Living Gita: 22: When Tamas Takes Over

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Sanjaya said: Having spoken thus in the battlefield, Arjuna sank down into the chariot dropping his bow and arrows, his mind heavy with grief. BG 1.47

Chapter One of the Bhagavad Gita began with a question by Dhritarashtra about what his sons and the sons of Pandu did in the battlefield of Kurukshetra and now we have come to the last verse of the chapter in which Sanjaya tells the blind king that Arjuna has sat down in the chariot overcome by great compassion that has risen in his heart, refusing to fight.

The journey of the Gita which is a journey into light begins with tamas, darkness – Dhritarashtra is tamas. We cannot help but wonder how appropriate this is because all journeys have to begin from where we are and we are in darkness now. The purpose of the Gita is to take us from the darkness – spiritual darkness – in which we are now, to light.Tamaso maa jyotir gamaya, lead me from darkness to light, says one of the oldest prayers known to mankind, a prayer that we find the Vedic people of India making to the unnamed power that presides over our lives. Gita is about this journey from darkness to light.

The Bhagavad Gita shows us how we can travel from darkness to light. Krishna tells us it is for each one of us to make this journey from darkness to light, it is for us to pull ourselves out of the abyss we have fallen into. Uddharet aatmanaa aatmaanam:

Lead yourself by your own self, he says in the Gita. If we are in the gutter it is because of ourselves and it is for us to climb out of that gutter – that is what the Gita tells us, that is Krishna’s way. As the greatest leadership teacher in the history of humanity, Krishna knows that without our will to get out of the mess we are in we will never come out of it.


The darkness Dhritarashtra finds himself in when he asks that question in the first verse of the Gita was of his own making – others certainly aided him in that but his role in its creation is no less important than anyone else’s. From the television serials on the epic, many of us tend to blame Duryodhana and Shakuni for the tragedy of the Mahabharata, but Dhritarashtra was the king, the man invested with all power, and he was also Duryodhana’s father. Just as a modern organizational head is ultimately responsible for whatever happens in that organization, the responsibility for the tragedy of the Mahabharata in the final analysis is his, more than that of anyone else.

It is interesting that this blind king because of whom India fought its greatest ever war was a biological son of Sage Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata, the compiler of the Vedas, author of the Puranas and arguably the greatest sage our land has known – a fact that proves greatness and wisdom cannot be inherited but have to be acquired. As Gibran said:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

Each one of us is a child of Life. In our endless journey, each one of us has had thousands of mothers and fathers – they are the gates through which we enter this world but we do not originate in them. The Mahabharata says our relationships are like the relationships of two logs meeting in the vast ocean, now brought together and now again separated: yathaa kaashtham cha kaastham cha samaayetaam mahodadhau, sametya cha vimaayetaam, evam bandhu-samaagamah. We are all alike eternal sojourners in this vast ocean of life. And in that beginningless and endless journey, each one of us undergoes endless experiences, including our experiences with our current parents, react to those experiences in our own unique ways and are shaped to become what we are now. Some of us end up as predominantly sattvic, some others as rajasic and yet others as tamasic. Ultimately the responsibility for what we have become rests on us. [And so long as we blame others for what we, divine sparks the Upanishads calls amritasya putraah, children of immortality, have become, there is no possibility of change.]

There is no way gunas can be inherited from our parents, as we see in the case of the four sons of Maharshi Vyasa. His son Brahmarshi Shuka is beyond all gunas – an enlightened man who has become gunatita. Vidura, another biological son of his, is predominantly sattvic and Pandu is rajasic. Dhritarashtra, the blind king with whose name the Bhagavad Gita begins, is deeply tamasic. In fact, he could be used as an example to explain what tamas means as I have done numerous times in my lectures to the business school students I have taught and the corporate officers I have trained during sessions on understanding self and others, motivating self and others and so on. It is difficult to find a better example for tamas in the Mahabharata than Dhritarashtra.

Tamasic people cannot create – creativity is the opposite of tamas. But they can destroy. They are not stupid, but have a kind of intelligence that Krishna names tamasic intelligence. Krishna gives us a definition of tamasic intelligence, tamasic buddhi, in the eighteenth chapter of the Gita:

adharmam dharmam iti yaa manyate tamasaavritaa,
sarvaarthaan vipareetaamshcha buddhih saa paartha taamasee.

The intelligence which is clothed in darkness
and sees adharma as dharma
and views all things as the opposite of what they are,
that intelligence is tamasic. BG 18.32

Ruthless, cunning, manipulative, insensitive to the sufferings of others, totally self-centered and joyless, tamasic people try to doggedly hold on to whatever they have. They cling to things, cling to their power, positions and privilege, refusing to let go, ad Dhritarashtra does.

In his international best seller Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, Richard Bach speaks of a village of creatures living at the bottom of a crystal river. He says:

Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all – young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self. Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.”

These creatures at the bottom of the river that Richard Bach speaks of are excellent examples for tamasic people. These insecure people are like baby birds in a nest, refusing to let go of the security of the nest and thus denying themselves the freedom and joyfulness of the boundless skies. Dhritarashtra is like those small creatures at the bottom of the river, like those baby birds who refuse to flutter their wings, let go and take to the skies. The name Dhritarashtra can mean one who holds the rashtra, the kingdom, together. It can also equally well mean one who holds on to the rashtra, the kingdom, one who clings to the kingdom, to the throne and crown, to power, as Mahabharata’s Dhritarashtra definitely does.

Continuing Bach’s story:

“But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”

The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom.”

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!”

And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

But they cried the more, “Saviour!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour.”

Tamasic people just cannot let go. They are incapable of doing that. Unfortunately without letting go of the alpa, the small, there is no bhooma, the big.

But the tamasic just cannot let go. Clinging because of their insecurities, the tamasic live a life of fear, a life of dread, seeing threats everywhere, afraid of what they have being snatched away from them any moment. They become paranoid.

There is a beautiful Taoist story about a phoenix and an owl:

Hui Tzu was prime minister of Liang. He had what he believed to be inside information that Chuang Tzu [the great Taoist master] coveted his post, and was plotting to supplant him.

When Chuang Tzu came to visit Liang, the prime minister send out police to arrest him, But although they searched for three days and nights, they could not find him.

Meanwhile Chuang Tzu presented himself to Hui Tzu of his own accord, and said: “Have you heard about the bird that lives in the south – the phoenix that never grows old? This undying phoenix rises out of the south sea and flies to the sea of the north, never alighting except on certain sacred trees. He will touch no food but the most exquisite rare fruit, and he drinks only from the clearest springs. Once an owl chewing an already half decayed rat saw the phoenix fly over. Looking up he screeched with alarm and clutched the dead rat to himself in fear and dismay.”

“Prime minister,” asked Chuang Tzu, “why are you so frantic, clinging to your ministry and screeching at me in dismay?”

Had Dhritarashtra cared about the good of his subjects as an Indian king was expected to rather than clinging to power, had he cared even for his own son’s good, the war would not have happened. He should have handed power back to Yudhishthira, whose it really was as per the conventions of the day since his father Pandu was the last king of the Bharata’s and Dhritarashtra was no more than a caretaker. Had he done that, he wouldn’t have had to weep at the end of the war that all his one hundred sons have been killed, that Bhima did not spare even one of them.


The Mahabharata tells us that when Sage Vyasa came to his sister-in-law Ambika to produce a child through the ancient custom of niyoga as ordered by his mother, seeing his ascetic form she closed her eyes and that is why her son was born. This story is symbolic of Dhritarashtra’s mother turning away from light, closing her eyes to light, rejecting light at the moment of his conception, for Vyasa was light, wisdom, goodness and spirituality at the highest level.

Just as his mother did at the moment of his conception, throughout his life the blind king turned away from light and remained a prisoner of darkness, of the asuri sampada that the Gita speaks of.

It was not for the first time that in ancient India, or even in the history of the Bharata dynasty itself, that primogeniture has been overlooked in favour of competency. Bharata himself, after whom the dynasty is named, rejected all his nine sons born to his three queens since he did not find them ‘appropriate’, competent enough, and accepted a rank outsider called Bhumanyu as his successor. Dhritarashtra’s own grandfather, Emperor Shantanu was not the eldest son of his father Emperor Pratipa – he was his youngest son. Pratipa’s eldest son was Devapi who on his own gave up inheritance because he had leprosy and became an ascetic. Devapi’s younger brother Bahlika abandoned his right to the Kuru kingdom and went to live with his maternal uncle in what we call the Balkh country today and eventually inherited that kingdom. That is how the crown came to Shantanu.

The rule that someone who suffered from a physical defect or disease was not fit to rule was based on the ancient understanding that kingship was a responsibility and not a privilege and to be fully effective a king – a leader – should have all his faculties at his command so that he can understand the situation personally and take the right decision. Dhritarashtra was denied the throne based because it was felt by those in power that a blind king will not be able to fully comprehend challenging situations and if he failed to do so and took wrong decisions on important issues, the kingdom would suffer. One of the important expectations in those days was that the leader led from the front, particularly in the battlefield, and here a blind man was at a disadvantage, though exceptions to this rule did exist.

Rejecting Dhritarashtra, Pandu was made king and he proved himself to be superbly effective. But perhaps Pandu who was very sensitive towards others felt guilty about ruling as king while his elder brother was alive – Ramayana’s Bharata refused to sit on the throne even though according to Valmiki the kingdom was his by birth since Dasharatha had married his mother Kaikeyi by giving the kingdom as rajyashulka, by promising that her son would inherit the throne. Pandu eventually gave up the throne and went to live with his wives in the forest as an ascetic, though there may be other factors that contributed to that decision. From Dhritarashtra’s subsequent behaviour, we clearly see that he had more than ordinary greed for power – power was the most important thing for him, the be-all and end-all of his existence, power for himself and his future generations.

Like most power hungry people, he had no respect for anything other than power. Once a great rishi of awesome spiritual powers called Baka Dalbhya came to him asking for a few cows. It was a common thing in those days for rishis to approach kings and request for cows and kings usually gave not one or two but hundreds and sometimes thousands of cows to them. But what Dhritarashtra did was truly shocking – he pointed out a few dead cows and asked Rishi Dalbhya to take them – that’s all he would give. As a consequence of this action of the king, says the Mahabharata, the entire Kuru kingdom suffered from terrible draughts and famines that lasted for twelve years and a vast section of the population died from hunger, thirst and starvation. Dhritarashtra accepted his mistake and made amends only when he realized Baka Dalbhya’s incredible spiritual powers.

Power is perhaps man’s greatest temptation. Because with power comes everything else. In modern political organizations, in industry and business, in fact everywhere, we can find people clinging to power whether they are good as leaders or not, and appointing their own people in positions of power – what we call nepotism in English and bhai-bhatijavad in Hindi. Many organizations have died sad deaths because of this.

The Dhritarashtra Vilapa, a long soliloquy by the blind king, is at the very beginning of the Mahabharata. In the vilapa the blind king recalls one by one sixty-eight occasions when he lost all hope of victory – the verses describing these incidents all begin with the words yadaa shrausham, when I heard..., and end in ...tadaa naaham vijayaaya naashamse, then I no more hoped for victory. Practically all these occasions speak of some success or another of the Pandavas – like their escape from the lacquer house in which they were supposed to be killed, Arjuna winning the archery contest for wedding Draupadi, the Panchalas becoming allies of the Pandavas and so on. He sees each of these as occasions that destroyed his hopes.

The Pandavas are really not ‘others’ – they are the children of his brother, and they gave him the same love and respect that they had for their father; but the world of the tamasic is very small and have no place even for one’s nephews. That is a major difference between the sattvic and the tamasic – for the sattvic, the whole earth is their family, as is said in Sanskrit vasudhaiva kutumbam, whereas for the tamasic, their family is too small, and even their own nephews are not part of it.

As his father and as the caretaker king, Dhritarashtra had all the power he needed to stop Duryodhana’s evil ways but never once does he take a strong stand against him, newer a stand that will really stop him. True he did speak against him a few times, but never with all his authority and never in such a way that his son will not be able to go against him.

The face of Dhritarashtra we see in the Mahabharata most of the time is of an absolutely shameless old man who does no more lip service to the children of his brother who are the rightful heirs to the throne. Even in the Udyoga Parva of the epic when the war has become imminent, the message he sent to the righteous Pandavas is truly unbelievable in its meanness: he tells him since they are lovers of peace they should not wage a war against him or even demand their rights, but should go somewhere else and ask someone else for some land as charity!

It is this face tamas that we see in the Sabha Parva of the epic too where the dice game happens. It is possible that Dhritarashtra is the happiest man in the dice hall every time Yudhishthira loses a game. It is his voice alone that we hear at these times and every time his question is the same: jitam mayaa, have I won it? He is asking about what Yudhishthira has staked and lost, including Draupadi as the last stake. There is great thrill in his voice as he asks that question every time.

It is this Dhritarashtra that Arjuna does not want to dethrone because he is his uncle; and also because in that process he will have to slay in battle Bhishma and Drona. Arjuna’s vision has temporarily become clouded by blind mamata, which is form of tamas. But Krishna clearly sees what Arjuna does not see: the danger of surrendering the world to Dhritarashtra’s philosophy. He can see the dangers of having tamasic people in positions of power.

When tamas takes over individuals, they are finished. When it takes over organizations, they are finished. When a culture is taken over tamas, when a nation is taken over tamas, it is finished.

The Nobel Prize winning book The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass discusses how Germany plunged into darkness under Hitler. Bhishma Sahni’s tamas brilliantly shows what happened in the days of Partition as tamas conquered us.


As Arjuna collapses in his chariot surrendering to a dark wave of tamas perhaps for the first time in his life, his mind and body drained of all energy, his will deserting him, Krishna shows him how to walk out of the blinding darkness he is in now and reach the world of light: of victory, joyfulness, prosperity and glory.

That glorious path is the Bhagavad Gita.

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More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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