Jayary Newsletter # 54

One Last Reflection

I am going to get back to reading the Jaya section by section tomorrow, but let me offer one last reflection on what I have learned so far.

Many years ago when George W. Bush was still governor of Texas and vying for the Republican nomination for President, he was asked "who's your favorite philosopher?" Dubya's answer was "Christ," for which he received much criticism in the liberal media. In sophisticated circles, no one can admit to being transformed by the son of God; Locke, Kant and Hobbes are safe answers to "what's your favorite philosopher?," Rousseau or Spinoza if you want to be risky and Marx if you want to be cool. Unless you live in a state where Marx is the only acceptable answer.

In any case, anyone who declares that Jesus/Buddha/Mohammed/Nanak is their favorite philosopher is no longer taken seriously by the intelligentsia. The vanguard's distrust of gurus is a double edged sword: while there's good reason to focus on modern thinkers (their ideas lie at the foundations of today's world after all), it's also setting aside the thought that philosophy can serve as a moral and spiritual guide.

If philosophy can't turn you into a better human being and doesn't even aspire to doing so, then it's no longer a mass medium. It's territory is encroached upon in two directions: by novels, music and other mass media designed to transport us into imagined worlds and by scientific and technological discoveries that increasingly dictate what we believe to be true. Who cares for abstract nonsense that neither tells us how the world is nor does it help us imagine how it ought to be?

If there's one reason to read the Jaya, it's to revive the possibilities for philosophical imagination, to go back to a world in which IS and OUGHT were bound together in a gripping tale. Does it have the answers to our questions today? Absolutely not, but its monumental chutzpah remains an inspiration.

The Sun's Arrows

Earlier this year, the temperature in parts of north India reached 50 degrees celsius. When it's that hot, the sun doesn't spread light, it pierces us with its photonic arrows. Dhritarashtra uses that very simile when he contemplates the awesome weaponed Arjuna confronting his enemies on the battlefield. Nothing is certain besides death, taxes and Arjuna's fury. There's nowhere to hide when his arrows rain upon the battlefield like the June sun in the Thar desert.

Dhritarashtra is worried that Arjuna is a complete warrior: he's in the prime of his life unlike Bhishma and Drona, he's measured where Karna is impulsive and he has the blessings of the gods as well as his peers. Death might forgive you for a while if you have been sacrificing to the gods, but Arjuna's arrows do not show any mercy. Dhritarashtra knows that no one can withstand such a master of destruction.

We have to remember that Arjuna is a messenger of death, that despite his reluctance on the battlefield it's his duty to wipe the slate clean. It's in that light that we have to read the Gita; when Krishna reveals his Vishwarupa to Arjuna, it's to reveal the terrible mask the hero will don in the eighteen days that follow. No wonder Dhananjaya receives the deadly weapons from the God of destruction.

I am still grappling with a nausea inducing thought: that the near complete destruction of mankind (the gender is important here) including the good guys, is the course of Dharma, that our presence on earth is so evil that we have to be removed root and branch.

The Shot that Rang Around the World

If you remember (and why wouldn't you?), the first world war started when the Serbian anarchist Gustav Princip - these days he would be called a terrorist - assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The world powers were already at each other's throats and with the inevitable Austro-Hungarian declaration of war against Serbia and Russia's intervention on the Serbian side, the dominos fell in a rush as the European powers were drawn into an unwanted war. The shot that rang around the world indeed.

We believe modern states are rational institutions that aren't forced into foolishness by individual events. Yet, both after Princip's accidental celebrity (he targeted the royal couple after they had taken the wrong turn in his direction) and after 9/11, we were witness to the instability of imperial ambition. Great power is no more sober than a schoolyard bully. The jury is still out whether a butterfly flying in the Amazon causes rain in Beijing, but a bullet fired in Beijing might well be the end of the Amazon one day.

As Dhritarashtra talks to Sanjaya, it's made clear that Draupadi's molestation is the turning point in the epic; there's no going back after attempted rape. Brothers who could have been close friends or casual rivals are now sworn enemies. Of course, the royal house is unstable to begin with; there's only room for one family at the top, but the battle for succession can be 'solved' in-house. Why start a war when poison will do as well? None of those options are available after the dice game. Public bloodshed is the only acceptable sacrifice.