The Means or the End

There has always been a raging debate on means versus the ends. Does a just end justify unjust means? Or, should one stick to following the right path even if it leads to a dubious end?
Let me clarify what the confusion is all about. We all come across situations in life where there seems to be something wrong with what we do, but we justify what we do in that moment as we feel that it leads to a righteous end. On other occasions, we seem to follow our duty, sometimes knowing fully well that it leads to a disastrous end – rather unrighteous or unjust – but we still justify our act by telling ourselves that we have to abide by our duty or follow a certain discipline or rule.

Many a time I have heard Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba – the guiding light for all humanity – talk about this through parables, stories and tales from the epics. It is natural for any human being to seek excellence. But what is this excellence? Is it about the means being an end in itself, or is it to achieve an end, whatever the means? These questions have confounded mankind from time immemorial. To get a better understanding, we need to delve deeper into what the subject is here. Let me quote from the Mahabharata which exhibits a classic case of this confounded ideology of what one’s true duty is.

Kunti leaves the baby Karna in the river Asvanadi
There is a story in the Mahabharata where Kunti Devi, the mother of the Pandavas, who are kind, just and generally exhibit righteous behavior, is perturbed before the war -a war to be fought among cousins, sons of two brothers. The reason for her discomfiture is because she knows that Karna, a great warrior, seen on par with Arjuna in archery, is to fight on the Kaurava side. Karna was an arch rival of Arjuna, skilled and extremely powerful. He was a close aide of Duryodhana, the oldest among the Kaurava brothers. But what bothered Kunti Devi was not just his prowess. It was the little known fact that Karna was her own begotten son. She had given birth to Karna when she was yet an unmarried princess. This happened due to the power of a mantra given to her by Rishi Durvasa which enabled her to propitiate any god at will and seek a child from that god. All the Pandavas thus had a divine origin too. However, when she tried to test out this mantra on the Sun God, he blessed her with a child.

The virgin that she was, this occurrence obviously unsettled her. She was at her wits’ end. And not knowing what to do, she placed the baby in a basket and left it in the waters of the river Asvanadi, hoping that someone downstream would find the child. The child was found by Adiratha, the charioteer of the Kuru king Dhritarashtra, father of Duryodhana. Kunti later got married to Dhritarashtra’s brother Pandu, who was the king of Hastinapura. As the child grew up, he gained great prowess under the tutelage of Parasurama, in the art of warfare, particularly in archery, and came to be known as Karna. He was befriended by Duryodhana who recognized his prowess and saw him as a powerful ally capable of countering Arjuna in battle. Duryodhana placed immense trust in Karna and also made him king of one of the subsidiary kingdoms – Anga.

Let me now bring back the main theme of what the topic is. When Kunti devi approached Karna and told him of his birth, he was shattered. He knew very well that Yudishthira was the wiser and more righteous prince and so he rightfully deserved to be the king in place of Duryodhana. But Karna was carrying the weight of Duryodhana’s trust and friendship on his shoulders. How could he let his friend down at the moment when he needed him most? Is not a friend in need a friend in deed? What was the right thing to do?

Here it is important to look at what Karna did. Looking at the situation from a different lens, he probably did the right thing if only the means were to be looked at. But to what end?

Another example Swami would often give was that of Bhishma. The grandsire of the clan was well versed in the ways of Dharma – the rules of right conduct. He knew very well that the Pandavas were the more just and righteous. He also knew that God was on their side. Yet, he chose to fight on the Kaurava side. Why? Because, when he was very young, he had promised his father that no matter who sat on the throne of Hastinapura, he would see his father’s image in that king and would be obedient to the king. Again, was he right? He was sticking to his word. He was fighting for his country. But then to what end?

In both these cases, the means seemed apt. But the larger concept to be understood is that the means and the end – both have to align to Dharma or righteous conduct. But how could that be possible? Because if they thought of the end and if the end had to be that the just and righteous should win, they had to switch sides. This effectively meant that one would have to backstab his friend and the other would have to go back on his word. In both cases, it is contradictory to their individual sense of the right thing to do.

Lord Krishna charging at Bhishma even at the cost of losing his word
Let us take the example of Lord Krishna. Considering that He would do the right thing all the time, His vision was never confounded. He was never confused on what is the right thing to do. He was clear. When the time of war came, Krishna said that He would not pick up any weapon during the war. However, when He saw Bhishma on a rampage and felt that Arjuna was not fighting seriously enough, He decided to pick up arms. Did He not go against His own word? He did. But, He had the clarity of thought in His mind. The end was important and if need be, the means can be compromised to achieve the end. But there is a caveat – that of the end accruing a greater good for all.

Right through the war, Krishna went through a series of compromises on individual dharma to attain the greater good. This was proof enough that when there is a time of dilemma, the larger good is to be kept in mind and the means can be compromised, if the need arises. The killing of Drona, Karna, Bhishma are all cases in point. But what really takes the cake is the fact that Krishna also taught about sublimating the ego and giving up doership to be able to overcome the baggage of Karmic debt. Most people ignore this point. He said to Arjuna, “Sarva dharmaan parityajya, Maamekam sharanam vraja, aham tvaam sarva paapebhyo mokshayishyami maa shuchah”.
This means, “Give up all sense of right and wrong and take refuge in Me alone (God or the Inner Voice – Conscience). I will absolve you of all sins and grant you liberation without doubt. Don’t worry.”
Give up the feeling that you are the doer and act
with the greater good in mind

Now, Krishna also says, “One who is not motivated by false ego, whose intelligence is not tangled, though he acts in this world, does not act. He is not bound by his actions.”
This is getting into a deeper philosophical mode. But, let’s get back to what we were discussing earlier. The key is to be able to give up your sense of attachment. In the cases of Karna and Bhishma, they were attached to the ‘friendship’ and ‘loyalty’ factors. But, these are means. If they had given up the ego, they would not have been confused. This confusion led them to not giving a 100% in the war. There were instances when Bhishma refused to kill the Pandavas. Karna let them off even though he had them captured, all because they were confused. They were unable to be 100% on the side that they were fighting for. This happens only when the intelligence is warped and the mind is confounded about whether one is doing the right thing.

For those who have the end in mind, the means will automatically adjust to meet the end. But what is important here is that the ‘end’ is not to be ‘selfish’. How does one identify this? If one has the desire to be excellent for his/her own sake, then that is being selfish. If your excellence is not going to benefit the world in any way, the end will not justify the means. This is because the end itself is a ‘selfish’ one, not aimed at a larger benefit to others. So, if it was just about an archery competition between Arjuna and Karna, to show to the world who the better archer is, I am certain Krishna wouldn’t bother helping Arjuna.

Often it has been seen that even when one desires to achieve personal excellence, one only goes up to a point. Beyond that, excellence is achieved only when one subjugates the ego. Take the example of a sportsperson who is successful. If you look at the players who end up making the most money, it is those players to whom money doesn’t matter. What matters is the joy of playing, the act of being useful to the team and gaining laurels for your country. and giving up doership. The fielder for instance who saves crucial runs and saves the bowler from giving away more runs against his name becomes a hero, even if he is passing on the credit to the bowler. For the fielder, the smile on the bowler’s face is a reward in itself. Krishna did that Himself by not taking up arms during the war. He gave the credit to Arjuna’s prowess by exemplifying what He said to Arjuna earlier – ‘giving up doership'.

Always follow your conscience and do
whatever benefits more people
I am reminded of a beautiful interaction I had with Swami when He blessed our family with an interview. He was sending me back to Hyderabad after my studies and was gracious enough to let me ask Him a few questions. One of the questions I asked was, “Swami, once I go out of here, I won’t be able to access you back in Hyderabad. If I have to take a decision between a choice A and choice B, and if both seem right and not in conflict with my conscience, how do I decide what to do?” Swami immediately replied “It is very simple. Just do what is good for a greater number of people.”

So, if the greater good lies in choice B, irrespective of whether A is what one was tasked to do, the wiser thing to do is to take choice B. The means to that end can then become an equally effective offering to God. 


Context: Ofcourse whatever swami talks is right that itself is veda but our understanding should be crystal clear. For ex: here he says do what is good for a greater number of people, but not at the cost of doing an incorrect thing, which was well explained in the above article with the stories of bhishma supporting a bigger army, while Krishna supported a smaller group of people.
Jai Sairam
I think the point is about how will the largesse be benefited. In that case it was good for humanity if the Pandavas ruled. So Krishna was by them.
RRG said…
Nice article Venu. Saamanya Dharma and Visesha Dharma are very clear. As long as there is no conflict between the two, we have to follow both. But when there is a conflict we have to choose Visesha Dharma.

Krishna's war time tactics are criticized but they are clever interpretations of Warcraft than cheating in pure sense. Be it killing Karna (who is a Maharathi and he had no business to keep lifting his charriot that was sunk. It's against warfare and he brought himself to the level of foot soldier during which it was OK to kill on ground).

However Krishna does regret later on these.

If Karna had transformed Duryodhana or made efforts to tell "what was good for him" rather than "what FELT good for him", he would have been the real kritagnathaa. However, he encouraged Duryodhana in his evil deeds (he even took part in those - calling Draupati a whore)

Bheeshma also didn't distinguish between right and wrong. Lesser said about Drona the better- as the cheating and trespassing the rules started when Drona became the general of Duryodhana.

Vibheeshana and Vidura were the best examples. Unlike Bheeshma or Drona, Vidura didn't shy away from telling what was right and speaking his mind. Even during disrobing it was his voice that came out. Bheeshma kept saying " Dharma is subtle and you can't say right or wrong etc"... Vidura didn't mince words and he was vocal.

He also didn't side with adharma like other oldies. He didn't want to side Duryodhana and hence he didn't even participate in the war.

Vibheeshana also didn't just run. He kept on telling the righteous path to his brother. When it became certain that he wouldn't listen, he left his brother.

As a brother he should have stayed on but as an individual he adhered to Dharma and left adharma to join Dharma.

Karna had the opportunity to transform Duryodhana. His vanity, lust for kingdom and false sense of bravado made him not just support his evil friend but also to contribute to his evil plans.
Unknown said…
Yes you are right Venu, loka kalyana should be the motto than the means, which may involve much self sacrifice for pure love.
Yes..sometimes to the extent of giving up your reputation too

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