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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Cosmic Cycle according to the Vedas

(Revised version)

When performing rituals, Hindus take a symbolic vow called samkalpa. When saying the mantra, you might have heard them say “ ȧ̇ḍhyabrahmanah ḍviti̅ye parardhe svetavarȧha kalpe vaivasvata manvantare”. The meaning is as follows.  “ȧ̇ḍhyabrahmanah” means “belonging to the current Brahma”. “ḍviti̅ye parardhe” means “second cycle of 1017  years” . The word kalpa stands for one day of Brahma. The current day is called svetavarȧha. Therefore, we say svetavarȧha kalpe . As we will see later, each day of Brahma is equivalent to 4,320,000 days and this is ruled by 14 kings called the manus and the name of the current Manu is Vaivasvata. Therefore, we say Vaivasvata manvantarey.

Two other clarifications. There are specific names for the 14 Manu kings. Their names are: swāyambhuva, svārociṣa, auttami, tāmasa, raivata, cākṣuṣa, vaivasvata, Sāvarṇi, dakṣasāvarṇi, brahmasāvarṇi, dharmasāvarṇi, rudrasāvarṇi, raucyadaivasāvarṇi, and indrasāvarṇi.

 There are specific names for numbers going from 10 (daśa) to 1017 (para̅ rdha). They are:

            10 daśa (see the similarity to the French deci of the decimal system)       

102   śatam

            103  sahasram

            104 ayutam

            105 lakṣam

            106 prayutam (million)

            107 koṭi (10 million)

            108 arbuda

            109 abja

            1010 kharva

            1012 mahạpadma

            1013 śamku

            1014 jaladhi

            1015 anta

            1016 madhya

1017 parạrdham

Tamizh also had specific numbering systems with names. These are known from before the days of Tholkappiam (at least 300 BCE)    

Amazing, is it not? The fact they had specific names must mean that they used them for some measurements. We know they needed numbers to measure the dimensions of the altar for the homa (fire sacrifice). They were also used in trade.

On the other end of the scale, the time it takes for 15 winks of the eye is called a Kashta. 30 Kashtas make a Kala. 30 and 1/10th Kala is called Muhurta. Thirty Muhurtas make a day and night (one full day). 30 complete days make a month and 12 months make one year.

One month of humans is equivalent to one day and night of pitris, days leading up to full moon being the day and the other 15 days making up the night.

One year of humans is equivalent to one full day of the gods, the six months of uttarayana (sun “moving” north) being the day and the other 6 months (dakshinayana) making the night. 12,000 deva years (year of the gods) is called one yuga. The cosmic cycle is divided into yugȧs, as described below. They go in cycles. In other words, there is no beginning and end, as the western traditions suggest. Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer thought this is more in line with scientific findings.

The basic four yugas are Krita, Treta, Dwapara and Kali. (Scholars tell us that these names come from the game of dice). Krita yuga is the first, made of 4,800 years of the gods. Of these, 400 years make the morning and 400 years make the evening. The day and the night are made of 2,000 deva years each. Treta yuga is made of 3,600 deva years, of which 300 years make up the morning and 300 years make the evening. Dwapara yuga is made of 2,400 deva years, with 200 years of morning and 200 years of evening. Kali yugȧ, which is the present one has 1, 200 deva years, with 100 years of morning and 100 years of evening. Please note the arithmetic progression of the numbers of years.

One cycle of the four yugas adds up to 12,000 years of the gods (deva years) (4,800+3,600+2,400+1,200). Since 1 day of the deva is made of 1 year of 360 human days, 1 year of the devas equals 360 human years. Therefore,12,000 deva years is equivalent to 4,320,000 human years.   One cycle of 4 yugȧs is called 1 mȧhayugȧ.

One day and one night of Brahma (Not Brahman, the Primordial source, but the creator in each cycle) is made of 1,000 such mahȧyugȧs each. (We can call it the celestial day) A full day of Brahma is equivalent to 8,640 million or 8.6 billion years. During the day of one Brahma composed of 4.32 million years, the reigning kings are called Manu. There are 14 of them each ruling for 71 6/14 chathur yugȧ years. The current Manu is called Vaivasvata.

At the end of the day when Brahma goes to sleep, there is a pralaya or deluge called anvantara pralaya when only three of the seven worlds namely, bhu, bhuvah and svah cease to exist.

Each Brahma rules for 100 years, each made of 365 of brahma days.  At the end of the current Brahma there is a big deluge and all the seven worlds disappear. Then the cycle starts again, with a new Brahma and of course, new Vishnu, Siva etc. Even the Gods are not for ever!

(For the original source, please go to Book 12, Section 224 of the Sanskrit version and section 231 of the English translation by Ganguli)

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Competition and Compassion

I was reading Kanchi Periyaval (KP) defending the varnashrama dharma, the duties of the four varnas. This word varna, unfortunately translates into caste system. KP argues that it was a good system. I do not agree with his conclusion. But, his arguments are worth thinking about.

He argues that equality and freedom do not go together. After completing a 10 volume History of Civilization, Will and Ariel Durant said the same thing, in the same words.  Taking it further, one can say that it is not possible to let everybody compete for every job and expect societal harmony. If division of labor and the rewards are set by competition, each to his own ability, some will fall behind. Those with money, connections or physical strength will get ahead. There is bound to be disharmony. Therefore, the method of division of labor by the varna (caste) was meaningful, says KP. Every one carried out the assigned duties without competing and therefore there were no hard feelings and there is wisdom in the division of labor which allowed unity of heart, says KP.  Yes, but that was based on everyone accepting the role given to them by birth. Most likely some did not. They were kept in place by force or by ex-communication. They were coerced.

I feel that division of labor cannot be, and should not be, determined by birth ALONE as was done in the varna system.  Even the scriptures say so.

I agree totally with KP that all of us have to be united in heart even as we do different things. When we add Gita’s advice, namely we do our assigned duty with passion but without attachment to the results, it will indeed bring peace and harmony in our individual lives and in the society. There can be no growth in the civilization without inner satisfaction.

The big problem is that we live in a period in history when competition and pursuit of happiness are emphasized. When we compete, the emphasis is on the individual. In our desire to “win”, some of us are likely to use “unfair” means. Even if we win “fair and square” someone else loses. That someone will be jealous and unhappy. He may wait for his chance to get even. There will be no equality. Some will be unhappy. There will be some degree of disharmony.

Add to this sense of competition, the fact that it is for possessions in the “pursuit of happiness”. The word “happiness” is connected for most people and most often with material happiness. That leads to more inequality and also to perceptions of inequality. There is more competition so that “I can get what he has”. More jealousy. More emphasis on individual happiness and individual success. That leads to greater isolation and sadness.

Nothing I have said so far is theoretical. We see this every day. How can we escape this cycle?

We need to connect with others who are also in the same dilemma. Buddha said:"My blood is red; so is yours. My tears are salty; so are yours”. I have to connect with the one source, common to all. We need to replace, or at least mix, Competition with Compassion.

The other part has an easier answer. But, it is difficult to achieve without individual effort. That is, to modify the words “pursuit of happiness” with the words “pursuit of inner happiness and harmony”.

In Buddhist meditation, methods are available to achieve these goals. They are called the Brahma Viharas. They are: Love (maitri), Compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity(upeksha). Meditation on and practice of these four items will make us connect with other lives with empathy and compassion. Once we feel connected with other lives in a deep way, we will be happy when others are. How can I make you happy without making myself happy (sympathetic joy) and not feel happy when you are,  when I feel that we are of the same source and material? How can I hurt you without hurting a part of myself? And, when I experience the entire universe and all creatures as extension of me, how can I not be in a state of equanimity? 

(Please also see my blog on Wisdom and Compassion from   February 5, 2010)  

Monday, December 12, 2016

Further thoughts on thinking about faith - Part 2

When it comes to faith in the Scriptures, we face a special situation. Vedas are the sacred texts for the Hindus. They are called Sruti which means revealed knowledge. It was revealed to the sages (rishis). Therefore, rishis are called mantra drishta and not mantra karta, which means they saw (rather heard) the mantras and did not create them. In Mahabharatha, there is one discussion between Brighu and Bharadwaja (Book 12; Section 182)in which we are told that several rishis heard the “veda” mantras all at the same time. The question is who or what was the source? The answer is God. But, one can see (or hear) something in one’s mind by intuition or by visualization, and not because someone showed “it”.

We are also told that Hammurabi received his great code from Shamash; Moses got his directly from Yahweh; Mohammed  got his from Gabriel; and Manu from Swayambhu, the Self-Generated First One and so on. Who is the First one? Who has the most authentic Revealed sacred text? Is it not possible (actually most likely) that all of them are Revealed texts, and from the same Primordial Source.  It happens that He/She/It was given different names by people living in different parts of this One planet? Why not take the best from each one of them since they are all from the same one Source? Why do we fight to establish whose is the first revealed, the most original and the most sacred?

It is interesting that both people who go by absolute faith in old texts and follow the teachings literally and those who question and analyze, choose some areas and ignore others. Yet, they criticize each other. The faithful call the “doubters” as infidel and sinners. The open thinkers call the faithful as “die-hards”. Either way, why do we pick some of the teachings and ignore others? Although I agree that when we interpret the texts for ourselves we may get arrogant and self-righteous, that is no reason not to think on your own. In fact, self-discovered meaning may have a better and a more lasting impact.

I wish also to point out that ancient texts from many traditions ask each one of us to think on our own and not follow blindly. Here are some examples:

“Do not stifle the spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test everything; retain what is good” says The Bible (Thessalonians 3:13)

Sankara said: “Gnaapakam hi shastram na thu kaarakam……”, which translates to “Scriptures are for keeping you informed (of eternal Truths) and not for issuing commands”.

He added: “Na hi prathyakshavirodhey shrutheh pramanaam” which means: “ Veda cannot be an authority as against observed facts” and also that “even if hundred Vedic texts declare that fire is cold they cannot become an authority on this point”. (pages 72-75, Sankara’s Teachings in his own words by Swami Atmananda .  Bhavan’s Book, 1964)

In another context Sankara said: “Scriptural text is only informative. A scriptural passage supplies information of a thing existing as such; it cannot create a thing that does not exist”.( Sankara’s interpretative comments on Taitrriya Upanishad; translated by Swami Gambirananda in Eight Upanishads Volume 1 Page 275. Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta 1972)

Buddha said: “Do not believe in what you have heard; do not believe in doctrines because they have been handed down to you through generations, do not believe in anything because it is followed blindly by many; do not believe because some old sage makes a statement; do not believe in truths to which you have become attached by habit; do not believe merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Have deliberation and analyze, and when the result agrees with reason and conduces to the good of one and all, accept it and live up to it”. (This passage is a reproduction of advice from Buddha, according to the translation of original Buddhist canons by Paul Carus published in 1894. The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus, published by Samata Books of Chennai)

           Section 3:7 of Qur’an starts with “ It is He who has sent this Scripture down to you (to Prophet Mohammed). Some of its verses are definite in meaning – these are the Mothers of the Scriptures. And others are ambiguous. The perverse at heart eagerly pursue the ambiguities in their attempt to make trouble and pin down a meaning of their own; only God knows the true meaning”…….. But, the latter portion of this verse says: “And those firmly rooted in knowledge say: "We believe in it (in the entirety of its verses, both explicit and allegorical); all is from our Lord"; yet none derives admonition except the people of discernment.” 

In each tradition and religion, there are purists, who interpret old texts (faithfully) strictly word-for-word and there are skeptics, who keep asking questions. Faith is easier on our psyche than doubt.That is the nature of human mind, and this schism is seen in every tradition. Here are some examples:                                       
Strict followers                        Questioners
Vedic (Hindu)                            Mimamsa, Tantric                    Caravaka
Buddhism                                  Maadhaythmika                       Yogachara
Christian                                    Several                                       Quakers/United Unitarian
Islam                                            Wahaabi                                    Sufi, Bahai

             Finally, I came across an important point about faith written by a reviewer of books in the website. The review was on a book by Kierkegaard on this subject of faith. The title of the book is Fear and Trembling, a classic. The reviewer points out that an important feature of faith is uncertainty. It is uncertainty that leads one to faith. Therefore, the position one takes based on faith has to be a way-station, not The Final Abode.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Further thoughts on thinking about Faith

                (In my usual habit of switching between topics of general interest and topics from Indian philosophy, here are some further thoughts on faith. I am writing  about this topic because of my interest in thinking in general and because there is tension between faith and reason almost always)               
                I have always felt that faith and reason are like two lenses of a camera, one for close-up and one for telephoto. You use them for different purposes. Reason based on evidence is the best approach, whenever possible. However, reason is always tinged with and modified by emotions. There are situations, several in fact, when reason fails. Reason alone cannot get us through. Faith has to come in. But, one needs to be cautious since faith can lead to unwise decisions based on hope and unreasonable behavior including cruelty. Besides, faith cannot lead to any answer. As pointed out by a writer unknown to me “faith may give you comfort; but it is the doubt that gets you an answer”.
                William James gives very clear guidelines on conditions under which one may wish to use faith for action. “Our passionate nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds” said William James. Obviously, options presented in response to philosophical, metaphysical questions fall into this sphere of thinking.  (address to the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and Brown Universities in 1896. Quoted in The Enduring Questions – Main problems in Philosophy. 4th Ed Melvin Rader (editor) Holt,Reinhart and Wilson Publishers, 1980).      

                William James gives us practical ideas on how to think about faith. There are three conditions that must be met for faith to be used as the primary mode of thinking. They are:  1. The option should be genuine and William James defines genuine option as one that is “living, forced and momentous”. He goes on to define these three words. Living, as opposed to dead, is to suggest that the option is “sufficiently exciting to tempt our will”. Forced, as opposed to avoidable, is to suggest that the decision cannot be escaped. Momentous, as opposed to trivial, is to suggest that it will make a significant difference in one’s life. 2. The individual cannot prove or disprove either option with adequate proof or reason. One is no more probable than the other. Reason alone cannot deal with this question. 3. The result of believing will make life substantially better. These guidelines should be helpful for thinking about faith-related issues.

In addition, we have to ask ourselves why we believe in one option over many others on different issues in everyday life.  Is it because that particular belief gives us some comfort or gratification? Is it because we were told when we were young that to be considered a good person, we have to believe this way? Do we want to identify ourselves with someone we love or admire through this belief? Or are we following this belief out of fear? Are we being coerced overtly or indirectly? Are we being threatened with consequences if we do not believe this idea? Do we have to believe in one particular point of view to be accepted in the family or the society? Is it because we do not want to disappoint someone important in our life? 

It is also good to remember what Christopher Hitchens said about faith: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence”.

How much evidence and evidence of what kind are needed to base our faith? Jayarasi Bhatta was a philosopher who lived in India in the 8th century. His book which is entitled “Tattva upaplava simha” translates to The lion that devours all categories.  It is obvious from the summary of his writings that he belonged to the Caravaka school or something akin to it. He was a materialist and an atheist. It is amazing how easily he rejects all the pramanas (evidences in support of /sources of knowledge).   He says: Direct perception is not totally reliable since perception can be erroneous or illusory. Inference relies on inductive reasoning and therefore not reliable since there are no universally accepted premise to start with.  Finally, testimony is not reliable since this requires a reliable witness, the definition of which requires another source or evidence. He concludes that “none of the sources of knowledge are valid. Nothing can be known for certain”. You may say that he is a cynic or nihilist. But, his argument is interesting.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Bhima and Nahusha - Maha Bharatha Series 17

In Book 3, Section 161, Yudhishtra is conversing with Kubera. Kubera says: “Patience, ability, proper timing, proper place and strength are the five requirements for success”. He then gives his assessment of Arjuna and Bhima. Kubera thinks that Arjuna has self-control, charity, strength, intelligence, modesty, energy and a will. Bhima on the other hand is “like a child, fearless, haughty and therefore forgets his duties and unforgiving”. Therefore, Kubera advises Yudhishtra to keep Bhima under check!

In a description by Arshtisena of the Sun revolving around a celestial mountain called Meru, the stars are said to revolve around this Meru giving the 6 seasons.  Here, Sun is called ‘the wheel of Time, cyclic, unerring and moving without rest”.

In Section 166 and 167, Arjuna is on his journey acquiring celestial weapons from Indra, Rudra and Agni. Arjuna defeats Daityas and Danavas. When, Arjuna is away on this quest, the rest of the Pandavas are on a pilgrimage to holy rivers, and holy places. Two areas mentioned in those wanderings are: China (?) and a desert close to the river Saraswati. During the stay in Kubera’s land, Bhima encountered a huge snake which got hold of him and would not let go. In spite of his enormous strength, Bhima could not extricate himself. So, he asked the snake who he was (Section 178).

The snake told Bhima that he was cursed to take the life of a snake and that his curse will end when someone who knows the relationship between the soul and the supreme can answer his questions. Bhima told the snake that happiness and misery are sometimes in our hands and sometimes it is not. Destiny is more powerful and therefore one should not fret. He himself is not so sorry for himself becoming a food for the snake. But he was concerned for his brothers and his mother.

At about this time Yudhishtra got anxious not knowing where Bhima was. He went in search and found Bhima in the grips of the huge snake. Yudhishtra requested the snake to release his brother. The snake said that whoever comes into his territory is his food. Life is precious for every living being and “I need the food. Since you are also in my territory, if you stay longer, I am entitled to you also as my food for tomorrow”. Yudhisthra asked what would satisfy the snake to release Bhima.

The snake said that he is Nahusha, one of the ancestors of Pandavas and that he is under the curse of Agastya and the curse will fall off if Yudhishtra can answer his questions. Then comes an interesting conversation.

Snake: “Who is a Brahamana?”

Yudhishtra: “A Brahmana is one who practices truth, charity, forgiveness, good conduct, benevolence and mercy and one who practices proper rites”

S: “I see all those great qualities in sudras also. If Brahmana is known by character alone, and not by birth, the idea of Varna does not arise, if character is left out”

Y: “Sudra is not a sudra by birth alone. Nor does a Brahmana becomes a Brahmana by birth alone. The wise ones recognize a Brahmana by the qualities in them. If a Brahmana by birth does not have those qualities, he will be called a sudra”. Besides, men tend to be promiscuous. That is why the caste of the individual is uttered aloud at the beginning of yagnas. That is also why the natal ceremony is performed even before the umbilical cord is cut, with mother officiating as the savitri and the father as a priest. Everyone is a sudra until he learns the vedas. I myself consider those of pure and virtuous conduct as a Brahmana”.

S: “What should be known?”

Y: “Brahman, which is beyond misery and happiness is the one to be known”.

S: “But, I have not found any such entity”.

Y: “And, as for your other objection, just as cold cannot exist in heat and heat cannot exist in cold, there cannot be an object in which both cannot exist. So goes the argument for happiness and misery. There has to be something which is beyond both”.

The snake is pleased and lets go of Bhima.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Genealogy of the Kauravas and Pandavas - Maha Bharata Series 16

Genealogy from Bharata to Janamejaya
Kauravas and Pandavas belong to a line of dynasty that starts with Bharata. That is why India is called Bharata Varasha. (This is similar to how China got its name  from the first emperor whose name was Qin Shi Huang.  Qin is pronounced  “chin”). Those of you who have visited Xian to look at the famous burial ground of this king with the terracotta warriors will know this). The genealogy of the Kauravas and Pandavas is given in Book1, section 95. It is interesting that in the Old Testament, the early chapters are about the genealogy of the first 12 tribes of the Holy Land.
The history starts with Sakuntala and Dushyanta and their  son, called Bharata. This story is well-known because of Kalidasa’s Abhignana Shakuntalam. Bharata married Sunanda, the daughter of the king of Kasi, and had a son named Bhumanyu. Bhumanyu married Vijaya, the daughter of Dasarha and had a son. Suhotra was his name and he married Suvarna, the daughter of Ikshvaku (Remember that this is the family in which Rama was born in the previous yuga). To her was born a son named Hasti who founded the city called Hastinapura.
And Hasti married Yasodhara, the princess of Trigarta and their son was named Vikunthana. He married Sudeva, the princess of Dasarha and had  a son named Ajamidha. Ajamidha had four wives named Raikeyi, Gandhari, Visala and Riksha and had two thousand and four hundred sons! (after all, this is why this is called purana and not history) One of them by name Samvarana became the perpetuator of the dynasty. Samvarana married Tapati, the daughter of Vivaswat. Their son Kuru married Subhangi, the princess of Dasarha. They had a son named Viduratha, who married Supriya, the daughter of the Madhavas. Anaswan was their son and Anaswan married Amrita. Parikshit was the son of Amrita and Anaswan. Parikshit married Suvasa, the daughter of the Vahudas, and Bhimasena(a different Bhima) was their son. Bhimasena married Kumari, the princess of Kekaya and their son was Pratisravas whose son was Pratipa. Pratipa married Sunanda, the daughter of Sivi, and had three sons, viz., Devapi, Santanu and Valhika. Devapi became a hermit and therefore Santanu became the king.
Santanu married Ganga, whose son was known as Devavrata. Bhishma is none other than this Devavrata. After Devavrata was born, Santanu met Satyavati and wanted to marry her. But she demanded that a son born to her, and not Bhishma and his line, should ascend the throne. In order to help his father’s wishes, Bhishma took a vow of Brahmacharya (and thus assuring no progeny). Satyavati already had a son by Parasara, named Dwaipayana (Who was later called Vyasa, the rishi who wrote the Mahabharata).
Santanu had two sons by Satyavati, named Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Chitrangada was killed by the Gandharvas. Vichitravirya became king, married the two daughters of the king of Kasi, named Ambika and Ambalika and died childless. To make sure that the lineage of her son (Vichitravirya) rule the kingdom, Satyavati thought about the customs of those days. It was acceptable in those days for a brother to get children through the brother’s wife. Therefore, she called Vyasa and asked him to get children for the sake of his brother (half-brother’s) dynasty. Dwaipayana, consented to his mother’s and got three children, viz., Dhritarashtra, Pandu, and Vidura.
King Dhritarashtra had a hundred sons by his wife, Gandhari.(This is also an interesting story to read; but too long to recount here). And amongst those hundred sons, four are well-known: Duryodhana, Duhsasana, Vikarna, and Chitrasena. And Pandu had two wives, Kunti ( also called Pritha), and Madri. Pandu, while out a-hunting, killed a deer during the act of mating. He was cursed that he will die if he tried to co-habit with his wives. He stopped going to his wives but wanted children to help him go to the world of the ancestors. He requested Kunti and Madri to get children through someone else. Kunti will not think of it but remembered a special boon she had received earlier. Using that boon, Kunti united with Dharma and Yudhishtra (Dharma) was born. Bhima was born of Marut (Vayu, also father of Hanuman) and Arjuna through Indra. Madri got Nakula and Sahadeva through the twin Aswins, with the help of Kunti. Madri entered the funeral pyre when Pandu died.
Before the Kurukshetra war, after marrying Draupadi, each of the Pandavas had one son each through her: Yudhishthira got Prativindhya; Bhima, Sutasoma; Arjuna, Srutakriti; Nakula, Satanika; and Sahadeva, Srutakarman. Yudhishthira, had another wife Devika, the daughter of Govasana of the Saivya tribe, and had a son named Yaudheya. And Bhima married Valandhara, the daughter of the king of Kasi, and had a son named Sarvaga. Bhima also had a son through a she-demon (Hidimva) and was called Gatothkacha. Arjuna  abducted Subhadra, Krishna’s sister with Krishna’s help and had a son named Abhimanyu. And Nakula married Karenumati, the princess of Chedi, had a son named Niramitra. Sahadeva married Vijaya, the daughter of the king of Madra, and had a son named Suhotra.
Abhimanyu was the perpetuator of the Pandava family.All the other sons of the Pandavas were killed in the war. He married Uttara, the daughter of Virata. She was pregnant with Abhimanyu’s son during the war. A weapon used by Aswattaman burnt this child in the womb. The child was born premature but Krishna asked Kunti to take care of the child with the promise that he will revive the child to full strength by the age of six months. Krishna fulfilled his promise. And after reviving him, Vasudeva (Krishna) said, 'Because this child is born in an extinct race, he will be called Parikshit'. And Parikshit married Madravati, and their son was Janamejaya.
It was during the performance of Aswamedha yaga by Janamejaya of the Pandava dynasty that the story of Mahabharata was recounted by Sanjaya, who was Dhrithrashtra’s charioteer and a witness to the war. He was also given special powers by Lord Krishna to be able to see everything that went on in the battle field. In essence, Sanjaya was the official reporter from the war front.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Ashtavakra and Vandin - Maha Bharata Series 15

In Book 3, Sections 133-134, there is a story of a contest between Ashtavakra and a priest in King Janaka’s court, by the name of Vandin.  Ashtavakra was the son of Kahoda, a disciple of the famous Uddalaka of Upanishad fame and Sujata, Uddalaka’s daughter.

Ashtavakra goes to the court of King Janaka to regain his father’s life which was taken by Vandin. Vandin had a habit of punishing those whom he defeated in philosophical arguments by drowning them in water. The gate-keepers did not let Ashtavakra in since he was a child.  Ashtavakra tells them that he has mastered all the Vedas and reminds them that one should not ignore fire even if it be small, because it is capable of consuming everything. He also says: “True growth cannot be inferred from the mere development of the body”. Also, “ One does not become knowledgeable just because his hair is gray. Even a child can be possessed of knowledge . A man's merit consists in not years, or gray hair, or wealth, or friends. He is great who is versed in the Vedas”. He is admitted to the king’s court.

Ashtavakra then addresses the king and says that he came to defeat Vandin in arguments and get him drowned. The king cautions him but Ashtavakra says Vandin has not met with anyone who is superior to him. “That is why he is so arrogant”.

The king wanted to test Ashtavakra and so asked a few questions. When he asked: “What has thirty divisions, twelve part, 24 joints and 360 spokes?”, Ashtavakra identified it as the wheel of time.

Janaka asked: “who among the gods bears those two who are yoked to a car and sweep like a hawk and what do they give birth to?”. Ashtavakra answered: “Thunder and lightning with cloud (as the base); or misery and death and mind (as the base)”.

Janaka asked: “What is that which does not close its eyes when asleep? What is it that does not move when born? What is it that has no heart? What increases its own speed?”  Ashtavakra answered: “Fish, egg, stone and a river.

Janaka was pleased and invited Vandin to face the challenge from Ashtavakra. The contest is for Ashtavakra to establish that there is only one Supreme Being (advaita). Ashtavakra said “You answer my questions and I will answer yours”. Vandin starts with “Only one fire takes various shapes. Only one sun illuminates this world. Only one hero, Indra destroys enemies. Only one Yama is the Lord of pitris (ancestors)”. The hidden idea is that just the one intellect guides the senses and gives us perception.

Ashtavakra says: “Indra and Agni move together. Narada and Parvata are two sages; Aswins are twins; there are two wheels to a car; a husband and wife make a couple”. He means that there is another faculty besides intellect which is consciousness and the two of them have to act together to guide the senses.

Vandin says: “Three is the number of words; three are the number of divine lights; three kinds of beings are born; three Vedas are needed to perform Vajapeya yagna; the Adhwaryus commence sacrificial rites three different times”. The suggested meaning is that intellect and consciousness are subservient to acts.

Ashtavakra points out the four ashramas, the four orders who perform sacrifices; four cardinal directions and the four legs of a cow. Even if acts are important, when the fourth, namely the Supreme Being becomes manifest to the individual Atman, It stands on Its own and without any need to act.

Vandin says: “there are five fires; the poetic meter called pankti has five feet; there are five sacrifices; and there are five sacred rivers”. He is now referring to the five senses which are capable of cognizing their respective objects. Ashtavakra counters with the custom of donating six cows at the start of a sacred fire, the six seasons, six senses, the six stars in the constellation krithika. The implication is that the five senses cannot do anything without the mind, and mind is considered a sense organ in the Vedic philosophy.

Vandin now counts all seven: domestic animals, wild animals, seven rishis, seven ways of paying homage and seven strings of the Veena. The point is that although the five senses and the mind are needed to perceive, the intellect is involved in the happiness or misery generated by those perceptions.

It is now Ashtavakra’s turn for listing number eight: eight legs of a mythical animal called Sarabha which is said to be an enemy or lion; eight Vasus; and eight angles of a sacrificial stake. This leads to the eight items in Samkhya philosophy, namely five senses, the mind, intellect and ego. Vandin answers with nine mantras used to kindle fire in sacrifices to the ancestors, functions in the process of creation, the meter (chandas) called brahati and the maximum single digit. (Incidentally, this number is important in the Bahai faith)

I could not understand the hidden meanings beyond number eight. Only thing I am sure is that they refer to arguments based on the differences between Samkhya philosophy and Advaita.

Ashtavakra lists 10 cardinal points, 10 months of pregnancy and 10 big teachers of the past. Vandin lists 11 objects of enjoyment and 11 stages in the life cycle of animals. Ashtavakra lists the following items for number 12: months of a year; number of feet in the meter (chandas) Jagati and the number of Adityas (which includes Vishnu and the Sun). The number 12 also includes a list of 12 virtues such as truth, self-restraint, tapas, forgiveness and charity.

Vandin starts with 13, but  is not able to complete the list. Ashtavkara does (13th month, 13 special sacrifices and 13 long poetic meters) and thus wins the contest.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Bhima and Hanuman - Maha Bharata Series 14

In Book 3, Section 141, Vishnu says that he will one day separate the soul from the body of Narakasura. This, of course, happens during his avatar (reincarnation) as Krishna. The point for me is about separating the soul from the body. Vishnu did not say “I will take Naraka’s life; but the soul”. Obviously, our ancestors believed, as did the western cultures, in an entity called the “soul”, separate from the body capable of independent existence.

Later in this section, there is an episode where the Pandavas and Draupadi are on their way to Kailas. This was the time Arjuna had been sent by Dharma to acquire celestial weapons. When they are walking, they see an unusual - looking lotus flower. Draupadi asks Bhima to find out its source and bring her some more of those lotuses. Bhima being Bhima, causes havoc walking through the forest uprooting trees and crushing animals. At one point, Hanuman shows up. We learn that Hanuman is also a son of Vayu (God of the Wind) just as Bhima is; only that Hanuman was in Treta yuga and Bhima in Dwapara Yuga.

Hanuman tells Bhima: “Why are you hurting innocent animals like an ignorant child? You should be kind to all creatures. We animals are ignorant of virtues. But, you humans are endowed with reason and should show kindness”.

 Actually, Hanuman showed up because Bhima came to a crossroad and started walking the path of the celestials. Hanuman wants Bhima to take the path of the mortals. Hanuman lies down on the path and asks Bhima to jump over him. Bhima does not and gives a reason I do not understand. Then Bhima asks Hanuman to show his full form. (This is forerunner of the later episode during Gitopadesa when Arjuna asks Krishna to show his full form and Krishna obliges) Hanuman declines to do so. He says: “The times are different. I did it in a previous yuga. Rivers, trees, plants and Gods conform to time, and in harmony with the contexts”.

Later, Hanuman talks about the varnas (the so-called castes) and the duties of people in each varna. He talks about order in society when everyone does his/her duty according to the dharma for the varna. In Section 148, Hanuman says that in Krita yuga, there was only one eternal religion (Sanatana Dharma). There was no need for sacrifices (yagnas). There was harmony and full health. There were no Vedas or Gods. There was only Brahman and only one mantra (OM). In the next yuga (Treta), Vedas came in and sacrifices were introduced. Virtues declined. Religions and religious rites and rituals came in. In Dwapara Yuga, religion declined. Vedas divided into four. People who knew Vedas declined but those who knew Shastras increased. Truth declined and passion increased. In Kali Yuga, he predicted that Dharma (virtues) will decline by 3/4th. Vedas and religions will be abandoned. Six things will lead to fear, famine and scarcity. They are: excess rain, draught, rats and locusts  (pests), birds and “other” people. This last list is interesting and I do not know who is referred to as “other people”.

In section 157, there are lists of several kinds of fruits, flowers, and birds. Some of them are either extinct or mythical like the chataka bird, who is supposed to drink only rain water as the rain is falling or the Sarabha, an animal with eight legs.  Others are well-known such as mango, pomegranate, jujube (ilandai) and fig; peacock and woodpecker; champaka and palmyra.

Then, there are celestials beings such as kinnara (deformed), kimpurusha (half-man and half-steed, yaksha ( superhuman beings living in inaccessible halls and mountains), gandharvas (celestial musicians), apsaras (celestial dancers), siddhas (perfected, emancipated, semi-divine), charanas (wandering minsterlsm bards), rakshasas (barbarians with funny years, born on the day they are conceived and grow fast within a year) with conditional immortality and their counterparts Asuras, celestials with no death.

Among all of these, mrudangam (musical instrument, a drum used in classical south indian music)  is also mentioned.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Rishi Narada - Maha Bharata Series 13

Book 2, Section 5:  Rishi Narada, is described as one who is conversant with the Vedas and the six Angas,Upanishadas, with ithihaasas and Puranas, Nyaya (logic), Samkhya and Yoga systems of philosophy, with knowledge of everything that ever happened throughout the ages. He was eloquent, resolute, intelligent, possessed of powerful memory. He was ever desirous of humbling the celestials and Asuras by fomenting quarrels among them. He was a thorough master of every branch of learning, fond of war and music, and possessed of these and numberless other accomplishments.

Narada tends to roam in the realm of the gods and of men and having wandered over the different worlds, came into that Sabha and asks Yudhishtra a stream of questions all pointing to the details of a good monarch. “ Is the wealth you earn being spent on proper objects? Do you enjoy the pleasure in virtue? Are you enjoying the pleasures of life? Are you weighed down by them? Are you pursing dharma and wealth without sacrificing one for the other or both for pleasure?  

Narada also states: The six attributes of kings are cleverness of speech, readiness in providing means, intelligence in dealing with the foe, memory, and acquaintance with morals and politics). Their means are seven: sowing dissensions, chastisement, conciliation, gifts, incantations, medicine and magic. Are you aware of your strengths and weaknesses? Are you aware of the strength and weakness of your foes? I hope your seven principal officers of state the governor of the citadel, the commander of forces, the chief judge, the general in interior command, the chief priest, the chief physician, and the chief astrologer have not succumbed to the influence of your enemies.  

The victories of kings depend on good counsels and I hope you have such learned ministers who are well-versed and incorruptible. Are they under your control?

Narada asks other questions such as: Are your forts always filled with treasure, food, weapons, water, engines and instruments, as also with engineers and bowmen? Is the commander of your forces possessed of sufficient confidence, brave, intelligent, patient, well-conducted, devoted to you, and competent? Do you know that the misery caused by arrears of pay and irregularity in the distribution of rations drives the troops to mutiny?

I hope you recognize persons of learning and humility, and skill in every kind of knowledge with gifts of wealth and according to their qualifications. Do you also support the wives and children of men that have given their lives for you?

Can everyone in your kingdom approach you without fear, as if you were their mother and father? Have you constructed large tanks and lakes all over thy kingdom at proper distance? Do you supply your farmers with seed and food and not tax them too heavily. Make sure you take care of the blind, the dumb, the lame, the deformed, the friendless, and ascetics that have no homes.

Do you administer justice fairly without any favoritism, with punishment for those who deserve it and worship for those that deserve it? I hope you seek to cure bodily diseases by medicines and fasts, and mental illness with the advice of the aged?

Narada goes on: I hope that with passions under complete control and with singleness of mind, you strive to perform the sacrifices called Vajapeya and Pundarika ?  And keep free from the fourteen vices of kings, viz., atheism, untruthfulness, anger, incautiousness, procrastination, non-visit to the wise, idleness, restlessness of mind, taking counsels with only one man, consultation with persons unacquainted with the science of profit, abandonment of a settled plan, divulgence of counsels, non-accomplishment of beneficial projects, and undertaking everything without reflection? Also get rid of these six evils, O monarch, viz., sleep, idleness, fear, anger, weakness of mind, and procrastination?'

Somewhere during this discourse, Narada says: “ Vedas bear fruit when one performs agnihotra and sacrifices; wealth bears fruit when one enjoys it and also gives to charity; a wife when she bears children and knowledge when it results in humility and good behavior”.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

What is Vaidῑkam?

The word Vaidkam means that which follows the Vedas. All branches of Hinduism claim their roots to the Vedas. Therefore, they call themselves Vedic religions (Vaidkam). But they are not, as defined by Kạnchi Periyavạl. He says that a Vedic religion has to accept all portions of the Vedas and not oppose any part of them. They should also follow all the 40 samskạrạs mentioned in the Smriti texts and not add new ones. They should follow all the varnạṣrama darmas, not just portions of them.

For example, some focus on only one aspect of the trinity, such as iva (pạśupáṭam) or Viṣnu (pạncarạtram). They tend to exclude other aspects of the trinity. They add samskạrạs not mentioned in the smritis, such as placing mudras on the body as in some sects of Vainavaites. Some of them also promote the idea that the authority they derive is not only from the Vedạs but also from the ạgamạs and purạnạs. They also tend to claim that their method of worship was given to them by their favorite deity. They become separate sects when combined with tạntric rituals.

There are also the straight tạntric religions such as that of kulạrnava sạktam. In general, Tạntric religions 1. Claim independent authority apart from the Vedas. They have their own “purạnạs” which they claim to be revealed texts. 2. Claim exclusive loyalty and have initiation rites. They may even condemn other Gods. 3. Follow separate rituals not given in the Vedạs. 4. Some  follow esoteric and extreme practices such as the five “M” s (the five Ms are: madya (wine), matsya (fish), mạmsa (meat), mudrạ (hand symbols or dried grains) and maituna (sexual union).

It appears that there were over 70 religions in India at one time, most of them calling themselves as Vedic religions. SAt times past, some of them practiced very crude rituals such as  animal and human sacrifice. Adi Sankara is credited with eliminating many of these sects and consolidating the rest into five major branches of theistic Hindu religion – Ganapatyam (of Ganapti, or Ganesha), Saivam (of Shiva), Vaishnavam (of Vishnu), Sauryam (Of Surya or the Sun) and Saktam (of Shakti or Mother Goddess). One caveat is that neither the word Hindu nor the word religion (as used in English) were known or used at that time. The name was “Sanatana Dharma”.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Information Overload

This is the age of Information, nay – it is the age of Information Overload. We are inundated with all kinds of information – useful, not-so-useful, wrong, misleading and outright false information. The situation is so bad that there is an Information Overload Research group! (URL:

How do we deal with this overload? There are several ways and the British Medical Journal published a humorous essay on this topic. In summary, the essay lists five different ways people deal with this problem. Here they are, together with an appropriate metaphor for each strategy.

1. The Ostrich strategy, which needs no explanation;  

2. The Pigeon strategy, which is hanging around with others who read, and pick up bits of information here and there;  

3. The Owl strategy, which is to stay with a question doggedly, and refine the question and reflect;  

4. The Jackdaw strategy, which is a mixture of the above two – some scavenging and some real effort;

5. The “inhuman” (the authors probably meant non-human) strategy, which is to make use of machines and publications, which synthesize and catalog. In medicine, there are such publications. For example,  UptoDate and BMJ Point of Care.

Reference:  BMJ 2010;341:c7126. December 15, 2010

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Time - Some Personal Reflections

What is Time? One view is that it is a perception of the human mind. We perceive the “passage” of time based on movement from here to there and by changes (increase or decrease in size or modification) in the structure of objects around us and in us. The alternating cycle of day and night is probably the primary determinant for the experience of time for life in this world. Do animals and plants have a sense of time?

Can there be “time” if there is no perceiving mind? The answer probably is “yes” since the primary determinant is the day and night cycle, at least in our world. Is the perceiver of “time”, namely me, who is the subject also  a part of time, the object? Again, the answer seems to be “yes”. But, Time is also independent of the perceiver and the process of perception. Time, indeed, rules space and what is in space, since no two physical things can occupy the same space at the same time. Space and Time are inter-related.

Time implies space or change. To go from one place to another requires time however short that distance may be. The movement gives the sense of passage of time.  What about change? Does passage of time causes change or does change gives a sense of time? For a change to occur, time is needed. But, if there is no time, will there be change? And why should change occur at all? If things are static, with no change, will there be time? Some would say that the perception of change is what gives us a sense of time.

What was there before time? That is a silly question. If we talk about time like we talk about any other object, we need to ask “when did it start?” If it did have a beginning, then what was there before time? That is also a silly question.

Kannadasan, a major Tamil poet of the 20th century said that there are two kinds of time.  One is cyclic and one is eternal. The cyclic one is associated with life, and therefore with pain and suffering. The eternal one is associated with bliss. Kannadasan thinks that there is only one time; humans see it as two. He goes on to say: “I am in charge of the drama called Time. I keep today for myself and leave tomorrow for time.  If time asks me I do not answer. I do not cry when time hurts me; and I do not laugh when life hugs me”.         

Life is a mystery. Time is an even greater mystery. Time was existent before life appeared on this planet. But, there was no one to call it by a name.

Time is a constant of the universe. There are only two ways to look at Time, as Kannadasan pointed out – as eternal, with no beginning and no end or cyclic, in which case it has no beginning or end. The word cyclic implies passage of time.

Once we human came into existence and found the ability to speak and invent words, we coined the term Time to explain two things: A. changes that take place in our own selves as modifications of the body and around us with the rising of the sun and setting of the sun, flowers blossoming and withering etc.  and B. relation between objects in space and the process of moving from one place to another,which takes “time”.

Time is a constant of the universe, but only at the present moment. Sloka 1:14 in Uddhava Gita calls the Lord as Time (kaala) which is beyond matter and energy. Bede Griffiths (in his book on The Marriage of the East and West, page 168) says: “We are conditioned by time so that we see one thing after another and can never grasp the whole. But the intuitive vision is a vision of the whole. The rational mind goes from point to point and comes to a conclusion; the intuitive mind grasps the whole in all its parts”. He implies that spiritual intuition is the grasping of the whole, all in one moment, not sequentially in time.

All these musings are based on metaphysical, spiritual and common sense views. Obviously this topic is a complex one and one has to be an astrophysicist or an expert in topics such as Einstein’s Theories and Quantum mechanics to fully understand the physics of Time. If you wish to delve deep, please read Stephen Hawking’s book on A Brief History of Time and Richard Muller's recent book with the title Now – The Physics of Time.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


“Your blood is red; so is mine. Your tears are salty; so are mine”. (Buddha)

Comte is said to have defined altruism as “devotion to the welfare of others, based in selflessness*”.  I just read a book on Altruistic Personality based on studies of common individuals who went out of the way to help Jews in Europe during World War II. According to the definition used in this book, voluntary acts, which may involve risk to one’s own life and/or personal sacrifice, in order to help someone in need, for no material benefit are acts of altruism.

Two defining characteristics of the individuals included in this study who took part in rescue operations as compared to the bye-standers were 1. “inclusiveness” which means an ability to care for all people and 2. “attachment” which means an ability to relate to others and a sense of commitment to the others.

In their analysis of the characteristics of rescuers during World War II, the authors note that “it was the values learned from their parents which prompted and sustained” their altruism. (page 142). The mother of one of the rescuers had taught him never to consider any human being as inferior. She would never look down on anyone. His father told him “All people are people”. The authors call this common quality of the “rescuers” as “inclusiveness”.

When comparing how the core values of the rescuers and non-rescuers shaped their world views and their interpretation of events, the authors noticed that the attitudes and the values of the parents played some part. “The willingness and ability to transcend oneself under such conditions (conditions of stress and threat) is usually based on sustained habits of orientation to the world, largely developed early in life”. (page 160).

To be an altruistic helper, one has to be aware of the needs of others (sensitivity), has to have desire to help, ability to help (such as finding resources), courage to act and be prepared to take risk, when needed. (It is interesting to note that compassion is defined in the Buddhist texts as the desire and ability to help.)

During periods of extreme violence and social unrest, some tend to accept the situation passively and close their eyes out of fear, hopelessness, uncertainty and fatalism. Caring for others requires an orientation different from that required for rational action. This requires “caring” for even those they do not know. It also requires empathy and sensitivity to the other person irrespective of their color or religion. 

Some decide to help or not  tohelp based on rationality. They can rationalize their non-action. Rationality is based on thought. Those who emphasize rationality and equity will emphasize “access to procedures and impartial application of those procedures”. But, caring requires subjective feelings towards the welfare of people without regard to fairness and equity. (page 163)

 Fairness and equity emphasize procedures (objective features); caring requires kindness and benevolence (subjective features).

Caring is based on the needs of the one who is suffering. Ideally, it should not matter who that person is; race, religion, nationality should not matter. However, perceptions of the victim as worthy or unworthy of help is a determinant, the authors found.  The victim’s “good” appearance and perceived innocence (as in a child) may create a favorable attitude in the rescuer, whereas laziness or lack of effort, “drunkenness” and “not worthy of trust” create a negative attitude. Media, of course, play a large part in creating negative “stereotypes” of groups of people, as it happened with the Nazi’s portrayal of the Jewish people.

When discussing factors that lead to “attachment” (relating to others), once again the major influence in the development of this character among the rescuers was the family. They had strong, cohesive family bonds as a primary psychological strength, often in the context of religiosity. The rescuers also had more friends among the persecuted group and knew their plight so that they felt a personal obligation to help them. Some had a deep sense of social responsibility and this also came from family values. Finally, there were some who were egalitarian, who felt the pain of others and had empathy.

In contrast, among the non-rescuers were those who had poor family and community relationship, those who felt distant from the lives of the victims (Jews), those who preferred to keep themselves and avoid social involvement and a few true “ethno-centric” individuals who considered some people as the “others”.

Although there was no difference in the religious affiliations and religiosity between the rescuers and non-rescuers, unfortunately “more intense religiosity is associated with greater prejudice” (page 155) as shown by Rokeach (A Mighty Fortress: Faith, Hope and Bigotry. M.Rokeach. Augsburg Publishing Minneapolis, MN 1973). This is a sad story of humanity.

In a more recent study of 1,170 children aged 5 to 12 years from six different countries, relationship between religiosity of the household was compared with parent-reported empathy and sensitivity to justice in the children. Children living in religious house-holds showed more empathy and sensitivity to justice. However, children growing up in “religious” households were less altruistic than children from non-religious house-holds. They were also more prone to punitive tendencies. (Current Biology  25: 1-5, November 16, 2015)

The most important lesson for me from this book is that children learn compassion, empathy and caring early in life from their family. It is from the family environment that children also learn intolerance and prejudice. That is where we have to start to reduce violence in the society, to develop peace and harmony in this world and to create a safe future for our children.

Fortunately, there are groups which emphasize early childhood education, not just about the world but also of values.  For example, The Loris Malaguzzi International Centre located in Reggio Emilia (central Italy) focuses on value and innovation in the education of children. (

 Another organization by the name of Living Values Education (LVE)promotes the development of values-based learning communities and places the search for meaning and purpose at the heart of education”. (

In matters of empathy, altruism and tolerance, education has to start very, very early and at home. And for that to happen, parents have to be educated. Parents have to be role-models - teaching children universal human values and an open mind (for "inclusiveness and attachment" as defined by Oliner*).  


*The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. What led ordinary men and women to risk their lives on behalf of others? Oliner,Samuel P and Pearl M. The Free Press, New York. 1988. Page 4.