It is said about the Mahabharata that: yadihaasti tadanyatra yannehaasti na tat kvachit. This means that “what one find here you shall find elsewhere; what you do not find here does not exist.”
Mahabharata discusses issues related to governance and strategy, and yet is deeply concerned about dharma, or righteousness. After all the Bhagavad Gita is entirely a discourse on Dharma with the battlefield as the backdrop. It is the simultaneous existence of realpolitk and the quest for Dharma that makes the Mahabharata a rich and interesting source of Indian political philosophy. Furthermore, fundamental questions that are constantly and implicitly raised are: what is strategy? And can good strategies yield the results desired? Or are strategies mere illusions – a figment of our imagination and false belief that humans can control the events that are yet to unfold?
A quick look at the major events in the Mahabharata will reveal that the importance of strategy in deciding the future course of events and outcomes may not be as much as it is perhaps believed to be. Shakuni, a brilliant strategist, crafted really good plans which invariably fail. Interestingly, all his strategies enjoyed short term success…be it poisoning Bheem when he was young, or the Laakshagraha conspiracy (lac house) – which led to Duryodhana becoming the new Yuvaraj – and the famous dice game which turned the Pandavas into wandering nomads, but all these strategies had adverse long term effects…
Bheem became stronger after he was poisoned courtesy the Sudharas he was given by the Nagas who lived in the depths of the Ganges, in which he was thrown, upon being poisoned. The Laakshagraha conspiracy did lead to Duryodhana becoming the new Yuvraj, but the Pandavas gained an ally in the form of Drupada, king of Panchala, whose daughter Draupadi was given to the Pandavas. The return of the Pandavas did lead to partition of the Kuru nation, but resulted in the establishment of Indraprastha which became their seat of power. The dice game turned the Pandavas into paupers, but it was during this period that Arjuna acquired divyastras (what we would today call WMDs). There are many other incidents in the epic like this such as the drama around Subhadra’s marriage to Arjuna, Duryodhana’s choice of the Narayani army over Krishna, Bheeshma’s decision to not allow Karna to fight under his command (an exogenous factor which Duryodhana could not control) etc.
A closer look at the epic reveals that there were many events, some big some small and some perhaps unnoticed that led to the war. It is generally stated that the seeds of the war were planted the day Bheeshma took his vow/pratignya to facilitate the marriage between his father Shantanu and Satyavati. But critiques say this with the benefit of hind sight. Bheeshma, in his wildest imagination would not have foreseen what ultimately happened in Kurukshetra, three generations later. K.M. Munshi’s account of Drona is very interesting. He depicts Drona has a power hungry Brahmin who played his cards carefully to first get half of Panchala and then lay his eyes on Hastinapur itself. In the initial stages he supported Yudhisthira because the Pandavas were the ones who had the capability to defeat Dhrupada of Panchala and Yudhisthira was the heir apparent. But once he became the Yuvraj Drona soon found out that Yudhisthira was righteous to the point where he did not give any favors or concessions even to his teacher, Drona. It is at this point Munshi believes he switches his allegiance to Duryodhana and advices his son, Ashwathama to forge friendship with Duryodhana. Karna, in spite of being qualified, always fostered an inadequacy complex, and inferiority complex, which was utilized by Duryodhana; and Karna himself allowed that as he felt that would eventually let him prove his metal by vanquishing Arjuna, thereby, feeling a sense of achievement. Interestingly he was known to be a person who understood dharma. It shows that the personal feeling of inadequacy was so strong in him, that he, knowingly violated dharma. K.M. Munshi’s seven books account various such incidences where each character had his/her own calculations based on which they acted. Therefore it is said that it is difficult to control the course of events despite the best strategies as strategists never truly have complete information.
As we can see, what seemed to be fool proof strategies of Shakuni, Duryodhana and others eventually did not give them the results that they expected, while there were others who got what they wanted, sometimes by planning and sometimes by accident [not discussed in this post]. This happens today as well. Our own lives are good examples. We do all the planning we can to achieve a goal but often, something completely different ends up happening. Hence the question is posed…is strategy and planning futile efforts to try and control outcomes? This urges one to ponder on the question: Though the Mahabharata may teach us the spirit of critiquing and questioning, does it suggest that finally accepting the world as it is over the heavens the highest achievement of humanity? I believe this is a debatable question/statement and is the starting point for a debate on the nature and place of strategy and the Indian political philosophy/psychology.
This is where I believe that the message of the Gita best addresses this poignant dilemma. All that one can do is executing ones’ actions without worrying about the results…for once; this sounds like a strategy rather than esoteric metaphysics.
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