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Monday, March 30, 2015

A Mutual Frustration (Mahabharata Notes #15)

Before the Kurukshetra war commenced, Queen Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, came to Karna, the dearest friend of Duryodhan, the crown prince of the Kauravas, and a most formidable kshatriya in the land. She came to Karna at mid-day, immediately after he performed a daily prayer to the sun god Surya, to make a favor of him, because Karna never refused a favor asked of him on such an occasion. Not long ago, Karna had granted a boon asked of him by the god Indra, the father of Arjuna his arch-enemy, and given up his own magical armor, effectively giving away his own safety and life, in the upcoming war.

Yet, this time, the absurdly generous Karna who never refused anything asked of him upon his sun-worship ritual, refused the strange but strangely familiar lady who came to ask for a boon.

Karna was Kunti's first and illegitimate son with the sun god. One could easily imagine a realistic version of this scenario: An aristocratic young woman got herself pregnant at fourteen with a moment of indiscretion. When she gave birth to a boy, shame, panic, and fear of disgrace induced her to throw the infant away. The child grew up in a lower class family, ignorant of his origins, and suffered terribly for his mother's moment of weakness and selfishness. On the other hand, his mother went on to a respectable life, a suitable marriage, and five sons born within wedlock, seemingly suffering no consequence for her abandonment. Now, her five legitimate sons were about to fight their bastard brother in a life-or-death battle, while none of the six brothers knew of this looming family train wreck.

Mother Kunti's motive for approaching her first-born with the truth in this critical juncture may be interpreted as an attempt to dissuade Karna from endangering her other sons. Her request to Karna could be boiled down to this: "You are by blood the brother of your best friend's enemies. I ask you to leave the Kauravas' side for the Pandavas' side."

One could argue that Kunti loved her legitimate sons more than her first-born, because she went to Karna rather than the Pandavas with the secret. If she had told the Pandavas, the war would have dissolved into their instant defeat (at least in her mind). Instead she wanted to dissolve the war with their victory. Yet another component of her wish is to ensure the survival and unification of all six of her sons, because the pending conflict presented a threat to Karna as well, considering that he was at least outnumbered five to one. In other words, what she wanted was to "have it all," not just for herself but for her sons.

Karna clearly understood her intentions, both the spoken and unspoken aspects. As a son who had lived with his mother's rejection all his life, he took revenge. She had not given him what he had wanted, so now he would not give her what she wanted. After denying her request, he granted her something different from what she asked for: "I would not kill any of your other sons, but I will battle Arjuna to the death. Either him or me, but one of us will surely die. So that in the end you will still have five sons." It is as if he was directly denying his mother's unspoken demand --- You can't have six sons and will only have five. His revenge is to turn the table completely on her: You had not wanted six, and now you cannot have six.

One could, of course, argue that Karna rejected Kunti's request because he loved his sworn brother (ie, Duryodhan) more than newly discovered birth brothers, who indeed had had a few run-ins with him previously. Yet, if Karna were so deeply invested in the victory of the Kauravas' cause, he seemed to have a funny way of showing it, by giving away his invincible armor and earrings so easily and by spontaneously promising Kunti to never harm four of the Pandavas. Therefore, his loyalty to Duryodhan seems but an excuse, yet his revenge to frustrate the mother who had disappointed and frustrated him rings true.

(This rather crude analysis is inspired by Adam Phillips' essay "On Frustration" in his book "Missing Out." In the essay he pointed out the symmetry between King Lear and Cordelia, who both withhold something from each other. The same can be said of Kunti and Karna. Phillips wrote, "All love stories are frustration stories. As are all stories about parents and children, which are also love stories.")

Monday, March 23, 2015

King John

I'm up to Act 4 now.

Oh man it is such an intense play packed with twists and turns. Characters take turns throwing flaming insults at each other. Oh the madness, rage, and screaming. Why isn't it being revived more often? Why had I never heard of it before?

At the center of the plot is King John who is stuck in an impossible situation. His brother, Richard the Lionheart had passed his throne to John, but their older brother's son Arthur, still a teenager, had a better claim. Although John seized the crown with force, France was trying to invade and install Arthur. When John captured Arthur in battle, he was stuck between rock and a hard place. Keep Arthur around, France would invade in the name of rescuing the rightful king. Get rid of Arthur, which was what he did, would drive barons already annoyed by his fiscal policies into open rebellion. To add to his siege was the Pope, in a dispute with John not unlike the one between the Vatican and Henry VIII three hundred years later. 

Yes, John was a kinslayer, but what else could he do? He was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. I thought about it and thought about it --- Short of conceding the crown to his nephew, he had no way out of the dilemma. I suppose it is a far more common situation in human history than we are willing to admit to ourselves --- The choices you are given are no choice at all. You are fucked no matter what you do.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Childhood's End by Arthur Clarke

What prompted me to re-read this book is, of course, my recent obsession with Mahabharata. When I first read it about twenty years ago, I didn't understand most of it, but much of the imagery left a deep impression and seeped into my unconscious memory. In some ways, I could say that this novel, Rendezvous with Rama, and a few of his short stories (eg, "The Star", "Nine Billion Names of God") cultivated a latent taste for mysticism that kind of blew up two decades later, when I happened upon Mahabharata.

The first part of the story is about an alien invasion by "Overlords" (which was later ripped off in Independence Day and other movies) and the subsequent utopia on earth. The second part is about the conversion of the human species into a mysterious and unknowable existence that is eventually absorbed into "Overmind." Indeed there is similarity between the concept of merging with a cosmic consciousness and similar ideas in Buddhism and Hinduism, in which people might, through meditation, yoga, and whatever mind-altering practice, might transcend the limits of individual mind and become one with gods or absorbed into the gods or something to that effect. The novel makes a few direct references to Christianity (references to Jonah and devils), but the central concepts are closer to Buddhism and Hinduism, plus elements of popular mysticism, such as seance, telepathy, inherited racial memory, and UFO sightings. Clarke was clearly having some mash-up fun.

I can't remember who said it --- something about the individualism being not a common or dominant idea in human societies. When I first read "Childhood's End," I had the impression that the loss of human individuality at the end was a tragedy. Mr. S admitted to the same impression (he read it in high school). Clearly the theme is not that palatable to modern people with a western education --- or modern Chinese people, for that matter. Yet Clarke's depiction is ambiguous with a sense of both loss (of humanity as we know it) and marvel (merging into a great collective consciousness).

What left the deepest impression on me the first time is the speculation of time and memory. The Overlords had never been to earth until its arrival in twentieth century, yet their devilish appearance always existed throughout human history, because some minds can access memory in all directions, both forward and backward. Future and past are the same. That is a dazzling idea and, somehow, thematically connected to Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Maya: Illusion and Reality (Mahabharata Notes #14)

At least one of the meanings of maya is simply "illusion." In the battle scenes in Mahabharata, maya is often a supernatural weapon used by a few characters to create a distortion of reality --- fog, rain, cold, darkness, demonic figures, etc., that do not actually exist --- to disarm the enemy and create fear and chaos. In fact it sounds a lot like some sort of psychological warfare.

Yet maya is far more complicated than illusion. Its entry in Wikipedia seems to suggest that the evolution of its meaning, coupled with atman, is linked to the pair purusha and prakrti. Yeah, Wikipedia. Obviously I have not read through the relevant vedas and puranas and upanishads to begin to understand these ideas. But, at least, my absurdly superficial glimpse at these abstract concepts is enough to demonstrate how sophisticated the philosophical theories were in Hinduism.

Anyway, not being qualified to discuss these concepts does not deter me from contemplating something along these lines. At some point, maya came to mean the material, external existence, ie, the body or prakrti, that houses and conceals the eternal driving force of life or spirit, ie, the soul or purusha. The theory is that, although the body and its senses seem to be real, they are temporary and constantly changing and subject to inevitable decay. Here, obviously, the Hindu philosophers incorporated time into their observation of the physical world --- All senses pass, including agony and ecstasy, and therefore are elusive over time. Even life itself passes so quickly. Therefore, the need for a life force that permeates the universe and animates things that cannot disappear or diminish is irresistible. And they are not wrong, because energy does fit the concept of purusha and obeys the first law of thermodynamics.

Nevertheless I have been thinking of something that seems to be the opposite: One's perception and thoughts are subjective, conjured by the mind, and unreal, but the body at least somewhat able to get a more concrete and reliable picture of the world around oneself through the senses. Another way of looking at the distinction between the real and unreal is what is actually going on within one's senses and what is not. For example, the room temperature is 75 F and the time is night and I am lying on the couch typing on my laptop --- that's tangible reality. I'm thinking about the work to do tomorrow and reading some babbling on Twitter --- that's not tangible reality, even if the babbling might be someone else's reality. The novel I'm reading is all in my mind, and so is the contemplation of whether I will finish a couple of documents by the end of next week, because none of these exists outside of the electrochemical reactions in my brain. On the other hand, that I am thirsty or hungry is real enough, for the sensations are connected to my blood concentrations of sodium or glucose, not just in the brain. How real is reading fiction, nonfiction, news, and someone else's opinions and editorials?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Note to Self: Books to Read

1. Fountain of Paradise and Songs of A Distant Earth
2. The Journalist and the Murderer
3. Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life
4. Ramayana (maybe)

The start of a New Yorker's article about Adam Phillips' "Missing Out" had me laughing hysterically. I suppose it's not meant to be funny, and I don't know why it seems so to me.

Adam Phillips, Britain’s foremost psychoanalytic writer, dislikes the modern notion that we should all be out there fulfilling our potential, and this is the subject of his new book, “Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Instead of feeling that we should have a better life, he says, we should just live, as gratifyingly as possible, the life we have. Otherwise, we are setting ourselves up for bitterness. What makes us think that we could have been a contender? Yet, in the dark of night, we do think this, and grieve that it wasn’t possible. “And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives,” Phillips writes. “Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless trauma about, the lives we were unable to live.”

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Pluralism and Contradictions (Mahabharata Notes #13)

There are a lot of oddities and inconsistencies in Mahabharata, even in the shortened version (a "modern rendering") I read, in which the author no doubt excised a lot extraneous details and sidetracks from the original versions (yes, plural) of the massive poem. For example, it is described that Arjuna was the son of the deva (god) Indra. There is an interlude in the middle of the story that Arjuna was brought to Indra's heavenly abode. Yet it is also repeatedly claimed that Arjuna is one of the holy twins, Nara and Narayan, who are avatars of Vishnu, one of the trimurti (the three-form gods that are at the top of Hindu deities). Arjuna is the human incarnate of the twins Nara (Krishna is the godly one of the pair Narayan). Just who the hell is he related to, Indra or Vishnu? Another example is the character Ashwatthama, who is supposed to be a partial incarnate of Shiva, another of the trimurti. Ashwatthama fought on the opposite side to the Pandavas against Arjuna and, after the death of his father in the war, nearly caused the termination of their family line. Yet, before the war, Shiva gave Arjuna a deadly supernatural weapon and the blessing to win the war. The rishi Vyasa, who knew everything in the story, told Arjuna that on the battlefield he was led by the invisible Shiva and triumph followed him wherever he pointed his arrows because of this. It is like Shiva blessed his own enemy to defeat a part of himself. Which side exactly is he on? In the end, while the Pandavas seemed to have decisively won the war, they went to heaven and saw all of their enemies returning to their eternal godly forms, happy and content. All the old grudges and hatred and blood feud and even arguments over dharma versus adharma seemed to be washed away by the tide of time. The Pandavas are deemed the good guys, but they nevertheless have to go to hell, even if temporarily. It's enough to drive one crazy.

This kind of delicate and complicated logic, which teeters on the edge between perfect sense and complete nonsense, tickles the mind. One might easily dismiss the phenomenon as the result of centuries of meddling by generations of storytellers. They must have inserted various stories and ideas over time, leaving a big pile of mess. Yet that is not quite true, as the massive story is also filled with meticulous details and characters that remain surprisingly consistent and logical from the beginning to the end. There seems to be method to all this madness. 

(This post is long. I'm going to start using the "Read More" function.)

Monday, March 2, 2015

Nazi and the Gita (Mahabharata Notes #12)

Well, it looks like synchronicity, or coincidence, or my premonition (just kidding), as one of my random thoughts connecting Hitler and Bhagavad Git turned out to be true. Apparently some Nazis did love the Gita. Apparently, ancient Indian mythology and philosophy were a big deal among German intellectuals in the 19th century and subsequently garnered some fans in Nazi leadership. Apparently, it is no accident that Nazis chose the swastika as their symbol and identified themselves as Aryans, which seems to stretch one's imagination if we were to compare the appearances of Indians, however light-skinned they are, with the ideal looks touted by white supremacists. One has to wonder if they asked real Indians whether such re-appropriation of their religion and philosophy was acceptable. Somehow I doubt it.

Perhaps one should not be too surprised. Didn't we all read Herman Hesse's fictional biography of Buddha? Didn't we hear that Schopenhauer was a fan as well? So Hinduism was no doubt pretty fashionable in Germany back then. Here is a fairly substantive article about one of the prominent Gita fans: Heinrich Himmler. He identified the military expansion and aggression of the Third Reich with the martial values and beliefs of kshatriyas (the warrior caste) in Hinduism. According to Himmler, Hitler is Krishna reincarnate (perhaps figuratively) to bring dharma, ie, Nazism, to the world. Funny how mercy and family and the revolving wheel of life and death, and all the other stuff in Hinduism and Buddhism never made it into Nazism, for whom death is just death. You can't blame me for not seeing the connection before.

Nevertheless one does have to wonder whether Herr Himmler actually read Mahabharata. If he had, he might think twice about comparing themselves to kshatriyas, the ancient warrior caste. It does seem to me that he had no idea what happened to kshatriyas in Kurukshetra and what Krishna was sent into the world for. In fact, Krishna was no leader or savior of kshatriyas at all; rather, his true purpose was to wipe out all the kshatriya kings and soldiers in this deadly conflict and leave a world "unburdened" by kshatriyas at the start of the Kali Yuga. If we were to follow this train of logic, hmm, what did happen to Nazi armies in the Kurukshetra of our time? I am not a superstitious person, so I will not say all this is some weird, time-warping phenomenon. But the irony is killing me.

Anyway, what is unexpected in this odd pairing is not that Nazis found inspiration from the Gita (a possibility that even I "foresaw"), but rather that they looked to the Gita at all. I always assumed that they pursued their mission with absolute conviction of their own righteousness and needed no confirmation from anyone, least of all some foreign religious text. Only those with doubts need the Gita to inspire them and spur them into action, no? Might Himmler have doubts about what he was doing, like Arjuna, and feel as if he needed some moral and philosophical support? Taking this thought one step further, we may have to contemplate the possibility that Himmler and other Nazis were indeed human, too.

Timon of Athens

During the intermission of Timon of Athens at Folger, I eavesdropped on a discussion among the 3 persons (who looked like a mother with t...

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