Chapter 11: Dharma In The Mahabharata

By David


         In the eleventh chapter, Doniger introduces two major challenges shattered the authority of Hindu traditions, which the idea of dharma is a significant idea in Hinduisms being challenged, that occurred during 300 BCE to 300 CE (Doniger 277); the two problems are OMlisted as following: firstly, dharma cannot deal with the conflict within the doctrine itself, such as the conflict between morality and duty, moksha and individual’s self-dharma; secondly, the old idea of dharma is challenged by the development of society, and the development of various political, philosophical, and religious ideas as the result of the development of society. To deal with the challenges, according to Doniger, the followers of the doctrine, probably mainly the Brahmins, attempt to sustain the dominant position of their religions by reforming and further developing their religions, whereas the reformation they had done to the concept of dharma can be deemed as a paramount instance of their attempt of reformation. To show the details of the reformation, Doniger then offers couple detailed examples. To solve the unreasonable rules set by dharma and the conflict between dharma and moksha, the reformers come up with passages state that the karma of dharma does not affect kids under fourteen and they also develop the idea of devotion to solve the conflict (Doniger 279/283). To solve the challenges brought by Buddhism which claims that Buddhists also have ideas of dharma and karma of dharma can be transferred, the reformers come up with passagdharmameanses to clarify their dharma and assert that karma of dharma can also be transferred in their traditions (Doniger 278/281). To deal with the flourishing of the Shudra and other tribes, they come up with passages to imply that those people shall be treated more humanely and the lower caste people have chance to move up vertically, which entails a shift of their old dharma (Doniger 290/286). To deal with the voices that the status of women shall be elevated, they come up with epics that depicts smart, steadfast, aggressive, and eloquent women who have several husbands and lovers, which also implies a shift of women’s old dharma (Doniger 300).

          In the meantime, Doniger also points out that while some of them want to reform, there are some of them who are rigid. Concerning them, Doniger offers examples such as the it is fine for Nishadas to be “sacrificial substitutes” in the Mahabharata because they are regarded as “subhuman beings” (Doniger 288). In the end, Doniger ends with a comparison of the Ramayana, which is a glorious heroic story, and the Mahabharata, which is more like a tragedy, and she states that a great gap between the different views of dharma can be found while the different views have a conversation with each other that they together reflect the historical context of that period.


         In general, I think that Doniger does a great job to use the shift and development of the concepts of dharma as a tool to reflect the shift of the society during that period. I especially like the part where she points out that the readings of the passages can be various and different people have different attitude towards the reformation and the development of the society through her analysis of Ekalavya Cuts off his Thumb. The story for me is kind of absurd that Drona, in order to secure his own and Arjuna’s position, he orders Ekalavya, who becomes a great archer through his own endeavour, to cut his thumb so that he cannot be a better archer than Arjuna, while the most absurd part is that Arjuna, by winning in such a dishonorable way, “was greatly relieved (Doniger 288-289).” Doniger proposes that this passage can be interpreted through both of the post-reformist side and anti-reformist side. This passage can be served as a text against the reformation since it reveals that the outcastes and other tribal people can be deemed as wicked animals. Meanwhile, it can also be read as a passage that supports the reformation since it shows the “honest and humble” of the outcastes that they actually can also behave righteously as other people so that people should not learn from Drona and they should treat outcastes more humanely (Doniger 289). Doniger’s interpretation reveals the idea that what the texts say can be varied from people to people since various interpretations can be applied to a same text.

         Another interesting thing I found is when Doniger talks about the solution of the conflict between moksha and dharma. The scene that Krishna telling Arjuna that killing the body is not killing and the formation of the three yogas, which states that followers of karma, jnana, and bhakti all can gain emancipation through practicing the path they choose, remind me of the concept of “leap of faith” introduced by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, which means, if I interpret it correctly, that a person,220px-Kierkegaard who violates moral codes to fulfill his devotion while it may seem unreasonable for him or her to do the action, then that person is not guilty since the divine orders are the highest criterion. The instance that offered by Kierkegaard in his book Fear and Trembling is about when Abraham, receiving the order from God that demands him to sacrifice his son, decides to do so according to God’s demand even though he is not sure whether the thing that gives him the order is God or not. Similar to Abraham, Arjuna clearly knows that it is immoral to kill his own friends and families or even to kill beings but he makes the final decision to do so since fulfilling the god’s order is the only way for him to keep his devotion even though he may be not sure whether Krishna is a real incarnation of Vishnu or not.

         Meanwhile, I also find the lines which say that “since there is no other evidence that women at this time actually had multiple husbands, these stories can only be suggestive, if not incontrovertible, evidence either of women’s greater sexual freedom or, perhaps, of men’s fears of what might happen were women to have that freedom (Doniger 296).” 800px-Dionysos_Louvre_Ma87_n2What is written reminds me of the sacrifice to Dionysus and the festival of Dionysus in ancient Athens. Comparing to the god Apollo, who is also a god of art and music but in a more orthodox and elegant way, Dionysus is depicted as the opposite of Apollo and as a god of ecstasy and disorder. In the festival of Dionysus then, ancient Athens people would gather together and enjoy drama. Tragedies, as one of three forms of drama, generally tell stories about the normal hierarchy of the society is breached by the characters in the plays; while the plays are called tragedies since the rule-breakers would have an unfortunate end and the hierarchy would be restored. One of the interpretation of the effect of tragedies is that, enjoying the short period of time of the play, people would experience the things that would happen if the hierarchy is broken so that, one the one hand, they may enjoy it in a virtual way, and, on the other hand, they are warned by the play so that they would not break the rules in their real lives. Even though the status of the Mahabharata is defined more solemn and significant than tragedies, the use of tragedies can offer a perspective for us to consider the role of the epics.


  1. Considering the ideas about dharma you had before, does Doniger’s explanation of dharma change your way of perceiving it? If so, please explain why? If not, why?
  2. Imagine if you were Gandhi, how would you use what is claimed in Bhagavad Gita to argue against war?
  3. Examining the solutions used by the reformers of Hindu doctrines during that period that Doniger mentions in the texts, do you find any of the solutions very successful? Please analyze one of the solution that you think is the most successful or most unsuccessful one and explain the reasons.

6 thoughts on “Chapter 11: Dharma In The Mahabharata

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  1. With regards to question one, I think that Doniger’s explanation and analysis of how the concept of Dharma changed over time, did add some depth to the way that I understand the concept. One would anticipate that the societal, political, and intellectual changes that various societies were going through at the time, would have a great impact on concepts like dharma. In previous chapters and class discussions, its been mentioned that the changing societal structures during certain time periods lead to shifts in the way people were thinking about concepts (e.g. development of multiple ways to attain moksha–not everyone must become a renouncer). Until this chapter, I wasn’t entirely sure how those changes would have manifested with regards to dharma. Doniger’s clarification of dharma from two different “reformist/non-reformist” perspectives, made the concept of dharma more dynamic in my mind.


  2. Doniger’s explanation of the distinction between Dharma, Moksha, and Bhakti in the Gita on pages 282 and 283 helped me to better understand each of the three on a more fundamental level, while also helping me understand how they all interacted with each other. Doniger mentions how dharma and moksha were finally posited against each other for the first time in the Bhagavad Gita, and continues to explain how the solution to the “clashing” of sorts, was bhakti. This new triad of bhakti, moksha, and dharma was exemplified through Arjuna’s internal conflict regarding his reluctancy to fulfill his duty to kill his kinsmen (his dharma) and his inability to renunciate (moksha), which was eventually alleviated when Krishna offered the alternative of bhakti, or devotion. I think that this solution was one of the more successful solutions offered throughout the texts because of the accessibility it creates for all followers of Hinduism through the malleability of the expectations set out.


  3. In response to question 1, my previous idea of dharma was entirely constructed from the Bhgavad Gita from freshman studies. My professor explained dharma literally as a duty determined by one’s birth. This explanation given by the professor was additionally emphasized by our translations of the book where dharma was sometimes translated to duty as well. After reading Doniger’s understanding of dharma and discussing dharma in class, I’ve come to understand that although my definition isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s one of many interpretations. It’s only the nose of the rabbit on the moon, there’s still the rest of the rabbit and then the man as well. For example, on 278, Doniger says early dharma and adharma were referred to as “right and wrong,” pointing out first how like any word, dharma’s connotation has been altered and adjusted throughout time, like a giant telephone game (sort of). Another way my understanding of dharma is on the same page, 278, where she brings up the god Dharma, who I had no idea was a god until then, which only helps explain the importance and devotion to dharma as a philosophical aspect.

    The most curious thing I learned about dharma from Doniger had to be it’s relation in the Bhagavad Gita. Up until our class, I did not really know what the three yogas (paths) were, and in a way. I almost thought that dharma was on of the ways to reach “nirvana,” as the Gita supplies, and the other aspects (I didn’t realize they were separate yogas) were just a part underscoring dharma, and how to reach a more true understanding of dharma. Yet, the more I read the more layers are added and it’s pointed out that I was pretty wrong. What also helped me understand dharma more was the way Doniger went through different time periods and explored how each shaped dharma’s meaning. The was I thought about it was comparing it to the word cool. Cool was most likely used only to refer to temperature long ago, but through some means and times it’s become a label of superiority (although it can also be taken somewhat negatively, ex. too cool for school), and also an affirmative/acknowledging word in my vocabulary. All explanations are valid, but some people use one way, others use another, some use more than one, and I’ve only come to understand this idea through Doniger’s and our class discussions on dharma.


  4. One thing that intrigues me about this chapter (and the previous one) is Doniger’s comparison of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. She portrays the Ramayana as the positive, idealistic, declarative epic, and the Mahabharata as its more negative, subtle, uneasy counterpart. What fascinated me the most was the fact that the two texts were composed within the same (large) time frame, percolating alongside one another. I am used to thinking of ideas as either sequential or compartmentalized: that is, either that one develops before another in a progression, or that they develop at the same time but in isolated contexts and by people who do not speak with one another. This chapter challenged that view, showing that it is possible for multiple ideas to be in dialogue with one another even as they are being created, and still turn out so differently. Indeed, it occurs to me that they may even have represented two sides of an individual’s worldview – we all have both optimistic and pessimistic voices in us. This is another facet of the rabbit-and-man-in-the-moon phenomenon that has become a central theme of Doniger’s book. Dharma as well (to respond to the first question) turns out to be a much more fluid concept than I had previously assumed. Again, there were many differing, and sometimes disputed, concepts of what constituted dharma and how far to take it. This relates to Doniger’s discussion women in the epics: women were apparently also a point of disagreement between people (and perhaps within people) of the time. I was surprised to read of the free role of women in the Mahabharata, given the amount of violence against them (such as rape) that is also commonplace in the epic. This would be an interesting discussion to have in class – about the violence versus the power given to women in these epics.


  5. In answering your first question, I don’t think that Doniger changed my fundamental belief of dharma but she added to it. Dharma, as we have discussed, has a wide variety of meanings and I knew that it means justice as Doniger puts it or duty as we discussed it in the Gita. I thought it was very interesting how she discusses dharma as a God itself on page 278. It was also interesting that she explained how the idea of Karma fits into dharma. It seems as though nothing in Hinduism is free from the affects of life like karma and dharma, everything is working together in the same system. I never would have thought about Dharma in this way without looking at this chapter.


  6. As others have said, Doniger did not change all my thoughts on Dharma but it sure did add to it. As the world and society changes, Dharma changes, I think it’s important to focus on how much it changes and look back occasionally to see just how much it has changed.


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