The ancient text of the Mahabharata seems to speak into the latest craziness of Brexit — speaking of the folly that comes with blind ambition, and the price paid by the next generation.
For some time now I have been working my way through the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, serialised on Indian television in the 1980s, and now on youtube. At its core is a huge war between two sets of cousins. It’s sometimes cast as a war between truth and untruth. Like all wars, its causes are complex.
Part of the explanation is that king Vichitravirya’s elder son, Dhritarashtra, was born blind, so his younger brother, Pandu, was named Crown Prince. Dhritarashtra succeeds to the throne after his brother’s premature death. That contains the seeds of a deadly for succession between the sons of Pandu and of Dhritarashtra — not helped by Dhritarashtra’s blind loyalty to his son Duryodhan, despite his obvious rashness, which stands in marked contrast to the wisdom of Pandu’s elder son Yudhishthira.
The Hindu epic the Mahabharata offers a way to think about the absurdity of attempting of commemorating D-day at the same time as trying to leave the EU set up to prevent another war in Europe.
The last few minutes have seen a startling justaposition in my news feed, in quick succession I heard:
On BBC Radio 4’s The World at One there was coverage of the 75th anniversary of D-day, with a reminder of the seriousness of the task and the sheer amount of support from other countries that enabled this to succeed, which flatly contradicts the idea that “the UK won the war” in it’s own strength.
A video from Russia Today showed both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt advocating leaving the EU with no deal — immediately followed by a commentator pointing out the damage that’s already happened and how much worse “No deal” would make things.
Also on The World at One was a tiny comment about Rory Stewart (also pitching to become Tory leader) explaining that it is crazy to imagine that the EU will re-open negotiations, or to think there is money for drastic tax cuts.
I’m slowly working my way through the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, as serialised on Indian television, and caught a moment where two mothers whose sons are on opposite sides in the war at the heart of the story console each other. One asks the other whether she will pray for victory: she doesn’t want to force the choice on God who has to disappoint one of them if they both pray for this.
One of the recurring themes in commentary on support for Brexit is that some of it is “religious”. That offers a way to think about some of the anxieties leading people to support it, even if Brexit itself is not the answer, and would harm more of its supporters than it helps.
From the Leave side, Aaron Banks has spoken of “true Brexit” and Nigel Farrage accused Theresa May of “not believing in Brexit” after the General Election. Jacob Rees Mogg has accused other members of the parlimentary committee on Exciting the European Union of being “high priests of Remain”. From the Remain side Rafael Behr has written of the dangers of following the “scriptures of Rees-moggery”, and it’s not unusual to hear support for Brexit dismissed as “religious” when it seems to ignore economic reality.
There are a range of attitudes among Brexit-supporters I’ve spoken with, but the more strident support for Brexit is coming across as having a religious quality.
Some will want to bracket together religion and support for Brexit as irrational, and leave the argument there, but this short-changes both religion and what the support for Brexit. This matters because winning a “People’s Vote” on the terms of Brexit needs some who voted Leave in 2016 to vote the other way, and avoiding the damage that would come from alienating a substantial minority needs a large number of people to change sides. For people to switch sides means they need to feel that their concerns have been heard.
The Hindu epic the Mahabharata belongs to a different age and a different continent to the saga of Brexit. But there’s something in its timelessness and exploration of the complexity of being human that has powerful echoes.
The Mahabharata is a complex epic. The snag with producing a quick summary is its richness is in the detail, in the complexity of what happens across generations and extended families, and the interplay of virtue and messy human reality.
Reducing The Mahabharata to a story of the conflict of good and evil makes sense in Western terms, but looses much of the point of it. I first read it in an attempt to get a better understanding of the Hindus in Bali soon after reading a book on Jung’s lectures on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. Jung makes sense of some of Ignatius’ ideas by talking of the devil as the fourth person of the Christian Trinity. His underlying point is that things seem to come on groups of four for humans, raising the question of what’s missing in the Christian concept of the Trinity (God as father son and Holy Spirit). In practical terms of spiritual direction this is a really useful concept because it holds a space for that of God that’s outside people’s conception of God. With more of a psychoanalytic lens, it shifts the dynamic from pushing things away as “evil” or “the devil” in a crudely-dualistic way. One of the fruits of that is to help people own both their limitedness and their capacity for evil, rather than simply to project it onto others who then get labelled as “bad”. Not doing evil things involves owning one’s ability to do just that and choosing not to go there: assuming that evil is what “bad people” do is a recipe for rationalising one’s way into doing appalling things.