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Saturday, February 17, 2018

About Women – Maha Bharatha Series 63

I have repeated several times that Book 12 and 13 of Maha Bharata are quite suspect as to their author(s). I forgot to add one more reason – Chapter 12 is unusually long; longer than all other chapters. There are repetitions. It appears that someone inserted passages to make sure Brahmins were placed and maintained at the top of the social pyramid, make people practice some activities in a particular prescribed way and keep women subjugated . There are passages to this effect in Book 13 in Sections 30-33.

Some other interesting facts are buried in there too. For example, there is a list of sages who were following various modes of life and had questionable histories in their past. Durvasa was known for his anger. Gautama was as soft “as a piece of cotton”. Agastya was cunning. Uddalaka was in agriculture and Upamanyu was herding cattle. Valmiki was a thief in his former life and Viswamitra stole when he was very hungry. Narada fomented quarrels and Bharata was an actor and dancer.

In section 37, there is discussion on giving gifts. It says that the recipient should be worthy of the gift and also that the “gift itself should not suffer”. What does that mean? (Is it about animals being gifted? Does it also apply to daughters given in marriage?)

From Section 38 onwards, there are discussions about women which make me cringe. Given the high morals and ethics taught in the Maha Bharatha, how did passages so derogatory of all of womankind  get in? Maha Bharata must have been well-established by the time these passages were inserted. The authors knew that people will consume any passage in this section as sacred and not to be violated. Why not? We do the same thing now creating false and fake news! And now we can spread them even faster!

After my critical editorial, let me get to the actual episode. Yudhishtra asks Bhishma to talk about women. He says: “Women are said to be the root of all evil. They are frail and unreliable. Please tell me more. If that is true, why do men still wish to relate to women?”. Bhishma answers with a story of a conversation between Narada and an Apsaras (divine damsel), named Panchachuda.

Narada asks Panchachuda to instruct him on the disposition of women. Her first two responses are: “If I know I will answer your question” and “I cannot speak ill of women since I am a woman myself”.   Narada says “but there is no sin if you tell the truth”.  In response, the litany of negative points Panchachuda makes about women is devastating.

“Women” as told by Panchachuda “ like to transgress restraints placed on them. They are the roots of all the faults of men. Given an opportunity they go after other men; any man even ugly ones and idiots. They tend to betray men who seek them and ready to serve them. It is only their fear of what others will say that keeps them chaste. Fear of sin, compassion and wealth do not keep them faithful to their men. They are jealous of women who are younger, have more ornaments and wealth and free. They are restless and hanker after new companion always. They are as unfathomable as deep philosophical thoughts. Union with women is akin to hell, fire, prison and death. They are made to be so from the moment the Creator made them”.

Yudhishtra asks: “ If women are so wicked and cannot be controlled, why are men attracted to them so much? How can men truly keep them in check and “protect” them”?  Bhishma makes his own list of the wicked qualities he sees in women and says that preventing women (protecting them) from being sinful is impossible. He then tells a story of one Vipula who protects the beautiful wife of a Rishi by entering into her through yogic powers and preventing her from yielding to her own nature. Bhishma says that this was the only time a woman was “protected” by a man.

To be fair, some nice things are also said about women in Section 46. It says that women should be well-taken care of, they are sources of family honor and happiness etc. But, it also sounds condescending. It is said not because taking care of women is the right thing to do, but because sons born of them are important (needed) for performing sacrifices! 
 As I have written elsewhere, men in those days believed that the "seed" with everything needed to make a baby was in man alone and the woman only provided “the field”. Given the knowledge at that time, it is understandable; but why did they forget the most important teaching of the Vedas that Brahman is in every human being and therefore every man AND woman are sacred. Why did some of them think that this applies just to men?

This kind of problems is seen in all sacred texts, in all religions. They contain noble statements and also some beliefs and practices which make no sense.  Members of later generations pick and choose statements which support their point of view. Obviously, many of the horrible statements in Mahabharata about women and how to treat them still resonate with some. They believe that their position is supported by words from Bhishma himself!

But, then I am picking and choosing too, in my own way. I want to keep statements which will be considered virtuous at any point in history and at any time, at any place. I reject statements which make no sense or unjust, even if they made sense at one time. I reject them even if they are from Bishma’s mouth or Krishna’s mouth. But people  who are purists and think that every word in these books are sacred would insist that they be followed literally even if they make no sense or unfair to some.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Authenticity of Books 12 and 13 - Maha Bharatha Series 62

Scholars have doubts about the authenticity of parts of Books 12 (Shanti Parva) and 13 (Anushasana Parva) as part of the original text. One scholar (V V Iyer) published a book in 1922 in which he suggested that passages on sins and their expiations and duties of varnas and stages of life were added by others later in history to perpetuate some of the customs and also to establish that Krishna is a Divine avatar of Vishnu. 

This doubt about the authenticity makes sense to me because of two observations I made when reading Book 12 and Book 13. The main message of this Book is centered around Bhishma’s advice from his bed of arrows. But, there was no mention of Bhishma at all till Section 30. The question I have is: “How come that Yudhishtra and his retinue did not rush to see Bhishma as soon as the battle was over?”  They go to see Dhrithrashtra, complete the coronation and then think of Bhishma, after Krishna tells them of Bhishma’s impending death. To me, this is strange.

The discourse by Bhishma starts only from Section 55 of Book 12. Krishna asks Bhishma to teach about duties, morality and truth. When Bhishma asks Krishna to do it, Krishna says that it will be more valuable coming from Bhishma and adds: “ What you say will be regarded on earth to be as authoritative as the Vedas”. That probably gave an opening for some later authors to add passages of their own.

We see passages glorifying Krishna as Lord Vishnu and mentioning that Krishna is the 8th descent. There is mention of a rakshasa by the name of Caravaka and his demise at the hands (of the words) of a Brahmana. This sounds like a more religious-minded group trashing Caravaka, which was an atheistic system of philosophy similar to the Epicurean philosophy of the west. These sections glorify Brahmanas and the Varnas. These passages have nothing to do with the story of Maha Bharatha.

There are several sections in Book 13 about ceremonies for ancestors (shrarda for the pitri), about deity worship, giving gifts and the sacredness of the cows. Those interested in the details of what items to choose for these rituals, when to perform them and how to choose the sites etc may wish to go to the original. I found some of the areas disgusting and offensive such as those that recommend drinking of cow’s urine, eating cow dung and sleeping in the midst of cows as sacred acts! Some sections glorify the brahmins excessively and some are derogatory of women, as usual. There are descriptions of heaven and hell and a list of the qualities of people who get there.

Book 13, Section 104 has a litany of do’s and don’ts. There are, of course, several wise and time-honored hygienic practices such as washing the hands and feet before eating, brushing teeth on waking up and safe practices such as examining the bed in good light before lying down. Obviously, meat eating was OK as long as it was offered to the gods first. But, there are also sections with strange advice as listed earlier. 

Different kinds of teachers (upadhyaya, Acharya and guru) and their importance in one’s life are emphasized. But, the passages go too far when they say: “respect him and accept what he says even if he is wrong”.

These are examples from this chapter which do not go along with what Maha Bharatha is about and out of line with the noble teachings of the Upanishads. That is why several scholars doubt the authenticity of these passages. They also point out differences in the use of language and the chandas (meter). I am no authority; but I see the reasoning behind their doubt.

There are some noble teachings too. When Yudhishtra asked about the best path to merit (shreyas), Bhishma lists the following items: non-injury (ahimsa), following Vedic injunctions (vaidikam), meditation, control of senses (indriya nigraha), compassion, penance (tapas), serving one’s preceptor and gift-giving (daana), specifically of food. In addition, he adds one more general point of guidance: “One should not do to another that which is regarded as injurious when done to one’s own self”.  (Book 13, Section 113). This teaching seems to be common to all major traditions.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

More from Shanti Parva - Maha Bharatha Series 61

Although I did not intend to review this book extensively, I find it impossible to skip some areas. For example, in Section 84, Bhishma says that the mark of a noble person is sweet speech. One who addresses others first and speaks with a sweet voice and a pleasant smile brings happiness to the heart. But, it is not possible to be in the good books of everyone.  
In the next section (85), Bhishma says that a king’s ministers should include representatives from all the four major Varnas and should have great qualities such as calmness and humility. As Bhishma saw it in those days, Vaisyas duty was to cultivate the land, take care of the cattle and trade for the welfare of all in this world. They have to be protected from robbers and excess taxation in order for them to be productive. Brahmanas' duty was to learn the Vedas and perform sacrifices to help all others to attain liberation (moksha, heaven). Therefore, it was the duty of the Kashtriyas to protect all the other varnas.

In Section 104, of Book 12 there is a conversation between a king of Kosala who lost his wealth (kingdom) and a sage (rishi). The king asks how he can live without his wealth. Some of the important points the sage makes include: “Everything in this world is impermanent. Life comes and goes. Wealth comes and goes. Destiny is all powerful. What is the use of grieving over these events we have no control over? What you can do is to renounce objects of desire. Consider your wealth as not belonging to you and use for good purpose. Be contended with what you have without worrying about what happened to the wealth you had or wondering what you will get in the future”. 
Section 109 (and 110 in another version) starts with a question by Yudhishtra who wants to know about truth (satyam), falsehood (anrtutam) and righteousness (dharma). This is the section where some of the famous quotes from Maha Bharata are taken. Since they are famous, I am also giving the actual quotes in Sanskrit.  
For example, Bhishma says that “Telling the truth is dharma (virtue, righteousness)”.  But it is difficult to define when truth becomes falsehood and vice versa. He says: “भवेत्सत्यं वक्तव्यं वक्तव्यमनृतं भवेत् यत्रानृतं भवेत्सत्यं सत्यं वाप्यनृतं भवेत्, which is translated as follows: “Do not utter falsehood if it is likely to appear to be truth. And even if it appears to others as untruth, tell the truth”.

“Dharma is that which does not injure anyone, and that which leads to growth and advancement”.  (यत्स्यादहिंसासंयुक्तं धर्म इति निश्चयः). 
Dharma was established to prevent us from injuring one another. Dharma supports all creatures. That  is why it is called dharma”.  (धारणाद्धर्म इत्याहुर्धर्मेण विधृताः प्रजाः / यत्स्याद्धारणसंयुक्तं स धर्म इति निश्चयः).  
There are also passages which define when it is acceptable to speak untruth, as for example when one’s life is in danger or to save someone else’s wealth.  He says that people who worship all gods and are open to different points of view overcome all kinds of difficulties. So do people who are not afraid of others and of whom others are not afraid of and those who see all other lives as part of themselves.