I was trying to explain this to my father in the car after seeing the film with him. The difference between Dharma and Justice. And it’s a hard one to explain, if you aren’t already familiar with the meaning of Dharma. Because a quick one-to-one Hindi to English translation would actually be Dharma=Justice. But it’s so much more than that, as the film shows. (full index of all Bahubali posts here)
For me, the best way to express the concept of Dharma is to think of it as “rightness”. Not as in right or wrong, but as just pure “right”.
Like, arranging furniture. You put the chair in the spot by the window, or by the table, or the desk. And it looks fine in all those spots, it’s not really “wrong” anywhere. But if you put it by the window, suddenly everything is just perfectly balanced and perfectly right, in a way it just isn’t anywhere else.
(This is also the effect you get from a perfectly composted film shot, like this one, everything obeying the rules of symmetry and perspective and the golden triangle and so on and so on. It’s just “right”)
You can use this same metaphor for anything. Like, jobs. This job was okay, that job was okay, you didn’t actively hate them. But then you had that one job that was just perfect, like it was designed for you. Sweaters, books, blogs (hopefully this blog is “Dharma” for some of you!), whatever example works for you. Just so you can grasp that idea of something being kind of more-right than anything else, even if something else is also right.
To be clear, I’m not saying it is the chair’s “Dharma” to be in the spot by the window, or the sweater’s “Dharma” to be worn by you. Maybe it could be your “Dharma” to have a particular job, I’m not sure. But all the other examples are definitely not an appropriate use of the term, not big enough and serious enough.
But take that same idea of something being “more right” than other right options, being somehow just exactly what must be done, and extend it to big ideas like, “Should I fight this court case or settle?” or “how should I punish my child for this serious infraction?” or “should I end our friendship over this insult?”, and that gets close to the idea of Dharma.
Dharma can be translated (poorly) as “Justice”, but also as “Fate”. The exact thing that must happen and should happen. A wise person is always questioning if what they are doing, or if what is happening in general, is proper “Dharma”. And if it is not, they should fight against it. And if it is, they should give in to it.
Dharma means doing the right thing at the right moment for the right reasons to the right people. It encompasses everything in a situation. And it is both something you do, and something that can be done to you. It could be my Dharma to miss the bus today. And I should not respond with anger, but with acceptance, and questioning what the purpose might be of this, and how I can make use of it. And maybe considering that would tell me that I need to enact Dharma on the bus driver by contacting the CTA and complaining about this bus driver leaving the stop early.
(Or maybe it was my Dharma to be on a later bus so young Abhishek Bachchan can fall in love with me)
Now, bringing it back to Bahubali, how do we see that play out? Let us start with Prabhas 2 and his forest childhood. Prabhas 2 is clearly our Krishna stand in character in these films (forest upbringing, not too worried about “rules”). Krishna was all about when you should feel your Dharma shifting, how you can determine what is right in any particular situation. If you look at a lot of Krishna’s actions in the Mahabharata, they are about breaking rules. But he was always looking at the big picture, at what is “more right”. Of course, he was also a God, so he always knew what was “more right”. Our more human characters, like Arjun, give us an example of proper behavior for humans. Which is doubt. To always be considering all options and, even after choosing one, to still doubt yourself and try to determine if you are on the right or wrong path.
This doubt alternating with certainty, that is what we see in the opening showing Prabhas 2’s childhood. He tries to climb the waterfall, his mother tells him to stop, he agrees, and then he tries again anyway. On the one hand, it is “Dharmic” to obey his mother. But on the other hand, he has this urge to climb the waterfall, which feels more “right” than obeying his mother. He is torn between competing options, and thus he keeps falling.
It is only when the mask comes down and he falls in love with Tamannah/is inspired with the thought of there being something waiting for him on top of the waterfall, that suddenly his doubts are gone and the path is clear. And thus, he is able to climb without faltering (as the song says).
Tamannah also appears at a moment of Dharmic doubt. Her intro is clear. She is confident in the rightness of her fight, and in the justness of her killing. That’s not a problem, she is more confident and more “right” than her enemies. The cause is just, the cause is “Dharmic”.
No, the doubt is in if Tamannah is doing what is best and most right for herself. In the heat of battle, there is a clear path forward. But later, we see that she doubts her role while in the fire circle in the cave, and while sneaking off by herself to wash in the river. Is it truly her “Dharma” to be simply a weapon, a warrior? Is this the best way she can serve?
Just because she is doubting her current path does not necessarily make that path wrong. Later, we see her “try” the other path. Enjoying love and beauty with Prabhas 2. And then deciding that this is not the right way. It is a sad thing for her to walk away from love, but her face shows clarity, not doubt. This may be hard, what she is about to do and what she has done, but it is the right thing for her to do.
(and in the moment, this was right too. But then that time passed, and her Dharma was something different)
As for Prabhas 2, his Dharma is continually changing through out the films. Until the final shot, when he declares that his word is law in all of Mahishmati. That is his one clear path for the rest of his life. But otherwise it goes from following and loving Tamannah, to taking on her “Dharma” as his own and rescuing Anushka, to gaining vengeance for his parents’ against Rana, to rescuing Anushka again, and finally to defeating Rana. And then, in the end, to ruling Mahishmati for its own sake and doing what is right for his people.
And this is a good thing too. Something can be the right thing for you to do today, and the wrong thing tomorrow. In fact, that is what it should be. Dharma isn’t just about doing what is right, it is about doing what is right at this time in this situation, and that is going to change all the time. Going back to my point about doubt, it is a good thing to be constantly questioning your Dharma, asking yourself “is this still the right thing? Or have things changed, is it time for a new solution?” Or, as is true for Prabhas 2, sometimes the “right” thing isn’t fully apparent until you have more information, until more time has gone by.
And this is where we get into how Dharma is shown to us through the narrative. As a viewer, it is frustrating to think of Anushka spending 25 years in chains, Mahishmati struggling under unjust rule for 25 years, Tamannah’s band dying everyday, and meanwhile Prabhas 2 is all “fa-la-la, life is great, I am in the forest!” Why couldn’t he have known about this sooner, like at 18 or 16 instead of 25? Why couldn’t the forest people climb to the top of the waterfall when they first found this baby to see what’s what and maybe join in with the rebels? Why couldn’t the Kuntala rebels have coordinated with the peasants of Mahishmati sooner to lead a joint attack?
Well, because it wasn’t time yet. Prabhas 2 had to grow strong and wise before he was ready to lead. The rebels had to suffer to harden their resolve. The people had to suffer before revolt seemed necessary. Anushka had to show her endurance and resolve and through that, weaken Rana. This is Dharma. Not just for wrong to be overthrown and right to triumph, but for it to happen in the right way and at the right time. Mahishmati needed to welcome Prabhas 2 as a savior, to be ready for his rule, and Prabhas 2 had to be ready to rule, and there is no way to hurry that. If this concept sounds familiar to you, and you are Christian rather than Hindu, it is because the same idea is expressed in Christianity, “Let go and let God”, or “Man proposes and God disposes”, or simply “God has a plan for all of us”. It’s probably in other religions, these are just the two I know best. We have to believe that there is a bigger plan and we are only seeing one small part of it, that our job is merely to do the best we can with the small part we have, and have faith that everything else is being worked out in some manner.
All of this is just talking about the “present day” questions. These aren’t even where the questions of Dharma are most apparent, but I want you to see how they are always there. Really, they are always there in any well written narrative, by different names. Harry Potter, say, you can have the same questions. Why didn’t Dumbledore just take control of the Ministry of Magic? Why did it take so long for the adults to believe Valdemort was back? Why did Harry and Hermione (how is her name not in spellcheck?) and Ron spend so much time futzing around when they should have been collecting Horcruxes (how is this not in spellcheck either?)? Well, because it was Dharma. Everything had to happen exactly as it happened, or it may not have ended in the way it should.
(Okay, maybe you don’t want it to end exactly like this. But Dharma is about big picture, and big picture is that evil was defeated once and for all)
Now, going into the past era of Bahubali, the Prabhas 1 and Anushka and Rana and Ramya era, here is where Dharma gets really twisted. Angie, who is new to finishing the films and joining our discussions (yay! Welcome Angie!) was just struggling with how Anushka messed everything up, and yet was right. And I think maybe it is that Anushka’s actions were always right in the bigger sense. And what she was encouraging others to do was right as well. It was just that she could have chosen a better manner in which to express it all. But in the greater sense of things, Anushka is a clear measure of Dharmic rightness. She never suffered from the doubt between choices that others did. In fact, that is her flaw, that she is not capable of doubt. She can always see so clearly what is the right path, it makes her impatient with those who cannot.
Prabhas 1 is such a great character, because he is both quick to act and also always doubting himself. But in a good way. He grows, not because circumstances force him to grow, but because he forces himself to grow, to constantly achieve new heights of wisdom, of farsightedness. While Rana and Ramya and Nassar are purposefully blinding themselves, refusing to progress as people, to question themselves, to always search for a better way, Prabhas 1 is the opposite. He starts off pretty great, anyone else might have been tempted to just stay there, as this perfect brave warrior and wise ruler and so on. But no, that isn’t enough for him. On his travels, he is constantly learning more, accepting ways he could improve, could be better. Any situation that life throws at him, he does not sit down and suffer, nor does he necessarily fight back. He chooses instead of look at the situation and consider what it is best to do. What is Dharmic for him, why this has become his Dharma.
The tragedy of the flashback period is that it is so clearly Prabhas 1’s Dharma to be king. He is suited for it in every way, and the world conspires over and over again to put him in that place. And yet, the forces of unDharma (I know there is a word for it, tell me in the comments!) conspire to prevent it. It’s that sense of huge “wrongness” that leaves such bitterness for the audience. It’s not just sad that he is exiled, that he is killed, it is Wrong. And it takes 25 years of suffering to set it right again.
Which brings us to the big central Justice versus Dharma scene. The issue is the laws that are on the books in Mahishmati to handle the situation of an accused being put in chains and forced to defend herself instead of being presumed innocent. But those laws, that is not Dharma. No, Dharma is the higher questions of the situation. Ramya sees her Dharma to be upholding the laws of Mahishmati without regard to the person to whom they are applied. Rana sees Prabhas 1’s Dharma as to respect his authority as king.
These are not petty considerations. Ramya fears rebellion, mutiny, if the laws are disregarded. The highest priority must always be respecting their power. Rana sees rebellion if his authority as king is questioned, the stability of the kingdom rests on monarchical power being unquestioned. And yes, stability of civilization is a high Dharma requirement.
But Prabhas 1 sees a different Dharma. And sees that the considerations of stability and obeying tradition and law have blinded Ramya and Rana, and the kingdom as a whole, to this higher Dharma. Which adds another layer to it, it is his Dharma both to uphold real Dharmic justice in this situation, and to remind the kingdom of a higher justice, to remind Ramya that she should not merely be upholding the law books and to remind Rana that his rule should not be upheld merely by blind obedience. These things must always fall behind the question of what is the truly Dharmic choice in the moment.
Okay, have I used the word “Dharma” so much that it has lost all meaning? Like when you say “buoy buoy buoy buoy buoy buoy buoy” over and over again and it just becomes a series of sounds? Yeah, I think so. I better stop here.
Obviously, I am not a scholar of philosophy, nor am I the end all-be all for discussing Bahubali. But this should give you all a nice starting point to disagree with me, or point out all the big things I missed, or otherwise continue the discussion.