Ahimsa paramodharmah: In the last hundred years, there has been perhaps no other verse from Sanskrit literature, which has been as used and abused as this one. The statement, which is prominently mentioned a number of times in the Mahabharata, has been reduced to a politically correct slogan, almost a meme to propagate pacifism and dhimmitude, thanks to continued Nehruvian secularism.
While some wise people on the Hindu side have responded to this imposition of pacifism with counterclaims of “ahimsa paramodharmah” being only a half verse, the second half being “dharma himsatathaiva cha”, which means using violence for dharma is also dharma too; this, unfortunately, is a concocted verse. Neither this author nor other scholars have been able to ever trace this supposed second half of the verse to any authentic Hindu text.
Nevertheless, the sense expressed in this untraceable verse is not incorrect. Not only do we find an explicit mention in texts like Manusmriti that the use of violence for dharmic purposes in the manner prescribed by the Hindu shastras are dharmically legitimate; we also find a recognition of the fact that violence and conflict is ingrained in the very structure of the universe in texts like Mahabharata and Panchatantra. While Panchatantra reveals the conflict inherent in human life and society by weaving stories around predators and preys available in the natural world and exploring their mutual interactions and enmities; the Mahabharata, the great account of India, reveals the same through the devastating fratricidal war between two branches of the same royal family.
VS Sukthankar, the celebrated editor of BORI’s critical edition of the Mahabharata, in his final work titled “On the Meaning of the Mahabharata”, writes, “The conflict on the face of it (was) a common fratricidal war of annihilation for the possession of a throne which was probably not the first of its kind and which certainly was not the last… What gives this trivial tale of petty jealousy, intrigue and strife between rival claimants to a small kingdom in north India real depth and significance is the projection of the story on to a cosmic background, by its own interpretation of the Bharata: War as a mere incident in the ever-recurring struggle between the Devas and the Asuras; in other words, as a mere phase in cosmic evolution.”
Elaborating further, Sukthankar writes, “The actors, we find, are representatives of two ideal communities, a moral community in which the gods have taken part as heroes and pious individuals; and an immoral — or rather an un-moral — community which is their object to destroy, The war we saw being staged before us appears now as the state of tension between two fraternities which have existed from time immemorial and which continue to appear in ever new guises, in different places and at different times… After reading the book we feel as if the Mahabharata had in reality never ended. It seems to us as if it is going on now, at the present time, at the present moment; and that it will go on also for all eternity.”
In other words, the Mahabharata is not merely an account of a meaningless fratricidal war but is a revelation of the eternal conflict between dharma and adharma. It is no surprise then that the text refers to Kuruskshetra, the location of conflict, as Dharmakshetra — a place where dharma confronts adharma in an open war. Thus, contrary to the vision of pacifism and dhimmitude drilled into Hindu society using cherry-picked verses like ahimsa paramodharmah, the Mahabharata reveals the reality of the eternal Kurukshetra, wherein the forces of dharma perpetually meet the forces of adharma and in which we must all participate. As Sukhthankar notes, “… the epic poets try to familiarize us with the cosmic conception of the eternal conflict between Right and Wrong, between Good and Evil, between Justice and Injustice. The epic poets let us guess that we ourselves, without knowing it, are in fact actors in this ever-lasting cosmic drama and that we have been taking sides in the conflict and playing our own appointed parts.”
Whereas participating in such a perpetual war appears at a first glance to be without a meaning, the Mahabharata assures, notes Sukhtankar, “Though evil is allowed to flourish, even to dominate, for a time, the epic wants to point out, its reign is short, because it carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction.” Hence, it becomes imperative for all of us to fight this conflict from the side of dharma. From this standpoint then, the current prevalent attitude of pacifism and tolerance of inimical forces like Islamism or evangelism, in the name of peace and tolerance, is nothing but a manifestation of adharma. For, the Hindu view is clear, as Vishwamitra instructs Rama pointing towards the demoness Tadaka in Ramayana, “Slay the source of adharma. There is no dharma in her.”
The Mahabharata gives an interesting illustration of different ways in which the adharmic forces manifest. The first is Duryodhana, the very embodiment of adharma, the direct opponent to Yudhisthira. The second interesting character is Karna, who acts as a collaborator of adharma by actively assisting Duryodhana in all his evil designs. Third is Bhishma, who becomes an unwilling collaborator of adharma by unwillingly fighting from the side of Duryodhana. Fourth is Dhritarashtra, who acts as the passive collaborator of adharma by turning a blind eye towards Duryodhana and his antics.
We can see all these manifestations of adharma today in our society. There are a number of inimical forces like Islamism and evangelism trying to break India and dismantle Hinduism. There is a deep nexus of the media, NGOs, bureaucracy, etc. working as active collaborators of these inimical and adharmic forces. Then, there are many unwilling collaborators, who are blackmailed into cooperating using force, fraud, and other means.
Finally, we have the naïve majority that lives in dhimmitude and believe and propagate memes like sarvadharma samabhava and end up as passive collaborators of adharma. This is another meme, which is deeply problematic. For one, dharma is not same as religion. Two, Hinduism is not a religion in the Abrahamic sense of the word. Three, Abrahamic religions like Islam and Christianity are not dharma in the Indic sense of the word. Therefore, both the statements that ‘all religions are equal’ or that ‘all dharmas are equal’ are misnomers. Thus, from the standpoint of dharma, this meme is not only misleading but also an attempt at turning a blind eye towards the adharmic forces that are at work in radical Islam and Christian evangelism and the theology that informs them.
It is high time, therefore, Hindus overcame their naiveté and passivity and recognised that we are all actors in this ever-lasting cosmic conflict of devas and asuras, and hence, choose our side wisely. For, passivity is also a choice. A choice that well aligns with adharma. It is worth remembering Kunti’s parting advice to Yudhisthira: “Let thy reason be fixed on dharma. Let thy mind be ever great.”
Dharmo rakshati rakshitah
VS Sukthankar.On the Meaning of the Mahabharata
BibekDebroy (Tr.). The Valmiki Ramayana (Vol 1)
AshayNaik. The Panchatantra as a Nitishastra