At the age of seventeen, after having spent the World War II years in South Africa, I found myself in Paris, the city of my birth. At that time, revelations about the concentration camps were destroying all previously-held conceptions of the limits to which human evil could extend. The horror of that time and place was not an abstraction for me: a cousin with whom I used to play as a child had come out of Auschwitz with her identity number tattooed on her arm and a burden of dreams from which she would wake up screaming, night after night.
One day I came upon a French translation of Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita. In a world that had lost its bearings it was the only thing that made sense to me. In the Gita, there is a significant moment just before the battle between the powers of darkness and the powers of light when the destiny of the known world is about to be decided. The mighty warrior Arjuna, upon whom the outcome of the war depends, surveys the enemy’s ranks in which stand his kinsmen and his guru. The code by which he lives declares it his duty to destroy the enemy. The same code regards the slaying of one’s kinsmen or teacher as the greatest of sins. Confronting this dilemma and foreseeing the destruction that must follow upon either choice, Arjuna is paralysed with horror. What finally releases him is something from another dimension, a vision in which the terrifying ambiguities of morality are somehow resolved. I cannot begin to describe the catharsis this produced in me. Suffice it to say that I became convinced that the answers I sought could only come from another plane.
In 1959 I left home, heading for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram of Pondicherry, India. It was at the Ashram that I first read (in twelve thick volumes!) the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, of which the Bhagavad Gita comprises a single chapter.
My relation to the Mahabharata was a vividly lived experience, its events not the happenings of a distant age, but one with the epic events through which we had just lived. Over the years, greatly aided by Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita and other writings, as some quantum of the Mahabharata’s spiritual wealth became accessible to me, I knew that I wanted to present it in a way that would make its wisdom and beauty more easily accessible to others. The more I studied the Mahabharata, the more striking were the parallels I discovered between its story of the conflict culminating in the battle of Kurukshetra, and the events culminating in World War II. In both cases there was a tremendous clash between the forces of darkness and the forces of light such as takes place in a time of changing Dharma. It is this clash—between Asura and Deva, to use Vedic terminology—with its result of humanity either taking a step forward or sliding back into barbarism, that is the theme of the Mahabharata. It seemed to me that this was also the central lesson learned from World War II.
Sometimes in my vision, the figures and events of the Mahabharata slid in and out of the drama the world had so recently witnessed in the rise and fall of Nazism. The parallels were uncanny.
Powerful and savage Jarasandha sought emperorship over Bharatavarsha, and in order to ensure his success, he was ready to offer Shiva the heads of a hundred captured kings as a sacrifice. At the war’s end, Hitler sealed and flooded the Berlin underground—the city’s faithful residents offered as a last desperate sacrifice to the dark power he worshipped.
While in exile, the Pandavas were told by a sage that Drona, Ashwatthama, and Greatfather Bheeshma himself would be possessed by demonic powers. Writing to Nirodbaran—his disciple and later secretary —three years before the war, Sri Aurobindo said: ‘Hitler and his chief lieutenants Goering and Goebbels are certainly possessed by Vital Beings.’ For Aurobindo, ‘Vital Beings’ were Asuras or forces adverse to the Light.
Dhritarashtra’s message to the Pandavas in the face of war was, ‘It is better for the sons of Pandu to be dependents, beggars, and exiles all their lives than to enjoy the earth by the slaughter of their brothers, kinsmen and spiritual guides: contemplation is purer and nobler than action and worldly desires.’ ‘Peace in our time’ was the watchword of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister whose foreign policy sought infamously to appease Hitler.
The parallels continue. After the war, Arjuna voices his confusion about a critical point: ‘In the forest you told us to wait out our exile for the full thirteen years, and then Dharma would be with us. But when Krishna came to the forest he said: “Fight now!”’ Vyasa answers: ‘I gave you of my knowledge… I walk within my Dharma. Krishna is free of Dharma. It will not work to act as though you are free of Dharma when you are not.’
Likewise Gandhiji wrote the following letter to the British members of the House of Parliament on the July 2, 1940 as he walked within his non-violent Dharma:
I appeal for cessation of all hostilities… because war is bad in essence… I want you to fight Nazism without arms or… with non-violent arms. I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity… Let them take possession of your beautiful islands with your many beautiful buildings… but not your souls or your minds.
Gandhiji was a great being, a statesman and perhaps a saint. But he was not a seer. There are times when we have to rise and fight and only those beyond Dharma like Krishna can spur us on to do so.
And yet, it is Krishna who when Ashwatthama releases the Narayan astra tells everyone to surrender. Surrendering is meant not just as a physical act but as a spiritual surrender as is made clear during the Ashwamedha when the sacrificial horse enables Arjuna to surrender his ego, his prejudices, in fact his own self for a higher cause. This version of the epic shows how at various stages the Pandavas and Draupadi make this surrender. On the fulcrum of surrender is balanced Karma and Dharma. It is in Krishna that this balance is found in the most pristine form.
Sri Aurobindo, , who had fought so fiercely for independence from the British, alarmed and astonished the nation and even his disciples by championing the British war effort, declaring: ‘Those who fight for this cause are fighting for the Divine and against the threatened reign of the Asura.’ In another letter, he said:
‘You should not think of it as a fight for certain nations against others or even for India; it is a struggle for an ideal that has to establish itself on earth in the life of humanity, for a Truth that has yet to realise itself fully and against a darkness and falsehood that are trying to overwhelm the earth and mankind in the immediate future. It is the forces behind the battle that have to be seen and not this or that superficial circumstance.’
And to another disciple:
‘We made it plain in a letter which has been made public that we did not consider the war as a fight between nations and governments (still less between good people and bad people) but between two forces, the Divine and the Asuric. What we have to see is on which side men and nations put themselves; if they put themselves on the right side, they at once make themselves instruments of the Divine purpose…’
He is thus Krishna-like looking at a future of peace only through the resolution by carnage.
Perhaps something more needs to be said about the various entities I have referred to – the ‘Asuras’, ‘vital’ Beings’, and their counterparts, the ‘Devas’. We tend to use these terms only metaphorically today, but in Vedic times and to seers of all times, they were very real indeed.
What are vital Beings? They are the embodied forces which seek to obstruct (Asuras), or aid (Devas) the evolutionary advance of the Light. In crucial moments such as those marking humanity’s attempt to make a transition to a new dharma, when the pressure of evolution threatens to dislodge the obsolete past, such Beings appear on either side to lead the battle.
In the Mahabharata we can easily recognize Jarasandha and Dhritarashtra as Asuric figures; Krishna as the embodiment of the Light and Arjuna, his instrument, as the champion of the Light.
During World War II, Hitler was clearly the Asura’s agent. But who in that battle was the champion of the Light? And where did the Light come from?
I tend to think it was Winston Churchill, whose inspiring speeches roused his listeners to implacable defiance in the face of what for long seemed the inevitability of defeat. But Churchill was aware of being guided by something beyond, far beyond his own scope. In a statement to the House of Commons on 13 October 1942, he declared:
… I have a feeling, in fact I have it very strongly, a feeling of interference. I want to stress that I have a feeling sometimes that some guiding hand has interfered. I have the feeling that we have a guardian because we serve a great cause, and that we shall have that guardian so long as we serve that cause faithfully. And what a cause it is!
If Arjuna was the hero fighting with weapons against overwhelming odds in the war Sri Krishna conducted from another dimension with his light and inspiration, Churchill was the hero of an unarmed, unprepared Britain fighting against overwhelming odds, with the only weapons she had – his speeches.
Here is what Sri Aurobindo said of the action of his spiritual force during World War II:
‘Certainly, my force is not limited to the Ashram and its conditions. As you know, it is being largely used for helping the right development of the war and of change in the human world.’
Right from the beginning when the first air raid sirens sounded over Britain, Churchill’s words to the House on 13 October 1942 were hardly those of a politician, and instead had the unmistakable ring of an inspired mystic:
I felt a serenity of mind and was conscious of a kind of uplifted detachment from human and personal affairs. The glory of Old England, peace-loving and ill-prepared as she was, but instant and fearless at the call of honour, thrilled my being and seemed to lift our fate to those spheres far removed from earthly facts and physical sensation. I tried to convey some of this mood to the House when I spoke, not without acceptance.
Churchill himself understood the evolutionary significance of the present age, which Sri Aurobindo emphasized in his writings, and in which Churchill himself played so critical a role:
The destiny of mankind is not decided by material computation. When great causes are on the move in the world, stirring all men’s souls, drawing them from their firesides, casting aside comfort, wealth and the pursuit of happiness in response to impulses at once awe striking and irresistible, we learn that we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.
A wonderful story is unfolding before our eyes. How it will end we are not allowed to know. But on both sides of the Atlantic we all feel, I repeat, all feel, that we are part of it, that our future and that of many generations is at stake. We are sure that the character of human society will be shaped by the resolves we take and the deeds we do. We need not bewail the fact that we have been called upon to face such solemn responsibilities. We may be proud, and even rejoice amid our tribulations, that we have been born at this cardinal time for so great an age and so splendid an opportunity of service here.
And yet again:
I have absolutely no doubt that we shall win a complete and decisive victory over the forces of evil, and that victory itself will be only a stimulus to further efforts to conquer ourselves.
It was in this historical and philosophical context that I began to understand the Vedic ideas of sacrifice and surrender, and the joy experienced at the moment of acceptance. There are numerous examples of this in the Vedic hymns and in the Vedic concept of sacrifice, with which the Mahabharata abounds.
It is through Arjuna, my protagonist, that I personify a changing Dharma after Kurukshetra. It is through him that Krishna has been able to reveal the mystery of the Cosmos, and it is now through him that one sees a new model of a man grown wise. In his post-war Ashwamedha campaign we find the Kshatriya hero discovering and developing his feminine, intuitive, and compassionate side in his encounters with those he must challenge.
The Kali Yuga that Krishna predicted is upon us and is accelerating the rate of evolution at a dizzying pace. Forms of resistance are inevitable, as are clashes with forms of resistance. The evils that led to Kurukshetra and World War II are still the evils that haunt us—insensitivity, rivalry, greed, violence, competitiveness and the denial of the love that created us. The pain and grief that these times have caused can only be healed by ‘Harmony’ and ‘Samata’, two virtues held dear by both Sri Aurobindo and Mother. Recent world events have left us living in a state of semi-paranoia. As Eckhart Tolle says in A New Earth:
If the history of humanity were the clinical case history of a single human being, the diagnosis would have to be chronic paranoid delusions, a pathological propensity to commit murder and acts of extreme violence and cruelty against his perceived enemies, his own unconsciousness projected outwards. Criminally insane with a few brief, lucid intervals.
Nothing makes this more clear than the epic narratives of history. And yet they allow us to pause and take stock. For a moment we live in the aftermath and reflect. And we are somehow stilled and healed. The soul makes its way through the madness to come to the fore. In his introduction to Part II of an earlier edition of my work, Pradip Bhattacharya drew attention to a point made by Joseph Campbell in a televised series of his talks. Campbell said that science had created a gap between the modern world and mythological symbols. As the incidence of vice and crime, violence, murder and despair rises rapidly, it is the myths that offer ‘the most solid supports of the moral order, of the cohesiveness and creativity of civilization’. Campbell concludes that it is in the body of creative literature focusing on the world’s epics that he saw ‘hope for our society in the twenty-first century’.
Yet the Kali Yuga, the precursor of a wondrous dawn, is pregnant with surprises. Science has recently taught us to harness the beneficent sun. A deeper science may yet harness us to the Greater Light. In any case though the resistances are fierce, the ultimate victory is certain. It will be for some future epic to tell the tale.
The sages say that much merit is acquired by listening to the story of the Mahabharata. May you, the reader, acquire merit, peace of soul, and serene joy.
Of Bliss these Beings are born,
In Bliss they are sustained
And to Bliss they go and merge again.
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti
Maggi Lidchi Grassi is a writer and homeopath, and has lived at the Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry since 1959. In The Great Golden Sacrifice of The Mahabharata she reinterprets Vyasa’s epic from Arjuna’s point of view. Random House India publishes The Great Golden Sacrifice of the Mahabharata in October.