Arjuna’s Concept of Punishment


Shanti Parva is the twelfth Parva among a total of eighteen Parvas (books/episodes) in the Mahabharata. This Parva, longest among the eighteen, follows the Stri Parva, which describes the grief that followed the great Mahabharata war. It is followed by Anushashana Parva, which is a continuation of its own theme. The Parva is traditionally divided into three sub-parvas: Rajadharma Anusasana Parva,  Apaddharma Anusasana Parva, and Mokshadharma Parva.

Although discussion on political concepts like state, justice, morality, righteousness, conduct of a ruler etc. can be found sprinkled across the Mahabharata, these ideas are dealt with most comprehensively in the Shanti Parva. Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers and the ruler of the Pandava Kingdom is counseled on the matters of state and governance by Bhisma, the grandsire of the Pandavas and Kauravas, and various sages who had assembled near him. This exposition of Bhisma on matters related to politics is considered to provide great insight into the classical Indian political thought. It is this lengthy conversation constituting a major part of the Parva that has received most of the scholarly attention but there are other discussions in the Parva that merit attention for unique insights into nuances of classic Indian political thought. 

In this piece, my aim is to situate Arjuna’s dialogue with Yudhisthira in the realm of mainstream political theory by drawing out concepts of a more universal nature from the dialogue. Arjuna extols his views on Danda (loosely translated as punishment) in this dialogue in the Shanti Parva.

The Context of the Dialogue

Shanti Parva opens with Yudhisthira suffering from exceeding grief as he reflects on the cost of his victory in the war. His already great grief is compounded by Kunti’s revelation, at the thought of having killed their own brother Karna in the course of battle. Yudhisthira’s great lamentation leads him to consider giving up the kingdom for a life of asceticism. He is counseled against this by his brothers – Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula, Sahdeva, and finally by Draupadi herself. The dialogue with Arjuna is particularly interesting because in its confusion, the dialogue mirrors Arjuna’s confusion before the war, but with roles reversed. Here Yudhisthira is mired in confusion and it is Arjuna in place of Krishna who provides counsel. After Draupadi’s advice to Yudhisthira, Arjuna resumes his conversation with his elder brother and it is in this second dialogue that we find his exposition on Danda laid out clearly. That is how the fifteenth sub-chapter of Shanti Parva begins, almost abruptly so.

Yudhisthira’s great lamentation leads him to a conclusion that it is the ascetic lifestyle of the forest-dwelling hermit that is the most ideal since it involves non-violence, forgiveness, control of the senses, and purity of mind. He compares their war with the Kauravas on the matter of kingdom to a pack of dogs fighting over a piece of meat. The first round of interventions by the Pandava brothers and Draupadi consists of ‘negative’ arguments in the sense that they tell Yudhisthira about why the decision to give up the Kingdom is not suitable and why he should not take recourse to a life of asceticism. In this light, Arjuna’s second intervention is a ‘positive’ argument because it extols the glory and necessity of royal power, and goes on to explain why the King who wields rightful authority is necessary for all classes of people to engage in their respective lifestyle – even the ascetics. He is thus making a ‘positive’ argument as to why Yudhisthira should give up grief and take up his sacred duty as a King. With this understanding, we can move ahead and look at the ideas contained in this dialogue.

Outline of Arjuna’s Argument

In this section, I will trace a general outline of Arjuna’s thoughts. To retain the essence of the Sanskrit text to the best extent possible, I have quoted both the Hindi (Damodar Satavlekar) and English (K.M. Ganguli) translations along with the original.

  1. “दण्डः शास्ति परजाः सर्वा दण्ड एवाभिरक्षति” (SP 15.2)

दण्ड ही समस्त प्रजा का शासन और पालन करता रहता है।

The man armed with the rod of chastisement governs all subjects and protects them.

  1. “दण्डः सुप्तेषु जागर्ति” (SP 15.2)

संपूर्ण प्राणियों की निद्रावस्था में भी दण्ड जागता रहता है।

The rod of chastisement is awake when all else is sleep.

“धर्मं संरक्षते दण्डस तथेवार्थं नराधिप, कामं संरक्षते दण्डस” (SP 15.3)

दण्ड ही धर्म, अर्थ और काम का रक्षक है।

The rod of chastisement protects righteousness and profit. 

“राजदण्डभयाद एके पापाः पापं न कुर्वते” (SP 15.5)

देखिये इस पृथ्वी पर कितने ही पापी पुरुष केवल राजदण्ड के भय से ही पापकर्मों में प्रवृत्त नहीं होते।

One class of sinful men desist from sin through fear of the rod of chastisement in the king’s bands. 

“यमदण्डभयाद एके परलॊकभयाद अपि, परस्परभयाद एके पापाः पापं न कुर्वते” (SP 15.5-6)

कोई कोई यमदण्ड और परलोक के भय से और कोई-कोई जातीय भय से पापाचरण करने में प्रवृत्त नहीं होते।

Another class desist from similar acts through fear of Yama’s rod, and yet another from fear of the next world. Another class of persons desist from sinful acts through fear of society. 

“एवं सांसिद्धिके लॊके सर्वं दण्डे परतिष्ठितम” (SP 15.6)

सब प्राणी केवल दण्ड-भय से ही अपने-अपने कार्यों में यथा रीति तत्पर हैं।

In this world, whose course is such, everything is dependent on the rod of chastisement. 

“दण्डस्यैव भयाद एके न खादन्ति परस्परम” (SP 15.7)

इस पृथ्वी पर बहुतेरे प्राणी ऐसे भी हैं जो केवल दण्ड-भय से एक-दूसरे का भक्षण नहीं करते।

There is a class of persons who are restrained by only the rod of chastisement from devouring one another. 

“यस्माद अदान्तान दमयत्य अशिष्टान दण्डयत्य अपि, दमनाद दण्डनाच चैव तस्माद दण्डं विदुर बुधाः” (SP 15.8)

दुष्टों का दमन एवं साधारण पुरुषों को शासित करता है, इसीलिए पण्डितों ने इसका नाम दण्ड रखा है।

The rod of chastisement has been so named by the wise because it restrains the ungovernable and punishes the wicked. 

“अन्धं तम इवेदं सयान न परज्ञायेत किं चन, दण्डश चेन न भवेल लॊके विभजन साध्वसाधुनी” (SP 15.32)

साधु और दुष्ट पुरुषों के बीच विभाग करने वाला दण्ड यदि न रहता तो सभी प्राणी अंधकार रूपी नरक में पड़े रहते।

If there were no chastisement in the world distinguishing the good from the bad, then the whole world would have been enveloped in utter darkness and all things would have been confounded. 

“नाभीतः पुरुषः कश चित समये सथातुम इच्छति” (SP 15.13)

भय रहित होने से कोई पुरुष भी नियम में रहने की इच्छा न करते।

The man that is without any fear never desires to adhere to any engagement or compact. 

“दण्डे सवर्गॊ मनुष्याणां लॊकॊ ऽयं च परतिष्ठित” (SP 15.43)

यह सम्पूर्ण जगत केवल दण्ड-प्रभाव से ही प्रतिष्ठित है।

Upon chastisement rests this world. 


To begin with, Arjuna’s first statement identifies the idea of order in society with the enforcement of just punishment. This is not a trivial connection as not all political philosophers will place the root of order in the idea of fear of punishment. This idea can be most clearly identified with a traditional conservative conception of order. At the root of such conception is an almost brute, pessimistic understanding of human nature.

In Arjuna’s theory, statement 4 echoes the sentiment that there is a whole class of people who do not resort to criminal behaviour simply because they are afraid of being meted out punishment. The statement 6 is even more expansive, absolutely so, and calls this fear the basis of all people in the world, and not just a specific class, being established in their duties and character. Thus the statement 10 follows in which the rod of chastisement is said to be the basis for the world itself being established (in stability).

This negative conception of human nature carries within itself a clear idea of what would happen if discipline and control were not to be enforced from above. The absence of a ruler (or state) failing to enforce rules and punishing the transgressions is linked to an anarchical situation in which there is permanent disorder. Here statement 7 provides a very graphic description of such a state by saying that in absence of Danda, people will devour one another. Kautilya in his Arthashastra while discussing the importance of Danda himself calls such a situation Matsya-nyaya and says that, “if (the rod) is not used at all, it gives rise to the law of fishes”. Matsya-nyaya is the situation in which no order prevails.The stronger fish eats the weaker fish and is in turn eaten up by the yet stronger fish. In the western tradition, this state, characterised by unrestrained and ruthless competition, is sometimes called the ‘law of the jungle’. Absolutist thinker Thomas Hobbes has described his conception of state of nature in his book Leviathan quite graphically. In his view, it would be characterised as a barbaric and unending war of ‘every man against every man’. 

A parallel to this line of thinking may also be found in the Legalist school of traditional chinese political and legal thought. Legalists also had a pessimistic view of human nature and characterised an overwhelming number of humans as “covetous and selfish.” The basic human disposition is said to be “to covet wealth and to avoid punishment” and therefore “punishments and penalties can deter people from misbehavior”.

The statement 3 and 9 echo the idea that there is a need for the legitimate authority to wield Danda so that people may follow proper rules and abide by engagements that they have entered into with other people. Thus the enforcement of mutual contracts that people enter into, as a basic role of the state, is also ultimately linked to its capability as a chastiser.

The statement 5 is significant because it takes the idea of Danda beyond its exercise by the ruler or the state. In this more expansionist idea, the ruler’s exercise of chastisement will not be enough since it is the fear of chastisement in the next world or fear of chastisement by the society that keeps many people in line who would otherwise have given way to criminal behaviour. This idea is a novel addition because in trying to be exhaustive, the ‘secular’ boundary of political thought has been crossed. The idea of chastisement after death or the fear of a social boycott playing a large part in keeping the people fixed in their expected behaviour is not something that forms a part of central theory of state. These ideas naturally lend themselves to a conception of society in which strict punishment meted out by a central authority plays a significant part in maintaining a civil atmosphere in which people can live without fear. However, there is also a degree of self-regulation in the society so far as chastisement of criminal behaviour is concerned. This is brought about by religious (“fear of Yama’s rod”, “fear of the next world”) and social (“fear of society”) forces. As to what instruments of the society deal with such chastisement and how exactly it is brought about, this is not mentioned in detail but the conception of a social order being regulated by systems other than those of state power clearly exists.


Arjuna’s dialogue used here is part of a long conversation in a big chapter which itself is contained within a grand epic. This gives us a sense of the richness of ‘political thought present in the Mahabharata. The dialogue utilised here should be noted for elaboration on a single thought, that is, the importance of danda in the governance of a kingdom. Although it cannot be called an independent theory, the dialogue contains many concepts of a theoretical nature. Such ideas can be compared to many ‘concepts’ that now form a part of what is considered mainstream political theory. Situating such parallel concepts together can enable us to do a full-fledged comparative analysis of these ideas with ideas expressed in other traditions of political thought. Such an analysis will be useful in defining the broad contours of classical Indian political thought .The field of political theory being an evolving discipline, such an exercise might also serve to enrich it by providing new concepts or making the old ones richer and more exhaustive.

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