On the occasion of Janamashtami, the birthday of Krishna, I would like to discuss an important allegation leveled against him in the epic Mahabharata. These views are not subjective opinion shrouded in devotion; rather, these are objective views of a rank rational, if there was one!
In the epic, Mahabharat (Mb), the deaths of Bhishma, Drona and Karna are all seen as acts of treachery by Krishna. The perception is that these deaths were unethical and against all norms of war and also the fact that none of the Pandava’s wanted to kill them under the said circumstances. They were made to resort to such unethical means at the behest of Krishna.
Was this fair? Was it moral? Was it ethical?
To put this in perspective, Mb was not about right or wrong or black and white, instead, it teaches that life is grey. Defining the grey is not easy because it is deeply rooted to the context. Every character has a shade of grey and that is what makes him or her closer to a human being. S/he was a combination of strengths and weaknesses and thus consequences.
While the said deaths are seen as injustices in the particular episode of the war, one should also see it along with the innumerable injustices meted out on the Pandavas that had taken place before the Kurukshetra, like the incident of lakshagraha, malpractices in the dice game leading to exile and that too with unfavourable conditions, Draupadi’s insult, not giving the Promised Land after 13 years, to mention some of them. The lives of the Pandavs had been spent more in jungles than the palace which was their rightful home. The war itself was not of equals – the Kauravas had a much bigger army, than that of the Pandavs. However, the deaths of the heroes were not to be seen as a tit-for-tat justice system.
In the ‘killing’ of the said ‘heroes’ there was no ill design. Such decisions were taken in what is better understood in management parlance as ethics of the emergency situation. Ethics of emergency situation implies ethical decisions which have be taken in dire emergencies. Emergency is better understood as crisis or an urgent situation. This ethics of the emergency situation in this case was keeping the greater good of society in view, and certainly not for personal gains. The deviation from the norm, was not really for any personal benefit here at all, including saving of lives. Krishna resorted to the ethics of the emergency situation in getting all of them eliminated (not killed) toward the greater good of humanity, through means that are questionable outside of the context. They were all, by the way, associated with an unjust cause, and had serious personal flaws in their characters.
Bhishma was myopic in his ‘serving the throne’. The focus on saving the throne was so strong that he could not see anything beyond it. He had a very myopic definition of his existence and a life whose virtues had serious ramifications, which in the larger interest were being misused by the perpetrators of evil. Drona was guided by first an initial enmity with Drupad and then the future of his son. Both were personal agendas, and he did not have any serious affinity for either the Kauravs or Pandavs. A teacher of his stature who had much in his power and capabilities was unfortunately driven by narrow considerations of life. Karna, a hero in the truest sense of the word, was a misplaced hero. His entire life was a quest for recognition, which made him fall slave to a person who had nothing right on his side. His need to repay debts was so strong that it became his sole objective of life.
Were any of these heroes fighting a war of ethics and morals and was their objective to fight a just war, when all in their hearts knew that the cause of the war itself was flawed? What significant efforts were made by each one of them to avoid or stop the war, especially when each one of them was in his own way strong and could have insisted on stopping the war, by just not willing to participate in the war?
Pandavs needed justice to regain all they had lost, after paying a heavy price for their mistakes and Krishna was guided here by the consideration of dharma which had been taken to a different dimension altogether. In the accepted interpretation, the ethics of the emergency situation notwithstanding, truth was by and large given an unconditional status. Krishna’s major motivation was to establish a sense of dharma and satya in the world to come. Did Krishna resort to indulging in ‘lies’ (as many call it) anywhere in the epic except in the specific case of Kurukshetra? Nowhere has Krishna advocated duty for the sake of duty, not without consequential consideration, though certainly without selfish motives. If efforts to establish dharma and satya were selfish motives then he surely had been selfish, lied and committed injustice. But ponder here – never has a lie been uttered anywhere. What was uttered was untruth. Lies are spoken with selfish motives, but an untruth need not have selfish motives.
Here I am reminded of an episode from American Civil War. When General Sherman had decided to burn down Atlanta, his Commander was shocked and wrote to him to stop it. The General is supposed to have told his Commander, “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it”. According to him a war has its own logic and momentum once it begins. It inevitably escalates, and you cannot blame the soldiers and generals for the killing, sometimes mindless. You can only blame those who started it.1 Nothing could be different in Kurukshetra too!
A close look of the epic will reveal that an austere and an unforgiving streak of dharma appeared to run through the epic. If good people are not allowed to win by any means, and if they had to fight justly, then one must be prepared to face the fact that they might lose. There was no guarantee that truth and goodness would prevail in human history. The Pandavas then would have had to accept this and wait, for another day. The outcome of the entire world would have been so different if the most important thing then was to just fight fairly. Since they did not and fought the way they did, they failed in their individual dharma, but managed to uphold dharma at large.
Needless to say that they were punished too with none of them allowed to ‘live happily ever after’. Even Krishna and his community faced elimination and died a bitter death. A big price to pay on the part of the Pandava’s and Krishna for eliminating all that stood for wrong and erroneous and establish the rule of the right and just.
What do you think?
1 – The Difficulty of Being Good – By Gurcharan Das
Image courtesy - http://www.stephen-knapp.com/krishna_print_onehundredsixtyseven.htm