Jayary Newsletter # 53

Violent Dreams #7

Once we are done with God(s), we only have ourselves to blame for all the violence in this world. If the European enlightenment celebrated the death of God and the emergence of the individual human being and his control over the the world, we can now turn that relationship upside down, and demand that the individual human being has responsibility for care of this world. Whether the divinity is dead or alive, we can't run away from our dharma.

Enough with the metaphysics, what about violence in the Jaya? Blood is spilled throughout the epic, so it's hard to pick one episode over another. Some episodes are well known and discussed threadbare - is there anything new to be said about Draupadi's vastraharan? Instead, I am going to focus on two lesser known episodes - the snake sacrifice and Pandu's killing of rishi Kindama.

Less known you said - hasn't everyone heard of these two killings? Yep, less known. It's true that everyone who's heard or read the Mahabharata story knows how Pandu was cursed by the dying sage and why Janamejaya unleashed his anger on the snakes, but we have only heard those stories in passing. The underlying mechanics isn't captured by the abridged stories we hear. There's a twist in both tales that reveals much about the nature of violence.

Violent Dreams #8

You might remember the story of how Chanakya met Chandragupta Maurya: the king in waiting saw a man pouring sugar on a clump of grass and asked him why he was wasting all that sweetness. Chanakya responded that by doing so, ants will swarm upon that clump and eat it down to nothing. It seems a blade of grass had pricked the haughty Brahmin and he was using sugar as his weapon for exacting revenge. As Chandragupta was himself smarting from his humiliation in the hands of the Nandas, he knew immediately that Chanakya would be a perfect advisor.

Revenge can emerge full blown from very little as long as there's a seed of humiliation and enough anger in the soil to act as fertilizer.

When Utanka was tasked by his Guru's wife to get her the queen's earrings by sundown, he moved heaven an earth to acquire them. The snake king Taksaka stole them from him at the last moment, preventing Utanka from keeping his promise. In turn, an angry Utanka went to Janamejaya's court and asked him why he wasn't conducting a snake sacrifice to revenge his father's death in the hands of Taksaka. Before you know it, millions of snakes were on their way to a fiery death.

You might think that mass killing just because of a thwarted wish is a bit too much, but my suspicion is that violence often emerges from such small provocations. It is inherently unstable; bloodshed flares from the smallest action if the conditions are appropriate. Isn't that what happened when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated a hundred years ago? Yes, war is politics by other means, but who said politics was rational?

Violent Dreams #9

Neither Pandu nor Dhritarashtra had normal children. The latter's boys were born in an incubator, divided into hundred pots after Gandhari gave birth to a heaving mass of flesh. Pandu's situation was even more miraculous: since he was cursed to be celibate, Kunti and Madri had to invoke the gods to have surrogate children. Somewhat suspicious births, if I may say so myself. No wonder there's a war over succession.

Things might have turned out differently if Pandu hadn't shot the rishi Kindama while he was making love to his wife. Most of us are aghast at the thought that a king would slay a sacred figure, but hunting is violent by its very nature.

Pandu doesn't understand why he's being cursed. He complains that a king is within his rights to kill a deer by any means - by the force of his arms or by his trickery in trapping the unfortunate creature. How can that be condemned? Will we start cursing tigers for hunting?

The rishi's response is instructive: why kill an animal while it's in the middle of courtship? Even a king's violence has limits. That's why Pandu is cursed to be celibate rather than being killed by the wrath of the dying sage. Hidden within the rishi's anger lies a dilemma: violence is an ineradicable part of human existence but does it have boundaries? Can humans violate the rest of nature as we please? Are there legitimate outlets for our violence? If so, what are they?

Violent Dreams #10

Here's a modern paradox: very few of us kill, yet more beings are killed than ever before. Unlike Arjuna and Bhima who spent much of their time practicing their deadly skills, killing both animals and men in large numbers throughout their lives, most of us never lift a weapon. Armies of conscripts have been replaced by professional armies the world over. I don't know about others, but I am physically incapable of executing an arrested enemy, whatever his crimes might have been.

As for killing animals for food, the closest we get to it is the plastic wrapped sausages in the supermarket freezer. Most of us would instinctively recoil if handed a knife and asked to slit the throat of a tied up pig. Yet, something like sixty four billion animals were killed for human consumption in 2015, a number that's rising every day. The number of chickens killed for our pleasure has more than doubled in the last twenty years.

To restate the puzzle: our attitudes toward the rights over other human beings and the moral worth of other species has increased steadily over the last two hundred years. At the same time, the number of humans killed wholesale and the number of animals killed in every which way has also increased.

It is as if dharma has a greater hold on our minds while adharma has a greater hold on our hands. One of my primary reasons for reading the Jaya was to understand this simultaneous expansion of our moral circle and of inhumane violence. How is that possible? Reading and reflecting upon the epic has given me a lot of insight into this dilemna, but it still feels wrong.

However, I can't keep puzzling away. There's work to be done: the rest of the epic beckons. Starting tomorrow, I am getting back to reading it section by section for the next five months.