Arjuna, our inner hero

Here I am playing with Arjuna, the greatest hero of the East, in the form of a wayang puppet I bought in Solo, Java.

Wayang is an ancient Indonesian theater tradition in which the shadows of puppets are cast onto a screen. Solo is its historical center, so a few years ago I went there to watch. Here is what a play looks like from the audience side:

And what story do the Javanese, nominally Muslim today, most like to perform?

The story of Arjuna and his brothers, the five Pandavas, pictured above. It doesn’t matter that this epic, the Mahabharata, is what we would consider a “Hindu” story. It is for Asia what the Iliad and Odyssey and other Greek myths are for us in the West.

This makes Arjuna the Achilles, the Hercules, the Odysseus, the Theseus, the Jason and the Aeneas of the East.

And what does that say about the East’s view of heroism, which I have been exploring in this thread?

1) Arjuna as warrior

At first blush (and deceptively, as you will see), Arjuna’s heroism looks familiar to us in the West.

He was a great fighter, an ambidextrous and precise archer, indeed an Indian Apollo with arrows. He practiced in the dark, the better to hit his victims during the day time. He won the hand of his wife, Draupadi, in an archery contest remarkably similar to the one Odysseus won against the suitors at Ithaca to regain his wife Penelope.

Arjuna was also the biggest hero in the biggest war of mythological India. What Achilles was to the Greeks at Troy, Arjuna was to the Pandavas at Kurukshetra (Kuru’s Field) in northern India.

The Pandavas were leading a huge army in a righteous cause against their own cousins, the Kauravas, also with a huge army. The Kauravas had stolen a kingdom from the Pandavas in a rigged game of dice, humiliating Draupadi in the process. The Pandavas went into exile, but then came back, seeing their duty as fighting to reclaim their kingdom and honor.

For eighteen days, battle raged. Millions died and fewer than a dozen men survived. Blood turned the field of Kuru into red mud. Arjuna and his brothers shot so many arrows into one of their enemies that the man fell from his chariot and landed not on the ground but on the arrows sticking out from his body like the quills on a porcupine.

But Arjuna also lost his own loved ones. His sons and nephews died in the battle, just as the Greek and Trojan heroes lost their friends and family.

2) Arjuna’s fear and duty

But the part of the story that is most famous — rather as the brief episode of Achilles’ wrath in Homer’s Iliad is the best known part of the story of the Trojan War — is a poem embedded into the Mahabharata just before the fighting began. And that is the Bhagavad Gita, or song of God. (Try one of these translations.)

On the eve of the battle, with the two armies already lined up against each other, Arjuna and his charioteer steered their war chariot into the space between the two armies to contemplate what was about to happen. The charioteer was Arjuna’s friend and adviser, Krishna.

As Arjuna gazed from his chariot at the two armies, he suddenly lost his will to fight. He was afraid. Afraid not only of losing his own life, but also for the lives of his “fathers, grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, fathers-in-law, and friends.” Because this was a war within a family. He had loved ones in both armies.

Compare Arjuna’s fear to Aeneas’ despair in Virgil’s Aeneid:

As I see my own kinsmen, gathered here, eager to fight, my legs weaken, my mouth dries, my body trembles, my hair stands on end, my skin burns.

Arjuna dropped his bow and arrows and collapsed on the floor of his chariot, sobbing.

***

And now Krishna began to talk to Arjuna. Gently but firmly, he reminded Arjuna of his duty. The Sanskrit term here is dharma, and it seems (in this context) pretty close to Aeneas’ Roman virtue of pietas (“piety” derives from it but has come to mean something different).

3) Arjuna’s mind

What follows in the Gita is history’s most fascinating dialogue about how to yoke (as in yoga) the human mind into harmony with its situation.

Arjuna tells Krishna (as we all might say every day about our own minds) that his mind is

restless, unsteady, turbulent, wild, stubborn; truly, it seems to me as hard to master as the wind.

Krishna in turn teaches Arjuna how to make his mind calm, as a coach might try to get an athlete into “the zone”. (As it happens, Krishna’s advice is the same as Patanjali’s, which is why those two texts together are considered the foundation of Yoga.)

What, in a nutshell, does Krishna tell Arjuna?

To “let go”. To let go his fears of what might happen the next day, to let go the worries, the anxiety, and also the hopes and anger, and all the rest of it. In fact, Krishna wants Arjuna to

let go of all results, whether good or bad, and [to be] focused on the action alone… [to] act without any thought of results, open to success or failure. This equanimity is yoga.

4) Arjuna in your mind, my mind

And this is the essence of Arjuna’s heroism: He shows us, with the help of his divine “inner voice” of Krishna, how to make our minds calm so that we can go on with life whenever it seems to overwhelm us.

Arjuna’s heroism is, like Aeneas’ but more so, an inner victory.

In fact, this applies at an even higher level. Here is how Mohandas Gandhi explained why he, a proponent of non-violence, saw truth in this story of war:

Under the guise of physical warfare it described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind, and that physical warfare was brought in merely to make the description of the internal duel more alluring.

Arjuna, it turns out, is meant to be a part of my mind and your mind and everybody’s mind. It is the clearest and best state of mind, called buddhi (as in: Buddha).

His brothers correspond to other positive states of mind (the ancient Indians were very precise on the subject), And all five were married to Draupadi, whom yogis understand to be Kundalini, the coiled feminine energy at the base of the spine. Freud called it libido, the Greeks called it Eros.

The Kauravas, the evil cousins, are the negative states of mind — anger, hatred, greed, vanity, envy, arrogance, fear and so forth.

So there it is:

  • Kurukshetra is the battlefield of our own minds, every day.
  • Arjuna’s struggle is our daily struggle to let the noble in us prevail over the base, the serene over the angry, the courageous over the fearful.
  • Arjuna is the hero in us.
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33 thoughts on “Arjuna, our inner hero

  1. Arjuna reminds me of the Spanish word for spider. Probably some Indo-European root that spread in all directions.

    He practiced in the dark, the better to hit his victims during the day time.

    I practice sleeping in the dark, the better to sleep during my day job (should I ever land one of those).

    You promised five dollars for the first person to reply to any of your posts, correct?

    • Since you mention it, the name Arjuna should remind you of argent and argentum — ie, silver. His name means something like bright or sparkling or sterling.

      Practice makes perfect, so keep at it. In fact, I may do a practice session now.

      Five “dollars”? You misheard. Five hollers.

  2. Interesting that the Bhagavad Gita (all 18 books of it) were inserted into the Mahabharata later. Almost right into the middle of the big war.

    Several questions:

    1. Is your puppet a piece of art that you display in your house? Or is it something to play with? It’s so artistic.

    2. Since Arjuna is a metaphor for the outward/inner life warrior, can you write about his chariot, his arrows, his friendships? Are they more than what they are?

    3. Are there any similar conversations between heroes and their gods which parallel the depth of Krishna and Arjuna’s?

    4. How did this conversation change a people? Or has it?

    You can tell that I am here in my getaway place with some relaxing time on my hands. What a luxury to think about your posts, so full of meaning. Thanks.

    • 1) Mostly a piece of art that I display. But I took it down to play with it, and snapped a photo with my Mac. It’s either an antique of great value, or the guy in Solo was really savvy in dealing with naive-looking blonde tourists.

      2) Oh boy. I’ve got to look into that. I hadn’t thought of his chariot and arrows. His friendship with Krishna is indeed symbolic: Krishna is our soul (Atman in sanskrit). One famous translation of the Gita is called “God talks to Man” (ie, Krishna to Arjuna).

      3) The Greco-Roman gods do talk to the gods. For instance, Aeneas talks to Venus, his mother. But she usually comes down in a disguise, and the conversations never get that deep. Mainly that’s because the Greek gods were just a lot more frivolous and child-like, wouldn’t you say? Basically, they lived a soap opera (who did Zeus just sleep with, and what’s Hera going to do to get even?)

      4) As you can see from the Gandhi quote, it has changed the Indian people, if not the Indonesian and a few others as well. For the better, you would think. But people are still people. Gandhi was obviously upset when Hindus and Muslims strated slaughtering one anther during partition, and turned to the Gita for solace.

    • And Oppenheimer named the Trinity Site in New Mexico after three lines taken from the Gita.

      The Gita provided spiritual solace for him as well. Fascinating person, Robert Oppenheimer.

      My mentor Joe had him as a physics professor at Cal Berkeley…

  3. I read a translation of the Gita not too long ago. Barbara Stoller Miller was the translator I believe.

    Indeed the Greek God had less to say to mortals. The Greek Gods created humans but really didn’t generally think well of them and the gods were often jealous of human achievements. The Hindu deities seemed, by comparison, genuinely concerned for the betterment of humankind.

    • And there was/is more fluidity between gods and humans (and other living creatures) in Hinduism: You might, if you are good, be reborn a god, or an ant, and former gods might be reborn as dogs…..

      “We’re all in this together,” they might have said.

  4. They could be pretty nasty to each other, though. The episode of Lord Shiva cutting off the head of his wife Parvati’s child with another god comes to mind. To be fair to him, however, he was struck with remorse and gave the child an elephant’s head as compensation. I agree, the Hindu gods were a comparatively kindly bunch.

    A very inspiring post on Arjuna, Andreas. I have always wondered, though, if Krishna’s advice to ignore the results of one’s labour is actually applicable in everyday life. Human beings do respond to incentives, after all-if they do their duty but are not adequately rewarded for it, they will go down some other path.

    • Yes, you’re right. I am just now remembering some of the stories about Kali. Quite blood-thirsty.

      As to your second point, that is the same mystery/paradox that has always intrigued and puzzled me.

      Equanimity is NOT indifference, it has been explained to me. You are allowed to hope for the best. But then you must execute as though it did not matter. So at least, Krishna would tell Arjuna. I guess figuring it out would imply achieving union (Yoga), ie enlightenment, and so is by definition rare.

    • Hi Andreas and Susan,
      Reading Susan’s post made me look into the sentence (2nd paragraph) a bit more seriously. For what it is worth, this is my thought process…I think the sentence “Human beings do respond to incentives” is applicable in everyday life if taken the right way. This sentence itself indicates some sort of an anticipation on our part. If we do our duties the ‘right way’ we will be rewarded for it. Sometimes the reward neither be instantaneous nor monetary. We human beings want everything ‘yesterday’ for things we do ‘today’. I think that is the problem. If we don’t expect the reward but do the right deed, that itself should be reward enough if we comprehend the sentence ‘Do your duty. Leave the rest to fate” so to speak. This is where the ‘Karma’ factor kicks in. Every thing we do have consequences. People will only go down some other path if they are focusing on the reward more than the duty.

      But I agree with you that it is very difficult to apply that thought in this world, where we are losing touch with our inner being and being more materialistic in every aspect. And sometimes rightfully so, I guess we all got to eat 🙂

      Thanks,
      Aruna

  5. Arjuna, paralyzed by his thoughts;

    Medusa, with a paralyzing head of snakes;

    Are not Arjuna’s thoughts and and Medusa’s snakes each

    “… restless, unsteady, turbulent, wild, stubborn; truly … as hard to master as the wind”?

    The arrows of Arjuna, the sword of Perseus, the missles of Luke Skywalker, are they so different? The coiled wire that snakes ominously alongside Luke Skywalker’s head as he approaches his target — is this George Lucas’s rendition of the snakes that Perseus observes in his shield/mirror?

    • Jim M.,

      please catch up 🙂 Lucas was heavily influenced by Greek myths.
      SW link

      as previously stated by me… in feb. on the “almost modern” hero thread – and you also in march 🙂

      there was a link with your name at one time. r u the physicist?

  6. Cheri, on your question “Since Arjuna is a metaphor for the outward/inner life warrior, can you write about his chariot, his arrows, his friendships? Are they more than what they are?”…

    In the Gita,
    – the chariot is compared to the physical body,
    – Arjuna to the soul residing in that body
    – the horses to the sense organs
    – the reins to the mind
    – charioteer to the intellect

    In short, the intellect should be powerful enough to control the mind & sense organs. The sense organs shouldn’t drag the mind around.

    • Murali,
      That was an excellent translation. That is what I learned from my Grandma when I was 10 and those words are still with me.

      Andreas,
      I am enjoying the posts and it is very interesting to see so many different perspectives on this subject.

      I was actually watching ‘Clash of the Titans’ and got interested in the siilarities I see in it, to the tales from Mahabharat which I grew up with.
      Hence, my web surfing and I am glad I found this site.

      Thank you.

    • Thank you to both of you, Murali and Aruna.

      Murali, seeing the metaphorical analogies spelled out so clearly makes me love the Gita even more — makes it even more personally relevant.

      Aruna, you’re lucky to have had a grandma who told you the tales of the Gita when you were 10.

  7. arjuna puppet is a kind of art made by sunan kalijogo.this puppet is only a media to spread Islam on Java.the story is not original anymore,such as from India.Sunan Kalijogo had entered
    many element of Islam on it.

    • Why do people feel the need to convert? This is one thing I just cannot comprehend…. So sad…why can’t we just be who we are and get along with eachother and learn the good from every ideology and leave the bad as if it did not exist!! The bottom line… we all are seeking the same thing in life, aren’t we?

  8. What’s fascinating is when Aeneas is consumed by rage at the end ofvthe Aeneid and loses control of his mind when he kills turns. It was seen as unroman and is in contravention to the principles espoused in the Gita. As soon as the personality or ego is conflated with the role or dharma of a soldier, gratuitous violence happens.

    • That’s a fascinating angle, Kartika. Yes, that rage was more like a “Greek” Achilles rage, and not very Roman. But I guess to the ancients that made heroes human.
      BTW–and this is off point–but I’ve always thought the Greek “arete” = the “flow”/Yoga in the Gita.

    • Actually, that’s on point for the novel I’m researching. I’m also intrigued by the similarities between the Mahabharata and the Aeneid. From the dharma in the Gita to the “pietas” in the Aeneid-and the river Lethe(?) in the Aeneid where souls drink before they become reincarnated. Another thing that strikes me is the concept of fate – individual fate being used for a larger more societal purpose. Aeneid, having to leave Dido saying “mea fata est” reminds me so much of what Krishna says to Arjuna to motivate him to battle. The whole “Just get on with it” message exists strongly in the two narratives.

  9. I suppose that since you’re writing a novel, rather than non-fiction, you can explore all this fruitfully and liberally, without the need to tie up every last loose end. Sounds very promising.

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