The Last Temptation of Arjuna: Why Nation-States Need to Embrace Complexity
By Farish A. Noor
Modern nation-states are rather clumsy, careless things that blunder along the path of history until they eventually get to their appointed destinations. Along the way, modern nation-states tend to tread rather heavily on the conscience of marginalised minorities and liminal, subaltern groupings who do not quite fit into the grand logic of the monologous state with its singular vision and homogenous, self-referential narrative of unitary identity. All over the world today we see the perils of assimilationist politics at work, with minority groups beings sidelined, marginalised, erased or silenced. More often than not such discursive closure and historical erasures are justified before the altar of realpolitik and pragmatic majoritarianism, and we are told time and again, that the history of nations must necessarily be the history of the majority. So where does this leave the subaltern Other?
All of this, of course, points to the quaint parochialism of the modern nation-state which is, after all, a rather crude and blunt instrument at best. Nationalism and nation-building have always been a messy process and invariably the blood of innocents have been shed for the sake of creating some false sense of unity in identity and purpose. We need not repeat the catalogue of atrocities that human beings have committed in the name of nationalism and of course we cannot escape the fact that the nation-state is all but normalised and hegemonised in the age we live in.
But can the modern nation-state be induced to engage is a modicum of self-reflection and auto-critique? Can it be compelled to reconsider some of its foundational premises; to back track and retrace the steps that it has taken to where it is today (which often leads it to the mistaken conclusion that history is determinate and teleological); to question some of its cherished settled assumptions?
The root of the matter is the question of identity and the perpetuation of identity over time. This, incidentally, is a question that is both personal as it is political; and the nation-state, like the individual, has to be made to look into the mirror of self-doubt to see the glimmer of reason tucked behind the cloud of untruths (in the Nietzschean sense) that are its instrumental fictions. It has, in short, to be made to ask the same existentialist questions that we are all bound to ask ourselves sooner or later: “what am I; why am I here; is this all I am; is this all I can be?” How, in short, do individuals and states deal with complexity?
Instructive in this respect is the dialogue between the semi-divine hero Arjuna and the God Krishna that takes place on the eve of the great battle of Kurukshetra, which makes up the theme of the Bhagavad Gita, and which, incidentally, happens to also be one of the most important works of localised Hindu literature in Southeast Asia, rendered as the Hikayat Pandawa Lima.
Unable to lay his soul to rest the warrior-prince Arjuna contemplates the folly of life and the madness of power on the night before the great battle between the two warring clans of the Pandawas and Korawas, cognisant of the fact that regardless of the outcome the battle will spell the doom of both. Gnawing at his conscience is the perennial conundrum that he is unable to resolve: How can he, the warrior-prince, obey and comply with two apparently contradictory moral orders, the dharma of the just man who must respect life, and the dharma of the warrior who must destroy life itself?
It is Krishna who comes to Arjuna’s aid by offering him sage counsel that is equally relevant to the modern technocrat of today. Krishna reminds Arjuna that life is full of contradictions and that as a human being one of the first conditions to be met while living in the here-and-now is to accept, understand and live with these contradictions. Arjuna has to protect life, but he also has to kill. He must be both prince and warrior, protector and killer. Having to bear the burden of both obligations is his destiny and he cannot escape this.
Arjuna is faced with the last temptation before the great slaughter at Kurukshetra. He longs to relinquish all sense of responsibility, to escape, to deny his own agency and responsibility, to refuse to act, to do nothing. But it is Krishna who reveals himself in all his magnificent universal plenitude and shows him in no uncertain terms that Life is far greater than the individual. While the warrior-prince is forced to do battle with his conscience, Krishna reminds him that Life is far greater, more complex, much richer than the finite conscience of the individual; and that even if the greatest of heroes cannot reconcile such contradictions in him, Life is far more abundant and expansive and great enough to reconcile all contradictions within itself.
The moral of the Bhagavad Gita – of which there are many – is that inaction is no escape from the complexities of life and that submission to Life means accepting the complexities, contradictions and paradoxes that make up mottled landscape of living itself. No, we cannot run from our fears and anxieties and we cannot gloss them over with counterfeit simple solutions either. To truly live to the full, one has to reflect the complexities of life in our personalities as well, to mirror the myriad of life’s contradictions in the myriad of personalities that inhabit ourselves. We have, in other words, to accept and live as a community of selves.
As it is for Arjuna the beleaguered hero, so is it with beleaguered nation-states and confused technocrats. The modern nation-state harbours still an anxiety so deep that it points to its primordial origins and its murky roots in a past that it wishes to forget. Again and again the nation-building project sets itself upon the weakest of foundations, be they artificial histories or instrumental myths of creation that attempt to disguise the confusion and chaos of their genesis. States and nations lie, again in the Nietzschean sense, to escape the prospect of having the mirror of history pointed squarely in their faces; and to be reminded of the mythological seats of their birth. Like children who refuse to grow up, they attempt to escape and are tempted to deny their own agency in their auto-genesis. They deny their authorial responsibility in the writing of their own – often lopsided, narrow and simplified – histories.
The challenge that remains before the modern nation-state today, living as we do at a time when the project of Modernity itself has come under question and in a world where myths are dying all around us, is to admit to its own mythological origins and its fictional identity. The nation-state has to grow up, and like Arjuna, realise that the writing of the national narrative is necessarily a process that is complex, confusing and contradictory; and to learn to live in a confused and complex world. Only then can we say that the nation-state has reached adulthood, only then can we say that we live in a nation that is mature.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; and one of the founders of the http://www.othermalaysia.org research site.