Covert Lokayata III: Orthodox Darshanas

(Click to go back to Part I: Doctrines)

(Click to go back to Part II: Proto-Materialism in Vedic and Tantric Traditions)


Orthodox Hindu Schools

As anyone familiar with the orthodox Hindu darshanas knows, a belief in God is not a central feature of all orthodox schools of thought. Two of the orthodox Darshanas in particular seem distinctly rooted in materialism: Samkhya and Vaisheshika. Those are discussed below.

Early Samkhya:

Chattopadhyaya goes so far as to claim that:

“If the Sankhya philosophy were in the earlier times an explicit philosophical re-statement of the fundamental theoretical position implicit in Tantrism, and, if further, as we have aready tried to argue, the term Lokayata originally stood for the beliefs and practices broadly referred to as Tantrism, then original Sankhya may be viewed as the most important developmet of the Lokayata tradition in Indian philosophy. Silamka, the Jaina commentator, was justified in denying any basic difference between Sankhya and Lokayata. Sankara, too, made the Sankhya philosophers quote the authority of the Lokayatikas”[1]

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How Rammohan Roy Broke Into Liberal Discourse

A bust which Roy actually had the patients to sit for (unlike many portraits of him). Image Source

A bust which Roy actually had the patients to sit for (unlike many portraits of him). Image Source

The Problem

When entering the realm of European liberal discourse, Rammohan Roy was faced with a double sided problem. Firstly, liberal thought at the time considered India to be in a state of backwardness, and therefore inherently unfit for political autonomy. Secondly, it was thought that a culture lacking a tradition of liberty couldn’t produce individuals worthy of entering the public discourse. Thus, Roy had to simultaneously challenge liberalism’s notions of civilizational advancement and backwardness, and also convince his opponents to stop seeing him as a primitive who lacked the right to participate in the intellectual arena.

Roy’s solution to this (consciously formulated or not) was to create a new paradigm within liberalism based on some concept of “class” instead of race or culture. In this paradigm elites across cultures have more in common with one another, than they do with their respective sets of commoners. This is why elites everywhere practice forms of religion closer to monotheism, and also why idolatry and trinitarianism are practiced by the masses of ignorant commoners. Based on this logic, the British elites in India should support and cooperate with their Indian counterparts, as they constitute the same in-group. Educated and mercantile elements of both societies should engage in commerce and cultural interchange, and work for the upliftment of the ignorant underclass of both British and Indian populations. In this new model, the relationship of liberal upliftment is shifted from something akin to the “white man’s burden,” to something more akin to the “bourgeois monotheist’s burden.”

Liberalism was indeed universal in regards to the equal capacities of all human beings. However, liberals saw those who came from “despotic” societies as inherently primitive in social development, and therefore unworthy of political representation. Furthermore, liberals looked for certain social indicators, which would identify people as worthy of political inclusion, and deserving a voice in the public sphere. These indicators included language, dress, education, and religion which were easily recognizable as civilized by Europeans.1

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Subversive Hindu Thought

“In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent….If a wife obeys her husband, she will for that (reason alone) be exalted in heaven.” –Manu Smriti[1] ***

“I have nothing to do with the husbands of this world”- Akka Mahadevi

Akka Mahadevi. Image source.

Akka Mahadevi in samadhi, nude but draped in her flowing hair.  Image source.

I’ll try to reserve most of my comments for the end of this post. The following is a collection of verses by female, often low caste Bhakti (devotional) poets which I’ve collected from various books and journal articles. They challenge the way we normally think about women in Hinduism. Caste rules to gender norms, and even the Vedas and Brahmins all are opened up for fiery criticism. This is a part of the Hindu tradition, which often doesn’t get much press. You normally read about how caste is inherent to Hinduism, and how if one Brahminical texts says it, then it is the official, textually certified Hindu position on the matter. Not so. Hinduism is a much more anarchic tradition than that.

The Role of Women:

By Akka Mahadevi (12th century AD):

“The preceptor became the giver;

The Lord Linga became the bridegroom;

And I became the bride.

All this the world knows

The innumerable devotees are my parents

Hence Chenna Mallikarjuna is my husband,O Prabhu,

I have nothing to do with the husbands of this world” [2]

 This is an inversion of Manu’s claim that a woman should treat the husband as God. She treats God as her husband.

“On a frame of water, raising a roof of fire,

Spreading the hailstones for the bridal floor-bed,

A husband without a head, married a wife without legs,

My parents gave me to an inseparable life,

They married me to Lord Chenna Mallikarjuna” [3]

Verses such as these can be read as conservative, but remember that this poet, like many others Bhakti sants, did refuse to get married to any man. This wasn’t just talk. Given the stigma attached to unmarried women in Indian society, this was a radical statement. In Akka Mahadevi’s case, she rejected a Jain king named Kausika rendering it an even more powerful act of defiance.

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The Westernization of Hinduism and its Alienating Consequences

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,  –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” -Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay

“Sexual pleasure is not pleasure. Sex-pleasure is the most devitalizing and de-moralizing of pleasures. Sexual pleasure is not pleasure at all. It is mental delusion. It is false, utterly worthless, and extremely harmful.”  -Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Kali. Image Source.

An old painting of Kali in Kalighat painting style. This is a blend of traditional Bengali folk styles, and European painting. An in-between version of this scene, not as sexualized as ancient depictions, but not as tame as modern ones either.  Image Source.

Westernized or Anglicized Hinduism describes the religious system which is adhered to by most Hindus living in the United States and Britain, as well as by those in the modern Hindu urban elite, middle class, and urban working class. Essentially, any Hindu population which has experienced the impact of a modern education system for a few generations now subscribes to a Westernized variant of the belief system.

Initially I was planning on titling this piece “The Anglicization of Hinduism,” as that is what the bulk of this article pertains to, but that would entail a slight misnomer. This is because aside from morphing under British pressure, the most ancient substratum belief of the Hindu philosophical tree– namely Tantra– has been under a far longer lasting, but less severe morphing due to the influence of Vedic Brahminical tradition which arose in the Western part of the Indian subcontinent. Then, in the British period orthodox Vedic Brahmins eagerly collaborated with the colonial regime. Using it as their vehicle, both the Brahminical and Victorian worldviews, began to permeate the Hindu cultural landscape in unison.

Thus, Hinduism has been “westernized” in two senses: Recent, and rapid influence from Britain, and ancient, gradual influence from Western India. Anglicization and Sanskritization.

Basic Characteristics of Westernized Hinduism in Hindu terms: Modern, Westernized Hinduism is essentially a modified form of Advaita Vedanta, though ISKON (a dualist sect), the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Gandhian Hinduism, and indeed nearly every major Hindu religious movement since 1800 can be characterized as Westernized Hinduism, Anglicized Hinduism, or Neo-Hinduism. It is normally highly monistic, and places an emphasis on Bhakti and/or Karma Yoga. Tantra, especially left-hand path Tantra is conspicuously absent. Most Neo-Hindus see Hinduism both as a specific religion, and also as a meta-religious framework, which encompasses all religions. The most popular text in this branch of Hinduism is the Bhagavad Gita.  More on all of this later.

Formation of Westernized Hinduism: That covers the Hindu lineage, but there is of course a Western lineage as well. it is also the product of a violent and rapid change in the Indian social order– namely the advent of British colonialism, and eventually modern capitalism. The British Raj accorded a privileged role to Christian values and Western concepts. Starting in about 1858, when the British East India Company was forced to transfer power to the British monarchy, the British began to more actively inject their civilizational model into the subcontinent. The imposition of British political institutions and laws on Indian society, the state the support of British missionaries, the state encouragement of convent education and other forms of British education, and the selection of conservative, orthodox Brahmins for use in writing and interpreting what became “Anglo-Hindu law,” and the uniform application of that law to all of Hindu society, are all examples of this sudden change in traditional Hindu society.

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Covert Lokayata II: Proto-Materialism in Vedic and Tantric Traditions

(Click to go back to Part I: Doctrines)

lokayatachartfiddled_2Proto-Materialism in early Indian thought:

           Dr. Chattopadhyaya has done a wonderful job presenting the theory that in the earliest days proto-Tantra and proto-Lokayata were a single system, which either originated or was most prevalent in northeast India.[1] His argument rests on a theory of magic as a necessary precondition of religion, similar to the theories of anthropologists such as Andrew Lang and J.G. Frazer: [2] [3]

The theory goes as follows: magic precedes, and then accompanies religion in early human societies. Magic does not necessitate Gods; it is simply an attempt for early humans to manipulate the forces of nature without knowing the actual mechanisms of how nature works. For example, it makes sense for someone ignorant of physics, chemistry and the hydrologic cycle to attempt to generate rain by ritualistically pouring water on the ground and calling to the sky. It is worth experimenting with at the very least. In this sense, magic is a sort of proto-science.

The problem is that when these magic practices are empirically tested over generations, most of them will be found ineffective. Yet still perceiving order and regularity, the population generally will infer that other conscious agents called Gods are in control, and will adapt their magical beliefs and practices into a theistic system. By this process the magic becomes a religion, and “experimental” processes ossify into religious rituals.

The magic underlying Hindu religion is evident in all the early texts. The Rig Veda contain a huge number of passages asking the Gods for purely material things such as cattle, crops, prosperity, or protection from the elements. [4] [5] [6] These are likely magic rituals to induce crops, or protect cattle adapted into a theistic framework. Other passages frequently identify the Gods as a “powerful chief” “foremost amongst men,” “the bravest among all humans” (In the case of the Rbhus, this is made explicit: being mortals they earned immortality”, RV, I.110.4) which is perhaps a clue that these first Gods were in fact God-kings or the deified spirits of ancestors, who were perhaps thought to be able to control physical processes from the next world. The Arthava Veda consists almost entirely of magic techniques, mantras and rituals, not dissimilar from what we find in Tantra. Several early Upanishads also espouse a belief in the magic power of breath manipulation. [7] [8] It seems likely that many of these writings exist because early experimenters with meditation found them to be materially effective in inducing samadhi states. In other words, early meditative practices can be thought of as successful early attempts at quasi-scientific experimentation with the human body and brain. Sinha argues that the materialist trend represented in the Vedas culminated in Lokayata in the 7th century BC. As evidence he cites many examples similar to those above, but also emphasizes the fact the in the Vedic canon, the progenitor of materialist philosophy is the deified guru named Brihaspati.[9] Another word for Lokayata is Brihaspati Darsana.


According to the Vedas, Brihaspati invented materialism in order to fool the Asuras into incorrect beliefs and practices. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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King Akbar’s Mahabharata, or the Razmnama (Book of Wars)


The battle of Duryodhana and Bhima (among others.) From the 1616-1617 edition of the Razmnama. By Kamal.
Image source: Simon Ray

When I was little I used to come across prints (much less elaborate than the above) in my house of scenes from the Mahabharata—with (what I assumed to be) Urdu writing on them! It confused me. I looked it up. Turns out, the Mughal king Akbar had a copy of the Mahabharata translated into Persian. Mystery solved. I put it to the back of my mind until recently when, while trying to plug gaps in my knowledge base I found out that there is actually a pretty interesting cast of characters behind this translation. An impassioned, suicidal artist, and his apollonian counterpart! An Islamic fundamentalist tasked with translating infidel texts! A king motivated by both religious toleration, and the maintenance of his regime’s legitimacy! Plus, it’s a good focal point around which to examine Indian art history which gives me the opportunity to post pretty pictures. Swiftly onwards–

Akbar’s Translation movement:

Akbar has a well-earned reputation as the most tolerant and humane of the Mughal kings. His formal policies towards non-muslims displayed liberality, and the composition of his court bespeaks of inclusivity. The range of art and music he chose to patronize also knew no religious bounds.[1] He even founded “Din-e-Ilahi,” a new syncretistic religion that earned the scorn of the orthodox Muslim intelligentsia.

Given these tolerant and syncretistic tendencies, it is no surprise that Akbar was interested in gaining access to the literature of the non-Persian speaking world. During his reign Akbar’s scholars translated works from Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, Greek, and Latin into Persian, and also did substantial translation work from Persian into Hindi. Though the Mahabharata was the center of his project, Akbar also had the Ramayana, the Artha Veda, the Lilavati (a treatise on mathematics), and other Sanskrit texts translated into Persian.[2] [3]

Court historian Mulla Daud writes that Akbar “ordered, that the rational contents of different religions and faiths should be translated in the language of each, and that the rose garden of the traditional aspects of each religion should, as far as possible, be cleared of the thorns of bigotry.” Akbar’s reputation for tolerance has helped this explanation for the translation movement stick.[4] However, one should treat anything explanation given by court historians as suspicious. The Razmnama’s text has an array of strangely translated passages, additions, or omissions which justify this suspicion. While I’m sure that Akbar was genuinely interested in reading Hindu texts and spreading knowledge of them amongst his nobility, I also think that the translation project had distinctly fetishistic and propagandistic elements to it.

But First—

The Translation Process:

Ok, here’s the basic process. First, Sanskrit literate Brahmans (many of whom were converts to Islam) translated a common North Indian variant of the Mahabharata from Sanskrit into Hindi both in text, and verbally. Then the Hindi text was translated into Persian by a staff of Muslim, Persian speaking scholars. [5] Then that raw translation was converted into poetic verse by the project’s head, a scholar named Abu al-Fazl. [6] So obviously “translation” is a very loose term. It’s really more of a retelling.


A folio from a 1616 copy of the Razmnama in which: “Asvatthama Fires the Narayana Weapon (Cosmic Fire) at the Pandavas.” You’ll notice I have so far posted no images from the 1587 manuscript which is under discussion here. That is because it sits in the City Palace Museum in Jaipur off limits to all historians. So thanks for nothing City Palace Museum in Jaipur.
Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Hindu Devas take a (silk) road trip to Japan!

(Note: If you are only interested in pictures, skip past this and hit “Continue Reading”)

This is a historical phenomenon, which entertains and fascinates me to no end. Buddhism had a huge impact on all East Asian cultures, especially on their pantheons of deities. On first glance it might seem odd that a reform movement, which rejected many of the core tenants of Vedic religion would transmit a belief in Vedic deities. This apparent oddity is a misunderstanding of Buddhism’s “atheism,” and a misunderstanding of what a “Deva” actually is. Most forms of Buddhism, while rejecting the concept of all-powerful gods or creator deities, openly accept the existence of powerful supernatural beings. This includes yakshas (nature spirits) rakshasas (demons) gandharvas (celestial musicians) nagas (supernatural snakes) and many other beings, including Devas (deities.) In Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, Devas are created beings that roam around the universe seeking the divine, albeit very powerful ones with much greater spiritual capabilities than humans. Hindu traditions tend to accord Devas much more power and divinity than Buddhism, and worship them as manifestations of The Supreme. In the Buddhist pantheon, the Devas have generally converted to Buddhism and now serve as his protectors, the protectors of his teachings, or as helpers to mortals who are trying to achieve enlightenment.

The reader should be aware that in Japanese mythology and theology the below deities freely interact with native Shinto deities, and deities imported from China. I am isolating the Indian derived deities for the purpose of this bog post, but do not be deluded into thinking that they are unintegrated with the rest of Japanese mythology.

The more popular of these deities are used in non-esoteric Mahayana Buddhism (the bulk of Buddhist sects in Japan.) However, most of these are relatively obscure deities because they are only used in the Shingon school, an esoteric (tantric) school of Buddhism. As such, the bulk of these Devas achieved full development in Japan around the late 700s or early 800s, as a result of the rise in popularity (especially amongst the political elite) of esoteric and Shingon Buddhism.

Last note: There are a lot of different names involved here, because (among other reasons) Sanskrit and Japanese don’t transliterate very well. For deities in which two names are listed, the first is Sanskrit, and the second is Japanese. In cases where, for some reason, I’ve listed many names, I will specify with an (S) or a (J) which language it is from.

(S) Ganesha/ (S) Vinayaka / (J) Binayaka / (J) Shoten/ (J) Kangiten: Ganesha was one of the first Indian deities to transit to Japan, and as in India, is one of the most popular in both esoteric and non-esoteric sects. Perhaps this is because his association with worldly prosperity has been retained, or perhaps amplified into a general association with pleasure. Thus, actors, geishas, gamblers, restaurant proprietors, etc offer him worship. Shoten has retained the association for removing obstacles, although his ancient association with creating obstacles which has long since been expunged from the Hindu tradition is still mildly active in Japan for reasons which will become clear later.

Ganesh (musée d'art indien de Berlin)

Dancing Ganesha from North Bengal, 11th Century. Image From Vikram Kharvi’s blog “My Lord Ganesha”



Contemporary Kankiten Statue from Fukuoka Japan. Image from this Japanese Website

He is often depicted in (implicitly erotic) embrace with another elephant headed figure. In that iconography, his name is “Kangiten” or “Binayaka.” This is an allusion to a Japanese myth about Kangiten’s “evil” origins, wherein his mother, Uma births 1,500 evil children onto her left (collectively called Binayakas), the first of which was Binayaka. On her right side she births 1,500 good children the first of which was Avalokiteśvara/Kannon (the Bodhisatva of compassion) incarnated as Idaten (Skanda or Murugan in India.) In order to win Binayaka over to goodness, Idaten reincarnates as a female binayaka and becomes Kangiten’s wife. The bliss generated by their union turns Kangiten good. According to this myth therefore, the embracing Kangiten figures actually represent Kangiten in sexual union with his brother reincarnated as his wife/sister. There are other myths, which seek to explain this iconography, but all of them involve some sort of gender reversal, usually by means of reincarnation.[1]  There is a huge corpus of Japanese Ganesha myths, which do not exist at all in India, but the initial one just mentioned seems to almost reference Ganesha’s actual historical development in India. Ganesha probably evolved from the set of demons called Vinayakas/Binayakas who were known for erecting obstacles and creating divisions between allies. However, they were easily appeased. So easily appeased in fact that over time they evolved into positive forces, and merged into one deity—Ganesha.[2]

embrace 2

Embracing Kangiten. Image from

However, the aforementioned Japanese myths all seem to be trying to explain the dual figured Kangiten iconography by posing, as it’s mythological basis. The real basis lies elsewhere, probably in the translations of Amoghavajra, a half Indian half Sogdian monk living in China in the early 700s. He was a founder of the “Chen-Yen” school of esoteric Buddhism (a precursor to the Shingon school,) and his translations of various tantric texts entail repeated references to the “dual-bodied Vinayaka” which is an obstacle removing and prosperity inducing deity described as looking exactly like modern embracing Kangiten figures, including the erotic embrace. There was also a pre-Buddhist Japanese deity named N-io, which took the form of a male and female in embrace, which could have contributed, or facilitated the popularity of the embracing Kangiten figures.[3]

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The Yoga of Arjuna’s Despondency

Continuing in my trend of alternative takes on Hindu texts…
“Arjuna, having thus spoken on the battlefield, cast aside his bow and arrows and sat down on the chariot, his mind overwhelmed with grief.” -(Chap 1 Verse 46)

“Arjuna that chastiser of enemies said: I shall not fight O Krishna, and became silent.” (Chap 2 verse 9)

"Arjuna, having thus spoken on the battlefield, cast aside his bow and arrows and sat down on the chariot, his mind overwhelmed with grief."

“Arjuna, having thus spoken on the battlefield, cast aside his bow and arrows and sat down on the chariot, his mind overwhelmed with grief.”

But unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.

At the start of the Bhagvad Gita Arjuna is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand he is reluctant to enter into a war which is likely to cost the lives of most of his family, friends, respected elders, along with at least 4 million of his own citizens. On the other hand he also has moral duties as a warrior, and as a righteous person. According to the traditional interpretation the dilemma is resolved when Arjunas objections are defeated by the Divine Krishna’s appeals to selfless dedication to duty, (and the revelation of his Universal Form and the mystic wisdom that comes with it).

Seen in another light, this is the story of a rational, nonviolent man who gets persuaded, and frightened into obeying the whims of a mystical and powerful supernatural entity— Krishna. As a result of listening to Krishna’s advice he goes to war resulting in millions of deaths including almost his entire family. Most tragically, Arjuna loses his beloved 15 year old son Abhimanyu, who he loved deeply. Arjuna’s eventual victory is pyrrhic. He gains a kingdom he didn’t want all that badly, and loses many human relationships which he valued highly. He gives up a higher value in favor of a lower value– a fruitless sacrifice. As such, in the later chapters of the Mahabharata there is very little celebration of the victory at Kurukshetra. Instead sorrow and despair dominate the psyches of Arjuna and all the Pandava brothers.

This interpretation makes chapter 1 of the Gita the most noteworthy (Chapters 2 and 3 also contain some gems, but Arjuna’s defiance tends to fizzle out as the text goes on). Most readers go into this chapter under the preconception that Arjuna is wrong. It is read mostly as a preface to Krishna’s later statements. I implore readers to take this chapter seriously, because in fact the objections which Arjuna raises here are never adequately addressed by Krishna.

Arjuna, while he still retains his nonviolent instincts presents his argument against going to war. Despite being overwhelmed by grief and distress he repeatedly states that the kingdom, divine reward, or happiness which would result from winning the battle are simply not worth the resulting deaths:

“O Krishna, of what value are kingdoms? What value is living for happiness if they for whom our kingdom, material pleasure, and happiness is desired: preceptors, fatherly elders, sons; and grandfatherly elders, maternal uncles, fathers in law, grandsons, brothers in law, and relatives are all present on this battle field ready to give up their kingdoms and very lives? O Krishna even if they want to take my life I do not wish to take their lives. O Krishna what to speak for the sake of the earth, even for the rulership of the three worlds; in exchange for slaying the sons of Dhrtarastra what happiness will be derived by us?” (Chap 1 verses 32-35)

“How by slaying our own kinsmen will we be happy?” (Chap 1 verse 36)

“Alas how strange it is that we have resolved to commit great sin. Just because of greed for royal luxuries we are prepared to slay our own kinsmen.” (Chap 1 verse 44)

“It is better to live in this world by begging, without slaying our great and elevated superiors; otherwise by slaying our superiors the wealth and pleasurable things we are bound to enjoy will be tainted by blood.” (Chap 2 verse 5)

“Even if the sons of Dhrtarastra armed with weapons in hand slay me unarmed and unresisting on the battlefield that would be considered better for me.” (Chap 1 verse 45)

Arjuna seems relatively rational here. He engages in cost benefit analysis. He shows his preference for nonviolence over power, and family over material greed.

Krishna counters this with a blind appeal to duty but why should Arjuna adhere to his martial duty if there will be no perceptible gains to any party? According to Krishna doing one’s duty is inherently moral irrespective of the consequences so long as it is done with dedication to God. The idea that detachment from consequences is ideal becomes a persistent theme in the Gita. To be sure, selfless or detached action is useful in many avenues of life. But should we really ignore consequences when millions of lives are at stake?

Eventually Krishna reveals his Universal Form to Arjuna. In Chapter 11 verse 23 Arjuna says “O mighty armed one, seeing Your magnificent form of manifold faces and eyes, manifold arms, legs and feet, manifold stomachs and manifold terrifying teeth; all the planets tremble in fear and so do I”. After this frightening episode, Krishna’s suggestions become more forceful and sometimes take on the form of commands.

“O mighty armed one, seeing Your magnificent form of manifold faces and eyes, manifold arms, legs and feet, manifold stomachs and manifold terrifying teeth; all the planets tremble in fear and so do I”

“O mighty armed one, seeing Your magnificent form of manifold faces and eyes, manifold arms, legs and feet, manifold stomachs and manifold terrifying teeth; all the planets tremble in fear and so do I”

In the end, Arjuna succumbs to Krishna’s advice and fights. His teacher Drona, his son Abhimanyu, his grandfather Bhishma, his brother Karna, and innumerable others all die. After the battle, Arjuna repeatedly expresses remorse about his actions, and why wouldn’t he? Prior to the battle he made his preference for familial bonds over winning a kingdom perfectly clear. Yet, he followed Krishna’s advice to the letter for which he paid a heavy price.

How have so many thousands of years passed with nobody noticing that in this instance, Krishna gave profoundly poor advice? From a rights theorist perspective, Arjuna made the wrong choice because although he killed plenty of guilty people, innocents (i.e. draftees) also died. From a utilitarian perspective he made the wrong choice because he caused an enormous amount of unnecessary suffering and pain. From a rational egoist perspective he made the wrong choice because the decision did not serve his interests or advance his goals. Indeed, the only perspective from which Arjuna made the right choice is that of Bhagavad Gita devotionalist-duty ethics, whereby doing one’s duty as a devotional practice without thought for one’s own desires or the consequences of one’s actions overrides all other concerns.

The Gita can be read as the story of a peaceful rational man, reluctant to send 4 million men many of whom he loved to their deaths. However, this man lets his mind slip and allows himself to be persuaded and intimidated by a powerful and non-rational superhuman being. We should follow the path of Arjuna’s despondency and reject those who try to persuade us into committing acts of violence with irrational appeals to “duty” or “God”. When faced with evil consequences, we should take our reluctance seriously lest we end up like Arjuna, largely alone due to our own foolishness and in possession of a kingdom we never truly desired.

Follow up for those who think I’ve “missed the point.”

For those of you who say “but wait! The war was necessary and justified because Duryodhana was evil!”, please read the following in which I defend Duryodhana.

Playing Duryodhana’s Advocate


“The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater.” (Bhagavad Gita 5.18)[1]

When I discuss the Mahabharata with my Hindu friends and relatives I am often struck by their insistence on Duryodhana’s unambiguous wickedness. This is a common sentiment online as well as in published commentaries, but I find it odd. It is uncontroversial to point out that the character depth of the entire cast of the Mahabharata comes largely from their moral ambiguity. Why is Duryodhana the lone exception to this?

Here I offer an alternative view of Duryodhana and his role, which I believe to be more properly supported by the Mahabharata’s text, and historical context.

I posit that Duryodhana while certainly the antagonist of the Mahabharata was written as a morally nuanced, or even sympathetic character. His role is to embody a philosophy of ritualism and Kshatriya Dharma (warrior morality), which inevitably and irreconcilably conflicts with the Bhakti (devotional) Dharma represented by Krishna. However, as I will show, Duryodhana conforms too well to the image of a “good Kshatriya”, and is treated far too well by divine figures to be a pure villain.

His admirable traits such as loyalty, efficient governance, honorable and skilled warfare, power, and boldness represent Kshatriya Dharma at its best, uncontextualized by devotional religion. His negative traits such as wrathfulness and treachery, as well as his defeat at the battle of Kurukshetra serve to illustrate the perils of pursuing one’s earthly duties without devotion to Krishna and the self-control, which it brings.

Duryodhana’s Crimes: Since are commonly repeated and well known, I will make this section short.

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