Saturday, July 21, 2012

THE GITA IN THE MAHABHARATA


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.   

3 comments:

curly locks said...

the fact that adharma does not end when an avatara'a work is done on earth seems to be a favorite theme of yours, I remember you spoke about it in Shillong as well. I quite agree though, that evil cannot be ended. If it did, we would not live in this world full of evils. Which is why I find the idea of Karma so attractive - evil exists because of the people who are evil, and there can be redemption from evil for one person, but someone else will commit another and the cycle will go on.

B.N.Patnaik said...

Your observation on karma in this context is very interesting. There is perhaps another idea which along with the theory of karma would explain the continuance of evil (ignoring details): the idea that in each entity in the creation reside the triple attributes of satwa, raja and tama.

curly locks said...

indeed :)