To attack critics Modi used Shalya, Mahabharata’s master of psychological warfare

Narendra Modi in a speech referred to Shalya, a character from the Mahabharata in his speech. The image on the right is a non specific image of a charioteer and archer from Pattanaik's book 'Jaya'

Searches for ‘Shalya’ in Google shot up dramatically after the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on critics of his government’s handling of the economy

Hindu mythology is full of powerful characters who serve as a code to communicate complex ideas. Bhisma is used to indicate a clingy but wise patriarch. Yudhishtira for an honest upright man. Shalya of the Mahabharata is another case in point, though not a very popular one. Searches for ‘Shalya’ on Google shot up dramatically after the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech as he equated the pessimistic critics of his economic policies to Shalya, the archetypal demotivator, who perhaps fought the world’s first psychological warfare.

Though accurate in description, the choice of this character in a national speech, is ironical, even unfortunate, for those familiar with the great epic, which to followers of Hindutva ideology, is an accurate historical record, of a war fought 5000 years ago on the bleak plains of Kurukshetra, in modern Haryana.

Shalya was the king of Madra. His sister was Madri, the beautiful second wife of Pandu, and mother of Nakula and Sahadeva. When the Kauravas refused to part with Pandava land, and war was declared, the kings of India took sides. Eleven battalions fought on side of Kauravas, seven on side of Pandavas. Balarama refused to fight on either side. Rukmi was rejected by both sides. Krishna advised Pandavas but his army fought for the Kauravas. Shalya was supposed to fight for Pandavas, but was tricked by Duryodhana (who offered his troops food in exchange for a boon) into fighting for the Kauravas. He did not like it but he had given his word.

Things got even worse when Duryodhana made him Karna’s charioteer. He, a king, was forced to serve as charioteer to the charioteer’s son (suta-putra). This was meant to please Karna who suffered from status anxiety, as well as humiliate the Pandavas who constantly insulted Karna for not knowing his place in the hierarchy. What could be worse for Pandavas than watching your royal uncle serving the man who you once insulted?

But this decision proved to be a fatal mistake, for when Karna’s chariot wheel got stuck in the mud Shalya argued as king he had never changed wheels, but surely as charioteer’s son Karna would know better, thus showing the sarathi (chariot-driver) turned rathi (chariot-rider) his place in the social hierarchy.

But even before this dramatic event, Shalya kept praising Arjuna’s skill in archery, thus demotivating Karna. It was a charioteer’s job to motivate the chariot-rider, as Krishna motivated Arjuna, but Shalya did the very opposite. The reason for this was simple: he resented being tricked by Duryodhana to fight against the Pandavas, not to mention serving as charioteer to the charioteer’s son. Yudhishtira, on learning of how Shalya had been tricked, had asked his uncle only one thing, ‘Let your body fight for them but let your mind fight for us.’

After hearing the whole story, one wonders why did the Prime Minister call his critics Shalya. Yes, they demotivate him, but does he see himself as Karna, the meriotious outsider, one who was denied his rightful place by society? Or does he see his government as Kauravas who have tricked many economists into serving them? Are his opponents the entitled princes, or the ones who were cheated of their inheritance? Mythological examples are complex and need to be seen in context. Perhaps there are messages here that need deeper decoding.

Shalya was the last commander of the Kauravas. In his watch, Duryodhan is finally killed. In a South East retelling of the Mahabharata, the more you hate Shalya, the stronger he becomes. And so Krishna tells Yudhishtira to weaken him with love and affection, and finally impale him. Another lesson here? The epic may not be myth to many, but it does mystify with its complex messages.

15 COMMENTS

  1. There is a channel called “Epic” @EpicChannelIn where all the stories related to Hindu mythology. There is one dedicated show related to Mahabharata. This show is covering afterlife of Kaurvas and Pandavas. After they were dead, these people are sitting in a court and asking (blaming) each other questions like who did wrong. The story of Shalya was also demonstarted in one of the episodes. Mama Shalya did it well, because he deserved respect. He was a dignified man. And why did Mama Shalya use psychological warfare is another question. He used it fight evil and take side of his nephews. I think he did wrong. But when in the real world “WE” use it for wrong reasons, it is actually taking out the dignity from psychological war itself.

    • Mythology? Mahabharat is itihaasa not myth.

      Plus this piece reeks of ill-knowledge and hatred of that that is hindu. using mahabharata to write articles and make his accusatory pointers to current dispenstion who has kept him at arms length, rightfully.

  2. A very very disappointing analysis,not expected from Devdutt Pattnaik- the PM simply meant that his detractors are engaging in a psychological warfare, trying to de motivate him and his team – when a former BJP FM , describes his own party president and PM to Dussasana &Duryodhana,no matter it’s pure jealousy and nothing more- while the economy has certainly slowed down,subtler means could have been used,to alarm his party,if he still thinks he belongs to BJP, in spite of his new zeal to discharge his duty towards the nation

    • absolutely expected. his first article on swarajya got him off their list. he wanted to establish himself to the indic network, got slapped nicely.

    • All comparisons are invariably odious. If you compare yourself with Rama, should the bad attributes also get linked in. This becomes a meaningless and trite debate.

  3. People like me have respect on those epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana! Requesting you guys not to compare with the current generation politics and insult those epics please! This generation has the worst politics!

    Thank you!

  4. Shalya fought war against pandav with kaurav camp.
    Yashwant sinha means to fight Modi camp with congress camp. No further analysis is required.

  5. I am a fan of De dutt Parnami but here I disagree with him, not because he is not correct for putting the facts but for not understanding the context. Modi clearly meant that Shakya was a person who was a charioteer of Karna but kept on demoralising him. The same is being done by Jaswant Sinha. He is with BJP but trying to create the same atmosphere for them. Take another example. Everyone knows that Vibhishan was on the side of ‘dharma’ but being a Vibhishan is not considered to be good. Modi is first to present Shakya like this. Tomorrow people will follow him.

  6. The incumbent PM never has control over his tongue and he is at liberty to use such derogatory metaphors against his opponents, which the people are accustomed and also takes enjoyment.

  7. When we say “Bhishma Pratigya” we want to convey the intensity of the oath, it need not be by a son for his father. Similarly, “Shalya Vrutti” means intentionally demoralizing one’s own group/team. Particular context does not matter. Here PM has conveyed very effectively what he wanted to convey. It is clearly understood by people who do not google also. Most of the Indians are simple minded who do not complicate any matter. This kind of over analysis is a good example of “Shalya Vrutti” :).

  8. Lot of factual incorrectness in this article.
    1. Ashwathamma was the last commander not shalya
    2. Shalya died before duryodhana
    3. Charioteer was the low job but karna has actually requested shalya to be his charioteer as he has very good charioteering skills. This is as same as krishna being chariotteer to Arjuna
    Last, was somebody give reference to a person from history it is about his special traits not the exact background about his role. If we say somebody acts like ravana, doesn’t directly means that his enemy is Rama

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