Mahabharata: Lessons In 21st Century Statecraft From The Itihasa

Mahabharata: Lessons In 21st Century Statecraft From The ItihasaMahabharata.
  • Contemporary political leaders of India can take a cue from the Mahabharata not only in day to day administration, but even in other matters including foreign policy, national security, citizen welfare etc.

    Here's how.

Mahabharata is a bedrock of values indigenous to India. The most important among the Indic values is the concept of Dharma. The itihasa is hence eternally relevant and is a reference at times of dilemma or when seeking guidance.

Mahabharata has a special place as a handbook for individual and state dharma, because it provides case studies spanning across several generations and in some cases across multiple births of the same jiva. This comprehensive nature of case studies helps us to zoom in on the best option suitable for us, irrespective of us being student, teacher, citizen, soldier, minister, diplomat or whatever possible role that can be imagined.

अज्ञानतिमिरान्धस्य लोकस्य तु विचेष्टतः ⁠। ज्ञानाञ्जनशलाकाभिर्नेत्रोन्मीलनकारकम् ⁠।⁠।⁠ ८४ ⁠।⁠। धर्मार्थकाममोक्षार्थैः समासव्यासकीर्तनैः ⁠। तथा भारतसूर्येण नृणां विनिहतं तमः ⁠।⁠।⁠ ८५ ⁠।⁠।
Adiparva, Anukramanika Parva, Sloka 74 and 75, Gitapress Edition

As the people grope aimlessly, blinded by ignorance, Mahabharata opens their eyes with wisdom as an eyeliner. The knowledge of Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha is described here in details and in short.

Thus, the Mahabharata sun removes ignorance from all.

Contemporary political leaders of India can take a cue from the Mahabharata not only in day to day administration, but even in other matters including foreign policy, national security, citizen welfare etc.

One of the important themes relevant today for national security is ‘misplaced compassion’. In the form of compassion and moral high standards, the government has pardoned, and showed a soft face on several occasions when the real need was an iron fist.

Bhagavan Sri Krishna reveals his attitudes towards adharmic/asuric forces, during his conversation with Karna on the latter’s last day in battle. Even though Karna seeks time to repair his chariot, citing dharmic reasons, Bhagavan did not permit this and instructed Arjuna to kill him at the earliest.

Sri Krishna also intervenes during the gadayuddha between Bhima and Duryodhana and via Arjuna, signals to Bhima to kill Duryodhana by hitting him in the thighs.

Bhima follows the same and instantly, the warrior Duryodhana is brought down. This seemingly adharmic act makes Balarama and others furious and they pick an argument with Bhima and Yudhishtira.

However, Bhagavan explains his part here in detail. For him, Duryodhana was the embodiment of adharma and there is no reason not to use adharma to kill him.

Not only this, Sri Krishna extends this theory to the previous attacks on Bhishma, Drona and Bhurisravas and defends the Pandavas killing them. (Salya Parva, Krishna-pandava-duryodana Samvadam)

One important point to note here is that Krishna is not advocating adharmic methods in all battles, but uses it as a last resort to kill the enemies, when they have resorted to adharmic methods.

This tactic was lost to our civilisational memory and the examples of Prithviraj Chauhan's encounter with Muhammed Ghori and more recently the 1962 episode with China are grave reminders of this fact.

This policy towards adharmic/asuric forces practised by Krishna has a lesson for Indian national security policy makers. Till recently, specifically until the Balakot strikes and Galvan incident, the border management of India always suffered from ‘misplaced compassion’.

To suppress the increasing number of internal and external enemies, India has to practice this policy of Krishna with much more vigour.

Another important lesson of national security is information collection, i.e department of intelligence, or more plainly spying. Listen to what Mahabharata has to say on this!

गन्धेन गावः पश्यन्ति वेदैः पश्यन्ति ब्राह्मणाः चारैः पश्यन्ति राजानश्चक्षुर्भ्यामितरे जनाः
Udyogaparva, chapter 34, sloka 32, Critical Edition

Cows see through their sense of smell. Brahmanas see through the Vedas. Kings see through spies. Ordinary people see through their eyes. [translation by Bibek Debroy, Mahabharata]

Yes, spies are the eyes of kings and rulers. In Chapter 5 of Sabha Parva, we have a detailed session on intelligence gathering. Here, Narada asks Yudhishtira,

“Do you use groups of three spies, who do not know one another, to find out about the eighteen tirthas on the other side and the fifteen on your own territory? O destroyer of enemies! Unknown to them, do you always keep watch over your adversaries, with care and on guard?”.

[ translation by Bibek Debroy, Mahabharata]

The hint here is to deploy three mutually unknown spies and collect details from eighteen categories of people on the other side and fifteen categories of people on their own side.

The eighteen categories of people to be monitored on the opposite side includes:

  1. Minister

  2. Chief priests

  3. Yuvaraja

  4. Senapathi

  5. Dwarapalakas

  6. Commander of Palace Guards

  7. Commander of Jail Guards

  8. Head of Treasury

  9. Expenditure Department

  10. Watchman

  11. Head of the City

  12. Head of Architecture

  13. Chief of priests

  14. Head of ministers

  15. Head of judiciary -

  16. Head of Cantonment

  17. Head of Border Security

  18. Controller of Forest

And on its own side, the fifteen categories to be monitored include all the above except the first three. Those who are familiar with India's internal affairs will recollect how the RAW wing in hostile countries were dismantled making our country susceptible to terrorist attacks during earlier regimes.

Also, we are aware of how the internal diplomats kept the intelligence officers' lives in danger by being in collaboration with forein governments. These two incidents are merely a tip of the iceberg, where as a nation we failed in countering terrorism at various levels due to lack of proper intelligence gathering.

As we look forward to propel India as a geo political superpower, in the near future, the first establishment to strengthen is the existing intelligence gathering network based on this clue from Mahabharata.

Finally, Mahabharata has a piece of advice to the head of states, the modern equivalents to a king or monarch, who is the custodian of the nation.

Hidden in one of the lesser known episodes of Mahabharata, the Janaka-Brahmana Samvada of Anugita Parva of Ashvamedhika Parva, Krishna narrates the story of the King Janaka to Arjuna. Let us listen to the conversation between King Janaka and the Brahmana.

As a punishment for the crime committed by a brahmana, King Janaka asked him to leave his country and live elsewhere. Now the Brahmana has a question: Which kingdom is under your subjugation? If I know this, I can live in another king's country. This makes the king thoughtful and after contemplating for a while, the king permits the Brahmana to stay wherever he wishes. On contemplating, the King understood that the nation did not belong to him, nor to his forefathers. He said that he has conquered the five senses, mind and renounced Mamatva (attachment).

Having controlled the mind, the king performed actions only for the benefits of others.

At this point of story, the brahmana reveals that he is dharma himself, and came in disguise of a brahmana to test the king. Further, Dharma Raja says,

त्वमस्य ब्रह्मलाभस्य दुर्वारस्यानिवर्तिनः ⁠।

सत्त्वनेमिनिरुद्धस्य चक्रस्यैकः प्रवर्तकः ⁠।⁠।⁠

Ashvamedhika Parva , chapter 32, sloka 25, Gitapress Edition

Only such a king, who renounced his mamatva and works for the benefit of others, is suitable for controlling the dharma chakra in the universe, whose spokes are of sattva gunas and whose purpose is Brahma prapthi.

Here, Dharma Raja narrates that a king, by virtue of his governance, may attain Brahma Pada.

What a glorious thought this is. Governance as a medium of salvation. This attitude of kings, if practised by our national leaders, will surely make India, a Viswaguru again in all domains.

Futuristic, to say the least.

Fortunately, we are at a junction of history where everything is suitable for the study and propagation of Mahabharata. As the Mahabharata is available in its complete form in various languages including English, it is now our turn to study and spread the messages embedded in the text.

Although its primary aim is to teach moksha shastra, we should also take advantage of the insights and nuggets from Mahabharata to lead life more happily and to make our nation more prosperous.

The introduction of the New Education Policy in India creates a suitable platform for placing this immortal text to the interdisciplinary education sector.

Universities and colleges can offer short-term and long-term courses for students and tailor made courses for professionals. Let me conclude this by quoting another sloka from Mahabharata.

कालो वा कारणं राज्ञो राजा वा कालकारणम्

इति ते संशयो मा भूद्राजा कालस्य कारणम्

Shanti parva, chapter 70, 6th sloka , Critical Edition

Here, Bhishma advises Yudhishthira that “You should not entertain any doubt about whether the age results in the king, or the king results in the age. The king causes the age. [translation by Bibek Debroy, Mahabharata]

Yes, kings create the destiny of the nation. And in a democracy, we, the people, create kings and are solely responsible for the creation of a new India.


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