Conceptualising Religion and Dharma: a Reading of “The Dicing” in The Mahbharata
Dr. Dipen Bezbaruah
Religion and dharma are the terms which are inter-related, yet different from each other so far as the semantics associated with them are concerned. According to Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary, ‘religion’ is the belief in the existence of a god or gods, and the activities that are connected with the worship of them. It is one of the systems of faith that are based on the belief in the existence of a particular god or gods Defining religion, however, are not as simple as it has been explained in the dictionary. If one peeps into the history of religion, one is bound to find a number of definitions and theories associated with the term. What is understood by the term ‘religion’ in our day-to-day life lets us consider it in terms of religious faiths, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, etc.. All these are some of the established religions and can be termed as organised or institutionalised religions. But there is another kind of religion which is known as folk-religion. The difference between folk and organised religions is that in folk religion presence of animistic beliefs, polytheism, fetishism, folk- healing and magic are found predominantly. Organized religions are classified into two types: monotheistic and polytheistic. In monotheistic religions, such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism, etc., it is believed that there is only one supreme god and he created the cosmos. In polytheism plurality of gods find place in religious matters. Polytheism is generally found in folk religions. Religion, be it organised or folk, evolved out of man’s belief in the supernatural. However, Hinduism though polytheistic, is considered to be institutionalised.
In most of the Indian languages the English word ‘religion’ is termed as ‘dharma’, ‘dharm’ and so on. However, in identifying ‘religion’ with ‘dharma’ one is bound to confront confusion so far as the dimensions of meanings associated with both the terms are concerned. As mentioned in the Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘dharma’, in Hinduism, is the religious and moral law governing individual conduct and is one of the four ends of life. In addition to this, there is another perspective on ‘dharma’ that applies to everyone. It is sadharana dharma which has elements, such as truthfulness, non- violence, and generosity, among other virtues. There is yet another specific dharma which can be termed as svadharma to be followed according to one’s class, status, and station in life.
Dharma at its simplest connotes an individual code of conduct which is itself determined by the complex matrix of personal, social, political and religious or spiritual pressures and contexts that make the individual. Dharma, in Hinduism, is a principle that applies to human beings as an individual in isolation, as a social being, and as a creation of nature. In individual level dharma is that principle which makes him righteous, responsible, generous, non-violent and so on. In social life dharma guides a man to adhere for the norms or codes of the society including religious duties and do everything for the protection of the community. As a creation of nature dharma guides a person to think for the wellbeing of all the creations of nature and respect to sustain harmony and order in the world. Thus the term dharma is attached with multitudes of connotations.
Thematically “the Mahabharata” is an epic which shows victory of dharma over adharma. While the Pandavas represent dharma, the Kauravas are followers of the adharma. The two main characters of the epic is also visualised as two different trees: tree of manya (wrath) connoting adharma and the tree of dharma. While Dhrtrastra is the root of the manya tree, Karna is its trunk and Sakuni its branches. Duhsasana its fruits and flowers. Yudhisthira is a great tree created out of dharma, Arjuna is its trunk, Bhima its branches, the two sons of Madri its fruits and flowers, and Srikrsna, the Brahman (Supreme Being) and the Brāhmanas (those who have knowledge of Brahman) are its roots (Ādiparvan 1.65, 66).
In “the Mahabharata” various forms of dharma finds expression in works and words of its characters in individual as well as a member of a community or society. The theme of the epic is very much concerned with the dharma of the Kshatriya or the warrior caste. Although dharma in a general sense condemns violence and taking of life, the specific dharma of the warrior demands that he be responsible for the safety of a kingdom, and thus considers the martial arts and the destruction of the enemy as his duty and prerogative. Both the two dynasties, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, belong to the Kshatriya community.
The three major characters representing dharma in the epic are Yudhisthira (the son of dharma), Bhishma and Vidura, who is supposed to be Dharma’s avatar himself. These three have been completely devoted to dharma throughout the epic. Their opinions and actions are unequivocally the most important in “the Mahabharata”.
Dharma of Yudhisthira: As a king his raj dharma exhorts him to look after the morality and ethics. His dharma says to him to look after all the citizens of his kingdom. This can be understood from ‘the dicing’ episode in which he shows hospitality to people belonging to all sections of the society. He accepts Dhritrastra’s invitation for gambling, though he knows that ‘gaming is trickery, an evil; there is no baronial prowess in it’. The acceptance of the invitation is an act of his dharma, because it invokes him not to disrespect his father at any cost. It is the same principle which he maintains during the whole epic. In the dicing he even asks Sakuni to play fair according to Kshatriya code of conduct while Sakuni on the other hand gives him the liberty to leave the game if he senses trickery.
Dharma of Vidura ad Bhisma: Vidura is constantly referred to as another symbol of dharma. The steward of Dhritarstra is known for his wisdom. He interferes in the whole concept of gambling. But as a steward his dharma is to obey what his lord instructs. It is because of that he comes to Hastinapur with the message of his king. He knows it well that that the dicing will result in destruction, so tries to convince Yudhisthira not to accept the invitation. So Vidura says to Yudhisthira:
I know that the game will bring disaster.
I have made an effort to stop him from it.
But the king has sent me to your presence:
You have heard, you are wise, now do what is best.
Bhisma is equally helpless because of his dharma. He may be the great grandfather, but his dharma makes him obey the king’s order. He is considered to be the person, who possess a complete knowledge of the principle of dharma in toto. It is because of his dharma he fails to give any answer to Draupadi’s question – whom did Yudhisthira lose first, himself or her.. It may be because in one hand the dharma principle says that Yudhisthira is every right to stake her in the dicing, on the other hand, it has demoted woman into a property of her husband which Bhisma disagrees. Hence, Bhishma replies that the matter is subtle and he pushes the question to Yudhisthira, the Dharmaraj, who never wavers from the path of righteousness and always speaks the truth. Even he fails to answer and remains silent for she rightfully belonged to Duryodhana now.
Arjuna and Bhima: Both are brothers of Yudhisthira. They are great warriors. But they are curbed by their dharmas. Even when they see injustice in dicing, they do nothing either to help Yudhisthira, or Draupadi. Bhima becomes very angry when Yudhisthira stakes Draupadi. He denounces his elder brother for treating Draupadi worse than an ordinary whore; although he is the master of all they possess. He bursts with the words: I shall burn off your arms! Sahadeva! Bring fire!’. To his words Arjana replies that while Yudhisthira has kept to the Ksatriya’s dharma of meeting a challenge, Bhima ‘oversteps’ his ‘highest dharma’ of not overstepping his eldest brother.When Draupadi is molested and unrobed by Duhsasana at the order of Duryodhana.
In this way dharma is seen to have different forms and in the Dicing episode we get a glimpse of them through the actions and words of the Kauravas and the Pandavas.
Model Questions from The Dicing
- Why does Duryodhana return from Yudhisthira’s palace being resentful?
- Why does Duryodhana expresses his desire of committing suicide?
- What is Sakuni’s plan to defeat the Pandavas?