Jayary Newsletter # 99

Widening the Gap

What I like about the Jaya is that there's only a small gap separating the heroes from the villains. Don't believe me? Consider two pairs: Duryodhana and Bhima; Karna and Arjuna.

How different is Duryodhana from Bhima? They were equals in the battleground. They prefer fighting to plotting. Do you remember when Bhima and Draupadi badgered Yudhisthira, asking him to reject the thirteen years of exile and engage the Kauravas in open war?

Isn't that what Duryodhana would have done? In fact, isn't that exactly what he did when he schemed to have the Pandavas burn in the house of lac? Do you think Bhima would have been any different when faced with a five-fold enemy? Do you think Bhima would have treated Draupadi any differently if she had been his cousin's wife and not his own?

As for Karna and Arjuna, we know they're equally matched too. Karna might have even been the better archer; unlike Ekalavya, he wasn't about to cut off his thumb to please his treacherous guru. Unfortunately, the gods didn't smile on his fate as much as they did with Arjuna.

No romps with apsaras in exile. No close relationship with the god of all gods. Angeya's matchup with Dhananjaya is one of equals despite all of those obvious deficits.

The Kauravas and the Pandavas are almost equal. Almost. But that small gap is enough to cause a great war.

Heaven and Earth

The gap between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is symptomatic of an even more important gap: between humans and the gods (and in another track, between humans and other animals).

You have probably seen a photo of God almost touching Adam's hand in the sistine chapel. The tiniest of slivers separates the two, and I guess if you're a Christian, Jesus lives in that gap: he's the Narasimha of the Abrahamic traditions, except that the purpose of his incarnation isn't to rend evil into two, but to suffer nails and jibes with patience.

There's something deeply right about a deity that suffers: why should sickness and death belong to the mortal world alone?

Unfortunately, I think it's too late. Why would a distant god care about this blue planet of ours? Why concern himself with how this greedy species is sucking out all the life from this planet that was ostensibly rendered to its care?

Today, we are increasingly aware of the flaws in a world where it's easier to buy New Zealand apples in the middle of the Delhi summer than to eat a fresh mango grown in a Panipat farm. Distance has its downside. How much more dangerous is it when your deities have left your planet altogether?

I don't believe

There was a time when I was often asked whether I believed in God. It doesn't happen so much any more; liberal adults aren't allowed to be curious about one another. Anyway, my invariable answer was no. Not because I am an atheist or even an agnostic, but because I don't believe. I don't believe in 2+2=4 either.

What good is a belief? The minute you have one, you open yourself to doubt. Is it true? Is it false? If it's true, why is it true?

The precariousness of belief led Descartes into the cave of his own consciousness. It might equally well lead us into complete planetary destruction; solipsistic retreat and unbounded violence strike me as the only logical terminus' of belief.

What's interesting is that the hold of a belief is often in inverse proportion to its believability. Abstractions incite the most fervent beliefs without giving us any grounds for doing so. Like that belief in God - again remember that the fault is not that of the God or gods, but of the faculty of belief itself.

If God is the source of a large number of unsupported beliefs, power is another. Control over a nation or kingdom. What does that mean? What does it mean to have private property? We behave as if these terms are completely transparent, but do we really think that the belief in private property is any more supportable than the belief in a six armed goddess?

Duryodhana's belief in power was his undoing. Then again, heroes are supposed to believe in power aren't they? Yudhisthira, Arjuna and Karna might have disagreed, but they were unable to stop the belief in power from running amuck. Or, to flip the equation, they were victims of the power of belief.

The Jaya warns us about the flaws in both natural and supernatural superstitions.

Ritual

If not belief, then what is dharma? The Jaya alludes to an answer: ritual.

I read Arjuna's crisis at the beginning of the war as a crisis of belief. It's no surprise that he appears Hamlet like to us, vacillating between his belief in the warrior ethic and his concern for his elders and his relatives.

Krishna tells him to set aside his concern and focus on his ritual obligations. A kshatriya has to fight: doubts about the dharma of war are above his pay grade.

Can we accept this alternate theory of dharma as ritual action?

I find myself unable to believe that ritual is the antidote to belief. It seems like another sub-optimal solution to a deeper problem: how to engage with abstraction powered human ambition? We can't set aside our fascination for abstractions (at least I can't) and we can't prevent abstractions from running out of control either.

In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi blames machines for the violence of empire. I am not going to repeat his arguments here, but it's clear that one line of thinking about abstraction ends with machines. Provably so, since Turing Machines are the most general abstractions that we can conceive - as far as we know.

But machines are in a long line of abstraction that starts with God, belief and ritual and ever since we have had those thoughts (about God, belief and ritual) we have been in one sort of trouble or the other.