Dharma and Mbh

Before reading the following on dharma, I have to confess that some of my comments on Sri Badrinathji’s view still need to be revised.  I cannot claim that I have understood Badrinathji’s view completely.  So if anyone could point out the mistakes that I have committed without understanding Badrinathji I will correct them.  As I cannot understand very sophisticated and high English, I do mistakes. Thanks.


One can find all kinds of secular, religious, spiritual, ethical, moral social etc., thoughts in Mbh.  According to my understanding the main thirst of Mbh. is on ‘dharma’.  But what is dharma is a Himalayan question.  About this Prof. Daya Krishna says, particularly in Mbh.:

Any discussion about dharm is always trouble some.  There is always trouble in dharm.  Then how to decide which is dharm and which is adharm?  Mahabharata fail to give any kind of answer to this question…. Mahabharata story is presented as the purvapaksha in Srimad Bhagavata.  There Vyas says that by composing Mahabharata he didn’t receive peace….Just think why Srimadbhagavad made Mahabharata as purvapaksha?  It was told through Narad, ‘O Vyas you have done a mistake by discussing about dharma but you should have discussed about  rasa and bhakti.  Srimadbhagavat told like this.—Prof. Daya Krishna, in Bhakti: A Contemporary Discussion (Philosophical Explorations In the Indian Bhakti Tradition), Edited by Daya Krishna, Mukund Lath & Francine E. Krishna, Indian Council of Philosophical Research 2000, New Delhi, 2000, p. 247

The word ‘dharma’ is difficulty to translate in English.  We need not dwell here much about the complexity related with the word dharma.  I have dealt about it (briefly) in Understanding Hinduism.  So here we can approach ‘dharma’ in Mbh. as ‘duty’ one’s own work related to his ‘varna’ and ‘asrama’ in life.  Only if we approach dharma in Mbh. from ‘varnashramadharma’ (duty based on caste and stage in life) perspective, then only many points in Mbh. will make sense to us.  Of course one can easily give any philosophical, spiritual, moral, ethical, social and even secular interpretation on dharma in Mbh.. And Mbh. always gives scope for this, as many character several times discuss and argue even from different point of view.  However it is mainly one’s own ‘duty’ (svadharma) that mostly defines ‘dharma’ in Mbh.  At the same time, we have to keep in mind that understanding dharma in Mah. is not going to be that much easy as Doniger points out:

[in Mbh.] Dharma continued to denote the sort of human activity that leads to human prosperity, victory, and glory, but now it also had much more to do. For now the text was often forced to acknowledge the impossibility of maintaining any sort of dharma at all in a world where every rule seemed to be canceled out by another. The narrators kept painting themselves into a corner with the brush of dharma. Their backs to the wall, they could only reach for another story.— Wendy Doniger, The Hindus An Alternative History,New Delhi, Penguin/Viking. 2009, p. 278

However, dharma, as ‘duty’ is not any arbitrary and isolated activity or work done just for the duty sake.  One of the important points of Gita, viz., nishkamyakarma (the very word is not in Gita) of doing one’s duty without expecting any fruits is not so prominent and dominant in Mbh. Of course what Gita says about doing one’s duty without expecting fruit is in the context of not entangled by its result.  Though Gita is part of Mbh., yet its has its own message to convey.  So in everyday life we never do any work just for the sake of work but expect some kind of result for it.  And that result or fruit of  work is the satisfaction that one gets.  The modern phrase ‘job satisfaction’ can help us to understand the nature of dharma in this sense.  So dharma is not an isolated concept or principle, but for the needs and satisfaction of everyone.  So dharma (of Mbh) can be carried out by any one as a member of a family, community, society, country, world and even part of the universe.  Thus the conditions for dharma is not set by me individually but decided by others as well.  This is a common fact of life.  And Mbh. endorses this view. Exception to this can be found in Mbh as it accommodate all kinds of views by allowing any one to add any of her view in it.  Thus the definition of dharma is what one does for herself and for others needs and satisfaction.  And Badrinath’s scholarly presentation will help us further to understand this clearly:

The Mbh. does not base its understanding of human life on divine revelation or on philosophic presuppositions a priori.  Neither does it ask for the definitions of things but for their laksana,1 attributes, by which a thing is known, is recognized.  That is how the discussions concerning dharma and truth proceed, enumerating their laksana-s, their attributes, by which they are known, or by which they become manifest.  However complex the discussion about them, they invariably are connected with the simple question as to how they are reflected in one’s relationship with one’s self and with the other.  Likewise the question is not of the definition, say, of ‘happiness’, but: what is a happy person like, or what is an unhappy person like, in relation to himself, or herself, and in relation to the other?….In other systems of philosophy, moksha is squeezed to death by all kinds of intricacies (p.13) and speculations; the Mbh. only asks: what is a free person like in his, or her, relationships?  What are his, or her, attributes by which he, or she, can be recognized?  To define a thing is to set its boundary, which is the definition of ‘definition’.  But boundaries are set arbitrarily, which explains how empirical facts often upset definitions completely.  Life is so diverse and complex that no aspect of it can be limited to the boundaries of definitions without leading to untruth.  However, this does not mean that there are no boundaries or limits whatsoever, and that all things can mean everything, in which case nothing will mean anything in particular.  What the Mbh. suggests is that these boundaries and limits cannot be conceptual, for life is not limited to concepts, nor is it bound by them.  Thus, for example, ‘truth’ is not a concept.  It is the foundation of life and relationships; and they would suggest, and not some arbitrary definition of it, what truth is.— Chaturvedi Badrinath, The Mahabharata: An Inquiry in the human condition, New Delhi, Orient Longman, 2007, pp.13-142

Thus defying any kind of definition, interpretation, condition, concept or boundary, dharma is a complex subject.  So arranging them under any one particular topic or category is not going to be easy in Mbh..  Even one single category of ‘laksana’ or attribute to understand dharma (in relationship with oneself and with others), as ‘the substance of the teaching of the Mbh.’ is to be approached cautiously.  Because the laksanas through which dharma could be recognized for oneself and the other is also decided by various other factors of life.  Even any ‘clear, straightforward and genuinely universal’ view would be relative in its scope3, as we will find in Mbh.

Mabharata, is not an independent work considering its encyclopedic nature.  Naturally all other teachings that we find in other Hindu scripture is also found in it.  (This we already noted in Introduction).  So in understanding Dharma in Mbh. we need to keep this in mind.  However comparing Mbh.’s teaching with other Hindu scripture may help one to understand its inclusive nature of that particular subject than clearly demonstrating its uniqueness of that subject.  One reason for this confusion can be the approach to Hindu scripture in chronological order.  This chronological arrangement of Hindu scriptures might help us to understand their teaching in a systematic way.  But this artificial method, several times becomes a problem when we try to understand a particular subject (here dharma) in a scripture by comparing with other scriptures.

For example, while Samhita portions were composed, other parts of Vedic corps were side by side developing.  However it will help us to understand the Vedic corps in a chronological order as: Samhita first, then Brahmana, following Aranyaka and finally Upanishads (also known as Vedanta, viz., end of Veda), it won’t give the correct picture about the entire Veda.  In the same way, as Mbh. was compiled and it grew gradually, comparing its teaching with other Hindu scripture and arriving any definite conclusion, though helpful for us to have a systematic teaching, won’t convey the whole picture.

And particularly on this topic of ‘dharma’ in Mbh. and its relationship with rest of the scriptures which deals with ‘dharma’ in their own context is bit complex in my understanding.  That’s why, the following points by Badrinath on dharma comparing with Mbh. and Dharmasastras, however good and scholarly one, need to be understood the complex nature of the origin, growth and influence of Dharmasastras as independent works—both apart from and along with Mbh.  Because Dharmasastras is a narrow window of Brahminical worlds.  It is through which they viewed outside the world for their relationship ‘with oneself and with others’.  It is of the Brahmins, for the Brahmins and by the Brahmins, through which they set boundaries to themselves and insulated their life.  And from this perspective alone they set all kinds of rules and regulations, not only for themselves but for others also.

There is no definite proof that the entire Hindu society, and particularly the so called twice born’s life is governed exclusively by this Brahminical Dharmasastras instructions.  All the (textual) information that one can collect to prove this, again, according to my opinion is provided only by the Brahmins.  This kind of approach to understand Hindu world and Indian society through the narrow window of Brahminical literature and worldview is not going to give the complete picture about all Hindus.  (see Dharmasastras in Understanding Hinduism).

Of course Mbh. too is primarily a literature of Brahmin’s contribution.  However, it never limited its scope with that Brahmin’s world.  So condemning the ‘lust for legislation’ and the ‘legislative insanity’ of Dharmasutra/sastra4 works in comparing with Mbh. won’t do full justice either to Mbh. or Dharmasutra/sastras.  This we should keep in mind to understand  Badrinath’s scholarly presentation of Dharma in Mbh. comparing it with Dharmasutra/sastra works:

…the Mbh. is concerned with the foundations of family life everywhere as a human attribute. In that, as in everything else concerning the human being, it clearly breaks away from the world of the earliest of the dharmasutra-s, and from their lust for legislation.  There was perhaps no other area of human living than the life of the householder to which the lawgivers, the shastri-s, devoted their attention more.  That attention reached a point of legislative insanity….—Badrinath,  p.336

1)      In the shastric schemes for human life, everything, everything, was classified and divided into numerous groups, which were of course created artificially [like varna and ashram]…. [on the other hand] The Mbh. is concerned that every person overcomes divisions—divisions  within the self, and the divisions between the self and the other, created by wrong perceptions of the self and of the other and of the relation between the two….—ibid. p.337

2)      …The daily rituals, if they were followed to their last prescribed detail, must have so exhausted the householder that little mental energy was left to look at one’s social contexts critically…. [whereas] The air breathes in the Upanishad-s and in the Mbh. is not the air of prescribed rituals but the liberating air of self-awareness. —ibid. p.338 …

3)      The chief concern of the dharmashastra-s was with the outward ritualistic acts prescribed for the householder, and not with feelings that nourish life in the family.  The range of the former touches the fantastic; the stock of the latter is poor, or very nearly absent.(p.338) The Mbh. concentrates on relationships and not on ritualistic acts.  It is a systematic inquiry into the foundations of relationships, personal and social, which support, sustain, and enhance life: their dharma….—ibid. pp.338-39

4)      …the idea of pollution pervaded at once the dharmashastra-s and the householder in every single act….. The Upanishad-s, and especially the Mbh., draw our attention to the real and not imaginary impurities of life: the impurities of the mind and the heart.  They teach us that no human being is impure; nor is any occasion impure; nor is any place impure.  Greed, anger, deviousness, arrogance, and untruth are the sources of all pollution, which reside in man’s heart.  And those can be removed, not by taking ritual baths, or by ritual rites, but only by self-knowledge and self-disciplines….—ibid. p.339

What we saw above on dharma in Mbh. and Dharmasastras can be extended to other scriptures as well.  What Badrinath presents about dharma in Mbh., as per his understanding and interpretation is remarkable and will help one to see the teaching of Mbh. from that particular view (of relationship with one self and others).  However, we need to caution ourselves to understand dharma in general and particularly in Mbh. from this perspective alone that too comparing it with rest of the scriptures and their context and understanding of dharma.  Either we need to study the teaching of each scripture independently without comparing with other scriptures.  Or, if we try to learn the teaching of a particular scripture comparing it with other scriptures, then we need to consider both the immediate context of each scripture and the overall textual, historical and theological context of all the scriptures.  Or if we want to read any of our modern interpretation on the teaching of any old scripture, then we have to do it independently on its teaching.  And if we began to read it comparing its teaching with other scriptures and then claim that it has given a new meaning dismissing the (traditional) views of other scriptures, needs to be questioned by a sincere student of all scriptures.

For example, the impurities that the Upanishads talk about are in the context of self-realization and not get rid of them through ritual baths or rites.  That is why they also hold the view that a ‘mukta’ (realized person) goes beyond the needs and demands of any kind of purity—both physical and mental.  What Edgerton says will help us to understand this.  Though bit long, yet we need to read it, as a summary of it cannot convey it clearly:

Even  good deeds are still deeds, and must have their fruit, according to the doctrine of “karma.”  And to attain the summum bonum man must get rid of all deeds, of all karma.  Therefore, while most if not all Hindu systems teach a practical morality, they also teach that no degree of morality, however perfect, can lead to final salvation.  In this, too, they are anticipated by the Upanisads. The perfect soul is “beyond good and evil.” (Kausiitaki U, I.4; cf. BrhU,4.3.22, etc.)  Neither good nor evil can affect him.  At times the Upanisads seem even to say or imply that when a man has attained enlightenment, he can do what he likes without fear of results.  This somewhat dangerous doctrine is, however, not typical, and is probably to be regarded only as a strained and exaggerated manner of saying that the truly enlightened soul cannot, in the very nature of things, do an evil deed.  If he could, he would not be truly enlightened; for “he who has not ceased from evil conduct cannot attain Him (the Aatman) by intelligence.” (KathaU, 2.24)  This is similar to the Socratic notion that the truly wise man must inevitably be virtuous.  The difference is that the Upanisads regard even virtue, as well as vice, as transcended by perfect (p.24) knowledge; the possessor thereof passes beyond both, and rises to a plane on which moral terms simply have no meaning.  Morality applies only in the world of karma, the world of ordinary empiric existence, which the enlightened man has left behind him.  In the final state of the perfected man, as we have seen, there can be, strictly speaking, no action; so how can there be either moral or immoral action?  The attitude of the Upanisads, and following them of most later Hindu systems, is then that morality has only a negative importance, and in the last analysis none whatever, in man’s struggle for salvation.  Immorality is a sign of imperfection; it can only be due to the prevalence in the soul of ignorance, causing desire, leading to action and rebirth.  It must be got rid of.  But it will fall away of itself with the attainment of true wisdom.  And no amount of good deeds will bring that wisdom which alone can lead to release.  Good deeds result in less unhappy existences, but that is all; salvation is release from all empiric existence.  This does not prevent the teaching of a system of practical ethics, for the guidance of those who have not yet attained enlightenment.  In actual practice, most Hindu sects inculcate very lofty moral principles; and many of them devote much attention thereto.  But theoretically, at least, such things do not concern their fundamental aims.— Franklin Edgerton, The Bhagavad Gita, Translated and Interpreted, Mothilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd. Delhi, First Published Cambridge, 1944, Reprint:Delhi, 1996. pp.24-25

The impurities that dharmasastras talks are mostly related to ritual that too for a Brahmin (in his relationship himself and with others on social intercourse and not on moral plan).  Whereas what the Upanishads talk about is in the context of ‘mukti’ and in Mbh., in Badrinath’s own words ‘in relationship with oneself and with others’ in the context of doing one’s duty (dharma).  So, in order to highlight the teaching of Mbh. if we try to dismiss the views of other scriptures at the cost of their own context, we cannot do justice to any scripture.

One or two examples will help us to understand this.  Parasara, the father of Vyasa while crossing Ganga with the help of a fisher woman realizes that the particular auspicious time has come in which if he put his seed in a woman the son who born will become a great person.  And so with the consent of that fisher woman (Satyavati) who was taking him across in the Gangain an island in the Gangahe put his seed in her. That is why Vyasa’s another name is Krishna Dvipayiina (born in an island).  Then Parasara walks away without any guilty conscience of violating the virginity of Satyavati or moral responsibility of bring up his son.  As an enlightened soul (mukta) this act, which otherwise will be considered immoral is considered as not immoral.  In the words of Badrinath, in his relationship with himself and with that fisher woman (who was a virgin also) Parasara violated personal ethics, yet being a ‘mukta’ was not polluted by it.  Then can we defend Parasara’s act as one done without any personal need for sexual gratification but keeping the larger interest of the humanity is correct one?  At least his son Vyasa who gave his seed to the two widows of his step brothers born to his mother Satyavati who married the king Vichitravirya (brother of Bhishma) can be justified as he has only fulfilled the duty and command of his mother, when she called him to sleep with his two widowed daughter-in-laws, to have successors for the kingdom (Dridharashtra and Pandu born to the two widows and Vidura to their servant maid through Vyasa).  Whereas Parasara acted on his own.  But any kind of modern secular interpretation, keeping our legal codes (both of civil and criminal) won’t help us to arrive any conclusion that will serve our present purpose.  Leviratical marriage, rishishs begetting sons through virgins without any desire of physical pleasure of defiling the virgin herself also loosing the merit of his tapas should be understood as per the custom of those times (whether actually existed or imaginary one).  Any reading of modern secular interpretation won’t help us much.

The reason for me to say this is that texts must be read and interpreted keeping their central message intact.  Otherwise like allegory, we will stretch our interpretation to such an extent that both the message and the media get lost.  For me in overall central simplified message of Mbh., is the dharma of Kings—their privileges and responsibilities.  The entire theme is moves and completes only on this.  In between so many other stories were told where one can read any kind of message.  But this should not be done at the cost of the core message—dharma of Kshatriyas(kings)..

For example, Badrinath says that

…The Mbh. radically change the meaning of yajna, tapas, karma, and tirtha, and in making them relational, it gives them a deeply ethical meaning.  The word rta is heard only rarely, and dharma becomes the dominant sound.  The chanting of mantras is replaced with the sound if inquiry into the foundations of relationships of the self with the self and of the self with the other.—p. 15

Even to this radically changed new meaning given by Mbh., we need to understand them in their own context.  For example what Veda, particularly Brahmana (not Brahmin), which deals about sacrifices talks about it is different from what the dharmasastras talks about the ‘pancha-maha-yajna’5 (five great sacrifices that too for a twice born.).  The same is the case with tapas (for rishish and sannyasis), karma (the general meaning of it and what the Mimamsikas talk about it is different) and tirtha (in puranas to earn merit).  However Mbh. might give new meaning to them, there are several references in Mbh. where we find yajna, tapas, karma and tirtha were done for their own merits.  For example Pandavas went to tirtha yatra during their exile period. And in so many chapters (in Vanaparva) are assigned to give all the details of the importance of that particular tirths and the respective merit that one would derive by going there.  Arjuna performed tapas to procure celestial weapons from Siva.  So it is too simple to say that in one stroke Mbh. dismissing the other meaning of them, suddenly gave a deep ethical meaning.  By such a claim, one can give some elated position to Mbh. but it cannot represent the overall meaning of it.

Regarding rta, not only Mbh. but in most of the post vedic scriptures it was replaced with dharma.  However this does not mean that dharma completely replaced the idea and importance of rta.  Rta was on cosmic level and dharma is on individual level.  Reading any modern and secular views in Mbh., which will be universal is not a problem. But Mbh. have never done this at the cost of the view of other scriptures or replacing their meaning and purpose to accommodate to our modern and secular views.  One is free to read such view on dharma or any other view in Mbh. But insisting that it has done a radical change in these views is not doing justice to Mbh. and other scriptures.  This does not mean that I am challenging the scholarship of Badrinath but raise my genuine question as a student of Hinduism.

And in similar way he further says:

…the Mbh. had marked a radical shift from the atman to dharma, and the one was no prerequisite for the other.—ibid. p.68 .

Badrinath says this under the title : ‘The Spiritual and the Material in the Mbh.’ (Chapter Three:).  And we have to agree with him that, ‘…At no time in its very long history did Indian thought posit any polarity between the material and the spiritual, much less an irreconcilable polarity….’ (p.42). And particularly pointing about this in Upanishads which deals more about atman he further says,

All Upanishad-s are saying to us, in the clearest language, that by understanding the material, human beings develop their spiritual faculties; and by understanding the spiritual, they develop their material existence.  In that, there is self-increasing, happiness, good health, love, fulfillment of desire, prosperity and peace.*(p.43)

However he also brings to our notice that, *‘But this is generally missed in most writings on the Upanishad-s’ (notes 2.p.595).  This is important to note.  Because, in general, almost all the scriptures in Hinduism while discussing anything about atman, they are more concerned with its relationship with Brahman, not ignoring or insisting or shifting to dharma from atman.  This we can also found in Mbh.  Overwhelmingly if Mbh’s concern is ‘dharma’, yet when it comes to any particular point—here atman, it also deals about it elaborately.  Again and again, my argument is that during its course of developing as a full grown great epic, Mbh., gave a space for all kinds of views and thought—not one at the cost of the other or suddenly shifting from one to another (viz., atman to dharma).  By generalizing we could say that the main concern of Mbh., is ‘dharma’ the same can be said about Upanishads about spirituality—however it equally talk about the importance of ‘material existence’.  Because, we have to keep in mind that all the Upanishads were not pen down by one person or belongs to one time or one thought.  And even within the same Upanishads one can find some polarity between material and spiritual, as there was every scope for interpolation –big or small level.  Though Upanishads belongs to Sruti, yet they are so many sectarian Upanishads.  According to Prof. Daya Krishna:

In fact, the Upanishads continued to be written till almost the 13th century.  But, if this is true, how can this be regarded as sruti.  For, if something is a sruti, or if something is regarded as sruti, we cannot add to it.  The whole idea of what is sruti, what is accepted an authority, is a vexed question.— Daya Krishna, op. cit. p.53

Even Bhagavadgita which belongs to Smrit is also called as Upanishad at the end of each chapter where the title of the chapter is mentioned (this was not an original part of the Gita) the Gita is also referred as an Upanishad (srimadbhagavadgitasu upanisadsu).

What I have said above Mbh. and its relationship with others scriptures is the same here too.  In this context what Badrinath further says about Samkhya and Mbh. is also important for us to understand the complexity of this topic:

…This is first stated as an essential part of the Samkhya metaphysics, as we heard in the conversations of the sages Bhrigu, Panchashikha, and Vyasa.  Then, in its own radical shift, the Mbh. quietly disconnects the two….Independent of the Samkhya metaphysics, it will remain experientially true that, with self-knowledge and self-discipline, the self can channel the energies within.  That is what the Mbh. is mainly concerned with—not the knowledge of the atman but the living in dharma.  The one is not a presupposition of the other.—ibid. p.70

To understand this we have to see what Badrinath says about this ‘self-knowledge’ which he claims that the Mbh. talks about independent of Samkhya:

Self-knowledge is through contexts and situations in which one finds oneself, and also which one creates for oneself.  It is through the given and the selfcreated that, understanding one’s self in the distinctive character of one’s self as a person, one beings to have also the knowledge of one’s self as a fragment of a larger common human reality.  That is the journey of understanding the self and the world on which the Mbh. takes us; and on that journey, it whispers into our ears, without making a metaphysics of it, belief in the atman is of no particular help, nor is disbelief in any such entity and particular hindrance.—p.69

To understand what Badrinath says that Mbh. ‘independent of the Samkhya metaphysics’ is not ‘concerned with the knowledge of the atman but the living in dharma’ we have to understand its relationship with Samkhya itself.  Of all other schools of thought, Mbh., is closely linked with Sankhya and it derives its most metaphysics, categories and terms from Sankhya.  Mbh., highly exult Sankhya and about this Prof. Kane says:

It is not a vain boast when the Santiparva asserts that whatever knowledge is found in the Vedas, in Sankhya and Yoga, in the various Puranas, in the extensive Itihasas, in the Arthasastra and whatever knowledge exists in the world, all that is derived from the Sankhya.—History of Dharmasastras,  vol. V, part. II, p. 1384.


…most epic descriptions of Samkhya are not by Samkhya teachers but report their views. Although consequently these passages are not primary sources for knowledge about the system, they do include ideas then current and may well have been composed during the period when Samkhya schools were emerging….…mostly the versions of Samkhya found in the Mahabharata are nontheistic, unlike Yoga. The clearest theistic version is found in the Bhagavadgita.— The Sanskrit Epics, John Brockington, in The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, Gavin Flood (ed.), UK, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Indian Reprint 2003, p.125

So we need to remember that there is not a single schoolof Samkhyathought existed.  (See also ‘Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History’ by Andrew J. Nicholson, Ranikhet, Permanent Black, (2010), 2011, particularly pp. 67-100 & 124-142).  We need to keep all these points in our mind when we make any kind of comments on Mbh., in its relationship with Sankhya.  There are several verses in Mbh. concerned with the knowledge of the atman and not merely living in dharma.  Though Mbh is more concerned with the living in dharma, it is equally concerned with the knowledge of the atman.  The conversation between Vyasa and Suka alone is enough to understand this.  Just one example is sufficient here6:

1. The objects by which one is encircled are created by the Understanding.  Without being connected with them, the Soul stands aloof, lording over them. The Understanding creates all objects. The three principal qualities are continually begin transformed. The Soul, gifted with power, lords over them all, without, however, mingling with them. 2. The objects created by the Understanding partake of its own nature.  Like the threads created by the spider, the objects created by the Understanding partake of the nature of the Understanding. [Vyasa to Shuka]—Dutt, Vol. 6. Shanti Parva Ch. CCXLXI P. 376

Now comparing dharma in Veda with Mbh. Badrinath says:

Dharma and adharma were thus the direct results of following, or not following, the self-evident commands of the Veda.  Dharma could be called ‘virtue’; but in being motivated by something external, it had little to do with the ‘ethical’; neither did adharma have the meaning of ‘unethical’[Surendranath Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, II, (Cambridge University Press, 1932, 484)…..Whatever action is based on the Veda, according to the Bhagavatapurana, is dharma; whatever is not, is adharma.  According to Medhaatithi (ninth century A.D.), any custom or practice that is not based on the teachings of the Veda is to be discarded as notdharma. [Surendranath Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, IV, (Cambridge University Press, 1932, p.7)

The Mbh. will completely discard this ritualistic, narrow, and sectarian perception of dharma….—p.80

If one wants to understand the Veda’s view on dharma, it should be done based on its own merit and claim and not one’s personal interpretation of it in Mbh.  If we do it, then we will arrive to a ‘narrow perception of dharma’ in Mbh.  Because it is too simplistic to say that all that the Veda talks about dharma is in a ‘ritualistic, narrow and sectarian perception’.  One can say that the ritualistic perception is more strong and dominant.  But completely brushing dharma in Veda as ‘ritualistic and sectarian’ is a very restricted personal view and not the complete view of Veda.  For example Kane says:

It is very difficult to say what the exact meaning of the word dharma was in the most ancient period of the Vedic language.  The word is clearly derived from root dhr (to uphold, to support, to nourish).  In a few passages, the word appears to be used in the sense of “upholder or supporter or sustainer” as in Rig.I.187.1 and X.92.2 … In most cases the meaning of dharman is “religious ordinances or rites” as in Rig.I.22.18. V.26.6, VIII.43.24, IX.64.1 etc….(p.1)

…the word dharma passed through several transitions of meaning and …ultimately its most prominent significance came to be “the privileges, duties and obligations of a man, his standard of conduct as a member of the Aryan community, as a member of one of the castes, as a person in a particular stage of life”.  It is in this sense that the word seems to be used in the well-known exhortation to the pupil contained in the Taittiriiya Upanishad (I.11) “speak the truth, practice (your own) dharma etc.”.  It is in the same sense that the Bhagavadgita uses the word dharma in the oft-quoted verse “svadharme nidhanam sreyah” (3:35).  The word is employed in this sense in the Dharmasastra literature. (pp.3-4)

…the Vedas so not profess to be formal treatises on dharma; they contains only disconnected statements on the various aspects of dharma; we have to turn to the smrtis for a formal and connected treatment of the topics of the Dharmasaastra….-Vol. I. Part.I. 2. Sources of Dharma. p. 10.

Thus even in understanding the concept of dharma both complex and overlapping with other views.  So, try to understand its meaning in Mbh., alone that too super imposing our view on Mbh., will put restriction not only in our understanding but the scope of each scripture.

The same is the case with the following points which Badrinath takes from other scriptures and comparing it with dharma in Mbh.  And my comments is the same as I said above.  However it will help us to understand the complexity of dharma while we compare it with it in other scriptures and the particularity in respective scripture.  So I am giving them here with my short comments limiting to the context of the scriptures:

…The authors of the Amarakosha, the famous dictionary, mentioned several meanings of dharmaPunya, ‘the merit that comes of virtuous deeds’; vedic-vidhi, ‘the vedic ritual sacrifices or commands’; nyaaya, or ‘law, justice’;[As in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, I.4.226] svabhaava, or ‘one’s specific nature’; aachaara, ‘social conduct’; and so forth—but all of them subsumed again in the varnaashrama meaning.  That is, dharma as a particular social structure, with its institutions.  It was certainly not universal, for elsewhere in the human world there were different social structures founded upon different beliefs about human life.

That, that is how dharma was being perceived in the times the Mbh. was being composed, is recounted with its full force in the (p.81) Mbh. itself.[See Vanaparva, 151.22-3. Shantiparva, 59.2, 8-56; Chs. 60-2; 64.5-6; 238.104-8; 244.14-6.  And Anushasanaparva, Chs. 208-54.]  That is a part of its clear method: state the prevalent presuppositions, beliefs, conflicting opinions, and then subject them to a searching inquiry….—pp.81-82

–here the problem of such view of Mbh., that it subjected the prevalent ‘presuppositions, beliefs, conflicting opinions’ to a searching inquiry (of oneself and one’s relationship with other) could be true if the entire Mbh., was compiled by one author in one single time keeping all the ‘presuppositions, beliefs, conflicting opinions’ of his time.  But Mbh., was compiled and so many materials were added.  So it subjected all other views in the course of its development.  Or it accommodates all such views along with its inquiry.  I think this problem comes once Badrinath fixed the inquiry of Mbh. to his famous thesis of ‘one’s relationship with one’s self and with the other’ based on his interpretation of dharma in Mbh.  Now once fixed such a frame work for our understanding of Mbh., then he has to re-read, re-interpret or even reject what the other scriptures says about Dharma, as if Mbh. says what it wants to say in one voice and one view?  Once we understand this, then while highly appreciating the scholarly alternative approach to understand Dharma in Mbh. by Badrinath, yet we need not limit ourselves our approach on Dharma from this narrow scholarly interpretation both on Dharma and Mbh.

Amarakosha, indeed all other ancient Hindus scriptures, including Mbh., know only the prevailing social structure of their location and time—even within India.  So what is ‘universal’ needs to be questioned first.  Because Amarakosha, Mbh., or other Hindu scriptures (of respective time and place) are more concerned about their immediate need of time and place.  It is not their problem if we want to stretch their ‘presuppositions, beliefs, conflicting opinions’ to other social structures of the entire world.  Even in this 21st century, can we say that the need of the social structure of the entire world can be subject to the inquiry of Mbh., with our modern secular interpretation?  How many diaspora Hindus themselves have time and need for such modern inquiry on dharma to survive in their new homes outsideIndia?  It may help them in their fight for their separate identity in the first and second generation.  This too would be possible for those who made a good living and somehow settled down.  But for others survival was their priority and no more inquiry of dharma or any other concept.

The following view by Badrinath will help us to understand my critic on his further:

… the liberating air of the Mbh’s teaching on dharma as the universal foundation of all relationships: of the self with the self, and of the self with the other.  The use of the same word, for the most part clearly, but also to connote things dissimilar, in context very different from one another, gave rise in India to a tradition that was in sharp contrast to philosophic care in the use of words.  Now meanings were blurred; in that twilight one thing was taken for another; the need for interpretation arose, but one interpretation was as good as the other, and no interpretation being decisive, the pandits and the commentators flourished, and the common man grew stupefied.  In the practice of it, an idea seemed to its adherents clear; in the theory of it, it vanished into mystery, or into unending arguments.  One result was that there was no definite meaning to anything.  If a thing meant everything, and then at will, then nothing meant any one thing.  Whatever else is involved in defining the meaning of a word, giving it a boundary is the least that is.  It is the refusal in theory to give dharma boundary, when it had acquired in social practice a clear boundary all the time, that is common to the modern apologists of dharma.

After using the word dharma in all sorts of manner, maintaining that no one meaning could be given to it, when it came to defending dharma upon (p.82) which by common consent is founded the whole of Indian culture, the defence has always been of the social order, mainly varnaashramadharma.—ibid. pp.82-83

It is a contradiction to say that Mbh ‘liberated’ dharma from any narrowly conceived meaning based on ‘religion’ and ‘ritual’ and then point out that ‘the same word [dharma], for the most part clearly, but also to connote things dissimilar, in context very different from one another’.  Though we need to agree with the author’s interpretation of both ‘dharma’ and the way it is ‘handled’ in Mbh. as ‘the universal foundation of all relationships’, yet following the same tradition of ‘pandits and the commentators’ what he proposes is one among the several interpretation of both the word ‘dharma’ and also the way ‘Mbh. handle it’, which again vanishes ‘into mystery, or into unending arguments’.  But if keep in the mind that Mbh. is not the work of one single author but an encyclopedic work, such contradiction will be easily resolved.  However, considering the fact that now if it is ‘varna-ashrama-dharma’ as the common consent, then it (varnashrama-dharma) is based on religion, ritual etc., which ends where it began.  So, one would like to read the ‘secular’ meaning in the word dharma, yet it is basically related with religion and ritual and not exclusively a secular concept.

Continuing our topic of understanding dharma in Mbh. comparing with it other scriptures and how Badrinath handled it, here comes, next Upanishads:

…It has been a paradox that it is mostly through incorrect understandings that the truth of a thing is reached.  Therefore, as for example in the Upanishad-s, before we could say what a thing is, it often necessary first to say what it is not.  But the knowledge of what ‘it is not’ implies already a knowledge of what ‘it is’.  And about that there can be different perceptions, and the consequent need to reconcile them somehow, often at the expense of truth.—p.83

This is bit confusing.  Because according to the author ‘neti, neti’ actually means ‘‘not yet the end’, ‘not yet complete’ (p.16).  Therefore the Upanishads saying of ‘neti’ is not ‘it is not’ but ‘not yet complete’ etc.  Therefore if I understand the author’s earlier view of ‘neti’ the Upanishads never says that we have ‘an incorrect understandings’ of truth, but only ‘incomplete’ ones.  So, the different perceptions is not to ‘reconcile’ the various approaches, but various interpretations about the truth.  I don’t think any one who gives a different interpretation ever claims that other’s understanding is at the ‘expense of truth’ but a wrong ‘understanding of truth’.  So such statements that ‘it has been a paradox that it is mostly through incorrect understandings that the truth of a thing is reached’ could be a cleaver logical way to prove her point of the wrong understanding of the word ‘dharma’  but those who have different interpretation and understanding never would say that they reached that understanding at the expense of ‘truth’ (here ‘dharma’) from its ‘correct’ meaning, (as proposed by the author).

Next Badrinath comparing dharma from tradition and modern says:

There have been two wrong understandings of what dharma is: one traditional, the other modern. The traditional wrong understanding of dharma consisted mostly in perceiving it as synonymous with varna, a given social structure, and ashrama, a certain scheme of the stages of life.  The Mbh. disentangles dharma from them, pointing out at the same time that varna and ashrama have themselves been wrongly understood as to their foundations, and liberates them as well from the oppressive results of that wrong understanding.  Dharma is the natural foundation of all social arrangements everywhere.  It cannot be reduced to being synonymous with the social structures developed in India, with caste as its basic feature, simply because the word dharma is added to varna.—ibid. p.84

But this is the context in which dharma is developed all through ages.  Because the author says that, ‘the liberating air of the Mbh’s teaching on dharma as the universal foundation of all relationships’ yet also points out that ‘for the most part clearly, but also to connote things dissimilar, in context very different from one another….’ (p.82)  This is crucial.  As I have commented on this point, at the end of the day, however Mbh. seems to liberated ‘dharma’ from its ‘other traditional’ interpretation, finally it also ended up by reducing it with the ‘social structures developed inIndia’.  This could be even proved by the fact, that thisvarna (here caste) based structure is very strong even today and not dharma transcending such structures, however we love to give a sophisticated interpretation to it.

Another point of Badrinath giving a ‘natural sovereign’ to dharma is that:

If one dharma is destructive of another dharma, then it is wickedness in the garb of dharma, and not dharma. Only that is dharma truly that is established without denigrating and opposing another dharma.[Vanaparva, 131.11]—p.87

In case there is conflict between one dharma and another, one should reflect on their relative weight, and then act accordingly; what does not denigrate and obstruct the others is dharma.[Vanaparva, 131.12 and 13.]—p.87

Whatever is not agreeable to him, that he should not do unto others.  This, in brief, is dharma; all else is only selfishness.[Anushasanaparva, 113.8.  Also Udyogaparva, 39.71.]—p.88

…In each of these areas [artha, kama, danda, varna], which cover so intimate a part of human life everywhere, dharma is shown to be the natural sovereign, to whom each one of them must be [in Mbh.] subject if human existence is to come into its full worth….—pp.88-89

I have a problem with the word ‘natural sovereign’ because even in all these crucial areas, in emergency (aapatkal) the same dharma becomes ‘relative’.  So Mbh. ‘natural’ position is relativism in its approach in all areas of life, including dharma.  So understanding dharma in Mbh., is a complex one.  As it gives scope for all kinds of inclusiveness, try to elevate it at the cost of other views will never help us to understand not only dharma in general, but also in Mbh.  This issue gets more complicated once we try to understand the concept of dharma in Mbh. by comparing with other scriptures in Hinduism.  But this pluralism and relativism is the strength of Hinduism, as it is ready to adopt and adapt to the need of a person in relationship with herself and also with others.

Dayanand Bharati, March 13, 2012.  Gurukulam.


1.. The Mbh. dwells throughout upon laksana, the attributes, by which dharma is to be recognized.  Evenly divided, they relate with the self and the other.  In relation to one’s self, those attributes are: satya, truth; dama, self-control; shaucha, purity; aarjava, lack of deviousness; hri, endurance; achapalam, resoluteness of character; dana, giving and sharing.  And tapas and brahmacharya, which are not, as generally translated, ‘austerity’ and ‘sexual continence’, but … the other names of truth and self-control.

In relation to the other, the attributes of dharma are: ahimsa, or not to violate the other’s being; samata, the attitude of equality; shantih, peace or (p.109) tranquility; anrasansyam, lack of aggression and cruelty; and amaatsara, absence of envy.

They flow into each other.  Dharma, like truth, is a state of being—in relation with oneself and with the other.  This is the substance of the teaching of the Mbh.—Badrinath,  pp.109-110

…one of the characteristics of the Mbh. has been that, in the place of definitions of things, it asks for their attributes, or Laksanas.  All definitions are arbitrary, whereas the Laksanas, or the attributes, are what show a thing, through which a thing becomes manifest.  Thus, not the ‘definition’ of truth, or of love, but the attributes of truth and love, by which they are known.  The question what is dharma? is answered likewise in terms of its Laksanas, attributes, which are clear, straightforward, and genuinely universal….—ibid. p.418

2. We need to know Badrinath’s view on dharma to understand further his interpretation about it in Mbh:

…Is dharma a self-determining reality that gives direction to a person’s life, and is it to be discovered in a process of self-discovery as to what one is meant to be?  And since self-discovery cannot ever be a finished product, is dharma a state of becoming, changing with the different perceptions one has of oneself at different times?  Or is it determined collectively by each society, determined differently by different societies at different times, so that it is history that will determine what an individual person is meant to be?… …what are the universally unchanging elements of dharma, and what is in it that will necessarily be open to change, which is unpredictable besides?  How is this tension between the eternal and the transient to be resolved, when both form parts of the same reality?  This question will apply to dharma as the foundation of law and governance most of all….— Chaturvedi Badrinath, The Mahabharata: An Inquiry in the human condition,New Delhi, Orient Longman, 2007, p.4

3.  It is repeatedly stated in the Mbh. that the nature of dharma, and of truth likewise, is exceedingly subtle and difficult to grasp.  It is another way of the Mbh. saying that human relationships, of one’s self with the self and with the other, are full of complexities and ambiguities, and are subject to the changing desha and kala, besides …. —ibid. p.192

4. Though Badrinath uses only ‘dharmasutra-s’, we have to take both dharmasutra and sastras as one unit to know all about the law given by them to a householder:

In general, although the Dharmasutras are older and more succinct than the sastras, they are not necessarily more authoritative.  The former are in prose or in prose mixed with verse, whereas the latter are almost entirely verse texts.  Further, Dharmasutras are each associated with a particular Veda, while the Dharmasastras are more or less independent in this respect.  As to subject matter, like the Grhyasutras, both the dharma sutras and sastras are meant to serve as guidelines only and are not exhaustive–HINDUS Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Routledge,London, 1994. pp. 84-85.  See further see Understanding Hinduism on this subject.

5.  Brahmayajna which consists in the study and teaching of the Veda, pitryajna which consists of tarpana (offering water through ritual), daivayajna which consists in offerings made into fire, bhutayajna which is offering oblations to beings and manusyayajna which consists in honouring guests.– Kane, History of Dharmasastras, vol. II, part II. p. 698.

6.  27. In [if?—db. Refer] the Vedas has been described the subject of the Soul’s liberation, along (p.352) with the ten means formed by study of the Vedas, adoption of the domestic mode of life, penances, observance of all duties, common to all the modes of life, sacrifices, performance of all acts leading to pure fame, meditation which is of three kinds, and that kind of Liberation called success (Siddhi) attainable in this life. 28. That incomprehensible Brahma which has been described in the words of the Vedas, and which has been described more clearly in the Upanishads by those who have an insight into the Vedas, can be realized by gradually following the practices referred to above. [Vyasa to Shuka].—Dutt. Vol. 6. Shanti ParvaCh.CCXXXII. P. 352-53

23. They who have true knowledge see their own self as existing both in and out. Such men, O child, are truly twice-born and such men are gods. [Vyasa to Shuka].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti Parva Ch. CCXXXVII P. 360

16. The soul cannot be seen with the help of the eye, or with that of all the senses.  Getting over all, the soul can be seen by only the light of the mind’s lamp. [Vyasa to Shuka].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti Parva Ch. CCXXXIX P. 362

34. That indestructible Soul which is said to be endued with the attribute or action is nothing else than that indestructible Soul which is said to be inactive.  A learned person, by attaining to that indestructible essence, gives up for ever both life and birth. [Vyasa to Shuka].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti Parva Ch. CCXXXIX P. 363

13. This topic [Soul?], O son, intended for your instruction, is the essence of all the Vedas. The truth expounded in it cannot be understood by the help of inference alone or by that of mere study of the scriptures.  One must understand it himself by the help of faith. [Vyasa to Shuka].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti Parva Ch. CCXLVI P. 373

2. The objects of the senses are superior to the senses.  The mind is superior to those objects. The Understanding is superior to mind.  The Soul is considered as superior to Understanding. [Vyasa to Shuka].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti Parva Ch. CCXLVIII P. 374

15. The soul cannot be seen with the help of the senses whose nature is to roam about among all objects of desire.  Even pious men, whose senses are pure, cannot see the soul with their help what then should be said of the vicious whose senses are impure. 16. When, however, a person, with the help of his mind, firmly holds their reins, it is then that his Soul sees itself like an object coming in view on account of the light of a lamp. [Vyasa to Shuka].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti Parva Ch. CCXLVIII P. 375

21. …The qualities cannot apprehend the Soul. The Soul, however, apprehends them always. [Vyasa to Shuka]— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti Parva Ch. CCXLVIII P. 375

22. The Soul is the witness which sees the qualities and duly works them up.  Mark this difference between the Understanding and the Soul both of which are highly subtle. 23. One of them creates the qualities. The other does not create them.  Though they are different from each other by nature, they are, however, always united. 24. The fish residing in the water is different from the element in which it resides.  But as the fish and the water forming its residence are always united, likewise the quality of goodness and the individual soul exist in a state of union.  The gnat begotten of a rotten fig is really not the fig but different from it. As the gnat and the fig are seen to be united with each other, so are the qualities of goodness and the individual Soul. 25. As the blade in a clump of grass though distinct from the clump, exists in a state of union with it, so these two, though different from each other and each exists in its own self, are to be seen in a state of perpetual union. [Vyasa to Shuka]— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti Parva Ch. CCXLVIII P. 375

1. The objects by which one is encircled are created by the Understanding.  Without being connected with them, the Soul stands aloof, lording over them. The Understanding creates all objects. The three principal qualities are continually begin transformed. The Soul, gifted with power, lords over them all, without, however, mingling with them. 2. The objects created by the Understanding partake of its own nature.  Like the threads created by the spider, the objects created by the Understanding partake of the nature of the Understanding. [Vyasa to Shuka]— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti Parva Ch. CCXLXI P. 376

3. Some hold that the qualities, when done away with by Yoga or knowledge, do not cease to exist. They hold this because when once gone, the marks only of their return are not perceived. Others hold that when destroyed by knowledge, they are at once destroyed never to return. 4. Meditating duly upon these two opinions, one should try his best according to the way one thinks proper.  It is by this way that one should acquire eminence and take refuge in his own Soul alone. [Vyasa to Shuka]— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti Parva Ch. CCXLXI P. 376

10. This knowledge is the possession of a Brahmana in particular by virtue of his birth. Knowledge of the Soul, and happiness like above, are each fully sufficient to lead to Liberation. [Vyasa to Shuka]— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti Parva Ch. CCXLXI P. 376

10. One sees the Soul with the help of the lamp of knowledge.  Seeing, therefore, yourself with your ownself, cease to regard your body as yourself and acquire omniscience. [Vyasa to Shuka]— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti Parva Ch. CCL P. 377

Having seen all the complexity about dharma, particularly in Mbh., let us now turn to other points of dharma in Mbh.:

Absence of dharma:

14. At first there was no sovereignty, no king, no punishment, and no punisher. All men used to protect one another piously.15. As they thus lived…righteously protecting one another, they found the task (in time), to be painful.  Error then possessed their hearts. 16. Having become subject to error, the perceptions of men…became clouded, and thence their virtue began to wane. 17. When their perceptions were clouded and when men became subject to error all of them became covetous….18. And because men tried to secure objects which were not their own, another passion called lust seized them. 19. When they became subject to lust, another passion, named anger, soon attacked them.  Once subject to anger, they lost all considerations of what should be done and what should not be. 20. Unrestrained sexual indulgence began. Men began to say what they liked. All distinctions between clean and unclean food and between virtue and vice disappeared. 21. When this confusion set in amongst men, the Vedas disappeared.  Upon the disappearance of the Vedas, and righteousness also was gone. 22. When both the Vedas and righteousness were lost, the gods were overcome by fear. Overcome with fear,….they sought the help of Brahman….25. With the loss of the Vedas, O Supreme Lord, righteousness also has been lost. For this, O Supreme Lord of the three worlds, we are about to be reduced to the status of human beings. 26. Men used to pour upwards while we used to pour downwards.  For the stoppage of all religious rites among men we will suffer great distress. [Bhishma to Yudhisthira].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti ParvaCh.LIX. p. 83

All can have it; seek it:

61. The wise have said that the mind of every creature is the true test of virtue. Hence, all creatures in this world have an innate tendency to achieve virtue. [Bhishma to Yudhisthira].— ibid. ANUSHASANA PARVA, Volume VII. Ch. CLXII, p. 343

14. All men are equal as regards their physical organism.  All of them, again, have souls which are equal in nature.  When dissolution comes, all else dissolves away.   What remains is the desire for acquiring virtue.  That, indeed, re-appears (in next life) of itself. 15. When such is the result, the inequality of condition, seen among human beings cannot be considered in any way anomalous. So also, it is seen that those creatures that belong to the intermediate orders of existence are equally subject, about their acts, to the influence of example.— ibid. ANUSHASANA PARVA, Volume VII. Ch. CLXIV. P. 345

Apat dharma

59. In difficulty, every one forgets considerations of virtue….[ Yudhishthira to Duryodhana] —ibid. Vol. V. Shalya Parva. Ch. XXXII, p. 64

11. Virtue again, according to time and place, becomes sin.  Thus misappropriation of another’s property, untruth, and injury and killing may under special circumstances, become virtue. [Vyasa to Yudhisthira].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti ParvaCh.XXXVII. P. 51

Cause (replacing rta)

Q. Who is the cause for the setting of the sun?

A. Dharma causes him to set. [Yaksha to Dharma].— Kamala Subramanian, Mahabharata, Vana Parava, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan,Bombay, 1985, p. 244


13. The regions of happiness which represent the results or rewards of virtue are not eternal, for they are destined to come to an end.  Virtue, however, is eternal.  When the cause is eternal, why is the effect not so?  The answer to this is as follows.  Only that virtue is eternal which is not prompted by the desire of fruit or reward. [Bhishma to Yudhisthira].— ibid. ANUSHASANA PARVA, Volume VII. Ch. CLXIV, p. 345

56. Formerly, the great Rishi Vyasa, having composed this work, caused his son Shuka to read it with him, along with these four verses. 57. Thousands of mothers, and fathers, and hundreds of sons and wives arise in the world and depart from it.  Others will arise and similarly go away. 58. There are thousands of occasions for joy and hundreds of occasions for fear. These affect only him who is ignorant but never him that is wise. 59. With uplifted arms I am crying aloud but nobody hears me. From Virtue originate profit and pleasure.  Why should not Virtue, therefore, be sought? 60. For the sake neither of pleasure, nor of fear, nor of cupidity should any one renounce Virtue. Indeed, for the sake of even life, one should not renounce Virtue.  Virtue is eternal.  Pleasure and Pain are not eternal. Jiva is eternal.  The cause, however, of Jiva’s being covered with a body is not so. [Sauti to Shaunaka].— ibid. SWARGAROHANIKA PARVA. VOL. 7.Ch.V. p. 556

Faith in dharma

4. As regards faith in virtue, it is this. To place faith in virtue is the mark of the wisdom of all persons….[Bhishma to Yudhisthira].— ibid. ANUSHASANA PARVA, Volume VII. Ch. CLXIV, p. 345

Guidance to dharma:

Yudhishthira said: 10. Tell me, O grandfather, which among these (four) is more authoritative viz., direct perception, inference from observation, the science of scriptures, and various kinds of practices which distinguish the good. Bhishma said: 11. While virtue is sought to be destroyed by wicked persons possessed of great power, it is capable of being protected for the time being by those who are good if they work with care and earnestness.  Such protection, however, is of no use in the long run, for destruction does overtake virtue at the end. 12. Then, again, virtue often proves a mark for covering sin, like grass and straw covering the mouth of a deep pit and concealing it from the view.  Hear, again, O Yudhishthira.  On account of this, the practices of the good are interfered with and destroyed by the wicked. 13. Those persons who are evil-doers, who discard the Shrutis—indeed, those wicked persons who are haters of virtue destroy that good conduct, hence, doubts attach to direct perception, inference, and good conduct. 14. Those, therefore, among the good who are possessed of understanding purified by the scriptures and who are ever contended, are to be considered as the foremost. Let those who are anxious and deprived of tranquility of soul, approach these…. 16. The conduct of those persons never goes wrong or meets with destruction, as also their sacrifices and Vedic study and rites. Indeed, these three, viz., good conduct, mental purity, and the Vedas together form virtue. Yudhishthira said:… 18. If these three, viz., the Vedas, direct perception and behavior (or mental purity) together form what is to be considered as authority, it can be alleged that there is difference between each.  Virtue then becomes really of three kinds although it is one and indivisible. (p.341) Bhishma said: 20. The truth is that virtue is one and individible, although it is capable of being seen from three different points. 21. The paths, of those three, which form the foundation of virtue have each been laid down…. 22. …let no doubts like these ever take possession of your mind. Do you obey unhesitatingly what I say.  Follow me like a blind man or like one who, having no sense himself, has to depend upon that of another. [Bhishma and Yudhisthira].— ibid. ANUSHASANA PARVA, Volume VII. Ch. CLXII. Pp. 341-42

Fools despise dharma:

16. …Fools, again, hold that virtue is an empty sound among those called good. They ridicule such persons and consider them as men bereft of reason. [Yudhisthira to Bhishma]— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti ParvaCh.CCLX, p. 387

Kinds of dharma

74.Performance  of  sacrifices study  gifts penance   truth  forgiveness  subduing  the  senses  and  renunciation   of  desire –these   are  the  eight  Dharmas  declared  by the Smriti. [Saunaka to Yudhisthira].— M.N.[Manmatha Nath]  Dutt, Mahabharata,Delhi, Parimala Publications, 7 vols.Vol. I.1988,Ch. II. VANA PARVA, Vol. 2, p.5.

6. The Brahmana [of Mahapadma in the family of Atri] thought that there were three kinds of duties laid down for observances.  There were, first, the duties ordained in the Vedas about the order in which he was born and the mode of life he was leading. There were, secondly, the duties sanctioned in the scriptures, viz., those especially called the Dharmashastras.  And, thirdly, there were those duties that eminent and revered men of ancient times have followed, though not laid down either in the Vedas or the Scriptures. 7. Which of these duties should I follow? [Bhishma (quoting the conversation between Narada to Indra) to Yudhisthira].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti ParvaCh.CCCLIV. P. 587

7. The control of anger, truthfulness of speech, justice, forgiveness, begetting children upon one’s own married wives, purity of conduct, avoidance of quarrel, simplicity, and maintenance of dependents,–these are the nine duties which all the four orders should follow. [Bhishma to Yudhisthira].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti Parva Ch. LX. p. 88

23. Abstention from injury, truth, absence of anger (or forgiveness), and liberality or gifts—these four, O king do you practice, for these four form eternal virtue. [Bhishma andYudhisthira].— ibid. ANUSHASANA PARVA, Volume VII. Ch. CLXII. Pp. 342

Marks of dharma (lakshna)

4c….The virtuous never follow the path of the sinful. [Yayati to Astaka]— M.N.[Manmatha Nath]  Dutt, Mahabharata,Delhi, Parimala Publications, 7 vols.Vol. I.1988,Ch. 89. ADI PARVA p.130

67. Truth constitutes the essence of the Vedas. Control over passions constitutes the essence of truth. And self-denial (refraining from the worldly enjoyments) forms the essence of self-control. These attributes are always present in a virtuous conduct. [Fowler to Kunshika].—ibid.  VANA PARVA, Vol. 2, Ch. CCVI, p. 312

94-95. A man must not offend anybody.  He must be charitable. Also he must speak the truth always. Those great men of highest virtue, who are kind on all occasions, and who are filled with compassion, obtain the (p.313) greatest contentment and ascend the superior path of virtue; and whose acquisition of virtue is most certain. [Fowler to Kunshika].—ibid. VANA PARVA, Vol. 2,Ch. CCVI, p. 313-14

7. Fame, truth, self-control, purity, simplicity, modesty steadiness, charity, asceticism and Bramhacharya are my limbs. [Yaksha [Dharma] to Yudhisthira]—ibid. Vanaparva,  Ch. CCCXIII. P. 451

9a. It is by good fortune that you are given to the (practice of the) five (virtues namely, equanimity of the mind, self-control, abstinence from sensual indulgence, forgiveness, and Yoga)…. [Yaksha [Dharma] to Yudhisthira]—ibid. Vanaparva, Ch. CCCXIII. P. 451

75d. …and forgiveness is the strength of the virtuous. [Vidura to Dhritarastra] —ibid. UDYOGA PARVA. Vol. III. Ch. XXXIV, p.49

12-13. To persons capable of judging, acts are of two kinds, viz., virtuous and sinful.  From the worldly and the Vedic points of view again, virtue and vice become good or bad.  From the Vedic point of view, virtue and vice, would be classed under action and inaction. Inaction, i.e., abstention from Vedic rites leads to liberation (from re-birth) while the fruits of action i.e., performance of Vedic rites, leads to repeated death and re-birth.  From the worldly point of view, acts that are evil, lead to sins and those that are good, to virtue. From the worldly point of view, therefore, virtue and vice are to be marked out by the good and the evil character of their fruits. [Vyasa to Yudhisthira].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti ParvaCh.XXXVII. P. 51

19. That virtue by which one remains unchanged in weal and woe is called fortitude. That wise man who seeks his own well-being always practices this virtue. [Bhishma to Yudhisthira]— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti ParvaCh.CLXII. P. 241

21. Abstention from injury to all creatures in thought, word, and deed, and kindness, and gift, are the permanent duties of good. [Bhishma to Yudhisthira]— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti ParvaCh.CLXII. P. 241

6. Time can never make the cause of misery.  One should, therefore, know that the soul which is virtuous is certainly pure. [Bhishma to Yudhisthira].— ibid. ANUSHASANA PARVA, Volume VII. Ch. CLXIV, p. 345


7. …The word ‘Duty,’ as used in the Vedas, appears to have been coined first for general application.  Therefore the application of that word for the rites of marriage is, instead of being correct, only a form of speech forcibly applied where it has no application. [Yudhisthira to Bhishma].— ibid. ANUSHASANA PARVA, Volume VII. Ch. XIX. P. 63

No Use

5.O Krishna, I do not find that the practice of virtue leads to any good, or that  sinful practices cause any evil, for the magnanimous Yudhisthira is miserable with matted locks, –a wanderer in the forest with barks of trees as his garments . 6. Duryodhana is ruling the earth; the earth does not swallow him up. From this men with little intelligence would consider that a sinful life is preferable to a virtuous one. [Balarama toKrishna]—ibid. VANA PARVA,Ch.CXIX. Vol. 2, p. 179.

Obstacles to dharma:

4. Desires adhere to a man and they are the source of all impediments to virtue.., A wise man, having killed them beforehand, gains unspeakable praise in the world. 5. Thirst for wealth is a bond in this world,… Those, who desire it, go against virtue as it were….The man, who desires pleasure, becomes degraded for the sake of pleasure. 6… the man, of vicious intellect, devoid of virtue, is ruined even if he obtains the earth. [Sanjaya to Yudhisthira] —ibid. UDYOGA PARVA. Vol. III. Ch. XXVII, p. 31

49. No man can become virtuous unless allowed by the gods… [Bhishma to Yudhisthira].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti ParvaCh.CCLXXI. P.410

62. One should achieve virtue alone or single-handed.  Indeed, one should not proclaim himself virtuous and walk with the standard of virtue upraised for purposes of show.  They are said to be traders in virtue who practice it for enjoying its fruits. [Bhishma to Yudhisthira].— ibid. ANUSHASANA PARVA, Volume VII. Ch. CLXII, p. 343

How to Preserve Dharma

39a. Virtue is preserved by truthfulness….[Vidura to Dhritarastra] —ibid. UDYOGA PARVA. Vol. III. Ch. XXXIV, p.48

Provides, fruits, results:

39. There can be said many things as regards the goodness or the badness of our actions. But he who sticks to the Dharma of his own order acquires great fame.[Fowler to Kunshika].—ibid.  VANA PARVA, Vol. 2,Ch. CCVII, p. 315

4. Desires adhere to a man and they are the source of all impediments to virtue.., A wise man, having killed them beforehand, gains unspeakable praise in the world. 5. Thirst for wealth is a bond in this world,… Those, who desire it, go against virtue as it were. He who chooses virtue is wise. The man, who desires pleasure, becomes degraded for the sake of pleasure. 6. A man, who makes virtue his prime duty, gains great fame and shines like the sun; and the man, of vicious intellect, devoid of virtue, is ruined even if he obtains the earth. [Sanjaya to Yudhisthira] —ibid. UDYOGA PARVA. Vol. III. Ch. XXVII, p. 31

4.  Desires adhere to a man and they are the source of all impediments to virtue.., A wise man, having killed them beforehand, gains unspeakable praise in the world. 5…He who chooses virtue is wise…6. A man, who makes virtue his prime duty, gains great fame and shines like the sun… [Sanjaya to Yudhisthira] —ibid. UDYOGA PARVA. Vol. III. Ch. XXVII, p. 31

5. Those who wish to acquire virtue practice various rites according to the scriptural injunctions. They do not, however, attain to liberation.  They only acquire those good qualities….[Bhishma to Yudhishthira]— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti Parva Ch. CC XIV. p. 318

55a. The gods, Brahmanas, Yakshas, and all good men and Charanas always adore (p.410) the virtuous… [Bhishma to Yudhisthira].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti ParvaCh.CCLXXI. P.410

11. One is born alone, O king, and one dies alone; one crosses alone the difficulties one meets with, and one alone meets whatever misery falls to his lot. 12-13. One has really no companion in these deeds.  The father, the mother, the brother, the son, the preceptor, kinsmen, relatives, and friends, leaving the dead body as if it were a piece of wood or a cold of earth, after having mourned for only a moment, all turn away from it and mind their own affairs. 14. Only virtue follows the body that is thus left by them all. It is, therefore, plain, that virtue is the only friend and that virtue only should be sought by all. [Vrihaspati to Yudhishthira].— ibid. ANUSHASANA PARVA, Volume VII. Ch. CXI. P. 244

21-22. Earth, wind, ether, water, light, mind Yama (the king of the dead), understanding, the soul, as also day and night, all together witness the merits of all living creatures.  Without these, virtue follows the creatures (when dead). [Vrihaspati to Yudhishthira].— ibid. ANUSHASANA PARVA, Volume VII. Ch. CXI. P. 244

1..If one does good deeds or causes others to do them, he should then expect to attain to the merits of virtue; likewise if one does evil deeds and causes others to do them, he should never expect to attain to the merits of virtue. [Bhishma to Yudhisthira].— ibid. ANUSHASANA PARVA, Volume VII. Ch. CLXIV, p. 344

7. As regards sin, it may be said that, even when it is very great it is incapable of even touching virtue which is always protected by time and which shines like a burning fire. 8. These are the two results achieved by virtue, viz., the purity of the soul and un-susceptibility of being touched by iniquity.  Indeed virtue is fraught with victory. Its effulgence is so great that it lights up the three worlds. [Bhishma to Yudhisthira].— ibid. ANUSHASANA PARVA, Volume VII. Ch. CLXIV, p. 345


21. O king the virtue, that produces afflictions on one’s ownself and on one’s own friends, is no virtue at all.  It is vice that produces calamities. 22.O sire, virtue is sometimes  (the indirect cause of) the weakness of men. Dharma and Artha forsake such men, as pain and pleasure forsake a dead man. 23. He who practices virtue only for the sake of virtue always suffers afflictions. He can never be called a wise man. He cannot know the (real) purpose of virtue, as a blind man is incapable of seeing the light of the sun. 24.  He who considers that his wealth exists for himself alone does not at all understand the purpose of wealth. He is like the servant tending kine in the forest. 25. He, again, who pursues Artha (profit or wealth) too much without pursuing Dharma (virtue) and kama (pleasure) deserves to be censured and killed by all creatures. 26. He who always pursues Kama without pursuing Dharma and Artha loses his friends and also lose virtue and profit.— ibid. [Bhima to Yudhisthira].— VANA PARVA, Ch. XXXIII. Vol. 2, p. 49.

67. O king of men, a man who in order to earn a greater measure of virtue casts away like seeds the little virtue that he is sticking to, is certainly considered to be wise. [Bhima to Yudhisthira].—ibid. VANA PARVA,Ch.XXXIII. Vol. 2, p.51. Ch. XXXIII.


21… It is as difficult to find out the reasons of duties as it is difficult to find out the legs of the snake. [Bhishma to Yudhisthira].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti Parva. Ch. CXXX.II P. 193

3.. All these embodied creatures, it seems, take birth, exist and renounce their bodies, of their own nature.  Duty and its opposite, therefore, cannot be determined.  O Bharata, by study of the scriptures alone. 4. The duties of a rich person are of one sort. Those of a person who has fallen into distress are of another sort.  How can duty in the time of poverty be determined by reading the scriptures alone? 5. The acts of the good, as you have said, form virtue.  The good, however, are to be known by their acts.  The definition, therefore, has at the bottom a begging of the question, and the result is that what is meant by conduct of the good remains unsettled. [Yudhisthira to Bhishma]— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti ParvaCh.CCLX, p. 386

11. Virtue again, according to time and place, becomes sin.  Thus misappropriation of another’s property, untruth, and injury and killing may under special circumstances, become virtue. [Vyasa to Yudhisthira].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti ParvaCh.XXXVII. P. 51

13. Virtue at first appears in the form of the romantic house of vapour seen in the distant sky.  When, however, it is examined by the learned, it disappears. [Yudhisthira to Bhishma]— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti ParvaCh.CCLX, p. 387


22…I regard Dharma as superior to life it self and divinity. Kingdoms, sons, fame and wealth all these do not come up even to a sixteenth part of truth….[Yudhisthira to Bhima].—ibid. VANA PARVA,Ch. XXXIV. Vol. 2, p.53.

…Virtue is superior to body, and it lasts after the body perishes. [Arjuna to himself] (215:20)—ibid. ADI PARVA p.289

31. When one, able to discriminate the propriety of time and place and knowing both virtue and worldly good, is doubtful of his course, he should without hesitation do that which is virtuous. [Parasurama to Bhishma]. —ibid. UDYOGA PARVA. Vol. III. Ch. CLXXX. P. 246

3. Once on a time a Brahmana shorn of riches tried to win virtue, actuated by the desire of fruit. He continually thought of riches for employing it in the celebration of sacrifices.  For gaining his end he engaged in the practice of the austerest penances.4. Determined to achieve his object, he began to adore the gods with great devotion.  But he failed to acquire riches by such adoration of the gods. 5. He thereupon began to think aside,–What is that god, hitherto not worshipped by men, who may be forthwith favorably disposed towards me? 6. While thinking thus with a cool mind, he saw stationed before him that retainer of the gods, viz., the Could called Kundadhara. 7. As soon as he saw that mighty-armed being, the Brahmana’s feelings of devotion were excited, and he said to himself,–This one will surely give me prosperity!  Indeed, his form indicates it. 8. He lives near the gods.  He has not as yet been worshipped by other men.  He will surely give me profuse riches without any delay! 9. The Brahmana then, having determined thus, adored that Cloud with incense, perfumes and garlands of flowers of the most superior kind, and with various sorts of offerings. 10. Thus adored, the cloud became very soon pleased with his worshipper, and uttered these words of benefit to that Brahamana: 11. …There is no expiation, however, for one who is ungrateful. 12. Expectation has a child named sin, anger, again, is considered to be a child of envy.  Cupidity is the child of deceit. Ingratitude, however, is barren…. [Kundadhara said] 25. I do not pray for this devotee of mine mountains of pearls and gems, or even the whole Earth with all her riches.  I wish, however, that he should be virtuous. 26. Let his heart find pleasure in virtue.  Let him have virtue for his support. Let virtue be the foremost of all his objects. This is the favor which I am inclined to give my support. [Bhishma to Yudhisthira].— ibid. Vol. 6. Shanti ParvaCh.CCLXXI. P.409

Ways to attain dharma:

8. Know that absence of cruelty, impartiality, peacefulness, asceticism, purity, and want of pride are the (so many) avenues (of attaining to me)…. [Yaksha [Dharma] to Yudhisthira]—ibid. Vanaparva,  Ch. CCCXIII. P. 451

56. Sacrificial ceremonies, study, gift, devotion, truth, forgiveness, mercy, and contentment—these are the eight ways to virtue, according to the Smriti. 57. The first four of these may be followed from motives of vanity; but the last four do not exist in those that are not great. [Vidura to Dhritarastra] —ibid. UDYOGA PARVA. Vol. III. Ch. XXXV, p.52