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A follow-up on the New Value System in the Mahabharata

A follow-up on the New Value System in the Mahabharata
by Sitansu S. Chakravarti, PhD

The paper was delivered at the WAVES conference held at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth Campus, in July, 2002. Its contents form part of the Third Chapter of the forthcoming book by the author Ethics in the Mahabharata: A Philosophical Inquiry.

I am making a brief attempt here at finding out in what respects the old value system as represented by Bhishma differs from the new which is supported and initiated by Sri Krishna. This is a follow-up on my paper ‘Bhishma and Sri Krishna: the New Value System in the Mahabharata’ which came up on the website of the Infinity Foundation in January’ 2002.

The two systems, we must keep in mind, do not differ regarding the aims of the human life, it is rather the objectives as pertaining to the aims regarding which the difference emerges. They both agree that duty for all human beings includes actions toward benefit of all, thereby addressing their debts to humanity as such. However, it is in the mode of addressing the debts that the difference between the systems lies. In the old system attending to the guests, feeding them before one partakes of one’s own food, is accepted as the way to address the debts. In the new system this is not enough. Bhishma surely does his duties according to the old system. He does not realize, however, that something needs to be done to stabilize the political situation of the land, on the principle of justice, in order to ensure that the people get their fare share, and are saved from the anarchy of Jarasandha they are unfortunately subjected to. In the very kingdom of Hastinapura, where he lives, things are not going according to the principle of justice. Bhishma is wise enough to understand everything, but does not initiate action to resolve the situation, sensing that the area falls outside his domain of responsibilities, for he is not the monarch of the land, which is out of bounds for him on account of his famous promises. Sri Krishna, on the other hand, takes it as his responsibility to try to do the needful in the direction, although he is not the monarch of the land either. He is helping the cause of the Pandavas not only for the sake of diplomacy that would eventually help stabilize his own kingdom, given overall stability around, but also for the sake of all. Not initiating action toward consolidating the existing political situation of India, and making things right in the kingdom where he lives, Bhishma does not violate any of the norms of morality in practice in his time. He may even be praised for his restraint regarding not overstepping the boundaries of morality in so far as he sticks to the promises made. However, he certainly goes against the new system of values in not having contributed his full potential to the benefit of the humankind.

It is interesting to note that Sri Krishna also maintained a distance from the kingdom of Hastinapura in not looking at it as his area of personal gain. Here he shares the necessary step for morality of the new dimension with Bhishma. Irrespective of any promises made or not, others’ property must not be eyed with a selfish motive. Greed certainly was absent in Bhisma as well as in Krishna, although the resulting value systems were not the same for both. The new value system, we must emphasize, does not end with this lack of greed; it only starts there. The new value system accepts the need for initiating action based on the strong foundation of lack of selfishness. Thus, although the basis for action was very much present in Bhishma, the action needed would not be forthcoming. Giving a just and proper direction to the on-goings in Hastinapura, in spite of the promises made, is in keeping with the new value system, in so far as virtue here does not exhaust itself in the negatives of unselfishness and non-attachment, important as they are for morality. Hastinapura, where Bhishma lives, palpably lacks in a system of justice at the time. Bhishma is held in awe and respect by the administrators there. His voice surely counts, when heard. His selflessness is beyond doubt. His perception of duty, circumscribed as it may be by the promises made, does not have to obliterate his sense of duty to the others suffering around him, in view of the position he held and his capability to deliver the goods. True, the promises made barred him from occupying the throne of Hastinapura. He could, nevertheless, have attempted to ensure a system of justice from within, without grabbing the throne, or could have seen to it that the existing rulers were replaced, if proved unwieldy, without having an eye on the throne for his own selfish end.

Morality is not just a self-cleansing process. We must note that none of the five debts in the old value system exhausts itself in the ethical process of self-cleansing. Otherwise, there would have been little need to emphasize, for instance, the wrong in the literal truth said when the sage in the story does not hide from the robbers the whereabouts of the fugitives, who were eventually grabbed and killed for their belongings, on the basis of the clue provided by the ‘truthful’ utterance of the sage. If any of the debts have been faulted here, it is to humanity (Nrrna). Even the one who has taken leave of the world is not entirely free from it, as the story indicates, for ahimsa, or non-violence, and sympathy, are virtues binding on every human being, renouncer or not, and must manifest itself in the form of nrrna when it comes to dealings with human beings. The fault, however, is negative here in the story of the sage and the fugitives, in not hiding the whereabouts of the latter when the occasion arises to save them from harm resulting from the literal disclosure of truth (i.e., satyavis-à-vis rta). The old value system falls short of positive overtures toward benefit of humanity when one has the capacity to deliver, on top of the standard acts laid down traditionally, like making gifts. The old system lacks in innovative input into positive acts toward addressing the debts, in all directions. The new value system emphasizes this aspect, and in a way makes it mandatory for people to innovatively work according to their capabilities toward the benefit of others. Sri Krishna works hard to ensure that a just and proper system takes root in India, so everybody can prosper. We feel tempted to say that Bhisma is at fault when he does not say a thing against the attempted disrobing of Draupadi in court, in his presence. Nobody, however, would have faulted Sri Krishna if he would not have attempted to bring about a change in the political climate of India. He is, indeed, praised for this. Here, in the old system, non-performance is not considered a fault (i.e., pratyavaya), although performance is considered praise-worthy. Bhishma is all-praise for Sri Krishna for whatever he does, without emulating it himself in a utilitarian thrust, and volunteering to help his cause. Sri Krishna considers it incumbent on him to do the needful. He thinks that his indebtedness to Draupadi keeps on increasing every day, as he had failed to give her protection against the obnoxious overtures by the Kauravas in the royal court, and the evil-doers go unpunished. Sri Krishna emphasizes in the Gita on the importance of action as motivated by concern for others (3/20,25; 12/4). He practises this in his own way all his life. Bhishma, who is the representative of the old value system of the time, appreciates what Sri Krishna does, although he is not able or eager to follow the example to the full. There is little evidence that he is even able to have a glimpse of the wide spectrum of the utilitarianism that Sri Krishna subscribes to.

We must point out Sri Krishna’s contribution to the accepted interpretation of apaddharma, i.e., ethics of the emergency situation. It is well accepted that speaking untruth is all right for reasons that include personal safety and benefit to a greater cause.1 However, these considerations would not count in the situation of war, as a matter of practice. The tradition of Hindu chivalry would not permit lying to save life while fight is on, nor overstepping the rules of fight for that matter. When Drona, the General of the Kauravas is fighting fiercely to the devastation of the Pandava side, Sri Krishna gets extremely anxious to do something about it right away so the General’s advance can be checked. He thinks of a plan. If the General is told that Ashwatthama, his son, has been assassinated, he will certainly throw away his arms in grief, – a move that would bring relief to the Pandavas. Arjuna does not agree to the proposal. However, Bhima readily relates the “message” to the General, which the latter refuses to believe. Drona asks Yudhisthia for confirmation, whose words only he can trust. Sri Krishna advises Yudhisthira, who hesitates to comply, to lie to Drona, for ‘there is no sin in lying in order to save life.’2 Ultimately his advice prevails and Drona is killed unarmed, which also goes against the accepted norms of fight. Sri Krishna’s advice to kill Jayadratha with a trick, and Karna unarmed, involves untruth, though not lying. His final advice to Bhima to hurt Duryodhana on his thighs also flouts the ordinary norm of fighting with clubs. Sri Krishna includes all this in the ethics of the emergency situation keeping in view the greater good of society, and certainly not for personal gains. We have to keep in mind that neither Arjuna, nor Bhima for that matter, is afraid to die in the battle, even though it is they who are immediately saved with the killing of Jayadratha, Karna and Duryodhana. The deviation from the norm, to repeat, is not really for any personal benefit here at all, including saving of lives. Sri Krishna took to the ethics of the emergency situation in getting all of them killed toward the greater good of humanity, through means that are questionable outside of the context. They are all, by the way, associated with an unjust cause, and have serious personal flaws in their characters. Sri Krishna is guided here by the consideration of dharma which he takes to a new dimension. In the accepted interpretation, the ethics of the emergency situation notwithstanding, truth is by and large given an unconditional status. Thus, in spite of Sri Krishna’s justification of the action on the support of the ethics of the emergency situation, Yudhisthira is shown as “punished” for lying to Drona, first by loss of the special status of freedom from material constraint the Yudhisthira used to enjoy for his utter truthfulness, in that his chariot would travel without touching the ground, and second, by his token visit to the hell, at the very end of the story, before finally settling in heaven. It is important to note that Sri Krishna wanted to free truth in speech and action from its status of unconditionality, conferring finality to rta, the goal of human life, while placing adherence to truth, or satya, subordinate to selfless pursuit of rta.

It must be of some significance that the above actions of lying and behaving according to “untruth” are not simple “white lies” indulged once in a while to ensure a desired marriage, for example, or peace in family, which are included among the traditionally acceptable situations of lying in the category of the emergency situation. Here, in contrast, we are dealing with high-level maneuvers, engineered by a stalwart of Sri Krishna’s spiritual standing, which are not of the Machiavellian kind. The prime requisite in these kinds of maneuvers is grounding in unselfishness, which the karma yoga in the Gita is all about, and the motive force is benefit of all. It is interesting to note that Sri Krishna is not found encouraging lying or indulging in other “untruthful” activities anywhere else away from the specific context of the Kuruksetra war. The leadership here is in the hand of Sri Krishna’s, who is beyond all selfishness. It is also worth noting the strong variance that Sri Krishna’s position holds to that of Kant. Certainly it is not duty for the sake of duty that Sri Krishna is advocating following the Kantian way, that is, not without consequential considerations, though certainly without selfish motives.

We have noted that utilitarianism, is the point of departure between the old value system and the new, – not because it is absent in the former, but because it gets a special emphasis in the latter. One must do the utmost for the other, putting in the best according to one’s capabilities, in accordance with the demands of the rta, wherein lies the real freedom of all. The one who is well-established in the state of freedom in authentic existence, does it as a matter of course, as part of the flow of the whole universe, whereas, the one who is yet to achieve the state, does it as a matter of duty. However, the sense of duty, too, is based on the yet-to-crystallize sense of freedom that is innately present in all human beings in a veiled, indistinct way. The sense of freedom is a unifying force that snaps the shackles of bondage manifest in disharmony, strife within as well as without, and disquiet. The sense of freedom ever finds its way in compassion, love and respect, even in hostile situations. We may claim that the utilitarianism of the Mahabharata unites, whereas that of the Millian variety ultimately separates.

Sri Krishna may be said to have added a dimension to the concept of debts considered as motives for actions of duty. He says:

My debts to Draupadi keep on multiplying instead, rather, of abating, since she cried for me for help from a long distance (when the stripping was being attempted on her).3

If, in other words, somebody needs assistance, and one is able to provide it, it must be provided. Sri Krishna is considered avatara, or God incarnate. He takes total responsibility for Draupadi’s protection from the Kauravas’ onslaught, since she is absolutely devoted to, and dependent upon him, and he could possibly have made prior plans to avoid such a happening. Bhaskar Ray Mokhi has alluded to this utterance of Sri Krishna when he insists on his Goddess that She – the Mother – is in debts to the devotee – the son, for She has the capacity to offer him solace, and he deserves it. The sense of responsibility being harped on here belongs to the new value system, absent in Bhisma’s mind. People of India were in need of a well-rounded system of justice, which Bhishma was able to establish. He, however, did not consider this as falling within his system of responsibilities, as we have seen.

The other major point of difference, emanating from the points touched upon here, is regarding the emphasis on action laid in the new value system, in so far as it is supposed to be performed in the right spirit, detaching oneself, as far as possible, from the pleasure or pain normally associated with success or failure of a plan of action. Actions themselves are not to be abhorred for their association with attachment and greed. It certainly is not the hedonistic end that is the motive of action here, nor is the motive concerned generally non-consequencial, for being allegedly deontological instead, as demanded by Amartya Sen in his recent paper where he takes a strong exception to Sri Krishna’s stand in the Gita.4


1. Mahabharata, 12/165/30.

2. ‘Anrtam jivitasyarthe vadann sprsyate’nrtaih’, – Sri Krishna to Yudhisthira, Ibid, 7/191/47.

3. Mahabharata, 5/59/22.

4. Amartya Sen, ‘Consequential Evaluation and Practical Reason’, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. XCVII. no. 9, September, 2000.

Sitansu S. Chakravarti, University of Toronto