In the Family

by Justin E. H. Smith

All_in_the_family_1975One of the most controversial scenes in Shohei Imamura's 1966 film, The Pornographers, depicts three veteran directors from the Japanese porn industry in conversation, casually questioning the legitimacy of the prohibition on sex between fathers and daughters. To be willing to ask this question at all is meant to signal ultimate rottenness. Yet it is an important question, perhaps the most important question about the structure and nature of human society. It may be answered succinctly: a family is defined, even sustained in existence, by the rules governing who may have sex with whom in a household (or in a yurt, or tent, or cave); and families, in turn, are the building-blocks of society. The incest taboo is the fons et origo of social reality.

But this answer to the pornographers' question, an answer already familiar at the time of publication of Edward Westermarck's History of Human Marriage in 1891, has in turn spawned generations of new questions, some the plain product of academic inbreeding, some showing hopeful new mutations that promise to help along the project –a laudable one, in this author's view– of tracing the social world back to its ground in nature.

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The Bhagavad Gita Revisited – Part 2

by Namit Arora

Why the Bhagavad Gita is an overrated text with a deplorable morality at its core. This is part two of a two-part critique (Part 1 is the appetizer with the Gita’s historical and literary context. This is the main course with the textual critique).

Gita7The Bhagavad Gita, less than one percent of the sprawling Mahabharata, contains 700 verses in 18 chapters. It opens with Arjuna’s crisis on the battlefield, right before the start of the Great War. Turning to his friend and charioteer, Arjuna cries out,

‘O Krishna, I see my own relations here anxious to fight, and my limbs grow weak; my mouth is dry, my body shakes, and my hair is standing on end. My skin burns, and the bow Gandiva has slipped from my hand; my mind seems to be whirling.’

Arjuna is one of the bravest warriors alive and this visceral physical response, it is amply clear, is not due to performance anxiety, or fear of injury or death. Rather, it arises from Arjuna’s grave doubts over whether he is doing the right thing. He and his Pandava brothers wanted a minimally fair share of their material inheritance, but the devious, stubborn, and unjust Kauravas rebuffed them repeatedly. Though his cause is righteous enough, Arjuna now feels that the ends do not justify the means. He continues,

‘O Krishna, I have no desire for victory, or for a kingdom or pleasures. Of what use is a kingdom or pleasure or even life, if those for whose sake we desire these things—teachers, fathers, sons, grandfathers, uncles, in-laws, grandsons and others with family ties—are engaging in this battle, renouncing their wealth and their lives? Even if they were to kill me, I would not want to kill them, not even to become ruler of the three worlds. How much less for the earth alone? … We are prepared to kill our own relations out of greed for the pleasures of a kingdom. Better for me if the [Kauravas] were to attack me in battle and kill me unarmed and unresisting.’

Who among us can fail to be moved by Arjuna’s anguish? Hopelessly confused, Arjuna pleads with Lord Krishna to show him the way. Krishna obliges, taking on the role of a teacher to help Arjuna figure out the right course of action, which Krishna believes is to fight this war. The wisdom of the Gita—and the claim that it remains a relevant guide to our inner battlefield—is inseparable from Krishna’s advice to Arjuna. So, to evaluate the Gita, we need to evaluate the arguments Krishna uses to persuade Arjuna to fight. How good are these arguments?

I am aware that my reading of the Gitalike every other reading of it—is subjective and selective; I know that there are other ways of reading it. I have approached the Gita as expository literature, using the same yardsticks of truth and beauty that I take to other literary texts. I agree with Eknath Easwaran, an admirer and well-known translator of the Gita, when he says, ‘To understand the Gita, it is important to look beneath the surface of its injunctions and see the mental state involved.’ I have tried to do the same. I know that the Gita is not ‘mere literature’ to millions of Hindus, including many of my family and friends. It is also sacred scripture, a guide to practical wisdom, a source of personal and social identity, cultural and national pride, and more. My intention is not to offend as an end in itself, but this book review will likely unsettle many; a few will respond in angry and defensive ways. May they find in the Gita the wisdom to forgive my indiscretions.

Get Up and Fight!

Gita6Imagine the scene. Having charioted Arjuna into the war zone with two vast armies arrayed against each other, Krishna watches Arjuna’s meltdown. Baffled by it, Krishna proceeds to shame Arjuna by calling his meltdown a ‘weakness in a time of crisis’, which is ‘mean and unworthy’ of him. He urges Arjuna to ‘arise with a brave heart and destroy his enemy.’ Refusing to fight, Krishna warns, will lead to loss of honor, which is worse than death. Arjuna will lose the respect of others and be ridiculed by his enemies, who will taunt him and call him a coward. ‘What could be more painful than this?’

Krishna continues, ‘Considering your dharma, you should not vacillate. For a warrior, nothing is higher than a war against evil’. Such a war should delight Arjuna, for it will guarantee him a place in heaven. If Arjuna dies in battle, he will attain heaven; if he wins, he will enjoy the earth. So what’s his bloody problem? A red flag for me here is the fact that Krishna takes Arjuna’s duty for granted, avoiding the thorniest of all problems with duty: how does one know what duty is? Later in the Gita, Krishna reveals how he thinks about it: one’s duty depends on one’s place in the caste hierarchy, which is ‘based on [one’s] nature.’ ‘By fulfilling the obligations one is born with, a person never comes to grief. No one should abandon duties because he sees defects in them’ and ‘by devotion to one’s own particular duty, everyone can attain perfection.’

But Arjuna remains unmoved as Krishna tries to shame him, hold up rewards, and remind him of his duty. Arjuna simply cannot imagine fighting elders he reveres, like Bhishma and Drona. He is not sure where his duty lies. Doesn’t his duty as a warrior conflict with his duty to not slaughter his kin and elders? Isn’t there a point when the means of upholding dharma risk pushing one into adharma? Arjuna would rather spend his life ‘begging than to kill these great and worthy souls.’ His will paralyzed, he complains of ‘a sorrow that saps all his vitality.’ Krishna, realizing that Arjuna’s crisis is pretty serious, shifts his strategy. He wheels in some heavy-duty philosophy into his arguments.

Krishna could have argued that this is a ‘just war’, that Arjuna’s relatives are aligned with an evil large enough to justify killing them—but he does not. Both of them indicate that the cause they are fighting for is to obtain for the Pandavas their share of the kingdom. If a larger cause is at stake—such as restoring righteousness on earth—Krishna neither elaborates one, nor invokes it to make a case for ‘just war’ in the Gita, preferring other arguments. So rather than offer up hypothetical reasons or apologia on behalf of Krishna, we should judge the Gita in light of the arguments for war that he does actually make in it, especially the ones he repeatedly makes—which is what I intend to focus on in this essay.

The Metaphysics of Detachment

Gita3The Gita’s core metaphysics is based on the Upanishads, which represent, in my view, a major milestone in the history of abstract thought and a great leap in conceiving our relationship to nature—but not quite of an advance in terms of ethical philosophy. At the risk of oversimplification, I’ll summarize the metaphysics of the Upanishads by saying that they speak of a formless and all-pervasive vital force, or Brahman, which is the Ultimate Reality beneath the world of shifting appearances. Our own life force, the Self, or atman, is but one manifestation of Brahman, and it has the same nature as the atman of other beings, such as a dog’s. Atman is immortal; after the death of a body it migrates to inhabit another body. Grasping the true nature of atman and its essential unity with Brahman is what enables one to attain Moksha, or release from the endless cycle of rebirth—a preeminent individual pursuit. To attain Moksha, one must penetrate his or her veils of illusion and realize the truth of Brahman—a bracing view of reality as it might appear to the ‘cosmic eye’. In this view, our dualist conceptions of the world fall away, revealing the deeply interwoven strands of the phenomenal world (some dualist ideas based on samkhya metaphysics also appear in the Gita). As the Isha Upanishad relates, ‘He who sees everywhere the Self in all existences and all existences in the Self, shrinks not thereafter from aught.’ Nor are humans at the center of life or creation; in fact, particular human lives and concerns are seen as entirely insignificant in cosmic terms.

Krishna interprets this metaphysics to support a tangible objective, namely, persuading Arjuna to fight. Krishna’s is not the only possible interpretation, nor the most sensible one. Indeed, he belongs in the long line of shrewd characters who have bent metaphysics to their own ends. For instance, consider this interpretation: Krishna tells Arjuna that his sorrow is misguided. Those who grasp the true nature of reality, he says, ‘grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. There has never been a time when you and I and the kings gathered here have not existed, nor will there be a time when they will cease to exist. … The body is mortal, but he who dwells in the body is immortal and immeasurable. Therefore, Arjuna, fight in this battle.’ It is out of ignorance of the true nature of reality, he says, that we call one man a slayer, another man slain. ‘There is neither slayer nor slain. You were never born; you will never die.’ Krishna’s sleight-of-hand here lies in equating the people we care about with their atmans, and since atman is immortal, it matters not if their bodies are destroyed. ‘There could hardly be a better example of forked-tongue speciousness,’ wrote P. Lal (1929-2010), professor of literature and Indian Studies and translator of the entire Mahabharata into English, in the introduction to his translation of the Gita (1965).

Arjuna is still not sold, so Krishna presses on. O Arjuna, he says, ‘even if you believe the Self to be subject to birth and death, you should not grieve. Death is inevitable for the living … you should not sorrow.’ Every creature is unmanifested at first, is then manifested, and in time, is unmanifested again, so ‘what is there to lament in this?’ Krishna’s point is that if Arjuna’s arrow is what ‘unmanifests’ his uncle from earthly life, there is nothing wrong in it because it is all part of a cyclical process. Ambedkar called this line of reasoning ‘an unheard of defense of murder’, adding that if Krishna was a lawyer today and pleaded such a defense for a client, there is ‘not the slightest doubt that he would be sent to the lunatic asylum’.

The Path of Selfless Action

Gita8The dialog continues. Krishna enjoins Arjuna to ‘seek refuge in the attitude of detachment … those who are motivated only by the desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do.’ But in those who are detached, ‘all vain anxiety is left behind. There is no cause for worry, whether things go well or ill … thus they attain a state beyond all evil’ and attain Moksha. Several times he instructs Arjuna to ‘Act selflessly, without any thought of personal profit.’ This is to many, including Gandhi, the central teaching of the Gita.

On the face of it, this seems reasonable. What can be wrong with performing one’s duty without selfish desire and attachment? Self-control over one’s ego and passions are likely even good for one’s moral conduct. A thick skin against how others perceive our actions can sometimes be helpful. But a major problem lurks here. Krishna frequently talks about the duty that one is born into. ‘The distinctions of caste, guna, and karma have come from me,’ he says. ‘The responsibilities to which a brahmin is born, based on his nature, are self-control, tranquility, purity of heart, patience, humility, learning, austerity, wisdom, and faith,’ whereas ‘the proper work of the shudra is service.’ The problem is that Krishna never talks about the use of reason to figure out one’s duty—as the Buddha did—or to modify it in light of the potential and actual consequences of one’s action.

Without this corrective, the injunction to do one’s duty with total detachment serves only to bolster the doer’s equanimity, whatever the outcome. It becomes all about keeping the doer’s peace of mind, not about his impact on others. Rather than acknowledge that our worldly acts carry an ineliminable moral risk, the Gita says that this risk can be eliminated through a personal attitude adjustment. In this sense, the Gita’s idea of detached duty is less an ethical precept, more a self-help precept. As Easwaran writes: ‘Nishkama karma [selfless action] is not “good works” or philanthropic activity; [the latter] may benefit others, but not necessarily benefit the doer.’ And the Gita’s focus is relentlessly on the doer’s attitude while he dispenses his dharmic duty, not on what he actually does to others and its human impact. Krishna is thus able to ask Arjuna to perform ‘all actions for my sake, completely absorbed in the Self, and without expectations, fight!’ In The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen too finds this problematic: ‘Krishna argues that Arjuna must do his duty, come what may, and in this case he has a duty to fight, no matter what results from it … Why should we want only to “fare forward” and not also “fare well”? Can a belief in a consequence-independent duty to fight for a just cause convincingly override one’s reasons for not wanting to kill people, including those for whom one has affection?’

Gita2Krishna further elaborates what selfless action looks like and how meditation can help. ‘Those who cannot renounce attachment to the results of their work are far from the path’, he says. Those who conquer their senses, climb ‘to the summit of human consciousness. To such people a clod of dirt, a stone, and gold are the same. They are equally disposed to family, enemies, and friends, to those who support them and those who are hostile, to the good and the evil alike. Because they are impartial, they rise to great heights.’ They can control their turbulent mind ‘through regular practice and detachment’ to discover inner peace and joy by attaining union with Brahman.

Again, this stance is morally dubious and reflects the anti-humanistic sensibility that pervades the Gita. It may be good for achieving oneness with Ultimate Reality (whatever that is), but it is bad for moral life—it rejects the very idea that some actions have greater moral worth than others. It denies that some human bonds are more precious than others, which is part of what makes us human. This is the kind of detachment that can make moral villains out of men. It is a suitably desensitizing stance that can get a warrior to kill and feel no remorse, or to make us oblivious to each other’s human plight, as we pursue our given ideas of duty while upholding incoherent ideals like Brahman. As VR Narla put it, ‘while action without seeking some personal gain can be noble, action without any care for its evil consequences to other men [is] reprehensible, even diabolical.’

After all this talk, Arjuna longs to see a vision of Brahman. Krishna obliges and gives him a dazzling and ecstatic glimpse into cosmic reality, including his ‘radiant, universal form, without beginning or end’. While this is a brilliantly imaginative vision in many ways, Krishna unfortunately spoils it by infusing it with dubious morality. ‘I am time, the destroyer of all,’ Krishna tells Arjuna, ‘Even without your participation, all the warriors gathered here will die. Therefore, arise, Arjuna; conquer your enemies and enjoy the glory of sovereignty. I have already slain all these warriors; you will only be my instrument.’ The war hasn’t even begun and Krishna says, ‘Bhishma, Drona, Jayadrata, Karna, and many others are already slain. Kill those whom I have killed. Do not hesitate. Fight in this battle and you will conquer your enemies.’ How comforting, to have the Lord of the Universe (or Ultimate Reality personified) issue a moral blank cheque to a man disinclined to slaughter his relatives!

The Path of Devotion

Gita10Krishna, now back in human form, tries another tack: Trust me! ‘Fill your mind with me; love me; serve me; worship me always,’ he urges Arjuna. In return, Krishna will take care of him. ‘You are dear to me,’ says Krishna. ‘Abandon all supports and look to me for protection. I shall purify you from the sins of the past; do not grieve.’ This is similar to the personal god in the mystical strains of many religions (e.g., Bhakti, Sufi), in which the mystic finds his rationality inadequate in knowing God and his design. Love and devotion—even rapturous ecstasy—help bridge the gulf the believer feels between himself and God. ‘By loving me he comes to know me truly,’ adds Krishna, ‘then he knows my glory and enters into my boundless being. All his acts are performed in my service, and through my grace he wins eternal life.’ But Krishna’s motives here are again dubious. He wants Arjuna to put all his faith and devotion in him and fight this war; in return, Krishna will ensure that no harm or anxiety befall him. The ostensible morality of the Gita, wrote DD Kosambi, is to ‘Kill your brother if duty calls, without passion; as long as you have faith in Me, all sins are forgiven.’

‘Many of the answers given by Krishna appear to be evasive and occasionally sophistic,’ wrote Lal. ‘Unable to satisfy a worried warrior’s stricken conscience with rational arguments, Krishna opts for the unusual—he stuns Arjuna with a glorious revelation of psychedelic intensity. He succeeds; [thereafter] Arjuna accepts whatever Krishna has to offer. Brain is overpowered by bhakti—but is it ethical to silence logic with magic?’ Arjuna, wrote Lal, is a ‘humanist hero who has risen above the demands of military caste and convention-ridden community. His plight on the field of Kurukshetra is not an abstract, condemnable intellectual perplexity that can be juggled away by “Cosmic Multi-Revelation.” It is a painful and honest problem that Krishna should have faced on its own terms, painfully and honestly, and did not. Or so the modern critical mind thinks.’

Near the end of the Gita, Krishna ominously warns Arjuna: ‘If you egotistically say, “I will not fight this battle,” your resolve will be useless; your own nature will drive you into it.’ Then almost immediately, he begins his closing remarks and makes a seemingly expansive gesture, ‘I give you these precious words of wisdom; reflect on them and then do as you choose.’ It is the perfect opening to let Arjuna, without giving him a real choice, feel as if he is making his own decision. Arjuna promptly succumbs, a sad ending to the Gita. ‘You have dispelled my doubts and delusions and I understand through your grace,’ Arjuna says. ‘My faith is firm now, and I will do your will.’ At the end of the Mahabharata, nearly everyone on both sides is killed. The epic, writes Sen, ‘ends largely as a tragedy, with a lamentation about death and carnage, and there is anguish and grief … It is hard not to see in this something of a vindication of Arjuna’s profound doubts.’

Not the Best of Its Age

Gita11How do the metaphysical and moral ideas in the Gita stack up against other contenders in its day, for example, the teachings of the Buddha and the Carvaka? Was the smart money back then on the Gita? These questions can provide us another data point alongside critiques based on modern standards.

Of course, as I noted in Part 1, there are a few morally good and many morally neutral injunctions in the Gita. Krishna occasionally urges the spiritual aspirant to do his work ‘with the welfare of others always in mind … guided by compassion.’ He adds that ‘when a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union.’ However, such emphasis on others is conspicuous by its presence in the Gita, which otherwise obsesses over given duties, detached action, evenness of mind, avoiding certain passions (greed, anger, lust, etc.), piercing one’s illusions to find Ultimate Reality, and (for folks too simple to relate to Brahman) a total devotion to God. Further, Krishna seems not to notice any conflict between his morally good advice—for instance, to not ‘harm any living creature, but be compassionate and gentle; show good will to all’—with goading Arjuna to war and detached action. It is almost as if the authors of the Gita felt compelled to acknowledge the ‘compassion meme’ of Buddhism (then growing at the expense of Hinduism) without thinking it through—the Gita neither articulates the basis for this compassion, nor reconciles it with Krishna’s advocacy.

That said, these empathic verses do leave the door open for a selective reading that is more charitable to karma-yoga, or the path of action. But it still remains a far cry from the Buddha’s central emphasis on compassion based on an active empathy with sentient beings, for they too suffer like us. He also advocated a far more egalitarian social ethics than the one implicit in the Gita. As historian Romila Thapar put it, ‘Had the Buddha been the charioteer the message would have been different.’ Going by the Dhammapada, he might have said: ‘They are not following dharma who resort to violence to achieve their purpose. But those who lead others through nonviolent means, knowing right and wrong, may be called guardians of the dharma.’ My goal here is not to score cheap points for the Buddha, or for Buddhism over Hinduism—I have no interest in doing so here, and this essay should not be read as such—Hinduism, as a living religion, is not what is written in an old poem; nor is Buddhism the same as the words of a teacher. My goal here is to evaluate the quality of ideas in the Gita in light of other ideas that were on offer to discerning people back then. For instance, here is how the Buddha approached dharmic duties and spiritual paths:

Kalamkari‘It is proper to doubt. Do not be led by Holy Scriptures, or by mere logic or inference, or by appearances, or by the authority of religious teachers. But when you realize that something is unwholesome and bad for you, give it up. And when you realize that something is wholesome and good for you, do it. … Be prepared to let go of even the most profound insight or the most wholesome teaching. Be a lamp to yourself. Be your own confidence.’

Such ideas are alien to the sensibility of the Gita. Krishna instead wants all aspirants to ‘realize the truth of the scriptures’ and set their hearts on him and worship him ‘with unfailing devotion and faith’. Those who listen to him ‘with faith, free from doubts, will find a happier world’. The Gita’s Krishna wants us to live free from doubt, ‘in accordance with these divine laws without complaining, firmly established in faith’. Those who claim, ‘There is no God,’ are ‘demonic’ (an extremist position; two of the six schools of Hinduism embraced atheism back then). Nor are humans to be relied on to make up their own dharma. ‘Whenever dharma declines and the purpose of life is forgotten,’ says Krishna, ‘I manifest myself on earth. I am born in every age to protect the good, to destroy evil, and to re-establish dharma.’ Contrast this with the views of the Carvaka, a skeptic of the materialist school named after him, who had proclaimed centuries earlier that good and evil are mere social conventions; the soul is only the body qualified by intelligence—it has no existence apart from the body. Only this world exists, there is no beyond. The Carvaka held that the Vedas are a cheat; they serve to make men submissive through fear and rituals. Nature is indifferent to good and evil, and history does not bear witness to Divine Providence. Such qualitatively different worldviews coexisted with the one in the Gita.

Krishna frequently insists that a mind established in Brahman is free from delusion. One then lives ‘in peace, alike in cold and heat, pleasure and pain, praise and blame’. That Brahman itself is a grand delusion was something the Buddha realized centuries earlier, arguing instead that there is no objective, mind-independent reality that is accessible to us. In the second century CE, Nagarjuna explained why ‘reality’ inevitably depends on the cognitive structure of our mind, rather than on anything we can identify as fundamental, innate, or essential attributes of reality itself. In other words, it is incoherent to speak of a firm foundation beneath the world of appearances, which the mind perceives through its conceptual categories. Nor is there a stable and unchanging Self. As our illusions fall away, we begin to see ourselves as contingent beings, inextricable from a reality that we shape and which in turn shapes us, rather than as beings able to detach ourselves to contemplate reality as it truly is (the so-called ‘view from nowhere’—much like the absurd, if poetic, Brahman).

Finally, the Upanishadic obsession with an abstract Self, the atman, and its unity with Brahman, seems amoral at best—and arguably worse—given its silence about the implication of such metaphysics for the individual’s earthly state or his ethical behavior. Kabir, the radical Bhakti poet, criticized this disjunction in simple terms, ‘If you can’t see what’s before your eyes, you’re as good as blind.’ Is it any surprise, then, that caste hierarchy and its prejudices—not to mention Krishna’s deceitful advice in the Gita—would turn out to be perfectly compatible with such a rarefied metaphysics?

The Context of the Mahabharata

Krishna-ArjunaThe Gita adapted certain philosophical ideas that were surely revolutionary when they first arose and challenged the ritualistic Vedic religion. However, a few centuries later, in light of the contending intellectual and moral ideas of its day, it had assumed the role of a highly conservative tract, aligning itself with orthodoxy, authority, and hierarchy. Whereas I see the Mahabharata as great literature: many-layered, open-ended, and replete with the pleasures of a complex story, which also happens to have a decidedly anti-war sensibility. The Gita, as I noted in Part 1, was composed much later under the realities of a new age. It ‘is not an integral part of the Mahabharata,’writes Easwaran.‘It is essentially an Upanishad, and my conjecture is that it was set down by an inspired seer and inserted into the epic [later].’ To the extent it can be admired as a standalone text (a commonplace treatment, as standalone commentaries on it abound; now there are even demands to make it the first ‘National Book’ of India), it can be critiqued as one too.

A common defensive response to a critique like this is to say that the Gita needs to be read in the context of the Mahabharata. If one reads the Mahabharata closely, some say, it will become evident that the Kauravas’ bad behavior made the war unavoidable and eminently justified. That is, it was a ‘just war’. Perhaps, but that’s not the point. The point is about the quality of the arguments Krishna actually uses to persuade Arjuna to fight. If the best moral justifications for the war purportedly exist outside the Gita, and some of the worst inside it, what have we left? What then makes the Gita so great?

Besides, it can be persuasively argued that the case for ‘just war’ is not clear even in the Mahabharata. It’s debatable—and not black and white—which is exactly what makes the Mahabharata great. Let us consider some specific examples. For starters, the normal rules of royal succession did not apply to the situation at hand: Dhritarashtra is blind, so his younger brother, Pandu, is made the king. But then Pandu lands a curse and retreats to the forest with his two wives, leaving Dhritarashtra to rule instead. Yudhisthira is indeed the eldest son in the family but Pandu, due to the curse, did not father him or the other four Pandavas. Rather, Pandu’s two wives manage to find some ‘divine’ lovers in the forest (!), raising legitimate questions about the lineage of the Pandavas—do they even belong to the ‘royal’ Kuru clan? Nor did Pandu rule anytime during Yudhisthira’s life. On the other hand, Duryodhana is the first son of the reigning and elder brother Dhritarashtra, who in his heart wants his son to be the king. So, doesn’t Duryodhana, a warrior as skilled as any and an able administrator, have a claim to succession as well? I mean a good case can be made, right?

Meanwhile, Duryodhana gets ambitious and wants the entire kingdom for the Kauravas, not just the better half of the Kuru kingdom that he stands to inherit. He loathes the Pandavas, partly because he saw them as uppity and mean to him in their youth, as young princes are wont to be. So, as an adult, Duryodhana is scheming and vicious to the Pandavas. But he can be kind to others, such as to the low-caste Karna. ‘Birth is obscure,’ he says, ‘and men are like rivers whose origins are often unknown.’ So, while the Kauravas are not all-bad (it’s worth noting that the elders, respected by both sides, end up supporting them, however reluctantly), the Pandavas are not all-good. They spurn and insult Karna based on his caste; Arjuna’s pride leads to Eklavya chopping off his thumb—and his hopes and livelihood. Draupadi taunts Duryodhana and his father’s blindness. And why does Yudhisthira get so little flak for gambling and losing everything twice, including his half of the Kuru kingdom (after being forgiven the first time, he is foolish enough to play again), even wagering his own wife’s body? What kind of a man does that? Can we trust his judgment again with a kingdom? (And this when his real father is none other than the Lord of Judgment, Dharma.)

Is it any less morally bizarre that while Krishna, in the Gita, goads Arjuna to fight the supposedly evil Kauravas, he has asked his own Yadava army to fight on the Kaurava side—apparently because he wants to be officially neutral! Countless foot soldiers get killed as a result—pawns in the dharmic imperatives of big men, which we are so eager to applaud. The Pandavas, too, break the protocols of war and we rationalize it. Why? Further, was it, or was it not, in the public interest to continue the 13 years of Kaurava rule? These are all legitimate readings, befitting great literature.

So, in the context of the entire Mahabharata, the Gita can be read as a Brahminical insert catering to the need to justify the war and expound some Upanishadic ideas en route, where Krishna nevertheless comes off looking terribly disingenuous. He combines blatant anti-humanism with his authority and magical powers to brainwash Arjuna. Indeed, during the war, Krishna himself often does not do what he preaches in the Gita, though the gaps vary across the many extant versions of the epic. What do we make of the fact that while advocating detachment from the war’s outcome in the Gita, he repeatedly plays foul and dispenses murderous advice (as in the killing of Karna, in asking Yudhisthira to lie to Dronacharya about Ashwathama, in defending Bhima’s killing of Duryodhana, and so on)?


Gita12People in every time and place have succumbed to simple narratives of good and evil. They are even more easily blinded by their instinct to defend the side ‘God’ is on, not just the God of the Gita but also in other religious texts. They go to absurd lengths to defend his alleged words and deeds. These may be commonplace observations about a very human weakness but the question remains: Given all the bad faith reasoning and the starkly instrumental view of human life in the Gita, which many saw through even in ancient times, what makes the Gita a work of wisdom? Why not get the Gita off its exalted pedestal in our minds and let it be an uncelebrated episode in the Mahabharata—an artful plot element in an epic work of literature?

Without drastic overlooking and embellishing (in the manner of Gandhi), I consider the Gita a poor moral guide to our daily lives. Why do so many people resist this idea? Perhaps they have neither read the Gita, nor any contrarian critiques; or they are being reactionary patriots about ‘their heritage’; or perhaps their faith in it is too strong. After all, which book deserves the sort of uncritical adoration that so many Hindus, especially among the highly educated members of the upper classes, have for the Gita today?


All Gita quotes in this essay come from Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Gita, with embedded hyperlinks to a translation by the Bhagavad Gita Trust, which also presents every verse in Sanskrit, transliterated, commented on, and sung beautifully. Other online translations abound. The artwork in this essay was found via Google Images but the artists’ names were unfortunately not available.

Part 1 of this essay appeared on 05 Dec 2011. “The Context of the Mahabharata” section was added later.

More writing by Namit Arora?

A Poem for 2012


One had a Doberman;
The other a Chihuahua.
(This is a Found Poem.)

Look, there’s a bar open.
Let’s go in. Have a drink,
Doberwoman said.

We can't.
We've got dogs,
Chihuahuawoman said.

Just watch me.
Do as I do,
Doberwoman said.

She put on her D&G shades,
Walked boldly to the door
Where a bouncer said, Sorry,

Lady. No dogs. It’s the law.
You don’t understand,
Doberwoman said,

This is my seeing-eye dog.
A Doberman?
The bouncer asked.

Yes, they're using them now.
They're very good,
Doberwoman said.

The bouncer shrugged
And opened the door.
Across the street,

Chihuahuawoman thought
Convincing bouncer Chihuahua was seeing-eye dog may be a stretch
But whatheheck—

Wearing her DKNY shades
Strolled warily to the door—
Oops! The bouncer said,

No pets. Sorry.
You don't understand,
Chihuahuawoman said,

This is my seeing-eye dog.
A Chihuahua? the bouncer asked
Shaking his head.

A Chihuahua?
Wailed Chihuahuawoman.
They gave me a fucking Chihuahua?

By Rafiq Kathwari, a guest writer at 3 Quarks Daily.

Suzerain Judgments on A New Year

by Tom Jacobs

The sensuous world around [us] is, not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of society; and, indeed, in the sense that it is an historical product, the result of the activity of whole succession of generations, each standing on the shoulders of the preceding one, developing its industry and intercourse, modifying its social system according to the changed needs. Even the objects of the simplest ‘sensuous certainty’ are only given [us] through social development, industry and commercial intercourse.

— Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845-46)

11:59 to 12:00 Means, Well, What, Exactly…?

The end of 2011 means many things to many people. I don’t know exactly what it means to me. It was a fine year, I suppose. Full of fully realized anxieties but also moments of small triumphs. I did things that would make my mother proud, but I did many things that would no doubt shame her, as well. Based upon a very cursory review of my facebook friends’ posts, however, the turn of the calendar year seems to mean mostly an aggressive goodbye to a year one would prefer not to remember. (An exemplary post shows an image of the first two digits “20” juxtaposed with two upturned middle fingers, signifying both the missing “11” as well as a not so fond farewell to the departing calendar year). The desire to leave behind and to forget is counterbalanced by the desire to imagine ourselves fresh, innocent, and new. This is, of course, is complete silliness, but who of us doesn’t entertain this fantasy. We will change. We will relinquish the foul rag and boneshop of the soul and re-invent ourselves. Existence will become light and not heavy. Perhaps we and/or it will. But time grinds slowly into the future (as Steve Miller once said, in a slightly different register), and real change, the kind of change that allow us to step into a new, invented persona convincingly, requires trauma of some sort, I find. We need to be slapped once in a while.

Grace, the very thing that allows us to become more human, better, doesn’t come cheaply. This is something that I think I know. We need to suffer to understand. Understanding without suffering is like trying to understand pearl divers with scuba diving technology. Two different things. Not eternally opposed; but opposed nevertheless. One inhales deeply of the existent air and dives into the deep on a dive predicated upon human limitations; the other has a false cartridge of oxygen, swimming effortlessly amidst the coral and imbibing beauty with every oxygenated breath. Two different things. You get the idea.

Read more »

The cost of democracy

by Hartosh Singh Bal

Time-Person-of-the-Year-2011_largeTime Magazine declared it the year of the protester, clubbing together what was happening in regions as different as the Arab world, the US and India. While it is easy to find commonalities among the young, urban and largely middle-class protesters who came out on the streets, in some cases they were protesting against the tyranny of their governments and asking for democracy, in other cases they were protesting the shape democracy had come to acquire in their countries. The occupy Wall Street movement and the India against Corruption movement both represent similar sentiments. In the US the anger was directed against the influence of corporate on the democratic system largely through electoral funding, in India it was against corruption with the understanding that the source of high corruption was the cycle that went from the spending of vast sums of money (often illegally) for the elections to raising money when in power (often illegally) for the next elections.

As the countries making their way to democracy will find out in their own time, the funding of elections and its influence on the polity is the most problematic aspects of democracy. While much is made of local factors in estimating the cost of elections, much of the spending in elections is actually independent of such factors. Equalizing for the population size of each constituency and the difference in living standards gives a fair estimate across countries and time periods for election spending, especially in countries unconstrained by effective legislation on campaign spending, such as the US or India.

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Jean-Baptiste Lucanor: A Mediocre Life (Chapter 1)

by Haider Shahbaz (and his dear friend, Nicolas MMP)


Under the heading Autobiography, in a notebook otherwise empty, the surrealist scribbled:

To wage war with words on the fascists. My manifestos are my diaries; my diaries are my manifestos. An end to bourgeois essentialization. An end to mediocrity. Of the worlds that wine opens, those who piss clear know nothing.

II Georges-Bataille-005a

It would be dishonest to claim that Jean-Baptiste Lucanor was anything other than what he was: a mediocre writer, a second-tier avant-gardist. The fact that he only appears in one of the photographs of the core Surrealist group attests to his existence as a fringe figure. But just like the study of animals does not limit itself to a few important species, neither should the study of literature. I present, therefore, Jean-Baptiste Lucanor’s life and a translation of his diaries and letters in the hope that the study of surrealism’s mediocre devotee enhances the field of literature.

By all accounts, Jean-Baptiste Lucanor had an unhappy childhood. Born in the small city of Tours on the twenty-first of December of 1900, he was the fifth and youngest child of a petit bourgeois marriage. The poet’s social position was thus privileged enough to encourage expectations, yet limited enough to all but guarantee that those expectations would be disappointed.

The story of Lucanor’s parents is rather tragic, and accordingly it forms the basis for Lucanor’s only novel, Le Jardin des Étoiles Tristes. The mother, a certain Marie Deschamps, fell sick with a mysterious illness after giving birth to the poet. Municipal records show that labor lasted almost thirty hours, and that the poor lady fell into a state of profound exhaustion after having kissed her “rather ugly child.” She would never recover, spending most of her remaining decade and a half in a tiny bed on the fourth floor, the only room in the house that had a clear view of the Cathedral.

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Bric-A-Brac BadAssery

by Mara Jebsen


I have a good friend in the East, who comes to my shows and says, you sing a lot about the past, you can't live in the past, you know. I say to him, I can go outside and pick up a rock that's older than the oldest song you know, and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn't go anywhere, did it? It's right here, right now.

–Utah Phillips (folk singer)

So. You are someone like me, which is to say you are reasonably young but already have in memory several distinct places or times which are irrevocably lost. In fact, when the new year starts to roll round, you can’t help but think of all the little worlds — the little phases planned, started, discarded, the fuzzy neighborhoods of your memory beginning to border on one another like they do in dreams. Dreams like the one in which you must get out of the car in the motel parking lot in some dreary part of America because the man whose face you cannot look at (because he is your future husband) says “I'm glad I took you on, hitchhiker, but this is where we part ways, ” and leans over you to open the door and you are forced to walk stiffly across the green sideways brooms of frozen grass at night through a long pasture towards Africa, towards the baobob tree under which your aunts and uncles are having a picnic on gold cloth with champagne flutes and dead pigs all lying on their sides—

Just then, as the soon-to-be-old year is drawing its last breaths, expiring by the hour–you will wake, clean your teeth, put on your day-clothes and go see what's going on at the Guggenheim.

It is Maurizio Cattelan: All


A chaotic retrospective of every physical thing he did, strung up willy-nilly with rope and everywhere embellished with dirty dead pigeons.

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Beyraja: from 1947 to 1971 and beyond…

by Omar Ali

“agli wari beyraja peya tey chhadna nahin…” (the next time anarchy occurs; don’t miss your chance…)

The dream of a violent and destructive “revolution” that will “sweep away this sorry scheme of things entire and remake it nearer to heart’s desire” may or may not be an old idea. Some think it is derived from the apocalyptic visions of various Judeo-Christian cults and prophets, others that it is a relatively new idea that arose in post-enlightenment Europe and got exported to the rest of the world. Whatever the case, it is an idea that permeates modern millenarian ideologies like communism, and from that fecund source it has found its way into Islamism and dozens of other ideologies that yearn for total transfromation rather than incremental change. We in the subcontinent have not yet seen an organized premeditated revolution akin to the Russian or Chinese experience, but in the 20th century, we did see at least two episodes of very violent and sudden re-ordering of affairs, once in 1947 and then in 1971. 1947 Oct  Hindu & Sikh refugees from Pakistan on way to  E. Punjab

Neither episode was marked by anarchy in every corner of the subcontinent; the anarchy of 1947 was especially concentrated in West Pakistan and East Punjab. Many terrible massacres and crimes occurred in other parts of North India and Bengal, but Punjab was by far the worst hit and the most totally transformed. In West Pakistan, countless prosperous Hindus and Sikhs lost lands and businesses and moved to India (or died in the attempt). All this property was then reassigned to new owners. Keep in mind that urban property in particular had been heavily concentrated in the hands of Hindus and Sikhs. e.g., all of Anarkali bazar in Lahore was in Hindu hands prior to partition and on the main road (Mall road) there was only one Muslim-owned building (Shah din Building). Almost all cinemas and other valuable commercial property were owned by Hindus and Sikhs. Evacuee property boards were set up to try and bring some order to this process but the administration was as virginal as the state. A very small number of Muslim officials suddenly found themselves in the position of deciding the fate of property and assets worth billions. In the ensuing scramble, the most enterprising, the best connected, and the least scrupulous managed to grab vast wealth and opportunities, while millions didn’t even realize the full significance of what was happening.

Terrible massacres and riots were not just the result of deep religious hatreds or the sudden eruption of primal human savagery; Punjab, bloodied partitioned cleansedenterprising crooks took advantage of the anarchy of partition to get rid of competitors and anyone whose property looked ripe for plucking. As matters stabilized, terrible crimes and atrocities disappeared into the black hole of memory and the new elite got busy embellishing its own mythology of “deliverance from the Hindu yoke”, with little mention of how this “deliverance” involved the looting of existing property and the takeover of institutions and positions suddenly left vacant by the departure of the Hindu and Sikh elite.

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A Canadian Talks to Americans (and Anyone Else Who Will Listen) About Canada, in the Year 2012

by Colin Eatock

“Q: Why did the Canadian cross the road? A: To get to the middle.” (a rare example of Canadian humour).

ScreenHunter_06 Jan. 02 13.39The year 2012 has a special significance in the relationship between Canada and the USA. It’s the bicentennial of the War of 1812: a comedy of military errors in which American forces invaded Canada (which was still a British colony), with the intention of annexing it. The attacks were repulsed – and at the end of the war, a peace treaty left borders unchanged. Ever since, Canadians have claimed victory in the war, while Americans prefer to say it was a draw.

Yet a cursory glance around Canada today gives the impression that the American invasion of Canada was a complete success. Americans visiting Canada find cities and towns full of the same kind of architecture, retail businesses and cars that they left at home. They find people who speak and dress like them, and eat the same food. And they find people who watch American films and listen to American music – and do not think of these things as foreign. (The one major exception is the province of Quebec, and I’ll talk about that shortly.) To some Americans, the idea that Canada is an independent country is an elaborate fiction.

Canadians resent this: we feel we are different, and we want our different-ness to be acknowledged. However, when pressed to name specific examples, we often find ourselves grasping at straws. We call the last letter of the alphabet “zed,” not “zee.” We celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October, not the fourth Thursday of November. Our federal police, the Mounties, wear red jackets and ride horses. The rules of Canadian football are somewhat different from the rules of American football. Canadians say “eh” a lot, and (we’re told) we pronounce the word “about” in a peculiar way.

But such petty distinctions do not a nation make – and Americans are right to dismiss such arguments as trivial. The fact remains that many parts of Canada look like they could readily be somewhere in the USA. That’s why American movies are sometimes filmed in Canada.

Yet outward appearances can be deceiving. A person who knows very little about marine biology might think that the shark and the dolphin are closely related species, because they are similar in size and form. But of course the shark is a fish, and the dolphin is a mammal: they are entirely dissimilar on the inside. And so it is with Canada and the USA. The similarities are obvious and abundant, while the differences are subtle yet profound.

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Freakonomics: What Went Wrong?

Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_04 Jan. 01 23.53The nonfiction publishing phenomenon known as Freakonomics has passed its sixth anniversary. The original book, which used ideas from statistics and economics to explore real-world problems, was an instant bestseller. By 2011, it had sold more than four million copies worldwide, and it has sprouted a franchise, which includes a bestselling sequel, SuperFreakonomics; an occasional column in the New York Times Magazine; a popular blog; and a documentary film. The word “freakonomics” has come to stand for a light-hearted and contrarian, yet rigorous and quantitative, way of looking at the world.

The faces of Freakonomics are Steven D. Levitt, an award-winning professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and Stephen J. Dubner, a widely published New York–based journalist. Levitt is celebrated for using data and statistics to solve an array of problems not typically associated with economics. Dubner has perfected the formula for conveying the excitement of Levitt’s research—and of the growing body of work by his collaborators and followers. On the heels of Freakonomics, the pop-economics or pop-statistics genre has attracted a surge of interest, with more authors adopting an anecdotal, narrative style.

As the authors of statistics-themed books for general audiences, we can attest that Levitt and Dubner’s success is not easily attained. And as teachers of statistics, we recognize the challenge of creating interest in the subject without resorting to clichéd examples such as baseball averages, movie grosses and political polls. The other side of this challenge, though, is presenting ideas in interesting ways without oversimplifying them or misleading readers. We and others have noted a discouraging tendency in the Freakonomics body of work to present speculative or even erroneous claims with an air of certainty. Considering such problems yields useful lessons for those who wish to popularize statistical ideas.

More here.

An ambitious plan for curing cancer in a businesslike way is in the works

From The Economist:

ScreenHunter_05 Jan. 02 00.00Dr DePinho is the new president of the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston, Texas. (He took over in September, having previously headed the Belfer Institute, part of Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.) Mindful of his adopted city’s most famous scientific role, as home to Mission Control for the Apollo project, he says his own mission is akin to a moon shot. He aims to cure not one but five varieties of cancer. What he has not yet decided is: which five?

That it is possible to talk of curing even one sort of cancer is largely thanks to an outfit called the International Cancer Genome Consortium. Researchers belonging to this group, which involves 39 projects in four continents, are using high-throughput DNA-sequencing to examine 50 sorts of tumour. They are comparing the mutations in many examples of each type, to find which are common to a type (and thus, presumably, causative) and which are mere accidents. (The DNA-repair apparatus in malignant cells often goes wrong, so such accidents are common.)

The consortium’s work is progressing fast, and preliminary results for many tumours are already in. But such knowledge is useless unless it can be translated into treatment. That is where Dr DePinho comes in—for his career has taken him into the boardroom as well as the clinic.

More here.

Is this the twilight of blues music?

Howard Reich in the Chicago Tribune:

ScreenHunter_03 Jan. 01 23.38No musical genre goes away entirely. The devout still sing Gregorian chant — among the oldest known written scores — in select cathedrals. Guillaume de Machaut's 14th century motets turn up in performances of early music groups. Operettas by Franz Lehar, folk songs of Appalachia and even disco hits of the Bee Gees enjoy an afterlife in remote corners of our musical culture.

Ever since notes could be etched on paper, no beloved music has gone completely silent, especially since recorded technology emerged in the late 19th century. But some genres have become so peripheral to American lives as to be reduced to historical footnotes. Studied by academics, performed by die-hards and applauded by connoisseurs, they're forgotten by nearly everyone else.

This is where Chicago blues is headed. A once visceral, urgent, profoundly complex music that told the story of a people — and, in so doing, ricocheted around the world — is slipping from public embrace in its primary home, Chicago, and beyond.

More here.

The Joy of Quiet

Pico Iyer in The New York Times:

IyerABOUT a year ago, I flew to Singapore to join the writer Malcolm Gladwell, the fashion designer Marc Ecko and the graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister in addressing a group of advertising people on “Marketing to the Child of Tomorrow.” Soon after I arrived, the chief executive of the agency that had invited us took me aside. What he was most interested in, he began — I braced myself for mention of some next-generation stealth campaign — was stillness. A few months later, I read an interview with the perennially cutting-edge designer Philippe Starck. What allowed him to remain so consistently ahead of the curve? “I never read any magazines or watch TV,” he said, perhaps a little hyperbolically. “Nor do I go to cocktail parties, dinners or anything like that.” He lived outside conventional ideas, he implied, because “I live alone mostly, in the middle of nowhere.” Around the same time, I noticed that those who part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in “black-hole resorts,” which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.

Has it really come to this?

In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight. Internet rescue camps in South Korea and China try to save kids addicted to the screen. Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago.

More here.

The Optimism Bias

From The Guardian:

The-Optimism-Bias-Why-were-wWe like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. We watch our backs, weigh the odds, pack an umbrella. But both neuroscience and social science suggest that we are more optimistic than realistic. On average, we expect things to turn out better than they wind up being. People hugely underestimate their chances of getting divorced, losing their job or being diagnosed with cancer; expect their children to be extraordinarily gifted; envision themselves achieving more than their peers; and overestimate their likely life span (sometimes by 20 years or more). The belief that the future will be much better than the past and present is known as the optimism bias. It abides in every race, region and socioeconomic bracket. Schoolchildren playing when-I-grow-up are rampant optimists, but so are grown-ups: a 2005 study found that adults over 60 are just as likely to see the glass half full as young adults.

You might expect optimism to erode under the tide of news about violent conflicts, high unemployment, tornadoes and floods and all the threats and failures that shape human life. Collectively we can grow pessimistic – about the direction of our country or the ability of our leaders to improve education and reduce crime. But private optimism, about our personal future, remains incredibly resilient. A survey conducted in 2007 found that while 70% thought families in general were less successful than in their parents' day, 76% of respondents were optimistic about the future of their own family. Overly positive assumptions can lead to disastrous miscalculations – make us less likely to get health checkups, apply sunscreen or open a savings account, and more likely to bet the farm on a bad investment. But the bias also protects and inspires us: it keeps us moving forward rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge.

More here.

Sunday Poem

After three days of steady rain –
over two inches said the radio –
I follow the example of monks
who write by a window, sunlight on the page.
Five times this morning,
I loaded a wheelbarrow with wood
and steered it down the hill to the house,
and later I will cut down the dead garden
with a clippers and haul the soft pulp
to a grave in the woods,
but now there is only
my sunny page which is like a poem
I am covering with another poem
and the dog asleep on the tiles,
her head in her paws,
her hind legs played out like a frog.
How foolish it is to long for childhood,
to want to run in circles in the yard again,
arms outstretched,
pretending to be an airplane.
How senseless to dread whatever lies before us
when, night and day, the boats,
strong as horses in the wind,
come and go,
bringing in the tiny infants
and carrying away the bodies of the dead.
by Billy Collins
from Sailing Alone Around the Room