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Arjuna the protagonist of the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, encounters a significant moral quandary during the story. During a civil insurrection, Arjuna the prince of Pandavas was valiantly leading his army to victory when he is faced with a tough decision. In the middle of battle, he recognizes some of the faces of the soldiers in the opposing army. Former teachers, friends, and even family members. Naturally, Arjuna was conflicted about having to fight his loved ones and friends in battle. How could anyone of us turn the sword on one of a member of our own family? Choosing between defending one’s honor and family is an impossible decision to make. The tug-of-war is an existential struggle between duty and the desire for his family to be safe. Does duty weigh heavier on the obligations of an aspiring young ruler than blood? This scenario of conflicting interests leaving Arjuna in an ethical stalemate has become known as Arjuna’s Dilemma.  

How does our hero break out of his moral conundrum? The young prince receives sage advice from an unlikely source. Little does Arjuna know that his charioteer is the Hindu deity Krishna and had been observing his struggling with having to kill his friends in family in combat. The wise god explains to the prince that duty supersedes everything else even familial ties. Arjuna’s duty is to his subjects. To passively allow a violent civil-war to transpire without properly defending his people, his title to rule; would be an abandonment of duty. It is important to note, that we should not be consumed by duty. The moment duty crosses the line to desire we are drifting away from wisdom and enlightenment. It could easily be surmised that duty isn’t converted into desire until duty is combined with ambition. At that point, our “pursuit” of duty is more of self-serving objective than fulfilling a moral obligation. Whether we are being motivated by material gain, vanity, or another self-centered purpose. The excessive drive to fulfill duty generally indicates our endeavor is beyond the scope of our societal obligations.

Aspects of this allegory may not apply to every time in history or every culture, it still conveys a universal message that applies to humanity. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be consumed by work. Yes, we have a duty to ourselves and our families to be self-supporting. However, when we allow our work-life balance to become skewed towards work, we are starting to allow ourselves to be consumed by duty.  It may be the prestige of being an employee of the quarter or the dangling carrot that is the empty promise of promotion. Often these goals are beyond the reach of our immediate duty. Typically, these aspirations are outside of the realm of moral duty. Sure, we all want nice things. To own a nice house, the white picket fence, the American Dream.

There is nothing wrong with desiring to have a comfortable life from a material standpoint. However, what everyone needs to assess is what are we sacrificing to make this happen? In a circuitous manner, this what Krishna articulated to Arjuna. Adhering to your duty is a natural safeguard that prevents you from being commandeered by your desires. A normative limitation that keeps us in check. Focusing on duty, rather than wealth or esteem, keeps us grounded. Like all things in life, there is a balance. If you are working so many hours that you barely see your family. You are potentially abdicating your duty to your family. While you do need to provide financial support to them, they also require your intangible support as well. Including emotional support. Having a worldview that considers duty keeps us grounded and focused on what is important versus being led astray by distractions. When our ambitions become our focal point, we end up levitating towards the end of the duty fulfillment bell curve. Just as much as having a lack of motivation and succumbing to sloth is a failure to fulfill our duty. It is a vice that happens to be on the opposite of the distribution as excessive ambition. Nevertheless, two sides of the same coin.

4 thoughts on “Arjuna’s Dilemma

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