What is the Contribution of the Mahabharata to Strategic Thought?
Updated: Jul 22
The Mahabharata is one of the world’s oldest and longest epics. At the heart of it is a dramatic and apocalyptic war, and a rousing philosophy of morality. In this podcast we talk about why this epic has never been studied, and why it should be studied, for its immense impact on strategic thought. In this interview, Prashant Hosur Suhas who is assistant professor of political science at Clarkson University explains his multi-decade decade on this subject to us.
1. Why did you decide to study the strategic relevance of the Mahabharat?
As the old saying goes — all roads leads to Rome. Similarly, when we look for literature that is routinely cited as a repository of knowledge on statecraft and governance — all roads seem to lead us to the Mahabharata (we still have Ramayana to contend). Even Kautiliya’s Arthashastra acknowledges the influence of Mahabharata as it cites slokas from different portions of the Mahabharata.
Secondly, if one were to open a textbook on international humanitarian laws, they would find the authors citing the Mahabharata along with other ancient texts to demonstrate that the cultures worldwide had clear guidelines on what sort of behaviour was acceptable and unacceptable in wartime. Taking a cue from the European traditions I may say, Mahabharata has very high standards of conduct regarding jus in belo and jus ad bellum. Therefore, Mahabharata’s relevance to the study of strategic affairs is overwhelming and obvious.
2. What kind of data did you study and are studying?
In my humble understanding, the way the Mahabharata slokas operate, at least in the strategic policy sphere, is that a group of slokas articulate a particular theory of statecraft. The slokas succinctly summarize the theoretical proposition but does not go into an exhaustive explanation unpacking the meaning. We must remember that the Mahabharata is not merely a manual of statecraft but is telling a grand story that transpires over generations.
Therefore, my strategy is to be humble and pick a block of four to five slokas that articulates a particular theory of statecraft and analyse them in detail. For instance, utilizing four slokas from the Shanti Parva on how a king ought to handle a stronger foe, I decided to test the prescribed hypotheses by using modern day conflict data. For instance, it is stated that a weaker king should seek to portray a friendly disposition towards a stronger foe but not give up the feeling of hostility. This can be statistically tested easily by looking at whether a weaker state in a rivalry signs a nonaggression pact or not, while not pushing for a peaceful termination of the rivalry. International relations as a discipline has well known and accepted measures to indicate capacity asymmetry, rivalry terminations and tools of reconciliation.
I found that the prescription given in the four slokas in the Mahabharata was statistically significant even when tested on modern data. What this suggests is that there are certain thumb rules of statecraft and governance that cuts across time and geography. This suggests that as a research community we should curb the temptation to articulate an “Indian” way of strategic thinking which is susceptible to issues of orientalism or misplaced jingoism. Rather let us focus on the contributions Indic literature has made to our understanding of statecraft — the same way it has made a contribution to understanding humanitarian law, mathematics, science and philosophy.
3. Why is the Mahabharat so important as a strategic document?
Mahabharata’s importance stems from the fact that it makes a significant contribution to general theories of statecraft. In the Shanti Parva or even other Parvas, one never gets a sense that the uniqueness of a particular culture is being overplayed. Yes, the glory of the Subcontinent’s flora, fauna and cultural traditions are present in it, but its prescription on statecraft have a cross-sectional appeal and utility. We usually consider Kautiliya as the Indian Machiavelli (a deeply Eurocentric phrase). However, the Mahabharata is replete with instances where the actors are deeply ‘Machiavellian’ or should I say deeply Kautiliyan.
Therefore, if you want to understand the philosophy of Kautiliya, the read the Mahabharata first because the Arthashastra reads more like a manual which may not be helpful for those looking for context. In the Mahabharata you not only get the pithy advice on statecraft, you also get a very well written story that can provide the necessary context and examples of how politics and statecraft plays out.
4. What portions of the Mahabharat hold key strategic thinking according to you? Explain with two examples?
Every Parva has important lessons for strategic thinking. However, the ones given the most air-time are the Aadi Parva — which sets up the foundation of the story and in doing so we learn many principles of statecraft from the characters’ actions. Udyoga Parva beautifully demonstrates how diplomacy ought to be conducted. Bheeshma Parva talks about the principles of jus in belo and jus ad belum and the Shanti Parva, where Bheeshma is giving counsel to the victorious Yudhishthira on principles of kingship and governance. Again, I would reiterate that every Parva in the Mahabharata is politically relevant. However, the ones I mentioned are the ones that get maximum air-time when discussing statecraft.
5. What would you say has been your key learning during this research?
My key learning during this research has been that: 1) I am more interested in articulating the Indic contribution to statecraft rather than getting sucked into identifying “uniquely Indian ways” of conducting statecraft. Showing India’s contribution to the study of statecraft is a more compelling objective (like India’s contribution to science and mathematics) than restricting ourselves into a cultural bound. 2) understanding the relevance of the policy advice given in the Mahabharata to modern day statecraft. In the same way many of the mathematical principles usually associated with the Greeks have been found to be present in older Indian texts, similarly, certain principles of behavioural international relations and foreign policy, usually associated with European thinkers are found in the Mahabharata.
Bringing all these contributions to light and assessing their modern-day relevance is not just a project, but a career. If pursued with sufficient funding and institutional support, the Mahabharata may be the book that represents India’s contribution to the world of statecraft across different sectors and sub-fields of political science and international relations.
(Dr. Prashant Hosur Suhas is an assistant professor of political science at Clarkson University whose research focuses on International Relations and Comparative Politics, with a regional focus on South Asia).