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Saturday, September 23, 2017

Karna Parva - Maha Bharatha Series 45

We are into Book 8. After the death of Aswatthaman, Karna is made the Commander of the Kuru army. When Duryodhana and his leaders lament the loss of Drona and his son, Karna says: “Wise neither get dejected nor rejoice at what destiny brings, because it is not possible to overcome destiny”. The role of destiny is repeatedly emphasized in Mahabharatha. No wonder this philosophy has infiltrated the Indian psyche deeply.

The art of story-telling is at its best, when Vyasa gives us a summary of the chapter within the first few pages and then gives the details. In summary,  Karna took over the command of the Kauravas, fought valiantly for 2 days and was killed by Arjuna. Then, come the details of the battle through the words of Janamejaya, Dhrithrashtra and Sanjaya.

First come the names of everyone who was killed till that day in the battle. The names of individuals include Bhishma, Drona, Aswatthaman, Karna, Jayadratha, Bhurisravas, Vinda, Anuvinda, Bhagadatta, Sudhakshina, Srutayu, Vahlika, Paurava, Shalva and many more. It is interesting to note that the sons were killed before the fathers – eg., Aswatthaman, the sons of Karna and, of course, all of the Kauravas. I wish I understand the meaning.

The tribes involved in the war of Kurukshetra are also listed. They are: Srinjayas, Panchalas, Kiratas, Abhishahas, Kalingas, Sinis, Dravidas, Malavas and many more.

On the side of the Pandavas those killed were Abhimanyu, Gatothkachan, Virata, Drupada, Chitrasena, Purujit and Kuntibhoja. Tribes mentioned on this side include Chedis, Kaikeyas, Magadas, Pancalas and some maritime and seacoast tribes.  Other names mentioned in Section 12 include Pandyas, Cholas, Keralas, Andhras and Kanchis. Many of these troops are said to have been led by Satyaki.

In section 10, of Book 8, Sanjaya is describing what happened after Drona was killed. Sanjaya reports the following words spoken by Aswatthaman during the deliberation. He says: “For success one should have passion/enthusiasm, the time has to be ripe, one should have the skills and the goals (policy) should be clear. However, the results depend on another factor, namely Destiny”.

Later, before he takes up a direct conflict with Arjuna, Karna tells Duryodhana that for many untold reasons he did not go on combat directly with Arjuna. He then recounts all his strengths and says that Arjuna is no match for him in skills and equipment. There is some arrogance in his statements. However, he says that the one thing Arjuna has but Karna does not have is the presence of Vasudeva (Krishna) on Arjuna’s side.

Then, Karna says that the only charioteer as capable as Krishna and one as knowledgeable about horses as Krishna is Shalya. Therefore, he asks for Shalya to handle his chariot that day. This is interesting because, the chariot and the charioteer are used as metaphors for mind and its control in Katha Upanishad and in Bhagvad Gita.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Drona Parva (Part 2) - Maha Bharata Series 44

My apologies for breaking the flow of the Maha Bharata stories. I promise to complete these stories and conversations (I have another 60 blog-posts to publish in this series) before I post thoughts on other topics. 
In the next episode (Section 201, Book 7), Vyasa meets Arjuna. He asks Vyasa; “Sir, when I was in the battle I saw someone of blazing color looking like fire walking always ahead of me. Although I was sending arrows against my foes and the enemies thought that my arrows were killing them, I saw that the Force in front of me was actually causing that destruction. Following His path, I only killed those who had been already destroyed by Him. Who was that Person, armed with a spear, resembling a blazing sun?”  Vyasa indicates that the Force in front of Arjuna was RUDRA! (If you wish to know more about Rudra as depicted in the Vedas, you may wish to read Satapata Brahmana, a monumental task)

Vyasa then describes Rudra in several slokas. This portion is called Sata Rudriyam by Vyasa himself. Since Sata Rudriyam is considered to be part of Krishna Yajur Veda and since Vedas precede Maha Bharata, is it possible that the prayer portion was incorporated into the epic in order to make it available to everyone, even those who were not “allowed” in those days to read Vedas?

It is clear how Rudra, and therefore Shiva is associated with the dissolution aspect of the triple functions of the One Supreme. It is also clear that the import of the discourse is that there is ONLY ONE Supreme and this Universe in a manifestation of that Universe. We are only actors. We think we do everything. In fact, He is the doer; and we are only His instruments (just as Arjuna is discharging arrows and killing his foes and thinks he killed. But, those who appear to be killed by Arjuna have already been killed by the Supreme, since “their time has come”).

This seems to be the idea behind these episodes to me. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

View from within or without

As usual, I insert a few blogs on other topics in between the blogs on Maha Bharatha series. This current one summarizes some thoughts which came on during one of my walking meditations. Their sources are both external and internal. They appear to be important in my personal journey, and therefore I want to share them with you. Thanks for "listening". 

No system can be understood completely from within, because of our restricted perspective. The perspective we have of our earth is different from the perspectives of our ancestors who did not see pictures of the earth from space.

Any system created by human mind cannot be understood either from inside because the process of creating systems and categories excludes something.

No system can be understood from without because that knowledge will not know what it is like to be within the system. We will never know fully what the “bat” feels inside of itself, as discussed by Prof. Nagel in his famous essay. (What is it like to be a bat? Thomas Nagel. The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974): 435-50.)

That is the Paradox.

In addition, we have the problem of recursive nature of thinking. The subject (I) is inherent in any object in the external world about which the subject is thinking. We have the additional problem of our thinking having been warped by the collective consciousness of the humanity in general and our special circumstances, in particular.

That is the limit of our brain as it is structured.

The mysteries of “Who am I?” and “What is this Universe?” will be there forever, to be explored. Each one of us will have to find our way, with caution and humility.

We are not to demand final answers and explanations for cause and effect. There is no use creating words to represent thoughts and act as if the words our mind created have reality outside of our thoughts. They may or may not. Just accept the Universe as is - impermanent, intertwined with built-in chaos, disorder and unpredictability (and therefore “unfair”). That is the “rhythm” (or rta, in Sanskrit) of this universe.

Let us admire it. Be kind and compassionate to ourselves and to all living creatures. They are also in the same boat as we are. Let us enjoy the Universe as is and the journey of self-inquiry.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Drona Parva (Part 1) - Maha Bharatha Series 43

It is very difficult to choose one section of Maha Bharatha as the best section. One such great section is Dronavada Parva in Book 7. Bhagvat Gita is excluded from this choice. It is a class by itself.

In this section, we learn that a Kimpurusha is half-man and half-steed. Yaksha is a superhuman being who lives in accessible mountains and halls. There are descriptions of several kinds of arrows and spears and maces used in battles in those days. One of them is a special small bow and arrow used when the combatants are very close to each other. There are descriptions of how Arjuna and Drona moved their chariots around each other, keeping the opponent always on the right and Dhrishtadhyumnan fought with Drona hiding under the chassis of the car.  There are descriptions of what a “fair” battle is – and what kinds of moves and instruments should not be used. For example, spears with hooks which cannot be extracted and double spears are not allowed. Nor is an arrow which does not come straight but takes a wiggly path, since it does not give a fair chance for escape to the person being attacked. There is also a description of an encounter between Duryodhana and Satyaki, who were bosom friends when they were children. They exchange kind words and smiles, recount their young days and then start their battle saying that they have to follow the rules of the battle and fight fair. Even in war, they were highly civilized. Compare those high values with cowards now who kill innocent people with unfair means!

Then there is the section where Krishna, yes, Lord Krishna whom we all worship, asks Pandavas to kill Drona by stealth. The only one who objects, is Arjuna. Krishna asks that Bhima kill an elephant named Aswatthaman and declare loudly that Aswatthaman has been killed.  Arjuna does not like it. Krishna says that it is acceptable to tell a lie under four circumstances: for the sake of saving a life; during conversation with women; for the sake of a marriage and to save a king. He even convinces Dharma to go along with that lie. Thinking that his son has been killed, Drona asks Dharma point-blank whether that is true. Dharma says “Aswattaman is killed” loudly and then “But that was an elephant” softly!!  Drona gives up and gets nominally killed by Dhrishtadumna as it was “destined” to happen.

When Aswattaman is expressing grief at the death of his father, he says that one does sinful acts under the influence of desire, anger, folly, hate and levity. He is, of course, furious not only because his father was killed, but Dhrushtadhyuman held the severed head by the hair and treated it with disrespect.  Aswatthaman starts an unbelievable battle in which he devastates the Pandava army single-handedly. He then uses the Narayana weapon against which no human being can fight. It also happens that when Aswatthaman received this weapon from Shiva he was told that it will work only once. (In Indian mythologies, every boon comes always with an exception or an escape clause!) In spite of knowing that fact, Aswatthaman wields that weapon at this time in the battle. Lord Krishna knew this, of course. So, he advises everyone to get off their vehicles or mounts and stand on earth because Narayana weapon does not touch those who stand on Mother Earth. Now, Krishna has accomplished two things – the Narayana weapon could not do what it was capable of. Then, since it has been used once, it became powerless and Aswatthaman could not use it again.

Later, Arjuna speaks harshly to Aswatthaman who was his dear friend at one time. Arjuna showed his anger because he was stung by Dharma’s words of disappointment with Arjuna for not being able to kill Aswatthaman. Aswatthaman sends arrows after arrows which do not touch Arjuna and Krishna.  He gets frustrated, drops all his weapons and stops the battle. Arjuna then sees Vyasa (who shows up conveniently at opportune times to share his information, knowledge and wisdom) and asks him why he is not winning.  (These sections are in Book 7, Sections 201-202) 

Vyasa answers by saying that Narayana, the most original creator of everything was born in this world as the son of Dharma for some unknown reason. He then performed tapas (austerities, ardor) and was able to see (visualize) the Master, the Origin and the Guardian of the Universe, The Lord of all the gods, the Supreme Deity. In describing this Originator (who is also Narayana, as seen above), the text (written by Vyasa) calls that Supreme as Rudra, who is smaller than the smallest and larger than the largest. (We can see how the names of Vishnu and Shiva are interchangeable, and how the “fights” between the followers of Shiva and Vishnu are so silly). Rudra is also called Hara, Shambu, Nilakanta, Kabhardhin, and Pinakapani. There is no question that these names refer to Shiva.

As a result of this austerity, Narayana (in his human form) obtained a vision of that Adorable One. At the sight of that Original Being, the First Cause having the universe for his form, Narayana worshipped him with words.  Narayana says: “Form, the pancha bhutas and the five senses which perceive them and the objects of perception are all your manifestation. So are Time and the Vedas and all the animate and inanimate objects”.  “Two birds sitting on the branches of a tree (One is Iswara, Brahman unattached and the other is Jiva, attached to worldly things) are YOU. The aswattha tree on which they are sitting with the Vedas as its branches, the seven guardians viz., five senses, mans and intellect and the 10 indriyas (5 organs of perception and 5 of action) are YOU. And, YOU are the past, present and the future”.

The Supreme Lord (in this episode IT is referred to as Rudra) is pleased and bestows on Narayana (Who is also the same Originator) His blessings that in this world Narayana will be invincible. “That Narayana born in this world is none other than Vasudeva, Krishna” says Vyasa to Aswatthaman. Vyasa goes on to say that out of that asceticism of Narayana was born a muni (a sage) by the name of Hara. “That Hara is Arjuna” says Vyasa and that no one can conquer them on this earth. Vyasa also says that Aswatthaman has also worshipped Lord Shiva in his earlier life and this is how he is endowed with such prowess. But, Aswatthaman realizes that Nara and Narayana who are the embodiments of the Supreme and who know that Brahman and the Universe are the same are here for a purpose and that no human can “conquer” them.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Arjuna's List of "sinful" Acts: Maha Bharata Series 42

Arjuna takes a vow and during that process lists “sinful” acts worthy of punishment. This is in book 7, section 73.

On learning that Abhimanyu was killed by Jayadratha, Arjuna says that if he does not kill Jayadratha the next day, he will undergo the punishments that are reserved for the following acts of “sin”. (Buddhists will call these as “unwholesome acts” – not “sinful”).

The list of sins and sinners include: the wicked ones who are capable of slaying one’s own parents; violating the wife of the preceptor; those who speak ill of others; taking over of  the property left in confidence for safe-keeping;  betrayers of trusts; those who eat sugared milk and rice and cakes or meat, without having dedicated the same to the gods;  they who insult people worthy of respect, or their preceptor; touching brahmins or fire with the feet; spitting and passing urine into water; bathing nude; accepting bribe, speaking falsehood, deceiving and cheating, and falsely praising others; eating in the presence of others, particularly the dependents without sharing with them and giving to those who do not deserve and not to those who deserve.  

Later when Subhadra is lamenting at the loss of her son, she prays that her son attain heaven reserved for those who perform virtuous acts. She prays that Abhimanyu goes to a place which is reserved for those who speak the truth, who share their food, who keep the trust etc. This list is the opposite of the list of Arjuna. 

When Krishna is consoling Arjuna and Subhadra, He says: “Time cannot be conquered. It forces all creatures to the inevitable end” and “Grief that makes a person forgo all efforts is an enemy of that person. A person, by indulging in grief, gladdens his foes and saddens his friends, while the person is himself weakened. Therefore, do not yield yourself to grief”.

In Section 80 and 81, Arjuna and Kesava go to Lord Mahadeva to obtain His special weapon – pasupata astram. In that episode, when they pray to the Lord, several names are used to address Him. Two most used names are Bhava and Mahadeva. All other names attributed to Lord Shiva are there, such as pinakapani, trinetri, nilakanta, khabhardin, Shiva and Rudra. Shiva is also described as having thousand eyes and thousand arms, very much like how Lord Vishnu is described elsewhere.

In His consolation of Subhadra, Draupadi and Uttara, Krishna says: “Abhimanyu is destined to go to Heaven since he died in a battle performing his duty as a Kshatriya and therefore a warrior. Therefore, do not grieve for him”.

I cannot help inserting my personal bias here. Belief in the assurance of a special place (heaven) after death is certainly an effective way for handling the grief of losing one’s kith and kin. I am for it from that point of view. But, it is fooling oneself. At the approach of death, all of us mortals, are afraid. We do not know what happens at death or after. As my mother said once: “No one who died came back to tell us what is out there”. Therefore, we create our own narrative of a heaven full of gardens, flowers and damsels (what about women!) if we behave well (do punyam etc) and to a place full of snakes and beasts and boiling oil if we don’t. This has the additional motivation for behaving “good” and perform virtuous acts during this life. If such belief leads people into “good” behavior, why not?

My personal bias is to go beyond “blind faith” in imaginary abodes after death and accept the inevitable. I would rather perform “wholesome, helpful” acts (not good and bad; not virtue and sin) here and now, just because it is the right thing to do, not because I am assured of a place in “heaven” or am afraid of a place called “hell”.

To use a modern-day example, I would rather drive on a highway within the posted speed limits because it is the safe thing to do, not because I am afraid of getting a traffic ticket. An internal-“policeman” is far superior to an external one, particularly an imaginary one.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

What is Death? And Why? - Maha Bharatha Series 41

In Sections 51-54,  Book 7, we see descriptions of Abhimanyu terrorizing the Kaurava army single-handedly. At the advice of Drona, Abhimanyu was killed  by Dussana’s son in the battle. Yudhishtra feels remorse, as he does often, since he feels responsible for the death of so many of his kith and kin. He is despondent. At this time Sage Vyasa shows up. (It is interesting that Vyasa shows up at opportune moments and always on the Pandava’s side!) Yudhishtra asks Vyasa: “What is death? Why death?” Vyasa then recounts a story of a king by name Akampana and his son Hari, who was killed in a battle.

Before I recount the story, the main points I get from this story are: 1. Death is inevitable. Everyone, even Rama died. There is a series of chapters on the story of several ancestors (16 to be exact) all of whom died. 2. There is nothing or no one by name Death (Yama) who takes our lives. 3. People die because of their own actions or because of things that happen to their body in the form of diseases. 4. One aspect of death is Time, with a capital T.

Now, back to the story as told by Narada to Vyasa and, now being told to Yudhishtra ( as told by Sanjaya to Dhrithrashtra). Now, you can see how stories are buried within stories. This is a characteristic of story-telling in India. We can see this in Panchatantra. The pattern was probably set several centuries earlier as seen in Brihatkatha and  Kathasaritsagara, which many believe are the forerunners for story-telling in other countries (example, Aesop’s fables; Arabian Knights).

Yudhishtra asks Vyasa: “What is death? Where does death come from? Why does death take away lives?”. That is when Vyasa tells him the story of Akampana and the “origin” of death. Akampana was mourning the death of his son and asked Narada why his heroic son died. He asked what death is and how it came about. In response, Narada said: “When the Grandsire Brahma created all creatures, they were full of vigor and none showed any sign of decay and death. He got angry and out of that anger rose a fire which consumed all creatures of the universe. Then, Lord Shiva (sthanu, Hara) appeared before Brahma to appease him. Brahma asked Shiva: “Why are you here? What can I do for you?”

Sthanu (Shiva) said: “You created all these creatures and now they are being consumed through thy fire. Seeing this, I am filled with compassion. Be kind to them.”

Brahma said: “I get no pleasure destroying them. But Goddess Earth is overburdened and was asking me  for help to reduce the load. I did not know how to destroy the creatures and got angry. Out of that anger came this fire”.

Rudra said: “That fire is destroying everything - plants, animals and all. Be kind and let Time stay as past, present and future. You made me the protector of these creatures. Let not these creatures be exterminated”. At this request from Mahadeva, Brahma extinguished the fire and out of Him came a female who was dark with red eyes and face. She wore two brilliant ear-rings and other ornaments. Brahma addressed her as Death (Mrtyu, a word which means death and also fate) and ordered her to kill the creatures He had created.

The Lady Death (in some other places, Mrtyu is male)was shocked at this order and started imploring Brahma not to make her do this terrible act. She said that she will not be able to take away the life-breath of living creatures, which is so dear to them and make them cry. Besides the sons, daughters and family and friends of the dead will cry and their tears will curse me. She started crying bitterly and Brahma collected those tears in His hands so as to protect the creatures.”

Brahma told her: “O Death, I created you for the destruction of creatures and gave that as your duty. Therefore, go and do your duty and no sin will attach to you”. Lady Death did not agree, but went to practice severe austerities for several thousand years and did everything to please the Creator, obviously hoping He will relieve of her awful duties.

After several thousand years, Brahma appeared and asked her why she was undergoing so many severe austerities. Lady Death said: “I am a woman in distress and faultless. These creatures are living in good health and are kind to each other. I beg you to spare me from this unjust duty”.

Brahma replied: “ No sin will attach to you. I will appoint Yama and several diseases to be your helpers, so that you are not alone in this task. I all also make diseases that afflict living creatures out of your tears which I have caught in my palms. I will also give you my boon so you gain eternal virtue”. Lady Death said: “Since you do not give me any escape, I will perform my duty. But let covetousness, wrath, malice, jealousy, quarrel, folly and shamelessness, and other passions afflict all embodied creatures”.

Afraid of disobeying Brahma, Lady Death started taking the “lives of living creatures when the Time came”. In other words, Time is responsible for death and not the Lady Death. (There is a story in Book 12 on the same topic in which an old lady, a snake and Mrtyu blame Time for death, not the snake or Mrtyu). Since “diseases spring from living creatures themselves”, and living creatures die of their own wicked actions, diseases and Time, Lady Death can continue with her duties without feeling the burden of ending the lives of creatures.

With that narration, Narada told King Akampana: “Your son is in the heavenly abode for heroes. As I narrated now, the Creator has ordained death for all living creatures when their Time comes. Creatures die on their own and death does not kill them. Knowing that death has been ordained by the Supreme God, cast off your grief for your dead son”.

Vyasa continued: “Having listened to this instructive story, get over your lamentations, O Yudhishthira. Know that Abhimanyu has attained heaven performing his duty as a Kshatriya warrior in the battlefield.  Muster all your energy, gather your brothers and the army, and show all your anger in the battlefield”.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Krishna and Arjuna in Battle field - Maha Bharatha Series 40

In Book 7, Section 27 is an episode which refers to Naraka Asura. This is described in the midst of the Kurukshetra battle. Jayadrata (?Vajradatta) was the king of Sindhu, and therefore was also called Saindhava. He was married to the only sister of the Kauravas, by name Dushala. Obviously, he was on the side of the Kauravas. He had special weapons and was therefore was not conquerable. He used one of them called Vaishnava against Arjuna. But, Krishna deflected it and accepted it on himself.

At this point, Arjuna asks Krishna: “You said that you will not enter the war yourself, but only help us. Why are you breaking your promise?” Krishna says: “I am of FOUR forms. One is in this world performing ascetic activities. One is here as an observer. One is involved in action. One is in the sleep mode for several years. When in that mode, I offer boons to the worthy. Once, when I woke up after 1000 years of sleep, Lady Earth asked for a boon. That was for a son who cannot be defeated by anyone but me. That was Naraka and he had this weapon, Vaishnava. No human can escape this weapon. Jayadrata got this weapon from Naraka. Now that he is using it and since you cannot escape it, I took it upon myself”.