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Friday, October 19, 2018

Ascent to Heaven - Maha Bharatha Series 96

We are now in Chapter 18, the final chapter in Maha Bharatha. I skipped several chapters since I did not find any significant conversations in them. 
The final sections of Maha Bharata are about the departure of Dhridhrashtra with Gandhari and Kunti to the forest and their death in a forest fire, the fight among the citizens of Dwaraka and their annihilation, the departure of Krishna and Balarama and the ascent of the Pandavas to “heaven”. In one episode, Arjuna requests Bhima to forgive Dhridhrashtra and give him whatever he needs to perform ceremonies for the dead before he goes on Vanaprastha, because “it is noble to forgive other’s faults and remember the good deeds”.  ( समरन्त्य अपराद्धानि समरन्ति सुकृतानि च)

When Dhridhrashtra goes on Vanaprastha with Gandhari, Kunti decides to go to the forest with them. Yudhishtra and his brothers request their mother to stay back. She refuses and her last words to her sons are: “Let your intellect stay with virtue; and let your mind think high (noble)” (धर्मे ते धीयतां बुद्धिर मनस ते महद अस्तु च)

On hearing the destruction of the Vrishni race, Yudhishtra says that it is all because of Time, the destroyer. It is interesting that the Sanskrit word for time is kaala and it also means death. Throughout Maha Bharata, Time, Fate and influence of Karma are given as responsible for every event, including the war itself.

When, it is the turn for the Pandavas and Draupadi to ascend to heaven, first Arjuna falls down on the way. When Bhima asks how this can happen, Yudhsishtra says that Arjuna’s pride and his inability to keep his promise caused his fall. Sahadeva falls because of his boasting about his knowledge and Nakula because he was proud of his physical beauty. Bhima falls because of his self-centeredness (and his temper?) (“not attending to the needs of others while eating”). Yudhishtra says that Draupadi falls down because of her partiality to one of the brothers (Arjuna, of course). Only Yudhishtra and a dog which follows them remain. 

Indra comes in person to take Yudhishtra to Heaven. But, Yudhishtra refuses to go without his brothers and Draupadi. Indra says that they have all gone to heaven casting off their human bodies, but “You shall go there with this body of thine”. Yudhishtra wants the dog to go with him. Yudhishtra refuses to leave the dog behind saying that “it will not be virtuous to cast off one who has been devoted to me”. Indra asks him again to let go of the dog. Yudhishtra replies: “It is sinful to abandon one who has been faithful and devoted. I will not let him go so that I can have my happiness. I will not give up someone who is afraid, who is devoted to me, one who is a destitute and is seeking my protection. Nor will I abandon someone who is afflicted, and one incapable of protecting himself”.  At this point, the dog transforms into his true self – Dharma himself, Yudhishtra’s father and is very well pleased.

After entering heaven in his human form, a rare privilege, Yudhishtra insists on joining his brothers and Draupadi. He first sees Duryodhana living in splendor and is outraged. He asks his companions how such an evil person attain to heaven and says that he does not want to stay at a place where Duryodhana lives but to where his brothers are. Narada tells him: “In Heaven, all enmities cease. Besides, since Duryodhana fought according to his Varna Dharma and died in a battle, he attained Heaven”. Narada asks Yudhishtra to forgive and forget.

Yudhishtra does not see his brothers or other noble souls and warriors and wonders why. “Heaven is where all of them are; not this” says Yudhishtra. Therefore, the gods take Yudhishtra to where all of them are. But, the path is full of darkness and obstacles, stench and filth. Yudhishtra asks: “What is this place anyway? How long do we have to go through this path? Where are my brothers?” The celestial messenger stopped and told Yudhishtra: “This is how far I am authorized to accompany you. Now, you are on your own. Of course, you can return back with me”. Yudhishtra was confused and stupefied and was ready to go back. Just then, he started hearing the voices of all his brothers, including that of Karna and of Draupadi, wailing in agony and requesting him to stay a little longer so that their suffering is bearable.

Yudhistra wonders how can this be – that Dhuryodhana and his accomplices are enjoying in comfort and all the noble and sinless ones are suffering. He even wonders: “Is this real? Am I dreaming? Is this my delusion? Or is it due to some disorder of my brain?” He gets angry and curses all the gods and even curses Dharma, his father. He asks the celestial messenger to go back to “his” gods and tell them that Yudhishtra wishes to stay with his brothers, Draupadi, Karna and Dhrishtadhyumna and others and give them comfort. The messenger duly does what he was told to do and informs Indra of what had happened.

Immediately, Indra arrives accompanied by Dharma, all the devas, and rishis. The place changes from a desolate, bleak, dark “hell” into a divine abode full of light and splendor.

 Indra addresses Yudhishtra: “You have attained success and your period of illusion is over. The Heaven is yours. Do not yield to anger. Life is full of good and bad. He who enjoys the results of his virtuous deeds must endure hell later. Those who endure hell first must experience heaven afterwards. Those who have committed many sinful acts go to Heaven first before they fall into hell. I wanted you to see hell also and that is why I sent you there first. You had committed a sin too by deceiving Drona during the battle. That is why all of you were shown hell by an act of my deception. All of you have been cleansed of your sins. The Heaven is yours. All of your people have attained to heaven. Come and see them”. And, Indra points out Karna, Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula, Sahadeva and his ancestors.

The concept of good acts (Virtue, punya), reward of Heaven for virtuous acts and of sinful acts (papa), for which the reward will be Hell are recurrent themes in Maha Bharata and they come out clearly in this section.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Anugita - Maha Bharata Series 95

Arjuna and Lord Krishna (Nara and Narayana) are taking time off after the coronation of Yudhishtra. Arjuna asks Krishna to repeat the teachings (Bhagvat Gita). The conversation is interesting. Arjuna says: “Please repeat what you said earlier in the battlefield. I was too distraught and distracted to understand those teachings fully”. Krishna replies: “That was so long ago. I do not remember everything I said. Let me give you a short version”. These are not the exact translations of the original. But, it is accurate understanding of the conversation between these bosom friends, or may be two halves of the same “person”. This teaching of Krishna is known as Anugita.

Everyone knows Bhagvat Gita. Many know about Uddhava Gita. In Maha Bharata we already saw Kama Gita and Ashtavakra Gita. Did you know that there are more than 25 Gitas? Anyway, here is Anugita.

Anugita spans from the 11th to the 50th section of Book 14. Most scholars think that this was not part of the original Maha Bharata but inserted later by one or several authors. There are three major sections extolling the virtues of penance and dharma and about Samkhya and Yoga philosophy. I am not writing about of all of these since these are repetitions of basic ideas. Some interesting passages include the following.

Joy is classified under three headings. Joy felt at the certainty of attaining what one desires is called praharsha; joy felt on attaining the desired object is priti and Ananda or satisfaction is when one enjoys the desired, attained object. Our folks were superb classifiers, even of a feeling as simple as JOY.

Passion consists of greed, anger and hatred.

Darkness or Ignorance consists of laziness, procrastination and delusion (?confusion).

This classification is followed by a sloka recited by King Amvarisha on sovereignty. After attaining great successes in his life, the king says to himself: “I have killed my foes and have controlled my faults. But there is one great vice which has not been destroyed by me. That is desire. Urged by that one fault one enters darkness and commits sinful and forbidden acts. That leads one to the cycles of birth and death. Subduing desire with intelligence, one should seek sovereignty over the soul. That is true sovereignty”.

This is followed by a story of King Janaka and a Brahmana in his kingdom. When the Brahmana commits some crime, King Janaka wants him banished and asks him to leave Janaka’s territory. The Brahmana says: “Yes, I will. But, please tell me what the limit of your territory is”. King Janaka plunged into deep thinking and did not say anything for some time.

He then said: “I inherited this dominion from my ancestors. When I tried to find what my dominion actually is, I could not find any on this earth. Everything is my dominion or nothing is. Even this body is not mine or the whole earth is mine. Thinking deeply, I realized that this earth is as much of others as it is mine. Therefore, please stay as long as you wish”. The Brahmana wants to know how the king came to this understanding.

King Janaka says: “The Vedas advise us not to covet other’s property. But, how am I to ascertain which property belongs to others? Therefore, I concluded that nothing belongs to me. But, how did I come to the conclusion that everything is mine? The whole world is represented in our minds as the objects of sensations. I have transcended the sensations and therefore, the objects these sensations depend upon. Thus I am the master of the world and the world is in my control. Whatever I do now is for the sake of guests, deities and ancestors”. The Brahmana reveals himself to be Dharma and says: “You have set the wheel of dharma in motion with Goodness (Virtue) as the circumference, Vedas as the nave and proper understanding and knowledge as the spokes”.

One can sense touches of Buddhism in these statements about desire, impermanence and inter-dependence.

Towards the end, there is a story of Utanka, a rishi who lives in a desert between Hastinapura and Dwaraka. Lord Krishna meets him on his journey back home after the war is over. The conversation between Utanka and Krishna is interesting, because Utanka is upset with Krishna for not settling the fight between the Kauravas and Pandavas without a war. He is so angry that he is ready to curse Krishna. Krishna says: “I do not want you to curse me and lose all the fruits of your long penance. Please listen to me about the events and then do what you desire”.

What Krishna says is fascinating. He tells Utanka that He is Brahman and also Vishnu, the creator and destroyer. This is similar to his statements in Bhagavat Gita. Then he says: “I come alive in different communities, among the Devas, among the Gandarvas and among the Rakshasas and among human beings. I perform my actions consistent with that community. In this situation, I tried to talk and persuade the Kauravas into reconciliation. They did not. Even after Bhishma and Vidura told them that I am Vishnu, the Kauravas ignored and did not listen to me. And they reaped the consequences of their actions”.

Utanka is satisfied. He asks Lord Krishna for one boon. That is for Krishna to show His Universal form. This is the second time in Maha Bharata when Lord Krishna shows His True Form.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Titbits and Big Things - Maha Bharatha series 94

It is amazing to see the influence of epics such as Mahabharata on the Indian psyche and therefore in the beliefs and conduct of the people of India. The best example is the respect for elders. It is such a pleasure to see the younger ones consider it their duty to take care of the elders. It is to show respect for their knowledge and to thank them for all their sacrifice. This is lacking in many western cultures.

Two practical examples are 1. Treating elders with respect and not addressing by their first name. Mahabharata has a passage on this topic in Book 13.  2. As a mark of respect, the habit of getting up when an older person comes on the scene. Soon after I arrived in US many years back, I was appalled when I found my colleagues sitting with their feet up on the table with cigarette in their mouths and addressing teachers by their first name. Even after 60 years in US, I cannot bring myself to calling my teachers by their first name. Dr. Lewis Coriell was my teacher and was as close to me as my father and my brother. I could never bring myself to addressing him by his first name.

But then, people in India go to the other extreme of not questioning wrong and false statements by elders purely out of respect. Elders also demand respect just because of their age and demand obedience. It is possible to respect elders without “obeying” every one of their commands and dogmas. It is not a mark of disrespect when the younger ones ask questions. That is the way they learn. 

It is not just what we do and ask. It is how we do (and ask) that makes a difference. 

Other statements we commonly make in our daily lives seem to go back to the Mahabharata period. Some examples: “Whatever I say to you seems to be just carried away by the wind”  (Vyasa speaking to Yudhistra when he keeps persevering with his guilt trips).

“Your head will burst if you disobey” -  a rishi talking with a king

“I will burn you to ashes”

“It is as clear as a gooseberry (amlaka in Sanskrit and nellikkani in Tamizh) on the palm of the hand”

“When the proper time comes, it will happen”

Gift-giving (dana) as a virtue is mentioned in several places in the Mahabharata. In Book 13, towards the end there is a whole section on this topic. The two main points are 1. Give gifts according to your capacity. 2. The recipient should be worthy of the gift.

There is also a classification of the motives for gift-giving. Bhishma says that some give gifts with a desire for merit, some with a desire for profit, some out of fear, some out of pity for the recipient and some  just because it is the right thing to do in that context.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Bhishma's discourse on Right Conduct - Maha Bharatha series 93

Yudhishtra asks Bhishma: “Between direct perception and  the scriptures, which is a better authority to arrive at conclusions?” Bhishma admits that it is difficult to answer. Logicians imagine themselves to possess all that is knowable and insist on direct perception as the better method. They assert that nothing, however true, is existent which is not perceivable. But, Bhishma thinks otherwise. One that is open-minded and deeply involved in answering the question will find the answer. “When one reaches the end of reason, one comes upon that vast source of effulgence which illuminates the Universe. That, that Brahman, is not defined or comprehended by words. Therefore, Inference and reason cannot lead you to the ultimate knowledge which is beyond words and logic”.

Then, Yudhshtra asks: “Which among the following four is most authoritative: direct perception, inference from observation, agamas and scriptures and practices of the wise and the good”? Having answered the question about perception and inference, Bhishma says that wicked people will always try to undermine righteousness and sometimes righteousness acts as a mask for unrighteous. But, “seek those of mental purity and good behavior and follow them in addition to what you learn from the scriptures”.

Yudhishtra says: “If you say that Vedas, perception and mental purity together constitute what is to be regarded as authority, there must be some differences between them. Righteousness is probably of three different kinds”. Bhishma says that it is not so. But, it appears so because of three different points of view. He says in effect: “Do not get stuck with these arguments and wrangling. Just follow me like a blind man. The eternal righteousness include non-injury, truth-telling, gift-giving and forgiveness.” In a later section, Bhishma says that righteousness leads to purity of soul and shields against unrighteousness.

In describing the righteous conduct of good men, Bhishma includes the following. Good men eat only after feeding the deities, the ancestors, guests, relatives and other living creatures. A guest should never go away without having been fed. Thy do not ease in public roads or in paddy fields. They do not talk while eating. They give way to (yield to) elders, ladies, those carrying weight, those who are important officials and the king. He talks care of his relatives, guests and those who come under his protection. He is polite to the visitors. He eats only twice a day. In between, he does not eat (and this is also called fasting, although fasting for several days and even up to one month are mentioned elsewhere). Brahmacharya is defined as not having congress except at specified time. One is not said to incur sin by eating meat as long as it was sanctified with the use of mantras from the Yajur veda(!).

One should offer dakshina (some remuneration) to a preceptor. One’s preceptor should be received with respect and seated when he arrives. One should not let an elder go on errands or scold them. When an elder is standing, one should not be sitting. One should start and end a day listening to the wise counsels of the elders.

One should not stare at a naked man or woman. Sex should be in private. Eating also should be in private. The right hand should be used to hold the scriptures and for eating. One should keep one’s senses, mind and speech under control.

When someone sneezes, others who are present should say “bless”. One should pray for the sick and bless them (for recovery?).

An eminent person should not be addressed in familiar, second person singular terms (such as common YOU, in Sanskrit it is twam; term to show respect is bhavan for masculine and bhavathi for feminine). (There is an episode in Maha Bharatha in which Arjuna gets angry at Yudhistra and  is ready to kill him so he can keep his vow. Krishna asks Arjuna not to kill but to insult Yudhishtra with harsh and familiar terms because it is equivalent to killing an elder) When you do this to a learned person also, it is as good as killing him! But you can use second person singular term to address an equal, an inferior or a disciple.

If a sin is committed, it is best to admit it in the presence of good men and make propitiations.

One should be righteous for the sake of being good and noble; not for showing off or for specific gains. Those who do so make a trade out of righteousness and do not accrue the virtue associated with it.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Shiva, Uma and Vishnu - Maha Bharatha Series 92

The last few sections of Book 13 outline important codes of conduct (dharma), although they are repetitions. For example, eight universal dharmas to be practiced by everyone (irrespective of class, sex or status in life) include: Compassion, patience/tolerance, non-injury, purity of heart, right effort, auspiciousness, giving gifts and non-attachment.

In Section 144, in his conversations with Goddess Uma, Lord Shiva (Maheshwara) answers questions about why some people are lucky and others are not; why some go to heaven and some not; and why some people are born into “good” circumstances and some not. The answers emphasize “good” actions and “bad” actions in one’s life as the explanation. This obviously implies that the current experiences of being lucky or not depend on our actions earlier in this life or in the previous life. Re-birth is assumed to be a given.

Whether we go to heaven or not depends on our actions in this life. But, the stay is temporary. One has to come back to this earth, because earth is the only place for action and accumulation of “punya”, or good credit for “good” actions. Karma (actions) and re-birth are the cornerstones of Indian philosophy.

In Section 145, Lord Maheshwara asks Uma to recount for us what the duties of a woman are. He says: “You and I form two parts of the same body. You share half of my form. You are as knowledgeable as I am” etc. Uma commends Him for his humility and says “No one can master all knowledge. Humility is needed. Therefore, I will consult others” and then consults all the rivers. It is interesting to note that all rivers are considered to be feminine except the River Sindhu (Indus)!

Goddess Uma’s list of noble qualities of women include traditional items such as taking care of the family and children, feeding people who come home, helping her husband with his duties, chastity etc. Women are asked to consider their husbands as God and serve him as such. Women are asked to surrender their will to their husbands. “Devotion to the husband is her merit and penance. It is her eternal heaven” is the exact quote.

In section 147, Lord Maheshwara talks about Vasudeva. This is a description of Vishnu. Other names to refer to Vishnu include: Krishna, Kesava, Govinda, Hrishikesa, Achyuta, Ananta, Sesha, Hari and Narayana. This is obviously the basis of later development of Vishnu as a major God and the focus of devotion among the Vaishanvites.

This is substantiated by the fact that Bhishma teaches Vishnu Sahasranamam, praising the glory of Lord Vishnu, to Yudhishtra, in subsequent sections of this Book 13 (Anushasana Parvam, Section 139 in Sanskrit; 149 in English).  We hear the description of physical, symbolic and philosophical descriptions of Vishnu. Vishnu is also said to be at the center of a constellation in the skies called Sisumara. This constellation is known in the west as the Great Bear.

One other point of interest I found is the use of the word Vedanta. Since Vedanta as a special branch of philosophy came into existence only after the great trio of Sankara, Ramanuja and Madvacharya, this word refers to the Upanishads, which come at the end of the Vedic texts.

Later still comes a section in which Lord Krishna describes the greatness of Lord Shiva, as Rudra, Maheshwara and Mahadeva. This is the Satarudriya of Vyasa. We learn that the Sahasranamas and archanas are composed of words describing FOUR features of the deities. They are: Greatness, Vastness, Conduct and Feats accomplished.  We also learn that Shiva has a fierce form of Rudra, Agni and Surya. He also has a benevolent form of Maheshwara as in the Moon and the water.

In both Vishnusahasranamam and Satarudriya we see mention of worship with form and without form. The words are adhruta and svadhruta – meaning He who cannot be seized and yet makes Himself available to be seized by devotees. Therefore we can worship Him with an image (Vigraha and Murthy with features) or with the use of a symbol (Linga or Saligrama which are shapes without details). This should help answer some of the questions asked by westerners about idol worship.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Ahimsa, Karuna and Being a Vegetarian - Maha Bharatha series 91

The virtues of ahimsa (non-injury) and not eating meat are extolled in Sections 115 and 116 of Book 13. Unlike what we hear from staunch vegetarians who condemn eating meat, Mahabharata has a more balanced view. Yudhishtra says that he is confused because of contradictory advice. He asks:  "If eating meat is prohibited, why is meat offered in sacrifice and why is it acceptable to pitris and in shraddas?"

Bhishma’s answer is nuanced. Here is a summary.

Life is precious to every creature. Therefore, how can we take the life of one to feed oneself? Therefore, eating meat is not compassionate and not good practice. As long as someone eats meat an animal has to be killed. If the eater does not, someone else will have to kill and sell meat. Therefore, if you want to practice ahimsa, you must stop eating meat. You must also stop asking someone else to kill. You must stop thinking of meat as a food. Practice ahimsa in thoughts, words and acts.

But, life thrives on life. Meat is a good source of energy. That is why “it is ordained” that eating meat of an animal sacrificed to the deities or pitris is accepted. That is because the animal sacrificed at the alter is assured of “heaven” or devaloka. He was not killed just for our food, but for the deities. The remnants left after such sacrifice are called “havis” and it is not sinful to eat havis. Indeed, even Brahmins were given this meat after sacrifices for the ancestors (shraddha).

In addition, specific animals were “ordained” to be sacrificed. (Deer seems to have been the main animal). Even in eating meat when one did, specific merits were assigned for not eating meat on certain  days.

One other sentence caught my attention. It says that killing animal or having someone kill an animal for just eating and for its taste is sinful. Humans should not do that. Only rakshasa’s do it. If you must eat meat, go and hunt! Give an equal chance to the animal to survive or kill you! This is a remarkable statement.

In a recent book called Omnivorous Dilemma, Pohlan came to the same conclusion after experimenting with raising his own food, both vegetables and animals. He found it morally objectionable to raise animals just for the sake of eating. He also said: “go hunt and risk your life also” if you want to eat meat.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Varna and Kula - Maha Bharatha series 90

This passage starts from Section 41 of Book 13 in the Sanskrit version. These numbers do not match with the English version. But, the Sanskrit version is important to help understand the meaning of the word “caste”. This word came into English via Portugese, meaning clans or families or tribes. This section also clarifies what the translators refer to as “seed-born” sons and “soil-born” sons.

There are elaborate descriptions of different kinds of marriages, such as taking wife by parental consent, by self-choice and by abduction. But, “selling” a girl is definitely frowned upon. There are descriptions of acceptable and unacceptable marriages between the four different Varnas (brahmin, kshatriya, vaisya and sudra). There were prescribed standards for inheritance of property depending on the form of marriage and the “purity” of marriage, defined by the Varna of the father and mother.

The best translation of the word “varna” should be class or order. They are the four major original ones.The other word used in Sloka 48 of Section 48 is kula. This probably is what we now call “caste”. What is now called “caste” is characterized by marriage within the group, food received from and/or eaten with members of the same group and exclusiveness of craft and trade.

Obviously, marriage between members of different varnas was prevalent and the word used is varnasankara (mixed varna) (the s is pronounced as in Sun). Even more important, there were specific names for the off-springs of such mixed union. For example, suta is the name of a son born of brahmin father and kshatriya mother. Chandala is the name of a son born of a brahmin father and sudra mother.

The crucial part is the description of various kinds of inter-marriages (higher-caste father and lower-caste mother, and vice versa). Children born of “lesser wombs” (hinayoni) are called “lower varnas” (hinavarna). Fifteen such groups are mentioned.

Another important fact is that these members were not only placed in specifically-named categories, but were also given specific duties or trades to follow. Some were also assigned specific places to live (eg: cremation ground). My guess is that this specific assignment of trades and restriction to marriages between these groups was the origin of the current caste system. The proper name is probably kula.

The other intriguing point in this section is the use of  two words: “reythoja” and “keshtraja”. This is in relation to defining the varna (class, order) of the father and of the mother. When translated into English, “reythoja” becomes “seed-born”. Kshetraja becomes “soil-born”. I have written about this in my blog on “seed and field” on January 1, 2016.

I am convinced more than ever that people in those days thought that everything needed “to make” a child was in the man and man only. The woman was “just soil” to grow the baby. Why else would they use the words “seed born” and “soil born”? After all they saw that when a seed was planted in the soil, a whole plant grew. By analogy, they probably thought that this was so in human too.