Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Et tu, Brute?

The phrase that has come to signify the ultimate betrayal bears close resemblance to another momentous one-liner – ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’. The likeness lies in the fact that in all the 4 novels and 56 short stories penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, these words were never uttered by the legendary sleuth. However, Holmes often did qualify his conclusions as ‘elementary’ – something that continued to fascinate Watson even towards the end of his association with the world’s only ‘consulting detective’. A common exchange between the two friends would be something on the lines of:
“Remarkable,” I cried.
“Elementary,” he said.
*Awesomeness ensues*

The titular phrase under scrutiny here is purportedly credited to Gaius Julius Caesar. It is claimed that at the time of his assassination, Caesar had initially resisted his attackers but when he saw Brutus, a close friend, amongst them, he resigned himself to his fate. A little bit of detective work made it pretty obvious to me that there can be no certain record of Caesar’s last words. Close circuit TV cameras were still not the rage, after all. Moreover, Caesar was more likely to express his despair in Greek than Latin. Indeed, the phrase came into popular usage after being used as the first half of a macaronic (text spoken or written using a mixture of languages) line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – “Et tu brute? Then fall, Caesar!” Shakespeare, though, is often credited with too much originality. He was simply making use of a phrase that was in a common use during his time – it appears in other contemporary English and Latin plays.

So, we can conclude, within the bounds of reason, that there is no way to ascertain whether Caesar uttered those words just before succumbing to his wounds. But why chose Brutus, the son to Caesar’s mistress? Why not the 60 other conspirators who publicly stabbed the great Roman general not less than 23 times? More importantly, does he deserve the carry the burden of this stigma? A little crash course in history of the fall of the Roman Republic will serve to put things in perspective.

Julius Caesar emerged on the political scene of Rome by forming an alliance, the First Triumvirate, with Crassus and Pompey. Their attempts to amass political power through populist tactics (Advani and Modi would be modern Indian equivalents) were opposed by the conservative elite, the chief amongst them being Cato and Cicero, the famed orator. However, after his victory in the Gallic Wars (fought from 58 BC to 51 BC), Caesar’s military and political clout had begun to worry even his closest allies. Not to mention that the spoils of war added tremendous amount of wealth to his coffers. When Julia, Caesar's daughter and Pompey's wife, died during child birth, the familial bonds between the two were broken and the Triumvirate tottered on the edge of extinction. The death of Crassus in 53 BC proved to be the final blow. The balance of power shifted irrevocably in Caesar’s favour, prompting a standoff between him and Pompey.

In 50 BC, at the instigation of Pompey, Cesar was charged with war crimes, asked to disband his armies, and appear before the Roman Senate. Since his term as the Governor of Gaul was coming to an end, this meant that he could be tried as a private citizen, sans the legal immunity he enjoyed as the Governor of a province. Therefore, he got his general and close confidante, Mark Antony, elected to the post of Tribune of the Plebs (Plebs refers to the Proletariat or the working class of the Roman society). As the Tribune, Antony had veto power over any motion passed by the Senate. However, when he tried to veto the motion seeking to brand Caesar as an enemy of the state, he was violently expelled from the Senate. This move proved to be the proverbial final straw and caused Caesar to advance on Rome with a single legion – Thirteenth Legion. When he crossed the Rubicon (a river close to Rome) in 49 BC, he ignited the first civil war in Rome. Pompey and his supporters fled the city, even though they had significantly larger reserves of armed forces.

Leaving the charge of administering Rome to Mark Antony, Caesar pursued set himself to the task of pursuing and overpowering his opponents. After barely avoiding a catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Dyrrhachium (48 BC), he was finally able to rout the last of Pompey’s forces at the Battle of Pharsalus later that year. It was after this decisive victory that Cato and Scipio, two other major adversaries of Caesar, fled to Africa while Brutus and Cicero surrendered themselves, having lost their faith in the Pompeian faction. Caesar, eager to appear as a merciful leader, pardoned them and even appointed Brutus as the Governor of Gaul. Later, he would nominate Brutus as his heir in his will were Octavius, the primary successor, to die before Brutus. After several minor and major battles in Africa and Egypt, Caesar finally returned to Rome in 46 BC and was appointed as the Dictator for a period of ten years.

Here, it should be kept in mind that the office of the Dictator was a legal position decreed by the Senate and aimed at granting absolute authority to perform tasks beyond the influence of normal officials. The office granted Caesar sweeping powers in matters of political and military administration and holding this post he governed autocratically, more in the manner of a general than a politician. He got the Senate to shower him with triumphs (public ceremonies celebrating his military victories) and even allowed his statues be decorated like those of Roman Gods. Many Romans found these triumphs to be in poor taste as those defeated in the civil wars had been fellow Romans and not foreign rivals. That, however, did little to dissuade Caesar. Having little regard for political structure, he ruled almost by whim. Reluctant and offending officials were brought before the Senate and divested of their office. Naturally, his autocratic methods alienated him from many patricians (or members of the nobility).

This is not to say that he was least concerned about the welfare of his people or sought to establish a dynasty. He followed a policy of clemency and granted pardon to all those who had opposed him, refusing even to confiscate their property. He sought to repair the chaotic and dysfunctional machinery of the Roman Republic where army and not the constitution had become the means to achieve political ends. He wanted to restore peace in the empire by creating a strong central government in Rome that could reign in the truant provinces. He instituted a large array of political and social reforms that were both sound and far sighted. For instance, he resolved the debt crisis facing the Republic, resettled war veterans abroad without dispossessing land owners, ensured a steady supply of grain from Egypt, introduced the Julian calendar, and enlarged the Senate so as to include representatives from the outlying provinces.

However, power is inherently corrupting. So when Caesar was named Dictator perpetuo or Dictator in perpetuation in 44 BC, it proved to be the final push that his enemies needed. They feared he had become a tyrant and would soon turn the republic into a monarchy. Guided by the Latin motto ‘Sic simper tyrannis’ or ‘Thus always to tyrants’, Brutus was persuaded to wield the knife as a symbolic gesture for the people of Rome – his ancestors had been one of the founding fathers of the Republic. Public sentiment was an important consideration as Caesar saw himself as a leader of the people despite his aristocratic origins.

On the Ides of March – March 15, 44 BC – Caesar was due to appear at the Senate. Mark Antony, who had vaguely learnt of the plot the night before, set out to warn his friend before it was too late. But he was intercepted on the steps leading up to the portico of the Theatre of Pompey, the venue for the session. It is believed that the first strike had come from Casca, who pulled down Caesar’s tunic and struck him with a knife. But Caesar was able to turn around quickly and evade the blow. Within moments, however, nearly 60 Liberatores, including Brutus, went to work on the dictator and continued stabbing until he was dead. Opinion among historians and scholars as to what actually transpired on that fateful day remains divided. Plutarch, a Greek historian, reports that Caesar said nothing but simply pulled his toga over his head when he saw Brutus amongst his killers. He also writes that after the assassination Brutus had stepped forward, as if to say something, but had been unable to do so. The conspirators had then marched in the streets of the capital, rejoicing the tyrannicide and the 'rebirth' of the republic.

In the light of these facts, one is forced to reconsider one’s stance. Was Brutus not caught in the same dilemma as his peers? Did he seek power, something he was unable to enjoy in the aftermath of the assassination, or was he merely trying to do the difficult thing? Is he not the greater tragic hero? In another universe, his betrayal might be considered the supreme sacrifice – an act of selflessness that put the good of his people above the welfare of his friend and family. But then again, poetic justice demands that someone bear the cross of life’s cruel irony. It is fitting that Brutus, who was almost as a son to Caesar, should find himself torn between love and duty and carry the burden of his choice for the rest of eternity.

Sources: Julius Caesar: Historical Background (http://www.vroma.org/~bmcmanus/caesar.html), countless Wikipedia articles, and Rome (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0384766/)

Monday, August 01, 2011

Wife Sharing and Other Stories

A king that is conquered must see strange looks, so bitter a thing is the heart of man.
Dusk, says Saki, is the hour of the defeated. Harried men and women, who have fought and lost life’s battles, come out in this half light so that they can hide their misfortunes from the scrutinising eyes of those who inhabit the realm of bright lights and cheerful laughter, the land of hope and glory lying just beyond the sheltering shade of droopy shoulders and disappointed eyes. Though such a meticulous murder of one of the most phenomenonal hours of the day demands a categorical reply, I shall reserve it for a later date, concentrating at this hour on recounting an episode when such a setting not only stimulated my intellect but also numbed the more primal of my instincts. And that, my friends, happens very rarely.

About two years ago, I had shared an exceptional Delhi dusk with the lovely Chandni on an unremarkable bench in a nondescript park situated somewhere close to the bevy of lights that is one of the favourite haunts of the rich and fashionable elite of the city — the M-Block Market in Greater Kailash. The lamps had, in due consideration of my repressed desires, refused to come on and the handful of over enthusiastic joggers were in a world of their own, oblivious to any misdemeanours on my part. Although my companion had fixed her stare on a faraway tree and looked sufficiently poignant, I was quite aware of a third eye that was making a mental note of all the uncalled for expressions that were playing a game of carom on my face.

In such a romantically charged setting, I thought it opportune to unburden myself off of my thoughts on such diverse subjects as Che Guevara’s brand of communism, Niyoga, and the greatest story ever told — Mahabharata. As my companion patiently bore this brutal assault on her patience, her reluctance to be challenged intellectually and her eagerness to plant the proverbial slap across my face was, fortunately, lost on me in that hour of gloaming. And as my verbal diarrhoea splattered itself across several continents and millennia, the exasperation of my escort reached a crescendo; till she could no longer feign ignorance and politely suggested that it was getting too late.

Reading the very readable Dusk by Saki, I revisited that evening and realised how a more fashionable man could have very easily had the face instead of the palm. However, the subjects of our conversation interest me equally even today and I am forced to wonder if I wouldn’t regale another unsuspecting victim with the same practiced banter. Now that I have emptied myself of this feeling of remorse, I shall proceed to rekindle my ill-fated companion’s interest in these archaic topics and find out if her hands still itch for revenge every time she finds herself sharing a grey dusk with another pseudo-intellectual or if she has forgiven me for putting her through such a gruesome ordeal.

Niyoga, literally meaning delegation and known in some frivolous circles as wife sharing, is an ancient Vedic tradition wherein a woman, whose husband was incapable of producing an heir by reason of death or impotency, would request and appoint a person for helping her bear a child. As per Manu Smriti, the man chosen for this task should either be an immediate family member, such as the husband’s brother, or a highly revered member of the society, such as a Brahmin or a Deva. However, there was a lot of fine text enjoined under this practice. The couple could not engage in the sexual act for the sake of pleasure since this was an act of Dharma, implying an impassive and emotionally detached union. The infant thus born was referred to as Kshetraga and considered the child of the husband-wife and not the provider of seed. Moreover, the appointed person could not seek any parental relationship with the child in the future as he was simply fulfilling his duty or Dharma. However, just in case a poor man’s temptation got the better of him, the Vedas also lay down that no man can perform Niyoga for more than three times in his life.

Our friendly religious epic, Mahabharata, is replete with cases of charitable Brahmins impregnating obedient (though often not willing) queens in order to oblige heirless kingdoms. So when Vichitravirya died without any sons, his mother Satyavati approached his half-brothers to do the needful. But since Bheeshma had already taken the terrible oath, the task fell upon Ved Vyasa, Satyavati’s son from before she was married to Shantanu. As a result of this coitus, Pandu, the pale, was born to Ambika, who had turned white out of fear, while Ambalika bore the blind Dhritarashtra, apparently because she had closed her eyes after seeing the formidable form of the sage. When even after the passage of an entire year since neither Ambika nor Ambalika were willing to have a second go at Vyasa’s famed sexual prowess (I wage a lonely war in sticking by this conclusion), they sent a maid in their place, who gave birth to a healthy Vidura. Even Pandavas, the legitimate heirs to the throne of Hastinapur, were borne out of a special mantra which allowed Kunti to invoke the Gods in order to perform this favour.

The practice is not unique to Hinduism or India and the somewhat similar tradition of levirate marriages — Yibbum — is mandated by the Torah wherein a brother is obliged to marry the widow of his childless deceased brother, with the first born being treated as the heir of the deceased brother and not the genetic father. However, if either of the parties chooses to opt out of the marriage, both are required to go through a ceremony called halizah, wherein they publicly renounce their right to Yibbum. The rite involves taking off of a brother-in-law’s shoe by the widow whereby he is symbolically released from the obligation to marry her and she is free to marry whomsoever she desires. Most Jewish communities have seen a gradual decline of Yibbum in favour of halizah. A similar custom is, nevertheless, still prevalent in some parts of Punjab and Haryana where it is known by such names as “Latta Odhna” and “Chadar Dhakna”.

As with all such religious customs, it is quite easy to see that it is convenience rather than divine will that dictates such norms. So while Niyoga allowed a king to produce a legitimate heir and keep the genealogical tree alive through slightly suspicious means, with women being relegated to very restricted roles in most agrarian societies, practices like levirate marriages insured that the ancestral property would remain in the family of the deceased. Moreover, inheriting the wife also meant that the children, if any, would be taken care of, something that couldn’t be taken for granted where the mother to marry a complete stranger. It is ironical to note that the very texts that fundamentalists quote from in order to champion their restricted understanding of culture and heritage also make them fall flat on their feet. For even if these epics were not produced by divine decree, they reflect the prevalent customs and traditions at some point in our history. Who are they, then, to uphold one ‘culture’ and decry the other?

“For if Arjuna was not the greatest archer in the world, who was he?”
Niyoga is just one specific example but the reason that I remain hooked to Mahabharata is its mercilessly questioning tone, a cruel sense of irony, and the moral ambiguity that plagues almost all its characters. I believe that it is this very moral grey zone that has allowed modern story tellers to recount the tale from so mant distinct perspectives. No wonder, thus, that in Kamala Subramaniam’s rendition of the epic, Duryodhana is portrayed as a Shakespearean tragic hero, doomed because of a fatal flaw in his character — his hamartia. Even Yudhisthira, when he eventually becomes Dharmaraj, does so “not by divine right but by slowly, painfully accepting the many weaknesses in his character and finding ways to overcome them”. Stripped of this divine aura that has threatened to cloud its message, the epic might actually have more to teach us than what we bargained for in the first place.

Unlike Ramayana, Mahabharata does not come across as a well defined battle of good versus evil. Iravati Karve, author of the exceptional Yuganta, writes that the original Jaya was one of the “last examples of pragmatism in Indian literature, something that was consequently lost in the dreamy escapism of Bhakti tradition”. If I were allowed to be a little more spiritual, I would probably say that understanding these dilemmas and making sense of them in the context of my own life is perhaps the motivating force behind all my reading on this subject. The questions of self-doubt, identity, and duty — all so crucial to a through understanding of this ancient poem — are just as significant today as they were four thousand years ago. Religious bigots might try to interpret the text in order to suit their narrow purposes but the concept of Dharma, which is the heart and soul of the epic, “is not only untranslatable, but the Mahabharata’s characters are still trying to figure it out at the end”. All we can do is learn from their efforts and hope that we do not fritter away our lives reinventing the wheel.

Inspired by: Dusk by Saki, this excellent post by Jabberwock, and some inopportune conversations on a half-lit evening.
Quotes from: Saki, Yuganta, The Great Golden Sacrifice, and The Difficulty of Being Good.