Jayary Newsletter # 100

I can't believe this is the 100th Jayary newsletter this year. Only a few more to go.

Two Truths

One of Yudhisthira's virtues - less endearing than his kindness, but still an important virtue - is his truth telling. Yudhisthira never lies. That's why his lie on the battlefield is devastating.

Or is it a lie? Depends on what we mean by truth.

To use a mathematical analogy, there are two orders of truth: discrete and continuous. Discrete truth is tied to language: is this statement you just uttered valid? Can it be backed by evidence? Can it verified by appropriate procedures?

Let's consider the dice game. Yudhisthira agrees to the terms of the sabha knowing full well that Sakuni is a much better gambler. Yudhisthira's dharma is a discrete dharma: having received a challenge, he will assent to its conditions independent of the consequences.

You see Yudhisthira's discrete thinking in his response to the losses during the dice game. "Do you stake your horses?" "Yes, I do." One down. "Do you stake your warriors?" "Yes, I do." One more down. It's almost as if his memory register resets after each throw and he can only respond to the circumstances of the next instance.

Discrete truth might be correct, but it's unstable. Every throw brings the Pandavas closer to ruin. What kind of truth is that?

Discrete Truth

We are easily seduced by language. It's the easiest thing in the world to sign over your inheritance to a predatory company or advisor and then be forced to hand over our wealth when they point out our contractual obligations.

For example, consider software engineers. If you work for a software company, you've probably signed over all your intellectual production to the company, even if you're working on a side project at night on your home computer. They may choose to look the other way as you submit an award winning game to the app store, but in principle they own the IP to your late night labours.

It's not just a question of owning the engineer's intellectual labour: it's also about having that engineer be at her best when she shows up to work at 9:00 AM. An engineer who's up until 2:00 AM coding her side project is not as fresh at 9:00 AM as one who tucked herself in at 10 PM.

Discrete truth does a great job of hitting the bull's eye once but it's terrible at accounting for interests and power relations; much like a dead clock that shows the right time twice a day. Like that dead clock, discrete truth is unstable: it's awfully wrong much of the time.

Wasn't that the crux of Draupadi's complaint when she was dragged into the sabha: who gave this man the authority over my body? When did truth shade into power?

When Words Fail

I am wondering - if it's at all possible to speculate on the motives of a fictional character - whether Yudhisthira's thirteen years in exile was as long as it was because he felt he needed that much time to transcend the limits of discrete dharma.

Sure, he made a mistake by gambling his wealth away, but Yudhisthira could have easily asserted that a game can't be taken seriously. I mean, really, which king has ever walked away as a pauper after a contest? Isn't that what Draupadi and Bhima tell him in the forest: that Kshatriyas believe in arrows, not words?

So why wasn't he being a Kshatriya?

In discrete dharma, words fall squarely on the truth. But, as we have seen, a good aim isn't the only thing we want from our actions. You can train yourself to be really good at throwing darts, but what happens when the target changes shape? Does the truth follow suit?

Discrete dharma is brittle.

I take Yudhisthira's commitment to dharma seriously; while Draupadi and Bhima see the failure of the dice game as an instrumental failure, Yudhisthira must have reflected upon the underlying failure of dharma. How could he have gone so wrong? He's always kept his word, but what to do when words fail?