War, The Mahabarata and School

I’ve been reflecting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and how, when you consider the lives of those literally directly in the firing line, the families that are being torn apart, the way of living that is being destroyed, the children that have no safe place to sleep, that maybe talking about the freedom to direct one’s own education seems a bit frivolous.

The grief I feel for human beings I’ll never meet is deep and real. Compared to living in a bombsite – again, not metaphorical, is boredom, being treated like cattle, feeling trapped, inadequate and misunderstood in our school system really that bad?

A long time ago my husband bought me a translation of the Mahabarata. Not being much of a book reader I skimmed it to not seem ungrateful, but it was all just war writing to me. It turned out he thought it would contain the Bhagavad Gita, which is a speech that Lord Krishna makes, that is considered one of the greatest spiritual texts in Sanatana Dharma. Instead, all I got was the set up to that speech and the war aftermath.

Today I see the point.

You see one of the greatest lessons in the Mahabarata is about dharma – in my layman words, it means doing what you’re supposed to do. You could also call it acting morally, or righteously, but all these words have baggage thanks to organised religion.

Dharma means doing what you’re supposed to do. Adharma means not following your dharma.

If I could (and apologies to scholars of the centuries) summarise the Mahabarata in one sentence it would be “if you don’t stop someone from doing wrong when it’s possible, you will have to pay the consequences”.

The Pandavas were mostly following dharma, but there were critical moments when they – and others who could have intervened, did not (you can look up the whole Yudhishthira dice debacle as one example, when war became inevitable). And because of this, they had to fight the war which lead to the deaths of around 1.6 billion people, not to mention elephants and horses

War doesn’t happen overnight.

The foundations are laid the moment someone does something they shouldn’t – and nobody calls them out. Each time this happens the wrongdoings become more and more daring and outrageous. By allowing others to act wrongfully, take advantage of others, get away with crimes we act against dharma – our passiveness is adharmic.

Where do we learn to no longer stand up for our principles?

Where do we learn to side with the one we think will win?

Where do we lose connection with our community such that we are willing to watch others suffer out of fear for our own survival?

Where do we learn that it’s ok to do adharmic actions as long as no one is there to tell us off?


The school model deliberately pits children against each other because in order for ‘passing’ to mean anything, some have to fail. This is built in.

No matter how collaborative the classroom, no matter how genuine the teacher, the structure itself is built to breed competitiveness. It is built to promote ‘survival of the fittest’. It is designed to weaken our social bonds, separate us into leaders and followers, and make how we are measured more important than who we are, where we’ve come from and what we represent.

And today, I can’t help but think that that’s where wars begin.

And that’s why, advocating for a different way of education is not frivolous; it’s a key step in preventing unnecessary wars.

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