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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.)

At the center of all the internal conflicts and contradictions is the god avatar Krishna; he lies and schemes and tricks people (friends and foes alike) and breaks all kinds of rules. He would not hesitate to abandon his own promise if he has to. For him, the end justifies the means. It is never quite clear how much he knows or controls. Sometimes he knows the future and steers the course of history down one road or another. Other times he behaves as if he does not foresee or affect the future, or at least makes no effort to avert something that seems detrimental --- but then one can never be sure what is detrimental from his perspective. And yet, he always has the last word. Everyone who is anyone in the story says, Krishna is always right. He is dharma itself. Perhaps one could argue that this is not unlike the Old Testament god, who is often angry and brusque and not always logical or just. Yet, here the contradictions are taken a sidestep. When the time comes for Krishna to die as it was foretold thirty-six years ago, death comes to him. He sets events in motion toward the destruction of his people, and then watches the annihilation unfold, with tears streaming down his face. And let's not forget that he urged Arjuna and Yudhishtir to detach from their attachment of family bonds and kill their Pitama Bheeshma and Guru Drona during the war, but soon afterward admitted himself that he would do anything for Arjuna because he was his cousin, whom he loved more than anyone in the world. That's not doing what one preaches, is it?

Even the ultimate purpose of the Kurukshetra war has no single right answer. Several answers are proposed by various characters: 1) It is a battle between dharma (Pandavas) and adharma (Kauravas); 2) It is intended to unburden the earth goddess by killing off nearly all the kshatriyas; or 3) It is a continuation of the war between devas (gods) and asuras (demons, note that in Hindu mythology demons are not necessarily inherently bad or evil); 4) some mysterious explanation about entering the Kali Yuga that I cannot make sense of. The story seems to say, all of the above, and whatever you like. 

Historically, Hinduism went through a long evolution of integrating various branches and schools that attempted to bring together the contradictory and conflicting philosophies and myths under one roof. Clearly this process was never as effective or complete as the work done by the Catholic Church. The secular culture is similarly wedded to the mindset of right versus wrong. Having grown up in a world ruled by "one right answer," I feel both disorientation and a tingling all over to glimpse at this pluralistic universe where things do not fit together yet somehow coexist. This kind of ambivalence, of course, will never do in science. 

Post Script: A few days ago I happened upon an amazing article by Adam Phillips, in which he discussed how opposing feelings always coexist in anything that matters to us. Taking a page from Jung, perhaps this is no coincidence. Perhaps this is why psychology is "not a science" and might never be. 

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