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Friday, August 10, 2018

Sulabha and Janaka - Maha Bharatha Series 87


In my eagerness to move past Book 12, I almost missed one of the most important dialogues in this book (section 321). Some would say it is one of the most important discussions in the entire Maha Bharata.

This is a remarkable dialogue between Sulabha an unmarried, female ascetic and Janaka (not the same as the Janaka of Ramayana), a philosopher-king and a ruler-saint who had broken all attachments and still performing his duties. Janaka was a male, a king (therefore must be a kshatriya) and a husband. He is considered to have attained liberation by pursuing Vedic teachings such as controlling the senses and desires and pursuing ultimate philosophical truth. Sulabha, on the other hand was a female, leading an ascetic life, defying all conventions by not marrying and thus not under “the guidance and protection” of a male. She was also pursuing philosophical truth although she was a kshatriya (not a brahmin).

It is amazing that very few commentators elaborate on this conversation. Some even pass her off as “a maverick and nothing more” although Sulabha is one of the very few women philosophers mentioned and documented  in the Vedic literature. Amazingly the only elaborate analysis of this dialogue is by an American academic scholar from the University of Montana. (May be, because of the influence of Dr. Diana Eck and Dr. Wendy Doniger. Both of them had lived in India and are great scholars in Sanskrit and Indian philosophy)*

As the story goes, Sulabha was an ascetic mendicant practicing yoga and was wandering all over the earth. She heard about the philosopher King Janaka, well versed in the Vedas and scriptures devoted to moksha and was practicing the religion of renunciation. This suggests that Sulabha represents the school of Patanjali Yoga and Janaka represents Samkhya yoga. She wanted to personally meet with Janaka. Using her yogic powers she took the “form” of a beautiful maiden AND of a mendicant and arrived at the presence of the king. The king was in his court with his ministers and several scholars, all obviously males.

The king was puzzled to see this young beautiful lady as a mendicant. So, he asked her: “Who are you? Who do you belong to? Where did you come from?” She said that she wanted to know why he was following the nivritti doctrine of moksha (emancipation). She doubted that he had indeed attained the state of emancipation he professed. Therefore, by her yogic powers, Sulabha entered the mind of Janaka. That hurt the pride of the monarch and he in turn entered the mind of Sulabha.

Now, something symbolic happens. Janaka loses his royal umbrella and the scepter and Sulabha loses her triple staff of a mendicant. The conversation starts taking place in the “gross” (stula) plane and not the mental plane, in the presence of the court where everyone can hear the conversation. This is an important point as you will see later.

Janaka asks: “Who are you? What is the nature of your business? Where did you come from? Where will you go after this visit?”. The implications, according to some scholars, are that the king doubts the sincerity of Sulabha. He thinks that a woman cannot be an ascetic and a mendicant and that she belongs to some man (as a virtuous woman has to, according to Manu dharma). He suspects that she is a spy from another king as he reveals it himself later in the discussion.

Janaka goes on to say (boast?) that he is free from all vanity as can be seen by his not having a scepter and umbrella. He says that he can reveal the secrets of moksha dharma to her like no one else can. He had learn it from Panchashika of the Parasara lineage. He says that Panchsika taught him the Samkhya system and several ways of attaining moksha without giving up his kingdom. Instead he was taught to be free of all attachments and to fix his atman on the supreme Brahman and not be moved by any other.

Janaka continues and says that renunciation is the highest means for moksha and that renunciation has to come from knowledge. Knowledge leads to effort and through effort one reaches a knowledge of the supreme self.  This in turn leads to a state that is beyond joy and sorrow. Nay, one transcends death itself. “I have acquired knowledge of self and transcend all pair of opposites. I have no attachment to objects of senses. I do not experience love for my wife; nor do I feel hatred towards an enemy. A lump of clay and bag of gold are same to me. Although I am ruling a kingdom I am free from attachment of any kind. Therefore, I am more distinguished than an ascetic”.

He then almost justifies his status by saying that the external marks do not indicate who is a truly liberated soul. One can carry an umbrella and scepter and be still a liberated soul, whereas someone carrying the three sticks of a mendicant be too attached to worldly desires. The insinuation is clear.He then starts accusing Sulabha of unworthy behavior.

Janaka says: “O rishika, I do like you. But your behavior does not match the life of an ascetic you have taken upon yourself. You are young and beautiful; yet you follow the niyama (control of senses). I doubt you can. (We can see the chauvinism in this remark. Women are not supposed to be capable of control of senses and therefore are loose!) Using your yogic power, you have “entered” me to ascertain for yourself whether I am truly emancipated.  By doing so you have shown a desire and therefore you are not fit to carry the triple stick of an ascetic. Besides how can you a brahmin woman enter a kshatriya? You have committed a sin of  mixture of varnas. (An assumption on the part of the king) I am a householder and you are an ascetic. That is another vile thing you have done. Besides we do not know each other’s gotra. Therefore, by entering my body you have produced another evil. If your husband is alive, you have added one more evil. Are you doing all this out of ignorance or out of perverted intelligence? Or, are you spying for a rival king?”

He adds even more: “You have shown your wickedness by trying to show your superiority over me with the use of your yogic powers. By asserting victory over me you are also trying to show you are superior to all those wise men in my court. Do not continue to touch me. Know that I am righteous. Now, tell me why you are here and what your motives are.”. There is one set of statements here which is intriguing. “The power of king is in their sovereignty. The power of Brahmins is in their knowledge of the Vedas. The power of women is in their beauty and youth”. 

Now it is time for Sulabha to respond. Boy, did she respond! You will see.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Brahman and Knowledge are One - Maha Bharatha series 86

Book 12 tested my patience. I had to plod through because I kept finding gems buried between repetitions and outmoded ideas. This is the final post from this book called Shanti Parva. There are six more books to cover.

 In one passage, Brahman says that for this universe and the world to exist four things are needed: Knowledge, Action, Cause and Effect. Brahman says that He is ALL FOUR. 
The Universe is made of matter(Prakriti and the Five elements, namely space, air, fire, water and earth) called Pancha Bhutas. We all know that Time (kaala) is another item needed for something to appear from something else. This was well-recognized in Maha Bharata and other ancient texts.
Our mind also asks “who did it?” and “why?”. Majority of the humanity will say “God” and then will fight to establish that “their god” is the real one. Leaving that apart, that “God” has to have a “desire” to do something. That becomes iccha shakti in the Vedic writings. He or It needs “Knowledge” and that becomes gnana Shakti and the action itself becomes kriya Shakti
And what is “knowledge”? One passage says that when the one and only Brahman dissolves the universe into Himself, He was “alone with knowledge as my only companion”. This is very profound because of my intuitive feeling that information is one of the most fundamentals of this universe. Just, replace the word “Knowledge” with the word “Information”. It becomes the sixth element. 
If we update this knowledge to our understanding of the universe in the 21st century, we should replace space, air, fire, water and earth with the following: matter, energy, space, time and information. 
As I have written in earlier blogs, to make anything we need matter (prakritit). For performing an action and to make something, we need energy (Shakti). To desire and to know what to make, we need knowledge and Information. As Seth Lloyd pointed out in his book on  Programming the Universe:"To do anything requires energy. To specify what is done requires information". 

Information is inherent in matter. This seems to be the modern equivalent of samavaya of Vaiseshika  philosophy.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Devas and Humans are Inter-dependent - Maha Bharatha Series 85 (contd)


In one version, Narayana, (Brahman) creates seven rishis to uphold the Vedas. They follow Pravritti marga because they have to procreate and populate the earth. They are Marichi, Angirasa, Atri, Pulastya, Pulaha, Kratu and Vasishta.

Narayana also created seven other rishis who were proficient in Samkhya and Yoga philosophies and followed the Nivritti marga. They are: Aniruddha, Sana, SanatSujata, Sanatkumara, Sanandana, Sanaka and Kapila.

Maha Bharata documents  Gnana marga (nivritti) and  Karma marga (pravritti). One can see the beginnings of Bhakti marga also because of the way Vishnu is elevated to the status of Narayana, a manifest part of the One Supreme Brahman.

In a subsequent section, there is a different version of the creation of creatures by Brahma and the way Narayana passed on the Vedas to all the rishis through Brahma (not Brahman). In this version, Brahma is born seven different times from Narayana’s breath, mouth, eyes, navel and ears. The Vedas get lost between each one of these origins of Brahma. In this description, three so-called “cults” are mentioned. They are Pancharatra, Vaikanasa and Satwaata. This is important because the current method of worship (agama?) of Vishnu is said to be Vaikanasa, the other two having disappeared.

Ancient Sanskrit texts classified all objects in this earth into two major classes:  sthavara (immobile) and jangama (mobile).  Immobile included jata (non-living such as rock) and jiva (living). One text in Mahabharata classifies living into 4 groups:  egg-born, womb-born, soil-born and plants. Padmapurana classifies all living entities into:  water-born, reptiles, birds, animals (pasu, mrga) and human (maanava). Plants and trees are also included. Mahabharata classifies plants under 6 categories – vrksha (tree), gulma (shrub), lata (creeper), talli ( same as creeper but with a thicker stem), tvakshra (bamboo) and truna (grass).

As I have mentioned elsewhere, one learns about many things about the ancient land and its geography, botany, culture and customs by reading sacred texts. Classification of living and non-living objects in this world and their sub-classification as noted above is a prime example.  This was millennia before Linneus started modern taxonomy.


Saturday, July 21, 2018

Devas and Humans are inter-dependent - Maha Bharatha series 85


We are still in Book 12 of Maha Bharatha. There are several passages on possible approaches to spiritual enlightenment in the later part of this book.  Two such approaches or paths are called Pravritti Marga and Nivritti Marga. Pravritti marga leads to conscious existence experiencing the fruits of action. This may be experiencing various kinds of pleasures in heaven  (called Vaikunta, if you are a Vaishnavite or Kailasa if you are a Shivite) or experience of suffering in hell. After enjoying the pleasures of heaven or suffering in hell, one has to come back to earth, if one follows Pravritti marga.

Nivritti marga leads to total liberation and emancipation. Nivritti marge leads to absorption into Brahman and therefore no rebirth.

As part of these discussions, Yudhistra asks why the devas (gods, angels) chose a life dependent on the sacrificial offerings of humans, instead of choosing complete emancipation. The answer is that they did not choose the Pravritti marga but, they were assigned Pravritti marga by Brahman.

In one version, it is said that the various devas including 11 Rudras and 12 Adityas came into existence out of Narayana. In this episode, Narayana declares himself to be the 12th son of Aditi. Thus, Vishnu who is originally mentioned in ancient texts as one of the Adityas, is made into a major god in Maha Bharata.

At one time when the oceans dried up, all the devas including Vishnu go to Brahman (not Brahma). He suggests that the devas must perform a sacrifice and offer it to Him. Devas cannot perform sacrifice in their world since they do not have the offerings such as plants, animals etc. They are available only on earth. However, when humans perform sacrifices to the devas there will be offerings. The devas should share part of those offerings given to them by humans with Brahman. In turn, Brahman will give each of the devas jurisdiction over specific parts of nature and of the human body. Brahman will also “ordain them to enjoy the fruits of those sacrifices in the form of Pravritti marga”. That means “no Nivritti marga” for them. They will have to be born on earth again . Each cosmic cycle will have gods of birth, death and so on.

It is interesting that the devas went ahead and performed the sacrifice. The text says that the sacrifice was for Vishnu (Narayana) and not Brahman. In other words, according to this part of Maha Bharata, Vishnu is Brahman.

This seems to be the basis of all the sacrifices in the Vedic tradition. Human beings perform sacrifices for the devas who preside over nature. Devas are pleased and give rain, water and wealth and prosperity to humans. Humans are therefore able to perform more sacrifices and the cycle goes on. Devas and humans are inter-dependent. 

In another section, there is a statement in the Commentary section of this book which states that this earth is the only place for actions. There is “no action” in heaven and  hell. The heaven is for the enjoyment of the fruits of our actions on this earth and the hell is for endurance of suffering.

Kanchi Periyaval quotes one passage from Bhagvat Gita on this topic. This is Lord Krishna’s advice: “You please the gods with yagnas(sacrifices). Let the gods take care of your welfare with rain and other auspicious things. Thus let both of your prosper through mutually helping each other”.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Samkhya Philosophy - Maha Bharatha Series 84


In Book 12, Section 304, Samkhya system is explained in detail. Samkhya system is one of the oldest and basic systems of Vedic philosophy. In this section, Prakriti is also called adhishtatri, the basic unit from which everything evolves (vikriti). In contrast and in addition to Prakriti, there is a vyapaka, one that pervades everything. This is formless and is also called akshara, which means indestructible. This second principle which energizes Prakriti and makes its evolved elements active is called Purusha.

 It is interesting to note that this akshara/purusha is also called Brahma and Vishnu in other places within this text. But, we know that in the original Samkhya system, which is basically atheistic, no names of Gods are used. Therefore, we must conclude that the names of Gods were superimposed on concepts of matter (prakriti) and energizing principle (purusha) later in history.

This kind of creative renaming of philosophical principles as Gods is common when theology takes over. This happened in the Christian theology also. In his book on “Philosophy as a way of life”, Pierre Hadot tells us that the Trinity was a re-naming of the old ideas of Logos, Physics and Ethics of Greek philosophers.

We are told that prakriti, which is one of the two original indestructible principles, dwells in all creatures as chit, or consciousness. The first “evolute” of Prakriti is Mahat, which is also called Buddhi or Knowledge. There is then mention of chetana, which is said to be eternal consciousness which has no form and no attributes. If so, this is also the same as Purusha. This has to be the jivan, in its individualized aspect and atman in its general aspect. In addition to energizing Prakriti, purusha gets caught by and identifies with the form, forgets its pure Nature and misidentifies with perishable things.

Samkhya system had two flaws. First, this system suggests two principles from which everything came. Most of us will think that there can be only One from which everything came.  Indeed, Nyaya and Vaiseshika systems which came later came to that conclusion through logic.  Later thinkers called Purusha, as Nirguna Brahman from which Saguna Brahman came.  In this interpretation, Saguna brahman is Prakriti, one with a form, Ishvara. This Ishvara can be Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva.

And, the other flaw is the complicated explanation that the final five gross elements to come out of prakriti perish at death but, the energizing element survives by attaching itself to another body. This is the basis of the concepts of karma and re-birth.

This is my understanding. If someone has understood these concepts better or differently, please send a comment.


Friday, July 6, 2018

The Varnas - Maha Bharata Series 83


The division of varnas is repeatedly mentioned and the role of members of each varna is also defined in this section (Book 12, Section 294).  It is very clear that brahmanas were expected to be held at the top of the heap and respected and supported by the other Varnas, particularly by the Kshatriyas and the Vaisyas.

Brahmanas (Brahmins?) were expected to learn the Vedas, practice self-restraint and teach the varna dharma to the other three. They were not to own any property but live on gifts (dana) from the kings and merchants, live frugally and give back their wealth and knowledge to others. They had to learn the sciences of the warriors, the merchants, the farmers and the artists and teach them to people of the appropriate varna. But they were not to make a living from those skills. They had to perform daily yagnas and pujas, maintain vratas such as fasting etc. Kanchi Periyaval points out that although Brahmins were held on top of the list, their lives were also highly regimented and demanding.

According to the texts, Kshatriyas are warriors and kings and are marked by their victories.  They are the protectors of law and order. The Vaisyas are the merchants and farmers and are marked by their wealth. They also support the Brahmins.  The sudras were expected to follow their dharma by serving the other three. In one place in Book 12 Section 294 (English version) the position of sudra is defined rather strongly and notes that they are not to take up other professions even if their parents had. However, during periods of stress, they could.

Two interesting comments in this section:  The god of Vaisyas is the god of Clouds. That makes sense. Is the name of this god Vritra or Indra who defeated Vritra? The legend is that Vritra (cloud) was holding up the waters. Indra used his thunderbolt (vajra) and tore apart Vritra to release the water so the earth can get rains.

Another comment seems to suggest that Asuras are not non-human beings. But they are people with demonic qualities – specifically lust, anger, pride and arrogance. As I understand Asuras are the counter-parts of the devas; and Rakshasas are the counterparts of the humans. They belong to different lokas – asuras to deva loka and rakshasas to manushya loka. In another sense, they are metaphors for qualities such as anger, impatience, anger etc.

In a conversation between King Janaka and Parasara, as told by Bhishma, King Janaka asks: “Is one stained by one’s acts or by the order/class (varna) in which he is born?”.  Parasara says that both have influence. But, one’s actions stain more than the birth since anyone, even one from a lower class can be saved based on his good conduct and virtuous actions.

In Section 300, Brahma in the form of a swan is speaking with the Sadhyas. A famous sloka on telling the truth comes in this section.  “To speak truth that is also righteous is better than just speaking the truth. To speak the truth in an agreeable way is even better than just speaking the truth which is righteous”. In other words, “It is not just what you say, it is how you say”.

In another section, there is a discussion between Yagnavalkya and a king from Janaka’s dynasty. Yagnavalkya explains both the Samkhya system and the Yoga system. One major new knowledge I gained was the reference to Prakriti as a female and Purusha as a male. Prakriti represents form or matter, not capable of doing anything and ignorant. Purusha is the knowledge behind the ability of Prakriti to create things. The relationship between Prakriti and Purusha is compared to that between fish and water, in the form of contact. Fish is in the water but is not part of it.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Kapila and the Cow - Maha Bharatha Series 82



This is the story of sage Kapila and a rishi by the name of Syumarasmi and the conversation between them. Kapila is asked to perform a sacrifice which involves sacrifice of a cow. (Please remember that in Sanskrit the word pasu stands for all animals and not just the cow). Kapila is distraught because of the need for killing an animal.  Syumarasmi enters the body of the sacrificial cow’s body to discuss with Kapila questions such as knowledge (gnana) vs action (karma) and conflicting instructions in the Vedas.

Kapila does not want to follow the idea of killing an animal to fulfill an injunction from the Vedas. Syumarasmi (S) asks Kapila: “If you say that one part of the Vedas need not be followed and is not authoritative, how can you accept other parts as authoritative? Both the “do”s and the “don’t s” come from the Vedas and all of them have to be followed”.

Kapila (K) says: “I do not condemn or censure the Vedas. Vedas say “do” certain things and “don’t do” certain things. If not doing certain things (the don’t s) is meritorious, doing that act must be bad. But, how do you know its context and its relative importance? It is difficult to know the strengths and weaknesses of verbal Vedic declarations. If you know something that is superior to Ahimsa (non-injury) please tell me. But, it must be based on direct evidence and not a quote from the Vedas”.

In my reading, I was amazed at the level of sophisticated thinking and questioning. We can also learn that one can arrive at different conclusions based on the means of acquiring knowledge. Caravaka system accepted direct perception only; not inference. It became an atheistic system. Nyaya and modern science require direct evidence and inference for acceptance. When the opinion of a Wise person or an expert or a scripture is accepted, we encounter controversies and dogmas.

Coming back to the conversation, S says that we have to accept both the “do’s” and the “don’t s” and both the knowledge portion (Aranyaka and Upanishad parts) and the action portion (Samhita and Brahmana) portion of the Vedas.  

S: “Srutis ask us to perform sacrifices to attain moksha. Srutis also say that animals and plants are the limbs of sacrifices. The Lord created sacrifice and also plants and animals which may be used for sacrifice. Seven domestic animals and seven wild animals are fit for sacrifice. We see all the time that life eats life. That is the nature of this world. If you perform sacrifice because the Srutis demand you to do them and not for any personal gain such as attaining heaven, it is acceptable to sacrifice animals”.

As an aside, the Old Testament says that God made humans “masters of the fish, birds and all the animals” (Genesis 1:28).

Obviously, S just quoted the book and did not give an answer based on evidence as requested by Kaplia.

Kapila says that all modes of life (ashrama) lead to “high end” (moksha). “People observing the Vedic injunctions and performing austerities and penances obtain results which are impermanent. It is better to take the gnana marga (Path of Knowledge) and reach Brahman. When self-realization is possible why go after the duties of a domestic life, sacrifices etc?”

S says: “If one lets go of domestic life and become a sannyasin following the Gnana marga, who will perform the sacrifices? Who will take care of the other varnas? How can there be progeny? Children (sons) are needed for the salvation of the ancestors (pitris). And, “grahastasrama is the only approved way for progeny. Besides, Devas depend on humans for their sustenance. When humans offer their oblations of plants and animals in the fire during sacrifice (yagna), the devas get what they need. They are pleased and reward us with rain and food. The animals and plants offered in sacrifice also benefit because they attain heaven.” (the only way animals can attain heaven).

This is one of the prime beliefs in the Vedic system. I have problem with the explanation that animals offered in sacrifice benefit because they go to heaven. Indeed, there are Vedic passages in which the performer of the sacrifice requests the animal to takes his place as the oblation, promising the animal “moksha”! Obviously, it is a justification and, not a reason.

K says: “If acts (karma, sacrifice, oblations etc) are obligatory, why is it the Vedas recommend a path to knowledge also? Why are acts associated with cruelty to animals?” He then gives a list of virtues followed by the followers of the wisdom-path (gnana marga) such as non-violence, truth telling, non-stealing, control of senses and desires which are well-described in the srutis. He goes on to say: “There are no such clear instruction for sacrifices. Even if clear, they are difficult to follow. Even if one can follow, the results are temporary and not worth the effort compared to the bliss of the wisdom path”.

Syumarasmi reveals himself to Kapila and says that he entered the body of the animal to acquire knowledge and wisdom from Kapila and asks for more teaching.

The gist of the discussion seems to be that it is not correct to perform actions and sacrifices with a desire for the fruits such as moksha. Attainment of knowledge and performing sacrifices with detachment is superior. Sacrifice should not cause cruelty to animals.

 Kapila is clearly in favor of knowledge over action. Kapila then goes on to emphasize control of one’s senses and mind, mindfulness in thoughts and speech, good conduct, moderation in food, not coveting other’s properties and devoting oneself to contemplation.  One can then attain moksha in this life when one reach the state of “eithathmikam”, being one with Brahman. Compared to this bliss, heaven and other kinds of benefits are impermanent.
At one point, Brahman is defined as virat (all encapmassing), sutra (the thread woven into the universe as it is woven into cloth), antaryamin (one who dwells inside) and suddha (pure).