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’’ (warrior code of conduct) to ‘’dharma Kshatriya’’ (warrior fighting for justice) 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.

Dishonorable Act on Day 10 - Bheeshma’s Slaying

Bheeshma was effectively an Invincible Hero who could not be killed due to his boon of being able to choose when he can die. As a Lawful Neutral, he didn’t go all out to defeat the Pandavas and win the war, but he didn’t let the Kauravas be defeated either. His “strategy” was to turn this conflict into a Forever War that no side could win - until both sides grew weary and sat down to negotiate. In order to further this strategy of intentional impasse, he imposed complex Rules of Engagement that in many cases allowed for a warrior to be defeated without having to be killed note . However, an impasse is still an impediment to total victory. Krishna understands this and devises a “clever plan” to completely neutralize Bheeshma - via Loophole Abuse.

Arjuna comes out on Day 10, hiding behind Shikhandi who was the princess Amba in a previous life. Because he used to be a woman, Shikhandi himself is effectively invulnerable as Bheeshma forbids anyone from attacking him. Using Shikhandi as cover, Arjuna riddles Bheeshma with arrows, pinning him to the ground and immobilized for the rest of the battle. While this Act was roundly derided as a cowardly act, the tactic used is a viable tactic in dissimilar unconventional warfare today.

What Arjuna did was to use a tactic routinely used by insurgents today - launch a devastating attack but disperse among a friendly population before the enemy can retaliate. An enemy acting with scruples will not launch an indiscriminate reprisal attack on the population that is sheltering the insurgents because doing so would upend the political aim they are trying to achieve via warfare. A Warrior who sees warfare as a great challenge against a worthy opponent will also not launch this kind of reprisal attack as that would be dishonorable. Only an Unscrupulous Hero, Well-Intentioned Extremist or an outright villain would launch a reprisal, caring not for collateral damage. The Kauravas warriors aren’t at that mindset yet, which is why Arjuna’s tactic succeeds.

The “Unforgivable” Act on Day 13 - The Ganging Up on Abhimanyu

Dishonorable Act on Day 14 - Obscuring the Setting Sun

Yudhisthira’s “Unpardonable” lie on Day 15

Bheema Desecrating a Corpse on Day 16

Dishonorable Act on Day 17 - Shooting “defenseless” Karna

Bheema’s Low Blow on Day 18

Dronacharya - a Soldier among Warriors

Krishna the War Strategist

Commando Raid and a Lesson In Brinkmanship