New Year Double Issue

Do Gods Lie?

Arshia Sattar’s latest book is Ramayana for Children
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Fake news in mythology

WORLD EVENTS IN the last few months have delivered us into an era defined as being one of ‘post truth’, a time when we seem to have transcended the need for truth as a basis for our thoughts and actions. Our politicians tell lies and we no longer care. News is patently false and that doesn’t bother us either. Facts are irrelevant, events and conversations that never happened are given weight in popular judgements and in the minds of a significant majority, events that did happen and words that were spoken are dismissed as having no significance. The term ‘post-truth’ became firmly established during the US presidential election in 2016, but now that it has settled into common parlance, it appears to apply to a number of events across nations and cultures. It has become a lens through which we can examine and perhaps understand the world around us. Certainly, there’s enough going on close to home to warrant an examination of what constitutes truth and whether or not there are any significant consequences to the speaking and dissemination of untruths.

Perhaps the best known lie in the Indian epics is the one that Yudhishthira tells during the war in the Mahabharata in order to fell his teacher, Drona. Drona is invincible as a warrior, but his one weakness is his love for his son, Ashwatthama. On the battle field, Drona wreaks havoc on the Pandava forces and it is clear, that for a Pandava victory, he must be eliminated. On Krishna’s advice, Bhima names an elephant Ashwatthama and then kills him. He shouts, “Ashwatthama is dead! I have killed Ashwatthama!” Drona approaches Yudhishthira, who has never lied. He asks him if it is true that Ashwatthama has been killed. “Yes,” says Yudhishthira, “Ashwatthama (the elephant) is dead.” Yudhishthira, son of Dharma, whispers the words ‘the elephant.’ He has told the truth but he has destroyed his teacher. Drona lays down his weapons and waits for Drishtadyumna, who has haunted his dreams, to kill him. Yudhishthira’s chariot, which, until this moment, had always skimmed the surface of the ground, becomes earthly, mundane, robbed of the glory that Yudhishthira’s commitment to truth had bestowed upon it. If Drona had heard the whispered words, Yudhishthira’s half-truth would have signalled to him the end of honour, the end of dharma itself.

In Valmiki’s Ramayana, Rama hides behind false pretences, if not untruth, when he sends Sita into the forest after they have returned to Ayodhya. He calls his brothers together and informs them of what the townspeople have been saying about Sita. He declares that he has decided what will happen next—he will banish his pregnant wife into the forest and he will brook no argument from his brothers or from anyone else on the matter. He tells Lakshmana that Sita has been looking forward to visiting her friends, the wives of the sages that she met during their exile, and that Lakshmana should convince Sita that the trip into the forest is to see them. When he gets to the forest, he should leave her there, alone, but close to Valmiki’s hermitage. Rama does not tell Sita himself that he has decided to banish her, perhaps because he cannot bear that moment of truth—when he has to look his beloved in the eye and say to her that he has decided to send her away to preserve his honour as a king and as a man.

Perhaps the best known lie in the Indian epics is the one that Yudhishthira tells during the war in the Mahabharata in order to fell his teacher, Dronacharya

Of course, Rama has other actions and deeds that stretch the limits of our understanding of the dharma that he upholds, like the killing of Vali and Shambuka and the mutilation of Shurpanakha. So also with Yudhishthira—for example, his abject loss of control and dignity at the gambling game and his consequent silence when his wife was being humiliated in the assembly. Yet, both Rama and Yudhishthira are presented to us as good men. In the main, they are the centres of moral authority in their stories. Rama is the upholder of dharma, both as a man and as a god. Yudhishthira is the son of Dharma. Before they become kings, in the forest, their ideas of dharma are often challenged—Rama is questioned by Vali, for example and Yudhishthira has to confront the anger of his brothers and his wife at the choices that he has made. As monarchs, Rama and Yudhishthira do their duty and uphold and/or restore righteousness to the world. But despite this, they suffer deeply as individuals. As a king whose wife is no longer with him, Rama is bereft and lonely with only story- telling and dharma-knowing sages for company. He has to fashion a golden statue of his absent queen, a public reminder of all that he has lost, in order to correctly conduct the many sacrifices and ritual ceremonies that are expected of him. Yudhishthira, always a reluctant monarch, has inherited a parched earth, a people exhausted by a ghastly war, a family torn asunder and profoundly embittered. In his years as king, he thinks about what it has meant to win a war at all costs, with lies and deceits and broken rules and commitments. While Yudhishthira’s regrets are explored fully in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana remains largely silent about Rama’s thoughts when he is king. Here, we have to read between the lines or, read other Ramayana-related texts (such as Bhavabhuti’s Uttararamacarita) to plumb the depths of his sadness and emotional exhaustion.

It is also true that both Rama and Yudhishthira have been drawn to the ascetic ideal, the quiet life of the sages in the forest that they have experienced in their exiles. They are attracted to the idea of the time to contemplate and to reflect on the human condition. Both of them have considered rejecting the dharma of the Kshatriya that not only drives them to war, but makes them kings by destiny rather than by choice. In both cases, it is the violence inherent in the dharma into which they have been born that repels them. But one could be inclined to argue that they reject this Kshatriya dharma because they are also concerned about what the demands of kingship will do to them. We know that, in the early days in the forest, Rama tried hard to persuade Bharata to be king in his place, seemingly reluctant to reclaim the throne even after the period of his exile was over. Yudhishthira repeatedly tries to surrender his kingship and retire to the forest. Neither is successful in renouncing kingship and they remained trapped, often upholding a dharma that they no longer believe in.

In Valmiki’s Ramayana, Rama hides behind false pretences, if not untruth, when he sends Sita into the forest. Yet, both Rama and Yudhishthira are presented to us as good men

There is another epic tale of a king who lies for political expediency, if not for outright political gain. Kalidasa’s heroine, Shakuntala, first appears in the Mahabharata. Her son, Bharata, is an ancestor of the Pandavas and the Kauravas, giving his name to their royal lineage and to the book which tells the story of their lives. The basic outline of Shakuntala’s story in the Mahabharata is one that we all know, but there are enormous differences around the person of the king and the righteousness of his actions. Shakuntala is the adopted daughter of the sage Kanva and lives with him in his forest hermitage. Once, when the sage is away, the king stumbles in to the hermitage, lost and separated from his hunting retinue. Smitten by love (more probably by lust), he wants to sleep with Shakuntala. Like other women in the same text, she binds the king to a promise that should she have a male child from this union, that child will succeed him as king. The king readily agrees and they are hurriedly married by Gandharva rites. After spending a few idyllic weeks with Shakuntala, the king goes back to the city. A son is born and after some years, Kanva tells Shakuntala that she needs to take the boy to his father. When she appears in the royal court with her child and stakes his claim to the throne, the king reviles her publicly, saying he has never seen her before and that she is inventing the story of their brief liaison. He even goes as far as to say that she cannot be trusted because she is the child of a whore (Menaka) and a lecher (Vishwamitra). Shakuntala is outraged and berates the monarch, telling him that he has lost the right to be king because he is a liar. A disembodied voice speaks from the air and validates Shakuntala’s story as well as reprimands the king for his behaviour. The king is shamed and accepts the young boy as his son.

How different is this story from the easier, prettier version we have from Kalidasa—easier and prettier and therefore, better known. Kalidasa’s king, Dushyanta, is liberated from all responsibility for his actions and his lies by the strange curse of amnesia, a curse that Shakuntala incites (by her distracted demeanour when a sage is visiting) but which falls upon the king. In Kalidasa’s play, Dushyanta remains an upholder of dharma, constrained from doing what is right by a malignant force that is beyond his control. He does not have to face Shakuntala’s and the Mahabharata’s accusation of being unfit to rule because he has lied.

It is clear that our literary traditions find ways to paper over cracks in public morality and the breaches of faith and contract committed by kings and rulers. We are made comfortable with the idea that lies and untruths, especially in the hands of kings, are not, in and of themselves, bad things. They are legitimate, even necessary, in the service of some greater good that we, as individuals, may not be able to see and which may not even apply to us. Rulers are forgiven their trespasses against particular people (like Drona and Sita) and we, as subjects or citizens, are encouraged to forgive them when they trespass against us. Rama and Yudhishthira may suffer inner torment for what they have been persuaded to do, but within their contexts, they are regarded as good kings precisely for what they have done. It is only Dushyanta, a minor character in the Mahabharata, who is rapped on the knuckles and brought into line for his transgression.

I’m not sure that these stories are already in the post-truth realm, but they do show us that we are expected to judge what is right from shifting sands rather than from bedrock, that what is good is contextual and relative. As the moon draws her light from the sun, so we derive our ethical beliefs from the words and deeds of those who shine brighter than ourselves, radiating power, wealth and success. Like so many of us, I will watch the last moon of 2016 set in the night sky as the year turns. I will thank her for the beauty in which she bathes us all, turning rivers to silver, coaxing a night-lotus to bloom with her cool rays. Her scarred face shall be, as ever, beloved and familiar. And I shall hope against every hope that when she rises in the new year, she will not show us her other face, however smooth it may be. I hope that we shall not be condemned to live in the shadow of the dark side of the moon.