By Michael Dolan,
B.V. Mahayogi
THE INNER THEME OF THE MAHABHARATA
Dharma, O King, is the root of existence.
(c) Bhishma
What is Dharma?
While the Mahabharata may be read on many levels, the entire work is a study of kingship and of kingly rule. The Ramayana gives us the godly Ram as the ideal king, but the kings and princes who move through the pages of the Mahabharata are living and breathing human beings with all the sins and foibles of earthly mortals. They may do their best to rule as saintly or "godly" kings, but these royals are not god-kings in the sense of the Egyptian pharaohs, the Roman Caesars, or even the Incan Atahualpa.

From Shantanu - whose romantic love drives his lust for Satyavati - to the blind king Dhritarasthra, these are not absolute rulers and despots, but mortals. Yudhisthira is certainly not a man-god, nor does he strive to be. He is a philosopher king after the mold of Plato's Republic - trained to rule by brahmanas and warlords alike. His own chagrin at the tragedy of Kurukshetra makes him a reluctant warlord - one who is eager for a rule based on peace.

Why does Yudhisthira want to hear from his enemy Bhishma?

His reluctance to rule, his sense of the tragedy of war and the human condition impels Yudhisthira to seek Bhīma's advice both as patriarch of the family, as warrior, and as a great king who knows the true meaning of raja-dharma.

Yudhisthira's questions, of course, are not limited to knowledge about raja-dharma. Their discussion is wide-ranging and includes a number of different topics, but let's focus for a moment on his advice to kings.

Yudhisthira is to inherit a broken system. Bhishma's father Shantanu was called Adi-raja--the original king. But after his reign no one else in the Mahabharata will be awarded such a title. No one can approach Shantanu's ideal rule. Shantanu's ancestors such as Bharata are idealized as belonging to a golden past whose likes we shall never see again. The proper rule of kings was broken by Duryodhana who has usurped the throne. While externally dharmic, Duryodhana's real-politik is highly unethical, even Machiavellian. He does whatever is necessary through whatever means--arson, sabotage, poisoning, lies and bribes--to maintain power.

But Yudhisthira is not a cynical politician. He seeks truth, and if he is to wield power, his rule must be in the service of truth. In the aftermath of the terrible slaughter of the battle of Kurukshetra, Yudhisthira is ambivalent. How will he govern this broken kingdom when all the noble kings and princes of the realm lie dead? It is in this moment that he consults Bhishma, whose selflessness was seen in his abdication. Bhishma is a man of his word, a man of truth. And yet he has held command over all those allied to Hastinapura. What advice will he give?

Bhishma will expound on dharma but even these teachings are esoteric and hidden. Bhishma does not list the rules of dharma, but speaks in parables and stories whose moral is left to the reader. His understanding of dharma is not explicit, but implicit in the karmic unfolding of the tales he tells. His meaning is not overt, but occult, especially since the inner sense of dharma is vitiated by the dawning of kali-yuga. Bhishma's words are cloaked in the Sanskrit artistry of Vyāsa, the poet and prophet who has given life to epic. The subtlety of both Bhishma's narrative and Vyasa's poetic power makes the Mahabharata a work of essential truth and beauty, not a moral fable for children.

Bhishma's discourse
Bhishma's discourse from the bed of arrows, his dying words to the grieving prince who must now rule the empire echo the teachings of Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita and recapitulate the moral and spiritual meaning of entire work. And so it is difficult to encapsulate in a short article.

But whereas the Bhagavad-Gita addresses a hero and encourages him on his spiritual journey to surrender, Bhishma addresses a king and admonishes him to duty in this world. Here we are asked to be faithful to the ideals of kingly action and told how a proper ruler can and should conduct himself.

Yudhisthira is overwhelmed with grief, much as Arjuna at the beginning of the war. But where Arjuna's challenge was to fight against all odds, Yudhisthira's is to maintain peace with dharma.
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