The Divine Charioteer

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One of the forms the Hindu God Krishna is worshipped in is as Partha Sarathi, “Arjuna’s Charioteer”.  This is very curious because we generally consider the job of the charioteer as the medieval equivalent of a driver, definitely not suited to such a charismatic and powerful god.  But this form of Krishna is a key element of his mythos; and we have to dig into the Mahabharata to understand why it is so.

Arjuna and Krishna are inseparable.  According to the Bhagavata Purana, they are the reincarnations of Nara and Narayana, two great sages who themselves are the twin incarnations of Vishnu. Nara (which means “man”) was reborn as Arjuna and Narayana (“god”) as Krishna.  In the Mahabharata, when they join together, they are considered invincible. The concluding sloka of the Bhagavad Gita says

yatra yogesvarah krsno
yatra partho dhanur-dharah
tatra srir vijayo bhutir
dhruva nitir matir mama

(Wherever Krishna is there as the spiritual master, and Arjuna with his bow, there will be prosperity, victory, power and justice – this is my opinion.)

In the Mahabharata, it is difficult to see Arjuna and Krishna other than as a dyad.  Arjuna is the action while Krishna is the intention: one is the body and the other, the soul.  On the battlefield of the Kurukshetra, it is significant that Krishna is unarmed: in fact, that is one of his conditions for joining battle.  His role is solely that of guiding Arjuna and the shaping of war strategies.

The Battlefield of Kurukshetra

The epic of Mahabharata climaxes in the eighteen day battle between the Kauravas and the Pandavas (Arjuna’s family), offspring of brothers, for the right to rule Hastinapura.  Krishna, a cousin of the Pandavas, is officially neutral – even though he is morally on the Pandavas’ side.  In the war, Krishna reiterates his neutrality by supplying the whole of his army to Kauravas while himself joining the Pandavas in the capacity of an unarmed strategist.  Significantly, Arjuna chooses him over the army.

Many writers and mythologists have expounded upon the symbolic nature of the Kurukshetra – the battlefield transcends its physical nature and becomes a metaphor for life at the metaphysical level.  Arjuna is man, forever spiritually weak even when physically strong – the guiding hand of Krishna is required at each and every stage to egg him on.

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This is epitomised in what is most probably the most significant part of the Mahabharata, when Arjuna breaks down while surveying the enemy army, and seeing all his relatives arrayed against him – whom he will have to kill.  It is then that Krishna imparts the Bhagavad Gita to him – the “Song of the Lord”, a sort of spiritual “pick-me-up” to enable him to go ahead into battle with detachment.

It is not my aim here to analyse the spiritual qualities of the Gita: I am not erudite or qualified enough.  It is the general agreement among historians that it is a later insertion into the epic.  This slim book of eighteen chapters has been elevated to the level of the spiritual text of all time and at the same time, vilified as the mouthpiece of Vedic Brahmanism used to spread their hated caste-riddled religion over the egalitarian Buddhism.  Looking at it impartially, both views have merit.  So we’ll leave the controversy there and concentrate on the roles: the role of Krishna, the spiritual guide and that of Arjuna, his disciple.

Because when the Kurukshetra battlefield moves on to the level of metaphor, we are looking at much beyond a battle of succession of a small kingdom in North India – we are looking at life, and the roles of the self and that of the godhead buried within the collective unconscious.

The Self and the Shadow

I have always felt that Arjuna can never be comprehended without looking at his nemesis and elder brother, Karna.  Arjuna’s equal in archery, Karna is his exact opposite in almost everything.  Born of the sun god Surya out of wedlock to Kunti (interestingly, Arjuna’s father is the rain god Indra) – the mother of the Pandavas – Karna had been cast adrift in the river on a casket (a common mythical motif across the world) and found and raised by sutas, a low caste.  Facing rejection at all points due to his lower social status, Karna is elevated to the position of the king of the kingdom of Anga by Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, and from then on he becomes his fast friend and the sworn enemy of Arjuna, whom he has taken oath to kill.

Karna suffers from a sense of rejection and (it seems) an inferiority complex throughout his life.  He has a fierce pride which has brought him nothing but trouble: a couple of curses earned due to his proud behaviour ultimately prove his undoing on the battlefield.  Contrast this with Arjuna, who is constantly plagued by self-doubt and has to be given a psychological boost by Krishna at intervals!  They make a strange pair – one the dark mirror image of the other.

In this context, I always like to invoke the concept of the Jungian shadow.

From Wikipedia:

In Jungian psychology, “shadow” or “shadow aspect” may refer to (1) an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself. Because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, the shadow is largely negative, or (2) the entirety of the unconscious, i.e., everything of which a person is not fully conscious. There are, however, positive aspects which may also remain hidden in one’s shadow (especially in people with low self-esteem, anxieties, and false beliefs). Contrary to a Freudian definition of shadow, therefore, the Jungian shadow can include everything outside the light of consciousness, and may be positive or negative. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” It may be (in part) one’s link to more primitive animal instincts, which are superseded during early childhood by the conscious mind.

Carl Jung stated the shadow to be the unknown dark side of the personality. According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to psychological projection, in which a perceived personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections remain hidden, “The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand and can realize its object–if it has one–or bring about some other situation characteristic of its power.” These projections insulate and harm individuals by acting as a constantly thickening veil of illusion between the ego and the real world.

Here, I like to think of Karna as Arjuna’s shadow. (This is my very own personal reading, of course.  There have been many erudite studies of the epic in which the social aspect of the caste system has been analysed.  I am not trying to negate any of them – this is just my own personal take. Also, I’m no Jung scholar!)  For every plus in Arjuna, there is a minus in Karna and vice versa.  One is a dark mirror image of the other – brothers, unbeknownst to themselves, each oath-bound to kill the other.

Now let us look at another important character – Karna’s charioteer Shalya.

The Reluctant Charioteer

Shalya, an uncle of the Pandavas, has been tricked into acting as Karna’s charioteer by Duryodhana – because only he has the skills to rival Krishna in the job.  Shalya is distraught that he has to do it, when Krishna offers him the solution: do it, but use the position to continuously denigrate Karna and his capabilities, because that is the only way to take this proud warrior down!

See the contrast – the self-doubting hero who is continuously guided by his charioteer (who reveals himself as god incarnate during the expounding of the Gita); and his proud antithesis (who nevertheless hides a sense of inferiority regarding his social status in his heart of hearts) who is continuously berated by his charioteer, who is supposed to be guiding him.

On the battlefield, at many points when Karna could have won, he loses out due to bad decisions.  One such instance is very illustrative.  Karna has Arjuna in the sights of his bow, and he is aiming for the neck, when Shalya advises him to aim for the chest.  Thinking that his charioteer is trying to sabotage him, Karna ignores him – and Krishna on the other side pushes the chariot down, so that the arrow misses Arjuna’s neck and takes away his crown.  Had Karna aimed for the neck, he would have got him.

Here, Shalya has followed a clever strategy.  As charioteer, he has played fair and advised the warrior he is driving on the correct strategy.  However, by ensuring Karna’s antagonism to him through his taunts, he has made sure that Karna will never listen to him – thus ensuring his defeat.

The Metaphor of the Chariot

It is also instructive to note that Karna is killed by Arjuna when his chariot wheel gets stuck in the soil.  (This apparently treacherous act by a great warrior, even though justified by Krishna, has taken away a lot of his glow and has been the subject of any number of debates.  But that is not our focus here.)  If we are looking at it realistically, the question arises – why should this make a warrior helpless?  He still has his weapons.

Here, I would like to provide my own metaphorical interpretation of the chariot as a symbol for the warrior’s psyche.  Then, the rider is the self – and the charioteer, the godhead which resides within the psyche.  When Arjuna faces a real spiritual crisis, Krishna reveals himself as God incarnate, and by showing his Viswa Roopa (himself as the whole of space and time) illustrates the core of Indian philosophy – namely that the whole of the universe is contained within oneself as one is contained within the universe.  As long as this godhead is guiding the self, the spiritual chariot runs fine – but when it turns hostile, it derails.  And when the self is in constant antagonism with the guide, the chariot inevitably breaks down disastrously.

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When we look at this way, worshipping the divine charioteer does not seem silly; rather, it does make a lot of sense.  Because if you listen to him, at times of spiritual crisis, you may receive your own Gitopadesha – and your chariot will keep on running.

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The Search for Meaning in Life

In the film Ikiru (“To Live”), master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, a Japanese bureaucrat with stomach cancer. Finding that he has only one year left to live, he initially slides into depression and then into riotous night-life. All that is changed, however, when he meets Toyo, a young girl who takes pleasure in making toys for young children – it gives her a purpose in life. This wakes Watanabe up to what he is missing in his life: and he makes it his purpose to build a playground in the city, cutting across all the bureaucratic tangles. The most haunting image in the movie is of him sitting on a swing in the playground, singing, immediately prior to his death.

I was thinking of this movie all the time I was reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl.

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I had heard a lot about this book before I actually got around to reading it – and to tell the truth, I was a bit underwhelmed, especially by the second part. Yet I consider it a significant work, because I think Viktor Frankl has astutely identified the main reason for existential angst – the lack of meaning in one’s life in modern times.

It seems that Dr. Frankl has been engaged in what he calls “logotherapy”, where the patient is asked to concentrate outward rather than inward. As opposed to Freud who wanted people to dig deep into their psyches to locate childhood neuroses, Frankl asks them look into the world they live in to find the root of their existential crisis. The root of his philosophy is that most of man’s existential crisis rises from a search for meaning in life. In this, it is opposed to two other famous theories from the Viennese school of psychotherapy – Freud’s, based on the quest for pleasure and Adler’s based on the quest for power.

Frankl has his gruelling experiences in Nazi concentration camps to prove his theory. This comprises more than half of the book, and is really a torture to get through – not because of bad writing, but because he convinces us to accompany him on that nightmare journey. There is no hope, no mercy and no shred of human dignity in these hells on earth. The inmates are stripped of all their possessions including clothes, underfed to the level of starvation and overworked to the extent that many fall down dead from sheer exhaustion. Apart from this, they live in constant fear of being selected for the gas chambers.

The gateway to the dreaded Auschwitz Concentration Camp

What happens to people in this situation? They lose hope, and many of them give up on life. Others become cruel exploiters themselves (the Capos, the guards who are chosen from the ranks of prisoners themselves). Some try to survive by being smarter than others: and yet others find that extra something to pull them through – a meaning for their suffering, something to look forward to in life even in the midst endless misery. They become the rare beacons of light in the pitch darkness. Most of them don’t survive, because of their altruism – as Dr. Frankl says, “the best of us didn’t come back”.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.

For Frankl, it was the image of his young wife and his love for her which suddenly gave him a purpose in life.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.

He kept on having conversations with her in his mind; even though he knew that she may be dead (she was, in fact). This gave him conviction to go ahead even when death stared him in the face. Dr. Frankl genuinely believes that it is this which helped carry him through, and on the whole, I find myself agreeing with him.

Such a purpose does not necessarily mean salvation – but it does give one the power to endure it until it all ends. Viktor Frankl tells us the story of a young woman, whose vision of a tree branch through the window of the hut in which she lay dying, gave her sustenance.

This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”

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One curious fact I noticed was that Frankl’s concept of ‘self-transcendence’, which seemed remarkably close to Joseph Campbell’s concept of the ‘Hero’s Journey’. Also, the three paths which he mentions – through achievement, through selfless love and through cathartic suffering (when unavoidable, not masochistically chosen) – are applicable to the godhead from three different religions. The path of achievement of the Greek hero: selfless love to the level of dissolution of one’s self in god, that of Radha and Mira Bai for Krishna: and the suffering which cleanses, the way of the cross, the passion of Jesus Christ.


The Concept of Reality

The other day, I had a debate with a conservative friend on Facebook, on the relativity of truth.  In order to justify many of the Hindu right’s silly claims about cows (i.e. cow urine contains gold, cow dung can be used as protection against radiation, cows exhale pure oxygen…), he was forced to say that even science was manipulated.  This was amusing, because it was usually me arguing for the relativity of religious ‘truth’ against right-wing absolutists!

A few days after this, Kellyanne Conway came up with the terminology ‘alternative fact’, and things became purely Orwellian.  If one can dispute recorded facts based on one’s political conviction and force people to support it based on muscle power, then ‘facts’ become whatever you want to believe – or in an authoritarian society, what the government wants you to believe.  We have come from a “post-truth” world to a “post-logic” world.

The Phenomenal World

This took me back a few years.  In the most excellent discussion forum available on the Joseph Campbell Organisation website in those days (alas, no more existing), this was one topic which was hotly debated – and ironically, I was on the side which was arguing that an absolute reality did not exist!

Before you start carting me off to the loony bin, let me elucidate.

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The classic example of this is colour.  There is no way to prove that the ‘red’ I see and the ‘red’ you is the same, unless you can inhabit my brain or vice-versa; this is very evident in the case of a colour-blind person who sees everything in shades of grey.  The same thing can be said for taste, smell etc. It is all subjective.

There are three movies which look at this philosophical conundrum in creative ways: The Matrix, Vanilla Sky and Inception.  In The Matrix, the narrative is very straightforward; reality is an illusion created by an oppressive authority which has to be transcended to see the ‘actual’ reality.  In Vanilla Sky, the protagonist is living in a fantasy world; he has to take a ‘leap of faith’ to ‘open his eyes’ to reality – but we never see what it is.

Inception is easily the most intriguing film of the three.  Here, we have a team of people diving into recursive layers of reality within a person’s mind –dreams within dreams within dreams – and planting an idea inside.  However, by the time these multiple levels are negotiated, the characters and the audience are both left with a bewildering sense of disorientation.  And the film abruptly ends with a tantalisingly open-ended scene.

Truth vs Facts

In the discussion referenced above, somebody came up with an iron-clad argument for the existence of non-subjective truth – verifiable facts.  For example, even if we want to believe that Stephen King wrote Slaughterhouse Five, we cannot – because it can be verified for a fact that Kurt Vonnegut did.  In fact, the evidence of our senses here will compel us to accept something our brain does not want to.

But there are other things like the existence of God, the relative merit of communism vs capitalism, women’s rights etc. which are, indeed, matters of opinion.  Our problem is that we club these also along with ‘facts’ – and the line between fiction and fact gets blurred.

It is at this point of our discussion that we came to our most prickly issue – scientific facts.

The Method of Science

The majority of people who claim to be spiritual look upon science with some distrust.  They believe that science is too reductionist, too dismissive of individual experience, to provide a comprehensive picture of reality.  They are quick to point out that science relies on sensory data of individuals to arrive at results and conclusions – sensory data which is necessarily tainted with the individual’s bias.

While this argument is valid, science bypasses it by its method of experiment and observation.  Multiple experiments are carried out by different individuals, the results are recorded, and conclusions are arrived at based on the confirmation or refutation of a hypothesis based on observations.  So scientific ‘truth’ is in fact based on verifiable facts.

All right, so far?

Well… not quite.  What about the interpretation of facts?  It is also done by fallible human beings.  And facts are open to interpretation in different ways.

So I choose to call science ‘Constructive Falsehood’.  Even with the knowledge that we are relying on imperfect interpreters, the sheer number of independent observations gets it as clear to objectivity as we can.  So generally, we can accept the results of scientific experiments as ‘truth’ – with the understanding that this can be overturned the moment new knowledge comes to light.

Interpreting Reality

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Even to this, the naysayers have their argument.  How does one conclude that something is chance?  How do we accept that human mind cannot influence the outcome of an experiment?  This argument is especially pervasive in cases of New Age fads like ESP and precognition.

Unfortunately, science cannot answer this, because science does not deal in absolute certainties but reasonable ones.  The ideal scientist would say that “the argument has no reasonable scientific evidence.”

It works the other way, too.  Evolution is currently the only scientific theory which explains the origin of species, without positing an a priori cause. However, it can point only to reasonable evidence in support of its claim – it can never ‘disprove’ that God was behind it!  (Which is why theories like Intelligent Design still have followers, I guess.)

Once we dig deeper and deeper into the mechanics of the reality we see and feel, however, we see the safety net disappearing from underneath us.  At the quantum level, what is matter?  Not the solid thing what we have come to experience, for sure.  What is an atom?  What is an electron?  Is light comprising particles or waves?  What is time?

No absolute answers…

An Empirical Model

In engineering, we do a lot of mathematical modelling.  Fluid flow, heat transfer, mass transfer, chemical reactions… all are modelled mathematically based on experience, and the empirical equations derived out of the models are used to predict the physical and chemical behaviour of substances in the ‘real’ world.

And it works.  I can use a fluid flow equation quite accurately to predict the flow of a fluid through a pipeline.  When the pipeline is actually built and operated, the fluid behaves remarkably like the equations did in my computer.

So – this is what science does: it gives us an empirical, workable model for the universe which can be used to interpret and predict phenomena.  In their different paradigms, each scientific model is valid insofar as its interpretative and predictive powers are accurate.  So at a macro level, Newton’s classic physics works: at relativistic level, we have to use Einstein’s equations: at quantum levels, we have to take the help of Max Planck.  None of these models are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; they are ‘useful’.

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So, to sum it up – no, we don’t know what reality is in an absolute sense (we may never know).  There is no absolute truth.  But there are verifiable facts within a paradigm; and as reasonable individuals, we need to accept these facts even if they go against our belief systems.

This is how we have come so far.  If we let go of it, we slip over – into ‘La La Land’.