Ahiṃsā in the Mahābhārata: Sacrifice, Violence, and Salvation

How to Cite

Vishwa Adluri. (2022). Ahiṃsā in the Mahābhārata: Sacrifice, Violence, and Salvation: Journal of Vaishnava Studies. Journal of Vaishnava Studies, 26(2), 49–79. Retrieved from https://ivsjournal.com/index.php/jvs/article/view/408


The Mahābhārata, the epic encomium to dharma, declares noninjury to be the ultimate principle: ahiṃsā paramo dharmaḥ (1.11.12a).1
Yet, the contents of the epic are full of descriptions of violence. Not only does the narrative describe a bloody war, a raṇa; it is also narrated at the horrific sacrifice of the snakes by Janamejaya. Causes for violence and cases of grief and death are presented everywhere, alongside deep philosophical tracts. Scholars have been tempted, therefore, to ignore the philosophical messages and view the text—or the most important sections of it—as straightforwardly violent.2 In doing so, the excluded portions—and certainly the surprising doctrine of nonviolence3—are explained away as “interpolations” from other traditions: ascetic, heretic, or
Such approaches, however, run counter to the evidence of the text itself and to the traditional reception of the text as a dharmaśāstra and a mokṣaśāstra. In this contribution, I wish to avoid such reductive approaches, and argue for a more complex vision of the epic: one that understands the nature of time and the impossibility of absolute nonviolence, and yet, makes the strongest possible case
for it.

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