One of the purposes of the epic is to establish and impress upon the human mind the conception of an ideal humanity. It is this too that makes the epic endure through all the rub and flow of time. Of course, the Mahabharata which is much more subtle and complex in its craft does not draw a rigid dividing line between the good and bad human beings. It is not a Manichean point of view that it presents before man. All human beings have their own flaws and weaknesses even as all human beings have their strengths. The Pandavas are not perfect human beings, far from it. Nor are all those who stand on the opposite camp all bad and evil. Duryodhana is himself described as a great warrior. He has many defects but one thing he does not have is cowardice. He is also generous by nature. It is only because ambition and lust take the better of him that he becomes what he does and thereby meets his end in this inglorious way. So too the Pandava brothers are not all epitome of goodness. Yudhisthira, the very embodiment of dharma commits a serious mistake when he puts the kingdom and Draupadi as stakes in the game of dice. The wife and kingdom are not personal properties and yet he succumbs to this falsehood and hence must suffer for thirteen long years in exile even though he had lost the game through deceit. It must be understood here that in the ancient Aryan world humanity was not divided into virtuous and sinner according to some arbitrary moral rule of living but whether they lived in tune with their dharma or significantly deviated from it.
Virtue is an artificial coarse ill-fitting dress which is more of a temporary thing. Dharma is the real truth but dharma is a thing subtle and profound and cannot be captured simply in rule book of guidance for one and for all and for all times to come. Moral rules spring from the mind, dharma springs from the soul of man. Dharma is that which helps the individual towards the Eternal, the eternal truth of his being, the eternal truths that govern his own and world existence, the eternal Truth that is the basis of all creation. Dharma holds the march of humanity and keeps it moving in the direction of its upwards spiral of ascent. Adharma, on the other hand is all that stands in the way of human progress towards the Eternal. When man follows the deepest calling of his soul and his true soul nature, “swadharma” then he cannot go astray. But if his true nature is clouded and confused by the enemies of the soul namely lust and greed and fears and ambition and jealousies and various forms of delusions and confusions of the mind and heart, then he deviates from dharma and lands up with adharma. That the dharma is so subtle is revealed to us in the Gita itself. Arjuna’s conflict which is the starting point of the great song divine starts with such a conflict between two moral standards, to fight a just war or to refuse to fight so as to save his own people from perishing. Both seems justifiable to the intellect; one appeals to one line of moral reasoning that is justice while the other appeals to another law of life which is love for the family and the clan. The Gita bids Arjuna to rise beyond both and make his choice based on his intrinsic soul nature! If still there be confusion left then let him fight in submission to the Divine Will in creation and as manifested upon the battlefield of kurukshetra. The whole of Mahabharata is replete with this manifold and subtle understanding of dharma and adharma which are locked in the world in a strange wrestle and embrace. But since the centre-stage of the story are the Kshatriya type of humanity upon whom falls the mantle of protecting and preserving the social fabric against evil, the focus is largely on this aspect though from time to time we find many other aspects of dharma emerge as so many stories that form a necklace of rare jewels around the main epic.
Sri Aurobindo beautifully reveals to us the creed of the heroic Aryan warrior as enunciated in the Gita:
It is the creed of the Aryan fighter. “Know God,” it says, “know thyself, help man; protect the Right, do without fear or weakness or faltering thy work of battle in the world. Thou art the eternal and imperishable Spirit, thy soul is here on its upward path to immortality; life and death are nothing, sorrow and wounds and suffering are nothing, for these things have to be conquered and overcome. Look not at thy own pleasure and gain and profit, but above and around, above at the shining summits to which thou climbest, around at this world of battle and trial in which good and evil, progress and retrogression are locked in stern conflict. Men call to thee, their strong man, their hero for help; help then, fight. Destroy when by destruction the world must advance, but hate not that which thou destroyest, neither grieve for all those who perish. Know everywhere the one self, know all to be immortal souls and the body to be but dust. Do thy work with a calm, strong and equal spirit; fight and fall nobly or conquer mightily. For this is the work that God and thy nature have given to thee to accomplish.”
Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita: The Creed of the Aryan Fighter [CWSA 19: 13]