Cuncta cogitatio cordis intenta ad malum.
~ Gen. 6:5

The Eve of War

Ambush at Kurukshetra

At Kurukshetra, according to this 2500 year old tale, on the eve of a great and terrible battle against his own kinsmen, the warrior-sage Prince Arjuna paused to question the sanity of the carnage into which he was preparing to plunge himself and his soldiers. He balked as much before the senseless and terrifying butchery he would inflict as that which he would receive.

The field of battle was, of course, an allegory, the field of Dharma, the law, and the battle was the tragic, unperceived totality of human suffering attending the self-inflicted cycle of strife to which men are held captive by duty and karmic inertia. The poor Prince’s agonized dilemma is not hard to verbalize. Why, in a world of sunny skies and fertile soil and the means to bring Kentucky Fried Chicken to every doorstep on earth, has everybody decided to go to war? Why, in the affluent state of California, where anybody who feels the slightest bit sad can just go out and buy a car, would a pack of LAPD choose to touch off a week of lethal rioting and arson by arbitrarily beating the holy shit out of some black detainee in front of a video camera? Why is it necessary? If pleasure is better than pain, life better than death, peace better than war, why don’t we lay down our swords, gather up our lawsuits, shut our vindictive mouths and go home? Isn't it easier and cheaper and by all measures better to listen to the advice of Rodney King and “just get along?”

Back at Kurukshetra, Arjuna expressed these concerns to his charioteer, who also happened to be Krishna, the Creator of the World, and therefore was the one guy uniquely qualified to answer questions of this type. The rather long answer is called the Bhagavad-Gita, the book that Mohandas Gandhi would have carried in his hip pocket if he had owned pants. The answer entails a correct understanding of man’s relationship to the world, seen not only as his political community but as the very matrix of sound and color in which his life appears to take place. It is, as we would expect from an Eastern tradition, a field of illusion, spinning itself in samsaric hallucinations before souls which have forgotten the ground of their being.

Krishna is no sniveling pacifist in this piece. His first response is to come on like a gym coach and accuse Arjuna of laziness and cowardice. Failing this, he is forced to divulge the metaphysical nuts and bolts of existence, which explain how anything gets here to begin with, and by extension how things get screwed up. We’ve all read about it. The basis of mind and matter is a kind of Brahmanic pre-physical emanation called Prakriti. As the docetic dream-stuff of God, it isn’t really there, although in every meaningful way it seems to be there. When the forces of which it is composed are in equilibrium, the world is unmanifest. When the equilibrium is disturbed, a world is created. To make a longer story short, when things are not to some degree haywire, they don’t exist.

Yet Arjuna’s question persists. Must the dream of life be a nightmare? If we are participating in a collective imagining here, where are the babes? Where is the ice cream? What are we doing with these AK-47s? Isn’t this supposed to be fun?

The logic of pacifism does, on the face of it, appear naively simplistic. All things being equal, why go out and perpetuate an unnecessary feud? Doesn’t Arjuna have exactly the right idea here? Why not lay down the weapons and apologize? Why not send out for pizza and start over?

As much as Rodney and I would have it not so, the situation on the ground has already reached an advanced stage of ugliness. The quantity of hatred we have generated over the past fifty years has reached the size of an 800 pound gorilla, and it might not be amenable any longer to overtures of love or remorse.

The Vedantic lesson here for peace-loving sissies is that we are more or less stuck in Prakriti anyway, whether we remain deluded by it or not. When we realize that the fix we are in is the result of past mistakes, we are still in the fix. The trick is not to withdraw from the world (you can’t do it anyhow), but to see it for what it is and proceed into it, like a good soldier. Whether we perceive our enemies as freedom-hating devils spawned from some foreign mud or more correctly as Frankenstein monsters inadvertently conjured up in our own sleep, somebody still has to go out there and kill them. Or more accurately try to kill them, without getting that hydra effect. Try to kill them, that is, in a way that does not create further monsters and even worse future karma. In a way that does not anger their relatives or radicalize other Muslims, or replicate precisely the general methodology that produced the first batch of monsters to begin with. And careful also to avoid the tendency for monster killing to boomerang back and make us into monsters too.

What kind of clever soldiers does Krishna propose we send in to accomplish this magical battle that puts an end both to the terrorists and to the attachment and self generating bestiality that created them? When consulted, I have always suggested to the Bush Security Team the use of diplomatic soldiers, followed by Marshall Plan soldiers and Peace Corps soldiers. We have before us a model of what we can expect from the standard military paradigm of retaliation and repression, constituting a virtual classroom demonstration for chief executives who didn’t pay attention in history class. Maestro Ariel Sharon (who, like Netanyahu, stood for election on a platform of better domestic security) can be observed daily, as though through the glass of a science fair ant farm, directing conventional soldiers in the techniques of escalating security measures. Watch and learn. That ant farm is so goddamn safe you don’t dare get on a bus any more, or sit down at a Starbucks. The tightest security on earth outside of Huntsville isn’t enough to seal off the rising pressure of all that hatred. Every day, by popular demand, the pressure goes up. Unbroken in spirit, oblivious to the body count, the Chosen People are determined to give bellicosity a chance.

Arjuna and Rodney and I are all a bit dense. We still don’t get it. As a practical matter, we don’t have any more warrior-sages ready to send into the fray than Israel does. Our army consists of lobotomized career soldiers and high school dropouts with manhood issues. So we are still stuck here on the sidelines of war’s big game board, convinced that whatever we do is only going to make things worse. Perhaps we don’t yet understand what our purple friend has been trying to tell us.

Prakriti is a sort of suit you put on when you want to enter the world. When Ishwara wishes to make an avatar and come to visit, he puts on Prakriti like a halloween costume. When he wants to leave, he sheds it. Prior to manifestation you also are the imminent godhead, the Atman. Prakriti rattles you out into individuality, tricks you out with a body and the five senses and the five elemental sense objects you experience as the external world. The thing is so complete that you forget it is only a suit. Unlike Ishwara, you get stuck out here and can’t get back.

Like fops who identify with their jewelry and mistake their clothing for themselves, ordinary blokes are deluded by their Prakriti into thinking themselves separate from their essential selves. When you have turned away from the senses, disciplined your desires and appetites, conquered your fears and dedicated yourself to the fulfillment of your particular duty, you become once again the Atman. Only then can you act correctly. Only then, if you happen to be a soldier, can you do battle correctly. A soldier who has realized his Atman is one with his enemy. This must be a very peculiar experience, knowing that the one who is killed is identical with the one who kills. Knowing that nothing in fact is happening, and that nobody is getting hurt.

Now that is more like waking up inside a dream, an action dream, a video game dream. When you have mastered your Prakriti, it doesn’t matter what the hell you do.


Speaking of dreams, for many years from the age of twelve or so, this one recurred in several variations. I arrive at school late, and nobody is around. The classroom doors are closed. The halls are empty. I don’t know where I am supposed to go. Everybody except me is attending a very special assembly, of which I have not been informed. In the assembly, my peers are being briefed about things everybody needs to know to have viable lives. I can’t even guess at what those things might be, having missed the assembly. How to make bullies leave you alone. What girls think about. How to pole-vault. How to drive a bulldozer. How to open escrow. How should I know? I only know that from that morning on, everybody but me is privy to a very important secret, allowing them always to know exactly what to do, and leaving me basically uncertain and clueless. As a result of this dream I have spent my adult life trying to expropriate the precious key to functionality from my contemporaries, as they go about their business all around me, confident of their goals and criteria, opening hotel chains, getting pilots licenses, manipulating stock portfolios, running for the Senate, in no doubt of who they are or what they are doing. I was 55 years old before I opened escrow, and I’m still not sure what it is.

O Son of Kunti, O Conqueror of Sloth, O biggest of Dumbasses! Everybody knows what is going on except you.

I stare in puzzlement at a world that appears to me to be absolutely oblivious to itself. Like Gautama, I imagine that the world is unaware of the source of its obvious misery. The stupidity theory is easy to invoke, but it doesn’t really work. It does not compute that a people as brilliant as the Israelis and as clever as the Palestinians would embrace by way of a solution an obvious vortex of lunacy, a tunnel without any light at the end. The Bush people aren’t big thinkers, but it is hard to miss handwriting on the wall when it is bigger than first grade classroom alphabet cards. We are not that unintelligent or that nuts. So why are we blowing ourselves to bits and tying ourselves in knots and burning up our money and scaring ourselves half to death?

The other day I figured it out. It sounds crazy, but it is absolutely true. The answer is that we are having fun. Yes, fun.

Life is not a nightmare. It is a post-modernist three-ring circus with all the stops pulled out. With all the lions and tigers loose in the audience. It is a Marx Brothers disaster. A Ben-Hur chariot crash. A 007 finale. An expression of extreme and terrible freedom.

I feel like such a sour old fool.

The ATF had fun setting fire to the Branch Davidians and their children! Tim McVeigh had fun blowing up the Murrow Building and its day care center! We had fun strapping him in front of a tv camera and squirting him full of poison!

All the keening widows and leering soldiers and martyred children back in the bullet riddled City of Peace are having the time of their lives! The Serbs and Croats aren’t enemies, they are dance partners! It isn’t that complicated! If they weren’t enjoying themselves, they would stop!

Only dreamers who know they are dreaming would consider going up in two block diameter balls of fire or jumping off 110 storey buildings in exhilarating trajectories! Getting munched into vapor! Committing unspeakable crimes! Enduring unendurable tragedies! Wreaking terrible revenge! Blasting and getting blasted! What Nascar and P.T. Barnum were chicken to give us, we’re doing for ourselves. When the ground of your being is out of this world, you can live like Mohammed Atta and Donald Rumsfeld, karmically exempt, mindless of consequences. You can set your feet in eternity and feel the rush of limitless battle. You can go ahead and buy a ticket on the Giant Eight Armed Atomic Death Rocket. You can break out the fireworks you’ve been saving since 1945, and treat yourself to the all-time mother of man eating light shows. Don’t make it stop, George. Nobody dies. Nobody gets hurt.