Justice versus Revenge: Kautilya’s perspective

This article by U. Mahesh Prabhu is a part of The Kautilya Project of Vedic Management Centre

When Dharma – or rightful conduct – is followed, there’s order in the world. When Dharma is set aside, only Adharma or chaos remains.

When we are wronged by someone and retaliate in ways that violate rightful conduct, it is called revenge. When we respond through good conduct and legal processes, it is called justice. Justice is Dharma, according to Kautilya, while revenge is Adharma.

When Dharma – or rightful conduct – is followed, there’s order in the world. When Dharma is set aside, only Adharma or chaos remains.

Consider the present chaos in the Middle East. Prior to the times of their prophet when there were many conflicting groups and diverse beliefs, they fought anyone who chose to disagree with them and even butchered and raped their opponents. Today, the entire Middle East is dominated by a single faith, yet there is still no end to killing or suffering. Like headless chickens, people are after the blood of others while losing their own. This is a result of revenge. Revenge emanates from hate, and hate emanates most notably from jealousy and envy.

Someone once said that everyone always claims to be in the right relative to a conflict. Everyone says, “I was harmed and treated unjustly.” And when people are inflicted with pain, their natural response is to retaliate in whatever way they quickly can.

Consider the present chaos in the Middle East. Prior to the times of their prophet when there were many conflicting groups and diverse beliefs, they fought anyone who chose to disagree with them and even butchered and raped their opponents. Today, the entire Middle East is dominated by a single faith, yet there is still no end to killing or suffering. Like headless chickens, people are after the blood of others while losing their own. This is a result of revenge. Revenge emanates from hate, and hate emanates most notably from jealousy and envy.

Jealously and envy are often the most powerful of all human emotions and make us regard those we are jealous of as bitter enemies. We seem to gain more pleasure from the sufferings of such enemies than in our own positive gains, particularly if we are the cause of their suffering. The pursuit of vendettas or revenge, whether at personal, family or group levels, is one of the strongest and most dangerous human urges, as many stories and historical episodes sadly relate, leading to disasters in which everyone suffers.

Kautilya cites dharmic teachings that teach the prime factors that form the foundations of all evil in society. Most important are the six detrimental qualities are called Arishadvargas Kama (lust), Krodha (anger), Lobha (greed), Moha (infatuation), Mada (ego) and Matsarya (jealousy). Arishadvargas literally means the “six negative qualities”.

Jealously and envy are often the most powerful of all human emotions and make us regard those we are jealous of as bitter enemies. We seem to gain more pleasure from the sufferings of such enemies than in our own positive gains, particularly if we are the cause of their suffering. The pursuit of vendettas or revenge, whether at personal, family or group levels, is one of the strongest and most dangerous human urges, as many stories and historical episodes sadly relate, leading to disasters in which everyone suffers.

Samuel Huntington’s idea of The Clash of Civilization is, in fact, little more than a clash of people with Arishadvargas at a collective level, particularly jealousy and revenge. These six detrimental qualities warned as dangerous by Vedic teachers may be hailed as virtues in some religious faiths or political ideologies. The idea that it’s wrong to harm people who believe in your faith, but is acceptable to harm those who don’t, is based on the feeling of Mada (delusion born of the ego). This emanates from the emotional belief in the supremacy of one’s own faith and Matsarya (envy) of others, particularly those who may be more prosperous than you.

The Arishadvargas have a detrimental effect according to Ayurveda. That is because people with these detrimental qualities have unpleasant, toxic and restless minds. According to Ayurveda, “If the mind is healthy – body’s healthy; if the mind isn’t healthy even a healthy body will also turn unwell.” Since the Arishadvargas strongly afflict the mind, people go through intense suffering born of negative emotions until they retaliate. So, technically, while this retaliation of revenge can lead to momentary happiness once accomplished, until it is achieved, life often seems to be utter hell. Hating one’s enemy seems more important than living one’s own life.

True justice, on the contrary, isn’t based on Arishadvargas or any such negative emotions. You don’t pursue justice out of hate. Justice is sought to ensure that the wrong done unto you will not be repeated. Others won’t suffer what you have.

In the absence of justice, error and evil thrives. Truly, evil only gets worse when those who are righteous resort to revenge and do not insist upon justice. The Ahimsa of Kautilya was based on the idea of Dharma. Ahimsa doesn’t mean you will never hurt anyone – it means you won’t hurt anyone unless they attack you first. It’s a no-first-strike policy. You can resort to retaliation during war with pre-emptive strikes only if you are sure that the first strike would be brutal or lethal, leaving you no retaliatory capabilities.

The Arishadvargas have a detrimental effect according to Ayurveda. That is because people with these detrimental qualities have unpleasant, toxic and restless minds. According to Ayurveda, “If the mind is healthy – body’s healthy; if the mind isn’t healthy even a healthy body will also turn unwell.” Since the Arishadvargas strongly afflict the mind, people go through intense suffering born of negative emotions until they retaliate. So, technically, while this retaliation of revenge can lead to momentary happiness once accomplished, until it is achieved, life often seems to be utter hell. Hating one’s enemy seems more important than living one’s own life.

“Hate begets nothing but hate,” argues Kautilya in Artha Sutras. There is no rationale for an aggressive war in the presence of true reason and firm logic. Yet objective reason and logic can seldom prevail in the presence of Arishadvargas. Any decisions based on the emotional forces of Arishadvargas are sure to be detrimental.

If you want to determine if you are pursuing justice or revenge, it’s simple. If you feel lust, anger, greed, infatuation, ego and jealousy, your conduct is led by revenge. Taking revenge is like putting on a suicide vest – you may or may not kill your target, but you’ll certainly kill yourself. Therefore, it’s better to seek justice for it will not only create a better life for you, but also for those around you.

If you want to determine if you are pursuing justice or revenge, it’s simple. If you feel lust, anger, greed, infatuation, ego and jealousy, your conduct is led by revenge. Taking revenge is like putting on a suicide vest – you may or may not kill your target, but you’ll certainly kill yourself. Therefore, it’s better to seek justice for it will not only create a better life for you, but also for those around you.

Kautilya relates that Arishadvargas are your real enemies, the toxic emotions within you which ruin your health, happiness and ability to relate others. External enemies are only part of their expression. Make sure to deal with these real internal enemies and all external enemies can be countered in a just and dharmic way that leads to lasting peace.

2 responses on "Justice versus Revenge: Kautilya’s perspective"

  1. Bhishma said in Vishnu Sahasranama Na krodhaha Na cha matcharyam Na lobho Na ashuba madhihi

    • It’s the essence of Vedanata and essence of Vedic knowledge and wisdom. Bhishma was a towering person. However, his true character, knowledge and wisdom is available only in Vyasa’s Shanti Parva (Chapter of Peace) in Mahabharata. Hope you’ve read that. Thanks for commenting.

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