ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Burning the Forest:Anthropocentric and Non-Anthropocentric Valences of Dharma in the Mahabharata


Ramaswami Shankar - O P Jindal Global University, Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, India


17 – More Than Human: Animal-Human Relations in Pre-Modern South Asia


 In Book I of the critical edition of the Mahabharata, a gory and gruesome episode occurs which raises questions about the proper relations of human beings and the non-human world, according to the epic’s conceptions of dharma (duty, virtue, ethics, law).  At the request of the Fire god, Arjuna and Krishna assist in the burning of the Khandava forest, in which myriad, diverse creatures (e.g. elephants, lions, deer, birds, snakes, and demons) are massacred.  According to the Mahabharata, were Arjuna and Krishna on the side of dharma in engaging in this zealous assault on non-human life?  This paper will argue that while the epic approves of the forest burning, as a grand display of martial valor (the dharma of warriors, narrowly understood), it also regards the conflagration as an egregious violation of two, potentially higher, valences of dharma.  The warriors transgress anthropocentric dharma, in which good rulers are to protect and expand kingdoms, while allowing non-human species to live.  They also defy non-anthropocentric dharma, arguably the highest ideal of the epic, as that which sustains and promotes all life and the earth.  In burning the forest, the epic seems to suggest, human beings not only provoke the retaliation of non-human life (e.g. the vengeance of snakes), they invite mass, regenerative destruction upon themselves and the earth as a whole (i.e. the pralaya (world-dissolution)).