Published in First City, March 2009

Jai means victory. Vijay also means victory. Why two words? Do they mean the same thing? Jai Ho, means ‘may you be victorious’. But the phrase is never interchanged with Vijayi Bhava, which also means ‘may you be victorious’. Jai Ho is used almost as a greeting in many parts of India or as an exclamation. But Vijayi Bhava is used very specifically when one is setting out for a conflict, confrontation, duel or competition. What exactly is the difference? Like in all things Indian, no clear answers are given anywhere; meanings have to be derived.

A clue perhaps lies in the Bhagavata Purana which states that Jai and Vijay were the two doorkeepers of Vishnu. Once, the four Sanat-Kumars wanted to pay their respects to God who resides in Vaikuntha in the form of Vishnu. When they arrived at Vaikuntha the doorkeepers did not let them enter as Vishnu was sleeping. The sages decided to wait. Some time later they approached the gates once again. Again the doorkeepers did not let them enter. “Because the lord is still asleep,” they said. This happened the third time too. Piqued, the sages cursed the doorkeepers, “Because you stopped us from meeting God three times may you be born three times. May you experience death three times. May you know what it is to be away from the presence of God for three lifetimes.”

When Vishnu woke up and learnt what had transpired, he apologized to the sages. He then promised to do everything he could to help his door keepers return to Vaikuntha because they were only doing their duty. The two doorkeepers were born as two Asura brothers, Hiranayaksha and Hiranakashipu. Hiranayaksha dragged the earth under the sea, forcing Vishnu to take the form of a boar, plunge into the waters, gore him to death, and raise the earth back to the surface. Hiranakashipu tortured his own son, Prahalada, a devotee of Vishnu, for chanting the name of God forcing Vishnu to manifest as the man-lion Narasimha and tear him to shreds.

Hiranayaksha and Hiranakashipu were then reborn as Ravana and Kumbhakarna, two Rakshasa-brothers who believed might is right and threatened all codes of civilized conduct. Their actions forced Vishnu to take the form of Rama and destroy them.

Then Ravana and Kumbhakarna were reborn as Shishupala and Dantavakra, two villainous humans who valued personal ambition over social order. Their behavior forced Vishnu to descend as Krishna and kill them. Death at the hands of God released Jai and Vijay from the Asura, Rakshasa and Manava forms and ensured their return to Vaikuntha where they resumed their roles as doorkeepers.

In all three lifetimes, the doorkeepers are apparently defeated by an avatar of Vishnu. But this defeat benefits them; they are reborn in a better form (from Asura to Rakshasa to Manava to Deva). So while they do not win the battle of the flesh, they win in the battle for the soul. Victory over the flesh is called Vijay and victory over the soul is called Jai. In the former, someone is defeated. In the latter no one is defeated. In the former there are winners and losers. In the latter there are only winners.

Another, and perhaps a clearer, clue about the meanings of the word Jai and Vijay comes from the Mahabharata, whose original title was Jai. In the final chapter, the Swarga-Ahronika-Parva (Chapter on Ascent to Heaven), Yudhishtira steps into heaven, and is horrified to find before him the hundred Kauravas, Duryodhana and Dusshasana included, standing besides the Devas looking radiant and blissful. They spread out their arms to welcome Yudhishtira. Yudhishtira recoils in disgust.

Its an ending that has intrigued scholars for centuries. Why not just end the epic with the end of the war and the victory of the Pandavas?

“How did these war-mongers reach the abode of the gods?” Yudhishtira asks angrily. The Devas reply, “They were killed on the holy land of Kurukshetra. That has purified them of all misdeeds and earned the right to enter heaven.” The explanation did not satisfy Yudhishtira. “And my brothers? And my wife? What about them? Where are they? Are they are here too?” he demanded to know. “They are not here,” the Devas said. “Where then?” asked Yudhishtira.

In response the Devas lead Yudhishtira out of Swarga, down from the sky, deep under the earth to a realm that was dark and gloomy and miserable. There, Yudhishtira heard cries of pain and suffering. It was everything heaven was not. He realized it was Naraka, the realm of misery. “My brothers are here?” cried Yudhishtira in disbelief. He heard the moaning of his brothers and his wife. He could not believe this!

Yudhishtira felt his legs go weak. Tears welled up in his eyes. How could he return to Swarga and leave his family here? He took a decision. “No. I will not leave Naraka. I will stay here with my wife and my brothers. I will suffer with them. I refuse to enter heaven without them.”

Looking into Yudhishtira’s eyes, the gods asked, “Oh! But we thought you had renounced everything?”

“What do you mean?” asked Yudhishtira, suddenly uncomfortable.

“Well, you certainly have given up your kingdom and your worldly wealth. And you apparently gave up your relationships when you did not turn around to help your wife and your brothers as they fell to their death while climbing the mountains on the way to heaven. But…”

“But?”

“But you have not given up your anger. Your anger for the Kauravas, despite killing them in battle and ruling the earth for 36 years. As soon as you saw the Kauravas in heaven, you demanded the same privilege for your family, whom you had until then forgotten. . Your display of love for your brothers at this moment is nothing but a retaliation. You cling to your hatred, Yudhishtira. You still begrudge the Kauravas. You have not forgiven them. You refuse to let go and move on. How then do you hope to truly attain heaven?”

At that moment, Yudhishtira realized he was not the great man who he thought he was. He had not really overcome his prejudices. Only when there is undiluted compassion for everyone, even our worst enemies, is ego truly conquered. Realization humbled Yudhishtira. He fell to the ground and began to weep. Finally, bathed in the river Ganga, he rose – his mind full of wisdom, compassion and peace. Thus, the ascent to heaven is finally achieved.

The epic thus ends not with the victory of the Pandavas over the Kauravas but with Yudhishtira’s triumph over himself. Suddenly the original title of the Mahabharata makes sense. Vyasa called his story Jai, not Vijay. In Vijay, there are winners and losers. In Jai, there are no losers, no one is defeated, for one triumphs over oneself.

The Mahabharata is not about the Vijay of the Pandavas over the Kauravas. It is about the Jai of Yudhishtira over himself. Only through Jai, will Yudhishtira know what heaven truly is. Thus, the title of the final chapter and the epic itself makes sense. Mahabharata becomes a book yearning for peace, not war. True peace happens when no one is defeated. True peace happens when one conquers oneself.

The gentle musician’s speech at the Oscars this year on winning the Best Song resonated this timeless truth. In life, one can choose hate or love. “I chose love and here I am,” said AR Rehman. This is a message of hope in times where hatred is celebrated in everything from politics to television reality shows. The final answer lies not in defeating the other, but in conquering the beast within ourselves that seeks to dominate over others. This is moksha, self-realization.