A little-known episode of the Mahabharata illustrates a new idea in the field of social psychology: Ego Depletion.
It was the seventeenth day of battle on the field of Kurukshetra. A most bloody war that had taken a huge toll of human lives and emotions. Even though most maharathis of the Kaurava army had fallen—including Bhishma on the tenth day and Drona on the fifteenth, Karna still remained.
He was now the commander of the Kaurava army, and had been unstoppable, scattering the “Pandu soldiers, like a mass of cotton by the speed of a mighty wind.” So much so that a harried Yudhishthira had withdrawn from the battlefield, unable to withstand the force of Karna’s assault, retiring to his camp where he awaited news of Karna’s death. That piece of news, he was confident, would come from Arjuna himself. After all, hadn’t Arjuna vowed to kill Karna. With Krishna as his charioteer, how could he but not succeed?
So when Yudhishthira saw both Krishna and Arjuna enter his tent, he thought that “Adhiratha’s son had been killed in the battle,” and exclaimed, “By killing Karna in the battle, you have brought an end to my enemies.” The humiliations suffered at the game of dice at the hands of Karna when he had called the Pandavas “sterile seeds of sesamum”, the anger at knowing that it was Karna’s protection and friendship that fueled Suyodhana’s enmity towards the Pandavas—all had been avenged. In this moment of triumph, Yudhishthira revealed the inner torment that had been gnawing away at him all these years. “I have been frightened about him for thirteen years. I was not able to sleep at night. Nor could I be happy during the day. … Whether I was awake of sleeping, Karna was always in front of me.” More than Bhishma or Drona, it had been Karna who had been the biggest thorn in the Pandava’s side. Yudhishthira now wanted to know the details of Arjuna’s battle with Karna.
Arjuna, on the other hand, had grown increasingly anxious over the absence of his elder brother from the battlefield. Not seeing Yudhishthira filled Arjuna with worry. He had asked Bhima on Yudhishthira’s whereabouts, and then proceeded to the eldest Pandava’s camp. When congratulated and questioned by Yudhishthira, Arjuna responded that he had come to invite Yudhishthira to witness Karna’s death at Arjuna’s hands: “If you wish to see it, there will be a fierce battle today between me and the son of a suta.” In short, Arjuna had just poured a bucket of cold water over Yudhishthira’s premature joy.
Yudhishithira’s disappointment was crushing. His anger and frustration boiled over, and he railed against Arjuna, calling him “worthless”, accusing him of being “affectionate towards Suyodhana”, of being fearful of Karna, and ending with what today reads like a quintessential dialogue from a Hindi movie: “It would have been better if you had not been born in Pritha’s womb.”
No true warrior would stand for this barrage of insults. Certainly not Arjuna. He “angrily grasped his sword”, ready to kill Yudhishthira.
Let us pause and ponder. Why would Arjuna, the ideal Pandava in so many respects, who had a little over two weeks ago received the timeless wisdom of the Gita from Krishna, lose control so much? How did matters escalate to the point that these two brothers, the epitome of filial love, would hurl abuses at each other?
To answer this question, ask this: Aren’t we more likely to lose our temper when tired and exhausted, say after a long week and day at work, at the slightest of provocations? Think about it; you are more likely to let out an obscenity at an errant driver when you’ve been stuck in traffic for an hour on a Friday evening than when out on a leisurely weekend drive to, say, the river-side resort at Kabini. Why is that?
The answer may lie in something called “ego depletion”. It is a relatively new idea in the field of social psychology, less than twenty years old (in case you are inclined to snigger, do remember that even the term “big data”, as applied in a software context, has been around for almost fifteen years—science moves slowly), but has been used to explain various seemingly odd phenomena—why we are more likely to gorge on pizza and beer on a Friday evening after a long week of stress rather than on a Sunday evening after a restful weekend.
Self-control, or willpower, can be compared with a muscle—every decision we take that requires us to make a conscious choice tires that muscle. Unlike normal physical muscles however, more use does not seem to make the muscle of willpower stronger. Therein lies the rub. The daily stress of more than two weeks on the battlefield of Kurukshetra took a toll on the warriors. The anger and frustration that would have been kept under control on day one was no longer under check by day seventeen. The slightest provocation would have sufficed. Ego depletion had set in. Even though Dharmaraj knew better than to snap at his brother Arjuna, and so virulently, the psychological toll of war had withered away self-control.
Even as this saga was unfolding, a somewhat bemused Krishna had been a silent observer. Now that Arjuna had grasped his sword, it was time for Keshava to step in. Did Arjuna behead Yudhishthira? Obviously, we know the answer is “no”, but how did the situation get defused? That is a topic for the future. Till then, keep that ego muscle well rested, lest it deplete.
Note: The events of the Mahabharata described here take place in the Karna-Vadha Parva, which is the only parva in the Karna Parva. In the major parvas, Karna Parva is the eighth parva, while in the minor parvas, Karna-Vadha Parva is the seventy-third parva. I have used Dr Bibek Debroy’s Mahabharata, Vol. 7, an unabridged translation of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, published by Penguin India in 2013, as my reference.