The main lesson of Mahabharata that eludes most Indians is that Arjuna's doubts about the 'Great' War were eventually vindicated. The significance of the dialogue presented in Bhagavad Gita is that a defeated dialogue does not die and may turn out to be more pragmatic in hindsight.
The following is an excerpt from Nobel Prize Winner Amartya Sen's “The Argumentative Indian” tracing the history of India's argumentative tradition and its contemporary relevance. The excerpt was written under the title Dialogue and Significance in Chapter 1.
Cause or Consequence?
The famous Bhagavad Gita, which is one small section of the Mahabharata, presents a tussle between two contrary moral positions - Krishna's emphasis on doing one's duty, on one side, and Arjuna's focus on avoiding bad consequences (and generating good ones), on the other. The debate occurs on the eve of the Great War that is a central event in the Mahabharata. Watching the two armies readying for war, profound doubts about the correctness of what they are doing are raised by Arjuna, the peerless and invincible warrior in the army of the just and honourable royal family (the Pandavas) who are about to fight the unjust usurpers (the Kauravas). Arjuna questions whether it is right to be concerned only with one's duty to promote a just cause and be indifferent to the misery and the slaughter - even of one's kin - that the war itself would undoubtedly cause. Krishna, a divine incarnation in the form of a human being (in fact, he is also Arjuna's charioteer), argues against Arjuna. His response takes the form of articulating principles of action - based on the priority of doing one's duty - which have been repeated again and again in Indian philosophy. Krishna insists on Arjuna's duty to fight, irrespective of his evaluation of the consequences. It is a just cause, and, as a warrior and a general on whom his side must rely, Arjuna cannot waver from his obligations, no matter what the consequences are.
Krishna's hallowing of the demands of duty wins the argument, at least as seen in the religious perspective. Indeed, Krishna's conversations with Arjuna, the Bhagavad Gita, became a treatise of great theological importance in Hindu philosophy, focusing particularly on the "removal" of Arjuna's doubts. The Bhagavad Gita was spectacularly praised in the early nineteenth century by Wilhelm von Humboldt as "the most beautiful, perhaps the only true philosophical song existing in any known tongue." In a poem in Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot summarizes Krishna's view in the form of an admonishment: "And do not think of the fruit of action. / Fare forward." Eliot explains: "Not fare well, / But fare forward, voyagers.'
And yet, as a debate in which there are two reasonable sides, the epic Mahabharata itself presents, sequentially, each of the two contrary arguments with much care and sympathy. Indeed, the tragic desolation that the post-combat and post-carnage land—largely the Indo-Gangetic plain—seems to face towards the end of the Mahabharata can even be seen as something of a vindication of Arjuna's profound doubts. Arjuna's contrary arguments are not really vanquished, no matter what the "message" of the Bhagavad Gita is meant to be. There remains a powerful case for "faring well," and not just "forward." *
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the American team that developed the ultimate "weapon of mass destruction" during the Second World War, was moved to quote Krishna's words ('I am become death, the destroyer of worlds') as he watched, on 16 July 1945, the awesome force of the first nuclear explosion devised by man. Like the advice that Arjuna had received about his duty as a warrior fighting for a just cause, Oppenheimer the physicist could well find justification in his technical commitment to develop a bomb for what was clearly the right side. Scrutinizing - indeed criticizing - his own actions, Oppenheimer said later on: "When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success." Despite that compulsion to 'fare forward', there was reason also for reflecting on Arjuna's concerns: How can good come from killing so many people? And why should I seek victory, kingdom or happiness for my own side?
These arguments remain thoroughly relevant in the contemporary world. The case for doing what one sees as one's duty must be strong, but how can we be indifferent to the consequences that may follow from our doing what we take to be our just duty? As we reflect on the manifest problems of our global world (from terrorism, wars and violence to epidemics, insecurity and gruelling poverty), or on India's special concerns (such as economic development, nuclear confrontation or regional peace), it is important to take on board Arjuna's consequential analysis, in addition to considering Krishna's arguments for doing one's duty. The univocal "message of the Gita" requires supplementation by the broader argumentative wisdom of the Mahabharata, of which the Gita is only one small part.
© Amartya Sen
* As a high-school student, when I asked my Sanskrit teacher whether it would be permissible to say that the divine Krishna got away with an incomplete and unconvincing argument, he replied: ‘Maybe you could say that, but you must say it with adequate respect.’ I have presented elsewhere a critique—I hope with adequate respect—of Krishna’s deontology, along with a defence of Arjuna’s consequential perspective, in ‘Consequential Evaluation and Practical Reason’, Journal of Philosophy 97 (Sept. 2000).