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.