While most debates end with a winner and a loser, those in the Mahabharata often end inconclusively or on a note of doubt. The Mahabharata abounds in debates, the most important of which are about the subtlety and mysteriousness of dharma. The overall emphasis of the narrative is that one must understand one’s dharma – essentially that of the varna one is born into – and strive to follow it, no matter how unpleasant it may be and how much unhappiness it may bring.

Nevertheless, characters in the epic are frequently tormented about what exactly their dharma is, none more so than Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava brother, who (ironically) has the epithet Dharmaraja (king of dharma).

Although at one level, dharma is spoken of as eternal and universal, the Mahabharata in fact suggests the existence of several dharmas.

The dharmas of the four ages (Krita, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali) vary. Dharma is frequently associated with the varnas and the ashramas, but there is also a dharma of sages, of forest people, even of mlechchhas. In times of acute distress or emergency, apad-dharma (dharma in time of emergency) kicks in, and certain departures from the norm are justified. We have noted the Mahabharata example of the Brahmana sage Vishvamitra, starving in a time of famine, stealing some forbidden meat from the house of a Chandala and defending his action as being in accordance with apad-dharma.

Reference has been made in earlier chapters to the dharma that applies to all, known as samanya dharma or sadharana dharma, which consists of various virtues such as truthfulness, generosity, and non-violence, but this is not as important as the dharma of the varnas. On several occasions, the Mahabharata asserts non-violence or non-cruelty to be the highest dharma.

Towards the end of the Shanti Parva, the unchha vow is described as the highest dharma. This consists of a frugal life based on food acquired through gleaning, that is, gathering leftover grain from fields. The Mahabharata accepts a life of engagement with the world and also talks about the dharma of liberation from the cycle of rebirth (moksha-dharma) which requires true knowledge, control of the senses, and complete detachment.

The epic composers often included contradictory statements about dharma within a dialogic frame and did not always try to reconcile the many different points of view.

One of the many exciting debates in the Mahabharata is between the philosopher king Janaka and the wandering female ascetic Sulabha, who had attained moksha. Sulabha hears that Janaka had attained moksha while remaining king. Using her yogic powers, she assumes the body of a beautiful woman and appears in his court to check for herself whether this is true.

She challenges Janaka to a debate and uses her yogic powers to enter into the king’s being. Janaka questions her credentials to debate with him, especially on the grounds that she is a beautiful woman, and mocks and insults her. But debate they do, and their topic is whether it is possible to attain moksha while leading a worldly life or whether renunciation is an essential prerequisite.

It is an extremely unusual debate as the beings of both debaters inhabit one body during its entire duration. At some point of time, Janaka falls silent, a sign that he has lost.

A powerful philosophical response to a whole range of issues related to dharma, violence, war, and renunciation in the Mahabharata occurs in the Bhagavad Gita, which has already been mentioned in earlier chapters. The Bhagavad Gita weaves together strands from the philosophies of Samkhya, Yoga, and Vedanta with the ideas of duty and religious devotion.

It absorbs certain Buddhist ideas such as impermanence and suffering, and rejects certain others (for instance, the denial of the soul). It reconciles dharma and moksha. Its idea of karma-yoga emphasises the eternal nature of the atman and the importance of following one’s varna-dharma; it is the fruits of actions and not actions themselves that are to be renounced.

The text contains different ideas of god – an impersonal cosmic god who is the creator, preserver, and destroyer of the world, as well as a god who is immediate and worthy of devotion.

The latter idea is best described as monolatry – the worship of a god as a supreme god without denying the existence of other gods. Such a unique synthesis could only have emerged from a creative engagement with a variety of philosophical ideas.

Along with the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata also contains the Anugita. After the end of the great battle at Kurukshetra, Arjuna tells Krishna that he has forgotten everything that the latter had told him earlier and asks him to repeat it. Krishna tells him that this is not possible as he had delivered his Bhagavad Gita teaching while in a deep meditative state and cannot redo the act.

But he tells Arjuna that he can give him another teaching that is essentially the same as the previous one. He proceeds to deliver the Anugita, which emphasises knowledge and renunciation as the paths to liberation – a teaching that is rather different from the Bhagavad Gita’s thrust on desireless action and bhakti!

The inconclusive nature of the dialogues and debates in the Mahabharata and the presence of diverse, contradictory ideas within the text have a great deal to do with its compositional history, which may have stretched over as many as eight centuries and involved numerous composers and redactors. It also indicates the pragmatic approach adopted by the composers, who juxtaposed many different views without trying to make them all fall in a single line.

Compared to other texts, the Mahabharata dialogues actually explore different facets of complex issues and do not shirk from admitting confusion, dilemmas, and grey areas. At the same time, there are limits to the flexibility, and this is indicated in the text’s hostile attitude towards the nastikas.

Excerpted with permission from Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions, Upinder Singh, Aleph Book Company.