California Literary Review

Counsel at Crossroads: Job and Arjuna

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March 26th, 2007 at 12:56 am

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The Book of Job and a central section of the Indian epic Mahabharata present interesting perspectives on some timeless questions.

Subtle affinities

The Book of Job remains one of the greatest works of the Western civilization. In addition to theological value, its literary nuances have retained much of their recency. A paean to the spirit of Man, whose cosmic qualms impel God to engage in a debate on the aptness of his actions; this is perhaps one of the earliest reflections of romantic humanism.

The Book of Job essentially is about one man’s despair and dilemma, and finally, deliverance. The build up to the climax of God appearing out of a whirlwind to answer Job reminds one of a sequence of events in the Indian epic Mahabharata. On the eve of the fratricidal Kurukshetra battle, ace warrior Arjuna stood dejected and listless. He abhorred the impending bloodshed, the killing of his kin for a kingdom. Arjuna’s friend and charioteer Krishna gave him a discourse on actions, events and their causality, and exhorted him to fight for what he argued was the just cause.

The similarities between these situations are far from apparent, the contrasts more stark; yet a subtle strain of affinity runs across both.

Two situations

Job was a man of sufficient means, with a fine family of seven sons and three daughters. He was pious with rigor and regularity, adhered to all moral canons, and was steadfast in his devotion. Job was almost too much of a role model to go unnoticed; accordingly, some ordeals were set up to test his faith and other ancillary virtues. All of Job’s children died, his business ventures collapsed; his health was ruined. As generally happens in such times, Job was soon surrounded by people with their sympathy. Each of the comforters gave their own interpretations; each had reasons for Job’s trial and suggestions for relief. Job’s comforters have often been metaphorized in modern commentaries to indicate specific ideological groups. They indeed represent a wide range of preference; and prejudice.

The interviews with his comforters left Job confounded, careworn and further unreconciled to his misfortunes. Much, if not all, of his suffering seemed to him undeserved, and he sought an answer.

“Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said:
Who is this who darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
Now prepare yourself like a man;
I will question you, and you shall
answer Me.”

The whirlwind is evoked here perhaps to reflect the maelstrom of Job’s emotions. Or maybe to underscore the gravity of God’s presence.

The war of Kurukshetra was precipitated, like every epic battle, by the politics of power. Honor and righteousness were officially ascribed as the reasons; though much can and need be read between the lines. The Pandavas met the Kauravas — their cousins — in a battle for the throne. Arjuna was the greatest warrior of the Pandavas, his arsenal boasted weapons of unparalleled potency, many of them gifted by the gods. Almost all the fighters were part of the same clan, or at least closely known to one another. The warfare had none of the modern sanitized flavor; all who participated — from the mightiest general to the meanest foot-soldier — stood equal chances of killing and getting killed. Krishna, the enigmatic brother-in-law of Arjuna and a patron of the Pandavas offered to drive Arjuna’s chariot. He was bound by a tripartite agreement not to take part in the actual fighting, but on account of some fine-print, was free to give counsel. On the eve of the battle the two parties faced each other in formation; and Arjuna asked his chariot to be taken to the middle of the field to survey who all he was up against.

The picture left him deeply distraught. Granduncles, uncles, cousins, nephews and relations by marriage confronted him, armed to the teeth, waiting to kill, or be killed. His lips dry, limbs in tremor, enervated and depressed, Arjuna slumped on his chariot, his celebrated bow, the Gandiva, dropping from his hands. He looked at Krishna and said, he felt like withdrawing from battle; he was harassed by his conscience; his emotions in turmoil; he longed to be guided.

Krishna asked Arjuna to listen to him. He then gave a lecture that was homily in parts, harangue in others, and seemingly everlasting wisdom in between. All with a view to enthusing Arjuna to engage in the battle, but going far beyond this immediate context.

Krishna began, “You grieve in vain, you worry for those who are not in any need of it. The wise never mourn of either the living or the dead.”

Questions to Job

After announcing his presence amidst the whirlwind, God queries Job on varied topics. Job is asked whether he is aware of the craft behind Creation, the design that caters to every contingency:

“Where were you when I laid the
foundation of the earth ?
Tell Me, if you have the understanding.
Who determined its measurements ?
Surely you know !
Or who stretched the line upon it ?
To what were its foundations
fastened ?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang
together… ”

….
“Have you entered the treasury of
snow,
Or have you seen the treasury of hail,
Which I have reserved for the time of
trouble,
For the day of battle and war ?”

Then, God interviews Job on the difficulties of administrating such a complex system.

“Can you lift up your voice to the
clouds,
That an abundance of water may
cover you ?
Can you send out lightnings, that
they may go,
And say to you, ‘Here we are!’?


“Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
Or satisfy the appetite of the young
lions,
When they crouch in their dens,
Or lurk in their lairs to lie in wait ?”

….
“Does the hawk fly by your wisdom,
And spread its wings toward the
south,
Does the eagle mount up at your
command,
And make its nest on the high ?”

Sometimes the questions are challenges of raw bravado, rather out of bounds for any mortal, not merely Job.

“Can you draw out Leviathan
with a hook,
Or snare his tongue with a line which you lower ?
Can you put a reed through his nose,
Or pierce his jaw with a hook ?”

But the most intriguing of God’s questions to Job are thrown in passing, almost inconspicuous in the surrounding rhetoric.

“Have you an arm like God ?
Or can you thunder with a voice like His ?
Then adorn yourself with majesty and
splendor,
And array yourself with glory and
beauty.
Disperse the rage of your wrath;
Look on everyone who is proud, and
humble him.
Look on everyone who is proud, and
bring him low;
Tread down the wicked in their place.
Hide them in the dust together,
Bind their faces in hidden darkness.
Then I will also confess to you
That your own right hand can save
you.”

Here God takes Job into deeper waters, into the realms of judgment and rectitude, and the difficulties of giving each his due. Even the command of overweening powers does not remove the problems of equitable distribution of justice, seems to be the hint.

Throughout the discourse Job remained quiet, barring interludes of supplicatory litany. As the questions established, the scheme of things is too vast, too involved and too arcane for the understanding of those not in direct charge, and Job conceded,

“Therefore I have uttered what I did
not understand
Things too wonderful for me, which I
did not know.

I have heard of You by the hearings of
the ear,
But now my eye sees You.
Therefore I abhor myself,
And repent in dust and ashes.”

Arjuna’s enlightenment

The visual appeal that overwhelms Job is similar to the vision Krishna revealed of himself, and the effects upon the audience, as visceral.

“Then Krishna revealed his supreme form –
Possessing numerous mouths and eyes, glittering with
divine ornaments, displaying divine signs,
divinely garlanded, divinely scented, all-shaped, all-
powerful, transcendent and limitless.

Were a thousand suns to explode suddenly in the sky,
their brilliance would approximate the glory of the site.

And in the body of Krishna,
Arjuna saw the separate universes united, and resting.

Struck with awe, his hair on end,
he bent his head, and joined his palms.”

This display is the culmination of his dialogue with Arjuna, an ultimate verisimilitude of Krishna as an incarnation the creator, arbiter and destroyer of the universe. The description is one of the most moving passages of the Mahabharata, and the origin of metaphors across many far-flung contexts. Robert Jungk’s celebrated book, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists, draws its name from an allusion to this spectacular wraith. One of the leading scientists behind the first atomic bomb is said to have chanted these lines in original Sanskrit when the test explosion rent the sky in the deserts of Los Alamos. Maybe, he too was in the search for extenuation.

But before the pyrotechnics were conjured, Krishna and Arjuna went through discussions on the ways of the world, their causes and effects. Arjuna’s attitude towards Krishna morphs from friendly indulgence to awe and admiration, and finally dissolves into total submission.

Krishna’s message underscores the transience of the mortal existence, each being passing through phases of birth, living and death in the cyclic odyssey of time. He recommends a detachment from the results of one’s deed, asking the focus to be shifted instead to the deeds themselves. As a motivation for the fight, he points out Arjuna is really in a win-win situation; if victorious, kingdom and other earthly privileges are his, if demised in combat, the gates of heaven open out to the slain hero. As bona fides to his claim to such insight, Krishna reveals himself as the Supreme Being, all-knowing, all-pervading, all-powerful, everlasting and ever-renewing.

Whenever the world abounds with injustice,
Rectitude under relentless assault,
I create myself, with the aim,
Of punishing the wicked
Protecting the pious,
And establishing a rule of law
This cycle repeats
Over and over, again and again..

Krishna then shows his ethereal image. Arjuna, mystified and shaken, asks about his true identity.

Krishna calls himself the origin and culmination of all existence and activity, the eternal passage of Time. Then, in a clinching coda, Krishna argues that all whom Arjuna baulks at killing, will ultimately and inevitably be claimed by Time, and Arjuna is a mere instrument in their extermination.

What began as a casual pep-talk between friends turns into a class of the cosmos.

This chapter — like the Mahabharata in entirety — embodies immense density and variety, and lifetimes may be spent in the true appreciation of the overtones. Regarded as a spiritual credo, there is much practicality interleaved in these mystic excursus.

Counsel at crossroads

Job seeks an explanation for his past privations; Arjuna a direction for future deeds. Both protagonists encounter issues larger than themselves. In either situation, metaphors are invoked, exciting and enigmatic, that hint not at answers, but subtler layers of understanding. If anything, the efficacy and the futility of questioning stand revealed to them.

After his experience Job retracts his grievances, reaffirms his faith and is restored to health and happiness. Arjuna on the other hand, is galvanized into gallantry. With vim, he plunges in a war that brings forth victory; after calamitous, though collateral, damage.

These accounts, like all classic literature, let every reader discern significations of her own.

The wonder lies in the commonality, distant but definite, of how different cultures address questions assailing Man since the dawn of his sentience. These treatise stand the test of time not because they dole panacea for quality living — which they do not — but since they provoke newer vistas in a continual quest.

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