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‘To understand Indian thought process, it is necessary to study the Mahabharata’: Dr Jaishankar explains ‘the India way’ through the greatest story ever told

Dr Jaishankar explains that Arjuna's behaviour as a warrior is often displayed by state players in international relations and major policy decisions. There often arises situations where the reluctance to take decisive actions comes not from the lack of capabilities, but, like Arjuna, the fear of the consequences.

India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar has been ruling the headlines since the day he took charge. A reinvigorated foreign policy with visible confidence that was glimpsed under Sushma Swaraj has now evolved into an assertive, assured and powerful projection of a rising India. If one follows the statements and responses of Dr Jaishankar on a world stage, the stark transformation from the apologetic, unsure India in the past years to a powerful nation aware of its strength is quite visible.

In his book ‘The India Way’, Dr Jaishanakr gives us an idea of how he sees India’s role in a changing world and how he wants the world to see India.

There is a chapter named ‘Krishna’s Choice: The Strategic Culture of a Rising Power’ where Dr Jaishankar explains why, for India to understand its strategies and goals, and for the world to understand India, it is necessary to study the Mahabharata, ‘the greatest story ever told’. The chapter starts with a quote by Goethe: “A nation that doesn’t honour its past has no future’.

Throughout the book, Dr Jaishankar has made one thing very clear. That is, a multipolar world is already here. This is something many Western powers seem reluctant to admit, at least in their statements and expectations from the rest of the world. In Dr Jaishankar’s view, the Indian thought process, choices and dilemmas in a multipolar world are a reflection, and in so many ways modern-day projections of the scenarios narrated in the powerful epic, The Mahabharata.

If there are today hurdles to understanding India’s viewpoint, much of that arises from an ignorance of its thought process. That is hardly surprising when much of the West was historically so dismissive of our society. It is revealing that the standard American introduction to Indian strategic thought does not even refer to the Mahabharata, though that epic so deeply influences the average Indian mind.

Dr Jaishankar in “The India Way’

Dr Jaishankar writes further that, just as it is impossible to comment on Western strategic tradition while ignoring Homer’s Iliad, or Machiavelli’s The Prince, or to try to understand China while disregarding their equivalent, Three Kingdoms, one cannot understand India without studying the Mahabharata.

He asserts that many of the challenges that India and even the world currently face have their analogy in ‘the greatest story ever told’.

धर्मे च अर्थे च कामे च मोक्षे च भरतर्षभ: |
यदिहास्ति तदन्यत्र। यन्नेहास्ति न तत् क्वचित्॥

The shloka in the great epic depicts its scale and scope quite effectively. It means, that whatever of Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha exist in this world, exist in this text (Mahabharata), and what is not in the epic, is not found elsewhere either.

Dr Jaishanakar explains that the India of Mahabharata was also multipolar, its leading powers balancing each other. When the fierce rivalry between two balancing poles could not be contained, other powers had to eventually take sides. The costs and benefits were constantly weighed then and weighed now too by relevant parties. The choices made by the powers define the current geopolitics.

Arjuna’s dilemma: The need to implement policies Vs the fear of consequences

Dr Jaishankar explains that Arjuna’s behaviour as a warrior is often displayed by state players in international relations and major policy decisions. There often arises situations where the reluctance to take decisive actions comes not from the lack of capabilities, but, like Arjuna, the fear of the consequences. Just as Arjuna could not choose his relatives, India did not choose its neighbours. We have to face the realities of our position and decide our path.

The expression of a ‘soft state’ describes a nation’s inability or unwillingness to do what is necessary, the EAM writes. India’s predicament has often been the same as Arjuna’s, especially in the fight against terrorism. We are often constrained by our lack of imagination and fear of risks, he writes. India’s response to terrorism has started to change, but like Arjuna, we will have to emerge as a righteous warrior who is willing to take risks, and face the consequences.

Asserting national interests and securing strategic goals is the dharma of a nation, as it was of an individual warrior in mahabharata. India needs to summon the willpower to address concerns that are upon us, rather than rationalize inaction by highlighting its costs.

Dr Jaishankar in “The India Way’

Blunt force is for imminent dangers and serial offenders

While asserting the need to be a righteous warrior who descends on the field ready to face the consequences and collateral damages that may be the cost of a conflict, Dr Jaishankar also highlights the necessity of displaying responsibility. ‘Power, as it grows, must be debated, projected and applied judiciously”, he writes in his book. Most of the military conflicts India faced had been defensive wars where justification was self-evident. But as the equations in the neighbourhood grow complex, India also needs strategic patience for the ‘modern-day Shishupalas’. Casual application of forces always leads to damage and blunt force, like the Sudarshan Chakra, should be reserved for serial offenders and imminent dangers. ‘Most strategists fight the last war, not the first’, the EAM explains through Krishna’s patience and long rope given to Shishupala. He also highlights strategic thought and application of wise choices, with Arjuna choosing Krishna’s guidance rather than his Narayani Sena. The choice had surprised Duryodhana, but Arjuna was aware of Krishna’s ‘game-changing potential’.

Asserting the need for making wise choices, the EAM writes that in a changing world, understanding the game-changing potential of capabilities that are over and above the established spheres of power, like artificial intelligence, robotics, data analytics and sensing, advanced surveillance etc are the need of the hour. Learning the importance of cards at hand, and playing them well, is the key in a new world, he explains. Duryodhana lost in that key aspect because he was oblivious to the significance of Sri Krishna, he just believed that the Narayani Sena will help him win.

Navigating the line between adherence to rules and occasional deviation

Dr Jaishankar notes the multiple instances in the Mahabharata of violations of the code of conduct, and how they were played in the long run. As the stakes mounted in the great war, rules and codes of conduct were laid aside. Duryodhana was killed with a blow that was literally ‘below the belt’. Bheeshma was brought down using a woman, Karna was killed when he was trying to make his chariot move, unarmed and unprepared. The worst of all was the killing of Abhimanyu.

However, rules, when adhered to and respected, prove to be very valuable in international relations, because, serial violators are given little credit when they comply while a responsible power, if it becomes an occasional disrupter, can always justify a deviation. “Powerful nations are understandably reluctant to put their options and interests at the judgement of others”, he asserts.

This is something Dr Jaishankar stated in a different way on Wednesday, 27 April while speaking at the Raisina Dialogue. “It is better to engage with the world on the basis of who we are rather than try to please the world as a pale imitation of who they are. The idea that others define us and we need approval, is an era that we need to put behind us.”

In the book, he underscores that the strength of an unorthodox player is to make an accurate judgement about the likely responses of the more orthodox and ruled-bound ones. In the modern world, open societies, the rule-based players often have to face less scrupulous competitors. “Fighting the uneven fight is their Karma”, and the most extreme situation in this context arises when rule-based players face state-sponsored terrorism, he says.

India’s response to terrorism: Handling an enemy that is suicidal

Dr Jaishankar cites two examples from the Mahabharata, to explain how suicidal small powers behave. King Susarma of the Trigarta kingdom was once humiliated by Arjuna. The Trigarta warriors made the single instance of humiliation their driving force, so much so that, they focused all their energy on exacting revenge, even at the cost of self-annihilation. Constantly pouring fire into the Kuru-Pandava rivalry, they had tried to flush the hiding Pandavas out from the Virata kingdom during their exile. In the war, they challenged Arjuna to a fight to the death. Though Arjuna did triumph in that battle, it came at a great cost. Arjuna’s absence from the battlefield eventually led to the death of Abhimanyu.

Similarly, Sindhu king Jayadratha’s vow to avenge his humiliation also proved to be very dear to the Pandavas. Dr Jaishankar says that though such unifocal competitors are rare, they need special attention. Because this is what Pakistan is for us, an enemy that has gone to extreme levels to hurt India, even if its own system is corroded by the very forces it nurtures. India cannot replicate Arjuna, but India does need strategic clarity while dealing with Pakistan because ignoring the visceral feelings of an adversary that is willing to self-annihilate proves very expensive.

The problem does not have a one-fix solution. But one of the solutions is to ensure that there is no longer guarantees of protection for terrorists. Naive notions that India’s engagement itself is a solution have to be put away, Dr Jaishankar asserts. India has to make terrorism very costly to sustain. Pakistan can only be treated as a normal neighbour when it starts behaving like one, Dr Jaishankar minces no words in making this clear.

Regime change and leveraging the external environment to own benefit: Two sides of the same coin

Dr Jaishankar discusses that regime change has long been in practice, since the time states existed. In Mahabharata, Krishna’s decision to eliminate Jarasandha not just served to put down an immediate challenge, it also removed a potential major obstacle from Yudhisthira’s path to becoming the emperor. Krishna, the leader of the Yadavas, also settled an old score. However, the killing of Jarasandha was also immediately necessary, because he was holding 98 princes captive and was going to sacrifice them once the number reached 100.

This regime-change operation also was an example of a group of less powerful nations combining their power against the dominant opponent, what we call in modern terms a ‘South-South cooperation, he explains. In killing Jarasandha, a national goal was obtained in the name of global good. Regime change carries a negative connotation mostly because the USA’s botched up attempts in Iraq, Libya and elsewhere, but if it must be done, it is best achieved by an ethical explanation that has credibility.

The other side of the same coin is leveraging an external environment, Dr Jaishankar explains. Though the Pandavas were outnumbered and outmatched by the Kauravas in military terms in the 7:11 ratio, they never hesitated from taking help. They invoked the very Gods to obtain potent weapons and rallied support from unorthodox allies.

Those who advocate strengthening comprehensive national power are certainly in the right, but that is the obvious answer. What should not be neglected is the skill to tap into the influence and power of others.

Dr Jaishankar in “The India Way’

Shaping the narrative, gaining the upper side through public opinion

Dr Jaishankar explains that in the Mahabharata, though the Pandavas were the victims through much of their lives, their ability to play victim was no less. Shaping, and controlling the narrative was something where they consistently scored high above their Kaurava cousins, through acts of valour and nobility. Their days of growing up in the forest, the murder attempt at the house of lac, the unfair partitioning of the Hastinapur kingdom and the subsequent ability to execute a start-up kingdom in Indraprastha, all of it gave the upper hand in public opinion. Eventually, the tragic and abominable treatment of Draupadi was sued as casus belli that was never allowed to dampen. In Jaishankar’s words, the final proposal of a reasonable settlement with just five villages was the ultimate masterstroke, significantly shifting the opinion in their favour just on the eve of war.

He explains that there is a broad correlation between occupying the high moral ground and shaping the narrative. During the cold war, one side put their argument for democracy, personal freedom and a market economy, while the other side stressed on social justice and the common good. As China rose globally, it has tried to amplify its message of prosperity and peaceful character. The West in general and the EU in particular, has reinvented itself by championing global issues. As India rises, it will also have to take a call on its own narrative, and decide what message it wants to give to the world.

“A society that would soon be the most populous and prominent in its economic size cannot be without its message”, Dr Jaishanakr asserts. In the past, there was comfort in group mentality and non-involvement. As India rises in a rapidly changing world, we won’t have that comfort for long.


Dr Jaishanakr writes that in Mahabharata, the subtext that runs is the balance between powers. in modern-day contexts, the intuitive feel for creating and maintaining such balances has been diminished in our country. In going forward, as we enhance our capacities, the confidence level will have to be improved too. Realising that national interests will have operational costs, and making those difficult choices is the responsibility of leadership. Like the Pandavas, born to different mothers and equipped with unique skillsets, diversity and the successful integration of those diversities are our strengths. Blessed with both social pluralism and extreme individualism, India has to grapple with set habits, administrative reforms and break silos to bring about effective implementation of policies, he adds.

Dr Jaishankar writes that the determining factor in the Mahabharata was Sri Krishna. Like Sri Krishna, to become the master of the game, one needs to see the big picture, fashion a strategy accordingly and come up with tactical solutions to achieve goals. “As Indians prepare for greater contributions, they must rely on their own traditions to equip them in facing a tumultuous world. That is certainly possible in an India that is now more Bharat. As we make our choices in a world of all against all, it is time to come up with our own answers”, he concludes.

Dr Jaishankar’s book ‘The India Way: Strategies for an uncertain world’ is available both in print and e-book format here.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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