For many motivated readers, a favorite strategy for deflecting criticism of Krishna's dubious advice to Arjuna is to argue that, based on the events in the Mahabharata, the justification for the war is absolutely clear (in comments, one person saw it on par with the Allied case against Hitler!). I responded to this point in part 2 of my essay (Part 1, Part 2) but it's worth drawing attention to it again:
Some defend the Gita by saying that the Kauravas’ bad behavior made the war unavoidable and eminently justified. Perhaps, but that’s not the point. The point is about the quality of the arguments Krishna uses to persuade Arjuna to fight. If the best moral justifications for the war purportedly exist outside the Gita, and some of the worst inside it, what have we left? Given all the bad faith reasoning and the starkly instrumental view of human life in the Gita, which many saw through even in ancient times, what makes the Gita a work of wisdom? Why not get the Gita off its exalted pedestal in our minds and let it be an uncelebrated episode in the Mahabharata—an artful plot element in an epic work of literature?
However, the case for "just war" is not at all clear in the Mahabharata. It's debatable—and not black and white—which is exactly what makes the Mahabharata great. For starters, the standard rules of succession were inadequate for the situation at hand: Dhritarashtra is blind, so his younger brother, Pandu, is made the king. But then Pandu lands a curse and retreats to the forest with his two wives, leaving Dhritarashtra to rule instead. Yudhisthira is the oldest son in the family but he and the other four Pandavas are not really fathered by Pandu (due to his curse), rather Pandu's two wives find some "divine" lovers in the forest (!), raising questions about the royal Kuru lineage of the Pandavas. Nor did Pandu rule anytime during Yudhisthira's life. So as the first son of the long reigning and elder brother Dhritarashtra—who in his heart wants his son to be the king—doesn't Duryodhana, a warrior as skilled as any and an able administrator, have a claim to succession as well? I mean a reasonable case can be made, right?
Meanwhile Duryodhana's ambition grows and he wants the entire kingdom for the Kauravas, not just the better half of the Kuru kingdom that he will inherit. He loathes the Pandavas, partly because he saw them as uppity and mean to him in their youth, as princes are wont to be. So as an adult, Duryodhana is scheming and vicious to the Pandavas. But he can be kind to others, such as to the low-caste Karna. "Birth is obscure," he said, "and men are like rivers whose origins are often unknown." So while the Kauravas are not all-bad (it's worth noting that the elders, respected by both sides, end up supporting them, however reluctantly), the Pandavas are not all-good. The Pandavas spurn and insult Karna based on his caste; Arjuna's pride leads to Eklavya chopping off his thumb—and his hopes and livelihood. Draupadi taunts Duryodhana and his father's blindness. And why does Yudhisthira get so little flak for gambling and losing everything twice, including his half of the Kuru kingdom (after being forgiven the first time, he is foolish enough to play again), even wagering his own wife's body? What kind of man does that? Can we trust his judgment again with a kingdom? (And this when his real father is none other than the Lord of Judgment, Dharma.)
Is it any less obscene that while the Gita's Krishna goads Arjuna to fight the supposedly evil Kauravas, he has asked his own Yadava army to fight on the Kaurava side—because he wants to be seen as neutral! Countless foot soldiers get killed—pawns in the dharmic imperatives of big men, which we are so eager to applaud. The Pandavas, too, break the protocols of war and we rationalize it, why? Further, was it, or was it not, in the public-interest to continue the 13 years of Kaurava rule? These are all legitimate readings, befitting great literature. I think people are too often blinded by their instinct to defend the side "God" is on, or they are too easily seduced by simple narratives of good vs. evil. Anyhow, that's my take this evening.
Image: Screen grab from Peter Brook's Mahabharata showing (L->R) Bhisma, Gandhari, Dhritarashtra, and Drona.