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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Maha Bharata - Some Hidden Gems - 5

Playing the Dice

Book 2 Sec 54:   Dhritrashtra advises Duryodhana not to be jealous of the Pandavas and covet their land because jealousy and coveting other’s possession lead to unhappiness. On the other hand, people who are content with and protect what they have earned and practice their allotted dharma always see prosperity. 

In Section 58, when Duryodhana and his friends are trying to get Yudhushtra to play dice, the elders hide behind the argument that “fate has ordained it”. This idea of “fate” determining human actions is central to all of the events in Maha Bharata. This is a philosophical issue dealt with in all traditions to explain events, particularly when good people suffer and evil ones prosper and when innocent children suffer. Free will, God’s will and Fate are subjects discussed with plenty of heat, but no light.

 Sakuni, the evil advisor in this epic, has some interesting arguments in favor of playing dice.  1. Dice playing is not the cause of the problem. It is the stake people place as part of the game which causes trouble. Does this sound very much like the arguments of the group opposed to gun control?   2. Trying to win is the motive behind war and gambling. The motive is not dishonest. This leads to the argument about the means and the ends. If the end is noble, can one resort to sinful and harmful means?

It is during these discussions that Vidura says his famous masterpiece (Book 2 Section 61): “For the sake of a family, a member may be sacrificed; for the sake of a village, a family may be sacrificed; for the sake of a province, a village may be sacrificed, for the sake of a country a province may be sacrificed; but, for the sake of a single soul, the whole earth may be sacrificed”. This same thought is expressed by Krishna in Book 5, Section 128 trying to dissuade Dhuryodhana from war.

In Section 66, when Draupadi is dragged into the court by Duryodhana’s brother, she appeals to everyone there about morality. “Happiness and misery affect both the wise and the unwise. But, morality should be practiced by everyone. Morality is subtle and only the wise with clear vision can see what morality is”. In this section, there are statements to the effect that women are “the property of men and are under the order and disposal of their husbands”. Therefore, Yudhishtra had exercised his role as a husband to do what he wanted to with his wife, by placing her as a bet in the gamble. He was wrong but this was allowed in those days! This is the excuse by the wise for not taking action against Duryodhana.

When Yudhishtra is dragged into playing the dice a second time, he agrees to and gives two excuses. 1.My uncle has ordered me to do so. I cannot disobey elders. 2. It is preordained. Both are lame excuses and unworthy of Yudhishtra. But, obviously those were the standards then. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Tragedy of Man

The Tragedy of Man is considered a classic piece of literature. It was written in 1860 by a Hungarian writer, Mr.Imre Madach. He wrote it in the Magyar language and it was translated into English in 1903 by Mr.William Loew. This book is now published by a company, aptly called The Forgotten Books, because the book is not well-known; but should be. The translation itself leaves much to be desired. But, we need to focus on and savor the imagination and the wisdom of this writer.

The plot is based on imagining Adam and Eve being reborn into this world several times at crucial points in the history of human civilization. Lucifer also gets reborn. (The original Lucifer is a biblical version of the Hebrew version “helel”, meaning “morning star” or “bringer of dawn”. Later this name was applied to the Devil, before his fall from Divine Grace. Currently, Lucifer is used synonymous with Satan/Devil). The entire book is in the form of a play with multiple scenes set in different points in the history of the western world. The dialogues are full of observations, reality-checks and insights.

I wish to start at the end of the book. This is the final scene. Adam, Eve, Lucifer and the Lord are there. Lucifer ridicules Adam (of course, the mankind”) for letting “….prejudice and superstition with ignorance united, hold their sway” and says that man is “too dwarfed for wisdom yet too great for blindness”.  Adam is frustrated and asks what meaning there is to life. The Lord says: “I have told thee, man, strive and trust”.

In Scene VI, Catulus says: “ All beauty fades, but even if it did not, that which today attracts, satiety tomorrow brings, and lesser charms allure with all the magic force of novelty”.  Later, Eve says: “The moment is a flower and fades away”.  This scene is set during the period of crusades and there are several passages lamenting the ways the scripture had been misused by the clergy. For example, some monk is saying: “…. This book indicates what is to be done in your most sorry plights. This book will show how long your souls in hell for theft, or for church robbery must dwell; how long for fornication or for rape. It teaches also how you can escape hell’s tortures, by the payment of a fine……The rich man pays each year, a score and odd soldi……   and if he (the poor) cannot pay even three, the peace of his poor soul may be purchased, by several thousand lashes well applied”. (page 97)

After the period of renaissance in which Adam wonders where all of the flowering will lead to and gets dejected, he says “….for daily, stronger grow ideas than all matters was before. Matter can be felled by forceful blow, while my ideas live forever more”.  Then, a student says: “Here I am with trembling soul, I long great nature’s workshop to investigate; to grasp it all, enjoy more than the throng. To gain the well-earned right to dominate the realm of matter, and the spirit world”.

Scene XI is set during the industrial revolution and the poor plight of the workers. Adam says: “ Stretched on a couch how easy it must be laws to create, but difficult the art to judge with understanding, the human heart” (page 171). Later, it is the age of science, when “The human mind fears what is infinite and seeks to find restricting barriers, and without doubt in inner worth doth lose, when spreading out  to past and future  jealousy it clings.”

Adam learns about an automated society where man has lost his individuality and laments the dogmatism of science and the trashing of the arts. He laments the depletion of the bounties of the earth. A savant says: “Our one idea is livelihood” and how the sun will be gone in a few thousand years. Man has to create energy and water and he can do it through research. And he can be made in “retorts” ( through chemistry). Lucifer asks what kind of monster that would be. “….. the lifeless matter animate with life imbue, what sort of soulless man, what monstrous frightful thing you have brought to life? What can he be? Unspoken thought, yearning for love, without an object then to love? And, how, of man, the character and trait who is born in glass retort on chemist’s grate?”

A superb question comes from Adam (page 203) “What is all life without the bliss of loving and strife?” During his discussion with the Spirits of the world, Adam asks: “To frighten me thou sleekest in vain. My body be thine, the soul within me though, is mine, and mine alone! No bounds are set for truth and thought, for they existed even before was brought thy world of matter into life”.  The Spirit answers: “Vain man! A punishment most dire will meet thy pan. Was fragrance of the rose before the rose? Does form exist before the body grows? And light before the sun?.....”Thou shudder with affright, for all sensations, all perceptions, are but emanations of this material mass thou callest earth. Without earth, thou and I had never birth”.  Later still, Lucifer says: “And what was life, but just a dream, who knows?”

Towards the end, every human has been decimated and the only one left is an eskimo. The eskimo sees Adam and Lucifer and thinks they are “Gods”. He says: “Pity, my gracious Lord. The first seal I can slay, I give my word, I will sacrifice to thee, but hear my prayer; My life, o gracious sire, do thou spare”.  Lucifer asks: “And to that seal, what right hast thou, tell me. That with its life, thine own thou dost redeem?”  For which the eskimo answers: “The right of force. Do I not always see the insect snatched by fishes in the stream?  The seal devours the fish, the seal I slay”.

Later the eskimo offers a seal as sacrifice. Adam is aghast and says how cruel it is. Lucifer reminds Adam: “And dids’t thou otherwise. He sacrifices seals, while though kill men, in honor of that God they fancy wrought, just as his fancy, his own God has sought, why wilt thou be so proud and haughty, then?”  Lucifer also reminds Adam: “The logic is that but of the man well-fed, while this man with his empty stomach thinks; from reason and philosophy he shrinks”.

Adam asks the eskimo what he wants, and the eskimo says: “ Oh, please, if thou art God, grant my request; Let not so many men our land infest; And send into this world more of the seal, and fewer men; for this I make appeal”.

Lucifer and Adam discuss free will and fate. Lucifer says that no one knows why one mouse gets eaten by a cat and one by a hawk and some other mouse “be sly and may live to a great age, and hoary and die in his domestic circle”. Why are some “martyrs” and others “scoffers?  “Of fate, which all so well apportioneth; sin and virtue; faith, marriage and death; madness and suicide”.  Adam says he can defy Lucifer, because he knows that “I know I need not live against my will” and heads towards a cliff to jump. Lucifer says: “Is not each moment, end, beginning too?” This last statement is almost the same as a sentence in Yoga Vasishta where Rama says: “Everything starts at one moment and ends in one moment”.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Components of Traditions

My interest in religion and spirituality led me to the writings in at least four major traditions. I have read several original sacred texts of the Vedic religion in Sanskrit and of the others in translations. Based on what I have read, it appears that these texts in every tradition have five components. They are Philosophy, Spirituality, Morality, Theism and Liturgy. Masters from the past have written about this also. Each tradition seems to emphasize some components more than the others.

Philosophy means “love of wisdom”, is defined as “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence”. Equivalent word in Sanskrit is darshana, a point of view.

Spirituality is defined as the process “of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things”. It is also connected with relating to religion or religious beliefs. (in Sanskrit, Adhyatimakam, manasikam)

Morality is defined as “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior”. (nithi, in Sanskrit)

Theism is defined as “belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures”. (Astikyam)

Liturgy is defined as “a form or formulary according to which public religious worship, especially Christian worship, is conducted”. Corresponding texts in Vedic system are called the agamas.

In my biased view, the Vedic tradition has two major strengths. 1. It is the most complete in all five components. 2. It is flexible and not too dogmatic. It gives each individual several options to choose from in each of the components to suit one’s place in life, society, temperament, ability, and effort.

While reading about the initiation ceremonies in various religions (most religions and sub-sects have one), it occurred to me that the demand for initiation into one religion or sect or one specific god, is an admission that there is only ONE God.

** All definitions are from the Oxford Dictionaries

Sunday, June 5, 2016


In order to make space for other thoughts, let me go back to my regular blog-postings with topics other than Mahabharatha. I will get back to the gems from Mahabharatha soon.

On October 19, 1983, I wrote some of my thoughts on hypocrisy. That was stimulated by conversations that go on at dinner parties!  This is what I wrote.

Smiling, when you are angry

Saying “I need it” when you don’t, and

“How wonderful” when you do not care

Saying “I love you” when you don’t

Going through motions, mind and words not in “synch”

Can honesty go with harmony?  If not,

Hypocrisy will!

After almost 30 years since I wrote that piece, I found a better description of Hypocrisy. This was written several centuries back by “Poggio” (Poggio Bracciolini 1380-1459), who was a secretary to the Pope at that time. He is better known for his discovery of the forgotten works of Lucretius. He wrote about hypocrisy based on what he observed in the Church hierarchy.

 “Poggio” described a hypocrite (of his days) as follows:  “displays excessive purity of life, walks barefoot with dirty face and shabby robes, shows in public a disdain for money, always has the name of Jesus on his lips, wants to be called without actually doing anything particularly good, attracts women to him to satisfy his wishes, runs here and there outside his monastery, seeking fame and honors, makes a show of fasting and other ascetic practices, induces others to get things for him and refuses to acknowledge or return what is given to him in trust”.
 Needless to say that "Poggio" was not a favorite within the establishment.