Valedictory Address - P. Lal

Text of the taped extempore valedictory address by Prof. P. Lal at the international seminar on the Mahabharata organized by the Sahitya Akademi, Delhi, February 17-20, 1987. Published in The Mahabharata Revisited, edited by R.N. Dandekar, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi (1990).

"Professor Lal needs no introduction. I think everybody present here knows him pretty well. May I request him to present his valedictory?"

Thank you very much. This delightful brief of introducing reminds me of Sarojini Naidu's classic approach. She was presiding once and had to introduce a very trivial personality; all she said was, "The person I am going to introduce to you is so eminent that the less said about him the better" - which indeed is the way it should be. For, after all, we are in this seminar in the presence of a luminosity greater than all of us, a kind of concentrated grand radiance; we are lesser orbs revolving around the Mahabharata. I know that even radiances have dark spots. But by and large my concern will be to be dazzled. It is wonderful to be dazzled by Mahakavi Vyasa. It is wonderful, to begin with, to be in the presence of a distinguished company that provides so much varied, and, may I say, contradictory stimulation.

I am reminded of a hymn in the Japji. I come originally from the Punjab. We come originally from many places and then we get lost in the big world around us. The Japji says, "How many seas! how many mountains! how many rivers!" I am giving the gist of it... "How many seekers of that which is holy!" - whether dharma or ahimsa or whatever - "how many shapes! how many forms! how many seekers of divine perfection! how many ... There is no end to them!" You have had, I think, during this seminar an extraordinary presentation of this wide range of seekers after wisdom in humble imperfect ways.

Professor Uma Shankar Joshi - sorry, Joshi-ji - respect for wise elders is an essential part of our tradition - said the basic message of the Mahabharata in a sense was the pursuit of dharma. Yes. "Dharma protected, protects; Dharma violated, destroys." That is indeed what Vyasa declares in his epic. So why don't we do seva to dharma? It is wonderful that Krsna Dvaipayana, who has many other names too and not all of them flattering, Krsna Dvaipayana who has been associated with Visnu Narayana himself - it is wonderful that he should have said this. But here I am in the twentieth century, caught up, as we are all caught up, in our different existential contexts, trying to see what is dharma. What is this dharma that Vyasa is referring to? Is it Svadharma? Is it kuladharma? Is it yugadharma? Is it sanatanadharma? At any particular time I am caught up in a certain context - and there you are, it is another miracle, another wonder. I must discover for myself what particular combination of dharma is right at a particular time. Our life is a soaring experience; we capture it in words; and words have denotations and connotations; words are floating. Even words like dharma are floating like paper boats on a sea of silence; so I think I will, if you permit me, try not to stress philological exactitudes, or semantic details. There is a very lovely poem, poem 11 in Tao Te-Ching, which says: "Thirty spokes share the hub of a wheel but it is the centre hole that makes it useful. Take clay and shape it into a vessel; but it is the hollow within that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows for a room; it is the holes which make the room useful. So profit comes from what is there but value comes from what is not there." Now perhaps, it is just possible that meaning lies in what is said but truth lies in what is not said, and I do not have to mention that it was Rabindranath, who thought of the marvellous confrontation, the"I"-ing and "thou"-ing in the Mahabharata which is connected with Karna and Kunti. In his poem "Karna-Kunti Sambad", the "dialogue between Karna and Kunti", Kunti will not say the truth. But let's see, we can arrive, perhaps, at some kind of seeing, some kind of saying, some kind of wading in this sea of silence in different ways.

What is this unsaid thing in the Mahabharata? Let's see. This is an International Seminar. There is a parable of the Middle Ages narrated by John of Damascus in the eighth century. It includes the story of "A Man in the Well" which is based on a set of legends which arrived from this part of the hemisphere. The work was translated into Latin in A.D. 1048-49 under the name Barlaam and Josephat, and by the early thirteenth century it had found its way into the Gesta Romanorum ; there the story of "A Man in the Well" appears as Chapter 168 titled "On Eternal Damnation". It is good to remember, I say this in passing, before I return to the story of "A Man in the Well", that the Mahabharata of Vyasa is a Doomsday Narrative, the final narrative of the Dvapara Yuga. So Barlaam narrates that a sinner resembles a certain man who, afraid of a Unicorn, slides back into a pit ... he did not know that he was falling. We too do not know when the ground slips from under our feet. But after he had fallen he seized with his right hand a little bush which was growing up alongside and, looking down, he saw at the bottom of the well, a horrible dragon waiting for his fall with wide-open mouth. Moreover, there were two mice - one white and the other black. I think I recall having heard this parable on the first day of the Mahabharata Seminar when it was brought into vivid focus by Professor Misra here in conjunction with the other parable of the tree, the Double Tree. We will come back to that again. ... Two mice - one white and the other black - continuously gnawing at the root. He felt it sway. Also four vipers hissing. Looking up, he also saw a flow of honey dripping from the branches of a Tree growing beside the well and, forgetting the perils which surrounded him, he gave himself up completely to that sweetness. "See! see! how Christ's blood streams in the firmament!" Then, a certain Friend who happened to come passed him a ladder, but he tarried, and as the bush snapped he fell into the mouth of the dragon. And so he died, alas, a miserable death. Now what does all this mean? We know the moral of the story as expounded in Barlaam and Josaphat. The Unicorn becomes an elephant in the Indian version of the story in the Mahabharata. The Unicorn is Death, the pit is this life, the white and black mice are day and night. The four vipers are the four humours in the human body which is the tree, and the Dragon is the Devil, the well at the bottom is hell, the Friend who is passing the ladder is Christ, the sweetness of the honey is delight in sinning tempting the human being. The sweetness of the honey is delight of sinning! This is not the Mahabharata interpretation. And the Friend - how happy, how wonderful, how nice, how convenient, how utterly fortuitous that such a divinity should pass by at the right time and supply a saving ladder! The friend is Christ and the ladder is penitence which if refused leads to a precipitous fall in the Devil's mouth.

This story is in the Striparvan: the "Ladies Canto". It is always the men who fight and it is always the ladies who mourn. Sisters, mothers, beloveds, wives. They go to the vast field of Kuruksetra. They place body upon body, limb upon limb, head upon head, and, in a gory spectacle reminiscent of the transposed heads of the Vetalapancavimsati though on a much grander and more terrifying scale, they try to discover who their beloved ones are. But where does this takes place? In the Mahabharata or in life?

This is, I repeat an International seminar; whether we are in the West or in the East, we are seeking. Seeking what? What should be the fancy word that I should use? Truth, consolation, inspiration, peace? Every age, every yuga, finds a fancy word. We hear the voice of Dhrtarastra telling Vidura, his half-brother, "Show me a clear path through the dark thickets of dharma. That is the phrase used: "through the dark thickets of dharma." And then Vidura replies and narrates this parable (XI.5-7). We know the parable well. It is the story of a Brahmana. Brahmanas always receive ambivalent praise in India and are chosen for special tasks like this. A Brahmana is passing through the forest and he slips inside a disused pit and hangs on to a root on the side. And then he realizes that every effort he makes, every struggle on his part, only weakens the root; so he looks up - there is nothing else to do - and he finds honey, deliciously sweet honey, a flow of honey ... the honey all creatures love. The honey we all seek. These are the Mahabharata's very words. The honey whose real taste only children know. Suffer the little children to come to me for theirs is the kingdom of honey. The honey drops fall on him, they fall on his mouth. He cannot do anything. He can only reach out, and lick the honey. He relishes the drops, and he says, "I am alive! I am enjoying life!" Even as he says this the root weakens and he slips deeper into the pit. Is this being? Is this becoming? Is this essence? Is this nothingness? What is it that we are all caught up in? What is this fearful well? This thing we call existence in which we are all trapped? Dhrtarastra realizes its truth only after the cataclysmic holocaust, and so he needs consolation. Now the parable as offered in the Mahabharata is meant to console. Does it succeed? We are all doing things to help people, so much seva, so much kindness everywhere, so much honey! Well, we only sink deeper. The words of Vyasa, the words of Krsna Dvaipayana Vyasa, are very simple. "The words of Vidura failed to revive Dhrtarastra." Here is a man who wanted to cast out remorse. So great a sweetness flows into my breast, I must dance and I must sing and I am blest by everything, everything I look upon is blest. But it did not work. What then will work?

We go further into the Mahabharata. We are at the very end now. That was the striparvan. We go a little further.

I am taking three little parables from the Mahabharata. The parables which float in and around the epic, the parables which provide ideas, the parables which suggest possibilities of hope and consolation. We shall see whether in our life they are valuable or not. We go a little further to the very last parvan and we come to not the Swargarohana but to Swarga itself. Heaven itself, the hard core Ultimate of Reality. The first spectacle that Yudhistira sees when he enters Heaven is Duryodhana ensconced gloriously in a beautiful seat and radiating heroic sun-like splendour (XVIII.I). Consider who is taking him there. He cannot go alone. He is being guided, as Dante was guided by Virgil, into that rarefied transcendental realm by no other than a person whose name, if I mention it, will elicit immediate knowing smiles in the majority of the audience here. He is the Rsi Narada who carries a one-string guitar, the ekatara, who has long hair, and who always asks the wrong questions which are the right questions, a terrifying man and a very dangerous person in any yuga, specially, I imagine, in our worried century. But Narada is the one who takes Yudhistira there, and Narada is the one who introduces him to this very necessary experience of a fundamental illusion.

We are now passing from the drop of honey into another image, the desert image. This is the waste land, if I may call it so, of life itself, of Kuruksetra. This is the waste land, if I may call it so, of life itself, of the lower reality. It is a waste land which can be made fertile but it is the waste land in which we all are. The well, the hole, the pit. There is a folk legend which utilizes Narada as a hero in order to bring out the meaning of life, I think - I may be wrong but one of the nicest things about being wrong in a valedictory address is that there are no questions later. It is a touching legend, a legend which so impressed Andre Malraux that he immediately recorded in his book Anti-Memoirs saying that he had heard it in Varanasi when he was on an official tour. Apparently an Indian had come up to him and said, "Malraux Sahib, would you like to listen to a story?" He replied, 'But I have got official work to do." But this is a very good story." "But ... All right, tell me." The story was told and this urbane plenipotentiary of culture with an extraordinary Gallic sophistication was so moved that he transcribed it in his autobiographical note-book and then paralleled it with what he describes as a Christian parable about maya, the illusion by which the phenomenal world appears to be real. Now that is roughly Webster's definition, but whether it is actually real or whether it is not, is not something Webster is pleased to answer. Andre Malraux remarks that the legend belongs to Christianity where it has been given another form. Before I give you the Indian legend, let me give you the Western. In one of the monasteries built in a medieval forest a monk asks what are the tasks of the elect in the Heaven. The answer is: "None. They contemplate the Lord in Heaven. For all eternity they contemplate the Lord." He says: "Eternity must be very long." The Father Superior does not answer. The monk goes back to a clearing in the forest. Above his head a beautiful bird comes and perches on a tree. He is meditating. This is the concept of sadhana referred to earlier by Sri Uma Shankar Joshi, but raised to an extraordinary poetic intensity. This is Western sadhana. The monk meditates, a lovely bird comes and perches. Soon it flies away to a tree, not far off, taking its time, for it flies badly. The monk follows it, the bird flies off again, and the monk finds it so beautiful, and so mysterious, that he follows the bird, and so the chase continues until evening. The bird disappears and the monk hurries to get back to his monastery before night falls. Guess what happens? Guess what happens to all of us when we hurry back to a monastery before night falls. Yatrasayamgrho munih (cf. I.41.1): where-night-falls-is-my-home Muni. That's what we all are. The monk hardly recognises it. The buildings are much larger. The old Fathers are dead. The Superior has become an old man. The monk thinks: "If it takes only a bird to make 20 years seem to you like a few hours then what must the eternity of the elect be like?"

Back to Narada. Narada with his one-string ekatara goes up to Visnu who is enthroned in his Heaven, so goes the story, and he asks Visnu: "Visnu, what is maya?" Naturally the answer to it cannot be given; so Visnu remains silent. And Narada again asks: "Do you mean to imply that maya cannot be explained? This desert of a world into which we have come where illusion appears to be reality and reality is illusion?" And Visnu says: "Maya can be experienced but it cannot be explained." "Very well, then," says Narada, "if you cannot explain what you make then I refuse to have faith in you." Visnu quickly steps off his throne because he knows what happens to gods when human beings refuse to believe in them. The gods simply disappear. This is the "death of the god" theology. We cannot worship the gods who make us, we worship the gods we make. So he quickly steps down and hastily says: "Wait, Narada! I will tell you what maya is. Come with me."

They walk together. Nothing happens until they come to the edge of a desert and then he slumps under a tree, produces a lota (= pot) from the folds of his dress, gives it to Narada, and says: "Narada, in the distance you see an oasis. There is a hut there. My throat is parched. Can you get me some water? I will explain maya to you." Narada steps forward, saying, "Wait here, I will get you water."

We know what happens next. Narada goes and notices a hut in the oasis. He shouts: "Is anyone there?" And the door opens, and a beautiful girl with compelling eyes of Visnu opens the door. He is haunted and fascinated, he forgets about the lota of water and he is entertained by her with food. Her parents come. We know what happens whenever parents come. They ask him to rest. He stays a week, then a fortnight. This is the man they have been waiting for. One day he asks for her hand; this is exactly what the parents have been waiting for; so he marries her.

One year passes; we know what happens when one year passes after marriage; a son is born to him. Five years pass, and a daughter is born to him. Ten years pass, twelve years. Twelve years pass, his inlaws die; they leave property behind; property is meant to be left behind; and he inherits their land. Twelve years pass, and the floods come. The floods come and they wash his wife away, his children away, his hut away, his field away; he tries to save them and in the swelling waters he loses consciousness.

He wakes up, he opens his eyes and he finds he is lying on dry ground, his head on Visnu's lap. Visnu is waiting under the tree at the edge of the desert. Visnu, looking down at him, asks: "Where is that lota of water which I asked you to bring?" And Narada says: "Please don't tell me now, Visnu. I understand, I know. But don't tell me what happened to me did not happen to me." A sky-voice recurs in the folk parable: "Is all this real?" Visnu says:"You wanted to know what maya is. And now do you know?"

Then Narada realizes the real nature of Heaven and the real nature of Kuruksetra. Maya is this desert of a world where we have been thrust to get a lota of water for Visnu, and, instead of doing that, we have looked into the eyes of girls who have eyes of Visnu, and we have got sidetracked; or we have created the endless deserts of bloody Kuruksetra property conflicts.

One more parable, again from the Mahabharata. The point is this: if we are hanging in a well, as indeed the Mahabharata seems to suggest as a doom narrative, and if whatever we do, whatever we are, whatever reality we experience, somehow cannot satisfy us, seems less than real, then what is the morality, the ethics, the manner in which we should live our lives? What are the rules of dharmasastras? We go back to the Bhagawadgita. It is known as the Ygdrasil, the Tree of life. In canto 15, Krsna clearly says: " Uttistha Arjuna: Stand up! Slice this tree with the sword of detachment." What tree? What is this tree which we must cut down? This is the Tree of Life. How can I cut down the Tree of Life itself whose roots, according to Krsna, are in the sky, whose fruits are on earth? I come from the Punjab, but I live in Bengal. There is a Bengali folk poet Ramprosad Sen who took this idea from the Gita and composed a haunting song about it: "Ore mon chal re chal, niye ashi charti phal. let's go my mind, let's go. Let's pluck the four fruits." He is referring to the four fruits of Gita tree. This is the parable which Sri Ramakrishna, knowing that he was dealing basically with people who would not understand the subtle philosophical implications of what went on in the Mahabharata, resorted to in order to explain the meaning of life. This is the tree which was converted into the Kalpataru, the Wish-Fulfilling tree.

Here is the story of the Wish-Fulfilling Tree which is also an account of what we must do in order to escape out of the well, the story which explains what is the honey of life, and why reality is not the reality it appears to be. Permit me this little digression. This is a roundabout entry into the heart of the Mahabharata.

There is an uncle who leaves for the big-time city. This is the parable as told by Sri Ramakrishna. He has nephews and nieces, and he returns from the city loaded with gifts; he gives them toys and sweets. He finds them playing with sticks, twigs and pieces of stone, and he says: "What is the fun in all this? Surely, there are better things in life than sticks, stones, and twigs." So he gives them glittering toys and he says: " You know, outside the hut there is the Kalpataru. It is a very simple thing, getting what you want. All you have to do is go to the Kalpataru, stand under it, make your wish, and the Tree will give you what you want, whatever you like." The children, like all children now-a-days, specially educated ones, know that this is not true. You cannot get what you want. You have to struggle very hard to get what you want and even if you struggle hard someone else is struggling harder and gets the goodies first. Still others have connections, and they really get the best things first. The children know this; this is practical wisdom, after all. Nonetheless, when the uncle goes away, they rush to the Tree and stand under it and they start wishing.

They are children. What they want? Sweets, mithai of all kinds, sandesh, rossogulla. What do they get? We were just told by Uma Shankar Joshi-ji, "You must be careful with your food." They get stomach-ache, because the Tree will not merely give you what you want, the Tree will also give you its exact opposite which is built into it, guaranteed. The nature of the Universe is so marvellous; "complex" is the wrong word. It is marvellous, it is a gigantic cosmic hoax, a divine comedy. What else do they want? Toys. What do they get? Boredom. They want bigger toys. Bigger boredom. Bigger and better toys. Bigger and better boredom. The tree will give you exactly what you want and with it its built-in opposite. "Arjuna, stand up! Cut down this tree with the sword of ..." But we will come to that later.

The children grow older. There is nothing we can do under this tree except grow older. The tree does not change; we do. It is not time that is passing; it's we. Some of us may grow wiser, but grow older we all will. Now they are "young adults". Now they do not want sweets and toys. They want the four fruits described by Ramprosad Sen: sex, fame, money, and power. There is nothing else available under the Tree. They reach for it, they get it, and the Tree gets them too, because they get the opposite also. Nothing in this world comes single. Everything comes with its built-in opposite. This is Sri Ramakrishna's interpretation. They are trapped and they worry and they agonize and they do not know why they are agonizing. Then they grow still older and now they are ... We have such lovely words for them: in the West they are called "senior citizen"; in the East they called gurujanas, wise elderly people. They are just supid grown-up children. They are now lying under the Tree, on their death-cots, waiting to be carried to the funeral pyre where they will be given a proper crisp Hindu cremation. They are divided into three groups: One group says - and this is the interesting part now - one group says, "This world is a hoax, it is a farce, it is a swindle. "Fools, they know nothing. The second group says: "We made the wrong wishes. This time we will make the right wishes." Bigger fools. They have learnt nothing. The third group says: "What is the point of living in a world like this? We want to die." "Very well," replies the Tree, "Take it." The Tree will give you exactly what you want and with its built-in opposite. That is its function. So, they die under the Tree, for there is nowhere else one can die, and they are born again under the Tree because there is no place else where one can be born again. We cannot say:" Stop the world, we want to get off." This world is all we have and so back again they come into the world, under the Tree, trapped once more. Such is Karma.

But there is a very fine ending to this parable. There was a lame boy, a cripple, and he also ran to the Tree but he fell down, he was pushed aside by his clamouring companions and relatives. So he crawled back to the hut, and thought: "I will wish my wish later." He looked out of the window at the Tree and he saw his companions wishing for sweets, and getting stomach-ache; wishing for toys, and getting boredom; wishing for death and getting re-born. He suddenly saw the truth, he saw the world as it is. He did not feel superior. He felt humble. There was a gush of compassion in his heart for those under the Tree and in that gush of compassion he forgot to wish. He wanted to wish, but he forgot to wish. The Tree could not touch him. He is the free man. He had the obtained the accidental co-ordinates of moksa. Accidental, because they cannot be obtained deliberately. No, no amount of yoga, no amount of dharmasastra, no amount sadhana, mauna, or vocal, no amount of Seminars, domestic or international, will give us the co-ordinates of mukti. In that gush of compassion the boy forgot to wish. In a strange sense he had lept out of the well. He had jumped out of the desert and he had cut down the Tree.

I merely wanted to indicate the possibilities the Mahabharata has for the expansion of our feelings and our imagination. I don't think these are answers, these are only signposts as we travel through the Kuruksetra of life.

Thank you for listening. I thank Vyasa too for making possible this fruitful Seminar under the Tree of Life, one of whose countless blossoming branches is the Sahitya Akademi.

Copyright, 1987, P. Lal, all rights reserved.