When I discuss the Mahabharata with my Hindu friends and relatives I am often struck by their insistence on Duryodhana’s unambiguous wickedness. This is a common sentiment online as well as in published commentaries, but I find it odd. It is uncontroversial to point out that the character depth of the entire cast of the Mahabharata comes largely from their moral ambiguity. Why is Duryodhana the lone exception to this?
Here I offer an alternative view of Duryodhana and his role, which I believe to be more properly supported by the Mahabharata’s text, and historical context.
I posit that Duryodhana while certainly the antagonist of the Mahabharata was written as a morally nuanced, or even sympathetic character. His role is to embody a philosophy of ritualism and Kshatriya Dharma (warrior morality), which inevitably and irreconcilably conflicts with the Bhakti (devotional) Dharma represented by Krishna. However, as I will show, Duryodhana conforms too well to the image of a “good Kshatriya”, and is treated far too well by divine figures to be a pure villain.
His admirable traits such as loyalty, efficient governance, honorable and skilled warfare, power, and boldness represent Kshatriya Dharma at its best, uncontextualized by devotional religion. His negative traits such as wrathfulness and treachery, as well as his defeat at the battle of Kurukshetra serve to illustrate the perils of pursuing one’s earthly duties without devotion to Krishna and the self-control, which it brings.
Duryodhana’s Crimes: Since are commonly repeated and well known, I will make this section short.
- Deception and dishonesty: He cheated the Pandavas out of their kingdom in a rigged game of dice, and then sent them into exile for 13 years. Afterwards he still refused to return their kingdom as per their agreement.
- Malice: He tires to murder the Pandavas by offering them a palace made out of ghee, oil, and lac, and then igniting it while they are sleeping. He also tried to poison and drown Bhima multiple times.
- Cruelty and disregard for honor: Duryodhana brings Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas into his court and attempts to have her garment torn off her body. In the context of the epic, this is seen both as public humiliation and sexual violence. Of the crimes listed so far, this is usually considered the most serious. He also disregards battlefield honor when following Abhimanyu’s slaying of his son Lakshamana, he commands all of his soldiers to attack Abhimanyu at once.
However there is an additional “crime”, which subsumes all of the above:
- Rejection of Krishna’s divinity: On multiple occasions Duryodhana shows that he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that Krishna is divine. He chooses Krishna’s army over Krishna himself to aid him in battle. Later on he attempts to have Krishna arrested. Defiant till the end, on his deathbed he condemns Krishna for violating the rules of combat. Throughout his life he treats Krishna, as an equal bound by the same Kshatriya Dharma as himself, rather than as a God who is “above the law”.
Duryodhana’s crimes and virtues must me examined in the context of the established duties of a Kshatriya. To determine these, I’ll use Manavadharmashastra/Manu Smriti as a guideline. I think this is justified, as Manu Smriti is cited by other Indian texts far more frequently than any other dharma shastra, and between one third and one half of it is either borrowed from, or copied by the Mahabharata’s authors.
Manu Smriti warns kings against inflicting wrath and treachery on their opponents. Duryodhana rarely exhibits self-control in respect to these vices, and in that sense fails to completely uphold his Kshatriya Dharma. However, Manu Smriti also repeatedly praises power and conquest on their own terms. Warriors and kings are encouraged to gain and maintain political power, rule justly and efficiently, and conduct honorable and successful conquest with far more repetition and emphasis than they are instructed to refrain from vices. It might be hard for modern Hindus to accept, but at the time of the Mahabharata’s writing, Kshatriya Dharma essentially consisted of a “master morality” stressing nobility and power over love and sentiment.
Certainly Duryodhana’s crimes are violations of his Kshatriya Dharma, but in light of his Kshatriya virtues they alone do not suffice to completely villainize him.
Friendship, and Respect for Merit: When Karna was prohibited from competing against Arjuna in an archery contest due to his low birth, Duryodhana granted him a kingdom thereby removing his low caste stigma and enabling him to compete. In doing so, Duryodhana demonstrates the Kshatriya practice of fostering alliances with those who are initially politically weak, but who have future potential to be mighty allies. However, this was not a purely strategic alliance, as the two of them develop a deeply loving and trusting friendship over the course of the epic. Indeed their bond is one of the strongest in the entire Mahabharata, and Duryodhana is emotionally crushed when Karna dies.
Benevolent Rule: This virtue is more controversial given that the welfare of the kingdom’s citizens is the primary moral justification for the Pandavas decision to reclaiming their kingdom by force. Nevertheless, the quality of Duryodhana’s reign is made clear in the text twice following his death.
- When the citizens of Hastinapura are informed that Duryodhana has died, they react as follows:
“…all the people…filled with great anxiety, wept loudly… The whole city, O tiger among men, including the very children, hearing of Duryodhana’s death, sent forth lamentation from every side. We then beheld all the men and women running about, deeply afflicted with grief, their senses gone, and resembling people that are demented.” –Shalya Parva, Section 1
This is hardly the reaction we would expect if Duryodhana were a ruthless tyrant.
- In Asramavasika Parva after Duryodhana’s death the people of Kurujangala elect a Brahmana to communicate a message to Dhritarashtra. He says “King Duryodhana never did us any wrong”, that under him they were “well protected”, “enjoyed great happiness” and were governed just as well as under any of the previous Pandu kings.
It makes sense that Duryodhana would rule well. Rather than being committed to religious ideals like the Pandavas, he was committed to earthly striving under the code of conduct delineated by his Kshatriya Dharma, which includes being a good king.
Honorable Battlefield Conduct: Despite his deceit outside the field of war, when on the battlefield he adheres to the established rules of engagement with remarkable consistency compared to his adversaries. ♠ Balarama refers to Duryodhana as a “fair warrior” who “shall obtain eternal blessedness” by his actions on the battlefield. Duryodhana’s later presence in heaven proves Balarama correct. Being a good Kshatriya entails following the rules of engagement, so it makes sense that he tries concertedly to follow the laws of war.
Contrast this with Krishna who considers himself “above the law”—that is to say above the constraints of Kshatriya Dharma. This is an affront to Duryodhana’s ethical code. On his deathbed Duryodhana (accurately) accuses Krishna of causing the deaths of Drona, Bhisma, and Karna, by dishonorable means. Such chiding however is unlikely to sway Krishna or the Pandavas. The Pandavas feel free to violate the rules of combat at Krishna’s behest, because in their ethical framework devotion to Krishna comes before adherence to their Kshatriya Dharma. They believe that actions committed with devotion to God transcend any earthly rules of conduct. On the battlefield, the Pandavas are willing to violate the secular letter of the law to preserve its spirit as conceived by Krishna. Duryodhana, lacking a belief in Krishna cannot appeal to such religious notions to contravene his explicitly delineated duty. This whole conflict is an obvious allusion to the ongoing conflict between Vedic warrior morality and devotionalist Vedanta.
Power and Prosperity: The ultimate goal of a Kshatriya second only to protecting his subjects, is conquest and the expansion of his power and wealth. During his life Duryodhana maintains rulership over a huge swathe of territory and enjoys fantastic riches. That modern Hindus tend to dwell on Duryodhana’s attraction to power and wealth as a point of criticism shows how thoroughly this ancient Kshatriya Dharma has been expunged from Hinduism. If we are to judge him on his own terms, his power seeking nature must be considered a virtue. Duryodhana is certainly unrepentantly proud of it at his moment of death:
“I have performed sacrifices, supported a large number of servants properly, governed the whole earth with her seas! I stayed on the heads of my living foes! I gave wealth to my kinsmen to the extent of my abilities, and I did what was agreeable to friends. I withstood all my foes. Who is there that is more fortunate than myself? I have made progresses through hostile kingdoms and commanded kings as slaves. I have acted handsomely towards all I loved and liked. Who is there more fortunate than myself? I honoured all my kinsmen and attended to the welfare of all my dependants. I have attended to the three ends of human existence, Religion (Virtue), Profit, and Pleasure! Who is there more fortunate than myself? I laid my commands on great kings, and honour, unattainable by others, was mine, I always made my journeys on the very best of steeds. Who is there more fortunate than myself? I studied the Vedas and made gifts according to the ordinance. My life has passed in happiness. By observance of the duties of my own order, I have earned many regions of blessedness hereafter. Who is there more fortunate than myself? …. That which is desired by good Kshatriyas observant of the duties of their order, that death, is obtained by me! Who is there so fortunate as myself?” (Alternative translation of “Dharma” added) –Shalya Parva, Section 64 
In glorifying himself and defying Krishna’s effort to overturn the old order up until the very end, Duryodhana simultaneously embodies the highest virtue according to Kshatriya Dharma, and the lowest sin according to Vedanta.
Divine Endorsement: If the authors of the Mahabharata considered Duryodhana’s course to be an unmitigated evil, then we would expect divine figures to laud his death and praise the Pandavas for destroying him. Instead, immediately following Duryodhana’s final statement the following occurs:
“‘Upon the conclusion of these words of the intelligent king of the Kurus, a thick shower of fragrant flowers fell from the sky. The Gandharvas played upon many charming musical instruments. The Apsaras in a chorus sang the glory of king Duryodhana. The Siddhas uttered loud sound to the effect, “Praise be to king Duryodhana!” Fragrant and delicious breezes mildly blew on every side. All the quarters became clear and the firmament looked blue as the lapis lazuli. Beholding these exceedingly wonderful things and this worship offered to Duryodhana, the Pandavas headed by Vasudeva became ashamed. Hearing (invisible beings cry out) that Bhishma and Drona and Karna and Bhurishrava were slain unrighteously, they became afflicted with grief and wept in sorrow.“ –Shalya Parva, Section 61
As further evidence of the authors’ sympathy, Duryodhana ends up achieving through his actions. When Yudhishtra (also in heaven) sees this and becomes enraged, Sage Narada explains that because Duryodhana caused “his body to be poured as a libation on the fire of battle” and “through his observance of Kshatriya practices” he attained heaven. ☀ These incidents of divine approval and specific references to Kshatriya virtues seem to indicate that although the authors remain firmly on the side of Krishna and the Pandavas, they are unwilling to condemn Duryodhana for following his Kshatriya Dharma.
Analysis and Conclusion: Dhuryodhana’s character represents the consequences of following an earthly, self oriented path as ordained by the more conservative, ritual centric Vedic texts. Through adherence to warrior morality he achieves power, wealth, and a noble death. The Pandavas take their Kshatriya Dharma as a general guideline, but are willing to violate it at the behest of Lord Krishna. Their devotion to Krishna leads to their ultimate victory over Duryodhana, illustrating the superiority of the new Vedantic system to the older warrior code.
The narrative is unmistakably pro-Pandava, but it also portrays Duryodhana as a relatively consistent practitioner of Kshatriya orthopraxy for which he is lauded. What could be the explanation for this apparent inconsistency?
The obvious answer to me lies in the fact that over the period of the Mahabharata’s composition, Indian religion was in a period of intense flux. There was a “reformation” of sorts underway comparable to the moral shift, which Nietzsche describes taking place in Europe after Christianity supplanted Paganism, albeit slower and more intermittent. Devotional texts like the Bhagavad Gita positing a newer “softer” morality were written concurrently with conservative, texts like Manu Smriti positing ritualism and conquest as moral goods. As evidenced by the Mahabharata, devotionalism was clearly the stronger trend and ultimately supplanted the old warrior morality with near totality.**
The precise details of and when and by whom the Mahabharata was composed will probably never be known. Did it occur over a long stretch of time with authors sympathetic to both conservative and devotional trends contributing (Edward Hopkins’ and Arthur McDonnell’s theory)? ✝ Was it composed rapidly by a small group or single author whose perspective was shaped by both trends (Dahlmann’s theory)? ℧ By whatever mechanism, the conservative trend embodied by Duryodhana shines through is certainly treated with sympathy and respect.
♠ The notable exception being the previously mentioned killing of Abhimanyu.
☀ Some argue that Duryodhana’s presence in heaven was part of Narada’s illusion meant to test Yudhishtra. I think this is a misreading of the text. The purpose of the illusion is to test whether or not Yudhishtra would give up heaven to be with his family. Therefore, Narada’s illusion was not that Duryodhana HAD achieved heaven, but rather that Karna, Dhrishtaketu, Abhimanyu, etc. had FAILED to achieve heaven. Duryodhana’s achievement of heaven is indirectly confirmed after the illusion is lifted in Svargarohanika Parva section 3: “Indeed, he reached that place where those foremost of men, those heroes, viz., the Pandavas and the Dhartarashtras, freed from (human) wrath, were enjoying each his respective status.” and in section 5: “Those that had fought on the side of Duryodhana are said to have been Rakshasas. Gradually, O king, they have all attained to excellent regions of felicity.” (emphasis added)
** Though the ritualistic trends survived in the Mimamsa School. Kshatriya Dharma never really went away, but was rather recontextualized within a “softer” Vedanta framework. I feel uncomfortable characterizing period in binary “ritualists vs devotionalists” terms, but examining it through a wide historical lend necessitates that. There were plenty of other parties such as Shramanas, Nastiks, and Vaisheshikas at play, and the shift from ritual centric “master morality” religion to devotional religion was quite erratic.
✝ Examine this interesting theory: “Macdonnel traces the growth of the Mahabharata: ‘There can be little doubt that the original kernel of the epic has as a historical background an ancient conflict between the neighboring tribes of the Kurus and Panchalas, who finally coalesced into a single people… Hence the historical germ of the great epic can be traced to a very early period which cannot be well later than the tenth century B.C. Old songs about the ancient feud and those who played a part in it must have been handed down by word of mouth and recited at popular assemblies or at great public sacrifices. These disconnected battle-songs, we must assume, worked up by some poetic genius into a comparatively short epic, describing the tragic fate of the Kuru race, who, with justice and virtue on their side, perished through the treachery of the victorious sons of Pandu with Krishna at their head. To the period of this original epic doubtless belongs the traces the Mahabharata has preserved unchanged of the heroic spirit and the customs of the ancient times, so different from the later state of things which the Mahabharata as a whole represents” (emphasis added)
℧ Although I only directly cite David Gitomer’s piece once in this whole essay, it deserves the most credit. My whole argument is inspired by and largely similar to his thesis. His footnotes were also extremely useful for finding further reading.
Hit “Continue Reading” for citations
 Initial Bhagavad Gita quote: http://vedabase.net/bg/5/18/en
 Manu, Wendy Doniger, and Brian K. Smith. The Laws of Manu. London, England: Penguin, 1991. Page xvii
Chapter 7 of Manu Smriti on the duties of kings and warriors: http://www.hinduwebsite.com/sacredscripts/hinduism/dharma/manusmriti_2.asp
 Mahabharata, Shalya Parva, Section 1: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m09/m09001.htm
 Mahabharata, Asramavasika Parva, Section 10: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m15/m15010.htm
 Mahabharata, Shalya Parva, Section 60: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m09/m09060.htm
 Ibid. 7
 Mahabharata, Shalya Parva, Section 58: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m09/m09058.htm
 Manu, 7.99, 7.103
 Mahabharata, Shalya Parva, Section 64: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m09/m09064.htm
Mahabharata, Shalya Parva, Section 61: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m09/m09061.htm
 Ibid. 8
 Manu, 7.213
 Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, Good and Evil, Good and Bad: http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/Nietzsche/genealogy1.htm
 Manu, Wendy Doniger, and Brian K. Smith. Page xxxiii
 Krishnamachariar, M., and M. Srinivasachariar. History of Classical Sanskrit Literature. Pages 48-53
 Gitomer, David. King Duryodhana: The Mahabharata Discourse of sinning and virtue. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.112, No. 2, p 223
Image credit: http://www.goelweb.com/diversions/mahabharat/page10.html