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The Doctrine of Karma is a vexed philosophical question and Karmic Law has often been confused with fatalism—that everything is preordained. Therefore, it is made out to be a debilitating and disempowering philosophy that drew India down into abject misery. The author seeks to put forward his understanding of this complex concept. It is a cosmic law of action with its inevitable consequence and reaction. Narration of parables—metaphors pregnant with rich meaning—supplemented with instances from real life show a path out of the labyrinth, even the much debated issue of determinism and free will. The thesis is that the Karmic Law can provide the discerning intelligence, cultivated through chitta-shuddhi, adequate guidance for making the choice that may help one—if one chooses to—in avoiding decisions for short-term gains that breed long-term misery.
In tragic life, God wot, no villain need be;
Passions spin the plot. We are betrayed
By what is false within.
Noble blood is of little help.
Deluded by passions, the best
of men turn wicked, and reap
the evil that they sow.
Karmanye vadhikaraste ma phaleshu kadacana /
Ma karmaphalheturbhurma te sangostavakarmani //
Whether it is Meredith writing in “Modern Love” in England of the 1860s, or Vyasa dictating to Ganesha in India’s mythic past, the finger points unwaveringly not outwards at the other, but inwards at oneself. The moving finger writes and having writ moves on, but it is the individual who is responsible for making that choice, thinking that thought, feeling that emotion, doing that act which sets off the inexorable chakra of karma, and not just blind nemesis that visits unjustified calamity on his head. The Indian insight into this law was voiced memorably by Robert Frost:
“Two roads diverged in a wood
And I took the one less travelled by
And that has made all the difference.”
Whether it is Sri Aurobindo choosing to turn away from comfortable employment with the Maharaja of Baroda to leading the revolutionary movement for India’s freedom and on to the sadhana of the Supramental, or Mahatma Gandhi adopting non-violence to challenge the brutal might of the British, or Lincoln deciding to face the spectre of civil war to wipe out slavery, in each case it is the choice of the road less travelled that has made all the difference, not just for the individual taking that option but for society in general. That difference in the consequences may not necessarily be evident immediately. Christianity overcame the Roman Empire centuries after Jesus was crucified and thousands were martyred. The anguished cry might well ring out:
“The best lack all conviction. While the worst
Are full of a passionate intensity.”
Indeed, that is why we bemoan the good suffering unjustified misery while the evil enjoy the best of times. Sri Aurobindo’s short story, “Svapna” (Dream), slices through this Gordian knot at one fell stroke: the external appearances are deceptive; the mind of the evil-doer—who seems to be floating in a lake of bliss—is full of scorpions; the righteous person mired in poverty enjoys a far higher quality of being—the ineffable wealth of a mind at peace with itself.
In both cases, the condition of being—whether feebly lacking conviction or perversely passionate in intensity—is a function of conscious choice, with inevitable consequences to be borne. Surely, it is critically significant that of all creatures man alone has the option of making choices instead of compulsively following instinct. As Krishna tells Arjuna after all the advice of the Gita: yatha icchasi tatha kuru—“Act as you wish.” Given that undeniable fact, how is one to make sure—as the Pepsi jingle has it—“Yehi hai right choice, baby, aha!”—that the correct choice is being made? As Professor Albus Dumbledore tells the novitiate wizard Harry Potter, “As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all—the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things which are the worst for them.” Ravana and Vibhishana, both are sons of the sage Vishravas and the rakshashi Kaikesi. Yet, how different are their ends, each the consequence of individual decisions regarding the way of life chosen. Ravana is the egotist par excellence, world-conqueror but a slave of his passions; Vibhishana’s unclouded vision clearly distinguishes right from wrong. Surya, the deity upholding Rita (truth), and Dharma, the god of righteousness, both sire sons on Kunti—Karna and Yudhishthira—who make choices differing radically in motive and in action. Yudhishthira seeks out truth and grapples it to his heart with hoops of steel; Karna, knowing what is righteous, elects to oppose it. And Mahabharata records what happens to each of them.
The Law of karma can provide us an invaluable guide in choosing the road to take, in being creatively proactive. It is precisely the opposite of fatalism, which encourages an inert, passive state of being. Karmic law is quite plainly stated: every act has a reaction, a result. Arnold Toynbee even spoke of a national karmic effect, citing the examples of England, France and imperial Russia, to which we could add communist Soviet Union, ancient Greece and Rome. Great empires all, fallen to the dust and living today in the shadow of a super power. Closer to home do we not have the mighty Mauryan hegemony collapsing soon after the Asoka’s Kalinga carnage and barbarian hordes crushing the Gupta Empire as they would the Roman and the Mughal? Sri Aurobindo had stated, long before Toynbee, “Nations as well as individuals are subject to the law of karma, and in the present political and industrial revolt British rule in India is paying for the commercial rapacity which impelled it to prefer trade returns to justice and kingly duty and use its political power to turn India from a land of fabulous wealth into a nation of starving millions.”
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
This consequence may not, however, be either immediate or necessarily equivalent in Newtonian manner. As Sri Aurobindo pointed out, “The payment (by British rule) has only just begun—for these karmic debts are usually repaid with compound interest.” Therefore, when on occasion it appears long after the act, or appears to outweigh by far the choice one had made, the chooser is unable to connect and complains like King Lear of unjustified, inexplicable misery being visited upon him:
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,
They kill us for their sport.”
The first lesson is that making the connection is the critical factor in achieving this understanding. The second lesson is: before making the choice to be aware that it is bound to produce not just a result but also a reaction. The law has a corollary too: “good” acts do not wipe out the reactions produced by “bad” karma. The consequences flow along their own individual paths; they do not cancel out one another. The only exception is the path of yoga which, when adopted, is said to wipe the past slate clean.
What is the meaning of karma? Sri Aurobindo has explained its true rationale:
“The true consciousness within is not unaware of the past; it holds it there, not necessarily in memory but in being, still active, living, ready with its fruits, and sends it up from time to time in memory or more concretely in result of past action or past causes to the superficial conscious being.”
The Wish-fulfilling Tree
One way of gaining insight into this cosmic doctrine is through a parable that sets forth the existential predicament of humankind in the universe: the parable of the Kalpataru, the wish-fulfilling tree, narrated by Sri Ramakrishna.
Into a room full of children at play walks the proverbial uncle, back from the city, who, of course, knows better. Laughing at their preoccupation with make-believe games, he asks them to lift up their eyes and go out to the massive banyan tree, which will grant them whatever they wish—the real stuff! The children do not believe him and remain busy with their toys. The uncle shrugs and leaves. And then they rush out, stand under the branches of this huge tree that cover the sky and ask for what all children crave: toys and sweets. In a flash they get what they want, but along with an unexpected bonus: the built-in opposite of what they wished for. With toys they get boredom; with sweets tummy-ache. Sure that something has gone wrong with their wishing, the children ask for bigger toys and sweeter sweets. The tree grants them their wishes and along with them bigger boredom and bigger tummy-ache. Time passes. They are now young men and women and their wishes change, for they know more. They ask for wealth, power, fame, sexual pleasure—and they get these, but also cupidity, insomnia, anxiety, and frustration/disease. Time passes. The wishers are now old and gather in three groups under the all-encompassing branches. The first group exclaims, “All this is an illusion!” Fools, they have learnt nothing. The second group says, “We are wiser and will wish better next time.” Greater fools, they have learnt less than nothing. The third group, disgusted with everything, decides to cop out and asks for death. They are the most foolish of all. The tree grants them their desire and, with it, its opposite: rebirth, under the same tree. For, where can one be born, or reborn, but within this cosmos!
All this while one child has been unable to move out of the room. Being lame, he was pushed down in the scramble and when he dragged himself to the window, he was transfixed watching his friends make their wishes, get them with their built-in opposites and suffer, yet compulsively continue to make more wishes. Riveted by this utterly engrossing lila of desire and its fruits, a profound swell of compassion welled up in the heart of this lame child, reaching out to his companions. In that process, he forgot to wish for anything for himself. In that moment of spontaneous compassion for others, he sliced through the roots of the cosmic tree with the sword of non-attachment, of nishkama karma. He is the liberated one, the mukta purusha.
This wondrous kama-vriksha, tree of desire, is portrayed in a marvellously eidetic image by Vyasa in the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva 254. 1-8):
A wondrous kamavriksha grows in the heart,
a tree of desire, born of attachment.
Anger and arrogance its trunk,
impulse to act its irrigating channel.
Ignorance its root; negligence nourishes it.
fault-finding its leaves, past misdeeds its pith.
Grief, worry and delusion its branches,
fear its seed.
Vines of craving clasp it around
All around this fruit-giving mighty tree of desire
sit greedy men,
shackled in iron chains of desire,
craving its fruit.
He who snaps these bonds of desire
slices this tree
with the sword of non-attachment.
He transcends grief-giving age and death.
But the fool who climbs this tree
greedy for fruit,
it destroys him;
even as poison pills destroy the sick.
The roots of this tree reach far and wide.
Only the wise can hew it down
with the yoga-gifted
sword of equanimity.
Who knows how to rein in desires
and knows study of desire itself binds,
He transcends all sorrow.” (my transcreation)
The cosmic fig tree itself is figured forth by Krishna in the Gita (15.1-3) thus:
“Mention is made of a cosmic fig-tree
whose leaves are said to be the Vedas;
the knower of this fig-tree
is the knower of the Vedas.
Its branches reach out below and above,
its flowers are the objects of the senses;
below the ground flourish more roots
giving birth to action.
You may not see its real shape,
nor its end, birth and existence.
Slice this fig-tree with non-attachment.”
MAYA: the unanswered question
Another way of approaching an understanding of this predicament is through trying to answer the question: what is Maya? This was the question put by Narada, the inveterately wandering sage, to Vishnu. The story that follows was retold—curiously but typically Indian in happenstance—to Andre Malraux in Varanasi by a passer-by. In Anti-Memoirs Malraux writes that suddenly an Indian came up to him and said, “Mr. Malraux Sahib, would you like to listen to a story?” Taken aback, Malraux muttered that he was going to an official meeting. “But this is a very good story,” was the insistent reply. Malraux, perforce, agreed and here is the story he heard:
Narada, the itinerant divine sage roaming the three worlds, sowing seeds of discord and inveterate experimenter, goes up to Vishnu and demands that Maya be explained to him. Vishnu is silent. Narada is not one to be denied. He insists so persistently that the god has to answer him. “Maya cannot be explained, it has to be experienced,” he says. “If you can’t explain what you create, then I won’t believe in you,” retorts the never-say-die sage. Quickly deserting his serpent couch—for the fate of gods in whom humans do not believe is shrouded in uncertainty–Vishnu beckons him to follow. Walking together, they reach a desert where Vishnu sits down under a tree and exclaims, “I am so tired, Narada! Take this lota and get me some water from that oasis. When you return I will explain Maya to you.” Eager to plumb the mystery, Narada speeds off to the oasis and finds a well there beside a hut. He calls out, and a lovely girl opens the door. Looking into her eyes, Narada is reminded of the compelling eyes of Vishnu. She invites him in and disappears indoors. Her parents come out and greet the guest, requesting him to rest and eat after his journey through the burning sands before he returns with the lota of water. Thinking of the lovely girl, Narada agrees. Night falls, and they urge him to leave in the cool morning. Awakening in the morning, Narada looks out and sees the girl bathing beside the well. He forgets about the lota of water. He stays on. The parents offer him their daughter’s hand in marriage. Narada accepts, and settles down here. Children arrive; the parents-in-law die; Narada inherits the property. 12 years go by. Suddenly the floods arrive–floods in the desert! —His house is washed away. His wife is swept away. Reaching out to clutch her, he loses hold of his children who disappear in the waters. Narada is submerged in the floods and loses consciousness. Narada awakens, his head pillowed in someone’s lap. Opening his eyes he gazes into the eyes of Vishnu, seated at the desert’s edge under that same tree, those eyes that remind him of his wife’s. “Narada,” asks Vishnu, “where is the lota of water?” Narada asked, “You mean, all that happened to me did not happen to me?” Vishnu smiled his enigmatic smile. 
Is the karmic law real? Who experiences what happens? Shankaracharya entered the corpse of king Amaruka, experienced a royal life of luxury with queens, courtesans, retainers, war—the lot. And then he returned to answer Mandanamisra’s wife in the debate on erotics. Which of these conditions was real? Do we dream or live? Certain things remain an enigma. It is said that the path of yoga shatters the adamantine shackles of karma. That is why the Buddha exclaimed:
Sandha isman anibhisam
How many births have I known
Without knowing the builder of this body!
How many births have I looked for him.
It is painful to be born again and again.
But now I have seen you, O builder of this body!
All desire is extinct, Nirvana is attained!
The rafters have crumbled the ridge pole is smashed!
You will not build them again.” 
The Drop of Honey
After the Kurukshetra holocaust, when the blind Dhritarashtra bewails the unjustified misery thrust upon him and turns to Vidura for consolation, this son of Vyasa and a maidservant narrates a gripping parable that provides yet another clue to understanding our existential situation:
Take a certain Brahmin who loses himself in a dense jungle filled with wild beasts. Lions and tigers, elephants and bears…Yelling and trumpeting and roaring…a dismal scene to frighten even the god of death, Yama. The Brahmin is terror-stricken. He horripilates. His mind is a bundle of fears. He begins to run, helter-skelter; he looks right and left, hoping to find someone who will save him. But the fierce beasts—they are everywhere—the jungle echoes with their weird roaring—wherever he goes, they are there, ahead of him.
Suddenly he notices that the fearful forest is swathed in a massive net. In front of him, with open arms, is a horrendous-looking female. Also, five-headed snakes hiss at him—tall snakes, their hill-huge bodies slithering up to the sky.
In the middle of the forest is a well covered with grass and intertwining creepers. He falls in that well and dangles there, clutched by a creeper, like a jackfruit ripe for plucking. He hangs there, feet up, head down.
Horror upon horror! In the bottom of the well he sees a monstrous snake. On the edge of the well is a huge black elephant with six heads and twelve feet hovering at the well’s mouth. And, buzzing in and out of the clutch of creepers, are giant, repulsive bees surrounding a honeycomb. They are trying to sip the deliciously sweet honey, the honey all creatures love, the honey whose real taste only children know.
The honey drips out of the comb, and the honey drops fall on the hanging Brahmin’s tongue. Helpless he dangles, relishing the honey drops. The more the drops fall, the greater his pleasure. But his thirst is not quenched. More! Still more! ‘I am alive!’ he says, ‘I am enjoying life!’
Even as he says this, black and white rats are gnawing the roots of the creeper. Fears encircle him. Fear of the carnivores, fear of the fierce female, fear of the monstrous snake, fear of the giant elephant, fear of the rat-devoured creeper about to snap, fear of the large buzzing bees…In that flux and flow of fear he dangles, hanging on to hope, craving the honey, surviving in the jungle of samsara.
The jungle is the universe; the dark area around the well is an individual life span. The wild beasts are diseases. The fierce female is decay. The well is the material world. The huge snake at the bottom of the well is Kala, all-consuming time, the ultimate and unquestioned annihilator. The clutch of the creeper from which the man dangles is the self-preserving life-instinct found in all creatures. The six-headed elephant trampling the tree at the well’s mouth is the Year—six faces, six seasons; twelve feet, twelve months. The rats nibbling at the creeper are day and night gnawing at the life span of all creatures. The bees are desires. The drops of honey are pleasures that come from desires indulged. They are the rasa of Kama, the juice of the senses in which all men drown.
This is the way the wise interpret the wheel of life; this is way they escape the chakra of life.
Dhritarashtra, of course, misses the point Vidura is making: man, literally hanging on to life by a thread and enveloped in multitudinous fears, is yet engrossed in the drops of honey, exclaiming, “More! Still more! I am alive! I am enjoying life!” And, like the blind king, we tend to miss the point too. Ignoring the law of karma, taking that other road, we fall into the pit and rale; but inveterately, compulsively, perversely, strain every sinew to lick the honey. The Buddha figured it forth in a characteristically pungent image:
Craving is like a creeper,
it strangles the fool.
He bounds like a monkey, from one birth to another,
looking for fruit.
If heeded, the doctrine of karma becomes a powerful instrument for building character, maintaining integrity and establishing a society that functions not on matsya nyaya [the big devouring the small] that celebrates individualism, but on dharma that upholds society and the world itself.
The Pure Mind
The question is: how to comprehend the law and make the right choice? Man, by definition, is manav, a mental being. The primacy of the intellect and of intelligence is stressed in the account Vyasa provides to his pupils of how creation occurred:
Having created Brahma, Narayana directed him to create, but Brahma pleaded that he lacked the necessary prajna, wisdom. Thereupon, Narayana thought of buddhi, intelligence, which appeared. Infusing her with yogic power, he commanded her to enter Brahma, who was now able to create. Subsequently, the Vedas, which symbolise wisdom and knowledge, were spirited away by two demons–Madhu created from tamasic ignorance and Kaitava, born of passionate rajas. Bereft of the Vedas, Brahma was now unable to create. Narayana, retrieving the Vedas from the depths in his Hayagriva avatara, slew the two demons, to re-establish the supremacy of Sattva essential for creation.
But, if the mind’s mirror is itself overlaid with dust, how will it reflect the light of pure intelligence, of unsullied discrimination? Hence the need for wiping the mind’s mirror clean through the practice of chitta shuddhi, so that the choice made is based upon perception that is not clouded by the passion of rajas and the ignorance of tamas. It is to such a mind that the law of karma makes sense as a beacon light to choose the right path for lokasamgraha, preserving the peoples, which is the call of dharma. For, at the back of our minds we need to hear, ever, the warning Krishna voiced:
Dharmo rakshati rakshitah; dharmo hanti hatah
“Dharma, protected, protects. Dharma, violated, destroys.”
Determination & Free will
The whole point of comprehending this doctrine lies in perceiving that the much-vexed controversy over determination and free will is resolved if seen in perspective. Let us, once again, take recourse to a story to understand this complicated issue.
Two friends, Shyam and Yadu, lived in a village. Shyam was an ambitious go-getter, and Yadu a happy-go-lucky, ne’er do well. Keen to know the future, they approached a hermit who lived apart in the forest. After much persuasion, he agreed to look into the future and tell them their fates. After a year, he said, Shyam would become a king, while Yadu would die. Returning to the village, the shocked Yadu turned to prayer and began leading an exemplary life. Shyam, immediately on reaching the village, started throwing his weight about, grabbing whatever he fancied from others, threatening anyone who dared to protest, vociferously announcing that soon he would be their king.
A year passed by. Shyam sought out his friend and asked him to help pick the site for his palace. As they walked along the river bank, Shyam stumbled over something and fell. Picking himself up, he found the mouth of a jar protruding from the sand. Digging it up, he found it full of golden coins. Hearing his shouts of celebration at finding such treasure, a robber ran up and tried to snatch the jar. Yadu rushed to Shyam’s help and clutched on desperately to the robber’s leg. Unable to tackle the joint resistance of both friends, the infuriated robber stabbed Yadu on his arm and ran off.
Days passed. Yadu did not die; Shyam found himself still no king. So, they went off to the forest and hunted out the hermit. Confronting him, they demanded an explanation for the failure of his prophecy. The hermit went into meditation and then explained: the conduct of each of them had altered what was fated. Yadu’s austerity and prayers had reduced the mortal blow into a stab injury. Shyam’s tyrannical conduct had reduced the king’s crown to a jar of gold coins.
Fate, therefore, is altered by the individual’s choice of the path. Those that have eyes can see; those that have ears can hear. To develop this intuitive sense one has to dive deep, beyond the superficial sensory perception to the manas and cultivate living in that peace within, that pearl beyond price.
The Purpose: Insights from examples
Why this karmic law, what is its purpose? The history of mankind shows a development from subservience to the group, through the growth of the increasingly conscious mental faculty, towards variety and freedom of the individual. In exercising this freedom, the karmic law is an inestimably valuable reference point. The purpose has been succinctly stated by Sri Aurobindo: “…it is into the Divine in each man and each people that the man and the nation have to grow; it is not an external idea or rule that has to be imposed on them from without. Therefore the law of a growing inner freedom is that which will be most honoured in the spiritual age of mankind.” Self-knowledge is the pre-requisite for this freedom, “since spiritual freedom is not egoistic assertion of our separate mind and life but obedience to the Divine Truth in our self and our members and in all around us…And as soon as man comes to know his spiritual self, he does by that discovery, often even by the very seeking for it, as ancient thought and religion saw, escape from the outer law and enter into the law of freedom.” Until man achieves that to a significant extent, the compulsions of family, caste, clan, religion, society, nation will inevitably constrict his choice. The lower nature has to be subjected to the guidance of the illumined self and be transformed by it into a state where it naturally obeys the Divine Truth within the self. The eternal design is to allow each aspect of our being to grow freely in accordance with its known nature in order to discover the Divine in itself, not to extinguish it in a grand holocaust.
Let us take an example of this grand design. GLB, an officer in the Indian Army, lost his father when 18 years of age, and had to support his mother and 10 brothers and sisters on provident fund proceeds and whatever he could earn from tuitions while studying in college. As a child, he could recite parts of the Bengali Mahabharata by heart. In college, he was profoundly influenced by Christian missionaries and may have turned Christian had it not been for the influence of the lady he chose to wed. She, the youngest of 14 children, supported her mother and elder siblings on her meagre salary as a teacher. Two of her brothers were associated with revolutionaries, and she was herself strongly based in the Hindu ethos. GLB was contemptuous of ritualistic Hinduism and used to say, laughingly, that he would turn to it only in old age. When 43, he was ambushed, shot, and dragged into East Pakistan, where he had to spend many years in solitary confinement in prison, locked in a cell behind the ward for lunatics, a powerful light always burning above his bed that was bolted to the floor. Repeatedly he was urged to divulge intelligence secrets, tempted with high status in Pakistan and sought to be demoralised with accounts of how his own government had let him down (the Prime Minister had announced in Parliament that he was a retired officer!) and denying him medicines for his ailments. Here, in the jail library, he discovered a copy of Sri Aurobindo’s Bengali introduction to the Gita. He was able to procure a copy of the Gita, and practised its sadhana over the years, simultaneously studying the Koran in depth, completely changing his life, ultimately returning sane to his country. While in prison, he refused to ask for mercy as advised by his own government. Instead, single handed, he drafted applications to the High Court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan challenging the false evidence brought against him. This created such nation-wide sensation in both countries that the military government reduced the sentence from 8 to 4 years.
On one level, here is an instance of unjustified, inexplicable calamity. GLB received no recognition from the government for his heroism in the face of all odds. During his imprisonment, his wife had to bring up two sons with great difficulty, suffering much humiliation and many travails. Both sons topped in the university, obtained degrees from foreign universities on scholarships, and he saw them established in life. GLB used to say that he must have been a yogabhrashta (fallen from yoga) in his earlier birth and, therefore, the Divine had purged him of his impurities through this traumatic experience, virtually flinging him onto the path of yoga long before he had planned. GLB chose to join the army because his wife-to-be had pointed out that the one hundred and fifty rupees he earned as pay was too little to support a family. By ‘accident’, at the age of 30, he happened to meet Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, when his wife had gone on a visit to Pondicherry. 13 years later the ‘accident’ occurred in which he was shot and imprisoned.
Thus, the individual makes his choice, but the Divine also intervenes decisively in a person’s life: GLB could have chosen not to practise the sadhana of the Gita and the Koran and lose his reason in solitary confinement. Such are the critical choices man faces in life, which the ancients represented so graphically in the dream of Hercules. Some he elects to make, others are thrust upon him. In either case, the consequences inevitably follow. In making the choice, the heritage of the individual, the training to which he has been subjected by family tradition and socialisation, all play parts. But, in the ultimate analysis, it is when the psychic self chooses that the choice becomes one with the Divine purpose. Then does the soul spring forth to evolve into its glorious plenitude and the earthly life progresses towards the Life Divine. GLB’s greatest satisfaction was hearing from his wife that, when he fell unconscious with a heart attack, he had called the Divine’s name thrice. He felt that in thus invoking God even unawares, caught in the throes of acute physical agony, he had achieved what he had wanted and this more than compensated for all the suffering he had undergone in life.
The lesson of working without craving for the fruits of one’s actions was brought home to Kanak in a telling manner. He was disgruntled with being transferred frequently and arbitrarily. As the years went by, more and more he was chosen for assignments that had never before been handled by an officer of his service. He found himself faced with tasks of veritably Herculean proportions, calling for either cleaning up the Augean stables, or creating a new organisation from scratch. The day he had joined service his boss had told him that he must learn the work of everyone, from that of the office peon to that of the head of the office. He had faithfully done so, rehabilitating thousands of evacuees in the newly created Bangla Desh. Years later, he found himself working as typist, computer operator, message carrier, general handyman, janitor-supervisor and simultaneously as head of the organisation in several assignments in succession. Repeatedly he had to weld into a team officials belonging to different disciplines who were avid backbiters or were at one another’s throats. Invariably, he found that once the organisation had been cleaned up and a new ambience of disciplined work culture created, or it had been established on firm moorings and was ready for take off, he was peremptorily moved out and someone else moved in to enjoy the fruits of his diligent labour. He was asked to take up assignments that no one else was willing to touch, either because of the difficulties they posed or for being unglamorous, but was unceremoniously ignored once he had completed the task. He could not understand why this was recurring, time and again, until one day he listened to the three parables being narrated. It dawned upon him that through this repeated exercise he was being taught two things: (i) to work devotedly just for its own sake, not coveting enjoyment of its fruits; and (ii) the ego needs to be bruised regularly to prevent arrogance building up from success in achieving goals.
After his father’s death, Kanak had been sent out of the city on promotion. He had requested that this be reconsidered as his recently widowed aged mother ought not to be left alone. He was passed over and people much junior to him were promoted. Seething under this injustice, he found that his nature would not permit rebellion by abstaining from doing his best in whatever job he was given. After a couple of years, suddenly his proper status was restored, wiping out all the injustice. He had been shown that having steady faith in the Divine and doing all work as an instrument bears its own fruits.
Once these realisations dawned, Kanak found himself strangely peaceful within and able to smile at his repeated shunting from post to post, free from the anger and hurt he used to suffer from at the lack of recognition of his integrity and of the hard work he put in.
He was also given the insight into how, at times, the law of karma can be seen to operate within one’s lifetime. It is not that unattached diligent labour produces no ‘fruit’. When his mother had fallen very seriously ill with infarctions in the brain, Kanak had nursed her day and night. He found himself blessed with her miraculous recovery from inability to read, write, eat and walk to leading a completely normal life. Once, suddenly, Kanak found himself saddled with an assignment that required his stay in a wonderful building, over 300 years old, with the river flowing by. The peace in which the environs enveloped him healed old wounds. In just a couple of months he found that he had completed a quantum of work that would ordinarily have taken a year. The incessant, tireless flow of energy was astounding. When he left this post, he understood that he had been shown the fruition of his own capabilities. Looking back, he found that this assignment had been given to him exactly when his children had come for holidays from abroad, so that they could be with him in this wonderful place.
But it seems that the Unseen Hand takes care to see that we do not sink into somnolence having had such a realisation. Kanak suddenly found himself separated from his wife after 30 years of marriage by a whimsical transfer order served on her. So, the couple had perforce to reconcile themselves to their lot and undergo considerable expense and harassment, commuting hundreds of miles to be with one another occasionally. Gradually, they came to see the blessing in what had seemed to be yet another instance of the gods amusing themselves with human misery. For, in the new post Kanak’s wife found a vastly better working environment besides being free from the endemic tension of simultaneously having to run a household with aged mother, mother-in-law, husband and children. It was a compulsory “retreat” she was thrown into, whose pleasures Kanak also came to realise whenever he was able to be with her. After a few months, his wife was unexpectedly promoted, having been passed over for long. Well-wishers who appeared out of nowhere reached her the information while she was on leave the very day the orders were out. Having to rush back immediately to join, she was astonished to find no queue at the railway ticket counter which was manned by an unusually polite clerk who gave her a reserved berth for the same day! When she went to collect her promotion order, she was taken aback to find people unusually helpful in ensuring that she faced no impediment.
Kanak had always been puzzled by what he saw as his repeated failure to establish a way of working that, he fervently believed, provided true service to the people while simultaneously making the delivery-agents better human beings. Finding no answer, he had to develop a mechanism to protect the flame of his own enthusiasm from being snuffed out: shrug and go on to tackle the next job with the same bone-headed, obdurate persistence to get the work done properly according to his lights. One of the major experiments he had taken up with considerable courage was to try to disseminate what he had learnt about methods of consolidating healthy values in oneself among new recruits, introducing them at the very inception to ideas and methods that would help them to stay on the straight path and act as bulwarks against straying. The reactions were so encouraging that follow-up meetings with interested trainees were held now and then with long gaps in-between because of their preoccupations. In one such meeting scheduled after a year, news came that about 6-7 would attend. Kanak felt quite put out and wondered if it was worth holding the meeting at all. When he arrived, he was pleasantly surprised to find the room already three-fourths full. Soon everyone turned up and the meeting was extremely satisfying and rewarding. It dawned upon Kanak that the seeds that had been broadcast through his hands years ago had naturally to take time to germinate and grow. Now and then he would get unexpected phone calls complimenting him for work he had initiated years back that had come to fruition now. So, the Divine had not remained an aloof President of the Immortals playing His game with puny mortals. Time is the key that unlocks the sealed door of the crypt. The secret, Kanak realised, is to have faith, to be patient and wait. He remembered that his mother used to say, “All comes to him who knows how to wait.”
Nishkama karma produces its own resultant ‘reward’ even in this life. Perhaps the Celestine Prophecy is not just fiction. The sensitivity to perceive it has to be cultivated and along with it the ability to scotch repeatedly the rearing head of the ego that inveterately seeks to bask in self-praise for a task fulfilled.
The question arises: when I take up a piece of work in return for payment, how can I perform that action without expectation of receiving that return? Doing a job for payment is not an instance of the principle of nishkama karma. This is a contract between two parties, one part of which is carrying out the assigned task and the other is receiving payment as the value of the work done. The principle the Gita enunciates is a spiritual one: you put your best into the effort, without craving that you must get recognised thereby, that it must get published, accepted, praised. In other words, it is work as worship, an offering of your best to the Divine. When one makes an offering truly, one does not entertain the desire for getting a return. That is the businessman’s prayer and is fraught with danger —remember the Kalpataru: it will give what you crave, but with its opposite in double measure. The Grand Secret is: not to crave, but do one’s best as an instrument of divine energy working through oneself. When this succeeds even a little bit, the Divine showers unexpected joy. Proof of this is plentiful. A young teacher, thrown out by a new principal wanting to accommodate someone of his community, found herself bumping into her students throughout the holiday season, one and all of whom were effusive in their expressions of how much they missed her teaching. Quite stunned at this unexpected bounty, she thought back to her teaching experience and recalled the spirit in which she had done it—payment was expected, as a contract; but she had never craved for adulation from students or admiration from colleagues. She had striven to give of her best, even getting books from abroad at her own expense for that purpose. Some months later, quite unexpectedly, she landed a job of the type she had been wanting.
It is strange how the Divine shows us precisely what the principle is all about, but our minds confuse the issue. Hence, the need is to feel with the heart, instead of allowing the mind to be caught up in the gymnastics of logic.
In the midst of unprecedented floods, Kanak was engaged in doing little bits of facilitation like ensuring supplies of rice, kerosene oil, roof and floor covering for the homeless. He made the arrangements and everything went through smoothly, but his superiors never acknowledged his contribution. It pinched him, undoubtedly, because within there was surely expectation of being recognised. Perhaps that is precisely why recognition was not forthcoming. But there was a bonus: heads of the affected districts suddenly called up to express gratitude for the help he had provided. It gladdened his heart, all the more so as it was unexpected. Much later, again unexpectedly, he was communicated the Governor’s appreciation for his work. Then he realised that what he had done had been without any expectation of receiving such returns. He had acted because it needed to be done. And so, the doctrine of karma showed itself in action by sending the ‘results’, the ‘fruit’ of the action.
So the secret is: do the work with all your heart and soul, so that it is a perfect production. That is the result. What one has to be detached from is craving for personal rewards from that work, not to be confused with the objective that the work is supposed to achieve. For instance, Kanak did his best to rehabilitate evacuees in Bangladesh so that the objective of rehabilitation was achieved. That happened. What could he have craved: some recognition for what he did? He did not even dream of this. He had immersed himself in getting the job done to the best of his ability, happy with the pat on the back he received from his boss (this usually took the form of a dish of curd and rice set before him by his boss’ wife when he returned smothered in Bangla Desh dust and grime to report the work done). There was an unexpected bonus. Unknown to him, all the photographs of Bangladesh relief work he had sent to his training institution were put up as an exhibition before the President of India. No one informed Kanak at that time. He got to know much later. Repeatedly he found himself coming into the limelight and, just when he was about to bask in the glory, the Unseen Hand shunted him into obscurity, saving him from a bloated ego and from losing his foothold on the path. And yet, even in this “retreat” he was invariably sent to an assignment where he had to learn something new, thus enrichening his experience both in compass and in depth.
However, life is not all that crystal clear. Perceiving the law of Karma in action becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, in many cases. Take, for instance, the case of NM. Educated only till class 4, she was a sophisticated beauty gifted with outstanding qualities of hand and heart who was married off at the age of 14 to one whose personality and appearance were at the other extreme of the spectrum. She lived the life of the ideal housewife, devoted to the family despite all the insults and neglect she faced, taught herself English and kept her intellectual life alive. Both her sons committed suicide. Her husband predeceased her. She could find no answer in yoga and meditation to the inexplicable misery she had to undergo throughout her life and died with this unsolved mystery haunting her consciousness.
Or the example of Subala Devi, mother of 14 children, who, as a widow, spearheaded women’s education in Allahabad, got her widowed daughter trained so that she could become a teacher, took up a teacher’s job herself to support the children, wrote poetry and primers, was profoundly respected by the theosophists and had considerable spiritual realisations. Two sons were associated with the revolutionary movement for independence. She sold her jewellery to smuggle out one to the USA to escape the British police. The other was imprisoned in the Kakori bomb case and disappeared. None of her sons earned a living. Everyone depended upon her and the earnings of the youngest daughter. When this daughter asked her why, with all her spiritual attainments, her sons had been so useless, the answer she gave provides a clue to the enigma and indicates the detached insight she had achieved: “Everyone has good and bad within oneself. They are the fruits of what must have been bad in me.” During her lifetime she had to bear the deaths of 3 sons and 4 daughters. Her dearest wishes had been to witness the graduation ceremony of one of her children in the presence of the Viceroy, and that one child should be a postgraduate. Her youngest daughter took Subala Devi to see her graduation ceremony in the Viceregal Lodge in Delhi, and some years later delighted her with the news that she had got her M.A. in Applied Psychology. Subala Devi passed away the next year. Until her last breath, she chose to stay on her own, never dependent on her children, even though she lost use of her legs. Her youngest daughter had once asked her what had been the result of so much ascesis that she had practised all through her life. The answer was: “Now I have become a ‘drashta’, a witness.” What is fascinating is that her children never heard her complain about the extreme privations she suffered throughout her life, thrown virtually on to the streets after having spent her childhood and wedded life without any material want. When her youngest daughter once complained to an acquaintance about her mother’s travails, he responded, “You are complaining that she has suffered so much, but have you ever heard Mata-ji complain? She is at peace. These matters do not affect her.”
Some questions will always remain unanswered.
In the end there is perhaps no finer advice to take to heart than the Buddha’s exhortation:
“So karohi dipam uttano…
Be a lamp to your self,
be like an island.
Struggle hard, be wise.
Cleansed of weakness, you will find freedom from birth and old age.”
by Pradip Bhattacharya 
 Member, Editorial Board, Journal of Human Values, Member Board of Governors, IIM Calcutta (1993-2002), member of the Indian Administrative Service, authored 20 books and several papers on public administration, transactional analysis, values in management, Mahabharata, comparative mythology, the Indus Valley Civilization.
 George Meredith: “Modern Love”, 1862
 Mahabharata, Adi Parva, 119.2
 Gita 2.47: “Your duty is to work, not to reap the fruits of work. Do not seek rewards, but do not love laziness either.” (The P. Lal transcreation, Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1986).
 Robert Frost: “The road less travelled by”.
 W.B. Yeats: “The Second Coming” (1921)
 J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone (Bloomsbury, London, 1997).
 Pradip Bhattacharya: A Long Critique on Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjaya (Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1993).
 Quoted in Sujata Nahar’s Mother’s Chronicles Book Sixth (The Mother’s Institute of Research, New Delhi, 2001, p. 205.)
 P.B. Shelley: “Ozymandias” (1817)
 Sri Aurobindo ibid.
 Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, Collected Works Vol.17 pp.289 (Pondicherry, 1973).
 The Life Divine vol. II, p. 354 (2nd edition, Arya Publishing House, Calcutta, December 1944).
 Pradip Bhattacharya: “Desire under the Kalpataru,” Jl. of South Asian Literature, XXVIII, 1 & 2, 1993, pp.315-35 & cf. P. Lal’s Introduction to Barbara Harrison’s Learning About India (1977).
 The P. Lal transcreation (Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1969).
 P.Lal: Valedictory Address in Mahabharata Revisited (Sahitya Akademi, 1990, p.291-302–papers presented at the international seminar on the Mahabharata organized by the Sahitya Akademi in New Delhi in February 1987).
 Recounted in Madhvacarya’s Sankara Digvijaya.
 P. Lal: The Dhammapada (Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York, 1967, p. 12).
 P. Lal: The Mahabharata (condensed & transcreated, Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1980, p. 286-7)
 P. Lal: The Dhammapada, op.cit. p.157.
 Shanti Parva 349.22-26
 Related by Prof. Manoj Das in an address at Sri Aurobindo Bhavan, Calcutta, in 2000
 Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo, vol. 15, p.273 [Pondicherry, 1973]
 ibid. p. 243.
 Lt. Col. G. L. Bhattacharya: Krishna of the Gita [Writers Workshop, Calcutta]; Shyam Kumari: How they came to Sri Aurobindo & The Mother, vol.3 [Pondicherry]
 Hercules saw two paths before him: one smooth, leading to a pleasant life; the other rocky, beset with brambles and trials. He chose the latter. So, too, Achilles was given the choice between a long, uneventful life and a short, glorious span of war and heroism.
 James Redfield: The Celestine Prophecy (Bantam Books, 1996)
 P. Lal: The Dhammapada, op.cit. p.121.
The Steel Frame: A History of the IAS by Deepak Gupta. Roli Books, 2019, New Delhi, pp. 354, Rs. 695. ISBN: 978-81-938608-4-7
What ails the IAS and Why it fails to deliver by Naresh Chandra Saxena. Sage, 2019, New Delhi, pp. 245, Rs. 595. ISBN: 978-93-532-8648-4 (PB)
Gupta (IAS 1974) as chairman of the Union Public Service Commission made a signal contribution by building up its archives. Drawing upon that repository, he has written a history of the Indian Administrative Service, calling it, “The Steel Frame,” which was how Lloyd George described the Imperial (later Indian) Civil Service. After all, the Indian administrator was envisaged as the imperial civil servant’s avatar!
Gupta splits his account into nine chapters: the historical context; Indianization; transition from the ICS to the IAS; the District Officer’s role and experiences; character of the ICS and the IAS; IAS transformed; the examination scheme; training the civil servant; reinventing the IAS. There is a good bibliography along with ten appendices, the last two being autobiographical. His target audience is IAS aspirants: “The idea of public service itself has got devalued. We must restore it as a predominant aspiration…This study will be both useful and interesting, not only for those who have been in the services, but also those aspiring to join.” The historical account is punctuated with references to his family, whose members occupied top government posts: father in the Imperial Police, uncles in the ICS and the IFS, two brothers in the IAS. As we read, the impression grows that it is more the history of the ICS than of the IAS. Though chronologically unavoidable, was it necessary to trace so laboriously every step on the way from the East India Company’s covenanted civil service till the first entrance examination in 1855? As the IAS is still evolving after the Kothari Commission’s drastic changes, any survey that concentrates on the post-1980s is of interest. There is too much of the past and not enough of the present.
Gupta unearths quite a few nuggets of information. Clive, as C-in-C of the East India Company’s forces, urged its Directors to be aware of “The evil…of the military…attempt to be independent of (civil) authority.” The Court of Directors’ letter of 21 July 1786 prescribed that in coordination meetings the senior-most civil servant—whatever his rank—would preside. Often the police have jibbed against it, even avoiding meetings convened by district magistrates during the Siddhartha Ray regime in West Bengal. Gupta points out that Pakistan abandoned the principle, “with dramatic consequences for the contrasting development of democracy and the nature of the State in the two countries.” The plain fact remains that rulers favour the weapon-wielding uniformed force over the magistrate, which encourages the police to distance themselves from supervision by civil authorities who, to save themselves from embarrassment, have stopped inspecting police stations.
Another nugget is the Government of India (GOI)’s minute of July 1907 to the Islington Commission on a uniform legal code being essential for ensuring justice in public administration since, from inception, “the young Civilian is in part a lawyer and in part a judge.” A grasp over laws and the development of a discriminating intelligence that knows when to use discretion, remain the foundation of an IAS officer’s personality. Gupta provides the interesting information that Rajendra Prasad was obsessed with sitting for the ICS but was prevented, and that Nehru did not “disfavour the idea of joining the ICS…there was a glamour about it.” N.C. Saxena tells us how the ICS was prized: in 1935 an ICS secretary to GOI earned Rs.6, 666 whereas his counterpart in the USA got half as much! That was revised drastically downwards after 1947.
The major change in recent times is that servicemen’s children are not interested in joining. Gupta writes, “The increasing decline in the authority of the servicemen as political domination through the instruments of control and patronage increased over the service and its members also served as a dis-incentive.” The upper middle-class background of the ICS and the IAS has been replaced by diverse economic and social strata. Liberal education has been largely replaced by candidates from technical, management and medical backgrounds. A civil services survey of 2010 finds that the core motive is getting a prime job providing security, social status and prestige. Add to this the opportunity for extending patronage and making money (through dowry and otherwise), for which many officers have been indicted in recent years. This is why candidates reappear repeatedly, investing significant labour, time and finances.
The watershed in the changing nature of the IAS was Indira Gandhi when she called for a “committed bureaucracy” loyal to her in person. In Rajiv Gandhi’s time, writes Madhav Godbole (who resigned as Home Secretary), civil servants were treated like politicians’ office peons. Subsequent regimes saw businessmen, astrologers, godmen calling the shots. Narasimha Rao granted extensions to retiring Secretaries: “…the rapid downhill journey continued.” The key word describing the civil servant in demand became, “pliable”. This was Indira Gandhi’s criterion for selecting the Director of the National Academy of Administration to replace P.S. Appu, which the UPA government followed too. Gupta pulls no punches in dealing with the scandalous coal block case, pointing out the dubious role of the Prime Minister’s Office and the abandonment of the principle of ministerial responsibility. Against this lies the resignation of Krishnamachari as Finance Minister in the Mundhra case in Nehru’s time. The Finance Secretary, H.M. Patel ICS, also had to resign but then became Morarji Desai’s Finance Minister and Charan Singh’s Home Minister! The swift whittling away of public accountability, the inaction on the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General, the weakening of the Central Vigilance Commission, the Election Commission, the CBI, all show how ineffective the civil services have become by the ruling party’s cunning use of the carrot-and-stick policy. Moreover, unlike the ICS, today the IAS “is divided by caste, class, age, educational background, state of origin, and increasingly by careerism.” The greatest challenge “is to find its own esprit de corps” which is impossible without a shared sense of purpose and values. Therefore, the recruitment system has to be changed, as also the induction training. Is the IAS officer’s greatest enemy his senior colleague? In the ICS camaraderie existed possibly because of the small numbers.
With Gupta belonging to the Bihar cadre, it is surprising to find no reference to the sterling example set by P. S. Appu, the Chief Secretary during Karpoori Thakur’s time. He was the architect of land reforms in India and an expert on poverty studies. N.C. Saxena notes in his book how, when Thakur asked him to become the CS, he not only wrote to him pointing out that there were others senior to him, but also, when Thakur insisted, put forward several conditions regarding how he and his colleagues would discharge their duties. Finding that the conditions were not met, he left and joined a junior post in GOI. Finally, he resigned from the IAS in protest against the GOI not dismissing a culpable IAS trainee.
Saxena’s book is in eleven chapters, with headline-grabbing headings: tussle for power; officers in headlines; bureaucracy (read, ‘IAS’) responsible for sedimentary development; is the IAS good at designing programmes; is the IAS fair to marginalized groups; the strange case of Bihar; corruption in the IAS; is civil society a substitute for the IAS or just trouble-shooters; IAS unmasked.
Turning to his book from Gupta’s is a refreshing contrast as he writes pithily, hitting hard, punctuating it with wry humour. Because of his style, his criticisms and suggestions never sound like pontification. It is a measure of the type of person Saxena is that he has chosen our student Harsh Mander (who resigned from the IAS after the Gujarat riots) to write the Foreword. Harsh Mander recalls how, led by Saxena, in the LBSNAA (1993-96) the faculty encouraged recruits “to reflect, question, dissent; to imbibe the values of the Constitution and of public service.” For doing exactly this during Appu’s directorship in the early 1980s some of my senior colleagues and I were transferred by GOI.
Saxena puts his finger right on the spot. It is not that officers are not hard-working and honest. “But people are more interested in the outcomes…rather than in their personal qualities.” The officers’ fixation with financial outlays and expenditure neglects the crucial issue of what the funds are meant to achieve. Despite his strenuous efforts, Saxena could not get Vajpayee as the PM to understand this (he simply shut his eyes during a presentation!) and was shifted out. In UP the chief minister was quite frank, explaining that he would lose votes by legislating land rights for women. Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar held up funds released by GOI so as to foster a rule of inequity and exploitation, actively assisted by Mukund Prasad, the chief secretary who was, however, personally honest. Here, subscribing to the politician’s objectives superseded serving the people.
Saxena’s book is peppered with many an interesting tale illustrating the ups-and-downs of the Minister-IAS interaction. Each is retold with a light touch which rams the lesson home all the more soundly. In the early days, seniors would groom and protect juniors, while lately it is “each for oneself”. There is the astonishing account of Saxena as secretary Planning Commission giving the Orissa chief minister Giridhar Gamang an extra Rs. 50 crore to change the anti-tribal law about minor forest produce!
Saxena confesses that despite his many initiatives in land reforms, forestry, minorities commission, rural development, there was no sustained improvement and he was punished as well. Seeking answers, he ponders, “Stand-alone bureaucratic initiatives have little lasting value unless supported by strong political ownership.” The 1972 Task Force on land reforms under P.S. Appu had pinpointed lack of political will as the key factor in failure. As examples of both coalescing, Saxena cites my trainee Parameswaran Iyer’s achievements with the Swacch Bharat Mission, Bihar’s turn-about under Nitish Kumar as CM, Chhattisgarh delivering subsidized rice to the poor, Madhya Pradesh tripling wheat production in a decade. Saxena poses ten questions to his critics (pp.7-8) which will make most officers squirm. One of these is about serving in backward areas. I was much criticised for getting new recruits posted as block development officers—just for three months—in 1975. 30 years later there was the same criticism when I got them posted as subdivisional officers in tribal areas in West Bengal.
One reason Saxena does not mention for why initiatives flounder is that in the IAS nothing succeeds like the successor. Rarely does an officer build upon his predecessor’s initiatives. History must be made anew! S.B. Agnihotri (1980, Orissa) explained to me: “You are all like the Rajputs, each fighting the battle alone. Unless you band together, change will never happen.” Saxena calls it, “the absence of collective will,” and as examples cites the 1988 Forest Policy and the 1999 Sanitation Policy. Very rarely has the IAS stood together as a community. Once was when all the 1980 batch trainees wrote to GOI against accepting P.S. Appu’s resignation. This is all the more unique as they had not been confirmed in service. It is this “nexus of good” that another of my trainees, Anil Swarup, former Education Secretary GOI, has been advocating since retirement. Saxena presents short accounts of officers who have stood up for public service at great cost to themselves: Durga Shakti Nagpal, H.C. Gupta, P.S. Appu, S.R. Sankaran, Armstrong Pame, Ashok Khemka, Arun Bhatia, Harsh Mander. The omission of Aruna Roy, architect of the Right to Information, is surprising as is that of K.B. Saxena, B.D. Sharma and A.R. Bandopadhyaya.
It is a conundrum that the areas of social welfare—health, education, pollution—are not only the least well-funded, but also have the largest number of field-level vacancies next to the police. While politicians cry themselves hoarse over benefits not reaching the deprived, they never provide staff to deliver the benefits. ‘Garibi Hatao’ has become the slogan for anyone in power to siphon off government funds into their pockets. Officers quickly take jobs with business houses without any cooling-off period (e.g. the former HRD Secretary of GOI presented the case of the non-existent JIO University to be recognised as an institute of eminence; Kingfisher Airlines’ board had many retired IAS officers). They also join political parties, casting doubts on their impartiality while in service (e.g. K.J. Alphons and P.L. Punia who is not of the 1970 batch as he states, but 1971). He could have included Yashwant Sinha, who was Karpoori Thakur’s principal secretary.
Corruption “is a low-risk and high-reward activity’ writes Saxena and lists six suggestions on how to reduce corruption—all sound, well known, but never pursued in the absence of political will and accountability. Legislatures never examine whether objectives have been achieved, nor pursue omissions pointed out by the C&AG. Legislators do not educate constituents about rights that new laws provide. Businessmen get elected for advance knowledge of new laws that will affect them. However much an IAS secretary may advise a minister, if that is ignored, there is nothing he can do. He can, at best, refuse to carry out the orders and be transferred. What makes Saxena special is that in such cases he highlighted the matter in the press, disregarding the consequences. Interestingly, Saxena finds neither Manmohan Singh nor Montek Ahluwalia much concerned about the disadvantaged. “It was only Sonia Gandhi who tried to temper hard market fundamentalism with compassion and equity, and this I believe was her most valuable and least acknowledge contribution to Indian public life.”
Much of what is wrong with governance had been highlighted in the Shah Commission Report (1978), e.g. “civil servants felt that they had to show loyalty to the party in power in order to advance their careers.” The UPA government suppressed it. The Modi government conferred the Bharat Ratna on one specifically indicted by it. A wealth of valuable insights is found in books by P.S. Appu, M.N. Buch, and N. Vittal, which neither Gupta nor Saxena draw upon. Nor do they refer to the brutal findings of the N.N. Vohra Committee (1993) regarding the noxious nexus between business, mafia, police, civil services and even the judiciary. Parliament merely “took note” of it; the Supreme Court asked for an action-taken report and forgot about it; so did civil society.
Finally, Saxena points out, “a dilapidated civil service has been a key factor in Africa’s economic decline. Conversely, a strong civil service is one of several reasons” why East Asian countries have done so well. “Kleptocracy,” exploiting national resources for personal benefit, is what plagues India. The IAS can still deliver if it is “more outcome oriented and accountable for results.”
Published in the Oct-Nov 2019 issue of BIBLIO
 Relentless—an autobiography, Bloomsbury, 2019.
 The Appu Papers; Crisis of Convergence, introductions by J.M. Lyngdoh, A.R. Bandopadhyaya, Sahitya Samsad, Kolkata, 2007, 2008.
 When the Harvest Moon is Blue, Haranand, New Delhi, 2010.
 The Red Tape Guerrilla, Vikas, New Delhi, 1996.
MAHABHARATA IN TRANSLATION
PRADIP BHATTACHARYA, trans. from Bengali, The Mahabharata of Kavi Sanjaya, Volumes I & II, Das Gupta & Co., Kolkata, 2019, pp. 637, Rs. 1495/-
While Kaliprasanna Sinha (1841-1870) is the most renowned and popular Bengali translator of Mahabharata in prose, Haridas Siddhantavagish is more known to researchers, and Kashiram Das’s 16th-century retelling, Kashidasi Mahabharata, is the most popular rendering in verse, few know that there had been Kavi Sanjaya in the 15th century, who can be considered the Adi Kavi of Bengal in the Mahabharata genre of translation and retelling. This is surprising given that the Kavi has his place secured in the cultural history of Bengal courtesy Munindra Kumar Ghosh’s edited ‘Kavi Sanjaya Birochito Mahabharata’ published by Calcutta University in 1969, restoring Sanjaya’s Mahabharata written in unique poyar metre (each line of the rhymed couplet consisting of eight syllables followed by a caesura and six syllables) in panchali form. Despite Ghosh’s historic effort, evidently, Sanjaya has not been much in Mahabharata discourse, either academic or popular, until now. After fifty years of his work, Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya resurrects him from slipping into the recesses of cultural memory once again, but to a wider world audience this time through his verse-by-verse English translation, perhaps re-confirming the ironic dictum that Bengalis do not wake up to their glories without the involvement of English.
Bhattacharya’s new venture—a project sanctioned by West Bengal Government’s Higher Education Department through the Netaji Institute of Asian Studies— comes in two hard-bound volumes, beautifully encased in dignified brown overtone, and printed on quality paper. Volume-I contains 7 parvans: Adi (Book 1) to Drona (Book 7), and Volume-II the rest. Kavi Sanjaya has innovations after Shalya Parvan (Book 9): Gada Parvan (10), Daho Parvan (14) and Sthan parvan (16).
Images of terracotta panels depicting Mahabharata episodes as cover design — Arjuna hitting the fish target at Draupadi’s svayamvara on the front cover, sheshashayi Narayana as frontispiece and Arjuna piercing the ground to quench Bhishma’s thirst on the back cover— from terracotta temples of Bankura-Bishnupur (West Bengal) aptly add to the ambience. They also act as Bhattacharya’s hint-commentary on the possible cultural interaction of the literary and terracotta genres, and of Sanjaya’s possible influence on the terracotta sculptor-poets of the 16th-17th centuries. One may even read them symbolically: Arjuna piercing the target as Bhattacharya’s statement of having achieved a gargantuan task, and Arjuna quenching Bhishma’s thirst as his optimism to quench the never waning thirst of Mahabharata lovers for amrita drops from the Mahabharata Ocean.
An appendix of Arjuna’s ten names from Prof. P. Lal’s Virata Parvan transcreation serves the purpose of reference, comparison with Sanjaya’s verses, Bhattacharya’s contextualizing his work and also his tribute to Prof. P. Lal through remembrance.
Bhattacharya has done a very interesting experiment with spellings of nouns and consonant sounds. Bengali, a language with Magadhi Prakrit as her ‘mother’, often has ‘o’ pronunciation of consonants that Sanskrit renders as ‘a’ ; often has a stop at the end-consonant of a word, no difference in pronunciation between ‘v’ and ‘b’, and absence of the sibilant ‘s’ which is pronounced as ‘sh’. Retaining spellings of Sanskrit words as found in the Oxford English Dictionary, Bhattacharya spells proper nouns in tune with Bengali pronunciation. Thus, Mahabharata is Mohabharot, Kavi Sanjaya is Kobi Sonjoy, Vyasa is Byas, Vana Parvan is Bono Porbo, Drona is Dron, Amba is Omba etc. Even his own name on the second title page is Prodeep Bhottacharjyo. This is unique for an English translation. Indeed, he has provided the ‘flavour of the Bengali pronunciation’ as claimed.
Bhattacharya has taken all precautions against any possible confusion from this experimentation. Other than providing footnotes and clarifications for every such usage on every page, he takes care to eliminate any residual confusion with his Bengali ‘flavoured’ spelt nouns by listing them with their corresponding Sanskrit transliteration along with brief explanations in a detailed glossary.
In the Preface, Bhattacharya provides valuable information and analysis on the historicity of Sanjaya and his Mahabharata, as also on interesting aspects of its content like variations from Vyasa’s Mahabharata, complete with a comparative analysis of the variations of Sanjaya’s and Kashiram Das’ Mahabharatas. His observation that ‘some of (Kashiram’s variations) must have been taken from Kobi Sonjoy’ is a clue for future research to situate Sanjaya historically and understand the import of his work.
Locating Sanjaya is important not only to understand his time, but also to understand the significance of modern Mahabharata works and studies including Bhattacharya’s work of reviving him in English. Bhattacharya has rightly pointed out that Mahabharata re-emerged with prominence in cultural discourse through literature in the 15th-16th centuries in a somewhat synchronized fashion in eastern and southern India. Kavi Sanjaya’s venture is paralleled by Kumara Vyasa in Kannada, Sarala Das in Odiya, Rama Sarasvati in Assamese, and Ezhuthachan in Malayalam. Only the last is a complete translation, but all are characterized by free thinking and imagination in incorporating materials from local lore or innovations, and in leaving out most philosophical discourses of Vyasa’s Mahabharata.
Obviously, something happened in the cultural sky of Bengal and India then that Mahabharata needed to be rediscovered. Bhattacharya’s tentative suggestion that it might be the felt need to assert indigenous identity in the context of Muslim invasion holds merit. It definitely ‘calls for further study’ as he suggests, particularly so if we see how the Mahabharata fascination continues in the next centuries and almost dominates the consciousness of all key figures of the Bengal/Indian Renaissance of the 19th century.
Looking back into Indian history, we find how Mahabharata has been remembered during every crucial historical juncture, or ‘golden age’. Starting from Bhasa (4th cent. BCE), through the Satavahana Queen Goutami-Balashri’s Nashik-Prashasti Inscription (149 CE), Vishakhadatta’s Mudrarakshasa ( 4th century CE), Gupta Inscriptions, Ravikirti’s Aihole Inscription of Pulakeshin II (610–642 CE), the Indonesian Bharata–Yuddha (1157 CE) of Mpu Sedah and Mpu Panuluh and Emperor Akbar’s commissioned Persian translation Razmnama (three editions 1584-1617) show the great impact of Mahabharata in India and beyond.
Inheriting this brilliant tradition, Sanjaya’s Mahabharata assumes the miniature replica of the melting pot with mingled ingredients of Ramayana and Mahabharata tradition, and influences of Buddhism, Jainism, Vaishnavism and Shaktaism. For example, Sanjaya makes King Nala the grandson of Rama’s son Kusha, thereby bringing together Ramayana and Mahabharata. Here he is in the direct tradition of Vyasa’s Mahabharata where we have Markandeya’s Ramayana, Hanuman’s interaction with Bhima, and Rama’s bloodline Brhadbala dying by Abhimanyu’s hand.
Just as Sanjaya creates and narrates a new parvan (Gada parvan), one is startled to find that Al-Biruni’s India (973–1050 CE) too mentions Gada parvan as Book 9. Could there be any connection between Al-Biruni and Sanjaya’s source despite their distance in space and time (5 centuries), or is it a glorious coincidence?
Again, Sanjaya’s Ashvamedhaparvan, which largely follows the Jaiminiya Mahabharata, provides an interesting variation in that Bokrodonto instead of Baka Dalbhya steals the horse so that he can meet Krishna. In the ancient Jain Sutrakrtanga (1.6), Dantavakra is the best of Kshatriyas as a parallel to Mahavira the best of sages. Whether Sanjaya’s giving such importance to Bokrodonto (Dantavakra) is owing to Jain influence would be an interesting query for researchers. After all, the Jain community known as Saraks, though isolated and separated from the main body of the Jain community following Bakhtiyar Khalji’s invasion, still maintained a significant presence in Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand.
Sanjaya’s Karna is born from Kunti’s ear, thus getting the name Karna. The same narrative is found in the Bheel Bharata and folk narratives in other parts of India.
Sanjaya’s most dramatic innovation is introducing Draupadi as a warrior. In Drona Parvan, following Abhimanyu’s death, Draupadi leads an all-woman army of Yadava women including Subhadra, Uttara, Krishna’s queens and Revati against the Kaurava army at night and routs them, though finally sparing the key figures for their male counterparts to fulfil their vows. In a series of wish-fulfilling dramas, Draupadi defeats Drona, Ashvatthama and Duryodhana, and whirls about Duhshasana by his hair, avenging her similar humiliation at his hands in the Kuru Sabha. Similarly, Subhadra ties up Jayadratha’s hands and feet and has him kicked unconscious by maids. Jayadratha seems to be at the worst receiving end from Sanjaya. Earlier too, in Vana Parvan, after Bhima had rescued Draupadi from Jayadratha, Draupadi’s maids had kicked him. Uttara beheads Duhshasana’s son Rudradev who killed Abhimanyu. Here, Sanjaya is undoubtedly influenced by the Shakta tradition and represents women as Shakti evoking the imagery of Mahishasuramardini. Or, he might be remembering two marginalized episodes of Vyasa’s Mahabharata in which Draupadi exerts physical prowess and hurls her molesters Jayadratha and Kicaka to the ground. While Vyasa does not name Duhshasana’s son, Sanjaya’s naming him Rudradev gives a face to the faceless killer of Abhimanyu and has an ironic humanitarian dimension.
Sanjaya’s Adi Parvan has Janamejaya charging Vyasa with failure to prevent the fratricidal battle. This dramatic situation of Vyasa-Janamejaya interaction as the narrative frame has a curious parallel in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata (1989) which begins with Janamejaya and Vyasa interacting. Peter Brook introduced folk elements in his Mahabharata. It seems, the ‘folk mind frame’ of creative artists, perhaps, visualizes dramatic situations in similar ways.
Kavi Sanjaya, of Bharadvaja Gotra, was a resident of Laur village in present Bangladesh. While in Vyasa’s Mahabharata, Pandu and Indra’s friend Bhagadatta is ruler of Pragjyotishpur, Sanjaya hails him as him as ruler of Vanga-Desh including Laur. The exalted place accorded to him might point to a Bhagadatta cult in the region covering present day Assam and Bangladesh because, as evident from the Nidhanpur copperplate inscription, the Kamarupa king Bhaskaravarman (7th century CE) eulogized Bhagadatta as Deva and traced his ancestry to Bhagadatta’s successors.
Like the character Ahiravana in Krittibas’ Ramayana, Sanjaya creates a character named Viveka, Sudhanva’s infant son, who vanquishes Krishna, Pandavas and Hanuman. Finally, on his grandfather Hongshodhvoj’s request, Viveka surrenders to Krishna. In Bengali, ‘bibek’ connotes conscience. Besides, in the Yatra (folk-theatre) tradition, there is a character called ‘Bibek’, conscience-personified. Given that the fratricidal Kurukshetra War did not bring peace and joy to Yudhishṭhira’s mind owing to qualms of conscience, whether Sanjaya’s introduction of Viveka is an echo-metaphor for Viveka-conscience, or Bibek of Yatra tradition with the role of conscience might be another interesting point of query.
In the same Ashvamedhaparvan, Sanjaya introduces the story of King Niladhavaja’s wife Jana (Jvala in Jaimini) who, failing to incite his brother against Arjuna for avenging her son Prabir’s death, immolates herself, transforms into an arrow and enters Babhruvahana’s quiver. Later Babhruvahana kills Arjuna with that arrow, and Jana’s revenge is accomplished. Girish Chandra Ghosh, the father of Bengali theatre, wrote a powerful play ‘Jana’ in 1894 with her as the central character.
The cultural interaction of early Bengali literature and Yatra is quite evident in that, the Krishna Jatra genre, evolved through the devotional singing and dancing of the followers of the Krishna Bhakti movement, was inspired by Rasa-lila and dramatic poetry like Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda (12th century), Chandidas’ Srikrishna Kirtan15th century) and later further propelled by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s mystic Krishnaism. There is also Nata Gita, an operatic folk drama form in medieval Bengal, filled with singing, dancing and music sans dialogue, which provided an early model for the Krishna Jatra.
One unique aspect of Sanjaya’s Mahabharata pointed out by Bhattacharya is that his narration is interspersed with Lachadi couplets of twenty syllables accompanied by dance, to be sung in various ragas and raginis such as Basant, Kamod, Bhatiyal, Shri, Barari and Pathamanjari. Obviously, dramatic elements abound in Sanjaya’s Mahabharata. This is further evident from the narrative twists. In Mausala Parvan, Kavi Sanjaya has Arjuna accompany Krishna at the end, and true to Yatra appeal and high drama, Sanjaya’s Krishna breathes his last while resting his head on his best friend Arjuna’s lap.
Bhattacharya’s easy flowing English, constantly reminding us of the richness of Bengal’s culture, makes a pleasant and illuminating read.
At the end, one would certainly agree that Bhattacharya’s translated volumes merit an imperative place in libraries and collections for serious researchers of Indian and Bengal history and for Mahabharata-lovers and lay readers alike.
Department of English
Rinku Kalsy interviewed me and others on the women of the Mahabharata.
Here is the video link –> https://vimeo.com/64069030
My English translation in free verse line-by-line of Bengal’s Adi Kavi, Sanjay’s Bengali version of the Mahabharata has been published by Dasgupta & Co., 54/3, College Street, Kolkata-700073, email@example.com, in 2 volumes, A-4 size. Sanjay created fascinating tales, the most striking of which is his account of Draupadi and the Yadava ladies attacking the Kaurava army after Abhimanyu was slaughtered and utterly routing them, including Drona, Karna, Duhshasana, Duryodhana!
KOLKATA: Most of us think that the Mahabharata translated in ..