Duryodhana: The Antithesis of Morality, A Character Study

"What is in the Mahabharata can be found elsewhere,

but what is not in the Mahabharata cannot be found anywhere."

– Anonymous

The Mahabharata is said to be one of the primary myths governing India, maintaining popularity since its initial writing. The exchanges between the West, especially the British Empire, and India have brought The Mahabharata to a new audience. William Buck translated the epic into a condensed version that simplified the characters, plot, and concepts for this new audience, while also maintaining many of the mythic qualities inherent to the story. One such quality is found within each primary character representing a different aspect of the psyche. Because of the depth of The Mahabharata, their interactions paint a mythic road map, helping a person understand themselves through its images. One such character is Duryodhana, the Kuru prince, who represents the shadow at its most corrupt and morally reprehensible. An understanding of Duryodhana’s character will lead a person, Eastern or Western, to a necessary understanding of the dark side of the psyche. This understanding will bring a person closer to owning the shadow and achieving self-actualization, leading to enlightenment.

From the perspective of the Western reader, Duryodhana is a compelling character because his actions and behavior are counter to anything we find favorable. Within the framework of Western literature, exploring the hidden depths of psyche’s closet is much more interesting and necessary than analyzing the conscious world; thus, the prevalence of hero journeys and antiheroes in the stories. Due to the major differences between Western and Eastern cultures, one should ask why this tale is so compelling? One reason I would attribute to this phenomenon is the interest on the part of the West for the exotic nature of the East. When the British Empire controlled India, there was a vast wealth of exchange between the two societies, including goods, people and myths. The Mahabharata appeals to Western sensibilities because the myth focuses on the feud between cousins, raised as brothers. Western myths and fairy tales often focus on the single hero or ruler, and the story is of his or her quest. The Mahabharata offers five heroes, but they function mostly as a single unit fighting for their family honor against Duryodhana. In the context of chivalry, the match is unfairly numbered, but the five brothers are their strongest when they act as one unit and weakest when separated. Duryodhana is the worthy villain of a Western interpretation because he represents an antithesis to morality, as demonstrated below, showing that many moral tenants are universal and transcendent of culture and historical era.

Psyche’s Road Map: The Characters of The Mahabharata

Myths lay a framework for understanding not only the universe, but the psyche as well. Often, one can turn to myths, which lend themselves nicely to multiple interpretations, and find guidance. This is what Joseph Campbell describes as the psychological function of mythology: to help an individual understand his or her own role in the larger schema of society (Campbell 5). Within this understanding lies the secondary need of understanding one’s self. In the mythic story structure, all elements of the psyche are represented as the various characters. The hero, or protagonist, represents the conscious, complete with all of the moral and behavioral attributes the reader or participant either consciously possess or strive to possess. The antagonist, or villain, represents the primary manifestation of the shadow, the element of the personal unconscious that houses rejected attributes. The lover is the anima/animus, and is often the catalyst that either pushes the hero on a journey or provides companionship during the journey.

In The Mahabharata, the protagonists are the Pandavas. Each of the five brothers represents a particular heroic strength. For example, Yudhisthira demonstrates leadership and dharma, Bhima characterizes strength and fearlessness, Arjuna is the face of patience and compassion, Sahadeva is wisdom and Nakula is beauty. That the brothers are strongest when banded together is due in part to the fact that they are each dominated by a particular, though admirable, characteristic. Together, they reinforce each other, forming an almost undefeatable group. Yet they are weak when working individually. For example, Yudhisthira lost the kingdom and almost his wife too easily to the dice game with Duryodhana, allowing the stakes to rise higher and higher until he and his brothers had nothing left.

The Pandavas’ uncle, Dhritarashtra, is born blind because his mother closed her eyes when approached by Vyasa for his conception. For this reason he cannot be the king, despite being the first-born. He represents the unconscious. In a similar vein, his younger brother, Pandu, the pale-skinned king, represents consciousness. As the family patriarchs, they set the theme for their offspring. Being blind, Dhritarashtra has access to senses most conscious beings take for granted and is therefore likely to act and raise his children accordingly. For example, upon the birth of Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra begins to consider his son for king. Because he cannot see the effects of dharma on the family, his uncharacteristically emotional desire to have his son on the throne plants the seeds for the future disputes. His blindness also manifests itself in his responses to Duryodhana’s subtle manipulation to siphon the Pandavas out of the kingdom. Pandu, on the other hand, is noble and his light skin exemplifies the light in the darkness his sons are meant to bring. His death brought about the coming of darkness.

Duryodhana represents the shadow, which is appropriate for the son of the unconscious. He possesses all of the negative characteristics the Pandavas suppress, and he is also the poster character for the Kurus, because he is Dhritarashtra’s first son. As the shadow, Duryodhana’s behaviors are morally reprehensible. He is blinded by jealousy and greed for the Pandavas’ wealth and good fortune. He is easily prejudiced against them and holds deep grudges. He cheats, lies, and has no concern for any of the suffering his actions may cause (Sutton 307). His character is the antithesis to all heroic traits. In spite of all his ill deeds, Duryodhana experiences a heroic end and receives a place in heaven, the realm of self-actualization, typically reserved for conscious heroes. Similar to Jung’s model of the shadow, Duryodhana’s actions do harm against, not only the Pandavas, but against anyone caught in their feud as well. The goal of the Pandavas, as the sons of consciousness and light, is to "own the shadow" and to find the means of controlling it before it does irreparable harm to the kingdom.

Bhima represents the brute force of the brothers, and it is necessary for him to defeat Duryodhana to restore the Pandava honor. The two cousins were the same age and trained together under Drona’s tutelage. In order for the Pandavas to succeed, Bhima has to counter this aspect of the Pandava shadow, Duryodhana’s might and force, to bring the war to an end, a task symbolic of honoring the shadow. In his book, Owning Your Own Shadow, Robert Johnson presents an example of how a little violent action prior to a presentation, such as throwing a wet towel on the ground, releases built-up energy, and enabling him to give the presentation without fear, nerves, or other trepidations (46-47). This violent release allows the shadow a moment to surface and to be acknowledged before it is thrown back into the personal unconscious. In myths and literature, this is represented by a skirmish or a battle between the hero and either a minor or major shadow character. When it is a major character, such as Duryodhana, it enables the hero, consciousness, or heroes, the Pandavas, to finally pursue the boon or achieve the intended task, such as restoration of the kingdom. Because The Mahabharata is the myth of usher in the age of the shadow, the shadow has the last laugh and what seemed like a conscious victory was really a subterfuge: For all their efforts, Duryodhana still manages to receive a seat in heaven.

Briefly, Draupadi is the primary anima of Buck’s treatment of The Mahabharata. She is equally married to all Pandavas and plays the role of first wife, despite the subsequent wives some of the individual Pandavas gain. According to Jung, while the shadow represents the personal unconscious, the anima transcends this realm, helping pull a person into the collective unconscious (Jung 10). Duryodhana greatly insults Draupadi during the dice match, representing the shadow insulting the anima. Continuing the model of the psyche, the insult is the unconscious attempt to not yield completely to the pull of anima into the collective unconscious. It also communicates to the conscious an attempt to keep certain things unconscious. This insult of Draupadi acts as reinforcement of Duryodhana’s behavior while also fueling the Pandava hatred towards him.

The Birth and Death of Duryodhana

Gandhari had difficulties with pregnancy. She was promised by Vyasa to bear 100 sons and one daughter. Because of these difficulties, Vyasa arranged to have the unborn babies removed from Gandhari and buried in jars in the garden. When the time came, they were harvested as fully-grown children, the first one being Duryodhana, harvested on the same day at Bhima. The children of Dhritarashtra were born twice. Often, being born again gives the impression that one is closer to god-like. In Western religious traditions, children and adults are baptized, "born again," to forgive them their sins and enable them access to heaven when they die. In Eastern religions, reincarnation allows a person a second chance at enlightenment by being born again in another lifetime as another life form, animal or human. Duryodhana’s second birth occurs before he is truly born, corrupting him before he has a chance at life. Also, Duryodhana, prior to the incubation period in the jar, is one piece of a "hard ball of flesh," one among many (Buck 33). Because he was born first, Duryodhana was encouraged to become his own individual. This in contrast to the immaculate births of the Pandavas, each fathered by a different god at Kunti’s bequest.

In the last Great Vision of Yudhisthira, he is given the opportunity to visit heaven and is surprised to find Duryodhana there. Although Duryodhana may have lived an immoral life, he had a noble death, dying in battle specifically in one-to-one combat (Buck 367). Yudhisthira passes on a place in heaven, because it was a personal hell to him to share paradise with one so vile. This is Duryodhana’s last success: the shadow conquering the element of the self that is the key to self-actualization. Had the Pandavas been successful they would have defeated Duryodhana in a manner that gained them paradise, maintaining balance.

The Kali Yuga

The Mahabharata serves as the myth to usher in the Kali Yuga, a time that is the "worst of anything" (Zimmer 15). This is the time of social and political chaos, and the time when the world is at its most unbalanced, imaged, according to Zimmer, by a cow trying to stand on a single leg. Also, the Kali Yuga is the time of Kali, the goddess of death and transformation, who represents both creative and destructive principles. During the time of the shadow, Kali employs her destructive function and "takes back and swallows again the creatures brought forth" (Zimmer 211).

When the Pandavas battle Duryodhana, they hope to avoid the chaos and destruction established by the Kurus, beginning with their mutual great-grandmother, Queen Satyavati, who upset the balance of the fates when she asked her first-born son, Vyasa, to conceive heirs with her widowed daughters-in-law. Her primary concern was to keep her lineage on the throne, rather than obey the natural order. Succession was given to Pandu, the second-born of these sons, because Dhritarashtra, the first-born and rightful heir, was born blind and unfit to rule. Before the birth of Duryodhana, the shadow, dharma remained in a delicate balance. When Duryodhana was born, Dhritarashtra began to consider whether or not his son should be the rightful heir, questions that made their way to Duryodhana.

To right the perceived wrong, and to shift the dharma fully out of balance, Duryodhana challenges and cheats Yudhisthira out of his portion of Hastinapur, reversing Dhritarashtra’s gift of a portion of the kingdom to the Pandavas. Through his skills, Duryodhana "managed to undo the Partition of the ancestral kingdom but his actions had reopened the decades-old controversy about whether the legitimate successor to the throne was the oldest prince of the joint family … or the son of the oldest son of the previous king…" (Suri 53). The Mahabharata tells only of how the balance is upset amongst the royal family. In Buck’s rendering, we are given glimpses to how this imbalance affects others outside the family: other kingdoms fearing a battle with Duryodhana, woods people fearing the Pandavas as if they were Duryodhana’s forces, and the terrorization of the demonic forces. We do not see the oncoming shadow forces beyond the realm of the Kurus and Pandavas.

The Kali Yuga is thus also the time of dharma upset, a time when family fights amongst itself. The Pandavas feared this, but could not prevent it, suggesting that the imbalance was inevitable. This is further proven by Yudhishthira’s Great Vision, in which he saw Duryodhana in Paradise being rewarded for his heroic death and the Pandavas in an equivalent to Hell.

Duryodhana in Modern Times

In keeping with the impression that The Mahabharata contains lessons that resonate through mythology, I would like to briefly consider a couple modern shadow figures that resemble, to a degree, Duryodhana. The reason for this is to contextualize The Mahabharata, to bring its messages to a modern reader’s understanding, especially that of Western readers who are not immersed in the epic from a young age and may never experience its texts. This is to suggest that the shadow archetype, regardless of mythology, is dangerous and to ignore it can do damage both to the individual psyche and to the greater social function.

Modern politics is rife with Duryodhanas: leaders who have fought or manipulated election results so they could hold a seat of power. Once in that seat they refuse to let it go, removing or silencing opposition either legally, illegally, or by force. Because modern political seats, or “thrones,” are not passed among blood relatives in democratic societies, it is more difficult to honor and enforce any sense of dharma. Opposition leaders must rely instead on precedent and old documents to enforce their stances. Modern history has seen opponents constantly fight, like the Pandavas confronting Duryodhana, but we have also seen the opponents disappear from public spotlight, as though they were banished like the Pandavas. It is difficult to say which is more prevalent, the fighters or the silent opposition.

Leaders act without seeming to consider the results of their actions and any benefits toward the greater good. The Mahabharata does not give a full account of the kingdom because Duryodhana never fully becomes king. Instead, he manipulates his blind father into consenting with his actions in pursuit of his plans for when he does gain the throne. This includes removing the Pandavas, who are loved and respected, and battling neighboring kingdoms to expand what he intends on one day inheriting. According to Carl Jung, such recognition of a shadow figure’s actions and consequences thereof is “quite within the bounds of possibility for a man to recognize the relative evil of his nature, but it is a rare and shattering experience for him to gaze into the face of absolute evil" (Jung 10). This suggests that the shadow figures governing the modern world, the modern Duryodhanas, are bound by their very psychological make-up to behave the way they do. Confronting their true natures, to see themselves, is counter-intuitive to the pursuit of power.

The nature of evil has been studied in countless volumes from all disciplines. It is not my intention to undertake such a heavy task with this paper. I simply want to suggest, following the model for the psyche outlined above and the considerations I have presented of the Kali Yuga, that Duryodhana’s actions extend beyond literary, but represent an inherent collective human need to tend the shadow. I do not presume to imply that all cognizant beings across the world need to honor their own shadows, but, rather, state that to constantly and collectively ignore the shadow will eventually cause it seep into the collective psyche and manifest in the conscious world. I can almost picture this as being Kali’s Last Laugh prior to the launch of the next cycle.

Works cited

  • Buck, William, trans. Mahabharata. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1973.
  • Campbell, Joseph. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor. Ed. Eugene Kennedy. Novato: New World, 2001.
  • Johnson, Robert A. Owning Your Own Shadow. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.
  • Jung, Carl G. “The Shadow.” Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. Ed. Sir Herbert Read, et al. 2nd ed. New York: Bollingen, 1959. 8-10.
  • Suri, Chander Kanta. The Life and Times of Duryodhan. Characters from the Mahabharat 11. Delhi: Books for All, 1992.
  • Sutton, Nicholas. Religious Doctrines in the Mahabharata. Delhi: Notical Banarsidass, 2000.
  • Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Ed. Joseph Campbell. Washington, D.C.: Bollingen, 1946.

Works consulted

  • Gitomer, David L. “Raksasa Bhima: Wolfbelly Among Ogres and Brahmans in the Sanskrit Mahabharata and the Veniramhara.” Essays on the Mahabharata. Ed. Arvind Sharma. Leiden: Brill, 1991. 296-304.

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