Jayary Newsletter # 81
When the scene fades to black, Yudhisthira asks Lomasha to tell him more about Agastya's exploits. What did this great rishi achieve? What can I learn from him?
I find Yudhisthira's curiosity his most endearing trait. Everyone, i.e., everyone who's read or heard or watched the Mahabharata, knows Dharmaraja for his kindness and his sense of justice. It's the standard template for the Pandava king. What we don't learn until we read the epic from beginning to end is the extent to which the epic is pushed forward by his questions.
He too is part Socrates, except that he isn't ironic; he isn't trying to reveal the contradictions in his interlocutor's position. Yudhisthira has a more basic kind of curiosity - "tell me how and why something happened?"
Yudhisthira's curiosity and despair drive all the digressions in this parva; from the story of Nala to the importance of pilgrimage and the strange life of Agastya, it's Yudhisthira who wants to know the inner nature of things. Yes, it's true that the man is stuck for thirteen years in a forest and he's got to keep himself busy, but so what: he too could be out hunting and drinking like some of his brothers.
We know that Yudhisthira prefers discussing metaphysical questions with visiting rishis to ruling the empire, but once again, that's his historical identity, the wise king's robe that's been draped on him since antiquity. I find the childlike curiosity refreshing, a playful counterpart to wisdom and sagacity.
Why does Vishnu side with Indra over Vritra? I don't see any difference between the devas and the daityas. The underlying facts are clear: Vritra wants Indra's throne and Indra does not want to give it up. In the same way that Ilvala wants a son like Indra and no brahmin wants to help him get one. As it turns out, Vritra is more powerful than Indra, perhaps more learned as well. One could argue that the anti-gods are better than the gods.
Is the battle between them merely a power struggle that's now been turned into a morality play? There's something comfortable about the metaphysical struggle between GOOD and EVIL. If God is unceasingly good and the devil is unceasingly evil, we know whom to support. But what do we do when the devil is kinder and wiser and the god acts like a vengeful tyrant?
Here's a shocking possibility: instead of being the metaphysical ground, the basis upon which everything else is constructed, what if god (or God) is trapped in the cycle of samsara like the rest of us? And not only God, but also the laws of physics or logic or whatever else one might substitute for God after secularizing the truth.
A few hundred years ago, Descartes inaugurated what's now called modern philosophy by embarking upon an inquiry based on radical doubt. He asked himself "what remains certain when everything else is open to doubt?" We know where he ended: cogito ergo sum. The thinking consciousness remains certain even as the devil corrupts everything else. Well, what if certainty is the wrong design constraint? Why not let the devil have his due?
After Indra kills Vritra, his supporters - the Kaleyas - run away and hide in the ocean. There they gather strength and plot vengeance. A few years pass and everyone's forgotten that these danavas even exist; the oceans are vast and deep and who knows what creatures hide there?
The danavas slink out at night, attacking isolated ashrams first, devouring the fruit and root eating rishis like a late night raid on the chocolate stash and as they're emboldened, the danavas attack sacrificial fires and ashrams wherever they find them. Some brahmins have their lives sucked out of them, leaving only their skeletons wrapped in skin. Others are torn to shreds as if tossed by a psychopathic writer upset with his stories.
As I see it, the danavas are nothing but Kshatriyas in disguise, taking revenge on Parasurama's children. When warriors are let loose on the earth without constraint, what else will they do besides plunder and kill? Which dharma will protect us from their violence?
Inevitably, the sacrifices take a hit. No brahmin wants to conduct a yagna out in the open, for in doing so, he's signing his own death warrant. The situation is so bad that the devas head over to Vaikunta to complain to Vishnu.
We can't find the Kaleyas in the middle of this vast ocean, o lord, and they are slowly killing all the brahmins in the world. Help us!
The Ocean Swallower
You might think Indra and the gods go to Vishnu out of kindness; that they're concerned about the brahmins who're being killed every night. You would be wrong. Their concern is self-preservation.
As Indra tells it, once the brahmins are gone, the world is gone and once the world is gone, the heavens are gone. It's the tapasya of the rishis that keeps everything going and without it, the gods would be nothing but figments of our imagination. It's that tapasya that gives the gods life.
It's an astonishing admission.
Behind it is an even greater fear: what if the danavas stop their crude assault on the rishis and launch a subtler campaign to take over their minds? What if the tapasya of the rishis is transformed into commodity worship?
As we know, their fears have come true. Instead of worshipping gods, we worship machines. While the one god remains in his heaven, we have replaced the three hundred and thirty crore gods with three hundred and thirty billion machines, whom we worship day and night, just as I am doing as I write these words. The takeover is complete.
Vishnu considers the god's plight and then he says: as long as the kakeyas are hiding in the ocean, you can't touch them. So find someone who can make the ocean disappear; I have the perfect ocean drinker - Agastya.
The rishi is about to shift from retail to wholesale daitya-digesting.