“No man-made law ever, no matter whether derived from the past or projected onto a distant, unforeseeable future, can or should ever be empowered to claim that it is greater than the Natural Law from which it stems and to which it must inevitably return in the eternal rhythm of creation and decline of all things natural.”
—WILHELM REICH, response to FDA complaint, Feb. 22, 1954
Society uses multiple techniques to regulate the behavior of its members. The stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are the first exposure to the concepts of law and Dharma that children in Indian culture experience and these serve as educational tools. These stories are used to teach children a number of lessons, among them Dharma and its manifestation as lawfulness. Not only do these stories teach children what is moral (in accordance with Dharma) and what is legal, they also teach them the complex and contradictory nature of these concepts as they manifest themselves in real life. This is particularly evident in the stories of Ram and Ravan in the Ramayana, and Krishna and Duryodhan in the Mahabharata because these characters represent extremes on the spectra of Dharma and legality. By exposing children to these characters, theRamayana and theMahabharata inform children of the different ways of dealing with different situations in life. As these stories are educational and not descriptive in nature, they help children make an informed choice but do not prescribe any particular choice as the right one.
Dharma – A Principle To Live By
The term Dharma is “as complex as it is ubiquitous” (Das 306). The word has been used extensively in the Indian tradition and never been explicitly defined. There are multiple examples of what constitutes Dharma throughout the Mahabharata and the Ramayana but there is no clear or overt definition provided anywhere in the literature. For instance, when Yudhishthir asks Bhishma about the nature of Dharma (translated here as righteousness), Bhishma’s response is:
The question thou hast asked me is a difficult one, since it is difficult to say what righteousness is. It is not easy to indicate it. No one in discoursing upon righteousness, can indicate it accurately. Righteousness was declared (by Brahman) for the advancement and growth of all creatures. Therefore, that which leads to advancement and growth is righteousness. Righteousness was declared for restraining creatures from injuring one another. Therefore, that is Righteousness which prevents injury to creatures. Righteousness (Dharma) is so called because it upholds all creatures. In fact, all creatures are upheld by righteousness. Therefore, that is righteousness which is capable of upholding all creatures (Vyasa Shantiparava 109).
The word “Dharma” comes from the Sanskrit root “dhr” which means “to maintain,” “to sustain” or “to support” (Lingat 3). Dharma has also been linked to the Sanskrit word Dharana which means “supporting” or “maintaining” (Das 306). This etymological exploration brings up an important question- maintaining and supporting what? According to Lingat, “Dharma signifies the eternal laws which maintain the world” (3).
This eternal, universal principle is based on a simple foundation. In the natural world, animals are motivated by the need for survival and the fear of death. In this kind of a situation, might becomes right and survival is only possible for the fit. However, unlike animals, humans have the choice to either “accept, exploit or reject this law” of the jungle (Pattanaik Jaya 346). The human ability to imagine allows us to “look beyond ourselves” and empathize with others, allowing us to put aside our own self-interest for the good of others (Pattanaik Jaya 346). This is what constitutes Dharma.
However, the universe demands balance. Hence, the human capacity to imagine has an ugly side. It can also intensify the fear and insecurity that is part of our animal nature. This would cause humans to exploit the weak and take from the world more than we need. This is the exact opposite of Dharma: it is Adharma. As Pattanaik puts it,
“If dharma enables us to outgrow the beast in us, then adharma makes us worse than animals. If dharma takes us towards divinity, then adharma fuels the demonic… Adharma is thus an eternal temptation, while dharma is an endless work in progress that validates our humanity” (Jaya 346).
The struggle between Dharma and Adharma is not that of trying to achieve divinity but that of aspiring towards it with the knowledge that it is a journey, not a destination. It is the acknowledgement of one’s animal weaknesses and the attempt to outgrow them and become human by resisting the temptation to give in to our inner animal. The path to becoming divine is the path of becoming more human than animal. “God is not an external trophy to be possessed; God is an internal human potential to be realized” (Pattanaik Sita locations 4450-4451).
This is the message that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are trying to convey and they use a number of stories pertaining to specific characters to communicate how difficult this eternal struggle can be. They tell children that the simple idea of Dharma when applied to the complicated human world can be incredibly hard to follow.
The Mahabharata and The Ramayana
In order to understand the dynamics of the law and its relation to Dharmain these two epics, one must understand their relation to each other. The two epics are interrelated but they depict two very different societies. The overarching concept of Dharmais common to them both but it manifests itself in different ways.
Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are interpreted as “Itihas.” The word “Itihas” is traditionally translated as “history” or “story” (“Definition of Itihas”). However, when broken down into its constituent parts, इतिहास (itihas) breaks down into इति (“iti” meaning “so indeed”) + हास(“haas” from अस्ती “asti” meaning “to be”). This breakdown reveals that “Itihas” is a tense-neutral, even tense-agnostic term which can be more accurately translated as “so it was, so it is and so it will be.” Thus, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata depict, not factual history, but universal situations in metaphors designed for pedagogical purposes.
Vedic thought divides the journey of each society into four phases or yugas: Krita yuga, Treta yuga, Dvapara yug and Kali yuga in order. The beginning of every society is idealistic but this idealism is followed by gradual decline in Dharma, wisdom and knowledge as society progresses through these four phases. This eventually leads to pralayaor collapse of the society at the end of theKali yuga.
This is why the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are inherently different. Because it is based in the Treta yuga, the Ramayanais considered Kavyaor “poetry” (Pattanaik Sita).What this means is that the Ramayana depicts “Ramrajya” or the perfect kingdom – an idealistic utopia that every society should aspire to. It is an unachievable perfect state that is intended to explain concepts in an idealistic situation. By contrast, the Mahabharata, being based in the Dvapara yuga and a more corrupt society, takes those idealistic concepts explained in the Ramayana and applies them to imperfect and complicated real-life situations.
The Ramayana depicts an earlier society in which the laws have just been created and are in accordance with the principle of Dharma as it applies to the society at the time. The Mahabharata represents a later era when the principles have been forgotten and the literal interpretation of the law takes precedence over the intent with which that law was written (Dharma). In teaching these texts to children, the two epics come together to form a comprehensive view of the many circumstantial manifestations of this debate in real-life situations.
For instance, culturally specific laws are designed to follow the universal principle of Dharma. However, culture is dynamic. Therefore, when culture changes, the laws remain the same and no longer follow the principle of Dharma. This creates a rift between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law and the individuals in that society, and the society as a whole, must decide which they value more. This is depicted in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
In this chart, with Dharma on the y-axis and the letter of the law on the x-axis, the Ramayana depicts idealistic situations where following the law upholds Dharma and the breaking of the law leads to violation of Dharma whereas the Mahabharata depicts complicated situations where upholding Dharma sometimes requires breaking or bending the law and following the law need not uphold Dharma. These perspectives are depicted specifically using four important characters in these two epics.
The Ramayana narrates the struggle of Ram to rescue his wife from the Rakshasaking Ravan and create Ramrajya or the perfect kingdom. The two characters, Ram and Ravan represent two opposing extremes on the Dharma and legality axes.
Ravan is the son of the rishi or sage Vishrava and the king of the dreaded rakshasas. The rakshasas were a community that considered themselves rakshak or guardians of the forest way of life. They valued survival of the fittest and considered brute force, not rules or Dharma, to be the most important factor in success. Ravan, as the king, was the extreme manifestation of this philosophy.
Vishrava passed on all the knowledge he had to his son. As a result, Ravan grew up as someone well-versed in all spheres of knowledge. In fact, Ravan is frequently depicted with ten heads in folklore because it is believed that he needs ten heads to accommodate all his knowledge and wisdom. However, as a member of the rakshasa community, Ravan is territorial and believes that his identity and pride stems from his property and power. He values material things over good thoughts and that is his ultimate downfall.
With no respect or care for the rules and customs of society, Ravan abducts Sita, the wife of Ram and chooses to keep her in his kingdom. As he tells her:
Thou, beauteous Queen, with me shalt dwell
In halls that suit a princess well,
Thy former fellows shall forget
Nor think of women with regret,
No earthly joy thy soul shall miss,
And take its fill of heavenly bliss.
Of mortal Ráma think no more,
Whose terms of days will soon be o’er
Accept thy lover, nor refuse
The giant king who fondly woos.
O listen, nor reject in scorn
A heart by Káma’s arrows torn.
If thou refuse to hear my prayer,
Of grief and coming woe beware; (Valmiki 286)
He makes it clear that he wants her to forget about Ram and accept him as her lover. Ravan does not care that Sita is married to Ram because he does not give any value to the social custom of marriage. As Pattanaik puts it, for Ravan, “your wife is my wife” (“Business Sutra”).
On a similar note, he does not care for whether Sita might want to be his lover or not.
Such were the words the giant said,
And Sítá’s angry eyes were red.
She answered in that lonely place
The monarch of the giant race: (Valmiki, 286)
Seeing Sita’s anger and her red eyes does not dissuade Ravan from abducting her. For Ravan, might is right and anything he can obtain by force is his property. Consent, once again, is a socially constructed concept that he does not value as a rakshasa. He believes in the law of the jungle.
With his full knowledge yet characteristic lack of concern for social customs, Ravan provides a perfect character foil to the idealistic Ram.
Ram is the son of Dashratha and Kaushalya, husband of Sita and the king of Ayodhya. His kingdom, Ramrajya or the “Kingdom of Ram” is celebrated as the perfect kingdom that existed in the past. He is worshipped as the seventh avatar or incarnation of Vishnu and revered as Maryada Purushottam or the Ideal Follower of Rules . This is reflected in the story of his life, particularly in his sacrifice of his wife.
When his wife Sita is abducted, he fights a 13-day long battle to win her back. However, once he does, he knows that he cannot take her home to be his queen because of her soiled reputation.
But, lady, ’twas not love for thee
That led mine army o’er the sea.
‘Twas not for thee our blood was shed,
Or Lanká filled with giant dead.
No fond affection for my wife
Inspired me in the hour of strife.
I battled to avenge the cause
Of honour and insulted laws.
My love is fled, for on thy fame
Lies the dark blot of sin and shame;
And thou art hateful as the light
That flashes on the injured sight.
The world is all before thee: flee:
Go where thou wilt, but not with me.
How should my home receive again
A mistress soiled with deathless stain? (Valmiki, 498-499)
Despite his love for her and safe in the knowledge that she has been faithful to him, he knows that the legitimacy of any children she bears will always be in question and this questioning of their legitimacy will lead to political instability. Thus, his Dharmaas a king is in conflict with his Dharma as a husband. Knowing that he must place the needs of the many over the needs of one and fully aware of the fact that the law requires him to abandon his wife, he does so at great personal cost. He also makes it very clear that the war he fought was fought not to rescue Sita but to uphold the laws that Ravan had broken.
Ram’s sacrifice is made even more poignant by his status of Ekam Pati Vrata or “a man devoted to a single wife” in a society where polygamy is not only allowed but the norm, especially for kings . Ram’s loyalty to his wife coupled with his sacrifice of her for his kingly duties is the primary cause of his unhappiness as the king of Ayodhya. Due to his law-abiding nature and unfortunate circumstances, Ram does not experience happiness whether he is in the forest or the palace.
While Ram is clealy put into difficult situations where he must choose between two or more of his dharmas, the law is clear as to which choice he should make and he dutifully follows the law to uphold Dharma. Because of the idealistic nature of the society that he rules, he is never forced to choose between the law and his dharma.
The Ramayana is comparatively simple in its depiction of society but the Mahabharata challenges this utopian view and shows instances when the letter of the law and Dharma may not intertwine so perfectly and provides insight into what the different ways of dealing with that are through its characters.
The Mahabharata tells the story of a war fought between the five Pandavas and their 100 cousins, the Kauravas for the throne of Hastinapur. Towards the end of the Mahabharata, the death of Krishna marks the end of the Dvapara Yuga and the beginning of the Kali Yuga. The Mahabharata explores complex situations where the law and Dharma don’t align well with each other and expresses the different ways of dealing with those situations through two of its characters – Duryodhan and Krishna.
Duryodhan is the eldest of the Kauravas, the 100 sons of the blind king, Dhritarashtra and Queen Gandhari. As the first son of the incumbent king, Duryodhan considers himself to be the rightful heir to the throne but his control is threatened by the Pandavas and this tension between the Kauravas and the Pandavas is what leads to the Kurukshetra War.
Duryodhan is someone who never breaks the rules but is constantly violating Dharma, the principle. He is self-aware of this and prides himself on his ability to play the game of life and use the rules to his advantage.
In the Sadha Parva of the Mahabharata, Duryodhan invites the Pandavas for a gambling match and wins the match by deceit. Eventually Yushishthir, who is the primary player, is forced to bet his brothers, himself, and eventually their common wife, Draupadi. Once Duryodhan wins Draupadi, his actions towards her reflect his selfish nature-
“Duryodhana, hearing this, said,–‘O Dussasana… go thou thyself and forcibly bring hither the daughter of Yajnasena [Draupadi], Our enemies at present are dependent on our will. What can they do thee?’ Hearing the command of his brother, prince Dussasana rose with blood-red eyes, and entering the abode of those great warriors, spake these words unto the princess, ‘Come, come, O Krishna, princess of Panchala, thou hast been won by us . And O thou of eyes large as lotus leaves, come now and accept the Kurus for thy lords. Thou hast been won virtuously, come to the assembly.’ At these words, Draupadi, rising up in great affliction, rubbed her pale face with her hands, and distressed she ran to the place where the ladies of Dhritarashtra’s household were. At this, Dussasana roaring in anger, ran after her and seized the queen by her locks, so long and blue and wavy. Alas! those locks that had been sprinkled with water sanctified with mantras in the great Rajasuya sacrifice, were now forcibly seized by the son of Dhritarashtra disregarding the prowess of the Pandavas. And Dussasana dragging Krishna of long long locks unto the presence of the assembly–as if she were helpless though having powerful protectors–and pulling at her, made her tremble like the banana plant in a storm. And dragged by him, with body bent, she faintly cried–‘Wretch! it ill behoveth thee to take me before the assembly. My season hath come, and I am now clad in one piece of attire . But Dussasana dragging Draupadi forcibly by her black locks while she was praying piteously unto Krishna and Vishnu who were Narayana and Nara (on earth), said unto her–‘Whether thy season hath come or not, whether thou art attired in one piece of cloth or entirely naked, when thou hast been won at dice and made our slave, thou art to live amongst our serving-women as thou pleasest” (Vyasa).
Draupadi points out to Dushasan that it is not appropriate for him to forcibly drag her into an assembly of men because she is a woman from the royal family, menstruating, and not properly attired to be in company at that moment.
However, as Duryodhan explains it in the very next section:
Draupadi had been mentioned (by Suvala) and approved of as a stake by the Pandavas. For what reason then dost thou yet regard her as not won? Or, if thou thinkest that bringing her hither attired in a single piece of cloth, is an action of impropriety, listen to certain excellent reasons I will give. O son of the Kuru race, the gods have ordained only one husband for one woman. This Draupadi, however, hath many husbands. Therefore, certain it is that she is an unchaste woman. To bring her, therefore, into this assembly attired though she be in one piece of cloth–even to uncover her is not at all an act that may cause surprise. Whatever wealth the Pandavas had–she herself and these Pandavas themselves,–have all been justly won by the son of Suvala. O Dussasana, this Vikarna speaking words of (apparent) wisdom is but a boy. Take off the robes of the Pandavas as also the attire of Draupadi. Hearing these words the Pandavas, O Bharata, took of their upper garments and throwing them down sat in that assembly. Then Dussasana, O king, forcibly seizing Draupadi’s attire before the eyes of all, began to drag it off her person” (Vyasa Sadha Parva).
As Duryodhan explains, his behavior towards Draupadi is perfectly legal and that is his justification for his actions. Duryodhan is only concerned with the letter of the law and knows how to manipulate situations where following the law is in his best interest but he does not think twice about his actions and whether they are in accordance with the principle of Dharma.
This assembly is full of great men of the age like Guru Drona and Bhishma Pitamah who are supposed to be very learned. However, they never object to the obviously morally wrong incident taking place in front of their eyes because Duryodhan bases his justification in a legal argument and strictly legally speaking, he has done nothing wrong.
Ironically enough, when he is punished for these actions, his punishment comes in the form of the breaking of his thigh by Bhima in the battle of the clubs during the Kurukshetra war. As attacking below the navel is not allowed, Duryodhan gets his comeuppance in the form of an illegal, yet arguably moral action.
Duryodhan represents an extreme example of a character who does not care much for the principle behind the law yet follows the law in order to achieve his own goals. On the opposite end of this spectrum is the character of Krishna.
Krishna is widely worshipped as the eighth avatar or incarnation of Vishnu. He is the cousin of the Pandavas and as such, he participates in the Kurukshetra War as the charioteer of Arjun under the condition that he will not raise any weapons. Just like Ram, Krishna is an upholder of Dharma. However, unlike Ram, Krishna is put into situations where he must choose between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Krishna always chooses the latter.
This is particularly evident in the manner of the death of Guru Drona on the tenth day of war. Knowing that Drona is a great warrior and his death is essential for the victory of the Pandavas,
Kesava, endued with great intelligence and, devoted to their welfare, addressed Arjuna and said, ‘This foremost of all bowmen is incapable of being ever vanquished by force in battle, by the very gods with Vasava at their head. When, however, he lays aside his weapons, he becomes capable of being slain on the field even by human beings. Casting aside virtue, ye sons of Pandu, adopt now some contrivance for gaining the victory, so that Drona of the golden car may not slay us all in battle. Upon the fall of (his son) Aswatthaman he will cease to fight, I think. Let some man, therefore, tell him that Aswatthaman, hath been slain in battle.’ This advice, however, O kin was not approved by Kunti’s son, Dhananjaya. Others approved of it. But Yudhishthira accepted it with great difficulty (Vyasa DronaparvaSection 191).
This suggestion is against the law in multiple ways. Lying to one’s enemy for an unfair advantage, especially one’s teacher is against the law. So is harming an animal that does not pose a direct threat which they will have to do in order to put this plan into motion (Pattanaik “An Elephant Called Ashwathhaman”). However, what one must keep in mind is that Krishna, in making this suggestion was “devoted to [the Pandavas’] welfare.” His actions are not for selfish gain but the greater good and that makes them in accordance with the principle of Dharma, if not the letter of the law.
What should I do?
These four characters embody the extremities in the complex between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law (Dharma).
In this table, with Dharma on the y-axis and the letter of the law on the x-axis, Ram represents the ideal where following the law leads to a life in accordance with the principle of Dharma and Ravan represents the complete opposite—a life without law and Dharma. Conversely, Duryodhan represents an immoral, yet legal life while Krishna represents a moral life which requires illegality.
Thus, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata capture the entire complex of ethical and moral quagmires and teach us what the different ways of dealing with those are using certain characters and despite having some clear biases, these texts are not prescriptive. They are there to help one make an informed decision not to make the decision for one.
Having read or listened to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the reader/listener can choose to be idealistic and follow the law to uphold Dharma—Ram’s way. But when put into a position when that is not possible, one can take one of two stances—one can say that the letter of the law exists in service of the principle of Dharmaso it is okay to break the law to serve Dharma—Krishna’s way, or one can say that Dharma is a subjective concept and following the law is fairer because that way you know what is allowed and what is not while everyone’s idea of what is in accordance to Dharmacould be different—Duryodhan’s way. Alternatively, one can reject both the law and Dharmaas man-made concepts and claim that the fairest way is the way of mother nature so might is right—Ravan’s way.
While these stories do not prescribe one way of life as the best or assign punishments for not following any one of them, they do not treat these characters equally and there is a clear push towards growth in the direction of Ram or Krishna.Ram and Krishna, despite being two incarnations of the same God, are complete opposites. What unites them is that they hold Dharmaabove everything. Ram, belonging to a society where the law reflects Dharma, always follows the rules even at great personal cost and Krishna, belonging to a society where the law does not reflect Dharma, bends and breaks the rules to ensure that Dharmais upheld. For both of these characters, the overarching principle is supreme and everything else exists in the service of the other. This is what the Ramayanaand the Mahabharatatry to teach us, that the other is more important than the self.
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Pattanaik, Devdutt. Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata (p. 346). Penguin Books Ltd.
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“Definition of Itihas.” New Word Suggestion | Collins Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2017.
 Maryada translates to “code of conduct” and Purushottam translates to “the ideal man.”
 According to folk tradition, Ram’s father, Dashratha had 3 wives, Kaushalya, Kaikeyi and Sumitra while Ravan had two wives, Mandodri and Dhamyamalini in addition to a sizeable harem.
 Another name for Draupadi
 In this instance, she is talking about her period and the fact that she is not properly dressed to go in an assembly of men.