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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. 

Friday, September 7, 2018

Human effort or Destiny? - Maha Bharatha Series 89



Yudhishtra asks: “what determines the fruits of one’s action: one’s effort (purusha kara) or destiny (daivey)."Bhishma answers in the form of a conversation between Vasishta and Brahma. 

The question is worded a little differently now. Vasishta asks whether karma of actions in this life or that acquired in previous life (destiny) is more potent in shaping one’s life. Brahma's answer starts with some simple statements. "Nothing comes into being without a seed.  From seeds spring more seeds. Fruits come from seeds. Good seeds bring good fruits and bad seeds bring bad fruits. If you sow nothing, there will be no fruits however well you take care of the soil."

Similarly, destiny is the seed. Efforts are like preparing the soil. If there is no effort there will be no fruit. Good results come out of good deeds and bad effects from bad deeds. Nothing can be gained by destiny alone. But everything can be gained by efforts.

"Riches cannot be gained by the idler. If one’s karma did not bear fruit, all actions become fruitless. Why act at all? If everyone depends on destiny alone for results, everyone will become lazy.  Men’s powers can only follow his destiny, but destiny alone cannot yield fruits, if effort is lacking."

Good and bad manifest themselves through karma. Karma and destiny feed on each other. However, destiny does not affect those who have attained virtue and righteousness.

Brahma concludes by saying: “Men attain to heaven by the influence of destiny and by putting forth individual effort. Combination of destiny and effort lead to efficacy”.

I have heard a wise person say: “Effort from below and grace from above.”




Thursday, August 30, 2018

Book 13, Anushasana Parva - Maha Bharatha series 88


Book 13 is Anushasana Parva and it starts with an interesting parable which Bhishma uses to answer Yudhistra’s question.  Yudhishtra’s laments on how wretched he feels for his mistakes. He feels remorse seeing Bhishma on his death-bed of arrows and dejected at the thought that he (Yudhistra) is responsible for this calamity and also for the death of so many of his family members.

Bhishma answers Yudhistra with a parable about a boy, a snake which bit him, the boy’s mother, a hunter, angel of death (Mrytyu) and Time (Kala).

A snake bites a boy and the boy dies. The mother is afflicted with grief. A hunter passing that way catches the snake, ties it and is ready to kill it. The mother says: “Let the snake go”. The hunter says that the snake should not go unpunished. The mother says: “What good will it do to my son? He cannot come back. Let the snake go”.

The snake says that he is not to be blamed because he was merely an instrument of Mrutyu, the agent of death.

The hunter says that “in that case both you and Mrutyu are responsible and you (the snake) was the immediate cause and both of you have to be punished”.

Mrutyu comes in defense of the snake, but says that neither of them are truly responsible because it is the angel of Time (Kala) that decides what happens to whom at what time. Kala comes and says that none of them are responsible because it was the boy’s Karma. The boy’s time had come to pay for his karma and others were only the intermediaries.

The boy’s mother accepts this as the correct attitude to take and does not want to punish the snake. She says that her son died because of his karma and she is also suffering because of her own karma. She also says something very important: “People who carry resentment and revenge in their hearts suffer. Therefore, forgive and release this snake out of compassion”. Modern psychologists will tell you how important forgiveness is for mental health. Buddha also said the same thing. So did Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi.

Bhishma uses this story to convince Yudhishtra that he (Yudhishtra) was not responsible for the death of his relatives and his Grand-father (Bhishma). He says: “All of us go to heaven or hell because of our own karma. Neither you nor Duryodhana were responsible for all this carnage. Time had come and everyone was paying for his or her Karma.”

Friday, August 24, 2018

Sulabha and Janaka - Completed


Sulabha continues: “Although you say you are emancipated, you are still attached to sleeping, eating, dressing and enjoyment. You are the king and yet you can live in only one palace, in only one room and in only one bed. Even that bed you have, you share with the queen. Now you know, how little a king’s share is of his kingdom. The same is true of food and clothes. You are attached to your duties of rewarding and punishing. You are always dependent on others. Even in sleep you cannot have too much freedom since you will have to answer urgent calls. People come to you to receive gifts. But you cannot give to everyone who deserves since you have to be responsible with the treasury. If you do not give, some go away with bad and hostile feelings. Even when there is no cause for fear, a king is always anxious even of those who wait on him. In fact a king is no different from ordinary folks who have also spouses and sons, money and friends and same kind of realities to face.”

A king is also not exempt from fears and grief. Indeed he has causes for more of them. He suffers from consequences of desire and fear like everyone. He is also afflicted by aches and diseases. He suffers from pleasures and pain. Sovereignty does not come with much happiness. How can one who has acquired sovereignty hope to win peace and tranquility? “You think this land and the army and the treasury are yours. In reality who owns them?  Do we really own anything in this world?”

“Things exist not solely by themselves. There are usually several items which make for a functional unit. They depend upon each other, similar to three sticks standing with each other’s support. How can you choose the best among them? When some important function is served by one of them at a particular situation, then that one may be regarded as more distinguished. Superiority is defined by the purpose and the efficacy.” This seems to be Sulabha’s answer to the arrogance of Janaka and the reference to Ksahtriya and Brahmana.

She continues: “ I have no real connection with even my own body. How can I be accused of having contact with the body of someone else? You cannot say that I have brought about mixture of castes (varnas). If you have no attachments, why are you still using the umbrella and scepter? I do not think you have learned the scriptures. You are still bound by the bonds of property and family, like any other person. If you are truly liberated what harm have I done by entering your mind with my intellect? I have not touched you physically. Besides, whether what I did was good or bad, I did it privately. I am staying in  you like a drop of water on a lotus leaf. Are you still attached to physical contact? Just as Purusha and Prakriti cannot truly intermingle, two emancipated creatures cannot make contact with each other. Only those who regard the soul to be identical with the body will erroneously consider intermingling possible. My body is different from yours. But my soul is not different from yours. I realize that my intellect is not staying in your soul although I have entered into it by yogic power.”.

“Think this way. I have a pot in my hand. There is milk in the pot. And, on the milk is a fly. Although the hand and the pot, pot and the milk and the milk and the fly exist together, they are different from each other.  The condition of each is dependent on itself and is not altered by something else with which there is a temporary association. Same way, varna ( you being a kshatriya) and the practices (holding a scepter or an ascetic’s stick) do not really attach to an emancipated person. How can  intermingling be possible.”

“All of this should have been discussed in private between the two of us. By publicly talking about in this court you made it public. Is that correct?”

“I am not superior to you in varna, because I am also a kshtriya by birth (Janaka assumed otherwise, just out of habit and not thinking).  My name is Sulabha. In the sacrifices performed by my ancestors, no suitable husband could be found for me. Having been instructed properly I wander over the earth practicing ascetism. I do not practice hypocrisy. I know the duties of different ashramas and I practice mine faithfully. I did not come here without thinking through. Having heard that you have great understanding of the “religion of emancipation” (Samkhya system) I came to learn more. I did not come to glorify myself or humiliate you. One who is truly emancipated will not indulge in intellectual disputation for the sake of victory”.

Now that our discussion is over I will follow the ways of the mendicant and stay just for this one night in your person, which is like an empty chamber to me. You have treated me with honor like you should any guest. I will leave in the morning”.

Now Bhishma ends with the following words: “having heard these well-chosen words full of meaning and based on reason, King Janaka said nothing in reply”.

This episode touches on the role of women in society in ancient days, the varnahsrama dharma, semantics and logic in reasoning, details of Samkhya philosophy and of moksha dharma. The only good scholarly discussion of this episode is in the reference* given below.

* Vanita, Ruth, "The Self Is Not Gendered: Sulabha's Debate with King Janaka" (2003). Liberal Studies Faculty Publications. Paper 1.  http://scholarworks.umt.edu/libstudies_pubs/1


Thursday, August 16, 2018

Sulabha and Janaka (Continued)


First, Bhishma introduces Sulabha’s response with the following words: “ Although rebuked by the king with harsh words, Sulabha was not perturbed. She replied with the following words which were more handsome than her person”.

Sulabha starts with the fundamentals of  proper speech. She says that “a speech should be free of nine verbal faults and nine faults of judgment. It should also possess 18 merits. What are they? It should not be ambiguous. Faults and merits of premise and conclusion should be ascertained. The relative strengths of those merits and faults should be defined. The conclusion must be stated clearly. The conclusion has to be arrived at by persuasive reasoning”. Classical logic was not defined better than this even by Aristotle and Gotama (of Nyaya Sastra)

 “There are several ways of interpreting words. Based on their merits and faults in context, one may have to make tentative meanings. Proper sequence of words in a sentence will have to be taken into account. The tentative meaning has to be related to the conclusion arrived at and also compared with the conclusion of others. Then there is the purpose”. That is Semantics.

“What I am about to say will be sensible, free from ambiguity, logical, free from tautology, agreeable, sweet, truthful, agreeable to virtue, wealth and pleasure and with specific objective. I shall not say anything prompted by desire or fear, deceit or shame or pride. For the meaning to come out clearly the speaker, the hearer and the words have to be agreeable and be congruent. If the speaker uses words whose meaning is known to only himself, they are of no use however good they are. So are words that elicit erroneous impression in the mind of the hearer. Hear now to what I say without those errors in speaking”.

“You asked who I am and where I come from. Just as dust and water exist when brought together, so do all creatures exist”. Sulabha means to say that everything in this world are made of the same five elements (pancha bhuta). It is the same consciousness (chit) which pervades the five great elements and all creatures. This implies that Janaka does not understand this basic fact by asking the questions he asked, since both he and she are made of the same substance and endowed with the same consciousness. To think they are different is not worthy of one who claims true knowledge.

Then Sulabha  describes the elements of Samkhya philosophy in detail. She lists the five sense organs, five senses of action and the mind first (total 11). The mind creates doubts. Then comes understanding (buddhi) to settle the doubts. Sattwa is the thirteenth element followed by ahamkara (not arrogance; but identification of self as opposed to the other). The fifteenth element is desire (kama) and then avidya (spiritual ignorance). Prakriti (maya, illusion) and vyakti (clarity) follow. The world of opposites (birth and death; gain and loss; likes and dislikes) come next. The all important Time (kaala) which determines births and death is the 20th principle. All these 20 elements exist together, says Sulabha.

She adds few more principles and points out that the “atheistic” Samkhya system considers that all these elements evolve out of Prakriti, whereas the Vaiseshika system of Kanada considers all these to come out of atoms. Whatever the interpretations, she says: “Myself, you the monarch and all others came out of that Prakriti. We first get formed as embryo called “kalala”, then into “budbuda” (bubble),and then reach the stage of “pesi”. Later still appear the limbs with nails and hair. Only when the child is born do we know the sex. Things keep moving and the body keeps changing as the baby goes through childhood and adult life into old age. Each part of the body of every creature changes every moment but are so minute that they cannot be noticed. Can one see the changes taking place in the flame of a burning lamp? When that which is called body is changing all the time how can you ask where I come from, to whom I belong?”

“You can see your body and can see your soul? (If you have truly attained knowledge as you claim), how come you do not see your body and your soul in the bodies and souls of others? If you do truly have reached a state when you see yourself in others and others in yourself, why do you ask who I am? If you have really conquered the idea of duality and gone past the stage of identifying things as mine and that of others, why do you ask who I belong to? You pretend to be emancipated and you are unworthy of it since you do not truly understand and practice higher knowledge.”  (to be continued)