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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Yudhishtra replies to the criticism of his brothers: Book 12 Section 19. - Maha Bharatha series 56



Yudhishtra answers his brothers and explains the reasons for his dilemma. He says that the Vedas and the Scriptures are confusing. The Vedas emphasize a path of action (karma marga) and a path of knowledge (gnana marga).  Scriptures are confusing because they are based on reason and there are different ways of reasoning leading to different points of view. He addresses Arjuna and says: " You are knowledgeable in the intricacies of the battle-field, but not on the paths of dharma (virtues)".

Yudhisthtra goes on to say that one can attain Moksha (liberation) through penance (tapas), renunciation (sannyasa) or through knowledge of Brahman (brahmagnana). Of these, the third is superior to the second and the second superior to the first. Least important is wealth (in the form of land and possessions). Yudhishtra says that his brothers were wrongly focused on wealth (the land) in their arguments.

He further states that the way to Brahmangnana is through the path of Yoga, reflecting on the words of the scriptures and understanding the difference between the real and the unreal. "Due to ignorance we misidentify the Atman with this physical body. Due to the ignorance we get reborn and suffer the cycle of samsara. Once we realize the true Atman as free from the attributes of the body, we can attain realization and get free of the cycle of birth and rebirth".

A rishi by name Devasthana, who is in the assembly takes up Arjuna’s argument that wealth (artha, includes land and wealth in the sense of gold, money etc) is important to perform one’s duties. He tells Yudhishtra that having won the kingdom, he should not leave it without a good reason. He says that the Vedas talk about four stages of life (ashrama – brahmacharya, grahstashrama, vanaprastha and sannyasa) and that one should go through them in that  order. Rishi Devasthana locates Yudhishtra’s status in grahasthashrama in which he has  to perform sacrifices and give profuse presents to others. The rishi refers to a system of agama called Vaikanasa (which preaches that one should not seek wealth) and rejects it immediately. (Vaikanasa is one two Vaishnava agamas. The other is Pancaratra). He says: "The Supreme Ordainer (meaning?   ) created wealth for use in sacrifice and also created men to take care of that wealth and use it for sacrifices". He then gives the example of Indra and Sarva, who became glorious by using wealth to perform sacrifices.

Devasthana follows up with a talk on contentment. (I do not see the immediate connection, although accumulating wealth often needs to lack of contentment.) He says that contentment is bliss and that  one should withdraw one’s desires like a tortoise draws in all its limbs under the shell. Devasthana says: “It is said that a person who has seen his own soul is one who has conquered his desires and aversions. When one is not afraid of any creature and no creature is afraid of him, he is said to have attained Brahman. Such a person does not cause injury to anyone in thoughts, words or deeds”.

He continues: “There are different schools of thought on how to practice religion and virtue. Some emphasize peacefulness; some praise action (karma) and some contemplation (dhyana); others praise sacrifice (yagna) and some others praise renunciation (sannyasa) or gifts (dana) or silent meditation (Samadhi). The righteous elders tell us that non-injury (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), justice, compassion and self-restraint, modesty and patience are the best practice of a religious person He then adds: “Manu agrees”, suggesting that this part of Maha Bharatha was written after Manu’s Dharma Shastra. Devasthana asks Yudhishtra to take up his duty assigned to him at this stage in life, carry out his duties impartially without attachment to wealth and attain glory and liberation. 

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Bhima's advice to Yudhishtra (Book 12,section 16) - Maha Bharatha series 55


I thought that Arjuna’s plea to Yudhishtra to accept his duty as a King in Book 12, Section 15 was a masterpiece. Therefore, I summarized that speech and wrote that such pieces carry the essence of the teachings of Maha Bharatha and should be brought to the attention of everyone. I was too quick, because in the very next section (section 16 of Book 12), Bhima gives a piece of his mind. In it are some superb set of ideas.

Bhima says that there are two kinds of diseases, physical and mental. They are inter-connected. Physical illness leads to mental illness and vice versa. Cold, heat and wind (the Sanskrit words used are shita, ushna and vayu) are the elements, which when in harmony lead to good physical health. When are not balanced, there is illness. You can balance the cold with heat and heat with the cold etc. Ayurveda is based on these concepts.

Similarly, goodness, passion and ignorance (satva, rajas, tamas) are the elements which have to be in balance for good mental health. If they are not in balance, there is mental illness. Grief is balanced by joy and joy is checked by grief. There is no use being sad at good times because of recollection of the past. Bhima says to Yudhishtra: “If your nature is to be sad when things are good because of memory of the loss of so many of our family and friends, why don’t you remember the times when the Kauravas insulted us and Draupadi and made us suffer? You won the physical battle against the mighty Bhishma and Drona, with the help of all of us and so many friends. You are now succumbing to your mental battle. You have to win it by yourself”.

To me, these are profound words coming from an unlikely source in this epic. After all, Bhima is considered to be full of strength and impulsive and not so bright. For him to say these words?

More important, is this not the essential message of Maha Bharatha? Is not battle of Kurukshtra  a metaphor for battle between dharma and adharma (virtue and falsehood); and also of our internal battles, mental battles? Even the famous physical scene of Gitopadesa is a metaphor. The advice is given in the battlefield. The chariot is the body. The horses are the senses. The reins are the sensory impressions and the mind. And the reins are held by the Lord.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Arjuna advises Yudhishtra - Maha Bharatha Series 54


We are into Book 12, the longest of the 18 books of Maha Bharatha. It is called the Shanti Parva.  It has three sub-sections, 366 (?353) chapters and over 13,000 slokas. Some of the best conversations in Maha Bharatha are set at the beginning of this Book.

I started writing a series on The Gems between Stories from the Maha Bharatha because I felt that the conversations between the main characters are full of worldly wisdom, which need greater emphasis than the story itself. After all, the epics were written to bring the esoteric teachings of the Vedas, Upanishads and Nithi Shastras (ethics and morals) to the common man. When we read Maha Bharata and Ramayana, we learn about Rama and Ravana, about Dharma and Arjuna and Draupadi, about what they did and when, but not enough about why they did what they did, in that particular context. We learn the morals, but not the basis of those morals. The story-tellers (Bhagavatars) and the poets also embellish the stories, use colorful words, bring modern day examples and amuse their audience and vow them, but do not get into the depths of the conversations, which contain profound practical wisdom. I wish to fill in the gap.

Sections 15 and 16 of Book 12 of the Maha Bharatha are the best examples to support  my conviction that the conversations in this Classic should be read by all. The first conversation is between Arjuna and Yudhishtra (Dharma), when he (Dharma) says that he wants to abdicate the hard-won kingdom in favor of Arjuna and retire to the forest. It is also interesting to note that Bhima is next in line by age and should have been asked to rule. But we hear elsewhere from the mouth of Lord Krishna that Bhima is strong and bold but impulsive (and therefore, may act unwisely!).

In this piece, Arjuna says that there are very few naturally pure, righteous people in this world. More often, people often do the right thing out of fear of punishment, or fear of death, fear of after-life or fear about backlash from the society. Arjuna uses the Sanskrit word “danda” several times – this word may mean any one of the following items, rod, sceptre, stick or punishment. “Danda” is needed to restrain the ungovernable and to punish the wicked. That is the duty of a king, a Kshatriya.

The text reads that Brahmins should be punished with a censure; Kshatriya should be punished by withholding food, just enough to survive; a Vaishya should be punished with a fine or appropriation of his property and a Sudra cannot be punished since he is already laboring for others. It is interesting to note that punishments are not harsh (such as lashes, cutting the hand etc), compared to what we hear about in history.

Arjuna says that there are some who are not afraid of anything; they do not care about anything or anybody. They do not obey rules. They have to be controlled by a king using his “danda”.  Then Arjuna makes a remarkable statement. He says that even among the gods, "we worship Rudra, Skanda, Indra, Agni, Kala and Mrityu - all of them are prone to use “danda”. Who worships Brahma, Dhatri and Pushan?" This is a remarkable statement, although we know that in deep philosophy, both the benevolent and the vindictive forms of gods are just two aspects or phases of the same One Principle.

Arjuna says: “Animals live on other animals. The stronger live on the weaker. Even the ascetics cannot live without “killing” something, a plant or a seed. There are innumerable creatures in the water, earth and the fruits. There are so many creatures that are so small that we can only guess that they are there. What is wrong with sustaining one’s life? Is there a duty that is of higher virtue? Given that fact, this world will be a chaos and bereft of anything unless there is some form of control. That control is the scepter of a king. (The king has two duties: raksha or protection and siksha or punishment). You have now obtained this kingdom. Whether you think you obtained it by righteous means or not, it is yours. Therefore, accept the kingdom which you won and perform your duty as a Kshatriya king”.

In a later section, Arjuna recounts the discussion between King Janaka of Mithila and his queen when he decides to renounce the kingdom and become a mendicant. The queen asks Janaka: “If a kingdom and grains of barley are the same to you, why don’t you choose the kingdom? Why do you choose barley with which you cannot do anything? Besides, getting rid of your passions and attachment to worldly things is the needed attitude. If one does not control his anger and other passions and is attached to worldly things, putting  on a crimson robe and taking up a staff, will not make a difference. Such a person is trying only to make a living. He is not a true mendicant”.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

After the battle - Maha Bharatha Series 53



Book 11 is about the lamentations of all those left behind after the battle of Kurukshetra. There were seven survivors on the Pandava side and three on the Kaurava side. Other than the Five brothers, Satyaki and Krishna were the survivors on the Pandava side. On the Kaurava side only Aswatthama, Kritavarman and Kripa were spared. Two others survived, namely Vrishaketu, son of Karna and Yuyutsu, born to Dhrithrashtra of a vaisya woman. He performs the ablutions for all his half-brothers.

Everybody alive is cursing everybody else. That includes Yudhishtra blaming his mother Kunti for not telling them until after the battle that she is Karna’s mother and therefore Karna is a half-brother for the Pandavas; Gandhari scolding Krishna for not stopping the carnage and cursing him to a pitiable death; Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva criticizing Yudhishtra for his wanting to go to the forest and lead a life of a mendicant after all the bloodshed . And,  Draupadi wants revenge for the death of her sons! All of these conversations are worth reading.

In all these conversations, there is a passage in which Yudhishtra curses that “no woman will ever be able to keep a secret in the future”! This is because he was upset with his mother for keeping Karna’s birth as a secret. Of course, this passage from a mythology continues even now. The general statement that women cannot keep a secret is a myth and here is its origin.

In one passage in Book 12, Arjuna criticizes Yudhishtra when the latter wants to become an ascetic and let Arjuna rule the land. He points out that the duty of a kshatriya king is to learn, teach, sacrifice and assist others at sacrifices and a kshatriya has to protect his subjects, and in order to do that he needs wealth. The only way to obtain wealth is to take it from someone else! He asks: “Have you ever seen wealth that was earned without harming someone?”. Arjuna goers on to say that kings conquer others, get their wealth and then they call it theirs. Our scriptures accept this fact about kings. It also says that the king can wash away his “sins” by performing sacrifices and making donations of gold and cattle. With these arguments, Arjuna asks Yudhishtra to enjoy the territory won at the sacrifice of so many lives and rule the land.

In the following chapter, Bhima comes on even stronger on Yudhishtra. He says: “You have become blind to the truth just as people who recite Vedas  blindly, without understanding. If this is the way you interpret the duties of a king, the entire war was unnecessary. The destruction of the Kauravas was uncalled for. If you had told us this, we would not have raised our arms against our own kin. You are acting like a person digging a well and stopping just before hitting the water. All of us are heroes capable of mighty acts but we are obedient to you, our elder, who acts like a eunuch”.

He further says: “If living in the forest is the way to Moksha, all the birds and animals should be in heaven. If living in solitude is the way to moksha, then the mountains and trees can also attain it.  One not acting according to the duty assigned by birth cannot obtain success. Renunciation is not the duty of a kshatriya” etc

Nakula’s talk (Book 12, Section 11) lists the duties of the 4 varnas and 4 ashramas (stages of life). The talk implies that the second stage of life (householder) requires a kshatriya to protect his subjects against enemies, and give donations to brahmanas and perform sacrifices. It also implies that tapas (penance) which is meant for the 4th stage of life is not as conducive to liberation for kshatriya as performing his duties.

Sahadeva’s plea to Yudhishtra is based on the fact that mental detachment is more important than physical detachment and performing one’s duties with detachment is the way to go. (Bhagvat Gita) He also says that one should see oneself in others and others in one-self. This is the same as in one of the Upanishads (Yastu sarvani bhutani…. Isa Upanishad, 1:6))

Sahadeva also uses the words “mama” (In Sanskrit, this word means “mine”) and “na-mama” (not mine) to indicate the attitudes of the mind in sacrifices. These words are still used during “homas” (fire offerings) when the priest deposits offerings into the fire.

When Gandhari curses Krishna for an ignoble death, Krishna’s words to Gandhari are cruel. He says that just as cattle give birth to offspring just to multiply, Kshatriya women give birth to sons so that they may die in battles. One would not expect such harsh words from a Divine Character to a woman who has lost all her sons. I certainly did not expect. If there is a hidden meaning, I do not get it.

Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the battles and to Bhima in his battle with Duryodhana are also what you would not expect from a Divine character. May be, that is the point. Krishna may be Divine incarnation; but when he comes as a human, he acts like all human beings. Besides, in this world one may have to use whatever means to succeed. May be that is the point of all these lamenting and fault-finding.

In the final analysis, this is a mythology and is meant to bring out the complexity of life and ethical dilemmas in making decisions. There are no “black and white”, “yes” or “no” answers in real life situations. There are shades of grey. Even killing and telling a lie may be necessary under certain circumstances. But what are the guidelines to know when it is acceptable to break acceptable virtues?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Vidura consoling Dhrithrashtra - Maha Bharatha Series 52



In Book 11, Section 2, Vidura is trying to console Dhrithrashtra after the loss of all his sons, grandsons and the army in the battle. Vidura says: “Every living thing has to die. What is the use of grieving over the inevitable? Everything that is put together ends in destruction. Anything that goes up has to come down. Union is bound to end in separation. Life is sure to end in death. The ultimate destroyer will drag down the hero and the coward.”

Living creatures are not existent before they appear, exist for a short period and then become non-existent again. What is the use of grief? You cannot meet with the dead just by grieving. All creatures are like members of a caravan bound to the same destination. But no one knows who will meet with death first. For the Ksahtriya, death in the battlefield is glorious.

“Birth and death are common and universal. There are many reasons for fear and sorrow. But the wise do not get carried away. Time does not favor one over another. No one is dear or hateful to Time. Time is indifferent to none. All get dragged equally by Time. Time causes everything to grow and then destroys everything. Time is awake when everything else is sleeping. It is irresistible. It causes the end of youth, beauty, life and possessions. A wise one therefore is not attached to anything and does not grieve over anything. By indulging in grief, one gets weaker. Grief does not lead us to enlightenment. If grief grips you, counteract by not indulging it. One cannot lessen grief by dwelling on it. It only grows with indulgence. One loses purpose and goal in life by excessive grief”.

“You know that this grief was brought on by your own faults. You were too attached to your sons and did not control them when you should have. There is no use grieving now. Get up and do what you can to appease the souls of the dead”.

Going further, Vidura tells Dhrithrashtra a parable of a man who runs hither and thither in a wilderness and enters a forest at the entrance to which stands a large and gruesome-looking woman. The forest is full of beasts of prey. The man runs and falls into a pit. There is an elephant with 6 heads and 12 feet at the entrance to the pit. The man falls into the pit and hangs upside down on the branches of a creeper. The creeper clings to a tree whose roots are being chewed by rats. There are snakes all over. There are bees swarming to drink the honey from the flowers. The flowers spew honey which the man licks but it is not able to quench his thirst. (Amazingly, Tolstoy uses this fable in his book on “What I believe”!)

Dhrithrashtra asks for the meaning of the parable. Vidura says that the wilderness represents this world of ours. The forest stands for one’s limited life. The beasts of prey are the diseases which afflict man and the ugly, large woman is decrepitude which destroys one’s body. The pit is the physical body and the snakes stand for Time, the ultimate destroyer. The creepers on which the man was hanging stand for one’s desire for life. The elephant is the year (time) with 12 feet or months and 6 faces or seasons. The rats gnawing through the roots of the tree of life are the days and nights which diminish the duration of our lives. Finally, the bees are our human desires and the honey is the transient  happiness we obtain through gratification of desires. Vidura says that one should understand these facts of life, birth and death, diseases and desires and go beyond this impermanent life.   

Vidura compares the body to a car and calls its driver as the Living Principle. The senses are the steeds. He says that people who let the horses run without control have to come back again and again into the cycle of samsara; but those who know how to control the horses attain liberation. The man who restrains his senses, controls his passions and who is contended and truthful attains liberation.

Vidura uses an interesting metaphor in Sloka 19 of Section 7 (Book 11). He says that dama (self control), tyaga (letting go) and apramaada (heedfulness) are the three horses that lead the car of Brahman. If you equate “heedfulness”” with “mindfulness”, this is what Buddha also taught.

The next sloka is also interesting. It says: “The “self” is dear to every one of us. None of the creatures wish to die. Therefore, we should be compassionate to all creatures”.  This is absolutely simple logic. Why is it so difficult to practice? If your life is precious to you, why is it so difficult for you to understand that my life is precious to me? Why do you wish to hurt me?

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Balarama's Pilgrimages (Continued) - Maha Bharatha Series 51


There is a story of Indra becoming afraid of a rishi who is performing severe penance. This attracted my attention for the following reason. Indra, afraid of losing his leadership, tries to interfere with the penance by sending a beautiful damsel. On seeing her, the rishi loses his "vital fluids" into the water. They morph into a child in the river. Indeed, Vyasa himself was born this way. There is more than one such story in Maha Bharata alone.

This leads me to think that the writers of mythology did not consider the rishis as possessing super-human control. All these rishis had all the common passions of a man. Indeed, rishis as generated by Prajapati were neither human nor gods; but, somewhere between.

There are other interesting implications of stories of off-springs arising from the discharge of so-called "vital fluid" into the rivers and pot. In these stories, the woman is always the seductress and therefore, the  “bad one” and the rishi still remains “holy” and keeps his virtues as long as he does not have actual physical contact. That does not agree with my sensibilities.

More interesting is the implication that the male carries all that is needed to make a human. Indeed, it was considered for a long time that everything needed for a human baby to form were in the male. The woman provided only a space for the baby to grow! Some cultures thought that the woman’s fluid had all that was needed. In other words, our ancestors, in several cultures, knew that sexual union between a male and female was needed, but did not know that a sperm and an egg were needed to make an offspring. That lack of knowledge is understandable in those days. This may even be the reason for the emphasis on male offspring in India and in all male-dominant societies. (Please see my essay on The Seeds and the Field. http://timeforthought.net. January 1, 2016. Also see Edward Dolnick’s book on The Seeds of Life published in 2017)

From what we know in modern biology, the females of most species carry two X chromosomes and one of them shuts down in each cell. The male is the one who carries an X and a Y. There is at least one reptile in which the female carries an X and a Y and therefore can give rise to off-springs without mating. But, all of them will be males!

The battle between Bhima and Duryodhana is described at the end of Book 9. In this portion, three conversations are worth reading. In one, Krishna tells Arjuna that Bhima may not be able to defeat Duryodhana in a single combat unless he uses a deception. In fact, Krishna approves of it and encourages such deception. He also is critical of Yudhishtra for foolishly agreeing to Duryodhana’s request for one-on-one combat.

In another area, Bhima has broken Duryodhana’s thighs and is standing with one foot on Duryodhana’s head. His soliloquy recounting all the reasons which led to the battle and to the loss of so many lives is worth reading. The third is where Yudhishtra tells Bhima that Duryodhana needs to be pitied and not insulted.

Yudhishtra asks Bhima to cool down, now that he had vanquished him. Yudhishtra also forgives Duryodhana. And goes on to say: “You are the lucky one, dying as a hero and going to heaven. We, who are left behind are the losers in that we have to suffer the loss of all of our family- members and friends and bear the wrath of all the spouses of the fallen heroes”. Is it not true for all of humanity?

Finally, I cannot ignore my suspicion that several passages were not written by Vyasa, the original author, but added by someone at a later period to perpetuate a favorable order of things. It is amazing how firmly these myths are implanted in the minds of people for millennia.  

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Balarama’s Pilgrimages (Book 9) - Maha Bharatha Series 50

Just when the famous duel between Duryodhana and Bhima is set to begin, Balarama shows up.

At the end of the Kurukshetra battle, Balarama, the elder brother of Krishna, shows up after a 42 pilgrimage to sacred waters (tirta yatra). In Balarama’s own words, he went away on a Pushya day and returned back on a Shravana day. He went away because he was initially against taking sides in the Kaurava- Pandava battle. Later, he sided with the Kauravas. Krishna opposed that idea and joined with the Pandavas. I did not find any good reasons mentioned in the book for Balarama’s position. Nor, did I find any good reason why Balarama went away during the war.

It is clear that the younger brother, Krishna, was more influential. After all, He is Lord Vishnu in person. It is also interesting that, during my visit to Kurukshetra, I saw two coins from around 100 BCE belonging to a Greek king in that part of the world with the images of Krishna and Balarama. May be, Maha Bharatha was already popular among the people by that time. May be, there was a major battle in that part of the world, and all the characters in this epic are mythologized counterparts of real-time kings and warriors.

Sage Vyasa is a great story-teller. He breaks the flow just at the right moment to keep us guessing and make us read further! I remember our younger days when we used to wait eagerly for the weekly editions of our Tamizh magazine (Kalki), when Ponniyin Selvan was being serialized!

Janamejaya wants to know about the places Balarama visited during those 42 days. And, Vyasa decides to take us on a pilgrimage with Balarama. Some of the points that impressed me are: 1. The importance given to pilgrimage as a way to please the “gods” and acquire merit (punya). 2. The importance given to bathing at sacred places (tirta yatra).  3. This is probably the beginning of bathing in 100 wells at the Rameswaram temple. Some of the names of those wells are the same as the ones in the Maha Bharatha. 3. In an earlier section, Vyasa describes various places visited by the Pandavas during their pilgrimage at the beginning of their exile. 4. As stated in several places in the Hindu literature, pilgrimage is as effective as the yagnas for folks, who are not entitled to perform them because of their caste, sex, wealth and position in the hierarchy of the society, to acquire merit (punya) and attain moksha. 5. I cannot escape noticing the excess and undue emphasis given to the importance of the Brahmins in the society and their relationship to the Kshatriyas.

In this section, there is a list of several sacrifices (Yagna) performed in those days. We have heard of Ashvamedha yagna and Rajasuya yagna. Here are the names of several others: agnihotra, darsa, paurnamasa, chaturmasya, agnishtoma, agnishutta, vajapeya,pundarika, sautramani, and dadasaha. Mentions are made of sacrificing the flesh of animals and of humans! Roberto Calasso mentions all these yagnas and also mentions one Purushamedha yagna, similar to Ashvamedha yagna in his book on Satapata Brahmana (Ka – Stories of the mind and Gods of India. Vintage. 1999). As the names suggests a horse is sacrificed in Ashvamedha yagna. But, in Purushamedha yagna, a human is tied to the sacrificial post and sanctified. At the end, he is untied and not sacrificed. But he must go into the forest.

Kanchi Periyaval talks about all these and more, summarized in Volume 2 of Deivathin kural.


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.