“King Duryodhana was born from a portion of Kali, he of evil mind, of evil counsel, dishonour of the Kurus; he who, being a man of dissension, was hated by the whole world.” -Mahabharata1.16.60-81
This will be a relatively diffuse postscript to a prior post I made: Playing Duryodhana’s Advocate. Duryodhana is one of the more despised characters in Hindu mythology. This is a shame.
The basic message is this: While Duryodhana is clearly a villain, dismissing him wholly or decrying him as evil incarnate would be to miss the point of the text. The Mahabharata is nuanced, and represents an unresolved tension between on one hand, the counterrevolutionary, materialist, tradition upholding Kshatriya: Duryodhana— and on the other hand, the devotionalist Pandavas, who uphold a newer system of ethics rooted in idealism and theism rather than tradition and pragmatism. Just because modern Hindu discourse is permeated with devotionalism does not mean that always was the case, or always must be the case.
Bhasa’s Depiction of Duryodhana:
Duryodhana may be hated by the world, but at least one respectable writer offered him a charitable representation as a consistent practitioner of Kshatriya Dharma. In Bhasa’s writings, Duryodhana’s virtues, particularly his earthly “master morality” are more pronounced than it is in the epic. Take the following line from the play Duta-Vakya. This is how Duryodhana responds when asked to return part of his kingdom to the Pandavas:
“Kingship is enjoyed by brave princes after conquering their foes in battle. It cannot be had by begging, nor is it conferred upon the poor in this world. If they desire to become kings, let them venture forth on the battlefield, or else let them at their will enter a hermitage, sought for peace by men of tranquil minds.”
In a different play, Pancharatra, Duryodhana states: “Heaven is won by the dead, they say, but that is an untruth – heaven is not beyond, but ripens here on earth in manifold variety.” This seems to make explicit Duryodhana’s ethical system wherein earthly rewards take precedence over supernatural promises.
Yet Bhasa attempts not to portray Duryodhana as a king gone mad in the pursuit of power. That extreme would also be in violation of a good warrior’s conduct. In Pancharatra (in contrast with the Duta-Vakya) he alters the original tale so that Duryodhana, as favor to his guru, Drona, eventually returns half of the Pandava kingdom and thus averts the whole conflict. The whole tale is turned upside down. It is Duryodhana’s respect for the traditional student-teacher hierarchy, which resolves the story peacefully, rather than the Pandava’s devotion to Krishna resolving the story with bloodshed.
Bhasa most explicitly illustrates the conflict between devotionalism and the Kshatriya code in Urubhanga. After Krishna gives Bhima the signal to violate the rules of war and strike Duryodhana in the thigh, the observing soldier narrates:
“No longer friend to tender duty, heeding naught but Krishna’s sign,
At this Balarama’s eyes turn red with rage, and he decries Bhima’s “treachery.” He even states his intention to slaughter Bhima and the rest of the Pandavas with his plow, but Duryodhana persuades him against this course. He instead accepts his death as providence, and speaks out against killing which serves no purpose other than revenge. When Ashwatthama makes the same offer, Duryodhana again attempts to pacify him (without success.) Duryodhana recalls his own former transgressions of Kshatriya Dharma, including the house of lac incident, and the disrobing of Draupadi. How can he in good faith seek vengeance via Ashwatthama for Bhima’s treacherous conduct, when he himself committed treachery in the past? Duryodhana accepts his death as justice.
Bhasa portrays Duryodhana as a reuinifer of the family, and as a defeated warrior at peace with his justified fate. Even in death, at his most pitiable, Duryodhana rises above the situation and declares to Dhritarashtra “Only at your feet, father, was my crown ever bent in homage; without a thought for even this blazing fire I now ascend to heaven with that same fierce pride I was born with!”
He fights Krishna as an equal, and makes no concession. He is the earthly übermensch standing up to God himself. This is the ultimate tension in the story, one which the devotionalists would like to settle on the side of Krishna, but which I think remains up in the air.
Bhasa clearly modifies the original tale to suit his end of emphasizing warrior virtue. Neverthless, the fact that he chooses Duryodhana to carry that emphasis, and uses the Pandavas as a negative foil certainly speaks to the fact that at least in some ancient Indian circles, the idea of Duryodhana being an admirable Kshatriya was not so strange.
The Charvaka Connection:
Charvaka is the name of a learned Rakshasa who was a friend of Duryodhana. After Duryodhana dies, Charvaka disguises himself as a Brahmana goes before Yudhishtra, goading him to commit suicide and condemning him for participating in the Kurukshetra war. The Brahmanas in Yudhishtras court quickly use their supernatural abilities to kill him:
“…a Rakshasa of the name of Charvaka, who had disguised himself as a Brahmana, addressed the king. He was a friend of Duryodhana and stood therein the garb of a religious mendicant. With a rosary, with a tuft of hair on his head, and with the triple staff in his hand, he stood proudly and fearlessly in the midst of all those Brahmanas that had come there for pronouncing benedictions (upon the king), numbering by thousands, O king, and all of whom were devoted to penances and vows. That wicked wight, desirous of evil unto the high-souled Pandavas and without having consulted those Brahmanas, said these words unto the king.’
Charvaka said, ‘All these Brahmanas, making me their spokesman, are saying, ‘Fie on thee! Thou art a wicked king. Thou art a slayer of kinsmen. What shalt thou gain, O son of Kunti, by having thus exterminated thy race? Having slain also thy superiors and preceptor, it is proper for thee to cast away thy life.’ Hearing these words of that wicked Rakshasa the Brahmanas there became deeply agitated. Stung by that speech, they made a loud uproar. And all of them, with king Yudhishthira. O monarch, became speechless from anxiety and shame.’
Yudhishthira said, ‘I bow down to you and beseech you humbly, be gratified with me. It doth not behove you to cry fie on me. I shall soon lay down my life.’
Vaisampayana continued, ‘Then all those Brahmanas, O king, loudly said, ‘These are not our words. Prosperity to thee, O monarch!’ Those high-souled persons, conversant with the Vedas, with understanding rendered clear by penances, then penetrated the disguise of the speaker by means of their spiritual sight.’ And they said, ‘This is the Rakshasa Charvaka, the friend of Duryodhana. Having put on the garb of a religious mendicant, he seeks the good of his friend Duryodhana. We have not, O thou of righteous soul, said anything of the kind. Let this anxiety of thine be dispelled. Let prosperity attend upon thee with thy brothers.’
Vaisampayana continued, ‘These Brahmanas then, insensate with rage, uttered the sound Hun. Cleansed of all sins, they censured the sinful Rakshasa and slew him there (with that very sound). Consumed by the energy of those utterers of Brahma, Charvaka fell down dead, like a tree with all its sprouts blasted by the thunder of Indra. Duly worshipped, the Brahmanas went away, having gladdened the king with their benedictions. The royal son of Pandu also, with all his friends, felt great happiness.” 
This is interesting since Charvaka was also the name of an ancient Indian philosophical school, which espoused hedonism, materialism, anti-clericalism, and radical skepticism (though the extremity of some of these positions is contested). Charvaka is often used synonymously with Lokayata, though the latter was probably more concerned with practical, earthly affairs such as agriculture, economics, and commerce. In any case, like Duryodhana, Charvaka was concerned primarily with the material world.
The intention of the Mahabharata passage is unclear to me. Is it to demonize Charvaka by associating it with the villain of the tale, or to demonize Duryodhana by associating him with a reviled sect? I won’t speculate, except to note that this is another instance of newer theistic and idealistic schools waging intellectual battle against the older materialists. It is also worth pointing out that the ethics purported by this Charvaka, is not the hedonistic, amoral portrayal which Madhvacharya popularized. It is an ethics focused on the family and the tribe, in other words a traditional morality.
This section will consist almost entirely of quotes. Also, note the verse numbers. I do skip over verses occasionally where I thought that including them would break up continuity.
I’ve occasionally encountered the response that Duryodhana didn’t exemplify warrior virtues on account of his wicked actions, namely the attempt to disrobe Draupadi, his attempts to kill the Pandavas treacherously prior to Kurukshetra, and his gambling.
While Manu Smriti doesn’t perfectly mesh onto the period of the Mahabharata’s composition, it does contain many verses about the duties of Kshatriyas, and can serve as a rough approximation of Kshatriya Dharma in the minds of the epic’s composers. It is true that Duryodhana violates such verses as pertaining to:
Modesty: 7.39. Let him, though he may already be modest, constantly learn modesty from them; for a king who is modest never perishes.
Vices: 7.45. Let him carefully shun the ten vices, springing from love of pleasure, and the eight, proceeding from wrath, which (all) end in misery.
7.46. For a king who is attached to the vices springing from love of pleasure, loses his wealth and his virtue, but (he who is given) to those arising from anger, (loses) even his life.
7.47. Hunting, gambling, sleeping by day, censoriousness, (excess with) women, drunkenness, (an inordinate love for) dancing, singing, and music, and useless travel are the tenfold set (of vices) springing from love of pleasure.
7.48. Tale-bearing, violence, treachery, envy, slandering, (unjust) seizure of property, reviling, and assault are the eightfold set (of vices) produced by wrath.
Wise government policy: 7.177. By all (the four) expedients a politic prince must arrange (matters so) that neither friends, nor neutrals, nor foes are superior to himself.
7.180. Let him arrange everything in such a manner that no ally, no neutral or foe may injure him; that is the sum of political wisdom.
7.198. He should (however) try to conquer his foes by conciliation, by (well-applied) gifts, and by creating dissension, used either separately or conjointly, never by fighting, (if it can be avoided.)
7.199. For when two (princes) fight, victory and defeat in the battle are, as experience teaches, uncertain; let him therefore avoid an engagement.
Granted, no character in the Mahabharata represents an untarnished ideal, Duryodhana included. But what of other duties of a Kshatriya?
Rules of combat: 7.87. A king who, while he protects his people, is defied by (foes), be they equal in strength, or stronger, or weaker, must not shrink from battle, remembering the duty of Kshatriyas.
7.89. Those kings who, seeking to slay each other in battle, fight with the utmost exertion and do not turn back, go to heaven.
7.90. When he fights with his foes in battle, let him not strike with weapons concealed (in wood), nor with (such as are) barbed, poisoned, or the points of which are blazing with fire.
7.91. Let him not strike one who (in flight) has climbed on an eminence, nor a eunuch, nor one who joins the palms of his hands (in supplication), nor one who (flees) with flying hair, nor one who sits down, nor one who says ’I am thine;’
7.92. Nor one who sleeps, nor one who has lost his coat of mail, nor one who is naked, nor one who is disarmed, nor one who looks on without taking part in the fight, nor one who is fighting with another (foe);
7.93. Nor one whose weapons are broken, nor one afflicted (with sorrow), nor one who has been grievously wounded, nor one who is in fear, nor one who has turned to flight; (but in all these cases let him) remember the duty (of honourable warriors).
Most interesting to me:
The duty to accrue power: 7.99. Let him strive to gain what he has not yet gained; what he has gained let him carefully preserve; let him augment what he preserves, and what he has augmented let him bestow on worthy men.
7.100. Let him know that these are the four means for securing the aims of human (existence); let him, without ever tiring, properly employ them.
7.101. What he has not (yet) gained, let him seek (to gain) by (his) army; what he has gained, let him protect by careful attention; what he has protected, let him augment by (various modes of) increasing it; and what he has augmented, let him liberally bestow (on worthy men).
7.102. Let him be ever ready to strike, his prowess constantly displayed, and his secrets constantly concealed, and let him constantly explore the weaknesses of his foe.
7.103. Of him who is always ready to strike, the whole world stands in awe; let him therefore make all creatures subject to himself even by the employment of force.
7.104. Let him ever act without guile, and on no account treacherously; carefully guarding himself, let him always fathom the treachery which his foes employ.
7.107. When he is thus engaged in conquest, let him subdue all the opponents whom he may find, by the (four) expedients, conciliation and the rest.
7.110. As the weeder plucks up the weeds and preserves the corn, even so let the king protect his kingdom and destroy his opponents.
7.200. (But) if even those three before-mentioned expedients fail, then let him, duly exerting himself, fight in such a manner that he may completely conquer his enemies.
And let it not be thought that a king can never be cunning
Pragmatism: 7.195. When he has shut up his foe (in a town), let him sit encamped, harass his kingdom, and continually spoil his grass, food, fuel, and water.
7.196. Likewise let him destroy the tanks, ramparts, and ditches, and let him assail the (foe unawares) and alarm him at night.
7.213. For times of need let him preserve his wealth; at the expense of his wealth let him preserve his wife; let him at all events preserve himself even by (giving up) his wife and his wealth.
The duty of a king towards his subjects: 7.142. Having thus arranged all the affairs (of) his (government), he shall zealously and carefully protect his subjects.
7.144. The highest duty of a Kshatriya is to protect his subjects, for the king who enjoys the rewards, just mentioned, is bound to (discharge that) duty.
Cultivating a strong alliance with a once weaker party (i.e. Karna): 7.208. By gaining gold and land a king grows not so much in strength as by obtaining a firm friend, (who), though weak, (may become) powerful in the future.
7.209. A weak friend (even) is greatly commended, who is righteous (and) grateful, whose people are contented, who is attached and persevering in his undertakings.
This all paints a very earthly, and materialistic picture of what a Kshatriya should do. Consider how well the Pandavas conform to both sets of verses. Consider where “Obedience to Krishna” factors into this set of duties, especially when his instructions explicitly contradict them. Consider the life ethos communicated by these verses, compared to the many Bhagavad Gita passages which expound being desireless and renunciatory.
There is no reason to look down upon a man who follows a different ethical code from your own, just because you’ve grown up knowing him as the villain. The world is often wrong in its groupthink oriented moralistic assessments of men. As a now respected holy man from a different part of the world once said:
Perhaps I’ll write another post on Duryodhana if I come across enough material to justify it.
 Passi, Alessandro. “Some Preliminary Considerations on Aśvaghoṣa’s Saundarananda.” East and West 32.1/4 (1982): 65-74. as quoted on page 70, though slightly modified for clarity.
 Nikhilanananda, Swami (Translator), Isa Upanishad (Isavasya Upanishad): http://www.bharatadesam.com/spiritual/upanishads/isa_upanishad.php
 Gitomer, David. “The Mahabharata Discourse of Sinning and Virtue in Epic and Drama.” Journal of the American Oriental Society April-June 112.2 (1992): 222-32. page 226
 Gitomer, page 227-228
 Bhasa, and Edwin Gerow. “Urubhanga: The Breaking of the Thighs.” Journal of South Asian Literature Winter, Spring 20.1 (1985): 57-70. page 60
 Gitomer, 231