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Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Vulture and the Jackal - Maha Bharatha Series 68


The story of vulture and jackal in Book 12, Section 153 is about the question of life coming back after death.

In this story, a child dies of convulsions, yes – the text says convulsions. When the family takes the body to the cremation ground, the members have a rough time leaving the body there to be eaten by vultures and jackals. They wish the child will come back to life somehow. Then comes a wise vulture which tells them that life can never return after death and asks them to go home. But, there is a cunning jackal which wants to eat too but cannot do so during the day when the vultures are active. Therefore, he wants to delay the family from going home till darkness sets in, when he will have unhindered access to the dead body. That conversation is worth reading.

The vulture says: “Life and death are inevitable. No one ever comes back to life after death. I have seen several who bring the bodies of their relatives to this ground and go home. Later they themselves are brought here when their allotted time in this world is over. This place is full of vultures and jackals and wild animals. So, before the sun sets, go back home”. The family members start to go back home, crying all the while.

The jackal shows up now and tells them: “Don’t you have any affection for your child? Even the birds and beasts show affection for their off-springs. Parents love their children for no rewards, here or hereafter. What is wrong showing your sadness and crying? The sun is here and there is still time. Besides, this child may yet come back to life”. The family is swayed and stay back to lament.

The vulture comes back and says: “Do not listen to that wile jackal. Where is your intelligence and mental strength? Don’t you see that when this body made of five elements is deserted by their presiding deities (space, air, fire, water and earth) it is of no consequence? Why don’t you think of your own selves and what is bound to happen (your impermanence)?  It was his karma and time that took the boy’s life. Everyone succumbs to time. What is the use of lamentations? Cast off your grief. Go and spend your time in performing penance (tapas, meditation). Go and do your duties and follow the scriptures.”

It is the jackal’s turn now. He says: “ You weaklings, how easy it is for that light-brained vulture to convince you! How can you let go of all your affections by listening to mere words? How can you let yourself be convinced so easily? I thought human beings do experience great grief when they cry at the death of their kin. But I can see how shallow that sense of grief is. It appears to me that your affection for this child is not that great. If you do desire for the child to come back, you have to be resolute. You cannot give up and go away leaving this beautiful son of yours for birds and animals to feed on”.

The vulture countered by saying; “ I have lived a very long time. I have never ever seen a dead person – male, female or ambiguous sex -  come alive. Some die in the womb. Some die soon after birth. Some die while still in the crawling stage. Some die in youth. Some die in old age. But die they must. Lives of all creatures - birds, beasts and humans – come to an end. Grief only increases if you indulge in it. It increases at the sight of the object of affection and even by the memory of that object.  My words may be cruel; but based on reality. My words are meant to help you with your own emancipation”.  The relatives were getting ready to go home on listening to these words.

The jackal asks how they can be cruel and leave the body and go. He says: “Your affection for this child will not come to an end just because you leave this place. You will be remembering and continuing to cry. Have you not heard the stories of Samvuka and Sweta and the restoration of life after death by His grace? There is still sun light. Stay and pray so you can get the child back”.

The vulture said: “One may have wealth; may have intelligence; might have performed penances. No matter, everyone has to die. I have seen kinsmen lamenting for the dead on these grounds several times. It is beyond belief that all of you think that this child will come back to life. Your cries and lamentations and all of you with your merits cannot make it happen. Only Brahma, Vishnu or Rudra can bring this child back to life with a boon. Go back home and live a life of righteousness, truth, justice, compassion for all creatures, sincerity and honesty. What is the use of crying?”  On hearing these wise words, the relatives were ready to leave.

The arguments and counter-arguments between the vulture and the jackal continue. The relatives are confused completely and do not know what to do. It is obvious that both the vulture and the jackal were interested only in their own interests. The humans were carried away by their arguments and were not able to think for themselves.

The story seems to be about the role of reason and emotions in general. It takes special significance when thinking about death. Obviously, the vulture is the wise one, reason with long experience. The cunning jackal is the representation of our emotions. This battle between emotions and reason is a perennial one. The entire Maha Bharatha can be viewed from this angle. The battle of Kurukshetra is this mental battle.

The end of the story is not exactly what I would rate as a rational one. The end says that the relatives prayed so hard that Lord Rudra took pity on them and revived the child. This is a story after all. The point is probably to show that by His Grace anything is possible, even getting life back after death. There is, however, a small passage in that final episode that requires attention. Rudra did not give the life back for ever. The passage says that Rudra extended the life for 100 years. That makes it more realistic.


Friday, March 16, 2018

Vishvamitra and Chandala - Maha Bharatha series 67


The story of Vishvamitra stealing food from a chandala* (low cast hunter) is in section 141 of Book 12.

Yudhishtra’s asks how to know what one’s duty is and what morality is. Bhishma says that one cannot learn duty from the Vedas alone. Morality cannot be one-sided. He goes on to say: “One should learn duty and morality from wisdom and experience. Duty should spring from understanding. Righteousness may appear to be unrighteous on occasions and unrighteous appear to be righteous on other times. One should know the circumstances under which these confusions arise. Actions based on true understanding of the circumstances and knowledge obtained from several sources may be too difficult for ordinary folks to understand. They may blame the scriptures or quote one in support or often quote scriptures but do not practice. For them words are weapons”.

Bhishma has already told the story of Vishvamitra before the discussion in the previous paragraph. This episode is placed at the junction between Treta and Dwapara yuga. One statement here saya that the yugas are separated by major events in history with natural calamities. At such times, there is drought and famine. People and animals die and rules of conduct are broken by everyone. Such a drought and famine happened between Treta and Dwapara Yuga and it was during that time Vishwamitra was starving. He was so hungry that he decided to steal dog-meat from a hunter’s hut. Just when he was ready to grab the meat, the hunter woke up. On learning that the thief was none other than Vishwamitra, the hunter asked him why he stooped to such sinful, prohibited act – stealing and that too dog’s meat from a chandala’s house. The hunter wanted to prevent the rishi from doing what he was planning to do and thus save him from disgrace and sin.

During that discussion, we hear Vishwamitra saying that life is precious, is obviously better than death and life should be preserved at any cost, even by stealing prohibited food from a lower caste person. Theft is allowable during times of distress, he says. He tells the hunter: “This body is my friend. It is very dear and worthy of my respect. It is from a desire to sustain this body that I wish to eat by stealing. One has no shame when one is hungry. It is hunger which is driving me to this despicable act. I am weak and have lost my senses. One should, preserve one’s life by any means in one’s power, when confronted by death. Afterwards, when competent, one should propitiate for the sin and acquire that merit back. That is possible only if one lives”.  The argument is that one can acquire virtue and propitiate for the sin only if one can live.

In another place, Vishvamitra says that one does not become a sinner by eating prohibited food, and meat, if someone else had killed the animal. He also says that drinking wine is not a sin. It is just that the wise did not want people to get drunk.

In this episode, Vishvamitra eats the meat, and later performs a rite by the name of Aindragneya, makes a sacrificial food called Charu, offers it to the gods and ancestors and to his wife and son. The gods are pleased and bring rain to the land. Burning all his sins with these rites and penances, the rishi gets his virtues back!

This is another theme in the Vedic literature. It says that one can break rules of virtue under duress, may make mistakes during a sacrificial ceremony or mispronounce the words in the hymns. But, he has to mend it back. There is always a remedy in the form of penance or sacrifice or pilgrimage to set it right. It is called pariharam in Tamizh.

In a later section, Bhishma says as part of another story that sacrifice (tyaga), charity (dana), compassion (karuna), study of scriptures (veda) and truth (satya) are the five purifying agents. They purify the mind. Penance (tapas, ardor) is added as a sixth. Penance and sacrifice were replaced by visits to sacred places (yatra and tirta) for common folks. Even after committing a sinful act repeatedly one can cleanse oneself and purify by going on a pilgrimage, says Bhishma through the words of Saunaka. This has been etched into the Indian psyche so much that we believe in this to this day.

In a later section  (142), Bhishma quotes Usanas telling the Daityas that “Scriptures are no scriptures if they cannot stand the test of reason”. Bhishma advises Yudhishtra to listen to the scriptures and also to reason and precedence set by the wise.

In section 144, a male pigeon is lamenting the loss of his wife and those laments list all the good things about a “good” wife. They are noble statements; but at two places the wife is mentioned as a man’s property or a possession! However, credit must be given to the system for considering the husband and wife  as one unit and for disqualifying a man from performing sacred rites without his wife.



*Chandala according to the old Varna system is one who is born of a Brahmin father and Sudra woman; suta is one form of a Brahmin father and kshatriya woman.


Saturday, March 10, 2018

"What can one do when the time is not right?" - Maha Bharatha Series 66


There is a story about friends, foes, trust and time (kaalam) in Book 12, Section 139. In this story, a bird takes care of its own baby and a prince, with love and affection. But, the prince picks up the baby bird one day and squeezes it to death. The mother bird pokes the eyes of the prince in vengeance. The bird justifies itself by saying: “a sinful act done deliberately leads to loss of merit (punya). But they who avenge themselves of an injury never lose their merit”.

The king (father of the prince) understands the bird’s anger and thinks that the birds action was justified. He is ready to forgive and asks the bird to stay but the bird refuses. The bird’s reason is that even if the king forgives, his future generation may carry the anger and try to take revenge. This is an extremely important observation. Several conflicts around the world are based on ancestral enmity.

The ensuing conversations are full of life’s observations.

For example, the bird says that a trust that is broken is like a broken pot. It cannot be the same pot again, even if repaired. This is what my mother used to say about husband and wife getting back together after divorce.

The other observation is that once an animosity arises it smolders and can never be quenched. Therefore, like smoldering fire, it can erupt at any time.

The bird lists five causes of hostility. They are women (like between Sisupala and Krishna), land (like between Kaurava and Pandava), harsh words (such as between Drona and Drupada), natural incompatibility as happens with snake and a mongoose or between cat and mouse and finally injury, as in this episode where the prince killed the chick and the bird blinded the prince. The bird says that as a policy, one should not place confidence on others, particularly on an injured party.

In this world, the father and the mother are the only reliable friends. It is interesting that the spouse is not in this small list. “The wife is merely a vessel for drawing the seeds”. This is an exact quote as a further evidence of what I have written about the view men had of women in those days. (see my blog on Seeds and Fields). Our ancestors must have thought that everything needed to make a baby came from men and the woman was needed only to provide a womb for the baby to grow. They probably did not know that the woman produced the ovum.

In trying to persuade the bird that she is forgiven, the king says that Time is responsible for everything that happens and therefore no one can feel responsible. This is a common theme in the Indian psyche. “What can one do when the time is not right?” is a common statement. The other version is that whatever happened was destined to happen. This argument is also used several times in Maha Bharatha to explain events. Even the mistreatment of Draupadi is explained using this lame argument by the great Bhishma. Another related theme is that whatever happened was due to past karma. In my view, this attitude also pervades the collective Indian psyche.

The quotes on time, fate and karma from the ancient texts are used extensively in daily life. But, no one to my reading has made any mention of the following observations of the wise bird during this conversation.

When the king says that it is all the effects of Time (the implication is that Kala or Time is a god), the bird asks several pointed questions. “If everything happens under the influence of time and no one can do anything against it, why is it that relatives and friends seek revenge? Why did the gods and asuras fight? Why do physicians treat the sick? What is the use of performing religious acts to acquire merit?”

The bird also says that destiny and effort depend on each other. She thinks that one should not blame time and fate for everything but should act and do the proper thing using knowledge, courage, intelligence, strength and patience. These five are one’s natural friends and should be the primary sources of support. The secondary sources of support are home, wealth, land, wife and friends.

The bird goes on to say that “Life is dear to all creatures. All creatures seek happiness and suffer grief from misery. Misery arises from several sources such as loss of wealth, association with anything disagreeable, separation from friends and fear of death, matters related to women, death of one’s child and other natural causes. Only he who has suffered misery can understand the misery of others”.

Other comments include those of the king who says that one cannot get anything done if one does not trust anyone. Such a person will live in fear all the time.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Shanti Parva on the Three Virtues - Maha Bharatha Series 65


Shanti Parva on the Three Virtues:  Book 12, Section 123

Dharma (virtue), artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure) are the three foundations of Hindu codes of conduct – in that order. Bhishma elaborates on them in this section.

When people pursue wealth by virtuous means and with good heart, all virtue, wealth and pleasure are in harmony. Time, cause and action have also to be appropriate. Wealth depends on virtue and pleasure is the fruit of wealth. All of them depend on one’s will (samkalpa), in relation to objects and objects are for satisfying one’s desire.

Virtue is for the protection of the body, and therefore wealth should be used for acquisition of virtue. Pleasure can satisfy only the senses. Seeking virtue and wealth for rewards such as heaven (which is a remote goal) is not as useful as seeking them for the sake of knowledge of one’s self, here and now.

Just because one acts based on virtue and with good heart, result is not assured. Virtue does not always lead to wealth. Wealth can and has produced evil. The weakness of virtue is when it is based on desire. The weakness of wealth is in hoarding it.

If one pursues pleasure abandoning virtue and wealth, one loses his intellect. Loss of intellect leads to reckless action leading to loss of virtue and wealth and leads one to sinful conduct.

Yudhishtra asks: “Since a king needs wealth (kingdom) to protect his subjects, what are the means for acquiring that wealth? What is morality? When is it acceptable to use unfair means to acquire wealth?”

Bhishma replies: “Morality is subtle; it is difficult to discern. You can learn from the scriptures, by listening to the wise ones; and by think on your own”. Morality and righteousness do not always go together. What you get out of books of knowledge is limited. That will give you an idea of the means. But, the means should be tested by morality.

But, duties (morality) change depending on one’s condition. What you should do (what morality is) when you are able and competent is different from what you can and should do when you are in distress. Under stress, brahmins can eat forbidden things and kshatriya kings can obtain wealth by unfair means. However, they should repent and propitiate for those sins later.

Bhishma goes on to say: “Treasury can never be filled without oppressing someone”. “No one can support life without injuring creatures” and “Many improper things are done when performing sacrifices”.

I find these comments so realistic, honest and open-minded. Not rigid.