32.) Is the Ethics in the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata Different?

Without entering into the question of whether there is ethics as such in the two epics, I would like to argue that it might be possible to distinguish between their ethical orientations. These different orientations, I would further argue, could be characterized as deontological in the case of the Rāmāyaa and consequentialist in the case of the Mahābhārata, where by deontological one means “an approach which prescribes obedience to particular norms” and consequentialist refers to an approach which “requires the actors act so as to maximize the realization of values endorsed by the theory”.

The deontological nature of the ethical orientation of the Rāmāyaa is apparent in the person of Rāma himself. A recent work on Hinduism, for instance, concludes its abridged narrative of the events of the epic as follows:

Here, in summary, are the colourful and exuberant episodes of a great story beloved of Hindus across sectarian boundaries for generations and generations. A tale of heroes and villains – including animals and ogres – of war and passion, devotion and duty, wondrous feats and fell deeds. And at the centre of it all is undoubtedly the figure of Rāma, the very model of dharma in its different aspects: dutiful king (even at the cost of personal tragedy), protector of the vulnerable, avenger of the wronged, obedient son, faithful husband, loving brother, magnanimous enemy. His compassion and friendship extend to the disadvantaged, to animals and even to conciliatory ogres. Thus, at the beginning of his exile, he accepts the assistance of and embraces Guha, the low-caste chief of the Niṣādas; in the forest he is gracious to Śabarī, the low-caste woman ascetic; he befriends the monkeys in his journey southwards towards Laṅkā; and he welcomes the ogre Vibhīṣaṇā who acknowledged his righteous cause.[1]

In order to appreciate this point one must appreciate the danger of the consequentialist position – namely, the risk of moral relativism. On the other hand, the deontological approach entails the risk of moral absolutism. Hence the problems with Rāma’s subjecting Sītā to ordeal by fire, her banishment and so on. The consequentialist approach is subject to an opposite danger: moral rules become flexible in the light of the telos of the moral system, and with it the danger of arbitrariness has to be faced once rules are allowed to be broken. In the Mahābhārata the rules are broken:

Arjuna and Sātyaki were rightly accused by Gāndhārī for their acts of violence against the king Bhuriśravā. It was condemned as wrong then and there by friends and foes alike. It was against a Kṣatriya’s code of conduct in war. It was a sin against a specific dharma. So was Bhīmasena’s act of hitting Duryodhana on his thigh. Bhīmasena’s plea that he was bound by a vow to break by mace Duryodhana’s thigh and fell him in the battle because of the immodesty shown to Draupadī was not accepted in the Mahābhārata. The vow itself was wrong and the act following it was a sin against a specific dharma. Kṛṣṇa also silently accepted the accusation of aiding and abetting in the sin. He reasonably apprehended that Bhīmasena would not be able to defeat the skill of Duryodhana. He was in no doubt that Yudhiṣṭhira again had committed a mistake by inviting Duryodhana to a duel and giving him the choice of arms and opponent. Kṛṣṇa covered this human failure and accepted the blame from his elder brother Balarāma and Gāndhārī. Contrast with this tale of Balāka the hunter, told to Arjuna by Kṛṣṇa himself during the incident of Arjuna’s vow (Karṇa 70). He killed a blind animal while it was drinking water. But this earned him merit instead of sin because he destroyed the fearful killer that the animal was.[2]

Just as the deontological approach runs the risk of becoming morally rigid, the consequentialist approach runs the risk of becoming morally convenient, and raises the following question:

Should it be that one taking a vow could break it, that there is nothing such as personal and social morality? Is the entire common-life moral structure that contingent? If so, it would not be possible to carry on our everyday life, for this would destroy the mutual confidence people have regarding promise-keeping.[3]


The answer is provided in the incident involving Arjuna and Yudhiṣṭhira (Karṇa 70). Arjuna had taken a vow that should anyone dare to tell him to surrender his Gāṇḍīva (the sacred and fearful bow of Arjuna given him by God) to someone else he would kill him. Wounded and disgraced in defeat, Yudhiṣṭhira was beaten back by Karṇa, who was mercilessly destroying the Pāṇḍava army. He very much wanted Arjuna to face Karṇa and kill him before the Pāṇḍava(s) were destroyed. But Arjuna was engaged in fighting elsewhere in the battlefield. When Yudhiṣṭhira found Arjuna, he reproached him angrily and told him that he was unworthy of the Gāṇḍīva and had better give it to someone else and retire. Arjuna took out his sword. Kṛṣṇa intervened. Hearing of his vow, he reproached him that taking such a vow was an act of foolishness leading to another foolish act against dharma, against the truth of nonviolence. True, Yudhiṣṭhira’s reproach would not matter much had there not been such a thoughless vow. Now this was one aspect of the incident. Kṛṣṇa then asked Arjuna to keep his vow by severely insulting Yudhiṣṭhira, the most respected character in the Mahābhārata after Bhīṣma. His brothers and Draupadī and Kṛṣṇa himself were obedient and respectful toward him. He was called Dharmarāja, ‘the king of dharma’, by all. Therefore, to insult such a revered person was like killing him. Arjuna did that but broke down in remorse for doing so and was about to kill himself. Kṛṣṇa again stopped him. Self-killing is a greater sin that what Arjuna did to Yudhiṣṭhira. Let Arjuna speak loud and boast about himself; for that would be annihilating his own self, a punishment. Arjuna did so and then fell at the feet of his revered elder brother.[4]

In accordance with a deontological approach Arjuna would have slain Yudhiṣṭhira. However, a series of consequential manoevres avert such a fate. Thus both the epics advocate the pursuit of Dharma, but arguably the Rāmāyaṇa is more deontological and the Mahābhārata consequentialist in its approach.

[1] Julius Lipner, Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London and New York: Routledge, 1994) p. 129-130.

[2] Arun Kumar Mookerjee, “Dharma as the Goal: The Mahābhārata,” in Krishna Sivaraman, ed., Hindu Spirituality Vedas Through Vedanta (New York: Crossroad, 1989) p.143.

[3] Ibid., p. 142.

[4] Ibid., p. 142-143


5 Responses to “32.) Is the Ethics in the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata Different?”

  1. Ushma Williams Says:

    could you in a future blog give an insight into the incident in the Ramayana which involves the killing of Bali by Rama. I understand the episode as a consequentialist approach to ethics.

  2. froginthewell Says:

    Ushma : I have heard the view that bAli was an animal and Rama’s act was therefore hunting, not murdering. But don’t know if this is from the original vAlmIki-rAmAyaNa.

  3. Ramayana and Mahabharata - the ethics of epics at Blogbharti Says:

    […] answer is provided in the incident involving Arjuna and Yudhishtira Linked by BVN. Join Blogbharti facebook […]

  4. s.p. attri Says:

    HANG-MAN HAZRAT, THE MEAN-MOHAMMAD: His Aggressive-Imperialism
    By S.P. Attri ( USA )
    1. The Holy-War ( Jehad ) against Kafirs ( Non-Moslem Infidels ), started by Hangman- Hazrat some 1400 years ago, continues this day, beyond Hazrat’s grave. But the Phoney-Liberals of India and of the West, continue to ignore this aggressive-imperialism of Hangman-Hazrat. Islamic scholars point out that, the real purpose of Islam is to identify evil in the world, but in actual practice, what Moslems identify as evil in the world, are the Kafirs ( Non-Moslem Infidels ) of the world, and the existence of this evil ( the hateful Kafirs ) cannot be overlooked by the Moslems. This is a distortion of the right orderliness, but it does not matter a bit to a Moslem, who does what he thinks his religion teaches him to do.

    2. The Phoney-Liberals ( of India and of the West ) totally fail to grasp that, the aim of Hangman-Hazrat’s followers is, to destroy all the Non-Moslem religions/cultures of the world, and to forcibly bring them into Allah’s Islamic-Empire, via the Holy-War, which they label as Jehad. Dhimmi is the name given by Moslems to Kafirs ( Non-Moslem Infidels ) which includes Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and other Kafirs.

    3. The most noticeable feature of Hangman-Hazrat’s Islam, is its total unwillingness to subject its system, beliefs, and rules, to critical analysis, as well as its total opposition to toleration of alternative viewpoints. Concepts like rationalism, secularism, democracy, and human rights, have no business in Islam. In fact, darkness of illiteracy, ignorance, fundamentalism, corruption, and decadence, run rampant in practically all Islamic societies. In addition, half of the population of these lands ( the women ), continues to be brutally trampled upon, in the name of Allah, faith, and laws of Islamic Sharia. Women of Islam, who are suffering under the brutality of Islamic laws, are unable to break the fetters of slavery, that Islam imposes upon them. Will the women of Islam ever wake up, and arise from the humiliation and degradation, that Islam imposes upon them ?

    4. In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly came out with a declaration:
    a. To separate church and state
    b. To establish democracy
    c. To abolish gender apartheid
    d. To establish equality of sexes
    Nearly all Islamic countries, are in total violation of UN declaration and guidelines of 1948. As a result, freedom of women has been sliced apart, and the horror of Islam’s cruelty on its women, continues unabated.

    5. Question: What is so special about Quran, that makes it supersede the Universal Declaration of Freedom, issued by the UN General Assembly in 1948 ? In addition to women, Non-Moslem Infidels ( the so-called Kafirs ), are the victims of Islam’s religious apartheid, and Islam’s cruelty and intolerance continues without interruption.

    Yet when you go and talk to any Moslem-Mullah, the first thing that he will tell you is, that “ Islam is the religion of peace.” What horse-sh** ? This has got to be the biggest distortion and falsehood. The entire history of Islam is bloody. Moslem murdered tens of thousands of Non-Moslem Kafirs, in broad daylight, again & again, and again & again. Mean-Mohammad, during his lifetime, had reduced the population of Jews to a bare minimum.

    6. In spite of all this atrocious record, Mullahs ( and Moslems ) are not even bashful about telling us that:
    “ Islam is the religion of peace. “
    What a Joke ?

    Surinder Paul Attri

  5. Shankara Bharadwaj Says:

    Well for that matter, Bhishma the most respected in MBH is not consequentialist in his ethics. And probably that is the reason he is the most revered?

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