Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at

Friday, May 11, 2018

Yagna, japa or dhyana? - Maha Bharata series 75

Book 12, Section 201 (section 194, in the Sanskrit version) deals with this question. It starts with this beautiful definition of happiness and misery.

    यद यत परियं यस्य सुखं तद आहुस; तद एव दुःखं परवदन्त्य अनिष्टम
इष्टं मे सयाद इतरच सयाद; एतत कृते कर्म विधिः परवृत्तः
इष्टं तव अनिष्टं मां भजेतेत्य; एतत कृते जञानविधिः परवृत्तः
कामात्मकाश छन्दसि कर्मयॊगा; एभिर विमुक्तः परम अश्नुवीत

“Happiness is what is agreeable. Misery is what is not agreeable.”

People who believe that happiness is transient do not spend energy following it. They avoid it by turning to pursuing knowledge. Yagna (sacrifice), japa (recitation) are activities connected with acquisition of objects of desire and they lead only to hell. (The commentator says that hell is not a real place, but the abodes of the sun and the moon and the stars from which one has to be reborn into this world). However, yagna and recitation and penance can be used as a preparation for meditation and Brahmagnana. This is the view expressed later by Adi Sankara. (The implication is that dhyana is a superior path. But other paths may be followed to prepare the mind for dhayana)

Japa, yagna, dana, dharma and dhyana are the five methods for brahmangnana. All are colored by one’s nature whether it is sattva, rajas or tamas.  But, all except dhyana are often performed with a desire for some result. All acts done without attachment to the fruits of action is preferable. (This is Gita’s main message.) All such outward directed acts give temporary happiness. For eternal happiness, one has to let go of attachment to the fruits of action. Even better, let go of desire and anger.

During dhyana, one withdraws the sense organs from the sense objects and also withdraws the mind from the sense organs and succeeds in beholding his own real Self as Brahman. 

The definition of Brahman includes:    
अशब्दम अस्पर्शम अरूपवच
अग्राह्यम अव्यक्तम अवर्णम एकं; पञ्च परकारं ससृजे परजानाम
सत्री पुमान वापि नपुंसकं ; सन चासत सद असच तन
पश्यन्ति यद बरह्मविदॊ मनुष्यास; तद अक्षरं कषरतीति विद्धि

He (IT), the One exists in His (Its) own nature, unaffected by attributes and qualities. It cannot be touched or named; does not have a form or color. It cannot be grasped. (Some of these definitions come from discussions in the next chapter)

The evolution of the five elements (panca bhuta) are given in Section 202 (Sanskrit 195) as follows. This is part of Samkhya philosophy.
अक्षरात खं ततॊ वायुर वायॊर जयॊतिस ततॊ जलम
जलात परसूता जगती जगत्यां जायते जगत
इमे शरीरैर जलम एव गत्वा; जलाच तेजः पवनॊ ऽनतरिक्षम
खाद वै निवर्तन्ति नभाविनस ते; ये भाविनस ते परम आप्नुवन्ति

The translation: Space comes out of the Supreme, the Undecaying. Air comes out of Space; Fire comes out of Air; Water comes out of Air; Earth (universe) comes out of Water. Everything in this universe follow.

During dissolution, the body (earth) goes into water; water into fire; Fire into Air; Air into Space. The emancipated ones do not return from Space (They reach Brahman)

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Yuga cycles and Kaala (Time) - Maha Bharata series 74

Book 12, Section 201 and 203 
Bhishma recounts the beginning of the cycles of Yuga with Supreme Vishnu in repose and the Brahma of the cycle coming from the lotus emanating from Vishnu’s navel. This is the same as told in the beginning (Book 1) with more details. The repetition is probably meant to establish Vishnu at the center of worship. The population of the earth by the seven rishis, the parajaptis,  humans, asuras and animals is recounted.

It is stated  that all the Vedas return back to the Supreme (Vishnu, as told here) at the end of the four yugas. They reappear at the beginning of the next cycle and captured by the rishis to be preserved and passed on. In this sequence, we are told that Brhaspati receives the Vedas, Sukra receives the Dharma teachings, Narada gets the texts on music, Bharadwaja gets the texts on arms and warfare and Atri gets the medical texts.

In another section, there is a definition of Brahmacharya as a state in which one withdraws from all senses and sense-objects and dwells in the mind only. To reach that state, one should not have any contact with women since, according to the text, women are full of passion.  Also. according to the text, the man's “seeds” are floating all over the body through thousands of channels (naadi) and are the results of desire.
The subject of renunciation is called Samyagradha and is dealt with in Section 219. It says that one cannot attain tranquility without renunciation. The purpose of Vedic sacrifices and other rites is for renunciation of wealth and other possessions. Vows and fasts of diverse kinds are meant to help with self-restraint and renunciation of enjoyments. Yoga and penance (tapas) are for renunciation of pleasure and happiness. Renunciation, however, of everything, is the highest kind of renunciation.

When asked whether fasting is a penance, Bhishma says that it is not. But, self-restraint (acts and letting go of results) and compassion are. He also defines vegetarianism as not eating meat that had not been offered as a sacrifice.

In section 222, the discussion between Prahlada and Indra was likely influenced by Buddhist teachings. In this passage, Prahlada clearly speaks of impermanence. He also says that all of us have “good” and “bad”qualities. In Buddhism they mention 51 qualities which are present in all of us. However, Prahlada says that Soul is different from the body. Buddhists deny the existence of separate self or atman or soul.

Another important episode with a conversation between Vali and Indra is given in Section 224 (English version). Vali is living alone as a recluse and in the “form” of an ass. Indra teases and taunts him for his “low” state. Vali, an asura, former king of the Danavas asks Indra not to be haughty and proud since he will also fall from his high state in course of time.

 This discourse equates time (kaala) with Brahman (not Brahma, the creator god). It says that Time rules everything in this universe, including the gods and asuras. Our conditions are determined by time and everything in this world are transient. People in high position come down over time and those in low position get to a higher position in course of time. Knowing this, there is no need to be sad or happy about the course of events.

The idea that time controls everything and therefore we can do nothing seems to be the message. Combined with the concept of karma, it is easy to fall into fatalism.