Jayary Newsletter #101
The Knife's Edge
Why did the Pandavas spend thirteen years in the wilderness? Or, to put it somewhat differently: why were the Pandavas banished for thirteen years? Why did they agree?
That's the question I have been working toward in the last few Jayaries. Thirteen years is a long time in a human being's life, even by the superhuman standards of the Pandavas and Kauravas. It's long enough that you're no longer a contender for power when you re-emerge. It takes an extraordinary person - A Mandela, a Gandhi - to retain power despite being sent away for such long periods.
The answer I am working out can be stated simply: if you want to follow the dharma, you have to be ready for long periods of exile while you rework your understanding of its principles. In other words, cultivation of the dharma takes a long time, especially when your earlier understanding has been shown to be flawed.
If you agree with my assessment, you will also find yourself agreeing with Yudhisthira's behaviour during the years of exile. Why was he talking to rishis instead of building an army? Why does he listen to so many stories: Nala and Damayanti, Agastya, stories of pilgrimages. Why didn't he renege on his promise to the victorious Kurus?
The answer is simple: Yudhisthira believed that he needed to absorb a new vision of dharma first and renew his quest for power only after doing so. Note that he isn't giving up the pursuit of power; he isn't turning into a rishi. He is a ruler, but he wants to be a dharmic ruler.
It's a knife edge he's walking on. We know that he succeeds after thirteen years but it's a success that kills everyone except a handful. That's why Yudhisthira has to go back to school again in the Shanti Parva.
The subtle tension between discrete and continuous dharma marks the epic. It permeates our understanding of some of the deepest ideas of Indian philosophy and religiosity. Consider how the rishis Jaratkaru and Agastya are derailed in their quest for enlightenment by their rat-gnawed ancestors.
The standard model of enlightenment is one of sudden awakening even if it's primed by years of practice. Consider the Buddha's story: he spends years in the forest learning from various teachers, starving himself and pursuing various ascetic methods until he's done with all that mortification. Enlightenment comes quickly after he changes track. Siddhartha becomes the Buddha after two nights of meditation. Not bad. In this story, Nirvana is modeled as a discrete object that comes within the grasp of the ready mind.
It's a model that Jaratkaru and Agastya have adopted before they are awakened by their ancestors. Having spent years in deep tapasya, they are well on their way to becoming Brahmarishis. Why step into the world and work for money or help raise children?
There's no reason at all in the logic of discrete dharma. Unfortunately for them, continuous dharma intrudes itself in the form of ancestral duty. It's different from Yudhisthira's encounter with continuous dharma; but like the exiled king, the two rishi's are rudely interrupted in what might otherwise look like a smooth path toward success.
The Light Away from Home
Is the yogi absolved of all earthly responsibilities? Even better, do those responsibilities simply disappear with enlightenment? The traditional answer is yes, or I should say, that's the answer of the dominant tradition. From the Buddha to Shankara the yogi seeks the light away from home.
We should take that dominant tradition's advice with a pinch of salt. What about all those people whose capacity to leave home is limited or forbidden? Shouldn't we be concerned that there are so few women in the pantheon of gurus?
The Jaya isn't a liberal text; however, it clearly sides with those who think our responsibilities are responsibilities with or without enlightenment. When Jaratkaru happens upon his ancestors hanging by a fraying thread, they are insistent that no amount of yogic achievement is a substitute for progeny. We are nothing if our bodies don't produce other bodies. If you can't continue the lineage, you're going to hell.
Hidden beneath that advice is a form of deep embodiment, i.e., an understanding that liberation cannot be divorced from this fleshy existence of ours. It gives us a hint that there's a religious worldview that doesn't deny this world; in fact it demands the full acknowledgement of being a worldly creature.
I will flesh out the meaning of deep embodiment - pun intended - in the next Jayary.
There's no doubt that we are earthly creatures: we spend our days seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The pleasures of the flesh (and the pain of being fleshy) is the rope binding us to every other creature on this earth: not advanced mathematics, not philosophical discourse, not flame wars on the latest social medium.
Every religious system I know tries to escape from our bodily circumstances, though the solutions vary enormously. Some posit a loving God who will take care of us in the afterlife if we do as he says. Some posit the opposite: a vengeful God who will burn us in the afterlife if we don't do as he says. Yet others are agnostic about the existence of God but look for a special state of enlightenment that comes from strenuous meditation.
However they do it, they are all acutely aware that death awaits us and we need a way out. The Jaya is an interesting alternative to these otherworldly religions. Hell awaits men not because they fail to worship a god, not because they refuse to shut their senses, but because they don't want to have children.
How much more fleshy can you get?
Indeed, in this admonition is a tacit understanding of tapasya itself. We have this idea that meditation is a relaxing activity, "reality unplugged." Tapasya is a lot fiercer: etymologically it's tied to heat. It's the burning up of the body.
Perhaps the Jaya is hinting at a counterintuitive proposition: that liberating knowledge is to be found in the deepest strata of our embodiment, not by looking within the body but by looking with the body.