Me, Montaigne and Mahabharata

The five Pandava Brothers in the Mahabharata epic
The five Pandava Brothers in the Mahabharata epic. with Yudhisthira in centre

I have now reached well beyond the age when Michel de Montaigne in 1571 took an early retirement to write his Essais, 39 years.  In fact, the age when he died at 59, is just 4 years ahead for me. Parallels abound, personal and philosophical for me and Montaigne, but I want introduce another perspective on such an endeavour in midlife for gentlemen, that of the life-stage of the Forest- Dweller in ancient India who spends time dwelling over the ancient epic Mahabharata.  A 21th century contemporary commentator of the Mahabharata will also appear, Shri Gurcharan Das.

In ancient Indian Vedic tradition and philosophy, life was divided in four stages in according to the ashrama system for devoted Hindus. First, one studies up until around 20 years, the student or Brahmacharya stage. Second, entering the householder’s stage, Grihastha, until around 45 years.  Third, Vanaprastha stage of the hermit in the forest until around 65 years. Fourth and last, the Sannyasa stage of total reclusion with intention to spiritual liberation, Moksha.

Me at 55 years in the 21th century and Montaigne at 39 in the 16th century enter our Vanaprastha stages too, where we look back at our lives, still with ties to family and careers but preparing for the final stage and death. Montaigne sought his role models from Epicurean, Skeptic and Stoic philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome, which I find familiar and useful, but the ancient Indian traditions are also interesting for Western middle-aged middle class men like me and my readers. The forest-dweller of Vanuprastha, which literally means forest (vana) and going to (prastha), is satisfied with what life has brought him materially, as the affluent Montaigne was, and lives on as little as possible. In reality, few people can do this well unless they have had a good life materially and stems from a learned or well-to do family for generations. There is such a forest-dweller today in 21st century India, Gurcharan Das.

Indian businessman Gurcharan Das took an early retirement at age 51 after a life as a prominent businessman after 30 years. He comes from a good family in western Punjab, now in Pakistan, and made a career with a multinational corporation after been to Harvard, studying philosophy under John Rawls.  In 1994 he decided to devote his life to writing and intellectual pursuits, such as heading the liberal think tank Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi. I met him a few times while working under him at the think tank, and later read his auto-biographical novel A fine family, but foremost his 2009 moral and scholarly treatise The difficulty of being good: on the subtle art of dharma.

This contemporary Indian Montaigne has a similar taste for ancient texts but the choice is the Hindu epic Mahabharata, rather than Seneca’s aphorisms or Herodotus’ stories. Das went back to USA in 2002 for an “academic holiday”, where he studied as a young man, now to University of Chicago and studied the classical Sanskrit text with the best Mahabharata scholars in the world. As a businessman and a concerned citizen, Das was distraught by the moral failures of the global financial system in the first decade of the new millenium.  His attempt was to wrestle some old but still worthwhile truths about mankind which would enable him to better understand both Western and Eastern ways of dealing with tough decisions, moral boundaries and how to be good.

Like with Montaigne in 1572, a certain melancholy got Das started. The two see more tragic wisdom in tales of wars, horrors, superstition, deceit and such in epics like The Iliad and Odysseus, and the Mahabharata, than in philosophical treaties.  Das comments on the two classical tragic war epics, Western and Eastern:

“The Iliad is bloodthirsty, driven by anger and violence. The Mahabharata is just as gory, but it questions the violence. The first word in the Iliad is menin, rage, as Homer asks the Muse to sing about the ‘wrath of Achilles’. The Bhagavadgita’s [central chapter in the Mahabharata] first word is dharma-kshetre, ‘field of righteousness’, signalling that this is no ordinary was enacted on a battlefield; it is also a war of dharma in the conscience of each human being” [1]

Dharma means truth, way, duty, goodness, law – what is good in the same sense as Aristotle and Plato meant it.  The former’s concept of virtue is similar to dharma, the latter’s search for righteousness is also included in dharma.

Although the Essais are a kind of scholarly work albeit very personal and almost private, whereas the Mahabharata is not, if Indian readers forgive me for excluding the esoteric-spritual Bhagavadgita chapter (which was commented upon by Fichte, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Emerson and Thoreau in 19th century), I do think the thoughts of the French gentleman and speculations by ancient Indian sages are interesting to compare. Das’ study The difficulty of being good is the best application so far of Western philosophical and ethical ideas and traditions to the Mahabharata, a lot suggested by his friend and colleague Martha Nussbaum, by way of Hume, Kant and Rawls.

For non-Indian readers a short introduction to the story of the Bharata family wars, as compiled in the Maha Bharata (the Great Bharata[2]).  Two closely related warrior families in northern India become enemies to each other after a series of wrong decisions, deceit, envy and sense of duty. Five brothers who share one wife have the god Krishna on their side (an incarnation/avatar of the celestial god Lord Vishnu) against their cousin who has more armies and wealth behind him. After losing a game of dice the five brothers are forced into exile for 12 years but come back with revenge after much deliberation by their leader Yudhishthira who is committed not to use violence.

In the end the god Krishna persuades him and especially his brother Arjuna[3] to do what is right and true dharma, which is to fight the oppressing cousin Duryodhana. After a war with many magical incidents, the five brothers win. But like the ancient Greek heroes felt after bloodshed, the victory does not feel entirely right. The brothers fought their own grandfather, their cousins, and even one brother, although they did not know it. Looking out over the corpses, the leader Yudhishthira who is also a spiritual scholar of the ancient Vedas, a brahmin, just as he is of warrior caste, a kshatriya, wants to give up what he fought for and become a recluse, to enter the melancholy Vanaprashta stage in life. Krishna admonishes him, calls him selfish and ungrateful to the team that fought against the oppressors. None of them are satisfied with being recluses again.

The victorious leader Yudhishthira understands finally what he needs to do as a king, and enters  the palace throne, giving out positions to his brothers and comrades in arms and thus reigning gracefully for 36 years. The god Krishna who persuaded him not to follow a purely spiritual path gets accidentally killed. A remarkable ending but in line with the frail existences of the epic’s heroes.

No one is entirely evil or good. Characters behave as promiscuously as the Greek gods did during Homer’s and Aeschylus’ times. What differs is their reasoning openly about moral and metaphysical in the midst of action[4].  The reluctant non-violent king Yudhishthira is obviously a dharma king, an enlightened despot that understands the role of violence in his reign, but only as a last resort. Even violence must be used to defend dharma, or the good in the world.  Striking is that the deity Krishna needs to twice persuade humans not to be overly spiritual and unworldly, but take up arms and execute royal powers.

Krishna teaches the worldview of being in the world but not of the world. To act one must, as a householder, father, in working life etc., but do not think for a second that this world is all there is. Krishna shows his friend Arjuna how life starts, grows and stops, how generations follow one by one through life and death, and that the questions of meaning in life, man’s place in the universe, love and honour, duty and dharma, will always be there. To do one’s duty is to do the needful, as the colonial Indian English expression has it, with compassion. Only needs will be an animal life, but only compassion will get similarly wasted.

But how does we know what to do ? What is our duty ? Fairly easy in India where the warrior caste fights and the priests chant, as the impression could be from reading the Mahabharata. But even there people have choices. Duty can be also thought in a more universal sense, which runs alongside the sense from caste divisions and traditions. Noteworthy is the beautiful Drupadi who is shared by five husbands. Some characters also change sexes which make even questions of what men and women must do extraordinary. The toughest warrior of the victorious Pandava brothers, Arjuna, teaches dance and music to the court ladies when he is disguised as an eunuch. In the battlefield he is at first the most hesitant though having all sorts of magical powers and weapons.

Duty implies virtues, which in the Indian epic is what most characters strive for but few accomplish. Even the saintly Yudhishthria tells a kind of lie, concealing the truth of who has dies by mixing same name for an enemy’s son and an elephant. He is remorseful of this but appears still more holy than Lord Krishna who uses tricks to win and never excuses himself. He refers instead to a reasoning of means-to-ends that any business executive would appreciate.  For me as for Gurcharan Das, Krishna is not the main heroic character to follow but the anti-hero Yudhishthria.

Aristotelian virtue ethics seem consistent with the ancient Indian concepts at about the same time, 400 B.C.  The careful steering through a middle way between compassion and strength through violence is honoured by both. Forbearance, prudence and philosophical wisdom are more evident in Aristotle, who probably used his Nicomachian Ethics as lecture notes and not as an never- ending tale of wars and heroes, gods and human failures.

For someone like Monsieur Michael de Montaigne, if we return to his 17th century tower, ancient Greek virtues were much cherished and pondered upon. But he did not make himself into a French Renaissance gentleman by repeating the building of character and relying on virtues. Rather his adventure was to find in himself the faults (and farts) of precisely those virtue ethics. One should be courageous in battles, on horseback, in conversation (which probably was his best genre) and courts. His role models from Rome are Stoic where he is not. A modern individual in premodern times, or even postmodern as French philosopher J-F Lyotard once dubbed his fellow countryman, M. de Montaigne.

The only character in the Mahabharata that equals Montagine is Yudhishthira. Though they chose opposite ways, Montaigne going in to inner exile leading a Western Vanaprastha stage in life, while Yudhishthira takes on the throne as king, albeit a dharmic and therefore good king, they both are melancholic and remorseful at middle age. None of them are satisfied really. Montaigne finds he has failed his philosophical heroes and Yudhishthira ponders over his violent actions. Life was and is not better than this they seem to say. What unities them further is their truthfulness to their experiences and ambitions for leading truthful lives. Montaigne seems to miss his public life with all its mishappens, not being satisfied with his ancient books as friends.  Yudhishthira is reluctant ruler who longs for recluse, but does his duty no matter what he feels. Or he feels he must do his duty as king and is convinced that it is for the benefit of all. Maybe not for himself but for the kingdom, his kins and the protection of dharma.  He even states after being lectured by his wise uncle Bhishma about the need for a king to use violent force in order to protect the innocent,

“O Lord, the rod of punishment that reaches everywhere with the tremendous fiery energy is the best thing for all living things”[5]

Melancholy anti-heroes Montaigne and Yudhishthira had both been exposed to death, murder, wars as responsible rulers, yet keeping distance to their gruesome experiences. In the end, both of them continue to pursue their respective philosophical and spiritual developments. They persevere.  In fact, the name Yudhishthira means ”steady in war”, which is something he was not from the beginning but became. Montaigne’s perseverance is creating an open reflective and honest gentilhomme of himself. Their lives have taught them a kind of duty to do what is right irrespective of circumstances. An imperative to do good that has been tremendously hard for them to follow. Easier for Montaigne for sure, but he has a minute eye for all his failed ambitions that Yudhishthira does not tell us. Both of them want to lead a peaceful life where one does what one should do as any carpenter would do with a saw and a plank.  The trouble with them is their intellectual abilities that questions their duties and wants to find out why something needs to be done. They would make sorry carpenters.

Sarah Bakewell, How to live or A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer (Other Press, London 2010)

Gurcharan Das, The difficulty of being good. On the subtle art of dharma (Oxford University Press, New York 2009)

Gurcharan Das, A fine family (Penguin India, New Delhi 1990)

Michel de Montaigne, The Complete essays. Translated by M.A. Screech (Penguin, London, 1991). Original texts 1580-1592.

R.K. Narayan, The Mahabharata (Penguin, London, 1978). Original text  ̴ 1500 B.C.E.


[1] P. 107-108

[2] Bharat is also the first name for India, still officially in use.  Persians called the people along the Indus Valley Hindus and their country India, but that was later. For Hindu religious purposes Bharat is used.

[3] Krishna’s reasoning with Arjuna who hesitates to fight his own cousins is the theme of the Bhagavadgita chapter, the Song of God (Bhagvan). Gandhi, Aurobindo and Tilak used the Gita in the fight against the British colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century. I read first the Gita in Arkansas, USA, 1976, of all places.

[4] This reasoning, repetitions and the bewildering family linkages (where charcters change names like in Russian novels) make the story very long, sometimes boring and quite complicated, much like the Bible. R.K. Narayan’s condensed version  is 180 pages long, whereas the original texts make up 18 volumes.

[5] The Mahabharata quoted in The difficulty of being good, p. 228

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