A few weeks ago, I had read an article on the Bhagavad Gita, written by an eminent expert on Indian history. In it, she says, among many other things: (Link)
“In the Mahabharata’s plot, however, the Bhagavadgita rationalises mass slaughter”.
Now, I am not an eminent expert on anything, but with all due humility and acknowledging my own ignorance, while noting that I have some knowledge of the Mahabharata (I have written a book based on it), and done some study in philosophy, let me just say that, that even a perfunctory reading of the Mahabharata, the context in which the Gita is embedded in, would be enough to tell you that the Gita is not about rationalizing mass slaughter. Then there is the fact that the Kauravas are the evil usurpers in the world of the epic, who have committed multiple heinous crimes, and using the phrase “mass slaughter” for a righteous war to finish them, would be as ridiculous as saying “D-Day was the beginning of mass slaughter (of Nazis)”, but let us leave such trivialities to the side for now.
So why Arjun is dithering at the beginning of Kurukshetra? As the greatest warrior of his age, Arjun has killed, or to use the words of the wise, “slaughtered” many. He has done that, without question. However, now, faced with the prospect of the inevitability of the death of many of the people he loves, respects and cares for, he hesitates, because he feels “it is just not worth it.” Putting it in terms of today, he has done a cost-benefit analysis and the benefits, that of a mere kingdom, is not worth the cost of what it would take him to get it. Not the morality of war, he is not questioning that, Arjun isn’t turning pacifist, merely that this time the people at the business end of his arrows won’t be people he considers “enemies”, but “family”, and this triggers doubt in him.
A dramatic conflict in the greatest story ever told, but in terms of philosophy, this is an allegory for one of the fundamental questions of the rational human—is life worth it, given what we get out of living, pain and nothing much else?
When we are young, we move from one thing to another, without thought, one class, annual exams, and then the next class up, entrance exams, then relationships, then parenthood, and promotion up the corporate ladder, without question or pause. Our bodies heal well, time seems infinite, and life flows like a smooth chain, one link pulling the other.
And then, we reach middle age, which is where Arjun is, and things dry up. I am not going to go above middle management, more life is behind me than in front, people I love are passing away or will soon, the food I used to love now poisons me, I won’t be famous, I won’t change the world, other people walk away with my credit, people I know I am better than seem to achieve so much more. So why am I here? Why do I exist? And given that things are only going to get worse, why should I get up every day, go to work, write lines of code, sit in endless Web-exes? Is this daily grind worth what this takes out of me—my health, my peace of mind, my pride and my time?
The Gita’s answer, through the voice of Krishna, starts off by attacking this very model of calculating cost and of benefit.
First of all, benefit. Our physical body is a vessel of our immortal soul, or to use the words of a philosopher more understood, Yoda of Star Wars, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter” (pointing to Luke Skywalker’s body). The soul, or “who we are” passes from one vessel to another, in the way we shed old clothes and wear new ones, and what effect we have in the universe, or our significance in it, is not for us to understand. It is not for us, because we cannot, our senses cannot perceive the cause-and-effect of eternity, so vast and intricate it is, and because Arjun is the wisest of the wise, Krishna gives him a glimpse of Viswaroop, the order behind everything, or rather the source code of the master algorithm, but for us, mere mortals, there will not be such a code review.
So given that our model for analyzing benefit is so restricted in the data that is driving it, why would you take it so seriously?
Then, the cost. As Lord Krishna tells Arjun, that too cannot be estimated, because it is a function of not just your actions, but everyone else’s. The army arrayed in front of them, Lord Krishna says, is dead already, and Arjun is only an instrument of their demise, a part of the cosmic “Matrix” (to use another pop-culture reference), and so what he perceives as his “cost” is actually a pre-paid card, in which everyone else has a stake in.
One of the misunderstandings of Hindu philosophy, borne out of the Western tendency to trivialize and show “Oriental” philosophies as somewhat inferior intellectually to theirs, is that this edict of the Gita is a justification for fatalism—-that no matter what you do, things will happen as they will, articulated in the following way in the movie “Passage to India”, a movie based on a colonialist’s “understanding” of the country they ruled.
Professor Godbhole: Nothing you do will change the outcome.
Richard Fielding: So “Do nothing!” Is that your philosophy?
Professor Godbhole: My philosophy is you can do what you like… but the outcome will be the same.
No, this is not what the Gita says. If it did, Lord Krishna would ask Arjun to go home, because the Kauravas will, any ways, drop dead like flies, if not Arjun’s arrows, they will just watch Netflix’s India-specific content and die of shock. The philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita is exactly the opposite, it makes “karma” or “action” the fundamental unit of its teachings, if there is anything it is opposed to, it is “inaction”.
Which brings us to action. Or Karma. Karma is both the action as well as its consequence, they cannot be separated, if you do something, the impact of it is inevitable. The reason why the Kauravas are dead already is because of the consequences of their actions, or their Karma.
So, of all the multitude of actions open to us, which one should we choose? Here, the Gita, is different from contemporary philosophies and which is what gives the Gita its unique heterodox characteristic. Instead of prescribing a set of moral commandments, divinely ordained as the “right thing” and adherence to that hard-coded moral code as “the right path”, it gives you the right to parameterize your moral code—in a variable which it calls “dharma”. Dharma is what guides Karma, and it is tied into your purpose in the universe. Because there is no moral code prescribed, many interpret the Pandava’s tactics in the subsequent war as immoral, but there again, they do not understand the basic foundation of the Gita: it’s virtue is defined purely in adherence to the moral code, not the moral code itself.
So what does the Gita ask Arjun, and through him, the reader, to do? Instead of doing a cost-benefit analysis based on a model that is, by definition, imprecise, the Gita asks us to act, as per our chosen dharma. It tells us to never give up on our purpose, and we know what that is, be it writing code for a payroll processing system or selling toothpaste or unleashing hellfire on the Kaurava army. It does not ask us to not hope, or care, for reward, again a misconception of the teachings of the Gita, but realize that the “good” thing we seek is just not in our hands, that it is a resultant of cosmic forces beyond our comprehension, that the absence of observed good outcomes, that denial of promotion at work or the publisher’s rejection letter or the death of a loved one, should not be the reason for inaction or straying from the dharma-driven path of karma.
Because it is the journey, the sequential juxtaposition of actions-and-consequences, that is what defines us, not the destination, with the dharma being the code, as well as the adherence to it, and so bring forth the Gandeeva bow (or fire up your code development environment), and do that you know you should in the way that you know you should.
This, and only this, is in your hands. Nothing else.