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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Arjuna advises Yudhishtra - Maha Bharatha Series 54

We are into Book 12, the longest of the 18 books of Maha Bharatha. It is called the Shanti Parva.  It has three sub-sections, 366 (?353) chapters and over 13,000 slokas. Some of the best conversations in Maha Bharatha are set at the beginning of this Book.

I started writing a series on The Gems between Stories from the Maha Bharatha because I felt that the conversations between the main characters are full of worldly wisdom, which need greater emphasis than the story itself. After all, the epics were written to bring the esoteric teachings of the Vedas, Upanishads and Nithi Shastras (ethics and morals) to the common man. When we read Maha Bharata and Ramayana, we learn about Rama and Ravana, about Dharma and Arjuna and Draupadi, about what they did and when, but not enough about why they did what they did, in that particular context. We learn the morals, but not the basis of those morals. The story-tellers (Bhagavatars) and the poets also embellish the stories, use colorful words, bring modern day examples and amuse their audience and vow them, but do not get into the depths of the conversations, which contain profound practical wisdom. I wish to fill in the gap.

Sections 15 and 16 of Book 12 of the Maha Bharatha are the best examples to support  my conviction that the conversations in this Classic should be read by all. The first conversation is between Arjuna and Yudhishtra (Dharma), when he (Dharma) says that he wants to abdicate the hard-won kingdom in favor of Arjuna and retire to the forest. It is also interesting to note that Bhima is next in line by age and should have been asked to rule. But we hear elsewhere from the mouth of Lord Krishna that Bhima is strong and bold but impulsive (and therefore, may act unwisely!).

In this piece, Arjuna says that there are very few naturally pure, righteous people in this world. More often, people often do the right thing out of fear of punishment, or fear of death, fear of after-life or fear about backlash from the society. Arjuna uses the Sanskrit word “danda” several times – this word may mean any one of the following items, rod, sceptre, stick or punishment. “Danda” is needed to restrain the ungovernable and to punish the wicked. That is the duty of a king, a Kshatriya.

The text reads that Brahmins should be punished with a censure; Kshatriya should be punished by withholding food, just enough to survive; a Vaishya should be punished with a fine or appropriation of his property and a Sudra cannot be punished since he is already laboring for others. It is interesting to note that punishments are not harsh (such as lashes, cutting the hand etc), compared to what we hear about in history.

Arjuna says that there are some who are not afraid of anything; they do not care about anything or anybody. They do not obey rules. They have to be controlled by a king using his “danda”.  Then Arjuna makes a remarkable statement. He says that even among the gods, "we worship Rudra, Skanda, Indra, Agni, Kala and Mrityu - all of them are prone to use “danda”. Who worships Brahma, Dhatri and Pushan?" This is a remarkable statement, although we know that in deep philosophy, both the benevolent and the vindictive forms of gods are just two aspects or phases of the same One Principle.

Arjuna says: “Animals live on other animals. The stronger live on the weaker. Even the ascetics cannot live without “killing” something, a plant or a seed. There are innumerable creatures in the water, earth and the fruits. There are so many creatures that are so small that we can only guess that they are there. What is wrong with sustaining one’s life? Is there a duty that is of higher virtue? Given that fact, this world will be a chaos and bereft of anything unless there is some form of control. That control is the scepter of a king. (The king has two duties: raksha or protection and siksha or punishment). You have now obtained this kingdom. Whether you think you obtained it by righteous means or not, it is yours. Therefore, accept the kingdom which you won and perform your duty as a Kshatriya king”.

In a later section, Arjuna recounts the discussion between King Janaka of Mithila and his queen when he decides to renounce the kingdom and become a mendicant. The queen asks Janaka: “If a kingdom and grains of barley are the same to you, why don’t you choose the kingdom? Why do you choose barley with which you cannot do anything? Besides, getting rid of your passions and attachment to worldly things is the needed attitude. If one does not control his anger and other passions and is attached to worldly things, putting  on a crimson robe and taking up a staff, will not make a difference. Such a person is trying only to make a living. He is not a true mendicant”.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

After the battle - Maha Bharatha Series 53

Book 11 is about the lamentations of all those left behind after the battle of Kurukshetra. There were seven survivors on the Pandava side and three on the Kaurava side. Other than the Five brothers, Satyaki and Krishna were the survivors on the Pandava side. On the Kaurava side only Aswatthama, Kritavarman and Kripa were spared. Two others survived, namely Vrishaketu, son of Karna and Yuyutsu, born to Dhrithrashtra of a vaisya woman. He performs the ablutions for all his half-brothers.

Everybody alive is cursing everybody else. That includes Yudhishtra blaming his mother Kunti for not telling them until after the battle that she is Karna’s mother and therefore Karna is a half-brother for the Pandavas; Gandhari scolding Krishna for not stopping the carnage and cursing him to a pitiable death; Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva criticizing Yudhishtra for his wanting to go to the forest and lead a life of a mendicant after all the bloodshed . And,  Draupadi wants revenge for the death of her sons! All of these conversations are worth reading.

In all these conversations, there is a passage in which Yudhishtra curses that “no woman will ever be able to keep a secret in the future”! This is because he was upset with his mother for keeping Karna’s birth as a secret. Of course, this passage from a mythology continues even now. The general statement that women cannot keep a secret is a myth and here is its origin.

In one passage in Book 12, Arjuna criticizes Yudhishtra when the latter wants to become an ascetic and let Arjuna rule the land. He points out that the duty of a kshatriya king is to learn, teach, sacrifice and assist others at sacrifices and a kshatriya has to protect his subjects, and in order to do that he needs wealth. The only way to obtain wealth is to take it from someone else! He asks: “Have you ever seen wealth that was earned without harming someone?”. Arjuna goers on to say that kings conquer others, get their wealth and then they call it theirs. Our scriptures accept this fact about kings. It also says that the king can wash away his “sins” by performing sacrifices and making donations of gold and cattle. With these arguments, Arjuna asks Yudhishtra to enjoy the territory won at the sacrifice of so many lives and rule the land.

In the following chapter, Bhima comes on even stronger on Yudhishtra. He says: “You have become blind to the truth just as people who recite Vedas  blindly, without understanding. If this is the way you interpret the duties of a king, the entire war was unnecessary. The destruction of the Kauravas was uncalled for. If you had told us this, we would not have raised our arms against our own kin. You are acting like a person digging a well and stopping just before hitting the water. All of us are heroes capable of mighty acts but we are obedient to you, our elder, who acts like a eunuch”.

He further says: “If living in the forest is the way to Moksha, all the birds and animals should be in heaven. If living in solitude is the way to moksha, then the mountains and trees can also attain it.  One not acting according to the duty assigned by birth cannot obtain success. Renunciation is not the duty of a kshatriya” etc

Nakula’s talk (Book 12, Section 11) lists the duties of the 4 varnas and 4 ashramas (stages of life). The talk implies that the second stage of life (householder) requires a kshatriya to protect his subjects against enemies, and give donations to brahmanas and perform sacrifices. It also implies that tapas (penance) which is meant for the 4th stage of life is not as conducive to liberation for kshatriya as performing his duties.

Sahadeva’s plea to Yudhishtra is based on the fact that mental detachment is more important than physical detachment and performing one’s duties with detachment is the way to go. (Bhagvat Gita) He also says that one should see oneself in others and others in one-self. This is the same as in one of the Upanishads (Yastu sarvani bhutani…. Isa Upanishad, 1:6))

Sahadeva also uses the words “mama” (In Sanskrit, this word means “mine”) and “na-mama” (not mine) to indicate the attitudes of the mind in sacrifices. These words are still used during “homas” (fire offerings) when the priest deposits offerings into the fire.

When Gandhari curses Krishna for an ignoble death, Krishna’s words to Gandhari are cruel. He says that just as cattle give birth to offspring just to multiply, Kshatriya women give birth to sons so that they may die in battles. One would not expect such harsh words from a Divine Character to a woman who has lost all her sons. I certainly did not expect. If there is a hidden meaning, I do not get it.

Krishna’s advice to Arjuna in the battles and to Bhima in his battle with Duryodhana are also what you would not expect from a Divine character. May be, that is the point. Krishna may be Divine incarnation; but when he comes as a human, he acts like all human beings. Besides, in this world one may have to use whatever means to succeed. May be that is the point of all these lamenting and fault-finding.

In the final analysis, this is a mythology and is meant to bring out the complexity of life and ethical dilemmas in making decisions. There are no “black and white”, “yes” or “no” answers in real life situations. There are shades of grey. Even killing and telling a lie may be necessary under certain circumstances. But what are the guidelines to know when it is acceptable to break acceptable virtues?

Friday, November 10, 2017

Vidura consoling Dhrithrashtra - Maha Bharatha Series 52

In Book 11, Section 2, Vidura is trying to console Dhrithrashtra after the loss of all his sons, grandsons and the army in the battle. Vidura says: “Every living thing has to die. What is the use of grieving over the inevitable? Everything that is put together ends in destruction. Anything that goes up has to come down. Union is bound to end in separation. Life is sure to end in death. The ultimate destroyer will drag down the hero and the coward.”

Living creatures are not existent before they appear, exist for a short period and then become non-existent again. What is the use of grief? You cannot meet with the dead just by grieving. All creatures are like members of a caravan bound to the same destination. But no one knows who will meet with death first. For the Ksahtriya, death in the battlefield is glorious.

“Birth and death are common and universal. There are many reasons for fear and sorrow. But the wise do not get carried away. Time does not favor one over another. No one is dear or hateful to Time. Time is indifferent to none. All get dragged equally by Time. Time causes everything to grow and then destroys everything. Time is awake when everything else is sleeping. It is irresistible. It causes the end of youth, beauty, life and possessions. A wise one therefore is not attached to anything and does not grieve over anything. By indulging in grief, one gets weaker. Grief does not lead us to enlightenment. If grief grips you, counteract by not indulging it. One cannot lessen grief by dwelling on it. It only grows with indulgence. One loses purpose and goal in life by excessive grief”.

“You know that this grief was brought on by your own faults. You were too attached to your sons and did not control them when you should have. There is no use grieving now. Get up and do what you can to appease the souls of the dead”.

Going further, Vidura tells Dhrithrashtra a parable of a man who runs hither and thither in a wilderness and enters a forest at the entrance to which stands a large and gruesome-looking woman. The forest is full of beasts of prey. The man runs and falls into a pit. There is an elephant with 6 heads and 12 feet at the entrance to the pit. The man falls into the pit and hangs upside down on the branches of a creeper. The creeper clings to a tree whose roots are being chewed by rats. There are snakes all over. There are bees swarming to drink the honey from the flowers. The flowers spew honey which the man licks but it is not able to quench his thirst. (Amazingly, Tolstoy uses this fable in his book on “What I believe”!)

Dhrithrashtra asks for the meaning of the parable. Vidura says that the wilderness represents this world of ours. The forest stands for one’s limited life. The beasts of prey are the diseases which afflict man and the ugly, large woman is decrepitude which destroys one’s body. The pit is the physical body and the snakes stand for Time, the ultimate destroyer. The creepers on which the man was hanging stand for one’s desire for life. The elephant is the year (time) with 12 feet or months and 6 faces or seasons. The rats gnawing through the roots of the tree of life are the days and nights which diminish the duration of our lives. Finally, the bees are our human desires and the honey is the transient  happiness we obtain through gratification of desires. Vidura says that one should understand these facts of life, birth and death, diseases and desires and go beyond this impermanent life.   

Vidura compares the body to a car and calls its driver as the Living Principle. The senses are the steeds. He says that people who let the horses run without control have to come back again and again into the cycle of samsara; but those who know how to control the horses attain liberation. The man who restrains his senses, controls his passions and who is contended and truthful attains liberation.

Vidura uses an interesting metaphor in Sloka 19 of Section 7 (Book 11). He says that dama (self control), tyaga (letting go) and apramaada (heedfulness) are the three horses that lead the car of Brahman. If you equate “heedfulness”” with “mindfulness”, this is what Buddha also taught.

The next sloka is also interesting. It says: “The “self” is dear to every one of us. None of the creatures wish to die. Therefore, we should be compassionate to all creatures”.  This is absolutely simple logic. Why is it so difficult to practice? If your life is precious to you, why is it so difficult for you to understand that my life is precious to me? Why do you wish to hurt me?

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Balarama's Pilgrimages (Continued) - Maha Bharatha Series 51

There is a story of Indra becoming afraid of a rishi who is performing severe penance. This attracted my attention for the following reason. Indra, afraid of losing his leadership, tries to interfere with the penance by sending a beautiful damsel. On seeing her, the rishi loses his "vital fluids" into the water. They morph into a child in the river. Indeed, Vyasa himself was born this way. There is more than one such story in Maha Bharata alone.

This leads me to think that the writers of mythology did not consider the rishis as possessing super-human control. All these rishis had all the common passions of a man. Indeed, rishis as generated by Prajapati were neither human nor gods; but, somewhere between.

There are other interesting implications of stories of off-springs arising from the discharge of so-called "vital fluid" into the rivers and pot. In these stories, the woman is always the seductress and therefore, the  “bad one” and the rishi still remains “holy” and keeps his virtues as long as he does not have actual physical contact. That does not agree with my sensibilities.

More interesting is the implication that the male carries all that is needed to make a human. Indeed, it was considered for a long time that everything needed for a human baby to form were in the male. The woman provided only a space for the baby to grow! Some cultures thought that the woman’s fluid had all that was needed. In other words, our ancestors, in several cultures, knew that sexual union between a male and female was needed, but did not know that a sperm and an egg were needed to make an offspring. That lack of knowledge is understandable in those days. This may even be the reason for the emphasis on male offspring in India and in all male-dominant societies. (Please see my essay on The Seeds and the Field. January 1, 2016. Also see Edward Dolnick’s book on The Seeds of Life published in 2017)

From what we know in modern biology, the females of most species carry two X chromosomes and one of them shuts down in each cell. The male is the one who carries an X and a Y. There is at least one reptile in which the female carries an X and a Y and therefore can give rise to off-springs without mating. But, all of them will be males!

The battle between Bhima and Duryodhana is described at the end of Book 9. In this portion, three conversations are worth reading. In one, Krishna tells Arjuna that Bhima may not be able to defeat Duryodhana in a single combat unless he uses a deception. In fact, Krishna approves of it and encourages such deception. He also is critical of Yudhishtra for foolishly agreeing to Duryodhana’s request for one-on-one combat.

In another area, Bhima has broken Duryodhana’s thighs and is standing with one foot on Duryodhana’s head. His soliloquy recounting all the reasons which led to the battle and to the loss of so many lives is worth reading. The third is where Yudhishtra tells Bhima that Duryodhana needs to be pitied and not insulted.

Yudhishtra asks Bhima to cool down, now that he had vanquished him. Yudhishtra also forgives Duryodhana. And goes on to say: “You are the lucky one, dying as a hero and going to heaven. We, who are left behind are the losers in that we have to suffer the loss of all of our family- members and friends and bear the wrath of all the spouses of the fallen heroes”. Is it not true for all of humanity?

Finally, I cannot ignore my suspicion that several passages were not written by Vyasa, the original author, but added by someone at a later period to perpetuate a favorable order of things. It is amazing how firmly these myths are implanted in the minds of people for millennia.