Glossary (in order of appearance):

Espanola, New Mexico: Small town in the South Western state of New Mexico in the US. Trivia fact: Yogi Bhajan had his headquarters there. New Mexico is also the site of the first nuclear test and infamous for UFO sightings.

Mahabharata, Jaya: Names for the Mahabharata, the epic about which I am writing for a year.

Matthew: One of the Christian gospels.

Drona: Preceptor of the Kauravas and Pandavas. Slighted by Drupada.

Drupada: King of the Pancalas. Father of Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandavas.

Ekalavya: Tribal prince, perhaps the most talented bowsman in the world. Drona first rejected him and then asked for his thumb as Guru Dakshina, the offering to one’s guru.

Karna: Oldest Pandava, born in questionable circumstances and was abandoned by his mother Kunti (also the birth mother of three of the five Pandavas). Brought up by a charioteer, becomes Duryodhana’s right hand man.

Draupadi: Wife of the five Pandavas whose hand was won by Arjuna.

Krishna: Eighth avatar of Vishnu, dear friend and charioteer of Arjuna.

Visvarupa: The cosmic view of Krishna as the lord of the universe.

Yudhisthira: Oldest of the official Pandavas, born to Kunti and Yama/Dharma, the god of Death. known for his honesty and uprightness.

Duryodhana: Oldest of the Kauravas, man of great appetites and great generosity.

Arjuna: Youngest of Kunti’s children, born to Kunti and Indra, the king of the gods. Greatest warrior of all.

Gandhi: M.K. Gandhi, iconic figure, leader of the Indian independence struggle.

Kisa Gotami: Orphaned woman whose child is killed by a snake. One of the Buddha’s first female disciples.

Buddha: Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Best known Indian ever.

Trishanku: King who wants to ascend to heaven in his own body. Fails big time.

Ravana: Bad guy in the other great itihasa, the Ramayana.

Ultimatum Game: Important game in behavioral economics.

Kurukshetra: site of the great battle in the Mahabharata.


I was in New Mexico for much of the summer of 2004, staying near Espanola in a beautiful hacienda with a large courtyard. The walls of the courtyard were red and white stucco, matching the dryness outside the compound. The New Mexico landscape had a minimal beauty — scrubland with deep fissures that looked like a frozen stormy ocean. I would take long walks in the dryness, undulating along with the land, listening to the wind and wondering what it would be like to die and have ones bones bake into the earth. Then there was the sky. It was breathtaking. I once saw simultaneous rainbows framed by thunderstorms in opposing quadrants as the sun beat down the middle. No wonder so many UFOs land in that desert. The landscape sent my subconscious into overdrive. One night, I dreamt of a five foot hole in the corner of the courtyard guarded by a giant spider. As I approached the hole, the gatekeeper stepped aside and let me in. Past the hallway was a warren of interlinked rooms filled with treasures, each having its own minder. It was a museum of the unconscious that went on for miles. Over that summer I dreamt again and again of that spider’s web, visiting several rooms in open wonder.

The Mahabharata reminds me of that underground museum. “Ask and ye shall receive” says the bible (Matthew 7:7) and in that spirit, the epic rewards the patient explorer with insight. The Mahabharata also challenges the virtue of mere asking at every step. Drona asks for his fair share from Drupada and is mocked for doing so; how can a mere brahmin ask a king for a share of the kingdom? In turn, Drona rejects Ekalavya; how can a mere tribal approach the king’s preceptor for his teachings? The outsider has to pay a heavy price. Karna, the chief outsider in the epic, is rejected again and again. He is spurned by the Pandavas, pushing him firmly into the Kaurava camp. Finally, even Krishna is rebuffed when Yudhisthira sends him to the Kurus for a last attempt at a diplomatic resolution. Karna aids Duryodhana in his spectacular rejection of the Pandava offer. Rejection begets rejection as the epic moves towards its fratricidal conclusion.

Asking is hard, even when the ask is rightfully mine. The bitterness of denial is hard to swallow. You see that in Drona as he makes the Pandavas subdue Drupada for his guru dakshina. You see that in Duryodhana’s violence toward Draupadi. He remembers her rejection during the swayamvara. The Jaya layers one insult upon another as accumulated slights lead toward war.

When polite requests don’t produce results, we resort to threats and ultimatums. Krishna knows that well. He reveals his Visvarupa twice in the Mahabharata; once after the talks with the Kauravas fail and once during the Bhagavad Gita. The first revelation occurs after Duryodhana rejects the Pandavas request for five villages. The second revelation occurs after Arjuna refuses to fight. While the Pandava’s final offer is absurdly low, it’s also an ultimatum for war. Duryodhana rejects the offer, upon which Krishna reveals his Visvarupa. Despite the cosmic vista, Duryodhana is deaf to the voice of reason. War is now inevitable. Krishna’s response reminds of the line in the Godfather (the book, not the movie) when Don Corleone leaves the bargaining table saying “I can’t reason with him.” That’s the signal for inevitable bloodshed. Arjuna rejecting his duty to fight is another ultimatum, though in doing so, Arjuna hopes to prevent war. While Krishna doesn’t say so explicitly, it’s obvious he’s saying “Look, I too tried to sue for peace and failed. What do you expect to achieve by laying down arms?” You never know; many centuries later, Gandhi achieved much by fasting, which too is an ultimatum.

Ultimatums are terrible weapons; words with greater consequences than arrows and missiles. They are democratic weapons, as valuable to the powerless as they’re to the powerful. Words with such power have to be treated with great respect. It’s rare to see such respect, which is why I love the Kisa Gotami story. Gautama’s interaction with Kisa Gotami is one of the more dramatic encounters in the Buddha’s life, conveying deep sympathy for the plight of women while imparting a fundamental lesson.

Kisa Gotami was an orphan who achieved success by marrying into a wealthy family. How did an orphan manage to do that? The story says that the patriarch of the family noticed her great piety and gave his son in marriage to her. I wonder. Some of these ancient tales exaggerate the rise and fall of great beings. The Buddha was a world conquering king before he became a wandering sage. Asoka kills his enemies by the millions before he repents. One wonders if these are facts or dramatic license. Whatever.

Life was on the upswing for Kisa Gotami when her first born son dies after being bitten by a snake; you can only imagine what that means both as a mother losing a child and as an Indian woman losing her male child. Especially a woman who had worked hard to improve her lot. The loss and the fear must have been overpowering. The grief-stricken Gotami comes to the Buddha in great distress, demanding that he bring her son back to life. Ultimatum number three in this essay goes somewhat like this:

Kisa Gotami (dead son in her arms): blessed one, please revive my boy! Buddha: bring me a handful of mustard seeds and I will do so. KG: Sure! Buddha: Except that the seeds should come from a house that hasn’t lost a child, a husband, a parent or a friend.

You can hear echoes of the Buddha’s lesson in Jesus’ exhortation “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

Of course, Gotami fails in her task. Everywhere she goes, she hears the same lament of loss and suffering. Life is precious precisely because it is always slipping away. As Yudhisthira says — to his father Dharma disguised as a yaksa — there’s nothing more eye-opening than the reality of our passing and our denial of that fact. Instead of facing our impermanence directly, we blame the messenger. We hold on to our possessions with ferocity as if we can ship them to the afterworld.

Heaven and Earth

Life in this world. Life in the eternal. The Chinese have a saying that humans are stuck between heaven and earth. The story of Trishanku from the other great itihasa makes that saying even more vivid — having failed ascending to heaven in his earthly body and protected by a great sage’s ardor from falling down to a certain death, Trishanku is literally stuck between celestial and temporal spheres.

The dharma traditions, of which both the Buddha and the Mahabharata are high points, are deeply insightful about the dialectic between relative wellbeing and the ultimate nature of freedom. Relative wellbeing is absolutely crucial; we are creatures of flesh and blood that need food, shelter and love. As parents, siblings and friends, we desire that our loved ones grow up to be happy and prosperous. At the same time the tradition warns us about the impermanence of existence. Too much attachment to one’s possessions leads to one of several failed states:

  1. The Trishanku fate of being stuck for ever

  2. The Duryodhana kind of genocidal war

  3. The Ravana kind of unbridled lust

The tradition counsels harmony between the relative pursuit of wealth and the absolute pursuit of freedom. Much more so in the Jaya than in the Buddha, but I read both as advocating a middle path between the temporal and the eternal. Not the specific middle path advocated by the Buddha, but a larger cultural intuition that says extreme attachment (or lack thereof) to any temporal possession is harmful. If you can’t even give away five villages out of five thousand you got a problem.

In talking about the middle path, the Mahabharata intertwines the ethical and the metaphysical. On the one hand, it shows how Duryodhana flouts every norm of fairness in rejecting every peace offerings. That’s when Krishna reveals his Visvarupa for the first time, as a marker of the ethical problem of fairness. Then, when Arjuna hands in his ultimatum, Krishna reveals his Visvarupa again, pointing out the ontological error in being too attached to one’s body. It’s the same logic revealed by the same divinity in two different realms.

Let’s stick with fairness in the temporal realm. Fairness is a subtle concept, whose complexity is masked by the fact that we have an innate grasp over it. It’s present in children all over the world (how many times have you heard a child say “no fair” or its translated equivalent) and part and parcel of our social infrastructure. The Jaya uses game-theoretic metaphors for fairness to great effect. Whenever I see someone asking for his due or gambling away his fortune in the Jaya, I feel like whipping out my copy of Von Neumann and Morgenstern. Behavioral economics has exploded in the last few decades and among its many investigations is a deep exploration of fairness. One of my favorites is the ultimatum game.

In the ultimatum game, the researcher sits two subjects — let’s call them A and B — at a table and hands A 100 rupees. He then asks A to offer B some subset of the 100 (at least 1 rupee) to B. If B accepts A’s offer, they both get to keep what they have; if B rejects A’s offer, they have to return the 100 rupees to the researcher.

So much for the setting. Here’s how a rational economist (RE) might reason about the outcome: according to the RE, A should make the smallest possible offer of 1 rupee to B and B should take that offer.


Here’s a simple answer: In the RE model of human behavior, A and B are both looking to maximize their wealth. That certainly works for A; if he offers B one rupee, he is maximizing his wealth. Further, B knows that A is a wealth maximizer and therefore, he should expect to maximize his own wealth conditional upon A’s desire to maximize his wealth. If he refuses A’s offer they both get zero, and in particular B gets zero. Since 0 < 1, B should take whatever A is willing to share.

In reality, it never happens that way. People often share close to 50% and most B’s walk away from the table if less than 30% is on offer. Moral of the story: we want our transactions to be relatively fair. Theory and practice differ dramatically.

The stripped down version above is a summary of laboratory experiments where A and B are playing for free money. No one had to work for the 100 rupees. Then why should it matter if I was offered 50% or 1% by the other guy? If I am walking on the street and see a hundred one rupee notes on the road and the wind blows 99 of them toward the person walking next to me and only one rupee toward me, I wouldn’t be upset at all if my neighbor grabbed 99% of the loot. Why am I so much more unwilling to take a free offering from another person? These are questions that gets us into deep issues about agency, of our relative judgments of chance versus causation and other philosophical issues that I can’t address in this essay. Let me stick to ultimatums.

The Leviathan

The ultimatum game is backed by an ultimatum — the researcher’s threat to take all the cash away if the participants can’t agree upon their shares. Most people seem to take that threat seriously, offering a reasonable share of the prize to their fellow player. That ultimatum is at the heart of the “Leviathan,” Hobbes’ phrase for the modern state’s monopoly over violence. According to some, the state’s capacity to enforce contracts and punish offenders is one reason we are law-abiding citizens.

If only the ultimatum game was an accurate description of reality! It’s hard to take the game seriously in a world where the richest one hundred people have more wealth than the bottom three billion. We might walk off the game show if offered less than 30% but we keep playing for less than .1% in the real world. Where did we go wrong?

As usual, the Mahabharata has some clues to the answer. In the Jaya, every ultimatum leads to more violence, not less, even when backed by the supreme backer — Lord Krishna himself. The leviathan is a failure and in showing so, Jaya teaches us the true ways of power. The average person might be happy with 50% of the pie but empires are ruled by those who want to grab the entire pie for themselves. Duryodhana rejects Krishna’s final offer because he understands the logic of his own position — his capacity to extract loyalty from Karna and Drona and endless other minor warriors and kings is dependent on his endless hunger for power and being seen so. In their eyes, Yudhisthira is a fool for settling for less. Today’s monopolistic corporations and their bosses understand that logic all too well. They know that we go to work for Jobs and Zuckerberg not despite their hunger for domination but because of their hunger for domination.

The Jaya also teaches us that imperial systems are unstable, that with all their wisdom, skill and power, empires can end in utter destruction. Seeming stability — enforced by the leviathan — is blown apart by accumulated resentment and competition. From a probabilistic point of view, the leviathan works well when the distribution doesn’t have fat tails and we can assume the law of large numbers. Indeed, much of the motivation for the taming of chance came from an interest in creating a science of governance. Be careful of the assumptions though — bad mathematical assumptions can lead to bad governance! The greatest leviathan of all is human civilization as a whole and if current trends are any indicator, we are heading for another Kurukshetra.

Originally published at