Absurdity, Abdication, and Abuse: Lessons from the Mahabharata

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Dhritarashtra’s actions demonstrate how if we don’t use our power when we should, we end up using it when we shouldn’t.

When the Pandavas completed their forest exile, they were joined in the kingdom of Virata by their influential father-in-law, Drupada. After consulting with him, they sent Drupada’s priest as a messenger to Hastinapura.

In essence, the priest told the Kurus, “The Pandavas have completed their prescribed exile of thirteen years. They have honored their part in the terms of the gambling match; the onus is now on you to honor your part and return their kingdom to them.”

Dhritarashtra replied that he would send his answer soon through his own messenger, Sañjaya.

For thirteen years, Dhritarashtra had been living his dream – he and his son Duryodhana were enjoying the royal throne with unchallenged power. But that dream had always existed on the verge of a nightmare: the return of the Pandavas. He would have to hand over their kingdom to them. If he didn’t, war would result. Seeing his dream slipping from his hands, he wondered if he could somehow keep both the kingdom and the peace.

The Preposterous Peace Proposal

To this end, Dhritarashtra came up with a sophistry that he conveyed through Sañjaya. The essence of his message to the Pandavas was “Householders are expected to eventually leave their homes to go to the forest and lead a retired life. You, O Pandavas, have already achieved the status of living in a forest. Why turn back towards household life now by seeking a kingdom? And why fight a war to gain a kingdom you will eventually renounce? And why, for a temporary kingdom, fight against your own family members? Live in peace where you are and continue to progress spiritually.”

On hearing the message, Yudhishthira replied in an aggrieved tone, “When, O Sañjaya, did we state that we wanted to fight? We wish to live peacefully with the Kurus while pursuing our dharma. There is a time for engaging with the world and a time for renouncing the world. We still have our duties to our ancestors and our citizens. To serve our ancestors, we need to continue our lineage by begetting progeny. To serve our citizens, we need to help them practice dharma. For doing these duties, we need a kingdom. Without doing our dharma as engaged householders, we can’t abruptly jump to the retired stage. It is only for doing our dharma that we seek our rightful kingdom. We aren’t causing war; only those who are stopping us from doing our dharma are causing it. Please tell our uncle that we are ready to serve him respectfully and to live peacefully.”

When Sañjaya returned to Dhritarashtra and conveyed Yudhishthira’s incisive reply, the fallacy of Dhritarashtra’s reasoning became undeniably obvious.

Don’t Just Speak Philosophy – Pursue the Purpose of Philosophy

Consider the implications if Dhritarashtra’s argument were accepted and became a precedent. Any greedy person could steal others’ property, force the victims into poverty and forest life, and then claim the moral high ground by saying that the victims should stay in the forest for their own spiritual growth.

To know philosophy is important; to know the purpose of philosophy is even more important; and to know our own heart to ensure that we pursue the purpose of the philosophy we cite is most important. Otherwise, we may end up abusing philosophy not just to deceive others, but also to deceive ourselves.

Nowadays, some unscrupulous people abuse ideologies to rationalize violence in the name of religion. They often live in an echo chamber surrounded only by yes-men who applaud whatever twisted arguments they come up with. They end up deceiving others, deceiving themselves, and ultimately defeating their own higher interests.

We all need the association of those who are wiser than us, who know the purpose of philosophy, and who help us stay on track in pursuing that purpose.

When Those with Eyes Couldn’t See, But the Blind Could

Before the Kurukshetra war, Krishna went to the Kuru kingdom with a peace proposal on the most accommodating terms. Duryodhana not only rejected the proposal but also tried to arrest Krishna. This attempt was reprehensible because it violated all diplomatic conventions that guaranteed the safety of a peace envoy. Krishna foiled Duryodhana by expanding Himself to gigantic proportions and displaying His universal form. The form emanated such fire and anger that everyone was blinded. Overcome by fear, the soldiers who had charged forward to arrest Krishna fell on their backs, rose falteringly, and fled.

Hearing the chaos, the blind Dhritarashtra asked Sañjaya, “What is happening?”

Sañjaya replied in an awestruck tone, “Krishna is showing His universal form.”

On hearing this, Dhritarashtra said to Krishna, “O Keshava, I have never seen anything throughout my life. You are revealing a form that few can see. Please bless me with the vision to see this form.”

Krishna replied, “So be it.”

Soon Dhritarashtra could see for the first and only time in his life. And what a majestic sight he saw: the blazing form pervading all directions, containing luminaries from all over the universe, reducing everything around it to insignificance.

Thus Dhritarashtra experienced Krishna’s unparalleled power through two benedictions. First, he got the power to see. Second, he got to see the awe-inspiring universal form. Yet, despite getting this double demonstration of divinity, Dhritarashtra remained attached to his son. His abdication of responsibility in the face of Duryodhana’s obstinacy made the war inevitable.

Eyesight Can Be Given, But I-Sight Has to Be Chosen

Seeing Krishna’s universal form could have prompted Dhritarashtra to think about Krishna’s position. He had heard from the sages that Krishna was God descended to this world, and that He was everyone’s greatest well-wisher, as would be later reiterated in Bhagavad-gita (5.29).

Unfortunately, Dhritarashtra was so attached to his son that he remained spiritually blinded. He couldn’t understand that he was a soul who was only temporarily, circumstantially in a relationship with another soul who had taken on the role of his son. Instead of giving due importance to his eternal relationship with the Supreme Soul, Krishna, he got carried away by his temporary relationship with his son. And even when Krishna mercifully gave him the eyesight to see the universal form, still he held on to his worldly attachment. He never could muster the will to choose I-sight – the inner focus by which he could understand who he really was and where his best interests lay.

Dhritarashtra’s not having eyesight was lamentable. His not having I-sight was even more lamentable. And his reluctance to receive I-sight when it was offered by Krishna Himself was most lamentable.

Ambivalence and Turbulence

Dhritarashtra sat in his palace, awaiting news of the war at Kurukshetra from Sañjaya. As he sat in the darkness of his blindness, he found himself gripped by ambivalence.

The time for war was finally upon him. His sons had wronged the Pandavas repeatedly. The Pandavas’ cause was just, and they were virtuous. The chances of his vicious sons winning against them were low indeed. Vidura had warned him that antagonizing the Pandavas meant courting war. Alas, why had he neglected his wise brother’s words?

But, then, was his cause so unjustified? He was the elder brother; the kingdom should have been rightfully his. Even if he couldn’t get it because of his blindness, his sons could. And should.

Maybe there was still a chance. In their army, his sons had veterans such as Bhishma and Drona whose experience and expertise had few parallels. Who could possibly defeat them?

But a voice stabbed him from within. During the Virata battle, Arjuna had single-handedly defeated all the Kuru warriors, including the veterans.

His ambivalence continued. Duryodhana had formed many alliances by which he had eleven divisions of soldiers. The Pandavas had just seven. The Kauravas outnumbered their opponents by more than one and a half times. Surely that would be a decisive advantage.

The stabbing inner voice countered. What was the value of this numerical superiority? The Pandavas had Krishna on their side. Dhritarashtra thought of the time he had beheld Krishna’s universal form. Who could counter such power?

The fear that his son’s cause was doomed haunted him. It was this awareness that had prompted him to decline when Vyasadeva had offered him the vision to see the Kurukshetra war from his palace. But he hadn’t been able to see his sons throughout their life; how could he bear to see their death? Dreading that possibility, he had requested Vyasa to grant the power of remote vision to Sañjaya.

And yet he continued hoping that maybe – just maybe – his sons could win.

With a combination of weariness and eagerness, he awaited the news of the Kurukshetra war as Sañjaya began his live commentary.

Desiring the Impossible, Dreading the Inevitable

Those who are blinded by their attachments are unfortunate. Those who are illumined by knowledge but still choose to stay attached and blinded are even more unfortunate. Those who are provided illumination by God Himself, but choose instead to pursue their doomed desires are most unfortunate. Such was Dhritarashtra’s tragic fate.

He knew about Krishna’s position and power, yet he kept longing for his sons’ victory. With knowledge, we are meant to transform our desires. Even if our desires don’t naturally go in the direction our knowledge points to, we still need to push them in that direction. If instead we let them pull us in the opposite direction, we sentence ourselves to frustration and destruction.

Dhritarashtra didn’t align his desires with his knowledge. Consequently he remained in the exhausting grip of ambivalence. He desired the impossible: victory for his sons. And he dreaded the inevitable: victory for those on Krishna’s side.

The Murderous Embrace

After the Kurukshetra war ended, the Pandavas came to meet Dhritarashtra. Yudhishthira was apprehensive, knowing that the blind king would hold them responsible for the death of his sons. He requested Krishna to accompany them, confident that Krishna would expertly defuse any volatile situations. Accordingly, the six of them approached Dhritarashtra.

When they were ushered into Dhritarashtra’s presence, he looked shattered. Speaking in a subdued voice, he opened his arms to hug them, one by one. Yudhishthira went forward first. When Bhima stepped forward next, Krishna stopped him. Using His mystic power, He summoned an iron effigy of Bhima that Duryodhana had used for honing his mace-fighting skills while also venting his envy. Krishna arranged for that effigy to step into Dhritarashtra’s embrace. As soon as Dhritarashtra felt Bhima within his arms, he crushed him tightly. All his anger at Bhima for having killed his hundred sons came out in the force of that crushing hug. Within moments, the effigy crumbled to pieces and then to powder. The effort exerted Dhritarashtra so much that he fell back vomiting blood.

As soon as he regained his composure, he spoke loud words of lamentation.

“Alas! What have I done! In a fit of rage, I have killed Bhima.”

Consoling him, Krishna said, “O king, do not lament. Bhima still lives.”

When the startled Dhritarashtra turned his head in the direction of Krishna’s voice, Krishna continued, “Anticipating your anger, I arranged for an effigy of Bhima to step into your embrace. What you crushed was that effigy.”

Continuing gently, Krishna said, “O king, do not be angry with Bhima. He is not responsible for the death of your sons; their own misdeeds are. They were advised repeatedly by their well-wishers to desist from treating the Pandavas unfairly, but they never listened. You know this well. They have now met the end they deserved. Live in peace, O king, with the Pandavas, who have always been respectful to you.”

Disuse and Abuse of Power

This is the only instance in the Mahabharata when Dhritarashtra exhibited his physical power. His power was astonishing – he crushed with mere arms an effigy that had withstood numerous blows from Duryodhana’s mace. And yet Dhritarashtra’s expression of power was tragically misdirected. If he had used even a fraction of that power to rein in his wicked son Duryodhana, he could have not only saved the lives of all his sons but also prevented a catastrophic war that killed millions.

Of course, to control Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra needed not just physical power, but inner power, the power to fight against his attachments and to stick to the impartiality expected of an elder, let alone a king. Unfortunately, Dhritarashtra was too weak to muster that power. Crushing external adversaries is far easier than crushing internal attachments.

If we don’t use our power when we should, we will end up using it when we shouldn’t. And that inappropriate use can compound the problems caused by the preceding failure to use it properly.

The biggest disasters in world history have been caused not by powerless people, but by powerful people. These powerful people may fall in two categories: those who abuse their power, and those who don’t use their power to stop those who abuse power. Depraved dictators often abuse their power and leave a trail of slaughter and mayhem wherever they go. And rulers who could and should counter the dictators’ abuse of power remain passive. They may be Pollyannaish pacifists who try to appease the dictators while the dictators just continue and increase their atrocities. Dhritarashtra embodied both the abuse and the disuse of power. He abused it by trying to kill Bhima, and he had misused it by continually trying to appease Duryodhana.

To not have power makes us weak; to have power and fail to use it appropriately makes us weaker still; to have power, to fail to use it appropriately, and then to use it inappropriately makes us weakest. Why weakest? Because such disuse and abuse signify that we don’t have control over whatever power we have – we are simply driven by our impulse and our attachments.

By pursuing our spiritual growth, we all gain the inner power to use properly whatever outer power we have.

About the Author: 

Chaitanya Charana Dasa

Chaitanya Charana Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami. He holds a degree in electronic and telecommunications engineering and serves full time at ISKCON Mumbai. He is the author of twenty-two books. To read his other articles or to receive his daily reflection on the Bhagavad-gita, "Gita-daily," visit thespiritualscientist.com.