How to keep your promise without keeping it

How to keep your promise without keeping it

Representative image. Credit: Pixabay Photo

Do you remember switch-side debates in school? You know, the ones where you pick chits to find out the motion for the day and you are told to support it, and then the timer buzzes and you have to switch sides to argue vehemently against it? There is a lot of merit in such debates — they force us to understand how others think. I still remember my favourite philosophy professor chiding us for refusing to take part in a switch-side debate where one side was obviously wrong — “Are you telling me that every person in this class has descended to such intellectual poverty that they refuse to mentally entertain a position they don’t agree with?” he had asked us quietly. And we had had the debate that day!

As politics everywhere grows more and more polarised, we would do well to have switch-side debates again. It’s a very valuable skill to argue in one of these — in fact, great intellectuals in Sanskrit philosophy were called ‘sarva-tantra-svatantra’ if they could pick up any topic within any system of philosophy and prove or disprove it at will. It was a high title indeed.

Unfortunately, the people best skilled at such debates today seem to be crafty politicians — they switch allegiances to people, parties and causes so quickly. They promise the world and more, and then, we don’t even hear the buzzer sound, but their stances have changed. Election promises are, after all, meant to be broken.

Did you know that Krishna helped Arjuna set the precedent of sliding out of impulsive, foolish promises in the Mahabharata? We can title this story: How to keep your promise without keeping it. The Kurukshetra battle was raging between the Pandavas and Kauravas. Karna was the commander of the Kaurava army, and he seemed invincible. He had encountered Yudhishtira in battle and defeated him easily, and then proceeded to spare his life. The humiliated Yudhishtira was nursing his wounds back in the camp, waiting eagerly to hear the news that Arjuna, at least, had avenged the insult by killing Karna.

But Arjuna came rushing back to Yudhishtira’s camp to assure himself that his brother was well. Yudhishtira was elated at the sight of Arjuna entering his camp because he thought Karna was dead. At this point, poor Yudhishtira, already humiliated, erupted, telling Arjuna exactly what he thought of him and his fancy Gandiva bow, which Arjuna always boasted about.

Now Arjuna was incensed at the insult to the Gandiva bow, which he had acquired with great difficulty from the gods. What’s more, Arjuna had made himself a promise long ago — he would immediately kill whoever insulted his bow. Now, he would have to kill his own elder brother or break his promise!

But Krishna was ready with a rescue plan: “Insulting one’s elders is as good as killing them,” he instructed Arjuna, who then proceeded to chide Yudhishtira for never bothering to take up arms himself and, instead, insulting those who fought battles for him.

But a new problem arose — once Arjuna finished his tirade against Yudhishtira, he was overcome by remorse and wanted to end his own life, because how else would he repent for speaking rudely to his respected elder brother?

Krishna, of course, came to the rescue again — “Tooting your own horn is the absolute worst,” he said. “Do it, and you’re as good as dead.” So Arjuna praised himself to the skies, and shamefacedly stopped. Then he went back to the battle. He had kept his promise to kill Yudhishtira without really killing him.

Now we just have to hope that the politicians we know aren’t as crafty!