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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Maha Bharata - Some Hidden Gems - 4 (Sanat-Sujatiyam)

                (Editor's note: Although this is out of sequence, I decided to bring this out now since I want to share this classic sooner than later)

Sanat-Sujatiyam is a little known masterpiece of philosophy which occupies Section 41 to 49 of Book 5 of Maha Bharatha. Immediately following Vidura’s discourse on moral and ethical aspects of worldly life, Dhrithrashtra asks Vidura about spiritual knowledge, knowledge about Brahman. Vidura says that he is not qualified to talk about that topic (this itself is a lesson in humility) and asks Sanat-Sujata to talk about that topic. This is one of the three great treatises within Maha Bharatha – the other two being, Bhagvad Gita and Vidura Nithi.

This discussion between Dhrithrashtra and Sanat-Sujata repeats several of the moral teachings covered in earlier episodes (such Vidura’s discourse). It also goes into the question of Death, Karma, rebirth, Truth, realization and emancipation (?moksha) and the nature of the most Original – the Supreme, also known as Brahman. In this piece I will summarize mainly the discourses on Brahman.

One major point I wish to emphasize is the use of three words by Sanat-Sujata to refer to the Supreme Consciousness, Promordial, also known as Brahman. The words used are Mahat Yashas, which means Great Glory. The words Yashsas has several ordinary meanings – lovely, agreeable, worthy, honorable. The Vedic meaning is Splendor or beauty. The other words used are tat, translated in English as That. Please note that the word is not he or she. One other word is Sanatana. The meaning of this word includes perpetual, constant, eternal, permanent, all seem to imply time. Other meanings are fixed, firm, settled – all refer to space.

The word bhagavan is also used in the beginning. The roots are bhaga  which means good fortune, wealth, power, splendor, excellence, love, virtue and omnipotence.  Vaan stands for one who has those qualities. In Vedic texts, bhagavan is defined as one who possesses six qualities: knowledge (gnana), strength (bala), lordship (aishwarya), potency (Shakti), virility (virya) and splendor (tejas)

This is important because if we use the word Supreme Consciousness, the question of the owner of the consciousness arises. That is the problem of translation, not of the concept as originally expressed in Sanskrit. Sanat-sujata explains clearly that this  Mahat Yashas, Tat, Sanatana is beyond words and descriptions because That is the cause of everything, That which is perpetual and fixed, as opposed to the worldly or universal time and space limited phenomena. To refer to space and time, we need a referent which is not bound by these two and on which these two depend. Just accept that exists, or must exist and go for it says Sanat- Sujata.

The word bhagavan however implies a source person, and not an IT. Bhagavan also is used synonymous with Ishwara and the gods of the Hindu pantheon.

In his first question on Death, Dhrithrashtra asks whether there is something called death or not. If there is no death, why do asuras and devas perform austerities to overcome death? Sanat-Sujata says that both are true – there is death and there is no death. Death is not like a tiger which swallows. No one even knows whether it has a form. But, some people imagine death in the form of Yama. Yama exists only in the realm of pitris (ancestors) where people fall in their cycle of birth and rebirth due to their own ignorance.

Ignorance is death; once you conquer ignorance, there is no death. But what is ignorance? Ignorance is not realizing the Brahman in one’s own self. When we follow human desires and passions, that lead to anger and to errors in our actions we enter the cycle of births followed by death. Those who do not get excited by their ambitions and desires understands their true self through self-knowledge. To those who have conquered their self, death does not pose any terror.

“Attached to external forms many practice rites and rituals for virtue’s sake and not for the development of the inner self. They need our respect but they are wasting their time. In order to attain wisdom, one need to pursue truth, uprighteousness, modesty, self-control, purity of mind, good conduct and knowledge of the Vedas”.

The next question is: Can one attain emancipation (moksha) through prayers and sacrifices and religious acts? Sanat-Sujata ‘s answer: “Yes, of course. But if one renounces desire (thereby attain true knowledge through an understanding that one’s true self is the Sanatana, That Supreme) emancipation is immediate. If he is unable to get rid of his desires, he can follow these other routes. But he will end up with life again due to accumulated karma”.

“If you say that the Unborn, Ancient One has entered into everything (He is in every one of us and everything), how is it so since He has no desires? What would He do this for and where is the need for His happiness since he is by definition embodiment of bliss?”

The answer given by Sanat-Sujata: “The Supreme and the individual self are different. Creatures emerge from the union of conditions from That which is beyond conditions and conditioning. They are not identical.”

The question: “Vedas say that the Supreme, That Sanatana, is this universe consisting of mobile and immobile things. Some say that there are four gods; some say three and two and some say only one. Some say Brahman is the only existent object and there is nothing with separate existence. Which one of them is the correct view?”

The answer: “There is but one Brahman, which is Truth itself. It is from the ignorance of not knowing that one, many gods are conceived. Therefore, they have deviated from the Truth and depending on their state and purpose perform sacrifices, meditate, do japa and offer prayer. But the one who has conquered desires and seeks Brahman through knowledge does not need them. There is no use obtaining knowledge about Brahman by reading and reciting Chhandas without seeking and realizing the subject matter of that knowledge. By mind alone one cannot acquire the knowledge of the self. The Vedas are comparable to the finger pointing to the moon. Look at the moon and not the fingers. (These words were used by Buddha also). Vedas only indicate highest attributes of the Supreme. But by the practice of yoga meditation one can realize that Supreme in oneself”.

There are passages similar to those in Buddhism which talks about the “suchness” of things. Things not as they appear to be, as they are perceived by us, but as they really are. 

Sanat-Sujata goes on to say that Brahman exists within ourselves and manifests Itself in one who casts off all desires and seeks a guru with whom he serves his period of brahmacharya. He defines the duties of a Brahmachari and my reading suggests that the process of acquiring the knowledge of the Supreme Brahman from a Guru is to be called brahmacharyam. The knowledge of the Supreme becomes manifest in one with pure intellect and who practices brahmacharyam.

The object of Brahmacharyam, namely the knowledge of Brahman comes with time. But one needs a Guru, his own intellect to understand and proper discussion and yoga practices.

Dhrithrashtra asks how Brahman who resides in one’s soul looks like. What is His true form?
Sanat-Sujata says: “ IT may appear in any color or form. But you cannot find anything like It anywhere in the universe. It is as thin as razor’s edge (this comparison comes in one of the Upanishads and Somerset Maugham who admired the Upaishands wrote a novel with that title) and as big as a mountain. It is the basis on which everything else depends. Everything springs from It and returns to It. It is free of all duality and all pervading. This Maha Yashas is pure knowledge. It is eternal and self-luminous”.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Maha Bharata - Some Hidden Gems - 3 (Yayati)

Yayati’s story is a famous one and I will let you read the full story elsewhere. Here, I wish to summarize some famous passages from this episode in Book 1, Adiparva, Section 84 onwards.

Yayati “borrows” youth from his youngest son, Puru, in exchange for his old age and decrepitude so that he can enjoy the pleasures of young age. After several years, when the allotted time was coming to an end, he realized "how his desires were still not satisfied. He found himself craving for more. He realized that satisfying the desires are like pouring melted butter into the fire – it only makes the fire more intense. Man will never be satisfied even if he is given all the produce and gems and precious stones of this earth. He will never be content. Therefore, one should give up the thirst for enjoyment. True happiness belongs only to those who give up desires for worldly things". He concludes that “More important than youth are purity in thought, action and speech”. He decides to caste off all his possessions and desires, exchange his old age back from his son and go to meditate on Brahman.

Similar ideas are expressed in other classics too. The following is from Uddhava Gita: 21:22/23. King Purvavasu, also called Ela, realizes how blind he had become because of his attachment to Urvasi. He wonders how can one get so attached to a perishable body. The mind gets agitated only by its contact with sense organs and their objects, and not by anything else. A mental wave (it may mean perceptions) is never produced by anything that has not been seen or heard of. Therefore, the mind of a man who controls his senses will gradually calm down and attain stillness and peace.

In his conversations with Indra, Yayati says: “Do not return anger with anger. Do not hurt others with harsh words. The best of prayers is to show kindness, friendliness and charity to all. Give always; never beg. Happiness and misery are transient. Do not grieve and do not get too excited. Asceticism, benevolence, tranquility of the mind, self-command, modesty, simplicity and kindness are the doors to heaven. Vanity leads to the destruction of all virtues”.

Yayati also describes the four ashramas of life. He defines muni as a mouni (observer of silence) who has withdrawn himself from all worldly objects and barely sustains his life with whatever food is available in the woods. Indifferent to happiness and misery and to honor and insult he meditates and becomes one with Brahman.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Maha Bharata - Some Hidden Gems - 2

From Book 1, Adiparva of Mahabharatha. Section 71-78 - Shakuntala addresses Dushyanta  

             Controlling her anger with extraordinary effort, Shakuntala (Shankunta is a bird; Shakuntala was so called because she was protected by birds when she was left behind by Menaka, her mother) addresses Dushyanta:
             “Knowing everything, O monarch, how can you act like an inferior person. You know the truth. You think no one else knows the truth. When people do sinful deeds they think that no one observed him. But, he is observed by the gods and by Him also who is in every heart. The Sun, the Moon, the Air, the Fire, the Earth, the Sky, Water, the heart, Yama, the day, the night, both twilights, and Dharma, all witness the acts of man. I am a wife devoted to my husband. I have come of my own accord, it is true. But do not, on that account, treat me with disrespect. I am your wife and, therefore, deserve to be treated respectfully. In the presence of so many, why dost thou treat me like an ordinary woman?

Even rishis cannot beget children without women. Don’t you know that the husband entering the womb of the wife cometh out himself in the form of the son?  That is why the wife is also called  Jaya (she of whom one is born). And the son that is so born rescues the spirits of deceased ancestors. That is why he is called putra, the one who saves (his ancestors) from the hell called Put.

She is a true wife who handles household affairs with care, is devoted to her husband and who has borne a son. Only those with wives can perform religious acts. The wife is a man's half and is the first of friends. The wife is the root of dharma, artha and kama. The wife is the root of salvation.

Since it is considered that a man is born as the son, a man whose wife hath borne a son should be looked upon as his mother. No man, even in anger, should ever do anything that is disagreeable to his wife, seeing that happiness, joy, and virtue--everything depends on the wife. Therefore, why are you treating me like this?

I brought your son up on my own and have brought him to you. Is there any happiness better than hugging a son who comes running towards you? Even ants support their own eggs without destroying them. Why are you not supporting your own child? Let this handsome son of yours hug you".
Then, Shakuntala recounts her story of how she was born of Viswamitra and Menaka and how she was abandoned and was brought up by Sage Kanva etc. (There is a statement in this section of Mahabharatha that “the maker of the body, the protector of life and the giver of food are all fathers) Dusyanta says he does not believe all that story (in essence he criticizes her mother’s “indiscretion”) and he does not remember her. Shakuntala says “how it is easy to find fault with others and ignore one’s own. Wicked people look for bad things when someone speaks both good and evil things, like swine do.  Noble ones look for good things even when mixed with evil, just like a swan separates milk from water (This seems to be the most original site for this common expression). You are taking the weak things I have said and ignoring the important things I said”.

Then, she mentions five kinds of sons: one from the wife, one gifted by someone, one purchased, one reared out of affection and one from another woman not wedded. She seems to suggest that a son is a son and it is the father’s duty to protect and love him. She says: “Take this son of yours and protect him. Be truthful because truth is the highest vow, there is nothing higher than truth and it is as high as the study of the Vedas. If you give no credit to my word, I will leave, but leaving our son with you, so he may rule at the end of your reign” and she walks out. (Remember, the son is Bharatha, whose name is still the name of India)

            Then, a celestial voice comes and tells Dushyanta and all his royal assembly how Shakuntala told the truth and that Bharatha is indeed his son and that he should accept them. Dushyanta does, but after saying that he was sorry he caused pain to Shakuntala. He had to do it, he said, in order to convince his subjects and household that indeed he had married Shakuntala and it was not a lustful union. (Remember a similar situation when Rama accepts Sita after she was imprisoned by Ravana)

            One other side-story is Kalidasa’s version of this story. In that version, a ring given by Dushyanta is the reminder to him of their wedding and not a celestial voice. More important in Kalidasa’s version is an eloquent, beautiful poetry from the mouth of sage Kanwa (Kalidasa calls him Kashyapa), when he sends Shakuntala to her husband’s house. It is so beautiful in its original Sanskrit that I encourage anyone who knows how to understand even a little Sanskrit to go and read.
                There are several passages in Act 4 on this topic of a daughter going to her husband’s house for the first time. The special one is poem 5, Act 4.  Kanwa (Kashyapa) says: “Shakuntala is going to leave today to her husband’s house. I am choking with emotions. My eyes are tearing. My eye sight is blinded with anxiety. If this is the feeling of a father, that too a forest dweller, who just happened to have raised her, how will a parent feel when the daughter leaves home".

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Maha Bharata - Some Hidden Gems - 1

All of us who grew up in India have experienced story-telling in its glorious form in our villages and towns. They are called Katha-Kalakshepam, which means spending time (kala-kshepam) telling stories (katha). The tradition of story-telling is universal. Even tribes living in isolated communities spread their culture and myths through story-telling. (Please read a book by Mario Vargas Lhosa called The Story Teller. It is a fiction, but captures the essence of this tradition)

Wandering story-tellers are a special breed. They go from village to village and entertain people in the evenings with their stories, songs and legends. From what I know, there is still one such family left in India). Our own Puranas, particularly Mahabharatha and Ramayana lend themselves to story-telling remarkably well. Indeed, the tradition at the time when our puranas were written was for the king’s retinue to move from place to place performing sacrifices (yagna). In the evenings everyone gathered around when someone recounted puranic stories. The famous Mahabharatha itself is written in that mode, as stories told during the sacrifices performed by Janamejaya.

As a child I enjoyed those stories and, without being aware, learnt (imbibed is a better word) plenty of morals from our heroes Rama, Krishna and King Sibi and Karna. As I grew older I was not satisfied because our Bhagavathars (the name for the story tellers in its traditional form) were telling only the stories and perpetuating myths without telling us the many gems buried between the stories.

Yes, when you go to the originals, there are several conversations between the various characters in these epics which are profound. They teach morals, state-craft, deep philosophy and many more. These are left out by the story-tellers. It is particularly sad because it is accepted that if you cannot find a subject of importance in life (dharma, artha, kama and moksha) dealt with in Mahabharatha, you will not find it mentioned anywhere else either.

 Since most of us enjoy hearing stories, we go away happy at the end of the kalakshepam. The bhagavathar knows that if he (or she) started moralizing, he will lose the audience. But very few of us go to the original and read what is written in between these stories. I wish to correct the void.

Here is a book purely based on the gaps in the stories that we are told. Enjoy.

Here is the first of my series. This one is out of order. It is also from a different source. Later, I hope to cover these episodes, in sequence if possible from the Mahabharatha. My source is a website where the entire Mahabharatha can be found in Sanskrit ( with a scholarly verse-by-verse English translation by Prof. K M Ganguli).

In between these stories, other thoughts will also be shared, as my inspiration dictates .  

Arjuna’s Doubt – Same question, different answers 

Here is an episode from Mahabharatha as told by the famous Tamil Poet Subrahmania Bharathiyar in his book of short stories (Gayathri Publications, Thiruchi 3rd Print 2012, pages 262-264)

All the questions are from Arjuna about war and peace. He asks different people and gets different answers with different explanations.

Arjuna asks Karna: Which is better – war or peace?”  Karna says that peace is better. When asked for the reason, Karna says: “If there is a war I will have to hurt you. You will suffer and I cannot bear to see you suffering. Therefore, both of us will suffer. That is why”. Arjuna says that his question was not personal but universal. Karna says that he does not spend time thinking about universal matters. Remember, Karna is a brother of Arjuna and neither of them know it. Indeed, if Indra did not “cheat” Karna to part with his armor with which he was born, he could not have been killed by anyone.

Arjuna then asks Drona, his archery teacher the same question. He replies that war is better because it is the duty of the warrior caste. Besides in war one gets famous by winning or dies, in which case he reaches “heaven”.

Arjuna goes to his wise grandfather, Bhishma and askes the same question. He says that peace is better because only the warriors class benefits by wars whereas the entire humanity benefits in peace. Arjuna says that he does not agree. Bhishma asks for a reason. Arjuna says that Karna thinks he is better than Arjuna and only if there is a war (between the Kauravas and the Pandavas) will the world know who is truly better. Bhishma advises Arjuna: “Child, Dharma (righteousness) will establish itself and will always win – by war or by peace. Therefore, control your anger. Consider all lives as your siblings and seek peace. Let there be love all around”.

Later, Arjuna meets Sage Vyasa, who wrote the Mahabharatha and asks the same question. Vyasa says that the preference depends on the circumstances. “Sometimes, war is better and other times peace is”.

Finally, Arjuna asks Krishna (Arjuna’s Divine counterpart) the same question just before Krishna is getting ready to go to Hastinapura as an emissary for the Pandavas. Lord Krishna says: “At present, peace is better. That is why I am going to Hastinapura to seek peace”.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Blaise Pascal and Pascal's Wager

Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician, physicist and religious philosopher. He was born in 1623 and died at the young age of 39 of stomach cancer, in 1662. He invented a calculator called Pascaline, which some believe is the forerunner of computers. By recording barometric pressure at various altitudes, he validated Torricelli's theory and in recognition of this work came the Pa unit as measurement of this physical phenomenon. His work on the fixed likelihood of a particular outcome in the rolling of dice in gambling was the beginning of the modern theory of probabilities.  

In his introduction to Blaise Pascals’ book entitled Pensee, T. S. Eliot recommends Pascal to “those who doubt, but who have the mind to conceive, and the sensibility to feel the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering, and who can only find peace through a satisfaction of the whole being”.

Now to Pascal himself in the Pensees;

 “…One must have very clear sight to see all the principles, and in the next place an accurate mind not to draw false deductions from known principles.”  

“Words differently arranged have a different meaning, and meanings differently arranged have different effects”.

“The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it………..What is a man in the Infinite?”

“Since he (refers to man/woman) is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret, he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up.” (My italics)

“We naturally believe ourselves far more capable of reaching the center of things than of embracing their circumference. ”  “Let us not therefore look for certainty and stability”.  How can part know the whole?”

“Since everything then is cause and effect, dependent and supporting, mediate and immediate, and all is held together by a natural though imperceptible chain, which binds together things most distant and most different, I hold it equally impossible to know the parts without knowing the whole and to know the whole without knowing the parts in detail.”

“So if we are simply material, we can know nothing at all; and if we are composed of mind and matter, we cannot know perfectly things which are simple, whether spiritual or corporeal.”

“Justice and truth are two such subtle points, that our tools are too blunt to touch them accurately.”

“…. The most powerful cause of error is the war existing between the senses and reason.”  “These two sources of truth, senses and reason, besides being both wanting in sincerity, deceive each other in turn.”

“In disputes we like to see the clash of opinions, but not at all to contemplate truth when found.”

“The great and the humble have the same misfortunes, the same grief, the same passions, but the one is at the top of the wheel, and the other near the center, and so less disturbed by the same revolution.”

 (These following passage from Pascal’s Pensees is similar to the thoughts from the Upanishad. It is also similar to what Lord Krishna tells Narada about His relationship with several Gopis (devotees and admirers) all at the same time.)  “Do you believe it to be impossible that God is infinite, without parts?  - yes, I wish therefore to show you an infinite and indivisible thing. It is a point moving everywhere with an infinite velocity; for it is one in all places, and is all totality in every place.  

This section (233) also has a profound discussion on “God is, or He is not”. ……. Reason can decide nothing here………What will you wager?...According to reason you can do neither the one thing nor the other. According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.”

“But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.  Wager, then, without hesitation that He is”  (This is the famous Pascals’ wager)

 The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know” (section 277)

“It is your own assent to yourself, and the constant voice of your own reason, and not of others, that should make you believe”. ( section 260)

“It is right that what is just should be obeyed; it is necessary that what is strongest should be obeyed. Justice without might is helpless; might without justice is tyrannical………We must then combine justice and might, and for this end make what is just strong, or what is wrong just……..” ( section 298)

“….we have an idea of happiness, and cannot reach it. We perceive an image of truth, and possess only a lie. Incapable of absolute ignorance and of certain knowledge, we …..”

“True religion consists in annihilating self before that Universal being………” (the essence of oriental meditative practice)

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious convictions” ( section 894)