Learning from the Mahabharata
The temple at the centre of violent clashes between Thailand and Cambodia could provide the key to unlocking the conflict
Saturday November 01 2008 12.00 GMT
Once upon a time in the Mahabharata, the gods (devas) decided that it was time to find amrita, the nectar of immortality, and become invincible. But they also knew they could not do it alone. Who do they ask for help but their arch-enemies, the demons (asuras). Spoils would be divided equally, the devas assured the asuras.
So there they were, the devas and asuras churning an ocean of milk using a mountain as a pole around which they coiled the king of serpents. As they churned, the ocean brought forth many wonderful and fearful things, from the goddess of wealth to a deadly poison. Finally, the amrita appeared, and before you could say "Joseph Campbell", the asuras had grabbed it and ran off with it.
So the devas, who had had no intention in the first place of sharing the amrita with the asuras, appealed to the god of gods, Vishnu. The asuras were fighting among themselves as to who should get to drink the amrita when they spotted a beautiful woman, more seductive than any they had ever seen. They watched her, entranced, and forgot all about the amrita. This woman is, of course, Vishnu in disguise, and having successfully distracted the asuras, Vishnu stole the amrita and distributed it among the devas.
This story and its contradictions came back to me in full force when I read that the "churning of the ocean of milk" is depicted as a relief on the fourth entrance of Preah Vihear, a mountaintop temple at the border of Cambodia and Thailand, which both countries claim as their own. With tensions mounting at the border ever since the temple was designated a world heritage site, this may be a good time to revisit what the asuras and the devas learned from each other when they were searching for invincibility.
• The asuras and the devas resemble each other more than they know.
Clearly – since their motives and actions were almost the same. Over the centuries of empire-building and colonisation, there has been so much fluidity in the borders of Thailand and Cambodia that it would be a wasted exercise to parse the differences and reconfigure maps. What is more, as developing countries in southeast Asia, both face very similar challenges. There is an immense opportunity to combine resources and fight each other's battles in international forums instead of frittering it away on old feuds.
• Win-win instead of win-lose
Had the asuras and the devas shared the nectar, perhaps it would have ended the eternal cycle of their enmity. This possibility did not occur to either group. Why do we always assume that there can only be one winner?
Both sides can win – through diplomacy. Through negotiation rather than warfare, Thailand and Cambodia are sure to find solutions that restore dignity and strength to both sides.
• Infighting is a bad idea, to put it mildly.
After making off with the amrita, the asuras fought amongst themselves for the upper hand. Of course this was the perfect opportunity for the devas to steal the amrita back.
The Preah Vihear controversy has been used by opposition groups in both countries to whip up support for themselves. Thailand's initial support of Cambodia's application to have the temple named a world heritage site had to be recalled after opposition groups accused the government of making secret deals. Sure enough, what would have been a blessing for the region has been quickly transformed into violence and cheap nationalism.
• Immortality is a good idea, to put it mildly.
The Unesco stamp on a monument is the kiss of life. Being declared a world heritage site is not only an honour for the site itself but also a boost for the economy by way of tourism and grants. Preah Vihear is uniquely located to benefit both countries enormously by attracting tourists. A military skirmish, on the other hand, would turn the area into a "death zone" (the Cambodian premier's words) and depress both countries economically while depriving the rest of us a chance to enjoy part of the cultural legacy of humankind.
The last thing the world needs for sure is another war zone. Don't we have plenty of those? "Right" and "wrong", "us" and "them" – these are all slippery terms when it comes to mythology – and history. If the gods and demons could put their quarrels aside and work together as the Preah Vihear illustrates, surely we lesser mortals can set our arms aside.