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Friday, March 16, 2018

Vishvamitra and Chandala - Maha Bharatha series 67

The story of Vishvamitra stealing food from a chandala* (low cast hunter) is in section 141 of Book 12.

Yudhishtra’s asks how to know what one’s duty is and what morality is. Bhishma says that one cannot learn duty from the Vedas alone. Morality cannot be one-sided. He goes on to say: “One should learn duty and morality from wisdom and experience. Duty should spring from understanding. Righteousness may appear to be unrighteous on occasions and unrighteous appear to be righteous on other times. One should know the circumstances under which these confusions arise. Actions based on true understanding of the circumstances and knowledge obtained from several sources may be too difficult for ordinary folks to understand. They may blame the scriptures or quote one in support or often quote scriptures but do not practice. For them words are weapons”.

Bhishma has already told the story of Vishvamitra before the discussion in the previous paragraph. This episode is placed at the junction between Treta and Dwapara yuga. One statement here saya that the yugas are separated by major events in history with natural calamities. At such times, there is drought and famine. People and animals die and rules of conduct are broken by everyone. Such a drought and famine happened between Treta and Dwapara Yuga and it was during that time Vishwamitra was starving. He was so hungry that he decided to steal dog-meat from a hunter’s hut. Just when he was ready to grab the meat, the hunter woke up. On learning that the thief was none other than Vishwamitra, the hunter asked him why he stooped to such sinful, prohibited act – stealing and that too dog’s meat from a chandala’s house. The hunter wanted to prevent the rishi from doing what he was planning to do and thus save him from disgrace and sin.

During that discussion, we hear Vishwamitra saying that life is precious, is obviously better than death and life should be preserved at any cost, even by stealing prohibited food from a lower caste person. Theft is allowable during times of distress, he says. He tells the hunter: “This body is my friend. It is very dear and worthy of my respect. It is from a desire to sustain this body that I wish to eat by stealing. One has no shame when one is hungry. It is hunger which is driving me to this despicable act. I am weak and have lost my senses. One should, preserve one’s life by any means in one’s power, when confronted by death. Afterwards, when competent, one should propitiate for the sin and acquire that merit back. That is possible only if one lives”.  The argument is that one can acquire virtue and propitiate for the sin only if one can live.

In another place, Vishvamitra says that one does not become a sinner by eating prohibited food, and meat, if someone else had killed the animal. He also says that drinking wine is not a sin. It is just that the wise did not want people to get drunk.

In this episode, Vishvamitra eats the meat, and later performs a rite by the name of Aindragneya, makes a sacrificial food called Charu, offers it to the gods and ancestors and to his wife and son. The gods are pleased and bring rain to the land. Burning all his sins with these rites and penances, the rishi gets his virtues back!

This is another theme in the Vedic literature. It says that one can break rules of virtue under duress, may make mistakes during a sacrificial ceremony or mispronounce the words in the hymns. But, he has to mend it back. There is always a remedy in the form of penance or sacrifice or pilgrimage to set it right. It is called pariharam in Tamizh.

In a later section, Bhishma says as part of another story that sacrifice (tyaga), charity (dana), compassion (karuna), study of scriptures (veda) and truth (satya) are the five purifying agents. They purify the mind. Penance (tapas, ardor) is added as a sixth. Penance and sacrifice were replaced by visits to sacred places (yatra and tirta) for common folks. Even after committing a sinful act repeatedly one can cleanse oneself and purify by going on a pilgrimage, says Bhishma through the words of Saunaka. This has been etched into the Indian psyche so much that we believe in this to this day.

In a later section  (142), Bhishma quotes Usanas telling the Daityas that “Scriptures are no scriptures if they cannot stand the test of reason”. Bhishma advises Yudhishtra to listen to the scriptures and also to reason and precedence set by the wise.

In section 144, a male pigeon is lamenting the loss of his wife and those laments list all the good things about a “good” wife. They are noble statements; but at two places the wife is mentioned as a man’s property or a possession! However, credit must be given to the system for considering the husband and wife  as one unit and for disqualifying a man from performing sacred rites without his wife.

*Chandala according to the old Varna system is one who is born of a Brahmin father and Sudra woman; suta is one form of a Brahmin father and kshatriya woman.


Ramesh said...

Find it very difficult to accept the morals from this episode. That it is OK to do something wrong and thereafter set it right by an appropriate sacrifice or ritual, is something I just cannot accept.

I just cannot get myself to accept the concept of pariharam. I am also deeply distrustful of the transactional mode of worship - you give me something and if you do , I will offer something or go to some temple in return.

Surely, even in those times, these must have been debated and there must have been wise men who disagreed. Perhaps that has all been lost to history.

Balu said...

I do not agree either with the idea of doing bad things and then going for a pilgrimage or giving to a charity as propitiation. But, that was what was believed in those days. It is one way to live without guilt, I suppose. Am sure there were dissenters to this easy way out even in those days.

Hemant Rangan said...

People who comment here seem to think tjaf humans need to be perfect. The greatness od Sanatana Dharma is that it recognises that humans are imperfect and can make mistakes. And there are second and third chances.

Balu said...

Thank you. You are correct.

Ranjan said...

I believe this story is wonderful.Dharma isn't only some words written it is more than that it is doing righteous action under that circumstances which differs everytime. This story is proof of that. Vishwamitra ate restricted food under unfortunate circumstances because he had to as he had no other choice and still is considered one of many dharmic Rishi of all time.