January 24, 2022

Mahabharata Through the Eyes of Indian Laws


During this lockdown, like many other human beings, I also completed watching B.R.Chopra’s Mahabharata- a television series based upon the longest poem in the world “Mahabharata”. The Mahabharata is one of the two paramount Sanskrit epics of historic India, the other being the Ramayana. It narrates the struggle between cousins inside the Kurukshetra War and the fates of the Kaurava and the Pandava princes and their successors. Unfortunately, the rise of Hindu right wing fundamentalist politics has ensured that a number of people are diffident about dealing with ancient texts such as Mahabharata.[1] A close scrutiny of the text, however, shows that it is not necessarily religious.[2] Mahabharata offers plenty of times to grapple with moral dilemmas.

Being a law student, I tried to think upon the fact that what would have happened if Mahabharata took place in today’s era or what would have happened if the current prevailing Indian laws were made at the time of Mahabharata era? Did the various important incidents that took place in Mahabharata era in the absence of the current prevailing Indian laws, would be justified if current prevailing Indian laws were present at that time? In this article, I have tried to analyze some major events or incidents that took place in Mahabharata era through the eyes of current prevailing Indian laws.

Dilemma After Karna’s Death

Karna was born to the Queen Kunti previous to her marriage out of an ‘unintended contact’ with the Sun God. Fearing political, ethical and social backlash-Kunti decided to leave the newborn within the River Ganga. As future might have it, the child did now not perish but changed into rescued by a childless charioteer downstream, who with his wife Radhe raised him as his own. As an end result- the son of Kunti (Kaunteya) came to be known to the world as the son of Radhe (Radheya).[3]

In a feudal setup inclusive of that of India- Radheya faced many humiliations at the hands of the royal class no matter him being a warrior par excellence. His parentage was being insulted each time he sought comparison to Arjuna – one of the Pandavas and arguably one of the greatest warrior of the times. Oblivious of his royal lineage, Karna confronted insults, humiliations and rejections till Duryodhana- one of the Kauravas, the cousins of the Pandavas and a sworn enemy of theirs, decided to take Karna underneath his wings and appointed him the King of a small area known as Anga Desha. Karna never forgot this favour and gesture of friendship by means of Duryodhana and committed his existence to assisting him in all his acts- righteous or evil.[4]

This turned into all very convenient till the arrival of the Great War-the Mahabharata, while Lord Krishna found out to Karna, his actual identity. Though shocked, he determined to live loyal to Duryodhana and combat on his side. Arjuna as well as the other Pandavas or even Duryodhana had no inkling of Karna’s actual identity till the day he was killed within the battlefield by Arjuna.[5]

So now, picture of the battlefield is like this – The dead body of Karna is lying on the battlefield. On one facet are the Pandavas, who’ve just learnt that they’ve accidentally’ killed their own brother. On the other facet is Duryodhana, who has lost a friend and moreover came to know that Karna, despite knowing that the Radheya become a Kauntey, still fought and died for him.

Now, the question that came to light before the Pandavas and Duryodhana was – Who has the rights over the last rites of Karna after his demise? Pandavas can claim the right over Karna’s body on the grounds of their filial relationship, him being their actual brother, in step with the Hindu heritage and their religious practice. Duryodhana can declare the same right on the basis of Karna being his army’s Chief Commander and one of his close friends.

The answer depends upon the certainity that what Karna became at the ultimate moment of his life. If he was a Kaunteya- the claim of Pandavas might weigh heavy. While if he turned into a Radheya, Duryodhana’s rights are more legitimate. A question was then asked to Arjuna that who did he kill – turned into it Kaunteya or Radheya? To which, Arjun replied obviously, Radheya.

According to the current prevailing laws, this is known as Cognizance– whatever one is Conscious of as per Sec.3 of Indian Evidence Act[6]. As Karna turned into Radheya, a close companion of Duryodhana and the Chief Commander of his army in the cognizance (conscious knowledge) of the parties to the dispute, in his lifetime until the final residing breath, The rights of Duryodhana over him after his death finds greater merit. Incidentally, this is exactly what Lord Krishna decided as according to the Mahabharata.

Lord Krishna’s Curse To Ashwathama

Ashwathama exists as a Chiranjeevi… An immortal being, born to Drona, the Guru of the Pandavas , and Kripi (Sister of Kripacharya, The Kulaguru – Chief priest of Hastinapur).[7] Ashwathama turned out to be one of the most important characters of the incredible Indian epic Mahabharata. He was one among Duryodhana’s most trustworthy friends and a warrior that bejewelled his army. After the death of Duryodhana, the Kurukshetra war ended and Pandavas became victorious. After seeing the half conscious Duryodhana lying in the battlefield waiting for his death, Ashwathama angrily rushes to the Pandava’s camp to kill all of them while sleeping at night.

Mistakenly, Ashwathama killed innocent young children of the five Pandavas on his hands. He deceitfully killed them whilst they have been asleep, to please Duryodhana, who desired to look the Pandavas dead, before his last breathe. After knowing his mistake, Ashwathama knew that he had sinned by murdering 5 harmless youngsters, and he heads to Sage Vyasa’s hermitage for penance. Hearing the news of these incident, the Pandavas become inconsolable. Bhima angrily rushes to kill Drona’s son. They discovered him in sage Vyasa’s ashram close to the bank of Bhagiratha. [8]

The now triggered Ashwatthama invokes the Brahmastra towards the Pandavas to fulfill the oath of killing them. Shri Krishna asks Arjun to counter the Brahmastra by means of releasing the same Astra from his arrow, but Sage Vyasa stops the 2 lethal weapons from colliding. He is aware of how devastating it could’ve been to the universe. Therefore, the Sage asks Arjun to take his weapon back, but Ashwathama fails to retrieve it. Therefore, he intentionally directs it in the direction of Uttara’s womb, which had Abhimanyu’s unborn child.

According to Indian Penal Code, 1860[9] Whoever before the birth of any child does any act with the intention of thereby preventing that child from being born alive or causing it to die after its birth, and does by such act prevent that child from being born alive, or causes it to die after its birth, shall, if such act be not caused in good faith for the purpose of saving the life of the mother, be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both.

And incidentally Lord Krishna also punished him for the sins he had committed, asking him to cut the jewel from his forehead and roam around in search of sympathy, love, mercy and peace of mind. And this curse proved to be deadlier than dying because Ashwathama knew that he’s immortal and that he shall ought to bear the burden of his sins throughout the Kaliyuga.


The Mahabharata might have been written centuries ago but it has relevance even in today’s world. The epic Mahabharata was written between 400 BC to 400 CE but what the text teaches us is applicable even today. The tale is an epic because of its complex and lengthy structure however it talks about affairs present in the today’s world. It is a tale which has something and everything that happens inside the contemporary world. It is not a tale just about a fight between the Kauravas and Pandavas. There is much more inside the epic. It concerns with ‘Raja Dharma’, the royal craft and the guideline of regulation that the Mahabharata teaches the society.

With the help of the analysis done in this article, we can clearly conclude that our current prevailing Indian Laws are influenced from our ancient history, some way or the other. Whether it’s the era of Mahabharata or the 21st century, we experienced the similar outcome. The approaches may be different, but the end result was same in the both of the eras. The punishment maybe different in the ancient times, but the acts considered as “wrong” in the ancient era is still “wrong” in the modern era. As in existence so in law there may be a constant warfare between competing evils. The jurisprudence in Mahabharata grapples with selecting between the lesser of the two evils.

For more notes on Jurisprudence, click here.



[2] This is perhaps true of most so-called religious texts.

[3] Sanskrit Shloka

[4] Sanskrit Shloka

[5] Sanskrit Shloka

[6] Sec.3 (Interpretation Clause); “Fact” – “Fact” means and includes-

(1) any thing, state of things, or relation of things, capable of being perceived by the sense;

(2) any mental condition of which any person is conscious.

[7] Sanskrit Shloka

[8] Sanskrit Shloka

[9] Section 315; Act done with intent to prevent child being born alive or to cause it to die after birth.

Author Details: Rohan Kapoor (Maharashtra National Law University, Aurangabad)

Law Library LawBhoomi

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