Deep insights from Mahabharata
#GS2 #Diplomacy #ExternalPolicy #GS3 #Defence
If all the books on war and peace were to suddenly disappear from the world, and only the Mahabharata remained, it would be good enough to capture almost all the possible debates on order, justice, force and the moral dilemmas associated with choices that are made on these issues within the realm of international politics.
Strategic thinking in India
- There has been a Eurocentric belief that India and Indians had only episodically written about strategic issues and that there was no real culture of strategic thinking in India.
- The American think-tank Rand’s Vice President, George K. Tanham, had put this starkly in his 1992 paper, ‘Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretative Essay’ (commissioned by the U.S. Under Secretary for Defence) in which he argued that the Indian elite had not systematically or coherently thought about national security.
- Since then, many scholars, have reviewed different traditions of strategic thinking in India: from Asoka’s post-Kalinga idealism to the more predictive hard-headed realism of Kautilya, to the more critical traditions of thinking about war and peace.
Is it true?
- Recently, we have got the benefit of the External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar’s book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, which recognises the importance of the Mahabharata in a deeply perceptive chapter, ‘Krishna’s Choice: The Strategic Culture of a Rising Power’. Earlier, we had the inspiring account of Amrita Narlikar and Aruna Narlikar, Bargaining with a Rising India: Lessons from the Mahabharata.
- However, even today, in contrast to the industry of researchers who devote themselves to studying Chinese strategic culture, the interest in India’s thinking is still limited. This must change; not in a nativist or a revivalist fashion or by necessarily emphasising India’s exceptionalism, but to understand that India’s strategic culture acts as an important intervening variable between power, interest and material capabilities, on the one hand, and the higher purpose of statecraft on the other.
- Today, as India confronts some of its biggest strategic challenges there are deep insights that the Mahabharata offers us, including from the immortal dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna.
What does Dharma mean particularly in terms of strategic vision?
- First, Dharma means upholding the larger righteous interest, the welfare of humanity both in its mundane and transcendental sense. For the leadership of a nation state, it means protecting the national interest defined as the interests of the people from internal and external adversarial circumstances.
- Second, Dharma means action not passivity; acting without material incentives, and without regard for narrowly defined gains from that action. And acting decisively while recognising, however, that the war for upholding Dharma will almost necessarily always cause collateral damage (both in terms of a strict adherence to principles as well as possibly unrestrained violence).
- Finally, the war for Dharma requires acting independently, without attachment, without fear and without external pressure. In sum, Dharma in foreign policy can only be sustained through the doctrine of strategic autonomy. It is the only principle that can bring into harmony flexibility in diplomacy (even duplicity when needed) and purposeful violence when required; so much so that true statecraft and strategic autonomy become inseparable, bringing about a fusion of thought and action for the higher purposes of statecraft.
- Dharma is beyond self-interest, it is beyond partisan causes, it is concerned almost always with the larger good; it reifies humanity, the people and not necessarily the state.
Lessons for today
- In contemporary terms, what are the secular aspects of the wisdom that Krishna imparts to Arjuna, particularly in the Bhagavad Gita? Ultimately, for Krishna, our strategic policies must be rooted within the overarching framework of Dharma and for promoting the larger righteous national interest (Yato dharmas Tato Jaya: Victory and Dharma go together) rather than any selfish or partisan cause.
- In many ways, this wisdom reinforces India’s long-standing quest for strategic autonomy, defined as the pursuit of stability, space and strength, as an instrument for promoting national Dharma.
- Krishna is the final guardian of Dharma, a leader; and, on occasion, a leader needs to create “new paradigms for showing limitations of such a generally accepted moral code of truth-telling and promise-keeping”.