image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Yudhistira speaks against war in the Mahabharata

In the Mahabharata of ancient India, the figurative blindness of Dhritarastra (discussed in this previous post) and his unwillingness to confront the ever more-aggressive actions of his sons Duryodhana and  Dushashana eventually cause the blind king to sit passively by and allow those princes to trick their cousins the Pandavas (the five illustrious sons of Pandu) out of their rightful kingdoms, steal all their possessions including their clothes, insult and humiliate their beautiful and virtuous wife Draupadi, and banish them to the wilderness.

At the end of their term of exile, the five Pandavas -- led by the eldest of the five, the spiritual and learned Yudhistira -- begin to gather together their allies, including not only many powerful kings who are shocked at the behavior of Duryodhana and his gang, but also including on the side of the Pandavas the god Krishna.

Alarmed at the approach of the five sons of Pandu, and hoping to buy more time to prepare his forces to meet them in battle, Duryodhana sends the learned sage Sanjaya (who personally is sympathetic to the cause of the Pandavas) to advise them against attacking, saying that they should not enter into war just to gain wealth or kingdoms (ironic, of course, because it is Duryodhana and his friends who are seizing the possessions of others, and not the Pandavas).

Sanjaya delivers his message to the five sons of Pandu. Yudhistira listens carefully and allows Sanjaya to speak everything he has to say. Then Yudhistira says (in Book 5 and section 26):

What words from me, O Sanjaya, hast thou heard, indicative of war, that thou apprehends  war? O sire, peace is preferable to war. [. . .] Why should a man ever go to war? Who is so cursed by the gods that he would select war?

Yudhistira then requests that Sanjaya go back to Duryodhana and suggest that he give back what he has taken by fraud.

Sanjaya then goes further and suggests that Yudhistira is well learned in the Vedas and in all the ways of righteousness, and argues that even if what has been stolen is not returned, Yudhistira and his brothers should not try to take it back.

At this point, Yudhistira turns to Krishna and refers the matter to him. Yudhistira indicates that whatever the Lord Krishna says on this subject, he will happily obey.

"I never disregard what Krishna sayeth," Yudhistira says (translations are from the public-domain translation available on the web here, from Kisari Mohan Ganguli, published between 1883 and 1896).

Krishna speaks against war in the Mahabharata

The Lord Krishna then makes his proclamation on the matter (in Book 5 and section 29). He begins by saying that he desires the good of both sides -- the sons of Pandu and the sons of Dhritarastra (also known as the Kurus) -- and that those who sent Sanjaya should demand nothing less than peace:

I desire, O Sanjaya, that the sons of Pandu may not be ruined; that they may prosper, and attain their wishes. Similarly, I pray for the prosperity of king Dhritarastra whose sons are many. For evermore, O Sanjaya, my desire hath been that I should tell them nothing else than that peace would be acceptable to king Dhritarastra. I also deem it proper for the sons of Pandu. A peaceful disposition of an exceedingly rare character hath been displayed by Pandu's son in this matter.

However, Krishna goes on to say that it is right to use force to stop plunderers, robbers, and those who follow their greed to seize what lawfully belongs to others:

A bad king, however, would not understand this. Growing strong, and inhuman, and becoming a mark for destiny's wrath, he would cast covetous eye on the riches of others. Then comes war, for which purpose came into being weapons, and armor, and bows. Indra invented these contrivances, for putting plunderers to death. Religious merit is acquired by putting robbers to death. 

Please note here a subtle but important point which is definitely stated in the text. Krishna is not condoning war -- he is condoning the stopping of robbers and plunderers. He is not saying it is good for kings to go out and seize things with wars -- he explicitly states that when kings do so, they become no different from robbers and plunderers. At that point they must be rightfully stopped.

Krishna goes on to explain that Sanjaya was present when the sons of Dhritarastra took everything from the sons of Pandu, and humiliated Draupadi. Krishna condemns Dhritarastra for remaining passive instead of restraining the violent and detestable behavior of his sons -- and then he points out that Sanjaya, who is a learned and respected sage, also stood by without saying anything while the sons of Dhritarastra acted as plunderers and robbers and worse.

Krishna thus assigns blame not only to the overbearing and rapacious sons of Dhritarastra, but to those who stood by and said nothing as Duryodhana and Dushashana and their cronies courted disaster by so blatantly and provocatively overstepping the bounds of law and morality:

Vidura alone spoke words of opposition, from a sense of duty -- words conceived in righteousness addressed to that man, Duryodhana, of little sense. Thou didst not, O Sanjaya, then say what law and morality were, but now thou comest to instruct the son of Pandu!

Nevertheless, Krishna says that the sons of Pandu are still waiting, and are as willing to serve Dhritarastra, as his nephews, restored to their proper places, as they are ready to fight. "Let king Dhritarastra now do what may be proper for him to do," Lord Krishna concludes, and then urges Sanjaya to take all that has been said and repeat it faithfully and accurately to the king.

Achilles speaks against war in the Iliad

Interestingly enough, there is a scene at the very start of the Iliad in which an overbearing king, this time Agamemnon who is the leader of all the Argive forces in the campaign against Troy, by pride seizes what does not belong to him. This episode comes about after he is forced to release the daughter of the priest of Apollo, in an incident discussed in the previous post.

Since Agamemnon has to give the daughter of Chryses back (in order to avert the arrows of Apollo that are laying waste to all of the assembled Greek forces), he decides to seize the maiden who has been given to Achilles, so that Agamemnon won't lose face (Achilles being by far the most powerful warrior among the Achaeans, even though they are bound by a treaty to follow Agamemnon).

Of course, it should be stated clearly here that using this episode from the Iliad as an example does not at all mean that I condone the taking of captives in war or the awarding of the maidens that have been captured to the various warriors, as is described in this opening scene from the Iliad. 

However, it is also true that I believe the entire Iliad is based upon a celestial metaphor from start to finish, and that it can be conclusively demonstrated, with abundant evidence, that the Greeks represent the sun going through upper half of the annual cycle of the year, while the Trojans represent the months of the lower half of the year -- and that in fact the exact same thing can be demonstrated for the conflict in the Mahabharata (in which the Pandus represent the upper half of the year and the Kurus the lower months).

Ultimately, I believe that these ancient sacred texts are using inspired metaphors in order to convey spiritual truths which apply equally to every single man and woman who finds himself or herself sojourning between the two horizons of this material realm while incarnate in a physical human form.

Nevertheless, just as the text of the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahabharata takes the opportunity to make clear the hideousness -- and avoidability -- of war itself, in the words of Yudhistira and then of the Lord Krishna, the Iliad also presents us with a speech by Achilles in which he laments that he along with the other warriors has ever had to follow Agamemnon into battle (part of a pact they all made long before, involving a pledge to defend whoever was fortunate enough to win the beautiful Helen as his wife).

Disgusted with Agamemnon, Achilles rages:

Shameless --
armored in shamelessness -- always shrewd with greed!
how could any Argive soldier obey your orders,
freely and gladly sailing for you
or fight your enemies, full force? Not I, no.
It wasn't Trojan spearmen who brought me here to fight.
The Trojans never did me damage, not in the least,
they never stole my cattle or my horses, never
in Phtia where the rich soil breeds strong men
did they lay waste my crops. How could they?
Look at the endless miles that lie between us . . .
shadowy mountain ranges, seas that surge and thunder.
No, you colossal, shameless -- we all followed you,
to please you, to fight for you, to win your honor
back from the Trojans -- Menelaus and you, you dog-face!
What do you care? Nothing. You don't look right or left.
[. . .]
No more now--
back I go to Phthia. Better that way by far,
to journey home in the beaked ships of war.
I have no mind to linger here disgraced,
brimming your cup and piling up your plunder. 

Iliad I. 175- 202. Translation by Professor Robert Fagles.


These ancient epics graphically portray the destructiveness and ruin of war. They condemn greed and unrighteousness. And they feature extended passages in which respected warriors, sages, and even gods and goddesses speak out about the hideousness of war.

In the Mahabharata, Krishna makes very clear that the plundering and rapacity of the Kurus will bring about their own total destruction if left unchecked -- and that he blames not only those who are most actively and aggressively and arrogantly crossing over the boundaries of righteousness, but also those who know better and who stand by passively and silently without condemning it or trying to stop it.

Those who are calling for war today should consider very carefully which side is actually acting as the Kurus and which as the Pandavas -- who is doing the plundering and the violation of boundaries, and who is calling for such violations to stop?

And I also believe that everyone alive in the world today has a responsibility to consider very carefully what Lord Krishna says to Sanjaya, about his own culpability as one who knows the order of the universe and who yet stood by silently as the sons of Dhritarastra flaunted the proper respect for other human beings and invited war and ultimately terrible destruction.

Afterword --

Edwin Starr speaks against war in 1970: