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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Vyasa’s Questions: Maha Bharatha Series 58



In Book 12, Section 32 Vyasa asks some rhetorical questions. Are we human the doers or is He the doer? Is everything that happens the result of chance or of human effort? If man acts urged by the Supreme, should not the results of those actions, sin and all, belong to Him? If a person cuts tree with an axe, is the axe to be blamed? If axe is the material cause, should the maker of the axe get some blame? If there is no one to judge and punish, man can get away with anything. Man is the agent of all his good and bad acts and he is driven by Destiny and his Karma.

He then asks Yudhishtra, “If you think that there is no destiny, but only chance, how do you explain this horrible war? Can you see the events that led up to this war and truly believe they all happened by chance? It is the repeated sinful acts of the Kauravas that led up to it”. The implication is that they were driven by destiny and past karma. He asks Yudhishtra to take up the kingdom he won rightly and perform his dharma, even though many things he had to do were reproachable.

Just like the emphasis on destiny and karma, there is also emphasis on ritualistic repentance (expiation) and placation. Vyasa says that Yudhishtra should perform these expiatory ceremonies after taking up the kingdom to save himself from the sins of war. Vyasa also points out how if he does not take up the wealth he will not able to make those expiations and he will carry the sin. Later in sections 32 to 36, Vyasa lists a variety of acts which will be called “sins” and also how to atone for them.

Section 37 is a recount of Manu’s discourse on what should and should not be done. Some passages  comment on “what is sin” and “what is virtue” and about “how to expiate for sins that had been committed unwittingly”. According to this discourse, silent recitation of mantras, fasting, reflections ,self-inquiry, and pilgrimage to sacred places are cleansing acts for all kinds of sins.

Virtues include not taking what is not given, gift-giving (dana), study of scriptures, penance (tapas), non-injury (ahimsa), truth-telling (satyam), freedom from anger and worship of the gods. However, what is virtuous may not be so under some circumstances. Even killing and speaking untruth may be virtuous under some situations.

There is an interesting comment, that under Vedic point of view, virtue (what may be done) and sin (what should not be done) are of two kinds: by action and by inaction. Inaction in the form of withdrawal from vedic rites and reflection and meditation lead to liberation whereas action, in the form of performing vedic rites leads to the cycle of birth and death.

In contrast, virtue and sin from the worldly point of view are to be judged by the consequences – evil deeds lead to evil consequences and good deeds lead to good consequences. Acts that may appear evil lead to god consequences, if carried out with the intention of serving the gods, or saving lives. When actions are taken with the intention of harming someone or knowing that it may cause mischief, it is sinful. However, expiation is possible.

 Then come a list of items that can be eaten and items prohibited for eating etc. I can see the forerunner of many of our practices such as not eating something someone has touched with their lips etc. There is however no explicit prohibition from eating meat or fish.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Final advice from Vyasa   Book 12, Section 25: Maha Bharatha series 57


 Yudhishtra was clearly distraught and confused at the end of the war, since it resulted in the death of so many warriors and so many of his kith and kin. He was also sad that so many women lost their husbands and sons. 

Vyasa comes in at this time, as he often does on important occasions.  He supports the arguments of everyone. He addresses Yudhishtra: “You are now in the second ashrama – that of a house-holder. Therefore, take charge of your ancestral kingdom and do the duties of a Kshatriya king. Penances and mendicancy are for the Brahmins. Duties of kshatriya include sacrifice, learning, work, ambition, protection of subjects (raksha), wielding the rod of punishment (siksha), acquisition of wealth and gifts to deserving persons”.
Vyasa comes with some profound statements about the realities in this world and human life. He talks about Time (kaala) as the ultimate adjudicator of everything that happens. He says: “Until the time comes, nothing happens however much we try. If the time is not favorable you cannot acquire any earthly possessions. When the time comes, wealth will come, even if you do not ask for it. Trees grow, flowers bloom, night becomes dark and the day dawns when the time comes. If the time is not right, nothing happens. It is with Time the summer and winter come and the rainy season comes. If the time for it does not come, no one gets born and no one dies. If the time does not come, a child does not acquire speech and the child does not attain maturity.  All earthly things ripen when the time comes and then perish. Birth and death are ordained to happen by the very nature of this world. Therefore, there is no use grieving over the inevitable effects of Time”.
Vyasa continues: “There are plenty of causes for sorrow and for happiness. They follow each other. In one sense, sorrow is the natural state of affairs. Happiness is the absence of sorrow. It always ends in sorrow. Sorrow comes from desire and attachment. Those who desire eternal happiness must abandon sorrow and happiness. (Go beyond happiness and sorrow) One should learn to bear happiness and sorrow without getting overwhelmed and not cling to them. Happiness and misery, gain and loss, death and life, prosperity and adversity come upon all creatures. A wise person should not get elated with joy, nor should he depressed with sorrow.”
This is reiterated by Vyasa through a discourse by Asma, an ascetic. Later still, at Arjuna’s request Lord Krishna advises Yudhishtra not to grieve for the fallen heroes. In summary, they reiterate the same points over and over again – that everyone born is destined to die; life is full of happiness and misery and we should be able to bear them in equanimity; good people may suffer and bad people may enjoy all prosperity; we should practice our varna and ashrama dharma irrespective of all these things; that all of these are due to Time and Karma.
Krishna lists several kings one by one and recounts all the great things they had done. This list includes Lord Rama, yes Rama who lived in an earlier Yuga. In this passage Krishna describes the greatness of Rama’s reign. This is Rama Rajya, we all hear about. (Book 12 Section 28).
All these great kings had performed many, many sacrifices. In this section we learn about the names of sacrifices performed in those days. These kings had given gifts in plenty. Yet, “none of them escaped death” points out Krishna.

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.