Monday, 14 April 2014


by Ave Maria

The Indian tradition has handed down us the knowledge that we are living in the Kali Yuga, the most degenerate age where the world is on the verge of collapse. What will happen in the final stages of this Yuga? The Mahabharata, the ancient Indo-Aryan epic known as the largest book ever written, contains several well-known prophecies, for example, "shudras will expound the scriptures" and "people will without compunction destroy trees and gardens." These prophecies are widely available in essays and books about the Kali Yuga. Less well-known are the object-lessons given at the end of the Mahabharata's fifth book, just before the great war that transitioned the world from the previous Dvapara Yuga to the current Kali Yuga.

A teacher of mine, who has read the entire Mahabharata in Sanskrit, once remarked that parts of it seem to have been written with the modern reader in mind, notably the monologues of the low-caste character Karna. This may sound somewhat unlikely, given the age of the Mahabharata, but a close reading of the end of the fifth book shows a remarkable relevance to the modern condition that gives the ring of truth to my teacher's statement. Although it portrays conditions at the end of the Dvapara Yuga, I think it is meant to reflect on what conditions will be like at the end of the Kali Yuga.

At the end of the fifth book of the Mahabharata, two noble sides are preparing for destructive, bloody war. King Dhritarashtra, who knows that this all-out war will bring nothing but suffering and sadness to his kingdom but is helpless to stop it, asks his counsel Sanjaya, who will later recount the story of the Bhagavad Gita, about the state of the opposing armies. Sanjaya warns the king that "man is not the agent of his good and evil acts; he is helplessly manipulated like a wooden puppet." With these words, he begins to describe how it is that the warriors on both sides were sucked into a war of brother against brother.

First, we learn how Prince Duryodhana, whose motivations stem from spite and jealousy, sends an emissary to the heroic Pandavas specifically to insult them and rouse their anger. Reminded in a snide and condescending tone of all the past injustices Duryodhana has put them through, the Pandavas temporarily forget that Duryodhana and his Kurus are their brothers. Next, Duryodhana asks his general Bhisma to enumerate and rank the warriors on both sides. Obviously, such a quantification will serve little purpose when the battle begins; we have all heard of great armies being defeated by smaller ones with big spirits. Not only is this task meaningless, it is also inherently biased, as Karna points out when Bhisma snobbishly rates him as half a warrior: "Neither years nor gray hair, nor wealth nor relatives can make a baron be counted a great Warrior … Guided by likes and dislikes you ignorantly set up 'Warriors' and 'Paladins' according to completely capricious personal preferences." Bhisma dismisses Karna's complaint with some casteist bigotry.

Duryodhana has induced such boiling rage in the Pandavas that they could not be talked down at this point. And for the Kurus to question the idea of war, they would have to be dissuaded of the powerful "arms race"-like worldview, involving great lists of warriors and paladins being assembled on the battlefield to fight—a worldview the skeptical Karna attempts to question, but for the wrong reasons, and to no avail.

Dhritarastra would be right to conclude from these episodes, related to him by Sanjaya, that it is impossible for anything to be done at this late stage in the era. We are indeed like puppets.

In this context, we hear the final, pathetic story of Shikhandi, who is currently a male prince lined up to fight against Bhisma, but started out his journey as Amba, a princess seized from the court of King Salva and carried off by Bhisma against her will. It is easy to be sympathetic for Amba's plight, as she had no say in her capture, but she does not simply go to Bhisma with grievances to be addressed, as subjects once traditionally did with their kings. Amba does not want to be ruled at all, but wishes to be a ruler herself, to rid herself of all her masters and control her own destiny. She does not realize that relinquishing one's position in society also means relinquishing her ties to it, which could be her only safety net if she runs into trouble.

Hearing Amba's desire to return with a surprisingly open mind, Bhisma grants her leave from his kingdom, probably not something a king is used to doing with his concubines. One wonders where the author of the Mahabharata, living in the misty depths of ancient India (possibly even before 1000 B.C.), got the idea that a captured concubine might make such an outrageous request, or that a king might be so generous to grant it. Although this story is dated to the very end of the Dvapara Yuga, it is clearly a premonition of the attitudes that would come to prevail in the Kali Yuga. The people around Amba are remarkably tolerant of her and generous to her, but she treats them basically as subjects to be manipulated to her liking.

Returning to her original kingdom, Amba pleads with King Salva that she is "a girl come to you on her own … not as another man's woman," but he refuses on the reasonable grounds that Bhisma may still have some interest in her, which could have unpleasant consequences for him. It seems that by becoming a queen unto herself, Amba has unwittingly entered the field of international politics, but without the leverage of powerful supporters or parents. Being "a girl come to you on her own" may sound like liberation, but it is far from truly being able to achieve your desires.

Cursing both of her former kings, she seeks out ascetics to give her the power to get revenge. It could hardly have been proper for a single woman to enter an ascetic community, and one doubts that ascetic brahmins enjoyed dealing with barons' requests to get revenge against neighboring kings, but these must have been remarkably friendly ascetics because neither question is raised. After discussions, one elder suggests: "Listen to our good advice. Go hence to your father's house, be blessed."

Even when you reject all other social ties, you can always fall back on family. But after Amba has treated kings as her equals, it is not surprising that she does not want to obey brahmins either. She refuses this advice and again demands revenge against "Bhisma, or King Salva, or both" — whichever is more convenient, apparently. So saying, she gets an audience with Rama, an all-powerful god.

It should not be surprising at this point that Amba wants to argue with a god, too. Rama could make Bhisma or Salva submit to her, but he refuses to use his power to kill. This is unsatisfying to Amba, who decides she will kill Bhisma herself, and obtains rebirth as a woman named Shikhandi with all her memories intact so that she can carry on her grudge. Shikhandi then obtains a sex change from a forest sprite (yaksha), for the same purpose.

Here is a new and terrifying level of worldly delusion. Death and rebirth, after all, is an opportunity to cast off all the troubles plaguing one's mind and begin again with a new and pure heart. Never before have we heard of someone so ensnared by the delusions of this world that they wish to carry them across births. And yet nobody is treating Amba as an erratic case – within her own biography, she gets nothing but sympathy and support.

In Amba/Shikhandi, the Mahabharata has given us a surprisingly modern exemplar of someone who goes into battle for a righteous cause. This is no simple, stupid case of governments ordering their fighting men to the front. Amba was personally slighted by Bhisma and has spent multiple lifetimes single-mindedly trying to right her injustice. It is right that Shikhandi is singled out in Bhisma's list of warriors as one who deserves to have his story more fully told, since unlike Arjuna, Shikhandi will have no misgivings about killing Bhisma and making his revenge complete. Hell hath no fury...

If Amba's chapter is taken as a freestanding story, it would be easy to conclude that Amba is a courageous and heroic figure. After all, there is no criticism of her within the chapter; those around her offer nothing but compassion and assistance within their bounds. But the context of Dhritarashtra's discussion with Sanjaya throws her biography into a completely different light. Unlike Amba, Dhritarashtra would rather see the war avoided. He has no hope that he can end the war, but he at least wants to know how it is that the fates of the warriors have been sealed in this way. And what a very tightly sealed fate Amba has been given! Her desire to control her fate seems unstoppable, yet in the end, that only locks her more tightly into the battlefield. Do we not suffer the same delusions in this late modern era?

When we realize that this is part of the account related by Sanjaya to Dhritarashtra, we cannot but realize that it would completely quash any last hope Dhritarashtra has for resolving the problems of this world. We must categorize Amba's grudge, along with the stories that precede it, as a crushing demonstration of the futility of wanting people to exercise higher intellectual functions or wrestle back control of their minds when a world is heading towards certain destruction. Amba should prove to us that desire for control over this world, even with the help of supernatural boons, is the opposite of victory over its illusions; it is a great defeat that will get us totally distracted by these "puppets," and unable to see the puppetmaster.

Like the story of Amba, if the Bhagavad Gita is separated from the Mahabharata and taken as a standalone story, it is easy to misunderstand it. Krishna's advice to Arjuna to follow the Law of Barons might be seen as encouraging arbitrary and chaotic behavior in the world, to "kill because you were born to kill" or some such thing. In the context of these preceding chapters, though, we understand just how unavoidable war has become. The two sides are not waiting to hear Arjuna's decision. The Pandavas are thirsting for the blood of a cruel prince who has insulted them for decades, and the Kurus have already heard a tally of the warriors and how well they will perform. Shikhandi stands posed to exact a long-awaited revenge. In a world where great masses of people can be manipulated and led into this situation, what is the purpose of the individual puppet? What are we to do, who are totally helpless against fate? The answer will be provided in the Gita.

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