Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Reinterpreting Old Texts

Several weeks back, I wrote about rereading old texts in the current context. This idea of reinterpreting old texts is neither new nor original, obviously. In ancient times, Buddha tried it in the east and Socrates in the west. In modern times, one of the earliest was Spinoza in the 17th century. His historical-critical interpretation of the Bible resulted in his isolation, excommunication and poverty!

What makes me think I can succeed where great souls like Buddha and Socrates and Spinoza failed? However, I cannot escape the observation that CHANGE is the essence of this universe and of our lives. How can I hold on to ONE view, that too an old one, for ever? When change is the essence of the universe, is it not more harmonious for us to change our view?

Let me now go back to the Bhagavatha Puranam. I have continued to read that epic book of 12 chapters and over 1,000 pages. It is a treasure house of wisdom, philosophy, history and language. Here are some more insights from those readings.

The entire book is about Lord Krishna’s exploits. Lord Krishna is none other than Vishnu, the protector. He is the Supreme Force, but comes in human form, of his own accord, through his power of Maya (sleigh of hand) and in sport (Leela). Remember, the word Vishnu means one who has entered everything in this universe – and thus its sustainer.

The book does not say much about Balarama, Krishna’s  brother who is also a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu. Why? Why is it that even the interpreters and those who give lectures on Bhagavatham do not say much about Balarama? What does he represent? Since he is Adi Sesha, the five-headed serpent on whom the Lord is resting, he may represent the 5 senses of human beings and Vishnu is the controlling mind. I have also read another meaning for the word Sesha which I have forgotten.

There is one intriguing chapter in Bhagavatham about Balarama killing Suta. In order to propitiate for this sin, Balarama undertakes a pilgrimage for 12 months traveling throughout India (Bharatha varsha as is mentioned in the text).  During the description of this pilgrimage, we see names of rivers and places like Ganga, Sona and Tambraparni, Prayag, Gaya, Srisailam, Shiva-Kanchi and Vishnu-Kanchi, Kaveri, Kerala and Kanyakumari. Is this an early support for the habit of pilgrimage to wash of one’s sins or to gain some worldly goods?

Then comes an interesting episode. Balarama arrives at Kurukshetra at the time of a dual between Bhima and Duryodhana. He advises them not to fight. Knowing that their enmity was too deep for reconciliation (badhhavairau….  Anusmaran thava anyonyam duruktham dushkrithani cha) he leaves the scene, goes back to Dwaraka and performs sacrifices, even as Krishna stays back  and takes part in the war.

This passage is really intriguing to me. Anyone with an understanding of this metaphor is welcome to comment.

Another episode is that of the famous Kuchela. All of us know the story of the poor Kuchela and how he did not have anything to take to Krishna and how he took a handful of beaten rice and how much Krishna enjoyed it etc. What struck me was the name Kuchela, although his real name was Sudhama. Chela is cloth. Kuchela is one without any clothes – meaning a poor man.  That was my first piece of learning. The next is the similarity to Tamil language. In Tamil, the saree women wear has two names. One is pudavai. The other is chelai. My guess is that the word chelai is borrowed from Sanskrit.

Finally, chapter 69 of Book 10 summarizes the metaphor of the entire Bhagavatham. It explains the meaning behind the much misunderstood frolics of Lord Krishna with 1000 women and his eight wives. More about this in the next essay.

No comments: