Lessons From The Mahabharata : Wisdom From The Epic On Governance, Revenue Collection and Division Of Labor

By Dr Ratan Lal Basu

Calcutta, Jan 13, 2011 (Washington Bangla Radio) As regards the answer to the question, ‘which is the greatest literary creation in human history’, my unequivocal answer is the great Indian Epic Mahabharata composed according to ancient Indian texts by the great sage and scholar Vyasadeva. The epic touches upon all aspects of human life, the complexities of human relations embracing all the conceivable strata of the society, the multifarious dimensions of clashes and contradictions, intricacies of the economic and political matters, the objectives and modus operandi of a welfare oriented state ensuring growth, equity and justice – in a nutshell, the essence of human knowledge embedded in all ancient Indian texts on religion, laws, statecraft, economics and extra-mundane philosophy.

In Santi Parva of the epic, most of the knowledge on statecraft, economics and moral philosophy are disseminated to the King Yudhisthira by their grand father Bhishma lying on deathbed of the arrows of Arjuna. About the origin of the vast body of knowledge Bhishma states that in the Krita age people were righteous and honest. But soon greed, lust and other vices corrupted human society and it was at the point of losing all moral and ethical teachings learnt in course of millennia. The great thinkers and the gods approached the creator praying for the way out and in response the creator wrote a book covering hundred thousand chapters for salvation of human society. To quote:

“The Grandsire then composed by his own intelligence a treatise consisting of a hundred thousand chapters. In it were treated the subject of Virtue, Profit, and Pleasure, which the Self-born designated as the triple aggregate. He treated of a fourth subject called Emancipation with opposite meaning and attributes. The triple aggregate in respect of emancipation, viz., to the attributes of Goodness, Passion, and Darkness, and another, (a fourth, viz., the practice of duty without hope of bliss or reward in this or the other world), were treated in it. Another triple aggregate connected with Chastisement, viz., Conversation, Growth, and Destruction, was treated in it. Another aggregate of six consisting of the hearts of men, place, time, means, overt acts, and alliances, and causes, were treated in it.” (Mahabharata, Santi Parva, Section-59, Ganguli, p.123].

The book being too bulky and unmanageable by human beings with a short span of life, Lord Shiva, other gods and sages abridged the book with a view to facilitating human comprehension. To quote:

“In view, however, of the gradual decrease of the period of life of human beings, the divine Siva abridged that science of grave import compiled by Brahman. The abridgment, called Vaisalaksha, consisting of ten thousand lessons, was then received by Indra--------. The divine Indra also abridged it into a treatise consisting of five thousand lessons and called it Vahudantaka. Afterwards the puissant Vrihaspati, by his intelligence, further abridged the work into a treatise consisting of three thousand lessons and called it Varhaspatya. Next, that preceptor of Yoga, of great celebrity, viz., Kavi of immeasurable wisdom, reduced it further into a work of a thousand lessons. In view of the period of men's lives and the general decrease (of everything), great Rishis did thus, for benefiting the world, abridge that science.” (Ibid. pp.125-26).

According to ancient Indian belief, all the sastras embracing various aspects of human life had their sources in the magnum opus composed by the creator.

From the above description of the origin of knowledge on all conceivable aspects of human living we may make, without loss of the essence, the following observation. The sastras of ancient India were the outcome of the gigantic all-round intellectual efforts by a number of exceptionally competent post-Vedic Brahmin scholars who endeavored to touch upon all conceivable aspects of human living in this mundane world and beyond. These efforts resulted in the accumulation of a vast body of knowledge on the basis of which the ancient Indian sastras covering various fields originated and grew in number and volume in course of time. The unique characteristics of the great epic Mahabharata is that it pieces together all these knowledge in a coherent manner and presents in a logical sequence.

In this short article, it is by no means possible to take up all the aspects of ancient Indian thinking as depicted in the epic. So, we are going to take up the following aspects as delineated in the Santi Parva of the epic.

1. Divine Origin of the King,
2. Virtues of the Ideal King,
3. Duties of the King,
4. Recruitment of government Officials,
5. Revenue Administration and,
6. Division of Labour and Caste System.

Divine Origin of the King

The creator composed the magnum opus for the benefit of the human society indeed but who was to implement it. Without any central authority and a king at the top it was not possible to restore harmony and righteousness in human society. In the Krita age when everybody was righteous and free from vices, no king was necessary. But later on when the human society degenerated and was filled with vices, complete anarchy and chaos prevailed in the absence of a king.

The Krita age here may be compared with the Primitive Communism in Marxian literature. Vices of greed, lust etc. became manifest after the advancement of human knowledge of nature to enable them to generate surplus value leading to the origin of private property -- property ownership by a few and exploitation of the majority [Engels, 1884].

But thereafter the Marxian view diverges radically from the ancient Indian view. According to Marx and Engels, origin of the state was an evolutionary process and the raison d’être was protection of the rich minority and the private property owned by them. But the ancient Indian texts consider the king to be appointed by the creator for the benefit of the human race, wellbeing of the masses and to restore harmony and righteousness in a society torn with anarchy and injustice.

To quote:
“For these reasons the gods created kings for protecting the people. If there were no king on earth for wielding the rod of chastisement, the strong would then have preyed on the weak after the manner of fishes in the water.” [Sec-67, p.146]

There is, however, mention of protection by king of private property also. To quote:

“If the king did not protect, all persons possessed of wealth would have to encounter death, confinement, and persecution, and the very idea of property would disappear” [Sec-67, p.148].

At first the creator himself selected Manu as the king but Manu considering the immense task and duties of the king declined at first but later on considering the wellbeing of common people he accepted the offer. To quote:

“Thus solicited, the Grandsire asked Manu. Manu, however, did not assent to the proposal.” [Sec-67, p.146]
After accepting the appointment Manu began to discharge his kingly duties in the following manner.

“Of high descent, he seemed then to blaze with prowess. Beholding the might of Manu, like the gods eyeing the might of Indra, the inhabitants of the earth became inspired with fear and set their hearts upon their respective duties. Manu then made his round through the world, checking everywhere all acts of wickedness and setting all men to their respective duties, like a rain-charged cloud (in its mission of beneficence.)” [Sec-67, pp.146-47].

But the subsequent kings had to be selected or elected by the people of the country; and it would be their first and foremost task to coronate as king the most competent and scrupulous person. To quote:

“The (election and) coronation of a king is the first duty of a kingdom.” [Sec-67, p.145]
“O Yudhishthira, those men on earth who desire prosperity should first elect and crown a king for the protection of all.” [Sec-57, p.147]

Because of his divine origin the king possesses some superhuman attributes.

“The king assumes five different forms according to five different occasions. He becomes Agni, Aditya, Mrityu, Vaisravana, and Yama. When the king, deceived by falsehood, burns with his fierce energy the sinful offenders before him, he is then said to assume the form of Agni. When he observes through his spies the acts of all persons and does what is for the general good, he is then said to assume the form of Aditya. When he destroys in wrath hundreds of wicked men with their sons, grandsons, and relatives, he is then said to assume the form of the Destroyer. When he restrains the wicked by inflicting upon them severe punishments and favours the righteous by bestowing rewards upon them, he is then said to assume the form of Yama. When he gratifies with profuse gifts of wealth those that have rendered him valuable services, and snatches away the wealth and precious stones of those that have offended him, indeed, when he bestows prosperity upon some and takes it away from others, he is then, O king, said to assume the form of Kuvera on earth.” [Sec-67, p-149]

“The duties of all men, O thou of great wisdom, may be seen to have their root in the king. It is through fear of the king only that men do not devour one another. It is the king that brings peace on earth, through due observance of duties, by checking all disregard for wholesome restraints and all kinds of lust. Achieving this, he shines in glory.” [Sec-68, p.147]

“The king is the heart of his people; he is their great refuge; he is their glory; and he is their highest happiness. Those men, O monarch, who are attached to the king, succeed in conquering both this and the other world. Having governed the earth with the aid of the qualities of self-restraint, truth, and friendship, and having adored the gods by great sacrifices, the king, earning great glory, obtains an eternal abode in heaven. That best of monarchs, viz., the heroic Vasumanas, ruler of Kosala, thus instructed by Vrihaspati the son of Angiras, began thenceforth to protect his subjects." [Sec-68, p.150]

According to Mahabharata the king also creates the ages. To quote:

“The truth is that the king makes the age. When, the king rules with a complete and strict reliance on the science of chastisement, the foremost of ages called Krita is then said to set in.” [Sec-69, p.154]

“When the king relies upon only three of the four parts of the science of chastisement leaving out a fourth, the age called Treta sets in. A fourth part of unrighteousness follows in the train of such observance (of the great science) by three-fourths. When the king observes the great science by only a half, leaving out the other half, then the age that sets in is called Dwapara. When the king, abandoning the great science totally, oppresses his subjects by evil means of diverse kinds, the age that sets in is called Kali. The king is the creator of the Krita age, of the Treta, and of the Dwapara. The king is the cause of the fourth age (called Kali).” {Sec-69, p.155]

Virtues of the Ideal King

King being the most important person in the state the good or bad of the kingdom and its people being dependent of the qualities and character of the king the person to be selected as the king should possess some rare and divinely attributes.

At first the king should control himself, be free from the inner vices and only then he would be capable of controlling vices in the kingdom. To quote:

“The king should first subdue himself and then seek to subdue his foes. How should a king who has not been able to conquer his own self be able to conquer his foes?” [Sec.69, p.151]

The epic mentions thirty six virtues of an ideal king. To quote:

“There are these thirty-six virtues (which a king should observe). They are connected with thirty-six others. A virtuous person, by attending to those qualities, can certainly acquire great merit.”

The most important of the virtues enlisted in the epic are:

1. Absence of wrath and malice.
2. Kindness.
3. Faith.
4. Absence of cruelty.
5. Detachment in pleasures.
6. Valor without brag.
7. Liberality with judgment.
8. Modesty;
9. Prowess,
10. Intelligence to distinguish between honest and wicked persons and friends and foes;
11. Gratitude;
12. Capability to conceal purpose from the wicked;
14. No undue desire for company of females;
15. Respect for seniors;
16. Absence of pride and vanity;
17. Seeking prosperity only without infamy.
18. Cleverness and competence to act in propitious time.
19. Avoidance of empty promises;
20. No scruples after slaying his foes;
21. Displaying of anger only if occasion demands;
22. Mildness but not to the offenders;
23. Promptness in action;
24. Absence of covetousness.

[for detail see Sec-70, p.156]  

Duties of the King

The basic duties of the king as delineated in the epic are the following.

Protection of the subjects and ensuring their happiness is the first and foremost duty of the king. To quote:

"Protection of the subject, O Yudhishthira, is the very cheese of kingly duties.” [Sec-58, p.119]

“The happiness of their subjects, observance of truth, and sincerity of behaviour are the eternal duty of kings. The king should not covet the wealth of others.” [Sec-57, p.117]

The duties of the king relating to war and peace have been described in nutshell in the following:

“Make peace with those foes with whom (according to the ordinance) peace should be made, and wage war with them with whom war should be waged.” (Sec-57, p.117)

The king should assist the weaker sections of the population and undertake redistribution of wealth if necessary. To quote:

“He should feed those that have not been fed, and enquire after those that have been fed.” (Sec-57, p.118)

“Taking the wealth of those that are not righteous he should give it unto them that are righteous.” (Ibid.)

The financial duties of the king, especially ones relevant to tax collection would be taken up in a subsequent section.

To protect the subjects from the wicket and punish the wicket the king should be empowered with the danda (rod) or the science of chastisement. It should be exercised judiciously and with perfect knowledge of the science. Too lenient application would make the king incapable of controlling the wicket. On the other hand over and inappropriate application would terrorize the subjects of the kingdom and raise them against the king. To quote:

“The science of chastisement, which establishes all men in the observance of their respective duties, which is the groundwork of all wholesome distinctions, and which truly upholds the world and sets it agoing, if properly administered, protects all men like the mother and the father protecting their children. Know, O bull among men, that the very lives of creatures depend upon it. The highest merit a king can acquire is acquaintance with the science of chastisement and administering it properly. Therefore, O thou of Kuru's race, protect thy subjects righteously, with the aid of that great science.” [Sec-69-p.155-56]

“When sinfulness is not restrained, righteous behaviour comes to an end and unrighteous behaviour increases greatly. When sinfulness is not restrained, no one can, according to the rights of property as laid down in the scriptures, say, 'This thing is mine and this is not mine.' When sinfulness prevails in the world, men cannot own and enjoy their own wives and animals and fields and houses.” [Sec-90-p-196]

Recruitment of Government Officials

The perfect functioning of the state machinery depends on the efficiency, honesty, diligence and patriotism of the government employees at various levels. The king should always select employees very carefully after thoroughly scrutinizing their nature, character, efficiency and loyalty. Covetous and foolish people should never be appointed as government employees. To quote:

“Never employ those that are covetous and foolish in matters connected with Pleasure and Profit. Thou should always employ in all thy acts those that are free from covetousness and possessed of intelligence.” [Sec-71-p.159]

Honest people are to be appointed in government business. To quote:

“The king should set honest and trustworthy men over his mines, salt, grain, ferries, and elephant corps.” [Sec-69, p-152]

Duties should be assigned to persons on the basis of their capabilities, castes and competence and the hierarchy as regards duties should be strictly maintained and overlapping and confusion should be avoided. To quote:

“It is the eternal duty of kings to prevent a confusion of duties in respect of the different orders. The king should not repose confidence (on others than his own servants), nor should he repose full confidence (on even his servants).” [Sec-57, p.117]

The king should appoint competent and honest persons to various state services and arrange for collection of revenues without causing hardship of the subjects. To quote:

“Those means consist of the employment of spies and servants, giving them their just dues without haughtiness, the realization of taxes with considerateness, never taking anything (from the subject) capriciously and without cause, O Yudhishthira, the selection of honest men (for the discharge of administrative functions).” [Sec-58, p.120]

A competent and pious priest should be appointed to advise the king in all matters and prevent him from deviating from his duties and basic attributes or indulging in activities harmful to both himself and the subjects. To quote:

“By means of sound counsels he causes the king to earn prosperity. The Brahmana points out to the king the duties the latter is to observe. As long as a wise king, observant of the duties of his order, and bereft of pride, is desirous of listening to the instructions of the Brahmana, so long is he honoured and so long does he enjoy fame. The priest of the king, therefore, has a share in the merit that the king acquires.” [Sec-72-p-160]

“The king, with an eye to both religious merit and profit whose considerations are often very intricate, should, without delay, appoint a priest possessed of learning and intimate acquaintance with the Vedas and the (other) scriptures. Those kings that have priests possessed of virtuous souls and conversant with policy, and that are themselves possessed of such attributes, enjoy prosperity in every direction.’” [Sec-73-p-160]

A kingdom achieves prosperity with harmony only if the alliance between the king (Kshatriya) and the Priest (Brahmana) remains cordial. To quote:
“It is said that the preservation and growth of the kingdom rest upon the king. The preservation and growth of the king rest upon the king's priest. That kingdom enjoys true felicity where the invisible fears of the subjects are dispelled by the Brahmana and all visible fears are dispelled by the king with the might of his arms.” [Sec-74-p-163]

If the king disregards the counsels of the Brahmana and develops enmity with him the kingdom is confronted with hazards. To quote;  
“Ruin overtakes the kingdom of the Kshatriya when the Brahmana and Kshatriya contend with each other.” [Sec-73-p-161]  
“When each helps the other, both attain to great prosperity. If their friendship, existing from days of old, breaks, confusion sets over everything.” [Sec-73-p-161]

The following excerpt describes in detail the procedure of appointing the hierarchy of employees for the administration of the rural economy starting from a single village upwards to thousand villages. 

“A headman should be selected for each village. Over ten villages (or ten headmen) there should be cone superintendent. Over two such superintendents there should be one officer (having the control, therefore, of twenty villages). Above the latter should be appointed persons under each of whom should be a century of villages; and above the last kind of officers, should be appointed men each of whom should have a thousand villages under his control.” [Sec-87-p-p.189]

The duties of the chief official at each level are also clearly delineated. To quote: 

“The headman should ascertain the characteristics of every person in the village and all the faults also that need correction. He should report everything to the officer (who is above him and is) in charge of ten villages. The latter, again, should report the same to the officer (who is above him and is) in charge of twenty villages. The latter, in his turn, should report the conduct of all the persons within his dominion to the officer (who is above him and is) in charge of a hundred villages.” [Sec-87-p-p.189-90]

All the employees should be appointed after thorough investigation so that an employee shown favor at first is not to be humiliated later on. If the king indulges in such practices of honoring first and dishonoring afterwards he would simply increase his enemies. To quote: 

“The wise do not regard that situation happy in which there is honour first and dishonour afterwards. It is difficult to reunite the two that have been separated, as, indeed, it is difficult to separate the two that are united. If persons reunited after separation approach one another again, their behaviour cannot be affectionate. No servant is to be seen who is moved (in what he does) by only the desire of benefiting his master. Service proceeds from the motive of doing good to the master as also one's own self. All acts are undertaken from selfish motives. Unselfish acts or motives are very rare.” [Sec-111- p.245]

Revenue Administration

According to Mahabharata the major sources of state revenue consist of one sixth of the income from land, fines and forceful collection from the offenders. To quote:

“With a sixth part upon fair calculation, of the yield of the soil as his tribute, with fines and forfeitures levied upon offenders, with the imposts, according to the scriptures, upon merchants and traders in return for the protection granted to them, a king should fill his treasury.” [Sec-71-p.159]

The king should try to collect taxes from the entire kingdom as far as possible. To quote:

“The entire kingdom, in that case, becomes to him his treasury, while that which is his treasury becomes his bed chamber.” [Sec-87-p.191]

But in collection of taxes the king should always abide by the norms and principles laid down by the relevant sastras. Violation of this may lead to disaster for both the king and the kingdom. To quote:

“Those kings that do not, under the influence of passion and covetousness, levy oppressive taxes, and those that protect their own dominions, succeed in overcoming all difficulties.” [Sec-110-p.239]

“That avaricious king, who through folly oppresses his subjects by levying taxes not sanctioned by the scriptures, is said to wrong his own self.” [Sec-70-p-158]

Taxes should never be imposed without considering the capability of the payee. To quote:

“No tax should be levied without ascertaining the outturn and the amount of labour that has been necessary to produce it.” [Sec-87-p.190]
“I shall take from you what it may be within your power to give me.” [Sec-87-p.191]
“The king should, after reflection, levy taxes in such a way that he and the person who labors to produce the article taxed may both share the value.” [Sec-87-p.190]

For honest persons unreasonable and exorbitant taxes should never be imposed. The amount, method and time of payment should be convenient for the payee: To quote:

“The king should never impose taxes unseasonably and on persons unable to bear them. He should impose them gradually and with conciliation, in proper season and according to due forms.” [Sec-88-pp-192-93]

The economic prosperity of the country depends a good deal on the agriculturists and traders and they should never be oppressed by undue taxes. To quote:

“Take care, O king, that the traders in thy kingdom who purchase articles at prices high and low (for sale), and who in course of their journeys have to sleep or take rest in forest and inaccessible regions, be not afflicted by the imposition of heavy taxes.” [Sec-89-p-196] 

“Let not the agriculturists in thy kingdom leave it through oppression; they, who bear the burdens of the king, support the other residents also of the kingdom.” [Sec-89-p-196] 

The king should keep in mind that draining of the kingdom in order to raise revenue rapidly would stall progress of the country in the long run. To quote:

“Similarly, if the kingdom be drained much, the subjects fail to achieve any act that is great.” [Sec-87-p.191]

Although the king should try to collect revenue from as large a number of persons as possible, he should exempt the very poor in this regard. On the contrary, he should provide financial assistance to them. To quote:

“If the inhabitants of the cities and the provinces be poor, the king should, whether they depend upon him immediately or mediately, show them compassion to the best of his power.” [Sec-87-p.191]

The king should collect taxes in such a way that the payees do not feel any adverse impact of the taxes. They should be collected gradually and in small doses (in relation to the capability of the payee).To clarify the matter the examples have been cited of milking the cow without starving the calf, the carrying of the cubs by the tigress without injuring them, drawing of blood by the leech without pain of the victim etc. To quote: 

“A king should milk his kingdom like a bee gathering honey from plants. He should act like the keeper of a cow who draws milk from her without boring her udders and without starving the calf. The king should (in the matter of taxes) act like the leech drawing blood mildly. He should conduct himself towards his subjects like a tigress in the matter of carrying her cubs, touching them with her teeth but never piercing them therewith. He should behave like a mouse which though possessed of sharp and pointed teeth still cuts the feet of sleeping animals in such a manner that they do not at all become conscious of it. A little by little should be taken from a growing subject and by this means should he be shorn.” [Sec-88-p-192]

The king should honor the rich people who have amassed wealth by honest means and collect higher taxes from them by convincing them of their responsibilities for the country.

“The king should always honour those subjects of his that are rich and should say unto them, 'Do ye, with me, advance the interest of the people.' In every kingdom, they that are wealthy constitute an estate in the realm.” [Sec-88-p.193]

The dishonest persons should however be treated differently because, “It is impossible to behave equally towards all men.” [Sec-88-p-192]

Taxes should be imposed on dishonest and wicked forcibly. To quote:

“He should also forcibly take away wealth, much or little (as the case may require), from the ten kinds of offenders mentioned in the scriptures, for the protection of his subjects.” [Sec-69, p-152]

Besides collection of revenue tax machinery should also be utilized to curb harmful activities like prostitution, drinking, gambling etc. To quote:

“Drinking-shops, public women, pimps, actors, gamblers and keepers of gaining houses, and other persons of this kind, who are sources of disorder to the state, should all be checked. Residing within the realm, these afflict and injure the better classes of the subjects.” [Sec-88-p-93]

In case of foreign invasion or war it would be necessary to collect additional taxes. To quote:

“If in attacking an enemy's kingdom thy treasury becomes exhausted, thou mayst refill it by taking wealth from all except Brahmanas.” [Sec-70-p-158]

But this should be done tactfully and convincing the payees about the necessity of the additional imposition. To quote:

“A king conversant with the considerations relating to Time should, with such agreeable, sweet, and complimentary words, send his agents and collect imposts from his people. Pointing out to them the necessity of repairing his fortifications and of defraying the expenses of his establishment and other heads, inspiring them with the fear of foreign invasion, and impressing them with the necessity that exists for protecting them and enabling them to ensure the means of living in peace, the king should levy imposts upon the Vaisyas of his realm.” [Sec-87-p.191]

The tax collection machinery should be corruption free and the corrupt and oppressive tax officials should be punished and replaced by new ones. To quote:

“Those officers, O king, that take from the subjects more than what is due should be punished. Thou shouldst then appoint others so that these will take only what is due.” [Sec-88-p.193]

Caste System & Division of Labor

The epic insists that economic activities like agriculture, trade etc. should be conduced on the basis of division of labor. This is different from social division of labor on the basis of castes. It is the division of labour within each category of production on the basis of efficiency. To quote: 

“Agriculture, rearing of cattle, trade and other acts of a similar nature, should be caused to be carried on by many persons on the principle of division of labour.” [Sec-88-p.193]

The major social division of labor prescribed in the epic is based on the basic Indian rule – division of the society into four major castes viz. Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra and assignment of specific duties to each class. Their duties are in brief:

“Menial service attaches to the Sudra; agriculture to the Vaisya; the science of chastisement to the Kshatriya, and Brahmacharya, penances, mantras, and truth, attach, to the Brahmana.” [Sec-91, p-198]                 

The basic duty of the Brahmana is to study Vedas and he should have self-restraint and most other noble qualities. To quote:

“Self-restraint, O king, has been declared to be the first duty of Brahmanas. Study of the Vedas, and patience in undergoing austerities, (are also their other duties).” [Sec-60, p.129]

“He should observe the ordinances of the scriptures, should not be cunning and deceitful. He should be abstemious in diet, devoted to the gods, grateful, mild, destitute of cruelty, and forgiving. He should be of a tranquil heart, tractable and attentive in making offerings to the gods and the Pitris. He should always be hospitable to the Brahmanas. He should be without pride, and his charity should not be confined to any one sect. He should also be always devoted to the performance of the Vedic rites.” [Sec-61, p-134]

The epic mentions the acts which are forbidden for the Brahmana. In brief he should not undertake works assigned for the three other castes. To quote:
“Drawing the bow-string, destruction of foes, agriculture, trade, tending cattle, and serving others for wealth, these are improper for a Brahmana.” [Sec-63, pp-135-36]

“A Brahmana should avoid service of the king, wealth obtained by agriculture, sustenance derived from trade, all kinds of crooked behaviour, companionship with any but his wedded wives, and usury.” [Sec-63, p-136]

A Brahmana by birth, who deviates from this rule and adopts works meant for the other castes, would no longer be treated as a Brahmana. To quote:

“That wretched Brahmana who falls away from his duties and whose behaviour becomes wicked, becomes, O king, a Sudra. The Brahmana who weds a Sudra woman, who becomes vile in conduct or a dancer or a village servant or does other improper acts, becomes a Sudra.” [Sec-63, p-136]

“The Brahmana who is addicted to the practices of Kshatriyas and Vaisyas and Sudras, incurs censure in this world as a person of wicked soul and goes to hell in the next world.” [Sec-62, p-135]

From the above it may be inferred that according to the epic caste of a person was not determined by birth but by attributes. One ought to possess certain virtues to be considered as a Brahmana and he would be treated as a Sudra otherwise, even if he is born of Brahmana parents. 

However in distress a Brahmana is permitted to sustain his livelihood by works meant for the Kshatriya and failing which (war science is not easy to learn), he may adopt works of the Vaisyas. To quote:

“When a Brahmana loses his means of support and falls into distress, he may certainly betake himself to the practices of a Vaisya and derive his support by agriculture and keeping cattle, if, of course, he is incompetent for Kshatriya duties.” [Sec-78-p.169]

But even in distress certain trades are strictly prohibited for a Brahmana. To quote:

“Wines, salt, sesamum seeds, animals having manes, bulls, honey, meat, and cooked food, O Yudhishthira, under all circumstances, a Brahmana should avoid.” [Sec-78-p.169]

The most important duty of the Kshatriya is to protect his subjects. To quote:

“Whether he does or does not do any other act, if only he protects his subjects, he is regarded to accomplish all religious acts and is called a Kshatriya and the foremost of men.” [Sec-60, p-130]

The other duties of the Kshatriya are:

“A Kshatriya, O king, should give but not beg, should himself perform sacrifices but not officiate as a priest in the sacrifices of others. He should never teach (the Vedas) but study (them with a Brahmana preceptor). He should protect the people. Always exerting himself for the destruction of robbers and wicked people, he should put forth his prowess in battle.” [Sec-60, p.130]

The supreme importance of the Kshatriya as the ruler is vividly described in the following. The epic here emphasizes that the Brahmana has the supreme position in social hierarchy, but the real power of the society rests in the Kshatriya, i.e. the ruler. 

“Amongst men, the highest duties are those which are practised by Kshatriyas. The whole world is subject to the might of their arms. All the duties, principal and subordinate, of the three other orders, are dependent (for their observance) upon the duties of the Kshatriya. The Vedas have declared this.” [Sec-63, p-137]

“The learned have said that the duties of the Kshatriya afford great relief and produce great rewards. All duties have kingly duties for their foremost. All the orders are protected by them.” [Sec-63, p-137]

“Indeed, if these ancient duties belonging to the Kshatriyas be abandoned, all the duties in respect of all the modes of life, become lost.” [Sec-63, p-137]

Duties of the Vaisya are too very important as it is associated with production and wealth without which a country would perish. 

“A Vaisya should make gifts, study the Vedas, perform sacrifices, and acquire wealth by fair means. With proper attention he should also protect and rear all (domestic) animals as a sire protecting his sons. Anything else that he will do will be regarded as improper for him.” [Sec-60, p.131]

The Sudras are to serve the upper three castes and their position in the society, as prescribed by the epic, is really miserable. To quote:

“It is said that Sudras should certainly be maintained by the (three) other orders. Worn-out umbrellas, turbans, beds and seats, shoes, and fans, should be given to the Sudra servants.” [Sec-60, p.131]

“A Sudra cannot have any wealth that is his own. Whatever he possesses belongs lawfully to his master.” [Sec-60, p.131]

We’ve already mentioned in course of delineating the duties of the Brahmana, that caste system in ancient India was theoretically based on virtues of a person and not his birth. The view is substantiated by the following:

“Everyone derives his own nature from the nature of his acts, in respect of their circumstances, place, and means and motives.” [Sec-62, p-135]

“Men, however, are always engaged in those acts to which their propensities lead. Those propensities, again, lead a living being to every direction.” [Sec-62, p-135]

But the Mahabharata episode vividly points out that as early as the Mahabharata days, social practice had deviated considerably from the Vedic norms (although still emphasized theoretically in the epic as in the above quotations) of caste division on the basis of attributes. In reality, it was birth alone that was decisive as regards the determination of the caste of a person. For example we may mention the case of the great warrior Karna. He was in fact the son of the queen Kunti by the Sun God before her marriage and she had abandoned the illegitimate son and suppressed the fact in fear of social blasphemy. Later on Karna was brought up by a carpenter and known as his son and therefore Sudra. He was one of the greatest experts in the war science but was humiliated several times as a Sudra (as it was known by everybody on earth except Kunti).

To conclude we are to mention that the purpose of this article is simply to give a brief outline of the prescriptions in Mahabharata as regards the topics taken up in our study. The relevance of these prescriptions for India today would be taken up in another article.


Engels, Frederic (1884): The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Progess Publishers, Moscow, Eighth Printing, 1972

Kisari Mohan Ganguly (translator): The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, Book-12, Santi Parva, http://www.mahabharataonline.com/translation/index.php  - All quotations in the article have been cited from this book

Dr.Ratan Lal BasuRatan Lal Basu, Ph.D. (Economics) is an ex-Reader in Economics and Teacher-in-Charge, Bhairab Ganguly College, Kolkata, India. Dr. Basu has written & edited several books on Economics.

Apart from his passion for the field of Economics, Dr. Basu's other interests are Boxing & Small Game Hunting (gave up the nasty games during college life); Swimming in Turbulent Rivers (physically impossible now); Himalayan Treks, Adventure in Dense Forests, Singing Tagore Songs and also writing travelogues and fiction in Bengali and English.

Dr. Ratan Lal Basu can be reached at rlbasu [at] rediffmail.com.

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