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Friday, November 16, 2018

The Depth of Thoughts in the Vedas

When I delve deeper and deeper into Rg Veda, the Upanishads and Panini in the original, I see what a beautiful ancient temple the Vedic system is. Because it is so old, more than 3,000 years to be exact, it is covered by so much overgrowth by the interpretations and myths built around it.  It is difficult to see the original structure, very much like what has happened to the Angkor Vat temple. If we are bold enough (or, foolish enough, like me) to venture into it on our own, a veritable feast awaits us.

Thanks to a retired life and a basic understanding of Sanskrit and sound understanding of Tamil, I have been roaming inside this temple. My aids are curiosity as the primary vehicle and some dictionaries as the lamps. When you read the classic texts in the original, and let go of all the crust and dust that have accumulated, what we experience is a sense of awe and deep respect for our ancestors.

I am no scholar and am sure that I am losing many nuances and deeper meanings in these texts. But, the beauty is there for all to savor. The brilliance of those thinkers is dazzling.  I can savor the thoughts of our ancestors in the original to the level of my understanding on my own without others interpretations and admire. 

The following are some examples.  

The idea of mind as one of the six senses and differentiating the functions of the mind, intelligence, self or ownership and consciousness. This allows meditating on the mind and its contents and dealing with the Self (I) as the subject and also as the object. Western science is yet to catch up with this concept. 

The concept of sphota; the word means "bursting forth". It is the science of how meaning bursts forth when words are uttered. It divides speech into three stages: conceptualization of an idea (pasyanti), medium in which it is expressed (madhyama) and the final utterance (vaikari). There have been several treatises and books on this subject over the centuries and you will find reference to these concepts in Lalitha Sahasranamam (Sloka 81)

The idea of inherent sound (naada) and the movement needed to produce audible sound (sabda); the idea of inherent sound in the abdomen and the produced sound (vaikari) resulting from the banging around of the sound waves in the chest, throat, mouth, tongue and teeth. The kinds of sounds (and the alphabets)  produced based on these movements are given in detail both in Panini and Tolkappiam. Our musical system has elaborated on these ideas. 

The concept of samavaya which means inherence as in fire and heat; ice and cold. 

The admonition that we humans are forever prevented from “knowing the original” because we are “covered”. Emphasis on the humility to accept that we can never know the origins. As Nasadiya Suktam states "even the Gods do not know because they came after".

 The blunt statement by Yagnavalkya that others are important to us not for themselves but only because of their value to us.  (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.5)

 The profound statement:  “Thou are That”.  (tat tvam asi

And, so many more. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

“What meaning does life have for you?”

                                     “What meaning does life have for you?”

                That was the question Will Durant wrote and sent to prominent people in different walks of life in the 1930’s.  The list included Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Will Rogers and H.L.Mencken among others. The responses were included in a book with the title: On The Meaning of Life. 
 The answers were obviously different. They included faith in something beyond what we know, able to work in an area one is passionate about, such as art and writing and creativity, doing things for others and society, desire to share and appreciation of nature. Some thought that there is no purpose in life unless we find one for ourselves. One advised Will Durant not to think too much. Most approached this question with optimism and humility.
George Bernard Shaw answered: “How the devil do I know? Has the question itself any meaning?” Will Rogers answered: “The whole life is a “racket”, so get a few laughs, do the best you can, take nothing serious…. live your life so that whenever you lose, you stay ahead.”
Some of the most interesting thoughts were those of a prisoner who was spending life-sentence in the Sing-Sing prison. His remarks suggest that he was a thoughtful man, who had read a lot and had thought about life in general. Why he was chosen for this task is not clear. But, here are some of his remarks.
It (meaning of life) “depends upon my ability to recognize its (life’s)great truths and learn by the lessons they teach me. In short, life is worth what I am willing to strive to make it worth”.
In discussing what Durant has written about Truth, he says: “Custom and tradition have caused us to confuse truth with our beliefs”.  Later he says: “Confinement in prison does not cause unhappiness, else all those who are free would be happy. Poverty does not cause it, else the rich all would be happy”.
“That life was accidental is a theory I am willing to accept; but it does not follow that it need be meaningless”.
“In the knowledge that I am an inalienable part of this great, wonderful, upward movement called life, and that nothing, neither pestilence, nor physical affliction, nor depression – nor prison- can take away from me my part, lies my consolation, my inspiration and my treasure”. Profound thoughts indeed. 
My personal thoughts follow.
The meaning of life in general is different from the meaning in one’s life. In general, life does not seem to have any purpose or goal except to reproduce. Why would so many species of plants and animals appear and disappear in large numbers in repeated cycles?  Therefore, each one of us must make meaning out of our lives. 
Tolstoy came to the same conclusion. He says that work, family life and nature gave meaning to his life. This is probably true for most people.
The answer to the primary question will also depend upon one’s stage in life and circumstances. For me, at this age and stage – Being and bringing Peace, being useful, and sharing effort, knowledge and wealth give meaning to life.  
How does one develop meaning in life? Some avenues are the same as what gave meaning to Tolstoy’s life – working on things that is of interest to you or that are helpful to others, spending time with family and friends and enjoying nature. But those are not adequate by themselves without adding values and virtues (dharma). 
Connecting with other lives and with the universe are great avenues which will force us to develop values and virtues. In addition, we (the isolated me, the wave) need to connect with the whole (the cosmos, the ocean). I cannot understand the function of a part without understanding the whole from which it came. The cosmos will be there without “me”; but this “me” cannot exist but for the cosmos.
Other questions suggested by Will Durant worth thinking about are: What keeps you going? What help, if any, does religion give you? What are the sources of your inspiration? What is the goal or motive force for your toil? Where do you find your consolations and happiness? Where in the last resort does your treasure lie?   
Of course, one need not think about these at all to be happy. But, I am more with Plato when he quoted Socrates as saying “An unexamined life is not worth living”.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Humility and Surrender

Humility and surrender are mentioned repeatedly in the literature of all religions that I have read. That led me to think about these two mental states.

Humility (In Sanskrit, it is vinaya (masculine gender), namrata (feminine) and amanitva (neutral). It is panivu in Tamizh) comes out of realization of one’s limitations. It comes in the presence of a mystery or in the presence of someone who knows more than you. It is self-arising. It is a positive state and leads to a better understanding or to wisdom of knowing one’s limits. It leads to an open mind and spiritual tolerance for ambiguity.

Surrender (In Sanskrit, it is saranagati or prapanna; in Tamizh, saranadai or oppuvi) is a state of mind in the sense of defeat. It may come out of fear or frustration or a sense of weakness. It is external and often demanded. It leads to obedience.

May be, I am wrong. To my thinking, humility is a healthier spiritual mode than surrender. It has another strength. It is its inherent contradiction. When I say: “I am humble”, I have lost it. That is why in an analogy I have read eighteen human virtues are compared to an army of foot-soldiers. Humility is the very last one, because it is the read-guard to protect us from attack from behind by arrogance.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Glorious Ending of the Maha Bharatha (Blog # 97)

It is said that Maha Bharata deals with every subject of importance in human life (virtue, wealth, desire and liberation). This claim is made in Book 18, Section 5, Sloka 38. It says: “That which occurs here occurs elsewhere. That which does not occur here occurs nowhere else”.

धर्मे चार्थे कामे मॊक्षे भरतर्षभ
     यद इहास्ति तद अन्यत्र यन नेहास्ति तत कव चित

Later it is said that the great Rishi Vyasa, having composed Maha Bharata, made his son Suka to read it along with the following four Verses.

माता पितृसहस्राणि पुत्रदारशतानि
     संसारेष्व अनुभूतानि यान्ति यास्यन्ति चापरे
हर्षस्थान सहस्राणि भयस्थान शतानि
     दिवसे दिवसे मूढम आविशन्ति पण्डितम
ऊर्ध्वबाहुर विरौम्य एष कश चिच छृणॊति मे
     धर्माद अर्थश कामश किमर्थं सेव्यते
जातु कामान भयान लॊभाद; धर्मं तयजेज जीवितस्यापि हेतॊः
     नित्यॊ धर्मः सुखदुःखे तव अनित्ये; जीवॊ नित्यॊ हेतुर अस्य तव अनित्यः

The translation is as follows: “Thousands of mothers and fathers, and hundreds of sons and wives have come into this world and gone. Thousands more will come and go. There are plenty of occasions for joy and for fear in this world which affect only the ignorant but not the wise. With uplifted arms I am pleading to everyone to follow the path of Righteousness (Dharma) to acquire Wealth (artha) and Pleasure (kama). But no one seems to hear me. One should not let go of righteous path (dharma) for the sake of pleasure, or out of fear, or out of ignorance. Indeed, even for the sake of life one should not let go of Righteousness (dharma). Pleasure and Pain come and go. Righteousness is eternal. Jiva is eternal. But the body is not”.

This is the end of my remarkable journey through Maha Bharata. Thank you for staying with me and following these remarkable dialogues. I learnt a lot. I am glad I was able to share what I learnt with all of you.

 Let me wish all of you Loving-kindness, Peace and Harmony in life. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be free from suffering.

Dear Reader:

In my eagerness to complete the Maha Bharatha, I have been holding back several other essays I have been writing on life, nature and philosophy. It is time I get back to those ideas. Hope you will spare some time to follow these other ideas also.

One request. I would like to publish the series on Maha Bharatha as a book. I have contacted a few publishers. But with no response. If anyone can connect me with a publisher, I will be thankful.

Thank you

Reference: For both the Sanskrit version and the English version is The Mahabharata of Krishna - Dwaipayana Vyasa, Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, published between 1883 and 1886.  

Friday, October 19, 2018

Ascent to Heaven - Maha Bharatha Series 96

We are now in Chapter 18, the final chapter in Maha Bharatha. I skipped several chapters since I did not find any significant conversations in them. 
The final sections of Maha Bharata are about the departure of Dhridhrashtra with Gandhari and Kunti to the forest and their death in a forest fire, the fight among the citizens of Dwaraka and their annihilation, the departure of Krishna and Balarama and the ascent of the Pandavas to “heaven”. In one episode, Arjuna requests Bhima to forgive Dhridhrashtra and give him whatever he needs to perform ceremonies for the dead before he goes on Vanaprastha, because “it is noble to forgive other’s faults and remember the good deeds”.  ( समरन्त्य अपराद्धानि समरन्ति सुकृतानि च)

When Dhridhrashtra goes on Vanaprastha with Gandhari, Kunti decides to go to the forest with them. Yudhishtra and his brothers request their mother to stay back. She refuses and her last words to her sons are: “Let your intellect stay with virtue; and let your mind think high (noble)” (धर्मे ते धीयतां बुद्धिर मनस ते महद अस्तु च)

On hearing the destruction of the Vrishni race, Yudhishtra says that it is all because of Time, the destroyer. It is interesting that the Sanskrit word for time is kaala and it also means death. Throughout Maha Bharata, Time, Fate and influence of Karma are given as responsible for every event, including the war itself.

When, it is the turn for the Pandavas and Draupadi to ascend to heaven, first Arjuna falls down on the way. When Bhima asks how this can happen, Yudhsishtra says that Arjuna’s pride and his inability to keep his promise caused his fall. Sahadeva falls because of his boasting about his knowledge and Nakula because he was proud of his physical beauty. Bhima falls because of his self-centeredness (and his temper?) (“not attending to the needs of others while eating”). Yudhishtra says that Draupadi falls down because of her partiality to one of the brothers (Arjuna, of course). Only Yudhishtra and a dog which follows them remain. 

Indra comes in person to take Yudhishtra to Heaven. But, Yudhishtra refuses to go without his brothers and Draupadi. Indra says that they have all gone to heaven casting off their human bodies, but “You shall go there with this body of thine”. Yudhishtra wants the dog to go with him. Yudhishtra refuses to leave the dog behind saying that “it will not be virtuous to cast off one who has been devoted to me”. Indra asks him again to let go of the dog. Yudhishtra replies: “It is sinful to abandon one who has been faithful and devoted. I will not let him go so that I can have my happiness. I will not give up someone who is afraid, who is devoted to me, one who is a destitute and is seeking my protection. Nor will I abandon someone who is afflicted, and one incapable of protecting himself”.  At this point, the dog transforms into his true self – Dharma himself, Yudhishtra’s father and is very well pleased.

After entering heaven in his human form, a rare privilege, Yudhishtra insists on joining his brothers and Draupadi. He first sees Duryodhana living in splendor and is outraged. He asks his companions how such an evil person attain to heaven and says that he does not want to stay at a place where Duryodhana lives but to where his brothers are. Narada tells him: “In Heaven, all enmities cease. Besides, since Duryodhana fought according to his Varna Dharma and died in a battle, he attained Heaven”. Narada asks Yudhishtra to forgive and forget.

Yudhishtra does not see his brothers or other noble souls and warriors and wonders why. “Heaven is where all of them are; not this” says Yudhishtra. Therefore, the gods take Yudhishtra to where all of them are. But, the path is full of darkness and obstacles, stench and filth. Yudhishtra asks: “What is this place anyway? How long do we have to go through this path? Where are my brothers?” The celestial messenger stopped and told Yudhishtra: “This is how far I am authorized to accompany you. Now, you are on your own. Of course, you can return back with me”. Yudhishtra was confused and stupefied and was ready to go back. Just then, he started hearing the voices of all his brothers, including that of Karna and of Draupadi, wailing in agony and requesting him to stay a little longer so that their suffering is bearable.

Yudhistra wonders how can this be – that Dhuryodhana and his accomplices are enjoying in comfort and all the noble and sinless ones are suffering. He even wonders: “Is this real? Am I dreaming? Is this my delusion? Or is it due to some disorder of my brain?” He gets angry and curses all the gods and even curses Dharma, his father. He asks the celestial messenger to go back to “his” gods and tell them that Yudhishtra wishes to stay with his brothers, Draupadi, Karna and Dhrishtadhyumna and others and give them comfort. The messenger duly does what he was told to do and informs Indra of what had happened.

Immediately, Indra arrives accompanied by Dharma, all the devas, and rishis. The place changes from a desolate, bleak, dark “hell” into a divine abode full of light and splendor.

 Indra addresses Yudhishtra: “You have attained success and your period of illusion is over. The Heaven is yours. Do not yield to anger. Life is full of good and bad. He who enjoys the results of his virtuous deeds must endure hell later. Those who endure hell first must experience heaven afterwards. Those who have committed many sinful acts go to Heaven first before they fall into hell. I wanted you to see hell also and that is why I sent you there first. You had committed a sin too by deceiving Drona during the battle. That is why all of you were shown hell by an act of my deception. All of you have been cleansed of your sins. The Heaven is yours. All of your people have attained to heaven. Come and see them”. And, Indra points out Karna, Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula, Sahadeva and his ancestors.

The concept of good acts (Virtue, punya), reward of Heaven for virtuous acts and of sinful acts (papa), for which the reward will be Hell are recurrent themes in Maha Bharata and they come out clearly in this section.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Anugita - Maha Bharata Series 95

Arjuna and Lord Krishna (Nara and Narayana) are taking time off after the coronation of Yudhishtra. Arjuna asks Krishna to repeat the teachings (Bhagvat Gita). The conversation is interesting. Arjuna says: “Please repeat what you said earlier in the battlefield. I was too distraught and distracted to understand those teachings fully”. Krishna replies: “That was so long ago. I do not remember everything I said. Let me give you a short version”. These are not the exact translations of the original. But, it is accurate understanding of the conversation between these bosom friends, or may be two halves of the same “person”. This teaching of Krishna is known as Anugita.

Everyone knows Bhagvat Gita. Many know about Uddhava Gita. In Maha Bharata we already saw Kama Gita and Ashtavakra Gita. Did you know that there are more than 25 Gitas? Anyway, here is Anugita.

Anugita spans from the 11th to the 50th section of Book 14. Most scholars think that this was not part of the original Maha Bharata but inserted later by one or several authors. There are three major sections extolling the virtues of penance and dharma and about Samkhya and Yoga philosophy. I am not writing about of all of these since these are repetitions of basic ideas. Some interesting passages include the following.

Joy is classified under three headings. Joy felt at the certainty of attaining what one desires is called praharsha; joy felt on attaining the desired object is priti and Ananda or satisfaction is when one enjoys the desired, attained object. Our folks were superb classifiers, even of a feeling as simple as JOY.

Passion consists of greed, anger and hatred.

Darkness or Ignorance consists of laziness, procrastination and delusion (?confusion).

This classification is followed by a sloka recited by King Amvarisha on sovereignty. After attaining great successes in his life, the king says to himself: “I have killed my foes and have controlled my faults. But there is one great vice which has not been destroyed by me. That is desire. Urged by that one fault one enters darkness and commits sinful and forbidden acts. That leads one to the cycles of birth and death. Subduing desire with intelligence, one should seek sovereignty over the soul. That is true sovereignty”.

This is followed by a story of King Janaka and a Brahmana in his kingdom. When the Brahmana commits some crime, King Janaka wants him banished and asks him to leave Janaka’s territory. The Brahmana says: “Yes, I will. But, please tell me what the limit of your territory is”. King Janaka plunged into deep thinking and did not say anything for some time.

He then said: “I inherited this dominion from my ancestors. When I tried to find what my dominion actually is, I could not find any on this earth. Everything is my dominion or nothing is. Even this body is not mine or the whole earth is mine. Thinking deeply, I realized that this earth is as much of others as it is mine. Therefore, please stay as long as you wish”. The Brahmana wants to know how the king came to this understanding.

King Janaka says: “The Vedas advise us not to covet other’s property. But, how am I to ascertain which property belongs to others? Therefore, I concluded that nothing belongs to me. But, how did I come to the conclusion that everything is mine? The whole world is represented in our minds as the objects of sensations. I have transcended the sensations and therefore, the objects these sensations depend upon. Thus I am the master of the world and the world is in my control. Whatever I do now is for the sake of guests, deities and ancestors”. The Brahmana reveals himself to be Dharma and says: “You have set the wheel of dharma in motion with Goodness (Virtue) as the circumference, Vedas as the nave and proper understanding and knowledge as the spokes”.

One can sense touches of Buddhism in these statements about desire, impermanence and inter-dependence.

Towards the end, there is a story of Utanka, a rishi who lives in a desert between Hastinapura and Dwaraka. Lord Krishna meets him on his journey back home after the war is over. The conversation between Utanka and Krishna is interesting, because Utanka is upset with Krishna for not settling the fight between the Kauravas and Pandavas without a war. He is so angry that he is ready to curse Krishna. Krishna says: “I do not want you to curse me and lose all the fruits of your long penance. Please listen to me about the events and then do what you desire”.

What Krishna says is fascinating. He tells Utanka that He is Brahman and also Vishnu, the creator and destroyer. This is similar to his statements in Bhagavat Gita. Then he says: “I come alive in different communities, among the Devas, among the Gandarvas and among the Rakshasas and among human beings. I perform my actions consistent with that community. In this situation, I tried to talk and persuade the Kauravas into reconciliation. They did not. Even after Bhishma and Vidura told them that I am Vishnu, the Kauravas ignored and did not listen to me. And they reaped the consequences of their actions”.

Utanka is satisfied. He asks Lord Krishna for one boon. That is for Krishna to show His Universal form. This is the second time in Maha Bharata when Lord Krishna shows His True Form.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Titbits and Big Things - Maha Bharatha series 94

It is amazing to see the influence of epics such as Mahabharata on the Indian psyche and therefore in the beliefs and conduct of the people of India. The best example is the respect for elders. It is such a pleasure to see the younger ones consider it their duty to take care of the elders. It is to show respect for their knowledge and to thank them for all their sacrifice. This is lacking in many western cultures.

Two practical examples are 1. Treating elders with respect and not addressing by their first name. Mahabharata has a passage on this topic in Book 13.  2. As a mark of respect, the habit of getting up when an older person comes on the scene. Soon after I arrived in US many years back, I was appalled when I found my colleagues sitting with their feet up on the table with cigarette in their mouths and addressing teachers by their first name. Even after 60 years in US, I cannot bring myself to calling my teachers by their first name. Dr. Lewis Coriell was my teacher and was as close to me as my father and my brother. I could never bring myself to addressing him by his first name.

But then, people in India go to the other extreme of not questioning wrong and false statements by elders purely out of respect. Elders also demand respect just because of their age and demand obedience. It is possible to respect elders without “obeying” every one of their commands and dogmas. It is not a mark of disrespect when the younger ones ask questions. That is the way they learn. 

It is not just what we do and ask. It is how we do (and ask) that makes a difference. 

Other statements we commonly make in our daily lives seem to go back to the Mahabharata period. Some examples: “Whatever I say to you seems to be just carried away by the wind”  (Vyasa speaking to Yudhistra when he keeps persevering with his guilt trips).

“Your head will burst if you disobey” -  a rishi talking with a king

“I will burn you to ashes”

“It is as clear as a gooseberry (amlaka in Sanskrit and nellikkani in Tamizh) on the palm of the hand”

“When the proper time comes, it will happen”

Gift-giving (dana) as a virtue is mentioned in several places in the Mahabharata. In Book 13, towards the end there is a whole section on this topic. The two main points are 1. Give gifts according to your capacity. 2. The recipient should be worthy of the gift.

There is also a classification of the motives for gift-giving. Bhishma says that some give gifts with a desire for merit, some with a desire for profit, some out of fear, some out of pity for the recipient and some  just because it is the right thing to do in that context.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Bhishma's discourse on Right Conduct - Maha Bharatha series 93

Yudhishtra asks Bhishma: “Between direct perception and  the scriptures, which is a better authority to arrive at conclusions?” Bhishma admits that it is difficult to answer. Logicians imagine themselves to possess all that is knowable and insist on direct perception as the better method. They assert that nothing, however true, is existent which is not perceivable. But, Bhishma thinks otherwise. One that is open-minded and deeply involved in answering the question will find the answer. “When one reaches the end of reason, one comes upon that vast source of effulgence which illuminates the Universe. That, that Brahman, is not defined or comprehended by words. Therefore, Inference and reason cannot lead you to the ultimate knowledge which is beyond words and logic”.

Then, Yudhshtra asks: “Which among the following four is most authoritative: direct perception, inference from observation, agamas and scriptures and practices of the wise and the good”? Having answered the question about perception and inference, Bhishma says that wicked people will always try to undermine righteousness and sometimes righteousness acts as a mask for unrighteous. But, “seek those of mental purity and good behavior and follow them in addition to what you learn from the scriptures”.

Yudhishtra says: “If you say that Vedas, perception and mental purity together constitute what is to be regarded as authority, there must be some differences between them. Righteousness is probably of three different kinds”. Bhishma says that it is not so. But, it appears so because of three different points of view. He says in effect: “Do not get stuck with these arguments and wrangling. Just follow me like a blind man. The eternal righteousness include non-injury, truth-telling, gift-giving and forgiveness.” In a later section, Bhishma says that righteousness leads to purity of soul and shields against unrighteousness.

In describing the righteous conduct of good men, Bhishma includes the following. Good men eat only after feeding the deities, the ancestors, guests, relatives and other living creatures. A guest should never go away without having been fed. Thy do not ease in public roads or in paddy fields. They do not talk while eating. They give way to (yield to) elders, ladies, those carrying weight, those who are important officials and the king. He talks care of his relatives, guests and those who come under his protection. He is polite to the visitors. He eats only twice a day. In between, he does not eat (and this is also called fasting, although fasting for several days and even up to one month are mentioned elsewhere). Brahmacharya is defined as not having congress except at specified time. One is not said to incur sin by eating meat as long as it was sanctified with the use of mantras from the Yajur veda(!).

One should offer dakshina (some remuneration) to a preceptor. One’s preceptor should be received with respect and seated when he arrives. One should not let an elder go on errands or scold them. When an elder is standing, one should not be sitting. One should start and end a day listening to the wise counsels of the elders.

One should not stare at a naked man or woman. Sex should be in private. Eating also should be in private. The right hand should be used to hold the scriptures and for eating. One should keep one’s senses, mind and speech under control.

When someone sneezes, others who are present should say “bless”. One should pray for the sick and bless them (for recovery?).

An eminent person should not be addressed in familiar, second person singular terms (such as common YOU, in Sanskrit it is twam; term to show respect is bhavan for masculine and bhavathi for feminine). (There is an episode in Maha Bharatha in which Arjuna gets angry at Yudhistra and  is ready to kill him so he can keep his vow. Krishna asks Arjuna not to kill but to insult Yudhishtra with harsh and familiar terms because it is equivalent to killing an elder) When you do this to a learned person also, it is as good as killing him! But you can use second person singular term to address an equal, an inferior or a disciple.

If a sin is committed, it is best to admit it in the presence of good men and make propitiations.

One should be righteous for the sake of being good and noble; not for showing off or for specific gains. Those who do so make a trade out of righteousness and do not accrue the virtue associated with it.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Shiva, Uma and Vishnu - Maha Bharatha Series 92

The last few sections of Book 13 outline important codes of conduct (dharma), although they are repetitions. For example, eight universal dharmas to be practiced by everyone (irrespective of class, sex or status in life) include: Compassion, patience/tolerance, non-injury, purity of heart, right effort, auspiciousness, giving gifts and non-attachment.

In Section 144, in his conversations with Goddess Uma, Lord Shiva (Maheshwara) answers questions about why some people are lucky and others are not; why some go to heaven and some not; and why some people are born into “good” circumstances and some not. The answers emphasize “good” actions and “bad” actions in one’s life as the explanation. This obviously implies that the current experiences of being lucky or not depend on our actions earlier in this life or in the previous life. Re-birth is assumed to be a given.

Whether we go to heaven or not depends on our actions in this life. But, the stay is temporary. One has to come back to this earth, because earth is the only place for action and accumulation of “punya”, or good credit for “good” actions. Karma (actions) and re-birth are the cornerstones of Indian philosophy.

In Section 145, Lord Maheshwara asks Uma to recount for us what the duties of a woman are. He says: “You and I form two parts of the same body. You share half of my form. You are as knowledgeable as I am” etc. Uma commends Him for his humility and says “No one can master all knowledge. Humility is needed. Therefore, I will consult others” and then consults all the rivers. It is interesting to note that all rivers are considered to be feminine except the River Sindhu (Indus)!

Goddess Uma’s list of noble qualities of women include traditional items such as taking care of the family and children, feeding people who come home, helping her husband with his duties, chastity etc. Women are asked to consider their husbands as God and serve him as such. Women are asked to surrender their will to their husbands. “Devotion to the husband is her merit and penance. It is her eternal heaven” is the exact quote.

In section 147, Lord Maheshwara talks about Vasudeva. This is a description of Vishnu. Other names to refer to Vishnu include: Krishna, Kesava, Govinda, Hrishikesa, Achyuta, Ananta, Sesha, Hari and Narayana. This is obviously the basis of later development of Vishnu as a major God and the focus of devotion among the Vaishanvites.

This is substantiated by the fact that Bhishma teaches Vishnu Sahasranamam, praising the glory of Lord Vishnu, to Yudhishtra, in subsequent sections of this Book 13 (Anushasana Parvam, Section 139 in Sanskrit; 149 in English).  We hear the description of physical, symbolic and philosophical descriptions of Vishnu. Vishnu is also said to be at the center of a constellation in the skies called Sisumara. This constellation is known in the west as the Great Bear.

One other point of interest I found is the use of the word Vedanta. Since Vedanta as a special branch of philosophy came into existence only after the great trio of Sankara, Ramanuja and Madvacharya, this word refers to the Upanishads, which come at the end of the Vedic texts.

Later still comes a section in which Lord Krishna describes the greatness of Lord Shiva, as Rudra, Maheshwara and Mahadeva. This is the Satarudriya of Vyasa. We learn that the Sahasranamas and archanas are composed of words describing FOUR features of the deities. They are: Greatness, Vastness, Conduct and Feats accomplished.  We also learn that Shiva has a fierce form of Rudra, Agni and Surya. He also has a benevolent form of Maheshwara as in the Moon and the water.

In both Vishnusahasranamam and Satarudriya we see mention of worship with form and without form. The words are adhruta and svadhruta – meaning He who cannot be seized and yet makes Himself available to be seized by devotees. Therefore we can worship Him with an image (Vigraha and Murthy with features) or with the use of a symbol (Linga or Saligrama which are shapes without details). This should help answer some of the questions asked by westerners about idol worship.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Ahimsa, Karuna and Being a Vegetarian - Maha Bharatha series 91

The virtues of ahimsa (non-injury) and not eating meat are extolled in Sections 115 and 116 of Book 13. Unlike what we hear from staunch vegetarians who condemn eating meat, Mahabharata has a more balanced view. Yudhishtra says that he is confused because of contradictory advice. He asks:  "If eating meat is prohibited, why is meat offered in sacrifice and why is it acceptable to pitris and in shraddas?"

Bhishma’s answer is nuanced. Here is a summary.

Life is precious to every creature. Therefore, how can we take the life of one to feed oneself? Therefore, eating meat is not compassionate and not good practice. As long as someone eats meat an animal has to be killed. If the eater does not, someone else will have to kill and sell meat. Therefore, if you want to practice ahimsa, you must stop eating meat. You must also stop asking someone else to kill. You must stop thinking of meat as a food. Practice ahimsa in thoughts, words and acts.

But, life thrives on life. Meat is a good source of energy. That is why “it is ordained” that eating meat of an animal sacrificed to the deities or pitris is accepted. That is because the animal sacrificed at the alter is assured of “heaven” or devaloka. He was not killed just for our food, but for the deities. The remnants left after such sacrifice are called “havis” and it is not sinful to eat havis. Indeed, even Brahmins were given this meat after sacrifices for the ancestors (shraddha).

In addition, specific animals were “ordained” to be sacrificed. (Deer seems to have been the main animal). Even in eating meat when one did, specific merits were assigned for not eating meat on certain  days.

One other sentence caught my attention. It says that killing animal or having someone kill an animal for just eating and for its taste is sinful. Humans should not do that. Only rakshasa’s do it. If you must eat meat, go and hunt! Give an equal chance to the animal to survive or kill you! This is a remarkable statement.

In a recent book called Omnivorous Dilemma, Pohlan came to the same conclusion after experimenting with raising his own food, both vegetables and animals. He found it morally objectionable to raise animals just for the sake of eating. He also said: “go hunt and risk your life also” if you want to eat meat.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Varna and Kula - Maha Bharatha series 90

This passage starts from Section 41 of Book 13 in the Sanskrit version. These numbers do not match with the English version. But, the Sanskrit version is important to help understand the meaning of the word “caste”. This word came into English via Portugese, meaning clans or families or tribes. This section also clarifies what the translators refer to as “seed-born” sons and “soil-born” sons.

There are elaborate descriptions of different kinds of marriages, such as taking wife by parental consent, by self-choice and by abduction. But, “selling” a girl is definitely frowned upon. There are descriptions of acceptable and unacceptable marriages between the four different Varnas (brahmin, kshatriya, vaisya and sudra). There were prescribed standards for inheritance of property depending on the form of marriage and the “purity” of marriage, defined by the Varna of the father and mother.

The best translation of the word “varna” should be class or order. They are the four major original ones.The other word used in Sloka 48 of Section 48 is kula. This probably is what we now call “caste”. What is now called “caste” is characterized by marriage within the group, food received from and/or eaten with members of the same group and exclusiveness of craft and trade.

Obviously, marriage between members of different varnas was prevalent and the word used is varnasankara (mixed varna) (the s is pronounced as in Sun). Even more important, there were specific names for the off-springs of such mixed union. For example, suta is the name of a son born of brahmin father and kshatriya mother. Chandala is the name of a son born of a brahmin father and sudra mother.

The crucial part is the description of various kinds of inter-marriages (higher-caste father and lower-caste mother, and vice versa). Children born of “lesser wombs” (hinayoni) are called “lower varnas” (hinavarna). Fifteen such groups are mentioned.

Another important fact is that these members were not only placed in specifically-named categories, but were also given specific duties or trades to follow. Some were also assigned specific places to live (eg: cremation ground). My guess is that this specific assignment of trades and restriction to marriages between these groups was the origin of the current caste system. The proper name is probably kula.

The other intriguing point in this section is the use of  two words: “reythoja” and “keshtraja”. This is in relation to defining the varna (class, order) of the father and of the mother. When translated into English, “reythoja” becomes “seed-born”. Kshetraja becomes “soil-born”. I have written about this in my blog on “seed and field” on January 1, 2016.

I am convinced more than ever that people in those days thought that everything needed “to make” a child was in the man and man only. The woman was “just soil” to grow the baby. Why else would they use the words “seed born” and “soil born”? After all they saw that when a seed was planted in the soil, a whole plant grew. By analogy, they probably thought that this was so in human too. 

Friday, September 7, 2018

Human effort or Destiny? - Maha Bharatha Series 89

Yudhishtra asks: “what determines the fruits of one’s action: one’s effort (purusha kara) or destiny (daivey)."Bhishma answers in the form of a conversation between Vasishta and Brahma. 

The question is worded a little differently now. Vasishta asks whether karma of actions in this life or that acquired in previous life (destiny) is more potent in shaping one’s life. Brahma's answer starts with some simple statements. "Nothing comes into being without a seed.  From seeds spring more seeds. Fruits come from seeds. Good seeds bring good fruits and bad seeds bring bad fruits. If you sow nothing, there will be no fruits however well you take care of the soil."

Similarly, destiny is the seed. Efforts are like preparing the soil. If there is no effort there will be no fruit. Good results come out of good deeds and bad effects from bad deeds. Nothing can be gained by destiny alone. But everything can be gained by efforts.

"Riches cannot be gained by the idler. If one’s karma did not bear fruit, all actions become fruitless. Why act at all? If everyone depends on destiny alone for results, everyone will become lazy.  Men’s powers can only follow his destiny, but destiny alone cannot yield fruits, if effort is lacking."

Good and bad manifest themselves through karma. Karma and destiny feed on each other. However, destiny does not affect those who have attained virtue and righteousness.

Brahma concludes by saying: “Men attain to heaven by the influence of destiny and by putting forth individual effort. Combination of destiny and effort lead to efficacy”.

I have heard a wise person say: “Effort from below and grace from above.”

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Book 13, Anushasana Parva - Maha Bharatha series 88

Book 13 is Anushasana Parva and it starts with an interesting parable which Bhishma uses to answer Yudhistra’s question.  Yudhishtra’s laments on how wretched he feels for his mistakes. He feels remorse seeing Bhishma on his death-bed of arrows and dejected at the thought that he (Yudhistra) is responsible for this calamity and also for the death of so many of his family members.

Bhishma answers Yudhistra with a parable about a boy, a snake which bit him, the boy’s mother, a hunter, angel of death (Mrytyu) and Time (Kala).

A snake bites a boy and the boy dies. The mother is afflicted with grief. A hunter passing that way catches the snake, ties it and is ready to kill it. The mother says: “Let the snake go”. The hunter says that the snake should not go unpunished. The mother says: “What good will it do to my son? He cannot come back. Let the snake go”.

The snake says that he is not to be blamed because he was merely an instrument of Mrutyu, the agent of death.

The hunter says that “in that case both you and Mrutyu are responsible and you (the snake) was the immediate cause and both of you have to be punished”.

Mrutyu comes in defense of the snake, but says that neither of them are truly responsible because it is the angel of Time (Kala) that decides what happens to whom at what time. Kala comes and says that none of them are responsible because it was the boy’s Karma. The boy’s time had come to pay for his karma and others were only the intermediaries.

The boy’s mother accepts this as the correct attitude to take and does not want to punish the snake. She says that her son died because of his karma and she is also suffering because of her own karma. She also says something very important: “People who carry resentment and revenge in their hearts suffer. Therefore, forgive and release this snake out of compassion”. Modern psychologists will tell you how important forgiveness is for mental health. Buddha also said the same thing. So did Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi.

Bhishma uses this story to convince Yudhishtra that he (Yudhishtra) was not responsible for the death of his relatives and his Grand-father (Bhishma). He says: “All of us go to heaven or hell because of our own karma. Neither you nor Duryodhana were responsible for all this carnage. Time had come and everyone was paying for his or her Karma.”

Friday, August 24, 2018

Sulabha and Janaka - Completed

Sulabha continues: “Although you say you are emancipated, you are still attached to sleeping, eating, dressing and enjoyment. You are the king and yet you can live in only one palace, in only one room and in only one bed. Even that bed you have, you share with the queen. Now you know, how little a king’s share is of his kingdom. The same is true of food and clothes. You are attached to your duties of rewarding and punishing. You are always dependent on others. Even in sleep you cannot have too much freedom since you will have to answer urgent calls. People come to you to receive gifts. But you cannot give to everyone who deserves since you have to be responsible with the treasury. If you do not give, some go away with bad and hostile feelings. Even when there is no cause for fear, a king is always anxious even of those who wait on him. In fact a king is no different from ordinary folks who have also spouses and sons, money and friends and same kind of realities to face.”

A king is also not exempt from fears and grief. Indeed he has causes for more of them. He suffers from consequences of desire and fear like everyone. He is also afflicted by aches and diseases. He suffers from pleasures and pain. Sovereignty does not come with much happiness. How can one who has acquired sovereignty hope to win peace and tranquility? “You think this land and the army and the treasury are yours. In reality who owns them?  Do we really own anything in this world?”

“Things exist not solely by themselves. There are usually several items which make for a functional unit. They depend upon each other, similar to three sticks standing with each other’s support. How can you choose the best among them? When some important function is served by one of them at a particular situation, then that one may be regarded as more distinguished. Superiority is defined by the purpose and the efficacy.” This seems to be Sulabha’s answer to the arrogance of Janaka and the reference to Ksahtriya and Brahmana.

She continues: “ I have no real connection with even my own body. How can I be accused of having contact with the body of someone else? You cannot say that I have brought about mixture of castes (varnas). If you have no attachments, why are you still using the umbrella and scepter? I do not think you have learned the scriptures. You are still bound by the bonds of property and family, like any other person. If you are truly liberated what harm have I done by entering your mind with my intellect? I have not touched you physically. Besides, whether what I did was good or bad, I did it privately. I am staying in  you like a drop of water on a lotus leaf. Are you still attached to physical contact? Just as Purusha and Prakriti cannot truly intermingle, two emancipated creatures cannot make contact with each other. Only those who regard the soul to be identical with the body will erroneously consider intermingling possible. My body is different from yours. But my soul is not different from yours. I realize that my intellect is not staying in your soul although I have entered into it by yogic power.”.

“Think this way. I have a pot in my hand. There is milk in the pot. And, on the milk is a fly. Although the hand and the pot, pot and the milk and the milk and the fly exist together, they are different from each other.  The condition of each is dependent on itself and is not altered by something else with which there is a temporary association. Same way, varna ( you being a kshatriya) and the practices (holding a scepter or an ascetic’s stick) do not really attach to an emancipated person. How can  intermingling be possible.”

“All of this should have been discussed in private between the two of us. By publicly talking about in this court you made it public. Is that correct?”

“I am not superior to you in varna, because I am also a kshtriya by birth (Janaka assumed otherwise, just out of habit and not thinking).  My name is Sulabha. In the sacrifices performed by my ancestors, no suitable husband could be found for me. Having been instructed properly I wander over the earth practicing ascetism. I do not practice hypocrisy. I know the duties of different ashramas and I practice mine faithfully. I did not come here without thinking through. Having heard that you have great understanding of the “religion of emancipation” (Samkhya system) I came to learn more. I did not come to glorify myself or humiliate you. One who is truly emancipated will not indulge in intellectual disputation for the sake of victory”.

Now that our discussion is over I will follow the ways of the mendicant and stay just for this one night in your person, which is like an empty chamber to me. You have treated me with honor like you should any guest. I will leave in the morning”.

Now Bhishma ends with the following words: “having heard these well-chosen words full of meaning and based on reason, King Janaka said nothing in reply”.

This episode touches on the role of women in society in ancient days, the varnahsrama dharma, semantics and logic in reasoning, details of Samkhya philosophy and of moksha dharma. The only good scholarly discussion of this episode is in the reference* given below.

* Vanita, Ruth, "The Self Is Not Gendered: Sulabha's Debate with King Janaka" (2003). Liberal Studies Faculty Publications. Paper 1.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Sulabha and Janaka (Continued)

First, Bhishma introduces Sulabha’s response with the following words: “ Although rebuked by the king with harsh words, Sulabha was not perturbed. She replied with the following words which were more handsome than her person”.

Sulabha starts with the fundamentals of  proper speech. She says that “a speech should be free of nine verbal faults and nine faults of judgment. It should also possess 18 merits. What are they? It should not be ambiguous. Faults and merits of premise and conclusion should be ascertained. The relative strengths of those merits and faults should be defined. The conclusion must be stated clearly. The conclusion has to be arrived at by persuasive reasoning”. Classical logic was not defined better than this even by Aristotle and Gotama (of Nyaya Sastra)

 “There are several ways of interpreting words. Based on their merits and faults in context, one may have to make tentative meanings. Proper sequence of words in a sentence will have to be taken into account. The tentative meaning has to be related to the conclusion arrived at and also compared with the conclusion of others. Then there is the purpose”. That is Semantics.

“What I am about to say will be sensible, free from ambiguity, logical, free from tautology, agreeable, sweet, truthful, agreeable to virtue, wealth and pleasure and with specific objective. I shall not say anything prompted by desire or fear, deceit or shame or pride. For the meaning to come out clearly the speaker, the hearer and the words have to be agreeable and be congruent. If the speaker uses words whose meaning is known to only himself, they are of no use however good they are. So are words that elicit erroneous impression in the mind of the hearer. Hear now to what I say without those errors in speaking”.

“You asked who I am and where I come from. Just as dust and water exist when brought together, so do all creatures exist”. Sulabha means to say that everything in this world are made of the same five elements (pancha bhuta). It is the same consciousness (chit) which pervades the five great elements and all creatures. This implies that Janaka does not understand this basic fact by asking the questions he asked, since both he and she are made of the same substance and endowed with the same consciousness. To think they are different is not worthy of one who claims true knowledge.

Then Sulabha  describes the elements of Samkhya philosophy in detail. She lists the five sense organs, five senses of action and the mind first (total 11). The mind creates doubts. Then comes understanding (buddhi) to settle the doubts. Sattwa is the thirteenth element followed by ahamkara (not arrogance; but identification of self as opposed to the other). The fifteenth element is desire (kama) and then avidya (spiritual ignorance). Prakriti (maya, illusion) and vyakti (clarity) follow. The world of opposites (birth and death; gain and loss; likes and dislikes) come next. The all important Time (kaala) which determines births and death is the 20th principle. All these 20 elements exist together, says Sulabha.

She adds few more principles and points out that the “atheistic” Samkhya system considers that all these elements evolve out of Prakriti, whereas the Vaiseshika system of Kanada considers all these to come out of atoms. Whatever the interpretations, she says: “Myself, you the monarch and all others came out of that Prakriti. We first get formed as embryo called “kalala”, then into “budbuda” (bubble),and then reach the stage of “pesi”. Later still appear the limbs with nails and hair. Only when the child is born do we know the sex. Things keep moving and the body keeps changing as the baby goes through childhood and adult life into old age. Each part of the body of every creature changes every moment but are so minute that they cannot be noticed. Can one see the changes taking place in the flame of a burning lamp? When that which is called body is changing all the time how can you ask where I come from, to whom I belong?”

“You can see your body and can see your soul? (If you have truly attained knowledge as you claim), how come you do not see your body and your soul in the bodies and souls of others? If you do truly have reached a state when you see yourself in others and others in yourself, why do you ask who I am? If you have really conquered the idea of duality and gone past the stage of identifying things as mine and that of others, why do you ask who I belong to? You pretend to be emancipated and you are unworthy of it since you do not truly understand and practice higher knowledge.”  (to be continued)

Friday, August 10, 2018

Sulabha and Janaka - Maha Bharatha Series 87

In my eagerness to move past Book 12, I almost missed one of the most important dialogues in this book (section 321). Some would say it is one of the most important discussions in the entire Maha Bharata.

This is a remarkable dialogue between Sulabha an unmarried, female ascetic and Janaka (not the same as the Janaka of Ramayana), a philosopher-king and a ruler-saint who had broken all attachments and still performing his duties. Janaka was a male, a king (therefore must be a kshatriya) and a husband. He is considered to have attained liberation by pursuing Vedic teachings such as controlling the senses and desires and pursuing ultimate philosophical truth. Sulabha, on the other hand was a female, leading an ascetic life, defying all conventions by not marrying and thus not under “the guidance and protection” of a male. She was also pursuing philosophical truth although she was a kshatriya (not a brahmin).

It is amazing that very few commentators elaborate on this conversation. Some even pass her off as “a maverick and nothing more” although Sulabha is one of the very few women philosophers mentioned and documented  in the Vedic literature. Amazingly the only elaborate analysis of this dialogue is by an American academic scholar from the University of Montana. (May be, because of the influence of Dr. Diana Eck and Dr. Wendy Doniger. Both of them had lived in India and are great scholars in Sanskrit and Indian philosophy)*

As the story goes, Sulabha was an ascetic mendicant practicing yoga and was wandering all over the earth. She heard about the philosopher King Janaka, well versed in the Vedas and scriptures devoted to moksha and was practicing the religion of renunciation. This suggests that Sulabha represents the school of Patanjali Yoga and Janaka represents Samkhya yoga. She wanted to personally meet with Janaka. Using her yogic powers she took the “form” of a beautiful maiden AND of a mendicant and arrived at the presence of the king. The king was in his court with his ministers and several scholars, all obviously males.

The king was puzzled to see this young beautiful lady as a mendicant. So, he asked her: “Who are you? Who do you belong to? Where did you come from?” She said that she wanted to know why he was following the nivritti doctrine of moksha (emancipation). She doubted that he had indeed attained the state of emancipation he professed. Therefore, by her yogic powers, Sulabha entered the mind of Janaka. That hurt the pride of the monarch and he in turn entered the mind of Sulabha.

Now, something symbolic happens. Janaka loses his royal umbrella and the scepter and Sulabha loses her triple staff of a mendicant. The conversation starts taking place in the “gross” (stula) plane and not the mental plane, in the presence of the court where everyone can hear the conversation. This is an important point as you will see later.

Janaka asks: “Who are you? What is the nature of your business? Where did you come from? Where will you go after this visit?”. The implications, according to some scholars, are that the king doubts the sincerity of Sulabha. He thinks that a woman cannot be an ascetic and a mendicant and that she belongs to some man (as a virtuous woman has to, according to Manu dharma). He suspects that she is a spy from another king as he reveals it himself later in the discussion.

Janaka goes on to say (boast?) that he is free from all vanity as can be seen by his not having a scepter and umbrella. He says that he can reveal the secrets of moksha dharma to her like no one else can. He had learn it from Panchashika of the Parasara lineage. He says that Panchsika taught him the Samkhya system and several ways of attaining moksha without giving up his kingdom. Instead he was taught to be free of all attachments and to fix his atman on the supreme Brahman and not be moved by any other.

Janaka continues and says that renunciation is the highest means for moksha and that renunciation has to come from knowledge. Knowledge leads to effort and through effort one reaches a knowledge of the supreme self.  This in turn leads to a state that is beyond joy and sorrow. Nay, one transcends death itself. “I have acquired knowledge of self and transcend all pair of opposites. I have no attachment to objects of senses. I do not experience love for my wife; nor do I feel hatred towards an enemy. A lump of clay and bag of gold are same to me. Although I am ruling a kingdom I am free from attachment of any kind. Therefore, I am more distinguished than an ascetic”.

He then almost justifies his status by saying that the external marks do not indicate who is a truly liberated soul. One can carry an umbrella and scepter and be still a liberated soul, whereas someone carrying the three sticks of a mendicant be too attached to worldly desires. The insinuation is clear.He then starts accusing Sulabha of unworthy behavior.

Janaka says: “O rishika, I do like you. But your behavior does not match the life of an ascetic you have taken upon yourself. You are young and beautiful; yet you follow the niyama (control of senses). I doubt you can. (We can see the chauvinism in this remark. Women are not supposed to be capable of control of senses and therefore are loose!) Using your yogic power, you have “entered” me to ascertain for yourself whether I am truly emancipated.  By doing so you have shown a desire and therefore you are not fit to carry the triple stick of an ascetic. Besides how can you a brahmin woman enter a kshatriya? You have committed a sin of  mixture of varnas. (An assumption on the part of the king) I am a householder and you are an ascetic. That is another vile thing you have done. Besides we do not know each other’s gotra. Therefore, by entering my body you have produced another evil. If your husband is alive, you have added one more evil. Are you doing all this out of ignorance or out of perverted intelligence? Or, are you spying for a rival king?”

He adds even more: “You have shown your wickedness by trying to show your superiority over me with the use of your yogic powers. By asserting victory over me you are also trying to show you are superior to all those wise men in my court. Do not continue to touch me. Know that I am righteous. Now, tell me why you are here and what your motives are.”. There is one set of statements here which is intriguing. “The power of king is in their sovereignty. The power of Brahmins is in their knowledge of the Vedas. The power of women is in their beauty and youth”. 

Now it is time for Sulabha to respond. Boy, did she respond! You will see.