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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”.

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