Perhaps the biggest difference between the two sides is that at a meta-level, the Pandavas are really fighting for dharm, while the Kauravas are fighting purely for their self-interest. But if one observes the cousins not with a bird’s-eye view but closer to the ground, the differences blur. Duryodhan and Karn are both complex and interesting characters who reveal much generosity, loyalty, kindness and open-mindedness. Equally, at different points in the text, the usually moral Pandavs also show themselves capable of fatal deception, wickedness and cruelty. In any case, we believe good lessons are to be learnt irrespective of whom they come from, heroes or villains.

This story offers at least three useful lessons, which are applicable to the everyday.

The first lesson is about sportsmanship.

The Pandava side and even the great teachers of the Kuru clan tried to disqualify a promising competitor from the tournament by resorting to rules of caste and class. In doing so, they behaved in an unsportsmanlike fashion. In contrast, Duryodhan made the case that a courageous man was worthy of kingship; expecting resistance to this theoretical argument, he went on to act upon it by crowning Karn the king of Angadesh, and thereby firmly levelled the playing field between Arjun and Karn. Admittedly, Karn’s challenge to Arjun would have pleased Duryodhan in the first place, and likely led him to be favourably inclined towards Karn. But in all that he did in this regard, Duryodhan acted singlehandedly; he may have had the authority to do so, but he still showed moral courage by going against his teachers and elders. In sports and in real life, we can all stand up to ensure inclusiveness and fair play.

The second lesson is on the importance of seeing people for who they are and their potential, irrespective of titles.

Karn was fortunate to have been blessed with a very attractive appearance, but his lack of a title was enough to disqualify him from the contest for the Pandav side as well as the elders in the congregation. Duryodhan, in contrast, chose not to get distracted by convention; instead, he saw potential in Karn and acted upon it. Sometimes, it is worth taking a chance on the apparent underdog.

The third and perhaps most important lesson of the story is how much damage exclusionary systems of caste and class can do.

A foolish narrow-mindedness (that disregarded ability and prioritised social status) on the part of the wisest in the Kuru congregation reinforced the divisions between Karn and the other sons of Kunti. It is possible that Karn – a major protagonist in the great war – would have joined the side of dharm had he not had to frequently endure cheap jibes and public humiliation from the Pandav brothers on account of his seemingly low birth. The caste system in India is a shameful case in point, but the lack of social mobility and high barriers to people of colour in Western societies are also illustrative of this problem.

Merit and achievement can come in all shapes and sizes and deserve to be recognised and rewarded irrespective of where they come from.

The story also offers several insights that are relevant to questions of governance as well as foreign policy. In some ways, the treatment meted out to Karn by the great gurus and heroes of the congregation is reminiscent of how countries of the Global South are (even today) treated by the West. The anachronistic Permanent Five membership of the United Nations Security Council is an illustration of this: despite the fact that countries such as India, Brazil, South Africa and others have emerged as major players on the ground, not one of them has yet been welcomed as a member of a reformed High Table. Just as the great and the good in the story refused to update the rules, so also do we see a reluctance of the erstwhile Great Powers to update and reform membership criteria of old clubs. And the analogy does not end there.

The current overtures coming towards democracies, especially from the United States under the Biden administration, and to a lesser extent from Europe, suggest the making of a system of like-minded powers from the Global North and the Global South, which share core values. Look more closely, however, and there seems to be no dearth of hand-waving and finger-pointing on “democratic backsliding” in the developing world, which come from researchers and policymakers (often from the Global North). Intellectual debates on liberalism usually do not allow for the possibility that there may be variants of liberalism that not only predate Western versions but may actually be even more liberal than the supposed blueprints that were developed in Europe.

Western democracies still seem to see themselves as an elitist club, to which Southern countries will seldom be good enough to be welcomed into. Akin to the refusal of the Pandavas and the elders to recognise Karn for his own merit and achievements, the West seems too ready to put democracies in the Global South back into the box that they expect them to sit in. This type of behaviour leads to a double whammy.

First and foremost, it is unfair to democracies – old and new – in the Global South. Second, it also does a disservice to the Global North by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: democracies that are repeatedly put in camps with authoritarian states are then tempted to indeed align/realign with non-democracies (which sometimes give them an easier time on norms and also sweeten their interactions via seemingly generous terms of investment, infrastructure support and more). Just as the exclusionary behaviour of the Pandavas cemented the alliance between Duryodhan and Karn, Western powers risk driving democracies in the Global South into the arms of non-democracies and authoritarian states.

The persistent attractiveness of BRICS for India today, despite its concerns about China’s adventurism in its neighbourhood, is an illustration of this; another was India’s reluctance to criticise the Russian invasion of Ukraine, thereby ending up once again in the same corner as China. Global governance institutions need a major update of their structures and processes to be both inclusive and effective; Western democracies need a serious reconsideration of the values that they claim to uphold, and how these values are defined. Democratic and pluralist polities (some with ancient traditions of argumentation and collective deliberation) from the Global South need to be treated with respect and as equals. Without this, there is a real risk that like-minded friends from the Global South will end up on the side of authoritarian strongmen, to the detriment of themselves as well as the liberal democracies of the Global North.

Excerpted with permission from Strategic Choices, Ethical Dilemmas: Stories From The Mahabharat, Aruna Narlikar, Amitabh Mattoo, and Amrita Narlikar, Penguin India.