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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.










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