IN THE 27TH section of the Mahabharata called the ‘Dyuta Parva’, the poet-editor Vyasa sets stage for the great cataclysmic war through the most commonplace but vengeful of plot devices: humiliation. This doesn’t come courtesy the gods or human intrigue but from failing to interpret the structure of reality. Right before this event transpires, Vyasa describes in detail how Maya, an architect of the danavas, had built a 10,000-cubit assembly hall for the Pandavas in the shape of a vimana. Thereafter, in order to announce to the world that they—the Pandava brothers aided by their confederacy of allies—were the greatest of the overlords, the Pandavas successfully conducted an opulent rajasuya yajña (Krishna calls it ‘supreme among sacrifices’) in which Yudhishthira is declared emperor. All this sets stage for what should have been the glorious years of Pandava rule. But the serpent in that garden of Indraprastha arrives in the form of a cognitive failure.
After the rajasuya sacrifice is over, only Duryodhana and his villainous uncle Shakuni stay back. In a fit of architectural connoisseurship, Duryodhana decides to explore Maya’s hall and there, in the middle of his tours, upon seeing a pool of water, he lifts his clothes to avoid getting drenched. The waterbody turns out to be a floor made up of crystals. Suddenly, no longer sure about the very grounds on which he stood, Duryodhana continues his excursion only to then come across a floor of crystals, onto which he steps confidently only to misread the situation and fall into a pool of water. Seeing his discomfort and inability to distinguish what is real and what an illusion, the servants in the hall laugh at Duryodhana. Before long, Bhima, Arjuna and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva join them and ‘burst out in laughter’ seeing their great rival-cousin scamper away in disgust at himself and those who mocked him. On his way out, yet again, Duryodhana mistakes closed doors for open ones, bangs his head and makes himself an object of derision. In due course Duryodhana leaves Indraprastha, inflamed by a sense of inferiority and humiliation. Vyasa tells us that ‘evil thoughts were seeded in King Duryodhana’s mind’. Later, to describe his own sense of impotent fury, Duryodhana confides to his uncle, ‘I am drying up like a shallow pond in the hot season.’
In the hands of Vyasa, this moment becomes a psychological spur; a cascade of self-loathing offers itself up as a reason to summon the furies of resentment that had been burbling up in Duryodhana for a long time. The result of what follows are the events that colour the epic—the game of dice, the disrobing of Draupadi, the exile of the Pandavas, the Great War itself and ultimately the unseating of political power itself in Hastinapura. If we were to adopt what the Greek historian Thucydides called the ‘proximate’ and ‘ultimate’ causes to explain the Mahabharata war, this moment of the ‘Dyuta Parva’ where the failure to know what is real and what a mere emanation is an instructive candidate as an ultimate cause. Also implicit is the relationship between the fates of political power, be it monarchies or republics, and the ability of its helmsmen to distinguish between reality and representation.
Over the past two decades, the conspiratorial wing of American polity has steadily made inroads into the mainstream. Traditional politicians, especially on the Republican side, increasingly find it difficult to counter the dynamic where these tumour-like infestations in the mind of the body politic make any kind of nuance in discourse impossible
Share this on
In ancient Roman literature, the polymath Pliny tells us about an artist called Parrhasius who drew some curtains in so vivid a manner that another painter Zeuxis asked for the curtains to be drawn apart so that he could see the painting, thus failing to recognise that the curtains were the paintings. Verisimilitude—the ability to represent life with high fidelity—therefore becomes the essence of painting as an art. But more importantly, Pliny uses forms of the verb ‘repraesentare’ to describe the very act of ‘bringing something back to the present by way of a likeness’. ‘Repraesentare’ had increasingly begun to be used as a supplement to the more portent-filled phrase ‘gerere personam’. The latter was used, perhaps most prominently by Cicero, who referred to ‘gerere personam civitas’ when talking about the civic magistrates who ruled over the city as judicial officers. What Cicero formalised through close reasoning was that the ‘civitas’ (the commonwealth) was a formal institution and the magistrates were individuals who were entrusted the charge of acting in its name. The ‘representare’—that which brings the unseen to the fore—began to be transformed from an aesthetic technique deployed by the arts to a descriptor of the juridical process by which a group or a person began to speak for the whole. By the time Christianity swept through Europe and the church became a corporate body with well-defined hierarchies, senior priests often ended up consoling their parishioners that their needs would be looked after by someone who ‘represents’ the church’s authority. The political theorist Quentin Skinner, who writes about this semantic shift from ‘gerere personam’ to ‘repraesentare’, notes that this had also led to some confusion about how to instantiate ‘representation’. He notes that Lord Cornbury, who was the governor of New York and New Jersey in early 18th century, was in two minds about whether, as a true representative of Queen Anne of England, he should commence the proceedings of the state assembly in a woman’s dress. Nearly a millennium after the church fathers, the great early modern political theorist Thomas Hobbes articulated a theory of the commonwealth wherein a group of people elected or anointed a sovereign, who then spoke and acted on behalf of the commonwealth. In all of this, the original idea of ‘repraesentare’ makes frequent return in two forms: one, the governed have to be convinced that government, like some painter, ‘brings to fore’ the underlying will of the people; and two, both must agree on what constitute the realities of the world.
For the first time, however, many of the world’s major democracies have a substantial number of their populace who simply don’t agree on what constitutes the underlying reality—and more perniciously actively deny the causalities and correlations that governs our collective worldview. Over the past two decades, the conspiratorial wing of American polity has steadily made inroads into the mainstream. Irrespective of the event at hand—from the bombing of the Federal Bureau of Investigation building in Oklahoma in 1995 to 9/11 to the school shootings in Sandy Hook in 2012 to the Covid-19 pandemic—a steady swell of online support for conspiracy theories has finally risen to the fore. Vast archipelagoes of believers in various theories now exist and propagate their unsubstantiated claims to fellow believers. Where previously there was an effort to string together a narrative of possibilities that involved governmental secrecy and evil elites, by the 2020 election season all pretensions of a ‘theory’ have been done with. Currently, a movement that calls itself QAnon, which usually thrived in the rabbit holes of the internet, has now emerged into the open, affecting elections and choosing representatives. Their stridency in public meetings is matched only by the obduracy of their assertions that make them unresponsive to reason and evidence. These include claims such as the ‘lizard people control the world’ or ‘Hillary Clinton is Satan’ or ‘masks against the coronavirus is the beginning of Shariah law’; any effort to refute is further evidence of another underlying conspiracy. Traditional politicians, especially on the Republican side, increasingly find it difficult to counter the dynamic where these tumour-like infestations in the mind of the body politic make any kind of nuance or subtlety in discourse impossible. On occasion, men have armed themselves and decided to ‘rid’ the world of evils they have been told persists by industrial-grade fantasists. Much of this is fanned by social media virulence that spreads easily on the internet, which is monetised by a few individual and corporate players who see dollar signs and political power by becoming purveyors of discontent. But there is a deeper and more complex set of discontents in play as well.
Karl Popper famously said that the conspiratorial view of the world began with Homer, who thought of the gods as the prime movers of all that happened in Troy. Everything happens in the Homeric world because the gods have conspired on Mount Olympus. This view is pregnant with the inevitable question: what happens if we remove the gods from this worldview? The framework remains but new prime-movers must be found. In an age of secularisation, the answer has inevitably become ‘sinister pressure groups’ who orchestrate all the evils of the world. A fever of this sort has become a staple of the American mainstream, which in turn has brought to its highest seat of power a ‘conspiracy theoretician’ of the greatest calibre who is a master of dog-whistles, conspiracy theories and callous obfuscation. The result is a growing cognitive chasm about what constitutes reality and increasingly whether the ground on which the American republic stands is water or crystal.