In the Bhagavad Gita the blind king, Dhritarashtra, and his secretary Sanjaya form the bookends for the dialog between Krishna and Arjuna. In the manner of epic poetry the drama of the Gita’s two protagonists is a narrative within a narrative within a narrative (etc). The blind king is the father of the brother-warriors opposing Arjuna and is therefore the father of those who oppose Bhagwan Sri Krishna (otherwise known, within the text, as an incarnation of god on earth).
Dhritarashtra longs to know what is happening on the battlefield where he fears his sons will die. He asks his secretary, a seer, to tell him the fate of his sons and to describe the human theatre unfolding on the battlefield. The story of Arjuna’s crisis on the field of kurukshetra is therefore narrated by Sanjaya, who closes his eyes and through mystic insight becomes a nearly omniscient witness to the dialog between the warrior and the god-man.
Sanjaya closes his eyes in order to see a truth that the king is blind to. There are many exegetical analyses that argue for Dhritarashtra’s blindness as a metaphor for a deeper psychic impairment. The evidence for this can be found in an earlier chapter of the Mahabharata (the master narrative, or epic, in which the Gita is one small portion). The god-man, Krishna, visits the blind king for negotiations (pre-kurukshetra battle) and for a brief moment the king has an insight: his visitor might be divine. Following this intuitive thread the king prays silently within his heart to see, just once, the splendor of an avatar (an incarnation of Vishnu). He asks for his eyes to be healed. A voice responds sweetly within his chest: I don’t need to heal your eyes for you to see. Your true blindness lies in your heart. For a moment I will remove the veil covering your inner vision.
For a moment the blind king saw god.
Sanjaya had true sight, while his king lacked internal vision. These bookends to the main narrative provide a context for the ‘song of god.’ The message of the Gita is a transcendent truth, one understood with inner vision, not with the flesh.
To Pluck Out
In a recent discussion here on YogaBrains, Matthew Remski drew out the following explication: “Towards its material source, consciousness is Oedipal: killing its father, raping its mother, and then tearing its eyes out in shame.” But why the eyes? It was the eyes, as we learn in Oedipus Tyrannus that first betrayed him. Oedipus is told over and over again that “though you have sight, you do not see what evil you are in, nor where you dwell, nor with whom.” Sometimes it is a blind man who tells him this. Oedipus no longer wants to see the things that bring him grief. But he also no longer desires to be deluded. He wants true vision, for his eyes were blind to the truth and they deceived him. He tore out his eyes to rid himself of the deceptor.
Looking back to Socrates we find a similar theme. In Phaedo, he says, “I was afraid that my psukh? (soul) might be blinded altogether if I looked at things with my eyes or tried by the help of the senses to apprehend them.” The eyes are deceptive acting as more than impediments to the soul but as a manifestation of spiritual blindness.
Later in Phaedo, Socrates asks of his disciples (in the methodology bearing his name) regarding the true essence of things (or absolute truths)
Has the reality of them ever been perceived by you through the bodily organs? Or rather, is not the nearest approach to the knowledge of their several natures made by him who so orders his intellectual vision as to have the most exact conception of the essence of that which he considers? And he attains to the knowledge of them in their highest purity who goes to each of them with the mind alone, not allowing when in the act of thought the intrusion or introduction of sight or any other sense in the company of reason, but with the very light of the mind in its clearness penetrates into the very fight of truth in each; he has got rid, as far as he can, of eyes and ears and of the whole body, which he conceives of only as a disturbing element, hindering the psukh? from the acquisition of knowledge when in company with it—is not this the sort of man who, if ever man did, is likely to attain the knowledge of existence?
Again, he says, the philosopher “has got rid, as far as he can, of eyes and ears and of the whole body, which he conceives of only as a disturbing element, hindering the psukh? (soul) from the acquisition of knowledge.”
The eyes must be extracted. One must become blind.
In the Hindu tradition we have our own exemplar of self-mutilation, Bilva, a former prostitute hunter turned traveling monk. Finding, after years of severe ascetic practice, that his eyes were still distracted by the beauty of the external world he cut them out with wooden pegs. Once blind he finally saw.
The Ground of Dreams
When Socrates closed his eyes awareness did not go away. More importantly, he still saw. This was a mystery to him. As it was a mystery to the Vedantins. They imagined that there must be more than one world—a deceptive world of the eyes and another (truer) internal one. The invention of the soul may have its origins in our capacity for self-reflection, and even more significantly our ability to dream with our eyes closed.
Rendering themselves ostracized by both Hindus and Buddhists the Carvakans maintained that inferences based upon self-reflection were shoddy at best when it came to synthesizing ontologies. We now know that even in dreamless sleep the brain is still operating, it is still alive. When we sleep the body does not enter a state of complete suspended animation. When we dream it is a function of the brain, not an action of consciousness independent of biology. In fact, our capacity for awareness is not isolatable from body, world, or brain. It appears that the Carvakans, after all, were correct. (I discuss many of these ideas in greater depth here.)
But there are still those captivated by the paranoia of the old idealisms. Some have wondered if the world disappears when we close our eyes, if the external world were nothing but a figment of the imagination. Many Hindus believe that the world is a dream in the mind of god. The great disavowal, the retreat from the eyes, leads not only to idealism (like Socrates, like the Vedantins, like the Buddhists who don’t like to admit it) but more often than not to the paranoia of an unconscious solipsism. It leads to loneliness and isolation, imprisonment within an insular and deluded remaking of the world. It is to isolate oneself until nothing exists other than one’s own awareness. Such subtraction is an act of self-mutilation. It is Oedipal in the sense that it destroys the fabric of family and all other body connections, divorcing one from intimacy and ultimately mutual love. It makes one an orphan, for all that exists is one’s own mind. It is, as Remski said, a form of patricide, defiling and rejecting the very world that made us. It is to become like Oedipus, a prisoner of his own skull-sized kingdom, blind to the world.
But there is another question nagging me at the edges of this reimagining (a feeble attempt to reconstruct the origins of our ocular-distrust): Why this valuation? Why choose to believe that the world experienced inside is the realer one?
A cursory review might say that we are natural solipsists, that our own experience of the world is more real to us than the world itself. Psychologically it is easier to believe than the alternative—the world is bigger, badder, and stronger than us and we are at its disposal rather than the other way around. There are reams of psychological speculations about this very quality of the human animal that could support this assertion. Attending this tentative observation is another, simpler explanation: in one version we are saved from death, in the other we are doomed to it. Most of us will choose the former, the one that says our dreams are reality.