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

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.

1 comment:

Lilly said...

What an interesting dialogue, waiting eagerly for Sulabha's repartee!