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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.

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