Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Canto I : Arjuna's Grief

Because Arjuna refuses to act - he won't fight his friends, relatives and gurus, the epic story of the Mahabharata slides to a standstill. Without action, no narrative is possible; indeed no life. Krishna in the Gita provides the kick-start by stressing the imperative need to act. Very simply, the Gita is a compressed analysis of the three kinds of action possible in human affairs : ritual action (for the physically inclined), reasoned action ( for the intellectual) and spirtitual action (for those inspired by relegious devotion).

The key shloka of Canto 1 is the last (47). Arjuna, stricken by paralyzing sorrow, swirling in indecisions's quicksand, throws away his bow and quiver, and slumps down on this war chariot.

He gives three reasons for his suddenly discovered 'pacifism'. One : sva-jana (one's own people) are to be respected and loved, not 'wasted'. Two : others, blinded by greed, may go in for kula-kshaya (family ruin), but mutually assured destruction is not the civilised way of responding to aggression; certainly not his way. Three : killing is the ultimate crime; better be killed weaponless (ashastram) than kill, whatever the context of the contention.

No wonder Mahatma Gandhi treated the Gita as his 'mother', for here is the core of the philosophy of unarmed resistance, even at the risk of losing one's life. Satyagraha, after all, is 'soul-force'. Those who take up the sword, warned Jesus, shall perish by it; but does it follow that those who die swordless in battle shall find life everlasting ?

Dhritarashtra asked :

Tell me Sanjaya, What did the Pandavas and Kauravas do, gathered on the sacred battlefield of Kurukshetra ?

Sanjaya replied :

Seeing the army of the Pandavas, Duryodhana went to his acharya Drona, and said :

'Look at the vast army of the Pandavas, under the command of Dhristadyumna:

Heroes all of them, mighty bowmen rivalling Bhima and Arjuna: Yuyudhana, Virata and Drupada,

Dhristaketu, Chekitana and the king of Varanasi, Purujit, Kuntibhoja and Shaiba:

Yudhamanyu, and Uttamaujas, Abhimanyu and the sons and grandsons of Drupada.

And look at our army too, O Brahmin; I give you the names of our commanders:

First of all, you, Bhisma, Karna and Kripa: Ashvatthaman, Vikarna and the sons of Somadatta:

And many others, all well-armed, eager to die if necessary for my sake.

My army seems weak compared to theirs, mine marshalled by Bhisma, theirs by Bhima.

Let the orders be passed to protect Bhisma: let the troops form ranks'

Bhisma, anxious to revive Duryodhana's spirits blew fiercely on his conch, like a lion roaring.

Conches and kettledrums, horns and tabors blew suddenly. The noice was tremendous.

Standing in their white horsed chariot, Krishna and Arjuna blew their conches.

Krishna's conch was called Panchajanya, Arjuna's Devadutta, and Bhima's Paundra.

Any Yudhisthira blew his conch of Endless Victory, Nakula his of Honey Tone and Sahadeva his called the Jewel Blossom.

Each blew his own conch -- the supreme archer, the king of Varanasi, the mighty charioteer Shikhandin, Dhristadyumna, Virata and the undefeated Satyaki;

Drupada, too, and Draupadi's sons, and the strong-muscled Abhimanyu.

And thuderous peal after peal, crashing through heaven and earth, shattered the morale of Dhritarashtra's camp.

Seeing Dhritarashtra's men eager for war, and battle impending, ape-emblemed Arjuna lifted his bow and turned to Krishna.

Arjuna said to Krishna : 'Take my chariot, Krishna, between the two camps:

Let me see my enemy before I fight him. Who are the ones gathered here for bloodshed ?

I can see them, flatterers of evil Duryodhana on sacred Kurukshetra'

On Arjuna's request, Krishna took the glittering chariot midfield.

Facing, Bhisma, Drona and the lords of the Earth, he said: 'Here are the Kauravas, Arjuna.'

Arjuna saw, in the camps of both, his fathers and grandfathers, his brother and cousins, his sons and grandsons, his friends and acharyas,

His fathers-in-law and acquaintances. He saw his kinsmen assembled for war.

Arjuna, stirred to compassion, said : I have seen my kinsmen gathered for war;

My mouth is dry with fear, my limbs refuse to listen to me, trembling seizes me;

My skin chafes, and the divine Gandiva bow slips from my hand. Neither can I stand erect : my mind whirls,

And unholy omens appear before my eyes. In killing my brothers, Krishna, I cannot see anything noble --

I do not want this victory, this glory, this happiness. What is glory to us, Krishna, what are pleasures and life,

If those who from us deserve glory, pleasure, and life, are ready to fight us, having given up the world's delights --

Our uncles, our sons and our grandfathers, our eldest kinsmen, acharyas, our fathers-in-law and our grandsons.

I would not kill them, not for the three worlds, let alone the earth. I had rather they killed me, Krishna.

What joy is there in slaying Dhritarashtra's sons ? -- It is a terrible crime to kill them, however much we hate them.

I will not kill my kinsmen, Krishna : how could happiness be mine if I murder my brothers ?

Their reasons obscured by greed, they see no wrong in disunion of brothers, in hate against friends;

But we, the clear of mind who understand right and wrong, should we not refrain from such vile acts ?

Family dharma disappears in the family when the family breaks up; that disappearing, adharma takes over.

Where adharma rules, the women are corrupted; with the women corrupted, even caste is endangered.

Intermixture of castes spells of doom for the family; as well as for the destroyers of the family; and the spirits of the ancestors fall, denied rice-and-water homage.

And by this looseness of the destroyers of the family is the age-old dharma of caste and the family destroyed.

We have heard, Krishna, hell awaits the families which discard dharma.

Aho ! What a terrible thing it is to kill brothers, and the cast covetous eyes on their land !

Let the sons of Dhritarashtra kill me. I will not protest. Better be killed than kill.

Sanjaya said :

Arjuna flung away his bow and quiver, and slumped down on the seat of his glittering chariot, stricken with sorrow.

1 comment:

windwheel said...

Mbh is highly symmetrical- as it must be to conserve karma and dharma- thus the first step in analyzing Arjuna's Vishaada is to find the equal and opposite passage- viz. one where Krishna stops Arjuna from killing his kin (viz. Yuddhishtra).
Furthermore, since Mbh always tries to bring 3 characters into a symmetrical, relatively equal situation, we should notice that Arjuna had received chakshushi vidya (second sight) while of course Krishna Devakiputra (in Chandogya Up) is famous for this.
Thus, a special situation- Greeks would call it epochee- is created which by itself has great psychological resonances.
However, except in that phenomenological state or pivotal situation,meaning of Gita is changed by information previously or subsequently mentioned in Mbh.
Using rules of symmetry these episodes can be high lighted and co-related in the mind- thus making Mbh. an intellectually and emotionally pleasurable source of mental contemplation while going about our mundane affairs.