Among several arguments put forth to explain Indians’ losses against foreign invaders, one of the more commonly heard one is that Indians could not – or refused to – adapt to the new rules of warfare and insisted on fighting by the more traditional, dharmic, rules of war. But is that really the case?
Let’s use the Mahabharata to evaluate this assumption more closely. Was this war at Kurukshetra fought as a dharmic war? The Pandavas certainly believed theirs to be a just war, yes. But the means? Most would disagree, I hope. Women were not supposed to take part in the war – at least one did. There was not supposed to be any fighting at night – there was. The unarmed were not to be attacked – they were. A warrior was not to be engaged in battle without warning – he was. Warriors were not to be attacked when sleeping – they were. And so on… Every single rule was broken, by both sides.
Shikhandi had been born Shikhandini – a woman. You could also see her as Amba reborn. A yaksha gave Shikhandini his male form, and she thus became Shikhandi. Bhishma looked at Shikhandi as a woman and refused to engage him in a duel. The Pandavas used this to shield Arjuna from Bhishma. Thus was brought down the first commander of the Kaurava army. Rules of engagement were clearly asymmetric. The Pandavas adapted when faced with rules that put them at a disadvantage.
On the thirteenth day of the battle, Abhimanyu was killed. Goaded into entering the Chakra vyuha by his uncle Yudhishthira, enter he did, and faced the onslaught of the Kaurava warriors bravely. The Kaurava warriors ganged up against Abhimanyu – but only after conferring with their commander and guru – Drona – who had this to say in response to a query from Karna – “But with well-aimed arrows, you are capable of slicing down his bow, his bowstring, the reins of his horses and the two charioteers who guard his flanks … Make him retreat and strike him subsequently.” [Drona Parva, Vol. VI]
Karna sliced off Abhimanyu’s bow and later his shield, Kripa killed his charioteers, Kritavarma his horses, Drona severed his sword. Abhimanyu was finally killed by six maharathis. Six armed warriors against one.
Retaliation followed the very next day – the fourteenth – when Arjuna followed-up on his vow and killed Jayadratha. Did this happen before or after sunset? Fighting after sunset was against the rules of war. Had the sun really set, or had Krishna used his yogic powers to cast an illusion of a sunset to ferret out Jayadratha? This is a question that has been asked but never conclusively answered for three millennia.
In-between, on the fourteenth day itself, hadn’t Arjuna intervened in the battle between Satyaki and Bhurishrava? Bhurishrava had grasped Satyaki by the hair and was dragging him around. At that moment, on Krishna’s urging, Arjuna shot an arrow that severed Bhurishrava’s arm. Had Arjuna challenged Bhurishrava? The Mahabharata is clear on this – “Kiriti severed the arm while he was still unseen…” [Ch 118, Drona Parva, Vol VI]
In any event, what followed the death of Jayadratha? The sun set, yet the battle continued into the night – “After the sun had set, a battle commenced between Drona and the Somakas and it made the body hair stand up.” [Ch 121, Drona Parva, Vol VI]
This was on the explicit orders of Drona – “The angry Kurus and Srinjayas will fight, even during the night.” [Ch 127, Drona Parva, Vol VI]
Eventually, later that night, Ghatotkacha was felled by Karna’s weapon – the Shakti. This was celebrated by Krishna – “He roared loudly and embraced Phalguna. He danced in joy, like a tree stirred by the wind. Achyuta climbed into the chariot and let out a fierce yell.” On being questioned by Arjuna, Krishna revealed the import of the event – “Because of Ghatotkacha, the spear has been used up. Therefore, know that Karna has already been slain… Yama would not have ventured against Karna in an encounter. … [Y]ou with your Gandiva and I with my sudarshana chakra would not have had the capacity to defeat him in a battle.” [Ch 155, Drona Parva, Vol VI] Ghatotkacha was the collateral in exchange for Karna’s weapon.
On the seventeenth day, the left wheel of Karna’s chariot got mired in mud, and as he got down to extricate it, he appealed to Arjuna to desist from attacking him – “O Arjuna! One should not shoot a weapon at one who doesn’t wish to fight, at someone who doesn’t have arrows, at a person whose armour has been destroyed, or a person whose weapons have been shattered and broken.” Ironical, to say the least, after the events of the thirteenth day. In any case, Vasudeva was not one to let this pass uncontested. He retorted with biting sarcasm – “O Radheya! It is fortunate that you remember dharma. Quite often, when they are immersed in hardships, inferior ones censure destiny, but not their evil deeds.” He then reminded Arjuna of Droupadi’s humiliation in the assembly hall. Thus Karna was killed, when on the ground, without his armour, by Arjuna’s arrow.
The war ended with the greatest of duels fought with the mace – between Bhima and Duryodhana. We know how it ended. But what did Krishna have to opine on the duel and the warriors? As to the duel itself, he believed it was because of “great stupidity on Dharmaraja’s part. He has staked the entire victory on the outcome of a single encounter.” [Ch 57, Shalya Parva, Vol VIII] Perhaps it was the gambler in Yudhishthira that refused to go quietly into the night!
On the relative assessment of the two warriors, Krishna was unambiguous on what needed to be done were the Pandavas to emerge victorious – “Using dharma, Bhimasena will not be able to win this encounter. He will be able to kill Suyodhana only if he fights through unfair means.” [Ch 57, Shalya Parva, Vol VIII] Krishna slapped his thigh, and Bhima struck Duryodhana on the thighs.
Ashwatthama attacked the Pandava camp at night. A great massacre of soldiers took place. Soldiers that were sleeping, were unarmed, unaware. Again – against the rules of war (this should invite parallels with the fateful battle that Prithviraj Chauhan fought against Muhammad Ghori).
But, one could argue, that these deviations from dharma were necessary for the establishment of dharma. I will whole-heartedly agree and reiterate the point that once war has been declared, victory is the only dharma. Indians – Hindus – were aware of both the dharmic rules of war as well as the practical exigencies that war entailed. Why then does the theory still exist that Indians lost out because they played fair while the enemy did not? Even a cursory examination of the Mahabharata makes it clear that this is a patently absurd conjecture. Worse, it has the pernicious effect to shutting out any meaningful introspection. This is obviously a much more complex subject than can be done justice by me, but if it helps us rethink some long-held assumptions then I will consider this time well-spent.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
Note: I have used Dr Bibek Debroy’s Mahabharata, Volumes 6, 7, and 8 – an unabridged translation of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, published by Penguin India in 2012, 2013, and 2013, respectively – as my reference.