• 24 Jun, 2024

The Gita as Trope

The Gita as Trope

This is a drama worthy of a Shakespeare, but in an Indic setting, and the stakes are far higher than just the life of one person. This is a plot on a scale humanity has not seen in any literature since...


Sage Vyasa in composing The Gita must have had a great sense of drama. Considered purely as a work of literature, he set up one of the most climactic, suspenseful, and decisive moments of a great epic. And this is no minor epic either, but the history of great nations, with figures of larger-than-life existence, masters of warfare, diplomacy, statecraft, politics, philosophy, ethics, reason, and strategy. This is the war that threatens the very existence of a civilization and the entire race of its greatest men, its leaders, warriors, statesmen, rulers, protectors, thinkers.

And Ved Vyasa plops this right in the middle of this event of an age, where the armies of the Kauravas and the Pandavas are arrayed against each other, ready to respond to the bugles and destroy, maim, kill, eviscerate their cousins, friends, mentors, teachers, loved ones and the greatest luminaries of the Nation.

The greatest stage of all, where the teeming multitudes face off, and a culture ready to end itself in the bitter struggle of humans, gods, giants, celestial beings, titans. But even more so, it is the ancient Vedic battle of light and dark, truth and falsehood, righteousness and depravity. Here, where the avatar himself as Sri Krishna and his chosen representative of humanity, the protagonist, Arjuna, are pitched in the center of the scene in their chariot, the poet pulls off a remarkable complexity and twist. Arjuna, the one straight as an arrow, the pure one, the Nara in the human-divine duo of Nara and Narayana, reacts violently to the dangers, and drastic possibilities of the war, and refuses to fight.

And he refuses to fight not because of fear but out of a vital-nervous-emotional reaction to the destruction he is about to undertake. He has lost the dharma, that which holds him together, his standards for noble conduct, and now is befuddled, moved by superficial concerns and notions of sentimentality, justification, and detachment.

You could not have built it up better. This is a drama worthy of a Shakespeare, but in an Indic setting and the stakes are far higher than just the life of one person, as in a Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, or Othello. This is a plot on a scale humanity has not seen in any literature since. Such that it still holds the imagination of the whole nation even today in its darshana, mythology, arts, poetry, drama, ethics, and religions. It is a crisis not just in the life of one of the greatest individuals in Indian history, but of the entire nation. The stakes could not be higher.

Such a powerful drama is seen in no other national literature of the world, except that with the Ramayana but again in the Indic setting. Neither a Homer or a Dante has been able to duplicate its power, majesty, risk, and scope since then. Perhaps a Moby Dick is able to reach its scale and vast horizons, but its personages are tiny compared to those of Mahabharata and the heights of its metaphysics and philosophy of the Indian epic. The human-divine war in Mahabharata is not just a physical war. It is a war at several levels and includes the spiritual and the occult, the geo-strategic and cultural-political, and only a limited range of it visible in the physical realm. This too is sufficiently clear and discernible.

War and Peace is another novel that attempts to expand on events on a large superhuman scale. But the poetry, plot, depths, heights, range, intensity, and art of the Mahabharata take it to the summits of human expression, making it one of the greatest works of literature by any human, to date.

So what do we have here? In the midst of ‘the festival of death’ that is about to unfurl in the life of the Nation, we have the two greatest characters of the national epic stopping everything suddenly and holding it all off for a chat! And when I say chat, it is no ordinary chat but the conversation of the highest order in philosophical literature and as a work of poetry.

It is the entire wisdom of the Veda and Vedanta being put to test on the anvil of the most practical and ruthless of all situations. Should one fight for a righteous cause even if it means certain destruction and ravage of the entire race? Isn’t it better to just let the enemy, who is our own family, win and walk away taking the high road? What use is war if it will kill the loved ones, even if the cause is entirely noble and worthy? And doesn’t our ancient wisdom that the true victory, that of the Self, is not to be accomplished by worldly concerns and only through withdrawal from the world into the solitude of meditation and yoga? All these are valid questions, but the timing is totally off.

Arjuna! Shouldn’t you have asked these questions much earlier when the buildup to the war was happening? Did you not realize the extent to which this war would emasculate the peoples of these nations who are represented in these armies? But we understand. It is never too late to correct oneself. Shouldn’t one practice non-violence, our highest dharma, and, even in the ignominy and infamy of accepting defeat as a warrior, the kshatriya, shouldn’t one drop the weapons and let them kill us? For they will win in body but lose in soul. This seems like a valid point until Sri Krishna demolishes your points and logic one by one, in a most brilliant manner.

At the edge of the sword, at the tip of a blazing arrow or spear, at the crushing and pounding of a mace, when death looks one in the eye, that is the best time to sit back, chill, and discuss philosophy. Except that this is not just philosophy. This will decide the fate of the entire nation. All now depends on the discourse of these two. Will Sri Krishna be able to convince Arjuna or will Arjuna give up on the war, walk away, and leave his warriors and brothers to submit like him, surrender or be slaughtered in this insistence on personal salvation?

That is the plot and Ved Vyasa has built it word by word, line by line, character by character, situation by situation, interweaving the threads masterfully so that the situation is believable, relatable, even justifiable. And this is not their battle. It is also our battle. That we fight day and night, in our society, in our homes, in our own hearts, and lives. Is it better to retire from this world of vanity, falsehood, darkness into the solitude and wisdom of the soul and higher thought? Or is it better to fight and kill, destroy, and overwhelm one’s loved ones, and win no matter the cost?

The Gita is real to us because we live it to this day. It is a classic because it ‘retains an eternal freshness,’ which is the definition of a classic according to Ezra Pound.

But we are here, with bated breaths, poised at the edge of the rapier, at the ledge of the certain leap into collective depredation and mutually assured exsanguination.

And this is the best time to learn about Adhyatma or spirituality in the Indic tradition of the Kshatriya, similar to that of the Samurai in ancient and medieval Japan.

Right at the moment of death, let us meditate, let us be still, let us realize the truth of human life and the divinity that resides within all of us.

And, by the way, all of you guys, soldiers, warriors, generals, commanders, teachers! Just hold your breath collectively so that we may figure this out as if we were sitting in a living room, having a discussion over a drink.

If I were a writer, I couldn’t have dreamt up a better denouement.

It is believed by some that the Mahabharata actually happened in some form of the other. The collective memory of the race deems it so. Sri Krishna and Arjuna are household characters even in this age of cynicism and skepticism, so vivid are their qualities, that they are considered as part of the Itihasa of Bharatvarsha, the word Itihasa implying ‘so it happened or was.’

Whether the war actually happened or not is another matter. If it did, its depiction in epic verse is itself superhuman like its characters. If it did not, then its creativity, power of imagination, range, profundity, grandeur and its demiurge, the building up of an entire Universe of characters, is a remarkable accomplishment.

Thus, the entire Gita, in my opinion, is a masterly trope, a metaphor of our lives, a setting that is nothing less than a stroke of sustained genius. This in no way detracts from its significance as a work of spirituality, philosophy, logic, and dharma. Rather, these are enhanced by the literary skill in which the entire episode is present along with the entire smorgasbord of events that led to its buildup and the resolution proposed by Sri Krishna to Arjuna, another masterly piece of rhetoric and reason, darshana and dharma, which is a just and satisfying pivot in the entire epic.

No wonder, it is perhaps the most successful work of literature in the history of humanity along with the scriptures of Christianity and Islam, but its uniqueness as a setting is its own, that has never been successfully reproduced or duplicated since.

And then, there is the brilliant and unique syllogism of Sri Krishna which is an entire book by itself, providing a most satisfying literary solution to the dramatic tension, justifying itself thoroughly as one of the most brilliant works of sahitya of all time.


Pariksith Singh MD

Author, poet, philosopher and medical practitioner based in Florida, USA. Pariksith Singh has been deeply engaged, spiritually and intellectually, with Sri Aurobindo and his Yoga for almost all his adult life, and is the author of 'Sri Aurobindo and the Literary Renaissance of India', 'Sri Aurobindo and Philosophy', and 'The Veda Made Simple'.

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