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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Vidura Nithi

Vidura Nithi is a small section within Mahabharatha. These are the morals taught by Vidura. But, who was Vidura?

Vidura was a beacon of virtue and righteousness. As the story goes, he was Sage Vyasa’s son, born of a maid servant of Ambika, the mother of Dhrithrashtra. The story also says that Vidura was none other than Yama, the Lord of Death. Yama had to take a human form for his sin of punishing a child unjustly.

Vidura Nithi consists of 8 chapters in Mahabharatha. The setting is just before the Kurukshetra war. The Pandavas had returned back from the forest after the stipulated 13 years and were asking for their kingdom to be given back. Duryodhana and his people wanted to hold on. Dhrithrashtra sent a message to Yudhistra that he and his brothers should go back to the forest and do penance. Yudhistra declined this suggestion and demanded his kingdom. Dhrithrashtra knew that he was wrong and that there will be war. He gets agitated and unable to sleep. He seeks out Vidura for counsel. Thus starts the Vidura Nithi.

This classic deals with individual and social morality and is full of wisdom. These values are universal and there is no reference to any God or threat of punishment. There are many classic passages. Here are a few.

Vidura lists eight virtues in Chapter 3, sloka 69. They are sacrifice, charity, study, penance, truthfulness, forgiveness, mercy and non-covetousness. You can practice the first four to look good in the eyes of others and out of vanity. The latter set of four are inherent only in the virtuous.

(In some other place I read that the word Charity was originally meant to mean disinterested love as in divine love. It was associated with humility and tranquility. Thus charity is the root of all morality.)

Chapter 1, sloka 73 says: “One should give up lust, anger and covetousness, the three sure gates to hell”

One who wants prosperity in this world should give up “sleep, drowsiness, fear, anger, laziness and procrastination” (Chapter 1, sloka 85)

A wise man is not impetuous in his actions; speaks only the truth when asked; does not like to enter into quarrels even for the sake of a friend and does not get angry even when treated with disrespect. (Chapter 1 sloka 116)

Chapter2, sloka 4 says: “Do not give advice unasked, good or bad, agreeable or disagreeable”.

Chapter 2, sloka 8 has one of my all time favorites: “sahasaa na samaachareth” meaning “Do not act on impulse and in haste”. The first portion of this sloka says that there are several components to an action such as the nature of the act, its purpose, your ability to do it etc. Consider all of these and also about the pros and cons. In a subsequent sloka, Vidura says that one who acts without reflecting on the consequences of his action is like a fish who swallows the iron-hook concealed within the fine food dangled in front of it.

In Chapter 2, sloka 42, Vidura says that he is of the opinion that mere lineage and ancestry is no cause for respect, if the person lacks morality.
Later he says: “ Poor people eat their food with relish because hunger begets taste; that is rare among the wealthy”.

Chariot is a common metaphor in the vedic and the Greek literature. In my earlier blog on Symbols and Substance, I have described the meaning of the scene from Gita in which Lord Krishna is the charioteer for Arjuna and also about Plato’s chariot with two horses. Here is Vidura’s description in Chapter 3, sloka 60: “A man’s body is the chariot, the driver is the mind within, senses are the horses. With these well-trained horses, a wise man, like a clever charioteer goes on the journey of life comfortably”.

Here are two gems: Chapter 2: slokas 79 and 80. A wound caused by an arrow heals quickly. A forest cut down by axe sprouts again. A verbal wound never heals. Arrows that pierce the body can be extracted. But a dart made of words cannot be. It remains stuck to the “heart”.

Chapter 3 sloka 61 says: “ A hero is known in danger; a valiant during difficulty; a friend and a foe during times of calamity.

Chapter 4, sloka 12. Silence is better than speech; speech, if at all, should be truthful; Truthful utterances should be beneficial; beneficial utterances should conform to Dharma (virtue).

In Chapter 4, slokas 46 and 47 talk about vicissitudes in life and reiterates what Gita teaches: Equanimity. Man dies and is born again; becomes poor and flourishes again; he begs and then others beg of him; he mourns and he is mourned. Happiness and misery, prosperity and poverty, gain and loss, birth and death, these visit by turns. Be in self-control and do not go “wild” with happiness and “down” with despondency.

Here is a wise advice. “One should not give expression to what one is going to do. Matters of virtue, desire and prosperity (dharma- kaama-artha) should be revealed only after the action is completed. Secret counsel is not to be divulged”.

And in Chapter 6, sloka 43 Vidura says: “ I regard them as wise, those who are intent on the general ends to be gained and not stuck on particulars, because particulars are but subordinate to the general”.

“Knowledge is improper and incomplete when the attainable is not known and the known is not put into practice”. (Chapter 7 sloka 34)

Vidura asks for “kshama sarvatra sarvada”, meaning patience at all places and at all times” (Chapter 7 sloka 58) And “Do not do unto others what is disagreeable to yourself” (Chapter 7 sloka 72) Is it not the same as in the Bible?

Two additions:  "Do things during the day which will help you pass the night in happiness. Do that during eight months of the year which will keep you pass the rainy season without worry. Do that during youth which will keep you happy during old age. Do that during your life that which will keep you happy in the here after".

Thursday, September 1, 2011

What are the “Values” of Science?

I am a typical oriental; a mixture of spirituality and skepticism. The side soaked in tradition looks at the universe from a spiritual point of view. It says that everything we see and experience in this universe must have come from ONLY one source. We are all made of similar, if not the same materials of the universe and we are all energized by the same source of Light.

The other side of me wants to deal with the realities of this world. Here we are. Here is the world. Here are other people, plants, animals etc. How do I deal with myself and how do I behave towards others? In this pragmatic world, I like to make my decisions based on observed and observable facts. Where facts are not known or not available, I make my decisions which by nature will be imperfect. There is place for the heart (emotions) and the head (logic) but no place for superstition and fanaticism. Here is where my training in the methods of science comes.

Professor Ismail Serageldin of the historical Alexandria Library of Alexandria, Egypt has written a remarkable editorial on the values of science (Science Vol 322: page 1127, 2011). It is in the best scholarly traditions of Alexandria. He points out how the values needed for an open, democratic society are the same values that science demands.

First, Truth, only absolute truth. This can come from anyone who can back up the conclusions with evidence, and not imagination, wishful thinking or “manufactured-data”.

“Science is open to all regardless of nationality, race, religion or sex”.

“Truth and honor are of utmost importance. …..A scientist may err in interpreting data, but no one can accept fabrication of data. What other field of human activity can rival this level of commitment to absolute truth?”

Modern scientific work is team work. “Contributions are also cumulative”. No superstar can claim he or she did all the work. It is routine to see a listing of all the collaborators and contributors and supporters at the end of any scientific article or talk in the field of biology and medicine. It is that democratic and transparent.

“Science requires the freedom to think, to challenge, to imagine the unimagined. It cannot function within the arbitrary limits of convention, nor can it flourish if it is forced to shy away from challenging the accepted. Science advances by overthrowing an existing paradigm or substantially expanding or modifying it. Thus there is a certain constructive subversiveness built into the scientific enterprise……. This constant renewal and advancement of our scientific understanding is a central feature of the scientific enterprise. It requires a tolerant engagement with the contrarian view that is grounded in disputes arbitrated by the rules of evidence and rationality”.

“Science demands rationality and promotes civility in discourse. Ad hominem attacks are not accepted. Science treats all humans equally”

Is scientific enterprise perfect? No. Are scientists beyond all human failings such as vanity, self-promotion, fabrication of data? Most of the time, “YES”. There have been violations, of course. But the scientific community does not tolerate them. “Truth and honor are of the utmost importance”.

Dr. Serageldin quotes Jacob Bronowski and points out how all of the values and requirements of science as described in earlier paragraphs are what civilized, democratic societies need. The scientific enterprise adopts all of these values with exceptional vigor. “These values also provide the basis for enhancing human capabilities and human welfare”.

Before I close this essay, may I suggest to you a remarkable movie on the life of Hypatia, a female philosopher-mathematicians who was the Chief Librarian at the Alexandria Library in the 5th century CE? The movie is available in DVD format and the title is Agora.