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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Balarama’s Pilgrimages (Book 9) - Maha Bharatha Series 50

Just when the famous duel between Duryodhana and Bhima is set to begin, Balarama shows up.

At the end of the Kurukshetra battle, Balarama, the elder brother of Krishna, shows up after a 42 pilgrimage to sacred waters (tirta yatra). In Balarama’s own words, he went away on a Pushya day and returned back on a Shravana day. He went away because he was initially against taking sides in the Kaurava- Pandava battle. Later, he sided with the Kauravas. Krishna opposed that idea and joined with the Pandavas. I did not find any good reasons mentioned in the book for Balarama’s position. Nor, did I find any good reason why Balarama went away during the war.

It is clear that the younger brother, Krishna, was more influential. After all, He is Lord Vishnu in person. It is also interesting that, during my visit to Kurukshetra, I saw two coins from around 100 BCE belonging to a Greek king in that part of the world with the images of Krishna and Balarama. May be, Maha Bharatha was already popular among the people by that time. May be, there was a major battle in that part of the world, and all the characters in this epic are mythologized counterparts of real-time kings and warriors.

Sage Vyasa is a great story-teller. He breaks the flow just at the right moment to keep us guessing and make us read further! I remember our younger days when we used to wait eagerly for the weekly editions of our Tamizh magazine (Kalki), when Ponniyin Selvan was being serialized!

Janamejaya wants to know about the places Balarama visited during those 42 days. And, Vyasa decides to take us on a pilgrimage with Balarama. Some of the points that impressed me are: 1. The importance given to pilgrimage as a way to please the “gods” and acquire merit (punya). 2. The importance given to bathing at sacred places (tirta yatra).  3. This is probably the beginning of bathing in 100 wells at the Rameswaram temple. Some of the names of those wells are the same as the ones in the Maha Bharatha. 3. In an earlier section, Vyasa describes various places visited by the Pandavas during their pilgrimage at the beginning of their exile. 4. As stated in several places in the Hindu literature, pilgrimage is as effective as the yagnas for folks, who are not entitled to perform them because of their caste, sex, wealth and position in the hierarchy of the society, to acquire merit (punya) and attain moksha. 5. I cannot escape noticing the excess and undue emphasis given to the importance of the Brahmins in the society and their relationship to the Kshatriyas.

In this section, there is a list of several sacrifices (Yagna) performed in those days. We have heard of Ashvamedha yagna and Rajasuya yagna. Here are the names of several others: agnihotra, darsa, paurnamasa, chaturmasya, agnishtoma, agnishutta, vajapeya,pundarika, sautramani, and dadasaha. Mentions are made of sacrificing the flesh of animals and of humans! Roberto Calasso mentions all these yagnas and also mentions one Purushamedha yagna, similar to Ashvamedha yagna in his book on Satapata Brahmana (Ka – Stories of the mind and Gods of India. Vintage. 1999). As the names suggests a horse is sacrificed in Ashvamedha yagna. But, in Purushamedha yagna, a human is tied to the sacrificial post and sanctified. At the end, he is untied and not sacrificed. But he must go into the forest.

Kanchi Periyaval talks about all these and more, summarized in Volume 2 of Deivathin kural.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

End of the Kurukshetra Battle (Book 9) - Maha Bharatha Series 49

The Kuru army had been devastated by the Pandavas. The only remaining heroes are Duryodhana, Kripa, Kritavarman and Aswattaman. Sanjaya is caught by the Pandavas, but released at the intervention of Sage Vyasa. (Vyasa shows up suddenly at critical moments). Yuyutsu, the son of Dhrithrashtra by a Vaisya wife, and thus a half-brother of the Kauravas, who had joined the Pandavas is alive. He takes permission from Yudhishtra and Krishna and goes back to Hastinapura to report to the king. Later, he performs the funeral rites for his half-brothers as suggested by Lord Krishna.
Duryodhana hides himself in a lake and solidifies the waters using his powers. The Pandavas learn about his hiding place with the help of some hunters who supply meat to Bhima. The Pandavas go to the lake and Yudhishtra asks Duryodhana to come out like a man and fight. The main reason for my writing this section is to bring to your attention the conversations between Yudhishtra and Duryodhana. 
Yudhishtra teases Duryodhana about his so-called valor and might and asks him “Why are you afraid?” Dhuryodhana says: “Fear is common among all living creatures. But, now I am not afraid. But tired ”. When Dhuryodhana talks about virtues and rules of combat, Yudhishtra asks why he did not think about virtues when the Pandavas were mistreated. Duryodhana then says: “What is there for me to rule after I have lost all my brothers, sons and friends? You can take it all”. Yudhishtra replies that he will not accept a gift, but wants to earn what is due to him and his brothers in a battle. Besides, he points out that Dhuryodhana is not in a position to make a gift, but must fight like a warrior. 
Dhuryodhana is thus coaxed and goaded into accepting the challenge. He comes out and says: “I am alone. I do not have any armor or equipments. I am tired etc” and says how he should not be expected to fight with all of the Pandavas at once. He offers to do combat with one of the Pandavas at a time. Yudhishtra asks how these rules were forgotten when several of the Kaurava heroes surrounded and killed Abhimanyu, when he was alone.
Yudhishtra is always kind-hearted and soft. He allows Dhuryodhana to choose his weapon and agrees to battle him one at a time. He also offers, without any reason, that if Duryodhana defeats only one of the Pandavas, the kingdom will be his! Duryodhana chooses a mace.  
Lord Krishna gets upset with Yudhishtra and chastises him! You should read the words as written by Lord Vyasa!! Krishna tells Yudhishtra: “What is wrong with you? Why did you offer to battle one at a time? Are you back to your ways of gambling? May be, you are destined to spend your entire life in exile! Duryodhana has been practicing with the mace against stone pillars all his life, getting ready for this moment. He has great strength, and more important, he has great skills. None of you, except Bhima has any chance of beating Duryodhana. Bhima has might and power, but he does not possess skill. In battles, skills are more important than might”. 
Fortunately, Bhima chooses himself to do the battle with the mace. 
The rest of the story is well-known. My point in bringing this episode is to make you, the reader, to read the conversations in the original. What a great story-teller Vyasa is! And, how beautifully he brings out many important facts of warfare and individual battles in the form of conversations!!  

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Karna’s final moments - Maha Bharatha Series 48

The latter part of Book 8 is full of details about Karna’s feats in the battle. The descriptions are monotonous and fill several pages. Hidden between those descriptions are a few episodes and interesting conversations.

In one of them, Aswatthaman is advising Duryodhana to make peace with the Pandavas. He says that there are four ways of making friends: natural, those made by conciliation, those made by wealth and those made through the use of power.

Later, when the wheel of Karna’s car is stuck in the mud (through a curse on Karna), he asks Arjuna to give him time to get the car un-stuck and appeals to Arjuna’s virtues. He points out to Arjuna how it is not virtuous to kill an enemy who is at a disadvantage. The reply comes to Karna from Krishna, and not Arjuna. Krishna asks Karna how is it that he (Karna) did not remember what virtue is at so many times in the past. “How did you not remember that virtue when you insulted Draupadi in public? How did you not remember virtue when the kingdom was snatched away from the Pandavas by deceit?”

One other point that caught my attention in this chapter is the details of flags carried by each warrior. Arjuna’s flag has Hanuman as the emblem. Krishna’s (Vishnu’s) is Garuda.

The last portion of Karna Parva (Book 8) calls Vishnu, Agni, Vayu, Soma and Surya as sacrifices (Yagna). The idea that the sacrificer is the sacrifice and that even Prajapati was sacrificed in Yagna is given in the Satapata Brahmana. The sage Vyasa gives all the benefits one acquires by reading or listening to this Section with description of Yagnas.

The importance given to pilgrimage and listening to puranas (epics) seems to have come about because most ordinary folks could not perform Sacrifices (yagna or yaga). Some of them required to be performed over several years, and required enormous wealth to be given as gifts (dana) and sacrifice of scores of animals. Only kings could perform those yagnas. The kings, who were ksahtriyas needed the brahmins to officiate. Women and those of Vysya and Sudra castes were not entitled to perform these. In order to help those who were excluded, it is said that our ancestors established several other methods for acquiring virtues (punya). They include pilgrimage and listening to epics (purana).

And, so it is that Ramayana and Mahabharatha came into being. In the process, Valmiki and Vyasa made esoteric philosophies accessible and practical for the masses.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Krishna advises Arjuna to insult Yudhishtra - Maha Bharatha series 47

In book 8, Section 69, is an episode where Arjuna goes out of the battle-field to make sure his brother, Yudhishtra (Dharma) is safe. This was soon after Karna had defeated Yudhishtra in the battle. When Arjuna enters the tent accompanied by Krishna, Yudhishtra thinks that Arjuna came to tell him that Karna had been killed. When he finds out that it is not so, Yudhshtra gets angry and belittles Arjuna for lack of valor. Yudhsihtra goes as low as to ask Arjuna to give his Gandiva to someone else who can kill Karna.

Earlier, Arjuna has taken a vow that if anyone says that he is not fit to hold Gandiva in his hands, Arjuna will kill that person. Therefore, Arjuna takes the sword from his sheath and is ready to kill his elder brother. That was the duty of a Kshatriya, to keep his vow. Krishna intervenes. He asks Arjuna to calm down and points out that Yudhishtra said those harsh words because of his mental state after defeat at Karna’s hands and also to incite Arjuna to heroic action. Arjuna says that it is not possible for him to put the sword in his sheath, since by doing so he will commit a sin of not keeping a Kshatriya vow.

Then, there is a delightful discourse by Krishna on the intricacies of morality. He says that it is difficult to discriminate between what should and should not be done in a given situation. Between breaking the vow (keeping the truth) and killing, killing is worse. “And in this situation you are trying to kill your elder brother for a vow you took in ignorance. Besides, Kshatriya dharma says that you should not kill one who is facing away from the battle field and who does not have any weapons” says Krishna.

Krishna proceeds to say that although truth is a great virtue, there are occasions when falsehood is acceptable. For example, Krishna says: "falsehood is acceptable when life is in danger, in marriage (?) and when one is about to lose all of one’s property falsehood is utterable and is not a sin". There are subtle differences between truth, falsehood and outright lie!

Krishna goes on to tell Arjuna the story of Vahlaka and Kausika. Vahlaka made a living by hunting although he did not like the idea of killing. He did so strictly to take care of his family. At one time, he could not get any animals to supply food for his family and found an unusual creature drinking water. He killed the animal instantly, not knowing that the animal was blind. In spite of that, a celestial car came to take him to heaven. That happened because the animal he killed was a human who was very cruel and had therefore been cursed to become a blind animal by the gods. 
In the other story, Kaushika was an ascetic who had taken a vow to speak truth at all costs. He lived in a forest. Once, some villagers entered the forest to escape from robbers who plundered their village. The robbers followed them and when they found Kausika, they asked him whether he knew about the villagers. He told them the truth and caused great harm to the villagers at the hands of the robbers.
Given these episodes, Krishna says: “Wish there were an easy way to know what is virtue and what is sin. Sometimes, scriptures help. But, scriptures do not deal with all situations. Sometimes, you can reason it out. Whatever is inoffensive and whatever protects and preserves people is Dharma”. Now, Krishna speaks about Dharma, and not truth and untruth. Dharma seems to be the overarching principle, and truth, non-violence etc are sub-servient to that higher principle.
Krishna then says that Arjuna should forgive Yudhistra since he used harsh words when he was tired and frustrated. Krishna also gave Arjuna a way out of his dilemma. Krishna pointed out that for a Kshatriya, getting insulted by someone would be equivalent to being killed and therefore, Arjuna should call his brother in a singular “you” rather than in the third person respectable “you” and insult him.

Arjuna accepts that solution. He uses the word "you"  and criticizes Yudhishtra for his love of gambling which was responsible for all the suffering that fell on the Pandavas and Draupadi.  Arjuna feels remorse for having been disrespectful to his elder brother.  But, Yudhishtra accepts that criticism since he knows that Arjuna is correct. He feels remorse and says that Bhima should become the king and that he (Yudhishtra) should go to the forest etc. Krishna has to appease both of them and get them back on the main goal of defeating the Kurus.