By Michael Dolan,
B.V. Mahayogi
The balance between spiritual truth and political actions
The protection of his people,
is the king's foremost dharma.
(c) Bhishma
Dharma-Raja and raja-dharma
Yudhisthira is often called dharma-raja. His conduct throughout the epic as well as his conversation with the Yaksha shows that he knows all about dharma, at least theoretically. And yet, their conversation is not a dry academic exercise between two people who know all the answers. As a practical matter, the new king needs to know "how does one rule in dharma?"

Apart from his personal interest in enlightenment and truth, Yudhisthira is interested in how to maintain the balance of the cosmic order. This question forms the basis of their dialogue. Bhishma points out that spiritual truth may not always form the basis of political action. Maintaining a balance is no easy task. He often speaks as an oracle whose truths are ambiguous and deep. While this world is temporary and we must strive for spiritual perfection, Bhishma advises Yudhisthira to be a king and play his role within the dharmic system until he is no longer necessary.

Maintaining the tension between social dharma and spiritual realization is one of the key difficulties throughout the Mahabharata and Bhishma's teachings. And so the old warrior, while waiting for his own spiritual destiny to unfold at the moment of his death, weaves the fabric of raja-dharma with his words. Telling fascinating stories that avoid touching on the main narrative of Mahabharata, Bhishma speaks at great length on how kings should think and act.



Kings must endure both victory and defeat


In the end, Bhishma tells Yudhisthira
eṣa rājñāṃ paro dharmaḥ sahyauh jayaparājayau ,
"It is the highest dharma of kings to persevere both in victory and defeat."
MHB XII.107.27
Bhishma's idea of kingship is not Gandhian
As the Hegelian General Von Clausewitz once framed the problem, " War is the continuation of politics by other means."
When war is the inevitable resolution of a conflict a true king will not shy from the battle. A king is often forced to go to war. Bhishma understands the emptiness of politics and the futility of war as does Yudhisthira. But he also knows the value of battle. He advises Yudhisthira to be stoic and impartial, to conduct his rule with dharma, but not to avoid conflict in the name of harmony.
Kingship and Karma
Yudhisthira is also concerned with expiating the sins of battle, of washing his soul clean from so much slaughter. Bhishma gives advise on the expiation of sin, but Yudhisthira is doubtful about the use of so many rituals. The old warrior concludes that the holy name of God is the most powerful way of becoming from from sin. Author of the Vishnu-sahasra-nama, the one thousand names of Vishnu, Bhishma, son fo the Ganges, calmly explains his arguments to Yudhisthira with a wealth of illustrations and stories drawn from the Puranas as well as his own experience with saints and sages throughout his long life.
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