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Strategic Choices Ethical Dilemmas: Stories From the Mahabharat

Updated: Dec 23, 2023

"On the subject of dharm, material pleasures, desire and salvation, what is written here (in Mahabharat) can be found elsewhere, but what is not in the mahabharat can be found nowhere else.” ~ Mahabharat, I.62.53

An Illustration on Stories from the Mahabharat

Illustration by The Geostrata

The majority of people in India, irrespective of their religion or beliefs, grew up hearing the stories of Ekalavya, Arjun, Karn, Krishn, and other characters from the great epic of Mahabharat. Curated by the great sage Vyaas and written by Hindu deity Ganesh (as per the popular tales), the epic is divided into 18 Parvas, with each of them comprising multiple chapters. The lessons provided in the epic are enduring beyond their time.


It provides strategies and guides not just for an ascetic life but also for governance, diplomacy, warfare, and, above all, ethics and morality.

One must ask: What lessons of diplomacy and warfare can a battle fought at least 5000 years ago provide that are valid in the modern world? The new book “Strategic Choices, Ethical Dilemmas: Stories from the Mahabharat,” written by Dr. Aruna Narlikar, Prof. Amrita Narlikar, and Prof. Amitabh Matto (jointly referred to as the authors hereafter), tries to answer such a question.

The book provides seven stories of Mahabharat along with a plot line for the epic. These stories are further compartmentalised into three parts, with the first part including the curation of a story, followed by lessons in everyday life and lessons in foreign policy, governance, or warfare.

In a world where there is a constant flux of geopolitical quandaries, for any country to choose a right ally is instrumental for survival and securing one's interest. Not a partner but an ally.

Through the story of Lord Ganesh, Maharshi Vyaas, and the writing of the Mahabharat, the book rightly elicits, “Whom you chose to team up with matters as much as the teamwork itself.” In an anarchic international system, it becomes paramount that allies are chosen carefully because poorly chosen allies can potentially damage our interests in the long run.

Cover Page of 'Strategic Choices, Ethical Dilemmas' written by Dr. Aruna Narlikar, Prof. Amrita Narlikar, and Prof. Amitabh Matto

Source: Penguin Random House

The story of Arjun and the wooden bird is one we've often been told by our teachers and elders, explaining how important it is to have a keen eye on the aim to achieve the target. Showing a wooden bird on a branch of a tree, the teacher Dronaacharya asked every student of his, “What doth thee seeth apart from a bird?”

While all of his brothers said that they see branches, a tree, their other brothers, and their teacher, Arjun swiftly answered, “शिरः पश्यामि भासस्य न गात्रमिति”, which means “I see only the head of the bird, I do not see the rest of its body.” Delighted with Arjun’s answer, Dronaacharya asked him to fire the arrow. Arjun followed the direction, and the arrow hit the target. 

Just like Arjun, the authors argue, countries need to identify their key goal and have an aim for it ignoring matters of negligible importance. Prioritisation is the key, and by prioritising key goals, each country can hope to achieve them instead of pursuing all the goals simultaneously. 

Further, weighing on the story of the Yaksha of the lake and Yudhishthir, the authors jots cardinal values and interests in foreign policy, governance, and daily life.

Yudhishthir’s responses to the queries of Yaksha demonstrates how doing the right thing is rewarding not only in its own right but also because it can turn out to be a winning strategy. In the same chapter, the authors trailblazingly advocate for moving beyond apparent anthropocentric models of governance and approaches. It is high time that humans stop looking for a human solution to the non-human milieu.

Extending the same, the authors add that problems such as animal safety, biodiversity protection, and climate change are the problems of the world as a whole; hence, we should not limit them to our narrow anthropocentric solutions. The proposed solutions to the aforementioned problems must accord equal dignity to non-human species as human ones.


Additionally, the book also canvases the importance of the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita in daily life and in foreign policy.

Arjun, at the last moment before the start of the battle, felt numb when he saw his teachers, brothers, and relatives on the other side (on the side of the enemy). Surrounded by all the moral quandaries, he refused to fight; and at that very moment, Lord Krishn gives him the nectar of the Bhagavad Gita, at the end of which Arjun not only fights with valour but also with devotion for the right cause, i.e., a Dharm Yuddh.


From such a story, the book avows war as something not to be taken lightly or casually, and once the path to war is chosen, there can and should not be turning back. When it comes to the Dharm Yuddh, neutrality is not an option. 

The authors argue that a major power like India cannot afford to sit in the grey zone of neutrality when our own borders are threatened by an adversary. We cannot hide behind the rhetoric of strategic autonomy and insist on being neutral. Not only morally but also strategically, it becomes instrumental for India to choose good over evil in this battle of geopolitics.

Overall, providing an inclusive model of globalization along with Indian thoughts of governance and foreign policy, the book provides the quintessential amalgamation of diplomacy and devotion along with strategy and spirituality. Such a work will further encourage many authors and scholars to relook at our epics and scriptures from the prism of strategic affairs.

Note: The authors of the book have followed an Indianized version of pronunciation for the sanskrit words. For example, Dharm instead of Dharma, Arjun instead of Arjuna, and so on. This article includes the same pronunciations instead of popular western ones.




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