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Friday, May 11, 2018

Yagna, japa or dhyana? - Maha Bharata series 75

Book 12, Section 201 (section 194, in the Sanskrit version) deals with this question. It starts with this beautiful definition of happiness and misery.

    यद यत परियं यस्य सुखं तद आहुस; तद एव दुःखं परवदन्त्य अनिष्टम
इष्टं मे सयाद इतरच सयाद; एतत कृते कर्म विधिः परवृत्तः
इष्टं तव अनिष्टं मां भजेतेत्य; एतत कृते जञानविधिः परवृत्तः
कामात्मकाश छन्दसि कर्मयॊगा; एभिर विमुक्तः परम अश्नुवीत

“Happiness is what is agreeable. Misery is what is not agreeable.”

People who believe that happiness is transient do not spend energy following it. They avoid it by turning to pursuing knowledge. Yagna (sacrifice), japa (recitation) are activities connected with acquisition of objects of desire and they lead only to hell. (The commentator says that hell is not a real place, but the abodes of the sun and the moon and the stars from which one has to be reborn into this world). However, yagna and recitation and penance can be used as a preparation for meditation and Brahmagnana. This is the view expressed later by Adi Sankara. (The implication is that dhyana is a superior path. But other paths may be followed to prepare the mind for dhayana)

Japa, yagna, dana, dharma and dhyana are the five methods for brahmangnana. All are colored by one’s nature whether it is sattva, rajas or tamas.  But, all except dhyana are often performed with a desire for some result. All acts done without attachment to the fruits of action is preferable. (This is Gita’s main message.) All such outward directed acts give temporary happiness. For eternal happiness, one has to let go of attachment to the fruits of action. Even better, let go of desire and anger.

During dhyana, one withdraws the sense organs from the sense objects and also withdraws the mind from the sense organs and succeeds in beholding his own real Self as Brahman. 

The definition of Brahman includes:    
अशब्दम अस्पर्शम अरूपवच
अग्राह्यम अव्यक्तम अवर्णम एकं; पञ्च परकारं ससृजे परजानाम
सत्री पुमान वापि नपुंसकं ; सन चासत सद असच तन
पश्यन्ति यद बरह्मविदॊ मनुष्यास; तद अक्षरं कषरतीति विद्धि

He (IT), the One exists in His (Its) own nature, unaffected by attributes and qualities. It cannot be touched or named; does not have a form or color. It cannot be grasped. (Some of these definitions come from discussions in the next chapter)

The evolution of the five elements (panca bhuta) are given in Section 202 (Sanskrit 195) as follows. This is part of Samkhya philosophy.
अक्षरात खं ततॊ वायुर वायॊर जयॊतिस ततॊ जलम
जलात परसूता जगती जगत्यां जायते जगत
इमे शरीरैर जलम एव गत्वा; जलाच तेजः पवनॊ ऽनतरिक्षम
खाद वै निवर्तन्ति नभाविनस ते; ये भाविनस ते परम आप्नुवन्ति

The translation: Space comes out of the Supreme, the Undecaying. Air comes out of Space; Fire comes out of Air; Water comes out of Air; Earth (universe) comes out of Water. Everything in this universe follow.

During dissolution, the body (earth) goes into water; water into fire; Fire into Air; Air into Space. The emancipated ones do not return from Space (They reach Brahman)

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Yuga cycles and Kaala (Time) - Maha Bharata series 74

Book 12, Section 201 and 203 
Bhishma recounts the beginning of the cycles of Yuga with Supreme Vishnu in repose and the Brahma of the cycle coming from the lotus emanating from Vishnu’s navel. This is the same as told in the beginning (Book 1) with more details. The repetition is probably meant to establish Vishnu at the center of worship. The population of the earth by the seven rishis, the parajaptis,  humans, asuras and animals is recounted.

It is stated  that all the Vedas return back to the Supreme (Vishnu, as told here) at the end of the four yugas. They reappear at the beginning of the next cycle and captured by the rishis to be preserved and passed on. In this sequence, we are told that Brhaspati receives the Vedas, Sukra receives the Dharma teachings, Narada gets the texts on music, Bharadwaja gets the texts on arms and warfare and Atri gets the medical texts.

In another section, there is a definition of Brahmacharya as a state in which one withdraws from all senses and sense-objects and dwells in the mind only. To reach that state, one should not have any contact with women since, according to the text, women are full of passion.  Also. according to the text, the man's “seeds” are floating all over the body through thousands of channels (naadi) and are the results of desire.
The subject of renunciation is called Samyagradha and is dealt with in Section 219. It says that one cannot attain tranquility without renunciation. The purpose of Vedic sacrifices and other rites is for renunciation of wealth and other possessions. Vows and fasts of diverse kinds are meant to help with self-restraint and renunciation of enjoyments. Yoga and penance (tapas) are for renunciation of pleasure and happiness. Renunciation, however, of everything, is the highest kind of renunciation.

When asked whether fasting is a penance, Bhishma says that it is not. But, self-restraint (acts and letting go of results) and compassion are. He also defines vegetarianism as not eating meat that had not been offered as a sacrifice.

In section 222, the discussion between Prahlada and Indra was likely influenced by Buddhist teachings. In this passage, Prahlada clearly speaks of impermanence. He also says that all of us have “good” and “bad”qualities. In Buddhism they mention 51 qualities which are present in all of us. However, Prahlada says that Soul is different from the body. Buddhists deny the existence of separate self or atman or soul.

Another important episode with a conversation between Vali and Indra is given in Section 224 (English version). Vali is living alone as a recluse and in the “form” of an ass. Indra teases and taunts him for his “low” state. Vali, an asura, former king of the Danavas asks Indra not to be haughty and proud since he will also fall from his high state in course of time.

 This discourse equates time (kaala) with Brahman (not Brahma, the creator god). It says that Time rules everything in this universe, including the gods and asuras. Our conditions are determined by time and everything in this world are transient. People in high position come down over time and those in low position get to a higher position in course of time. Knowing this, there is no need to be sad or happy about the course of events.

The idea that time controls everything and therefore we can do nothing seems to be the message. Combined with the concept of karma, it is easy to fall into fatalism.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Yama and Mrtyu - Maha Bharata series 73

Book 12, 197 (S 189) uses the word jaapaka (one who recites japa) for one who recites mantras. He is compared to one who meditates.  The discussion also suggests that meditation is favored over reciting mantras. But neither of them will be useful if one does not control the senses and the mind and if done purely as a ritual without full understanding of the meaning and the purpose. The purpose is merger of the mind with the Brahman.

The word Vedanta is used here (Section 189). This is probably one of the earliest use of this word. But, since the word Vedanta came into common use after Adi Sankara, my guess is that the word in this context means Upanishads, which come at the end of the Vedas

The words vicara, vitarka and viveka are used in a sentence in a beautiful manner. These words mean doubts (or inquiry, reflection or consideration), argumentation (or discussion) and wisdom respectively. These are the proper steps to critical thinking.
In the Buddhist literature it is said that there are seven steps between the time a thought appears in our minds and the time it takes deep roots, positive or negative (vicara). The first step in silence meditation is to let go of the thought as soon as it shows up. This is different from the Vipassana (Insight) meditation and Ramana's idea of tracking down the "i". 

The word Yama may mean self-restraint or any observance. It also stands for the God of Death. The most original meaning seems to be twin-born or forming a pair. In that sense the word may stand for Nakula and Sahadeva or the Ashwin brothers. The other pair is Yama (the God of Death) who rules the abode of the pitrs and his twin sister Yamini. Interestingly, Yama’s half- brother is the seventh Manu, the current Manu.

The word Mrtyu also stands sometimes for death and used interchangeably with the word Yama. Mrtyu is more specifically the God of diseases. Several kinds of death are enumerated due to 100 different causes such as accidents and specific diseases and, also due to natural causes.

It is interesting that in this story, the God of Death, the God of Diseases and Time come together. 

A passage in Book 12, Section 195 says:

यथा कश चित सुकृतैर मनुष्यः; शुभाशुभं पराप्नुते ऽथाविरॊधात
एवं शरीरेषु शुभाशुभेषु; सवकर्मजैर जञानम इदं निबद्धम

This means that just as fruits of actions, happiness and misery reside in a material body although they are formless, so does Knowledge although it is not material. Is this not samavaya or the concept of inherence of the Vaiseshika system?  (Please see post on March 3, 2016 on Life and Awareness where I suggest that the concepts of diseases and soul can also be explained with this analogy)

Friday, April 20, 2018

Pancha Prana - Maha Bharatha Series 72

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Bhrigu and Bharadwaja - Maha Bharatha Series 71

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

Saturday, April 7, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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