In the Bhagavad Gita class I’ve been intermittently a part of for some years, we were recently discussing Chapter 10 Verse 28.
Krishna, using a weaponry metaphor, makes mention in this verse of being the Vajra (thunderbolt), i.e. the most glorious of weapons. I felt a tingle along my spine when we read that part. Anyone who writes regularly knows that tingle; it means something in our minds has been awakened, and we have to reflect with patience on why, or the significance to us will disappear like smoke.
The story goes that Indra (the king of the gods) had been ousted by the serpent king, Vritra. Indra was advised to approach Rishi Dadhichi, as his bones were the only material that could make a weapon powerful enough to vanquish Vritra. Dadhichi agreed, but wanted to complete a pilgrimage of the holy rivers before giving up his life. In the interests of time, Indra used his powers to bring the rivers to the forest where Dadhichi had his ashram, and Dadhichi finished his prayers before sacrificing himself for the purpose of restoring order to the world. Vritra was defeated by the Vajra, and Indra claimed back his celestial throne.
I’ve been sitting with this story since the class. This idea of asking someone to sacrifice themselves is very timely. I thought of healthcare workers. Delivery drivers. Grocery store employees. Postal workers. Food service employees. I also thought of mothers. Of special needs families. And I thought of writing about advocacy and justice.
In the novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong talks of writing as an act of being consumed. Our words are swallowed by others, and what’s left behind are bones. So reading is not just passive, but an aggressive act of nourishing ourselves on the work of a writer, of extracting the marrow of their truth. The power in this image derives from the sense of a writer giving up their self so others can imbibe; the sense of responsibility we have as readers not to take from them in a shallow way, but in a way that acknowledges and respects what they have shared with us. Not using their work in a way that fails to honor their role in a world that needs art even as it devalues the artist.
There is something obscene about reflecting on a crisis that asks of someone their bones. As if our individuality is a pile of nothing in the face of civic responsibility. As if we are more valuable posthumously than in our breathing bodies. We lionize people who are capable of this level of giving. Dadhichi’s courage is the inspiration for the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest military award for gallantry. Sacrifice of this magnitude is glorified even today.
Why bones, though? And why this man’s bones? To me, it’s bones because they are hard yet flexible. They are the structure, the framework of a body. Everything else hangs on the skeleton. The mightiest weapon, or a culture’s symbolic ability to stand up to its greatest enemies, is so because it is made of this dependability-flexibility, and allows other systems to flourish.
I cannot say with certainty why Dadhichi. Perhaps he displayed the qualities that implied a willingness to lay down his life for the bigger picture. I think a community picks out people who are the framers, and makes a conscious decision to demand more. Knowing that, if these people could, their eyes would become guiding stars for us all, and their skin would cover us if the world ran out of blankets.
I’m not here to weigh in on Indra’s decision, and have a spiritual debate. Nor to pathologize Dadhichi’s sacrificial nature. I am really saying that I’m using ‘bones’ as a symbol for ‘words.’ Giving up one’s bones as the act of writing. Allowing oneself to be consumed.
We write because we cannot not write. That’s the DNA in the bones, what marks us as people who are destined for this work, and virtually useless for any other. Writing makes us vulnerable. Prey. And when we write about things that are urgent and true (autism parenting for me), and are doubted for it, we cannot help it, it disappears us a little.
But writing makes us powerful too. We become purified by the process, less fearful of giving up our bones. Also less fearful of the Vajra that is forging as we hone our skill. Less mournful for the words that left us.
We are too apt to say to the Dadhichis of the world–there is no other framework. You are it. It is often dressed up in the grandiose rhetoric of heroism, and being called on to be inspirational. Then, when writers make the sacrifice, allow themselves to be consumed, critics might say Oh, but you failed me here. Your bones let me down there. I feel more despair after I consumed you than before. Why have you left me bereft?
Do you know why that happens? It is because people expect this sacrifice. And because reflection is painful. We can only truly engage with this intellectual nutrition if we stop looking through the lens of heroics and theatrics, of mindless consumption, and of approaching art with an air of tedium and entitlement. Truthful writing is agonizing to consume. Truthful reading allows this pain, does not engage in rebuttals without grinding one’s own bones under the same pestle. A truthful reader does not emerge triumphant, but shaken, humbled.
That is what it means to bring all the holy rivers to one place so that Dadhichi can complete his pilgrimage. You engage, you engage with what he is asking in return. You honor him by refusing your own knee jerks and inertia and shallowness. You change in the ways he is asking you to. You turn his life’s work into your mission. You destroy your ego with that Vajra.
Vuong, Ocean. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Narrated by Ocean Vuong, Audible, 2019.