Tuesday 16 September 2014

The Shantiparva of Mahabharata

When I became a Judge in the Allahabad High Court in 1991 I was new to the job. So I thought of getting some guidance as to how to function as a Judge, and for that I turned to  the Shantiparva of the Mahabharata.

 When the Mahabharat war was over, Bheeshma Pitamah, the eldest among the Kaurav warriors, was lying on a bed of arrows. Lord Krishna told Yudhishthir that soon he was to become the King, as the Kauravas had been defeated. So he must learn statecraft ( raj dharma), and the best person to teach him this was Bheeshma Pitamah, who was shortly going to give up his body, and therefore this was the best opportunity to learn from him.

On Lord Krishna's suggestion, Yudhishthir went to Bheeshma Pitamah, and after paying obeisance to him, started asking him questions as to how a king should conduct himself. Yudhishthir would ask him one question, and Bheeshma Pitamah would reply. Then Yudhishthir would ask another question, and received the reply to that too. In this way almost the whole of Shantiparva consists of questions and answers.

 Among the things which Bheeshma Pitamah said to Yudhishthir was contained in this shloka :
 " Mridur hi raja satatam langhyo bhavati sarvashah
   Teekshrnyaat cha udvijate lokah, tasmaat ubhayam aashraya "
 " If the King is always lenient, nobody pays heed to his orders
    And if he is always harsh the people become terrorized

   Therefore a King should sometimes be lenient and sometimes harsh ( depending on the circumstances ) "

 Bheeshma Pitamah said the same thing in another shloka of the Shantiparva :
" Tasmaat naiva mridur nityam teekshno naiva bhavet nripah
   Vaasantarka iva shriman na sheeto na cha dharmadah "
 " Just as in the springtime ( vasant ritu ) the Sun makes the weather neither too cold nor too hot, so also the King should neither be too harsh nor too lenient "

 Bheeshma Pitamah goes on to say :

" The King should not always forgive, for then the wicked people shall regard him as weak and ignore him.
The King should take care of people who cannot take care of themselves, e.g. the old and the infirm. and punish the wicked.''

O Yudhishthir, I know that by nature you are forgiving and merciful, but the state cannot be governed in this manner. By always forgiving and being merciful, you will be regarded as a coward by the people and not given  respect.

O Yudhishthir. you must never oppress the weak or the poor, for then their anger will one day become like a raging fire and devour you. "

 There were many other such marvellous shlokas in the Shantiparva.

 I was totally absorbed in reading and thinking about all this for a long time. How could our ancestors think out such detailed and sagacious features of statecraft thousands of years ago ? What kind of people were they ? What sublime, lofty, and exalted ideas !

 The judicial function is a sovereign function, and used to be performed in earlier times by the King himself. Later, when the King acquired many other functions, he delegated the judicial function to his delegates, who became known as Judges. So the advice of Bheeshma Pitamah applies not only to Kings, but also to Judges.

  I followed this advice throughout my 20 year judicial career, from 1991 when I was appointed Judge of Allahabad High Court, to 2011 when I retired as a Supreme Court Judge.

  If a case came before me of a hardened criminal, or a big time financial crook, or of 'honour killing ', ' encounter killing ', dowry death,  harrassment of the poor by the rich and powerful, etc I was very harsh and gave harsh punishment.

 But if the case was of a handicapped person, a widow, a person in distress for no fault of his, an orphan, an oppressed or poor person, etc I was very tender and compassionate, and tried to bend the law as much as I could in his favour to give him relief.

 I recommend everyone to read the Shantiparva of the Mahabharata


  1. Good advice to follow in personal and professional life.

  2. Dear Sir/Madam,

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  3. Dear Mr Katju,Why don't you suggest Star Plus channel to create a serial on Shantiparv of Mahabharata like 'Satyamev Jayete".Your words will carry a lot of weight.At least you can send your this blog to the CEO under my request,in case you feel uneasy to do it yourself. I will be grateful if you react to my advice.

  4. Very very nice.... I am a big fan of Mahabharata .. Every abstract thought of it is Gold.