The Complex Moral Outlook of Krsna (Krishna) of Mahabharata

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The Mahabharata, an Indian epic poem, describes a legendary war between two sides of a royal family. The epic’s plot involves numerous moral dilemmas that have intrigued and perplexed scholars of Indian literature. Many of these dilemmas revolve around a character named krishna. Krishna is a divine incarnation and a self-proclaimed upholder of dharma, a system of social and religious duties central to Hindu ethics. Yet, during the war, krishna repeatedly encourages his allies to use tactics that violate Dharma. This article attempts to make sense of krishna’s actions by analyzing them in terms of categories from Western moral philosophy. The Mahabharata revolves around the legendary Bharata war, a war between two sides of a royal family. These two sides are commonly called the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The Pandavas and the Kauravas are the sons of the princes Pandu and Dhrtarastra, respectively. Dhrtarastra is blind, and his blindness makes him ineligible for the throne. After Pandu becomes king, he accidentally wounds a sage. The sage curses Pandu to die if he engages in sexual activity. Pandu goes into exile with his wives Kunti and Madri, and Dhrtarastra rules despite his blindness. Kunti and Madri bear sons through divine intervention. The gods Indra, Vayu, and Dharma father Kunti’s sons, Arjuna, Bhima, and Yudhisthira respectively. The Asvins, divine twins, father Madri’s sons, Nakula and Sahadeva. Meanwhile, Dhrtarastra fathers the Kauravas, the eldest of whom is named Duryodhana. The Kauravas are incarnate demons.

The Mahabharata

Duryodhana wants the throne for himself. However, when the Pandavas return from exile, Dhrtarastra makes Yudhisthira the crown prince. As one might imagine, this creates tension between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. After a failed assassination attempt, a failed partition of the kingdom, and a rather extreme gambling match that results in exile for the Pandavas, the two sides of the family prepare for war. Friends and relatives must take sides in the conflict. Thus, the Pandavas find themselves facing loved ones on the battlefield. the Pandavas “win” the war, but at a horrible cost. Only the Pandavas and a few others survive. Moreover, the Pandavas find themselves resorting to dishonourable tactics in order to win.

Consequentialism is one approach to ethics. For consequentialists, the sole aim of morality is to produce good consequences. More specifically, consequentialists think that the sole aim of morality is to maximize intrinsic goods. Consequentialists disagree about what counts as an intrinsic good. According to one kind of consequentialism, hedonistic utilitarianism, pleasure is the only intrinsic good. Other consequentialists believe that pleasure is not the only intrinsic good. In fact, some consequentialists regard certain consequences as good apart from their impact on people’s welfare. Besides disagreeing about what counts as an intrinsic good, consequentialists disagree about the use of rules. According to act-consequentialism, the right action is whatever action maximizes intrinsic goods. According to rule-consequentialism, right actions are actions that obey certain rules, where the rules have been chosen based on their tendency to maximize intrinsic goods. However, despite their disagreements, consequentialists agree that the point of morality is to maximize intrinsic goods.

Mahabharatadalli Dharma - The Concept of Religion in The Mahabharta (An Old and Rare Book in Kannada)

In contrast, according to deontological ethics, morality is a matter of adhering to duties. For a deontologist, if an action violates a duty, then the action is wrong—even if the action produces intrinsic goods. A deontologist need not believe that duties require no justification. In fact, some deontologists provide sophisticated justifications for duties. For example, Immanuel Kant attempts to derive duties from the very presuppositions that agents make when choosing their actions. Moreover, some deontologists think that, in extreme situations, the need to avoid bad consequences can override duties. However, to qualify as a deontologist, one must hold that an agent has moral duties that are not justified in terms of their consequences.

What does all this have to do with the Mahabharata? In the Mahabharat, the concept of dharma figures prominently. Dharma is a “metaphysically based system of laws, duties, rites and obligations incumbent upon a Hindu according to his class and stage of life” (Dimmitt and Buitenen, 1978, p. 353). The words “order”, “justice”, “morality”, “righteousness”, “virtue”, “custom”, and “ritual” each indicate a part of its meaning. Buitenen (1973) translates dharma as “Law” in his translation of the Mahabharata. Dharma’s negative counterpart is adharma, “non-dharma”, which can be roughly defined as violation of dharma.

Shri Krishna Arjuna Samvad- Bhagvad Gita (An Old and Rare Book)

In the Bhagavad-Gita, Arjuna faces a dilemma. It is the beginning of the Bharata war. Looking across the battlefield, Arjuna sees his old friends and relatives in the opposing ranks. As he reflects on the oncoming war, he fears that it will produce bad consequences—death, destruction, social collapse, and finally hell for all those involved. However, Arjuna is a warrior, so his dharma includes the duty to fight. At face value, this looks like a choice between consequentialism and deontology: on one hand, Arjuna can try to minimize bad consequences by not fighting; on the other hand, he can adhere to his duty and fight, regardless of the consequences. In response to Arjuna’s dilemma, krishna urges Arjuna to fight without anxiety about the consequences. Thus, as a first guess, we might say that krishna rejects consequentialism and accepts “a sort of Kantian ethics of duty”), a deontological ethics.

However, this first guess does not work. Throughout the war, the Pandavas repeatedly pursue victory through adharmic means. In many cases, krishna is responsible for the Pandavas’ decisions to violate dharma. Moreover, at the end of the war, voices from heaven confirm that the Pandavas have killed Bhisma, Karna, and others by adharmic means. Thus, krishna clearly believes that adharmic actions can be justified by their good consequences. Therefore, he does not appear to be a deontologist. On the contrary, his Defense of the Pandavas’ adharmic behaviour seems clearly consequentialist.

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At the same time, krishna’s primary goal is apparently to restore dharmic behaviour. In the Gita, krishna says that he comes to earth “whenever the law of righteousness [i.e. dharma] withers away and lawlessness [i.e. adharma] arises”. Vishnu says the same thing in another part of the epic: “Whenever, sage, the Law languishes and unlaw rears up, I create myself”. (Recall that krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu.) If krishna’s mission is to restore dharmic behaviour, then why does he encourage adharmic behavior? Here is one possible answer: perhaps krishna is a “threshold” deontologist. That is, perhaps he is a deontologist who believes that, in extreme cases, the need to avoid bad consequences can override duties. Suppose that krishna is a threshold deontologist. Further, suppose that horrible consequences will ensue if the Pandavas lose the war. In that case, krishna can violate dharma in order to help the Pandavas win the war.

Here is another possible answer: perhaps krishna values dharmic behavior merely as a meansto good consequences. According to the Mahabharata, the rules of dharma are designed to produce good consequences: “Dharma is created for the wellbeing of all creation. All that is free from harm to any created being is certainly Dharma”. Thus, dharmic behaviour tends to produce good consequences. In that case, perhaps krishna has come to earth to restore dharmic behavior, but only because dharmic behaviour is a means to good consequences. If so, then nothing prevents krishna from acting adharmically whenever doing so will produce good consequences.

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Both of these proposals have something to be said for them. In fact, perhaps both of these proposals are true of krishna at different times. One cannot rule out this possibility. The Mahabharata is an epic, not a modern philosophical treatise, and krishna’s moral viewpoint may not be completely consistent throughout. However, the text of the Mahabharata suggests another possibility. This possibility makes krishna a consistent consequentialist, but without reducing dharmic behaviour to a mere means.

According to a widespread Hindu tradition, dharma is one of the purusarthas, or goals of man. The other purusarthas  are kama, sensual pleasure, and artha, worldly prosperity. Here dharma means not the set of rules called dharma but, rather, adherence to those rules: “As an aim in life, rather than as a rule of conduct, dharma refers to ‘being established in dharma. Thus, according to this tradition, dharmic behaviour is one of life’s goals. This tradition appears in the Mahabharata. Moreover, the Mahabharata repeatedly says that dharma is more valuable than kama and artha. Thus, at least within the epic, dharmic behaviour seems to be the most valuable of earthly goals. This implies that dharmic behaviour is an intrinsic good. If dharmic behaviour were good only as a means to other goods, then it would not be one of life’s goals; rather, it would be only a means to those goals. But in the Mahabharata, dharmic behaviour is one of life’s goals. Tus, dharmic behaviour is not a purely instrumental good. Is dharmic behaviour some other kind of purely extrinsic good? That is, does dharmic behaviour have value only in relation to other things? Tis strikes me as unlikely, given the Mahabharata’s claim that dharmic behaviour is the most valuable of earthly goals. 

The Killing of Jaidrath and Dronacharya - Episodes from the Mahabharata (DVD)

The Mahabharata’s characters also seem to view dharmic behaviour as an intrinsic good. In many cases, they go out of their way to adhere to the letter of dharma. In one passage, the Pandavas trick Drona, a warrior for the Kauravas, into thinking that his son Asvatthaman is dead. At krishna’s suggestion, they kill an elephant named Asvatthamanand then tell Drona, “Aswatthaman hath been slain”. As a result, Drona withdraws from the war to grieve. Now, whether or not the Pandavas had killed the elephant, the outcome would have been the same: Drona would have been tricked into thinking that Asvatthaman was dead. However, truthfulness is a supreme norm in Hindu thought. By killing the elephant, the Pandavas ensure that they are technically speaking the truth when they say, “Aswatthaman hath been slain.”

Why do Krishna and the Pandavas go out of their way to qualify as “truthful” here? Afterall, their “truthfulness” has no obvious good consequence. A rule-consequentialist might argue as follows: “A rule that requires truthfulness at all times will tend to produce good consequences. Tus, one should adhere to that rule, even when it is does not appear to have good consequences.” Tus, perhaps krishna and the Pandavas are rule-consequentialists: perhaps they are always truthful, but only as a means to producing good consequences.  If so, then they view truthfulness as a purely instrumental good. However, its implausible that krishna and the Pandavas view truthfulness as a purely instrumental good. As we have seen, the Mahabharata appears to describe dharmic behaviour as an intrinsic good. Thus, it seems more likely to me that krishna and the Pandavas regard the dharmic behaviour of truthfulness as an intrinsic good. If they do, then it makes sense for them to go out of their way to qualify as truthful, even when truthfulness has no obvious good consequence apart from truthfulness itself.

Arjuna (Saga of a Pandava Warrior-Prince)

Let us consider another example. Arjuna vows to kill anyone who slights his bow. Yudhisthira slights Arjuna’s bow. Naturally, Arjuna does not want to kill his brother. So instead of killing Yudhisthira, Arjuna insults him, because insulting one’s older brother isdisrespectful enough to be “like” killing him. Because insulting Yudhisthira is in some sense equivalent to killing him, Arjuna is not technically breaking his vow. Why does Arjuna go to such lengths to avoid breaking his vow? Granted, Arjuna refrains from killing Yudhisthira in pursuit of a good consequence, the preservation of Yudhisthira’s life. But Arjuna could have achieved that consequence without insulting Yudhisthira, by simply refraining from killing him. By insulting Yudhisthira, Arjuna suggests that he views the dharmic act of keeping his vow as an intrinsic good. Again, one could argue that Arjuna is simply being a rule-consequentialist. After all, the rule “Always keep your promises” tends to produce good consequences. Perhaps that is the only reason why Arjuna goes to such lengths to avoid breaking his vow. If so, then Arjuna sees the act of keeping his vow as a purely instrumental good. Again, however, the Mahabharata elsewhere seems to describe dharmic behaviours as an intrinsic good.

One might object that dharmic behaviour cannot be an intrinsic good in the Mahabharata. As we have seen, dharma exists to promote wellbeing: “Dharma is created for the wellbeing of all creation. All that is free from harm to any created being is certainly Dharma”. In that case, isn’t dharmic behaviour good only as a means to wellbeing? And if it is good only as a means to wellbeing, then isn’t it only an extrinsic good, not an intrinsic good? There is a simple answer to this objection. As we have seen, something can be both an extrinsic good and an intrinsic good. Thus, dharmic behaviour can be both an extrinsic good—specifically, a means to wellbeing—and an intrinsic good.

Life Is As Is - Teachings From The Mahabharata

As we have seen, the Mahabharata’s characters seem to regard dharmic behaviour as intrinsically good. If dharmic behaviour is intrinsically good, then it is something that a consequentialist would want to maximize. In that case, a consequentialist might violate dharma if doing so would maximize the dharmic behaviour of others. After all, a consequentialist might sacrifice his own welfare to maximize others’ welfare. In fact, the upright character Bhisma does precisely that, renouncing sexual activity so that his father can marry a fisher-girl. Likewise, if a consequentialist believes that dharmic behaviour is intrinsically good, then he might sacrifice his own dharmic behaviour in order to maximize the dharmic behaviour of others. krishna is a “dharma-consequentialist”, a consequentialist who sees dharmic behaviour as intrinsically good.

Interpreting krishna as a dharma -consequentialist seems to give us everything we want. If the Pandavas lose the war, then adharma will triumph in the world. Tus, as a consequentialist who sees dharmic behaviour as intrinsically good, krishna helps the Pandavas to win the war, even by means of adharmic behaviour. krishna violates dharma for the sake of dharma itself. Thus, his adharmic actions do not conflict with the Mahabharata’s claim that dharma is supremely valuable. Nor do they conflict with his claim that his primary goal is to restore dharmic behaviour. But If krishna and the Pandavas are violating dharma for the sake of intrinsic goods, then are they really violating dharma? Perhaps krishna and the Pandavas never actually violate dharma. Perhaps dharma ultimately commands that an agent do whatever will maximize intrinsic goods. In other words, perhaps the dharmic action is whatever action will maximize intrinsic goods. If so, krishna and the Pandavas do not violate dharma during the war.

The Pandava Princes

An action is not dharmic simply in virtue of maximizing intrinsic goods. By winning the war by any means necessary, krishna and the Pandavas do the right thing from a consequentialist perspective, but they are not thereby doing the dharmic thing. What is the relationship between dharmas and Dharma? The concept of dharma as acosmic principle seems to have evolved from the early Indian concept of ‘rita’. Rita is the cosmic order. But it has amoral aspect, for people can deviate from the cosmic order: the wicked man does not follow the path of rita. Likewise, in the Mahabharata, dharma seems to be a principle not only of morality but also of cosmic order. As dharma declines, the natural world deteriorates: “The cows will yield little milk, and the trees, teeming with crows, will yield few flowers and fruits.” Thus, it appears that Dharma is a principle of cosmic order, and that the dharmas are the different rules that different people must follow in order to be in harmony with Dharma. As one scholar puts it, “all ordinary human dharma is only an aspect of the universal dharma, and is justified not in itself, but only in the function of the universal dharma.” As another scholar puts it, to violate one’s own dharma is “to be out of step with the universe.”

Now we can explain exactly why krishna authorizes the Pandavas’ adharmic actions. When krishna comes to earth, the universe is out of order: demons have incarnated themselves as the Kauravas. Now we can explain exactly why krishna authorizes the Pandavas’ adharmic actions. When krishna comes to earth, the universe is out of order: demons have incarnated themselves as the Kauravas. To restore the cosmic order—Dharma—the Pandavas must win the war, exterminating the demonic incarnations. Tus, krishna encourages the Pandavas to violate dharmas when doing so will help them to win the war. By violating dharmas, the Pandavas deviate from the cosmic order themselves, but they help to preserve order in the universe at large.

To grasp this point more clearly, we can use the metaphor of a dance routine. The cosmic order is a huge, coordinated dance routine with many different assigned roles. Demons have started to run amok on the dance floor, interfering with the dance. To save the dance routine from being completely ruined, the Pandavas must stop the demons. But to stop the demons, they must perform actions (e.g. running after the demons) that deviate from their choreography within the dance routine. From a consequentialist perspective, that is exactly the right thing to do: if the cosmic order is intrinsically good, then one should sacrifice one’s own participation in the cosmic order in order to save the cosmic order.

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The krishna of the Mahabharata holds a complex moral outlook. He urges the Pandavas to violate dharma, to deviate from the cosmic order. But for krishna, conformity to the cosmic order, conformity to dharma, is intrinsically good. He urges the Pandavas to violate dharma only because their adharmic actions will help to restore dharmic behavior in the universe at large. In short, krishna is a consequentialist, but he holds a peculiar form of consequentialism in which dharmic behaviour itself is intrinsically good. This dharma -consequentialism probably will not find many adherents in the philosophy departments of Western universities. The majority of Western philosophers are neither Hindus nor Indians. Hence, the majority of Western philosophers do not believe in the principle of cosmic order called dharma. Nonetheless, the dharma-consequentialism found in the Mahabharata is a coherent moral theory and represents an alternative to the kinds of consequentialism known in the West.

References and Further Readings

Alexander, L., & Moore, M., 2007. Deontological Ethics. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. 

Ganguli, K.M., trans., 1883-1896a. The Mahabharata, Book 7: Drona Parva: Drona-vadha Parva: Section CXCI.

The Mahabharata, Book 9: Shalya Parva: Section 61. [online] Sacred-texts. 

Hooker, B., 2008. Rule Consequentialism. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. 

Hursthouse, R., 2007. Virtue Ethics. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

Sinnott-Armstrong, W., 2003. Consequentialism. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

Krishan, Y., 1992. ‘The Meaning of the Purusarthas in the Mahabharata.’ In B. Matilal, ed. Moral Dilemmas in the Mahabharata. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, pp. 53-68

Buitenen, J.A.B. van, ed. and trans., 1973. ‘The Mahabharata’. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dimmitt, C., & Buitenen, J.A.B. van, eds. and trans., 1978. ‘Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas’. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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