Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at Springer.com

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.

Friday, June 1, 2018

A Concise Summary of the Vedas - Maha Bharata Series 78


A summary of the teachings of the Vedas is given in one sloka (stanza 11) in Book 12, Section 243.

वेदस्यॊपनिषत सत्यं सत्यस्यॊपनिषद दमः
     दमस्यॊपनिषद दानं दानस्यॊपनिषत तपः
तपसॊपनिषत तयागस तयागस्यॊपनिषत सुखम
     सुखस्यॊपनिषत सवर्गः सवर्गस्यॊपनिषच छमः

The secret meaning of Vedas (or the mystery that underlies Vedas) is Satyam or Ultimate Truth (the Sat Chit Ananda or Brahman)

The secret that underlies Truth is control of senses

The secret that underlies control of senses is Charity

The secret that underlies charity is Penance or Tapas.

 The secret that underlies Penance is Renunciation or letting go

The secret that underlies Renunciation is Happiness (sukham)

The secret that underlies Happiness is Heaven (Swarga)

The secret that underlies Heaven is Tranquility (Śama).

The section goes on to say that heaven is a lesser target to work towards because one has to return back to earth from heaven once the virtues have been exhausted. Heaven is Brahman with attributes. Brahman without attributes can be experienced only in the state of tranquility, which is the state of yoga, a state of non-duality, or Samadhi. Taken differently, Brahman has to be realized with life, during one’s life and one should not get distracted by heaven etc. 




Friday, May 25, 2018

Where Lakshmi resides - Maha Bharata series 77


In Book 12, Section 227 and forwards, Goddess Shri appears before Indra and Narada. We are given several names for Her, including Padma, Bhuti, and Lakshmi. In this section, Lakshmi is equated with Brahman, the Supreme. She is Immutable, Intelligence, Affluence and Victory. She says that she was associated with the Daityas and Danavas, as long as they followed virtuous ways. Now, that they have lost those virtues, She is leaving them.

The virtues Lakshmi associates with include piety, faith, compassion, respecting elders and ancestors, non-injury (ahimsa) and truth-telling. The list of items included in the behavior of people who have left virtues is given in Section 221 of the Sanskrit version and Section 228 in the English version. This includes greed, lack of respect for elders and those with wisdom, respect for those who do not deserve it, not caring for the children and the aged etc., and ends with “transgression   of all boundaries and restraints”. 

The list is long and, it is frightening to find all the weaknesses of modern life mentioned in that list. For example, Lakshmi says that “the Danavas have last their virtues and morality; have been swayed by lust and wrath; and in their world, persons of inferior attainments were showing animosities towards seniors and those with superior qualifications, and were ridiculing and laughing at them; those amassing great wealth by doing unrighteous and censurable deeds were being held in high esteem; sons were bossing over their parents, and wives dominated over their husbands; there was no respect for mothers, fathers, aged seniors, preceptors, guests, and guides for their status; people did not bring up their own offspring with affection but began to abandon them; people appropriated wealth to their own use shamelessly without offering anything to the ancestors, the gods, guests, and reverend seniors; disputes and quarrels raged  in every house, day and night; Both, those that deserved respect and those that deserved no respect, were treated equally”.  

Lakshmi continues: “Further, they (danavas) began to indulge in sports and diversions in which their women were dressed as men and their men as women. When friends sought help, they were only frustrated more. Traders and merchants were interested only in taking the wealth of others. Teachers began treating disciples as friendly companions. Fathers and mothers were worn out with work, and in old age, were forced to beg for their food from their own children. Daughters-in-law, in the presence of their husbands' mothers and fathers, lectured to their husband's and rebuked them. Victims of crimes could not expect any help but only laughter and mockery. They have transgressed all bounds and restraints. Because of all of these and other indications of wicked conduct and the reversal of their former nature, I decided not to live among them any more and have come to you”. 

Did Vyasa and our ancestors know what was coming? If their prophecy is correct, Goddess Lakshmi must be getting ready to leave us also soon!

In another list, Goddess Lakshmi lists eight Lakshmi’s who live with the righteous. This list includes Lakshmi of Hope, Faith, Intelligence, Contentment, Success, Advancement, Forgiveness and Jaya (Victory). But this list does NOT correspond to the traditional Ashtalakshmi.

1. Aadi-Lakshmi (The Primeval  or the Great) or Maha Lakshmi
2. Dhana-Lakshmi or Aishwarya Lakshmi (The Goddess of Prosperity and Wealth)
3. Dhaanya-Lakshmi (Goddess of Food grains)
4. Gaja-Lakshmi (The Elephant Goddess)
5. Santana-Lakshmi (The Goddess of Progeny)
6. Veera-Lakshmi or Dhairya Lakshmi (The Goddess of Valor and Courage)
7. Vidya-Lakshmi (The Goddess of Knowledge)
8. Vijaya-Lakshmi or Jaya Lakshmi (The Goddess of Victory)

Section 242 gives a detailed description of how a disciple should behave towards his teacher during gurukula vasam (living with the preceptor). Many of our teachers still demand the kind of obedience from their students as described in this section. Some of the expectations are demeaning and dehumanizing. I do not know how these ideas developed. I am all for respect to our teachers. But, that does not mean that the teachers can treat a student like a slave or expect blind obedience.  

This is another opportunity for me to point out how all of us hang on to some areas of the scriptures and ignore others. The same teachers who demand blind obedience and treat students not too kindly forget the liberal minds of our great masters and acharyas.  The great masters such as Yagnavalkya and Pippalada answered only when asked and appropriate to the level of the student’s ability. They did not demand that the students follow blindly what they were told. In Gita, Krishna asks Arjuna to reflect on what he was told and act appropriately. In Yoga Vasishta, Vasishta tells Rama to reflect and act. Buddha clearly stated that the pupils should think on their own and act.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Friend or Foe? - Maha Bharata Series 76


I missed one earlier section (138) from Book 12. I am glad I found it. This is a story of a mouse, a cat, a mongoose and an owl, as told by Bhishma in response to a question by Yudhishtra on how a king should behave when faced with multiple enemies. The conversation between the mouse and the cat is full of wisdom on friendship in general, in addition to the answer for the primary question.

The section starts with Bhishma saying that circumstances decide the course of events in life and it is difficult to advice what to do and what not to do. A friend may become a foe and a foe may become a friend.  Planning for the future and presence of mind are needed for a successful life. He tells the story of three fish one of which is prudent and thinks ahead, one has presence of mind and one is a procrastinator. As one can guess the procrastinator dies and the other two escape. The episode ends with a statement that in addition to foresight and presence of mind, one must avail oneself of means for accomplishment of one’s goals and know the proper place and time for action.

In the main story, a cat and a mouse live in the same tree -the cat living in the branches where he gets a full catch of birds for food and the mouse lives in a hole at the bottom of the tree.  One day the cat is caught in a hunter’s net. The mouse realizing that the cat is caught in the net moves around freely in search of food. He finds meat spread by the hunter as a lure and starts eating. He forgets that he is too close to the net in which the cat is trapped and becomes careless. The mouse suddenly notices that a mongoose has arrived on the scene and is looking at the mouse as food for the day. At the same time, the mouse also notices an owl on the branch of a tree ready to pounce on him.

The mouse is now in danger of attack by two enemies – the mongoose and the owl. The cat is an enemy too but he is in trouble himself. So, the mouse thinks: “ A wise person should never sink in despair and lose one’s wit when faced with danger. He must save his life by effort and intelligence. I am surrounded by three enemies. In this situation my only refuge is this cat, even though he is my natural enemy. It is best to make friends with him because he is also in imminent danger of being caught by the hunter. He may be amenable to counsel for his own good. If I make him understand his own interest in helping me, he may make peace with me. Besides, a person when faced with a stronger person should seek peace even with an enemy. It is better to have a fool for a friend than have a learned person as an enemy. The cat is probably foolish and will fall for my words; but for the present I will consider him an intelligent foe. After all he knows he is in danger”.  

The mouse points out to the cat that he is in danger of being attacked by the mongoose and the owl if he moves towards his hole and is afraid. He is aware that once the hunter comes, the cat’s life will also be in danger. He says: “I have an idea so both of us can escape. You cannot cut through the net. But, I have sharp teeth and can cut the net, so you can escape. I will act as you friend but, you should promise not to attack me once you are free. After all, both of us have lived in this tree for a long time. I have to trust you and get near you and be with you so that the mongoose and the owl will not kill me. It is said that he on whom no one places trust and he who never trusts anyone are not wise. This is a proper time for an understanding between us. I want you to live and hope you will want me to live. Can I trust you not to kill me? This is a good time for us to trust each other and act”.

The cat agrees and says: “Through your grace I have got back my life. I will always be your disciple and obey your commands forever. A person returning a favor never becomes equal to the person that did good in the first instance. The former acts to repay services received. The latter, however, acted without any such motive. Let us be friends. Come quickly to me”. The mouse says that he need to creep under the cat’s belly so that the mongoose and owl will know they have no chance of getting near him and the cat agrees. The mouse creeps under the cat’s belly and the mongoose and the owl go away.

The mouse starts to cut the net but very slowly. He does not want to finish the job till the proper time. The cat gets angry and asks why he is delaying. The mouse replies: “Do not fear. Do not be impatient, O friend! I will keep my promise. We know the requirements of time. An act done at the proper time succeeds; and an act done at an improper time leads to calamity.  If I let you free at an improper time, I will be afraid. Therefore, the proper time is when I see the hunter approach because at that time both of us will be in a state of fear. As soon as I see him, I shall cut the strings. You will run and climb the tree at once and will not think of anything else except your safety. And I will run to my hole”.

The cat who had kept his own part of the covenant, feels betrayed and says: “I saved you from danger promptly. Now you should do the same for me by cutting the net quickly before the hunter comes. If I have hurt you in the past, please forget and forgive. I hope you are not remembering our former hostility and trying to deceive me. If you do, I will get back sooner or later”.

The mouse replied: “Oh, my friend, I have heard you. I know what your objective is. Listen to my point of view. That friendship which is based and maintained on fear must be maintained with great caution. After making a deal with a stronger individual one has to be cautious so he does not get injured. Nobody is any body’s friend. Nobody is anybody’s foe. People become friends or foes based purely on self-interest. It is best to leave some part of the promise unfulfilled till the time comes. If I cut the net just when the hunter comes you will run away to save your own life. That is the only way I can be sure of my life. As you can see I have cut most of the net. There is only one more spot to cut. I will cut it as soon as I see the hunter approaching”.

As promised the mouse cuts the nest with his teeth as soon as the hunter’s head is seen at a distance, and both escape – the mouse to his hole and the cat runs up the tree before the hunter gets close.

The cat wants to keep his promise of friendship. He says he is grateful to the mouse for his help and says that he and his family will always honor him. He says: You saved my life. I want to be friends with you. You can trust me” and invites the mouse to come up and visit him. The mouse thought and said: “Friends and foes should be properly studied. There is no such thing as friend or a foe. Forces of circumstances dictate who become friends and who become foes. Interests and gains are important in these relationships. Therefore, there is no place for blind trust. One should not trust who is undeserving of trust. One should not place too much trust on one worthy of trust either.  Our species are natural enemies. You and I became friends forced by our common plight. You may keep your promise. But, your family members have no reason to offer the same safety for me. Therefore, I decline your invitation”.

And further, “A person becomes important for a purpose he serves. Our affection started because of a sufficient cause. That cause is not present any more. You understand your interest and I understand mine. You are more powerful than me. Guided by my self-interest I prefer to stay where I am safe. You do likewise and keep away from the hunter”. As soon as he heard the name of the hunter, the cat got frightened and ran away to a distance place! The mouse also went to a different place to live. 

Bhishma continued: “The mouse and the cat owed their escape to their reliance upon each other's services. When two persons who were once enemies make peace with each other, it is certain that each of them will try to win over the other. It is better to be wise and be careful.  In fear, one should seem to be fearless, and while really mistrusting others one should seem to be trustful. When the time comes,  one should make peace with an enemy; and when the time comes, one should wage war with even a friend. If one acts like a man in fear before the cause of fear arrives, one is never filled with fear when it actually arrives. A person who always acts with fearlessness, causes great fear in others.  'Do not be afraid' is an useless advice. It is fear that should move a wise person to understand his weakness and seek the advice of wise and experienced men. For these reasons, one should, when in fear, seem to be fearless, and when mistrusting (others) should seem to be trustful. But never be untruthful. At a time of grave danger, make peace with a powerful foe. But, do not trust the foe again once you gain your purpose”.


Friday, May 11, 2018

Yagna, japa or dhyana? - Maha Bharata series 75



Book 12, Section 201 (section 194, in the Sanskrit version) deals with this question. It starts with this beautiful definition of happiness and misery.

    यद यत परियं यस्य सुखं तद आहुस; तद एव दुःखं परवदन्त्य अनिष्टम
    
इष्टं मे सयाद इतरच सयाद; एतत कृते कर्म विधिः परवृत्तः
    
इष्टं तव अनिष्टं मां भजेतेत्य; एतत कृते जञानविधिः परवृत्तः
 
कामात्मकाश छन्दसि कर्मयॊगा; एभिर विमुक्तः परम अश्नुवीत

“Happiness is what is agreeable. Misery is what is not agreeable.”

People who believe that happiness is transient do not spend energy following it. They avoid it by turning to pursuing knowledge. Yagna (sacrifice), japa (recitation) are activities connected with acquisition of objects of desire and they lead only to hell. (The commentator says that hell is not a real place, but the abodes of the sun and the moon and the stars from which one has to be reborn into this world). However, yagna and recitation and penance can be used as a preparation for meditation and Brahmagnana. This is the view expressed later by Adi Sankara. (The implication is that dhyana is a superior path. But other paths may be followed to prepare the mind for dhayana)

Japa, yagna, dana, dharma and dhyana are the five methods for brahmangnana. All are colored by one’s nature whether it is sattva, rajas or tamas.  But, all except dhyana are often performed with a desire for some result. All acts done without attachment to the fruits of action is preferable. (This is Gita’s main message.) All such outward directed acts give temporary happiness. For eternal happiness, one has to let go of attachment to the fruits of action. Even better, let go of desire and anger.

During dhyana, one withdraws the sense organs from the sense objects and also withdraws the mind from the sense organs and succeeds in beholding his own real Self as Brahman. 

The definition of Brahman includes:    
 
अशब्दम अस्पर्शम अरूपवच
    
अग्राह्यम अव्यक्तम अवर्णम एकं; पञ्च परकारं ससृजे परजानाम
 
सत्री पुमान वापि नपुंसकं ; सन चासत सद असच तन
    
पश्यन्ति यद बरह्मविदॊ मनुष्यास; तद अक्षरं कषरतीति विद्धि

He (IT), the One exists in His (Its) own nature, unaffected by attributes and qualities. It cannot be touched or named; does not have a form or color. It cannot be grasped. (Some of these definitions come from discussions in the next chapter)

The evolution of the five elements (panca bhuta) are given in Section 202 (Sanskrit 195) as follows. This is part of Samkhya philosophy.
     
अक्षरात खं ततॊ वायुर वायॊर जयॊतिस ततॊ जलम
     
जलात परसूता जगती जगत्यां जायते जगत
  
इमे शरीरैर जलम एव गत्वा; जलाच तेजः पवनॊ ऽनतरिक्षम
     
खाद वै निवर्तन्ति नभाविनस ते; ये भाविनस ते परम आप्नुवन्ति

The translation: Space comes out of the Supreme, the Undecaying. Air comes out of Space; Fire comes out of Air; Water comes out of Air; Earth (universe) comes out of Water. Everything in this universe follow.

During dissolution, the body (earth) goes into water; water into fire; Fire into Air; Air into Space. The emancipated ones do not return from Space (They reach Brahman)

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Yuga cycles and Kaala (Time) - Maha Bharata series 74


Book 12, Section 201 and 203 
Bhishma recounts the beginning of the cycles of Yuga with Supreme Vishnu in repose and the Brahma of the cycle coming from the lotus emanating from Vishnu’s navel. This is the same as told in the beginning (Book 1) with more details. The repetition is probably meant to establish Vishnu at the center of worship. The population of the earth by the seven rishis, the parajaptis,  humans, asuras and animals is recounted.

It is stated  that all the Vedas return back to the Supreme (Vishnu, as told here) at the end of the four yugas. They reappear at the beginning of the next cycle and captured by the rishis to be preserved and passed on. In this sequence, we are told that Brhaspati receives the Vedas, Sukra receives the Dharma teachings, Narada gets the texts on music, Bharadwaja gets the texts on arms and warfare and Atri gets the medical texts.

In another section, there is a definition of Brahmacharya as a state in which one withdraws from all senses and sense-objects and dwells in the mind only. To reach that state, one should not have any contact with women since, according to the text, women are full of passion.  Also. according to the text, the man's “seeds” are floating all over the body through thousands of channels (naadi) and are the results of desire.
The subject of renunciation is called Samyagradha and is dealt with in Section 219. It says that one cannot attain tranquility without renunciation. The purpose of Vedic sacrifices and other rites is for renunciation of wealth and other possessions. Vows and fasts of diverse kinds are meant to help with self-restraint and renunciation of enjoyments. Yoga and penance (tapas) are for renunciation of pleasure and happiness. Renunciation, however, of everything, is the highest kind of renunciation.

When asked whether fasting is a penance, Bhishma says that it is not. But, self-restraint (acts and letting go of results) and compassion are. He also defines vegetarianism as not eating meat that had not been offered as a sacrifice.

In section 222, the discussion between Prahlada and Indra was likely influenced by Buddhist teachings. In this passage, Prahlada clearly speaks of impermanence. He also says that all of us have “good” and “bad”qualities. In Buddhism they mention 51 qualities which are present in all of us. However, Prahlada says that Soul is different from the body. Buddhists deny the existence of separate self or atman or soul.

Another important episode with a conversation between Vali and Indra is given in Section 224 (English version). Vali is living alone as a recluse and in the “form” of an ass. Indra teases and taunts him for his “low” state. Vali, an asura, former king of the Danavas asks Indra not to be haughty and proud since he will also fall from his high state in course of time.

 This discourse equates time (kaala) with Brahman (not Brahma, the creator god). It says that Time rules everything in this universe, including the gods and asuras. Our conditions are determined by time and everything in this world are transient. People in high position come down over time and those in low position get to a higher position in course of time. Knowing this, there is no need to be sad or happy about the course of events.

The idea that time controls everything and therefore we can do nothing seems to be the message. Combined with the concept of karma, it is easy to fall into fatalism.