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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Dangerous Gita (Mahabharata Notes #8)

My friend Eugene made an interesting comparison between the advice from Bhagavad Gita and Wagner's ring cycle and noted that it can be easily used to justify bad things. "Go forth and do what you must. Renounce the fruit (or consequences) of your actions."*

Indeed, this advice is completely morally neutral. It is neither good nor bad, neither kind nor cruel. It tells you to do. It does not tell you what to do.

It can be used by Gandhi to unite his people of different factions for win independence and by Hitler to rally youths to fight and kill for the Third Reich. It can encourage a wavering and fearful pre-criminal to rob a bank and an insecure lover to declare his commitment to an object of his affection.

It is merely a call for action, but it gives one no guarantee or protection from the consequences of one's action. You alone will still have to face these consequences, which may be happy or sad, fabulous or terrible.

In other words, the Gita is not your mother or her substitute, your god. It is all about yourself. Therefore it is a bit of a stretch to call it religion.

Of course, Krishna also says victory accompanies dharma, which seems to be assurance of sort. If you are righteous, you will win. Ah, but there is a trap in this assurance. In Mahabharata, Krishna helped his cousins to victory in the war, in which pretty much everyone on either side was killed. Not only that, but four of the five Pandavas went to hell when they died. Some victory.

So it seems that the ancient Indian philosophers and storytellers had gone through the argument "But the world is clearly not fair or just" many, many rounds. They knew all too well that such a simple assurance means shit. Don't we all believe we are on the side of dharma? Don't we all believe our own morality and good intentions? Aren't we all convinced we are righteous and our competitors or enemies evil? The assurance is no assurance. The guarantee guarantees nothing. When we fail and fall, we do not think, "Oh, that's because we are on the wrong side of dharma." I can claim I know which side is right, but I am not so blind as to deny that everyone else, including those I find appalling and despicable, believes the same of themselves.

George W. Bush said, "We go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in the world."
The same line could have been uttered by Krishna himself when he egged on his cousins at Kurukshetra and by their Kaurava enemies, and by countless leaders throughout human history.

Yet the Gita says, go forth and choose and act. Just do it. As to choosing which and doing what in the world, you are on your own, baby! In the end it is still your decision and responsibility, and your mom (or god) is not going to feed you the answer. 

(*One could also argue that the advice encourages undue recklessness, but the what kind of reckless people would need advice in the first place?)


Eugene Xia said...

I think for most of us, decisions and consequences are not this monumental. They are more like getting married or going back to grad school. In such cases, just do your duty is sound advice.

Maybe Hinduism is more personal than political. The Gita may just be a metaphor for individual's day to day struggle. For ordinary people, this seems to be the only way this story provides moral guidance.

There is similarity between this story and the Book of Job. In bother cases, the main characters eventually obtain an overwhelming vision which ends their spiritual crisis.

Jun Yan said...

Who to marry, whether to go to grad school, how to deal with loved ones with conflicting interests from yours, these can be monumental choices in a person's life too and can be paralyzing depending on one's disposition.

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