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Friday, January 30, 2015

Consequences and Mahabharata (4)

The ending of Mahabharata is very interesting. After the war at Kurukshetra, millions were killed, including most of the Kuru Dynasty's royal family. The five Pandava brothers and their wives, who all along were described as representing the good side who had defeated the evil side, were left to pick up the pieces and rebuild their nation. Some years later, they left the throne to a son (grandson?) and went on to the Himalayas. One by one they died on the road, leaving only the oldest brother Yudhishtira, who represented righteousness, and his dog (it's a long story). Yudhishtira went to heaven and was shocked to find his cousins there who were on the side of evil and had been slain by the Pandavas. He demanded to see his brothers and was led to hell where his brothers were being punished. Yudhishtira asked angrily, Who decided this? Why are they punished? I want to say here with them.

Note: I'm going with Peter Brook's stage adaptation of Mahabharata, as I have not read the ending of the book to get all the details.

So the meaning of this ending is curious. One's instinct is that this is contradictory. If the Pandavas were the good guys, surely they would have gone to heaven, no? And one would think so because this is how it works in our collective consciousness --- If you do good in life, you will go to heaven. Or, more precisely, do good in life because you want to go to heaven after you die. Therefore, heaven is the cause and good deeds is the effect. Here we can see how cause and effect are flipped temporally. The cause/motive is the future, and the effect/action is the present (or past). Our current behaviors and choices at least appear to be driven by the promise of an afterlife in heaven. Obviously.

Yet this paradigm does not work in Mahabharata. If the Pandavas had known that they would go to hell, would they have chosen the good side and wage war against their cousins? Yet Krishna, who was an avatar of the god Vishnu, clearly and firmly goaded them on. This was the course that had to take place. The way of righteousness must be paved by this war and the death of their evil cousins. Is this a trap? Or, worse, a joke played by the gods on humans? To do this thing is good and necessary, but it will send you to hell. This is obviously contradictory, isn't it?

Then I discovered that the contradiction stems from my assumptions steeped in the Christian culture. Heaven and hell have a different meaning in Hinduism. They are temporary. People are sent to heaven and hell after death to pay for the debts (or spend the surplus, I guess) they incur in life, such as killings any kind of lives. Once your debts are paid, you are released from heaven or hell and go into the next incarnation cycle. The process is not entirely free of moral judgment, but the judgment is far less stringent or definite than Christian judgment because of its lack of permanence. In other words, being sent to hell isn't a permanent conviction of guilt on the Pandavas' choice to wage war against their cousins. Being born as a kshatriya (warrior caste) dictates one's duty to fight and kill in life, but anyone who kills has to pay the debt eventually. Seems like a pretty hopeless trap, but it is somehow more forgiving than the Christian system because it is not permanent or fundamentally damning on a person's identity and worth.

So, regardless of whether one does good or evil, one still has to face the consequences of their actions, which are not always fair or logical. Killing for good does not spare one from the consequences. Future consequences cannot be controlled or calculated by individual choices at present. This seems fundamentally different between Hinduism and the logic I am familiar with.

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I first started thinking about this issue while reading ASOIAF. Some readers argued that Ned Stark is a bad guy because he is a key piece in the chain of events leading to the War of Five Kings, or that Catelyn Stark is a bad woman because she affects a couple of links (kidnapping Tyrion in Book 1 and releasing Jaime Lannister in Book 2) in the events. (ASOIAF is a pretty good proximation for history, at which I am no good.) Yet I find this line of reasoning disturbing, because none of the characters, not even Joffrey, had the benefit of hindsight like readers do. To what extent can one blame a person for future occurrences that are (in part) caused by his past choices, if the consequences are not foreseeable?

One of the similarities between ASOIAF and Mahabharata is the complex Web of causes and effects. Minor events (or oaths, curses, and prophecies) become catalysts or triggers of snowballed crises and disasters in the future. Assigning blame and moral judgment on characters become exceedingly difficult as shit hits the fan and body counts rise ... But isn't that exactly the problem we face when we look at history and try to pass judgment of various characters involved? We have the benefit of hindsight, but they did not. What if the United States split after the Civil War? Would we be judging Lincoln differently? Is the problem his or ours?

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Of course, all this is not just about moral judgment of historical or fictional people, but rather about regret --- regret over past actions and choices, and fear of regret for present choices and future consequences.

Again, we are back to the advice from Bhagavad Gita: Go forth and do your duty. Detach from the outcome.  In some ways, Krishna has something very Albert Ellis about him (or maybe it's the other way around).

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