Whenever our personal effort is successful, destiny and karma must be in the background. (c) Bhishma
Yudhisthira's crisis at the end of war mirrors Arjuna at its beginning
One might think that Yudhisthira would rejoice with his victory as do his brothers. But he is crushed with melancholy, having discovered that their great rival in the fight, Karna, is, in fact, their older brother, savagely killed by Arjuna in a moment of helplessness. Yudhisthira is at a moment of crisis; he can either accept the kingdom and rule or turn his back on his brothers and renounce the world to walk the path of truth. It is within this framework that Bhishma discourses on raja-dharma. He tries to convince Yudhishthira that the path of truth may be pursued even as a king. Truth is not merely a matter of keeping one's word, but of aligning one's actions with the principles of dharma. This is the true virtue of raja-dharma.
The kings duty is to rule in harmony with truth, but to avoid extremes
A king may sometimes break promises in his political life, but he must live in harmony with truth both in word and deed. Aristotle similarly defined virtue, as a disposition towards "right living" avoiding extremes of deficiency and excess, which he considered vices.
Moral virtue should be seen through one's example and practice more than through argument, reasoning, and instruction. Yudhisthira's grief, his pacifism, and melancholy are not kingly in this sense, but extremes to be avoided and Bhishma tries to teach him the right path.
The true king is impartial and avoids administering justice personally
The Kurukshetra war has involved the Pandavas on a personal level; in part, the battle serves as justice for the wrongs done to them by Duryodhana and company. But Bhishma explains that kings must not apply justice for personal reasons. The family rule as a model of kingship is no longer viable. In the golden age of kings, the nobles may have been beyond reproach as in the case of Lord Ram. But the Age of Kali will demand a model of justice that is impartial. Justice must be actively pursued, not simply resorted to in case of emergency. With Kali-yuga begins the long, dark, night of the soul. Kings must rule accordingly.
War, Peace, and Justice
Justice will ensure peace. During peacetime, the trumpets of war must be laid aside. The demonstration of royal power, the pomp, and ceremony of noblesse oblige may entertain the public for some time. But the true test of the proper rule will be seen in the impartial meting out of justice. This will be the true test of kings, and Bhishma exhorts Yudhisthira to take this responsibility seriously. For Bhishma, then, rule involves walking the path of raja-dharma, following the pragmatic and morally correct behavior and attitudes of a monarchy. One must be prepared for the crisis and know how to act at the moment and lead with the courage of conviction. And at the same time, one must balance these principles with one's own sincere spiritual journey, never forgetting that this world is temporary and illusory.
Mahabharata and Dharma
We have seen that Mahabharata is a profound argument on the nature of dharma. In all of epic poetry there is nothing quite like the conversation between the ancient and dying warrior Bhishma impaled on a bed of arrows and the melancholy king Yudhisthira who has won victory over the Kurus at the cost of the destruction of the entire dynasty. How kingly virtue or raja-dharma functions at different levels both socially and spiritually-is at the core of Bhishma's teachings to the young king Yudhisthira. A complete analysis of the stories and teachings that make up Bhishma's long oratory is beyond the scope of this short piece, but we shall take up the subject again later.