Analysis / Mahabharata

The Kurukshetra War - an examination of what happens when Warriors are forced to become Soldiers

Throughout this epic, the one thing that came up time and time again was the concept of ‘’kshatriya dharma’’ or code of the warriors. The princes were all considered warriors, and it was a matter of honor for them if they adhered to this code. Wars were intermittently fought, but more often these wars were actually duels between princes, with the victors being awarded the losers’ territory or tribute. However, losing a duel and having your kingdom conquered wasn’t considered to be a dishonor - losing to a better warrior while still adhering to the code and putting up a decent fight was still considered honorable. Therefore wars never ended with a great deal of devastation and misfortune.

Until Kurukshetra.

That war also started out just like any other typical Kshatriyas war. There were intricate Rules of Engagement about who to duel, when to duel, how to duel, barring warriors from ganging up on a lone enemy, halting warfare at sundown etc. These rules were laid down by Bheeshma, who despite fighting for the Kauravas was actually fighting as a Lawful Neutral - inflicting only sufficient damage so as to keep the conflict stalemated. However, after he is taken down on day ten, the conflict ‘’changes’’.

The seeds for this change was actually laid before formal commencement of battle by Krishna, when Arjuna was hesitant about fighting his own kin and even his own guru Dronacharya (more on him later). Krishna flipped the concept of ‘’Kshatriya dharma’’ to ‘’dharma Kshatriya’’ and said that this wasn’t just an ordinary warrior duel, but a war over ideology. Arjuna had to fight not just for control of a kingdom, but for virtue to prevail over evil. He was therefore turning Arjuna into a ‘’soldier with a mission’’. This meant that if the Warrior code was preventing virtue from triumphing over sin, it lost precedence to the greater good of vanquishing that evil foe. He was teaching Arjuna that The End Justifies The Means as long as that ‘’end’’ is noble. This is the type of thinking we expect from soldiers today.

Then there were all the so called “underhanded and dishonorable” tactics both sides used, but would be perfectly acceptable in modern day conflicts.