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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Economy, Ecology and Garrett Hardin

Garrett Hardin is well-known for his 1968 article on The Tragedy of the Commons, which is considered a classic (Science, 13 December 1968, vol. 162, pp. 1243-48). His subject matter was overpopulation. The example he chose was an agricultural land used by several people, none of whom want to take care of the land. If everyone with the right and access to the land grazes as many sheep or cattle as possible for his own interest and profit, and no one shares the responsibility of maintaining the land or think of the interest of the others, the land will be barren sooner or later. In this era of technology, we can develop new technology to increase the yield or trap the pollution. But, every technology comes with its own problems. Ultimately, a change in our own behavior is needed to bring back stability. This is the core of Garrett Hardin’s thesis.

We can easily replace this example with uncontrolled fishing, ocean dumping and atmospheric pollution. This idea of the commons is traced back to Sir William Foster Lloyd, a professor of Political Economy at Oxford in 1832. This fact is mentioned by Garrett Hardin in his scholarly book on “Filters against Folly” (Penguin Books, 1985).

In addition to learning about the original source of the idea, I also noted two other points in this book.

1. Garrett Hardin defines Economics as an ego-based discipline and naturally, it deals with how to maximize the economic return to the individual. Just by the nature of the discipline, concern for others, fairness and compassion are not in its domain.

2. The etymology of the words “economics” and “ecology” leads us to the Greek word Oikos, meaning home or household. “The first word (economics) deals with the accounts of the household of human beings, while the second word (ecology) ranges over all living things”.  (page 70)

Now, oikos has become a “corporate” brand name for yogurt!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Story of Sibi - Maha Bharata Series 26

In Book 3, Section 131 comes the story of Sibi. All of us know the story in which a hawk comes after a pigeon, which lands on King Sibi’s lap asking for protection. Later we learn that Sibi would rather give his own flesh to the hawk than let the pigeon be eaten. What most of us do not hear about is the conversation between the hawk and the king. It is a remarkable discussion on what virtue is and how one decides what is right, when there are competing interests.

A king’s duty is to give protection to whoever comes asking for one. So Sibi refuses to give up the pigeon. The hawk says: “How can you do this deed unworthy of you. I am hungry and you are withholding my food. You think you are practicing virtue; but, in reality you are not”. The king replies: “This pigeon is afraid of being eaten and has come to me asking to save its life. Why do you think that allowing him to be eaten by you is a greater virtue?”.

The hawk says: “it is from food that all beings derive their life and get sustained. One cannot live long without food. If deprived of food, I will die. If I die, members of my family will also perish. By protecting this single pigeon, you jeopardize many other lives. A virtue that stands in the way of another, is certainly not a virtue, but in reality, is unrighteousness. After comparing opposing virtues, and weighing their comparative merits, one should act in a way not opposed to some other virtue. O king, strike a balance between virtues and follow a path which is more righteous”.

The king said, that forsaking one who has sought asylum is not virtuous. And says: “You are hungry. You need food. There are so many other options – an ox, a deer, a buffalo. Ask me for one and I will get you”.  The hawk says: “I do not eat a fox or an ox. A pigeon is my natural food. That is way nature has ordained things.”. The king refuses and says “ask for any other thing – but not this pigeon”. The hawk asks for the kings flesh and he does so etc.

Finally, the hawk declares himself to be Indra and the pigeon declares himself to be Agni and say that they were there to test the greatness and magnanimity of King Sibi.

It is interesting that this story is repeated in Book 13, Section 32. In that section, King Sibi is referred to as Usinara and Vrishadarbha and as a royal sage of the kingdom of Kasi.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Tirta (Sacred water) and Kshetra (Sacred site) - Maha Bharata Series 25

Tirta is water, sacred water; kshetra is shrine, a sacred site. The word tÄ«rta means “that which enables a man to cross an obstacle (a river)”. The river seems to have symbolic meaning at several levels and in all cultures. The water comes from the sea and merges into the sea. The water of the river is not much different from that of the ocean and indicates flow of life. Rivers contribute to prosperity. They also cause calamity. The banks keep changing. Yet the unity of appearance is maintained.

We all know how much Hindus believe in bathing in sacred waters and visiting holy shrines. The origins of these practices can be traced to several of the ancient texts. Maha Bharata is certainly one of them. Starting with Book 3: Section 82, there are several passages on going to sacred shrines, which are invariably associated with sacred waters.

In one episode,  Dharma asks the priest Lomasa why  good people suffer and bad people prosper. The essence of Lomasa’s response is: “Do not bother with that question. Be good. Visit holy shrines. Worship the Lord. You will be OK”.

In response to a question from Bhishma, sage Pulastya talks about the importance of visiting holy shrines and taking bath in holy waters and says that this is equivalent to performing yagnas and homas (fire sacrifices). In this list, names of several homas are given.

 It also appears that yatras to holy places and bathing in sacred waters were offered to those who were not permitted to perform homas (that will be every one other the brahmins). This was offered also for the less wealthy, who cannot afford to perform the big yagnas. They were expensive, what with all the priests to be employed for performing specific functions, building of the hall, items needed for dana (giving of gifts) such as cattle, coins etc. Only monarchs, for example, could afford to perform aswamedha yaga.

As I pointed out elsewhere, we learn about many things from reading our sacred texts, in addition to the main story. We learn about geography, culture, plants, animals, birds and even celestial events.

The Pandavas go on tirta yatra and kshetradana during their period of exile. The number of sacred places mentioned are just too many to list here. Saraswati is mentioned several times. It is also mentioned that the river disappears at some spots and reappears further down. It must mean one of two things: 1. It ran underground in some places. 2. It dried up during draught and whenever a tributary caught some rain, the water showed up downstream. From what we know, this river existed in ancient times.

Other rivers mentioned include: Sindhu, Aruna, Gandaki, Sarayu,Ganga, Yamuna, Gomati, Godavari, Kaveri,and Tambraparni.

Kurukshetra is mentioned as one of the holiest places to visit, bordered in the north by Saraswati and in the south by Dhrishadwati.  Pushkara is mentioned, but am not sure whether it was a specific place or a region. Other keshtras mentioned include Prayaga at the junction of Ganga and Yamuna, a place called Vitasta in Kashmir region, Kedara in the land of Kapila, Naimisha forest and Dandaka forest and Gaya. There is a mention of Kanya on the list. It is probably Kanyakumari because it is mentioned soon after the river Kaveri and is said to be located on the sea-shore.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Vyadha Gita - Maha Bharata Series 24

This episode is recorded in Book 3 of Maha Bharata and the teachings of a  vyadha ( a hunter or a fowler) are known as Vyadha Gita.

After getting admonished by the virtuous woman (see Series Number 22, February 26), Kausika started reflecting on the subtle ways of virtues and morality. He decided to take the woman’s advice and went to Mithila in search of a butcher she referred him to.  He is called a “fowler” in Ganguli’s translation of Maha Bhartha.  The Sanskrit word in the original is vyadha, which means both a hunter and a fowler. It may also mean a bird-catcher. In light of what we learn about this “butcher” later in the story, a more appropriate word will be “meat-vendor” since he does not do the actual slaughter. I will use the word Vyadha in the rest of this post to refer to this wise person.

People in Mithila knew who this “fowler” was and directed Kausika to a meat shop. The vyadha was sitting in his shop selling “venison and buffalo meat”. Kausika stood at a distance since the vyadha was busy. But, the vyadha noticed kausika, came to him and said: “Welcome holy one. I knew you were coming and I also know why you are here. But this is not the proper place for you to wait. Let me take you to my home”. Of course, Kausika was surprised and realized that this vyadha is no ordinary person, but one of virtue and vision.

After they reach the vyadha’s house, Kausika says: “I am sorry to see you in this cruel trade”. The vyadha replies: “Please do feel sorry for me. I inherited this profession from my father and grandfather. I am only doing the duties that came to me by my birth as ordained by the Creator. I perform my duties truthfully and to the best of my abilities. I do not envy others. I never speak ill of anything. I live on what I earn and share it with the gods, guests and to those who depend on me. To live in this world, we have one of three options: cultivating the land, rearing cattle and dealing in trade. To reach the other world we need the Vedas, knowledge and morality. Each Varna has its ordained duties. If everyone does what his duty is there will be order. Otherwise, there will be chaos. Wise kings make sure people follow their duty”. (the implication is that one’s duties are ordained at birth according to the varna one is born into)

The vyadha continues: “I sell meat. But, I do not slay the animals myself. I do not eat meat myself. Although what I do may not be desirable and wholesome, I am of good behavior. Even those people who do the slaying of animals may be virtuous people. Giving food to the needy, firmness in following dharma (virtue) and kindness towards all creatures have to be inherent in a person. One should avoid speaking falsehood and help those in need even without being asked. One should not be driven by lust, anger or malice. One should be moderate in experiencing joy and sadness. One should learn from one’s mistake, repent for it and never repeat it. One should not return wrong with wrong, but with honesty”. In other words, how one behaves is more important than what one does for a living.

Kausika asks: “How do we know what virtuous conduct is?”. The vyadha replies: “ Virtue is learnt from the Vedas and dharma shastras and by observing good conduct. Sacrifice (yagna), gifts (dana), asceticism (tapas), reading of Vedas and Truth should guide us to virtuous conduct. Virtuous ones reflect on the teachings of the scriptures, control pride, lust and anger and believe in being virtuous. They do what is good and honest. The essence of the Vedas is Truth (satyam). The essence of Truth is self-control and the essence of self-control is freedom from the pleasures of the world”.  And adds: “Lust and temptation are like sharks in the waters. One need to learn to avoid them with patience and detachment”.

The vyadha attributes his life as a meat vendor to consequences of his past actions (karma) and says: “I probably committed some sin in my previous birth. The gods (deities, devas) take away the lives of animals. The executioner is only a secondary agent. The animals themselves are probably paying for their karma. I can get over this “fate” by being a virtuous person in this life”.

Editorial Comment: The emphasis on Karma, re-birth and pre-ordained nature of events in our lives is evident not only in this part of the epic, but in several other places. It is no wonder that this has become ingrained in the Indian collective psyche. This is a helpful point of view for mental health. But, it can also lead to fatalism and inertia. Also, please note how animals are made responsible for their own fate.

The vyadha goes on to say that the gods and the manes are satisfied by offerings of meat in the sacrificial fire. He points out that great kings have killed thousands of animals every day for sacrifice and distributed that meat as food to several people. The sacred fire is fond of animal food. “If the sacred fire (agni) had not been so fond of animal food it would not have become food for the many. It is also accepted that animal food can be taken after it had been offered to the gods and the ancestors”. The vyadha  also adds that when these animals are offered into the fire with incantation of hymns by the Brahmins get freed of their sins and go to heaven.

The next passage is profound and realistic understanding of the lives of all creatures. The vyadha says: “Great harm is done to animals even in agriculture. When ploughing the field numerous small creature are killed. After all barley and rice have life. Trees have life too. Many small creatures live on trees and in fruits. This whole creation is full of animal life sustaining itself by eating other lives. Big fish eat small fish. Big powerful animals eat weaker ones. Even when we walk on the ground we are trampling upon numberless creatures. The earth and the air swarm with living organisms which are destroyed by men unconsciously. There is not a single man on this earth who is free of the sin of harming some creature”.

“I stick to my profession because forsaking it is a sinful act. I consider it as something destined for me as a consequence of my past actions. At the same time I have to strive to extricate myself from past karma. That is why I am charitable, truthful, take care of my parents and superiors, respect the Brahmins, and am free from pride and avoid idle talk”.

“The ways of righteousness are subtle, diverse and infinite. For example, it is acceptable to tell an untruth when life is at stake” says the vyadha  and surprisingly adds marriage as another situation where it is acceptable not to tell the whole truth. I do not understand this part.

But, what is truth? Truth is what does most to the good of all creatures.  

The vyadha says that the reason why good people suffer and wicked are prosperous and why some do not succeed however hard they work and some lazy people getting everything they want without effort can all be explained on the basis of Karma. If we have absolute control over life none of us will die and all of us will get whatever we want. That does not happen. Why? Because according to this discourse “It is due to the effects of our own Karma”.

Kausika asks the vyadha: “ You say we all reap the consequences of our karma. How is it that the spirit (which does not die but carries with it the karma accumulated during this life) with its load of “good” karma gets born into virtuous family and those with bad karma end up in wicked circumstances?”

The vyadha answers: “ By virtuous actions, the spirit attains the state of the gods (devas). By combination of good and evil acts, it attains the state of a human. By indulging in sensual pleasures and immoral acts, it ends up as animal life and by sinful acts it goes to the infernal regions”.

Kaushika asks how one learns to control one’s senses and passions. Then, there is a discussion on aspects of Samkhya philosophy between Kaushika and the vyadha. The summary is that one should reflect on the evolution of this universe from Prakriti towards the subtle and gross elements of this universe and its involution. One should also realize that Purusha is the activator which remains unattached. Realization of the individual self as the same as that Purusha requires meditation and that requires control of senses. The body is compared  to a chariot, the  soul to a charioteer and the senses to the horses. An excellent driver is one who knows how to rein in the horses. Implication is one should know how to control the senses for spiritual advancement. (Similar passage are seen in Bhagvat Gita, Katha Upanishad and in Plato’s writings). In the next section, there is a description of the three qualities: satwa (pure, goodness), rajas (passion, energy) and tamas (ignorance, inertia, dull). There is also a discussion on how the Inactive Principle (Purusha) activates matter(Prakriti) etc.

 Kausika is very impressed and asks how the Vyadha got to be so wise. At this point, the vyadha introduces Kausika to his parents. The vyadha says that his parents are his gods and explains how he takes care of the needs of his parents with great diligence. The vyadha says that in addition to following virtues in thoughts, words and deeds, his respect for his parents adds to his virtues and wisdom, because “ parents, sacrifice, soul and guru are most worthy of reverence”.

The vyadha knows by prescience that  Kausika had left his parents in search of knowledge and tells Kaushika: “You made a mistake leaving your parents at home to go in search of knowledge; go back home and take care of them”. Kausika agrees to.

When Kausika asks how the vyadha, who is such a source of knowledge and wisdom, ended up in his trade, the vyadha recounts his past Karma as a curse by a wounded ascetic.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Story of Virupa and Vikrita - Maha Bharata Series 23

The story of a conversation between a Rishi who recites Gayatri  Japa, a King, Yama, Mrtyu, Kaala, Virupa (desire) and Vikrita (anger) is a fascinating one. Bhishma is answering a question on the merits of performing japa (mantra meditation or recitation). This is from Section 192 (Sanskrit) or Section 199 (English) of Book 12.

The most interesting part to me is a set of slokas (61 to 69) which emphasize the role of Truth in one’s life. You may wish to go to the original and taste the majesty of the language. I just give a brief summary in the following paragraph. 

"Dharma (virtue) is Truth. Everything grows out of Truth. Truth is Brahman. Truth is penance (tapa, ardor). Truth is sacrifice (yagna). Truth is wisdom (gnana). Truth is OM. It is because of Truth that the sun shines, wind blows and fire burns. When compared to yama and niyama (self control and rituals), Truth is more important”.

Now, to the story. A rishi (son of Pippalada) performs Gayatri Recitation (japa) with great intensity for several years. Gayatri and Savitri show up and offer him whatever he wants.  He says: “I just want to be able to recite and feel the pleasure of reciting and be able to merge in Samadhi”. The way I interpret is that the rishi is doing japa not for any worldly rewards, but for experiencing and merging with Brahman. The rishi gets his request. Gayatri also says that "one day Dharma, Yama, Mrtyu and Kala will come to you and have a discussion on dharma (morals)".

Sure enough one day Dharma, Yama, Mrtyu and Kala do come. Each one of them tells him (the rishi) that he has earned a reward because of his recitations and that they have come to take him to heaven. He says that he has no use for heaven when he has the bliss of meditation.  Therefore, he does not want to “leave” his body and go.

At this time the king (Ikshvaku) arrives. The rishi receives the king as a honored, unexpected guest (athithi) and says: “You have come to my abode. What can I give you?”  The king says: “No, I am kshatriya whose duty is to give. I am the one who should give to you,. so you may continue with your japa, yagna etc”. Here we can see the duties of two varnas, as known in those days, being told.

The rishi says: “I have stopped accepting gifts (daana). You can give your gifts to those who are still working (vaisyas, sudras) and still accepting gifts (brahmanas). I do not need anything. Therefore, what can I give you?”. The king says that the only thing he asks for is a “battle” (Kshatriya duty). The rishi says that they are both in an equal status since "they are both content with performing their respective duties as a kshatriya and as a brahmana”. He concludes by saying: “ Do what you wish to do”.

The king says: “Since you initiated this discussion by offering me a gift, please give me the rewards of your recitation of the japas”. The rishi says: “Please take half of it; but if you want, all of it”. The king says: “It is so good of you to do this. But, I do not need the fruits of your recitations, since I do not know what they are. What are they?”.

The rishi says he does not know what the fruits of his recitation are since he did not perform them for any particular result. This is another major point for me in this episode. One has to perform these recitation with concentration for the bliss and not seeking worldly rewards. If so, the usual recitation of “phala stuti” (rewards of recitation) that comes at the end of several puranas and prayers are only to make people believe in those results, hoping they will do recitation at least for wealth and progeny and prosperity.

The rishi says that the king should accept it since he made the offer and the king accepted it in the presence of Dharma, Yama, Mrtyu and Kala as witnesses. If they do not, both of them will be abandoning the Truth. This is where the slokas on Truth listed earlier come on.

Dharma addresses the rishi and the king and says: “By the king accepting the gift of the rishi, both of you keep the Truth and get your merits. Therefore, go ahead and settle the dispute”.  The king says: “I have no need for heaven. If the rishi has a need to go to heaven, let him keep the merits and go”.

The rishi says: “ I will not accept gift from no one. I will recite the Gayatri, do my duties and study the Vedas and earn my merits”.  The king says: “OK, let me accept half of your merits as gift and give you back half of the merits I have won by my work”.

At this time, two ugly creatures show up. Note the word “ugly”. Their names are: Virupa and Vikrita. They are arguing among themselves because each of them owes a cow to the other but the other will not accept. Each one of them says: “I gave it as a gift. How can I take it?”. They come to the king for arbitration. Now, the king realizes how difficult to judge any situation. In this case the two factors to the judge are: giving and taking; between keeping a promise and maintaining truth (in my interpretation, the varna dharma).

Now, Virupa and Vikrita show themselves to be Desire and Anger. Dharma, Yama, Mrtyu, Kala, Desire and Anger point out that they have observed the rishi and the king maintaining their duties according to their varna and at the same time keeping the truth. They invite both of them to the land of Bliss.

Finally, Bhishma gives his comments.  He says: “ By performing recitations (japa) and sacrifices (Yagna), one can reach the abode of the Sun and of the Stars and Heaven. But, it will be a temporary stay (implies that one has to come down to earth again). But, if one performs one’s duties, without attachment to the results and meditate, one can become one with Brahman,  that state of bliss in which there is no desire, anger, time, disease and death or a separate consciousness”.  Bhishma uses the words: “He becomes Brahman’s self free from the opposites”. Such a person is in that immutable state, which is beyond the external knowledge which requires proof, and free of hunger, thirst, grief, delusion,, diseases and death. He gets absorbed in that one Supreme Soul.  To me these statements mean that pure meditation is a superior method if we do not want rebirth and samsara cycle.

There are also statements to suggest that the meditator (yogi) can reach one of several states, whichever he desires. One is full absorption and another is separate existence so that he can be aware and enjoy the Supreme. This seems to suggest a starting point for the Advaitha,Dvaitha and Visihtadvaita philosophies. Or, he can go to one of the heavenly abodes.

In the next section, there is another interesting statement. Both the yogi and the one who recites japa reach Brahma’s abode. The difference is that the Yogi reaches Brahman during this life, in this world. But, the one who recites Japa reaches Brahman after death and is received by Him.