Why the Mahabharata Can Be Read As an Indictment of War

18 October 2017

In her latest book, Political Violence in Ancient India, the historian Upinder Singh traces the subject of “violence” and how it came to be viewed and implemented in ancient India. Singh looks closely at the manner in which kings such as Ashoka and Chandragupta Maurya viewed political violence, as well as the ideas espoused on the subject in ancient texts such as the Arthashatra, and the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. She discusses the various approaches to understanding the concepts of “dharma” and “ahimsa,” and why these must be viewed in the specific context of ancient Indian history. In her introduction to the book, Singh notes that “rather than essentializing, simplifying and comparing ‘Indian’ and ‘western’ perspectives,” she argues that “the long and intense intellectual engagement with the problem of political violence in ancient India demands attention and needs to be understood in all its diversity and nuances … as it unfolded in its changing historical contexts.”

In the following extract from the book, Singh discusses how the postwar narrative of the Mahabharata allows the text to be read as an argument against war.

In a sense, the outcome of the Mahabharata war flies in the face of realism. We are told that the Kaurava forces outnumber those of the Pandavas. Yudhishthira has seven armies, Duryodhana has eleven. Nevertheless the Pandavas are invincible because of the sheer presence of Krishna and Arjuna. At the end of the eighteen-day war, thousands have been killed on both sides. There are seven survivors on the Pandava side—the five brothers, Krishna, and Satyaki. Only three warriors survive in the Kaurava camp—Ashvatthama, Kripa, and Kritavarma.

Upinder Singh Upinder Singh is a professor in the department of history at the University of Delhi.

Keywords: violence war Mahabharata ancient india Upinder Singh