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Saturday, February 17, 2018

About Women – Maha Bharatha Series 63



I have repeated several times that Book 12 and 13 of Maha Bharata are quite suspect as to their author(s). I forgot to add one more reason – Chapter 12 is unusually long; longer than all other chapters. There are repetitions. It appears that someone inserted passages to make sure Brahmins were placed and maintained at the top of the social pyramid, make people practice some activities in a particular prescribed way and keep women subjugated . There are passages to this effect in Book 13 in Sections 30-33.

Some other interesting facts are buried in there too. For example, there is a list of sages who were following various modes of life and had questionable histories in their past. Durvasa was known for his anger. Gautama was as soft “as a piece of cotton”. Agastya was cunning. Uddalaka was in agriculture and Upamanyu was herding cattle. Valmiki was a thief in his former life and Viswamitra stole when he was very hungry. Narada fomented quarrels and Bharata was an actor and dancer.

In section 37, there is discussion on giving gifts. It says that the recipient should be worthy of the gift and also that the “gift itself should not suffer”. What does that mean? (Is it about animals being gifted? Does it also apply to daughters given in marriage?)

From Section 38 onwards, there are discussions about women which make me cringe. Given the high morals and ethics taught in the Maha Bharatha, how did passages so derogatory of all of womankind  get in? Maha Bharata must have been well-established by the time these passages were inserted. The authors knew that people will consume any passage in this section as sacred and not to be violated. Why not? We do the same thing now creating false and fake news! And now we can spread them even faster!

After my critical editorial, let me get to the actual episode. Yudhishtra asks Bhishma to talk about women. He says: “Women are said to be the root of all evil. They are frail and unreliable. Please tell me more. If that is true, why do men still wish to relate to women?”. Bhishma answers with a story of a conversation between Narada and an Apsaras (divine damsel), named Panchachuda.

Narada asks Panchachuda to instruct him on the disposition of women. Her first two responses are: “If I know I will answer your question” and “I cannot speak ill of women since I am a woman myself”.   Narada says “but there is no sin if you tell the truth”.  In response, the litany of negative points Panchachuda makes about women is devastating.

“Women” as told by Panchachuda “ like to transgress restraints placed on them. They are the roots of all the faults of men. Given an opportunity they go after other men; any man even ugly ones and idiots. They tend to betray men who seek them and ready to serve them. It is only their fear of what others will say that keeps them chaste. Fear of sin, compassion and wealth do not keep them faithful to their men. They are jealous of women who are younger, have more ornaments and wealth and free. They are restless and hanker after new companion always. They are as unfathomable as deep philosophical thoughts. Union with women is akin to hell, fire, prison and death. They are made to be so from the moment the Creator made them”.

Yudhishtra asks: “ If women are so wicked and cannot be controlled, why are men attracted to them so much? How can men truly keep them in check and “protect” them”?  Bhishma makes his own list of the wicked qualities he sees in women and says that preventing women (protecting them) from being sinful is impossible. He then tells a story of one Vipula who protects the beautiful wife of a Rishi by entering into her through yogic powers and preventing her from yielding to her own nature. Bhishma says that this was the only time a woman was “protected” by a man.

To be fair, some nice things are also said about women in Section 46. It says that women should be well-taken care of, they are sources of family honor and happiness etc. But, it also sounds condescending. It is said not because taking care of women is the right thing to do, but because sons born of them are important (needed) for performing sacrifices! 
 As I have written elsewhere, men in those days believed that the "seed" with everything needed to make a baby was in man alone and the woman only provided “the field”. Given the knowledge at that time, it is understandable; but why did they forget the most important teaching of the Vedas that Brahman is in every human being and therefore every man AND woman are sacred. Why did some of them think that this applies just to men?

This kind of problems is seen in all sacred texts, in all religions. They contain noble statements and also some beliefs and practices which make no sense.  Members of later generations pick and choose statements which support their point of view. Obviously, many of the horrible statements in Mahabharata about women and how to treat them still resonate with some. They believe that their position is supported by words from Bhishma himself!

But, then I am picking and choosing too, in my own way. I want to keep statements which will be considered virtuous at any point in history and at any time, at any place. I reject statements which make no sense or unjust, even if they made sense at one time. I reject them even if they are from Bishma’s mouth or Krishna’s mouth. But people  who are purists and think that every word in these books are sacred would insist that they be followed literally even if they make no sense or unfair to some.


Friday, February 9, 2018

Authenticity of Books 12 and 13 - Maha Bharatha Series 62


Scholars have doubts about the authenticity of parts of Books 12 (Shanti Parva) and 13 (Anushasana Parva) as part of the original text. One scholar (V V Iyer) published a book in 1922 in which he suggested that passages on sins and their expiations and duties of varnas and stages of life were added by others later in history to perpetuate some of the customs and also to establish that Krishna is a Divine avatar of Vishnu. 

This doubt about the authenticity makes sense to me because of two observations I made when reading Book 12 and Book 13. The main message of this Book is centered around Bhishma’s advice from his bed of arrows. But, there was no mention of Bhishma at all till Section 30. The question I have is: “How come that Yudhishtra and his retinue did not rush to see Bhishma as soon as the battle was over?”  They go to see Dhrithrashtra, complete the coronation and then think of Bhishma, after Krishna tells them of Bhishma’s impending death. To me, this is strange.

The discourse by Bhishma starts only from Section 55 of Book 12. Krishna asks Bhishma to teach about duties, morality and truth. When Bhishma asks Krishna to do it, Krishna says that it will be more valuable coming from Bhishma and adds: “ What you say will be regarded on earth to be as authoritative as the Vedas”. That probably gave an opening for some later authors to add passages of their own.

We see passages glorifying Krishna as Lord Vishnu and mentioning that Krishna is the 8th descent. There is mention of a rakshasa by the name of Caravaka and his demise at the hands (of the words) of a Brahmana. This sounds like a more religious-minded group trashing Caravaka, which was an atheistic system of philosophy similar to the Epicurean philosophy of the west. These sections glorify Brahmanas and the Varnas. These passages have nothing to do with the story of Maha Bharatha.

There are several sections in Book 13 about ceremonies for ancestors (shrarda for the pitri), about deity worship, giving gifts and the sacredness of the cows. Those interested in the details of what items to choose for these rituals, when to perform them and how to choose the sites etc may wish to go to the original. I found some of the areas disgusting and offensive such as those that recommend drinking of cow’s urine, eating cow dung and sleeping in the midst of cows as sacred acts! Some sections glorify the brahmins excessively and some are derogatory of women, as usual. There are descriptions of heaven and hell and a list of the qualities of people who get there.

Book 13, Section 104 has a litany of do’s and don’ts. There are, of course, several wise and time-honored hygienic practices such as washing the hands and feet before eating, brushing teeth on waking up and safe practices such as examining the bed in good light before lying down. Obviously, meat eating was OK as long as it was offered to the gods first. But, there are also sections with strange advice as listed earlier. 

Different kinds of teachers (upadhyaya, Acharya and guru) and their importance in one’s life are emphasized. But, the passages go too far when they say: “respect him and accept what he says even if he is wrong”.

These are examples from this chapter which do not go along with what Maha Bharatha is about and out of line with the noble teachings of the Upanishads. That is why several scholars doubt the authenticity of these passages. They also point out differences in the use of language and the chandas (meter). I am no authority; but I see the reasoning behind their doubt.

There are some noble teachings too. When Yudhishtra asked about the best path to merit (shreyas), Bhishma lists the following items: non-injury (ahimsa), following Vedic injunctions (vaidikam), meditation, control of senses (indriya nigraha), compassion, penance (tapas), serving one’s preceptor and gift-giving (daana), specifically of food. In addition, he adds one more general point of guidance: “One should not do to another that which is regarded as injurious when done to one’s own self”.  (Book 13, Section 113). This teaching seems to be common to all major traditions.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

More from Shanti Parva - Maha Bharatha Series 61



Although I did not intend to review this book extensively, I find it impossible to skip some areas. For example, in Section 84, Bhishma says that the mark of a noble person is sweet speech. One who addresses others first and speaks with a sweet voice and a pleasant smile brings happiness to the heart. But, it is not possible to be in the good books of everyone.  
In the next section (85), Bhishma says that a king’s ministers should include representatives from all the four major Varnas and should have great qualities such as calmness and humility. As Bhishma saw it in those days, Vaisyas duty was to cultivate the land, take care of the cattle and trade for the welfare of all in this world. They have to be protected from robbers and excess taxation in order for them to be productive. Brahmanas' duty was to learn the Vedas and perform sacrifices to help all others to attain liberation (moksha, heaven). Therefore, it was the duty of the Kashtriyas to protect all the other varnas.

In Section 104, of Book 12 there is a conversation between a king of Kosala who lost his wealth (kingdom) and a sage (rishi). The king asks how he can live without his wealth. Some of the important points the sage makes include: “Everything in this world is impermanent. Life comes and goes. Wealth comes and goes. Destiny is all powerful. What is the use of grieving over these events we have no control over? What you can do is to renounce objects of desire. Consider your wealth as not belonging to you and use for good purpose. Be contended with what you have without worrying about what happened to the wealth you had or wondering what you will get in the future”. 
Section 109 (and 110 in another version) starts with a question by Yudhishtra who wants to know about truth (satyam), falsehood (anrtutam) and righteousness (dharma). This is the section where some of the famous quotes from Maha Bharata are taken. Since they are famous, I am also giving the actual quotes in Sanskrit.  
For example, Bhishma says that “Telling the truth is dharma (virtue, righteousness)”.  But it is difficult to define when truth becomes falsehood and vice versa. He says: “भवेत्सत्यं वक्तव्यं वक्तव्यमनृतं भवेत् यत्रानृतं भवेत्सत्यं सत्यं वाप्यनृतं भवेत्, which is translated as follows: “Do not utter falsehood if it is likely to appear to be truth. And even if it appears to others as untruth, tell the truth”.

“Dharma is that which does not injure anyone, and that which leads to growth and advancement”.  (यत्स्यादहिंसासंयुक्तं धर्म इति निश्चयः). 
Dharma was established to prevent us from injuring one another. Dharma supports all creatures. That  is why it is called dharma”.  (धारणाद्धर्म इत्याहुर्धर्मेण विधृताः प्रजाः / यत्स्याद्धारणसंयुक्तं स धर्म इति निश्चयः).  
There are also passages which define when it is acceptable to speak untruth, as for example when one’s life is in danger or to save someone else’s wealth.  He says that people who worship all gods and are open to different points of view overcome all kinds of difficulties. So do people who are not afraid of others and of whom others are not afraid of and those who see all other lives as part of themselves.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Shanti Parva - Book 12 - Maha Bharatha Series 60


           Section 65 reiterates the interdependency between the four varnas and that between the people and the gods. The gods depend on the sacrifices performed by the people for them to stay in “heaven” and the people have to perform their duties as assigned by their varnas as one of their sacrifices. In turn, the gods give rain and prosperity to people on earth.
People cannot stay within their varna duties (kula dharma) if the society is in chaos. A strong king is needed to maintain law and order. That is why the king is a representative of the gods. King’s duties are the most important ones since that allows people to perform their duties and thus keep the gods in their secure place. Both the King and the people need the Brahmans to help perform the sacrifices.  I do understand the logic and can also see how people followed these ideas. What is surprising is that this logic is still defended.

Section 66 addresses the ashrama dharma (stage of life). One interesting observation is that Bhishma says that a good king should control his emotions so that he can act on the basis of reason (understanding).

Section 68 states that a king is not just a human, but god in the form of a human. It is therefore, god in the form of human who administers justice. It goes on to say that without someone to wield the rod and maintain law and order, there will be chaos and there can be no society. No one’s life will be safe; the strong will eat the weak just as a large fish swallows a small fish. No one’s property will be safe. No one can practice their trade or duties. A king makes it possible for everyone follow their duties. Therefore, if a group of people do not have a king, they should choose one. By giving him a special place and special ornaments etc, and make sure everyone can recognize him as the king.

The king needs a learned Brahmana to help please the gods. Brahmana needs to help the other varnas to do their duties and also perform sacrifices to please the gods whose representative the king is. All of this makes logic sense, given the time these puranas were written.  In section 74, it goes even further to state that the Brahmana and the Kshatriya have a common origin in Brahma. Each one separately is not as powerful as together. It also says that the power of the mantras of the Brahmana and of the weapons of the kshatriya together are needed to protect the people.
“The preservation and the growth of a kingdom needs a king. The preservation and the growth of a king requires a Brahmana” states Maha Bharata (Book 12 Section 74).

Other advice includes the idea that a good king should not go to war to acquire territory; but acquire it by conciliation, gift or creating discord. (sama, dana and beda). He should be prepared for war but should be ready for peace. The tax rates mentioned include 1/6th to 1/10th of the value.

When a student asks why sinful people get away with their acts, the answer is that they get away with it in this life – since earth bears the honest and wicked equally, the sun shines on the honest and wicked equally, the wind blows on the honest and wicked equally and the water washes the honest and wicked equally – but they will suffer in the “other” world. So, here is an answer that satisfies most people.

After section 73, several sections are devoted to listing the "do's and don'ts" for people of the four varnas. This whole section is praised by several people as the essence of varna dharma since they are attributed to Bhishma at his death-bed.
We do not know whether these were in the original writings. To me, it is all distraction since I am of the opinion that the one big mistake our ancestors made was to perpetuate this varna (and therefore, the caste system) dharma based on birth. They perpetuated the error by placing it in the midst of the puranas. May be, they did not.  It is difficult for me to believe that the noble souls who saw the divine in every sentient being and even in stone thought that some individuals are less than others, just because of birth. May be, someone inserted this section later?


Friday, January 19, 2018

Shanti Parva - Book 12 - Maha Bharata Series 59


Bhishma’s teachings from his bed of arrows starts from Section 55 of Book 12. Since there are books in several languages on these discourses, I plan to cover only certain sections. I am sure you will seek out books which cover the entire teachings of Bhishma in detail, if you are interested.

             Section 56 to 69 deal with the duties of a king (Raja dharma). Here are some points that caught my attention.

Raja dharma is necessary to control one’s subjects – it is like the reins for a horse and iron hook (called ankusam, in Tamil) to control an elephant.

Both destiny and human efforts are needed for success. Effort is more important.

                A king should not be too friendly with his servants. If he does so, the servants will behave without respect and this will include belching and spitting in front of the king himself. Belching and spitting in public are bad and disrespectful habits.

                Bhishma quotes a poem from Ramacharitra as follows: “One should first chose a king in whose territory he wants to live; then choose a wife and then amass wealth. Because, without a just ruler, who will protect your wife and your wealth”?

                A king cannot rule his kingdom and protect his subjects if he is completely candor all the time. He has to use both candor and crookedness to be a good ruler. 

Kings are reincarnation of gods on earth. They are god’s representatives and should use the rod to keep people honest (?obedient).

Kshatriyas are there to protect everyone, but specially Brahmanas, because they are special. Together Kashtriyas and Brahmanas appease the gods with oblations and help keep the gods in the heaven. The gods in turn send rains for the people.

This above narrative is repeated over and over and particularly so in sections 71 and 72.

These passages which repeatedly emphasize the relationship between the Kshatriyas and the Brahmans make some scholars believe that this part of book 12 was not part of Maha Bharata but inserted by someone with a vested interest.

Bhishma describes a book called Dandaniti (Rule of Law) attributed to the Self-Generated (Brahma?). Brahma is said to have established the “do’s and don’ts” for a king and passed it on to Siva, then to Indra and to Brhaspati until it reached Pritha through Vishnu.

The origin of the words, Raja, Kshatriya and Prithvi are based on Prithu as the first king of this earth. Raja is one who gratifies (rajas) everyone. Kshatriya is one who heels the wounds (kshat) of everyone. Prithvi is the land of the king Pritha.

Bhishma also mentions dharma, artha and kama (virtue, wealth and desire) as one unit with moksha (liberation) as the opposite of these three. The three qualities of satwa, rajas and tamas (goodness, passion and ignorance) also form a triplet and moksha (liberation) is the opposite of these three. Moksha is the practice of the virtues and goodness just for its sake, not expecting any reward or bliss.

Yudhishtra asks Bhishma about the four varnas and four ashramas and Bhishma’s answers are in Section 60. His discourse establishes the long-standing traditions of the four varnsa, wrongly interpreted as castes by the westerners. It also places the Brahmanas high up in the pecking order. Some interesting points from my point of view are: 

1.       Before detailing the duties for each of the varnas, Bhishma lists nine duties applicable to  people of all varnas. They are: truth, control of anger, forgiveness, justice, children only through marriage, pure conduct, avoiding quarrels, simplicity and taking care of dependents.

2.       It is clear where the sudra varna was placed. It says that sudras are to serve their master at all times, even if the master has no wealth. In fact, sudra is expected to support his master, if he becomes poor. Sudra has no right to property; if he gets any, it belongs to the master.

3.       “Brahmanas are the gods of the very gods”.

4.       The four ashramas unlike what we traditionally hear about are: brahmacharya (bachelor), garhapatya (householder), bhaikshya (living on alms) and vanaprasta (life in forest). It is interesting to note that one can go from brahmacharya to bhaikshya or to garhapatya. From garhapatya one goes to vanaprasta.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Vyasa’s Questions: Maha Bharatha Series 58



In Book 12, Section 32 Vyasa asks some rhetorical questions. Are we human the doers or is He the doer? Is everything that happens the result of chance or of human effort? If man acts urged by the Supreme, should not the results of those actions, sin and all, belong to Him? If a person cuts tree with an axe, is the axe to be blamed? If axe is the material cause, should the maker of the axe get some blame? If there is no one to judge and punish, man can get away with anything. Man is the agent of all his good and bad acts and he is driven by Destiny and his Karma.

He then asks Yudhishtra, “If you think that there is no destiny, but only chance, how do you explain this horrible war? Can you see the events that led up to this war and truly believe they all happened by chance? It is the repeated sinful acts of the Kauravas that led up to it”. The implication is that they were driven by destiny and past karma. He asks Yudhishtra to take up the kingdom he won rightly and perform his dharma, even though many things he had to do were reproachable.

Just like the emphasis on destiny and karma, there is also emphasis on ritualistic repentance (expiation) and placation. Vyasa says that Yudhishtra should perform these expiatory ceremonies after taking up the kingdom to save himself from the sins of war. Vyasa also points out how if he does not take up the wealth he will not able to make those expiations and he will carry the sin. Later in sections 32 to 36, Vyasa lists a variety of acts which will be called “sins” and also how to atone for them.

Section 37 is a recount of Manu’s discourse on what should and should not be done. Some passages  comment on “what is sin” and “what is virtue” and about “how to expiate for sins that had been committed unwittingly”. According to this discourse, silent recitation of mantras, fasting, reflections ,self-inquiry, and pilgrimage to sacred places are cleansing acts for all kinds of sins.

Virtues include not taking what is not given, gift-giving (dana), study of scriptures, penance (tapas), non-injury (ahimsa), truth-telling (satyam), freedom from anger and worship of the gods. However, what is virtuous may not be so under some circumstances. Even killing and speaking untruth may be virtuous under some situations.

There is an interesting comment, that under Vedic point of view, virtue (what may be done) and sin (what should not be done) are of two kinds: by action and by inaction. Inaction in the form of withdrawal from vedic rites and reflection and meditation lead to liberation whereas action, in the form of performing vedic rites leads to the cycle of birth and death.

In contrast, virtue and sin from the worldly point of view are to be judged by the consequences – evil deeds lead to evil consequences and good deeds lead to good consequences. Acts that may appear evil lead to god consequences, if carried out with the intention of serving the gods, or saving lives. When actions are taken with the intention of harming someone or knowing that it may cause mischief, it is sinful. However, expiation is possible.

 Then come a list of items that can be eaten and items prohibited for eating etc. I can see the forerunner of many of our practices such as not eating something someone has touched with their lips etc. There is however no explicit prohibition from eating meat or fish.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Final advice from Vyasa   Book 12, Section 25: Maha Bharatha series 57


 Yudhishtra was clearly distraught and confused at the end of the war, since it resulted in the death of so many warriors and so many of his kith and kin. He was also sad that so many women lost their husbands and sons. 

Vyasa comes in at this time, as he often does on important occasions.  He supports the arguments of everyone. He addresses Yudhishtra: “You are now in the second ashrama – that of a house-holder. Therefore, take charge of your ancestral kingdom and do the duties of a Kshatriya king. Penances and mendicancy are for the Brahmins. Duties of kshatriya include sacrifice, learning, work, ambition, protection of subjects (raksha), wielding the rod of punishment (siksha), acquisition of wealth and gifts to deserving persons”.
Vyasa comes with some profound statements about the realities in this world and human life. He talks about Time (kaala) as the ultimate adjudicator of everything that happens. He says: “Until the time comes, nothing happens however much we try. If the time is not favorable you cannot acquire any earthly possessions. When the time comes, wealth will come, even if you do not ask for it. Trees grow, flowers bloom, night becomes dark and the day dawns when the time comes. If the time is not right, nothing happens. It is with Time the summer and winter come and the rainy season comes. If the time for it does not come, no one gets born and no one dies. If the time does not come, a child does not acquire speech and the child does not attain maturity.  All earthly things ripen when the time comes and then perish. Birth and death are ordained to happen by the very nature of this world. Therefore, there is no use grieving over the inevitable effects of Time”.
Vyasa continues: “There are plenty of causes for sorrow and for happiness. They follow each other. In one sense, sorrow is the natural state of affairs. Happiness is the absence of sorrow. It always ends in sorrow. Sorrow comes from desire and attachment. Those who desire eternal happiness must abandon sorrow and happiness. (Go beyond happiness and sorrow) One should learn to bear happiness and sorrow without getting overwhelmed and not cling to them. Happiness and misery, gain and loss, death and life, prosperity and adversity come upon all creatures. A wise person should not get elated with joy, nor should he depressed with sorrow.”
This is reiterated by Vyasa through a discourse by Asma, an ascetic. Later still, at Arjuna’s request Lord Krishna advises Yudhishtra not to grieve for the fallen heroes. In summary, they reiterate the same points over and over again – that everyone born is destined to die; life is full of happiness and misery and we should be able to bear them in equanimity; good people may suffer and bad people may enjoy all prosperity; we should practice our varna and ashrama dharma irrespective of all these things; that all of these are due to Time and Karma.
Krishna lists several kings one by one and recounts all the great things they had done. This list includes Lord Rama, yes Rama who lived in an earlier Yuga. In this passage Krishna describes the greatness of Rama’s reign. This is Rama Rajya, we all hear about. (Book 12 Section 28).
All these great kings had performed many, many sacrifices. In this section we learn about the names of sacrifices performed in those days. These kings had given gifts in plenty. Yet, “none of them escaped death” points out Krishna.