Friday, 3 September 2010

Why everybody is wrong about the Bhagvad Gita

The Gita is not a stand-alone text but a volume within a much larger book- the Mahabharata.
The Mbh is built up of symmetries and correspondences which are very rigorously worked out and subtly elaborated. This is because it is an attempt to unify and meaningfully inter-relate a vast array of diverse material. In particular, the Mahabharata focuses on two principles- viz. karma which operates as a law of causation operating across time, beyond even the frontiers of death- and dharma, which deals with how beings are inter-related across space by a nexus of obligation and entitlement which we may subsume under the title of Law and/or Religion. Since a text which claims to speak of a law of causation as well the rules of ethical or spiritual religious practice must show some degree of logical consistency, not to mention fair play, the modern reader should not be surprised that the Mbh, as if following Noether's theorem, shows two marvelous types of symmetries conserving karma and dharma respectively. The Gita is not an interpolation, or stand alone text, but an epoche within the Mahabharata. The first chapter of the Gita is titled Arjuna's Vishada (Dejection or Mental distress) Yoga.
In order to observe symmetries such that Karma and Dharma are conserved properties of its system, the Mbh operates by giving every character or episode a dual within itself. This is a heuristic device- a sort of double entry book-keeping- on the part of the compilers such that overall symmetry properties are preserved and the narrative can provide its own hermeneutics such that ordinary people (rather than Pundits or philologists) can get at the intended meaning. Thus, before reading the Gita we should look at the other place in the book at which the remedy for Vishada is given. This occurs when Yuddhishtra begins to despair because Bhima wants to put an end to their exile and go kill off the Kauravas. Bhima says he will take the whole blame on himself, Yudhishtra need do nothing to break his vow. Moreover, since Yudhishtra will accept and once again lose any dice game offered him and (because the silly prig does not realize that what is moral for him isn't necessarily so for his wife and younger brothers- like Gandhi thinking what was good for him was also good for Harilal and Kasturba) thus Yudhishtra would once again gamble away his own family.
In this context, Bhima's suggestion is not really disobedience- it is actually dharma. Yuddhishtra has the correct Dharma- viz as eldest and head he treats the others as though they were the very flesh of his flesh sharing everything with him- glory or slavery- and Bhima has no problem with obeying that Dharma EXCEPT if Yuddhishtra for some reason lacks competency- as for example by a disabling mental illness or overpowering addiction.
Now, previously in this parva, the Sage Markandeya had appeared to explain the nature of Dharma especially that portion Yuddhishtra finds most difficult viz Dharma w.r.t wives and juniors. Markandeya takes the example of the Brahmin Kashyapa who falls into error but is rescued by a patrivrati wife who tells him that her husband is her God and points him to a butcher (actually meat vendor) in Mithila who possesses higher knowledge. The meat vendor, it turns out, worships his mom and dad as God and hence is higher than the Brahmins and possesses the Chandogya doctrine. In passing Markandeya also mentions the Rishi Vrihadasva, a King who had become a Rishi & whose son performed a great war like feat of subduing a demon so that the father was excused from having to give up his hermitage and take up arms once again.
Yuddhishtra experienced Vishada when he realized that his own moral code (viz. always to accept a dice challenge- since it creates a symmetric situation and is Pareto efficient AND furthermore he makes no distinction between his own person and that of his wife and brothers thus putting them at risk) was in conflict with a single valued Dharma (i.e. Kantian categorical imperative) or universal moral law. The Rg Vedic hymn 'the gambler's lament' mentions the stripping of the gambler's wife- the reason that popular versions of Mbh include the Draupati vastraharanam episode- and ends with praise of Krishi (agriculture) which is also risky but yields a dividend for the whole of society.
Just at this stage, Vrihadasva appears. Yuddhishtra asks him 'has there ever been a man more unfortunate than I?" "Yes' replies Vrihadasva, "Nala of the Nishadas (a good pun because then the Upanishads are linked to this story). This is a link to the chapter where Nala learns maths and game theory and thus gains release from Kala, Time in demonic form.
Naturally, Yuddhishtra MUST learn this if he is to be able to keep his word and still restrain Bhima- i.e. once he has this skill, Bhima's dharma is no longer in conflict with his own. Bhima's dharma is to obey his elder brother (neither know that Karna is the true head of their family) but, so to speak, his elder brother has lost competency. So just as a good son may best serve a senile father- or one suffering from an addiction- by challenging his competency in court, not to deprive him of the ancestral estate, but to use it wisely and solely for the elder's upkeep and pleasure- so too Bhima's dharma would be to first kill of all the Kauravas before crowning his brother. UNTIL, that is, Rishi Vrihadasva providentially appears. Except, every character in the Mbh is offered precisely this sort of chance- the game hasn't been rigged in advance. Incidentally, Shakuni urged the return of the Pandavas estate after they lost the game- Duryodhana chose to spurn his advise. To say, the Pandavas were lucky because their maternal relative gave good advise while the Kauravas were unlucky because their maternal Uncle was a rogue would violate the basic rule of fair play. It would not be symmetric. It would be unjust. It would just be a case of 'The Gods sporting with men, as children toy with flies, tearing off their wings for their sport'.
The other point about learning game theory is that it enables one party at least to be aware of the possible Nash equilibria attainable. If all parties have this game theoretic skill, then Nash equilibria will be stable under certain conditions. (The same applies to Rational expectations in financial markets- all agents must know the correct economic theory for the theory to work) More importantly, if people know game theory and are able to accurately estimate each others endowments and preferences, then meta-games- i.e. institution design, internalization of externalities etc. can start to occur- there is no need to appeal to some King or Priest to guarantee the system. Notice that Yuddhishtra is learning new stuff, he's adding to his information set. Duryodhana is simply relying on inherited wealth and purchased loyalty. He isn't learning new things. This means his notion of Justice is - Justice as patronage (very Statist!) rather than Yuddhishtra's method of seeking a positive sum, co-operative equilibrium (which dominates competitive eqbm).

Now the reason one may want to downplay the significance of all this has to do with the horrible casteism and misogyny and talk of karma and dharma and Gods and Rishis and so on. However, the beauty of the Mbh, and the Gita, is that they show that karma, dharma, male/female, caste bloody nonsense, racial rubbish, etc, etc is all just Maya (delusion) and has no part in Absolute Reality. However, where States exist they are going to seek to constrain the social system so that it has the appearance of conserving something like karma (hierarchy pretending to be meritocracy) and dharma (Freedom means do what the Govt. tells you to do. That is true Freedom. To do what you want to do is shameless dissipation and vice. To pursue your own interests is to be the worst sort of slave because you are the slave of your passions. Etc, etc.)
Gita is really about Freedom but based on true knowledge of your own interests and a rational means to see what the interests of others are and how you can work productively with them rather than live in fear of them. This is the opposite of Matsyanyaya (big fish eats the little fish). It is the opposite of our historicist judicial hermeneutics where the presumption is made that the stronger party will always prey upon the weaker party and thus the State must intervene in every transaction to protect the weaker. Well, since strength means elasticity, having other options, what this really means is the State worsens the lot of the weaker while entrenching the position of the stronger.

Let us take the very opening of the Gita. What do we find? A symmetrical situation. Both Duryodhana and his cousin Arjuna have misgivings on seeing the forces assembled. The hint is given that actually all the warriors present should have had misgivings because they were preparing to wage war at a holy place. Both Duryodhana and Arjuna turn, as if by instinct, to a preceptor. Duryodhana turns to his Guru Drona while Arjuna has Krishna as his counselor.
However, Duryodhana's worry is whether he will prevail over his enemies whereas Arjuna's is that he will shed the blood of his kinfolk. To Duryodhana no better answer can be given then the blowing of the battle horn by Grandsire Bhishma. Now both Drona and Bhishma had been granted the boon that they would give up life only by their own will. Even if they were partial to the Pandavas, they were duty bound to protect the Kauravas.

This meant that Krishna could easily settle Arjuna's doubts by saying 'Since Bhishma and Drona are unslayable, they will be ward off your arrows from harming your kinsmen. Hence your only job is to protect your own brothers and allies while putting up such a valiant display that the other side grows tired and a compromise settlement is reached.'

However, previously in the Mbh, Arjuna had been granted a type of second sight called chakshushi vidya by a Gandharva (demi-god) whom he had vanquished. Since Krishna, being the Supreme Lord, was omnescient, he knew that Arjuna's despondency was based on a true vision of what was to come. True, Krishna could just lie to Arjun saying- you can't beat Drona and Bhishma- the best you can hope for is a stalemate. '

However Krishna does not take the easy course. Why?

Twentieth Century writers, having missed the point about Arjuna's chakshushi vidya, don't bother asking themselves this question. They assume that the Mbh was written by barbarous bards a long time ago. After all, Homeric heroes- in the grip of 'phrenes'- suddenly turn tail and run, so perhaps what the Gita really is about is God saying 'be a man. Lift up your sword and fight.'
As Swami Vivekananda puts it- "If one reads this one Shloka — क्लैब्यं मा स्म गमः पार्थ नैतत्त्वय्युपपद्यते । क्षुद्रं हृदयदौर्बल्यं त्यक्त्वोत्तिष्ठ परंतप॥ — one gets all the merits of reading the entire Gita; for in this one Shloka lies imbedded the whole Message of the Gita.[76]
Do not yield to unmanliness, O son of Pritha. It does not become you. Shake off this base faint-heartedness and arise, O scorcher of enemies! (2.3)

Unfortunately, if this is the meaning of the Gita then it fails as a text. One of the brightest guys to read the Gita was the great mathematician Andre Weil. He thought its message was 'don't fight- run away.' But running away from conscription in the Second World War put his life in more immediate risk.

Since the commentators fail to note that Arjuna's vishada is of a prophetic origin (he is able to visualize how the War would end) rather than arising from a failure of phrenes or thymos (that is 'rajsic guna' in Indglish), they miss the real import of this chapter.

However mistakes of this sort are bound to occur unless one realizes that the Mbh strives to look at symmetric situations such that we feel there is a sort of fair play, a type of equality between agents matched against each other. In any case, simply from the dramatic point of view, a conversation or combat of equals, or at least properly handicapped protagonists, is more interesting than one between agents markedly different in degree.

If Drona and Bhishma can reassure Duryodhana simply by showing themselves steadfast at their posts, Krishna has a more difficult job. He has vowed not to fight but be a charioteer merely. Moreover, Arjuna- by his own actions, by the fruit of his own karma- has a superior sort of insight and outlook than does Duryodhana who has relied on others for his Kingly status. Thus, though Krishna does in the end perform the same function as Drona and Bhishma- thus not handicapping the Pandavas in the upcoming battle- it is by means of a very difficult type of argument or persuasion- one involving Krishna sacrificing himself!- rather than the facile or doctrinaire nonsense that the commentators find in the Gita.

What caused this stupidity amongst the scholars? The answer is that they failed to take the Mbh's system of symmetries seriously.
First let us go back to the question of Arjuna's vishada- the despondency arising from his foresight of what was to come. Why should the sin of killing kinfolk weigh so heavily on him? The answer is that, in the course of the war, he unwittingly kills his eldest brother, that too in a state of passionate fury, in battle. Arjuna does not know Karna is the head of his family. Karna does know this but wants the war to go ahead so that the slain warriors gain a glorious ascent to heaven. Thus Arjuna really is obeying the head of his family in taking on a ghastly sin- equivalent to patricide- on himself. Yet, to accomplish the task- otherwise impossible- Krishna himself had to help engender a state of Manyu (dark anger) in Arjuna. In other words though Arjuna did his duty in the sense of fulfilling the head of his family's desire- he did not do so in a dispassionate state.
Now that we know the origin of Arjuna's vishada let us ask the question is there anywhere else in the Mbh where we get a symmetric situation? The answer is yes, an equal but opposite situation arises (Book8 -69-71) where Arjuna swears to kill the person he believes to be his eldest brother and Krishna intervenes with an argument relating to the nature of dharma. Commentators dismiss this as some sort of scholastic quibbling on the part of Krishna. They don't see that- just in case one misses the clues within the Gita itself because one imagines that the guys who wrote it were ignorant barbarians- this episode has been put in, as a sort of double entry book-keeping, so that even those who are unlettered and ignorant can, simply by following the plot line of the story, piece the thing together for themselves. This follows from the fact that a large portion of the audience for the Mbh would not be fluent in the canonical form of the language in which it was being delivered but still be able to work out what was happening and retain the story line in their minds because of the dramatic nature of the events.

Briefly, Krishna states that to reveal one's own merits or award them condign praise is, for an honorable man, to commit suicide. Now, in the Gita, Krishna reveals himself to be the Supreme Godhead- this is the theophany known as Visvarupa- thus slaying himself!

Suddenly we see a reversal of the commentators view whereby the Kurukshetra battle is a sort of gory sacrifice orchestrated by and brought about for the greater glory of that cunning and hypocritical Krishna!

How such a view is compatible with devotional religion- nay! how this is compatible with any sentiment towards the Hindu religion or Indian culture other than revulsion and disgust- is utterly beyond me.

In Hindu hermeneutics the concept of apoorvata- to find something new or say something unprecedented- is emphasized as being the meaning or import of a text. Once we realize that meaning in the Gita is 'being gamed' (i.e. like a game of chess, though based on a few simple rules and a finite number of pieces, there is infinite potential for novelty, the more you play the more possibilities you see, the more truly educational the game becomes) rather than stated in a once and for all way. The term apurva- in Hindu thought- is similar to the notion of prarabhda karma, but it shows how the conditioning or deterministic factors operating on us can, by our taking a novel view of them (including that of Theistic Vaisnavism), become the basis of liberation as freedom here and now. How so? Take the following example- you find yourself in a strange place surrounded by people speaking a strange language busy about tasks utterly alien to your previous experience. In this situation you have only one choice- viz. to blindly follow the one person who speaks a little of your language and tells you what to do. However, you are virtually a slave of this person. You have no freedom. However, if you start looking around and putting yourself in other people's shoes (trying to imagine what motivates them and what is the basis of their interaction) you will begin to get an idea of what the various social roles available to you are in this new environment. You have taken the first step to becoming free from your guide. Your behavior and thinking is starting to show that plasticity which is the necessary pre-condition for Freedom. If you chose not to look around- if you say my karma is to do x therefore my dharma is to do nothing but x- then the only freedom meaningful to you is the freedom to imagine yourself more pious and worthy of heaven than those around you.
The fact that Krishna tells Arjuna to do as he pleases in accordance with his own nature- svadharma (incidentally, Arjun's family had a long history of the rightful heir ceding his right to the throne to the other claimant- thus Arjun would have been following his family tradition if he'd quit the field) shows that the Gita is about Freedom based in the Real World- not some ethical fairyland.
But this begs the question- if, as I claim, all the modern commentators on the Gita are utterly wrong about it, why bother with it at all? Surely it can only mislead? The answer here is that only people who think they are smarter than average- and thus superior to those who composed and preserved the Mbh- can be misled by it.
For ordinary people the Mbh is invaluable because it shows that the two goads of karma and dharma that our rulers apply to our flanks are nothing but blinkers and that none but these self appointed elites are chained by that karma and undone by that dharma. (I was greatly heartened to read that the villagers near Gandhi's Sabarmati Ashram chased off the Ashramites when they tried to stick their noses where they didn't belong. )

In the Gita, Krishna explains that amongst the Vedas he is the Sama (musical recitation) and amongst Upanishads he is the Chandogya- a book which tells of how some free minstrels of the Lord, poor as they were, went to learn that the hermeneutics of what they chanted as theorized by the rulers. But what Kings think is not philosophy- it's a load of shite. Now it may be that there is a link between Monsoons and the mandate of Heaven or a more straightforwardly Ricardian or Malthusian or Ecological or Asimovian kind of water cycle regulating hierarchical government but the important point is that free minstrels don't need to get caught up in that shite. The carter- who earns his own living- possesses the Truth in a more perfect form.
Essentially if you have a hierarchical society then something like 'prarabdha karma' is a big feature of life. However the Mbh shows that you are not actually constrained by the role you were into at birth or acquired by reason of genetic predisposition. Svadharma means doing what you really want to on the basis of really knowing yourself. This is part of true Religion coz people can relate to you in a predictable way- Justice is predictability- and, if they choose, enjoy things unique to yourself that you can offer the world.
All Religions, according to the Hindutva doctrine, should be able to get you thinking about what you really want to do and would have tools and instruments within their Scripture that will get you started down that road.
Of course, if you really want to be a massive prick and fuck everybody up then sure you gotta say to yourself 'My duty to God is to be an allmightly prick coz like the ordinary people are so stupid and wicked and lazy and many of them are the wrong color or gender or like mebbe they be getting gay with each other or like dissing the Environment God or summat.' But if you do this you will end up with a far more witless karma and dharma doctrine than that of the Mbh.

Of the four sons of the author of the Mbh- one is sunk in a congenital Tamsic darkness, one dies by his Rajsic passion, the third is wise and good, but the fourth, Shuka, is not bound by any genetic or acquired conditioning, he flies by the nets of karma and dharma to become one with the Universe leaving the author of the book cheerless behind.
In the Gita what Krishna is doing is fulfilling his own prarabdha karma while showing how everybody else (unless they think they're smarter than others or born to rule or some such shite) can fly by the nets of karma and dharma while still enjoying the sweetness of life.

I think it's a perfect book. It can only fuck you up if your big mission in life was to fuck up other people's lives by preaching to them or ordering them about or taking it upon yourself to judge them. But, like, that's karma dude. What about Dharma? It is an upside down tree which you must cut down for yourself. Consider your rulers as convicts, your savants as a chain gang. No matter what threats they may utter nor howsoever fearsome they may appear- they can not imperil your freedom. Not if you gotta song in your heart and no particular place to go. In which case you also got the Gita. Congrats!


Anonymous said...

I think you are foolish and using bad language like a rascal.
Message of Gita is of Yoga. Through practice of Yoga and breath control Mind can be brought under the control and this is the truth immortality.

windwheel said...

Dear Sir,
Thank you for your valuable comment.I agree with you completely.Only thanks to Yoga, meditation and breath control, Tibetan monks were able to defeat the Chinese Communists. India was able to throw out the British in 1758 thanks to Yogic powers.
Billions of Americans and Europeans are coming to India to learn valuable skills like Yogic flying and ability to feed trillions of people using inexhaustible food vessels which are received as boon from great Siddhis and Yogis.
Gita was written down twenty three gazillion years ago. From that time onwards India has been going from strength to strength only because of study of Yoga which does not at all turn its exponents into brain-dead parasites. This is true message of Gita and should be taught in schools, colleges and other places where young people go for restful sleep.

Anonymous said...

Dear windwheel,
are you really this stupid to write the above comment on top of the original post?

windwheel said...

@anon- sure, why not?