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I see evil omens, Krishna. And I do not see any good in killing kinsmen in war. I have no desire for victory, Krishna, or for the kingdom or pleasures. What good is the kingdom, Krishna, or pleasures, or life itself? Those for whose sake we desire kingdoms, enjoyments and pleasures, they stand here before me staking their wealth and life in the war – teachers, fathers, sons, grandfathers, uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons, brothers-in-law and other kinsmen. I do not want to kill them, Krishna, even if they kill me – no, not even for all the three worlds, what to speak of this land. BG 1.31-35
Winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win, goes a popular saying. That may be true with regard to a particular venture, but in life that is not how things work. To win a war, sometimes you have to lose battles. People who never give up a single battle frequently end up by losing the war. However that may be, one sure way to lose, whether it is a battle or a war, or an argument or a negotiation, is to give up before it begins.
And that is exactly what Arjuna is doing here. The war conches have just been blown, Arjuna asks Krishna to take his chariot between the two armies so that he can see those assembled for the war. He takes a good look at them and straight away begins speaking of giving up the war.
Arjuna is a loser in no sense of the term. One of his names is Vijaya, meaning victory, and that name is absolutely appropriate for him. He is a consistent winner, has been so from his earliest days. He was only a little boy in Drona’s gurukula when he beat his own guru in a mean game the master was playing and won Drona’s heart.
This is how it happened. As in all other gurukulas, it was part of the education to do some menial work for the gurukula whoever you are. One of the errands the royal pupils of Drona had to do was to fetch water for the ashram every morning. For this work Drona gave small pots to all the students and a much larger pot to his son Ashwatthama who too studied along with the princes. Since his pot was bigger, Ashwatthama had to make fewer trips and finished fetching his share of water earlier than the other students. As soon as he did that, Drona started giving him lessons, and these lessons were more advanced than the lessons the others received. Arjuna understood what was happening and with the help of the varuna astra started finishing his errand at the same time as Ashwatthama. Drona was left with no option but to give him too the lessons he gave his son.
The Mahabharata tells us that one day Drona gave an order to the gurukula cook never to serve a meal to Arjuna in the dark. The instruction was specifically about Arjuna and when we read it we are puzzled – why should the guru give his cook such an instruction?. But the mystery is solved as we are told the rest of the story. One day as the students were having their supper the wind blew out the lamps and Arjuna continued eating. Later that night, Drona was woken up from his sleep by the booming sound of the bow string being released. It was Arjuna practicing shooting in the dark! From eating in the dark, Arjuna had learnt that just as you can eat without seeing, you can also shoot without seeing.
That is Arjuna, the winner.
That night Drona moved by Arjuna’s commitment and dedication to dhanurvidya hugged his young disciple and promised that from now he would make sure that Arjuna became the best archer in the world!
Arjuna is not a loser in any sense of the term, but right now, standing between the two armies, he is behaving like a typical loser by giving up the war even before it begins. And one of the reasons he gives for giving up the war is that he is seeing evil omens.
The Mahabharata does talk about omens and omens have a decisive role in some important incidents in the epic. Dhritarashtra frees Draupadi and the Pandava brothers staked and lost to Duryodhana in the dice game because, the epic narrator tell us, following the failed attempt to disrobe Draupadi in the royal hall ominous portents appear everywhere. But the epic is primarily a book for kshatriyas, for ambitious men of action, like most of us are today. It was written by Sage Vyasa keeping in mind primarily such men of action, the Kshatriyas, and is primarily about kshatriyas. And the Bhagavad Gita too is primarily for men of action, for leaders of men, as Krishna himself says in the opening verses of chapter four of the Gita.
Men of action believe in action, in the power of action to make things happen, in what is called purushartha in Sanskrit. They do not believe in giving up – and certainly not in giving up before the battle begins.
In the Shanti Parva of the epic, one of the questions the newly crowned King Yudhishthira asks grandsire Bhishma lying on the bed of arrows is what is more powerful: daiva or purushartha? As he always does, Bhishma gives a beautiful answer and then concludes his reply with three words: daivam kleebaa upaasate. These three words, I believe, sum up the spirit of the men and women of the epic. Translated literally, the three words mean: Eunuchs worship destiny. The word used by the epic that I have translated as destiny is daiva, which is not exactly destiny but for the time we can take it to mean destiny. And the word eunuch also does not mean a eunuch but is the Mahabharata word for a coward. These three words that sum up the spirit of the epic and of its men and women actually means: It is cowards that bend their knees before powers greater than themselves.
The men and women of the epic do not give any powers in the universe the authority to decide their destiny. They fight destiny and carve out their lives through that fight, just as men and women who decide the destiny of nations and organizations do today. No leader of a nation can today say that he leaves it all to destiny. Nor can the leader of a political party, a multinational corporation, a small industry or a department in an industry or a business house today can afford to say I leave it all to destiny. Which is one of the most important reasons why the Gita and the Mahabharata are so completely relevant to us today.
Let us take the example of Karna. Abandoned at birth, he is a foundling brought up by a driver – albeit the driver of the king, his charioteer, a suta. In a world of kshatriyas, he grows up as an outsider, a non-kshatriya. He was not really a low caste man in the Mahabharata world as we commonly assume today because in social status the sutas stood just beneath the kshatriyas and above the vaishyas. But they were certainly not equal to the kshatriyas in that world and that lower caste status and social position were constant obstacles on Karna’s path. But through his competence and purushartha, his efforts, overcoming all kinds of obstacles, he becomes arguably the best warrior of the day. He becomes a king in his own right and ultimately the commander-in-chief of the entire Kaurava army. A powerful king like Shalya, the king of Madra and uncle of Nakula and Sahadeva, has to submit himself, albeit unwillingly, albeit after a flat refusal, to become his driver. The rules of the day said that Karna should live his life as a driver since he was a driver’s son, but he refuses to accept that role and rises to such a position that he commands an army of powerful kings and kshatriyas of the day. Karna’s is the story of the victory of purushartha over daiva, or destiny. This is what Bhishma means when he tells Yudhishthira daivam kleebaa upaasate, it is cowards who worship destiny.
Let’s take another example from the epic, that of a woman this time, Empress Satyavati, the mother of Sage Vyasa, the greatest sage this land of sages has known, a man of ceaseless action himself. She was born the illegitimate daughter of a glorious king through what the epic ambiguously calls jimha, sin, in the context of a very confusing story that covers up more things than it reveals. When brought to her father after her birth, he rejects her and gives her back to the fisherman who had brought her to him, Dasharaja. She grows up as a fisher girl, her body exuding the foul smell of dry fish for miles around. This girl engaged by her loving father in ferrying people across the Yamuna eventually bargains with a scholar-sage and gets rid of her foul body smell before surrendering her body to him to give birth to the sage whose birthday we still celebrate all over the country five thousand years after his death as guru purnima, teacher’s day. She marries the most powerful emperor of the day after taking from him a promise that after his death the crown would go to his first son born to her. She thus becomes the empress and gives birth to two sons one of whom becomes an emperor who inherits the crown from his father. Satyavati, brought up as a fisher girl, carves out for herself an unsurpassed destiny and presides over the fortunes of the vast land of Bharatavarsha as its most powerful woman. Crowned heads from all over the land bow before her. All this she achieves through her purushartha.
That is the spirit of the men and women of the Mahabharata.
You can of course argue that whatever happens is destiny, that they should use purushartha and achieve these things was their destiny. That is the kind of argument that silences all arguments, an argument against which no arguments are possible. It is like asking if God is all powerful can he make a stone so heavy that he himself cannot lift it. In the language of logic, we call it a fallacy.
It is one of the most brilliant men of this age of heroic men of action, perhaps the most brilliant man of the age barring Krishna, who is now talking of abandoning the war just before it begins, at the very last possible moment, with the armies standing face to face in Kurukshetra. As we saw, one of the arguments he gives is he is seeing evil omens around.
That statement about evil omens speaks of the failure of Arjuna’s will to act as clearly as the shivering of his body, the drying up of his mouth, the burning of his skin, the reeling of his mind and the slipping of the Gandiva from his hand speak of it. It is in moments of weakness that we turn to the adrishta, powers not known to us and over which we have no control. Omens fall in this category. It is in moments of weakness we start worrying about such things – when are strong from within, they have no power over us.
During an important battle, says a Zen story, a Japanese general decided to attack his powerful enemy. He was confident they would win, but his men were filled with doubt because their army was weak. They happened to pass a holy Buddhist shrine on their way and the army stopped there to pray and take a short rest. The general looked into the eyes of his soldiers and knew what they needed was confidence more than anything else and nothing he would say would give them that confidence. So he took out a coin from his wallet and said, "I shall now toss this coin. If it is heads, we shall win. And if it is tails, we shall lose. Destiny will now reveal itself."
He threw the coin into the air and all watched intently as it landed. It was heads. Instantly the soldiers felt energy coursing through their veins. Filled with confidence and enthusiasm, the attacked the enemy and won.
After the battle was over one of his lieutenants, laughing happily, told the general, "No one can change destiny, Sir."
"Quite right," was the general’s reply. And then he showed the lieutenant the coin. It had heads on both sides!
It has been said that Arjuna was overcome by great pity – kripaya paraya aavishtah. But is kripa the real reason behind what is happening to him?
Behind everything we do, there is a real reason and a good reason. The real reason of course is just that – the real reason. And the good reason is the reason that is acceptable to the society, to other people. It is also the reason that is acceptable to ourselves, a reason that does not pose psychological threats to our egos. The pity that Arjuna feels is not the real reason behind his reactions, but the good reason. He would be tormented by guilt for the rest of his days and nights if he killed his guru and grandfather Bhishma and other kinsmen and he wants to avoid it. The kripa Arjuna feels is his route of escape from the conflict he is in.
Arjuna wants to win back his kingdom from Duryodhana who has usurped it, he wants to fight the war for Dharma that Krishna wants him to fight, but he does not want to lose his name and fame as a highly ethical person, as someone who will not do anything wrong. He does not want anyone to say that he killed his grandsire and his guru, or that he was responsible for their death.
Arjuna, like all of us and unlike Krishna, is very much a prisoner of his ego. He does not want to be blamed for going out of his maryadas, the ethical limits his society and its culture has set for him. He wants to remain a maryada purusha.
Krishna has no such compunctions. For the sake of dharma, if no other means are available, he does not mind occasionally stepping outside the Lakshman rekhas set by society. Thus in order to avoid the war and save innumerable human lives, he does not mind taking Karna away from everyone and in solitude trying to tempt him with power and with Draupadi. Krishna knows what he is doing is wrong, but he would go ahead and do that for the sake of the hundreds of thousands of lives he can save through it. As for the disgrace that would be his for doing it, well, that did not bother him. Krishna never cared for his name and fame. The only thing he ever cared for was for doing good to the people, as when he abandoned Mathura and took his people to Dwaraka safely away from Jarasandha, an action that gave him the name Ranchhod, a run way from war, a coward.
One of my favourite Kahlil Gibran stories is about a sheet of snow-white paper:
“Said a sheet of snow-white paper, "Pure was I created, and pure will I remain for ever. I would rather be burnt and turn to white ashes than suffer darkness to touch me or the unclean to come near me."
“The ink-bottle heard what the paper was saying, and it laughed in its dark heart; but it never dared to approach her. And the multicoloured pencils heard her also, and they too never came near her.
“And the snow-white sheet of paper did remain pure and chaste for ever. Pure and chaste -- and empty.”
Arjuna is now behaving like that sheet of snow-white paper.
The physical and mental symptoms Arjuna is speaking about are the symptoms of his reluctance to come out of social conventions – even for lokasangraha, for the common good.
Ethics is without a doubt one of man’s greatest strengths. But it should remain our strength and not become our weakness. It becomes our weakness when it limits us, binds us, prevents us from doing good to others, becomes shackles on our hands and legs. There are occasions that ask of us to go beyond ethics for the good of the world and on such occasions we should do good by going beyond ethics.
Speaking of ethics, the psychologist Abraham Maslow said that self-actualized individuals are ethical, but their ethics is not the ethics dictated by the society, by the masses, but born of their own enlightened mind. There come occasions in everyone’s life when he or she will have to rise to the level of enlightened ethics, where decisions will have to be taken as guided by the light in our heart.
That is why Krishna boldly declares in the Mahabharata satyaad jyeyo’nritam vachah: a lie is [sometimes] superior to the truth. A lie that saves is superior to the truth that kills, a lie that does good is superior to the truth that harms.
Doing good is more important than being right.
India makes a clear distinction between satyam and tathyam – truth and facts. The two are not the same, says India. And India defines satyam as whatever is of the highest good of the people: yal-lokahitam atyantam tat satyam,
Arjuna is now called upon to sacrifice his feelings of love and reverence to his guru and Grandfather Bhishma and others at the altar of dharma, the good of the world. It is a terrible thing to have to do that, but he has no choice. Deserting the war and surrendering Bharatavarsha to powers of adharma is not a choice. But that is what he will be doing if he abandons the war and goes away to become a monk who lives on alms.
Just as there are many forms of courage, there are many kinds of cowardliness too. The cowardliness to act because the action will be against the people you love and revere too is a form of cowardliness – ethical cowardliness. And no leader worth his name can afford to do that. If Arjuna refuses to act now because that action will be against Bhishma and Drona, he will then be no different from blind Dhritarashtra who refused to take actions against Duryodhana because he was his son and he loved him. There were a thousand occasions when Dhritarashtra should have acted against his son – beginning with the elaborately planned poisoning of Bhima at Pramanakoti done when Duryodhana was still a child. But Dhritarashtra acts against his son not once in his entire life, which is in fact what leads the Mahabharata war.
Not acting against corrupt people because they are one’s own people, swajana, is something we come across every day in politics and in organizational culture these days. Corruption is an asuri pravritti and all asuri pravrittis have to be acted against, particularly if you are in a leadership position. Failing to do so encourages and empowers asuri powers and that destroys the world.
The Mahabharata tells us an interesting story about Drona and Arjuna that happened years before the war when Arjuna still received lessons from Drona. One day Drona told Arjuna in the presence of his other disciples about a weapon called Brahmashira. The acharya said that the weapon had no equal in the world, it had the power of lightning and was capable of reducing the world to ashes instantly. Drona told Arjuna that he was going to give Brahmashira Astra to him but he would have to first promise that he would give him whatever he asked for as his gurudakshina for it. Arjuna touched Drona’s feet and made the promise. And after he did it, Drona gave Arjuna the astra and then asked for his gurudakshina. Arjuna then asked him what he wanted. Drona wanted him a promise from Arjuna: “You must fight with me when I fight with you.”
Perhaps Drona had the intuition that one day the two of them would stand face to face in the battlefield and when that happened Arjuna would refuse to fight his guru. It is this possibility that Drona wanted to avoid through the promise he took from his beloved disciple..
Nine days after Krishna teaches the Gita to Arjuna in the battlefield, on the night after the ninth day of the war, Bhishma begs Arjuna to put an end to his life and suffering by killing him in battle the next day. Weeping he says that he is tired of fighting for the evil Duryodhana all his life and does not want to do it anymore. It is after this request for death that Arjuna mortally wounds him on the tenth day of the war and he falls in the battlefield pierced by a thousand arrows.
Sometimes killing is kindness too.
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