Saturday, 6 March 2010

Victory over the Senses as a Form of Self-Discipline

Book 1, Chapter 5:

First, apologies for the delay in posting this but the last few weeks have been completely manic at work. However, now, onwards:

This chapter seems to clearly locate Chanakya within the Indic traditions where self-discipline is crucial to material and spiritual success. Other texts, including the Bhagvad Gita stress the issue of self-discipline, but primarily for spiritual reasons. Chanakya links the idea directly to a king's success and failure. So self-discipline is not just about nirvana but rather necessary for gaining and maintaining political and economic power. (Western new age gurus who peddle watered down Indic Mc-philosophies, take heed!)

Chanakya points to the five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch) and how one must win over these to become jitendra - one who has won over the senses - in order to bring under control the following six flaws: lust, anger, greed, pride, enthusiasm, and joy (I translate mad as enthusiasm as in mad-mast but will be happy to find a more precise term in English. All suggestions welcome).

I am especially intrigued as to how different these temptations (in some ways equivalent to the Christian cardinal sins) from their Biblical cousins. While they do address issues of excess, the focus is quite different.

Chanakya explains that once a human being can give up these six temptations, he/she can be considered wise. He suggests following the duties laid down by the shastras as a way of giving up these six temptations. He warns that without this requisite self-discipline, a king may win over land but will soon lose all. I LOVE Chanakya's carrot-and-stick approach to political conduct.

Ah, some history now! Chanakya then goes on to provide examples from history none of whom I am familiar with, which makes me wonder just how much our Indian historians don't do their jobs!

Chanakya starts with examples of kings who gave in to lust (interesting prioritisation here). So first there is King Dandakya of Bhojvansh who lusts after a Brahmin's daughter and abducts her. Not surprisingly, he is cursed by the father and as a result loses his kingdom and his lineage is destroyed. A similar fate befalls the Vaidehi king Karaal.

This is very interesting as Chanakya's focus on real-politik overturns the Shastric prescriptions for the kinds of marriage allowed to a kshatriya which a king would most likely be and which includes kidnapping (yes, thats why Prithviraj was still acting within his dharma when he abducted Sanjukta). Perhaps the issue here is the consent and willingness of the bride? As there is little historical information on the two cases, I am left a bit bemused.

Next set of examples are for kings who surrenders to anger. He mentions King Janmajyeya who angered the Brahmins and King Taaljhandh who quarrelled with the Bhriguvanshis. So obviously pissing off the Brahmins is a bad idea for a king? That appears to be the point of the examples so far.

Oh wait: things improve. Ila's son Pururva gives in to greed and loots from all four varnas and is cursed (never mind, again by the Brahmins). Meanwhile, King Ajbindu of Sauvir manages to anger his subjects thanks to his greed. His fate is rather coyly described as "untimely death due to the people's anger." Does that mean the people killed him off? How I wish I could find a historian who could explain these very interesting references!!!

But we now move to pride and the examples here are better known: Ravana and Duryodhan. Oh more obscure examples here: King Dumbhodrav (I LIKE that name! King Dumbo it was!), and King Haihayaraj Arjun (another topper of a name) who was killed by Parshuram, both for their pride as it led them to act in rash and silly ways.

Interesting switch here: it is not a god that punishes as in the Bible. Instead the six flaws lead people to abandon reason and make mistakes. This makes for a very clear divide in Indic ethics and morality from the Western one: its not what you think, its what you do that counts.

Pride also leads to the downfall of the asura king Vatapi as well as the Yadavas who conspired against and deceived the guru-priest Dvaipayan out of pride.

Two major themes seem to emerge from here: Indian history and texts always warn against "priest-kings" as those are considered dangerous and destabilizing to the social structures. In this chapter that point is definitely emphasised with the Brahmins emerging as a definite counter-balance and check for a king's (and thus kshatriya) behaviour.

The second point is even more curious: Chanakya points out that transgressions by a king who cannot control the six emotional flaws leads to the end of his kingdom (temporal), premature death, as well as the end of his lineage (a big one in Indic traditions). Yet NOT transgressing provides rewards that are entirely temporal: a peaceful and prosperous reign until the end of the king's life. Here the stick definitely carries more weight than carrots. Or perhaps this is yet another indication of how strong a materialist focus many of Indic philosophical traditions have?

The chapter ends with pointing out the good kings, including: Jaamdaganya (son of Jaamdagni), Parshuram, Ambreesh, and Naabhaag (son of Nabhag).

I am left slightly discontent with this chapter not for philosophical reason but because many of these names refer to kings I know little about. I can understand that these are from pre-Mauryan times but it does seem that we could do better at compiling information about them today.