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Praise in the right place is praise; praise in the wrong place is an insult. Praise at the right time is praise; praise at the wrong time is an insult.
In these opening verses of the Bhagavad Gita, Duryodhana addresses his guru Acharya Drona using the word dvijottama, a word that literally means the best of brahmanas and in common usage means a noble brahmana. Since Drona is neither the best of brahmanas nor a noble brahmana, this definitely is an insult, or at least sarcasm. Unless of course he is trying to flatter his guru, which the context shows he is not.
The definition of a brahmana handed down for thousands of years through the karna-parampara, the oral tradition, is: one who knows the Ultimate Reality, Brahman, or in other words someone who knows God: brahma janati iti brahmanah. By an extension of the definition, the term could also be used for one whose aim of life is knowing God and treads the path that leads to God realization by living a life of nivritti – of serenity, quietude, acceptance, forgiveness, patience and so on.
This is not the way Drona has been living his life, though the society in his days expected a brahmana to live such a life. Instead, he had chosen to be a teacher of the martial arts and is standing in the battlefield fully armed to fight a war and kill Duryodhana’s enemies. Though he is not the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army yet, he would become that once Bhishma falls. That definitely is not being a noble brahmana.
The Buddha is just stating the traditional perception of who a brahmana is when he says in the Dhammapada:
One who has laid down the rod
In dealing with beings, moving or still,
Who neither kills nor causes to kill,
Him I call a brahmin. — [James Carter translation]
Whoever endures abuse, assault, and imprisonment
And who has forbearance as one’s strength,
As one’s mighty army,
I call a brahmin. — [Jack Kornfield translation]
Forget about being a dwijottama, Drona is hardly a dwija at all, unless you go by birth alone, though even then you are expected to live a certain lifestyle which Drona has given up a long time ago. Some of the basic virtues by which a brahmana lives are lack of vengefulness, forgiveness, great self mastery, endurance and so on.
Consciously or unconsciously, Duryodhana is just adding another insult to the list of insults he heaps upon his guru in these opening verses. And by doing that, he is not promoting his cause in any way. The only way to understand his behavior is by assuming he has temporarily lost mastery over himself and his actions are not emerging from his conscious self but from his unconscious, as it happens with all of us in our moments of great fear or stress.
Duryodhana here demonstrates complete lack of emotional intelligence. He is not in touch with his own inner feelings and naturally has no mastery over these feelings. He has got into such situations numerous times in the past too, thus incurring the curse of rishis and the anger of his elders.
The Kuru prince has throughout his life been a slave to his emotions, something no leader can afford to become, either in earlier times or today. Atma jeyah sada rajna – one should always be a master of oneself, says the Mahabharata, discussing one of the first principles of leadership. And self mastery means mastery over one’s body, one’s senses and one’s mind. It includes mastery over the six enemies of man – kama, krodha, lobha, moha, mada and matsarya – lust, anger, greed, delusion, pride and intolerance..This is particularly true of a man in a leadership position, because he is responsible not only for himself but for others, sometimes tens of thousands of others, as in the case of an ancient king or the head of a modern corporate house, or the captain of a team of let’s say mountaineers, sportsmen, explorers, or whoever else. One of the most striking examples of a sportsman losing mastery over himself and suffering great loss for himself, his team and his nation in modern times is that of the great Zinedine Zidane in the 2006 Football World Cup final in Berlin.
Why has Duryodhana lost mastery over himself? What could be the reason? Let’s look at his words to his guru Drona once again before we proceed further.
Among other things he tells the Acharya his own army is aparyapta and that of the Pandavas is paryapta. His words here are traditionally interpreted in two different ways. One, to mean his army is boundless and that of the Pandavas is limited. And two, just the opposite: his army is not sufficient to meet the challenge, and that of the Pandavas is adequate.
In my previous discussion [Living Bhagavad Gita: Short Essays 002], I had followed the first traditional interpretation of his words. Let’s now give his words the second meaning: that he feels his army is inadequate whereas that of the Pandavas is sufficient. Why does he say such a demoralizing thing when he and his people are standing in the battlefield ready to begin the war?
Well, Duryodhana has just counted the major warriors on both sides. While on the Pandava side he mentions several mighty warriors, he mentions only a few on his own side. Surprisingly he misses even such powerful warriors on his side as his brother Dusshasana, Bhurishava and Shalya, each one of whom is a truly mighty warrior, each capable of commanding large armies and causing great harm to the enemies. Shalya has in fact joined his side with an entire akshauhini of army and would eventually become the commander-in-chief of all Duryodhana’s forces after the death of Karna!
And he mentions Karna – who is not present on the spot to fight the war, has vowed not to enter the war field so long as Bhishma stands!
Has the presence of so many mighty warriors on the enemy side confused him? Has it made him doubt his chances of victory, lose his confidence?
A short while before the war was finally decided upon, Duryodhana was absolutely sure of his victory. When Krishna had gone to the Kuru assembly and negotiated peace, the language Duryodhana used throughout was the language of power. Every time Krshna would suggest a way to end the conflict and find peace, Duryodhana would ask: But who is more powerful, they or us? But all on a sudden, his sense of his own power, his army’s power, seems to have deserted him. What could be the reason?
Could it be that the sight of so many mighty maharathis on the Pandava side made him suspect his own power? It is possible that earlier Duryodhana had assumed that the Pandavas would not be able to procure the alliance of so many mighty warriors and such a huge army?
While I believe that is possible, there could be another important reason. Something related to his people’s commitment to him.
Duryodhana has doubts about the commitment of his people to him and to his cause. In fact they have told him so openly several times in the past and he himself has accused them of being more sympathetic towards the Pandava cause than to his cause. This has lead to explosive scenes in the Kuru assembly numerous times in the past.
When he looks at the Pandava army, he sees people totally committed to one cause, all of them standing behind Yudhishthira as one. But on his own side he knows no one is really with him. No one, not totally. Except perhaps his brother Dusshasana, who was like his twin soul.
Let’s take a quick look at the important people on Duryodhana’s side, those he mentions and those he does not mention. The first person on his list is Acharya Drona himself. It is well known that Drona’s favourite disciple is Arjuna, loved so much by the Acharya that to make sure that he remains his best student he asks for the thumb of Ekalavya in gurudakshina, thus destroying Ekalavya as an archer forever and gaining for himself eternal notoriety as a guru. It is also equally clear that Drona has no love for Duryodhana. The acharya sees him as arrogant, impulsive, incompetent brat, a usurper of power.
It has been so from the beginning. In the crocodile test devised by him to check the devotion of his disciples, when a crocodile attacks Drona, it was Arjuna who saved him risking his own life while Duryodhana watched on helplessly. While Duryodhana failed to give the guru dakshina Drona wanted in the form of Drupada, captured, bound and brought to him, Duryodhana failed to do that and it was the Pandavas, led by Arjuna, who did it. Arjuna repeatedly proves his total devotion not only to his guru but also to learning, even defeating his guru in his cunning, unethical schemes to stop him from becoming his best disciple. Every teacher would love such a disciple.
Drona has repeatedly said that Duryodhana has neither any right over the Kuru crown nor the ethical requirements to wear it. The acharya certainly has no commitment to Duryodhana. Just before the war starts, as Yudhishthira comes to Drona seeking his blessings in the war and requesting him to join his side, Drona publicly announces he is on Duryodhana’s side only because of his financial indebtedness to him. Arthasya dasah – a slave to his wealth, that is how Drona describes himself then.
Kripa’s attitude in everything, including his commitment to Duryodhna, is the same as that of his brother-in-law Drona. Drona’s son Ashwatthama is close to Duryodhana as a friend, though he has frequently and bluntly questioned Duryodhana’s unethical ways.
It is too well known that Bhishma has no commitment to Duryodhana. Nor has Shalya, not mentioned here by Duryodhana, who is really Pandu’s wife Madri’s brother and thus an uncle of the Pandavas, who was waylaid and tricked to join the Kaurava side while he was on his way to join the Pandava side. His heart is with the Pandavas.
Vikarna, a younger brother of Duryodhana, is the only one who shows the courage to question what was being done in the Dice Hall to Draupadi, apart from Vidura. Though he fights for Duryodhana because they are brothers, his heart is not with him.
And Karna? His heart is definitely not with Duryodhana in this war, as he himself says openly to Krishna, because he considers Duryodhana ethically unfit to become king. When Krishna offers Karna the kingdom and asks him to join the Pandavas who are actually his brothers, Karna tells him he knows that and asks Krishna not to give him the kingdom because if it is given to him, out of his friendship with Duryodhana he would give it to him, and he does not deserve it, he is unfit to become king. True, Duryodhana counts on him heavily and perhaps believes he is with him fully, but he knows the fact that because of a quarrel with Bhishma, he would not be joining his side to fight the war so long as Bhishma stands. He may not know of the promise Karna has made to his mother not to kill any of her sons except Arjuana, but he certainly knows that Karna has put his own ego above Duryodhana’s interests by taking the decision to keep away from the war so long as Bhishma fights.
Is there any wonder then if Duryodhana is shaken as he looks at both the sides as the war is about to start? He knows that wars are not won by skilled people, but by skilled people with commitment. A successful leader is he who is able to generate that commitment in people whether it is in the Mahabharata war, in any other war, or in a modern corporate house, a political party, an election, or whatever ‘battle’ it is. People contribute best to a cause when their heart in it.
Duryodhana knows he is a failure as a leader. His guide all his life has been Shakuni whereas the Pandavas have Krishna with them to give them strength and to show them their path. He also knows he does not have even the blessings of his own mother for this war in which she considers him on the side of adharma! She refuses to bless him as he goes to her seeking her blessings as he starts out. As he bends and touches her feet, instead of the conventional vijayi bhava, be victorious, what she says is yato dharmah tato jayah – Victory will be where dharma is!
Rather than asking Duryodhana to shut up, Bhishma in a tactically brilliant act blows his powerful conch to stop Duryodhana’s babbling and to announce the war. He has openly criticized Duryodhana all his life but does not want to do that again at this juncture and in front of all these people!
tasya sanjanayan harsham kuruvriddhah pitaamahah
simhanaadam vinadyocchaih shankham dadhmau prataapavaan // BG 1.12 //
Then Bhishma, the aged Kuru grandfather, roared like a lion and blew a powerful blast on his conch making Duryodhana’s heart leap with joy.
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