Jayary Newsletter # 47

War

There's never been a time without war. War is both the worst thing we do to each other and the crucible of every possible innovation. Militarists and pornographers have been the earliest adopters of every new technology. Not just material technology but also social technologies - if one can use the term technology for new forms of social organization; one theory of why human hunter-gatherer societies are relatively egalitarian is that everyone possesses weapons, so that less powerful members can band together and shoot arrows at their oppressors. In contrast, agricultural societies (where the weapons are controlled by the lord and his soldiers) are as unequal as they get.

OK, gun culture might be NRA propaganda, but what's clear is that war and violence are endemic to human life; there's never been a time without violence and there's unlikely to be one in the future. Why is it that philosophy never engages with war directly? Unlike literature, where some of the greatest stories ever told - from the Jaya to War and Peace - have been war stories. While literature has borne witness to the both the suffering and liberation of war, philosophy stands mutely by the sidelines. There's talk about the ethics of warfare, of what's a just war, of the treatment of noncombatants, but there's no talk of war itself.

I find that strange. After all, when we talk about the philosophy of mind or the philosophy of mathematics, we don't (only) talk about how mathematics should be written or the ethics of human experiments. Then again, there isn't a thriving philosophy of sex either. There's plenty of philosophical talk about peace and justice but almost nothing in comparison about violence and war. Is it that sex and violence are such primal emotions that reason and argument have nothing to say about them?

That's another reason to read the Jaya and to probe the limits of Dharma, for among other things, the Jaya is a thorough exploration of war itself, with the Gita being a direct philosophical and religious engagement with the nature of war.

Desire

We call them Rakshasas, but instead of thinking of them as demons, it's better to follow Purushottam Lal's advice and call them anti-gods, as in a group of beings who are in existential struggle with the gods but aren't any more evil, or perhaps only a little bit more evil.

The distinction between demons and anti-gods is important, for they are the models for the Kauravas; in fact, the epic says the anti-gods were born in Kaurava form to cause mischief on earth. But the Kauravas are also generous, just rulers and their greed is only directed to their cousins. As far as the common folks are concerned, do they really care whether they're ruled by one wing of the family or the other?

Similarly, it's not clear whether it matters to humans whether they pray to the gods or the anti-gods. It's clear that the latter lost out in a cosmic struggle, but winner's aren't always morally superior.

Agni is the witness to this struggle, as he is to every sacrifice and every consecration. Only he can certify the validity - validity as in sat, both existence and truth - of a relationship. The rakshasa Puloman puts Agni in a bind, when he asks the fire god to certify Bhrigu's marriage to Puloma. She was promised to the rakshasa first and Puloman's desire for the sage's wife remains undiminished.

Here's another way of thinking about Agni's conundrum: should he certify the law, which decrees that Puloma's father changed his mind and gave his daughter away to Bhrigu. But the sage isn't bound to anyone - he seeks desirelessness and freedom from every bond. If not, should fire certify the rakshasa's desire, knowing that the rakshasa will bind himself to Puloma like no sage can ever do. What is more sacred? More importantly, what would she want if given the choice?

Lineage

"I think therefore I am." With that famous line, Descartes announced his radical skepticism about knowledge of the external world. He got us worried into thinking the devil might intervene between the objects out there and experience in here, dying of snakebite soon after he fools us into seeing the snake for a rope. Even those of us who don't believe in the devil are ready to accept that our brains are faulty, that we have no reliable access to the world out there, that psychopathology is endemic to our species. Isn't that what Freud said, channeling Descartes into his psychological unconscious?

While we remember the Frenchman for his skepticism, we don't recognize that he represents a clean break from the past. Indeed, if I can rely on my consciousness and my consciousness alone, I can't depend on any of the usual determinants of validity: neither family nor faith has the aura of truth they enjoyed in the pre-modern era. Instead, I can only rely on my own experience.

Consider the question "Who am I?" After Descartes, we can only look to ourselves to answer that question. I am Rajesh; I like reading and writing; I like bad puns and so on. Compare that answer with what Yudhisthira might have answered if he had been asked.

He would have said "I am Yudhisthira, son of Pandu, son of Vichitavirya, son of Santanu." Instead of "I think therefore I am" he would say "I am a son therefore I am." You didn't really exist until you yoked yourself to your ancestors and propagated the lineage by having children. Isn't that what the childless Jaratkaru discovered, that despite his tapasya and learning, his world hung by a thread gnawed by hungry rats?

We now try to replace lineage by history, hoping that an abstraction like Europe or India will help us come into existence. I am not so sure. Blood is more reliable.

The Itihasm

It's been a interesting fortnight days teasing out single-word themes from the Jaya. Why one word? There's a simple answer: it's the easiest way to focus the scarcest of 21st century resources - our attention - on a topic that I find interesting. Plus it's easy enough to expand one word into a few hundred words.

I can easily continue upon this one-word trend, but it's time to move on to the topic that I have been itching to cover: the cosmic nature of the Jaya's imagination. The Jaya, famously, has everything in it, from the birth of the universe to the art of seduction. Forgetting the details for the moment, let's ask an obvious if mostly unasked question:

What does it mean to imagine everything? That too at once.

In other words, what's the “secret of the epic imagination?” Except that I prefer itihasas to epics and since I like to coin new phrases, I am going to call the imagination proper to the Jaya “itihasm,” a universe of the imagination (itihasmic rhymes with cosmic).

How can we capture an entire universe in our imagination? What does it mean to be itihasmic?

It's not that easy to be itihasmic but every culture needs some as a blueprint for its collective imagination. That's why we have the Jaya, the Pali Tipitakas, the Analects, the Bible and the Koran, Plato's dialogues, Aristotle's metaphysics and in the modern era, Don Quixote, Newton's Principia, Darwin's Origin of Species and Marx's Capital. The truth of these texts is irrelevant to their itihasic value, for we can only think and imagine the world through these texts - even if our purpose is to falsify them.

Having spent about half of June picking out one-word themes I have gathered from the Jaya, I am going to spend the rest of month asking what it means to be itihasic and why the details are less important than the ambition and courage of the itihasic imagination. In other words, the hardest part is putting up an itihasm; the rest follows from the original imagination, just as Western philosophy famously consists of footnotes to Plato.