Krishna’s Guile in Maha-Bharat – per Gurcharan Das

Last week, we discussed the view of Krishna as Vaasudev enunciated by Irawati Karve in her essay in February 1966 and later published in her highly acclaimed book Yugant or End of an Epoch.

Today, we present a completely different view by Gurcharan Das from his book The Difficulty of Being Good. The title of this view is Krishna’s Guile.

Next week, we will compare and contrast these two different views as the first part of our Series, Dharma in Maha-Bharat – Irawati Karve vs. Gurcharan Das.

Gurcharan Das – His research in Maha-Bharat and Great Sanaatan Dharma Texts

Gurcharan Das decided to learn about the texts of Eternal Dharma after his retirement from his corporate career. At that time, he told about his plans to a retired civil servant, “a self-proclaimed ‘leftist and secularist’ who had once been a favorite of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, with “the gruff, domineering accent of an English aristocrat..”. Gurcharan Das quotes the dialogue in his book:

‘Good Lord, man!’ he exclaimed. ‘You haven’t turned saffron, have you?”….Why are you going to read them?’ – my persecutor demanded.
‘Well, perhaps, to learn to be good,’ I answered with a weak smile.

This conversation explains the pursuit of Mr. Das and the title of his book ‘The Difficulty of Being Good‘.

Mr. Das explains that he went to the University of Chicago for his study of the Maha-Bharat and other Eternal Dharma texts. He proudly mentions the names of two “big name” professors, Sheldon Pollack and Wendy Doniger as well as Samskrut-knowing Buddhist scholars like Steve Collins, Mathew Kapstein and Dan Arnold.

Mr. Das further writes in his prelude that he would have needed a life time to read the texts in Samskrut. He writes “Wendy Doniger consoled me, saying: ‘Reading Samskrut is good for the soul.'” (pg xl of the prelude). Then Mr. Das confesses that his writings are based on the translation of the Maha-Bharat by van Buitenan.

We should add many, many experts have described Wendy Doniger’s book as ‘defamatory’ to Hindusim and Hindus. Reportedly, her claim to authority status is application of Freud’ sexual analysis to Hindu Gods & Goddesses. If you google the phrase “wendy doniger criticism”, you will find many articles critical of her work. Or you can begin with an article Cultural & Religious Defamation Tacitly Accepted By New York Times & Editors? – Our Perspectives.

Krishna’s Guile 

Mr. Das devotes 30 pages to this topic. His central statement, the quote at the top of his chapter is from Duryodhan:

  • Aren’t you ashamed …. of striking me down so unfairly? – Duryodhan, as he lies dying at Kurukshetra,
This quote is central to Das’s analysis of Krishna, his unfairness, his guile. Then Mr. Das asks the question that is central to him:

  • The Maha-Bharat faces this dilemma squarely. What if good persons, who have excellent reasons to wage a war, can only win by unfair means? In that case, how can one think of them as ‘good persons’? (emphasis ours)
In his article, we found Mr. Das obsessed with the idea of ‘being good’. And that too ‘being good’ by his definition. From what we read in his article, Das blindly and obediently applies the ultimate pacifist lessons he seems to have learned from his Buddhist scholars at the University of Chicago. Near the end of his article, Das writes that the Pandav must accept defeat and wait for another day.

In our opinion, this is NOT the definition of ‘being good’ but a definition of surrendering without fighting, of jettisoning Action. This is NOT what Krishna taught in the Bhagwat Geeta. In fact, this is sheer A-Dharma.

‘Untruth may be better than truth’

Das discusses this quote in a long-winded discussion spanning 5 pages. The title comes from his translation of a statement of Krishna:

  • Untruth may be better than truth. By telling an untruth for the saving of life, untruth does not touch one.
The last clause is similar to the concept of न कर्म लिप्यते नरे or the Action does not Attach to the Man from the Isha-UpaNiSad. Based on the writings of Das, we are not sure he knows this concept.

Then, Das passes a definitive judgement on Krishna by quoting another passage from the Maha-Bharat:

  • There is no higher morality than truth, nor a greater sin than falsehood. Truth is the foundation of morality; therefore one should not suppress the truth.
In his notes on this verse, Das quotes liberally from the book Truth and Truthfulness by Bernard Williams, a philosopher.

But Das does not quote from the definition of “Truth” from the Maha-Bharat which states:

यद भूत-हितम अत्यन्तं एतत सत्यं मतं मम
Yad Bhut-Hitam Atyantam Etat Satyam Matam Mam
That Contributes to (or Results in) the Highest (अत्यन्तं) Good of Creation (or created beings – mankind), That Only is the Truth, that is my opinion.

In our writings, we are very careful to include the original Samskrut. This enables readers to judge whether our translation is valid. We sincerely wish Das had followed this practice. Because all we have is the translation he quotes from his chosen source.

This above definition from the Maha-Bharat is consistent with the Rta & Satya which are referred to in the Rug-Ved X.190 – Rta means the fundamental cosmic Law which governs the entire universe, and Satya is the Rta when seen in the context of human transactions on mundane plane.

As the Maha-Bharat defines it above, Satya does not just mean the verbal truth but its concept is much broader and higher.

In contrast, Das simply accepts a definition of truth from Bernard Williams and applies it to the Maha-Bharat. Das does this through out the article by applying the concepts of the Greek Iliad & Odyssey and the later established doctrines (jus in bello & jus ad bellum) of the Christian Catholic Church to his analysis of Krishna. He also compares the actions of Krishna to the atrocities committed by General Sherman in his destructive march through Georgia in the American Civil War and the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.

Quotes from the book of Das

  • Krishna firmly believes that once you make the fateful decision to go to war then you must win at any cost. As he sees it, the Pandav cause is just, and once the war begins the only thing that matters is victory. The Mahabharat is not so sure that ‘anything goes’ in war. (Das provides no reference for this statement)page 185
  • General Sherman made a similar point in the American Civil War. He believed that once leaders start a war, soldiers have to win it at any cost. He expressed this doctrine in the phrase ‘war is hell’. – page 187
  • The Allies (in World War II) behaved no better than Krishna in the terror bombing of Dresden, Hamburg and other German cities in World War II. In doing so, they clearly violated the ‘just war’ doctrine. Yet, they were not hauled before the Nuremburg court….This is because the Allies were victors and only losers are tried for war crimes. – page 187.
After the above quote, Das asks the question we quoted at the end of Section 1 above. Das also quotes V. S. Sukthankar, editor of the Pune Critical Edition of Mahabharat:

  • V.S. Sukthankar….called Krishna a ‘cynic, who preaches the highest morality and stoops to practice the lowest tricks….An opportunist who teaches a god fearing man to tell a lie, the only lie he told in all his life! [He is a ] charlatan who…advises a hesitating archer to strike down a foe who is defenseless and crying for mercy. – page 190

Who is Krishna, man or God?

This is a section in which Das discusses the views first expressed by his father and tries to come to grips with the complexity of Krishna.

  • The problem of course is that Krishna is not only the master strategist of the Pandav, he is also a god. he is not simply a god, but he is ‘the God’ (with a capital G). – page 192
  • Early on, Krishna shows a penchant for cunning and mischief. He devises a deceitful strategy to overcome the menacing ogre King Jara-Sandh who has terrified and repeatedly attacked the innocent Yadav. – page 193
  • JaraSandh’s end could have been achieved more easily (how Das does not explain) without all the drama, but that would have been too easy for a mischievous god who loves tricks, not unlike the Greek hero Odysseus. – page 193
  • He plays innocent pranks, he frets over the outcome of battles. As a war counselor, he advises the Pandav to perform dirty tricks……After Duryodhan’s fall, Krishna tells Yudhishtir ‘It is lucky that you won!’….These are not the sentiments of an omnipotent God (Das does not seem to understand that Krishna was an Avataar and as an Avataar, he was bound by the norms of humans). – page 194
  • My father used to believe that the MahaBharat’s purpose was to advocate bhakti, devotion to Krishna. According to him, Krishna teaches that an action which is free from selfish desires, and is performed in the name of God, is true moral action. Hence, the epic’s morality is subordinate to Krishna, the God.- page 196.

‘Let us go home and rest’ & Other Chapters

  • The Mahabharat is clearly uncomfortable with Krishna’s conduct during the war…..but the epic does not believe that the ends justify the means. It does not approve of the breaking of the rules of warfare. It does not believe a dharmayuddha, ‘just war’ can be fought unjustly…. page 202
Das makes such judgmental statements without any quotes from the Maha-Bharat, without any proof whatsoever. There is simply no basis to these statements. Either they spring from his own personal viewpoints or the viewpoints of his Professors at the University of Chicago.  In stark contrast, Irawati Karve in her essay gives actual Samskrut quotes from the Maha-Bharat to validate her points.

Das goes on:

  • The Mahabharat shares this concern with the Catholic Church, whose ‘just war’ tradition also defines the rules of war (jus in bello). – page 202
  • Jus in bello requires that soldiers be held responsible for their actions. Saint Augustine opposed the prevailing belief of the soldier ‘who is but the sword in the hand of him who uses it, is not himself responsible for the death he deals.’ – page 203
This is rather typical of the entire book by Das. He seems to know much more of the Christian philosophy and can argue the points he has been taught from Greek mythology. But he does not seem to know much of the texts of the Eternal Dharma.

There is not a single reference to the Ved or the UpaNiSad in Das’s discussion of Dharma. The Dharma of Maha-Bharat draws very heavily from the Dharma of the Ved & the UpaNiSad. But Gurcharan Das does not even mention these definitive texts in passing.

How Das can discuss Dharma of the Maha-Bharat simply from the point of view of the Christian Catholic Church or Greek Mythology is simply beyond us. But then, Das does not take the Christian analogy to its logical conclusion. Every winning Christian nation created and used the concept of ‘Muscular Christianity’ to justify their actions against people of other religions and countries.

Das does not discuss ‘Muscular Christianity’. Instead, Das falls back on the traditional fatalist approach:

  • The epic is ambivalent about Krishna’s pragmatic defense. It refuses to accept the idea that good consequences outweigh evil methods….If good people are not allowed to win by any means, and if they must fight justly, then one must be prepared to face the fact that they might lose. There is no guarantee that truth and goodness will prevail in human history. The Pandav must accept this and wait, perhaps, for another 204
Please forgive us, but this is utter bilge, garbage in it purest form. He actually says that the Pandav should have accepted losing the war and waited for another day! This is not the Maha-Bharat speaking.

This is Das giving his opinion based on the teachings at the University of Chicago from Jewish-Christian professors who have written that ‘Hindu’ texts were borrowed from Buddhist texts even though Buddha was born about 1,000 years after Krishna. This is why Das provides no references for these opinions.

This is why all opinions of Das reflect the pacifist Buddhist point of view. That is why he writes:

  • However the point of the Maha-Bharat is that Dharma is Sukshma, ‘subtle’, and it is often difficult to tell right from wrong.
In our opinion, Das is dreadfully wrong. The Ved, the UpaNiSad, the Bhagwat Geeta and the Maha-Bharat are crystal clear about the truth of Eternal Dharma. That truth was embodied in the actions of Krishna in the Maha-Bharat, the actions of a true Karma-Yogi:

  • That Dharma might be sukshma but it is Clear and it is NEVER difficult to tell right from wrong.
This is why every major festival of Eternal Dharma celebrates the annihilation of Evil by Good.

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