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Friday, April 20, 2018

Pancha Prana - Maha Bharatha Series 72

Since I posted the earlier blog I realized that I had inadvertently left out some portions of the conversation between Bhrigu and Bharadwaja. Here they are.

There are interesting discussions on the theory of life, soul, rebirth and the universe based on the Samkhya philosophy. In one of them it is said that the space is vast, infinite and its limits cannot be ascertained. The rays of the Sun and the Moon cannot reach beyond the range of their rays and there are other luminary objects in those regions. They are also as bright as the sun. Even if it were possible to ascertain the limits of Space, it will never be possible to set limits to That which is limitless and infinite (Brahman and Manasa).

Bharadwaja asks: “If it is the air (wind) that keeps us breathing and moving, life seems to be worth little.  If it is the fire that digests our food, life is worth little. When an animal dies we cannot see “life leaving” it. Only the breathing stops and the warmth goes out. How can you say that there is life in this body? And when it leaves, where does it go? After it has left what does it see, hear and know? How will a person who dies and has his body eaten by animals and birds, who got burnt or fell off a mountain come back to life? When a plant dies, it dies. Only the seeds can survive and grow. All of this universe is the result of seeds in succession.”

Bhrigu disagrees, of course. He goes into the well-known concept of the soul (Jeevan, same as Atman when identified with a single body) surviving after the death of the physical body and taking rebirths to experience the result of Karma. He says that the Atman merges with the Brahman after several re-births and on realizing the non-duality of the universe. He says that the mind is also made of five elements and “the one internal Soul sustains the body”. Soul is a non-corporeal entity which controls all functions and there is no more breath or heat when it leaves the body. The statements use the words “life”, “breath” and “soul” interchangeably and thus are confusing.

That Soul is also called “creator Brahman”. When it is connected with the body, it is called Keshtragna. When it is free from the attributes of the body and flesh It is known as Paramatman or Supreme Soul. That Soul has consciousness and has attributes of life when connected with a living body. There is no death of the soul when the body dies. All these are standard teachings of the tradition; one may say standard dogmas.

It is not surprising that the definitions of prana, soul, life, self and consciousness are vague and mixed up. For example, prana is said to be the universal soul, the eternal being, the mind, the intellect and consciousness of all creatures. The idea of subtle channels called nadi seems to be based on a remark in one chapter which says that numerous subsidiary channels branch out from the gut (?chest).

When Bharadwaja asks how the five elements (panchabootha) maintain life and movement, Brighu answers as follows: “Prana (air or breath) and the heat (fire, energy) both of which reside in the head (?brain) are responsible together for all the movements and exertions of lives. Prana or breath makes it possible for creatures to move. Vyana gives them strength for action. Apana moves downwards taking away the waste. Samana resides in the “heart”. Udana moves upwards causing one to speak and eructate. Heat residing in the head protects the body”.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Bhrigu and Bharadwaja - Maha Bharatha Series 71

Shanti Parva is the 12th book in Maha Bharata and is the longest of the 18 chapters. The subjects covered include duties of a king and of the subjects, dharma, justice, wealth, desires and their effects on people and moksha (emancipation from the cycle of birth and death).  In Sections 170-171 there are comments made by Sampaka (Section 170 and 171) on happiness and sorrow and a treatise on Desire and Greed by Manki. In this we find a surprising definition of destiny as nothing but combination of circumstances. 
Basic principles of the Samkhya system are brought out in the form of a discussion between Brigu and Bharadwaja.  Other discussions on destiny, dharma, justice, wealth and moksha are unusually long and have been commented on elsewhere. In this essay I wish to bring out one section on happiness.
Bhrigu says that all of us seek happiness which is an attribute of the Atman itself. Both virtue and wealth are used to attain happiness, both physical and mental. Teachings of vedas are aimed at pointing out ways to attain happiness in this world and in the other world.
Bharadwaja disagrees and asks, “if it is so, why is it that Rishis do not seek something higher, Brahma the Creator lives a life of brahmacharya (celibacy) and Lord Shiva destroyed Kama the deity of desire and love. Obviously, happiness is not of that importance to high-souled individuals”. He continues that “ there are two kinds of consequences to human actions, one from good acts leading to happiness and another leading to sorrow from sinful acts”.
Bhrigu says that ‘people who do not speak truth and perform unrighteous acts suffer mentally and physically in this life and in the hereafter. Those who never experience these sufferings know what happiness is. In heaven there is no hunger or thirst or suffering and there is only happiness. In hell there is only misery. In this world, there is both misery and happiness. One should therefore seek happiness by virtuous acts”.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha - Maha Bharatha Series 70

Which is important - Virtue, Wealth or Desire?  (Book 12  Section 167)

In between their daily visits to Bhishma, who is on a bed of arrows waiting for an auspicious time to die, Yudhishtra and the rest go to their abode in the evenings and continue their discussions. One day Yudhishtra asks everyone to discuss the relative importance of virtue (dharma), wealth (artha) and desire (kama). 

Vidura is first and says that virtue is the foremost. The entire world depends on virtue for its existence. It is upon virtue that wealth and desire rest. (He probably means that wealth and desire should rest on Virtue). The wise amongst us live our lives that way.  He also adds that one should treat others as one would like to be treated by others. This last point is common to all religious traditions, although practiced rarely.

Arjuna says that the world is full of action. Whether it is agriculture or trade or art, it is for profit (wealth). Without wealth we cannot satisfy our desires and we cannot perform acts of virtue. Virtue and desire are the two arms of wealth. “Everyone depends on people with wealth. But, wealth should be used wisely and to help others”.

Now, it is Nakula’s and Sahadeva’s turn. Their position is nuanced. They agree that wealth is more important. But it should be acquired by proper means and used for good purpose. Virtue should be connected with wealth and wealth should be connected with virtue. A person without wealth cannot gratify his desire. There can be no wealth in one without virtue. Practice virtue first; acquire wealth next and then satisfy one’s desire.

Bhima had a different idea. He felt that desire is the most important factor. Although moralists will look down upon this view, human psychology and human physiology shows that emotions are the prime factors in most of our actions. Reasoning comes later to justify the decision. A recent book on The Enigma of Reason elaborates this point of view.

Bhima says: “All three are equal; but it is desire that compels us to action. One without desire never wishes for anything, not for virtue or wealth. It is desire that drives even the rishis to action. You can never find a person on this planet without desire. There was none in the past; there will be none in the future. Desire is better than virtue and wealth; but all three should be attended to equally”.

Finally, Yudhishtra speaks. He says that desire and wealth lead only to repeated cycles of pleasure and pain. However, one who is free of desires and attachments, who is beyond all these three and is always in equanimity is the liberated one. Therefore, moksha (liberation) is the most important.

In this section, there is a comment about moksha (liberation or emancipation) and nirvana (extinction). Therefore, some scholars believe that this is the influence of Buddhism on Maha Bharatha. This point also supports the suggestion that Maha Bharatha was written after Buddha's time - at least parts of it. 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Truth, Compassion, Sin and Punishment - Maha Bharatha Series 69

Bhishma says (Book 12, Section 162) that Truth is the highest yoga, our duty and the foundation of all virtues and shreyas. Truth is Brahman itself. Shreyas means the preferable, the superior divinely virtue. It is in contrast to preyas, the pleasurable.

Truth is seen in different forms which include self-control, compassion, forgiveness and non-injury (ahimsa).

Then, there is an interesting point about compassion. Bhishma says that compassion carried too much leads to agitation of the heart.  It is true that excessive compassion may lead to suffering. This is one of the reasons for the burn-out among physicians and health-care workers. Bhishma says that this suffering has to be controlled by “learning dharma”.  What does this mean?

Compassion is the cornerstone of Buddhism. It is defined as one’s desire and ability to relieve the suffering of the other. Desire alone is not adequate. One must be able to act on it. I am more comfortable with this concept of compassion. If acts of compassion are done in mindfulness, there will be acceptance of things as they are and one becomes aware of too much attachment to being compassionate. That insight will help one let go of the secondary attachment and focus on the compassion. 

Section 165 is clearly a strange one. Various kinds of sinful acts and ways to clean off the sin are described. They are strange and cruel. They are completely off the noble teachings in the rest of this epic. Those of us who condemn barbaric punishments will be appalled at the list of suggested methods for repentance and punishment given in this section. No wonder several scholars think that this section was inserted by someone with an agenda and at a later period.

The agenda is probably to establish the role of the rulers in the hierarchy with threat of punishment. The concept of sin which is alien to the Vedic philosophy is brought in. The reality is that we humans will tend to break moral values. But, the hypocrisy is in saying that we can wash off our “sins” by penance and punishment.

 The punishments described are so horrible and cruel. And trying to make them all stick by putting them into the mouth of Bhishma? What a cheat!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Vulture and the Jackal - Maha Bharatha Series 68

The story of vulture and jackal in Book 12, Section 153 is about the question of life coming back after death.

In this story, a child dies of convulsions, yes – the text says convulsions. When the family takes the body to the cremation ground, the members have a rough time leaving the body there to be eaten by vultures and jackals. They wish the child will come back to life somehow. Then comes a wise vulture which tells them that life can never return after death and asks them to go home. But, there is a cunning jackal which wants to eat too but cannot do so during the day when the vultures are active. Therefore, he wants to delay the family from going home till darkness sets in, when he will have unhindered access to the dead body. That conversation is worth reading.

The vulture says: “Life and death are inevitable. No one ever comes back to life after death. I have seen several who bring the bodies of their relatives to this ground and go home. Later they themselves are brought here when their allotted time in this world is over. This place is full of vultures and jackals and wild animals. So, before the sun sets, go back home”. The family members start to go back home, crying all the while.

The jackal shows up now and tells them: “Don’t you have any affection for your child? Even the birds and beasts show affection for their off-springs. Parents love their children for no rewards, here or hereafter. What is wrong showing your sadness and crying? The sun is here and there is still time. Besides, this child may yet come back to life”. The family is swayed and stay back to lament.

The vulture comes back and says: “Do not listen to that wile jackal. Where is your intelligence and mental strength? Don’t you see that when this body made of five elements is deserted by their presiding deities (space, air, fire, water and earth) it is of no consequence? Why don’t you think of your own selves and what is bound to happen (your impermanence)?  It was his karma and time that took the boy’s life. Everyone succumbs to time. What is the use of lamentations? Cast off your grief. Go and spend your time in performing penance (tapas, meditation). Go and do your duties and follow the scriptures.”

It is the jackal’s turn now. He says: “ You weaklings, how easy it is for that light-brained vulture to convince you! How can you let go of all your affections by listening to mere words? How can you let yourself be convinced so easily? I thought human beings do experience great grief when they cry at the death of their kin. But I can see how shallow that sense of grief is. It appears to me that your affection for this child is not that great. If you do desire for the child to come back, you have to be resolute. You cannot give up and go away leaving this beautiful son of yours for birds and animals to feed on”.

The vulture countered by saying; “ I have lived a very long time. I have never ever seen a dead person – male, female or ambiguous sex -  come alive. Some die in the womb. Some die soon after birth. Some die while still in the crawling stage. Some die in youth. Some die in old age. But die they must. Lives of all creatures - birds, beasts and humans – come to an end. Grief only increases if you indulge in it. It increases at the sight of the object of affection and even by the memory of that object.  My words may be cruel; but based on reality. My words are meant to help you with your own emancipation”.  The relatives were getting ready to go home on listening to these words.

The jackal asks how they can be cruel and leave the body and go. He says: “Your affection for this child will not come to an end just because you leave this place. You will be remembering and continuing to cry. Have you not heard the stories of Samvuka and Sweta and the restoration of life after death by His grace? There is still sun light. Stay and pray so you can get the child back”.

The vulture said: “One may have wealth; may have intelligence; might have performed penances. No matter, everyone has to die. I have seen kinsmen lamenting for the dead on these grounds several times. It is beyond belief that all of you think that this child will come back to life. Your cries and lamentations and all of you with your merits cannot make it happen. Only Brahma, Vishnu or Rudra can bring this child back to life with a boon. Go back home and live a life of righteousness, truth, justice, compassion for all creatures, sincerity and honesty. What is the use of crying?”  On hearing these wise words, the relatives were ready to leave.

The arguments and counter-arguments between the vulture and the jackal continue. The relatives are confused completely and do not know what to do. It is obvious that both the vulture and the jackal were interested only in their own interests. The humans were carried away by their arguments and were not able to think for themselves.

The story seems to be about the role of reason and emotions in general. It takes special significance when thinking about death. Obviously, the vulture is the wise one, reason with long experience. The cunning jackal is the representation of our emotions. This battle between emotions and reason is a perennial one. The entire Maha Bharatha can be viewed from this angle. The battle of Kurukshetra is this mental battle.

The end of the story is not exactly what I would rate as a rational one. The end says that the relatives prayed so hard that Lord Rudra took pity on them and revived the child. This is a story after all. The point is probably to show that by His Grace anything is possible, even getting life back after death. There is, however, a small passage in that final episode that requires attention. Rudra did not give the life back for ever. The passage says that Rudra extended the life for 100 years. That makes it more realistic.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Vishvamitra and Chandala - Maha Bharatha series 67

The story of Vishvamitra stealing food from a chandala* (low cast hunter) is in section 141 of Book 12.

Yudhishtra’s asks how to know what one’s duty is and what morality is. Bhishma says that one cannot learn duty from the Vedas alone. Morality cannot be one-sided. He goes on to say: “One should learn duty and morality from wisdom and experience. Duty should spring from understanding. Righteousness may appear to be unrighteous on occasions and unrighteous appear to be righteous on other times. One should know the circumstances under which these confusions arise. Actions based on true understanding of the circumstances and knowledge obtained from several sources may be too difficult for ordinary folks to understand. They may blame the scriptures or quote one in support or often quote scriptures but do not practice. For them words are weapons”.

Bhishma has already told the story of Vishvamitra before the discussion in the previous paragraph. This episode is placed at the junction between Treta and Dwapara yuga. One statement here saya that the yugas are separated by major events in history with natural calamities. At such times, there is drought and famine. People and animals die and rules of conduct are broken by everyone. Such a drought and famine happened between Treta and Dwapara Yuga and it was during that time Vishwamitra was starving. He was so hungry that he decided to steal dog-meat from a hunter’s hut. Just when he was ready to grab the meat, the hunter woke up. On learning that the thief was none other than Vishwamitra, the hunter asked him why he stooped to such sinful, prohibited act – stealing and that too dog’s meat from a chandala’s house. The hunter wanted to prevent the rishi from doing what he was planning to do and thus save him from disgrace and sin.

During that discussion, we hear Vishwamitra saying that life is precious, is obviously better than death and life should be preserved at any cost, even by stealing prohibited food from a lower caste person. Theft is allowable during times of distress, he says. He tells the hunter: “This body is my friend. It is very dear and worthy of my respect. It is from a desire to sustain this body that I wish to eat by stealing. One has no shame when one is hungry. It is hunger which is driving me to this despicable act. I am weak and have lost my senses. One should, preserve one’s life by any means in one’s power, when confronted by death. Afterwards, when competent, one should propitiate for the sin and acquire that merit back. That is possible only if one lives”.  The argument is that one can acquire virtue and propitiate for the sin only if one can live.

In another place, Vishvamitra says that one does not become a sinner by eating prohibited food, and meat, if someone else had killed the animal. He also says that drinking wine is not a sin. It is just that the wise did not want people to get drunk.

In this episode, Vishvamitra eats the meat, and later performs a rite by the name of Aindragneya, makes a sacrificial food called Charu, offers it to the gods and ancestors and to his wife and son. The gods are pleased and bring rain to the land. Burning all his sins with these rites and penances, the rishi gets his virtues back!

This is another theme in the Vedic literature. It says that one can break rules of virtue under duress, may make mistakes during a sacrificial ceremony or mispronounce the words in the hymns. But, he has to mend it back. There is always a remedy in the form of penance or sacrifice or pilgrimage to set it right. It is called pariharam in Tamizh.

In a later section, Bhishma says as part of another story that sacrifice (tyaga), charity (dana), compassion (karuna), study of scriptures (veda) and truth (satya) are the five purifying agents. They purify the mind. Penance (tapas, ardor) is added as a sixth. Penance and sacrifice were replaced by visits to sacred places (yatra and tirta) for common folks. Even after committing a sinful act repeatedly one can cleanse oneself and purify by going on a pilgrimage, says Bhishma through the words of Saunaka. This has been etched into the Indian psyche so much that we believe in this to this day.

In a later section  (142), Bhishma quotes Usanas telling the Daityas that “Scriptures are no scriptures if they cannot stand the test of reason”. Bhishma advises Yudhishtra to listen to the scriptures and also to reason and precedence set by the wise.

In section 144, a male pigeon is lamenting the loss of his wife and those laments list all the good things about a “good” wife. They are noble statements; but at two places the wife is mentioned as a man’s property or a possession! However, credit must be given to the system for considering the husband and wife  as one unit and for disqualifying a man from performing sacred rites without his wife.

*Chandala according to the old Varna system is one who is born of a Brahmin father and Sudra woman; suta is one form of a Brahmin father and kshatriya woman.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

"What can one do when the time is not right?" - Maha Bharatha Series 66

There is a story about friends, foes, trust and time (kaalam) in Book 12, Section 139. In this story, a bird takes care of its own baby and a prince, with love and affection. But, the prince picks up the baby bird one day and squeezes it to death. The mother bird pokes the eyes of the prince in vengeance. The bird justifies itself by saying: “a sinful act done deliberately leads to loss of merit (punya). But they who avenge themselves of an injury never lose their merit”.

The king (father of the prince) understands the bird’s anger and thinks that the birds action was justified. He is ready to forgive and asks the bird to stay but the bird refuses. The bird’s reason is that even if the king forgives, his future generation may carry the anger and try to take revenge. This is an extremely important observation. Several conflicts around the world are based on ancestral enmity.

The ensuing conversations are full of life’s observations.

For example, the bird says that a trust that is broken is like a broken pot. It cannot be the same pot again, even if repaired. This is what my mother used to say about husband and wife getting back together after divorce.

The other observation is that once an animosity arises it smolders and can never be quenched. Therefore, like smoldering fire, it can erupt at any time.

The bird lists five causes of hostility. They are women (like between Sisupala and Krishna), land (like between Kaurava and Pandava), harsh words (such as between Drona and Drupada), natural incompatibility as happens with snake and a mongoose or between cat and mouse and finally injury, as in this episode where the prince killed the chick and the bird blinded the prince. The bird says that as a policy, one should not place confidence on others, particularly on an injured party.

In this world, the father and the mother are the only reliable friends. It is interesting that the spouse is not in this small list. “The wife is merely a vessel for drawing the seeds”. This is an exact quote as a further evidence of what I have written about the view men had of women in those days. (see my blog on Seeds and Fields). Our ancestors must have thought that everything needed to make a baby came from men and the woman was needed only to provide a womb for the baby to grow. They probably did not know that the woman produced the ovum.

In trying to persuade the bird that she is forgiven, the king says that Time is responsible for everything that happens and therefore no one can feel responsible. This is a common theme in the Indian psyche. “What can one do when the time is not right?” is a common statement. The other version is that whatever happened was destined to happen. This argument is also used several times in Maha Bharatha to explain events. Even the mistreatment of Draupadi is explained using this lame argument by the great Bhishma. Another related theme is that whatever happened was due to past karma. In my view, this attitude also pervades the collective Indian psyche.

The quotes on time, fate and karma from the ancient texts are used extensively in daily life. But, no one to my reading has made any mention of the following observations of the wise bird during this conversation.

When the king says that it is all the effects of Time (the implication is that Kala or Time is a god), the bird asks several pointed questions. “If everything happens under the influence of time and no one can do anything against it, why is it that relatives and friends seek revenge? Why did the gods and asuras fight? Why do physicians treat the sick? What is the use of performing religious acts to acquire merit?”

The bird also says that destiny and effort depend on each other. She thinks that one should not blame time and fate for everything but should act and do the proper thing using knowledge, courage, intelligence, strength and patience. These five are one’s natural friends and should be the primary sources of support. The secondary sources of support are home, wealth, land, wife and friends.

The bird goes on to say that “Life is dear to all creatures. All creatures seek happiness and suffer grief from misery. Misery arises from several sources such as loss of wealth, association with anything disagreeable, separation from friends and fear of death, matters related to women, death of one’s child and other natural causes. Only he who has suffered misery can understand the misery of others”.

Other comments include those of the king who says that one cannot get anything done if one does not trust anyone. Such a person will live in fear all the time.