Jayary Newsletter # 72

The Shapeshifter

Now that Nala and Damayanti are reunited, we can move back to the main story. Arjuna is out acquiring fearsome weapons from Shiva and his father. That leaves Yudhisthira and the other three Pandavas in the Kamyaka forest along with Draupadi.

The third Pandava is the life of the party; without him Draupadi feels suffocated by Yudhisthira's righteousness and Bhima's aggression. It's Arjuna who brings song and dance into their lives, the Pandava who makes them laugh.

As I hear the Pandavas recount their love for Dhananjaya, I suspect that the family can't survive and prosper for too long without Arjuna's presence. Of the six, three are indispensable: Yudhisthira, because he contributes integrity; Arjuna, because he makes them laugh and Draupadi, because she's their collective face. Head, heart and self. Unlike Nala, Yudhisthira never abandons Draupadi. He couldn't have survived for a day without her. But Arjuna vanishes and reappears often, and without Krishna to stabilize him, the third brother could have caused the downfall of the Pandavas.

Along with Draupadi's power and Yudhisthira's silence, I find the paradox of Arjuna's ambidextrousness one of the more interesting themes in the epic. He can fight with both of his hands; he's both warrior and poet, he's a lover of women who becomes a eunuch for a year. He's the fiercest of warriors who hurls his weapons on the battlefield.

If Krishna is the maha-shapeshifter, Arjuna is the mini-shapeshifter.


The more I read the Jaya, the more I revise my understanding of its basic premise. Like everyone else, I was transfixed by its ending; of a war so violent that it destroyed both the winners and the losers. That apocalypse was the point of reference for beginning the Jayary (background question: we might be living in such a time ourselves?) but the last eight months of reading have brought a completely different perspective.

The new outlook doesn't contradict the previous one, but it's a significant departure. I believe that we haven't paid much attention to the beginning of the Jaya, of which I want to point out two salient features:

  1. The epic starts with a snake sacrifice

  2. The gods are in continuous retreat

In other words, the gods are defeated - or more likely, made irrelevant - and nature is subjugated right at the beginning. So what's new here - haven't I been reading the Jaya with this lens for some time now? Yes, but it's only now that I have realized that the tragic logic of humanity might be built into the epic and not just into my reading of it.

The lesson of the epic might not be that greed causes destruction, but that leaving humanity in charge of the earth is a recipe for catastrophe. Greed is curable; one day we might even have a pill for it. On the other hand, the victory of humanity is seen as a good thing by most people. Yes, I know we are all environmentalists now, but who among us is willing to forego vaccines or live amongst hyenas? We can't go back to that state and we don't want to.

The Jaya says: great, go ahead and enjoy the fruits of your victory for awhile, but replacing Khandavaprastha by Indraprastha is going to bring ruin upon all of you sooner or later.

I think Yudhisthira understands this fundamental dilemma.

Forests and Temples

As we resume the story from where Nala and Damayanti left it, we overhear Yudhisthira's sighs. He's unhappy about Arjuna's absence, but knows that the third Pandava is their only link to the divine world. Meanwhile, the Pandavas are hunting the forest down to nothing.

Is that the real worry: that our connection to the gods is sporadic and our relation to nature exploitative? Am I reading too much? Probably, but I am convinced that the earth has to be densely packed with forests and temples; without the two forming a grid, we have no compass whatsoever.

Kadu Malleswara: the lord of the forested hill. That was the temple which founded the part of Bangalore where I lived for many years. The temple where Shivaji's son Sambhaji was married. Today there's no forest and the temple abuts a busy road which one crosses at the point of death. How long can we live this way?

Yudhisthira has a version of this worry too: how can long can they live in exile? When will Arjuna come back? Fortunately, the Pandava king has divine wellwishers. The sage Narada appears and grants the Pandavas the license to ask him anything.

Yudhisthira asks the sage: what's the purpose of pilgrimage. Why should we navigate the earth, visiting one temple after another? Why indeed. Should the earth be a carpet woven with forests and beaded with temples? Is that what we need to save ourselves?