The Fragile Charioteer

A few days back, I was thinking of an interesting counterfactual in the Mahabharata. As most people know, the story goes that Arjuna went to battle with his charioteer Krishna, and got jitters looking at all his relatives and elders on the other side, and almost lost the will to fight.

And then Krishna recited to him the Bhagavad Gita, which inspired Arjuna to get back to battle, and with Krishna’s expert charioteering (and occasional advice), Arjuna led the Pandavas to (an ultimately pyrrhic) victory in the war.

A long time back I had introduced my blog readers to the “army of monkeys” framework. In that I had contrasted the war in Ramayana (a seemingly straightforward war fought against a foreign king who had kidnapped the hero’s wife) to the war in the Mahabharata (a more complex war fought between cousins).

Given that the Ramayana war was largely straightforward, with the only trickery being in the form of special weapons, going to war with an army of monkeys was a logical choice. Generals on both sides apart, the army of monkeys helped defeat the Lankan army, and the war (and Sita) was won.

The Mahabharata war was more complex, with lots of “mental trickery” (one of which almost led Arjuna to quit the war) and deception from both sides. While LOTS of soldiers died (the story goes that almost all the Kshatriyas in India died in the war), the war was ultimately won in the mind.

In that sense, the Pandavas’ choice of choosing a clever but non-combatant Krishna rather than his entire army (which fought on the side of the Kauravas) turned out to be prescient.

When I wrote the original post on this topic, I was a consultant, and had gotten mildly annoyed at a prospective client deciding to engage an army rather than my trickery for a problem they were facing. Now, I’m part of a company, and I’m recruiting heavily for my team, and I sometimes look at this question from the other side.

One advantage of an uncorrelated army of monkeys is that not all of them will run away together. Yes, some might run away from time to time, but you keep getting new monkeys, and on a consistent basis you have an army.

On the other hand, if you decide to go with a “clever charioteer”, you run the risk that the charioteer might choose to run away one day. And the problem with clever charioteers is that no two of them are alike, and if one runs away, he is not easy to replace (you might have to buy a new chariot to suit the new charioteer).

Maybe that’s one reason why some companies choose to hire armies of monkeys rather than charioteers?

Then again, I think it depends upon the problem at hand. If the “war” (set of business problems) to be fought is more or less straightforward, an army of monkeys is a superior choice. However, if you are defining the terrain rather than just navigating it, a clever charioteer, however short-lived he might be, might just be a superior choice.

It was this thought of fleeing charioteers that made me think of the counterfactual with which I begin this post. What do you think about this?

PS: I had thought about this post a month or two back, but it is only today that I’m actually getting down to writing it. It is strictly a coincidence that today also happens to be Sri Krishna Janmashtami.

Enjoy your chakli!

Bhakti Hinduism versus Sanatana Dharma

Around the turn of the last millennium, the Sanatana Dharma found itself under threat, and not for the first time. The previous threats had been dealt with cleverly and skilfully, with the most masterful stroke having been the co-option of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu. Jainism had been similarly dealt with and reduced to margins of the subcontinent.

The new threat, however, was of a different kind. Unlike the philosophy-heavy religions of the subcontinent, the Abrahamic religions were much simplified in their message. Having been stripped off concepts such as rebirth and multiple gods, they had a simple message, based on the concept of an Armageddon. They also came with a handy “with us or against us” message, with evangelists of these faiths not hesitating from putting to sword people who refused to obey them.

Not to be outdone by faiths that were significantly more simplistic, religious leaders of the day figured that the only response was to simplify their own religion, and thus was born what has now come to be known as the “Bhakti movement”. At this point, it is important to keep in mind that the Bhakti movement as not one movement but a collection of a large number of independent movements all of which were in a similar direction.

So how did the Bhakti saints counter the monotheistic simple Abrahamic religions? They each chose a single God from among the pantheon, and professed worship towards this particular God. Tulasidas chose Rama, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu chose Krishna and so forth. More importantly, the divine aspect of Gods who were hitherto human avatars (such as Rama and Krishna) was amplified, and the more “human” grey areas of the epics and scriptures were played down. In retelling of the epics from this time onward, Ramayana became a story of the “ideal king” Rama. Mahabharata was cast as the story of Krishna, rather than that of a battle between cousins over property. The Bhagavad Gita part of the Mahabharata, which receives scant importance in the earlier texts (source: Irawati Karve’s Yuganta) got played up.

In the space of a few centuries, as the Bhakti movement (decentralized, still – remember) took shape across different parts of the country, the very nature of the religion underwent a massive change. Gone was the worship of the general pantheon, its place now taken up by worship towards a single God/Goddess. The latter would even be interpreted as a particular idol of a particular God/Goddess, as now the Venkataramana of Tirupati was now supposed to have a lot more “mahime” than the idol of the same deity at say Devagiri in Banashankari, Bangalore. Out went the philosophical underpinnings of a religious education. In came a list of dos and don’ts. Debate was replaced by obeisance towards the guru.

The Bhakti period had been immediately preceded by a period of immense development of Hindu philosophy, by the likes of Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhwacharya. The importance of that was suddenly lost, as the devotion to a particular God took precedence over understanding of a philosophy. I’m supposed to be a Smartha, and am from a priestly family (my greatgrandfather was a priest). None of my religious education, however (mostly received from grandfather and uncles) consisted of anything of Shankara’s Advaitha philosophy – the foundation of the Smartha sect.

Behind my house in Jayanagar is this hall called Shankara Krupa (set up, incidentally, by my grand-uncle), which plays host to lectures of a religious nature every evening. During the day the hall is let out for other functions, typically of a religious nature, and I’ve hosted and attended several events there. There is a podium on stage, from where the speakers deliver their lectures every evening. And on the podium is a large sign, in bold letters in both English and Kannada. “Please do not disturb the lectures by asking questions or engaging in debate”.

This signboard at a place called “Shankara Krupa” sums up where the Bhakti movement has taken the great Sanatana Dharma.