The Outcome of Crisis
in Hamlet and the Bhagavad Gita
by Steven Crimi
Shakespeare's Hamlet and India's Bhagavad Gita are in essence works exploring the nature of crisis as experienced within their respective cultures. Through character interaction crisis is portrayed, dissected, and thoroughly resolved in a manner displaying the radical orientation of the culture generating the text. Both Prince Hamlet and Arjuna, the prince whose dialogue with Krishna structures the Gita, suffer from indecisiveness in the midst of a call to action. They have within them the best and worst of their cultures- they are noble and flawed- but only Arjuna has access to the original vision from which culture itself is generated, and is thus able to extricate himself fully from his (and our) dilemma.
The dramatic grip that Hamlet has on western audiences has remained tense through the centuries since Elizabethan England. With countless stagings and a swamp of critical literature, few really seem able to, in his own words, "pluck out the heart of my mystery." (III,ii,351 ). This mystery is born of the very nature of man in crisis. It is a question of what makes people do what they do. These somewhat murky waters clear upon examination of the nature of crisis, the standard human condition.
Hamlet and Arjuna's crises are strikingly similar, given the thousands of years and miles separating their inceptions. Both are princes who find themselves trapped in horrible circumstance whose only resolution demands the shedding of family blood. The Sanskrit word best describing the situation is dharma , loosely translated into English as "law" or "duty." It comes from the root dhr, meaning to hold or hold together. Dharmic action is thus that which sustains the culture. This is not the culture of ephemeral trappings, but the groundwork through which man lives in the world.
At the outset of Hamlet the prince learns of his task. He must kill his uncle, King Claudius, who has just assumed the throne of Denmark upon the death of King Hamlet, Hamlet's beloved father. The dead king returns from the nether regions to inform his son that his death had not been naturally caused as had been supposed, but that he was poisoned through the ear while sleeping. The murderer was none other than Claudius, his brother upon whom the elective monarchy fell. Not only has the throne been usurped via fratricide, but the murderer soon after married the between a brother and sister-in-law was considered incestuous. Hamlet had already been melancholic due to this "o'erhasty marriage," celebrated so soon after his father's death that "the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables"(I,ii,180). Hamlet's dharma --his culturally determined course of action--is obvious. In case he is unsure, the ghastly apparition of his father is there to remind him: "If ever thou didst ever thy dear father love--revenge his foul and most unnatural murder" (I,v,23). Hamlet is bound both by cultural duty to remove a murderer from the Danish throne and by family duty to be a son to a wronged father.
Arjuna sees no such golden opportunity before him. Instead, he has particularized his vision into a perspective pitting him against "fathers and grandfathers, teachers, uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, companions, fathers-in-law and friends" (II,26-27). He is especially grieved to see his beloved teachers, Drona and Bhisma, armed against him. Pain causes his vision to narrow. Whereas he should see himself as part of a karmically determined circumstance (all past actions have brought him to this point) that he is responsible for and must act within, he experiences a subject/object dualism placing him wholly within a body that must war against teachers and cousins whom he has known since birth. They exist in separate bodies "out there." Arjuna takes this dualistic vision to heart, and he coalesces into a body that cannot act. He becomes so rigid, his body quivers with indecision: "I can scarcely remain standing, my mind is reeling. My limbs become weak, my mouth dries up, my body trembles, and my hair stands on end" (I,29-30). Circumstance arises through activity and demands response within it. This inability for Arjuna to do so literally shakes him to the core. It is the task of Krishna, who is the embodiment of cultural consciousness--culture and history incarnate, organizing and giving rise to the manifest world in the present--to move Arjuna's body out of one frozen as crisis, into a fluid one concordant with an ontological, hypostatic vision. The whole of the Bhagavad Gita is an enactment of this process, moving from a stuck perspective to the ability to discriminate many perspectives; from discnminative knowledge to a direct experience of the radical grounding vision; and finally into an ability to live through this vision.
Unfortunately for Hamlet, he has no access to a Krishna to lead him out of crisis. He lives in a society fraught with dead beliefs. The Christian churches may hold political sway, but excepting the rare mystic who would usually be regarded as a heretic, these institutions had long been divorced from the origmal living vision from which they arose. Hamlet is educated at the University of Wittenberg, a center of philosophic learning. He is a man of intellectual speculation, so much so that he cannot act in the face of a gut-wrenching situation. The play is protracted by his intellectualizations, while the crisis worsens and brutal consequences multiply.
Hamlet creates himself through his own language. He talks himself into frequent vacillations--between resounding affirmation of his duty and elaborate game playing in avoidance of it, between a fiery temper and cold dispassionateness, between madness and clairvoyance. He quickly talks himself into and out of various enterprises during the play. He pretends to don an antic disposition to deflect attention from his "real" purpose--that of killing the king--but his scenes with Ophelia show him to be more than a little affected. She describes a telling encounter to her father.
My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced,
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle;
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other
(II, i, 86-90)
Compare this with Arjuna's reaction to his crisis:
My limbs become weak, my mouth dries up,
My body trembles, and my hair stands on end.
Gandiva (the bow) slips from my hand;
My skin is burning, I can scarcely remain standing;
My mind is reeling. (I, 29-30)
Arjuna is the greatest archer alive; when his bow slips he is completely severed from the task he must perform. Hamlet is similarly shaken during the encounter with Ophelia.
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being.
This is no mere play-acting. Interior and exterior usually reflect each other in Shakespeare.
Both Hamlet and Arjuna forget their original purpose and the ground which necessitates it. Theu crises stem from a particularized view of the world which sets it "out there" in opposition to themselves and their desires. They see themselves as "doers" of a repulsive action. In a very telling
moment Hamlet cries "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right!" He sets himself apart from the situation, and also seems strangely proud of his destiny. His sense of selfhood is aggrandized by the magnitude of the task of setting the kingdom in order.
Arjuna is similarly stuck on the notion that it it he who is the agent of his activity, and this obsession becomes the weight of his despair.
I foresee no good that would come from having
slain my own kin in war. (I, 31 )
Though I am slain, I do not desire to slay them.
Surely it would be better to be even a beggar in this world
Than to have slain those mighty teachers.
For having slain them, wealth-desiring though they are,
I would enjoy only blood-smeared pleasures here on earth.
Their presupposed agency posits an "I" in confrontation with circumstance. This is our normal, habitualized view of experience, which leads to obstacles and crisis. Once this static viewpoint is overcome crisis is ended.
Both men rely on rationalized thought to delay the inevitability of acting. The reasoning is only valid withm the limited context of their personal desire not to act in concordance with cultural dharma. Arjuna, envisioning certain cataclysmic outcomes of the immanent battle, comes to
see them in terms of adharma (not dharmic). Thus ensues a rambling discourse on the destruction of family, caste-mixture, and fallen women that will suffer because he has to fight this battle. He has no inkling as to where the real battle lies.
Hamlet has similar problems circumventing inenia and doing his prescribed duty. He hears from the ghost of his father how he was murdered, and immediately interjects with:
Haste me to know't that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge. (I,v, 29-31 )
In this moment of knowing, the proper course of action spontaneously arises; he must kill his uncle the murderer without hesitation and restore the throne of Denmark. Yet even within the framework of understanding this, Hamlet s I-centered perspective emerges as he refers to the urgent call to action as my revenge, as if he had been the one murdered.
Some may argue that these thoughts of revenge are mere impulsiveness on Hamlet's pan, similar to the impetuousness behavior seen later on, when he slays meddlesome Polonius through the arras. Given the circumstance, this is actually one of the few times Hamlet acts dharmically throughout the play. Knowing the disgust he feels for his mother's marriage to the new kmg, Hamlet has no reason to believe that anyone but Claudius would be hidden within the queen's bedchamber. The thought of them together spurs Hamlet to act--as the first yelpings come
from behind the arras Hamlet draws his sword and slays the eavesdropper. No matter that Polonius and not Claudius is hidden there; Hamlet's action is correct in that particular circumstance.
Much is often made of Hamlet's need to determine whether the ghost is genuine or an imposter. He believes that "objective evidence" of the king's guilt will end the uncertainty and enable him to act. Once again Hamlet belies knowledge that comes to him in the moment. He tells Horatio
as soon as the ghost depans, "Touching this vision here, it is an honest ghost, that let me tell you" (I, v,154-5). Soon after he forgets this, and assens that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, that are dreamt of in your philosophy" (I,v,191 ). Horatio and Hamlet are educated together, their understandmg is that of "natural philosophy" or "science." The need for "scientific" evidence soon supercedes intuitive insight gleaned through the moment, and Hamlet constructs an elaborate play within-a-play in order to trap the king s conscience, and learn objectively that which he
Hamlet never acts from the point of view of discriminative knowledge (except, arguably, at the end of the play). He seizes upon whatever perceptions and sensations occupy his acute mind, toys with them, and becomes bounded by his speculative imagination. He has no vision of that which stands under and supports his world, and, living in the rotting state of Denmark, has no access to it.
This is where Krishna serves his great purpose. He must do for Arjuna what Hamlet cries out for when he says "O that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!" (I, ii, 135). His task, as is that of any teacher, is to free Arjuna from this limiting perspective, this view which breeds crisis and immobility. Krishna realizes that a man cannot be wrenched from that which he clings to without severe damage; gradual steps and stages are necessary.
First Arjuna must realize how he has come to be immobilized.
When a man dwells upon objects of sense,
Attachment to them is born.
From attachment, desire is born,
And from such desire anger arises.
From anger arises delusion, and from delusion loss of memory.
From loss of memory the destruction of intelligence,
And from this destruction, he perishes.
(II, 62-3 )
Here Krishna schematizes the process by which one enters crisis . Anyone who has become angered due to conflicting desires and subsequently "lost control" of him or herself, or of the situation, will recognize this progression. Krishna wants Arjuna to watch this process, to discriminate between an "I" attached to sense objects and that which generates both of these: the eternal, bringing the moment into being.
Once on the battlefield Arjuna dwells on those with whom he must fight; instantaneously an "I" arises, attached to them by opposition in circumstance. The desire takes form as either attraction or aversion to the sense objects; in this case, Arjuna wishes to avoid fighting against people he
is attached to. But he forgets how he is attached to them in the first place, how all things are unified through a common ground, and is thus unable to discriminate between correct and incorrect action, between dharma and adharma. A human immobilized by crisis resides in hell.
Like Arjuna, Hamlet suffers from immobility; he cannot kill his uncle though he must. Unlike Arjuna, however, his personal cri,sis is never .resolved and reoccurs throughout the play. He thinks himself into and out of acting, and amazingly, sees the process as it happens.
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
and thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. (III, i, 91-6)
He tries to motivate himself through language ("O, from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!"), but they are merely "words, words, words" - -verbiage spewn from passionate attachment to an ephemeral idea. He berates himself for this process, over which he has no control.
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
must (like a whore) unpack my heart with words
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
(II, ii, 591-5)
Arjuna, wants to know what "is that by which a man who performs
evil, is bidden, even against his will, impelled so-to-speak by force?" Krishna
Desire it is, anger it is,
Produced from the guna (attribute) of passion,
All-consuming and greatly sinful.
Know this to be the enemy here.
For just as fire is concealed by smoke,
A mirror by dust, and an embryo by the womb,
So is this (knowledge) concealed by that (passion).
Krishna is unconcerned with doctrinal ethics when mentionin "evil" or "sin." That which is "evil" takes one further from liberation, and the "good" brings one closer to it or sustains it.
Arjuna cannot fathom the restraint necessary to overcome compulsive desire. The mind "is turbulent, strong and hard. Its restraint, I think would be as difficult to accomplish as controlling the wind." Krishna happily repeats throughout the Gita what is required for liberation:
Abandoning entirely all desires
originating in compulsive purpose,
Having exercised restraint on every side
Over all the senses by the mind,
Let him be stilled little by little,
through understanding firmly grounded;
And fixing his mind on the self,
Let him not set his thoughts on anything else.
Having restrained the mind, restless, unsteady,
From whatever it goes out to,
Let him bring it into the control of the self alone.
In order to help Arjuna recover his warrior's body, Krishna describes the
"man of steady wisdom":
When a man forsakes all desires of the mind, O Son of Prtha (Arjuna),
And through himself becomes content in his self alone,
Then, he is said to be of firm wisdom.
He whose mind is not troubled in the midst of sorrows,
Is free from desire in the midst of pleasures,
From whom passion, fear, and anger have departed,
He is said to be a sage of steady-wisdom.
He who has no attachment to anything,
And who neither rejoices nor is upset when he obtains good or evil,
His wisdom is firmly established.
When he, like a tortoise drawing in his limbs,
Withdraws his senses altogether from his sense objects,
His wisdom is firmly established.
This compares interestingly with Hamlet's description of Horatio:
For thou has been
As one, in suffring all, that suffers nothing;
A man that Fortunes buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgement are so well comingled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of hearts,
As I do thee.
(III, ?, 66-75)
Even noble Horatio falls prey to passion in the final scene as he attempts to follow Hamlet in death. Though Hamlet seems to comprehend how to be-in-the-world, he has no access to the means of embodying this knowledge.
The Gita seems to be saying that this is not possible without a teacher, without someone who embodies a living tradition of knowledge. Krishna spends chapters II through X explaining various aspects, or paths of liberation. Meditation, knowledge, renunciation of actions, wisdom and
understanding-- these are but worldy facets of an unexplainable, eternal, imperishable vision, one that Arjuna is finally ready for by chapter XI. Krishna loosens Arjuna's attachment to sense objects, and exhausts his desire for detailed knowledge. With the words "I give you a divine eye" Arjuna's vision begins, a ternfying experience of the world of experience collapsing as his body. "The worlds tremble, and so do I."
Arjuna can only wonder at this vision of the world's manifestation.
He calls out:
You are the supreme imperishable,
The supreme place of rest of the universe;
You are the changeless guardian of everlasting dharma,
The primeval purusa : so you are to my mind.
I behold you who are without beginning, middle and end,
Of boundless power, with innumerable arms,
The moon and sun as your eyes, your mouth a glowing fire,
Burning this universe with your radiance.
This space between heaven and earth, and all the quarters of the sky as well,
Are pervaded by you alone;...
He experiences Krishna as purusa, the generator and organizer of manifest experience without which nothing of the world can be held together. Arjuna body-feels the world--him, they, the battlefield-- dissolving into the unmanifest. "I" and "that" as points of reference have disappeared. "I know not the directions of the sky and I find no refuge." Krishna then explains his nature:
Time am I, the world-destroyer grown mature,
Engaged here in fetching back the worlds.
Even without you, all the warriors standing over against you will cease to be.
Therefore stand up, gain glory;
Having conquered enemies
Enjoy a prosperous kingdom.
By me they are already slain:
Be you merely the occasion.
Arjuna is thus led to the shattering realization that he is merely the occasion for the manifestation of the world, and that the ever-vacillating "I" is a referential construction.
Arjuna cannot last long in this vision of limitless possibility. It will be impossible to move unless he experiences a body in the world. He has seen how the world comes into being and is held together; the difficulty will now be incorporating this vision into the activity of living. During the rest of the Gita Krishna provides Arjuna with a new model for the world so that
this is possible.
Arjuna gains a new body, one that is fluid in circumstance, one that is fluid circumstance. His sense of "I" no longer opposes the world, but is integral to a "field;' which Krishna enumerates as follows:
The (five) gross elements, the sense of "I"
Understanding, the unmanifested, the ten senses
And one (mind) and the five sensory realms;
Desire and aversion, pleasure and pain,
The bodily aggregate, knowledge, will:
This, in brief, is the field with its modifications.
This is the classical Samkhya description of the manifest. It is the realized, living body of the man of knowledge. At the close of the Gita Krishna tells Ar una Havin reflected fully on this, do as you desire. Arjuna has aligned himself with dharma and
realized the vision of purusa, the organizer of experience. Arjuna says "I have gained remembrance." He has recollected the reality of the primal source, the ground and repository of all human possibility. Only now may he do as he pleases.
Hamlet's dark and muddied culture provides no method for obtaining the vision of Krishna. Still, it seems that he has gleaned some knowledge by the end of the play. The near-death encounter with the
pirates along with the discovery of the king's execution order have jolted him. There are two indications of this. One is his apologetic attitude toward Laertes, first mentioned to Horatio:
But I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself:
For by the image of my cause I see
The pomaiture of his.
Hamlet, in killing Leartes' father, has put him in the same position of having to avenge a murder. It takes all of Claudius' guile to prevent a rebellion led by him. Even Hamlet is sobered by the realization of the dire consequences of his activity. Even so, Hamlet's apology to Laertes caries a slight tone of affectionate condescension.
Was't Hamlet wronged Leartes? Never Hamlet.
If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,
And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it, then? His madness.
This is not the same elimination of agency that Krishna advocates in the Gita. Hamlet merely bifurcates his being so that one will shoulder the blame for the other.
Still, the Hamlet of the final scene has for the most part forsaken personal ambition and desire, and is able to act, albeit too late to alter the tragic outcome. This is how he responds to Horatio's misgivings about the fencing match:
Not a whit, we defy augry; there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it
be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.
(V, ii, 218-21)
Krishna says to Arjuna: "Treating pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat as all alike, become readied for battle." In a readied state one is aware of all possibilities and attached to none.
The battle described in the Gita ends in hornble carnage. Hamlet ends with the stage littered with dead Danish royalty. How are they different? With his last breath, Hamlet orders Horatio to "absent thee from felicity"-- that is, not to avoid future suffering by taking the easier route of suicide-- "and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, to tell my story."
The legacy of pain and despair is incarnated in Horatio and tragedy is doomed to repetition. Whether Shakespeare intended to show it or not, the tragedy of Hamlet is the depiction of western man without a grounding vision from which to act.
The Bhagavad Gita ends quite differently. Samjaya, who is telling the story to the blind King Dhrtarastra, says:
O King, each time I recall this marvelous holy dialogue
of Kesava (Krishna) and Arjuna,
I rejoice once again.
And each time I recall that exceedingly marvelous form of Hari (Krishna),
My wonder is great and I rejoice once again.
Thus the story is the vision, to be recalled and lived through, moment to