No Comment, Quotation — October 2, 2010, 6:16 am

Mah?bh?rata – The Warrior’s Duty

arjuna

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????????? ??????? ???? ???????????
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?????????????? ????????? ????????????
???? ????????????? ?????????????????
??? ??? ????? ?? ??????????????? ????????
?????????? ???????????? ???????????????
???????????????? ????? ???????????
?????????? ???????????? ???????????????
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Then Krishna revealed his supreme form –
Possessing numerous mouths and eyes, glittering with
divine ornaments, displaying divine signs,
divinely garlanded, divinely scented, all-shaped, all-
powerful, transcendent and limitless.
Were a thousand suns to explode suddenly in the sky,
their brilliance would approximate the glory of the site.
And in the body of Krishna,
Arjuna saw the separate universes united, and resting.
Struck with awe, his hair on end,
he bent his head, and joined his palms.

Mah?bh?rata (???????), bk. vi, sec. xxxv (ca. 400 BCE)

The Mah?bh?rata is the tale of a great war fought at the dawn of time, filled with accounts of daring and feats of arms, with magical weaponry and heroes at times noble and at times profoundly flawed. This war can of course be understood as an allegory for the struggle of good and evil over the hearts of humankind. But it can also be seen as a lesson about duty—about the duties of warriors, kings, and of ordinary people. It offers us some lessons about how to live, what goals to seek in our lives, and how to find a measure of contentment in their pursuit.

At the heart of this massive story sits the great warrior prince Arjuna, usually portrayed in his famous chariot and wielding his unique bow. As the great war is set to commence, we learn that Arjuna has surveyed the ranks arrayed against him and he sees cousins and friends, grandparents, and uncles. He grows sick of heart and puts down his bow, announcing, “it is better in this world / to beg for scraps of food / than to eat meals smeared with the blood of elders. / I shall not fight.” This sets the stage for the sixth and best known book of the entire work, the most read of the Sanskritic texts, the Bhagavad Gita. In it, Krishna, who appears in this work as god and man and has agreed to drive Arjuna’s chariot, reveals himself to Arjuna and gives him detailed instruction on his duties as a warrior and a prince.

The revelation itself contains some of the best known lines of Asian literature, though modern Sanskrit scholars have struggled for generations with its meaning and the efforts to render it into English have produced greatly varied results. At one of its most amazing points, Krishna, who is trying to persuade Arjuna to take up his bow and go back to war, reveals his “true” image. I have quoted the beginning of the description above. A wealth of meanings can be derived from these descriptions, but one stands before all others–while the Vedic tradition speaks of gods, in truth there is one God, it tells us, who is tied to all creation. Krishna speaks in terms of suns and planets, he alludes to humankind as a web of jewels, and he talks of the eternal dance of creation, maturation and destruction. Don’t fear for the death of your adversaries, he tells Arjuna in one troubling passage, because death is their inevitable lot. But Krishna also gives a message of divine justice: “Whenever the world abounds with injustice, / Rectitude under relentless assault, / I create myself, with the aim, / Of punishing the wicked / Protecting the pious, / And establishing a rule of law / This cycle repeats / Over and over, again and again.” And this is far closer to the core of the Gita than the throw-away lines about human mortality.

Still, warfare is part of the inevitable lot of humankind, Krishna suggests. It is fate and a test. Remarking on the detonation of the first atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted this passage—in the translation he used, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one,” to which he added lines that appear just a page or two later: “now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The ethos of a warrior lurks in these words, an attitude distant from any form of idealism. It urges the warrior to practical engagement and to the accomplishment of his mission. Yet it also recognizes that the true leader (and some warriors are inevitably leaders as well) must balance high moral duties against his commitment to victory through violence and destruction. Arjuna’s nobility and greatness manifests itself, among other things, in that he felt compelled to say “I shall not fight,” that he felt compassion for his adversaries and was magnanimous in victory.

It is remarkable that this text which contains at its core the famous warrior code (kshatriya dharma, ???????? ????) of the subcontinent’s antiquity has, in modern times, exercised tremendous appeal to pacifists. The warrior code is complex and encompasses much of what Christianity calls “just war” theory. It reminds a warrior that his duty is to win, but it cautions against the “victory at all costs” perspective, teaching that how we walk the path of life is more important than the goal we dimly perceive at the end of it.

America’s most famous pacifist, Henry David Thoreau, probably took the Gita with him to Walden Pond. The work had become famous in America through the recommendation of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The first of books,” he wrote in 1845, “it was as if an empire spoke to us.” For Emerson of course, the Gita’s appeal lay in the message of transcendentalism—the notion of duty and contentment through its pursuit. And for Thoreau it was a specific inspiration—he understood the third age of man, the time of the vanaprastha (????????, forest dweller, a person who has given up interest in material things and is engaged in an internal quest) as a literal call to live in the woods, to live as a “yogi.” It clearly forms the predicate for much of the discussion in Walden, and Thoreau talks about this inspiration in other works describing his travels.

But beyond Emerson and Thoreau, the Gita also was inspiring to Tolstoy and Thomas Merton, two of the best known pacifists of the last century. They see in the Gita a sort of pacifist manifesto, and they get there through a focus on Arjuna and his critical interaction with Krishna. Here’s the core of Merton’s fascinating take:

Arjuna has an instinctive repugnance for war, and that is the chief reason why war is chosen as the example of the most repellant kind of duty. The Gita is saying that even in what appears to be the most “unspiritual,” one can act with pure intentions and thus be guided by Krishna consciousness. This consciousness itself will impose the most strict limitations on one’s own use of violence, because it will not be directed by one’s own selfish interests.

So the best warrior is not one who delivers himself to wild abandon and the spirit of violence in pursuing his mission, but rather one who defies these temptations, maintains a rigorous order, and refrains from violent acts which are unnecessary to the accomplishment of his military purpose. The great warrior is marked by selflessness. That is, he must be prepared to expose himself to danger rather than risk the lives of innocent civilians. This is the inner thread of the warrior code that even ardent pacifists admire.


Listen to a performance of traditional Balinese bell music in Ubud, only a short distance from the statute of Arjuna.

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