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For that reason, we should not kill the Dhartarashtras, our relatives. How can we be happy after killing our own people, Krishna? Because their hearts are overpowered by greed, they see no evil in destroying the family and no sin in harming friends. But we know what evil it is to destroy families. How then can we not, Krishna, turn back from this sin? BG 1.37-39
In his book Forerunner, Kahlil Gibran paints a beautiful picture of greed:
“In my wanderings I once saw upon an island a man-headed, iron-hoofed monster who ate of the earth and drank of the sea incessantly. And for a long while I watched him. Then I approached him and said, “Have you never enough; is your hunger never satisfied and your thirst never quenched?”
“And he answered saying, “Yes, I am satisfied, nay, I am weary of eating and drinking; but I am afraid that tomorrow there will be no more earth to eat and no more sea to drink.”
Krishna considers greed one of the three gates of hell, lust and anger being the other two, and asks us to free ourselves from them: trividham narakasyedam dvaaram naashanam aatmanah kaamah krodhas tathaa lobhas tasmaad etat trayam tyajet. – BG 16.21
It is our insecurities about the future that give birth to greed in our mind. And so long as insecurities are there, greed will be there too. The insecure man will never be contented with what he has, however much he has, and will constantly try to acquire more, whether it is power, position, wealth, or whatever else he thinks will make his future secure.
In Abraham Maslow’s triangle of needs, security needs come as the second group of needs from below, after physical and physiological needs. Insecurities about the future are built into human nature and until man wakes up from the life of illusions he is living and realizes his true nature, or learns to surrender to Existence, to God, they will be there.
A botanist was in the Himalayas along with his young son, exploring the Valley of Flowers. He tied a rope to his son’s waste and slowly lowered him to explore a deep gorge in the valley. As the son disappeared from sight and started going deeper and deeper into the gorge, the father’s heart started beating faster and faster, his head started nearly reeling in fear. Unable to control his fears any more, he called out, “Son, are you all right? Are you afraid?”
And he heard his son’s laughter from the gorge. Laughing, the young boy answered, “Why should I be afraid when the rope is in my father’s hands?!”
That is how surrender is. As we shall see later, Krishna concludes his teachings to Arjuna by asking him to surrender to him. By surrendering to Existence, you give yourself over into the safest of hands. And awakening to your true nature, you realize you are what the Gita speaks of as what neither weapons, nor fire, not water can touch, what is unborn and deathless. And with that all insecurities and fears disappear and so does the need to acquire more and more, to hoard.
A difficult path to practice, of course. That is why the Upanishads say that religion is for the truly brave – to walk the spiritual path, to tread the path of shreyas, you have to be truly strong and courageous. Listing divine qualities, daivi sampada, Krishna lists abhayam, fearlessness, as the very first quality on his list.
Duryodhana’s is the sad story of a man who cannot surrender to God, even though God was there in the form of Krishna all the time. His asuri nature prevents that surrender, his ego prevents him from surrendering to Krishna and accepting him as his protector and guide. Instead, he would like to imprison the Divine and make him do his bidding, as he tries to do when Krishna comes to speak of peace in the Kuru assembly. Before the war begins, Arjuna and he both approach Krishna seeking his help and Arjuna is given the first choice: to choose between Krishna’s army and an unarmed, non-combating Krishna. The epic tells us that while Arjuna happily chose Krishna, Duryodhana was worried all the time that he might choose Krishna’s army, as he himself would have done instantly given the first choice to him. For Duryodhana, Krishna is of no value.
Greed is truly a gate that leads to hell. Greed makes us forget no amount of wealth, no amount of power, no position, nothing we can acquire from the world is going to make us joyous, nothing is going to help us live our life in utsava bhava, the spirit of festivity and celebration, as life is meant to be lived.
One of my favourite passages from Kahlil Gibran is a conversation between the serpent and the lark:
Said the serpent to the lark, “Thou flyest, yet thou canst not visit the recesses of the earth where the sap of life moveth in perfect silence.”
And the lark answered, “Aye, thou knowest over much, nay thou art wiser than all things wise – pity thou canst not fly.”
And as if he did not hear, the serpent said, “Thou canst not see the secrets of the deep, nor move among the treasures of the hidden empire. It was but yesterday I lay in a cave of rubies. It is like the heart of a ripe pomegranate, and the faintest ray of light turns it into a flame-rose. Who but me can behold such marvels?”
And the lark said, “None, none but thee can lie among the crystal memories of the cycles: pity thou canst not sing.”
And the serpent said, “I know a plant whose root descends to the bowels of the earth, and he who eats of that root becomes fairer than Ashtarte.”
And the lark said, “No one, no one but thee could unveil the magic thought of the earth – pity thou canst not fly.”
And the serpent said, “There is a purple stream that runneth under a mountain, and he who drinketh of it shall become immortal even as the gods. Surely no bird or beast can discover that purple stream.”
And the lark answered, “If thou willest thou canst become deathless even as the gods – pity thou canst not sing.”
And the serpent said, “I know a buried temple, which I visit once a moon: It was built by a forgotten race of giants, and upon its walls are graven the secrets of time and space, and he who reads them shall understand that which passeth all understanding.”
And the lark said, “Verily, if thou so desirest thou canst encircle with thy pliant body all knowledge of time and space – pity thou canst not fly.”
Then the serpent was disgusted, and as he turned and entered into his hole he muttered, “Empty-headed songster!”
And the lark flew away singing, “Pity thou canst not sing. Pity, pity, my wise one, thou canst not fly.”
Greed is a curse. Where there is greed, there is no joy.
One of the most joyless men I have come across is a rich man I once knew who lived for making money. He was my neighbour and I would hear him talking loudly over the phone from five in the morning till ten or eleven in the night every day. He had only one topic: how to make more money through investment in shares and the business of gold, diamonds and real estate.
Tibetan culture speaks of accursed beings they call the hungry ghosts – ghosts, pishachas, surrounded by all kinds of delicacies, but with such tiny mouths, like that of anteaters, they can eat no more than the tiniest morsels and remain hungry forever.
In the 1987 movie classic Wall Street, the Michael Doughlas character Gordon Gekko says: “Greed...is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” This is the philosophy that has dominated the world, particularly the industrial western world, for quite some time and we can see all round us what greed has done to us. In his book Is the American Dream Killing You? Paul Stiles speaks of the power of the greed-driven market: “The ability of the Market to overcome the most important human bonds, the natural bonds between man and woman, and between parents and children, and to subvert traditions that have arisen out of millions of years of biological and social evolution, in a short fifty years, is stark testimony to the power of the Market in modern life. That power has now placed us in a position where we are serving the Market from birth, rather than having it serve us.”
A 1909 cartoon shows the inside of a huge boat where a large number of children are rowing oars like galley slaves and a muscular man stands overseeing them which a whip in his hand. The writing on his clothes reads: GREED.
That is what happens when greed takes over the world and we say greed is good!
A Psychology Today article on greed says:
“Greed is also associated with negative psychological states such as stress, exhaustion, anxiety, depression and despair, and with maladaptive behaviours such as gambling, scavenging, hoarding trickery and theft. By overriding reason, compassion and love, greed loosens family and community ties and undermines the bonds and values upon which society is built.
“Greed may drive the economy, but as recent history has made all too clear, unfettered greed can also precipitate a deep and long-lasting economic recession. What’s more, our consumer culture continues to inflict severe damage on the environment, resulting in, among others, deforestation, desertification, ocean acidification, species extinctions, and more frequent and severe extreme weather events. There is a question about whether such greed can be sustainable in the short term, never mind the long term.”
By the laws and traditions of the day that governed royal succession, Duryodhana had no right over the kingdom of the Kurus, as both his father Dhritarashtra and his mother Gandhari tell him openly in royal assembly during discussions on the subject in the Udyoga Parva of the epic. But in spite of that when he usurps power through crooked means, the kingdom is divided and the Pandavas, the rightful heirs to the throne, are sent to the wilderness of Khandava Prastha, which they soon turn to the most glorious kingdom on earth. And when that happens, Duryodhana’s greed for power and wealth once again makes him snatch from the Pandavas their kingdom and wealth. It is this greed of Duryodhana for wealth and power and his refusal to give the Pandavas so much as five villages that make the Mahabharata war necessary. And what Arjuna tells Krishna now is that even though Duryodhana is deprived of his intelligence because of his greed, we should not fight the war because Duryodhana is after all his cousin.
The first commitment of a kshatriya, of all leaders of men, should be to righteous ways of living. You cannot condone because the perpetrator is your own cousin. A kshatriya is bound to destroy adharma wherever he finds it, going beyond relationships. When he condones adharma because it was done by his own people, he is failing in his basic duty as a protector of dharma.
Modern psychology tells us that the human mind does not take decisions based on reason; instead it first takes decisions and then seeks reasons to justify those decisions. The actual decision makers are our feelings and emotions, not our reason. This is true whether it is an individual who is taking the decision or a group. The individual in a shop trying to decide whether to buy a shirt or not and the marketing group in a corporate meeting trying to decide what marketing strategy to adopt take decisions based on their emotions and feelings, though they not be aware of this.
Arjuna has made up his mind not to fight – that was an impulsive, instant decision taken under the impact of his emotional hijack he suffered when he saw his people standing in the battlefield ready to slaughter each other and realized that he will have to kill, among others, his own beloved grandfather and revered guru to win the war. Now he is giving Krishna reasons to justify that decision.
But in truth the reasons are sought less for Krishna’s sake and more for himself. These reasons are the ways of his ego to defend itself – in his own eyes and in the eyes of the others. The first and the last concern of the ego under all circumstances is to save itself. But unfortunately, the ego is our greatest enemy. In fact it is our only enemy. It is the enemy of our happiness, the enemy of spiritual welfare, the one thing that separates us from the joyfulness that life should be. And spirituality is the process of starving the ego and feeding the soul so that we can wake up from the illusions we are suffering from and live life as it should be lived.
For the ego the only thing that matters is that it wins. Losing is one thing that the ego cannot accept – it has to win under all circumstances. So Arjuna’s ego tries to turn even abandoning the war and running away from it too into a victory.
Arjuna says however bad they are, if they are his own people he will not do anything against them because doing anything against one’s own people is wrong. Which is exactly what a corrupt politician practices today, though he does not openly say that because that is bad publicity.
Political organizations thrust incompetent leaders on people because they are their swajana. Numerous organizations and business houses have fallen because of this tendency to impose swajana on people, whether they are good or bad, competent or not. In politics, as in industry and business to a smaller extent, it is a common practice to promote one’s own people however ignorant, unethical and incompetent they are. And nations have to pay huge prices for this.
Arjuna says taking actions against swajana is a sin – papa. The opposite is true: not taking actions against one’s own people if they are evil is the sin. The most important reason why the Mahabharata war had to be fought was because Dhritarashtra failed to take action against his son who kept sinking lower and lower into the quicksand of adharma. When you do not take actions against the wrong deeds of your people over whom you have authority, you are not only condoning their wrong deeds but also encouraging them.
Arjuna is among the most virtue-conscious people of the Mahabharata. But because of the impact of the emotional hijack, his buddhi has for the time being taken over by tamas and because of that he sees everything as the opposite of what it is. At this moment what is right is wrong for him and what is wrong is right for him. Speaking of tamasic buddhi, the Gita says:
adharmam dharmam iti yaa manyate tamasaavritaa
sarvaarthaan vipareetaamshcha buddhih saa paartha taamasee
The intelligence that regards adharma as dharma
and views all things in a distorted light
because it is enveloped by darkness
– that intelligence, Arjuna, is tamasic. – BG 18.32
Like everything else in existence, intelligence too can be sattvic, rajasic and tamasic.
The Mahabharata tells us how Karna sacrifices his loyalty to Duryodhana immediately before the war at the altar of the victory of dharma – loyalty that had sustained him all his life. Right from his childhood, he had been loyal to Duryodhana but eventually the light that Duryodhana is evil penetrates his mind in spite of that loyalty. Just before the war Krishna offers him the entire kingdom asking him to join the Pandava side and telling him he is really the eldest son of Kunti and hence the eldest of the Pandavas. He rejects the offer saying he does not want the kingdom to go to Duryodhana who does not deserve it because he evil and if Krishna gave the kingdom to him, he would give it to Duryodhana out of his friendship with him. Against the interests of Duryodhana, Karna also gives away his divine armour and earrings that made him invincible in war, thus causing damage to Duryodhana. Not only that, he promises his mother Kunti that he would not kill any Pandava other than Arjuna, a promise that he keeps though he defeats each one of them in the war.
Yudhishthira makes a great sacrifice by agreeing to tell the lie that Ashwatthama has been killed so that Drona would lay down his weapons and then he could be killed. In one of the two narrations of the incident found in the epic, there is no equivocation on his part, his words are not blown away by Krishna’s conch sound; he really tells Drona in so many words that his son Ashwatthama has been killed. Yudhishthira thus sacrifices his lifelong truthfulness at the altar of dharma – knowing well he is lying, initially refusing to do so, but finally persuaded by Krishna.
Krishna makes a sacrifice by agreeing to be a mere driver in the war, though he is without a doubt the greatest warrior of the age and the most respected man.
Now it is time for Arjuna to make a sacrifice of his own by agreeing to kill those two pillars of Durdyodhana’s evil empire, both of whom he loves and reveres: Bhishma and Drona. Which is what his ego is refusing to do at this moment.
There are times in our lives when we all feel the call to greatness too tough a challenge to accept. In the movie Saala Khadoos, we see that the wrestler Madhi [Mati] at one stage in her life is so crushed by darkness that she feels the life she was living as a fish seller in the market is preferable and thinks of abandoning the challenge of becoming world wrestling champion.. That would have been choosing preyas over shreyas, the easy path over the right but tough path. Fortunately in the movie she finds the right guru – her inspiring and tireless boxing coach Prabhu.
Happy are the ones who find a guru. The right guru.
Arjuna is lucky to find the right guru in Krishna. Krishna helps him to make that sacrifice and journey into the world of true greatness.
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