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Saturday, November 18, 2017

After the battle - Maha Bharatha Series 53

Book 11 is about the lamentations of all those left behind after the battle of Kurukshetra. There were seven survivors on the Pandava side and three on the Kaurava side. Other than the Five brothers, Satyaki and Krishna were the survivors on the Pandava side. On the Kaurava side only Aswatthama, Kritavarman and Kripa were spared. Two others survived, namely Vrishaketu, son of Karna and Yuyutsu, born to Dhrithrashtra of a vaisya woman. He performs the ablutions for all his half-brothers.

Everybody alive is cursing everybody else. That includes Yudhishtra blaming his mother Kunti for not telling them until after the battle that she is Karna’s mother and therefore Karna is a half-brother for the Pandavas; Gandhari scolding Krishna for not stopping the carnage and cursing him to a pitiable death; Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva criticizing Yudhishtra for his wanting to go to the forest and lead a life of a mendicant after all the bloodshed . And,  Draupadi wants revenge for the death of her sons! All of these conversations are worth reading.

In all these conversations, there is a passage in which Yudhishtra curses that “no woman will ever be able to keep a secret in the future”! This is because he was upset with his mother for keeping Karna’s birth as a secret. Of course, this passage from a mythology continues even now. The general statement that women cannot keep a secret is a myth and here is its origin.

In one passage in Book 12, Arjuna criticizes Yudhishtra when the latter wants to become an ascetic and let Arjuna rule the land. He points out that the duty of a kshatriya king is to learn, teach, sacrifice and assist others at sacrifices and a kshatriya has to protect his subjects, and in order to do that he needs wealth. The only way to obtain wealth is to take it from someone else! He asks: “Have you ever seen wealth that was earned without harming someone?”. Arjuna goers on to say that kings conquer others, get their wealth and then they call it theirs. Our scriptures accept this fact about kings. It also says that the king can wash away his “sins” by performing sacrifices and making donations of gold and cattle. With these arguments, Arjuna asks Yudhishtra to enjoy the territory won at the sacrifice of so many lives and rule the land.

In the following chapter, Bhima comes on even stronger on Yudhishtra. He says: “You have become blind to the truth just as people who recite Vedas  blindly, without understanding. If this is the way you interpret the duties of a king, the entire war was unnecessary. The destruction of the Kauravas was uncalled for. If you had told us this, we would not have raised our arms against our own kin. You are acting like a person digging a well and stopping just before hitting the water. All of us are heroes capable of mighty acts but we are obedient to you, our elder, who acts like a eunuch”.

He further says: “If living in the forest is the way to Moksha, all the birds and animals should be in heaven. If living in solitude is the way to moksha, then the mountains and trees can also attain it.  One not acting according to the duty assigned by birth cannot obtain success. Renunciation is not the duty of a kshatriya” etc

Nakula’s talk (Book 12, Section 11) lists the duties of the 4 varnas and 4 ashramas (stages of life). The talk implies that the second stage of life (householder) requires a kshatriya to protect his subjects against enemies, and give donations to brahmanas and perform sacrifices. It also implies that tapas (penance) which is meant for the 4th stage of life is not as conducive to liberation for kshatriya as performing his duties.

Sahadeva’s plea to Yudhishtra is based on the fact that mental detachment is more important than physical detachment and performing one’s duties with detachment is the way to go. (Bhagvat Gita) He also says that one should see oneself in others and others in one-self. This is the same as in one of the Upanishads (Yastu sarvani bhutani…. Isa Upanishad, 1:6))

Sahadeva also uses the words “mama” (In Sanskrit, this word means “mine”) and “na-mama” (not mine) to indicate the attitudes of the mind in sacrifices. These words are still used during “homas” (fire offerings) when the priest deposits offerings into the fire.

When Gandhari curses Krishna for an ignoble death, Krishna’s words to Gandhari are cruel. He says that just as cattle give birth to offspring just to multiply, Kshatriya women give birth to sons so that they may die in battles. One would not expect such harsh words from a Divine Character to a woman who has lost all her sons. I certainly did not expect. If there is a hidden meaning, I do not get it.

Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the battles and to Bhima in his battle with Duryodhana are also what you would not expect from a Divine character. May be, that is the point. Krishna may be Divine incarnation; but when he comes as a human, he acts like all human beings. Besides, in this world one may have to use whatever means to succeed. May be that is the point of all these lamenting and fault-finding.

In the final analysis, this is a mythology and is meant to bring out the complexity of life and ethical dilemmas in making decisions. There are no “black and white”, “yes” or “no” answers in real life situations. There are shades of grey. Even killing and telling a lie may be necessary under certain circumstances. But what are the guidelines to know when it is acceptable to break acceptable virtues?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Vidura consoling Dhrithrashtra - Maha Bharatha Series 52

In Book 11, Section 2, Vidura is trying to console Dhrithrashtra after the loss of all his sons, grandsons and the army in the battle. Vidura says: “Every living thing has to die. What is the use of grieving over the inevitable? Everything that is put together ends in destruction. Anything that goes up has to come down. Union is bound to end in separation. Life is sure to end in death. The ultimate destroyer will drag down the hero and the coward.”

Living creatures are not existent before they appear, exist for a short period and then become non-existent again. What is the use of grief? You cannot meet with the dead just by grieving. All creatures are like members of a caravan bound to the same destination. But no one knows who will meet with death first. For the Ksahtriya, death in the battlefield is glorious.

“Birth and death are common and universal. There are many reasons for fear and sorrow. But the wise do not get carried away. Time does not favor one over another. No one is dear or hateful to Time. Time is indifferent to none. All get dragged equally by Time. Time causes everything to grow and then destroys everything. Time is awake when everything else is sleeping. It is irresistible. It causes the end of youth, beauty, life and possessions. A wise one therefore is not attached to anything and does not grieve over anything. By indulging in grief, one gets weaker. Grief does not lead us to enlightenment. If grief grips you, counteract by not indulging it. One cannot lessen grief by dwelling on it. It only grows with indulgence. One loses purpose and goal in life by excessive grief”.

“You know that this grief was brought on by your own faults. You were too attached to your sons and did not control them when you should have. There is no use grieving now. Get up and do what you can to appease the souls of the dead”.

Going further, Vidura tells Dhrithrashtra a parable of a man who runs hither and thither in a wilderness and enters a forest at the entrance to which stands a large and gruesome-looking woman. The forest is full of beasts of prey. The man runs and falls into a pit. There is an elephant with 6 heads and 12 feet at the entrance to the pit. The man falls into the pit and hangs upside down on the branches of a creeper. The creeper clings to a tree whose roots are being chewed by rats. There are snakes all over. There are bees swarming to drink the honey from the flowers. The flowers spew honey which the man licks but it is not able to quench his thirst. (Amazingly, Tolstoy uses this fable in his book on “What I believe”!)

Dhrithrashtra asks for the meaning of the parable. Vidura says that the wilderness represents this world of ours. The forest stands for one’s limited life. The beasts of prey are the diseases which afflict man and the ugly, large woman is decrepitude which destroys one’s body. The pit is the physical body and the snakes stand for Time, the ultimate destroyer. The creepers on which the man was hanging stand for one’s desire for life. The elephant is the year (time) with 12 feet or months and 6 faces or seasons. The rats gnawing through the roots of the tree of life are the days and nights which diminish the duration of our lives. Finally, the bees are our human desires and the honey is the transient  happiness we obtain through gratification of desires. Vidura says that one should understand these facts of life, birth and death, diseases and desires and go beyond this impermanent life.   

Vidura compares the body to a car and calls its driver as the Living Principle. The senses are the steeds. He says that people who let the horses run without control have to come back again and again into the cycle of samsara; but those who know how to control the horses attain liberation. The man who restrains his senses, controls his passions and who is contended and truthful attains liberation.

Vidura uses an interesting metaphor in Sloka 19 of Section 7 (Book 11). He says that dama (self control), tyaga (letting go) and apramaada (heedfulness) are the three horses that lead the car of Brahman. If you equate “heedfulness”” with “mindfulness”, this is what Buddha also taught.

The next sloka is also interesting. It says: “The “self” is dear to every one of us. None of the creatures wish to die. Therefore, we should be compassionate to all creatures”.  This is absolutely simple logic. Why is it so difficult to practice? If your life is precious to you, why is it so difficult for you to understand that my life is precious to me? Why do you wish to hurt me?

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Balarama's Pilgrimages (Continued) - Maha Bharatha Series 51

There is a story of Indra becoming afraid of a rishi who is performing severe penance. This attracted my attention for the following reason. Indra, afraid of losing his leadership, tries to interfere with the penance by sending a beautiful damsel. On seeing her, the rishi loses his "vital fluids" into the water. They morph into a child in the river. Indeed, Vyasa himself was born this way. There is more than one such story in Maha Bharata alone.

This leads me to think that the writers of mythology did not consider the rishis as possessing super-human control. All these rishis had all the common passions of a man. Indeed, rishis as generated by Prajapati were neither human nor gods; but, somewhere between.

There are other interesting implications of stories of off-springs arising from the discharge of so-called "vital fluid" into the rivers and pot. In these stories, the woman is always the seductress and therefore, the  “bad one” and the rishi still remains “holy” and keeps his virtues as long as he does not have actual physical contact. That does not agree with my sensibilities.

More interesting is the implication that the male carries all that is needed to make a human. Indeed, it was considered for a long time that everything needed for a human baby to form were in the male. The woman provided only a space for the baby to grow! Some cultures thought that the woman’s fluid had all that was needed. In other words, our ancestors, in several cultures, knew that sexual union between a male and female was needed, but did not know that a sperm and an egg were needed to make an offspring. That lack of knowledge is understandable in those days. This may even be the reason for the emphasis on male offspring in India and in all male-dominant societies. (Please see my essay on The Seeds and the Field. January 1, 2016. Also see Edward Dolnick’s book on The Seeds of Life published in 2017)

From what we know in modern biology, the females of most species carry two X chromosomes and one of them shuts down in each cell. The male is the one who carries an X and a Y. There is at least one reptile in which the female carries an X and a Y and therefore can give rise to off-springs without mating. But, all of them will be males!

The battle between Bhima and Duryodhana is described at the end of Book 9. In this portion, three conversations are worth reading. In one, Krishna tells Arjuna that Bhima may not be able to defeat Duryodhana in a single combat unless he uses a deception. In fact, Krishna approves of it and encourages such deception. He also is critical of Yudhishtra for foolishly agreeing to Duryodhana’s request for one-on-one combat.

In another area, Bhima has broken Duryodhana’s thighs and is standing with one foot on Duryodhana’s head. His soliloquy recounting all the reasons which led to the battle and to the loss of so many lives is worth reading. The third is where Yudhishtra tells Bhima that Duryodhana needs to be pitied and not insulted.

Yudhishtra asks Bhima to cool down, now that he had vanquished him. Yudhishtra also forgives Duryodhana. And goes on to say: “You are the lucky one, dying as a hero and going to heaven. We, who are left behind are the losers in that we have to suffer the loss of all of our family- members and friends and bear the wrath of all the spouses of the fallen heroes”. Is it not true for all of humanity?

Finally, I cannot ignore my suspicion that several passages were not written by Vyasa, the original author, but added by someone at a later period to perpetuate a favorable order of things. It is amazing how firmly these myths are implanted in the minds of people for millennia.  

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Balarama’s Pilgrimages (Book 9) - Maha Bharatha Series 50

Just when the famous duel between Duryodhana and Bhima is set to begin, Balarama shows up.

At the end of the Kurukshetra battle, Balarama, the elder brother of Krishna, shows up after a 42 pilgrimage to sacred waters (tirta yatra). In Balarama’s own words, he went away on a Pushya day and returned back on a Shravana day. He went away because he was initially against taking sides in the Kaurava- Pandava battle. Later, he sided with the Kauravas. Krishna opposed that idea and joined with the Pandavas. I did not find any good reasons mentioned in the book for Balarama’s position. Nor, did I find any good reason why Balarama went away during the war.

It is clear that the younger brother, Krishna, was more influential. After all, He is Lord Vishnu in person. It is also interesting that, during my visit to Kurukshetra, I saw two coins from around 100 BCE belonging to a Greek king in that part of the world with the images of Krishna and Balarama. May be, Maha Bharatha was already popular among the people by that time. May be, there was a major battle in that part of the world, and all the characters in this epic are mythologized counterparts of real-time kings and warriors.

Sage Vyasa is a great story-teller. He breaks the flow just at the right moment to keep us guessing and make us read further! I remember our younger days when we used to wait eagerly for the weekly editions of our Tamizh magazine (Kalki), when Ponniyin Selvan was being serialized!

Janamejaya wants to know about the places Balarama visited during those 42 days. And, Vyasa decides to take us on a pilgrimage with Balarama. Some of the points that impressed me are: 1. The importance given to pilgrimage as a way to please the “gods” and acquire merit (punya). 2. The importance given to bathing at sacred places (tirta yatra).  3. This is probably the beginning of bathing in 100 wells at the Rameswaram temple. Some of the names of those wells are the same as the ones in the Maha Bharatha. 3. In an earlier section, Vyasa describes various places visited by the Pandavas during their pilgrimage at the beginning of their exile. 4. As stated in several places in the Hindu literature, pilgrimage is as effective as the yagnas for folks, who are not entitled to perform them because of their caste, sex, wealth and position in the hierarchy of the society, to acquire merit (punya) and attain moksha. 5. I cannot escape noticing the excess and undue emphasis given to the importance of the Brahmins in the society and their relationship to the Kshatriyas.

In this section, there is a list of several sacrifices (Yagna) performed in those days. We have heard of Ashvamedha yagna and Rajasuya yagna. Here are the names of several others: agnihotra, darsa, paurnamasa, chaturmasya, agnishtoma, agnishutta, vajapeya,pundarika, sautramani, and dadasaha. Mentions are made of sacrificing the flesh of animals and of humans! Roberto Calasso mentions all these yagnas and also mentions one Purushamedha yagna, similar to Ashvamedha yagna in his book on Satapata Brahmana (Ka – Stories of the mind and Gods of India. Vintage. 1999). As the names suggests a horse is sacrificed in Ashvamedha yagna. But, in Purushamedha yagna, a human is tied to the sacrificial post and sanctified. At the end, he is untied and not sacrificed. But he must go into the forest.

Kanchi Periyaval talks about all these and more, summarized in Volume 2 of Deivathin kural.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

End of the Kurukshetra Battle (Book 9) - Maha Bharatha Series 49

The Kuru army had been devastated by the Pandavas. The only remaining heroes are Duryodhana, Kripa, Kritavarman and Aswattaman. Sanjaya is caught by the Pandavas, but released at the intervention of Sage Vyasa. (Vyasa shows up suddenly at critical moments). Yuyutsu, the son of Dhrithrashtra by a Vaisya wife, and thus a half-brother of the Kauravas, who had joined the Pandavas is alive. He takes permission from Yudhishtra and Krishna and goes back to Hastinapura to report to the king. Later, he performs the funeral rites for his half-brothers as suggested by Lord Krishna.
Duryodhana hides himself in a lake and solidifies the waters using his powers. The Pandavas learn about his hiding place with the help of some hunters who supply meat to Bhima. The Pandavas go to the lake and Yudhishtra asks Duryodhana to come out like a man and fight. The main reason for my writing this section is to bring to your attention the conversations between Yudhishtra and Duryodhana. 
Yudhishtra teases Duryodhana about his so-called valor and might and asks him “Why are you afraid?” Dhuryodhana says: “Fear is common among all living creatures. But, now I am not afraid. But tired ”. When Dhuryodhana talks about virtues and rules of combat, Yudhishtra asks why he did not think about virtues when the Pandavas were mistreated. Duryodhana then says: “What is there for me to rule after I have lost all my brothers, sons and friends? You can take it all”. Yudhishtra replies that he will not accept a gift, but wants to earn what is due to him and his brothers in a battle. Besides, he points out that Dhuryodhana is not in a position to make a gift, but must fight like a warrior. 
Dhuryodhana is thus coaxed and goaded into accepting the challenge. He comes out and says: “I am alone. I do not have any armor or equipments. I am tired etc” and says how he should not be expected to fight with all of the Pandavas at once. He offers to do combat with one of the Pandavas at a time. Yudhishtra asks how these rules were forgotten when several of the Kaurava heroes surrounded and killed Abhimanyu, when he was alone.
Yudhishtra is always kind-hearted and soft. He allows Dhuryodhana to choose his weapon and agrees to battle him one at a time. He also offers, without any reason, that if Duryodhana defeats only one of the Pandavas, the kingdom will be his! Duryodhana chooses a mace.  
Lord Krishna gets upset with Yudhishtra and chastises him! You should read the words as written by Lord Vyasa!! Krishna tells Yudhishtra: “What is wrong with you? Why did you offer to battle one at a time? Are you back to your ways of gambling? May be, you are destined to spend your entire life in exile! Duryodhana has been practicing with the mace against stone pillars all his life, getting ready for this moment. He has great strength, and more important, he has great skills. None of you, except Bhima has any chance of beating Duryodhana. Bhima has might and power, but he does not possess skill. In battles, skills are more important than might”. 
Fortunately, Bhima chooses himself to do the battle with the mace. 
The rest of the story is well-known. My point in bringing this episode is to make you, the reader, to read the conversations in the original. What a great story-teller Vyasa is! And, how beautifully he brings out many important facts of warfare and individual battles in the form of conversations!!  

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Karna’s final moments - Maha Bharatha Series 48

The latter part of Book 8 is full of details about Karna’s feats in the battle. The descriptions are monotonous and fill several pages. Hidden between those descriptions are a few episodes and interesting conversations.

In one of them, Aswatthaman is advising Duryodhana to make peace with the Pandavas. He says that there are four ways of making friends: natural, those made by conciliation, those made by wealth and those made through the use of power.

Later, when the wheel of Karna’s car is stuck in the mud (through a curse on Karna), he asks Arjuna to give him time to get the car un-stuck and appeals to Arjuna’s virtues. He points out to Arjuna how it is not virtuous to kill an enemy who is at a disadvantage. The reply comes to Karna from Krishna, and not Arjuna. Krishna asks Karna how is it that he (Karna) did not remember what virtue is at so many times in the past. “How did you not remember that virtue when you insulted Draupadi in public? How did you not remember virtue when the kingdom was snatched away from the Pandavas by deceit?”

One other point that caught my attention in this chapter is the details of flags carried by each warrior. Arjuna’s flag has Hanuman as the emblem. Krishna’s (Vishnu’s) is Garuda.

The last portion of Karna Parva (Book 8) calls Vishnu, Agni, Vayu, Soma and Surya as sacrifices (Yagna). The idea that the sacrificer is the sacrifice and that even Prajapati was sacrificed in Yagna is given in the Satapata Brahmana. The sage Vyasa gives all the benefits one acquires by reading or listening to this Section with description of Yagnas.

The importance given to pilgrimage and listening to puranas (epics) seems to have come about because most ordinary folks could not perform Sacrifices (yagna or yaga). Some of them required to be performed over several years, and required enormous wealth to be given as gifts (dana) and sacrifice of scores of animals. Only kings could perform those yagnas. The kings, who were ksahtriyas needed the brahmins to officiate. Women and those of Vysya and Sudra castes were not entitled to perform these. In order to help those who were excluded, it is said that our ancestors established several other methods for acquiring virtues (punya). They include pilgrimage and listening to epics (purana).

And, so it is that Ramayana and Mahabharatha came into being. In the process, Valmiki and Vyasa made esoteric philosophies accessible and practical for the masses.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Krishna advises Arjuna to insult Yudhishtra - Maha Bharatha series 47

In book 8, Section 69, is an episode where Arjuna goes out of the battle-field to make sure his brother, Yudhishtra (Dharma) is safe. This was soon after Karna had defeated Yudhishtra in the battle. When Arjuna enters the tent accompanied by Krishna, Yudhishtra thinks that Arjuna came to tell him that Karna had been killed. When he finds out that it is not so, Yudhshtra gets angry and belittles Arjuna for lack of valor. Yudhsihtra goes as low as to ask Arjuna to give his Gandiva to someone else who can kill Karna.

Earlier, Arjuna has taken a vow that if anyone says that he is not fit to hold Gandiva in his hands, Arjuna will kill that person. Therefore, Arjuna takes the sword from his sheath and is ready to kill his elder brother. That was the duty of a Kshatriya, to keep his vow. Krishna intervenes. He asks Arjuna to calm down and points out that Yudhishtra said those harsh words because of his mental state after defeat at Karna’s hands and also to incite Arjuna to heroic action. Arjuna says that it is not possible for him to put the sword in his sheath, since by doing so he will commit a sin of not keeping a Kshatriya vow.

Then, there is a delightful discourse by Krishna on the intricacies of morality. He says that it is difficult to discriminate between what should and should not be done in a given situation. Between breaking the vow (keeping the truth) and killing, killing is worse. “And in this situation you are trying to kill your elder brother for a vow you took in ignorance. Besides, Kshatriya dharma says that you should not kill one who is facing away from the battle field and who does not have any weapons” says Krishna.

Krishna proceeds to say that although truth is a great virtue, there are occasions when falsehood is acceptable. For example, Krishna says: "falsehood is acceptable when life is in danger, in marriage (?) and when one is about to lose all of one’s property falsehood is utterable and is not a sin". There are subtle differences between truth, falsehood and outright lie!

Krishna goes on to tell Arjuna the story of Vahlaka and Kausika. Vahlaka made a living by hunting although he did not like the idea of killing. He did so strictly to take care of his family. At one time, he could not get any animals to supply food for his family and found an unusual creature drinking water. He killed the animal instantly, not knowing that the animal was blind. In spite of that, a celestial car came to take him to heaven. That happened because the animal he killed was a human who was very cruel and had therefore been cursed to become a blind animal by the gods. 
In the other story, Kaushika was an ascetic who had taken a vow to speak truth at all costs. He lived in a forest. Once, some villagers entered the forest to escape from robbers who plundered their village. The robbers followed them and when they found Kausika, they asked him whether he knew about the villagers. He told them the truth and caused great harm to the villagers at the hands of the robbers.
Given these episodes, Krishna says: “Wish there were an easy way to know what is virtue and what is sin. Sometimes, scriptures help. But, scriptures do not deal with all situations. Sometimes, you can reason it out. Whatever is inoffensive and whatever protects and preserves people is Dharma”. Now, Krishna speaks about Dharma, and not truth and untruth. Dharma seems to be the overarching principle, and truth, non-violence etc are sub-servient to that higher principle.
Krishna then says that Arjuna should forgive Yudhistra since he used harsh words when he was tired and frustrated. Krishna also gave Arjuna a way out of his dilemma. Krishna pointed out that for a Kshatriya, getting insulted by someone would be equivalent to being killed and therefore, Arjuna should call his brother in a singular “you” rather than in the third person respectable “you” and insult him.

Arjuna accepts that solution. He uses the word "you"  and criticizes Yudhishtra for his love of gambling which was responsible for all the suffering that fell on the Pandavas and Draupadi.  Arjuna feels remorse for having been disrespectful to his elder brother.  But, Yudhishtra accepts that criticism since he knows that Arjuna is correct. He feels remorse and says that Bhima should become the king and that he (Yudhishtra) should go to the forest etc. Krishna has to appease both of them and get them back on the main goal of defeating the Kurus.