Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

What advice would Krishna give students at JNU and me?

Often in life, ambitions and values come into conflict. It is an incredibly tough place to be in. How do you decide what is right?

What I intend to tread on is dangerous territory because most of India is riveted by all of what is happening at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. A bunch of young people at the university stand accused of sedition because they raised slogans in favour of Afzal Guru.

The man was convicted for his role in the attack on Parliament in December 2001. His petitions for clemency were declined and he was sent to the gallows. Much controversy followed, both within and outside India. This, on the back of the fact that when spoken to by certain sections of the media, he retracted his confession and claimed it was extracted under duress.

International human rights groups like Amnesty International condemned his execution, arguing, “This very regrettably puts India in opposition to the global trend towards moving away from the death penalty."

I decline to take a position on whether or not Guru was guilty—not for anything else but because I don’t know the truth. In my earlier avatar as a journalist, I reported on business. Stories like these were outside my domain. I didn’t have access to people who knew the truth. My understanding is limited to what is reported.

But I will argue vehemently, on any forum that matters, that in any civilized society, that the death penalty is not an option. But that is not what I intend to delve into here. What matters to me right now is the nature of truth.

Much like every citizen in the country, I am riveted by all of what is unfolding at JNU. I’d be lying if I said the passion and idealism of these young men and women who stand accused of sedition does not excite me. But before you read anymore, may I suggest you take 30 minutes off to watch the videos below.

The first is of Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the JNU Students’ Union. He now stands accused of sedition over an event he organized on 9 February.

One of his comrades, Umar Khalid, came under scrutiny as well and was named among the accused. The government declared Khalid an absconder until he came out into the open on campus a few days later and delivered a speech that went viral—“I am a Muslim, but not a terrorist".

In the noise that followed, the nuances got lost. Pretty much every television anchor, led by the inimitable Arnab Goswami on Times Now, is baying for blood. They demand every evening at prime time that “traitors" like Kumar and Khalid be hanged.

Then two more bombs dropped. The first was a resignation letter from Vishwa Deepak, a staffer at Zee News, the full text of which went viral and added more fuel to the debate. “It feels like we are government spokespersons," he wrote.

Just when everybody thought it was a combustible reaction from an immature young man, NDTV’s Ravish Kumar, one of India’s most prominent television anchors, came into the open against the biased media.

This was soon after he had telecast a 40-minute film set against a black backdrop with a voice-over raising uncomfortable questions.

Like I said earlier, I don’t know enough to take a stand. But I think it pertinent that the nature of truth be examined. I have a selfish reason as well. I’m dealing with a personal demon. I hope in examining the nature of truth, I will eventually find my truth.

My part of the story is about a gentleman whom I am close to. We have invested our emotional energies into a long-term project. I look up to him with the respect one would hold for a mentor. On his part, he has invested time and energy in me so that I may learn.

The ideal outcome, the both of us believe, will be mutually beneficial. But there is no getting away from the fact that the both of us are trying to negotiate our way though significant turbulence. I must also confess that I often don’t have the wisdom in me to navigate waters like these.

My search for a compass led me to ask for an introduction to one of India’s most celebrated police officers. Because he is in service and we spoke in confidence, he will remain unnamed for now. Suffice to say, he has witnessed, handled and continues to guide the police force on combating some of India’s toughest problems in militancy-prone areas.

Given his rank, he has had to deal with complexities that include dealing with unreasonable demands from ruling politicians and opposition parties, controlling crime mafias, maintaining order, keeping the morale of an otherwise demoralized force high and performing all of the duties expected of a husband and father.

Most sane people I know would crumble under the kind of pressure he deals with. I thought it only pertinent then I try to understand how he functions.

He told me he is agnostic because he cannot prove or disprove the existence of god. But when in times of distress, he turns to the Bhagavad Gita. Not so much as a religious scripture, but to imbibe from the wisdom it contains. He encapsulated all of what it contains in a single line for me: When your ambitions and values come into conflict, the onus is on you to decide what side of the fence you want to stand on.

If that much, he said, is clear in your mind, all decisions are easy. There is no such thing as an absolute truth or an absolute wrong. What is right for you may be wrong for me and what is wrong for me may be right for you. Your job as a human is to take a call on where you stand and perform your duty. This was difficult to comprehend.

Just that it may make life easier for me, I texted him to ask what he would do if he were the young man that is Vishwa Deepak, formerly with Zee News. “I am moved by the raw emotion and powerful articulation. What would I do? Difficult to entirely imagine. But I will attempt. My understanding of journalism is that the owners and their editorial culture matter a lot.

So, I will perhaps not walk into a potentially conflicting culture. And if I do, I would first try and hold a gun to make my supervisors uncomfortable. I’d quit only after I have worked out an alternative. My duty lies not just at work, but to my family as well. Of course, there is the risk my employers may fire me. But that is outside my control."

We followed it up over the phone for a quick chat that lasted a few minutes so I may understand the nuances of what he meant.

“What about the students at JNU?" I asked him.

“When you are young, idealism is a good place to begin. In fact, without idealism, what is the point of youth?" he asked rhetorically.

But think about it deeper, he urged me. “Vishwa Deepak is young. I worry about what will happen to him. Will he be compelled to make choices in the future that he may have to regret? Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid are young. Will they be hounded until driven to insanity? Ravish Kumar though has one luxury. His face and name is embedded in the Indian psyche. He has experience and maturity on his side to guide him. His idealism is a thought-through position."

Conversation done, I didn’t waste a minute and ordered a copy of My Gita as interpreted by Devdutt Pattanaik. I thought it only appropriate because Pattanaik is among those rare people who possess the ability to translate ancient wisdom into a language laity like me can understand.

The context that the Gita is set in is familiar to most of us Indians. Cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, are set for war on the soil of Kurukshetra over Indraprastha, a city that originally belonged to the Pandavas. Krishna is the spiritual guide and mentor to all of the Pandavas.

For this war though, he chooses to be the charioteer of Arjuna, the greatest warrior in the Pandava clan. As Arjuna approaches the field where the battle is to begin, his soul is tormented and he turns to Krishna with a question.

“Krishna, Dhritarashtra’s sons are family. How can we slaughter them, they whose greed blinds them to the horror of the situation? If we kill family over property, why will women bother with fidelity, why will communities respect boundaries? All rituals will be abandoned and all ancestors will be forgotten. Those who unravel the fabric of family will surely sink into itself."

Pattanaik interprets this question from Arjuna as one that is “full of fear and confusion, is very different from the views of Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana. The Kaurava father and son have clearly drawn the boundaries dividing those they consider their own and those they consider as outsiders, intruders, even enemies. Arjuna’s boundaries, however wobble: how can family be enemy?"

What follows after that is one of the finest discourses on the nature of truth that everybody ought to read—whatever faith you follow. One of my favourite parts in the Gita that forms part of this discourse is around the tragic hero Karna.

Born to Kunti, the mother of the Pandava clan, for various reasons she abandons him right away. If she had kept him, he would have been her first born and the king of the clan. But the young boy is adopted by a charioteer. Through sheer talent and hard work, he rises through the ranks and gets close to Duryodhana, the oldest of the Kaurava brothers, and becomes his best friend and mentor.

Before the great war begins though, Karna discovers he is of royal lineage and is the rightful heir to the Pandava throne. But out of sheer loyalty, he discloses this to Duryodhana and chooses to give up on his stake to the Pandava throne.

So, when the war begins, to mock the Pandavas, Duryodhana thinks up a devious strategy. He picks one of his uncles, Shalaya, of royal lineage who doesn’t know the truth about Karna, as his charioteer. The Pandavas don’t know either that Karna is their oldest brother. Eventually, the decision backfires on Duryodhana.

As the battle rages, a humiliated Shalaya continues to mock Karna and praise Arjuna. But Karna is on a rampage. In a terrible moment though, his chariot gets stuck in the mud. Shalaya claims he is of royal lineage and refuses to do what a charioteer ought to do. Karna puts his bow down and tries to lift the chariot out. In that instant, at Krishna’s urging, Arjuna strikes him down.

As Pattanaik puts it so eloquently in his book, despite his charity, integrity and loyalty, Karna suffers all his life. We see him as a victim, but Krishna does not. Because Krishna knows a lot about Karna that others don’t. I don’t intend to get into the details here—but may I urge you to look the story up or read the unputdownable interpretation by Pattanaik.

Krishna’s overarching message through all of the Gita is that we are born to perform our dharma. And what is our dharma? Pattanaik explains it as this: “Dharma is potential. The best of what anything or anyone can do. Fire can burn; that is its dharma. Trees can grow and bear flowers and fruits; that is its dharma. Birds eat, fly, mate, migrate, take care of the young; that is their dharma. What are humans supposed to do? This is a tough one for humans have imagination. Humans can imagine a reality alternative to the reality we experience. So, we have choices."

The police officer I was in conversation with chose values over ambition. It made life tough for him. But he never experienced discomfort. Because in his mind, the choice he made was clear. He could articulate why to those who depended on him. It eliminated as much potential for conflict as possible.

But there is another nuance here. As Krishna explains in his discourse, “...My deha (body) is different from yours. My hungers are different from yours. My assumptions are different from yours. My capabilities are different from yours. My experiences are different from yours. My expressions are different from yours."

I extrapolated that passage into the situation I was in. I figured I can’t stick to my values alone or give up on my ambitions either. It was important I strike the middle ground. Therefore, I need to empathize, to learn to see from the other person’s eye.

It didn’t take too long after that. I conceded ground and placed all of my cards on the table. It didn’t take him too long to understand my frailties. My move was neither strategic, nor driven by values or ambitions. I empathized and he empathized. We struck the middle ground. Whether or not this middle ground will last is something only samay (time) can tell. I suspect it will because my situation isn’t a complex one.

But for the students protesting at JNU, I understand what values they stand for. They perhaps think they are performing their duty. It is entirely possible it may eventually conflict with their personal ambitions. And it is entirely possible their ambitions are idealistic ones. Can the both coexist? I may be entirely wrong. Because as Krishna says, there is no one truth.

But one conversation, some reading into the Gita and introspection suggests it may not be possible. Because what they are up against is a system that knows exactly what its ambitions are—to annihilate the enemy, values be damned.

So, what would Krishna advise them? I guess retreat, rethink, use subterfuge, deploy treachery if need be, and then attack. One episode comes to mind.

Arjuna had taught his son Abhimanyu how to penetrate the greatest battle formation of all, the Chakravyuha. What he hadn’t taught his son was how to get out of it effectively. The code of honour in those days demanded all weapons be put away at sundown. But by then, Abhimanyu was deep inside the Chakravyuha, and by sunset, the Kaurava warrior Jayadratha killed him. When Arjuna got to know of it, he swore that by the next day, he will kill Jayadratha before sundown, else he would kill himself.

When the Kauravas got to know of it, they did their damndest best to protect one of their best warriors. Time was running out and sundown was close. Witnessing the developments, Krishna deployed his prowess to create an illusion of darkness and Jayadratha put his weapons down. Krishna lifted the veil and Arjuna killed him.

Did Krishna’s act amount to treachery? Was it dishonourable? “Yes," explains Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev who heads the Isha Foundation. That said, he puts into perspective why Krishna did what he did and urged Arjuna to follow. “There was an endless number of events that led to the war. Everywhere, they (Kauravas) used deceit without qualms. When they were at an advantage, they were talking dharma as a tool to benefit from."

That is why, Krishna tells Arjuna, “What they are doing is adharma; what we are doing is also adharma, but we are doing it with the intention of establishing dharma. They are doing it with the intention of establishing adharma."

So, when viewed from Krishna’s perspective, Sadhguru explains, “It is not a question of right and wrong. It is a question of purpose, and of whether you would be successful within the limitations of law or not. He did not say what he was doing was right—he knew it was wrong. But what he was trying to achieve was right. That is why he did all this."

This exchange between Krishna and Arjuna leaves me with no doubt the students at JNU ought to abandon idealism and think strategically. And me? I admit there is a part of me that remains conflicted and does not want to concede ground. I want to stick to what I think is right. But if I do, I know I am being stupid and will lose out in the longer run.

Charles Assisi is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel Publishing.

His twitter handle is @c_assisi

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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