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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.”