Thursday, 28 June 2012



No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild’- This was how Christopher McCandles described his solitary trip across North America. He was an American young man, who felt alienated from and disillusioned with the mainstream society. Immediately after his graduation, he set out on a solitary trip, abandoning all his familial and societal relations. For about two years he wandered across various states of America as a vagabond, before perishing tragically in the jungles of Alaska. Days after his death, his lifeless body was recovered from the Alaskan wilderness and the world came to know about his vagrant adventures from his journals. A journalist, Jon Krakuer, compiled them and published his biography as Into the Wild. That became an instant hit and catapulted him to a cult figure. Later, in 2007, a movie was also made on his life, also titled Into the Wild.
When I happened to read his biography during college days, I was not much impressed with his aimless wanderings, which were romanticized as an ‘introspective, soul-searching journey’ and ‘a silent rebellion against the hypocrisies of modern civilization’. I dismissed him as a disoriented youth, who lacked the courage to take on the battle of life and took out an easy escape route; or an indolent and self-indulgent dreamer, who did not want to take up the obligations of family and society and ran away from it. Although my heart went out for that young man who died tragically, I could not find any greatness in his impulsive misadventure.
But, as I was waiting for my bus to Rishikesh at Kashmere Gate Inter-State Bus Terminal, New Delhi, the thoughts of Christopher reverberated in my mind. I had decided to make a trip to Rishikesh; all alone! I knew that the never-ending demands of the profession and the mundane obligations of family were going to compete for my soul very soon. The flames of romance and passion were having their final vigorous blaze in the face of impending extinguishment.  At such a juncture, I could really empathize with Christopher and could identify the impulses which impelled him to set out on his adventure. Maybe it is true that there is an anarchist in every one of us; that craving for absolute freedom, to break-free and fly-high – that is inherent in all of us, I guess. However, we suppress and repress it, out of fear and respect of society, and out of desire for its recognition. Nevertheless, at times, that desire gets so overwhelming that we pursue it uninhibitedly, despite all societal sanctions and despite even ourselves.  I was at such a state and hence my decision to go to Rishikesh. Actually, the place did not matter much to me. Rishikesh, Dharamshala, Leh, Ladakh or even Rawalpindi- anything would have done for me. I wanted to indulge my own self, before it gets appropriated by profession and family; and wanted to have plenty of ‘me-time’, before it gets vilified by unwanted intrusions. Finally, I zeroed in on Rishikesh and Haridwar. No, it wasn’t  a pilgrimage. It could be described as a sort of ‘honey-moon’; with my own self. Thus, the journey started, at 21:17 hours on 28.05.2012


After a long crazy bus journey, which gifted me jerky dreams even amidst my half-sleep, I reached Haridwar next morning. There I saw her. Ganga! Flowing serenely, with her lazy waves reflecting the rising sun. I felt a sudden urge to get down there and to indulge her. But I had taken my tickets for Rishikesh, which was some 40 kilometers ahead. So I decided to stay on; though I could sense Ganga beckoning me into her arms.

As the bus stopped at a railway crossing, I got down there without any second-thoughts. The conductor was yelling ‘bhaisaab, yeh rishikesh nahi hain. Hardiwar hain’. I very well knew that and that was why I got down there. Immediately I ran to the nearest bathing ghat and took a dip into it.
As one immersed oneself into her depths, one would realize that her coy appearance and docile demeanor were cleverly concealing her latent passion and intense vitality. It seemed that she’d been impatiently waiting for me. As soon as I touched her, she showered me with all her pent-up affection; with her wet kisses and damp hugs. Enchanted by her charms, I went more deep into Ganga, and she grew wild and possessive, with her frothy currents swirling me and cajoling me to be one with her and flow with her. Yes, a wild, passionate and possessive Ganga, who would not shy away from essaying a self-destructive love epic!
After that rejuvenating dip, I took a round in the city of Haridwar

Haridwar Railway Station

A bating ghat on Ganga shores.

                                           Har-ki-pauri – A sacred bathing ghat.

                                                       Ganga, at dusk.

The evening aarti at Har-ki-pauri is a spectacular event.  There is a temple devoted to Ganga there and special prayers are made to Ganga every evening. The devotees float diyas on the river, and Ganga would be looking enchanting, lit up by the flames of thousands of floating diyas.  The ambience is so overwhelmingly pious that any staunch non-believer would be tempted to offer his prayers to Ganga Mata. The air got filled with the soothing smell of burning incense, and the holy chants of the devotees. A gentle breeze brushed against my face; may be the blessing of Ganga mata and I found myself in one of those rare moments in life, where one felt a sort of oneness with everything and everyone.


That night I stayed at Haridwar. Getting a place to stay at night was a great difficulty. No one was willing to give me a room. It seems that there were many instances of young people coming alone to Haridwar to commit suicide in hotel roams. Since then, the hoteliers are unwilling to rent out rooms to young men who come alone. But I tried convincing them that I didn’t belong to such disgruntled group. But it didn’t work out. Finally I took out my trump card. I showed to one hotelier my Bar Council Identity card and tried to act in a lawyerly manner. Then he categorically said that no rooms were available. Finally, after a lot of search I found a place. But the manager wanted to speak to my parents to ensure that I was not a run-away! I told him that my parents in Kerala would not understand Hindi and somehow convinced him against it. Thus, I got my abode.
Haridwar is a city which never sleeps. The chiming of temple bells, pious bhajans, holy chants of the devotees, and above all the mild rumbling of Ganga’s flow – all these concocted a sweet lullaby and prodded me to sleep.
Next day I set out to Rishikesh, my original destination. As soon as I got down at the bus stand, the autowallahs flocked me, offering me to take to the various landmarks of Rishikesh. I ignored all of them and waded my way out, deciding to find out the places myself.
The only landmark places of Rishikesh I knew were ‘Ram Jhula’ and ‘Laxman Jhula’, two suspension bridges built across Ganga. I decided that I will discover these places with my inherent sense of Geography. I have a vain feeling that I have a great sense of geography, which would take me to places without any external aid. It has a history of turning out right in one out of ten occasions. Since it had gone wrong in all the previous nine occasions, I felt that the moment of success had arrived at Rishikesh.
Thus, I walked along the shores of Ganga, in pursuit of those jhulas. As I walked I reached another place, Triveni Ghat.  A beach like shore of Ganga filled with pebbles.

 I had my customary dip there as well. After that I continued my walk again and I reached the highway to Delhi. Then I realized that I was getting lost and decided to shed my ego and ask for help. And I got to know that I had been walking exactly in the opposite direction! But my crazy, egoistic adventure took me to Triveni Ghat, which otherwise would have escaped my notice.

                                                                           Ram Jhula

Rafters on Ganga

Lord Shiva, Paramarth Niketan.
                                              Laxman Jhula and Thrayabeshwar Temple

Rishikesh has got a hippie ambience as well. Once, the rock band ‘The Beatles’ had come to Rishikesh to meet Maharishi Mahesh Yogi  and had spend many days. John Lennon even recorded a song titled ‘Happy Rishikesh’. Since then, Rishikesh had been quite famous in the occident. So one can see a lot of foreigners, clad in saffron and wearing rudraskh roaming around the place. Anglicized versions of Om Nama Shivaya and other chants blare out from the speakers outside various ashrams, which offer ‘ yogic ecstasy and tantric bliss’(whatever that means!).
Rishikesh also offers a lot of adventure acts like river rafting, bungee jumping, camping etc. But those did not attract me. My existence per se had become very edgy and I did not find the need to resort to physical exertions to experience thrill and adventure.
Despite all that, Rishikesh failed to impress me. It could not match up to the delight which Haridwar had offered. There was air of phoniness hung in there. The ‘wannabe’ foreign sanyasis, the institutions selling yoga and tantra to exploit the gullible foreigners, rock versions of holy chants – everything appeared phony. I kept on walking the Ganga shores, feeling sick and tired. As I kept on walking through a wild path along Ganga, I found a defunct temple.

I went inside that temple and sat there, thinking what to do next. I thought of going back to Delhi. Risikesh had tired and sickened me. The sweet memories of Haridwar were getting eclipsed. Then, as a revelation, a thought occurred to me. Why not go to Devprayag? On a mile stone in Rishikesh, I had seen it written –‘ Devprayag 70 KM’. That was the first time I came across that place name. I had absolutely no idea about the place. But, for some strange reason, the seeds of that idea got planted in my mind. And gradually the seed sprouted and was growing rapidly. Devprayag was beckoning me. However, I was also aware about the stupidity of my idea of going to an unknown place without any prior information or pre-made plans. Finally, I made reconciled my reason and my intuition and decided that if I get any bus to Devprayag within thirty minutes of reaching the main road, I will go there; otherwise, it’s back to Delhi. And you would not believe it. Within five minutes of my reaching the main road, an Utharakhand State Transport bus going to Devprayag ‘appeared’ before me. And trust me, Devprayag was the best part of my trip. This is what they call the ‘divine wish’.


Hum jo chalane lage, chalane lage hain yeh raaste
Manzil se behtar lagane lage hai yeh raaste
(As we started traveling, the paths too started moving
And the journey seemed better than the destination)

When the destination is unknown, one tends to enjoy the journey. That was my state of my mind en route Devprayag.I had no idea what awaited me there. But, the journey by itself was enchanting and my heart was filled to the brim with joy and excitement. The curvy roads convoluting their way up the contours of Shiwalik hills; the adolescent Ganga playing hide and seek through the zig-zag ridges of the hills; skeletal trees devoid of all their green tresses giving an ominous welcome to the passengers; and above all the long array of hills, devoid of any trace of vegetation, standing stoically like large mounds of soil – all these provided much delight to my senses. 

The divine chariot which incarnated in the form of State Bus


As I was soaking myself in the sensory delights of the journey, I happened to see that mind-blowing sight through the window of the bus. One of those rare sights in the world which genuinely takes away your breath; which makes your heart swell with awe and astonishment. That it was totally unexpected and uninformed added to the intensity of the bliss.  Deep down there, I could see two rivers, flowing through rocky ridges, joining and flowing as one single river. One of them was crystal green in colour. The other one in a brownish earthy colour. Both of them joins and flows down, retaining the earthy colour. That was Devprayag!

The green river is Bhagirathi, which originates from the Gangotri glacier. The other one is Alakananda, which has a muddy colour due to its high sediment content. Both of them unite at Devprayag, and from here onwards the river is called ‘Ganga’. So technically speaking, Devprayag is the originating point of Ganga.
Like Devprayag, there are five more prayag( confluence) upstream Alakananda. Rudraprayag, Karanprayag, Vishnuprayag and Nandaprayag were various rivers unite with River Alakananda. 


                                                                The mandir at the Sangam

It is saddening to see the green colour of Bhagirathi getting lost in the earthy waters of Alakananda. Bhagirathi flows with a lot of vigour and passion; its roaring sound could be heard even from kilometer away; whereas, Alakananda is more peaceful and composed in its flow. However, after their union, Ganga flows with passionately and vigorously. Thus, Ganga takes birth at Devprayag and flows down with the complexion of Alakananda and the composure of Bhagirathi.

Ganesh Maharaj Baba
That night I stayed in Devprayag. Unlike in Haridwar, I had no difficulty in finding rooms. I got a small, lovely cheap room overlooking Bhagirathi river. Next morning, I got up early to feel the dawn’s ambience in Devprayag.
A street in Devprayag 

                                                      A suspension bridge over Alakananda

                                                                     Devprayag Town

After roaming around that small sleepy town, I went to the temple at the sangam point. As I was loitering around there, I happened to befreind a curious character – a baba, sanyasi.
That sanyasi came near me and asked about me. He said that he had been seeing me since yesterday and was curious to know more about me!! As I started speaking he asked me whether I was from Madras( caught by the accent). I said yes. And I also told him my name as ‘Srinivas’. ‘Srinivas Iyer’!!. I don’t know what made me act under a fictitious indentity. Anyway, it happened so. And I told him that I was an advocate practictising at the Supreme Court and was on a pilgrimage to Badrinath!.

Entrapped in my web of lies, the sanyasi invited me to his ‘home’. Not exactly a ‘home’.It’s a cave on the banks of Ganga. A cool, damp, dark cave with water dripping from itsroofs. The sanyasi started talking. Though he seemed to be living an ascetic life, he wasin the know of the happenings of the world. He ranted on and on about the recentpolitical developments, judiciary, fate of nation etc. He skidded easily from one topic toanother with utmost ease. In between he would do names-dropping. He would say heknew Justica so and so, or this minister or this IAS officer etc. Apparently, all of them were his disciples. At times, he would get very stoic in his tone and would philosophiseabout life and universe with abstract thoughts. In short he made a goodconversationalist. But even while talking piously, the baba would suddenly lose histemper and would shower the filthiest abuses at the world at large; and would abuse theTatas and Birlas who pollute Ganga; the foolish devotees who throng at the temple; andthe world at large. In between he kept on telling that he was the Vice-Chancellor of
Ganga University. Slightly unstable indeed!!The sanyasi evaded all my queries about him. He claimed that he had been living therefor past ‘500 years’. After a lot of prodding, he revealed his name. ‘Ganesh MaharajBaba!!’. After conversing a lot for a while, Ganesh baba did a curious thing. He took outa chillum( a conical smoke-pipe made of clay) from his sackbag and filled it with ganja.
Then he lit it up and started smoking. The haunting smell of burning ganja filled thatdamp cave. That maddening smell had followed me even in the streets of Haridwar andRishikesh. Pot-smoking sanyasis are a very common sight in these places. It is another irony that alcohol is not available in these ‘holy’ places and ganja is available at every nook and corner.After a while two more vagabond sanyasis came to the cave. Ganesh baba immediately offered them the burning chilllum and they too inhaled the holy fumes. Like we commoners offering tea or coffee to guests, the sanyasis express their courtsey by offering ganja!!. Then one more sanyasi joined- a foreigner turned sanyasi. He was a German national( I forgot his name. Kohler or something) and he too joined the party ofsmoke. And I was sitting amidst all those crazy people!! A young man clad in teeand jeans sitting amidst saffron clad stoned sanyasis must have been a curious sight to the onlookers.
                                                               Ganesh Maharaj Baba
I wanted to leave the place. But Ganesh baba would not leave me without having food.Another disciple of his came to the cave and made rotis and bhindi sabjee and I wasobliged to have them. Yes, the food was very tasty. Before leaving, the baba asked formy phone number and gave him(fictitious ofcourse). I was shocked when the baba tookout the latest model Apple I-phone from his bag to save my number!! There was something really enigmatic about that person. And someday someone will have to attend to the call of Ganesh Baba and respond to queries regarding Srinivas Iyer!!
Anyway, the life style of Baba impressed me. No job, no family, no worries. The devotess of the temple give him liberal offerings and he make a living out of it. He can live his life happily, sitting on the shores of Ganga and smoking his holy fumes.Asceticism seemed to be a very blisfull state of being.
After bidding my farewell to Ganesh baba and to Ganga river, I made plans to return to Delhi. For a while I thought of going further north and visit all the other prayags and Badrinath if possible. But I decided against it. My heart was very content and Devprayag provided a perfect sense of ending. Morevoer, I was running out of cash. So I decided to go back. The return journey was very tedious. It happened to be the Bharat Bandh that day and many bus services to Haridwar got cancelled. After a lot of wait, I finally got a lift in a small tempo-truck and I had the most horrible journey experience in my life. I had to sit on the metal floor, crammed in between other passengers. The sun was blazing at 45 degrees and the tempo driver was the worst driver I had ever come across. Severely dehydrated and nausetic, I managed to reach Haridwar after a three hour long mad journey. Upon reaching Haridwar, I took my final dip in Ganga and all my travel-lag disappeared in a moment. With a heavy heart, I bid adieu to her. Ganga- flowing peacefully carrying the sins of men and pollutants of cities in her womb without any complaints. When will I get to meet her again? If time and money permits, one day I would undertake a journey, chasing Ganga. Right from its beginning at Gangotri, through all the holy prayags, through the holy ghats of Haridwar and Varanasi, thorugh the Gangetic plains of UP and
Bihar, through Bengal where it splits into Hooghly, and through Bangladeh where it flows as Padma and then as Meghna after joining Jamuna and ends it long journey at the Bay of Bengal. So till my ‘Chasing Ganga’ plan materializes, she will have to wait for me. Wait sweetheart, wait.


It is said that there is only a thin line of difference between foolhardiness and adventure, which becomes clear only after the result of the act is known. Though my unplanned trip was inherently an absurd idea,prompted by joblessness and dictated by casualness, it turned out to be a memorable adventure due to the positive results, for which I cannot take any credit. I was a mere reactionary to favourable circumstances. Impulsiveness and ad-hocism were the hallmarks of my trip. And yes, lady luck blessed me a lot throughout my journey. The intensity of desires and sincerity of intentions created some favourable circumstances and I merely reacted to them. Being reactive, instead of being pro-active has largely been my approach to life and that reflected in the trip too.

Before the start of the trip, I found myself to be in the shoes of Chrsitopher McCandles. Someone wanting to experience the passion and independence of youth all alone with a sense of abandon. Upon reaching Devprayag, I felt impressed with the life style of Ganesh Baba. Someone unburdened with the worries of mainstream life and someone who could afford to philosophise of life sitting in its galleries. But now I dismiss both the said modes of existence. I don’t want to be an escapist like Christopher McCandles and experience absolute independence; just to persih unknown and earn posthumous glory. Nor do I want to float in fumes like Ganesh Baba and live in abstaractions. Life has to be lived through concrete deeds; and not in abstract philosophies.

I know, a tough and competitive world is awaiting me. And a ruthless and selfish society is too awaiting me with its chains; to curb by freedom and creative spirit. But I don’t want to run away. I will face it and will make my way through it. My trip, if at all it was anything, was actually an ordeal by fire for me; and I emerged unscathed; and filled me with courage and resolve. The unknown is not to be feared; but to be known and mastered. True happiness is shared happiness and it happens only through fulfilling one’s karma. Solitude and self-indulgece is good; but only at intervals. One can’t make them one’s permamanent state of being. Life, here I come, with the blessings of Ganga

Friday, 27 January 2012

Milan Kundera

Some interesting quotes by writer Milan Kundera...

“The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.”

“Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us.” 

“And therein lies the whole of man's plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.”

“The only relationship that can make both partners happy is one in which sentimentality has no place and neither partner makes any claim on the life and freedom of the other. ” 

“The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful ... Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.” 

“Two people in love, alone, isolated from the world, that's beautiful.” 

“In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” 

“We all need someone to look at us. we can be divided into four categories according to the kind of look we wish to live under. the first category longs for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes, in other words, for the look of the public. the second category is made up of people who have a vital need to be looked at by many known eyes. they are the tireless hosts of cocktail parties and dinners. they are happier than the people in the first category, who, when they lose their public, have the feeling that the lights have gone out in the room of their lives. this happens to nearly all of them sooner or later. people in the second category, on the other hand, can always come up with the eyes they need. then there is the third category, the category of people who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love. their situation is as dangerous as the situation of people in the first category. one day the eyes of their beloved will close, and the room will go dark. and finally there is the fourth category, the rarest, the category of people who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present. they are the dreamers.”

“And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?”

“There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, "sketch" is not quite a word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.” 

Monday, 17 October 2011

Borewell of Justice

Bore bore bore,
Law went on,
Boring the bar,
Boring the bench,
And it bore nothing;
But it bore well enough,
To have a bore-well,
From which arose,
The fountain of justice!!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Difficulty of Being Good-The Subtle Art of Dharma (Part II)

(Continuation of the previous post)

Krishna, the 'noble' charioteer.

Krishna giving counsel to Arjuna

Be intent on the action
Not on the fruits of the action 

Krishna gives this advise to Arjuna to prod him to take up his arms and to fight the enemy. When Arjuna realized that he would have to kill his own cousins, uncles and teachers to win the war, he developed a cold feet and he put down his weapons. At this juncture, Krishna gives his counsel to Arjuna, which is available to us in the form of Srimad Bhagvad Gita. Krishna says that one can attain moksha or salvation by doing his karma or duty. While performing the duty, one should not be bothered about its consequences. When a man dwells in his mind on the object of sense, attachment to them is produced. From attachment springs desire and from desire comes anger. So duty bound deeds should be done without letting the nature of results to affect one's actions. 

Krishna, was advocating an alternative way to attain salvation. The other ways are through jnana yoga, wherein one through the employment of his intellect tries to gain knowledge about the supreme being and  through bhakthi yoga, wherein one through utmost devotion and love attains oneness with the cosmic soul. But these two ways are not easily adoptable for a man of world. These two calls for solitude and  renunciation of world. So, by suggesting that one can attain salvation through a detached and religious performance of one's duties, Krishna was opening the doors of salvation to a man of world. 

Krishna tells Arjuna that being a kshatrhriya he has the duty to fight for his kingdom. Moreover, the war was not merely for the reclamation of kingdom. It was a fight for justice. So Arjuna has the duty of punishing the unjust and eliminating evil. Therefore he should not let his personal affections to come in the way of his duties. 

But this philosophy of 'nishkama karma' can also be problematic at times.German philosopher Hegel recognized the moral attractiveness of 'doing one's duty for duty's sake', and agreed that this was a great moral intention but also pointed out the practical difficulty in knowing what one's duty is(p.134). The moral law of acting disintrestedly does not necessarily lead one to virtuous acts. For example  Adolf Eichmann,Nazi SS Officer, considered by many to be the 'architect of holocaust', during his trial in Israel sought to justify his evil acts on the grounds that he was not acting for selfish ends;he was doing his duty to his country.  He implied that he generally felt sympathy for the jews. However, he steadfastly stuck to his job because he believed that everyone should do one's duty unaffected by sympathy. He was obeying the highest law by doing his duty.
                                                                                                     Adolf Eichmann

This sort of extreme, if not absurd, extrapolation of the philosophy of nishkama karma  could be arrested with the theory of consequentialism. It suggests that acts, per se, do not have any morality attached thereto. The morality of the act is judged from the consequence of it. It is an extension of the doctrine of utilitarianism, which was devised by Jeremy Bentham and was developed by J.S.Mill. It suggests that an act which promotes pleasure is good and an act which promotes pain is bad. All deeds should be seeking to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest numbers.

During the Kurukshetra war, Krishna too employs this philosophy. It forms the edifice for the aphorism 'ends would justify the means'.  Thus he prods Yudhishtira to  deceive Drona into believing that his son Ashwatthama is dead. He encourages Arjuna to kill an unarmed Karna. He also encourages Bhima to kill Duryodhana through foul play. All these acts were blatant violations of the recognized rules and norms of war. Krishna says 'Casting aside virtue,ye sons of Pandu, adopt some contrivance for gaining victory'(p.185). This causes Duryodhana, during his dying moments, to accuse Krishna of perfidy. He states that the victory was achieved through deceit and trickery and had it been a fair fight Kauravas would have won comprehensively. 

Duryodhana may have had good reasons to denounce Krishna, but Krishna believes that Duryodhana is really the guilty one. He blames him for the failure of peace talks. He firmly believes that once you make the fateful decision of going to war, then you must win at any cost. As he sees it, the Pandavas cause is just, and once the war begins the only thing that matters is victory. Ends justify the means. We can see a manifestation of moral relativism in Kurukshetra. And one would not be wrong in presuming that Krishna would be the first one to breach  the Geneva Conventions, if  it is a jus ad bellum(just war).

Karna's insecurities

    Arjuna killing Karna

Karna is often perceived as a 'wronged hero'.He had an unfortunate birth. Despite being born as a kshathriya, he had to live as a charioteer, a low-caste. His apparent low-caste origin caused him a lot humiliations throughout his life. Dhraupadi shunned him during her swayam-vara by stating 'I do not choose a charioteer'. His utmost adherence to his virtue causes him to voluntarily relinquish his boons. And at the war, he gets killed through foul means .

In this book, the author tries to examine the psychology of this tragic-hero. He suggests that Karna might have been suffering from 'status-anxiety'.Mahabharatha is set in a rigid social order regulated by the varna system and Karna is eager to establish his place in the society. He is conscious of his skills and talents and that leads him to think that he deserves a more worthy position in the society. But the tag of 'charioteer's son' dogs him all his life. And when a beautiful woman like Dhraupadi delivers the snub, it is unbearable. 

Like most people, Karna wants to be 'somebody'. It must have hurt him to sit in the stands at the tournament where Pandavas and Kauravas exhibited their skills. Later when his own skill is discovered and he is praised by the crowd, Karna begins to feel worthy. Anxiety about one's place in the world tends to distort one's character. It makes Karna excessively proud and boastful(P.156). The shrewd Duryodhana is aware of Karna's insecurity, and he seeks to exploit it for his ends. He renders Karna the much coveted recognition and place, and that makes Karna loyal to him, till the end. Karna's loyalty is blind and unquestioning and he connives at Duryodhan's misdeeds. When Dhraupadi was getting humiliated, Karna supports it by stating that a woman who sleeps with five men has no dignity and that she ought to be humiliated(p.40). While doing that Karna was avenging the humiliation he suffered at Dhraupadi's swayam-vara.

Karna can be characterized as an 'others-centric' person. He is too conscious about others' perception about him. He values fame and reputation above everything. When Surya, his father, cautions him about Indra's ploy to snatch the boons of immortality and invincibility from him, he is categorical that he would not resist that, for he fears 'infamy than death'(p.172). He does not pay heed to his father's counsel that there are other things in life that matter more than fame, such as the 'human duties of the living'. Even Surya's parting words, 'What use is fame to a dead man?It is like a garland on a corpse', could not shake his resolve.

Karna was suffering from an ego problem. He was favourable to anyone who appeased his ego(Duryodhana). And he was vindictive to anyone who scorned his ego(Dhraupadi). This ego-centric attitude blinds his objectivity and impairs his reason. His eagerness to inflate the leaky balloon of ego which was susceptible to tiny pin-pricks of neglect led to his predicament. Karna's search for his identity reminds one of the terrible mistake society makes in assessing a person on the basis of his origins. Even now, we have not redeemed ourselves completely of the scourge of casteism. So the rigid social hierarchy, which does not value a person on the basis of merit but on the basis of origin, is equally culpable for Karna's follies. At the root of status-anxiety is an excessive concern about what others think of us. At this juncture, Albert Camus' wise words could be helpful. 'To be happy one must not be too concerned with the opinion of others. One should pursue one's goals single-mindedly, with a quiet confidence, without thinking of others'.

Revenge and Remorse

Revenge, the primitive yet potent emotion is an underlying theme of the epic. Most of the events in the epic are a manifestation of it. Most of the characters succumb to it. Dhraupadi's need to avenge her humiliation is one of the factors which led to the war. Arjuna avenges the gruesome killing of his son Abhimanyu. Ashwatthama's vendetta against the Pandavas for killing his father Drona in an unfair manner goads him to effect the brutal decimation of Pandavas' sons. So revenge, in all its superlative forms, recurs throughout the work. This has tempted many to think that the main theme of the work is revenge. The recent movie 'Rakht Charithra', directed by Ram Gopal Verma, sought to attribute its theme 'Revenge is the purest emotion', to the epic. This is either a result of selective reading of the epic or selective quoting(And the Censor Board, rightly, admonished the producers of the film for this distortion, and they diluted its impact by including a quote by Mahatma Gandhi.)


One who is besotted with this crude emotion will not think about anything else, and would be bent on realizing it at any cost. One can adopt any desperate measures, can stoop down to any reprehensible level, for the sake of retribution. The fate of Ashwatthama is illustrative of this. Hence, society has institutionalized this emotion through it's criminal justice system, wherein state would be carrying out retributive justice on behalf of its wronged subjects. This mechanism is imperative for preventing the social fabric from withering.

From a holistic appraisal of the work, one would understand that the epic never attempts to glorify revenge. It also highlights the dire consequences which arise therefrom. After the war, a sense of hollowness assails everyone. The winning of war does not lead the Pandavas to any form of satisfaction or contentment. It is a pyrrhic victory for them. On the contrary, the immense wreckage and irreparable loss caused by the war make them remorseful. And, the virtuous Yudhisthira is the one who gets tormented by remorse the most. 'There are no victors in war' he laments. Even the Mauryan emperor Ashoka also underwent similar feelings after the Kalinga war. Yudhishthira, who is vulnerable to dogmatic morals, wants to abdicate the kingdom which was won through violence, and wants to lead the rest of the life as an ascetic repenting for his horrific sins.

                                                       Bhishma advising Yudhisthira(Mughal Painting)

At this juncture, Bhishma, who was felled by Arjuna and had been lying on a bed of arrows since then, advises Yudhisthira about the dharma of a king.He suggests that renouncing kingdom would amount to cowardice and escapism. He also states that a king has to use danda or force for protecting his state. Society exists because it is in everyone's interest to have peace and peace can prevail only if there is a sovereign authority to punish those who breach it. And Yudhishtira, who is always at a loss to reconcile the duties of being a kshatrhriya and the words of his conscience, again adopts a pragmatic middle path and ascends to the throne.

What is Mahabharata all about?
Mr. Das observes that Mahabharata is not a tale intended to celebrate and romanticize royal valour and war heroism. If that was the case, the epic should have ended right after the victory of Pandavas. But the epic does not stop there. A mood of voidness permeates the epic after that, and it goes on to suggest the futility of war and other acts of human vanity. Krishna, the strategist of Pandavas, who is accursed due to the wrath of Gandhari, dies a banal death like an animal in the forest. One should behold that Krishna is an incarnate of God, and he is also depicted as vulnerable and fallible. The Pandavas, after ruling the kingdom for a while, gets disenchanted with worldly affairs and embarks upon a journey for salvation.

So what is it suggesting?One can sense nihilistic undertones in the epic which is announcing that life is inherently meaningless. Shakespeare was also suggesting this when he said 'Life is a tale, told by an idiot. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'(Macbeth Act 5 Scene 5). After all the sound and fury of Kurukshetra war, the characters in the epic grapple with this feeling of nothingness. They realize that all the coveted values and cherished possessions of the world, be it glory,happiness, wealth, beauty or talent, everything is transient and ephemeral. As Yudhishtira says 'time cooks all of us', and in that the texture of everything changes. So in search of something eternal, something which is not susceptible to the change of time, they set out. One may recall that the author of the book, like the Pandavas, felt disenchanted with the success in corporate life, and quit the job and embarked upon a journey for gaining knowledge and enlightenment. 
Commentators throughout the ages have wrestled with the overall meaning of Mahabharata. Among the most celebrated was Anandavardhana, who lived in Kashmir in ninth century A.D. He suggests that epic's world-weary message is that we should cease to desire and should seek liberation from the worldly life. The miserable end of the Kauravas and Pandavas suggests that the great sage who was its author meant to convey a disappointing conclusion with a poetic mood of peace. The aim of this work is to produce disillusionment with life and point us towards the human aim of liberation from the worldly life.(p.297-298).

But at this age, I do not possess the transcendental wisdom to understand the spiritual and metaphysical connotations of the epic. The epic, to me, appears like a wonderful portrayal of all human characteristics, its vanities and frailties, thereby validating the claim which it makes in the beginning. What comes in the way of engaging creatively with the world is human vanity, whose many faces are displayed in abundance. Vanity in the form of mischievous ego or ahamkar, enslaves human beings and is sometimes expressed as Duryodhana's envy, Dhritharashtra's hypocrisy, Karna's status anxiety or Ashwatthama's revenge. Vanity is an irresistible aspect of human condition and invariably spoils our engagement with the world(p.280).

Mahabharata is a series of precisely stated problems imprecisely and inconclusively resolved, with every solution raising a new problem. To say the least, it leaves us with an awareness of possibilities of life. What my understanding is that, a sort of moral ad-hocism is more desirable than a form of moral dogmatism. It could be a hasty, if not immature conclusion. One thing is quite clear. Morality is something which eludes concrete definition. And it is quite difficult to identify goodness and therefore it is difficult to be good. Even the epic shares this thought.

               Because of its subtleness, the deeply hidden dharma cannot be discerned. At first sight it appears in the form of a fairyland city, but when scrutinized by the wise it dissolves again into invisibility. Because people are inclined to abide by the principle of political advantage, no kind of generally beneficial behaviour presents itself, by which one person profits, grieves another. Modes of behaviour are universally characterized by diversity. For this reason one should seek true dharma and not follow the ways of the world. (p.294)

And what is this true dharma? It is for all of us to find out in our own individualistic way.

  1. The author of the blog has not read the original text of Mahabharatha. The views expressed in the blog are the inferences drawn by the author from the interpretation given to and understandings derived from the epic by Mr.Gurucharan Das.
  2. Some of the views expressed in the blog are the personal conclusions of the author of the blog. They may not be reflected in the book by Mr. Gurucharan Das.

  1. All page references are taken from the hard bound edition of 'The difficulty of being good' published by Penguin India in the year 2009 
  2. The statements in italics are taken from the English translation of the text of  Mahabharatha. The page numbers mentioned next to the statements refer to the book under review here, and the original source of the statements could be traced from the said book.