Monday, March 23, 2009


The Kurukshetra war had already started. Bhishma had assured Duryodhana that he would kill the Pandavas in the war. Yudhisthira had gone to the Kaurava side to seek the blessings of the elders, and Bhishma, Drona, Bhurishrava, Kripacharya, Aswasthama and Karna had each blessed him to win the war. Duryodhana’s brother, Durdasa, had changed over to the Pandavas’ side in the battlefield itself, and was engaged in a fierce fight with the Kaurava army as he was protecting Yudhisthira, who was in the enemy’s territory, and was weaponless. Before the eldest Pandava could return to his own army after paying respects to his elders, the war had started.

Bhima had rushed to where Durdasa was fighting, and Arjuna was trying to reach them; he was very worried about Yudhisthira’s safety. That was how he ran into Bhishma, who blocked his way. This was the first time the doting grandfather and the devoted grandson met after the Pandavas’ return from vanavasa (living in the forest) and ajnatavasa (living incognito). Arjuna paid his respects to him, and in all humility and sincerity prayed to him to use his authority to stop the war. Even after Yudhisthira had decided in favour of war, he was not inclined to fight, more sure than unsure about the immorality of that war. Let us not ask now whether Arjuna had any authority to take any step towards stopping the war, because such questions are meaningless when it comes to peace.

The grand old man expressed helplessness. How would peace be possible with a person who was intent on killing his brothers, and was unconcerned about the adharma of that act, said Bhishma. Therefore instead of thinking of peace with Duryodhana, Arjuna must concentrate on the war and devise a strategy to kill him.

Arjuna was upset. He got down from his chariot and prostrated before him. Bhishma gave him blessings for victory. How could he ever even think of killing him, his grandfather, who with so much loving care had looked after him all along, he asked him. Bhishma said that such feelings were inappropriate at that point of time. If he really did not want to kill his brothers, why did he desire kingdom instead of returning to the forest, he asked. In a family, he continued, there would sometimes be a troublesome person who would bring disgrace and ruin to the family. However, the virtuous would not abandon him, or eliminate him, rather they would find some way to accommodate him. But the wise Pandavas had done the contrary. It was indeed they who had abandoned dharma, coveted kingdom and entered the battlefield against their brothers. If Arjuna was really so fond of his brothers, then he should return to the forest. That would be the acid test of his brotherliness. That would also save the family.

This could be seen not merely as his counsel, but an implicit challenge to his grandson to follow the path of dharma. His words were direct and sounded harsh, but those were well-meaning words, and not at all unloving. Those were the words of a deeply hurt, disappointed and helpless family elder. He too didn’t want war! But he knew that war could be averted only if the Pandavas wanted, since they, unlike Duryodhana, understood dharma, and had the courage to live in accordance with it. And he said all this to Arjuna because he knew that he was a sensitive person, and would understand. It didn’t matter to him that he would, in all probability, not be able to accept his challenge, and meet the demands of peace, indeed, of love.

This was the only time Bhishma told a Pandava what he thought about averting the war. Unlike Arjuna, when Yudhisthira came to him on the Kurukshetra battlefield, he didn’t seek his help to stop the war; he only sought his blessings for victory. He had also asked him how he could be out of their way in order that they win, and he had told him what to do on the tenth day of the war to make him give up fighting. In all this talk, the eldest Pandava did not mention peace. It was Arjuna, who brought up the matter.

Incidentally, if Bhishma’s suggestion brings to mind Sakuni’s to Yudhisthira (see the piece “The Last Proposal to Avoid War” in this blog), his views concerning the problem person in the family reminds one of what the wise Bidura had told Dhritarastra about the infant Duryodhana. He had told him that his eldest son would be the cause of the destruction of the entire family; therefore in the larger interest of the family, he should allow him to kill him. Dhritarastra didn’t. Sons hadn’t come easily to him. Destiny had to be cajoled in the form of intervention by Vyasa, and later Durvasa, so that he, destined to be sonless, had sons. That’s a rather longish story, which we might skip. Besides, how could a father allow the killing of his eldest son, who was an infant then, on the basis of a prediction? Bidura’s fears came true of course, but his attitude came under scrutiny after a long time, in a different context. Bhishma’s words can easily be seen as a severe indictment of the Bidura’s thinking.

Listening to Bhishma, Arjuna was sad; he told his grandfather that he felt guilty. But why didn’t Duryodhana give them just one village, he asked him. There was anguish in his tone. Bhishma evaded the question. What answer could he give? He himself had advised Duryodhana to give at least two villages to the Pandavas, but he didn’t listen to him. He was helpless. But there was no point in saying these things to Arjuna at that point of time, he must have thought.

All he said was that things had been ordained that way, and it was in no one’s power to alter them. It was pointless to talk about giving or not giving. Neither had seeing nor not seeing mattered, he had heard, neither again had not getting. Now not giving would also not matter. He elaborated. Kansa saw and Dasaratha did not; both died. Bali gave; Ravana did not; both met the same end. Kichaka did not get, and he perished, and now, without giving, Duryodhana would meet the same fate.

But if Duryodhana was to perish for not giving, why must Bhishma and others perish, Arjuna asked his grandfather. Well, said Bhishma, things were ordained that way. He had heard that he would die in the war, and he knew that he would. It is here that their exchange ended. There was fighting all around, and the war was closing on them. Soon they too started fighting.

To return to Bhishma’s proposal for peace, it was not formulated within the framework of afterlife or reward in any world. It was not founded on any notion of the spiritual progress of self, spanning over births, or recognition of the illusory nature of the phenomenal world. Bhishma did not deny any of these, but nothing of these would matter for his computation of the right and the wrong, of one must do and what one must not. Rebirth would not bring with it the memory of the previous existences, and one couldn’t be guided by what lay beyond one’s awareness. For Bhishma relationships were real, and they mattered; bonds were real, and precious; and dead bodies on the battlefield were real too. A life of dharma would not discount these; on the contrary it would be crucially founded on these. That is why, for Bhishma, sacrifice of the interests of the self became so necessary for the adamant, uncooperative, and ignorant other in a relationship.

And what a metaphor to express a fusion of two profound ideas: no shastras or puranas, but one’s sense of discrimination, and understanding of dharma alone can be one’s guide to choose the right course of action for oneself, and one’s courage to pursue it enables one to work in accordance with it At the same time, one has no control over the consequences of one’s action, and the action and its consequence may lack logic and intelligibility. One followed dharma and gave, another committed adharma and did not give, but the result was the same for both. Did the great Bhishma mean to say that pursuing family dharma and renouncing the kingdom for Duryodhana might not necessarily yield positive results for the Pandavas, but that would be no reason for them to abandon the path of dharma? Perhaps he did. Incidentally, in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata there is no exemption from right action; here Krishna does not give any assurance that he would protect one, who had surrendered to him, from the consequences of one’s action.

Krishna had kept quiet throughout the exchange. It wasn’t in his nature to remain silent when the talk around him was subversive with respect to what he wanted. He wanted war. So how could he remain a passive listener to that exchange? He probably thought that at that stage there was no need for him to intervene, when the language of peace had lost all meaning. He knew that nothing concrete would emerge from all that talk between those two conscientious, and sensitive persons, who nevertheless were too ineffective to change the course of events. They were only letting out their sense of disappointment and feeling of guilt. In that delicate moment they should be left to themselves.

Besides, their talk was their family-internal matter. He was an outsider. He was no one’s emissary any more. In the battlefield he was a charioteer, and he must behave in accordance with the charioteer’s maryaadaa (dignity): it was entirely inappropriate for him to intervene in a matter that did not concern him in that specific role.

But is it also possible that Narayana knew what kind of a nara (human) Bhishma was; Bhagawan knew what kind of a bhakta (devotee) the son of Ganga was. The Kaurava elder was an authentic person, a person of great integrity, who lived a life of dharma. And Krishna knew how to respect him.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata it came from Sakuni. On the eve of the Kurukshetra war. Duryodhana had sent him to the Pandavas with the message that they must come to the battlefield and together with Sakuni, work out which side of the battlefield which army would take for camping. Sakuni was not supposed to offer any proposal to the Pandavas to avoid the war. But that was what he did. First he gave them Duryodhana’s message. Then he said that there was indeed an alternative to war: Yudhisthira must return to the forest with his brothers.

To make his point he then told Yudhisthira a story. Once upon a time there was a woodcutter in a small town named Kamapura near the river Krishnaveni. His name was Melaka. He was lazy and ignorant. All he did was bring home some dry wood, and his wife would go out and sell it. They had no children. He had acquired no other skill. Forty years passed in this way.

Once it rained heavily for a couple of days. It wouldn’t stop. Melaka couldn’t go out to collect wood, and the husband and the wife starved. When the weather improved, she shouted at him and asked him to go out and do something. The fellow went out with his axe, stretched himself on a temple platform and went off to sleep. He woke up in the evening when the conch was blown at the temple.

He was very worried. He had gathered nothing, and it was already evening. The very thought of facing his wife frightened him. It was getting dark, there was no one around, and it was very quiet. He went inside the temple. There were three idols: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. He threw the wooden idol of Vishnu on the floor and raised his axe to cut it to pieces. The wood would support him for some three or four days, he figured out.

Vishnu materialized. How could you think of cutting me to pieces, you ignoramus, he asked. Unafraid, Melaka told him that he had nothing to eat, and that if he was really Vishnu, could he provide him some food till that spell of heavy rains was over, he begged of him. Vishnu readily granted his prayer. When the rains were over, there was no more free food. So the lazy man used the same strategy on Vishnu, and this time when he appeared, he wanted him to provide him food as long as he lived. Vishnu agreed out of fear. Soon Melaka became prosperous and his status in the town improved.

Now he had a neighbour called Ananta. He was a man of virtue, but was poor. His wife, Lilavati, and Melaka’s wife were friends. Lilavati grew jealous of her friend. She would shout at her husband, insult him, hold him responsible for their miserable existence, and would occasionally threaten to leave him. If that lazy man, her friend’s husband, could manage his affairs so well, why couldn’t he, she would ask him. He asked her to find out from her friend how her husband had come to do so well.

Having found out the secret of his prosperity, one day Ananta went to the same temple. He picked up the stone idol of Shiva, and raised his axe. Now Shiva materialized in a terrible form. How dared he attempt to attack him, he asked, and told him that he would tear him to pieces. Ananta was greatly unnerved, but could still manage to ask him why he was so angry with him when Narayana was so generous to Melaka in an identical situation.

Then Shiva told him that Melaka was an ignoramus, a lazy person; he lacked understanding and a sense of the right and the wrong. But he, Ananta, was not like that. He was honest and knowledgeable; he had a sense of discrimination. So they both could not be dealt with in the same way. Gods fear those who have an undeveloped conscience, who have no inner growth, but they are not afraid of the knowledgeable, who have a well-developed moral sense. Shiva told him that Melaka would suffer in hell, but he, who had looked after the needy, and had lived a pious life, would be reborn as a saadhu, a pious person. Ananta put the idol in the proper place and returned home. He told his wife that he just couldn’t break the idol; he got terribly scared. He was not going to make another attempt, he told her, even if they were to die of starvation.

After death, Melaka and Ananta met the same fate as Shiva had said - Melaka suffered in hell, and in his next birth, Ananta was the pious king of Kashi.

Now, Duryodhana was like Melaka, and he was like Ananta, Sakuni told Yudhisthira. How could he do something so sinful? He was renowned to be a man of virtue; how would he fight a war to kill his brothers, he asked him. He might suffer in this life, but would have a life of bliss in the next. He should not give in to anger, desire for power, hatred and violence. He should reject war, and return to forest.

Yudhisthira’s reply was sharp. During his vanavasa (period of forest dwelling) he had traveled from arka tirtha (Konarka) to himagiri (the Himalayas), and there was probably no tirtha (place of pilgrimage) that he did not visit, he told Sakuni. He said he knew him well, and knew that he never wanted the Pandava and the Kaurava brothers to have good relations. Now, instead of asking him to go back to the forest, he should persuade Duryodhana to go for vanavasa for a while, and let the Pandava brothers rule the kingdom during his vanavasa. The poet doesn’t say anything about how Sakuni felt and what all he thought.

He of course did not fail to see that Yudhishthira was uncharacteristically harsh. Speaking ironically to one’s elder and kin is showing disrespect to him. This is probably the only example in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata when Yudhisthira spoke ironically to anyone. He thought Sakuni was trying to exploit him – what else does the devil have in mind when he quotes scriptures?

It didn’t even occur to him that his uncle Sakuni could be honest. During this episode Sakuni told him that he did not really know him; Sahadeva did – he hinted that the youngest Pandava was aware of his compulsions, and his real goals. Yudhishthira didn’t ask him to elaborate, or to clarify himself a bit. He ignored his words; they surely made no sense to him. One’s perspective is limited by the stereotypes of knowledge one has constructed from one’s past experiences. Even Yudhishthira, the living embodiment of dharma on earth, was no exception.

Sarala’s – the poet who is sometimes believed to be deeply inspired by the Buddhist thought - Sakuni provides the ultimate argument for peace: there is no road to real peace through violence, and total commitment to rejection of violence would mean choosing to sacrifice the self at the decisive moment. The wise, loving, and non-violent Yudhishthira (whose non-violent and considerate nature had once upset his mother because in her view these were not the qualities that a king should have) did not opt for peace. He didn’t even care to give it a thought because it came from the one who in his eyes was an unworthy person. Like any ordinary person he believed that it is the source that matters, not the thing.

Besides, there probably were other things in his mind at that time. They had almost just returned from twelve years’ stay in the forest, and one year’s stay incognito. It had been a hard life. He was in no mood to return to the forest. He didn’t want a kingdom, didn’t want even his own kingdom back, if the war could be averted that way. He just wanted two, if not two, only one, village. But it was never nothing. He never talked of returning to the forest. Besides he knew he wouldn’t have his brothers’ and Draupadi’s support - for many reasons, including avenging Draupadi’s humiliation. His brothers knew that the time for this had come.

Except Yudhishthira, no one really wanted to avert the war, although it must be said in all fairness that only a few were looking forward to it. But even he was not committed to total and unqualified rejection of violence. And he didn’t ever think in terms of renunciation. His concept of a virtuous life did not include it. He had never renounced anything.

This apart, he was not the one who worked for reward in afterlife, whether in heaven or in the subsequent birth. He was the only one in the narrative who left the world of the mortals without undergoing death. But he never worked for it. It was neither his aspiration nor his goal. In fact, afterlife, rebirth, etc. were not part of his language. All this was characteristically Krishna’s language, also the sages’ language – Agasti’s or Vyasa’s, for instance, and occasionally, Sakuni’s, and a few others’ too. But never Yudhisthira’s, or for that matter, Bhishma’s, Drona’s or Karna’s. Whatever their beliefs about rebirth, these great men lived their days as though there was only one life to live. They did not allow thoughts and concerns about afterlife to govern their present. A generous, deeply conscientious, and scrupulously honest person, Yudhishthira did his best to live a life of righteousness. There was no compensation he sought in the form of reward, if not here, elsewhere. A “gain-hereafter” argument was unlikely to impress him.

Peace sometimes demands self-denial, renunciation. That was the essence of Sakuni’s proposal; that was also his challenge to Yudhisthira, the one believed to be the very embodiment of dharma. He chose to brush it aside.