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Friday, November 16, 2018

The Depth of Thoughts in the Vedas

When I delve deeper and deeper into Rg Veda, the Upanishads and Panini in the original, I see what a beautiful ancient temple the Vedic system is. Because it is so old, more than 3,000 years to be exact, it is covered by so much overgrowth by the interpretations and myths built around it.  It is difficult to see the original structure, very much like what has happened to the Angkor Vat temple. If we are bold enough (or, foolish enough, like me) to venture into it on our own, a veritable feast awaits us.

Thanks to a retired life and a basic understanding of Sanskrit and sound understanding of Tamil, I have been roaming inside this temple. My aids are curiosity as the primary vehicle and some dictionaries as the lamps. When you read the classic texts in the original, and let go of all the crust and dust that have accumulated, what we experience is a sense of awe and deep respect for our ancestors.

I am no scholar and am sure that I am losing many nuances and deeper meanings in these texts. But, the beauty is there for all to savor. The brilliance of those thinkers is dazzling.  I can savor the thoughts of our ancestors in the original to the level of my understanding on my own without others interpretations and admire. 

The following are some examples.  

The idea of mind as one of the six senses and differentiating the functions of the mind, intelligence, self or ownership and consciousness. This allows meditating on the mind and its contents and dealing with the Self (I) as the subject and also as the object. Western science is yet to catch up with this concept. 

The concept of sphota; the word means "bursting forth". It is the science of how meaning bursts forth when words are uttered. It divides speech into three stages: conceptualization of an idea (pasyanti), medium in which it is expressed (madhyama) and the final utterance (vaikari). There have been several treatises and books on this subject over the centuries and you will find reference to these concepts in Lalitha Sahasranamam (Sloka 81)

The idea of inherent sound (naada) and the movement needed to produce audible sound (sabda); the idea of inherent sound in the abdomen and the produced sound (vaikari) resulting from the banging around of the sound waves in the chest, throat, mouth, tongue and teeth. The kinds of sounds (and the alphabets)  produced based on these movements are given in detail both in Panini and Tolkappiam. Our musical system has elaborated on these ideas. 

The concept of samavaya which means inherence as in fire and heat; ice and cold. 

The admonition that we humans are forever prevented from “knowing the original” because we are “covered”. Emphasis on the humility to accept that we can never know the origins. As Nasadiya Suktam states "even the Gods do not know because they came after".

 The blunt statement by Yagnavalkya that others are important to us not for themselves but only because of their value to us.  (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.5)

 The profound statement:  “Thou are That”.  (tat tvam asi

And, so many more. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

“What meaning does life have for you?”

                                     “What meaning does life have for you?”

                That was the question Will Durant wrote and sent to prominent people in different walks of life in the 1930’s.  The list included Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Will Rogers and H.L.Mencken among others. The responses were included in a book with the title: On The Meaning of Life. 
 The answers were obviously different. They included faith in something beyond what we know, able to work in an area one is passionate about, such as art and writing and creativity, doing things for others and society, desire to share and appreciation of nature. Some thought that there is no purpose in life unless we find one for ourselves. One advised Will Durant not to think too much. Most approached this question with optimism and humility.
George Bernard Shaw answered: “How the devil do I know? Has the question itself any meaning?” Will Rogers answered: “The whole life is a “racket”, so get a few laughs, do the best you can, take nothing serious…. live your life so that whenever you lose, you stay ahead.”
Some of the most interesting thoughts were those of a prisoner who was spending life-sentence in the Sing-Sing prison. His remarks suggest that he was a thoughtful man, who had read a lot and had thought about life in general. Why he was chosen for this task is not clear. But, here are some of his remarks.
It (meaning of life) “depends upon my ability to recognize its (life’s)great truths and learn by the lessons they teach me. In short, life is worth what I am willing to strive to make it worth”.
In discussing what Durant has written about Truth, he says: “Custom and tradition have caused us to confuse truth with our beliefs”.  Later he says: “Confinement in prison does not cause unhappiness, else all those who are free would be happy. Poverty does not cause it, else the rich all would be happy”.
“That life was accidental is a theory I am willing to accept; but it does not follow that it need be meaningless”.
“In the knowledge that I am an inalienable part of this great, wonderful, upward movement called life, and that nothing, neither pestilence, nor physical affliction, nor depression – nor prison- can take away from me my part, lies my consolation, my inspiration and my treasure”. Profound thoughts indeed. 
My personal thoughts follow.
The meaning of life in general is different from the meaning in one’s life. In general, life does not seem to have any purpose or goal except to reproduce. Why would so many species of plants and animals appear and disappear in large numbers in repeated cycles?  Therefore, each one of us must make meaning out of our lives. 
Tolstoy came to the same conclusion. He says that work, family life and nature gave meaning to his life. This is probably true for most people.
The answer to the primary question will also depend upon one’s stage in life and circumstances. For me, at this age and stage – Being and bringing Peace, being useful, and sharing effort, knowledge and wealth give meaning to life.  
How does one develop meaning in life? Some avenues are the same as what gave meaning to Tolstoy’s life – working on things that is of interest to you or that are helpful to others, spending time with family and friends and enjoying nature. But those are not adequate by themselves without adding values and virtues (dharma). 
Connecting with other lives and with the universe are great avenues which will force us to develop values and virtues. In addition, we (the isolated me, the wave) need to connect with the whole (the cosmos, the ocean). I cannot understand the function of a part without understanding the whole from which it came. The cosmos will be there without “me”; but this “me” cannot exist but for the cosmos.
Other questions suggested by Will Durant worth thinking about are: What keeps you going? What help, if any, does religion give you? What are the sources of your inspiration? What is the goal or motive force for your toil? Where do you find your consolations and happiness? Where in the last resort does your treasure lie?   
Of course, one need not think about these at all to be happy. But, I am more with Plato when he quoted Socrates as saying “An unexamined life is not worth living”.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Humility and Surrender

Humility and surrender are mentioned repeatedly in the literature of all religions that I have read. That led me to think about these two mental states.

Humility (In Sanskrit, it is vinaya (masculine gender), namrata (feminine) and amanitva (neutral). It is panivu in Tamizh) comes out of realization of one’s limitations. It comes in the presence of a mystery or in the presence of someone who knows more than you. It is self-arising. It is a positive state and leads to a better understanding or to wisdom of knowing one’s limits. It leads to an open mind and spiritual tolerance for ambiguity.

Surrender (In Sanskrit, it is saranagati or prapanna; in Tamizh, saranadai or oppuvi) is a state of mind in the sense of defeat. It may come out of fear or frustration or a sense of weakness. It is external and often demanded. It leads to obedience.

May be, I am wrong. To my thinking, humility is a healthier spiritual mode than surrender. It has another strength. It is its inherent contradiction. When I say: “I am humble”, I have lost it. That is why in an analogy I have read eighteen human virtues are compared to an army of foot-soldiers. Humility is the very last one, because it is the read-guard to protect us from attack from behind by arrogance.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Glorious Ending of the Maha Bharatha (Blog # 97)

It is said that Maha Bharata deals with every subject of importance in human life (virtue, wealth, desire and liberation). This claim is made in Book 18, Section 5, Sloka 38. It says: “That which occurs here occurs elsewhere. That which does not occur here occurs nowhere else”.

धर्मे चार्थे कामे मॊक्षे भरतर्षभ
     यद इहास्ति तद अन्यत्र यन नेहास्ति तत कव चित

Later it is said that the great Rishi Vyasa, having composed Maha Bharata, made his son Suka to read it along with the following four Verses.

माता पितृसहस्राणि पुत्रदारशतानि
     संसारेष्व अनुभूतानि यान्ति यास्यन्ति चापरे
हर्षस्थान सहस्राणि भयस्थान शतानि
     दिवसे दिवसे मूढम आविशन्ति पण्डितम
ऊर्ध्वबाहुर विरौम्य एष कश चिच छृणॊति मे
     धर्माद अर्थश कामश किमर्थं सेव्यते
जातु कामान भयान लॊभाद; धर्मं तयजेज जीवितस्यापि हेतॊः
     नित्यॊ धर्मः सुखदुःखे तव अनित्ये; जीवॊ नित्यॊ हेतुर अस्य तव अनित्यः

The translation is as follows: “Thousands of mothers and fathers, and hundreds of sons and wives have come into this world and gone. Thousands more will come and go. There are plenty of occasions for joy and for fear in this world which affect only the ignorant but not the wise. With uplifted arms I am pleading to everyone to follow the path of Righteousness (Dharma) to acquire Wealth (artha) and Pleasure (kama). But no one seems to hear me. One should not let go of righteous path (dharma) for the sake of pleasure, or out of fear, or out of ignorance. Indeed, even for the sake of life one should not let go of Righteousness (dharma). Pleasure and Pain come and go. Righteousness is eternal. Jiva is eternal. But the body is not”.

This is the end of my remarkable journey through Maha Bharata. Thank you for staying with me and following these remarkable dialogues. I learnt a lot. I am glad I was able to share what I learnt with all of you.

 Let me wish all of you Loving-kindness, Peace and Harmony in life. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be free from suffering.

Dear Reader:

In my eagerness to complete the Maha Bharatha, I have been holding back several other essays I have been writing on life, nature and philosophy. It is time I get back to those ideas. Hope you will spare some time to follow these other ideas also.

One request. I would like to publish the series on Maha Bharatha as a book. I have contacted a few publishers. But with no response. If anyone can connect me with a publisher, I will be thankful.

Thank you

Reference: For both the Sanskrit version and the English version is The Mahabharata of Krishna - Dwaipayana Vyasa, Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, published between 1883 and 1886.  

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.