A series of short articles on the Bhagavad Gita for people living and working in our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times filled with stress and fear. This scripture born in a battlefield teaches us how to face our challenges, live our life fully, achieve excellence in whatever we do and find happiness, peace and contentment.
[Continued from the previous post]
Alas! How sad that we are ready to commit the great sin of killing our own people out of greed for the pleasures of the kingdom! It would be better for me if the Dhartarashtras kill me in battle with their weapons while I am unarmed and unresisting. BG 1.45-46
Arjuna is a winner. Perhaps the most common among his many other names is Vijaya, meaning the victorious one, a winner. His mindset is that of a winner, through and through. Among the many splendid warriors in the Mahabharata, he is the most consistent winner. Fearless in battlefield, a master of strategic moves, the greatest living master of the martial arts, he possesses the secrets of more weapons empowered with powerful mantras than anyone else [not counting Krishna, of course]. At the same time he is a sensitive human being, highly ethical, uncompromising in his values, ideal in his social behaviour towards his elders – he is the acme of what the ancient world expected a man to be.
His concerns about having to kill his grandfather and his guru are genuine, his guilt about killing one’s own people is genuine. We all should feel what he feels in similar circumstances, not feeling such concerns and such guilt makes us subhuman. Krishna is not going to ask Arjuna not to have such feelings but to do what needs to be done for the sake of dharma, virtuous ways of living and leading, for lokasangraha, the common good, in spite of such feelings, rising above such feelings. Not being able to do so, to rise above such feelings and do what needs to be done, is to behave like a loser – which is what he is doing at the moment, perhaps for the first time in his life. The winner mindset tells us to stand and face our challenges whatever they are and take the right steps needed to be a winner, whereas the loser mindset tells us to run away from them.
There is an invaluable lesson that Kunti, a winning mother in every sense of the term, gives us in the winner mindset exactly seven days before the incidents we are discussing happens. It is perhaps the most empowering message ever given by a mother to her son. The message was given not to Arjuna but to Yudhishthira and it was sent through Krishna. The message is known as Vidula Upakhyana and was one of the inspirations for our freedom fighters when we were trying to overthrow the yoke our colonial masters had put on the shoulders of Mother India.
The language of the message is harsh, the words as sharp as whiplashes, because Kunti felt nothing less than that would arouse her son who had sunk deep into the mire of the loser mindset. She gave this message to Krishna when he came to see her and take leave of her after the failure of the peace talks in the Kuru assembly. As he touched his aunt’s feet by way of paying respects to her and told her he was now hurrying to the Pandavas because there was no time to lose, she gave him this message for her eldest son and then added a few words for her other four sons and for Draupadi, with whom she shared an amazing relationship, as though they were twin souls.
Kunti never minces her words. She tells Krishna to tell her son what a shame he has become. He has forgotten his dharma and has became a worshipper of piece at all costs because of which she had to wait for the kindness of other people even for the food she eats for thirteen years, says she referring to the twelve years the Pandavas spent in the forest and the one year they lived incognito in Virata while she lived in Hastinapura. She says peace at all costs is not the way of kshatriyas who should live by the might of their arms and look after their subjects by it. She compares her eldest son whom the world calls the embodiment of dharma to a brahmana who does not know the meaning of the mantras of the Vedas but parrots them. As Kunti sees is it, Yudhishthira does not know dharma but only the words of dharma. She reminds Yudhishthira that kshatriyas are born of the arms of the cosmic person, the virat purusha, God, which makes them God’s arms on earth to establish righteousness, justice, equality, fearlessness, truth, kindness, compassion and all other godly ways that the Gita calls daivi sampada in its sixteenth chapter.
There is a beautiful story of a master carpenter. He was a house builder and every house he made was a masterpiece. The doors were strong, the windows opened to the winds from the east and west, the roof could withstand any storm, and you felt you were stepping into a temple every time you entered one of his houses. Passing years did not touch them, the seasons were gentle to them and they delighted in the elements rather than quiver in fright.
But he had made enough houses and wanted to retire and live the rest of his days in quietude. Though he had thoroughly enjoyed every house he had built, he had discovered the passion for building was no more in him. He wanted to take morning and evening walks, watch children at play, be with the kids that gamboled in the field, sing again the songs he had sung as a child, swim in rivers, climb mountains, enjoy passing breezes and just lie under the open sky. No more house building for me, he decided.
So he went to his master, the lord whose servant he was, and told him he would build no more houses. The master shook his head and said, “Build just one more house. A last one. And I shall ask you no more to build houses.”
Reluctantly the master carpenter agreed. But there was no passion for building houses in him anymore. There was no magic when he held his tools in his hand, no rush of energy. They felt heavy for the first time in his hand. He felt no thrill, his heart did not dance when he used the chisel and the hammer.
The house he built was unlike any he had built earlier. There was no joy in the house just as there was no joy in him when he built the house.
When he finished he came to his master, the lord, and told him it was done. And the lord knew there was no need to look at the house – the master carpenter had built it.
With a glowing smile on his face, with the glitter of joy in his eyes, he told the carpenter, “This house is my gift to you! It is an expression of my gratitude for all the houses you have built for me. Go, spend your remaining days in that house!”
And the master carpenter was condemned to live the rest of his days in that shabby house he had built without any love.
We too are like that carpenter. Each one of us is condemned to live in the world we make.
Kunti reminds Yudhishthira that if he is suffering, if he is living a life of grief and misery and making his brothers and Draupadi live such a life, it is because of himself. As the king it is his duty to practice dandaniti which includes punishing the wicked too, she reminds him, but instead of that he kept speaking of peace at all costs even when the enemies were trying to kill him and his brothers all means including poisoning and setting fire to their house. There were times when he should have taken up arms and fought, but he did not. She quotes a well known statement of the day that I have quoted innumerable times in my leadership training programmes:
kaalo vaa kaaranam raajnah raajaa vaa kaala-kaaranam; iti te samshayo maa bhoot raajaa kalasya kaaranam.
“Let there be no doubt in your mind as to whether the age makes the king or the king makes the age. The king makes the age.”
We hear Bhishma quoting the same verse to Yudhishthira again after the war has ended and he goes to Bhishma lying in the bed of arrows to learn from the grandsire the art of governance.
The king then is responsible for making the age good or bad. Satya yuga, treta yuga, dwapara yuga and kali yuga do not come in succession as is generally told, but the king – the leader – has the power to create them on earth. Kunti explains to Yudhishthira:
raajaa kritayuga-srashtaa tretaayaa dvaparasya cha yugasya cha chaturthasya raajaa bhavati kaaranam.
It is the king that creates kali yuga on earth, and it is he who creates treta, dwapara and satya yugas. He makes all the four ages.
If he implements dandaniti rightly, says Kunti, he creates satya yuga and if uses it with partial effectiveness, then the other two yugas are born. If he fails completely in practicing dandaniti, then the age of kali is born.
And then Kunti adds: tato vasati dushkarmaa narake shashvatees samaah. And then [when he creates the age of kali on earth], he lives in hell for an eternity.
Arjuna has just expressed his fear if he will not be thrown into hell for an eternity for killing his own people even if they are wicked, and Kunti here, in her message to Yudhishthira just before the war begins, says a king is sent to hell for an eternity for not punishing the wicked!
After these introductory words, Kunti tells Krishna the story of Vidula as her message to Yudhishtira. Vidula was the mother of a prince called Sanjaya [a name that means the winner!] who had been vanquished by his enemy, had psychologically accepted that defeat and was living a life of shame losing all his past glory. As we can see, Kunti who has been living in Hastinapura, as she says by looking up to her enemies even for the food she eats, is in the same position as Vidula and we must look upon Vidula’s words to Sanjaya as Kunti’s words to Yudhishthira. Fearless is the mother here, whether she is Vidula or Kunti, and her words give us goose bumps as we listen to them.
Kuinti’s words hit us with power of a thunderbolt. She says:
“You who increase the joys of your enemies, you are not my son! You are neither my son nor your father’s. Where have you come from? You with no anger in you, no thirst for vengeance, you cannot be counted a man. You look like a man and yet you are not a man – so what are you? A eunuch, that’s what you are!
“You have no right to sink into despair so long as you live, you coward! If you wish your own welfare, accept the burden of your challenges on your own shoulders.
“Don’t be a shame on your soul. Never be satisfied with little. Fix your mind on your own good and don’t be scared. Abandon your fears! Rise, coward, rise! Don’t you lie down accepting your defeat, delighting your enemies and making your friends grieve. Don’t you have any sense of honour?
“Tiny streams are filled with a little water. The palms of a mouse are filled with little. And so does a coward become satisfied with little!
“Pull out the fangs of a deadly snake and die doing so – that’s honourable. Don’t you die like a miserable dog! Exerting your utmost, risk your very life and do all you can to be victorious! Be like the eagle in the vast sky that soars high and wanders infinite spaces. Keep your eyes on your enemies for the opportune moment and strike fearlessly!
“You are lying there as though you are but a lifeless body. Have you been struck by lightning? Rise up, coward! Aren’t you ashamed to sleep after you have been vanquished by your enemy? Why are you miserably hiding from the sight of all? Let the world know you by your deeds. Never be contented with anything less than the highest position. Nothing less than the best should satisfy you! Be a winner, be the very best, be the first! Don’t you be satisfied by being the second or the third or anything less.
“Be like the Tinduka wood! Blaze up! Blaze up even if it is only for one moment! Don’t smolder like chaff without flames! Cultivate your desires! Ignite them! Nourish their fire! And achieve glory!”
Kunti has only contempt for the kind of ahimsa that Yudhishthira speaks of and practices. That is not the way of kshatriyas, she says. She reminds him kshatriyas are an acursed lot, condemned to live by cruelty – by kroora karma. To kill and slaughter for praja paripalana, for looking after his subjects, is a kshatriya’s lot. To punish the wicked, if necessary with the ultimate punishment – that is the way of kshatriyas, kings. That is what he is born for, that is what the creator fashioned him for and for that reason that is how he should live.
Kunti’s advice to Yudhishthira and the story of Vidula she tells him are long – it runs into several chapters of the Udyoga Parva of the Mahabharata. But she did not foresee her son Arjuna would need the message as much as Yudhishthira needed it. Because Arjuna was a winner, the very epitome of winners. When he was born, the gods had predicted that Arjuna together with Bhima would vanquish all the Kauravas and shake up the whole world. With the help of Krishna, he would slaughter his enemies in war and will achieve victory over the entire earth. His fame would reach the very skies.
So she did not foresee Arjuna would need her message as much as Yudhishthira needed. She did have a few words for him, though. And those few words are unforgettable. The essence of what this winning mother had to tell him was, “draupadyaah padaveem chara.” Follow the path of Draupadi. Follow the path that Draupadi treads, follow the path that she shows.
Kunti and Draupadi had an amazing relationship between them. They were the ideal mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, unlike the saas-bahu relationship we see in television serials today. They were twin souls.
And just as they were twin souls, Krishna and Draupadi too were twin souls too, says Indian culture – if anything, more twin souls than Kunti and Draupadi. They were one single entity, Krishna and Krishnaa were, born in two bodies, one male and the other female, but a single soul, born for the same purpose: the destroy adharma, to destroy the kshatriyas who had turned evil, and to reestablish dharma, virtues ways of living and leading, says Indian culture.
Kunti says her grief is not about the failure in the dice game or the kingdom being stolen from them. It is not about her sons being sent to the forest on the exile. What she grieves over are the merciless words Draupadi had to hear from Duryodhana while she wept in agony and shame in the royal dice hall.
Kunti wants Krishna to remind her sons the most hurting incident in their entire life. And she tells Krishna to tell Bhima and Arjuna: yadartham kshatriyaa soote tasya kalo’yam aagatah. Time has come for that for which a kshatriya woman gives birth to sons. Powerful words that ask her sons to be victorious in battle or to die the death of heroes.
Our deep buried traumas attack us in our weakest moments. Born of our psychological reactions to threatening real life experiences, they are like wayside robbers that attack us in our weary moments and loot us of everything we have. A single powerful traumatic experience can destroy our life. I have heard about a brilliant surgeon who was the best in his field but whose hands started shivering the moment he picked up a scalpel. What happened was that when he was a student one of the professors in the medical college was demonstrating a surgical procedure. The professor asked him to fetch a particular scalpel and he brought the wrong number. The professor shouted at him calling him an idiot, a good for nothing and said he would never amount to anything – he said this in the presence of the other students, several boys and girls, who were watching the demonstration as he was. He humiliation and insult he felt became a powerful traumatic experience. As a surgeon, every time he touched a scalpel, he heard the professor’s words from deep within him, “Idiot, good for nothing, you’d never amount to anything!” and his hands started shaking.
That’s the power of a single traumatic experience.
I have read about a girl whose left arm became paralyzed because one day while she was sitting at the dining table along with some of her friends, her father picked up a fork and threw it at her hitting that arm. He was angry at her for some small thing but that humiliation in the presence of her friends paralyzed her left arm for twenty years until she was healed of the trauma by a therapist.
Arjuna’s whole life is filled with traumatic experiences. He had grown up knowing that he is not the son of his father Pandu. That Pandu couldn’t have children and all his children were born through niyoga was not a secret to anyone. Then his father had failed to control himself and had sex with his wife Madri and died in the final moments of the act – on Arjuna’s birthday while Kunti was serving a feast to brahmanas. Pandu’s act was a kind of suicide because he knew sex would be death for him and yet he had given himself to it. Following Pandu’s death, Madri had committed ritual suicide by entering his funeral pyre. The years he lived in Hastinapura as unwanted cousins hated by Duryodhana were not happy years at al during which innumerable attempts were made on their life and they had to live in constant fear. And then there was the lacquer house incident, their escape and subsequent life in the forest for several years. And perhaps the most traumatic of all incidents – what happened to them in the dice hall and what was done to Draupadi there. He had to live as a eunuch in the Virata palace, and more than that, he had to endure the shame of having to watch the glorious Draupadi living as a maid to the Virata queen.
The list of traumatic experiences that fills Arjuna’s life is endless, any single one of which is enough to destroy a man. It is no less than a miracle that in spite of all this he not only survived but flourished and became the winner he became.
But traumas can strike us in our most vulnerable moments, which is what happened to Arjuna as he stood between the two armies and watched his grandfather, his guru and others standing on the opposite side whom he will have to kill in battle.
As we shall see when we journey into the Gita further, Krishna begins by giving him a shock treatment, which is one of the ways of shaking up people deep in traumas out of their helplessness and awakening them to reality. When Kunti sends her message to Yudhishthira and her other sons, what she does is no less than a shock treatment. Sometimes that is the only way to bring people out of their apathy that traumas push them into. It is interesting that Krishna attacks Arjuna as he begins his teaching by calling him a kleeba [eunuch, which was a shocking term of abuse for a warrior in the Mahabharata times] and Kunti uses the same term for Yudhishthira at the beginning of her message to wake him up from his apathy.
What Kunti is teaching Yudhishthira and her other sons through her message is the winning mindset. And what Krishna teaches Arjuna through the Gita too is the same: how to be a winner. Of course, a winner in a still higher sense than what Kunti means. Kunti sees things through a mother’s eyes, while Krishna sees things through God’s eyes.
Krishna wouldn’t let his friend be a loser. On one occasion in the epic, Krishna says such is his friendship with Arjuna that he would pull out his very flesh and give it for his sake. How can he then let Arjuna act like a loser as he is doing now?