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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).

Friday, June 22, 2018

Think before you act - Maha Bharata Series 81

Dear friends, The previous blog (no 80) on Ahimsa was too long. Therefore, the blog posted on 6/15/2018 was incomplete. Please note that I added the reminder of the discussion between Jajali and Tuladhara in a blog posted on 6/20/2018. 

Section 257 and 258 (Sanskrit) and 266(English) has the story of one chirakarin. Chira in Sanskrit means delay and a person who delays is a chirakarin (one who acts slowly).

Yudhsitra asks how one can follow the commands of an elder (superior) if that command involved harming someone or some creature. Remember the story of Parasurama? How can one obey the elder in such a situation? Then comes the story of Chirakarin. His father orders him to kill his mother for having been unfaithful. Then there is a long passage in which Chirakarin thinks about how to reconcile  the duty to obey his father’s command with the cruelty and unethical act of  having to kill his own mother. He recounts all the reasons why father is sacred and his wishes have to be taken care of by the son. He then thinks about all the reasons why mother is sacred and should not be harmed. He thinks for so long that it is time for his father to return from his religious rituals and ablutions.

During this time, the father also was able to think and realizes how wrong he was in getting angry with his wife and how wrong he was in asking his son to kill her. (Obviously his mind was elsewhere). He hopes that Chirakarin thinks through, true to his character and does not harm his mother. He comes running and to his relief finds that Chirkarin has indeed been thinking the problem through and did not act in a hurry.

The final statement from Bhishma is “Reflect before you act” in the following words:

एवं सर्वेषु कार्येषु विमृश्य पुरुषस ततः
     चिरेण निश्चयं कृत्वा चिरं परितप्यते

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Non-injury (Ahimsa) as the foundation of Dharma - Series 80 (Continued)

There are several important passages in this section. For example:

सर्वेषां यः सुहृन नित्यं सर्वेषां हिते रतः
कर्मणा मनसा वाचा धर्मं वेद जाजले

This means that being good in thought, words and actions towards all creatures is Dharma.

One passage has the same meaning as Sloka 6 of Iśa Upanishad:

सर्वभूतात्मभूतस्य सम्यग भूतानि पश्यतः

This means “one who sees oneself in all creatures and all creatures in oneself”.

Finally, Tuladhara condemns some of the practices listed in the earlier paragraph and says: “These are some of the wicked and dreadful practices that are current in this world. You follow them because they have been in practice by your ancestors from ancient times, and not because you have thought about them and they agree with your conscience. One should practice what one considers to be one's duty, guided by reasons, and not blindly follow the practices of the world”.

In Tuladhara’s own words (actually, Vyasa’s words):

केवलाचरितत्वात तु निपुनान नावबुध्यसे
कारणाद धर्मम अन्विच्छेन लॊकचरितं चरेत

Which means: “Do not blindly follow what everyone does; use your reason and think for yourself”.

Jajali has doubts about this advice and says: “if one were to follow your teachings, there will be no sacrifices and penance. If there are no sacrifices, the gods (devas) will not be pleased. If they are not pleased, there will be no rain. If there is no rain, there will be no grains and lives will suffer". Jajali calls Tuladhara an atheist for such teachings.

Tuladhara replies calmly that there are several problems with the way sacrifices and penance are done. His list can be applied at any period in history. He says that penance and sacrifices done as rituals without understanding the meaning and which harm creatures do not please the gods. For example, “How can sacrifice be done with wealth acquired by unrighteous means (not dharmic) to please gods? How can a sacrifice be called by that name when the sacrifice and the priest who conduct it are both acting with a desire for the results of that sacrifice? How can you harm and injure creatures and call it a sacrifice?” And, "there are also those who disregard the scriptures completely not based on critical thinking but on false reasoning (for convenience)". 

Th entire “sermon” by Tuladhara places knowledge and understanding as superior to rituals done with desire for the fruits of those rituals, rituals performed with ill-gotten wealth and rituals done without understanding the meaning.

Truth and self-restraint are emphasized. It says that real sacrifice is mental and calls those who sacrifice themselves mentally as “atmayagnin”.

Earlier in this section, animal sacrifice is condemned. So is any sacrifice performed for personal gains and show of pride. There is also a statement that meat, fish, grains and wine are not prescribed for sacrifice. Is this a rebuke to one form of tantric worship in which these four and sexual union (called five m’s or maamsa, matsya, mudra, madya and mithuna) are parts of the ritual?

At one section we find that items of importance during oblation (called ahuti in Sanskrit) are cow’s milk, curds and butter. Then comes a list which includes “the hair in its tail, hoofs and horns”. I do not know what it means. It may mean that clipping a part of the nail, or the horn or the hair in her tail will not hurt the animal and therefore acceptable. But, one interpreter says that water used to wash the tail and horns and the dust from the hoof are also acceptable.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Non-injury (Ahimsa) as the foundation of Dharma - Maha Bharata series 80

In Book 12, Section 254 (Sanskrit) (section 261 and 262 in English) is the story of Jajali and Tuladhara. Jajali is a Brahmin ascetic who gets his lessons on virtue and wisdom from Tuladhara, a merchant or a Vaishya. The main message in this episode is that non-injury is the greatest virtue and the foundation of Sanatana Dharma. (Hinduism was known as Sanatana Dharma for millenia before western visitors came to India)

 Jajali performs all kinds of severe austerities, yogic meditation and beneficial acts. He comes to consider himself as the best in wisdom and virtue. Yet he keeps hearing that a village merchant by name Tuladhara is the one who knows what dharma is. Jajali goes to Varnasi to meet Tuladhara.

To digress a little, we grew up learning the name of this holy city as Benaras or Banaras. In fact, it is known by several names, each name referring to a smaller unit of the city in a concentric fashion. Kashi is the old name and refers to the entire region. Varanāsi is the region between the two rivers – Varanā and Asi. Avimukta is the name from Puranas, to indicate that Lord Shiva does not let go of this place even at the end of a Yuga. Then comes Antagraha, surrounding the Temple of Kasi Vishwanatha.

 To go back to the story of Jajali, while performing penance or noble acts, he is motivated by a desire to be the best in doing dharmic actions (desire). He entertains pride when he let birds build nest in his matted hair even as he stood still for years. Finally, he shows anger when he is told that Tuladhara is better at knowing what dharma is. Tuladhara knows all this and explains to Jajali that one has to let go of desire, pride and anger to be considered virtuous and wise.  

When asked by Jajali how Tuladara, a merchant is known for his virtues and wisdom Tuladara answers: “My actions are based on universal friendliness and beneficence to all creatures.  It is based on total harmlessness to all creatures or in case of absolute necessity upon a minimum of such harm. I am always engaged in the good of all creatures, in thought, word, and deed. I never quarrel with any one or favor any one. I never desire for anything. I look upon all things and all creatures with evenness of mind. My scales are perfectly even to all creatures. I neither praise nor blame the acts of others, viewing them as natural variety in the world, like the variety observable in the sky. I see no difference between a piece of stone and a lump of gold”.

Jajali continues: “I do not have any need for wealth or pleasure or enjoyments. When a person fears nothing and is not a source of fear for others, when he does not experience any desire or aversion for anything, he is then said to have attained Brahman”.

The main message of the discourse is that non-injury is the greatest virtue. The importance of not harming any creatures is emphasized and the slaughter of the cow and the bull are specifically condemned. He even criticizes the practice of restraining the bull by piercing its nose and passing a rope through it to use it for ploughing. May be this section was added after Buddha’s time.

Tuladhara says that in his scale no one is superior and no one is inferior. Everyone is equal (the word tula in Sanskrit means a scale). In Sanskrit it reads as: तुला मे सर्वभूतेषु समा तिष्ठति जाजले

He says: “I have no quarrel with anyone. I do not hate anyone. I do not desire anything. Gold and clay are equal to me. I am not afraid of anyone and no one is afraid of me. I accept variety of people with varieties of behavior because variety is the way of Nature. God manifests in variety”.

Friday, June 8, 2018

What is Dharma? - Maha Bharata Series 79

In Book 12 Section 251, Yudhistra asks Bhishma: "what is Dharma?". Bhishma says that dharma consists in good conduct and following the teachings of Śrutis and those of the Smritis. Dharma is also determined by the purpose of one’s actions (motive). The translator uses the word righteousness for the Sanskrit word dharma. In explaining this, Bhishma says:

यद अन्यैर विहितं नेच्छेद आत्मनः कर्म पूरुषः
     तत्परेषु कुर्वीत जानन्न अप्रियम आत्मनः. 

This is exactly the same as the Golden Rule of the Bible. “Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” says the King James Bible.
 Yudhistra challenges Bhishma and says that none of those four indicators of dharma (good conduct, following teachings of Sruti, following teaching of smriti and intent of action) are valid. His arguments are worth listening to. Bhishma had said that dharma (righteousness) and its reverse arise from one’s acts causing happiness or misery and they affect one’s future life. But, Yudhistra says that living creatures are born, exist and die as part of nature’s course.  Nature is the cause of their births and deaths and not the consequences of their dharmic acts. Therefore, the study of Vedas alone cannot lead one to dharma.

The duties of a person who is well of is of one kind; and that of one in distress is another. Duties also change according to the time. How can one know dharma by reading the Śrutis? Since the Smritis follow the path of the Śrutis, they cannot be relied on either.

Besides, Bhishma says that the acts of the good is righteousness. Then he follows by saying that the good ought to be ascertained by their acts. “Is this not circular reasoning?”, Yudhsihtra asks.

Also, people who act with passion (anger, ignorance etc) sometimes do righteous deeds. And, people with good intentions act in sinful ways. A dharmic action sometimes interferes with another person’s way of life and happiness. So, “how are we to know what dharma is?” asks Yudhishtra.

Given all these questions, Yudhistra says that the path of dharma is extremely difficult to ascertain and says something special:

विद्म चैवं वा विद्म शक्यं वा वेदितुं वा
     अनीयान कषुर धाराया गरीयान पर्वताद अपि  (section 252)

The meaning is that the path of dharma is difficult to understand. It is very narrow, narrower than the edge of a razor and grosser than a mountain.

There is a similar passage in the Bible. “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14).

This idea of comparing the narrow path leading to dharma and enlightenment to a razor’s edge goes back to Katha Upanishad 1:iii;14. That passage became an inspiration to the title of a book by Somerset Maugham called “The Razor’s Edge”. Somerset Maugham was a big admirer of Vedic philosophy.