The Newsletter 68 Summer 2014

Exceeding the gaze of the scholar. The challenge of encompassing Indonesia

Farish A Noor

Those who are familiar with the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, will be familiar with the episode in which the semi-divine warrior-prince Arjuna, on the eve of the fateful battle between the Pandawas and their cousins the Korawas, beseeches the God Krishna to explain how and why the battle between the two sides is necessary. Arjuna cannot reconcile his duty as a prince and his duty as a soldier, and is thus torn between two seemingly contradictory ends: to protect life and to destroy life. Krishna, on the other hand, warns Arjuna that he cannot hope to understand all, for his own mortal mind and faculties are finite, and that such an understanding would require the capacity to encompass the infinite. When Krishna finally relents to Arjuna’s plea, he reveals himself – and the universe – in all its complexity; this image of the infinite is so great in scope and magnitude that Arjuna is forced to beg Krishna to resume his mortal form. The lesson is plain enough for all to see: our knowledge of the world is necessarily limited, subjective and piecemeal so that we can comprehend some of it.