Yes, from a young age, we are taught that the five Pandava brothers were “good,” and the majority of the Kaurava princes were “bad,” but even amongst these two families, there are the exceptions. And I find it rather difficult to make such a stark distinction about some of the other key figures in the Hindu epic as well. In particular, three – Dronacharya, Bhisma, and Karna – beautifully demonstrate this challenge through their dharma sankata, loosely translated as deep moral dilemmas. Today, I’ll focus on Dronacharya, who I’ve found to be one of the Mahabharata’s most complex figures.
As I mentioned in my earlier blog, many of Dronacharya’s actions were clearly questionable, particularly his requests for gurudakshina – be it Eklavaya’s thumb or that the Pandava brothers capture his childhood friend-turned enemy – as well as his actions during the war. But at the same time, he was knowledgeable, sincere, and loyal. His love for Arjuna was genuine and was only outmatched by his love for his son.
And as the great war approached and people were forced to choose sides, he faced a dharma sankata. Before Dronacharya became the guru to the princes of Hastinapura Kingdom, he was poor man who could barely afford to feed his son and wife. It was only through the graciousness of Hastinapura’s king, who hired Dronacharya as the princes’ guru, that Dronacharya’s fortune was reversed. For that, he felt permanently indebted to the king of Hastinapura, who was also the father of the Kaurava brothers.
Dronacharya spent many sleepless nights in anguish — on one side were the Pandava brothers who were on the side of society’s dharma and his favorite student, Arjuna. On the other side was his personal dharma – the burden of his debt that bound him to the unjust king and jealous prince of Hastinapura.
Today, this may not seem like such a dilemma, but it’s important to examine his dharma sankata within the time period of the Mahabharata. As I noted in the last blog, in those days, a promise was akin to a man’s honor. Similarly, repaying a debt, especially one as large as Dronacharya’s, was of utmost importance. That is rooted in the Hindu concept of karma. Simply explained, debts from one lifetime are carried forward by the atman, or soul, until they are repaid.
In the face of this overwhelming debt, Dronacharya, like Bhisma and Karna, ultimately choose to fight on the side of the Kaurava princes. As Karna said, “I would rather fulfill my debt in this war than be bound to the evil Kaurava prince in another lifetime.” Krishna refuted Karna’s logic, explaining that the burden of debt was worthwhile carrying forward if it meant bettering society as a whole. Still, all three of these great warriors choose to fight for the Kaurava princes, knowing from the beginning that they were destined to loose the battle.
Yet, they cannot be classified as “bad” individuals. Each of them possessed countless “good” qualities. And part of their “goodness” was rooted in their desire to uphold a moral code that caused them deep personal pain and ultimately lead to their demise. The stories of Bhisma and Karna are quite different from Dronacharya, but they all serve as prime examples of what Gurucharan Das so aptly calls “The difficulty of being good: the subtle art of dharma.”