Some of the most interesting advice received by Yudhisthira, however, came in the form of a long deathbed political lesson from his grand-uncle Bhishma, laid out in the famous Shanti Parva (Book XII) of the Mahabharata. Predating Hobbes by millennia, Bhisma argues in favor of power and authority, telling Yudhisthira that idealism and non-violence are impossible because someone must wield the rod (danda) of power, and without kingship or authority, there would be chaos in the land. Because of the greed and lust of people, they fight each other without the use of punishment and force—not just morality alone—to keep order; this applies both internationally and domestically. Therefore, the leader must continue to fulfill all his duties, whatever that entails.
The Mahabharata is India’s most important store of strategic inspiration, using its vast content to lay out analogies and examples that have continued to explain or refute a variety of strategic situations. Although many aspects of it are spiritual, it is deeply rooted in an understanding of human nature and the realistic politics that flow from that, and as such, its lessons have been and can continue to be a counter to the the parallel idealistic traditions found in India and elsewhere. Through its widespread dispersion throughout India and neighboring countries, the epic and its lessons are well known and have proven instructive to ordinary people and leaders for millennia.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an analyst, editor, and writer. He was formerly an assistant editor at The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @AkhiPill and visit his website: akhipill.com.
*Author’s Note: The original Mahabharata is the world’s longest epic poem, fifteen times the size of the Bible, and is usually accessed through abridged translations and retellings. I draw upon three sources, all excellent, faithful to the original, and scholarly for this article: Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling by Carole Satyamurti, Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik, and the abridged version from Penguin Classics, the Mahabharata by John D. Smith.