Book Review : Strategic Choices, Ethical Dilemmas: Stories from the Mahabharat

 By Abhilash Kolekar
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Narlikar, A., Mattoo, A., & Narlikar, A. (2023). Strategic Choices, Ethical Dilemmas: Stories from the Mahabharat. Penguin Random House India Private Limited.

From time immemorial, the stories from the Mahabharat have served as a guiding post for countless individuals. The stories depict the dilemmas one faces and the consequences of the decisions taken. In the realm of diplomacy and foreign relations, the stories from Mahabharat are often quoted to highlight the complexities and nuances certain situations pose. Inspired by this, the authors took on this project to encapsulate the valuable lessons offered by select stories in the epic. Mahabharat is an excellent source for understanding war tactics and strategy. However, the treatise is not limited to it alone; it goes beyond and talks about morality, duty, virtue, and law.

The book contains 11 chapters, the initial one serving as an introductory base and the second chapter laying out the overall structure of the epic. Chapters three to 11 contain nine stories that have been picked from the epic. Each chapter is divided into three parts; the first part narrates the story, the second part offers insights to be utilised in personal lives, and the third part gives lessons for the policy domain by drawing parallels with contemporary developments. The authors argue that they have deliberately chosen the medium of stories and not focused on key protagonists or philosophical interpretations of the epic. They perceive that the stories are the medium that binds the old and new imaginaries. The work relies primarily on the Sanskrit edition of Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) as the source of literature. Apart from BORI, the authors have also relied upon the longer Ganguly and Gita Press Editions.

The book offers a unique take by drawing well-known and lesser-known stories from Mahabharat and offers lessons for different aspects of modern life. The primary motivation for the authors was to share with scholars, practitioners, and lay readers the invaluable lessons these ancient stories offer for our personal and public lives. The following throws light on the stories explored in the book and the insights and lessons drawn from them. The first story brings out the significance of alliance and partnership through the story of Ved Vyaas and Lord Ganesh. Vyaas, the author of the Mahabharat, wants to pen down the epic, but given the enormity of the task, approaches Ganesh. The latter accepts the offer but states that the diction should be continuous and unbroken. Vyaas agrees with the offer but puts forth a counter-condition that Ganesh should not write anything before fully understanding the context of what is being said. The story teaches the importance of teamwork, choosing the right partners, and that bargaining and negotiation are necessary and should be embraced as such among partners. It also teaches one to be solution-oriented, more so with allies than rivals.

The second story highlights the importance of focusing on the big picture through the story of Arjun’s ability to focus solely on the aim and tune out all other distractions. In the foreign policy domain, it is necessary to have a well-defined grand strategy to achieve policy coherence. Further, differentiation between “first-order, non-negotiable goals vs second-order goals” helps in the prioritisation process. In the third story, the authors discuss the significance of creating bonds by transcending social barriers. The friendship between Duryodhan and Karn is well known. Despite the former being raised in royalty, it didn’t stop him from embracing the latter as his friend and ally. By drawing parallels in the contemporary world, the authors highlight the need for an inclusive approach for global governance institutions to be truly effective.

On the need to respect all beings and to move beyond the Western anthropocentric model. The fourth story is about the dialogue between Yudhishthir and a magical being of the Lake, highlighting the importance of respecting the “right to live in dignity” of all beings, not just humans. The fifth story brings out the key lessons offered at the core of Hindu philosophy, i.e., the Bhagavad Gita. Before the start of the battle, Lord Krishn delivers sermons to the distressed Arjun about the need to perform one’s duty and not to obsess over the outcome. In the contemporary context, the Bhagavad Gita stresses the importance of resorting to war as a last resort only when all other options have failed. This line of thought is similar to the ”just war” concept as expounded in the liberal traditions of international relations.

In the present world, where fake news and disinformation campaigns are at their peak thanks to digital technology. The sixth story narrates how a great warrior like Dronaacharya fell victim to the deceptive means adopted by the Pandavas. Through the story, the authors highlight the importance of how narratives work and the need to verify news before broadcasting. On the importance of flexibility and adaptability, the seventh story narrates the tale of Karn and Snake Prince. Both the characters had similar interests in bringing down their common adversary, Arjun. However, their alliance fails to materialise as Karn considers it as below his honour to accept assistance from a third party. The story highlights the importance of maintaining flexibility in one’s strategic choice.   

On the values of being a compassionate ally and not abandoning a partner during their times of need. The eighth story depicts the tale as narrated by Bhishm to Yudhishthir on his deathbed. Moved by a Parrot’s devotion to a tree despite its inevitable death, Indra, the King of Gods, blesses the tree with eternal life. The authors cite the example of India and Russia’s friendship and their history of being available for each other during times of need. The final story is about the loyal dog accompanying Yudhishthir on his final journey towards achieving salvation, called “Mahaprasthan”. Similar to the values highlighted in the fourth story, the final one also stresses the importance of conserving all beings.

In conclusion, the book serves as an interesting read for those familiar with the stories of Mahabharat and who are seeking to draw parallels with the settings of contemporary world politics. For the unversed, the authors have put effort into keeping the book flow simple and lucid enough to understand the context of the lessons offered. On the shortcomings, some of the analogies made between the stories from the epic and present-day politics may come across as debatable. The events in the Mahabharat are of a time different than ours, and drawing parallels to today’s world may not be accurate. However, given the universality of human concerns and the timelessness of certain values, the Mahabharat continues to be a source of inspiration and guiding post. Herein lies, the book’s distinguishing feature that it provides a  thought-provoking exploration of ethics, strategy, and human nature across time. This book is a recommended read for scholars, policy makers and lay readers alike.