A key debate from a millennia-old Indian epic: When is violence necessary?

It’s not really black or white.
It’s not really black or white.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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The Mahabharata is pervaded by relentless violence. Apart from the main war, which is described in gory detail, there are many other battles…It is ironic that one of the most violent stories in the ancient world contains a great deal of reflection on the problem of violence and much praise of non-violence. This seems to have seeped in from the larger cultural milieu in which critiques of violence had made a strong impact. Buddhism and Jainism must have contributed in a major way toward the creation of such a milieu.

The two important words in the epic’s treatment of the problem of violence are ahiṁsā and ānṛśaṁsyaAhiṁsā (non-violence) was the ideal for the renunciant, and was impossible to practice in absolute terms while living a worldly life. Anṛśaṁsya (Lath understands it as including goodwill, empathy, and fellow-feeling), on the other hand, was an ethic for worldly life. Both terms are mentioned as the “highest dharma” in the Mahabharata…But, as Hiltebeitel points out, ānṛśaṁsya occurs most often, and like ahiṁsā, it, too, is discussed contextually and is not an absolute. It is expandable, emanates from the heart and emotion, and has much more positive connotations than ahiṁsā.

However, in spite of all this, neither ahiṁsā nor ānṛśaṁsya constitutes the central message of the epic. To some extent, this is due to its inherently multivocal nature; the Mahabharata cannot be reduced to a single, central message. It does not lay down absolutes; instead, it recognises the tensions between different alternative imperatives and perspectives.

So it should not really come as a surprise that the Mahabharata abounds in contradictory statements about violence and nonviolence. As mentioned earlier, non-violence is part of the dharma for all varṇas and on several occasions is described on as the greatest dharma (ahiṁsā paramo dharmaḥ).

It is also said to be the highest form of self-control, liberality, austerity, sacrifice, strength, friendship, happiness, and truth.

Practicing non-violence and other virtues leads to heaven. An ideal Brahmana (member of the highest caste according to Hinduism) should not perform violent acts. Compassion and its variants (pity, sympathy, gentleness) are virtues that a king should possess. Yudhishthira, devoted to dharma, is described as ever free from cruelty (nityam ānṛśaṁsya).

The Bhagavadgita mentions non-violence (ahiṁsā) as part of a list of virtues that comprise knowledge (jñāna). But the epic is quite emphatic in asserting that an excess of a predilection for non-violence is disastrous for a king. Bhishma warns the vacillating Yudhishthira of too much compassion: “Nothing great can be achieved through pure compassion (ānṛśaṁsya). Further, people do not hold you in much respect for being gentle, self-controlled and excessively noble and righteous, a compassionate and righteous eunuch…The behavior you want to follow is not the behavior of kings.”

His message is blunt and simple: “Be the king, win heaven, protect the virtuous, kill the wicked.”

Further, Bhishma tells Yudhishthira, absolute nonviolence is impossible. Nobody in the world has a livelihood that does not involve doing some amount of violence (hiṁsā). Even a sage wandering in the forest commits violence, so what is there to say of the king whose job it is to protect all creatures?

Arjuna tells Yudhishthira that the king’s force (daṇḍa) is necessary for the welfare of the world. In every action, there is both right and wrong. Kings do not attain glory without killing their enemies. All living creatures inflict some kind of harm on other creatures.

“Beings live upon beings, the stronger upon the weaker. The mongoose eats mice, then the cat eats the mongoose, the dog eats the cat, a wild beast eats the dog, and a man eats all of these…Everything here mobile and stationary is the food of life.”

The epic does, however, distinguish between wanton, uncivilised violence and considered, necessary force and violence. There are violent people such as the Dasyus and wild Ashanas (apparently a fierce tribe), who live a life marked by cruelty and violence (krūravṛtti).

This uncivilised, wanton violence is qualitatively different from the necessary violence involved in inflicting punishment (daṇḍa) and the violence/anger (ugratva) that is the Kshatriya way.

The god Krishna is one of the arch proponents of necessary violence throughout the epic. The filling of the royal treasury requires killing, and some collateral damage is inevitable, just as when a tree has to be cut for making a sacrificial post, other trees that lie in the way are also cut and fall.

The king’s force is necessary, justified by its ends of maintaining order in the world.

Even more blunt is the following statement: “A cruel king, who does not protect his people, who robs them in the name of levying taxes, is evil (Kali) incarnate and should be killed by his subjects. A king who, after declaring “I will protect you,” does not protect them, should be killed by his people coming together, as though he were a mad dog.”

So, in extreme circumstances, where the king violates his dharma in relation to his subjects, the Mahabharata sanctions regicide. The most powerful philosophical response to a whole range issues related to dharma, violence, war, and renunciation in the Mahabharata occurs in the Bhagavadgita (Song of the Lord), also known as the Gita.

The text (Gita) can also be seen as Brahmanism’s response to Buddhism, a response marked by the acceptance and absorption of some Buddhist ideas (such as impermanence and suffering) as well as a strong rejection of others (such as the denial of the soul).

The Bhagavadgita reconciles many seemingly irreconcilable elements, including dharma and mokṣa (deliverance from the cycle of birth and death).

Its idea of karmayoga emphasises the eternal nature of the ātman (self) and the importance of following one’s varṇadharma; it is the fruits of actions and not actions themselves that are to be renounced.

And although Krishna’s long discourse to Arjuna is aimed at urging him to pick up his bow and enter what is going to be a violent, bloody war, the detached warrior must ultimately give up attachment to force (bala), along with his sense of ego, pride, desire, anger, and covetousness.

The relationship between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavadgita formed the model for a new relationship between devotees and the great god in early Hinduism.

The text contains different ideas of god—an impersonal cosmic god who is the creator, preserver, and destroyer of the world, as well as a god who is immediate and worthy of devotion. These reflect monolatry—the worship of a god as the supreme god without denying the existence of other gods. This kind of religious belief coexisted in early Hinduism with polytheism and monism.

Why does Krishna address his soteriological discourse to Arjuna and not to Yudhishthira, the would-be king? It has been suggested that Arjuna is a temporary stand-in for the king. Another view is that the Bhagvadgita represents a response to the idea of absolute royal power (personified by Duryodhana) and announces that the king is both dependent on and responsible to the great, all-powerful god.

However, Arjuna seems to stand primarily for the quintessential warrior and devotee. Even if the Bhagavadgita theology can be extended to the domain of kingship, we should remember that it was one of many ideas on the subject that exist within the Mahabharata.

Excerpted from Upinder Singh’s book Political Violence in Ancient India with permission from Penguin Books IndiaWe welcome your comments at