Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at

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.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Brahman and Knowledge are One - Maha Bharatha series 86

Book 12 tested my patience. I had to plod through because I kept finding gems buried between repetitions and outmoded ideas. This is the final post from this book called Shanti Parva. There are six more books to cover.

 In one passage, Brahman says that for this universe and the world to exist four things are needed: Knowledge, Action, Cause and Effect. Brahman says that He is ALL FOUR. 
The Universe is made of matter(Prakriti and the Five elements, namely space, air, fire, water and earth) called Pancha Bhutas. We all know that Time (kaala) is another item needed for something to appear from something else. This was well-recognized in Maha Bharata and other ancient texts.
Our mind also asks “who did it?” and “why?”. Majority of the humanity will say “God” and then will fight to establish that “their god” is the real one. Leaving that apart, that “God” has to have a “desire” to do something. That becomes iccha shakti in the Vedic writings. He or It needs “Knowledge” and that becomes gnana Shakti and the action itself becomes kriya Shakti
And what is “knowledge”? One passage says that when the one and only Brahman dissolves the universe into Himself, He was “alone with knowledge as my only companion”. This is very profound because of my intuitive feeling that information is one of the most fundamentals of this universe. Just, replace the word “Knowledge” with the word “Information”. It becomes the sixth element. 
If we update this knowledge to our understanding of the universe in the 21st century, we should replace space, air, fire, water and earth with the following: matter, energy, space, time and information. 
As I have written in earlier blogs, to make anything we need matter (prakritit). For performing an action and to make something, we need energy (Shakti). To desire and to know what to make, we need knowledge and Information. As Seth Lloyd pointed out in his book on  Programming the Universe:"To do anything requires energy. To specify what is done requires information". 

Information is inherent in matter. This seems to be the modern equivalent of samavaya of Vaiseshika  philosophy.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Devas and Humans are Inter-dependent - Maha Bharatha Series 85 (contd)

In one version, Narayana, (Brahman) creates seven rishis to uphold the Vedas. They follow Pravritti marga because they have to procreate and populate the earth. They are Marichi, Angirasa, Atri, Pulastya, Pulaha, Kratu and Vasishta.

Narayana also created seven other rishis who were proficient in Samkhya and Yoga philosophies and followed the Nivritti marga. They are: Aniruddha, Sana, SanatSujata, Sanatkumara, Sanandana, Sanaka and Kapila.

Maha Bharata documents  Gnana marga (nivritti) and  Karma marga (pravritti). One can see the beginnings of Bhakti marga also because of the way Vishnu is elevated to the status of Narayana, a manifest part of the One Supreme Brahman.

In a subsequent section, there is a different version of the creation of creatures by Brahma and the way Narayana passed on the Vedas to all the rishis through Brahma (not Brahman). In this version, Brahma is born seven different times from Narayana’s breath, mouth, eyes, navel and ears. The Vedas get lost between each one of these origins of Brahma. In this description, three so-called “cults” are mentioned. They are Pancharatra, Vaikanasa and Satwaata. This is important because the current method of worship (agama?) of Vishnu is said to be Vaikanasa, the other two having disappeared.

Ancient Sanskrit texts classified all objects in this earth into two major classes:  sthavara (immobile) and jangama (mobile).  Immobile included jata (non-living such as rock) and jiva (living). One text in Mahabharata classifies living into 4 groups:  egg-born, womb-born, soil-born and plants. Padmapurana classifies all living entities into:  water-born, reptiles, birds, animals (pasu, mrga) and human (maanava). Plants and trees are also included. Mahabharata classifies plants under 6 categories – vrksha (tree), gulma (shrub), lata (creeper), talli ( same as creeper but with a thicker stem), tvakshra (bamboo) and truna (grass).

As I have mentioned elsewhere, one learns about many things about the ancient land and its geography, botany, culture and customs by reading sacred texts. Classification of living and non-living objects in this world and their sub-classification as noted above is a prime example.  This was millennia before Linneus started modern taxonomy.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Devas and Humans are inter-dependent - Maha Bharatha series 85

We are still in Book 12 of Maha Bharatha. There are several passages on possible approaches to spiritual enlightenment in the later part of this book.  Two such approaches or paths are called Pravritti Marga and Nivritti Marga. Pravritti marga leads to conscious existence experiencing the fruits of action. This may be experiencing various kinds of pleasures in heaven  (called Vaikunta, if you are a Vaishnavite or Kailasa if you are a Shivite) or experience of suffering in hell. After enjoying the pleasures of heaven or suffering in hell, one has to come back to earth, if one follows Pravritti marga.

Nivritti marga leads to total liberation and emancipation. Nivritti marge leads to absorption into Brahman and therefore no rebirth.

As part of these discussions, Yudhistra asks why the devas (gods, angels) chose a life dependent on the sacrificial offerings of humans, instead of choosing complete emancipation. The answer is that they did not choose the Pravritti marga but, they were assigned Pravritti marga by Brahman.

In one version, it is said that the various devas including 11 Rudras and 12 Adityas came into existence out of Narayana. In this episode, Narayana declares himself to be the 12th son of Aditi. Thus, Vishnu who is originally mentioned in ancient texts as one of the Adityas, is made into a major god in Maha Bharata.

At one time when the oceans dried up, all the devas including Vishnu go to Brahman (not Brahma). He suggests that the devas must perform a sacrifice and offer it to Him. Devas cannot perform sacrifice in their world since they do not have the offerings such as plants, animals etc. They are available only on earth. However, when humans perform sacrifices to the devas there will be offerings. The devas should share part of those offerings given to them by humans with Brahman. In turn, Brahman will give each of the devas jurisdiction over specific parts of nature and of the human body. Brahman will also “ordain them to enjoy the fruits of those sacrifices in the form of Pravritti marga”. That means “no Nivritti marga” for them. They will have to be born on earth again . Each cosmic cycle will have gods of birth, death and so on.

It is interesting that the devas went ahead and performed the sacrifice. The text says that the sacrifice was for Vishnu (Narayana) and not Brahman. In other words, according to this part of Maha Bharata, Vishnu is Brahman.

This seems to be the basis of all the sacrifices in the Vedic tradition. Human beings perform sacrifices for the devas who preside over nature. Devas are pleased and give rain, water and wealth and prosperity to humans. Humans are therefore able to perform more sacrifices and the cycle goes on. Devas and humans are inter-dependent. 

In another section, there is a statement in the Commentary section of this book which states that this earth is the only place for actions. There is “no action” in heaven and  hell. The heaven is for the enjoyment of the fruits of our actions on this earth and the hell is for endurance of suffering.

Kanchi Periyaval quotes one passage from Bhagvat Gita on this topic. This is Lord Krishna’s advice: “You please the gods with yagnas(sacrifices). Let the gods take care of your welfare with rain and other auspicious things. Thus let both of your prosper through mutually helping each other”.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Samkhya Philosophy - Maha Bharatha Series 84

In Book 12, Section 304, Samkhya system is explained in detail. Samkhya system is one of the oldest and basic systems of Vedic philosophy. In this section, Prakriti is also called adhishtatri, the basic unit from which everything evolves (vikriti). In contrast and in addition to Prakriti, there is a vyapaka, one that pervades everything. This is formless and is also called akshara, which means indestructible. This second principle which energizes Prakriti and makes its evolved elements active is called Purusha.

 It is interesting to note that this akshara/purusha is also called Brahma and Vishnu in other places within this text. But, we know that in the original Samkhya system, which is basically atheistic, no names of Gods are used. Therefore, we must conclude that the names of Gods were superimposed on concepts of matter (prakriti) and energizing principle (purusha) later in history.

This kind of creative renaming of philosophical principles as Gods is common when theology takes over. This happened in the Christian theology also. In his book on “Philosophy as a way of life”, Pierre Hadot tells us that the Trinity was a re-naming of the old ideas of Logos, Physics and Ethics of Greek philosophers.

We are told that prakriti, which is one of the two original indestructible principles, dwells in all creatures as chit, or consciousness. The first “evolute” of Prakriti is Mahat, which is also called Buddhi or Knowledge. There is then mention of chetana, which is said to be eternal consciousness which has no form and no attributes. If so, this is also the same as Purusha. This has to be the jivan, in its individualized aspect and atman in its general aspect. In addition to energizing Prakriti, purusha gets caught by and identifies with the form, forgets its pure Nature and misidentifies with perishable things.

Samkhya system had two flaws. First, this system suggests two principles from which everything came. Most of us will think that there can be only One from which everything came.  Indeed, Nyaya and Vaiseshika systems which came later came to that conclusion through logic.  Later thinkers called Purusha, as Nirguna Brahman from which Saguna Brahman came.  In this interpretation, Saguna brahman is Prakriti, one with a form, Ishvara. This Ishvara can be Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva.

And, the other flaw is the complicated explanation that the final five gross elements to come out of prakriti perish at death but, the energizing element survives by attaching itself to another body. This is the basis of the concepts of karma and re-birth.

This is my understanding. If someone has understood these concepts better or differently, please send a comment.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Varnas - Maha Bharata Series 83

The division of varnas is repeatedly mentioned and the role of members of each varna is also defined in this section (Book 12, Section 294).  It is very clear that brahmanas were expected to be held at the top of the heap and respected and supported by the other Varnas, particularly by the Kshatriyas and the Vaisyas.

Brahmanas (Brahmins?) were expected to learn the Vedas, practice self-restraint and teach the varna dharma to the other three. They were not to own any property but live on gifts (dana) from the kings and merchants, live frugally and give back their wealth and knowledge to others. They had to learn the sciences of the warriors, the merchants, the farmers and the artists and teach them to people of the appropriate varna. But they were not to make a living from those skills. They had to perform daily yagnas and pujas, maintain vratas such as fasting etc. Kanchi Periyaval points out that although Brahmins were held on top of the list, their lives were also highly regimented and demanding.

According to the texts, Kshatriyas are warriors and kings and are marked by their victories.  They are the protectors of law and order. The Vaisyas are the merchants and farmers and are marked by their wealth. They also support the Brahmins.  The sudras were expected to follow their dharma by serving the other three. In one place in Book 12 Section 294 (English version) the position of sudra is defined rather strongly and notes that they are not to take up other professions even if their parents had. However, during periods of stress, they could.

Two interesting comments in this section:  The god of Vaisyas is the god of Clouds. That makes sense. Is the name of this god Vritra or Indra who defeated Vritra? The legend is that Vritra (cloud) was holding up the waters. Indra used his thunderbolt (vajra) and tore apart Vritra to release the water so the earth can get rains.

Another comment seems to suggest that Asuras are not non-human beings. But they are people with demonic qualities – specifically lust, anger, pride and arrogance. As I understand Asuras are the counter-parts of the devas; and Rakshasas are the counterparts of the humans. They belong to different lokas – asuras to deva loka and rakshasas to manushya loka. In another sense, they are metaphors for qualities such as anger, impatience, anger etc.

In a conversation between King Janaka and Parasara, as told by Bhishma, King Janaka asks: “Is one stained by one’s acts or by the order/class (varna) in which he is born?”.  Parasara says that both have influence. But, one’s actions stain more than the birth since anyone, even one from a lower class can be saved based on his good conduct and virtuous actions.

In Section 300, Brahma in the form of a swan is speaking with the Sadhyas. A famous sloka on telling the truth comes in this section.  “To speak truth that is also righteous is better than just speaking the truth. To speak the truth in an agreeable way is even better than just speaking the truth which is righteous”. In other words, “It is not just what you say, it is how you say”.

In another section, there is a discussion between Yagnavalkya and a king from Janaka’s dynasty. Yagnavalkya explains both the Samkhya system and the Yoga system. One major new knowledge I gained was the reference to Prakriti as a female and Purusha as a male. Prakriti represents form or matter, not capable of doing anything and ignorant. Purusha is the knowledge behind the ability of Prakriti to create things. The relationship between Prakriti and Purusha is compared to that between fish and water, in the form of contact. Fish is in the water but is not part of it.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Kapila and the Cow - Maha Bharatha Series 82

This is the story of sage Kapila and a rishi by the name of Syumarasmi and the conversation between them. Kapila is asked to perform a sacrifice which involves sacrifice of a cow. (Please remember that in Sanskrit the word pasu stands for all animals and not just the cow). Kapila is distraught because of the need for killing an animal.  Syumarasmi enters the body of the sacrificial cow’s body to discuss with Kapila questions such as knowledge (gnana) vs action (karma) and conflicting instructions in the Vedas.

Kapila does not want to follow the idea of killing an animal to fulfill an injunction from the Vedas. Syumarasmi (S) asks Kapila: “If you say that one part of the Vedas need not be followed and is not authoritative, how can you accept other parts as authoritative? Both the “do”s and the “don’t s” come from the Vedas and all of them have to be followed”.

Kapila (K) says: “I do not condemn or censure the Vedas. Vedas say “do” certain things and “don’t do” certain things. If not doing certain things (the don’t s) is meritorious, doing that act must be bad. But, how do you know its context and its relative importance? It is difficult to know the strengths and weaknesses of verbal Vedic declarations. If you know something that is superior to Ahimsa (non-injury) please tell me. But, it must be based on direct evidence and not a quote from the Vedas”.

In my reading, I was amazed at the level of sophisticated thinking and questioning. We can also learn that one can arrive at different conclusions based on the means of acquiring knowledge. Caravaka system accepted direct perception only; not inference. It became an atheistic system. Nyaya and modern science require direct evidence and inference for acceptance. When the opinion of a Wise person or an expert or a scripture is accepted, we encounter controversies and dogmas.

Coming back to the conversation, S says that we have to accept both the “do’s” and the “don’t s” and both the knowledge portion (Aranyaka and Upanishad parts) and the action portion (Samhita and Brahmana) portion of the Vedas.  

S: “Srutis ask us to perform sacrifices to attain moksha. Srutis also say that animals and plants are the limbs of sacrifices. The Lord created sacrifice and also plants and animals which may be used for sacrifice. Seven domestic animals and seven wild animals are fit for sacrifice. We see all the time that life eats life. That is the nature of this world. If you perform sacrifice because the Srutis demand you to do them and not for any personal gain such as attaining heaven, it is acceptable to sacrifice animals”.

As an aside, the Old Testament says that God made humans “masters of the fish, birds and all the animals” (Genesis 1:28).

Obviously, S just quoted the book and did not give an answer based on evidence as requested by Kaplia.

Kapila says that all modes of life (ashrama) lead to “high end” (moksha). “People observing the Vedic injunctions and performing austerities and penances obtain results which are impermanent. It is better to take the gnana marga (Path of Knowledge) and reach Brahman. When self-realization is possible why go after the duties of a domestic life, sacrifices etc?”

S says: “If one lets go of domestic life and become a sannyasin following the Gnana marga, who will perform the sacrifices? Who will take care of the other varnas? How can there be progeny? Children (sons) are needed for the salvation of the ancestors (pitris). And, “grahastasrama is the only approved way for progeny. Besides, Devas depend on humans for their sustenance. When humans offer their oblations of plants and animals in the fire during sacrifice (yagna), the devas get what they need. They are pleased and reward us with rain and food. The animals and plants offered in sacrifice also benefit because they attain heaven.” (the only way animals can attain heaven).

This is one of the prime beliefs in the Vedic system. I have problem with the explanation that animals offered in sacrifice benefit because they go to heaven. Indeed, there are Vedic passages in which the performer of the sacrifice requests the animal to takes his place as the oblation, promising the animal “moksha”! Obviously, it is a justification and, not a reason.

K says: “If acts (karma, sacrifice, oblations etc) are obligatory, why is it the Vedas recommend a path to knowledge also? Why are acts associated with cruelty to animals?” He then gives a list of virtues followed by the followers of the wisdom-path (gnana marga) such as non-violence, truth telling, non-stealing, control of senses and desires which are well-described in the srutis. He goes on to say: “There are no such clear instruction for sacrifices. Even if clear, they are difficult to follow. Even if one can follow, the results are temporary and not worth the effort compared to the bliss of the wisdom path”.

Syumarasmi reveals himself to Kapila and says that he entered the body of the animal to acquire knowledge and wisdom from Kapila and asks for more teaching.

The gist of the discussion seems to be that it is not correct to perform actions and sacrifices with a desire for the fruits such as moksha. Attainment of knowledge and performing sacrifices with detachment is superior. Sacrifice should not cause cruelty to animals.

 Kapila is clearly in favor of knowledge over action. Kapila then goes on to emphasize control of one’s senses and mind, mindfulness in thoughts and speech, good conduct, moderation in food, not coveting other’s properties and devoting oneself to contemplation.  One can then attain moksha in this life when one reach the state of “eithathmikam”, being one with Brahman. Compared to this bliss, heaven and other kinds of benefits are impermanent.
At one point, Brahman is defined as virat (all encapmassing), sutra (the thread woven into the universe as it is woven into cloth), antaryamin (one who dwells inside) and suddha (pure).

Friday, June 22, 2018

Think before you act - Maha Bharata Series 81

Dear friends, The previous blog (no 80) on Ahimsa was too long. Therefore, the blog posted on 6/15/2018 was incomplete. Please note that I added the reminder of the discussion between Jajali and Tuladhara in a blog posted on 6/20/2018. 

Section 257 and 258 (Sanskrit) and 266(English) has the story of one chirakarin. Chira in Sanskrit means delay and a person who delays is a chirakarin (one who acts slowly).

Yudhsitra asks how one can follow the commands of an elder (superior) if that command involved harming someone or some creature. Remember the story of Parasurama? How can one obey the elder in such a situation? Then comes the story of Chirakarin. His father orders him to kill his mother for having been unfaithful. Then there is a long passage in which Chirakarin thinks about how to reconcile  the duty to obey his father’s command with the cruelty and unethical act of  having to kill his own mother. He recounts all the reasons why father is sacred and his wishes have to be taken care of by the son. He then thinks about all the reasons why mother is sacred and should not be harmed. He thinks for so long that it is time for his father to return from his religious rituals and ablutions.

During this time, the father also was able to think and realizes how wrong he was in getting angry with his wife and how wrong he was in asking his son to kill her. (Obviously his mind was elsewhere). He hopes that Chirakarin thinks through, true to his character and does not harm his mother. He comes running and to his relief finds that Chirkarin has indeed been thinking the problem through and did not act in a hurry.

The final statement from Bhishma is “Reflect before you act” in the following words:

एवं सर्वेषु कार्येषु विमृश्य पुरुषस ततः
     चिरेण निश्चयं कृत्वा चिरं परितप्यते

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Non-injury (Ahimsa) as the foundation of Dharma - Series 80 (Continued)

There are several important passages in this section. For example:

सर्वेषां यः सुहृन नित्यं सर्वेषां हिते रतः
कर्मणा मनसा वाचा धर्मं वेद जाजले

This means that being good in thought, words and actions towards all creatures is Dharma.

One passage has the same meaning as Sloka 6 of Iśa Upanishad:

सर्वभूतात्मभूतस्य सम्यग भूतानि पश्यतः

This means “one who sees oneself in all creatures and all creatures in oneself”.

Finally, Tuladhara condemns some of the practices listed in the earlier paragraph and says: “These are some of the wicked and dreadful practices that are current in this world. You follow them because they have been in practice by your ancestors from ancient times, and not because you have thought about them and they agree with your conscience. One should practice what one considers to be one's duty, guided by reasons, and not blindly follow the practices of the world”.

In Tuladhara’s own words (actually, Vyasa’s words):

केवलाचरितत्वात तु निपुनान नावबुध्यसे
कारणाद धर्मम अन्विच्छेन लॊकचरितं चरेत

Which means: “Do not blindly follow what everyone does; use your reason and think for yourself”.

Jajali has doubts about this advice and says: “if one were to follow your teachings, there will be no sacrifices and penance. If there are no sacrifices, the gods (devas) will not be pleased. If they are not pleased, there will be no rain. If there is no rain, there will be no grains and lives will suffer". Jajali calls Tuladhara an atheist for such teachings.

Tuladhara replies calmly that there are several problems with the way sacrifices and penance are done. His list can be applied at any period in history. He says that penance and sacrifices done as rituals without understanding the meaning and which harm creatures do not please the gods. For example, “How can sacrifice be done with wealth acquired by unrighteous means (not dharmic) to please gods? How can a sacrifice be called by that name when the sacrifice and the priest who conduct it are both acting with a desire for the results of that sacrifice? How can you harm and injure creatures and call it a sacrifice?” And, "there are also those who disregard the scriptures completely not based on critical thinking but on false reasoning (for convenience)". 

Th entire “sermon” by Tuladhara places knowledge and understanding as superior to rituals done with desire for the fruits of those rituals, rituals performed with ill-gotten wealth and rituals done without understanding the meaning.

Truth and self-restraint are emphasized. It says that real sacrifice is mental and calls those who sacrifice themselves mentally as “atmayagnin”.

Earlier in this section, animal sacrifice is condemned. So is any sacrifice performed for personal gains and show of pride. There is also a statement that meat, fish, grains and wine are not prescribed for sacrifice. Is this a rebuke to one form of tantric worship in which these four and sexual union (called five m’s or maamsa, matsya, mudra, madya and mithuna) are parts of the ritual?

At one section we find that items of importance during oblation (called ahuti in Sanskrit) are cow’s milk, curds and butter. Then comes a list which includes “the hair in its tail, hoofs and horns”. I do not know what it means. It may mean that clipping a part of the nail, or the horn or the hair in her tail will not hurt the animal and therefore acceptable. But, one interpreter says that water used to wash the tail and horns and the dust from the hoof are also acceptable.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Non-injury (Ahimsa) as the foundation of Dharma - Maha Bharata series 80

In Book 12, Section 254 (Sanskrit) (section 261 and 262 in English) is the story of Jajali and Tuladhara. Jajali is a Brahmin ascetic who gets his lessons on virtue and wisdom from Tuladhara, a merchant or a Vaishya. The main message in this episode is that non-injury is the greatest virtue and the foundation of Sanatana Dharma. (Hinduism was known as Sanatana Dharma for millenia before western visitors came to India)

 Jajali performs all kinds of severe austerities, yogic meditation and beneficial acts. He comes to consider himself as the best in wisdom and virtue. Yet he keeps hearing that a village merchant by name Tuladhara is the one who knows what dharma is. Jajali goes to Varnasi to meet Tuladhara.

To digress a little, we grew up learning the name of this holy city as Benaras or Banaras. In fact, it is known by several names, each name referring to a smaller unit of the city in a concentric fashion. Kashi is the old name and refers to the entire region. Varanāsi is the region between the two rivers – Varanā and Asi. Avimukta is the name from Puranas, to indicate that Lord Shiva does not let go of this place even at the end of a Yuga. Then comes Antagraha, surrounding the Temple of Kasi Vishwanatha.

 To go back to the story of Jajali, while performing penance or noble acts, he is motivated by a desire to be the best in doing dharmic actions (desire). He entertains pride when he let birds build nest in his matted hair even as he stood still for years. Finally, he shows anger when he is told that Tuladhara is better at knowing what dharma is. Tuladhara knows all this and explains to Jajali that one has to let go of desire, pride and anger to be considered virtuous and wise.  

When asked by Jajali how Tuladara, a merchant is known for his virtues and wisdom Tuladara answers: “My actions are based on universal friendliness and beneficence to all creatures.  It is based on total harmlessness to all creatures or in case of absolute necessity upon a minimum of such harm. I am always engaged in the good of all creatures, in thought, word, and deed. I never quarrel with any one or favor any one. I never desire for anything. I look upon all things and all creatures with evenness of mind. My scales are perfectly even to all creatures. I neither praise nor blame the acts of others, viewing them as natural variety in the world, like the variety observable in the sky. I see no difference between a piece of stone and a lump of gold”.

Jajali continues: “I do not have any need for wealth or pleasure or enjoyments. When a person fears nothing and is not a source of fear for others, when he does not experience any desire or aversion for anything, he is then said to have attained Brahman”.

The main message of the discourse is that non-injury is the greatest virtue. The importance of not harming any creatures is emphasized and the slaughter of the cow and the bull are specifically condemned. He even criticizes the practice of restraining the bull by piercing its nose and passing a rope through it to use it for ploughing. May be this section was added after Buddha’s time.

Tuladhara says that in his scale no one is superior and no one is inferior. Everyone is equal (the word tula in Sanskrit means a scale). In Sanskrit it reads as: तुला मे सर्वभूतेषु समा तिष्ठति जाजले

He says: “I have no quarrel with anyone. I do not hate anyone. I do not desire anything. Gold and clay are equal to me. I am not afraid of anyone and no one is afraid of me. I accept variety of people with varieties of behavior because variety is the way of Nature. God manifests in variety”.

Friday, June 8, 2018

What is Dharma? - Maha Bharata Series 79

In Book 12 Section 251, Yudhistra asks Bhishma: "what is Dharma?". Bhishma says that dharma consists in good conduct and following the teachings of Śrutis and those of the Smritis. Dharma is also determined by the purpose of one’s actions (motive). The translator uses the word righteousness for the Sanskrit word dharma. In explaining this, Bhishma says:

यद अन्यैर विहितं नेच्छेद आत्मनः कर्म पूरुषः
     तत्परेषु कुर्वीत जानन्न अप्रियम आत्मनः. 

This is exactly the same as the Golden Rule of the Bible. “Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” says the King James Bible.
 Yudhistra challenges Bhishma and says that none of those four indicators of dharma (good conduct, following teachings of Sruti, following teaching of smriti and intent of action) are valid. His arguments are worth listening to. Bhishma had said that dharma (righteousness) and its reverse arise from one’s acts causing happiness or misery and they affect one’s future life. But, Yudhistra says that living creatures are born, exist and die as part of nature’s course.  Nature is the cause of their births and deaths and not the consequences of their dharmic acts. Therefore, the study of Vedas alone cannot lead one to dharma.

The duties of a person who is well of is of one kind; and that of one in distress is another. Duties also change according to the time. How can one know dharma by reading the Śrutis? Since the Smritis follow the path of the Śrutis, they cannot be relied on either.

Besides, Bhishma says that the acts of the good is righteousness. Then he follows by saying that the good ought to be ascertained by their acts. “Is this not circular reasoning?”, Yudhsihtra asks.

Also, people who act with passion (anger, ignorance etc) sometimes do righteous deeds. And, people with good intentions act in sinful ways. A dharmic action sometimes interferes with another person’s way of life and happiness. So, “how are we to know what dharma is?” asks Yudhishtra.

Given all these questions, Yudhistra says that the path of dharma is extremely difficult to ascertain and says something special:

विद्म चैवं वा विद्म शक्यं वा वेदितुं वा
     अनीयान कषुर धाराया गरीयान पर्वताद अपि  (section 252)

The meaning is that the path of dharma is difficult to understand. It is very narrow, narrower than the edge of a razor and grosser than a mountain.

There is a similar passage in the Bible. “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14).

This idea of comparing the narrow path leading to dharma and enlightenment to a razor’s edge goes back to Katha Upanishad 1:iii;14. That passage became an inspiration to the title of a book by Somerset Maugham called “The Razor’s Edge”. Somerset Maugham was a big admirer of Vedic philosophy.

Friday, June 1, 2018

A Concise Summary of the Vedas - Maha Bharata Series 78

A summary of the teachings of the Vedas is given in one sloka (stanza 11) in Book 12, Section 243.

वेदस्यॊपनिषत सत्यं सत्यस्यॊपनिषद दमः
     दमस्यॊपनिषद दानं दानस्यॊपनिषत तपः
तपसॊपनिषत तयागस तयागस्यॊपनिषत सुखम
     सुखस्यॊपनिषत सवर्गः सवर्गस्यॊपनिषच छमः

The secret meaning of Vedas (or the mystery that underlies Vedas) is Satyam or Ultimate Truth (the Sat Chit Ananda or Brahman)

The secret that underlies Truth is control of senses

The secret that underlies control of senses is Charity

The secret that underlies charity is Penance or Tapas.

 The secret that underlies Penance is Renunciation or letting go

The secret that underlies Renunciation is Happiness (sukham)

The secret that underlies Happiness is Heaven (Swarga)

The secret that underlies Heaven is Tranquility (Śama).

The section goes on to say that heaven is a lesser target to work towards because one has to return back to earth from heaven once the virtues have been exhausted. Heaven is Brahman with attributes. Brahman without attributes can be experienced only in the state of tranquility, which is the state of yoga, a state of non-duality, or Samadhi. Taken differently, Brahman has to be realized with life, during one’s life and one should not get distracted by heaven etc.