While Congress President Rahul Gandhi recently referred to his party's contest with the Bharatiya Janata Party as being like the Kurukshetra battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had earlier termed his critics as Shalya. Similarly, while Reserve Bank of India Governor Urjit Patel recently said the Samudra Manthan required to cleanse the Indian banking system would also need a Neelakantha to swallow the poison so that the larger economy could avail of the benefits of the nectar that would follow, his deputy Viral acharya had earlier said the Indian banking system needed a Sudarshan Chakra more than an Indradhanush. A K Bhattacharya reads into these allusions and their implied meanings and assesses what else these might mean in the light of their mythological significance.
One of the consequences of the Hindutva agenda promoted by the present government is that India’s policy makers are in thrall to stories and characters depicted in Hindu epics. Even the Congress leaders and economic policy administrators are no longer free from that influence.
Thus, Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Saturday compared his party with the Pandavas and the Bharatiya Janata Party with the Kauravas. A few days ago, the Reserve Bank of India Governor, Urjit Patel, talked about his willingness to become a Neelkantha or Shiva and drink the poison from Samudra Manthan!
To most Indians, these references may mean different things. Worse, these references may even make no sense to many young Indians who are not fully conversant with the Hindu epics. Also, there are many layers to the characters and events in Hindu epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Once the layers are uncovered, even those who use these epic analogies may find to their surprise that what they wanted to convey may not be what they actually meant; and in some cases, they may have meant what they actually did not want to convey.
So, here is an attempt to list a few of the recent references to epic characters and events, the context in which they were used and the actual significance or meaning they conveyed.
Pandavas vs Kauravas
Congress President Rahul Gandhi compared his own party with the Pandavas and the BJP with the Kauravas in an attempt to present the BJP in a poor light. The Pandavas in the Mahabharata lost everything but fought for truth. And the Kauravas were ‘designed to fight for power’. Gandhi also likened the 2019 general elections to the battle of Kurukshetra, where the fight would be between the truth and lies. No guesses here on who would fight for the truth and who would defend the lies.
What does the epic tell us about the Pandavas and the Kauravas? In the Mahabharata, the Pandavas and the Kauravas were depicted as two warring groups, but they were actually part of the same extended family. In fact, these were not two different dynasties. The Pandavas also were part of the Kuru dynasty and hence were initially called the Kauravas. But the separation took place after Dhritarashtra and Pandu, who were brothers, grew up and led their families to different directions. Remember that Dhritarashtra was the elder brother, but he was blind, so Pandu became the king. Pandu’s five children came to be known as the Pandavas and Dhritarashtra’s 101 children were known as the Kauravas.
In other words, the Pandavas branched out of the Kauravas over the questions of truth or dharma. Who then in this analogy of Rahul Gandhi is the Congress and who is the BJP? This question becomes even more intriguing in the context of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s earlier reference to his party critics as Shalya.
Who is Shalya?
In October 2017, Modi launched a tirade against his critics, who had blamed the government for the current economic slowdown and questioned his policies on demonetisation and the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST). He had said: “There are many Shalyas today… they spread pessimism and get a good night’s sleep only after they spread gloom and hopelessness.”
Shalya is a character from the Mahabharata. He was the ruler of the Madra kingdom and the brother of Madri, one of the wives of King Pandu. The twist in the story is that Shalya was expected to fight for the Pandavas against the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra battle. But on being wooed by the Kauravas, led by Duryodhana, he decided to be with them and became the charioteer of Karna, another warrior who should have been part of the Pandava army but ironically ended up fighting against them.
Shalya’s death is equally significant. On the 18th day of the Kurukshetra battle, Shalya was nominated to head the Kaurava army and fought valiantly, only to be defeated and later killed by Yudhishthira. Shalya had another tussle with the Pandavas much before the Kurukshetra battle. Just before Arjuna won the contest to qualify as the groom for Draupadi, Shalya had presented himself as an aspirant. But he failed to hit the target and lost Draupadi. Peeved by this defeat, Shalya had joined hands with other kings and fought Arjuna, but he was defeated in that battle, with Bhima coming to Arjuna’s rescue.
When Modi referred to Shalya, he was trying to describe his critics, many of whom had emerged from within the BJP. So, was Modi referring to Arun Shourie or Yashwant Sinha, who indeed had criticised the Modi government’s policies? Sinha is officially part of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a member of the near-defunct Margdarshak Mandal, a team that Modi had set up in 2014 as a group of elder statesmen of the party to provide guidance and advice to the younger leadership. But setting up of the Margdarshak Mandal looked to be a clever way of bypassing these senior leaders. So, for all practical purposes, Sinha, though within the party, is an outsider.
Similarly, Shourie is reported to have left the BJP and has been vocal in his criticism of the Modi government. But unlike Shalya, Shourie has not joined any other party. It would thus appear that Shourie could partly be Shalya, but not Sinha, who attacked the party from within.
But the question is: Who are the Kauravas and who are the Pandavas?
On August 14, 2015, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced a seven-pronged plan to revamp the public-sector banks (PSBs). Since Indradhanush is known as a rainbow with seven colours, this plan was also named so: The seven elements included the appointment of key personnel at PSB, setting up of the Banks Board Bureau, recapitalisation of PSBs, reducing non-performing assets of these state-controlled banks, empowerment of the management, preparing a framework for accountability, and reforms of the PSB governance structure.
However, Indradhanush is not just a rainbow. It is also believed to be the main weapon that Rama used to kill Ravana in the Ramayana. This was a weapon that was gifted to Rama by the sage Agastya when the former was serving his banishment in the forest. In the final stage of the war, Indra sent this weapon to Rama through Matali, the celestial charioteer.
In effect, Jaitley’s Indradhanush is not just a seven-pronged strategy to revive PSBs, but it also could be interpreted as the chief weapon by which he could eliminate the main problem in public-sector banking. But as it turns out, many economists in the government system believed that there was a need for something more powerful than Indradhanush – a Sudarshan Chakra, for instance!
In September 2017, the deputy governor of the RBI, Viral Acharya, delivered a lecture on what needed to be done to expedite reforms at PSBs. What worried him was the “glacial pace” at which PSB reforms were taking place. “Having embarked on the NPA resolution process, indeed having catalysed the likely haircuts on banks, can we delay the bank resolution process any further,” he asked.
He also underlined the need for the government to divest its stakes in PSBs to 52 per cent and wondered what needed to be done for banks whose losses were so large that divestment to 52 per cent won’t suffice.
Finally, he said that “Indradhanush was a good plan, but to end the Indian story differently, we need a much more powerful plan – “Sudarshan Chakra” – aimed at swiftly, within months if not weeks, for restoring public-sector banks’ health, in the current ownership structure or otherwise.”
Now what is Sudarshan Chakra? It is a disc-like weapon that Krishna or Vishnu wields from the index finger of the right hand. It is used to kill the enemy. It is believed that it has 108 serrated edges. It is like a guided missile. Once released to attack an enemy, Sudarshan Chakra returns only after completing the task of annihilating the target. Sudarshan Chakra was famously used by Krishna to eliminate Shishupal, after the latter committed 100 sins.
But the big question is whether Sudarshan Chakra is more powerful than Indradhanush? Recall that according to one belief, Indradhanush was used by Rama to kill Ravana.
In October 2017, Arvind Subramanian, chief economic advisor in the finance ministry, used another reference from the Hindu epics. A day after the government announced a massive recapitalisation plan for PSBs, Subramanian described it as a Brahmastra. “Yesterday, the government announced a major initiative — firing a Brahmastra as it were — to address the challenges of stressed assets and weak banking balance sheets,” he said while delivering a lecture at a Delhi University college.
What does Brahmastra mean? It is considered a powerful destructive weapon that can be obtained only after meditating on Brahma, the supreme creator according to Hindu beliefs. A Brahmastra cannot be repulsed by the enemy. There is no defence and nobody can stop it from destroying its target. It can be countered only by another Brahmastra.
Now, Viral Acharya had desired a Sudarshan Chakra and according to Arvind Subramanian, what the government came out with was a Brahmastra!
In his lecture at Gandhinagar on March 14, 2018, Urjit Patel referred to Samudra Manthan, also known as Amrit Manthan. He compared the RBI’s recent steps on prompt recognition and resolution of non-performing assets at banks with the Mandara or the churning rod in Samudra Manthan.
Patel also suggested that until the churn was complete and “the nectar of stability safely secured for the country’s future, someone must consume the poison that emanates along the way”. And then he said it was the RBI which could act like the Neelkantha or Shiva who drank the poison that came out of the manthan. Finally, he hoped that promoters and banks would be on the side of the Devas (gods) and not the Asuras (demons) in this Samudra Manthan.
What is Samudra Manthan? Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata refer to it with slightly varying versions. The central point of Samudra Manthan is that Vasuki, the snake, was used as the rope to churn the ocean with Mandar (a mountain) as the rod.
Now, Samudra Manthan went on for two thousand years, according to the Ramayana. That is a long haul. Moreover, there is a reference in the epics to Mandar sinking into the ocean and Vishnu doing a rescue act by assuming the role of a huge tortoise and providing a foundation to Mandar so that it did not sink. The obvious question is in this long churning, who will be the Vishnu in Patel’s Samudra Manthan? Who will provide the support if and when the churning rod sinks into the ocean?
If the RBI becomes the Shiva or Neelkantha to drink the poison from the churning, then who would secure the nectar when it does arrive? In the epics, the demons came close to corner the nectar before Vishnu managed to intervene and steal it for the gods. Will such a rescue act be needed and how will that be performed?
Finally, will the banking industry like to believe that it may not be on the side of the gods in this Samudra Manthan?