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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Theological Subversiveness in Mahabharata (Notes #17)

I suppose one should not be surprised by the mess of stories, mythologies, cults, and messages that were crammed into Mahabharata over centuries of telling and retelling. Many of the lessons and points conflict with and even contradict each other, down to the basic definition of "dharma." Fine. There is something in the Indian history and culture that drove the exacting English colonialists crazy, because one can never seem to get a straight answer to any question about India. Any simple question, like, What is dharma? What is maya? What is sin?, can lead to a lifetime of research and philosophical argument with no end in sight.

Be that as it may, I want to sort out a few signs of direct theological antagonism in the epic, particularly in the Bhagavad Gita.

The most striking message in the Gita is to act without expectations of rewards, ie, the karma yoga. This is in opposition to the traditional Indian mythology based on asceticism, which is full of anecdotes of someone getting his wish granted by a god, big or small, by starving himself, chanting the god's name a million times, and standing on his toe for a few years, known as tapasya. If you're a well pampered king who doesn't want to go through that self-torturing routine, you can hire a team of Brahmins to do the praying for you and throw in a lot of good stuff (eg, milk, ghee, flowers) in the ceremony. Voila! You get your wish granted. It is such a straightforward even exchange between the gods and men and universal to nearly all ancient cultures on earth. I offer/sacrifice something precious to the gods, and the gods give me what I want. Simple and instinctive. Yet the Gita says, you should not even expect a reward for your sacrifice to the god. Forget it.

Well, that's an unpleasant gift, isn't it? Even though it is more realistic and empirically true, telling people that they cannot bargain with (and therefore control) fate/gods/fortune is contrary to our hopes and dreams. Such realism can't win any followers. So we are thrown a bone. Yes, there is a reward, which is moksha. Who needs earthly rewards (eg, wealth, happiness, long life, death to your enemies) when you can achieve the ultimate joy of being released from the cycles of life and death, heaven and hell.

Nevertheless, the story is littered with anecdotes of someone asking for a boon, usually from Shiva, and getting it. "I want the deadliest weapon in the world," asks the worshiper. Shiva replies, "I like you buddy. You can have it." "I want to avenge my father and kill all my enemies." "Sure, you're my bhakti and I guarantee your success." This is the old religion that everyone is familiar with. The Gita, on the other hand, is counter intuitive. "Don't expect me to give you anything in return for your worship."

As I think about the role of Krishna plays in the story, I am increasingly suspicious (although no one can ever confirm this suspicion) that he was not part of the original story. I suspect that the mythology of Krishna/Bhagavan developed separately and at some point some very clever follower(s) inserted him into the Mahabharata plot. Note that Krishna shows up very late in the story and never plays an indispensable role in the central plot. Rather, his presence gives the story a theological foundation. And, more important, a closer look suggests that Krishna is a disruptive element in the story. He does not necessarily moves the plot, but rather exists to subvert a lot of the values and codes represented by other characters.

For example, Krishna's most disruptive and subversive role is as a direct contrast to Bhishma. Bhishma abstains from sex and marriage all his life --- which supposedly lasts for over a century --- and this extreme self-restraint wins him invincibility on the battlefield and near immortality (he dies only when he chooses to die). Krishna, on the other hand, suggests a kind of extravagant indulgence with eight chief wives and sixteen thousand women in his harem. Plus he flirts with every woman on the street wherever he goes. Bhishma gets his name from the terrible oaths he's sworn and his terrible insistence on upholding these oaths, forever. He never wavers or changes his mind later on. One could say that he is less human and more a vow-maintaining machine. His adherence to oaths are absolute. Krishna is the opposite. He would do anything to protect his cousin Arjuna, including breaking his promises. On Day 14 of Kurukshetra, he was fully prepared to go up and slaughter Jayadrath for Arjuna, which would break his promise not to take up arms in the war, so that Arjuna can fulfill his vow (made the day before) to kill Jayadrath and avoid suicide. Yes, Krishna is always ready to say, "Fuck my promises. I'll use whatever means necessary."

This attitude is dissonant with that of every other character in the story. The others may not be as absolute or terrible as Bhishma, but they take spoke words about the future very, very seriously. Curses become true and promises are kept. Everyone is afraid of violating or abandoning words said in the past. When Yudhishtir takes his brothers and their wife Draupadi into thirteen years of exile after he lost in the dice game, Krishna tries to convince him to take the war to Duryodhan right away. Who cares about the agreement of thirteen years? Yudhishtir, being the embodiment of dharma and the ultimate good student, declines. Furthermore, throughout the war, Krishna picks up no weapon and kills no one with his own hands, but he is constantly goading his cousins to break the rules of engagement and vanquish the enemies with tricks and illusions. If he were not the avatar of the god of the universe and time, Krishna would be the rebel and revolutionary. He would be Malcolm X.

There is evidence littered throughout the story that Krishna's effect, specifically in Mahabharata, is primarily to break the rules and upend social order. All that has been held as sacred and permanent laws can be toppled with a wink and a mocking grin.

Typical of Indian mythology, the disruptive Krishna and associated doctrine coexist in Mahabharata with the theology they oppose without one side's triumph and the other side's elimination. Bhishma is still the greatest kshatriya ever lived and his life-long abstinence does make him invincible. The ultimate rule-follower Yudhishtir is still the representation of pure dharma. And we still get both idealism and realism in the Mahabharata. 

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