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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.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Shanti Parva on the Three Virtues - Maha Bharatha Series 65

Shanti Parva on the Three Virtues:  Book 12, Section 123

Dharma (virtue), artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure) are the three foundations of Hindu codes of conduct – in that order. Bhishma elaborates on them in this section.

When people pursue wealth by virtuous means and with good heart, all virtue, wealth and pleasure are in harmony. Time, cause and action have also to be appropriate. Wealth depends on virtue and pleasure is the fruit of wealth. All of them depend on one’s will (samkalpa), in relation to objects and objects are for satisfying one’s desire.

Virtue is for the protection of the body, and therefore wealth should be used for acquisition of virtue. Pleasure can satisfy only the senses. Seeking virtue and wealth for rewards such as heaven (which is a remote goal) is not as useful as seeking them for the sake of knowledge of one’s self, here and now.

Just because one acts based on virtue and with good heart, result is not assured. Virtue does not always lead to wealth. Wealth can and has produced evil. The weakness of virtue is when it is based on desire. The weakness of wealth is in hoarding it.

If one pursues pleasure abandoning virtue and wealth, one loses his intellect. Loss of intellect leads to reckless action leading to loss of virtue and wealth and leads one to sinful conduct.

Yudhishtra asks: “Since a king needs wealth (kingdom) to protect his subjects, what are the means for acquiring that wealth? What is morality? When is it acceptable to use unfair means to acquire wealth?”

Bhishma replies: “Morality is subtle; it is difficult to discern. You can learn from the scriptures, by listening to the wise ones; and by think on your own”. Morality and righteousness do not always go together. What you get out of books of knowledge is limited. That will give you an idea of the means. But, the means should be tested by morality.

But, duties (morality) change depending on one’s condition. What you should do (what morality is) when you are able and competent is different from what you can and should do when you are in distress. Under stress, brahmins can eat forbidden things and kshatriya kings can obtain wealth by unfair means. However, they should repent and propitiate for those sins later.

Bhishma goes on to say: “Treasury can never be filled without oppressing someone”. “No one can support life without injuring creatures” and “Many improper things are done when performing sacrifices”.

I find these comments so realistic, honest and open-minded. Not rigid.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Chastisement, Danda - Maha Bharatha Series 64

Shanti Parva  Section 121

The word Vyavahara is used in this section as a synonym for Dharma. It is translated into the English word Chastisement by Prof. Ganguli.  Vyavahara is Vi AND avahara, that through which misappropriations are stopped. It refers to law and administration of justice. Yudhishtra says that Dharma as proper administration of justice is necessary for a king to perform his duties and establish a peaceful kingdom. Therefore, chastisement is his foremost duty (dharma) as a king. The original Sanskrit word used in Maha Bharata is danda, or punishment.

This observation is also made by Machiavelli and Sir Thomas More who said that laws without a bite (or a method to enforce them) will not work. 

Bhishma goes on to describe chastisement (punishment as a rajadharma, danda) in the form of a fierce creature called mrigaraja (king of animals). He is said to be Rudra, Vishnu and Brahma. But he is also given the name of Mahapurusha (Supreme Being) and his wife is called neethi (morality). There are eight other names for this deified chastisement, the God of Punishments: Ishvara (god), purusha (man), prana (life), sattvam (strength, mind), vittam (wealth, heart), prajapati (lord of creatures), bhootatma (one who dwells inside every life) and jiva (lives). Bhishma also lists all dualities such as morality-immorality, truth-falsehood, and calmness – agitation and then points out that understanding all the differences between the dualities listed above is possible only because of the fear of danda, the chastisement. 

It is the chastisement which leads to understanding of righteousness, which leads us to the Vedas. Vedas lead us to sacrifices. Sacrifices make it possible to please the devas. Devas take our offerings to Indra and Indra is pleased and gives us rain ad food. All of this is possible only if the King wields his power of chastisement (danda). So says Bhishma.

In Section 123 there is a story of Brahman wanting a priest capable of officiating in a sacrifice He wants to conduct. There is no one fit for that office. Therefore, Brahman conceives a child in His mind. That child who comes out when Brahman sneezes goes by the name of Kashupa. When Kashupa starts the sacrifice, Brahman (the formless, unknowable) has to appear in a visible form to perform the sacrifice. When Brahma took the visible form, danda (chastisement) disappeared. Therefore, great confusion arose in this world. People started stealing each other’s property and killing each other. All ideas of property ceased. Brahma prayed to Vishnu and who created Himself in the form of danda (chastisement) for the protection of the world.

It is fascinating to read the importance given to this aspect of life and its role in civil society. Both Yudhishtra and Bhishma say that proper order in a society depends on the rule of law and that this is possible only someone is there to use the stick (danda)!

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.