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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).

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