I came across a denigrating portrait of Mahābhārata, written by Audrey Truschke, an associate professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University, Newark. Reading through, I noticed three things—(a) ignorance of Mahābhārata in particular and Vedic philosophy in general, (b) laziness to resolve the obvious contradictions in the article’s narratives, and (c) arrogance to judge others with a lens of revulsion while seated on a moral high-ground. I decided to write a detailed rebuttal, not because it would end or reduce such articles, but to illustrate: (a) the civilizational crusades that the Western academia wages on other societies, and (b) how badly equipped they are to wage a crusade that they employ poorly qualified people, whose claims can be so easily discredited.
Abrahamic religions have always waged wars on other societies because they measure their worth in square kilometers. This is why religion has been enmeshed with politics in Abrahamic religions. But religion and politics have always been separated in the Vedic religion because the Vedic religion doesn’t measure itself in square kilometers. It measures itself by longevity. We change the unit of measurement from space to time. One perfect person who can transmit the truth to another person in a life, suffices to preserve the truth for the future. Thereafter, when the time is ripe, a single plant with the help of a little rain from above has the power to transform a desert into an oasis.
Therefore, we call the Vedic religion sanātana-dharma, or eternal religion, rather than viśva-dharma, or global religion. Its geographical influence expands or contracts over time, but it never dies. Politics is about square kilometers, while Vedic religion is about longevity. That which has stood the test of time can also expand globally. That which fragments and weakens by expansion is welcome to expand and accelerate its demise. Hence, we don’t unnecessarily attack other religions. When so many civilizations have come and gone, while the Vedic civilization still stands, we are not perturbed by others.
However, we are not complacent. We defend the Vedic religion when it comes under attack. Warfare for us is the department of defense and not a department of attack. Defending is a duty, regardless of the gains or losses. Hence, this article is written in the spirit of defense. Defense needs some counterattacks. But they are limited to the necessities of defense, not extended limitlessly. Also, an attack is always a counterattack. It is not initiated preemptively.
We are not ignorant of political realities. But we are more aware of the biggest challenge to religion posed by the rise of modern science. The religion that will matter in the coming times will be that which can rise to the problems raised by modern science. The Western students of religions are not philosophically or scientifically equipped to deal with any of the central problems raised by modern science. They are students of history and literature, not thinkers, scientists, innovators, or philosophers. They don’t exist to shape the future of the world. They only exist to analyze, censure, and scorn the past.
The least they could do is to bring up questions pertaining to the nature of matter, mind, cosmos, origins, and so on, found in various religions. But they are incapable even of that. In fact, as I came to see through this article, they are incapable of accurately representing the events in the text they read. They pick something and leave out something else; they say one thing in one paragraph and a contradictory thing in the next. I have seen others claim malicious intent in such articles. But I prefer Hanlon’s Razor—”never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity”. These attempts to dry an ocean by puffing over it are so hilariously useless that they can only be called stupidity.
In what follows, the author’s text is highlighted, followed by my comments.
The Mahabharata is a tale for our times.
The Mahābhārata is an Itihāsa. Itihāsa comprises the roots “iti” which means “in this way” and “hāsa” which means “laugh”. So, Itihāsa can be translated as “in this way laugh”. It is loosely translated as “history”. But one could apply the same translation to Purāṇa, which means “abstracted from what is already complete”. The term pūrṇa has two meanings: (a) that which is in the past, and (b) that which is complete. Owing to these two meanings, everything in history is not included in Purāṇa; only the perfect or complete events are. Purāṇa contains the perfect events from history, while Itihāsa contains chronological history that includes both perfect and imperfect events. Purāṇa describes that which can be emulated, but Itihāsa describes events all of which may not be emulated. In Itihāsa we laugh at history but in Purāṇa we do not.
The material world is a mockery of the soul at the hands of Nature. Mockery is not evil; it is enlightening because it illuminates the foolishness, and why it is foolish, to take the soul beyond this world. Nature and Time have a sense of humor. Itihāsa is written in the humorous mood of Nature and Time. It is often a comedy of errors. But not everything in Itihāsa is comical. There are foolish comic characters, who play a central role in the story, and there are serious and sincere characters who illuminate that foolishness. Of course, the comic characters refuse to accept that illumination, and hence they are destroyed.
In the Mahābhārata, the Kauravas are the comic characters while Pāndavas are the sincere ones. The sincere characters initially suffer at the hands of Kauravas and then annihilate them. Thus, we learn two key lessons: (a) foolishness initially mocks the truth, and (b) the truth ultimately defeats the foolishness.
I’m reminded of the movie Shawshank Redemption. In it, an innocent man is imprisoned for little fault of his—his wife is having an affair, and he sits in a car with a gun, drinking from a bottle of tipsy outside his home, while his wife is romping with her suitor. A thug comes and kills both the wife and the suitor, the police find the innocent man with a bottle and a gun, and they imprison him for life as they cannot find the actual killer. The innocent man undergoes many problems during incarceration but eventually escapes the prison to end up on the Pacific coast where he meets his long-time prison mate. Meanwhile, those who were troubling him during his incarceration are beaten, commit suicide, or are imprisoned. Shawshank Redemption is a story about false incarceration, escape from prison, and going to the place you really want to be. There are minor issues with the innocent man too—he is caught drinking in a car with a gun. But he is not the perpetrator of the crime that he is accused of.
Itihāsa runs in a similar mood. There are innocent people, who make minor mistakes and are incarcerated by bad people, while the real culprits are free. Then the innocent people escape the prison while those who had put them in the prison are killed, defeated, or put in the same prison. There are silly mistakes followed by considerable suffering, but there is escape, followed by ironic justice for the real criminals. Itihāsa was written in the Vedic tradition for common people—non-philosophers and non-yogis—but it was not entirely devoid of philosophy. Some of its characters were deeply flawed, and others were mostly innocent. It tells a story of the troubles of the innocent followed by the defeat of the flawed. This is a story that most people—who might not be completely flawless—could relate to. Itihāsa has some gray areas in contrast to Purāṇa which is either perfect or makes clear black-and-white distinctions.
The moon has some dark spots. But compared to the stars, it is far brighter. There is no harm in saying that the moon has some dark spots but is overall very bright, and brighter than the stars. That doesn’t mean that the moon is as bright as the sun. There is such a thing as nuance. Similarly, for a society seeking the light of hope and guidance, Itihāsa is like a moon, while Purāṇa is like the sun. Nobody equates the moon to the sun. And nobody ridicules the moon for its dark spots. If we start spitting at the moon, the natural question is: Can you show us a brighter star? If you cannot, then your spitting is useless.
The Vedic tradition is very egalitarian—it tries to reach everyone in the way that they can be reached and tries to lift them in different ways. Accordingly, all Vedic texts are not equal. There are pure philosophy texts called Darśana—meant for the most intellectual classes. There are somewhat lower texts called Upaniśad that discuss philosophy in a long form—meant for slightly lesser intellectual classes. Then there are Purāṇa, which discuss philosophy with examples, for an even lesser intellectual level. There are Saṃhitā and Tantra, which discuss less philosophy, more practice, and examples—for even lesser intellectual class. Finally, there are texts that tell relatable stories—as in the case of Itihāsa—meant for the least intellectual classes. The majority of the population is the least intellectual. Hence, Itihāsa is the most popular, Tantra, Purāṇa, Saṃhitā, and Upaniśad are less so, and Darśana is the least so.
We can make movies out of Itihāsa but not out of Darśana. Popularity is not a measure of the quality of content or the ultimate truth. Popularity is the inverse of the quality of content and the ultimate truth. However, since everyone cannot appreciate the highest-quality content, hence, the Vedic system thinks in terms of a ladder in which the lower rung takes us to the next higher rung, which takes us to an even higher rung until we reach the perfect truth at the top.
Western scholars assume that the popularity of a text is a measure of its importance. The book that is read by more people is, according to them, a more important book. They will, therefore, designate the book at the bottom of the ladder to be the most important. Their method of dating books relies on finding references to a book in other books. This is problematic for two reasons. One, books across the rungs of the ladder do not reference each other, just like books of college students don’t reference books of high-school students and vice versa. Two, the books at the higher rungs get more condensed, and commentaries on these texts are written rarely—only if something new must be said—which means that you will find few references for the most important books. This is the inversion of the Western method for deciding the importance of a text.
This ladder has been a source of insurmountable difficulty for Western universalism—one book, one prophet, one path, and one God. Most Western academics think that variety means polytheism, contradictory claims, and divisive sects. They imagine that because we place things along the higher and lower rungs of a ladder, therefore, we are discriminatory. They don’t know how everything in the Vedic tradition is a ladder—beginning from the study of matter in Sāñkhya which moves upward from the body to the senses, to the mind, intellect, ego, and moral sense, to the unconscious realm of chitta, guna, karma, to the soul, and finally to God. The universe is also structured hierarchically from lower to higher beings. And the entire material realm is at the bottom of a ladder that leads to higher transcendental realms.
Owing to this difficulty, the West tries to flatten the ladder to treat everything as equally important. It criticizes the ladder as polytheism, contradictory claims, divisive sects, and discrimination. They never inquire about the ladder—what is lower and what is higher? Why does something exist along with other different things? What is the purpose behind the existence of many things? They just assume that their flattened model of equality, uniformity, and monochromatism is how everything must be explored. This Western idea is the source of the subsequent troubles we often encounter in Western academics.
The fact is this—if we don’t understand the lower and higher positioning of things on a ladder, then we understand nothing. If we don’t know what is meant for whom and why we understand nothing. If we change the order of things on the ladder, giving more importance to what is less important, then we will get contradictions, and we still understand nothing. Finally, if we try to flatten this ladder, owing to monochromatic universalism, then we are unqualified to read. Everyone is not qualified to read Vedic texts, just like everyone is not qualified to read advanced medical journals. Those who lack basic education also lack the qualification for advanced education.
The reality is that those who are unqualified to read and incapable of understanding anything constitute Western academia. Their lenses of vision are suited for grasping a simple system called Western monotheism. Neither their minds nor their lenses are developed for a sophisticated ladder. They should stick to the system of one book, one path, one prophet, and one God. A library of books is definitely too much for them. But they have anointed themselves as the judges and commentators on what they cannot comprehend.
The plot of the ancient Indian epic centers around corrupt politics, ill-behaved men and warfare.
The Kauravas are corrupt, but the Pāndavas are not. When Pāndavas lose a dice game, they leave the kingdom to Kauravas (for a stipulated period of 13 years) and go into exile, when they could have disregarded it as a game. When the Pāndavas return from their exile, the Kauravas refuse to return the kingdom of the Pāndavas per the stipulated condition of the dice game. A peace deal of giving five villages—in lieu of their kingdom—is attempted by Kṛṣṇa, but rejected by Kauravas. That then leads to the war of Mahābhārata.
In this dark tale, things get worse and worse, until an era of unprecedented depravity, the Kali Yuga, dawns. According to the Mahabharata, we’re still living in the horrific Kali era, which will unleash new horrors on us until the world ends.
Indeed, Kali Yuga is an age of horror. In the last 300 years of colonialism, many times more people on five continents—Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Australia—have been killed than in the Mahābhārata war. What is worse is that most of this killing involved civilians rather than soldiers. Mahābhārata has depravity. But not close to the depravity unleashed by “modern civilization”. This depravity in modern civilization is a symptom of Kali Yuga.
The world doesn’t end with Kali Yuga. After that, there is Satya Yuga. There is no parallel to the Abrahamic religious apocalyptic end of the world. Those who know Vedic cosmology, know that the universe exists for about 311 trillion years, and we are roughly at the halfway mark. We have about 155 trillion years still to go. Kali Yuga is 432,000 years long, of which about 5,000 are done.
The Mahabharata was first written down in Sanskrit, ancient India’s premier literary language, and ascribed to a poet named Vyasa about 2,000 years ago, give or take a few hundred years.
Before we talk about a premier language, we have to ponder a fundamental problem of epistemology in which a correspondence between the world, our mind, and language has to be established. Without that, we can either not know, or not express that knowledge in language. Modern science postulated that mathematics is the language into which the world can be mapped consistently and completely (totally ignoring the mind). The world was stripped of the meanings and qualities in the mind by mind-body dualism. We now know this idea of the world to be false due to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems.
We need a semantic language for a description of reality to be consistent and complete because the world also has meaning and qualities. That is possible only if reality and our minds are encoded in a semantic language. With such a language, I can utter speech and it would become instructions for reality. Likewise, reality can utter speech and it would become a description of reality. The Vedic system claims that Sanskrit is such a language and prescribes the process of chanting and hearing mantras to change reality and the mind.
Even if we don’t know what a mantra means, its chanting and hearing will change reality and the mind. We cannot say that about other languages. I cannot utter English words and expect them to change my life without knowing the English dictionary. But everyone can derive the benefit of a mantra without knowing what it means. Mantras are evidence of Sanskrit being a natural language. Speech is also causal activity, not just push-and-pull forces.
Therefore, calling Sanskrit the premier language of India is not good enough for the Vedic tradition. We have to solve the fundamental problem of epistemology, to get a language in which reality can be described consistently and completely. If we cannot solve that problem, then we can never progress to knowledge because the language in use is itself handicapped. Hence, when we talk about Sanskrit, we are talking about the solution to the fundamental problem of epistemology, overcoming the limits of mathematics, to obtain a language that is capable of describing the truth both completely and consistently.
The modern method of ascertaining the age of a text relies on the oldest known copy of the text. Texts were written on leaves. They had a finite age. When the leaf withered, the text was copied to another leaf. Since the leaves are withering, therefore, older copies will necessarily cease. But that also means that the age of the manuscript is not the age of the text. These two would be equal only if the books were written in some medium that was itself resistant to withering over time. Hence, when we assess the age of a manuscript, the correct claim would be—”this book was written no later than 2000 years ago”—because it would be honest, given what we know of the manuscripts.
But historical claims are not phrased like this because colonial academics wanted to limit the age of other civilizations to nothing prior to the Biblical origin of the world—about 6000 years ago—while older civilizations go much prior to that date. Colonial academics date manuscripts like they date fossils. The age of a fossil indicates the age of the animal whose skeleton is imprinted on it. However, the age of a manuscript is not the age of the text. The method of equating “no later than” date to actual dates is a colonial invention to preserve Biblical history as the world history by fiat, and quite deceptive.
The epic sought to catalogue and thereby criticise a new type of vicious politics enabled by the transition from a clan-based to a state-based society in northern India.
Clan, nation, and state are not Vedic concepts. The principles of managing a household are not different from that of managing a company, society, country, planet, or universe. The theory of management does not change based on the size of the thing under management. That theory is universal. With increasing size, a longer management hierarchy is created. That hierarchy is compressed in a person while managing a household. A society that considers the world its family, doesn’t distinguish between household and global management. They are based on the same theory. Hence, all these claims about the transition from clan-based to state-based society are mere concoctions to advance a false idea that a primitive society was progressing into a more advanced society over time.
We learn from Vedic texts that in far prior times, single rulers ruled over the entire planet. The Supreme Lord rules over the entire universe. Those who study Vedic Cosmology discuss how the universe is being managed as a single hierarchical organization, society, or family with many diverse members. As this knowledge declined, society got more fragmented rather than more united. The division of the world into separate nation-states—fighting with each other—is a mark of decline rather than progress. We don’t think modernity is progress.
The work concerns two sets of cousins – the Pandavas and the Kauravas – who each claim the throne of Hastināpura as their own.
The Pāndavas had built a much better city than Hastināpur called Indraprastha. They were living there quite happily. They did not care about Hastināpur. Indraprastha was so beautiful that it exceeded Hastināpur in all respects. The floor shimmered like water, and it was hard to tell the difference between floor and water. One time, the Kauravas were invited to Indraprastha, and while walking in the palace, Duryodhana lifted his dhoti thinking that he was about to walk through water when it was just a shimmering floor. Draupadi saw this and giggled at Duryodhana’s plight, and he felt humiliated. Draupadi had spurned Duryodhana’s marriage proposal earlier, so this was the second time that he had been mocked. Thereafter, he started scheming how to steal Indraprastha and humiliate Draupadi. Duryodhana’s humiliation by Draupadi was the origin of the Mahābhārata war, not the Pāndavas’ claim to Hastināpur throne.
In the first third of the epic, the splintered family dynasty tries to resolve their succession conflict in various ways, including gambling, trickery, murder and negotiation. But they fail.
The family was splintered, but there was no succession conflict. We have noted that above. Duryodhana arranged a game of dice to steal the kingdom of Indraprastha and humiliate Draupadi, in which he rigged the dice with the help of his uncle Shakuni—who hailed from present-day Afghanistan (the city called Gāndhāra, or Kandahar at present). Shakuni wanted to destroy the Kuru dynasty to take revenge for his sister— Gāndhārī—being married to the blind Dhritarāśtra. He knew that Kauravas would be annihilated if they fought against the Pāndavas. But annihilating the Kauravas was his sole aim.
Shakuni and Duryodhana were involved in trickery and murder. The game of dice that Yudhiśthira lost was because the dice were rigged. The loss entailed an exile of 13 years, after which Duryodhana was to return the Indraprastha kingdom back to Pāndavas, which he refused to do. The Pāndavas asked Kṛṣṇa to negotiate on their behalf, and He took a compromise proposal to Kauravas in which instead of returning Indraprastha, the Kauravas would give 5 villages to the Pāndavas. During the negotiation, Duryodhana tried to imprison Kṛṣṇa—against the courtesy of not shooting the messenger. That is when Kṛṣṇa said that a war was now inevitable. It became inevitable not because of gambling, trickery, murder, or negotiation, but because Duryodhana refused to give a mere 5 villages in lieu of Indraprastha. As he so eloquently put it, he was not going to give a piece of land “even of the size of the tip of a needle”.
So, war breaks out, and the middle part of the Mahabharata tells of a near-total world conflict in which all the rules of battle are broken as each new atrocity exceeds the last.
No rules were broken until Kauravas killed Abhimanyu—a 16-year-old boy—after he had put down his weapons and was trying to fix his chariot. One of the rules of war was to not attack a person who had put down his weapons because such attacks were marks of cowardice, not bravery. But Abhimanyu was murdered by 16 Mahārathīs (or great generals) collectively. A 16-year-old boy was killed by 16 great generals cowardly after the boy had put down his weapons.
This is the beginning of rule-breaking. In Vedic culture, the law of nature is tit-for-tat. God’s law is also tit-for-tat. Those who kill deceptively will be killed deceptively. Those who lie will be lied to. This is how a person is given the taste of his or her own medicine to rectify them. This principle is followed universally in punishing criminals, but the Vedic system elevates it to natural law. You can escape the long arm of the law, but you cannot escape the laws of nature. You will be caught and punished. This law is restricted to the precise individuals involved in cheating or killing, not extended to everyone.
The last rule of battle—not to fight before the morning conch and after the evening conch—was also broken by Aśvatthāmā, when he killed sleeping children. He was brought before Draupadi—the mother of the slain children, to decide his fate. She ruled that a Brāhmana should never be killed. Aśvatthāmā was therefore released after cutting off his Shikha—the tuft of hair on his head.
Each atrocity doesn’t exceed the last. They begin as the Kauravas get desperate and kill Abhimanyu. And they end with Aśvatthāmā being released. The Mahābhārata war lasts 18 days. Abhimanyu was killed on the 13th day. In the remaining 5 days, those who started the atrocity are wiped out atrociously.
Among a battlefield of corpses, the Pandavas are the last ones left standing. In the final third of the epic, the Pandavas rule in a post-apocalyptic world until, years later, they too die.
Kṛṣṇa declares that outcome at the beginning before the war in BG 11.32—”Time I am the destroyer of the worlds, and I have come to destroy all these warriors. With the exception of you (the Pāndavas) everyone will be annihilated”. Then He says in 11.33: “I have already killed all these soldiers. You just become the instrument”. The precise term is nimitta-mātram. There is serious philosophy involved here. Time fixes what will happen, but not who will do it. Due to time fixing the events, the universe is deterministic in what will happen. And yet, there is a choice in terms of who will play which role. The term nimitta-mātram indicates acceptance of a role. We have to know the problem of choice vs. determinism, and its solution, to understand what is happening here.
When no civilians are killed, there is no apocalypse. When three out of four classes—Brāhmana, Vaiśya, and Sudra—are still intact, because no cities were sacked, no temples were burnt, no farmlands or farm animals were destroyed, no books or libraries were burnt, no women were raped or killed, and no children (barring the 5 slain children of Pāndavas) were slaughtered, there is no apocalypse. Apocalyptic thinking is alien to Vedic civilization. The universe lives for 311 trillion years, and we are near the halfway mark. We have 155 trillion years to spend before we can start thinking about the apocalypse.
From the moment that the Mahabharata was first written two millennia ago, people began to rework the epic to add new ideas that spoke to new circumstances. No two manuscripts are identical (there are thousands of handwritten Sanskrit copies), and the tale was recited as much or more often than it was read.
When I did a translation and commentary on Vedānta Sūtra, I examined many available copies of the Vedānta Sūtra, going back 1200 years, because I was studying the commentaries written by Āchāryas. In this 1200-year history of commentaries, I found three verses missing in different versions, out of 555 verses. Every version did not have every verse missing. Three is the sum total of all the discrepancies in about a dozen commentaries dating back 1200 years. That is about 0.05% of the entire material. I did not find a single instance in which a verse had been modified. It was very easy to merge all these texts because I just had to add the missing verse without modifying anything.
These deviations are not the result of “rework”. It is because texts were written on leaves, and leaves deteriorate. With a deviation of 0.05% extended to Mahābhārata, we expect to find variations of about 50 verses out of 100,000 verses. Is that huge? Depends on whether you are counting an absolute number of verses or contrasting it to the total number of verses found in the text.
There is a tradition of hand-written copies, generated from other hand-written copies, over at least 2000 years—as the author asserts—across a country of over 4 million square kilometers which had to distribute thousands of copies of the book because its citizens love to read their tradition’s books. We pay a small price of errors creeping into the text due to the proliferation of copies over a large land. Hence, when we talk about the 50-verse discrepancy, we should contextualize it against—(a) a period of 2000 years, (b) a geography of 4 million square kilometers, and (c) for a text of 100,000 verses written on leaves. Not to speak of invaders burning libraries and destroying temples—the places where the most authentic version of the book would be preserved. These versions were gathered, sorted, analyzed, prioritized, and combined, quickly after India’s independence in 1947, within 20 years. This is a reconciliation of about 20 verses per day after examining them across at least a hundred manuscripts. Can we get that pace of reconciliation with highly diversified manuscripts?
It seems that tirades about “rework” and “no two manuscripts are identical” are designed for effect—to normalize the problem of endless text modifications in the West. By attributing such modification to the Vedic tradition, one could falsely claim “they are just the same”. But they are not the same. To understand why we have to go deeper into the problem of Western text modification.
The scholarly analysis estimates that over 80% of the Bible—as we know it today—has been doctored. That number excludes at least 50 known Gospels that were buried, burnt, and banned by the Church. That number further excludes Nag Hammadi texts found buried in caves in 1947, which are nowhere near the Bible as we know it today. Any honest search for what Christianity was in its earliest days, will conclude that less than 1% of the Bible can be considered original Christianity—after centuries of analytical effort by hundreds of people. The author is implying that 1% trustworthiness of the Bible is similar to 0.05% doubtfulness of Vedic texts when there is a factor of 200,000 between them.
It is true that the Mahābhārata was embellished in dramatized scripts in many parts of India and South-East Asian countries such as Indonesia and the island of Bali. But such embellishment is part of every movie ever made—even when they are trying to depict history as accurately as possible. Their goal is not to mislead. It is rather to convey through words and exaggerated actions what the text says exists in the mind. Trying to imply that because it was being dramatized hence people were “reworking” the text, or that because there are “thousands of handwritten copies” they are necessarily deviant is dishonest.
I read the Mahābhārata when I was 10. I was the designated reader in my family, and my parents and grandparents were the audiences. We used to sit together in a room every evening, I would read, and everyone would listen. Thus, I was the reader, and there were many listeners. That doesn’t imply that the listeners are illiterate or that the reader modifies the text while reciting it—the possible implications of saying that the text is recited more than read.
Surveys have shown that 1/3rd of Christians in America have never read the Bible. We are not living in a time when everyone cannot have a copy of a book or a book has to be copied by hand before another person can have it. We are talking about a time when the Bible is printed and freely distributed by Christian missionary organizations. And yet, 1/3rd of Christians in America—by far the most zealous Christian country today—have not read the book.
Have they heard the Bible in a Church or at home? Sure. Does not reading the Bible make them non-Christians? Maybe, maybe not. Even the uneducated can approach God. Of course, those who are educated and can read but are not interested in reading are another matter. Setting those judgments aside, the fact is that people who can read the book, who have the book, haven’t read it. But they have heard it or of it. There you have it. A text is recited more than it is read. The entirety of the Vedic tradition is referred to as Śrutī—i.e., “that which was heard”. We should not contextualize a universal fact and make it seem like a unique problem in one case if we know it to be a universally true fact.
Some of the most beloved parts of the Mahabharata today – such as that the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha wrote the epic with his broken tusk as he heard Vyasa’s narration – were added centuries after the story was first compiled.
When we do a criminal investigation (and I will treat this assertion as a crime, because we think that modifying texts is a crime), we need three things—means, motive, and opportunity. We can establish the means—everyone had a pen, so they were rewriting. We can establish the opportunity—everyone had a copy of the book, so they were rewriting. But we have to also establish the motive. What is the motive behind adding a scribe to a narrator, when, as far as anyone can tell, it leads to no theological, philosophical, or ideological benefits?
Herodotus, who wrote the first detailed accounts of the Greco-Persian wars during Greek times, was, given the title of “The Father of History” by the Roman orator Cicero and the title of “The Father of Lies” by his contemporary military commander Thucydides, because he fabricated many feel-good folk tales and passed them on as historical facts to make Greeks feel good about themselves. We have talked about the less than 1% reliability of Christian texts. Changes were motivated either by Roman imperial designs or by the need of the Church to obtain greater political power. But there is more. Wasn’t Jesus crucified for saying something different than what the Jewish scriptures were saying? How many “heretics” were impaled by the Roman Catholic Church? Socrates had to drink poison because he was “corrupting the youth”. Galileo was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Church for saying that the earth orbits the sun. When Descartes heard about Galileo’s fate, he ran—not walked—to the printer to withdraw his manuscript of “Meditations” and rewrote it with a dedication to “The Most Wise and Illustrious Doctors of the Sacred Faculty of Theology in Paris”. He clearly did not want to spend the rest of his life in jail like Galileo. The history of Western religious and intellectual corruption is long and is now well-known. In every case, we can establish the means, motive, and opportunity.
But we cannot find the motive for adding Ganeśa as a scribe. We cannot assume someone to be guilty without proof. On the other hand, we could investigate the motive for the accusation without proof. We need the proof for the accusation.
But there is another way to think about this problem. A society that believes in reincarnation doesn’t modify its books to craft a convenient truth because it knows that what seems convenient to me right now could be very inconvenient in the next life. A king can become a subject, a parent a child, a teacher a student. What seems convenient for one time, place, situation, and person isn’t convenient for another time, place, situation, and person. Those who accept that they will come back at another time, place, situation, and body do not craft convenient truths. They accept the inconvenience, try to find the truth, and then align with it until it becomes convenient to them. Convenient truth crafting exists only in societies that do not believe in reincarnation.
The Mahabharata is long. It is roughly seven times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined, and 15 times the length of the Christian Bible. The plot covers multiple generations, and the text sometimes follows side stories for the length of a modern novel. But for all its narrative breadth and manifold asides, the Mahabharata can be accurately characterised as a set of narratives about vice.
Vice in Mahābhārata is most prominent in the Kauravas and their allies. It is not universally spread to everyone in the narrative. Kauravas play a central antagonistic role in the narrative, and they are all killed for that, along with those who have aligned with them. Their vicious actions are confined to lying and cheating. They try to murder and rape, but those attempts fail in different ways in the Mahābhārata. It is due to these Kaurava vices we call Mahābhārata Itihāsa—”in this way laugh”. What are we laughing at? At the Kauravas’ vices.
It is also a vice to extend a fact about some people to the entire society including innocent people—oversimplifying, overgeneralizing, overextending, and falsely maligning everyone. Treat others just as you would like to be treated. Or, we can treat you just as you treat us. Both options are open to you. We are not opposed to sincere and honest criticism. We are opposed to falsehoods.
Inequality and human suffering are facts of life in the Mahabharata. The work offers valuable perspectives and vantage points for reflecting on how various injustices play out in today’s world too.
There is no injustice. I don’t just mean in the Mahābhārata. I mean in the cosmic sense, and in every individual person’s sense. Everyone has to face the results of their past good and bad deeds. Everyone is causally closed—everything happening to us is precisely and entirely the result of our past actions. What we do right now will also determine our future. What goes around comes around. That is not injustice. That is the very definition of justice. There is no evil. Those who see evil are ignorant. They don’t know about causal closure.
Nature has a way of improving everyone by subjecting them to their ideology. Do you think the world works randomly? Okay, nature will put you in a world devoid of order. Do you think nature is deterministic? Okay, nature will put you in a place where you have no freedom. This goes on endlessly until you come to the point where you can treat others just as you want to be treated. There is no other meaning to justice. There is no other way of reformation.
The Mahabharata claims to show dharma or righteous conduct – a guiding ideal of human life in Hindu thought – within the morass of the characters’ immoral behaviours. But the line between virtue and vice, dharma and adharma, is often muddled. The bad guys sometimes act more ethically than the good guys, who are themselves deeply flawed. In the epic’s polychromatic morality, the constraints of society and politics shackle all.
The line between dharma and adharma is never muddled. But dharma is not universal. Mīmāṃsā is the text on dharma. It opens by saying “now let’s inquire into dharma”. And then it says “dharma is not rules and regulations”. In one fell swoop, it rejects everything that the West considers “ethics”. We are not going to get very far by talking about “bad guys sometimes act more ethically” because the Vedic system rejects ethics at the outset. Ethics is a Judeo-Christian construct. According to ethics, “thou shalt not kill” applies only to the members of a chosen sect. Killing those outside that sect is perfectly ethical.
Ethics is legality. You can create any legality. Legality is not morality, and ethics is not morality. Anyone who doesn’t get the distinction between ethics and morality is on very shaky grounds. I say this because if words like dharma, morality, and ethics are used interchangeably, it means that the author doesn’t understand what each of these words means. These words are not synonymous. Ethics is laws for a sect. Morality is universal principles such as truthfulness and kindness. And dharma is the contextual duty of a person.
Sometimes, we lie to show kindness. Sometimes, we speak the truth even if it is unkind. We forgive a first-time offender to show kindness. We exert the maximum penalty on the repeat offender to assert the truth. If forgiving a criminal will normalize a crime in society, then forgiving is a problem. If punishing a petty offender will make people too scared to do their duty out of fear of penalty, then punishment is a problem. Universalizing punishment or forgiveness in every case is legality. Understanding that both punishment and forgiveness are desirable in different situations is morality. Accepting one and rejecting the other context-sensitively to maximize goodness is dharma.
In the entire history of Western thinking, there has never been a self-consistent theory of morality. There has just been a theory of ethics. That means laws, exceptions to laws, exceptions to those exceptions to plug the loopholes created by exceptions, and so on. This system of laws is neither morality nor dharma. It is just ethics. Western theories of morality have been broadly divided into two classes. There are deontologists who claim that natural law is based on some ontology but the moral law is not. And yet, moral law is a “Categorical Imperative” (translation: Do only that which, if done by everyone, at all places, times, and situations would not be problematic or dislikable to you). In short, either everyone is a policeman or nobody is a policeman. There are teleologists who claim that natural law is based on past-to-present causality but teleology is based on future-to-present causality (translation: The ends justify the means). In short, if killing others benefits me, then it must be a moral activity.
In the entire history of Western thinking, there has never been a theory of morality. There just have been ethical theories. They might sometimes talk about morals, but without a conclusion, they can never be implemented.
In Vedic texts, we accept four universal principles of morality—truthfulness, kindness, austerity, and cleanliness. However, all four principles are almost never fulfilled simultaneously. Therefore, we pick and prioritize these four principles in order—first, second, third, and fourth. That order is not universal. It depends on the context and the ability of a person, with the singular goal to maximize perfection. We will forgive crimes if forgiving them makes the criminal repent and not repeat the crime. We will punish the crime harshly if forgiving will normalize the crime and encourage its repetition.
This is a simple summary, but this is not everything. There is a very long discussion required on what perfection is. Our definition is—God. God is perfection. God is also the whole truth. So, to understand perfection, we have to know the whole truth. Since God is ontologically real, hence deontological ethics must be rejected. Since individual teleology—that contradicts the outcome for the whole—is false therefore teleological ethics must be rejected. After rejecting these two strains of thought in the West, we talk about dharma—that which maximizes goodness based on contextual considerations.
As an aside, Jesus was teaching morality. He was talking about the principles of brotherhood, kindness, sacrifice, compassion, truthfulness, simplicity, charity, and love of God for Jews because Jews were doing ethics and legality, which translates to universal laws, which translates to immorality and adharma. But what did people do after that? They crucified Jesus and continued with ethics and legality. They also modified the teachings many times to a point where our best estimate of reliability about what Jesus truly said is roughly 1%.
Before we embark on judging Mahābhārata morally, we must know that (a) there has never been a theory of morality in the West, (b) the person who came to teach morality was crucified, (c) there is only legality of covenants, contracts, and laws, (d) which are all contrary to morality and dharma. So, we need to see an alternative consistent and complete moral philosophy—that delves into the contextual nuances as we have discussed above—before we can accept anyone’s moral claims. A judgment is always theory-laden. So, get us the theory before you pronounce a judgment. That way, we can also assess the said theory, and check if the theory is true before we accept its pronouncements.
Bhishma, a common ancestor and grandfather-like figure to both sets of cousins, is a quintessential Mahabharata figure. Loyal to his family to a fault, he takes a vow of celibacy so that his father can marry a younger woman who wanted her children to inherit the throne. Bhishma’s motivation, namely love of his father, was good, but the result of denying himself children was to divert the line of succession to his younger brothers and, ultimately, their warring children.
Right after we judge Mahābhārata’s morality as adharma we cannot fall into the cesspit of not knowing right from wrong. Pāndavas and Kauravas are not just warring children. They are children warring for right and wrong. Either we make that distinction and not merely call them warring children. Or, we need to withdraw our judgment on Mahābhārata morality to say that we have now lost the perspective on right and wrong. We cannot have it both ways—and we cannot have it one way only when it seems convenient to us.
Appropriately, Bhishma’s name, adopted when he took his vow of celibacy, means ‘the terrible’ (before the vow, he was known as Devavrata, ‘devoted to the gods’). Bhishma remains devoted to his family even when they support the Kauravas, the bad guys, in the great war.
Bhīśma got his name from his father because he took terrible vows—(a) he will forever remain celibate, (b) he will never put a claim to his father’s throne, (c) he will not set up another kingdom and throne that might compete with his father’s throne, and (d) he will not stop serving the throne established by his father. Thus, he relinquished his right to the throne and became a servant of the throne. Shantanu—his father—called this bhīṣma pratijñā, which means “fearsome vows”. The vows are fearsome, but the person is not fearsome. However, the person who can take such fearsome vows is also not to be trifled with. If he can renounce sex and kingdom, and stand like a subject before a junior step-brother king, his willpower has literally no limit. Bhīśma was not devoted to his family. He was following the vow made to his father of lifelong service to the throne. The throne was Hastināpur. Dhritarāśtra and Kauravas were on the throne. He was their servant. He knows what is right and wrong. But he was bound by the promise that he had made to his father.
We have to get into the mindset of a person who can renounce sex and kingdom before we talk about his family weakness. We have to know how much willpower he has before we try to determine when that willpower might be weakened or compromised. Bhīśma lay on the battlefield for 51 days—his body pierced with arrows—waiting for the Sun to go into Uttarāyaṇa. He had that much willpower to endure pain. He had the boon to die only when he wanted. But he had the willpower to endure pain to die only when he wanted.
Bhīśma had no family in the conventional sense that we talk of “family”. The kings who were supposed to rule on the throne were his stepbrothers. They died. Then among their children, the rightful ruler (Pāndu) died and the blind man (Dhritarāśtra) was ruling, along with his ignorant and foolish sons, who—he knew well—would also die at the hands of Pāndavas. Both Pāndavas and Kauravas are step-grandchildren for him. How much he is devoted to that “family” is guesswork. What we know is that he is farther removed from both Pāndavas and Kauravas than they are removed from each other. And yet, he serves the throne, as best as he can, due to the promise to his father.
Sometimes even the gods act objectionably in the Mahabharata. Krishna, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, endorses dishonesty on more than one occasion. Even when Krishna advocates what the epic dubs dharma, the results can be hard to stomach. For example, when Arjuna, the third Pandava brother and their best warrior, hesitates to fight against his family and kill so many people, Krishna gives an eloquent speech that convinces him to plunge into battle.
Kṛṣṇa is not an incarnation of Viṣṇu. The Bhagavata Purana describes 24 forms of Viṣṇu and then notes that all these forms are parts and aspects of Kṛṣṇa, while Kṛṣṇa is the complete form of Godhead. God is not one thing as in Abrahamic religions. He is many things. But a subset of the things that He is, is visible to one person. That is not a limitation of God. It is perception based on our vision. Those at home see a different side or face of a person than others see at work. These are the faces of the same person, not different persons.
Kṛṣṇa is the definition of perfection. He always acts in a way that will maximize perfection. Honesty is not always the best policy. Lying and cheating to prevent a bigger lie and deception is also dharma. Killing someone who is going to kill hundreds more is greater perfection if the person being killed is worse than those he is killing. Non-violence is sometimes dharma, but so is violence in the protection of those who strictly follow dharma. Kṛṣṇa states in BG 4.7: “Whenever there is a decline in dharma, and the advent of adharma, I appear. I protect those who follow dharma, and I destroy those who follow adharma”.
The measure of dharma is increasing perfection. It is not universalizing violence or non-violence. One needs to formulate a consistent and complete theory of morality before we can contrast their theory to what Kṛṣṇa does. I am confident that nobody can formulate a better theory of morality. But I am also eagerly waiting to be disproven. As I have noted, there has never been a consistent and complete moral philosophy in the West. I would happily debate with anyone who thinks otherwise. But get a moral philosophy first.
The one person—Jesus—who was trying to bring morality to the West was crucified and his teachings were rejected by those who doctored theological dogmas just to rationalize sin in their society: (a) blaming it on ancestry, (b) forgiving it through confessions, and (c) and ultimately transferring the results of sin from the sinful to the sinless. That is how much the West values morality. They have killed the most moral person in their history and then transferred their sins onto him forevermore. That is the antithesis of morality.
This is not mere comparison between two religions. The fact is that the author comes from the Western tradition, and uses words like morality and ethics interchangeably. Why should we take a person seriously when they don’t even understand their history and its problems? Why should we accept their lenses to judge the Vedic system, when we know those lenses to be utterly flawed?
Krishna’s discourse to Arjuna, known as the Bhagavadgita (‘Song of the Lord’), or Gita for short, is often read as a standalone work today, and revered by many across the world for its insights on morality and even nonviolence. In the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi understood the Gita to support nonviolent resistance to colonial oppression. In the Mahabharata’s plot, however, the Bhagavadgita rationalises mass slaughter.
This claim is self-refuting—(a) Mahatma Gandhi understood the Gita to support non-violence, and (b) Bhagavad-Gita rationalizes mass slaughter. Clearly, Mahatma Gandhi misunderstood Bhagavad-Gita. What more can we say?
Bhagavad-Gita 9.13 provides a precise definition of the word “mahātma”: “O son of Pṛthā, the mahātma is devoted to the divine nature. Knowing Me to be the inexhaustible origin of all living entities, he worships Me with an unwavering mind.” The mahātma is devoted to Kṛṣṇa, but not devoted to humanity. His love for humanity is seen in trying to bring others to Kṛṣṇa, but love is not the acceptance, endorsement, appeasement, or commendation of the sinful. This is why we distinguish between love and devotion. You can love a thief, but you cannot be devoted to a thief. Your love for the thief is shown in your effort to reform him and stop him from self-destruction. But that love has a limit, which is reached when someone refuses to be reformed and is hell-bent on self-destruction. Devotion has no such limit. This is why love is temporary and devotion is eternal. Mahatma Gandhi was not a mahātma, as defined by Bhagavad-Gita, very precisely and accurately. He was using Bhagavad-Gita for his own agendas, like many others. He was propounding a philosophy of non-violence, in clear contradiction to when violence was absolutely necessary.
Mahatma Gandhi’s fervor for non-violence was not confined to India. He believed that Jews should not resist Hitler from killing them. Instead, they should submit themselves to Nazi mass slaughter because that was a less violent solution—it would only kill the Jews and not kill both Jews and Germans. This is Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. So, before we accept Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, we would like to see how much of the West would agree with his claims.
‘Mahabharata’ translates as ‘great story of the Bharatas’, the Bharatas being the family lineage at the centre of the tale. However, in many modern Indian settings, ‘Mahabharata’ means a great battle. War is the narrative crux of the epic. The war that settles the succession dispute between the Pandavas and the Kauravas draws much of the world into its destructive whirlwind. Along with peoples from across the Indian subcontinent, Greeks, Persians and the Chinese also send troops to stand and fall in battle.
Diacritics are very important. There was a King Bharata, and there is a land called Bhārata. The book is called Mahābhārata and not Mahabharata. Hence, Mahābhārata is a narration about the greater land including and surrounding Bhārata, not just about the descendants or family of King Bharata. The inclusion of warriors from other parts of the world tells us what “greater” Bhārata means.
To understand Mahābhārata, we can take the example of the US, and how it has created an alliance of many nation-states—Canada, Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and so on—to create a specific kind of “global order”. The US has military bases in these nations, which means that they are occupied territories, rather than sovereign nations. Anyone who knows geopolitics knows that the US dictates policy decisions all over the West. It tries to exert political influence over the rest of the world through global institutions set up to exert its hegemony. If we were to draw a parallel with current realities, the West would be collectively called mahā-America—the greater United States that includes the US and its satellites and allies. There is one nation-state at the center and there are many satellite nation-states surrounding it. The US leads its satellite nation-states. Mahābhārata, as greater Bhārata, in a similar vein, indicates that Bhārata was playing the role that the US is playing in the world presently.
This is also evidenced by the fact—as is correctly pointed out—that Greeks, Persians, and Chinese send their troops to fight in the Mahābhārata war. They have chosen sides in terms of which leader they wish to align with going forward, given that they will remain satellite states of Bhārata in either scenario. The thing missing from this confusing narrative is the discussion of critical questions: Why would people in other lands send their armies to fight a battle between cousins? What do they care if one or the other party wins? Can’t we just treat their “succession dispute” as something totally internal to them?
We cannot reconcile the characterization of the Mahābhārata as a “succession dispute” with the fact that warriors of other lands are involved in it. Reconciliation requires us to understand the meaning of Mahābhārata as “greater Bhārata”. It is the hub-and-spoke model of geopolitics, in which Bhārata was the hub and other nations were spokes. They come to fight because they accept Bhārata as the hub, and understand that taking a side in that war will have a key impact on the future of their nation-state’s policies and politics.
The Pandavas win, but at a magnificent cost of human life. The epic compels readers to imagine that human cost by describing the battle in excruciating, bloody detail over tens of thousands of verses. The Pandavas kill multiple members of their own family along the way, including elders who ought to be revered. Their victory is further soured by a night raid in which, on the last night of the war, the few remaining Kauravas creep into the slumbering Pandava camp and kill nearly everyone, including all the victors’ sons.
Such is the mockery of time. It aggregates people, makes them fight, and annihilates them. Did the same thing not happen twice in two world wars in the last century? I would imagine that these world wars were much worse because they were killing civilians, rather than just warriors. They were bombing cities rather than restricting the war to a battlefield. European royal families have been tightly knit through marriages and alliances. In some way or another, they were all close or distant relatives. And yet they slaughtered each other. Let’s hope that doesn’t repeat, because we seem to be on the precipice of another world war right now. For some reason, this war is also centered in Europe.
After the slaughter, when blood has soaked the earth and most of the characters lie dead, Yudhishthira, the eldest of the five Pāndavas, decides that he no longer wants the throne of Hastināpura. What is the point of ruling when you got there only through deceit, sin and death? Yudhishthira says: Since we slaughtered our own, what good can possibly come from ruling? Damn the ways of kings! Damn might makes right! Damn the turmoil that brought us to this disaster! Yudhishthira’s fellow victors ultimately convince him to fulfil the duty to rule, regardless of his personal inclination to retire to the forest. In an attempt to address his numerous sharp objections, Bhishma – who lies dying on a bed of arrows – gives a prolix discourse on dharma in various circumstances, including in disasters. Still, for some readers, lingering doubt cannot but remain that Yudhishthira might be right to want to shun a bitter political victory.
Doubt is a very good thing. It prompts us to ask questions. It encourages debate and discussion. It fosters critical inquiry. And when that inquiry is complete, the doubts are destroyed, and a person acts with conviction. Yudhiśthira took the role of the king because he was convinced. The lingering doubts in the minds of readers exist if and when they haven’t followed the arguments of the critical inquiry. They might do well to go back to that critical inquiry and understand all that was discussed, and why the conclusion was what it was.
This critical inquiry refutes all that has previously been implied by calling the war a “succession dispute”. The victors are not happy with their victory. They are sad that so many people have been killed. Yudhiśthira is not ready to ascend to the throne; he considers it soiled with the blood of others. Which civilization ponders duty after having won such a massive war? Who is not eager to ascend to the throne after 13 years of exile in forests and the tremendous hardships endured during that period? There are no dance parties, with liquor and sex. Instead, they are agonizing over the principles of dharma to determine what they should do next. What does that tell us about the Pāndavas?
When we see stark inner contradictions in our narratives and numerous things that we cannot reconcile with each other, we should think about revisiting that narrative and reevaluating our claims. Succumbing to the pressure to write and publish a disorderly mess of thought reviles our trustworthiness. In this age of hypocrisy and deceit, trustworthiness has been the biggest casualty.
The Mahabharata follows Yudhishthira’s reign for some years. It concludes with the demise of the five Pandava brothers and their wife Draupadi. In an unsettling twist, the six wind up visiting hell for a bit, en route to heaven. This detour calls the very core of dharma, righteousness, into question, again reminding us that the Mahabharata is an epic ordered by undercutting its own professed ethics.
A pack of cigarettes might say “Smoking Kills” but it is often not enough. One has to see a person dying of cancer to understand it better. Similarly, the visit to hell reminds a person of the dangers of crimes, viscerally. Those who have partaken in a violent war, although based on dharma, might get a tendency to think of future wars that might not be based on dharma. They might extend their victories in the past to rationalize themselves as dharmic people who are entitled to battle contrary to the principles of dharma. They are warned. Be careful, don’t project success in a war as a legitimization of future wars. Ponder the consequences for those who wage needless and endless wars not founded on dharmic principles. If pondering has been dulled over time, then we are showing you—viscerally—the consequences of adharmic wars.
The question is: How do you reconcile a visit to hell with the absence of punishment? In which scenarios do you consider the visceral experience of hell—without punishment—a justified act? If we don’t answer this question or are not inclined to seek the answers to it, then we are not suited to judge.
Is being let off with a warning an unimaginable scenario, or something that we have never encountered in our lives, that we have to undercut a person’s entire life just because he is being warned? These comments point to the absence of critical thinking and the lack of an attempt to put ourselves in the same shoes to understand others. They also point to the strong bias toward a predetermined conclusion and a desperation to find something that can be used to arrive at that predetermined conclusion, never mind how flimsy the claim is.
In its philosophy and ethics, the Mahabharata proffers riches to its readers, in particular about the nature of human suffering as an ever-present challenge to any moral order.
Suffering is the path of spiritual upliftment. Voluntary austerity—when that suffering is not coming on its own—has been prescribed as an ancient method to self-purify our immorality. Those engrossed in immoral sensuality consider suffering a problem. Those eager for spiritual realization welcome it. Suffering leads to introspection, which leads to self-analysis, which leads to self-correction. If there was no suffering, nobody would ever reform. This is not a challenge to a moral order. It is how moral order is created. How topsy-turvy would one be to see the cause of morality to be a challenge to morality?
But how does the work measure up as literature? The work is considered to be kavya (poetry). In classical Sanskrit literary theory, each kavya ought to centre around a rasa, an aesthetic emotion, such as erotic love (shringara) or heroism (vira). But what aesthetic emotion might a tale of politics and pain, such as the Mahabharata, spark in readers?
How about Itihāsa—”in this way you laugh”? Is mocking laughter not a valid emotion? How about detachment? Is detachment not an emotion? How about willpower to endure difficulties? Is the conviction and resilience to tide through life’s difficulties, not a valid emotion? How about the rasa of sobriety, introspection, and self-analysis? Doesn’t a battle and destruction put us in a somber mood, and compel us to comprehend the ultimate purpose of existence? How about the conviction that I have to transcend the material world to escape conflict? Why should erotic love be the primary focus of poetry? Transcendental poetry is primarily focused on trying to elevate people.
There is no classical Sanskrit literary theory that stipulates that each poetry must center on one rasa. That is a Western concoction to impute their idea of literature onto Vedic literature. Shakespearean plays are focused on one rasa—such as tragedy or comedy. That is not the Vedic notion of rasa. The Vedic concept of rasa is that rasa gets nuanced by mixing more contradictory rasas. An Itihāsa—by definition—is a tragedy and a comedy. We can see the tragedies because they are visceral. But we have to see the comedy because it is not visceral. We need philosophy to see comedy. Since everyone cannot see the comedy, even if they have read Itihāsa they haven’t understood why it is called Itihāsa. It is like reading a lawbook and not realizing that it describes laws.
The divine rasa theory, which applies to the Vedic texts, operates on the principle of mixing more and more contradictory rasas. The extramarital love affairs between Kṛṣṇa and the Gopis are examples of that. He is mine; He is not mine. He is devoted to me; He belongs to everyone. He is the greatest, but He is also the meekest. I have conquered Him; but in the process of conquering Him, I have been completely conquered. I am too shy to ask Him; I am too eager to not ask. I am dying without Him; I must not inconvenience Him.
To comprehend the Vedic texts in terms of rasa, we have to develop the capacity to simultaneously feel contradictory rasa. Not everyone is doing that. When Kṛṣṇa ran toward Bhīśma with a chariot wheel to attack him, Bhīśma offered beautiful prayers to Kṛṣṇa welcoming his attack. He was not afraid of death, because he could see eternal life in that apparent doom. The battle between the Lord and His devotees is not a battle between God and Satan. Instead, fighting with the Lord is a rasa in which both sides want to lose to give the other side a chance to win. But because this exchange is so pleasing, therefore, they do not want the battle to end quickly. To elongate the battle, they allow each other opportunities to score a point alternatively. Thereby, you want to win, and you want to lose; you want the opponent to win, and then for him to lose.
This is the rasa of the Vedic texts, founded on the principle of non-duality. When loving and fighting are not contradictory. Rather, you love to fight, and fighting increases love. That is not mutually exclusive or dualistic rasa found in mundane literature. This is why we go to a guru who teaches us how to develop the capacity to experience contradictory emotions simultaneously that intensify each of them. That is why we don’t read books on our own, unguided by the spiritual master, because that self-reading will drive us toward an interpretation in which we will always get one emotion, not opposites at once. There are layers and layers of meaning in Vedic texts. A perfect person can illuminate the multiple layers of meanings. An ignorant fool will remain satisfied with one meaning and never feel contradictory emotions simultaneously.
Confounded by this question, one premodern Indian thinker suggested adding a ninth rasa to the line-up that might suit the Mahabharata: shanta, quiescence or turning away from the world. The idea is that, after perusing the vicious politics and violence endemic to the human condition as depicted in the Mahabharata, people would be disenchanted with earthly things and so renounce the world in favour of more spiritual pursuits, as Yudhishthira wished to.
Śānta is not a new rasa! Rasa is what the soul feels. The capacity of the soul to feel that rasa is eternal. Adding a rasa to literary analysis is not the addition of a rasa to the soul. That capacity for feeling rasa is eternal. Śānta has always been recognized as one of the moods of divine devotion. The rasa that is called “shanta” above is not śānta according to the Vedic definition. The above definition is renunciation. Śānta is the mood of satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment in the protection of the Lord. Of course, recognizing a rasa that a person hasn’t felt (or doesn’t remember feeling it) is welcome. There is no harm in saying that there is a śānta rasa. But it is not the only conclusion.
Nietzsche talked about the irresistible urge to laugh during funerals. People stand and pretend to mourn the dead when throughout their life they had hated the person and often wished that he was dead. This is nihilism and cynicism in a person. He gets an irresistible urge to laugh at the irony of the situation.
We think of the world as text. It has many layers of meaning. But based on our mood, we pick out one of those meanings and claim that to be the only meaning. But if we can feel multiple emotions at once, then we can see multiple meanings simultaneously. Cognitive perception depends on emotional development. Then we can laugh at war, and we can be somber. We can feel the excitement at the prospect of progress and mourn the loss of what reality could have been although it was not to be so. There is no conflict between saying that the world is better due to war and saying that the world would have been even better if the people involved in the war had acted with greater wisdom.
The world is a bag of meanings. But we pull one meaning out of the bag based on our mood. Someone can call a glass half-full while another person calls it half-empty. The same thing can be interpreted in more than one way. Based on our mood, we select a specific interpretation. Since the moods are better and worse, therefore, the meaning pulled out of the bag is better or worse. The perfect meaning is that selected by the greatest mood, and it reinforces that greatest mood. That meaning can be found in the worst of realities—there is a silver lining in a dark cloud. Hence, we go to that person who can show us the art and mood of seeing the silver lining even in a dark cloud.
This selection of the meaning is not a falsehood. The greatest meaning exists in the seemingly worst reality. But that greatest meaning can be revealed or hidden. This is called vyakta and avyakta or manifest and unmanifest. There is compassion in punishing a criminal—if the punishment is minimized to improve the person instead of seeking revenge by retaliation. Compassion is unmanifest in the manifest punishment. What that unmanifest meaning is, how it can be manifest, why it is not an illusion, and how its truth is confirmed, requires perceptual development. That is what yoga is for. Everyone is not going to see what objectively exists. One needs the perceptual capacity to perceive it.
The Mahabharata condemns many of the appalling things it depicts, but one area where its response is more tepid concerns the treatment meted out to women. The story of Draupadi, the leading Pandava heroine, is the most well-known. Before the great war, her husband Yudhishthira gambles her away in a dice game, and Draupadi’s new owners, the Kauravas, strip and publicly assault her at their court. The Mahabharata condemns this event, but Draupadi’s notorious sharp tongue also undercuts the empathy many might have had for her.
There are many falsehoods in this claim. Draupadi was never stripped. Duḥśāsana tries to disrobe her but gets exhausted while pulling her sari. Kṛṣṇa increases the length of the sari indefinitely. You cannot claim to know something about Mahābhārata and not know this. It can either be a deliberate attempt to deceive, or you genuinely have not read anything in the Mahābhārata. We can only choose the type of poison we want to drink after we have thrown the poison of stripping a woman at the readers.
It is indeed shameful that Yudhiśthira gambles away his wife. A wife is supposed to be a partner for life, if not many lives, and if not for eternity. A man is supposed to protect his wife. For him to gamble away his wife is the worst thing in Mahābhārata. There is simply no rationalization for this action. This is why nobody endorses Yudhiśthira on this act. Nobody ever said—Since Yudhiśthira did it, so can I. Nobody has tried to rationalize or justify this deed.
Draupadi indeed had a sharp tongue. But that did not reduce anyone’s empathy or sympathy for her. While Bhīśma was teaching Yudhiśthira about the principles of dharma after the war, Draupadi was also present listening. Women were not excluded in the discussion of dharma. At one point, Draupadi lets out a smirk at Bhīśma talking about dharma. Bhīśma notices it and asks her why she is smirking. She says that this talk about dharma seems a little hypocritical when Bhīśma had forgotten about dharma when she was being disrobed. Bhīśma appreciates this comment and responds to her: I had been corrupted because of eating the food given by Duryodhana (a poetic euphemism for being a servant to the throne). So, Draupadi had a sharp tongue. She had mocked Duryodhana—which played no small role in the events. She was a proud woman. But no sympathies were lost. She had the audacity to question Bhīśma and he was gracious enough to accept his mistake and apologize to her.
After she is won at dice, Draupadi argues with her captors. First, she speaks up privately, from her quarters of the palace. Then, after being dragged into the Kauravas’ public audience hall, traditionally a male space, she advocates openly about how the situation is ‘a savage injustice’ (adharmam ugraṃ) that implicates all the elders present. Her self-assertion in a hall of men works. She convinces Dhritarashtra, the Kaurava king, to release her and eventually the rest of her family. But in a world favouring demure women, Draupadi’s willingness to speak about her suffering means that she has always carried a reputation as a shrew and a troublemaker.
Another set of falsehoods. The courtroom was never a man’s exclusive place. While sitting on the throne, or while performing a sacrifice, the woman was seated by the man’s side. Some accompaniments were mandatory; others were optional. It is true that she was not present during the dice game. I’m sure women don’t sit by the side of men participating in the sports they are watching even today. Haven’t we heard that the men’s and women’s football matches are kept separate? Making that seem like anti-women discrimination is idiotic.
Your idea of “demure women” is a Western concoction. Let’s look at Ramayana for instance. Daśaratha fought many fearsome battles in which his wife—Kaikeyi—was the charioteer. Sita lifted Lord Shiva’s bow casually while cleaning it. It had been gathering dust because cleaning it required lifting it, but it was so heavy that nobody had the strength to lift it. But Sita was cleaning Lord Shiva’s bow as a household chore and She lifted the bow. We have talked about Draupadi’s sharp tongue above, and why that was not an issue with anyone. These are the superexcellent women we talk about. None of them is “demure”.
The story of India’s freedom struggle is not well-known to those outside India. Women were active participants in that struggle. Lakshmibai of Jhansi carried her newborn infant on her back so that she could feed the baby when required, while she was sword-fighting the British in the battle for Jhansi. The Western concept of freedom envisages a woman who will leave her children behind to fight a war on the battlefield. In India, these were not mutually exclusive. You fight a war and you feed your baby. Similarly, the biggest debate of the last two millennia was conducted between Shankaracharya and Ubhaya Bharati, a woman. Prior to that, Ubhaya was the judge in the debate between Shankaracharya and Mandan Miśra. That debate changed the history of India from a society of ritualistic Brāhmanas to those of Advaita philosophers.
In contrast, there have been no Western women fighting real-world sword battles with men. Those exist only in fictional comics. In real life, there are none. There have been no women involved in history-altering debates. Those do not exist even in fictional or comic books. Women in the West want to sit in management positions, on comfortable chairs, in air-conditioned rooms, to earn millions. They want to emulate men who steal wealth disproportionate to their contribution from hard-working people at the bottom of the ladder. They want equality with men who are stealing from others. In every other sphere and role, where honest hard work is needed, they don’t want to compete.
We can cite so many examples of superexcellent women, that you won’t find in any other culture or civilization to compare or contrast with. That doesn’t mean the number of superexcellent women equals the number of superexcellent men. But implying that this is because men want “demure women” is blaming someone else for one’s own incompetence. Introspection is needed before the blame assignment. Respect has to be commanded before it is demanded.
The gender debate is as old as Greek philosophy. Greeks had to define a Platonic form for “human”. They chose a man. Greeks had to give voting rights to their citizens. They restricted them to men. There were few concocted goddesses involved in illicit sexual affairs with male gods. How do you get respect for women in a society when there has never been any respect for women from the outset? The West always tries to universalize its problems. But the problem is not universal. It is a Western problem. If you teach for thousands of years that Adam fell from the Garden of Eden because a woman enticed him to eat the forbidden fruit, we can only arrive at the following conclusion—(a) the woman is evil, (b) the man is swayed by the evil, and (c) man must subjugate the evil, and (d) hence, man must subjugate the woman. Everyone is not a victim of the Adam and Eve story. There is no need to cast everyone in that story’s molds.
The fact is that there is no divine feminine in any religion other than the Vedic tradition. Moreover, we always talk about the feminine before the masculine. It is always Radha-Krishna, Lakshmi-Narayana, Sita-Rama, and so on. It is not Mr. and Mrs. Smith, as in the West. It is the feminine first. That is the status of the feminine in divinity. We also don’t think that the feminine is “weak”. Men worship Durga and Kāli as much as women. They are not “demure women”. But those who have no conception of the divine feminine, and have a tradition of gender discrimination, vent their frustration on those who don’t have a problem in the divine tradition or history. They are trying to malign and criticize the only place where the feminine has been worshiped, which begs the question: Why?
Draupadi entered the Pandava family when Arjuna won her in a self-choice ceremony. In such ceremonies, the name notwithstanding, the woman is given as the prize to the victor of a contest.
It is often said that women are women’s worst enemies. If a woman is happy, other women have a problem. If the woman is unhappy, then other women co-opt them as part of their battles. Misery loves company. Happiness invites rejection. Many women don’t like another happy woman. They love to band together into groups with other miserable women and complain about their problems. They also criticize fulfilled women. This is a stereotype. There are exceptions to it. But the present author doesn’t seem to be one of them.
Svayamwara which means “self-wedding” was a system in which women would invite many men and they would pick one of those men. How they pick was also up to the women. They could set up a contest, or they could just go around an assembly and put a garland around some man’s neck. Nobody forced a woman to participate in a Svayamwara. There were instances in which a woman would arrange multiple Svayamwara if she wasn’t satisfied with the men in the previous gathering. She was not a prize to be won in a contest unless she wanted to be won over as a prize in a contest. Blaming a woman—who wants to be won over by men in a contest—as merely a trophy, is denigrating her for her choices. Through such denigration, one woman tries to force her idea of femininity on other women. That is not freedom. It is merely the slavery of one woman under other women. Some women want to enslave other women by appointing themselves to the editorial board for the official definition of a “woman” instead of giving them the choice to decide for themselves.
Feminism tries to craft a universal standard for women rather than giving them the freedom to be what they want to be, and do what they are most inclined toward and capable of. Women are judging other women far more than men have ever judged them. Is standing in judgment for both men and women the standard for freedom? Or is it the very opposite of giving everyone freedom?
However, Draupadi ends up with five husbands, when Arjuna’s mother tells him – without looking over her shoulder to see that she is speaking about a female trophy rather than an inanimate one – to split his prize with his brothers. To make her words true, all five Pandavas marry Draupadi.
This is another example of women hating women. Forget about the fact that Arjuna was the most handsome man desired by many princesses. Forget about the fact that he comes from an illustrious family. Forget about the fact that he is the greatest warrior of his time. Just focus on the fact that Draupadi has just been won by Arjuna in a contest when she had set up the contest to be won over in the first place. Then denigrate her for the choice she made for herself. Force your standard on others while demanding more choices for yourself. Criticize anyone who wishes to uphold another standard for themselves. Basically, all women should not define themselves. Men should not define women either. That right should be given to a few self-appointed self-righteous women.
Who asked you to give the dictionary definition of a woman? Who are you to apply your adjectives on other women, when you don’t want others to apply their adjectives to you? This feminist discourse is hypocritical to the hilt. It criticizes women for choosing what they want, and then if that choice is somehow denied to them, they criticize everyone for subjugating women.
Every woman wants to be contested by many men. It appeases a woman to feel that she is highly desired. The problem is that nobody is coming to fight in a contest for modern-day women, because most of them are not worth the trouble. Most of the men are also not worth the trouble. But women have a bigger problem with this than men. They are envious of the woman who commands the respect that many men will compete for her. They display their enviousness shamelessly by calling the woman being contested a female trophy. The problem with this language is that the woman who wants to be contested but has no contestants denigrates the woman who has numerous contestants.
They ignore the flip side of the story where the Pāndavas are respecting their mother—another woman—to a point that they don’t want to disobey her commands. This is another big problem for modern women. Their man should be obedient to them and disobedient toward his mother. A man should blindly follow the commands of his wife, and should rationally analyze the commands of his mother. The purpose of that rational analysis should be to deny the mother and appease the wife. This is a demoniac conception of womanhood in which the younger woman hates the older woman. She doesn’t want the man to respect his mother but she wants an obedient man-servant for herself.
These types of women break the family into pieces. Then they have children, who grow up seeing what their mother is doing to their grandparents and imbibe it. When the child grows up, he does the same to his mother—abandon her to a life of loneliness and neglect. This toxic feminism is not about women’s rights. It is about women hating women, and controlling men, not realizing that what they are doing in youth would be repeated for them in old age.
I want to be clear—we neither endorse nor reject Draupadi marrying five men. Pāndavas did not force that on Draupadi. But they made it clear that they will obey their mother. Nobody ever said—we will do precisely what Pāndavas have done. But nobody said—the Pāndavas made a wrong choice. Why don’t we allow people to make choices according to their context and situation and be responsible for them? Why do we have to set up universal standards for man and woman behavior that seem particularly biased toward the wife and biased against the mother? Why can’t Kunti, who has single-handedly brought up five children—despite all the problems being created by her husband’s relatives—be treated with the respect she deserves for her fortitude and perseverance? If the Pāndavas make that choice, they are entitled to it. They have set a clear expectation at the outset: We will obey our mother and the wife has to do the same. If the wife has a problem, she can leave. They did not force Draupadi to marry five brothers. But a wise woman would do the same as Draupadi did because a cultured princess appreciates a mother’s fortitude.
Nobody ever asks Draupadi if she wanted polyandry, and the question has rarely interested readers. However, the Mahabharata offers further justifications for this unusual arrangement that blame Draupadi. For instance, in a prior life, Draupadi had asked for a husband with five qualities; unable to find a man who had all of them, Shiva gave her five husbands. She should not have asked for so much.
A woman has contradictory desires. The man should be a world conqueror and yet submit before her. A man must be desired by many attractive women, but he must remain fully devoted to her. The fact is that nobody can satisfy a woman’s contradictory desires, except Kṛṣṇa. He had 16,108 wives, and yet, He was simultaneously present with each one of them. So, each wife gets the opposites she wants—(a) her man is desired by many other attractive women, and (b) the man is fully devoted to her. Kṛṣṇa is the master of the universe, and yet, He remains a henpecked husband to each of His devoted wives. This is how the wife gets the opposites she wants—(a) her man is the master of the universe, and (b) he submits before her. The fact is that every woman wants Kṛṣṇa as her husband. Ordinary men cannot fulfill that. Hence, it is best that every woman must become fully devoted to Kṛṣṇa. That is the ideal solution.
But this ideal solution is not implemented because women don’t want to be devoted to Kṛṣṇa. So, they seek men—in this world—with mutually exclusive qualities. Draupadi wanted a wise husband, so she got Yudhiśthira. She wanted a powerful and muscular husband, so she got Bhima. She wanted a charming romantic husband, so she got Arjuna. But you cannot get a man who is simultaneously wise, muscular, and romantic, among the ordinary mortals. You are asking for mutually exclusive qualities. But since she had a desire for all these qualities, therefore, Lord Shiva gave her five husbands to fulfill her desire.
Polyandry is better than hypergamy. The fact is that because women want contradictory qualities, and cannot get what they want, they keep hopping from man to man during their youth. They treat every man with disdain because he doesn’t have everything that they want. Then they become old and panic sets in. They go searching for the best bargain they can get, but by that time all the good men are already taken by wiser women who have fewer contradictory requirements or know how to prioritize. Then they become embittered and hateful not only at the men but at the women who took away their men.
I want to be clear—we don’t endorse polygamy or polyandry. We don’t reject them either. The Vedic system only forbids illicit sex and abortion (there are scenarios in which it is permitted), but that is what most feminist women are doing. The general principle of dharma is that you can hurt yourself but not others. Illicit sex and abortion involve a lot of hurts. Polygamy and polyandry—if done with consent and voluntarily—are choices you make with known responsibilities. Those who accept the responsibility can make the choice. That is not contrary to dharma, although someone who doesn’t do those things is also not contrary to dharma. Hence, neither is polygamy nor polyandry forced on anyone nor are they forbidden. It is a choice with its responsibilities.
Statements like “nobody ever asks Draupadi if she wants polyandry” make me wonder how people can be so ignorant about the real world, and why they are living in a make-believe universe. In real life, you are thrown into the water and expected to swim. Nobody is going to ask you: Do you want to be thrown into the water? No, you will be thrown, and you are expected to swim. That is a normal expectation for normal people. But if you complain a lot, a lifeguard may take you out of real life, and make you sit on the shore. From there, you can make theories about swimming instead of learning to swim.
Draupadi is a high-quality Kshatriya woman. Kshatriyas are not afraid of risk and novelty. In fact, they enjoy the thrill of risk and novelty. Draupadi is not asked about polyandry because everyone there is a risk-taker. They know there is a risk and that they are going to be thrown into the water, where they have to learn to swim. But they are not afraid of that risk. Their attitude is—We will figure it out, just like we figured out how to live without a father, how to escape a burning house, how to deal with cheating relatives, and so on. A risk-taking woman wants a risk-taking man. A risk-averse woman wants a man born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Draupadi is not a risk-averse woman.
But modern women, sitting in comfortable Western environs, have no idea about a risky life. Everything is made out for them. They have never been thrown into uncharted waters, and they don’t like the idea of being thrown without their consent. They sit on the shore and make theories about women who have been thrown into uncharted waters and then swam brilliantly. They cannot admire the woman who is swimming in uncharted waters. They will question the logic of being thrown in the water in the first place.
Draupadi has never been considered a role model in mainstream Indian cultures. Some later Sanskrit and vernacular works mock her. Even today, a refrain at Hindu weddings is that the bride ought to be like Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana. Nobody ever says that a bride should be like Draupadi, unless the goal is to curse the newlywed.
Nor do many texts talk about Yudhiśthira, Bhima, Nakula, and Sahadeva. Pāndu, Bhīśma, Dhritarāśtra, Drona, and many others are talked of even lesser. There is a fine art of lying in which you point out a fact, neglect other facts, and make that one fact being discussed seem disproportionately important when it is not. It is only ignorance of the other facts that makes it seem very important.
If the attempt is to portray the name Draupadi in a bad light, then a fact that would easily settle the debate forever is that the current President of India is Draupadi Murmu. She lives in a massive palace and is the supreme commander of Indian military forces. As Einstein once said—Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe.
In the Mahabharata, kidnapping is also an acceptable way to compel a woman to marry. For instance, Arjuna falls in love at first sight (or perhaps in lust) with Subhadra but, unsure whether she would accept him, he abducts her. This story has been cleaned up in some modern retellings – such as the TV serial from Doordarshan (one of India’s largest public service broadcasters) – which tend to water down misogyny.
Another set of lies. Subhadra and Arjuna fall in love. Kṛṣṇa—who is Subhadra’s brother and Arjuna’s friend—arranges the eloping because of the family’s opposition to a match between cousins. When Kṛṣṇa’s elder brother Balarāma wants to chase Arjuna to get back Subhadra, Kṛṣṇa stops him. Equating eloping to abduction is deceit. Subhadra is worried about how she will face Draupadi, and Kṛṣṇa advises her: Introduce yourself as My sister, and not as Arjuna’s wife. Subhadra does that and there is no animosity with Draupadi after that.
Every year, during the Jagannātha Rath Yatra, three deities—Kṛṣṇa, Subhadra, and Balarāma—are taken out on a chariot. Subhadra sits in the middle, flanked by her two elder brothers. There is respect in being seated in the middle. There is protection from the elder brothers flanking her on two sides. Respect and protection are not mutually exclusive. It is not that respect for a woman means the absence of protection. The protection of a woman is not necessarily the absence of respect. Mutual exclusion is contrary to spiritual nature.
This is another example of contradictory rasas. Subhadra is not weak. But she wants to sit between her brothers, just to feel protected by them. Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma are not controlling Subhadra by keeping her in the center. They are thinking that by making Subhadra sit in the center, we are promoting her position above our position. So, men want to promote women, and women want to be protected by men. These are contradictory but compatible rasas. The contradiction is within each person, and the compatibility is between persons. Both men and women are confident. But the men are thinking that we have to promote the woman, and the woman is thinking that she wants to be protected by the man. It is not the man wanting to control a woman. But the fools say—A woman is being subdued by men who are feeling chivalrous by controlling her. They look at the bodily reality and they cannot see the mental reality. Therefore, they project their mentality onto others devoid of that mentality.
We find two seemingly contradictory claims in Vedic texts—(a) the spiritual world is just like the material world, and (b) the material world is the inversion of the spiritual world. The resolution of this apparent conflict is that the material bodily reality looks just like the spiritual bodily reality, but the material mental reality is the inversion of the spiritual mental reality.
Contrast this to Platonism—the enduring doctrine in Christianity—where the material world is more-or-less a reflection of the transcendent world of Platonic forms. It is by applying Platonism to Christianity that God was modeled after the mundane emperors on earth. Since the emperors were mentally cruel, autocratic, violent, and exclusionary, therefore, the same mental qualities of worldly emperors were projected onto God, and we got Abrahamic religions.
We accept Platonism in the sense that bodily reality is very similar. But we reject Platonism in the sense that the mental reality is inverted. Hence, in the spiritual realm, there are men and women, both are confident, but the feminine mental disposition is to seek protection from the masculine (despite being equal to the masculine) and the masculine mental disposition is to promote the feminine (despite being equal to the feminine). Men and women are not unequal in status in the spiritual realm. But the man wants to promote the woman and the woman wants to be protected by the man. Thus, we find that the feminine is sometimes called lower—not because the masculine is denigrating her but because the feminine wants to feel protected by the masculine. At other times, we see the masculine promoting the feminine over himself—not because the feminine wants such promotion, but because the masculine does.
The world of the Mahabharata is stacked against women. Our world today looks distinct in its details, but some basic principles are not much different. For example, more than one person has compared Draupadi’s plight with that of ‘Nirbhaya’, the name given to the young woman mortally gang-raped in Delhi in 2012. Nirbhaya (meaning ‘fearless’) resisted her attackers, and one of the rapists later said that this resistance prompted him and his fellow assaulters to be more brutal than they would have been otherwise. Two millennia later, the corrupt ‘moral’ remains: she should not have objected to unjust treatment.
Why is the religion of the rapists missing from the narrative? Is it because religion is a private matter in the mind, and society is the public matter pertaining to the body, and never the twain shall meet? But then, on other occasions, it is alright to demand the public inclusion of the private mental reality of some religions while asking for the withdrawal of other religions from public space because they are private mental realities. Basically, there is no standard. Based on convenience, religion can be private, public, or irrelevant. These are the hypocritical multiple standards of Western academic discourse.
The hypocrisy manifests thus—(a) if men marry more than one woman, then polygamy is the scorn of women, and (b) if women marry more than one man, then polyandry is the scorn of women. If we can draw parallels between Draupadi marrying five men and the rape of a woman—separated by thousands of years—then anything can be anything. When anything is anything, then it is nothing at all. This is the primary goal of Western academics—distort the truth into lies, right into wrongs, good into bad. Make them hate everything, have no idea of truth, right, and good, and be agnostic. Your moral fiber, your intellect, and your identity will then be shaped by some self-appointed rulers.
We can psychoanalyze too, just as you are psychoanalyzing everyone. In our view, these critics lack self-confidence and they perceive everyone else’s self-confidence as their humiliation. To revive their confidence, everyone else must be vilified and downgraded in comparison to help them feel confident again.
The Mahabharata represents a world of caste and class, where bloodline determines identity. Many characters try to break out of the bonds of lineage, but they usually fail in the end.
Caste and class are not the same things. Caste is a Western hereditary conception of masons, carpenters, and blacksmiths in opposition to landlords, nobility, and emperors. Class applies to everything in the world, but is not hereditary. Classes became hereditary in India because (a) the British forcibly applied second names to Indians when they never had a second name, (b) these second names were taken as the class of the current head of the family, (c) by making the second name hereditary, the class became hereditary.
Hereditary thinking goes back to Judaism in which the children of Adam and Eve have inherited their parental sinful nature. It was dramatically extended and reinforced by Protestantism to propound the doctrine of Sola Fide, which means salvation “by faith alone” because no man or woman can wash off the inherited sinful traits of Adam and Eve. It was transformed into racist ideas in which children of non-white races were inferior. It was then forced upon the world via colonialism. Before someone accuses others of hereditary castes, they must look at the history of such thinking, beginning with the inheritance of sin in Judaism, reaffirmed, strengthened, and weaponized by Christianity.
A society that believes in reincarnation into higher and lower species talks about a ladder on which you can go up or down. Everything is not equal, so there are classes based on the current status. However, since that status can be changed—as you move up or down the ladder—hence classes are not fixed.
The situation of classes is nuanced—(a) a person is born to parents of certain qualities and activities based upon his qualities and activities in a previous life, with emphasis on the quality and activity at the time of death, (b) a person can change his qualities and activities by his will after he is born. Thus, a person born in the lower or upper classes is responsible for his birth in that class based on his qualities and activities in his previous life and at the time of death. We don’t blame their birth in a lower or upper class on an accident of biochemistry. But because there is a will, hence, even a person born in a lower class can rise upward and a person born in an upper class can fall downward.
Since the soul is reborn, therefore, a society that believes in reincarnation doesn’t believe in mistreating a person—the king can become a subject, a teacher a student, and the rich man a poor man. Be careful of what you say or do because you will receive the same in the future. Bodily and societal designations are temporary coverings of the soul. Likewise, social classes are also temporary coverings of a soul. The Vedic system of classes is based on the meritocracy of a person’s qualities and activities, whereas the Western system is not.
The ignorant Western academic relies on separating the class system from two other things—(a) the philosophy of reincarnation, and (b) the ladder of ascent and decline that goes both up and down. So, there is nothing to be said regarding the “caste system”, other than (a) hereditary thinking originated in Judeo-Christian ideas, (b) was progressively solidified and weaponized by the West, (c) forced upon other societies, (d) and the problem created by the West was imputed to its victims after ignoring how their ideology of reincarnation and ladder for ascent and descent rejects all their concoctions. This is exactly like a rapist blaming his action of raping on the woman raped.
To Western academics we say—Look within, and you will easily find the dirt. You spread it to the world. As you practice the doctrine of hereditary sins—extended to races to define a “lower race” as one that is more sinful in order to marginalize them—you preach equality to others. Align your preaching to your practice, before you try to convert everyone else through your preaching. Everyone can see the nudity of the naked emperor, although everyone doesn’t say it. A child who says what he sees will tell you so. Your inequality is not the same as ours. Both chalk and cheese look white, but they are not the same.
Among the many tales in this vein, that of Karna stands out as offering harsh reflections on the limits of an individual to reshape his identity. Karna’s mother is Kunti, mother of the five Pandava brothers, but Karna is not counted among the five. The story goes that, when Kunti was a girl, a sage gave her a boon that she could call any god at any time to impregnate her. Still unmarried, one night she calls Surya, the Sun god. Surya’s brilliance scares Kunti, and she asks him to leave, but he insists on seeing the matter through. And so, compelled by a male god who said she asked for it, Kunti conceives Karna.
Kunti made a mistake. She was young. It is not a bad thing that unmarried pregnancies were scorned. Would we rather normalize unmarried pregnancies? At the end of the Mahabharata war, when Kunti told the Pāndavas about Karṇa, they repented it too. Nobody idolized it. Nobody approved it. Nobody wanted it to be repeated. Everyone hated what had happened. But they accepted it, in the spirit of forgiveness for the mistakes committed during youth.
The mind filled with sex and violence must extend the “Me Too” idea to Kunti and Surya—”compelled by a male god who said she asked for it”—when what Surya said was that when a demigod is invoked by a mantra, he is duty-bound to execute what is asked of him. Demigods in Vedic texts are not free, as in Western mythologies, to do whatever they want. They are bound by laws of duty.
The method of binding the demigod is a yajñá, which involves the chanting of mantras. If a mantra has been properly chanted, the demigod has to do what the mantra asks for. The same mantra technology was used in Mahābhārata weapons of water, fire, and air. Kṛṣṇa speaks of four kinds of weapons in BG 2.23: “The soul can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind”. The weapons that cut are ordinary swords, spears, arrows, etc. But there are three other kinds of weapons—fire, water, and air. The weapon of fire burns, the weapon of water drowns, and the weapon of air dries. Before the war began, Kṛṣṇa told Arjuna that the soul cannot be harmed by these four types of weapons, because He knows they will be used during the war. When the mantra of the weapon is invoked, the demigods of fire, water, or air don’t have a choice. They have to act as expected. Chanting the mantra is thus precisely cause-and-effect causality.
You don’t put your hand in the fire and then say—”Oh, I did it by mistake. May I not be burned by it?” Even when you put your hand on fire, the hand is burnt by the action of a demigod. There are exceptions to this, when the Supreme Lord prevents the demigod’s action, as in the case of Prahalāda who was not burnt by fire even when he sat in the lap of Holika at the instigation of Hiraṇyakaśīpū. Similarly, there are yogis who practice the ability to cut off the connection between the body and the fire. They can sit on fire, and not be burned by it. It looks like a miracle to everyone because we don’t know the science.
Those who understand quantum theory, also know that a photon is not emitted deterministically. What causes photon emission—and is called “collapse” in the standard interpretation of quantum theory—is yet an unknown process. That process is very complex and involves four things—chitta, guna, karma, and time. The ability of the skin to receive the photon is the first factor—it is called chitta. The choice to put the hand in the fire is the second factor—it is called guna. The effect of being burned by the fire is the third factor—it is called karma. That karma is mostly delivered by the demigod, but it can be mitigated or enhanced as the effect of time, the Supreme Lord, or yogic siddhis.
By the latter two methods, one can accept or reject things that would be impossible otherwise. Hence, if we have the ability to get burned, choose to get burned, and there is an opportunity to get burned—subject to the presence of enabling conditions and the absence of disabling conditions as described above—then we will get burned. However, the disabling conditions can stop the photon emission by preventing the “collapse” because the cause-and-effect connection is not deterministic—it is established in real-time by a demigod based on our karma, and it can be mitigated either by the will of the Lord or by yoga practices. Without such mitigation, the action is guaranteed. This applies not just to conceiving children—as in the case of Kunti—but to all yajñá, the lighting of fire by a mantra before yajñá, and mantra-invoked weapons.
Determinism has collapsed in every single area of modern science. Modern science will never solve this problem because it is essentially atheistic, and rejects any role of the observer, along with moral choice and its consequences. Therefore, if someone questions any of these explanations, then our response is—Please find the solution to the problem of indeterminism. Spend a few decades, centuries, or millennia. Pour in a few trillion dollars and employ a few million scientists. We will be watching the fun from the sidelines.
So, when Kunti chanted the mantra to invoke Surya—because she was naïve at that time—she put her hand in the fire, did not have any mitigating factors, and was burned by the fire. There is no difference between the hand getting burned by fire, and Kunti getting pregnant by Surya. They involve the same principle. One has to know the principles on which mantras are used in various ways in Vedic texts. We have discussed this above—a mantra chanted without knowing its meaning will also produce the effect. We have discussed how Sanskrit is a natural language, so the sound has an effect on nature. The effect of the sound is not different from the effect of the cue that is pushing a ball. Equating this causal principle to the rape of a woman by a man is plain ignorance.
This troubling conception augured Karna’s future troubled life. Kunti fears her father’s wrath if he were to find his daughter with child but without a husband. So, after giving birth, she sends Karna, her first-born son, down the river in a basket. A low-caste barren couple finds the abandoned infant and raises him as their own. The story parallels (unintentionally, most likely) that of Moses, with the classes of the birth and adopted parents reversed. Like Moses, Karna could never escape his birthright.
And yet, unlike the story of Moses, in the Vedic tradition what happens in your life is entirely the result of your past qualities and activities. A child born from Surya has great guna, but he has bad karma. That guna and karma belong to the soul. Surya and Kunti are instrumental agents in giving birth to Karna. Why anyone would decontextualize Karna’s life from the philosophy of reincarnation and contextualize it in comparison to a different story that doesn’t accept reincarnation is beyond my considerably limited powers of imagination.
Karna is born with brilliant armour, inherited from his father, and other marks that he would be a great warrior. He is also drawn to fighting, which leads him, early in the epic, to enter a weapons competition in which the Pandavas and Kauravas also participate. When Karna is asked to announce his lineage, it comes out that he is the son of low-caste parents, and Bhima – one of the good guys – ridicules him. Sensing a chance to make a new friend, the Kauravas – the baddies of the story – give Karna a kingdom and so make him, technically, a king and eligible to fight. At this point in the tale, nobody knows that Karna is actually the eldest Pandava and that he is already royal by birth – except for his mother, Kunti, who watches the event silently.
The weapons contest being spoken of was limited to royalty. This is no different than how cricket matches are sometimes restricted to members of parliament. A match between political leaders of a country doesn’t admit professional players—not because of discrimination against the professional players, or a preference for the political leaders—but because the match is defined that way. Karṇa, at that point, was not royalty. But he was a professional. Bhima asked about Karṇa’s lineage because a royal may not be a ruler, and yet, he can be a relatively unknown prince of some kingdom. The answer to that inquiry revealed that he was not royalty. Then Duryodhana sensing that Karṇa was a professional, and he could be a valuable ally in his political ambitions, appointed Karṇa as the king of a small kingdom, making him royalty. Duryodhana was the crown prince at that point because his father was on the Hastināpur throne. He could make such decisions. Pāndavas did not have any kingdom at that time. They had not built Indraprastha at that time. They were not crown princes. So, they could not appoint Karṇa, or make him a royal.
There is a style of storytelling in which you tell some truth, neglect some facts, and interpret the truth in a way that could only be contradicted by neglected facts, to produce a falsehood. This technique is used by media houses that sell chosen narratives by cherry-picking events that fit the narrative, neglecting events that would contradict a narrative, to produce a fairy tale. The author is adept at such fairy tales—(a) she forgets to note that the contest was limited to royals, (b) interprets Bhima’s attempt to include Karṇa in the contest as an attempt to exclude him, and (c) and brands it as caste discrimination.
The narrative also ignores a contravening fact that Vidura was born of a maidservant, and yet, he was the chief of all ministers in Dhritarāśtra’s court. Why was that the case if caste discrimination was prevalent? When Vidura tried to stop the Mahābhārata war, Duryodhana insulted him as a dāsī-putra or the “son of a maidservant” while the Pāndavas, and everyone else, were always very respectful toward Vidura and treated him just like their father. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa includes extensive discussions between Vidura and Maitreya (one of the most venerable sages), which occurred after Vidura left Hastināpur due to Duryodhana’s insult. Thereby, Vidura was not considered unqualified by Kshatriyas (as indicated by his appointment as the chief of ministers) or Brāhmanas (as indicated by the inclusion of his conversations with Maitreya in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa). By ignoring this important fact that would contravene its claims, the narrative portrays Duryodhana as the good guy saving Karṇa against caste discrimination, and the Pāndavas as the bad guys discriminating against Karṇa based on caste. The narrative factually inverts the truth.
This is also a common trend with Western academics, namely, that they always try to downgrade the good actors and upgrade the bad actors. In this entire narrative on Mahābhārata, we do not see a single sentence faulting Kauravas when they are the chief troublemakers. We find selective mudslinging at everyone who is factually a good actor—Kṛṣṇa, Bhīśma, Draupadi, Kunti, and the Pāndavas. This is how you achieve equality in society by fiat—denigrating the good actors and eulogizing the bad actors. All your heroes will then be just like James Bond: A lonely, gambling, womanizing, killing, and drinking machine worshipped for defending the Western empire at any cost.
As the eldest Pandava by blood, Karna should have been king. In fact, Krishna goes to Karna to make this argument on the eve of the great war, as a last-ditch effort to avoid catastrophe, and the conversation is one of the most interesting in the Mahabharata. The core questions are timeless: what determines a person’s identity? Can an individual reject or change who they really are? Who gets to say who each of us really is? Can we escape our destinies? Karna refuses Krishna’s request to take his place as the eldest Pandava and ascend the throne. Instead, choosing bread over blood, Karna fights and dies with the Kauravas. But, according to Vyasa and the Mahabharata’s many unknown authors, Karna, no matter his actions, was never a Kaurava. At the end of the epic, in a scene twisted in more ways than one, Karna winds up in hell with the other Pandavas, briefly, while the Kauravas bask in heaven.
The duplicity here is quite palpable with inescapable references to identity politics (“What determines a person’s identity?”), LGBTQ debates (“Can an individual reject or change who they really are?”), the advent of myriad pronouns (“Who gets to say who each of us really is?”), and the absence of free will and the co-opting of materialistic determinism for select cases (“Can we escape our destinies?”). Squaring the circle isn’t that hard, you see?
What really happened was that Karṇa stated plainly—I have taken on the debt from Duryodhana when he appointed me a ruler, and I have to repay it according to the conditions of the debt, namely, fighting for him whenever he asks for it. If that entails my death, it is better than running away from the war to become a king. Karṇa had immorally killed Abhimanyu, and he was killed in a tit-for-tat manner by Arjuna. And yet, just like the Pāndavas were warned, similarly, Karṇa was warned—be careful, this is not the end of the story.
The epic’s stance that we can’t transcend our births can appear very dark to modern eyes (or at least to some modern eyes) in stories that feature low-caste characters. Take the tale of Ekalavya. Ekalavya is born a tribal (nishada), outside of the four-fold Hindu class system, but his heart is set on life as a warrior (kshatriya) and learning to fight from Drona, who taught both the Pandavas and Kauravas. Drona denies Ekalavya instruction because of casteism, and so Ekalavya honours a clay statue of Drona every day while learning on his own. After a while, Ekalavya’s skills exceed those of Arjuna. And so, Arjuna cajoles Drona to demand that Ekalavya slice off his own thumb, thus ensuring that Ekalavya could never shoot an arrow again. Drona does so, under the guise of asking for gurudakshina (a teacher’s fee) since Ekalavya had built a statue of Drona’s likeness. Internalising the caste prejudice that condemned him, Ekalavya cut off his thumb and was never a threat to Arjuna again. The message is that, one way or another, varnashramadharma (moral behaviour according to one’s social class and life stage) prevails.
Niśādha is not just a tribe. They are also animal hunters. The Sanskrit prefix “ni” indicates something downward, and “sādhya” means goals. Therefore, the term Niśādha means those people who have downgraded goals. Niśādha loosely indicates those who we would consider hunter-gatherers today. Niśādha were not part of the Varṇāśrama society. But they were never persecuted. They lived separately from the Vedic society—a common practice during Vedic times where people who did not want to follow a society’s culture chose to live separately from people of other cultures. All these lands were never conquered by the Varṇāśrama society until later during Kali Yuga. But there was no animosity between them. To stop conflicts between people, those with different cultures and ideologies were geographically separated from each other in India so that each one can live peacefully. During Lord Ramachandra’s forest exile, the leader of Niśādha—Guha—developed devotion for the Lord, and they had many friendly exchanges. Lord Ramachandra stayed with Guha for some time, before entering deeper forests. All Niśādha were good hunters. After all, that was their livelihood. But Ekalavya was exceptional, even for Niśādha.
To understand classes and social orders, we have to understand Varṇāśrama closely. Bhagavad-Gita 4.13 states: “cātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛṣṭaṁ guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśaḥ” which means “I have created the four classes based on divisions of guna (qualities) and karma (activities)”. Let’s unpack this. Something that looks like a car, but doesn’t work like a car, is not a car. Something that works like a car, but doesn’t look like a car, is also not a car—it might as well be a truck. Hence, for something to be called a car, (a) it must look like a car, and (b) it must work like a car. What a thing looks like is called its gunas or qualities. How anything works, defines its karma or activities. The “car” is a class, and we need both qualities and activities to identify something as a member of the class because either of these by themselves would not suffice. Brāhmana, Kshatriya, Vaiśya, and Sudra are also classes—no different than the class of a “car”. To identify their class, we have to assess their qualities and activities.
The consideration of guna and karma goes deeper in the case of humans—we assess not just their bodily qualities, but also their mental qualities. In Varṇāśrama, the Sudra work with inanimate things, Vaiśya with low-level life forms like crops, vegetables, and animals, Kshatriya manage the humans, while Brāhmana focuses on the superhuman (they could be both demigods and God). This division of work is based on not just bodily but also mental qualities.
Masons, for example, were Sudras. They also invented mathematics and astronomy for temple construction, which traveled all over the world, and became the basis for modern science. Brahmanical science is based on qualities, but a science of quantities was developed by Sudras for the purpose of temple construction. I have discussed this topic extensively previously, so I will not dwell on it in greater detail here. The central point is that to determine a person’s class, we look at all their deeper mental qualities and activities.
Ekalavya was a good archer, but archery was not enough to be a Kshatriya. One has to know how to manage humans, understand mental capacities, and ponder the principles of dharma—like Yudhiśthira was doing at the end of the Mahābhārata war. Archery is about the coordination between eyes and hands. It has very little to do with the mind. Hence, being a good archer was generally a necessary condition to become a Kshatriya, but it was not sufficient. Conversely, Dhritarāśtra as a blind ruler—obviously incapable of archery—was more qualified to be a Kshatriya because he had the mental acuity of a Kshatriya compared to a Niśādha. By making archery the primary or sole qualification to become a Kshatriya, we ignore why Dhritarāśtra was a Kshatriya.
To understand Drona’s actions, we have to go deeper into Drona’s life. Drona was a Brahmana, but he was also very poor. Aśvatthāmā was born to Drona with great difficulty. But Drona was so poor that he could not give his son milk. His wife would mix the flour in water, create a semi-white liquid, and feed it to her son as milk. Seeing his wife’s pitiable condition, Drona approached his childhood friend—Drupad, Draupadi’s father—for monetary assistance. As Drona remembered their childhood friendship, Drupad mocked Drona about the difference in their current status, and the foolishness of thinking that they were even friends. Drona was deeply hurt and took a vow to punish Drupad for his humiliation. He moved from place to place to give his son a good life, and eventually, he was sought out by Bhīśma and given a permanent position as the teacher of the Kuru dynasty children. Kauravas, Pandavas, and Aśvatthāmā were learning from Drona as part of the same school. This is where Ekalavya approached Drona to become his student and Drona refused to take him.
Before we talk about Drona’s discrimination, we have to understand how he discriminated against his son, who used to pester his father asking him about the Brahmāstra. Drona would not teach Brahmāstra to his son, because he did not consider him qualified to receive a powerful weapon. This was not about caste or class, because both father and son are from the same caste or class. Drona’s wife was not so discerning. To fulfill her son’s desire, she pushed Drona to teach Aśvatthāmā the Brahmāstra. Reluctantly, Drona taught his son half of Brahmāstra—how to launch it, but not how to withdraw it. In contrast, Drona taught Arjuna both aspects of Brahmāstra. We have to remember that Drona was a Brahmana while Arjuna is a Kshatriya. According to caste calculations, Aśvatthāmā would also be a Brahmana, superior to Arjuna, who is Kshatriya. However, Drona gave Arjuna what he did not give Aśvatthāmā. We have both types of exceptions; a high-caste person (Aśvatthāmā) is treated as a low-caste person, and a low-caste person (Vidura) is treated as a high-caste person. Anyone who understands these exceptions also knows that a person’s birth “caste” was of zero significance. All “caste” accusations are thus false.
Drona’s assessment of his son came true when Aśvatthāmā launched Brahmāstra to kill Uttara’s unborn child (Parikshit) still in her womb. Similarly, Drona’s judgment about Arjuna came true when he not only withdrew the Brahmāstra but also spared Aśvatthāmā’s life. Thus, Drona was making good judgments about a person’s qualification to receive knowledge, as evidenced by subsequent events. We have to bear this fact in mind while evaluating why Drona did not teach Ekalavya. The reason is that Ekalavya was a good archer, but did not have the mental qualities to receive advanced knowledge.
Those who hunt animals in a forest are well-known to be cruel. They are excluded from normal human society due to this cruelty. If they were included in mainstream society, they would vector their natural cruelty and violence toward compassionate and non-violent people. Giving enormous power to a sadistic person is the very opposite of what a Kshatriya is, namely, one who protects humans from sadists. We cannot fault Drona for making that judgment call, or for taking away Ekalavya’s thumb either. That deprivation is the handicapping of violent people to reduce violent incidents in society.
The irony here is that most people today demand increased background checks for gun owners to stop violent criminals from ever acquiring a lethal weapon. But if Drona does the same for Ekalavya, then it must be caste discrimination. The fact is that those who don’t give weapons and knowledge of violence to those they consider violent are reducing violent crimes in society based on background checks. We have to decide what we really want. If everyone must be equal in society, then why not give guns to the most violent criminals?
Privilege with military knowledge is also seen in the case of Chakra-Vyuha. Only Arjuna knew how to break the Chakra-Vyuha. Nobody else on the Pāndava side, including the four other Pāndava brothers, knew. However, Arjuna had narrated how to break Chakra-Vyuha to Subhadra (because she would pester him to tell war stories and battle secrets) while she was pregnant with Abhimanyu. When Chakra-Vyuha was formed by Kauravas, and everyone was flummoxed about how to defeat it, Abhimanyu said that he had heard his father (Arjuna) speak of it and he knew how to enter it but because his mother had been asleep during the later part of his father’s narration, therefore, he did not know how to exit it. Abhimanyu was tasked to lead. But because he knew how to enter and not how to exit, hence, he was killed in the Chakra-Vyuha. This is another instance where military knowledge was not with everyone, even those of the same class, even brothers. Military knowledge was given only based on qualification.
Advanced weapons could target individuals even without knowing their locations. The person who launches a mantra-activated weapon mentally thinks of the target he wants to attack, invokes a demigod, and launches the weapon. The shooter doesn’t give the GPS coordinates of the target because he is asking a demigod to guide that weapon to its appropriate destination. The shooter may not know where the target is, but the demigod knows and guides it correctly. If these weapons existed today, people would be killing each other over petty quarrels. Everyone cannot handle power. Those who can handle, are given power. Otherwise, advanced knowledge is a closely guarded secret. If there was a high risk that someone could misuse his skill, he was handicapped.
Modern commentators don’t understand how sophisticated warfare was. They think that Indian military schools were Olympiad schools for javelin and archery. They don’t know that you can instruct Nature to do something on your behalf by uttering mantras. This knowledge is highly secret. Just as nuclear codes and sites are secret, similarly, military schools were highly secretive. If we are so interested in equality, why don’t we publish the designs for missiles and nuclear bombs on a website? Unless we can share our military knowledge publicly, we should not ask for equality from others who want to keep their military secrets secret.
A 20th-century poem by the Dalit writer Shashikant Hingonekar puts it like this: If you had kept your thumb, history would have happened, somewhat differently. But … you gave your thumb, and history also, became theirs. Ekalavya, since that day they have not even given you a glance. Forgive me, Ekalavya, I won’t be fooled now by their sweet words. My thumb will never be broken.
Our mental reality underdetermines our actions—e.g., the same goal can be achieved in many ways. Similarly, our actions underdetermine our mental reality—e.g., the same action can be performed for different goals. We solve this problem of assessing the deeper mental reality by looking at a breadth of actions. To understand a person’s thoughts, beliefs, intentions, and morals, we have to progressively analyze an increasing number of actions. This is a universal principle. Words and grammar underdetermine a sentence’s meaning. We have to consider more sentences to understand its meaning—after obtaining an interpretation that reconciles many different and varied sentences.
Those who don’t understand this principle analyze isolated and individual events and give their interpretation based on their thoughts, beliefs, intentions, and morals—imputing their ideology on others. The correct interpretation requires us to broaden the horizon to include many more actions. The liar thinks that everyone is a liar. An honest person thinks that everyone is honest. Thus, the honest person trusts dishonest people, and he discovers their deception after being cheated many times. The liar, however, is rarely deceived, because he anticipates cheating. But because of always anticipating deception, he always distrusts even those who might be telling the honest truth.
When I started studying Western authors nearly three decades ago, I used to take them very seriously. Even if I did not agree with something, I would always think—”There must be some truth to it”. And so, I would go in search of the truth, and I would encounter more and more problems. This is how I went from studying modern science to understanding the history of philosophical claims that led to science, traced them back to the presumptions in Judeo-Christian doctrines, and finally all the way back to Greek philosophy, Socratic, Platonic, and Aristotelian assumptions, and their flaws. If I had begun in distrust, I would have abandoned Western thinking quickly. But I was deeply trusting. I was also persevering in finding the truth. So, I peeled layers upon layers of Western thinking to find the root flaws, originating in Greek philosophies.
This is what I mean when I say that a trusting person discovers the deception after being cheated many times. The distrusting person, instead, quickly rejects the trustworthy person—who has spent decades peeling the layers of the onion to get to the bottom of things—because he is inherently distrusting.
To summarize, we can interpret actions in many ways. We can see a good action in a bad light because we distrust. We can see bad action in a good light because we trust. This problem of trust and distrust requires perseverance. We have to study much more and try to peel the layers. The true intent of an act often requires us to understand more and more about the person involved.
The Mahabharata claims to be about the totality of human life in a verse included in both its first and final books: What is found here regarding the aims of human life –righteousness, wealth, pleasure, and release –may be found elsewhere, O Bull of the Bharatas. But what is not here, is found nowhere. Indeed, the Mahabharata’s promise to explore (among other things) immorality, politics, sexism and identity problems as general features of human life rings true in our times.
There is no “exploration” of immorality, politics, sexism, and identity problems. Immorality in the Mahābhārata is mostly confined to the Kauravas, and through association, it spreads to others. Politics today universally means corruption and deception. That was not the universal connotation then. There is simply no identity politics and sexism. These were not even a problem in the West about a century ago. These problems are the result of the industrialization and urbanization of Western societies. Instead of looking at the real causes, the author claims them to be eternal and universal problems, to be sought and witnessed in ancient Indian society. This is just ridiculously contrived.
Over the past several years, politics in India and the United States have taken dark turns as both countries turn their backs on the values of pluralism and embrace ethno- and religious nationalisms. Violence and death are heavily used tools by governments in both countries. Sexism has never gone away. It is a critical part of the current surge of Right-wing ideologies and their embrace of male privilege. Moreover, the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are reasserting retrograde gender roles in many places across the globe. The pandemic’s toll on women’s physical safety, mental health and careers is great and growing. Identity, too, plagues us. The caste system is still very much alive, in both India and the diaspora. We also struggle with types of oppression birthed in modernity, such as racism.
We are not interested in a word salad of isms. Our words are sat-chit-ānanda. If these are hard to understand, we can say: Truth, right, and good. Three words. These are the properties of the soul and God. When God can be completely described in three words, then everything produced from God can be described in three words. Through my work, I have shown that we can subsume every subject within these three words. The Western jargon of isms has been changing. What is changing must be flawed. Otherwise, why would perfection need to change? What is flawed, will change again. In this way, you will never get to anything. Hence, we ask a very simple question: What will never change? Our answer is three words: Truth, right, and good. Millions of years from now, when every other concept has changed, these three concepts will remain unchanged. So, instead of wasting our time in this-or-that ism, we prefer to talk about these three words. Once we know what is true, right, and good, we can evaluate everything else, by one question: Is this ism true, right, and good? If so, it can be a value. If not, it has no value. Hence, asserting “values” without proving that they are true, right, and good, is your choice, not ours.
The term “value” is by definition individual and contextual. One guy values knowledge, another guy values power, another guy values beauty, and so on. Some cultures value individuality, while other cultures value unity. Some cultures value their elders, while others devalue them as burdens. And everyone has been given the freedom to choose their values. This is a big problem for those who want to appoint themselves to the editorial board of select values. They want the freedom to choose their values, but not give the freedom to others to choose their values. They want to force their values onto others.
This is not even remotely related to Vedic philosophy where the most valuable thing is that which is simultaneously the perfect truth, right, and good. Everything else is measured relative to that. If it is semantically close to the perfect truth, right, and good, then it is more valuable. If it is semantically farther from the perfect truth, right, and good, then it has less value. So, any ism can be good or bad. The same ism can be good in one context and bad in another. One man’s medicine is another man’s poison. Anyone who tries to universalize values doesn’t know the first thing about values, namely, that there are infinite of them, and they are chosen. But that choice is not free. It is also judged relative to the perfect truth, right, and good. If you know the perfect truth, right, and good, then you can judge everything. Otherwise, you cannot judge anything, and at most, you will force your ism on others.
We have to know that liberalism is predicated on the principle that nobody knows the perfect truth, right, and good. Greeks came to this conclusion after Socratic debates. The West came to this conclusion during Enlightenment. Hence, instead of defining what truth, right, and good is, they tried to define a method by which we will arrive at truth, right, and good in the future. But even that method could not be defined. Should we include considerations of beauty to say that a more beautiful theory is more true than a less beautiful theory? Should we say that a theory that gives us more wealth is more true than the theory that gives us less wealth? The West could not resolve these issues. They could never define what they mean by true, right, or good. Hence, they could not define the method by which you can find the truth, right, and good. Thus, the West got neither a definition of truth, right, and good nor a method by which it could be found in the future. These failures then led to liberalism, which means that everyone is free to define their truth, right, and good.
Now, if you keep a homogeneous society you will naturally get shared values. But if you diversify society, you will never get shared values. Compound that with the fact that you don’t have a method to rationally choose a value. The result will be either anarchy or autocracy. If you go down the path of anarchy, society will be broken into pieces. If you go down the path of autocracy, the same thing will happen. By autocracy, liberalism becomes the opposite of what it was supposed and meant to be. By anarchy, there is simply no truth, right, and good left to be chosen by anyone. A lie always leads to self-contradiction. Therefore, liberalism is a lie. It works in a homogeneous society with a common and shared set of values. It fails whenever there is diversity.
Therefore, before you can discuss what value is, you have to discuss what the truth, right, and good are. If you don’t know what that is, at least define a method by which it can be discovered. But if you cannot even define the method, then silence would be golden and speech would be trash. In the Vedic system, we define two things: (a) the perfect truth, right, and good, and (b) the method to verify it. Based on that truth, right, and good, we construct an inverted tree of diversification. That which is closer to the origin is more valuable. That which is farther from the origin is less valuable. Everything is not always valuable if they are things on different branches of the value tree.
If you understand the inevitable failure of liberalism, you can come to the Vedic system to understand the definition of truth, right, and good, and how it is verified. We have a definition and a method of verification. If you don’t want that, then we are not keen on liberal claims, because we have a method for evaluating values, but you don’t. Either you bring your method of evaluation, or you accept our method of evaluation, or you let everyone choose their value freely. You can’t assume that something is valuable because you think it is.