Saturday, July 21, 2012


At last the defining moment for Arjuna arrived. He picked up gandiva, his divine bow and pulled its string, and Krishna returned to the chariot driver’s seat and blew his conch, pancajanya. Together they produced a sound that sent shivers down the enemies’ spine. Soon the war started and as the war drums rolled and the elephants trumpeted and the horses neighed, and from all around arose the terrifying death cry of the humans and the animals, and the loud and painful wailings of those who had fallen mortally wounded in the battlefields of that dharma yuddha, which was to solve problem of inheritance of the kingdom of Hastinapura, Bhagavan Krishna’s discourse to Arjuna about the immorality of atma, and the incorrectness of the familiar beliefs and perceptions about death and the agency of the killer, etc. faded into oblivion in Arjuna’s mind. Krishna knew it. Was he disappointed? Who knows! But then we, amrutasya putrah, the children of immortality, like the blind old king Dhritarastra, so highly privileged as to have been able to hear his discourse and see in our mind’s eye his Universal Form through Sanjaya’s narration, cannot understand what sense disappointment or delight would make in the context of Krishna. In any case, once Arjuna lifted his gandiva, Bhagavat Gita disappeared from the sage-poet’s narrative. It is as though the Sacred Words freed themselves from their context and soared into an autonomous existence, leaving the narrative to deal with the macabre happenings in the battlefields and the mundaneness of the Kuru clan. Or is it the case that those Words of God were de-contextualized (do not ask what that context was, who knows for certain!) and re-contextualized in the Mahabharata?

Arjuna would not fight his grandfather Bhishma to his fullest potential. Bhishma could not be killed of course, unless he wished to be killed, but he could be disabled, wounded to the extent he would be incapable of fighting, but Arjuna seemed unwilling to hurt his grandfather. Krishna was so disgusted and upset with Arjuna’s attitude one day that he forgot his role in the war and his promise too to his elder brother Balarama and picked up a wooden wheel from the battlefield and rushed to attack Bhishma. He was calmed when Arjuna promised him that he would fight Bhishma with all his might. Arjuna was terribly upset when Dhristadyumna, the commander-in-chief of the Pandava army, decapitated his preceptor Drona in a totally unethical and cowardly manner and he wanted to avenge the killing. He had to be pacified. He had forgotten about death being a mere change of clothes. He had forgotten that he was not the agent, was only a nimmita, a proxy, to do what had already been done - Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Jayadratha had already been killed. He had forgotten that he had seen it all in the Universal Form of Krishna.

Arjuna lost self-control completely when he came to know about the death of Abhimanyu. The loss of his son was too overwhelming for the father. He reacted by pronouncing an oath – a terrible oath: either he killed his son’s killer by sunset the following day if the latter was still on the battlefield or he would consign himself to fire. He wanted revenge but only he can think in such terms who considers himself as the doer and as the victim of the doings of another person.

This time Krishna did not calm Arjuna through sagacious advice, as he had done earlier. The two situations were not the same: death of one’s own was a spectre then, but a reality now; now he was face to face with the death of his “very own”, not just his “own”. The depressing vision of death that had crossed his mind then did not seem to include the death of Abhimanyu. So did Krishna think it would be pointless to offer Arjuna sage counsel? Did he think that the son’s dead body lying in front of the father waiting to be cremated eliminated all possibilities of wise words, even from him, who was his sakha (close friend)? Or had he, the guru of gurus, just given up on Arjuna, his shisya (student)? Or did he think that his purpose was served when the war started and now he had no need to intervene? Who can fathom out Krishna! In any case, as for his intervening now, intervene he did of course but in a different way; on the following day Arjuna was saved from the fire by divine intervention rather than Krishna, the person, but there is no essential difference - it’s just another way of saying the same thing. That story we set aside here.  

According to the Gita, the purpose of the avatara is to restore dharma on earth. This he does by destroying those inimical to dharma and empowering the virtuous. Sometimes it amounted to the killing of a wicked and adharmik ruler and enthroning in his place a virtuous one who could be the protector of dharma and the practitioners of it. The avataras of Gita Govinda (setting aside the controversial case of The Buddha, who is the ninth avatara in this composition) have done precisely this, with the exception of Parshuram, who destroyed the evil doers but did not provide a substitute in the form of virtuous rulers or a just system. Now, Krishna, who demonstrated to Arjuna that he was the Whole and a part thereof, did a great deal more. By persuading Arjuna to fight, he did essentially what the other avataras had done. But his discourse, known as Bhagavad Gita or just Gita went far beyond this limited objective.

The Gita has transformational objectives. At one level, it calls upon one to understand oneself, understand the world, realize the nature of atma who dwells in the body but is not part of it, understand the human condition of being caught in the inexorable karmic cycle and the way out of it – the way to moksa, among so much else. At another level, it calls upon one to free oneself from ignorance, avidya, that clouds one’s understanding of things and be spiritually transformed, because the person who would be most suited to be the instrument of change in the world would not merely be virtuous, but be wise also in the above sense. It is as though Krishna had felt that the problem of the burden of Mother Earth on account of the vicious grip of adharma could not be solved by what the avataras had done so far. Changing the ruler could be at best a temporary measure. Probably the avatari (the One who assumes an avatara) was tired of descending again and again. So He pronounced the permanent solution: man must attain self-knowledge and with the clarity of vision that comes from it, deal with the world.

In changing man the avatara did not succeed.  Nothing changed. Forget about the war. After the war, Yudhisthira became the king. But that mother of all wars had not put an end to wars. Yudhisthira decided to perform aswamedha yajna. Whatever his objectives, how very laudable, nothing altered the perception about it, namely that it was a way for the emperor to demonstrate his power and supremacy. The rulers saw it as a challenge to them; it engendered bitterness and invited resistance, which some of them did offer in the only terms possible in that situation: bloodshed, which included bloodshed of the innocents in the battlefield. Those who challenged Yudhisthira’s authority lost, but doesn’t in the defeat and the humiliation of a kingdom lie hidden the possibility of a retaliatory war some day?

As though the Sacred Words were never pronounced! All Mother Earth could prayerfully look forward to in this situation was yet another descent of Vishnu.   

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Arjuna’s problem in Vyasa Mahabharata is too well-known to recount here: somewhat roughly and in brief, he would not kill his grandfather, other Kuru elders, preceptors, cousins and relatives, although they stood facing him in the Kurukshetra battlefield as his enemy, and if they wanted to kill him, he would not even resist and would happily get killed. He considered raising arms against one’s very own as an act of adharma. Besides, with the destruction of a family, family values and culture would also be destroyed. He was sure that he had nothing to gain in that war and everything to lose. He would not fight, he told Krishna.

Sarala’s Arjuna had a different problem. He had no qualms about killing his enemies in the battlefield, whoever they were, but he would not start the war. He would not shoot the first arrow. Starting a war was a terrible sin because many innocents would get killed, who would be fighting someone else’s war. If he was attacked, he would fight because then he would not have to carry the sin of starting the war. This was what he told Krishna.    

In Vyasa Mahabharata Krishna tried to make Arjuna see reason, which is what Srimad Bhagavat Gita is all about, as far as the Mahabharata story is concerned. He was being merely sentimental, Krishna told the despondent warrior. He told him about the illusory nature of death, and about the senselessness of grieving over the dead on that account. He wanted him to realize the consequences of his action at a personal level. He had got the rare opportunity to fight in that dharma yuddha, righteous war, and it would be unwise for him to withdraw from it, he said. Besides, whether he won or perished, he would be a winner: he would enjoy the pleasures of the world as a victor or the pleasures of the other world if he perished. But if he withdrew, he would be mocked at as a coward during his life and after death.

 It is unclear why at this stage Arjuna was not asked to consider certain other matters that arose out of his stand. Getting killed by the enemy without harming them might be acceptable to him, but was it acceptable to him that his brothers, relatives, friends and all those others who had come to fight for the Pandavas got destroyed as a consequence of his stand? If killing one’s kin was wrong, was pushing one’s brothers and sons and relatives to death was right? Did he really believe that even without him the Pandavas would win the war? Was he so naive? One would rather think that he knew that without him the Pandavas had just no chance of winning. He was not only a great archer, the greatest according to Bhishma and Drona and many others; he had with him the most destructive of divine weapons - he was the only one among the warriors assembled there who had Shiva’s all-destructive pasupata astra. Besides, no one else in the Pandava army had divine weapons, whereas in the Kaurava army ,Bhishma, Drona, Karna and Aswasthama certainly had. Bhishma might have decided not to kill the Pandavas (incidentally, not in Sarala's Mahabharata), but others had no such inhibitions, and the grandfather had not vowed to protect them from the warriors of the Kaurava army! 

Arjuna was aware that Krishna was not wrong. If he withdrew from the war, some would call him a coward - purely out of malice. But he believed that many including the wise and venerable Bhishma, Drona, Bhurishrava, Karna, and a host of others would not think so of him; they had known him too well for that. They would not call him a coward who had single-handedly defeated them all just a few months ago in the battlefield of the kingdom of Virata. But they would be shocked and bewildered. Along with everyone else, Arjuna had been preparing for this war ever since Krishna had returned from Duryodhana empty-handed. Arjuna had never said a word by way of protest against the war. They would be inclined to think of him as sentimental, immature and extremely irresponsible. But would these have been less humiliating and more comforting for him than being called a coward, one would wonder.

Coward or not, everyone would have thought of him as a deserter at one level and a betrayer of trust at a more personal level. As a kshatriya ("belonging to the warrior caste") it was his duty to fight for those whose war it was not, and yet had assembled to fight for him, not abandon them right on the battlefield. His decision to withdraw from fighting was actually an act of self-indulgence and selfishness, and it showed that he was completely insensitive to his “own others”. Krishna must have wanted him to understand that his selfishness and thoughtlessness in that particular situation could lead to terribly consequences for them all, who had joined the Pandavas' side because their cause was just.

The Pandavas firmly believed that they were fighting for a just cause. Duryodhana had become the crown prince under wrong assumptions about them (that they had perished in the lac palace fire) , but when the truth was known, no one in the Kaurava court said that if the past could not be undone, the Pandavas could not be ignored either, therefore they must be compensated in some way. As for the Pandavas, for the cause of peace, they asked for just five villages, not half of the kingdom which they believed was their due. But even that was refused. Yudhisthira, like most – sages, Kaurava elders, Drona, etc. among them - had no doubt that the Kauravas were entirely unfair to the Pandavas. He called the war a “just war” out of conviction. As already said, all those who had joined the Pandavas’ side believed that they had joined the virtuous in that just war. Arjuna’s withdrawal would amount to his abandoning the fighters who were fighting in a just war. That would certainly not be morally right. Now if a kshatriya did not fight for the honest and the morally upright, and for those who were denied their due, he would be failing in his caste-duties. As he was explaining his unwillingness to fight, Arjuna told Krishna that he was not sure whose victory would be a better outcome of the war: their own or the Kauravas’. Surprisingly, he was not advised that the war was not just between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, it was also between those who followed dharma and those who did not, and that in that situation there must be no doubt in his mind about what would constitute the desirable outcome.

And as for the loss of the family values and culture, one wonders why Arjuna was not advised that he had undue anxieties. One branch of the family was going to fight against another; so there was no fear of the culture and the traditions of the family perishing irrespective of whoever won. But even in the extremely unlikely event of both the Kauravas and the Pandavas being destroyed by the divine weapons of both sides, there was little room for anxiety. If a great family dies, its traditions and values do not really die, they live in other forms: those of tales and legends, for example. And all said, aren’t the values of a family mere expressions of a deeper set of beliefs, values and practices, common to an entire culture, and at a still deeper level, to humankind as well?

About the problem of widows that eventually brings about the moral collapse of a society, Arjuna’s apprehensions were again rather exaggerated. This problem was not unknown to that society; in all likelihood it had arisen when Bhagawan Parshurama destroyed the kshyatriyas many times over. In order to deal with the problem of the widows, the society had created the niyoga system, which was still prevalent in Arjuna’s time. If things went terribly wrong, the society would again find some solution. One did not have to get unduly exercised about it.

Moral issues as mentioned above, which are rather straightforward and obvious, but by no means trivial, and which do not demand understanding things at a profound supra-mental level, were somehow not raised in the Gita  to persuade a despondent Arjuna to fight. One would think that if they had been, it would probably not have been necessary to go beyond the familiar, the rational (in the sense of “not supra-rational”) and the normal, and that the discourse went, rather too early, to a far deeper and a highly profound philosophical and metaphysical level to deal with Arjuna’s attitude. One gets the impression that although anchored in Arjuna’s problem, the Gita discourse was not really targeted to it specifically; it was concerned with, at one level, many general issues concerning the human condition, and at another, articulating a mode of one’s inner spiritual growth leading to one’s mokshya in one terminology.  Now, for a pure story teller, his interest in the Gita is to the extent it takes the story forward elegantly; he would tend to avoid whatever would conspicuously arrest its flow or affect the smoothness of it.  
Arjuna’s witnessing the Universal Form of Krishna forms an important part of the Gita. He could see this Form with the help of Krishna himself; he gave him the special power of vision for the purpose.   One might consider this episode as part of a long argument to persuade Arjuna to fight. From this point of view, there is something in it that is of special interest, namely what he saw in the Universal Form. He saw the death of warriors from both the Kaurava and the Pandava sides - he saw the time past and the time future as indistinguishable. In that Ultimate Form he saw Drona, Bhishma, Jayadratha and Karna, among others, already dead. They could be identified among the Kaurava warriors, so they were named. But none from the Pandava side was named; Arjuna did not see Abhimanyu, Ghatotkacha and Draupadi’s five sons among the multitude of the Pandava warriors who had perished too. Now, it cannot be said that his knowledge that those Kaurava warriors were already dead influenced Arjuna in a perceptible way. But one would never be sure how he would have been affected, or affected at all, had he seen Abhimanyu dead. This scepticism arises because after all, Arjuna was an ordinary mortal in terms of spiritual growth; he was not a seer like the sages of the Upanishads or the Sanata Kumars.

Why Arjuna did not see what he surely did not want to see is a question that need not detain us here.  Does it have anything to do with the fact that, unlike in Yasoda’s case, Krishna showed that Form to him because he wanted to see It? In any case, who can see the Whole as whole! He saw what Krishna gave him the power to see. And wasn’t Krishna trying to persuade him to fight!

Now Sarala, the story teller must have felt it more manageable to alter Arjuna’s problem, and tell the story from that perspective. In his narrative, Arjuna’s problem was intensely moral, but did not invite any profound discourse or supra-human experience of Reality. Arjuna did not need any advice. He simply had to wait. When two armies stood face to face, something or the other would happen, someone or the other would lose patience and shoot an arrow or hit one with a mace. And that would solve his problem. This is precisely what happened, as we have seen in an earlier post in this blog.  
Snana Purnima, 2012

Friday, March 9, 2012


In Udyoga Parva of Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata Krishna tells the story of the kingdom of Babarapuri. Your kingdom is like baabarapuri, he told king Duryodhana in his court, when he went there as Yushisthira’s emissary to explore the possibility of avoiding war. He was only pretending to do so, but that’s another story.

Bhishma had not heard of such a place, and in all humility requested him to tell the assembly some details about it. In western Saurashtra (it is futile to try to locate it somewhere today), Krishna said, there was a country called Kurala, and the city of Babarapuri was its capital. The name of its king was Bhandeswara (literally, the lord of the cheats), and his minister’s name was Baibhanda (mad person). The deity worshipped there was naked, with wild, untied hair, and everyone in that city, both men and women, moved almost naked. The only clothes they wore were some headwear. They studied what one might call “anti-shastras”, which dealt with unethical modes of living. They valued lies, rewarded those who told lies, and killed those who spoke the truth. They also rewarded those who spoke uncouth and vulgar language.

The king was simple minded; the subjects had no respect for him and would maintain no distance from him, violating the traditional norms of conduct. The city had no enemies. People were prosperous, but no one paid any taxes to the king. They lived in wanton lavishness, spending whatever they earned. There was no sexual discipline; men and women indulged in sex whenever and wherever they liked. They had no inhibitions; any man could choose to have any woman, without regard for even blood relationships. Once a man used a woman, he left her; there was no enduring relationship between a man and a woman in that city.

Then one day a strange fear enveloped the city: it was the fear of kokuaa. Everyone talked about him, as though they had seen it, but no one really had. But people spread rumours about it; if one said it had several eyes, another said it swallowed whatever it saw. Still another said it was so huge that it covered the entire sky. In no time the talk about kokuaa became the truth about it. People stopped going out. They would stay indoors long before it was dark, and would not venture out for quite some time after the day break. Parents often frightened their children with the mention of kokuaa. There was a vicious atmosphere of tension all around. But there are limits to how much tension a system can absorb. One day fight broke out among the inhabitants of the city, and many died. Then natural calamities visited the city, and they took their toll of life. The city was completely destroyed. There was no attack from any enemy. “Listen, O son of Ganga,” said Krishna, “Duryodhana’s kingdom will be similarly destroyed”.

Trying to make sense of baabarapuri, one might begin asking what kind of place name it is. It is an odd name, an inelegant combination of the “native” sounding name baabara and the tatsama classifier puri. It sounds very uncomplimentary, bringing to mind the tatsama word barbara, meaning uncivilized and uncultured, and expresses a very negative view of the kind of life the inhabitants of the city lived. Naming a place is giving an identity, in linguistic terms, to some space set apart from undifferentiated space. A place is given a name, or a name different from the one it already had, sometimes by insiders, and sometimes by outsiders. Sometimes for a particular place name, it is not easy to figure out who gave it - the insider or the outsider.

Place names are like proverbs. It is futile to try to find the origin of a proverb. It is possible that the ancestral version of a certain proverb was quite different from its present form, and it is quite plausible that it underwent various refinements in course of time. One could vainly search for its author; one would never know for certain whether it had a single author or a group of authors. It is more or less the same with place names.

In all probability, the name was given to the city by the arrogant outsider, who considered degenerate the social, economic, cultural and political life in the city. It is by no means undesirable if the ruler and the ruled did not maintain distance between them. It is no disaster if everyone from the ruler to the ruled earned their own livelihood, and the citizens did not have to pay tax to the king. For whatever reason if the city did not attract aggressors, it does not invite negative evaluation. The city perished, and the way it did was terrible. But it is unreasonable, arrogant and insensitive to suggest so unambiguously that it deserved such an end because they disrespected tradition.

One might argue that the name was given by the inhabitants of the city themselves, who were not unaware of the negative connotations of baabarapuri. They were aware of the contemptuous attitude of the outsiders to their culture, and they had made a statement by giving their own city such a name. It was thus an affront to their detractors.

May be, it was Krishna himself who gave the city its name (wasn’t he an outsider?), but did not own that act. Like so many things he did or caused to happen in Sarala’s narrative, but the world never knew he was the doer or the cause. He used the episode to issue a warning, a threat. Surely some in that august assembly knew it was nothing short of a prediction - they knew it was Krishna’s wish. Krishna had used baabarapuri as an analogy for Duryodhana’s kingdom. It is not clear how it was an appropriate comparison, except on one count – like baabarapuri, it did not face any threat from outside. But let us not forget Sarala’s Krishna went to Duryodhana to make sure war took place. And this was the kind of discourse that was entirely appropriate for the fulfillment of his objective.