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Mahabharata as an allegory of the elusiveness of dharma

Author Gurcharan Das
As the war of progresses and Kaurava’s brilliant commanders fall one by one, we begin to sympathize with them. As victims of Krishna’s deceitful tricks, they even begin to appear as underdogs. Some of the Kauravas did behave in an exemplary manner. Duryodhana’s unusual brother, Vikarna, as we know, did get up to defense after the game of dice – the only member in the assembly to do so.

Even the villainous demonstrates some virtues, and the text refers to him in Book Fifteen as a good King, who invited great loyalty from and Ashwatthama. Bhishma also admits that Duryodhana has always been called a hero. In humanizing the Kauravas, the Mahabharata reminded me again of an important lesson on my journey when one begins to see the ‘other’ as a human being with empathy, as someone like oneself, that is the moment when the moral sentiment is born in the human heart.

The Mahabharata is sometimes called a tale of deceit and illusion and Yudhishtira’s lie is a prime example of this. This illusory nature of the epic led an early German scholar of the Mahabharata to propose the thesis that in the “original” epic the Kauravas were the heroes, which also explains why Duryodhana is often referred to in the epic as Suyodhana.

False words mask or they manipulate. In lying, one conceals oneself and enmeshes the other person in an illusion of one’s making. By deceiving Drona, corrupts his teacher’s relationship with the world. So do we every time we lie - we corrupt the ‘other’ in the same way. The epic is aware of this and of Yudhishthira’s terrible deed as it reminds us

“There is no higher morality than truth, nor a greater sin than falsehood. Truth is the foundation of morality; therefore one should not suppress truth.”

When Drona’s son hears of the ignoble deed, he denounces Yudhishthira, accusing the dharmaputra, “son of virtue” of becoming an “impersonator of virtue.” But Vyasa, the legendary author of the epic, explains to Ashwatthama that the whole battle and everything in it might have been an illusion. It was not a simple battle of good versus evil, with God on one side and the evil Kauravas on the other.

The two sides may not have been fighting each other. They were battling the common enemy of illusion, whose most insidious form is lying - concealing the self and ensnaring the other in an illusion of one’s own making. This is perhaps why in real life dharma is “subtle” and the  Mahabharata is an allegory of the elusiveness of dharma.

[Published with permission from Penguin Random House India,
from the book "The Difficulty of Being Good", by Gurcharan Das]
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