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Monday, April 4, 2011

Reading the Sacred Texts

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

At present I am reading Bhagavatha Purana, one of the ancient texts of the vedic tradition. I am reading it in Sanskrit with English translation, word by word. As I was reading, I remembered a section on the Puranas (epics) in the scholarly book on The Wonder that was India by A L Basham. That led me to an insight, which I wish to share with you.

It so happens that recently I read a Chapter on the Kingdom of Judea by William Durant in his Book 1 of the ten volume History of Civilization. In this chapter, William Durant connects the various chapters of the Old Testament to historical events happening in the Kingdom of Judea when these chapters were written.

I decided to re-read the Chapters in Bhagavatha Puranam using the eyes of historians, such as Basham and Durant. I wanted to look for comments about the history, geography, and customs of India at the time when this epic was written (according to most scholars). I also looked for comments on astronomy, cosmogony, health, ethics and morals. I decided to enjoy the beauty of Sanskrit and look for special meanings of words. I was looking to see how profound philosophical statements were interwoven with mythological stories, to make them accessible and appealing to the masses in those days.

Here is a summary of what I found. And all of these within the first 7 chapters! There are 11 more chapters to go!!

First, the primary point of view of Bhagavatha Puranam is to show the importance and simplicity of Bhakthi Marga (devotional approach to God). The book has several passages that teach surrender to Lord Vishnu (also called Lord Narayana, Lord Vasudeva) as the proper means to attain moksha or release from samsara (cycles of birth and death).

Second, historically we know that the emphasis in the early Vedic tradition was on rituals and yagnas (sacrifices). We know that some members of the society (women, lower castes) were excluded from these activities. It appears that puranas were “written” to bring the profound teachings of the Vedas to the common man. They perform this task remarkably well. The puranas state repeatedly that listening to these stories will bring all the benefits and happiness in this world and the next. Book 1 Discourse 1, sloka (stanza) 25 explicitly says so. “ Vyasa composed Mahabharatha knowing that women, sudras and those who were failures in the other varnas were debarred from hearing the Vedas and seeing that they did not know how to perform vedic yagnas and sacrifices”.

These epics are interesting to read and to listen to because they are full of stories and stories within stories. Interspersed within stories are profound lessons on morals, ethics and philosophy. For example, Book 1 Discourse 16 has this remarkable story of a Bull and a Cow. The bull is Dharma and the cow is Mother Earth. (Incidentally, cows and bulls are common symbols in the mythology of ancient civilizations. They are the fertility symbols. It appears that “earth goddess fertilized by the moon-bull, who dies and is resurrected” follows the gradual shift of early farming and pastoral communities and the arrival of warrior classes and kings. Joseph Campbell in Oriental Mythology – The Masks of God. Penguin Books. 1976 pages 37-45, 87-94) The bull has lost three legs and is hopping about on only one leg! He sees the cow sad and crying. The bull asks the cow in several ways what has brought her such sadness. The questions are so tender and so sensitive, I wish all of us will learn to ask similar questions when we are trying to comfort those in distress.

The story goes on to say that the cow (Mother Earth) is sad that Lord Krishna, the storehouse of virtues has left to perform other duties and that the world (with its inhabitants) is losing all its virtues. Later still, we learn that the four legs of Dharma are austerity (thapas), purity (sowcham), compassion (daya) and truthfulness (satyam). The three legs that are missing represent the loss of austerity, purity and compassion over the course of time (eons or yugas) due to pride, attachment and hatred. In the current eon (Kali yuga) the only virtue left is truthfulness. If we lose that also, there will be chaos. That is the reason for the cow’s sadness.

It is a beautiful story to tell us the value of virtues, particularly the need for truthfulness in the society.

In Book 7, Chapter 2, there is a section (slokas 28-60) describing the Hindu view of death. It is at once a deep philosophical and psychological treatise on death, as told by the God of Death (Yama) himself. This happens to be a story within a story (within a story).

Tucked into other stories are explanations of the Samkhya philosophy. For example, Book 2, Chapter 5 outlines the vedic view of cosmogony as explained by the Samkhya system. This also lists various deities which rule over the cosmic functions (for example, Sun god is in charge of the eyes and sight).

In a later section, we see how our ancestors thought about the planets and stars. Time (kala) and atom (anu) are defined in the first 4 slokas of Book 3 Chapter 11 followed by description of time as defined by the movement of the sun.

Bhagavatha puranam states that Narayana or Vishnu is the GOD ruling this universe. Most scholars tell us that Bhagavatha puranam was probably written somewhere around the early Christian era. This leads to two points about the trinity in the Vedic pantheon. According to the Samkhya system, which is the primary system of Philosophy of India, the origin of the universe is based on 24 principles. It is an atheistic system. There is no place for a God in it. The idea of Ishvara or God at the head of these 24 primary principles of Samkhya system came with Svetaswatara Upanishad. It appears therefore that Vishnu could have been placed in this position of Ishvara only after this particular Upanishad was written.

When you compare this idea of Vishnu as the Lord of the Universe with the pantheon of Gods in Bhagavata puranam itself and other puranas, you find that initially Vishnu was one of the 12 Adityas (born of Aditi and Kashyapa). It appears therefore that Vishnu was elevated to the trinity and as the Supreme Ishvara at a later stage in the history of India.

Let us look at some prayers. Slokas 6 to 17 in Book 4 Chapter 8 is a prayer as uttered by Prahlada. (Incidentally, Bhagavatham calls him Prahrada and not Prahlada) . This prayer is so beautiful that anyone can use it for daily prayers. It is full of spirituality. Besides, you can insert any name that is sacred to you such as Vishnu, Siva,Yahveh,Jesus or Allah, and this prayer will be your own.

Another sloka in Book 7 Chapter 9 is beautiful in its use of Sanskrit and is full of inspiration. Yasmin Yatho yarhi yena cha yasya yasmat yasmi yatha yaduta yastu aparah paro vaa……… And what a beautiful way to express a sense of mystery, a sense of connection with the Universal force, and a sense of surrender to the unknowable! The book is no less sacred just because you look at it from its literary and linguistic beauty.

Here are some geographical facts I found. Padma Puranam which is the initial chapter, before Book 1 of the main text, mentions Dravida kingdom and Tunga river. There is mention of Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gurjara (Gujerat). In a later chapter, the south Indian river Kauveri is mentioned.

Book 2 Chapter 4 lists several groups of people. This includes Hunas (Huns), Pulindha (a group of hunters in the south of India in which tribe Valli, the second consort of Subrahmanya was born), Aandhra and Yavanas (from ionians, Romans and Greeks). You read the names of several trees, animals and birds which were present in those days.

Bhagavatha puranam has documentations of several customs that are still practiced. For example slokas 47 to 54 in Book 6 Chapter 18 lists the following: “must not go out of the house without rinsing the mouth after eating; must not eat food brought by a sudra or a menstruating woman; should not retire without washing the feet nor with wet feet; should not lie down with head towards the north or the west; should not sleep bare-bodied; should not sleep in the twilight periods (dawn and dusk)”. I have heard all of these injunctions repeated by my grandmother, who could not read or write! It is amazing how strong these customs are passed on by word of mouth for over two millennia and still retain their potency!

There are other customs mentioned in other places in the book. True, several of them are superstitions. As pointed out by Will Durant “superstition seems to be the very lifeblood of our race” and “Underneath all civilizations, ancient or modern, moved and still moves a sea of magic, superstition and sorcery”. Every culture has its own set of superstitious beliefs and customs but laughs at other’s .

It is interesting how all the injunctions listed in the earlier paragraph are woven into a story of Diti (sister of Aditi) asking for a male child. She begs her husband Kasyapa for a male child (remember that Aditi is also married to Kasyapa). She had her own motive for this request. Leaving that apart, she was able to get this request, but on one condition. She had to promise that she will follow all the rules without any error, for one year.

Later still, the practices of each of the four varnas (brahmin, kshatriya, vaisya and sudra) are described in Book 7, Chapter 11. Duties during the three of the four stages of life (ashrama), namely brahmacharya, grahstha and vaanaprastha are outlined Book 7, Chapters 11 and 12.

It appears that people knew some biology and medicine even in those days. There is mention of a complication of pregnancy called transverse lie of the baby, in Sloka 47 of Section 4 of Introduction. A little bit of biology and taxonomy is seen in Book 3, Chapter 11.

The point is that the puranas (epics) are a rich source of history, geography, art, culture, language, customs and practices of the societies of the past. This is true of epics from all cultures. If you read these strictly as religious texts, your mind is closed to several more points of view. If you are open to these books as sources of knowledge and wisdom, you learn so much more. You get inspired by the wisdom of our ancestors. You learn morals and ethics.

You also realize that many of the current practices started centuries back and have no relevance to current realities, although they probably served some purpose then.

When you compare similar sacred texts in other traditions, you find that they have similar stories too. All of them have myths of creation and of cosmos. All of them have myths of floods. All of them teach morals through stories. All of them have their own unique superstitions. Wisdom is not the private property of any one culture!

I hope I have convinced you of the importance of reading these epics (puranas) yourself instead of, or in addition to, listening to scholars and professional story-tellers. If you listen to scholars and story-tellers, it may be interesting and entertaining. But, you will hear only one version. If you read on your own, you can look at all angles. You will learn more. You may even learn a new language!

I suggest that all of you, members of the future generations, read all Sacred Texts from several points of view. If you read them with an open mind, you will see more than a demand for blind faith. There is so much knowledge, wisdom and emotions enshrined in these books. There is so much language, literature and poetry. There is so much mythology. There is so much documentation of the history of the land, the geography, the customs and the moral foundations of the land. You will be amazed at how much more you learn and how much more your mind opens.