Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Letter composed on 9.11.2001

I wrote this to friends on the day the Towers fell, the Pentagon was attacked, the fields of Pennsylvania left more death---and America began its own Mahabharata.

Brothers and sisters,

Surely these are trying times for all the people of our planet. Lives

we have not yet even imagined to be affected by recent events will be

unwittingly drawn more directly and deeply into the conflict, just as

so many have already been so deeply changed by events so far. Innocent

people are destined to die, just as innocent people have already seen

their lives end without the slightest moment's notice. What lies before

us is a conflagration that promises even more devastation of lives and

we will constantly be asking ourselves if we have the moral wherewithal

to lay claim to notions of justice, goodness, or the right.

These are important issues within the Mahabharata, one of the sources

from which we can gain a deeper understanding of what lies before us.

Scriptural resources of our tradition are as rich in solace and comfort as they are in wisdom and

reflection. Sometimes that reflection and wisdom is unresolved, it means

not to offer answers but to consider possibilities, realities, and

stubborn facts about nature and civilization.

The Mahabharata includes within it, as you know, the Bhagavadgita whose

Voice of Divinity is a call to action even as it demands a deeper

contemplation of life in every form of the everyday as well as in its

ultimacy. There is also a sober message that we might resist as

peace-loving and non-violent people and that is what I wish to bring out

here, not as an advocate of such views

but simply for reflection. There are teachings here we may find a

valuable resource not for their solace but for the wisdom that might

emerge from reflection upon them.

So allow me a moment to turn to events in the Epic as an instruction in

matters that we can usually resist taking seriously because we don't

have to. Now I think we need to take them to heart and choose for

ourselves what to do and what sorts of persons we are and wish to


First, it is crucial to remember that the struggle that emerges in the

Epic is of one family with many branches. We are one humanity and yet

we have different mothers and fathers, different up-bringings, different

understandings from the experiences that have informed our lives. We

are one human family but with genuine differences. We must remember

that there is as much to lament, regret, forgive, forget, and remember

as to celebrate and affirm. There is no polly-anna-ish vision of

spiritual goodness in the Mahabharata: good people make serious mistakes

and are admonished to learn by acknowledging them and turning to a

deeper reality, one of Divine Goodness in the Self. We are born of God

and born to uncover that Divinity in our hearts. That, we are told time

and again, is our most noble purpose even in the face of other stubborn


As Mahabharata unfolds we learn that Dharma, manifesting as the heir to

the throne in the form of a man named Yudhisthira must assume the

responsibilities of leadership. Yudhisthira is a reluctant king, as all

those with such power must be. He would prefer transcendence and

retirement to worldliness and engagement. He seeks the noble purposes

and goals of human life. And yet as the Epic evolves he is drawn deeper

and deeper into his responsibility as King, as the leader of the Pandava

branch of the family, and the leader of civilization itself.

Civilization, we learn, is the only context in which we can uncover our

common humanity and reveal our essential and common divinity. Without

civilization we are as less than animals: surviving merely to eat and to

persist without higher or nobler aims.

Duryodana, his cousin and adversary, believes he and his side of the

human family have been disinherited unjustly and that their portion of

the kingdom cannot suffice to satisfy their claim on all of it. Despite

the entreaties of his father, Dhrtarastra, Duryodana ultimately rejects

Yudhisthira's final request for peace, just five villages in which to

live in obscurity. Duryodana will settle for nothing less than the

destruction of his cousins. He seeks to deny them life itself, the very

right to be.

We can wonder how people, such as Duryodana, come to such destructive,

dare I say, evil aspirations. For to deny others the right to live, to

be, is indeed at least some definition of evil, as is the hope to make

others' lives as miserable as possible to satisfy one's own interests.

Evil has more than one face, more than one form, just as does the

Divine. It is difficult to comprehend Duryodana's "irrationality" but he

seeks first to terrorize his cousins and then to destroy them finally,

unequivocally, without mercy or care for the destruction he may bring to

his own people. (The episode of the cattle raid during the Pandava

exile, in which Duryodana and his lot come to disturb even the withdrawn

lives of their cousins, is indeed "terror" made manifest, even if it

fails and backfires against them. The Pandava end up saving their

terrorist cousins and retreat again to the forest to serve their term in

hopes of peace.)

How can such devastating evil arise and sustain itself? Doesn't

Duryodana know that he will bring upon himself and those he loves even

more pain and devastation?

Mahabharata makes clear that desire, fear, anger, hatred, and delusion

can indeed infect a human heart and that as they grow and mutate, they

seek to perpetuate themselves at whatever cost to that heart. Evil is a

cancer, a virus, a reality defined as that which self-destructs even as

it seeks to foster its own presence in its host. Evil is a corruption

of the Goodness that is the Heart, a corruption that is permitted

because human spirits are free to choose and to manifest the conditions

that permit its growth because we are made Free. But it is plain as

well that Mahabharata does not always consider "redemption" possible in

this civilized world if the contagion of evil has reached a stage of

growth in which its course is sure

self-destruction. No, like cancer in advanced stages, unfortunately

not detected when less violent or drastic means might have prevented its

spread, the Mahabharata offers in Duryodana the example of an evil that

must be rooted out before it destroys that which gives civilization its


And so we turn again to Yudhisthira who is responsible not only for

nurturing and protecting the good but facing those situations in which

there is no alternative but to face the reality that evil will not

contain itself. We admire Yudhisthira's constant hope for peace and

reconciliation, hi willingness to turn his cheek and to accept

responsibility for the injustices his own family has perpetrated against

their cousins. We wonder how far he will go in making amends, how

deeply his instincts for peace and non-violence will serve his family's

interests, how far he is willing to go to protect what is rightfully

theirs. Yudhisthira ponders and reflects; he often appears indecisive

for his patience. But he understands, certainly better than any of his

brothers and perhaps even his elders, that as soon as he acts to counter

the threat of genuine evil taken root, he runs the risk of becoming that

evil or, at least, succumbing to the moral bankruptcy that expends

whatever goodness motivated his actions. In short, Yudhisthira knows

that cutting out the cancer of this evil will cost him and his family

their dignity, their moral claims to goodness; he knows that he will

kill innocents even as he seeks to destroy only that which is bent upon

the destruction of his family. He knows that by "winning" he will lose

some part of himself. He knows that by "losing" he puts at risk the

very notion of civilization itself. He knows that it is possible to

co-exist, to live in difference and with difference, that we need not

agree to agree that we all have the right to live. He wonders why

others cannot share this conviction.

Mahabharata presents a reality that accepts the possibility that others

may insist their differences are irreconcilable, that some may reach the

point of conviction and action in which our very existence is beyond

their willingness to admit. Mahabharata presents to us the fact that

their position, their vision of uncompromising destruction violates the

deepest principles of civilization itself. And Mahabharata understands

that those who must defend civilization even as they contemplate the

meaning of justice itself are not just liable but assured of inflicting

upon themselves the curse of acting in uncivilized ways.

There are no "good guys" in the Epic, not in the sense of untainted

warriors whose principles remain uncompromised by their deeds. No,

everyone and especially Yudhisthira is morally compromised. And yet

Krishna ( a deity) insists that Yudhisthira act as he does, that he not

allow the evil that has arisen---even if he, Yudhisthira has helped

create it and is, at least in part, guilty of creating it---to sit by

idly and accept his own destruction. Krishna insists that the Pandava

have a right to life itself and that they not, in the contemplation of

their own creation of the evil of their cousins and their complicity in

their oppression, fail to understand their grim duty.

There is no glory in the Epic's war. It is war in the truest sense of

irreconcilable differences resolved by violent means and unremitting

will. It is painful, horrible, ugly: the longest book of the

Mahabharata, the sixth, is called ironically the "Shanti parva," the

book of "peace" because here begins the war and the nearly endless

descriptions of devastation and battlefields strewn with innocents as

well as warriors.

Throughout Mahabharata we need to take note of a few persistent points

of contemplation:

* Yudhisthira never takes delight in the destruction of his enemies,

even as he realizes that there can be such a thing as an enemy. Instead

he is sobered by the ways his own dignity and goodness are invariably

compromised. He constantly seeks peace even in the midst of war.

* It is wrong, plain wrong, to allow the contagion of evil to persist.

Even as we seek to foster the cures for such evil in ourselves and

others, we cannot allow it to wreak its havoc. The Mahabharata is not

passivist nor does it wholly reject violence as a "solution." Instead

it means to explore the implications of the moral compromises that

violence as a solution will bring to those who seek justice. It means to

point out how it is possible to discern the difference between

justice and vengeance or terror.

We as an American nation are on the brink of this last stage of moral

compromise in which we will certainly have no unequivocal or untainted

claim to being the just or the "good guys." That could not be plainer

to me. Let us pray that we retain some deeply rooted and serious

capacity to reflect upon our moral responsibilities. Surely the

American nation will act and respond to this horror with violence. I do

not mean either to exalt or condemn such a response but merely to

suggest that we have sources that enable us to reflect upon violence as

a course of action. Less clear to me is how we Americans will avoid

triumphalism and prevent our banners, our flags from becoming symbols of

vengeance and anger just as they represent "evil" to those who oppose us

or use them to represent their own pain and discontent. We have within

our military power such devastating means. What remains to be seen is

the character of our will.

I was deeply moved by the statement of the Dalai Lama who has, in the

traditions of Buddhism, made clear that violence begets violence. But

the sobering reality of a pernicious evil, be it cancer or human

intolerance, is in the view of the Mahabharata a fact that must lead us

to reflect more and more deeply on violence itself. We are born

violently, lovingly cut from the cord that gives us life as we are

pushed into the world from the womb of a mother who loves us

unconditionally. This is a fact of life itself and how Life seeks to

remind us that we exist only by Grace and Love.

But if we allow those who deny life itself to become the paradigm of

civilization then life will surely not be worth living at all. That is

surely one important teaching of the Mahabharata.

I am not advocating a view here and do not mean to propose solutions.

I've tried not to interpret the Epic in ways that reflect a particular

bias but merely to present to you its ancient understandings as I have

reflected upon them. We are warned not to become the evil we must

confront, but we are also reminded that the failure to confront that

evil consigns us to a death of ignominy and a future in which there is no possible co-existence of

differences. We must somehow seek to remind ourselves that justice is

the foundation upon which we create a context for civilization and that

civilization, however fragile it may be, is our collective, human


I hope you will forgive me the vanity this missive suggests.

I find no self-importance in all of this. Instead I mean

merely to reflect aloud in a reasoned voice with those whom I love and

respect and who I believe will love me for who I am even if we come to

differences of understanding or opinion. In my heart I seek to

experience the deeper unity in which the Self is One and in my life I

hope to live in ways that reflect how that Oneness assumes the infinite

forms of difference that make the universe so remarkably sublime.

with great love,

Douglas Brooks Professor of Religion University of Rochester Rochester,