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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.  

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Karna and Shalya - Maha Bharatha Series 46



Karna requests Shalya to be his charioteer. Shalya refuses initially, but agrees later to play that role if he has the freedom to say whatever he wants about Karna. Duryodhana agrees. From then on Shalya keeps teasing Karna, probably to get him angry and thus more prepared to fight. Shalya keeps remindiing that Karna is no match for Arjuna.

In the following sections we see the duties of the four varnas clearly defined by Karna. Karna also talks about the in-groups who are virtuous and the out-groups such as the mlecchas, vahlikas etc. He says that the Panchalas observe Vedas, the Kauravas practice Truth, the Matsyas practice sacrifices and the easterners and the southerners are “fallen” groups.

 He softens his stand later and says that there are good and bad people in every part of the earth. He says that we all know other’s faults, but not our own.

Karna calls Agni as the god of the east, Yama as the god of the south, Varna as the god of the west and Soma as the god of the north. He also remembers two boons and curses he has to deal with. One was about his Brahmastra. This is a powerful weapon which he got from Parashurama by pretending to be a Brahmin. Later, one day when Parashurama was sleeping with his head on Karna’s lap, a worm started biting into Karna.  Karna bore the pain and did not move. When the teacher woke up, he noticed blood in Karna’s lap. Karna told him what happened. Since only a kshatriya could have tolerated the pain so well, Parashurama realized that Karna was kshatriya but did not disclose in order to get the Brahmastra. He was upset and cursed Karna that the weapon will fail him at a crucial moment.

Karna had acquired another weapon from Indra and was proud of it. However, he accidentally killed a calf of a cow intended for a sacrifice. The Brahmana who owned the cow cursed Karna that at a crucial moment in a battle, Karna’s car will get stuck and sink into the earth. Karna recounts these two episodes to Shalya and indicated that these two curses are the only concerns in his mind even as gets ready to be the Commander of the Kaurava army.

In a later episode Karna captures Yudhistra but lets him free to keep his promise to Kunti. He had told Kunti that his fight was with Arjuna and not with the other four and he also told Kunti that she will always have five sons (the idea being that either Karna will kill Arjuna or get killed in his battle with Arjuna)

One other interesting side-story in Book 8 is that of a proud crow and a swan. A crow happens to frequent the grounds of a rich family. He gets all the scrap from the plates of the children. Eventually he gets the attention of the family and he feels on top of the world. He gets arrogant and important. One day a bunch of swans land on a nearby lake. The crow makes fun of their flight and food. He shows them all his maneuvers and how he can climb up, swish down, make circles and dive etc. He wonders what the swan can do. The swan says that he admires all those special kinds of flights but they will not help the crow do what she can do. The crow challenges the swan with false pride. They both start flying across a vast tract of water. The swan flies with one steady motion. The crow is not able to cope with that long flight and tries to land. Of course, he cannot and is in danger of getting drowned. The swan advices the crow not to boast about his skills, takes him on his back and comes back to the shore. The moral is self-evident. 


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Karna Parva - Maha Bharatha Series 45


We are into Book 8. After the death of Aswatthaman, Karna is made the Commander of the Kuru army. When Duryodhana and his leaders lament the loss of Drona and his son, Karna says: “Wise neither get dejected nor rejoice at what destiny brings, because it is not possible to overcome destiny”. The role of destiny is repeatedly emphasized in Mahabharatha. No wonder this philosophy has infiltrated the Indian psyche deeply.

The art of story-telling is at its best, when Vyasa gives us a summary of the chapter within the first few pages and then gives the details. In summary,  Karna took over the command of the Kauravas, fought valiantly for 2 days and was killed by Arjuna. Then, come the details of the battle through the words of Janamejaya, Dhrithrashtra and Sanjaya.

First come the names of everyone who was killed till that day in the battle. The names of individuals include Bhishma, Drona, Aswatthaman, Karna, Jayadratha, Bhurisravas, Vinda, Anuvinda, Bhagadatta, Sudhakshina, Srutayu, Vahlika, Paurava, Shalva and many more. It is interesting to note that the sons were killed before the fathers – eg., Aswatthaman, the sons of Karna and, of course, all of the Kauravas. I wish I understand the meaning.

The tribes involved in the war of Kurukshetra are also listed. They are: Srinjayas, Panchalas, Kiratas, Abhishahas, Kalingas, Sinis, Dravidas, Malavas and many more.

On the side of the Pandavas those killed were Abhimanyu, Gatothkachan, Virata, Drupada, Chitrasena, Purujit and Kuntibhoja. Tribes mentioned on this side include Chedis, Kaikeyas, Magadas, Pancalas and some maritime and seacoast tribes.  Other names mentioned in Section 12 include Pandyas, Cholas, Keralas, Andhras and Kanchis. Many of these troops are said to have been led by Satyaki.

In section 10, of Book 8, Sanjaya is describing what happened after Drona was killed. Sanjaya reports the following words spoken by Aswatthaman during the deliberation. He says: “For success one should have passion/enthusiasm, the time has to be ripe, one should have the skills and the goals (policy) should be clear. However, the results depend on another factor, namely Destiny”.

Later, before he takes up a direct conflict with Arjuna, Karna tells Duryodhana that for many untold reasons he did not go on combat directly with Arjuna. He then recounts all his strengths and says that Arjuna is no match for him in skills and equipment. There is some arrogance in his statements. However, he says that the one thing Arjuna has but Karna does not have is the presence of Vasudeva (Krishna) on Arjuna’s side.

Then, Karna says that the only charioteer as capable as Krishna and one as knowledgeable about horses as Krishna is Shalya. Therefore, he asks for Shalya to handle his chariot that day. This is interesting because, the chariot and the charioteer are used as metaphors for mind and its control in Katha Upanishad and in Bhagvad Gita.


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Drona Parva (Part 2) - Maha Bharata Series 44


My apologies for breaking the flow of the Maha Bharata stories. I promise to complete these stories and conversations (I have another 60 blog-posts to publish in this series) before I post thoughts on other topics. 
In the next episode (Section 201, Book 7), Vyasa meets Arjuna. He asks Vyasa; “Sir, when I was in the battle I saw someone of blazing color looking like fire walking always ahead of me. Although I was sending arrows against my foes and the enemies thought that my arrows were killing them, I saw that the Force in front of me was actually causing that destruction. Following His path, I only killed those who had been already destroyed by Him. Who was that Person, armed with a spear, resembling a blazing sun?”  Vyasa indicates that the Force in front of Arjuna was RUDRA! (If you wish to know more about Rudra as depicted in the Vedas, you may wish to read Satapata Brahmana, a monumental task)

Vyasa then describes Rudra in several slokas. This portion is called Sata Rudriyam by Vyasa himself. Since Sata Rudriyam is considered to be part of Krishna Yajur Veda and since Vedas precede Maha Bharata, is it possible that the prayer portion was incorporated into the epic in order to make it available to everyone, even those who were not “allowed” in those days to read Vedas?

It is clear how Rudra, and therefore Shiva is associated with the dissolution aspect of the triple functions of the One Supreme. It is also clear that the import of the discourse is that there is ONLY ONE Supreme and this Universe in a manifestation of that Universe. We are only actors. We think we do everything. In fact, He is the doer; and we are only His instruments (just as Arjuna is discharging arrows and killing his foes and thinks he killed. But, those who appear to be killed by Arjuna have already been killed by the Supreme, since “their time has come”).

This seems to be the idea behind these episodes to me. 


Saturday, September 9, 2017

View from within or without


As usual, I insert a few blogs on other topics in between the blogs on Maha Bharatha series. This current one summarizes some thoughts which came on during one of my walking meditations. Their sources are both external and internal. They appear to be important in my personal journey, and therefore I want to share them with you. Thanks for "listening". 

No system can be understood completely from within, because of our restricted perspective. The perspective we have of our earth is different from the perspectives of our ancestors who did not see pictures of the earth from space.

Any system created by human mind cannot be understood either from inside because the process of creating systems and categories excludes something.

No system can be understood from without because that knowledge will not know what it is like to be within the system. We will never know fully what the “bat” feels inside of itself, as discussed by Prof. Nagel in his famous essay. (What is it like to be a bat? Thomas Nagel. The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974): 435-50.)



That is the Paradox.



In addition, we have the problem of recursive nature of thinking. The subject (I) is inherent in any object in the external world about which the subject is thinking. We have the additional problem of our thinking having been warped by the collective consciousness of the humanity in general and our special circumstances, in particular.

That is the limit of our brain as it is structured.

The mysteries of “Who am I?” and “What is this Universe?” will be there forever, to be explored. Each one of us will have to find our way, with caution and humility.

We are not to demand final answers and explanations for cause and effect. There is no use creating words to represent thoughts and act as if the words our mind created have reality outside of our thoughts. They may or may not. Just accept the Universe as is - impermanent, intertwined with built-in chaos, disorder and unpredictability (and therefore “unfair”). That is the “rhythm” (or rta, in Sanskrit) of this universe.

Let us admire it. Be kind and compassionate to ourselves and to all living creatures. They are also in the same boat as we are. Let us enjoy the Universe as is and the journey of self-inquiry.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Drona Parva (Part 1) - Maha Bharatha Series 43


It is very difficult to choose one section of Maha Bharatha as the best section. One such great section is Dronavada Parva in Book 7. Bhagvat Gita is excluded from this choice. It is a class by itself.

In this section, we learn that a Kimpurusha is half-man and half-steed. Yaksha is a superhuman being who lives in accessible mountains and halls. There are descriptions of several kinds of arrows and spears and maces used in battles in those days. One of them is a special small bow and arrow used when the combatants are very close to each other. There are descriptions of how Arjuna and Drona moved their chariots around each other, keeping the opponent always on the right and Dhrishtadhyumnan fought with Drona hiding under the chassis of the car.  There are descriptions of what a “fair” battle is – and what kinds of moves and instruments should not be used. For example, spears with hooks which cannot be extracted and double spears are not allowed. Nor is an arrow which does not come straight but takes a wiggly path, since it does not give a fair chance for escape to the person being attacked. There is also a description of an encounter between Duryodhana and Satyaki, who were bosom friends when they were children. They exchange kind words and smiles, recount their young days and then start their battle saying that they have to follow the rules of the battle and fight fair. Even in war, they were highly civilized. Compare those high values with cowards now who kill innocent people with unfair means!

Then there is the section where Krishna, yes, Lord Krishna whom we all worship, asks Pandavas to kill Drona by stealth. The only one who objects, is Arjuna. Krishna asks that Bhima kill an elephant named Aswatthaman and declare loudly that Aswatthaman has been killed.  Arjuna does not like it. Krishna says that it is acceptable to tell a lie under four circumstances: for the sake of saving a life; during conversation with women; for the sake of a marriage and to save a king. He even convinces Dharma to go along with that lie. Thinking that his son has been killed, Drona asks Dharma point-blank whether that is true. Dharma says “Aswattaman is killed” loudly and then “But that was an elephant” softly!!  Drona gives up and gets nominally killed by Dhrishtadumna as it was “destined” to happen.

When Aswattaman is expressing grief at the death of his father, he says that one does sinful acts under the influence of desire, anger, folly, hate and levity. He is, of course, furious not only because his father was killed, but Dhrushtadhyuman held the severed head by the hair and treated it with disrespect.  Aswatthaman starts an unbelievable battle in which he devastates the Pandava army single-handedly. He then uses the Narayana weapon against which no human being can fight. It also happens that when Aswatthaman received this weapon from Shiva he was told that it will work only once. (In Indian mythologies, every boon comes always with an exception or an escape clause!) In spite of knowing that fact, Aswatthaman wields that weapon at this time in the battle. Lord Krishna knew this, of course. So, he advises everyone to get off their vehicles or mounts and stand on earth because Narayana weapon does not touch those who stand on Mother Earth. Now, Krishna has accomplished two things – the Narayana weapon could not do what it was capable of. Then, since it has been used once, it became powerless and Aswatthaman could not use it again.

Later, Arjuna speaks harshly to Aswatthaman who was his dear friend at one time. Arjuna showed his anger because he was stung by Dharma’s words of disappointment with Arjuna for not being able to kill Aswatthaman. Aswatthaman sends arrows after arrows which do not touch Arjuna and Krishna.  He gets frustrated, drops all his weapons and stops the battle. Arjuna then sees Vyasa (who shows up conveniently at opportune times to share his information, knowledge and wisdom) and asks him why he is not winning.  (These sections are in Book 7, Sections 201-202) 

Vyasa answers by saying that Narayana, the most original creator of everything was born in this world as the son of Dharma for some unknown reason. He then performed tapas (austerities, ardor) and was able to see (visualize) the Master, the Origin and the Guardian of the Universe, The Lord of all the gods, the Supreme Deity. In describing this Originator (who is also Narayana, as seen above), the text (written by Vyasa) calls that Supreme as Rudra, who is smaller than the smallest and larger than the largest. (We can see how the names of Vishnu and Shiva are interchangeable, and how the “fights” between the followers of Shiva and Vishnu are so silly). Rudra is also called Hara, Shambu, Nilakanta, Kabhardhin, and Pinakapani. There is no question that these names refer to Shiva.

As a result of this austerity, Narayana (in his human form) obtained a vision of that Adorable One. At the sight of that Original Being, the First Cause having the universe for his form, Narayana worshipped him with words.  Narayana says: “Form, the pancha bhutas and the five senses which perceive them and the objects of perception are all your manifestation. So are Time and the Vedas and all the animate and inanimate objects”.  “Two birds sitting on the branches of a tree (One is Iswara, Brahman unattached and the other is Jiva, attached to worldly things) are YOU. The aswattha tree on which they are sitting with the Vedas as its branches, the seven guardians viz., five senses, mans and intellect and the 10 indriyas (5 organs of perception and 5 of action) are YOU. And, YOU are the past, present and the future”.

The Supreme Lord (in this episode IT is referred to as Rudra) is pleased and bestows on Narayana (Who is also the same Originator) His blessings that in this world Narayana will be invincible. “That Narayana born in this world is none other than Vasudeva, Krishna” says Vyasa to Aswatthaman. Vyasa goes on to say that out of that asceticism of Narayana was born a muni (a sage) by the name of Hara. “That Hara is Arjuna” says Vyasa and that no one can conquer them on this earth. Vyasa also says that Aswatthaman has also worshipped Lord Shiva in his earlier life and this is how he is endowed with such prowess. But, Aswatthaman realizes that Nara and Narayana who are the embodiments of the Supreme and who know that Brahman and the Universe are the same are here for a purpose and that no human can “conquer” them.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Arjuna's List of "sinful" Acts: Maha Bharata Series 42


Arjuna takes a vow and during that process lists “sinful” acts worthy of punishment. This is in book 7, section 73.

On learning that Abhimanyu was killed by Jayadratha, Arjuna says that if he does not kill Jayadratha the next day, he will undergo the punishments that are reserved for the following acts of “sin”. (Buddhists will call these as “unwholesome acts” – not “sinful”).

The list of sins and sinners include: the wicked ones who are capable of slaying one’s own parents; violating the wife of the preceptor; those who speak ill of others; taking over of  the property left in confidence for safe-keeping;  betrayers of trusts; those who eat sugared milk and rice and cakes or meat, without having dedicated the same to the gods;  they who insult people worthy of respect, or their preceptor; touching brahmins or fire with the feet; spitting and passing urine into water; bathing nude; accepting bribe, speaking falsehood, deceiving and cheating, and falsely praising others; eating in the presence of others, particularly the dependents without sharing with them and giving to those who do not deserve and not to those who deserve.  

Later when Subhadra is lamenting at the loss of her son, she prays that her son attain heaven reserved for those who perform virtuous acts. She prays that Abhimanyu goes to a place which is reserved for those who speak the truth, who share their food, who keep the trust etc. This list is the opposite of the list of Arjuna. 

When Krishna is consoling Arjuna and Subhadra, He says: “Time cannot be conquered. It forces all creatures to the inevitable end” and “Grief that makes a person forgo all efforts is an enemy of that person. A person, by indulging in grief, gladdens his foes and saddens his friends, while the person is himself weakened. Therefore, do not yield yourself to grief”.

In Section 80 and 81, Arjuna and Kesava go to Lord Mahadeva to obtain His special weapon – pasupata astram. In that episode, when they pray to the Lord, several names are used to address Him. Two most used names are Bhava and Mahadeva. All other names attributed to Lord Shiva are there, such as pinakapani, trinetri, nilakanta, khabhardin, Shiva and Rudra. Shiva is also described as having thousand eyes and thousand arms, very much like how Lord Vishnu is described elsewhere.

In His consolation of Subhadra, Draupadi and Uttara, Krishna says: “Abhimanyu is destined to go to Heaven since he died in a battle performing his duty as a Kshatriya and therefore a warrior. Therefore, do not grieve for him”.

I cannot help inserting my personal bias here. Belief in the assurance of a special place (heaven) after death is certainly an effective way for handling the grief of losing one’s kith and kin. I am for it from that point of view. But, it is fooling oneself. At the approach of death, all of us mortals, are afraid. We do not know what happens at death or after. As my mother said once: “No one who died came back to tell us what is out there”. Therefore, we create our own narrative of a heaven full of gardens, flowers and damsels (what about women!) if we behave well (do punyam etc) and to a place full of snakes and beasts and boiling oil if we don’t. This has the additional motivation for behaving “good” and perform virtuous acts during this life. If such belief leads people into “good” behavior, why not?

My personal bias is to go beyond “blind faith” in imaginary abodes after death and accept the inevitable. I would rather perform “wholesome, helpful” acts (not good and bad; not virtue and sin) here and now, just because it is the right thing to do, not because I am assured of a place in “heaven” or am afraid of a place called “hell”.

To use a modern-day example, I would rather drive on a highway within the posted speed limits because it is the safe thing to do, not because I am afraid of getting a traffic ticket. An internal-“policeman” is far superior to an external one, particularly an imaginary one.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

What is Death? And Why? - Maha Bharatha Series 41



In Sections 51-54,  Book 7, we see descriptions of Abhimanyu terrorizing the Kaurava army single-handedly. At the advice of Drona, Abhimanyu was killed  by Dussana’s son in the battle. Yudhishtra feels remorse, as he does often, since he feels responsible for the death of so many of his kith and kin. He is despondent. At this time Sage Vyasa shows up. (It is interesting that Vyasa shows up at opportune moments and always on the Pandava’s side!) Yudhishtra asks Vyasa: “What is death? Why death?” Vyasa then recounts a story of a king by name Akampana and his son Hari, who was killed in a battle.

Before I recount the story, the main points I get from this story are: 1. Death is inevitable. Everyone, even Rama died. There is a series of chapters on the story of several ancestors (16 to be exact) all of whom died. 2. There is nothing or no one by name Death (Yama) who takes our lives. 3. People die because of their own actions or because of things that happen to their body in the form of diseases. 4. One aspect of death is Time, with a capital T.

Now, back to the story as told by Narada to Vyasa and, now being told to Yudhishtra ( as told by Sanjaya to Dhrithrashtra). Now, you can see how stories are buried within stories. This is a characteristic of story-telling in India. We can see this in Panchatantra. The pattern was probably set several centuries earlier as seen in Brihatkatha and  Kathasaritsagara, which many believe are the forerunners for story-telling in other countries (example, Aesop’s fables; Arabian Knights).

Yudhishtra asks Vyasa: “What is death? Where does death come from? Why does death take away lives?”. That is when Vyasa tells him the story of Akampana and the “origin” of death. Akampana was mourning the death of his son and asked Narada why his heroic son died. He asked what death is and how it came about. In response, Narada said: “When the Grandsire Brahma created all creatures, they were full of vigor and none showed any sign of decay and death. He got angry and out of that anger rose a fire which consumed all creatures of the universe. Then, Lord Shiva (sthanu, Hara) appeared before Brahma to appease him. Brahma asked Shiva: “Why are you here? What can I do for you?”

Sthanu (Shiva) said: “You created all these creatures and now they are being consumed through thy fire. Seeing this, I am filled with compassion. Be kind to them.”

Brahma said: “I get no pleasure destroying them. But Goddess Earth is overburdened and was asking me  for help to reduce the load. I did not know how to destroy the creatures and got angry. Out of that anger came this fire”.

Rudra said: “That fire is destroying everything - plants, animals and all. Be kind and let Time stay as past, present and future. You made me the protector of these creatures. Let not these creatures be exterminated”. At this request from Mahadeva, Brahma extinguished the fire and out of Him came a female who was dark with red eyes and face. She wore two brilliant ear-rings and other ornaments. Brahma addressed her as Death (Mrtyu, a word which means death and also fate) and ordered her to kill the creatures He had created.

The Lady Death (in some other places, Mrtyu is male)was shocked at this order and started imploring Brahma not to make her do this terrible act. She said that she will not be able to take away the life-breath of living creatures, which is so dear to them and make them cry. Besides the sons, daughters and family and friends of the dead will cry and their tears will curse me. She started crying bitterly and Brahma collected those tears in His hands so as to protect the creatures.”

Brahma told her: “O Death, I created you for the destruction of creatures and gave that as your duty. Therefore, go and do your duty and no sin will attach to you”. Lady Death did not agree, but went to practice severe austerities for several thousand years and did everything to please the Creator, obviously hoping He will relieve of her awful duties.

After several thousand years, Brahma appeared and asked her why she was undergoing so many severe austerities. Lady Death said: “I am a woman in distress and faultless. These creatures are living in good health and are kind to each other. I beg you to spare me from this unjust duty”.

Brahma replied: “ No sin will attach to you. I will appoint Yama and several diseases to be your helpers, so that you are not alone in this task. I all also make diseases that afflict living creatures out of your tears which I have caught in my palms. I will also give you my boon so you gain eternal virtue”. Lady Death said: “Since you do not give me any escape, I will perform my duty. But let covetousness, wrath, malice, jealousy, quarrel, folly and shamelessness, and other passions afflict all embodied creatures”.

Afraid of disobeying Brahma, Lady Death started taking the “lives of living creatures when the Time came”. In other words, Time is responsible for death and not the Lady Death. (There is a story in Book 12 on the same topic in which an old lady, a snake and Mrtyu blame Time for death, not the snake or Mrtyu). Since “diseases spring from living creatures themselves”, and living creatures die of their own wicked actions, diseases and Time, Lady Death can continue with her duties without feeling the burden of ending the lives of creatures.

With that narration, Narada told King Akampana: “Your son is in the heavenly abode for heroes. As I narrated now, the Creator has ordained death for all living creatures when their Time comes. Creatures die on their own and death does not kill them. Knowing that death has been ordained by the Supreme God, cast off your grief for your dead son”.


Vyasa continued: “Having listened to this instructive story, get over your lamentations, O Yudhishthira. Know that Abhimanyu has attained heaven performing his duty as a Kshatriya warrior in the battlefield.  Muster all your energy, gather your brothers and the army, and show all your anger in the battlefield”.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Krishna and Arjuna in Battle field - Maha Bharatha Series 40


In Book 7, Section 27 is an episode which refers to Naraka Asura. This is described in the midst of the Kurukshetra battle. Jayadrata (?Vajradatta) was the king of Sindhu, and therefore was also called Saindhava. He was married to the only sister of the Kauravas, by name Dushala. Obviously, he was on the side of the Kauravas. He had special weapons and was therefore was not conquerable. He used one of them called Vaishnava against Arjuna. But, Krishna deflected it and accepted it on himself.

At this point, Arjuna asks Krishna: “You said that you will not enter the war yourself, but only help us. Why are you breaking your promise?” Krishna says: “I am of FOUR forms. One is in this world performing ascetic activities. One is here as an observer. One is involved in action. One is in the sleep mode for several years. When in that mode, I offer boons to the worthy. Once, when I woke up after 1000 years of sleep, Lady Earth asked for a boon. That was for a son who cannot be defeated by anyone but me. That was Naraka and he had this weapon, Vaishnava. No human can escape this weapon. Jayadrata got this weapon from Naraka. Now that he is using it and since you cannot escape it, I took it upon myself”.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Bhishma Falls - Maha Bharatha Series 39


The description of the battle in detail is mostly repetition of the same words and occupies several sections of Book 6. Hidden in those words are interesting episodes and conversations. For example, when Arjuna hesitates to engage Bhishma in battle, forgetting his own vow to kill him, Krishna gets angry , jumps down from his seat as the Charioteer for Arjuna, and runs towards Bhishma. Arjuna gets anxious and runs after Krishna and pleads with him. Arjuna says: “ Please do not do this. I promise I will engage Bhishma in battle. If you do this you will be breaking a promise you made (that he, Krishna, will help the Pandavas but will not personally engage)”.  Krishna cools down and gets back to His duty!

Then, after routed by Bhishma one day, all the Pandavas meet and how they can ever win the battle as long as Bhishma is fighting. Yudhishtra says that the best is to go to Bhishma himself and ask him how to defeat him! Yudhishtra says: “I know our grandsire will want us to get the kingdom which belong to us. He cares about us and he will tell what is beneficial to us”. This is a lesson in itself.

Then they go to Bhishma’s tent in the Kaurava camp. This is another lesson on the rules of engagement in war. What a noble path they followed and how "uncivilized" and cruel we have become! 

Bhishma , in turn, acts true to his noble character and tells the Pandavas how he may be killed. He says that he will not fight against the following people: “One who has thrown away his weapons, one who has fallen down, one whose armor has slipped off, one whose standard is down, one who is running away, one who is frightened, one who surrenders and one who is a female or has a feminine name and one who is no longer capable of taking care of one's self, one who has only one son. In your army you have a warrior by name Sikhandi. He was a female at one time and was known as Sikhandini. Therefore, I will not fight with him. I cannot be defeated by any one except Krishna and Arjuna. Let Arjuna keep Sikhandi in front of him and fight.  Using that opportunity, let Dhananjaya (Arjuna) pierce me on every side with his shafts”. (Book 6; Section 108). I get tears in my eyes reading these words!

And, as requested, Bhishma is felled, but not killed, mostly by Sikhandin, but the final darts were those of Arjuna – reincarnation of Vishnu as Nara with Narayana as Krishna. This is described in Section 120 of this version (Ganguli Translation).

Bhishma falls down but does not touch the ground since he has so many arrows stuck to him. He also says that he has received a boon to decide when he wishes to die. Since it was still dakshinayana when he was felled, he plans to “keep” his life till the sun starts its northward journey (uttarayana). Both the Kauravas and the Pandavas stop the battle and come to where Bhishma is laying with his head hanging down. He asks for a pillow. Only Arjuna understands and gives him a pillow made of three arrows. When he asks for water, he calls for Arjuna again. Arjuna pierces the earth with his special Parjanya arrow just “south” of Bhishma’s face. Water springs from that spot just right into Bhishma’s lips.

Bhishma uses these two events to tell all those assembled to show that Arjuna is the Lord Himself and that he is the only one (other than Krishna) who knows all the celestial weapons. He asks Duryodhana to stop the war since no one can win against the Pandavas with both Nara and Narayana on their side. He asks Duryodhana to give half of the kingdom to the Pandavas with Indraprastha (modern day Delhi) as the capital. He pleads: “Let this war end with my death”!

Later, Karna learns of Bhishma’s death and comes to see Bhishma on his bed of arrows. He asks for forgiveness. Bhishma says that he is pleased to see him alone when they can talk. Bhishma forgives Karna and tells him: “You are actually the brother of the Pandavas and you should make peace with them. Let this slaughter end with my death. I know your prowess as a remarkable warrior. You are great in giving gifts (dana) and you will never refuse anything when someone asks (that is how you gave away your invincible body armor to Indra). I do not have dislike for you. But I treated you badly just so you will not get into this battle, to control your pride. Because of the circumstances of your birth, your pride and your association with low-thinking people you have come to this state. Stop this fight”.

Karna says: “I know I am Kunti’s son. But she left me helpless. I was raised by Radha and Atiratha. And I was protected by and fed by Duryodhana. I owe them allegiance and my duty is to fight for my protector. Please let me fight and keep my honor and die as a Kshatriya should”. Bhishma says: “If that is what you wish to do, I give you my permission. But, fight without pride and discharge your duty with moksha (attainment of Kshatriya heaven) as your goal”


Saturday, July 29, 2017

Meditation in the Western Tradition



In the Western traditions, meditation is not emphasized. It is even viewed with suspicion. But, it was not always so. In ancient times, meditation was part of the tradition. In fact, Jesus himself comes from a sect in which meditation was emphasized. I am aware of two books which deal with this topic in the western tradition.

Evelyn Underhill (The Mystic Way:Essentials of Mysticism) considers mysticism as “interpretation of life by life”. In this book, she uses as her source, the experiences of saints and “the first hand declarations of those great lovers of the Absolute” taken from available texts during the first 400 years of Christianity. Her comments suggest that the Liturgy of the Mass is a remnant of the mystic tradition of Christianity.

 She suggests that Christianity began as a mystical movement and that “the Founder and those who succeeded Him possessed the characteristically mystic consciousness, and passed through the normal stages of mystical growth”.  Later she quotes St.Augustine  as follows: “Interrogate thyself, O man” and “make thyself a step to the things that be above thee”.

An ancient classic Christian book called The Cloud of Unknowing documents several anecdotes on the principles of meditation.

The author of this book written in the 14th century is not known and he follows the tradition of negative theology (via negativa) of Dionysius, the Aeropagite. The roots go back to the early era of Christianity.  The author says that He (God) cannot be reached through knowledge, intellect and reason. This is the same view as that held by the rishis of India as stated in the Upanishads.   Instead, he suggests a path of intense contemplation, humility and love of God for the sake of love and not seeking any benefits (this is called charity).

In this teaching, the goal is spiritual union with God through worship with “one’s substance”. It is going through a “cloud of unknowing” and feeling that He is in our own being. In explaining the “darkness”, the author says: “When I say darkness, I mean a lack of knowing……. It is dark to thee; for thou seest it not with thy ghostly eyes. And for this reason, it is not called a cloud of air, but a cloud of unknowing, that is betwixt thee and thy God”.

It further says that thoughts will fail in these efforts, because “For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held” (Chapter 6). In essence, we have “to keep our doors and windows open” and it is only by His Grace shall we “know” Him.  “Then will He sometimes peradventure send out a beam of ghostly light piercing this cloud of unknowing betwixt thee and Him….” (Chapter 26)

One can see very clearly the similarity of these thoughts to those of the writings of the Upanishads and Buddha. All of them talk about the One Supreme, that One inherent in every one of us, about the futility of knowledge and reason to comprehend and about  the importance of contemplation (meditation) in our spiritual endeavor. 

There is the story of Martha and her sister Mary, both sisters of Lazarus, who was revived back to life by Jesus. The unknown author of the Cloud of Unknowing says that this story is a metaphor for Active and Contemplative aspects of the teachings of the Holy Church. (It is easy to see the similarity to the karma (action-oriented) and gnana (knowledge oriented) paths described in Gita).

 In fact, there are three steps in our movement towards the Divine, says the author. The first is Active, in the form of practice of mercy and charity. The next is a mixture of active and contemplative. This stage is called meditative on “the Passions of Christ” and the “Joy of Heaven” and the final step is the perfect contemplative. This is not much different from what Adi Shankara said about moving from action in performing yagnas, moving to action without expecting results, to bhakti and then to knowledge.

The description of those who have reached the final stage of contemplation is similar to the description of the self-realized souls in the Vedic religion. For example, it says that those in the active stage of life respond to dualities of life such as praise and curse, good and bad, pain and pleasure. But those who have reached the final stage of contemplation feel no such dualities.

In the story of Martha and Mary, Martha is the one doing all the cooking, serving and entertaining. She even complains to Jesus: “Ask her to help me” pointing to Mary. But, Jesus sees Mary deeply involved with listening to the teachings, and contemplating on them and Jesus approves of it. He even says that Mary’s approach is a better method for spiritual advancement.

The book on The Cloud of Unknowing also puts down all pretenders of meditation, meditation on saints and angels and the claims of those who claim they have seen angels and saints. “Surely he that seeketh God perfectly, he will not rest him finally in the remembrance of any angel or saint in heaven” (chapter 9). References are made to such statements as “how a man shall draw all his wit within himself” and “how he shall climb above himself”.

 In preparing for a contemplative life, the author recommends three initial steps:  Lesson, Meditation and Orison. By these he means reading (listening), thinking and prayer. Thinking as the author describes seems to be about one’s own weaknesses and about the goodness of God. It is not the “silence” as suggested in the oriental spirituality. He also emphasizes the intensity of feeling required in the thinking and the prayer. Just as suggested in the Gita, this author recommends “ thou shalt have discretion as in eating and in drinking, and in sleeping and in keeping of the body from outrageous heat and cold, and in long praying and reading, or in communing in speech with thine even-christian. In all these shalt thou keep discretion, that they be neither too much not too little”; but not in your efforts in prayer.

An interesting passage in Chapter 59 is a quote, the source of which is not given. It states: “There is no man that may ascend into heaven, but only He that descended from heaven, and became man for the love of man”.  It is so similar, not surprisingly, to the Vedic tradition.

“Look on nowise that thou be within thyself” says the author in Chapter 68.

In Chapter 73, the author states that He can be experienced only by His Grace at His time of choosing. Sometimes He bestows his grace after we exert our efforts. Sometimes, we profit by the teachings of others who show us a way.
More recently, Mindfulness meditation seems to be catching everyone's attention, probably because of its secular nature. In addition, recent scientific studies  have documented its usefulness and have established its effects on the structure and function of the brain.  












Saturday, July 22, 2017

Kurukshetra Battle (Continued) - Maha Bharatha Series 38


My eyes were clouded with tears when I read Section 43, immediately following Bhagvat Gita. In this, Sanjaya describes the scene just before the battle starts. Yudhishtra gets down from his car and proceeds towards the opposing army on foot. All his brothers are surprised and concerned and ask him why he is walking into the army of the foe. Krishna knows and tells them all to calm down. Yudhishtra knows that it is proper to pay respect to Bhishma, Drona and Kripa before this battle. And he does it because it is the proper thing to do. His high sense of values made him do that. I wish this section is better known among those who read or speak about Maha Bharata.

The Kauravas do not know either why Yudhishtra was walking right into their army. They think that he was afraid and was coming to surrender. But, Yudhishtra makes a bee-line to Bhishma first, bows to him, touches his feet and says: 'I salute you, O invincible one. We come to battle. Grant (us) your permission in that matter. Give (us) also your blessing." Of course, Bhishma does so. He says: “I am like an eunuch, bound with the Kauravas owing to their wealth and have to fight on their side. But I will pray for your victory”.

Yudhishtra goes to Drona and Kripa also. The same scene is repeated. All of them say “I have to fight for the Kauravas; but will pray for your victory”. Yudhishtra says: “That is my wish too, that you fight wholeheartedly for them but pray for us”. Finally, Yudhishtra comes to Karna and says: “I know you have decided against taking arms because of your dislike of Bhishma. Please come to our side. You can go back to the Kauravas after Bhishma is killed”. Karna declines, of course. Then, Yudhishtra announces that anyone from the Kauravas will be accepted by the Pandavas, if they choose to do so before the battle starts. Yuyutsu born to Dhrithrashta of   a non-kshatriya wife is the one who switches sides.

The later part of Book 6 gives detailed descriptions of the battle day by day, as narrated by Sanjaya to Dhritrashtra. Here, we learn the names of several formations of the army, what their arrangements are and which hero occupied each position etc. We learn the names of several weapons that were used. It is obvious that this war happened after the iron-age had settled in. There is mention of several celestial weapons and one of them is called satagni which from description appears to be some kind of missile! It appears to me that Sanjaya mentions the names of each of the 100 kaurava princes as they get killed by Bhima just as he had vowed. The only son of Dhrithrashtra left alive was the one he had by a non-kshatriya wife (by name Yuyutsu), who survived to perform the ceremonies for his 100 half-brothers.

In Section 65 (it is 63 in the Sanskrit version), Bhishma is explaining why Pandavas are winning. In this section, the following ideas as expressed by Bhishma about the Supreme:  ”I worship Him who is called TAT, He who is Supreme, He who is existent at present and who will be for all time, He who is the highest Self, He who is the Soul of beings, and who is the great Lord. He is the creator of all beings. His body is un-manifest (avyakta). His mind is manifest (Vyakta).  The gods were created by His breath. With His heads, He pervaded (root word in Sanskrit is bruh which means to expand) the Heavens. His arms support the Earth. The three worlds are contained in Him and He is the Eternal Being. He is the Sat of Sat, ultimate Truth, Eternal”.

Some interesting Slokas from this section follow:

सर्वभूतानि भूतात्मा महात्मा पुरुषॊत्तमः
      आपॊ वायुश तेजश तरयम एतद अकल्पयत
मुखतः सॊ ऽगनिम असृजत पराणाद वायुम अथापि
     
सरस्वतीं वेदांश मनसः ससृजे ऽचयुतः

Friday, July 14, 2017

Kurukshetra Battle - Maha Bharatha Series 37

The details of the famous battle are described in Book 6, starting with the name of Kurukshetra. We learn that this was known originally as Tapas-Kshetra, a place for tapas, or penance. (Prof. Roberto Calasso, the Italian scholar translates tapas to mean ardor, intense burning of the thought). Since Kuru, the ancestor of the Kauravas did his penance there, the name changed to Kurukshetra.

In section 1, rules of conduct of war are described, such as “children and old ones should not be harmed. Unarmed adversary should not be attacked. Each soldier will have a “watch-word” which will identify him with the side he belongs to”.

As the troops are getting ready, Vyasa arrives. He is disturbed and tells Dhrithrashtra: “No use grieving now. This is destiny and cannot be prevented. This is the effect of kaala (time or lord of death). As regards victory, it is there where righteousness is”. In other words, the war was preordained, an explanation given for almost everything that happens in Maha Bharatha.

Vyasa offers Dhrithrashtra ability to see everything in the battle field. But, he declines saying that he cannot bring himself to seeing all his kith and kin being killed. Therefore, Vyasa gives a special celestial vision to Sanjaya, Dhrithrashtra’s charioteer so that he will see every detail in every corner of the battle-field and narrate the events to Dhrithrashtra at the end of each day.

Vyasa’s account of various planets at the time of the famous battle may be significant. Not knowing Vedic astrology, I am unable to decipher them. He mentions specific positions of each of the planets (including the moon, which we know is not a planet) in relation to the 27 stars. In this list there is mention of a white planet called kethu “blazing like fire, having attacked the Jeshta, and having passed beyond the constellation, Chitra”.  He also mentions Rahu as taken a position between constellations, Chitra and Swati. We know that there is no planet equivalent to Rahu or Kethu existent now. May be, he was describing a comet or a planet like Pluto which has gone out of the solar system! May be, they were twin planets.

Vyasa mentions that the constellation of seven-stars (sapta rishi mandala) has dimmed. He points out that Brihaspati and Sani approaching Vishaka have become stationary and that the duration of a fortnight has shortened by two days. There are descriptions of lunar and solar eclipses coming back to back and 2 eclipses within a fortnight etc. Such clear descriptions tell us that our ancestors were keen observers of the sky and of the stars and planets. These facts also suggest that Mahabharatha is based on some historical event very much like the Iliad of Homer in Greek history.  I hope some scholar has been able to establish the epoch when these events could have happened based on these descriptions of the planets and the stars. Indeed, I found one person who has tried to verify these dates with past calendars. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/drishtikone/2010/09/astronomical-proof-mahabharata-war-shri-krishna/   September 1, 2010 by Ramesh Panchwagh)

In Section 4, Sanjay starts describing the land to Dhrithrashtra. He says that there are things mobile and immobile. Among the mobiles he includes three kinds: oviparous, viviparous and those that come from heat and damp (similar to the idea in the west about the origins of insects and flies from miasma). Of the mobile, viviparous are the most important. There are 14 species in this group, with seven living wild and seven domestic. It is interesting that man is included as one among the seven domestic creatures. Among the immobile, plants are included and Sanjaya lists four: trees, shrubs, creepers, creeping plants existing for only a year, and all stemless plants of the grass species. Here we also learn that the term valli (kodi in Tamizh) is specifically for creepers that spread horizontally) and the word for stemless plants such as grass in thruna.

Two other statements found in this book are significant: 1. All creatures support their life by living upon one another. 2. Everything springs from the earth and everything, when destroyed, merges into the Earth.

In his description of Bharata Varsha (the ancient India), Sanjaya recounts Bharata, Manu and Ikshvaku as its inhabitants. Malaya and Vindhya mountains are mentioned. So are many well-known rivers such as Ganga, Kauveri and Tamra. He says that Saraswati is seen in some places and not in some other places along its route. Now we know that it does not exist anymore, although evidences of an ancient river bed are there. Among the people, dravidas, andhras and keralas are mentioned. Also mentioned are Mlcechas, Chinas, and Huns. It appears that the word mleccha referred to the uncivilized and a related word called meluha was used in the ancient Akkadia kingdom. 

In section 12, when Vyasa describes planet Swabhanu, he says that the diameter is 12 yojanas and the circumference 42 yojanas (3.5). For moon, he mentions 11 and 38 and to the sun (?) it is 10 to 35. It is clear that these are approximations to the value of pi.

In a later chapter, Sanjaya says: “Victory is not won by just might, but by truth, compassion, righteousness and energy”

According to this text by Ganguli, Bhagavat Gita starts with Section 25 of Book 6. I will not cover these sections which are so well-known.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Ethics - subjective or objective?


Ethics as is practiced today is based on objective principles. Ethical principles must be verifiable or measurable. Ethics is based on values. Values can be experienced and described.  I agree that, if we base our decisions on everyone’s inner “values”, there will be chaos since each one has a different view of life. Everything becomes relative and acceptable. However, we know that some values are universal by their consistency over the centuries and by their presence as the core values of all cultures and religious traditions.

As pointed out by Tilak in his book on Gita Rahasya, for the past two centuries, ethical decisions have been defined by:         1. the effects on observable external things and events. This includes respect for autonomy, beneficence (bring about good), non-beneficence (do no harm) and justice.

                                                2. knowing the reasons behind the decisions.

The second has two components according to the Indian concepts. What is the practical reason? Even more important, what is the pure reason? Is the pure reason noble? If it is, you cannot judge the action alone as good or bad. It is difficult to know what the pure motivation of anyone is. That is why modern ethics places more emphasis on the visible effects, rather than on invisible motives.  It does try, though. That is why the law tries to establish the motive behind criminal offenses. We also know that the offender can hide behind “insanity” or some such defense.

This emphasis on pure reason is the focus of the entire Bhagavat Gita. Lord Krishna says that if your motives are noble and within the province of your duty and you perform your action without attachment to the results, you are forgiven even if it is a cruel act, such as going to war.

Take this one step farther. Both the practical reason and pure reason must be based on the foundations of humanity and collective consciousness of humanity. You can call it a Divine Principle, if you want. This is Dharma of the Vedas. This is based on the premise that the “force” that activated all animate and inanimate, moving and non-moving things is present in all of them. It connects the individual with the collective and the universal. That is why the basic common teachings of all religious traditions consist of non-killing, truthfulness, love for all life-forms, compassion, and non-stealing.

Modern ethics puts emphasis on the primacy of the individual and on objectivity. Autonomy (? Self-interest) and maximum good for the maximum numbers are the guideposts. These are reactions to the past excesses over centuries of rulers and religious fanatics who punished innocent “common” people without any proof of wrong-doing (except questioning authority), purely on personal whims and fancy.

The Vedic system puts emphasis on the equability of Reason based on the following facts: 1. The Spirit (Atman) in you is the same as the Spirit in the others. Treat others as you would like to be treated. 2. Disinterested performance of one’s duty based on one’s position in the family and the society without discrimination and without expecting favors is of importance, because it is pure reason. 3. Ethical principles cannot be rigid. They have to be contextual. 4. Realities of worldly affairs tell us that certain conflicts cannot be reconciled, as pointed out at several episodes in the Maha Bharata and more recently by Joseph Campbell in his book on Oriental Mythology (page 123-124, Penguin 1976). For example, justice and mercy; destiny and free-will; harm and no-harm; truth and lie. That is why exceptions to rules are part of the mythological stories of India. 5. By nature, self-interest is often the motive behind individual actions. But we have to make sure it does not harm others. Universal welfare should be the primary focus of ethical principles.

Epics from India often end discussions on ethical judgments by saying: “just watch the conduct of a few noble souls who act for the welfare of all people and lives, without expecting any rewards, with a pure mind and sacrifice their lives”. That is the basis of Dharma.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Sat (Reality) and Asat (non-reality)



How do you define reality? Sankara defines it as something which is changeless and eternal.

Is asat, opposite of sat or absence of sat?  Sankara defines asat as absence of sat. He also thinks that Sat can be of three kinds – 1. When it is pure, changeless and eternal - paramarthika  2.  With changes and impermanence – vyavaharika, (phenomenal)  and 3. Real sometimes, not real sometimes such as mistaking rope for a snake before you see the actual thing – called prathibhasika. The word Mithya is used to denote items 2 and 3.

How do various systems of Indian philosophy deal with this?

Charavaka says: Universe is real. Brahman is not. (since it is a concept and there is no direct proof)

Nyaya-Vaiseshika: Universe is real; so is Brahman.

Samkhya says; Universe is unreal (it is active only because of Purusha); Purusha (Brahman) is real.

Advaitham says: Brahman is real. Universe is both real and unreal (mithya)

Dvaitham: Universe is real; so is Brahman

Why did Adi Sankara bring in the concept of mitya and ma̅ya? If you say that Brahman created the cosmos, what did He use to create? If He used something other than Himself, then you cannot say that all of this Universe came from One. If you say He became the Universe, just as milk becomes curd (pariṇama va̅da), then the original has lost its originality. It is not there anymore. Change is not the feature of the original, primordial. This is why Ṣankara suggested that this universe is mitya, neither real nor unreal. It appears to be separate; but it is not. It is ma̅ya.

Buddhism says: Universe is unreal and so is Brahman (Atman). They are misperceptions by our senses and the mind. (Sunyatta)

All this means, no one knows for sure. That is where humility has to come in, as was shown by our ancestors in the Nasadiya Sukta of Rg Veda. I posted it on March 21, 2010. Here it is again.
It is the 129th hymn, in Chapter 10 of the Rg veda. It is attributed to Rishi Prajapathi, is about Parabrahman and is in Anuhstup chandas, 4 lines of 11 syllables each. It is called Nasadiya because it starts with the words: naasat aasit no sad aasit   which means “in the beginning there was no asat (opposite of sat, non-existent, un-manifest, non-being), nor was there any sat, being”. 

Here is my own translation of the Sukta with one word of caution. I am no scholar in either Sanskrit or Rg Veda.


“In the beginning there was no asat (non- existent, un-manifest, non-being), nor was there any sat, being. Then, there was no earth, no sky. In that state, who (what) was covering what? And for what purpose? Was there deep water?             (Sloka/Stanza1)

There was no death; no immortality either; There was no means for finding out the difference between day and night. Not moved by any wind, it was breathing by its own power. There was nothing else.                                               (Sloka/Stanza 2)

Some say that there was darkness or there was water enveloped in darkness. But, that all powerful Brahman covered by Maaya came into manifestation by austerity and transformation from that one Brahman.                                                         (Sloka/Stanza 3)

The seed of the mind of this, which first came into existence, became desire (kaama) (to create the world). Great minds have seen that this is the initial relation between the sat (the manifest, the being) and the asat, the unmanifest Parabrahman.       (Sloka/Stanza 4)

A ray fell transversely between them. If you say It was below, It was also above. Some of these grew bigger pervading on one side by Its own prowess and pervading everything on the other side.                                                                                  (Sloka/Stanza 5)        

Who is there who can explain how the sat (the manifest) developed and from whom? Who knows for sure? Even the gods came only after the sat came into being? Then, who is to know from where it came?                                                               (Sloka/Stanza 6)

The adhyaksha (the Primordial One) may know how the development of the Sat came about or did not come about. Perhaps, even He may not know that!"             (Sloka/Stanza 7)