Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Maha Bharata - Gems between stories: 12

Saunaka’s discourse

     In Book 3, Section 2, the Pandavas have started their 12 year banishment to the forests after losing the game of dice. Soon after entering the forest, Yudhishtra meets a sage Saunaka, skilled in the Sankhya system of yoga. He addressed the king, saying, Grief and fear overwhelm the ignorant but not the wise. Sensible men like you should not be deluded by false knowledge of the world.  Men by nature are afflicted with both bodily and mental suffering. Disease, contact with painful things, very hard work and want of objects (desires) are the four causes of bodily suffering. You can cure diseases with medicine, while mental ailments are cured by seeking to forget them by yoga-meditation. Mental grief brings on bodily suffering and true knowledge allays mental suffering. When the mind gets at ease, the body also eases.

     Affection seems to be the root of all mental suffering. Affection leads to attachment and desire. Desire for worldly possessions leads to greater attachment and anxiety. It is the cause of joy, sorrow and fear and every kind of pain. Withdrawing from worldly possessions alone is not adequate for mental peace. He, who though is in actual contact with the world performing his duties, realizes its faults, and remains detached may be said to have truly renounced the world. He lives like the lotus-leaf on which water never sticks.
     Wealth is not conducive to real happiness. Both acquisition and maintaining wealth are fraught with miseries. Wealth leads to pride, fear and anxiety. One with wealth is in constant fear of the king and the thief, of water and fire and even of their relatives. Even people who are helped with wealth become enemies for the sake of that wealth.
     Contentment is the highest happiness; the wise are ever content. They do not covet anything.
     When Yudhishtra says that he is not interested in wealth for personal enjoyment but in order to help others, Saunaka replies: “Life is full of contradictions. It is easy to fall into the cycles of birth and death. Vedas teach us to perform actions but renounce interest in the results of the action. (forerunner of the Gita). Therefore, you should let go of attachment and motives, control the senses and perform the following eight duties: performance of sacrifices, study (of the Vedas), gifts, penance, truth (in both speech and act), forgiveness, subduing the senses, and renunciation of desire. Of these, the four first pave the way to the world of the pitris. The last four last are always observed by the pious for their own welfare.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Maha Bharata - Gems between Stories 11 - Bhima and Yudhishtra. Book 3

After, Draupadi, it is Bhima’s turn to disagree with Yudhishtra and tell him that the Pandavas should go to war with the Kauravas and get their land back. He says: “Sometime forgiveness is mistaken for incompetence and weakness. Virtue itself can become a source of weakness.  Virtue (dharma) has to be practiced for a purpose. It should be the basis for the acquisition of wealth (artha) and objects of desire (kama).  He that practices virtue for virtue's sake always suffers, because he does not know the purposes of virtue, like a blind man incapable of perceiving the solar light”.

"One should regard virtue, wealth and pleasure one after another, in that order. One should ever pursue all three. The scriptures ordain that one should seek virtue in the morning, wealth at noon, and pleasure in the evening. The scriptures also ordain that one should seek pleasure in the first portion of life, wealth in the second, and virtue in the last. One should pursue all three, namely virtue, wealth, and pleasure dividing their time duly”.

There is a discussion on what pleasure is and how one gets it.  Bhima says: “Pleasure may be derived from the possession of various objects of enjoyment.  The joy that arises from the senses, the intellect and the heart when directed to the object of desire is called pleasure. But, once obtained the acquired objects do not remain the same. They undergo changes. At their loss or disappearance, or in the case of happiness involving people, when they get old and disabled or when they die, we experience distress. We are, at present, in this state of distress. Why not go and fight to get the land back?”

Yudhishtra acknowledges his mistake and says that he should not have played dice with those whom he knew were better at it than him and whom he knew may also cheat. But having given a promise that the Pandavas will go into exile if he lost, he had to keep the promise. He owns up to his mistake and apologizes to his brothers and to Draupadi for putting them into this distress.

He says: “O Bhima, you do not know how much I am hurting for all this, particularly to the insult heaped upon Draupadi. Having, however, given that pledge in the midst of the Kuru heroes, I am unable to violate it now. Wait, O Bhima, for the return of our better days. You can take your revenge at a suitable time.  But for now, O Bhima, my promise can never be untrue. I regard keeping one’s promise to be paramount”.

But, Bhima continues: “Only they who have unlimited life or know for certain how long they are going to live can wait for the right time. If we wait for thirteen years, our life will be that much shorter. As Kshatriyas we should fight for our kingdom and get it before we die. If we do not chastise our foes we are useless burden on earth. You are loath to violate your pledge out of weakness of disposition. Besides how are we going to be incognito for one whole year? Everyone knows us all everywhere. We should fight now”.

Yudhsihtra replies: "One cannot succeed with courage alone. In order to succeed one should think through and approach the task with well-directed energy, and all necessary implements. We know that all those kings we defeated and those who are already under Dhrithrashtra will be on the Kaurava side. In addition, Bhishma, Drona and Kripa are obliged to him because of the fact they are supported by the king. And then there is Karna. How do you expect to win the battle with such a formidable enemy?”

At this time, Sage Vyasa comes there and speaks with Yudhishtra alone and tells him that good times are ahead. He asks Yudhishtra not wo worry. He then gives him a special mantra called Pratismiriti to be taught to Arjuna. Vyasa says that Arjuna is none other than Narayana and that with the mantra in his possession, Arjuna should go the land of the Gods and obtain celestial weapons from Indra, Vayu and Yama. Vyasa also says something very inteersting: “Since you have a large retinue, continued residence here might exhaust the deer of this forest, and be destructive of the creepers and plants. Therefore, plan on moving to a different place” and then disappears. Yudhishtra gets the mantra and moves from Dwaitavana to Kamyaka forest near the river Saraswati.

In another episode, Arjuna is sent to obtain celestial weapons. In the section describing Arjuna entering Amaravati, there is a statement that “eaters of unsanctified meat are not fit to enter that town”. That suggests that “meat eating” was prevalent at that time particularly among the Kshatriyas. This statement also talks about “sanctified meat”. It probably means that meat offered first to the Gods, in the homa fire, and the left-over. The sanctification of meat is practiced in other traditions too.

Later, when Bhima and others are sad at the absence of Arjuna, a rishi by name Brihadaswa arrives and narrates the story of Nala-Damayanti. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Maha Bharata - Some Hidden Gems 10: Discussion between Yudhishtra and Draupadi

When the game of dice is played for the second time, Lord Krishna is away in a country named Anarttha. Does this have a symbolic meaning? Anarttha means “no wealth or no substance”. Evil happened when the Lord was in a land of no substance?

Anyway, Krishna comes back and talks to Yudhishtra and says that if he were present, he could have prevented the calamity. He also says: “Women, dice, hunting and drinking are four evils that deprive a man of prosperity”.

Starting with chapter 28, we read discussions between the brothers and Draupadi after the Pandavas are exiled. Draupadi in particular is incensed and asks Yudhishtra how he can be so cool and collected. She asks: “Are you not a kshtriya? How is it you are not angry when you have been exiled? Your brothers are great warriors and are capable of killing the kurus in no time. They are quiet because of respect for you. Don’t you see me, a princess and wife of the Pandavas living under these conditions in the forest? Does it not make you upset? People will take advantage of weak people. One has to show might and forgiveness on appropriate occasions. (In other words, this is not a time for forgiveness).”

Then Draupadi lists conditions under which one should forgive: those who serve you sincerely but make a mistake, and those who make mistake out of ignorance. If one offends you knowingly but pleads ignorance, that person should be punished. You can forgive someone for the first mistake; but not if he keeps repeating.

Yudhishtra then lists all the consequences of anger and points out how the ignorant think that showing anger is strength  whereas it only leads to calamities and destruction. It is not that wise men do not get angry. But they know how to show it appropriately and channel it. An angry man cannot see things in their true light. A man by forsaking anger can exhibit proper energy, when and where needed. Excessive and uncontrolled anger leads to the destruction of the world.

“If a man who is attacked with harsh words returns with harsh words, if an injured man injures the one who hurt him, if fathers slay sons, and sons slay fathers and if husbands slay wives, and wives kill husbands, O Draupadi, how can birth take place in a world where anger prevails? The birth of creatures requires love and peace!”  “O Draupadi, one should learn to forgive. The continuation of species is due to our ability to forgive. He, indeed, is a wise and excellent person who has conquered his anger and who can forgive even when insulted, oppressed, and angered by a strong person”.

He then quotes Kashyapa:  “Forgiveness is virtue; forgiveness is sacrifice, forgiveness is the Vedas, forgiveness is the Shruti. Forgiveness is Brahma; forgiveness is truth; forgiveness is stored ascetic merit; and by forgiveness is it that the universe is held together. Forgiveness gives peace of mind. Forgiveness and gentleness are the qualities of the self-possessed. They represent eternal virtue. O Krishna, (Krishna is the other name for Draupadi) how can one like us abandon forgiveness?”

Draupadi says: “I have heard that virtue protects everyone. But I do not see virtue protecting you, a virtuous man. May be this is Gods’ will or fate. But, why does God behave unfair persecuting the superior and well-behaved while the sinful are happy? Why does he allow the crooked Dhrithrashtra in prosperity and punish you and us?  If this is the act of God, it is God himself who is stained with the sin”. She then talks about action and inaction; about karma in relation to prior births etc and says that those who believe in destiny and chance are worst among men.

These are powerful stinging words from the princess. But, Yudhishthira does not show anger. He says: “Your speech, is delightful, but the language is one of atheism.  It is the Lord who is behind whatever we do; creatures are inert by themselves. If man’s actions alone are adequate, everything should be successful. If God alone decides the outcome, everything should be good and pleasant. Since neither is true, I believe destiny and chance are the outcome of our action in the prior birth (karma)”.

“I never act, desirous of the fruits of my actions but follow the rules of Dharma and the examples of the good and the wise. I give away, because it is my duty to give; I sacrifice because it is my duty to sacrifice! I act regardless of the fact whether those acts bear fruits or not. The man who works to reap the fruits of virtue is a trader in virtue. His nature is mean and he should never be counted amongst the virtuous. Why the virtuous suffer and the sinful ones enjoy is a mystery even to the gods. Therefore, even though we do not see the fruits of our virtuous acts, we should not doubt the Vedas and the Gods. We should perform sacrifices and practice charity willingly. Reflecting on this, I hope your skepticism gives way to faith. Do not slander God; but learn how to know Him. Do not disregard the Supreme”.
Don’t you agree that these are profound conversations we should all read and think about?

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Maha Bharata - Some Hidden Gems 9: Odds and ends from Book 1

Book 1, Section 172 lists seven streams of water: Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Vithashtha, Sarayu, Gomati and Gandaki. It also states that Ganga is known as Alakananda in the celestial sphere and Vaitarini in the ancestral sphere.

The story of Tapati suggests that the illuminator of the universe is Vivaswat who is also called Surya and Tapana. He has a son called Savitru and a daughter called Tapti. This is interesting because the sun is known by several names which includes Surya, Savitru, Vivaswat and Aditya. The root words savitru stands for "illuminating" and tapana (tap) stands for "heat" or "ardor" (also the root word for tapas).

One statement in the story of Vasishta: “When someone with power to prevent a crime being committed does not prevent it, he is also tainted by that crime”. Another statement in Section 197: “Morality is subtle. We do not know its course”.

There is an interesting discussion about whether a woman is allowed to have five husbands. In the original episode, Arjuna marries Draupadi during his lonely travel. When he comes home and wants to surprise his mother and calls for her, Kunti is busy and says “whatever it is, share with your brothers”! Kunti is surprised when she finds out what the surprise is, but it is too late. Kunti’s words have to be honored even though she said it without knowing the situation. It is interesting that everyone’s opinion was asked on how to resolve this dilemma, except that of Draupadi.

As the story goes, in a previous life, Draupadi had asked Lord Mahadeva to bless her with a husband like the Lord himself. She kept asking again and again, in fact, FIVE times. Therefore, her marriage to five husbands was preordained!

Vyasa’s explanation is that Lord Narayana came down to earth as Balarama and Krishna and Shri Devi was born as Draupadi from the sacrificial altar. She was preordained to marry five Indras’s of previous eons who were incarnate in the Pandavas. The word preordained is repeated in several places.

We learn that Yudhistra thught that it will be impossible to win a war with the Kauravas because of the presence of Bhishma, Drona, Kripa and Karna on their side due to loyalty. That is why he wanted Arjuna to go and get celestial weapons during the period of their vanavasa (stay in the forest). He uses this argument to calm down Bhima and Arjuna (also, moral on timing of actions and preparations).

In the section where Arjuna and Ulupi meet, Arjuna says among other things: “Virtue (dharma) is superior to the body and remains long after the body is gone”. Also, some statements which I interpret to mean: “Keeping a promise and a pledge is a virtue. We encounter several situations in life where our duties and morals come into conflict. Each one has an acceptable solution. Do not be rigid”. Dharma is not a rigid concept in the Vedic tradition unlike western ideas of ethics and morals. It will be difficult to write a law book based on the Vedas! Rigid codification seems to be a product of the western traditions and Greek logicians.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Brother Lawrence

I just read a book on The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence (1611-1691). Brother Lawrence’s original name was Nicholas Hermon born into a poor peasant family in Lorraine, France. He was a common man who became a “saint” through the simple practice of Love, Faith and Charity. His words resemble those of Thayumanavar, the Tamil saint. His practice is one of Bhakti (devotiona) which is in essence unconditional love of God, expecting no earthly gains. His constant thinking of God when engaging in activities are exactly what is taught in Mindfulness meditation.

A barren tree of winter made him reflect on the sure hope of bountiful green leaves in the spring. He felt a similar spirituality hidden inside. Although he is barren like the tree, he felt that God was waiting inside to bloom at the proper season. He felt that reading books and listening to sermons did not get him anywhere. He wanted to experience. He started thinking about God at every waking moment. Whenever his mind wandered, he brought it back by refocusing on God within. Is this not the practice of focused attention in Mindfulness practice?

Brother Lawrence speaks of the God with him and in him. He talks of the need for all of us to focus inwards. He also says that for true practice of spirituality we must empty our hearts of all things other than God. (A similar teaching in Buddhism is emptying oneself of oneself, implying that we are made of elements other than ourselves)

He says: “Let us enter into ourselves” and “It is not necessary for being with God to be always at church….”. And also says: “He is within us; seek Him not elsewhere”; “I believe no more; but I see” and “I never prayed for relief; but for strength to suffer with courage, humility and love”. He prayed for others the same way, asking God to give them strength and not relief from pain.

Ancient Vedic teaching of India also says that the Supreme Force (or God, if that is the preferred word) is within each one of us and IT cannot be understood or reached by reason or logic, but can be experienced.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Dealing with Stress - A letter to my grandchildren

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi, Ariana, Roma and Sai, 

I wish to share several ideas on one aspect of life, namely stress. These ideas are based on personal experiences in dealing with stresses in my life. How did I manage during these periods? What were the sources of my strength? What did I learn? What suggestions do I have for you, grandchildren, if you have to face a crisis?

The most important lesson I learnt is that one does not know when the calamity will strike and therefore, cannot be ready all of a sudden. All of us will have to prepare throughout our lives for potential crisis. I am not a pessimist and am not asking you to live in fear of an impending disaster all the time. That is no way to lead a life. What I am saying is that you will not have time or energy to go for help in the middle of a crisis. You certainly cannot learn meditation in the midst of a crisis. So, what are some of the things you can do now, which may help you if and when there is a crisis?

I do not know what will work for you. But here are some ideas.

First, Faith in something larger than us and the Universe. It need not be a religious faith. I am in favor of a spiritual path. It is faith in something beyond this world and this universe which we do not fully understand and which gives an inner strength by “connecting” to other lives, to this earth, to this Universe and to the ultimate dimension. In Buddhist terms, I consider myself to be a wave in this vast ocean (water) called the universe. As long as I consider myself to be a wave, I will be lonely and suffer. Once I connect with the ocean, of which I am a part, there will be peace and stability. Why am I looking for water, when I am water myself?

Hopefully your parents gave you faith in yourself and in a primordial force which we are parts of. You have to develop it within yourself, by reflecting.

You cannot alter all situations in life. But you can change your attitude. Indeed, Buddhist psychology talks about how the external experience is like a passing cloud. It will pass. But it is our response to it, the fear or anger it evokes and the way our mind concocts internal stories that cause suffering. This is cognitive psychology.

Buddhist psychology also teaches how to be mindful of what we are doing and how we are feeling at the moment. The idea is to acknowledge the sadness or suffering and not bury it. By reflecting deeply, you can touch its source, realize the causes and conditions that brought this stress about. Hopefully this will show you the way out of the suffering and stress. May be, you have to change your ways. May be, you have to approach the other person with a different attitude. May be, you have to seek external help. May be, this is the way life is going to be and you just have to adjust to it and deal with it.

A famous prayer goes as follows: “Lord, give me the courage to change things I can change; serenity to accept things I cannot change and Wisdom to know the difference”.

Self-pity will lead to frustration and stress. When disaster strikes a common question that comes to our mind is: “why me?”. The best answer was given by Tolstoy in his book on The Death of Ivan Ilyich. There is no answer; there will never be one. Do not dwell on self-pity. But how?

In Buddhist psychology, vitarka is the word for the first time a thought occurs. Vichara is when this thought persists. It is said that there are five stages before vitarka becomes vichara. The idea is to catch the self-pity as soon as you sense it. Then acknowledge it and tell yourself that it will pass too. Also, realize that you have several other strengths inside of you and replace self-pity with one of your strong points. May be, you have a strong support in your mother, father, sister or brother. May be, you have a great sense of humor. Think about those strengths. Build on them. (Incidentally, this technique may help with emotions other than self-pity such as anger).

Trusting relationship with someone will help. This has to be someone whom you respect and in whom you can confide. Talk to him or her. Ask for suggestions.

Meditation every day for the past 40 years helped me deal with crisis better. I am able to completely silence my mind for at least a few minutes a day. I do not know whether it has helped me in the spiritual path. But it has certainly helped me relax and think clearly during periods of stress.

If you do not know meditation, you may wish to attend meditation courses. I am sure one is available in your community. If possible, you may even want to arrange for someone to take care of home or work and go away for a weekend retreat. You will be better off going to meditation camps run by Buddhist teachers. They deal with psychological issues and life’s-problems more effectively.

Writing a journal or a diary is another major stress-reduction device for me. If you do keep one, review periodically to find out how much you have learnt from the past experiences.

Make sure you get adequate sleep. I found that meditation tapes which help you to relax your body are very helpful. I found that 20 minutes of these relaxation exercises were almost like getting 4 to 6 hours of sleep. These relaxation tapes may also “send” you into a meditative state.

Treat yourself to frivolous things periodically. This is just to reward yourself and keep up your cheer. But, watch out if this leads to compulsive eating of junk food or to alcohol or drugs or shopping sprees.

Engage your mind and keep doing things which will keep you occupied with matters other than the crisis. Learn to switch tasks. Read some books you like. Listen to music. Constantly brooding over the situation will not make things any better. It is indeed harmful to your mental health.

If you are one of those who find it easy to go the path of “faith”, you may wish to go to your Church or the synagogue or the temple. You may wish to meet with a priest or a rabbi or a Guru. Religion is a time-honored path for help during periods of stress.

If you are a person who deals with things intellectually, you may wish to go to support groups or take counseling.

If you are action oriented, you may wish to join a support group. Better still you may volunteer for a cause you believe in. I have observed over the years that some of the parents of children with chronic diseases who coped best were those who found time to organize parent support groups and helped others with similar problems. There are research studies to support this observation.

All or some of these ideas are wholesome by themselves, not just to prepare for a crisis. I hope you will start some of these habits NOW. In a recent article in a medical journal, there was a list of things to help prevent burn-out in physicians who take care of seriously ill patients at the end of life, such as those with cancer. The first two items were: “mindfulness meditation and reflective writing”. You can practice these anywhere, any time. Why not start now?

Let me repeat. You may not find time, energy or methods to cope with crisis when you are in the midst of one. Develop helpful habits now.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Evaluations and Drudgery

I have not been an admirer of  evaluation systems in hospitals for physicians and nurses, or at any other place for that matter. Nor am I an admirer of a system where everyone has to account for every minute of their time, particularly in childhood and during education. I am for choosing the “correct candidate” and give them an atmosphere of excellence and support to learn. They will grow and develop. Some may not grow, of course. I do agree that the problem of defining the “correct candidate” is a tough one. Even if one can develop criteria for such a candidate, how can one spot them? It is certainly not possible during a short interview. Some executives will say that they know how to spot talent, although several studies have shown that this claim does not stand to scrutiny. The only two ways I know how to choose a “correct candidate” are to look at their past activities and performance and at their passion for the task they choose.

Two great educators have commented on “evaluations” several decades back.  Carl Rogers said in essence that when you “evaluate” a human being, you “devalue” them.  John Dewey said that external evaluation is inimical to growth, and self-evaluation is more effective in learning and improving. The reason this practice is prevalent because it is easier to do when dealing with large number of people and it has a number attached to it. It is easier to document for comparisons. It also happens that some managers use evaluations  to “fire” someone they do not particularly like!

John Dewey compares children’s play and adult’s work. In play, the end result is not important; the process is. In adult work, the end is the priority. Process is not. If the end result is something to be proud of or meaningful, one can transfer that satisfaction to the process of work and enjoy it. If not, work becomes unpleasant.  John Dewey says: “Exclusive interest in the result alters work into drudgery”. (Incidentally the word “robot” means drudgery or serf labor or hard work in the Czech language, coined by Josef Kopec. This word “robot” was used for the first time in literature by his brother Karel Kopec in his famous play called Rossum’s Universal Robots or R U R, published in 1921)