Next incident relates to Draupadi’s swayambar where she chooses Arjuna as her husband. When Pandava brothers reach their hut in the forest, one of them tells Kunti, mother, see what have we brought. Without looking at them Kunti says, Sons, divide it equally among you. Logic says that Kunti should have corrected the mistake she made immediately. But no, all the five brothers shared the wife, which was against all the social norms.

The most poignant tale of Mahabharata relates to Eklavya, who paid a heavy price for being a low caste, a tribal. It was not at the hands of an enemy but a high caste Brahmin, Dronacharya, whom he considered to be his guru. Eklavya approached Dronacharya several times to learn archery but was rejected each time for being a low caste.

He did not lose heart and started practising in front of the statue of Dronacharya considering him his guru. One day, Drona and his students go out into the forest, accompanied by a dog, who starts barking incessantly but then suddenly stops. The Kurus find the dog unhurt but unable to bark due to arrows filling its mouth. This was harmless to the dog but prevented the dog from barking. Drona was amazed at the skills of this expert in archery.

Wondering who such a fine archer could be, Drona and his students saw Eklavya, with his bow. Upon seeing Drona, Eklavya came and bowed to him. Drona asked Eklavya where he had learned archery. Eklavya replied "under you, Guru", and showed Drona his statue while explaining what he had done.

The guru was in a dilemma. How could a low caste become better archer than Arjuna, his disciple and a kshatriya prince. Drona decides that Eklavya would have to pay Guru Dakshina. Readily, Eklavya offers to do anything for his guru. Drona asks Eklavya for his right thumb as Guru Dakshina. Happy and smiling, Eklavya cuts off the thumb and presents it as Guru Dakshina to his guru. Looks like the best of everything was the prerogative of kings, princes and the high caste only.

A 20th-century poem by writer Shashikant Hingonekar says:

If you had kept your thumb

history would have happened

somewhat differently.

But … you gave your thumb to them,

and history also became theirs.

Eklavya, since that day they have not even given you a glance.

Forgive me, Eklavya, I won’t be fooled now by their sweet words.

My thumb will never be broken.

Mahabharata is considered a classic epic of all times. Despite its contradictions, the epic has lot to offer as moral teachings. Bhagwat Gita or the Sacred Song, is considered as one of the great scriptures in the world. Hindus regard it with same respect and love, as Christians regard the Gospels, seeking within it comfort and enlightenment.

And so, in the 1400 lines of the Gita, the profound relationship between man and God, and the intense joy of divine love, were celebrated. Within the verses, the inner turmoil of Arjuna, the fearless hero of countless battles, was laid bare. His name had once struck fear into the hearts of enemies, but on that battlefield, facing his own kin, his heart quivered with doubt. How could he, for the sake of a kingdom, raise his bow against his own relatives, friends, and revered guru?

At this crucial moment, Krishna, who was charioteer of Arjuna, intervenes and exhorts Arjuna to fight. The Bhagwat Gita's message echoed in every syllable as Krishna expounded the values of duty over love, ahimsa over Hinsa. He reminded Arjuna of his moral duty as a Kshatriya, to protect dharma and abolish the forces of evil from the earth. The time had come for selfless action, detached from the lure of rewards.

With this, his doubts dispelled and his determination reignited, Arjuna embraced his role on the battlefield. The delusion that had clouded his mind was banished. The purpose and objective of life, as articulated in the Gita, shone brightly before him: to break the cycle of rebirth, attain moksha, and unite with the divine. And so, as the war drums echoed and the conch shells resounded, Arjuna, the mighty warrior, readied himself to fulfill his dharma and seek the path to eternal union with the divine.

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