Wednesday, October 20, 2010
naaraayaNam namaskRtya naram caiva narottamam
deviim sarasvatiim vyaasam tato jayam udiirayet
A verse in the first chapter of the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata speaks of three ancient traditions of reading the epic: one beginning at the beginning of the text as it exists today with the prayer narayanam namaskritya, another beginning with the Astika Parva and a third one, beginning with the story of King Uparichara Vasu, Vyasa’s grandfather.
When we begin at the beginning of the text as it exists today, we begin with how Ugrashrava Sauti, son of Lomaharshana, narrated the epic to the ascetics present at Shaunaka’s twelve-year long sacrifice at Naimisharanya. And when we begin with Astika Parva, we begin twelve chapters later, with the story of the ascetic Jaratkaru and the birth of Astika who stops the snake sacrifice of King Janamejaya at Hastinapura.
But when we begin with the story of Uparichara Vasu, we begin at the sixtieth chapter of the Adi Parva of the epic text as it exists today and the epic then starts with the family saga of its author, Sage Vyasa.
And what a story we get to begin with then! A story of lust that man fails to control, and the actions that uncontrolled lust leads man to and their consequences.
Which is actually the theme of the epic.
The Mahabharata is a tale of uncontrolled lusts – lust for land, lust for wealth, lust for power, lust for honour, lust for fame, lust for acceptance, lust for vengeance, lust for pleasure, and, above all, plain sexual lust. It is the story of lust in every imaginable form and the terrible consequences that uncontrolled lust leads to.
The Sanskrit word for lust is kama.
The Mahabharata does not criticize kama per se. Nor does Indian culture do so. What is criticized is uncontrolled kama, kama that controls us, kama that becomes our master, that makes us its slaves. The Vedic culture sees kama as the beginning of the universe. The brilliant Nasadiya Sukta of the Rig Veda, the Hymn of Creation, speaks of Kama as the first being to emerge, or the first essence to come into being and then becomes the cause of everything else coming into existence. The Taittiriya Upanishad speaks of the spark of desire entering the heart of the Unmanifest Being, which then creates out of itself everything else, abstract and concrete, real and illusory, moving and unmoving, all.
The Mahabharata itself speaks of Kama as the son of Dharma. Accordingly Kama, the son, should follow Dharma, should be guided by it. So long Kama follows Dharma, life is beautiful. And when Kama ignores Dharma, goes contrary to Dharma, violates Dharma, tragedy results. What is born of Dharma and hence noble, becomes dark and evil and destroys life.
It is for this reason that Krishna both praises Kama in the Gita and warns us against it. In one place he says Kama is himself – is God – so long as it does not violate Dharma. When it violates dharma, what is divine becomes demoniac: dharmaaviruddhe bhooteshu kamo’smi bharatarshabha – “I am kama that is not against dharma in beings.” In another place he takes its name as man’s worst enemy.
Here is the story of king Uparichara Vasu, Sage Vyasa’s maternal grandfather, the first story told by Vyasa if we read the epic following the third tradition.
Vasu was a great king renowned for his competencies as a leader and for his royal virtues – generosity, charity, empathy, understanding, people skills, self-mastery, commitment to values, integrity, all. After ruling his kingdom for years, he decided to tread the path his ancestors had followed by going to the jungle and devoting the rest of his life to spirituality. He began performing tapas, powerful austerities. Such was his tapas that Indra, the lord of the heavens, became shaky. For anyone who climbed certain heights in ascetic practices became qualified to take over Indra’s throne.
The word Indra means the lord of the senses – indriyaaNaam raajaa. That is, the mind. Asceticism is a way of conquering the mind, mastering it, making it one’s slave, rather than living as its slave. And the mind resists this, sometimes directly, at other times through devious means. It does not want to be conquered, but loves to remain as the master. As hundreds of stories in Indian literature tell us, as innumerable stories from the life of ascetics from across the world and from all cultures tell us, the mind throws temptations on the path of the ascetic to waylay him, to distract him and to destroy him. Indian literature abounds in such stories: the Buddha is tempted by Mara, Sage Vishwamitra by Menaka, Sage Kandu by Pramlocha and so on.
In the case of Uparichara Vasu, it is not a woman, the most common temptation for a male ascetic, that Indra uses. This former king had in all probability had women aplenty in his inner apartments. Nor does he use power as a temptation – the bait thrown to Jesus by the Devil, another name for the mind. He takes a much more refined approach with Uparichara Vasu, sage Vyasa’s grandfather-to-be.
Indra comes down to meet him in the ashram where he is living a life of asceticism. He speaks to the rajarshi, the royal sage, of the nobility of his duty to the world.
Let there be no doubts. The Mahabharata is very specific about this: What Indra was concerned with is not the good of the world. What he wanted was for the royal sage to stop his austerities and go back to the world to live his life there. For, if he continued his austerities, the king would be a threat to his position as the lord of the gods.
Temptations could be of different kinds and at different levels. A man may be tempted from his higher goals by something as simple as sexuality. But some people require more than sex to distract them from their path. For some, it is power that tempts them; in the case of some others, it could be fame; it could even be something as refined and beautiful as kindness and compassion.
The Bhagavad Gita tells us that it is not only tamas and rajas that bind us, but even sattva binds us.
Indian tradition holds that even concern for the good of the world could be binding when it makes you forget the ultimate human goal, the parama-purushartha, which is spiritual freedom. It tells us through the story of Jada Bharata who devoted his life to look after a baby deer that even kindness and compassion could be bondages.
The Prashna Upanishad tells us there are two dimensions to spirituality – the higher and the lower, called Dakshinayana and Uttarayana, the southern and the northern paths.
Dakshinayana, or the lower dimension, consists of acts that are classified as ishta and poorta. Ishta consists of acts for the common good – like founding schools, hospitals, orphanages, charity homes and so on. In ancient India, it included planting trees on the wayside, digging wells for drinking water, digging ponds and lakes, establishing wayside inns where travelers could rest and spend the night free of charge, and so on. Poorta consists of acts of service to the individual – like giving a meal to the hungry, water to the thirsty, taking care of a sick or old man, adopting an orphaned child and so on. These are great in themselves, but should lead man to higher spirituality, to Uttarayana.
Uttarayana, the higher spirituality, consists of tapas, dhyana, samadhi etc – austerities, the practice of meditation, experiencing self-transcendence and so on. It is through these that man reaches spiritual awakening, bodhi.
What Indra did was to appeal to the innate nobility of Vasu to tempt him away from his spiritual path. As a king, Vasu was a great lover of dharma, the common good. He was totally committed to it. Now Indra uses this very commitment to dharma, one of the noblest qualities in any leader, to tempt Vasu from his spiritual goals.
Indra appears before Vasu accompanied by several other gods. He convinces Vasu that his highest duty is to the good of the world. The absence of someone like him as king is causing corruption in the world and he should go back to his life as king to uphold dharma and stop all corruptions. It is dharma that upholds the world and it is kings like him that uphold dharma.
Indra assures Vasu that there are no eternal worlds that he cannot attain by protecting dharma in the world. He also declares Vasu as his eternal friend, his sakha.
The lord of the gods calling you a sakha is indeed a great honour.
Indra has called others his friends too in the past. And usually this has lead to tragedy to the men whose friend Indra pretended to be. Indra declared himself a friend of his greatest enemy ever, Vritra, and it is with the help of that friendship that Indra betrayed and killed Vritra.
As we saw, Indra is the symbol of the mind. Several spiritual traditions hold that there is no good mind and bad mind – mind itself is bad. That in fact, there is nothing bad, other than the mind. What is good is the state of no-mind, the state in which you go beyond the mind. Zen is one such spiritual tradition that expressly speaks of the need to transcend the mind and reach the state of no-mind. Mind is ignorance, says Zen. Mind is bondage, says Zen. And no-mind is freedom, wisdom.
Indra has by now offered two temptations to the king: eternal worlds of pleasure in the future as a result of upholding dharma in the world as king and friendship with the lord of the gods. Now he offers Vasu more. He tells him to take the best part of the earth as his kingdom.
What is recommended is the land of Chedi. Indra describes Chedi as delightful, sacred, rich, abounding in animal wealth and crops, filled with precious stones and mineral wealth. He tells Vasu that the land of Chedi has an agreeable climate; is very fertile; the cities and towns devoted to virtue; the people are honest, contented, law abiding, truthful, kind even to animals so that if a bullock becomes weak they do not anymore yoke it to the plough or to the cart but is instead looked after until it becomes fat again; sons are devoted to their parents, all people follow their dharma.
Indra hasn’t finished his offerings. He promises him the power to know all that happens everywhere in the world. He gives him a garland of unfading lotuses which would make him invincible in battle, an airplane that can take him through the skies to anywhere he wants to go, or even help him remain in one place if he wished so.
Besides all this, Indra also gives Vasu a sacred bamboo pole, a yashti that could be used for religious rituals.
Vasu falls for the temptations. He accepts these gifts from Indra and chooses to go to Chedi to become its king. He looks after Chedi as a virtuous king, protecting dharma in the hope of attaining glory as a leader of men on earth and eternal worlds of pleasure after his death. In gratitude to Indra for the kindness showered on him, Vasu begins a celebration known as Indrotsava, the festival of Indra, in which planting the bamboo pole given by Indra marks the beginning of the festival.
Indra is worshipped in this festival as a divine swan, a hamsa. Which reminds us of the Greek Indra, Zeus, who is tempted by Leda and assumes the form of a swan to seduce her, an image repeatedly painted by European painters and sculpted by leading western sculptures.
It is this Indrotsava that celebrates on earth the glory of Indra that Krishna later stops and asks the men and women of Vrindavan instead to worship Mt Govardhan that protects them and offers food to their cattle.
Vasu now becomes attached to his airplane and spends much time in it, thus acquiring the name by which he will be known to all subsequent generations: Uparichara Vasu, Vasu-who-moves-in-the-skies.
That is the past history of Vasu. Let’s now move on to the day that most concerns us, the day on which he begets Sage Vyasa’s mother in an act that the Mahabharata describes as dhoomra – a word the dictionary explains as vice, wickedness, sin.
Everything about the remaining part of Uparichara Vasu’s story is strange and mysterious. Perhaps because the things mentioned are so unacceptable, it is possible that the original story has altogether disappeared and we have to infer it from the hazy and puzzling details that are now available to us in the Sanskrit epic.
The first thing we are told is that a mountain once raped a river and two human children are born to the river. The name of the mountain is Kolahala and the name of the river is Shuktimati. We are also told that the mountain blocked the river and Uparichara Vasu kicked it with his foot, splitting the mountain and releasing the river.
Vasu’s act of releasing the river from the power of the mountain reminds us of Indra’s act of releasing the waters from the captivity of Vritra in still more ancient times.
Of the two children born to the river Shuktimati, one is male and the other female. The river offers the two children to Vasu and Vasu makes the male child, when the children grow up, his commander-in-chief and the female child his wife. Her name is Girikaa, meaning the child of a mountain.
It is possible that the king went to the mountain to release waters that were blocked by it, found there two abandoned children, twins, a male and a female and brought them home and when the children grew up, he made the girl his wife, and the male his commander-in chief. It is also possible that the children were born of a rape committed on a woman by someone on the mountain or the river bank.
Sexuality in ancient India was different in its gender implications than in the contemporary world. Within marriage, sex was considered a woman’s right, her privilege, something that she was entitled to from her man and not something the man ‘took’ from the woman. It was a man’s duty to go to his wife when she was in her ritu – the first sixteen days after her ritual bath following her monthly period – on prescribed days, avoiding proscribed days.
Girikaa had entered her ritu and sent a message to her husband, informing him she was ready and waiting, and asking him to go to her. Precisely at that time, says the epic, he received an order from his dead ancestors, his manes, that he should go on a hunting trip to the jungle.
Now, this is very strange! Because generally speaking the main interest of the dead ancestors is in continuing the family line – frequently their only interest. They should thus have prevented him from going on the hunting trip precisely at such a time. Instead, they order him to forget his wife who is ready and waiting, who has just sent him a message that she is ready and waiting, and go to the jungle to kill wild animals.
One way of looking at it is that the king faced an inner conflict. It is possible that the temptation to hunt and kill overpowered the king’s desire to go to his wife – at least for the time being. In the clash between the thrill of killing and the thrill of sex, the king chose the thrill of killing and ignored, suppressed, his desire for his wife.
He had taken a very wrong decision if we go by what follows!
It was spring, the season when the whole nature celebrates life. What Vasu found was a jungle in the festivity of spring. Trees and plants – ashokas, champas, mango trees, bakulas, punnagas, madhavis, sandalwoods, arjunas, all – were at their best, filled with flowers whose intoxicating fragrance filled the jungle. The mating calls of the cuckoo bird and honey-inebriated hums of the bumble bee added to the intoxication of the environment.
What the whole world was celebrating was what he had rejected to come to the jungle, and that too in spite of being requested by his wife.
Apart from being tempted by nature, it is possible that he also felt guilty about what he had done.
Ancient India said that a woman’s request for sex should never be ignored: arthinii strii anupekshaniiyaa.
The king’s mind went back to the beautiful mountain girl Girikaa who was pining for him at home in the palace.
His head was already light with nature’s intoxication. The visions of Girikaa whom he had rejected in spite of her express desire complicated matters further for the king. Losing mastery over himself, he sat down under an ashoka tree, the scent of fresh honey and the flowers going straight to his head.
According to the Mahabharata, it was now that he was tempted by vice and felt compelled to do a wicked deed, to commit a sin - dhoomra. Sex per se is not a sin in Indian culture. So it is some kind of ‘wrong’ sex that happened, which could be called wicked or sinful.
I would skip some details of what the Mahabharata tells us here and proceed to the end of this episode. In any case, what the Mahabharata tells us is so preposterous, so fantastic, that our minds will not accept it. It is possible that storytellers over thousands of years have given the present form to whatever was the original story.
The end of the episode is that a female fish in the Yamuna swallows the king’s seeds and becomes pregnant.
The fish, the story tells us, is a fallen apsara, a celestial dancer of incredible beauty, called Adrikaa. Due to a curse she received from Brahma, she had turned into a fish and was living in the river. Her curse was to last until she gave birth to two human children.
It is interesting that the apsara who has turned into a fish is called Adrikaa. Because Adrikaa means precisely what Girikaa means – a daughter of the hills.
The fish becomes pregnant. The pregnancy grows to maturity and reaches the tenth month. The fish is then caught by fishermen and cut open. Inside the fish, the fishermen find two children, a male and a female.
When the fish is cut open, it dies and the aprasa is released from her curse. She rises up into the skies and travelling on the path of the siddhas and charanas, reaches back her home, the land of the gods.
What exactly are we to make of this story?
One way to understand it is that the king, unable to keep in check his passion, had sex with a fisher girl called Adrikaa on the banks of the Yamuna and the children were the result of that brief encounter.
We have no clue as to whether Vasu took her by force or she voluntarily surrendered to his desire. From the way Vyasa’s mother, Adrikaa’s daughter growing up as the daughter of a fisherman, surrenders herself to the desire of Sage Parashara later, it is possible to assume that in those ancient days it was perhaps fairly common for men of the upper strata of society to have their way with women of the lower strata of society.
The chief of the fishermen takes the two children thus mysteriously found inside the fish to the king – to Uparichara Vasu himself. Customs in those days said that anything precious or unusual found or grown inside the kingdom should be offered to the king. The king keeps the male child and returns the female child to the chief of the fishermen, Dasharaja.
This is the second time that almost identical incidents are happening to Vasu. The first time he had found two children on the banks of the Shuktimati, a male and a female. He had made the male child the chief of his armies and the female child his wife, when they grew up. Now once again fishermen bring two children to him, who are, unknown to him, his own children. This time he keeps the male child and returns the female child to the fishermen.
The first set of children, we are clearly told, were born of a rape. From the circumstances the epic mentions, combined with the use of the word dhoomra, it is possible that these children too were born of a rape.
The male child, whom the king keeps, grows up to become the king of the Matsya country, also known as the land of the Viratas. It is here that the Pandavas would eventually spend their one year in hiding as per the conditions of the second dice game they lose. Following which, the Virata princess Uttara would marry Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu. King Janamejaya who listens to the Mahabharata story from Vaishampayana is the grandson of Uttara. The kingdom of the Bharatas thus ends up in the hands of an heir of Uparichara Vasu. Of course, Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura are all have his blood in them – they are Vyasa’s sons and Vasu’s great grandsons.
But all that is later.
The female child returned by Vasu to Dasharaja with the instruction to bring her up as his daughter is named Kaali and Krishnaa for her complexion. Both Kaali and Krishnaa mean a dark girl. She gets the nick name Matsyagandhaa for the strong foul smell that emanated from her. Matsyagandhaa means a fish-smelling girl.
Krishnaa turns out to be a ravishing beauty. The epic tells us that she was so beautiful that she tempted even great siddhas. She begins to help her father in his work by taking people across the Yamuna in their ferry.
Children mature early among the poor and begin to work before they are out of their childhood.
One day her passenger in the ferry is the legendary sage Parashara. He sees her and is allured by her. He confesses to her his desire for her. She objects by saying other people are watching them on both sides of the river. The sage with his powers creates thick mist all around them and then, unable to keep his lust for her in check, takes her with her permission.
The child born was given the name Krishna Dwaipayana at birth. Krishna means dark or black. He was dark like his mother. Dwaipayana means born on an island. He was born on a small island in the Yamuna.
This Krishna Dwaipayana, later to be known as Vyasa, is the author of the Mahabharata.
What we have here thus is a tale of lust. Sage Vyasa’s great grandmother Girikaa is the result of a rape, whose story is presented to us in the impossible form of the rape of a river by a mountain. Vyasa’s mother Satyavati is born when his grandfather, Uparichara Vasu fails to control his sexual lust and commits a heinous act. And Vyasa himself is born because a seer fails to control his passion for a beautiful fisher girl.
That is three successive generations. As we go into the story of the Mahabharata, we shall see that this theme of naked lust and the failure to control it runs through the generations to follow. Vyasa himself becomes subject to it once in his life and thus is born his son Shuka. Satyavati’s son, Vyasa’s half brother Vichitraveerya, would die because of his overindulgence in sex. Vyasa’s own son Pandu would die of his inability to master his sexual drive. And in the next generation several powerful men would lust for Draupadi, the most hauntingly beautiful woman in Indian lore, leading to disastrous consequences. Her own past life stories tell us of a lifetime as Nalayani in which she receives a curse from her husband because of her insatiable sexuality.
Did Indra foresee these things when he turned Uparichara Vasu away from tapas into the world? Did he foresee the Mahabharata war and the destruction of India that followed as a consequence?
The Mahabharata says the four ages are born as a consequence of man’s actions, particularly because of the actions of men in positions of power. It also says that towards the end of the Mahabharata story, the Age of Kali, the Dark Age, began.
Was Indra’s fear of Vasu’s asceticism the cause of the beginning of the Age of Kali?
Indian Wisdom considers personal leadership expressed in terms of self mastery as the foundation of all leadership – in fact, of all that is good. When Bhishma begins to teach Yudhishthira from his bed of arrows in the Shanti Parva, one of the first lessons he teaches is in self-mastery. What we find here is leaders of men failing in self mastery generation after generation, right up to the days of the Mahabharata war. Is it any more than a natural consequence then that the Age of Kali begins immediately after the Mahabharata war?
Monday, October 11, 2010
As a young man, Siddhartha was in love with a young girl in the beautiful valley where he grew up. She was a pretty girl some two or three years younger to him, slender, fair and delicate. His love for her was his secret and he never told anyone of that love. Anyone, including her. It was a silent love, a kind of silent worship. Every evening as the oil lamps in the temple at the heart of the valley were lit, she would go to the temple, fresh from her evening bath, in fresh clothes, her long, dark, shining hair open and loose. Siddhartha loved everything about her. But what he loved more than anything else was the serenity that surrounded her. Her movement had a kind of stillness about it. It was as though she floated towards the temple rather than walked. The whole evening had a quality of stillness and she moved as though she was the very heart of that stillness.
Siddhartha waited for her under the peepal tree near the temple every evening. Usually there were other young men with him there – his friends. On those days she ignored him completely – as though the peepal tree and the boys under it did not exist. On the days when he was alone under the tree, she would look at him and give him a smile. A smile that that blossomed on her face and in her eyes like a flower blossoming on a young plant. The smile lit up her beautiful face. It was as though a lamp has been suddenly lit up in a tiny shrine, its light bathing everything in its glow.
They had known each other from their childhood.
Siddhartha loved the feeling her presence gave him. It made him light. He felt as though he could fly. His inner world was lit up by her presence. On days when he could not see her, his world would be different. On those days, his world was cloudy. Filled with clouds that did not bring any rain, but brought only gloom. A vague, nameless gloom that he could not put words to.
Years later Siddhartha would wonder. Was it with the young girl he was in love? Or was it the feeling that she gave him that he loved? Was he in love with her, or was it with the lightness that her presence gave her that he loved, her smile gave her, that the thought she loved him gave him?
Do we love the people we love because they give us such beautiful feelings, or do we get such beautiful feelings because we love them?
Perhaps both are true. Perhaps truth is not one, there are different truths. A poet’s truth and a philosopher’s truth. And many others. The poet’s truth tells us that we get beautiful feelings because we love. And the philosopher’s truth tells us that we love because that gives us beautiful feelings.
“I love you not for who you are, but for who I am when I am beside you,” says Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Perhaps this is only the philosopher’s truth. It is the philosopher in Marquez speaking. The thinker in Marquez. When he speaks as a poet, he would speak differently. When he speaks as a writer, he would speak differently.
Marquez is one of the most powerful writers on love ever. I have loved several of his books, including One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera and A Demon Called Love, in all three of which his love is more demoniacal, obsessive and compulsive than the tender love the poet sings of.
The boy was young in years and he wanted to learn judo. Which was fine, except that as a child he had lost an arm in a car accident.
When he approached the old sensei, the Japanese judo master, the master expressed no hesitation in accepting him. The training began immediately and the boy made good progress – he was keen to learn and the drive and commitment needed were there in him in plenty.
However, his enthusiasm received a jolt when he realized that though he has been learning for more than three months, his master had taught him only a single move. He wanted to learn more. He wanted to learn everything that was there to learn in judo.
One day he decided to talk to his master. “Sensei,” he told the master. “When are you going to teach me more moves? Shouldn’t I be learning other moves?”
The master appreciated his eagerness to learn. He smiled at the boy and told him, “Son, this is the only move you would ever need to know.” The boy of course did not understand what that meant. But he trusted his master and continued to learn under him, mastering more and more thoroughly the one move he knew.
And then time came for the judo tournament. He boy wanted to participate and the master was delighted.
His first victory surprised the boy. The master’s reaction was an understanding smile. As though it was no more than expected. And then the boy won the second match. And then the third, though this time with some difficulty. The boy was now in the finals!
His opponent was a veteran. Powerfully built, he looked formidable. He was easily more than a match to the young boy.
As the match progressed, it was clear that the boy was overmatched. The referee was scared that he might be hurt. To avoid that possibility, he wanted to stop the match. But the old sensei asked the referee not to worry and to continue the match.
The veteran was now relaxed. He was sure nothing can stop him from winning. In his carelessness he made his first mistake. And that was enough for the boy. In a quick move, he pinned the powerfully built senior down. Try as he might, he stronger man could not free himself.
The boy won the match, surprising everyone, and more than anyone else, the boy himself. He was now the champion.
On his way back, he asked the sensei, “Master, how did I win the tournament?” And the master said, “One reason: you have mastered the one move you know more thoroughly than anyone else – and it is one of the most difficult throws in judo. And the other: the only known defense for that move is for the other player to grab you by your left arm.’
It was the left arm that the boy had lost in the childhood accident.
His weakness had become his greatest strength.
And that is precisely what a great leader does. Great leaders convert their weakness into their strengths.
Gandhi, one of the greatest leaders modern times have seen, was great master in converting weaknesses into strengths. It was this ability of his that made him so difficult for the British empire to fight. His choice of non-violence as a weapon in his struggle for freedom was definitely because of his love for non-violence. But there is also a different side to it: his compulsions. He had no army, nor could he raise an army that could match that of the British. Brilliant leader that he was, he turned this weakness into his strength. His struggle would be non-violent, where no army was necessary.
The Mahabharata tells us that while Arjuna was at Indraloka learning advanced weapons and music there, the celestial dancer Urvashi, the apsara, fell in love with him. Besotted with him, she approached him, seeking his love. But he said he couldn’t have her as his lover since she had once been the wife of one of his ancestors, Pururava, and was for that reason his own ancestress. Urvashi argued such relationships counted only with mortals and since she was a celestial and an immortal, they did not apply to her. When Arjuna stuck to his stand, a furious Urvashi cursed him, turning him into a eunuch, a curse that was subsequently reduced to one year of his choice as a eunuch. And Arjuna chooses the year of his life incognito in Virata, which we was bound to live as per the terms of the dice game his brother had lost, for living as a eunuch. And his eunuchhood became his brilliant cover – for as per the terms, had he been discovered, he and his brothers and Draupadi would have had to go into another round of twelve years of forest life and a year of life in hiding in a city.
That is another example for turning a weakness into strength.
Dharma can sometimes be a weakness – especially in the eyes of one’s enemy. In the case of Yudhishthira, on the one side dharma was his strength and on the other it was his weakness too. Duryodhana uses Yudhishthira’s obsession with dharma against him when he invites him for the game of dice. As expected, Yudhishthira is not able to say no in spite knowing that there is treachery involved in the invitation and it is a trap. When Duryodhana is asked what would happen if Yudhishthira obtained back his kingdom after the 12-year exile and one year of life incognito, he says that he would invite Yudhishthira for yet another dice game and Yudhishthira wouldn’t be able to say no because of his dharma. We repeatedly see in the Mahabharata that Dharma is frequently a weakness in the hands of Yudhishthira. And Krishna brilliantly turns this weakness of Yudhishthira into such a strength that it achieves the impossible – eliminating from the war the Kaurava commander-in-chief Drona, a warrior who cannot be killed so long as he hold weapons in his hands, albeit through an act the ethicality of which we still question.
There was only one way the formidable Acharya could be dissuaded from battling in the war: to tell him that his son Ashwatthama has been killed. And if he was not dissuaded, the Acharya was capable of wiping out the whole Pandava army in a day – so furious was he on that day and so brilliantly was he fighting. And, to add to his strength, he had started using magical weapons too, breaking the convention that they could be used only against those who knew them.
Under Krishna’s inspiration, Bhima kills an elephant called Ashwatthama and shouts to the Acharya that Ashwatthama has been killed. The Acharya comes to Yudhishthira seeking confirmation and Krishna has already prepared him to lie and that is what he does. And it has the desired impact on the Acharya.
It is on Yudhishthira’s confirmation that Drona takes the decision to give up weapons, stop fighting and to end his life.
One may question the ethicality of Krishna’s act. Krishna himself admits that what he did was unethical but adds that there are times when unethical means have to be used against an unethical enemy – when no other alternatives are available. So long as this is done keeping the common good as the measuring rod, it is justifiable, says Krishna.
Wise leadership means turning your weaknesses into your strengths.
US Steel once had an environmental problem in one of its factories. The coking operations the factory did, which were part of the process of making steel, produced a lot of residue which could pollute groundwater in the entire neighbourhood. The solutions available for the problem were all enormously expensive and could still not guarantee success. It took months for the company to arrive at a problem – but when it did, it was a brilliant solution and what was until then a liability became an asset to the company. The think tanks of the company realized that by mixing this waste in small quantities with the fuel for the furnaces, not only could the waste be got rid of, but it could also be used to produce energy. The wastage that until then was a weakness of the factory overnight became an asset to them.
I live in an industrial city. At one time the leading industry had to deal with the huge amounts of fly ash its operations produced. But now the same fly ash that was a pollutant earlier is used for producing cement, thus transforming a problem into profitable business.
The same company also had huge quantities of high quality heat resistant bricks used in its smelting shops. And then somebody suggested – pave the front yards of the tens of thousands of company houses in the city with these bricks. That would not only dispose of the bricks inexpensively, but would also keep the courtyards clean. The bricks soon were in high demand from employees of the company who occupied the houses and their gardens assumed new shapes with the bricks used to create pathways and patterns.
The backwaters and rivers of my home state in India, Kerala, was once deeply troubled by what was called African water plants that filled whole water surfaces. Numerous ways were tried to get rid of it, but all failed. And then the idea occurred: use it as a fertilizer. And today these plants are no more a menace to Kerala.
When Alexander attacked India and had to face Puru, the Macedonian conqueror encountered a major challenge in the form of the huge war elephants of the Indian king. Alexander won the battle by using the enemy’s strength against himself, thus turning it into his weakness.
What Alexander did, when his army encountered the huge elephant division of Puru’s army consisting of two hundred trained war elephants, was to order his highly trained archers to kill the mahouts. Rather than focusing on the warriors on the elephants, the archers focused on the mahouts. In a short while the mahouts were killed. Next the archers aimed their arrows at the eyes of the elephants and succeeded in blinding them within minutes. Alexander’s javelin throwers stepped in now, taking the place of the archers. They were masters in throwing javelins with precise accuracy up to a distance of 40-50 meters. Their javelins were soon buried deep into the elephants. The elephants, blinded and without mahouts, screaming in pain sought escape by turning around and running back and in the process killing Puru’s soldiers in huge numbers. The elephants were one of the major strengths of Puru’s army and Alexander had succeeded in converting it into a major liability to Puru.
Just as a successful leader converts his weaknesses into his strengths, he converts the enemy’s strengths into his weaknesses too.
Coca-Cola’s strength in the American market was its reputation as the classic American soft drink, the favorite of generations. When Pepsi wanted to beat it, it used that very strength against Coca-Cola. Pepsi was marketed as the soft drink of the new generation – the Pepsi generation. America is obsessed with youth and the new – and Pepsi created the image that Coca-Cola is for the aged and the old whereas what the the choice of the youth was Pepsi. Yet another example for successful leadership turning the enemy’s strength into his weakness.
As in so many other things, some of the greatest lessons in leadership could be learnt from flowing water. Speaking of the lessons that could be learnt from water, the Sun Tzu says: "Now an army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness."
Water is a master in the art of converting its weakness into strength.
One of the weaknesses of water is its lack of a rigid from. A rock, in comparison, has a rigid form and that is the strength of the rock. However, water transforms its formlessness itself into its strength. If a rock appears on its path towards the ocean, flowing water splits itself as it reaches the rock and reassembles itself once the rock is passed. If a mountain stands in the way of flowing water, water just changes its direction and moves on towards its goal, the sea. Also, water uses its absence of a rigid form to adapt to the different circumstances it finds itself in. Pour it into a glass, it assumes the shape of the glass, pour it into a cup, it assumes the shape of the cup and pour it into a jar, it assumes the shape of the jar.
While the rock might feel arrogant in its strength as a hard substance that does not adjust to situations, for water its fluidity and its absence of a rigid shape becomes its strength.
In the Mahabharata there is this beautiful discussion of the way of the bamboo, which is weak in comparison to trees like the teak, and converts its weakness into strength.
According to this story narrated by Bhishma in response to a question from Yudhishthira about leadership, the ocean, master of the rivers, tells the rivers: “'O rivers, I see that all of you, with your full currents, bring away mighty trees of large trunks, tearing them off with their roots and branches. You do not, however, ever bring me a bamboo. Bamboos that grow on your banks have weak stems and are devoid of strength. Yet you do not wash them down. Is it that you refuse to wash them down through contempt, or are they of any use to you? Tell me why you do not wash down the bamboos or uproot them from the banks where they grow?”
It is the Ganga who responds to the ocean’s question. She tells the ocean that mighty trees are unyielding and resist the currents of the rivers and therefore they are uprooted and carried down the rivers. Whereas bamboos, and other canes, act differently. When the mighty currents come, they bend to them and after the currents have passed, they resume their original shapes. It is for this reason, says the Ganga, that rivers do not pull up bamboos and other canes from their banks and let them survive where they are. “Those plants, trees, and creepers that bend and rise before the force of wind and water have never to suffer discomfiture by being taken up by the roots,” concludes the river.
Nature nourishes those who know how to convert their weaknesses into strengths.
A beautiful passage in which the Mahabharata states the wisdom of the Tao ages before Laozi and other masters stated it in Dao De Jing and other works.
No great leader can ignore the art of converting one’s weaknesses into one’s strengths and the enemy’s strengths into his weaknesses. Mastered well, this becomes one of his most effective weapons in the battlefield of leadership.
Here is something beautiful from Osho’s commentary on the Vigyan Bhairav Tantra, the Sanskrit classic on 112 meditation techniques in the form of questions from Devi and answers from Shiva.
SHIVA TO DEVI:
“OH LOTUS-EYED ONE, SWEET OF TOUCH, WHEN SINGING, SEEING, TASTING, BE AWARE YOU ARE AND DISCOVER THE EVERLIVING.”
We are living, but we are not aware that we are or that we are living. There is no self-remembering.
You are eating or you are taking a bath or you are taking a walk: you are not aware that you are while walking. Everything is, only you are not. The trees, the houses, the traffic, everything is. You are aware of everything around you, but you are not aware of your own being – that you are. You may be aware of the whole world, but if you are not aware of yourself that awareness is false. Why?
Because your mind can reflect everything, but your mind cannot reflect you. If you are aware of yourself, then you have transcended the mind.
Your self-remembering cannot be reflected in your mind because you are behind the mind. It can reflect only things which are in front of it. You can just see others, but you cannot see yourself. Your eyes can see everyone, but your eyes cannot see themselves. If you want to see yourself you will need a mirror. Only in the mirror can you see yourself, but then you will have to stand in front of the mirror. If your mind is a mirror, it can reflect the whole world. It cannot reflect you because you cannot stand before it. You are always behind, hidden behind the mirror.
This technique says while doing anything – singing, seeing, tasting – be aware that you are and discover the ever-living, and discover within yourself the current, the energy, the life, the ever-living.
But we are not aware of ourselves.
Gurdjieff used self-remembering as a basic technique in the West. The self-remembering is derived from this sutra. The whole Gurdjieffian system is based on this one sutra. Remember yourself, whatsoever you are doing. It is very difficult. It looks very easy, but you will go on forgetting.
Even for three or four seconds you cannot remember yourself. You will have a feeling that you are remembering, and suddenly you will have moved to some other thought. Even with this thought that ‘Okay, I am remembering myself,” you will have missed, because this thought is not self-remembering.
In self-remembering there will be no thought; you will be completely empty. And self-remembering is not a mental process. It is not that you say, “Yes, I am.” Saying ‘Yes, I am,” you have missed. This is a mind thing, this is a mental process: “I am.”
Feel “I am,” not the words “I am.” Don’t verbalize, just feel that you are. Don’t think, FEEL!
Try it. It is difficult, but if you go on insisting it happens. While walking, remember you are, and have the feeling of your being, not of any thought, not of any idea. Just feel. I touch your hand or I put my hand on your head: don’t verbalize. Just feel the touch, and in that feeling feel not only the touch, but feel also the touched one. Then your consciousness becomes double-arrowed.
You are walking under trees: the trees are there, the breeze is there, the sun is rising. This is the world all around you; you are aware of it. Stand for a moment and suddenly remember that you are, but don’t verbalize. Just feel that you are. This nonverbal feeling, even if for only a single moment, will give you a glimpse – a glimpse which no LSD can give you, a glimpse which is of the real. For a single moment you are thrown back to the center of your being. You are behind the mirror; you have transcended the world of reflections; you are existential. And you can do it at any time. It doesn’t need any special place or any special time. And you cannot say, “I have no time.” When eating you can do it, when taking a bath you can do it, when moving or sitting you can do it – anytime. No matter what you are doing, you can suddenly remember yourself, and then try to continue that glimpse of your being.
It will be difficult. One moment you will feel it is there, the next moment you will have moved away.
Some thought will have entered, some reflection will have come to you, and you will have become involved in the reflection. But don’t be sad and don’t be disappointed. This is so because for lives together we have been concerned with the reflections. This has become a robot-like mechanism.
Instantly, automatically, we are thrown to the reflection. But if even for a single moment you have the glimpse, it is enough for the beginning. And why is it enough? Because you will never get two moments together. Only one moment is with you always. And if you can have the glimpse for a single moment, you can remain in it. Only effort is needed – a continuous effort is needed.
A single moment is given to you. You cannot have two moments together, so don’t worry about two moments. You will always get only one moment. And if you can be aware in one moment, you can be aware for your whole life. Now only effort is needed, and this can be done the whole day.
Whenever you remember, remember yourself.
“OH LOTUS-EYED ONE, SWEET OF TOUCH, WHEN SINGING, SEEING, TASTING, BE AWARE YOU ARE, AND DISCOVER THE EVER-LIVING:”
When the sutra says “Be aware you are”, what will you do? Will you remember that, “My name is Ram” or “Jesus” or something else? Will you remember that you belong to such and such a family, to such and such a religion and tradition? To such and such a country and caste and creed? Will you remember that you are a communist or a Hindu or a Christian? What will you remember?
The sutra says be aware you are; it simply says ‘You are”. No name is needed, no country is needed.
Let there be simple existence: you are! So don’t say to yourself who you are. Don’t answer that, “I am this and that.” Let there be simple existence, that you are.
But it becomes difficult because we never remember simple existence. We always remember something which is just a label, not existence itself. Whenever you think about yourself, you think about your name, religion, country, many things, but never the simple existence that you are.
You can practice this: relaxing in a chair or just sitting under a tree, forget everything and feel this “you-areness.” No Christian, no Hindu, no Buddhist, no Indian, no Englishman, no German – simply, you are. Have the feeling of it, and then it will be easy for you to remember what this sutra says: “BE AWARE YOU ARE, AND DISCOVER THE EVER-LIVING.” And the moment you are aware that you are, you are thrown into the current of the ever-living. The false is going to die; only the real will remain.
That is why we are so much afraid of death: because the unreal is going to die. The unreal cannot be forever, and we are attached to the unreal, identified with the unreal. You as a Hindu will have to die; you as Ram or Krishna will have to die; you as a communist, as an atheist, as a theist, will have to die; you as a name and form will have to die. And if you are attached to name and form, obviously the fear of death will come to you, but the real, the existential, the basic in you, is deathless. Once the forms and names are forgotten, once you have a look within to the nameless and the formless, you have moved into the eternal.
“BE AWARE YOU ARE AND DISCOVER THE EVER-LIVING”: This technique is one of the most helpful, and it has been used for millennia by many teachers, masters. Buddha used it, Mahavira used it, Jesus used it, and in modern times Gurdjieff used it. Among all the techniques, this is one of the most potential. Try it. It will take time; months will pass.
When Ouspensky was learning with Gurdjieff, for three months he had to make much effort, arduous effort, in order to have a glimpse of what self-remembering is. So continuously, for three months, Ouspensky lived in a secluded house just doing only one thing – self-remembering. Thirty persons started that experiment, and by the end of the first week twenty-seven had escaped; only three remained. The whole day they were trying to remember – not doing anything else, just remembering that “I am.”
Twenty-seven felt they were going crazy. They felt that now madness was just near, so they escaped. They never turned back; they never met Gurdjieff again.
Why? As we are, really, we are mad. Not remembering who we are, what we are, we are mad, but this madness is taken as sanity. Once you try to go back, once you try to contact the real, it will look like craziness, it will look like madness. Compared to what we are, it is just the reverse, the opposite.
If you feel that this is sanity, that will look like madness.
But three persisted. One of the three was P. D. Ouspensky. For three months they persisted. Only after the first month did they start having glimpses of simply being – of “I am.” After the second month, even the ”I” dropped, and they started having the glimpses of ”am-ness” – of just being, not even of ”I”, because ”I” is also a label. The pure being is not ”I” and ”thou”; it just is.
And by the third month even the feeling of ”am-ness” dissolved because that feeling of am-ness is still a word. Even that word dissolves. Then you are, and then you know what you are. Before that point comes you cannot ask, ‘Who am I?” Or you can go on asking continuously, “Who am I?”, just continuously inquiring, ”Who am I ? Who am I?”, and all the answers that will be provided by the mind will be found false, irrelevant. You go on asking, “Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?” and a point comes where you can no more ask the question. All the answers fall down, and then the question itself falls down and disappears. And when even the question, ‘Who am I?” disappears, you know who you are.
Gurdjieff tried from one corner: just try to remember you are. Raman Maharshi tried from another corner. He made it a meditation to ask, to inquire, “Who am I?” And don’t believe in any answers that the mind can supply. The mind will say, “What nonsense are you asking? You are this, you are that, you are a man, you are a woman, you are educated or uneducated, rich or poor.” The mind will supply answers, but go on asking. Don’t accept any answer because all the answers given by the mind are false. They are from the unreal part of you. They are coming from words, they are coming from scriptures, they are coming from conditioning, they are coming from society, they are coming from others. Go on asking. Let this arrow of “Who am I?” penetrate deeper and deeper. A moment will come when no answer will come.
That is the right moment. Now you are nearing the answer. When no answer comes, you are near the answer because mind is becoming silent – or you have gone far away from the mind. When there will be no answer and a vacuum will be created all around you, your questioning will look absurd.
Whom are you questioning? There is no one to answer you. Suddenly, even your questioning will stop. With the questioning, the last part of the mind has dissolved because this question was also of the mind. Those answers were of the mind and this question was also of the mind. Both have dissolved, so now YOU ARE.
Try this. There is every possibility, if you persist, that this technique can give you a glimpse of the real – and the real is ever-living.
Courtesy: The Book of Secrets, Osho.