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Book review: Thoughts from Jaya, a retelling of Mahabharata

The world around me is very unsettling. First, we have the incompetence of the governments of the day, and then the startling realities highlighted by Satyamev Jayate show, even if it is not the whole truth, and so on. And these strange behavior of man to hurt and not help starts from his kindred and extends to the society around him/her. Very depressing.

Coincidentally, I chanced upon Devdutt Pattanaik‘s book Jaya : An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata in a Crossword outlet. I couldn’t stop reading it, so I bought it, and continued reading at home. And I was thoroughly engrossed by it.

What is not incredible is the number of stories, characters or the breadth of it. What is incredible is that it seems that every situation that I can come across or have heard of could be generalized into one of the situations already talked about in the stories of the Mahabharata and you can relate to it!

The most important lesson reinforced was that life is meaningless (there is no grand plan), our greatest challenge is leading a “normal life with values” and to be human to each other. Think about that for a minute. Think about how it applies to every minor situation in every minute in the office and at home or on a bigger scale at the level of states and nations. If only we could be a little more human towards each other and lead a “normal” pleasant life. Why is it that we are all screwed up in so many little ways? Whether it is lack of trust or lack of intimacy or lack of friends or lack of self-confidence or lack of support or lack of pleasantries or lack of humanity… so on.

While I did not find the answer to it in the Mahabharata, I did come to the stark realization that this has been the way for generations and has been so since the age of the Mahabharata. So I should take heart in it and figure out what are the age-old approaches to overcoming this hassled life.

Coincidentally, this has been part of my initiative to “read older”, I’m trying to cut down on reading “newer tweets” and instead read “older books” and “older papers”, etc. So far, it’s been working out well, but that is a perpetual battle of focus. There is far more wisdom and far more to learn in older stuff than the newer stuff which tends to be mostly regurgitations.

Many of my realizations or understandings in the book came about because of the ‘interpretations’ by Devdutt after each story. Those interpretations put the stories in context – there is the usual intended “moral of the story”, but there is also cultural, political and religious explanations and sometimes simply how stories were changed to possibly cover up or make a story suitable for hearing by subsequent generations.

Table of Contents

1 Descendants

For example, it is believed that man and woman are reborn as their grandchildren or any of their descendants – this probably explains the female foeticide issue on why men want boys and not girls, and that tendency has gone to an extreme in the last couple of generations. On the same note, it probably explains why rearing children is considered such an important part of life for our previous generations even though the current generation (including me) consider it as just another phase of life. In fact, in one of the stories, Bhishma is considered to have sinned because he decided to not get married because of his step-mother’s wishes that there be no other heirs to the kingdom! So many beliefs and fervour can be attributed to a simple age-old concept which has been twisted and extended by generations.

2 Dharma

When Subramaniam Swamy says “we are fighters.For fighters for dharma there is always hope.” after the recent Presidential election, he is probably referring to is this quote by Krishna regarding Dharma:

Humans alone of all living creatures can reject the law of the jungle and create a code of conduct based on empathy and directed at discovering the meaning of life. This is dharma.
To live in dharma is to live without fear. To live in dharma is to act in love. To live in dharma is to have others as a reference point, not oneself.
Function therefore in this war not like that insecure dog that barks to dominate and whines when dominated, but like that secure cow, that provides milk freely and follows the music of the divine.
Do you fight this war to break the stranglehold of jungle law in human society, Arjuna? If not, you do not practise karma yoga.

As an aside, you also get to know why the cow is considered sacred.

In another instance, I have started to differentiate when a person is in anger and says things that I should not pay attention to whereas when they are genuinely upset with something I did or didn’t do:

Dhritarashtra expresses it by crushing the iron effigy of Bhima while Gandhari expresses it by burning Yudhistira’s toe with a glance.
Once expressed, rage dissipates and reason returns.
One is advised in many parts of India to eat sugar when agry, just like Gandhari did, so as not to end up cursing the Pandavas.

3 Trust

This relates to the point of the importance of trust:

The reason for telling these stories was to calm the angry brothers and to tell them that sometimes things are not what they seem. Arjuna should not assume that words spoken during stressful situations were real. His brother was just angry and did not mean to insult him or his bow. One should have faith in one’s friends and family and not let one harsh word break the bond of trust.

4 Attachment

One has to forgo attachments to fight for dharma:

The Pandavas have to fight father (Bhishma), teacher (Drona), brother (Karna) and uncle (Shalya) to defeat the Kauravas. They have to break free from all attachments that bind them.

I’m not sure I really understand this, but I think it suggests that we should fight for dharma, even against our own. Just like how Indians fought against Indian soldiers who were serving the British. And how there will soon be another fight by IAC against the government, even if the IAC itself is becoming disillusioned.

5 Outgrowing the beast within

The real difference between Pandavas and Kauravas is:

It is simplistic to imagine that the Pandavas are good and the Kauravas are bad and so Krishna sides with the former.
Pandavas are willing to change; they want to outgrow the beast within them.
The process of change is difficult – the Pandavas have to suffer exile, kill loved ones and lose their children, in the process of gaining wisdom.
The Kauravas cling to their kingdom like dogs clinging to a bone. They refuse to change. Hence, they die without learning anything.
Krishna is the teacher. But the onus of learning rests with the students.

6 Destruction and Living

Yudhistira is so upset about the destruction and loss of life during the war that he is unwilling to be crowned king and he is given a lesson the point of life:

The eldest Pandava had lost all interest in kingship. “I am a murderer,” he cried. “My hands are soaked with the blood of my family. When I sit on a pile of corpses, how can I drink the cup of success? What is the point of it all?”
Vidura spoke solemnly to his nephew, “Everybody dies – some suddenly, some slowly, some painfully, some peacefully. No one can escape death. The point is to make the most of life – enjoy it, celebrate it, learn from it, make sense of it, share it with fellow human beings – so that when death finally comes, it will not be such a terrible thing.”
A Charvaka, one who does not believe in the existence of anything spiritual or metaphysical, shouted from the city square, “Yes, Yudhishtira, life has no point at all. So enjoy every moment for there is no tomorrow, no life after death, no soul, no fate, no bondage, no liberation, no God. Be a king if it makes you happy; don’t be a king if it does not. Pleasure alone is the purpose of life.”
None of this pacified Yudhishtira. He paced the palace corridors all day and lay awake on his bed at night, haunted by the wail of widows and orphans. No one understood his pain. “Perhaps I must become a hermit. Find serenity in the forest.”
(Remember that forest is also a metaphor for the darkness and the wilderness of the mind. Conquering the forest and being at peace there means enlightening the mind.)
It was then that Krishna spoke, “Yes, Yudhishtira, you can renounce the world and become a hermit and achieve peace, but what about the rest of the world? Will you abandon them?” Yudhishtira did not know what to say. Krishna continued, “A hermit seeks meaning for himself but only a king can create a world that enables everyone to find meaning. Choose kingship, Yudhishtira not out of obligation but out of empathy for humanity.”
“Why me?” asked Yudhishtira.
“Who better than you? You, who gambled away your kingdom, can empathize with the imperfections of man. You, who silently suffered thirteen years of exile, know the power of repentance and forgiveness. You, who saw Duryodhana reject every offer of peace, know the power of the ego and the horror of adharma. You, who had to lie to kill your own teacher, know the complexities of dharma. Only you, son of Kunti, have the power to establish a world where the head is balanced with the heart, wealth with wisdom, and discipline with compassion. Come, Yudhishtira, with your brothers by your side, be Vishnu on earth.”
Yudhishtira needed no more persuasion. He realized what it meant to be king. He agreed to wear the crown.
In the presence of all elders, he was made to sit on the ancient seat reserved for the leader of the Kuru clan. Milk was poured on him and water. He was given first a conch-shell trumpet, then a lotus flower, then a mace and finally the royal bow.
The priests said “Like Vishnu, blow the trumpet and make sure the world knows your law. Reward those who follow it with the lotus of prosperity and discipline those who don’t with a swing of your mace. And always stay balanced – neither too tight nor too loose – like the bow.”
Interpretation: The coronation ceremony in ancient times paralleled the ceremony in which a stone statue was transformed into a deity in temples. The ceremony was aimed to bring about a shift in consciousness. Just as it enabled a stone to become divine and solve the problems of devotees, it enabled an ordinary man to think like God – more about his subjects and less about himself.
Interpretation: Dharma is not about winning. It is about empathy and growth. Yudhishtira knows the pain of losing a child. He can empathize with his enemy rather than gloat on their defeat. In empathy, there is wisdom.

On a similar note, Bhisma, on his deathbed, tells Yudhishtira:

Bhisma told Yudhishtira, “Life is like a river. You can struggle to change its course but ultimately it will go its own way. Bathe in it, drink it, be refreshed by it, share it with everyone, but never fight it, never be swept away by its flow, and never get attached to it. Observe it. Learn from it.”

On the note of us over-reaching what is given to us by Mother Earth and of course the greed, corruption and scams, there is this story:

Bhishma told Yudhishtira about human society. Humans, unlike animals, were blessed with imagination.
They could foresee the future, and take actions to secure it. Often attempts to secure the future leads to hoarding; need gave way to greed. With greed came exploitation.
King Vena plundered the earth to such a degree that the earth, tired of being so abused, ran away in the form of a cow.
The sages then had Vena killed. Vena’s son, Prithu, pursued the earth-cow crying. “If you don’t feed them, my subjects will die.”
The earth-cow retorted angrily, “Your subjects squeeze my udders until they are sore. They break my back with their ambition.”
Prithu then promised that he would establish a code of conduct based on empathy, rather than exploitation, which would ensure the survival of humanity.
“This code of conduct will be called dharma,” said Prithu.
By this code, the earth became a cow while kings became the earth’s cowherds ensuring there was always enough milk for humans as well as cow’s calves.

7 Four parts of life

The dharma-shastras divide life into four parts.
The first, brahmacharya, prepares one for the world.
The second, grihastha, is the time to enjoy the pleasures and powers of the world.
The third, vanaprastha, is the time to retire from the world passing on all wealth to the children and all knowledge to the grandchildren.
The fourth, sanyasa, is the time to renounce all things worldly.
The characters in the Mahabharata from Pratipa to Dhritarashtra retire from society and renounce the world after completing their worldly duties.
Thus only the young are allowed to enjoy the fruits of the earth, while the old contemplate on it.

This lesson should be imbibed by political leaders.

8 Wisdom is always a work in progress

Despite learning from Krishna the value of outgrowing the beast within man, the Pandavas cling to their grudges after the war, like dogs clinging to bones.
No lesson is permanent.
Wisdom thus is always work in progress.

Interestingly, the Mahabharata lays a greater emphasis on karma than on the “blessings” of God:

Krishna’s family does not escape Gandhari’s curse.
Thus even God surrenders to the law of karma.
By making man the master of his own destiny and the creator of his own desires, God makes man ultimately responsible for the life he leads and the choices he makes.
God does not interfere with fate; he simply helps man cope with it.

9 Life is an endless turmoil

Emphasis mine:

Arjuna decided to take the few survivors (of Dwaraka) with him to Hastina-puri.
But the misfortunes continued. On the way, they were attacked by barbarians who abducted many of the women and children. Arjuna raised his Gandiva and tried to protect them but was outnumbered.
The great Gandiva which could destroy hundreds of warriors with a single arrow now seemed powerless. Arjuna realized that he was no more the archer he used to be. His purpose on earth and that of Gandiva had been served.
Overwhelmed by his helplessness before the rising tide of fate, humbled before the raging storm of circumstances, Arjuna fell to his knees and began to cry uncontrollably.
When the tears dried up, it dawned on him that Gandhari’s curse, which had destroyed Dwaraka and its people, had its roots in the war at Kuru-kshetra.
And the war would not have happened if they had simply restrained themselves and not wagered their kingdom in a game of dice.
/Arjuna realized, that in a way, he was responsible for the fall of Dwaraka. This was the great web of karma that connects all creatures in a single fabric. He begged for forgiveness for his part in the sorrows of all mankind./
/In response, the clouds began to rumble and in a flash of lightning, Arjuna saw a vision: a gurgling, happy child sucking its butter-smeared big toe as it lay on a Banyan leaf cradled by the deadly waves that were destroying Dwaraka./
In the midst of destruction, this was a symbol of renewal and hope.
/Arjuna finally understood the message given to him by God. Life would continue, with joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies rising and falling like the waves of the sea./
It was up to him to respond wisely, enjoy simple pleasures unshaken by the inevitable endless turmoil of the world.
He took the surviving Yadavas and gave them a home in Mathura, where in due course, Vajranabhi, son of Aniruddha, grandson of Pradyumna, great grandson of Krishna, would rise as a great king.

10 Kauravas in Swarga and Pandavas in hell

As soon as Yudhishtira stepped into heaven, he saw the hundred Kauravas, Duryodhana and Dusshasana included, standing beside the Devas looking radiant and blissful. They too spread out their arms to welcome Yudhishtira.
Yudhishtira recoiled in disgust. “How did these warmongers reach Amravati?” he asked angrily.
The Devas replied, “They were killed on the holy land of Kuru-kshetra. That has purified them of all misdeeds and earned them the right to enter Amravati. Surely, if heaven is good enough for your dog, it is good enough for your cousins.”
The explanation did not satisfy Yudhishtira. “And my brothers? And my wife? What about them? Where are they? Are they here too?” he asked.
“They are not here,” replied the Devas placidly, refusing to pay any attention to Yudhishtira’s rising rage.
“In another place,” said the Devas, taking no notice of Yudhishtira’s impatience.
“Take me to them,” said Yudhishtira, determined to get to the bottom of this.
“Certainly,” said the Devas who led Yudhishtira out of Swarga, down from the sky, along the slopes of Mandara, through a crevice deep under the earth to a realm that was dark and gloomy and miserable.
There, Yudhishtira heard cries of pain and suffering. It was everything Amravati was not.
He realized it was Naraka, the realm of misery.
“My brothers are here?” cried Yudhishtira in disbelief.
In response, he heard the moans of his brothers, including Karna. “Yes, we are here,” they said in unison.
Bhima, Yudhishtira knew, was paying for his gluttony. Arjuna for his envy, Nakula for his insensitivity, Sahadeva for his smugness and Draupadi for her partiality.
But Karna? Why him? Had his elder brother not suffered enough in life?
“Karna promised Kunti to spare four of her five sons despite knowing that Duryodhana relied on him to kill all five Pandavas.
He is paying for breaking his friend’s trust,” clarified the Devas rather matter-of-factly.
Yudhishtira felt everyone’s pain and started to weep.
“Shall we go back to Amravati now?” asked the Devas.
“No, no. Please don’t go,” Yudhishtira heard his brothers cry. “Your presence comforts us.”
“Well? Shall we leave?” asked the Devas impatiently.
“Please stay,” Yudhishtira heard Draupadi plead. She sounded so lost and tired and anxious and afraid.
Yudhishtira could not bring himself to move. Tears welled up in his eyes. How could he return to Swarga and leave his family here?
He took a decision. “No. I will not leave Naraka. I will stay here with my wife and my brothers. I will suffer with them. I refuse to enter Amravati without them.”
The Devas laughed. Rising up in the air, glowing like fire flies, they said, “Oh, but we thought you had renounced everything?”
“What do you mean?” asked Yudhishtira, suddenly uncomfortable.
“Did you not renounce all worldly ties when you entered Swarga? Wherefrom then, comes this attachment? You are as attached as to your hatred as a dog is attached to its master.”
Yudhishtira argued, “How can Amravati open its gates to the Kauravas, those murderers, and not to my family which has always followed the path of righteous conduct? Even Krishna fought against the Kauravas!”
“Do you feel we are taking sides, Yudhishtira?” asked the Devas.
“Yes,” snapped Yudhishtira, looking at the dark misery all around him. Surely, his family who had established dharma on earth did not deserve this. This was so unfair.
“You have given up your kingdom and your clothes, son of Dharma, but not your hatred. You killed the Kauravas in Kuru-kshetra and ruled their kingdom for thirty-six years! Still you have not forgiven them. You, who turned your back on your brothers on your way to Amravati, recalled them the instant you saw the Kauravas in heaven. This display of love is nothing but a reaction, retaliation. You cling to your anger, Yudhishtira. You still distinguish between friend and foe. You refuse to let go and move on. How then do you hope to truly attain heaven?”
Suddenly, a vision unfolded before Yudhishtira. The Virat-swarup of Krishna. “Behold within God,” a voice boomed, “all that exists. Everything. Everyone. Draupadi and Gandhari. The Pandavas and the Kauravas. All possibilities. The killers and the killed.”
At that moment, Yudhishtira realized he was not the great man who he thought he was. He had not really overcome his prejudices. Only when there is undiluted compassion for everyone, even our worst enemies, is ego truly conquered. Realization humbled Yudhishtira. He fell to the ground and began to weep.
Led by the Devas, Yudhishtira then took a dip in the Ganga and rose enlightened, purified and refreshed and truly liberated, with the sincere desire to forgive and accept the Kauravas. There was no more hatred. No more ‘them’ and ‘us’. No more ‘better’ and ‘worse’. There was only love. Everyone was one.
“Jaya!” shouted Indra. “Jaya!” shouted the Devas. “Jaya!” shouted the Rishis. For Yudhishtira had won the ultimate victory, victory over himself. No he would ascend to a heaven higher than Swarga. Now he would ascend to Vaikuntha, the abode of God.
Interpretation: The epic ends not with the victory of the Pandavas over the Kauravas but with Yudhishtira’s triumph over himself. This is the spiritual victory or Jaya. This is the ultimate aim of the great epic.
Interpretation: Unlike Biblical traditions, Hindus have more than one heaven. There is Swarga and Vaikuntha. Swarga is the paradise of Indra where all desires are fulfilled. Vaikuntha is God’s heaven where one is free of all desires.

11 Janamejaya asks where is the victory

‘Why then do you call this tale “Jaya”? There is no real victory.’
‘There are two kinds of victory this world,’ said the storyteller-sage Vaisampayana. ‘Vijaya and Jaya’.
Vijaya is material victory, where there is a loser.
Jaya is spiritual victory, where there are no losers.
In Kuru-kshetra there was Vijaya but not Jaya.
But when Yudhishtira overcame his rage and forgave the Kauravas unconditionally, there was Jaya.
This is the true ending of my tale, hence the title.’
‘What was the insight that eluded my forefathers?’ asked Janamejaya.
‘That conflict comes from rage, rage comes from fear, and fear comes from lack of faith.
That lack of faith which corrupted the Kauravas continued to lurk in the minds of the Pandavas.
It had to be purged.’
The image of Krishna, serving as Arjuna’s charioteer, singing the song of wisdom before the war, flashed through Janamejaya’s mind.
‘If you have faith in me, and in the karmic balance sheet of merit and demerit, then you will have no insecurity,’ he heard Krishna say.
The lotus of wisdom bloomed in Janamejaya’s mind. ‘I too have no faith,’ he admitted.
‘That is why I am angry with the serpents and frightened of them.
That is why I delude myself with arguments of justice and vengeance.
You are right, Astika, this snake sacrifice of mine is not dharma.’
Astika smiled, and Vaisampayana bowed his head in satisfaction: the king had finally inherited the wisdom of his forefathers.
An expression of peace descended up on Janamejaya, the son of Parikshit, the grandson of Abhimanyu, the great grandson of Arjuna.
He finally took his decision.
‘Shanti,’ he said.
‘Shanti,’ he said again.
‘Shanti,’ he repeated a third time.
Shanti, peace.
This was the king’s call to end the Sarpa Sattra.
Astika burst into tears.
Janamejaya had overpowered his fear and abandoned his rage.
No more serpents would be killed.
‘Shanti, shanti, shanti,’ he had said.
Not peace in the outer world.
That could not happen as long as man felt insecure.
This was a cry for inner peace.
Let us all have faith.
Let us all be at peace – with ourselves, our worlds, and all the rest there is.
Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.
Interpretation: The Mahabharata is not as much concerned with the war as it is with the root of conflict. Conflict is the result of greed exhibited by Duryodhana, and outrage exhibited by Yudhishtira. Both greed and outrage stem from insecurity; insecurity is the result of a poor understanding of, and a lack of faith in, one’s true nature and the the true nature of the world around us. The Veda says that as long as we do not accept life for what it is, as long as we try to control and change things, there will always be conflict. Conflict ends when we realize that beyond tangible material reality, there is intangible spiritual reality.
Interpretation: A Bengali folktale informs us that Janamejaya asked Vyasa why he was not able to convince his ancestors from not going to war. Vyasa replied that excited people never listen to such logic.
Interpretation: All Hindu rituals end with the chant ‘Shanti, shanti, shanti’ because the quest for peace is the ultimate goal of all existence. The peace is not external but internal. It is not about making the world a peaceful place; it is about us being at peace with the world.

12 The Idea called Dharma

The fear of death makes animals fight for their survival. Might becomes right as only the fit survive. With strength and cunning territories are established and pecking orders enforced. Thus, the law of the jungle comes into being. Animals have no choice but to subscribe to it. Humans, however, can choose to accept, exploit or reject this law.
Thanks to our larger brain, we can imagine and create a world where we can look beyond ourselves, include others, and make everyone feel wanted and safe. We can, if we wish to, establish a society where the mighty care for the meek, and where resources ar emade available to help even the unfit thrive. This is dharma.
Unfortunately, imagination can also amplify fear, and make us so territorial that we withhold resources, exploit the weak and eat even when well-fed. This is adharma. If dharma enables us to outgrow the beast in us, then adharma makes us worse than animals. If dharma takes us towards divinity, then adharma fuels the demonic.
The Kauravas are stubbornly territorial before the war. The Pandavas struggle to be generous after the war. Adharma is thus an eternal temptation, while dharma is an endless work in progress that validates our humanity.

13 Ultimate aim of spiritual practice

Vyasa says all creatures kill themselves eventually because of merits lost and demerits earned.
By logic therefore, one who earns no demerit cannot die.
Such a person can potentially rise up to paradise without dying.
In other words, he becomes immortal.
That is the ultimate aim of all spiritual practice.
That is the aim of Yudhishtira.

14 Narendra Modi quotes Vivekananda

“Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy – by one, or more, or all of these – and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.” – Swami Vivekananda, From Raja Yoga