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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”