Vol 25 No 2 (2009)

Dharma in the Mahabharata as a response to Ecological Crises: A speculation

Kamesh Ramakrishna Aiyer
Published February 24, 2009


Without doing violence to Vyaasa, the Mahabharata (Vyaasa 3102 B.C.E.) can be properly viewed through an ecological prism, as a story of how “Dharma” came to be established as a result of a conflict over social policies in response to on-going environmental/ecological crises. In this version, the first to recognize the crises and to attempt to address them was Santanu, King of Hastinapur (a town established on the banks of the Ganges). His initial proposals evoked much opposition because draconian and oppressive, and were rescinded after his death. Subsequently, one of Santanu’s grandsons, Pandu, and his children, the Pandavas, agreed with Santanu that the crises had to be addressed and proposed more acceptable social policies and practices. Santanu’s other grandson, Dhritarashtra, and his children, the Kauravas, disagreed, believing that nothing needed to be done and opposed the proposed policies. The fight to establish these policies culminated in the extended and widespread “Great War” (the “Mahaa-Bhaarata”) that was won by the Pandavas. Some of the proposed practices/social policies became core elements of "Hinduism" (such as cow protection and caste), while others became accepted elements of the cultural landscape (acceptance of the rights of tribes to forests as “commons”). Still other proposals may have been implied but never became widespread (polyandry) or may have been deemed unacceptable and immoral (infanticide). The Pandavas’ proposals helped the culture survive and became the "Dharma" for the new age that followed the war. As elements of Hindu orthodox religion, they continue to the present day. What follows from here on in this article is based on a speculative re-telling of one of the core texts of the modern world, exhibiting pointed artistic license rather than traditional narrative fidelity. A series of tectonic events in the Himalayas resulted in repeated floods of the Indus. Meanwhile, the Yamuna shifted course to the east and the Sutlej to the west thus starving the then great river Saraswati of its major sources of water. Refugees from the Saraswati valley migrated to the existing upper Gangetic settlements of Hastinapur and Panchala thoroughly stressing the ability of those regions to support them. Prior to this forced movement, the slow eastward expansion of the Indus-Saraswati culture had stalled because their agricultural techniques were inadequate to till the Gangetic plain. The Santanu/Pandu/Pandava proposals enabled the culture to survive the short-term strains caused by the tectonic events and supported the longer-term expansion into the Gangetic plain. The epic poem is believed to have been put down in its final form between 400 B.C.E and 200 A.C.E. (over a thousand years after the events). The composer is supposed to be Krishna Dvaipaayana Vyaasa. Vyaasa is apparently a pseudonym and may have been a single poet or a group of poets. The genius of Vyaasa (the poets) has been to take barely comprehended stories from the already distant past and re-tell them so that they make sense to their audience two thousand years ago. For instance, a policy of male infanticide is re-told as a fairy-tale of a goddess killing her male children. Infants may die naturally during famine or during floods, but under extreme conditions, a “one child per family” policy might force parents to abandon “excess” children. Other policies included a “hydraulic empire” (Wittfogel 1957) that managed common water resources – the state taking responsibility for managing the unstable riverine environment rather than leave it to inadequate local actions; cow protection – this would have provided famine insurance for the Indian farmer (and may have been sponsored by Krishna, an ally of the Pandavas, considered an incarnation of Vishnu by the contemporaries of the poets); the use of an iron plough – this would have made expansion into the Gangetic plain possible (Balarama, “the ploughman” is Krishna’s brother, and is also considered an incarnation of Vishnu); and, finally, a totalitarian caste system – the state, by guaranteeing jobs to most people would enable both individual and group to survive without ruinous internal competition. Vyaasa also used metaphor extensively to represent the reaction to issues in concrete dramatic elements. For instance, he/they re-interpreted the inability of Dhritarashtra (the father of the Kauravas) to see the growing crisis and his sons’ stubborn opposition to change as a “blind” fond father who coddled his stubborn eldest son and his hundred brothers. Some of the policies described above became core elements of “Dharma”, right behavior as enunciated by the common religion of the people. Using religion as the carrier for these practices ensured that they would survive for a long time. It would be an error for us to assess these practices in terms of our contemporary morality, though it can be tempting. The practices ensured cultural survival at that time and for a long time thereafter. At the same time, if the practices survived unchanged past the point of relevance, they could become dangerous for the culture in the face of a different threat. We suggest that the caste system was one such practice that made it impossible for the people of India to respond constructively and defensively to British colonialism . We live in an era facing environmental and ecological catastrophe as a result of the past and present actions of humanity. Not just the human species, but all life on earth appears to be at risk. If “we” are to survive, humans need to develop new principles for behavior and, concurrently, implement multiple projects (not just one project) to correct our excesses; these must happen simultaneously, not one at a time or piece-meal, and must be accepted by almost all of us and must be maintained for a long time. A new “Dharma” is needed and the postulated Indian experience indicates that, in religious form, it can work over a long period of time. Our tolerance for change would be tested for our contemporary morality cannot be the touchstone by which this new Dharma is to be assessed. The principles of “Deep Ecology” are a candidate for such a new Dharma. There is much to admire in them and it is possible that there is little time for debate (or that it is even past time for debate). But democratically conducted debate is a necessary check when policies become unbalanced, and the Indian experience is cautionary in that respect. The Indian solution failed when confronted by an exploitative and extractive external colonialism. In the context of a unified Earth-Home isolated in an infinite cosmos, it may feel like a science fictional suggestion (there is nothing like the British East India Company out there, we hope), but the new Dharma should support mechanisms to monitor its continued efficacy and adjust appropriately, or else, we will have failed.