Yuddhishtira and Immanuel Kant

One thing fascinates me, it is how the same truths are discovered or to be frank rediscovered, over and over again, stated and restated by people across space and time and each time the truths are flavored with the culture of the region prevalent at that moment of time, so each restatement from the outside is unique yet utters the same essential ideas. There are many examples of this, one of the most interesting ones are between ancient Greece and India. In this regard there are few unmistakable parallels like the Origins of Democracy or the Charvakas and the Epicurists, of course these developments may not be completely independent, they are probably a product of interaction and exchange to some extent but nonetheless their origins were unquestionably organic. These parallels are pretty major ones that are hard to miss, but for the keen observers more subtle examples of this phenomenon emerge, let us take a look at one such example. In the Great Indian epic of Mahabharata’s Drona parva the events leading to the fall of Dronacharya, the guru of Pandavas and Kauravas, are fascinating and it, in my opinion alludes to a philosophical thread that two millenias later was re-echoed by Immanuel Kant.

The Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic that follows the quest of the five brothers, the Pandavas, to the throne of Hasthinapur. Yuddhishtira was the eldest of the Pandava brothers, he was also considered the most ‘Dharmic’ of all the characters in the story (more or less, the epic is filled with too many characters and parables to make any conclusive statements), which can be inadequately translated to ethical or moral. The climactic war of the story is the great Kurukshetra war where the armies of the Pandavas meet the armies of their arch nemesis, who also happen to be their cousins, the Kauravas. During the course of the war the Pandava army seems outmatched by their foes in every sense, with legendary warriors like Bhishma, Drona, Karna against them. The part of the story that we are concerned with has to do with Dronacharya’s death.

Fast forward to Two millennia later, Immanuel Kant was an 18th century European philosopher one of the most influential thinkers of the age of enlightenment who contributed to a wide range of fields like ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, epistemology etc. What is of particular interest to us is his works on political philosophy. Kant’s attacks on utilitarianism yields a deep and intricate reasoning, the concept of Categorical Imperative as termed by Kant is of interest to us, Kant says that since humans are capable of acting ‘autonomously’ they should be treated with dignity and cannot be treated as objects which the utilitarian mode of thinking often resorts to. Here, when Kant says we are capable of acting autonomously, it doesn’t refer to our general actions but refers to much smaller subset, i.e when a human being decides to eat because he is hungry it is not to be considered as autonomous, since he is compelled to do so by his bodily needs. Most of our actions fall under this category, we do something BECAUSE we desire some outcome but according to Kant, humans are capable of performing actions without expecting to get anything out of it and when they do this, that action qualifies to be called as autonomous. As per Kant since human beings are capable of this autonomy they should be treated with dignity ie they shouldn’t be manipulated against their will to serve a higher purpose.

This absolutist conclusion leads to interesting edge cases, for example, suppose a killer is coming to kill your friend who is hiding in your house and when the killer shows up at your house and asks you ‘Is your friend here?’, What will you respond? Most people will probably lie. But according to Kant we shouldn’t. Kant would ask you to tell him the truth, but you need not risk your friend’s life!! Then how would you effectively not lie you may ask, fret not, there is a sneaky middle way. Kant is asking us to tell a truth yes, but a misleading one ie when the killer asks: Is your friend here? Kant would say something like: he was here an hour ago.. killer: ok sorry for the disturbance, take care J. This might seem a bit non-sensical, at least it did to me in the beginning, but if we think about it, Kant is making a solid argument here.

Anyways, now that we know about Kant, let’s come back to Mahabharata, we have the Pandava army scrambling to defend themselves against the Kaurava army led by the great Dronacharya. The Pandavas come up with a cunning plan, they would go to Dronacharya, their former teacher and tell him that his son Ashwathama has been killed in the battle and hoped that the great teacher, grief stricken, would give up his arms. But there was a small problem here, Ashwathama was a Chiranjeevi, someone blessed by the gods to be immortal and Dronacharya was no imbecile, he would not believe any random person who came to him about his son’s death. The only person Drona will believe without a question was Yuddhishtira, for his impeccable character. Even here we bump into a little problem, Yuddhishtira the man who refused to lie even in the most dire of situations would not lie so that his side could win a battle, So Krishna comes up with a ‘Middle Way’: the misleading truth. He asks Yuddhistira to tell Drona the truth ie an elephant named Ashwathama is dead, which it was, sadly. Yuddhishtira agrees, he goes to his guru and proclaims on the top of his voice “Ashwathama Hathaha, Kunjaraha” ie “ Ashwathama is dead, the elephant” and before Yuddhishtira can spitout the last word Krishna blows his conch so loud that the last word is drowned in its sound. Grief stricken, Drona right there and begins his tapasya to ask the Gods for justice, giving the Pandavas much needed room to do what was necessary for their victory.

So there it is, Kant’s Moral lie told millenias before him “Ashwathama hathaha Kunjaraha”. It is wonderful how we find parallels in the most disparate of times and places.

trying to make sense of the world