Vacuity of NRIs and their symbolic interpretations


1. Vyasa’s argument (to the extent we can speak of an argument in this context) is quite subtle: When Urvasi comes to Arjuna at the behest of his father, and when she is possessed by desire, and when the Apsaras choose freely and unconfined, then (a) one cannot reject her; (b) and with the argument that she is a superior to him. If you split this conjunction and cast in normative terms, it says something like this: (a) Rejection of a woman is not permitted when one’s father indicates that a son should sleep with a woman; (b) Rejection of a woman is not permitted when the woman is sexually attracted to oneself; (c) Rejection of a woman, whoever she might be, is not permitted when she chooses freely and without confines. Because such a rejection is triply prohibited (or forbidden), Arjuna’s argument that he ‘ought not’ to sleep with the parent of his race (which has only one prohibition) possesses less value. So, Urvasi is justified in her curse of Arjuna. In other words, if we read this fragment of Mahabharata in normative terms, Arjuna was wrong in not having an incestuous relationship with one of his great-great-grandparents.

1′. While one could argue that one ‘ought not’ to sleep with the ‘superiors’, Urvasi suggests that because she has chosen freely, this argument is void. On top of saying why Arjuna is wrong to reject sleeping with her, she also comes up with two other reasons why he could sleep with her: (a) Arjuna’s ancestors have done so and without committing any ‘sin’; therefore, it is ‘permissible’ that he does the same; (b)  it is a morally good thing to emulate one’s ancestors and therefore Arjuna ‘ought to’ sleep with her.

Does not your moral intuition (let me use this word for a moment) tell you that both Urvasi and Arjuna were right, in a moral sense, she for cursing him and he for not sleeping with her? Making sense of such possibilities, in a consistent, coherent and systematic way, is what the Indian, non-normative ethics all about.

2. All the NRI’s live in a culture that thinks normatively. When we speak in English about ethics, we are invariably forced into a normative language. The western intellectuals reason about ethics exclusively in normative terms. Such intellectuals too have access to the texts the way Sarika has access to them as well. So, imagine any one of such intellectuals confronting your child about ‘Brihannale’ (just when s/he has finished a spirited defence of how Indian culture always respected eunuchs or some such thing) by citing this piece from Vyasa’s Mahabharata! Your child would die of shame, especially if such a citation is accompanied (as it normally will be) with the remark I have made.

3. Not only will all ‘symbolic’ interpretations of Mahabharata come to naught with one such incident; worse, it becomes entirely counter-productive: instead of fostering respect, which the ‘symbolic interpretation’ is supposed to for the Indian culture, such an interpretation will end up humiliating your child when it confronts the fool-blooded Indian traditions, its texts, and their translations. Even this part, which Sarika did not excerpt fully, is full of references to the physical beauty of Urvasi. (None of the parents would ever dream of talking to their children about feminine charms this way. They would consider such descriptions, today, as pornography.)

4. By saying this, I do not doubt the capacity or the ingenuity of the parents: I am sure that at least some could come up with some kind of an ad hoc explanation that explains this particular fragment away. However, in taking such a path, one underestimates the intelligence of the child, the pressure it faces in its milieu, and the strength of the surrounding culture in which the child has to live. The western culture has not become what it is, one of the great cultures in the history of humanity, by readily accepting simple-minded explanations that explain nothing.

5. The more you protect your child from understanding the culture in its full glory, the more you feed it with dried-out, bi-dimensional, puritanical interpretative rubbish, the greater is the damage you inflict. Keep this in mind. For my part, none of the manifestations of the Indian culture embarrasses me: I do not know everything about the Indian culture; there are more texts I have not read than I have; I might not even agree with some or another argument or attitude in the Indian traditions, ashamed I am not. For that, I have to thank my upbringing and my mother: she faced no problems in helping me understand why Shiva is worshipped in the form of Linga or why Urvasi was justified in cursing him (and so was Arjuna justified, she said).


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