Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Mahabharata Part 3

War ensues. Almost everyone is killed on both sides in the 18 days of war. On 19th morning, a war which saw most of the janapadas existent in India at that time participate, left not many alive.
The ground was slippery with human flesh and blood. A war which started with (supposedly) 4,000,000 people left less than 15 alive. 7 on Pandava side (Pandavas, Krishna, Satyaki), 3 on Kaurava side (Ashwathama, Kripa and Kritavarma),  Yuyutsu (Half brother of Kauravas but fought from Pandava camp) and Vrishaketu (Karna's son).

One could say Bhishma did survive the war but was fatally wounded. In many ways MB reflects the purposelessness of Bhishma's life. It unmasked an old man who many thought was great but he himself probably had severe insecurities about his greatness. He never rose to the occasion when fate demanded - not on behalf of Amba, not on behalf of Draupadi, not on behalf of Pandavas, not on behalf of Karna, not on behalf of justice. He could have prevented the war - but he ended up being an utter and complete failure.

When Yudhishtir stands atop the ruin of war, corpses being eaten by vultures, his own elder brother Karna dead (he never knew Karna was his elder brother till the end),  he realizes the futility of all wars and how his success is absolutely meaningless.

"Jayoyam ajayakaro jayatasmat parajayah". His famous lament which roughly translates as "at this very moment of success, i realise we won but we lost, this success is ultimately a failure".

Duryodhana had cursed him saying while Duryodhana was king, he ruled a state full of prosperity, happy cries of children, blessed families - husbands, wives & mothers, where as Yudhishtir will inherit a sea of remorse, a country of corpses and an ocean of widows. And thus it happened.

Many wished it didn't happen. At least on Pandava side there was a clear wish to avoid bloodshed, if at all possible. The two people who were dead against not fighting were two women - Draupadi and Kunti. Two feisty characters who stood their ground in a patriarchal society (one could question this general premise since women enjoyed a far more freer existence in these times than years latter in India) and made their sounds heard and words count. One for revenge, the other for justice.

Draupadi had clear reasons for revenge. She was abused and molested by Kauravas in the Hastinapur royal hall in front of so called stalwarts of dharma including Bhishma, Drona and Vidura, not to mention Dhritarashtra, who should have considered her equal to his own daughter. Draupadi, also referred to as Panchali, since she was princess of Panchala (In today's Uttar Pradesh, close to Himalayas), was gambled away by Yudhishtir, her senior most husband. In what would be India's own "Nora moment" (a.la Nora of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House), she asks if she was gambled before or after Yudhishtir gambled himself and his brothers away in the game of dice against Shakuni (brother of Gandhari). When it was confirmed that the pathetic Yudhishtir had gambled himself before her, Draupadi questions his legal right to put her at stake since he had already become a slave and with that surrendered his right over her. Unfortunately none in the royal court came to her rescue and she was molested in spite of it being illegal and ofcourse adharmic. Some later version of MB says Krishna came to her rescue and gave her a cloth piece to hide herself in, which was of infinite length. Most scholars now agree this was a later addition and not part of the original story. Krishna was not present there and if he was it is highly unlikely Mahabharata war would happened since he would have prevented the unjust treatment of Draupadi, one key factor that played in the final war.

Kunti had lived as a dependent ever since Pandu died. Though she was outwardly respected by all, it was clear no one listened to her after Gandhari became the queen. But revenge was not her driving force. Justice for her sons were. She asks Krishna to not push unequal, unjust negotiations at any cost and exhorts Pandavas to pick arms against their cousins.

Finally though, it is women who loose everything. Gandhari her hundred sons, Draupadi all her sons, most married women their husbands, most children their fathers. Kunti escapes least hurt but loses her first born son Karna who fought from Kaurava side. More importantly the justice she badly wanted came too late for her children and when it did come, there was no meaning nor celebration in the victory.

Jayoyam ajayakaro jayatasmat parajayah....


Sunday, June 07, 2020

Mahabharata : Part 2

Content

The basic story plot has already been explained in the previous parts. But it is the associated discussions that show why MB has become so core to Indian discourses even today. In that sense it is quite different from an Iliad or Odyssey or any other western classic. Many of these are likely only taught in specific courses in universities. However epics in India lives even to this day - across political, cultural, historical, theatrical, cinematic, poetic and pretty much all stages of art. These days there are even attempts to bring MB into the fold of science with varying degrees of success and oftentimes incredulous failures.

When we enter, what I call the "ecosystem" content, which leads the path from Jaya to MB, there is proliferation of myths, local stories, tall tales, clan history, political geography and explanations of local ways of life. Hence even talking about scientific history of MB as such is futile and I would not even try to do so.

Given this, it is still worthwhile to know the overall plot genesis and progress, as confusing as it might get at times.

The Kuru Clan

There was once a king Shantanu who is at the top of Kuru clan pyramid. Shantanu marries a river, Ganga (Yes!). They have a son named Bhishma (actual name Devavrata). Later Shantanu falls in love and also marries Satyavati whose mother is a fish and foster father is a ferry driver. However for this to happen, Devavrata has to promise Satyavati's parents that her son and not himself, will sit on Kuru throne after Shantanu. This gives Devavrata his famous name of Bhishma - the one who makes difficult promises! Oh and by the way, Satyavati's actual father was a king whose semen was dropped in river by a hawk which was carrying it to his original wife, whose father was mountain and mother a river. This dropped semen was responsible for Satyavati's mother being a fish. Satyavati had a pre-marital relation with a sage from whom she had another sage as son, who is Ved Vyas, the first assumed author of Mahabharata (or for more precision,  let us say Jaya). Confusions are typically pardoned at this juncture !

Satyavati had a son named Vichitraveerya, who had to be put upon the Kuru throne in line with Bhishma's pledge to Satyavati's parents. Bhishma steals three girls for him to procreate and thereby progress the Kuru clan (not a lot of feminist ideals then, you see !) These were Amba, Ambika, Ambalika. Amba pleads Bhishma to let her go, since she is in love with another King. Bhishma leaves her but her lover refuses to accept her and she suicides, but not before getting a boon that she will be reborn as a transgender, Shikhandi, who would later become the cause of death of Bhishma in the Mahabharata war.

Meanwhile Vichitraveerya marries Ambika and Ambalika. Unfortunately, he dies without fathering any children with the two queens. Now as per the tradition of the land, Satyavati invites Bhishma to father kids on behalf of his half brother with his half-sister in laws ! But since Bhishma is known never to waver from his pledges, he refuses his step-mom. Instead, she invites Vyasa (her son from her extra marital affair, the author who writes MB/Jaya - probably) who was wandering the forests to father kids with the queens. She asks the two queens to be ready in the night for receiving a man. Queens believe (as per the tradition) Bhishma has agreed and is mentally prepared to receive him at night. However, to their shock they see an uncouth, forest dwelling sage in their bed at night. First it was Ambika, who closes her eyes at the moment of coitus unable to look at her partner. Hence the son born in this union (Dhritarashtra) turns out to be blind.

Next is the turn of Ambalika. She faints at the sight of the sage instead of the prince in her bed. Hence the union produces an offspring (Pandu) who is pale (likely an albino). I'm sorry - I know it's bullshit, but bear with me. We will get to the meaty content in a bit !

Unhappy with the end products from Vyasa's activities, Satyavati asks Ambika to be ready to take him again. This time, Ambika tricked everyone by asking one of her servant maids to be her body double. Voila, Vyasa has an amazing time and the union produces an intelligent human - Vidura who would go on to become the prime minister of Hastinapur. Unfortunately, since he was born of a low class maid (and hence not from the kshatriya /warrior class) , he would never be accorded the respect he is due - and never considered for leadership positions or the throne itself. It's worthwhile to note that everyone defers to his words, especially, the senior most Pandava prince, Yudhishtir, but he cannot take important decisions or define the future of the kingdom or the clan.

Bhishma now arranges brides for the blind Dhritarashtra and pale Pandu, namely Gandhari and Kunti, the former he brought from Afghanistan (Gandhara in those days) not divulging the fact that she would marry a blind man. When Gandhari gets to know that she has been cheated by Bhishma, she ties her eyes with a bandana promising never to open it again. She accepts blindness as a mark of protest - a slap on the face of Bhishma and others who led her to this life of being queen to a blind king.

In due course, Pandu is made king of the Kuru kingdom (albinism over blindness, both albinism and blindness over lack of kshatriya blood)

Soon Dhritarashtra and Gandhari have many sons (the myth says 100 sons, not impossible though unlikely) the eldest one and rightful owner of the throne being Duryodhan. These 100 brothers came to be known as Kauravas (the rightful heirs of Kuru clan). Pandu could not have children with Kunti. Meanwhile he falls in love with another princess named Madri and marries her also (but again no kids). So he takes both queens to a forest with a few trusted lieutenants. They live in the forest for a period of time during which Pandu requests Kunti and Madri to spend time with various sages. Through these "interactions" Kunti gets three sons (Yudhishtir, Bhim and Arjun) and Madri gets two (Nakul and Sahadev). They form the mighty pancha pandavas (The five born of Pandu, though Pandu is not their real father), cousins to Kauravas.

Events leading to war

Multiple events happen over time ; Pandavas are defeated in a gambling match and have to go to forest for 13 years. They lose everything to the wily fox Shakuni (who is the brother of Gandhari and came to stay with her from Kandahar, with the sole motive of destroying the house of Hastinapur as revenge for Bhishma destroying the life of his sister by forcing her to marry a blind man).

Once Pandavas come back they request for land where they could live as kings. When Kauravas refuse to yield land to them, they send Krishna (Their mother Kunti's brother's son, and hence their first cousin) to negotiate with Kauravas. He was given the mandate to even agree for five villages for Pandavas to avoid war. Kauravas reject even that. With no options available in front of them, Pandavas go into the war with Kauravas to get back what they think is rightfully theirs.

Monday, June 01, 2020

300 BCE - 200 CE : Mahabharata (Part 1)

Mahabharata : Introduction, context, historicity

As I have written elsewhere, Mahabharata originated out of what could have been a turf war between cousins in a large chiefdom in Nothern India, that of the Kuru dynasty whose capital was at Hastinapur. The war is supposed to have happened at Kurukshetra, in current Haryana, around 170+ km from Hastinapur. It was fought between sides led by Pandavas (5 brothers and sons of Kunti and Pandu) and Kauravas (innumerable brothers, thought to be around 100, sons of Gandhari and Dhritharashtra) which finally the Pandava side won after 18 days of brutal battle. This is the gist of the overall story.
However, more than the core story itself, it is the impact that this "itihasa" has had on Indian culture, art, history, politics, and overall social narrative that makes it one of its kind. What started of as a 8800 shloka (simplest meaning, verse) long "Jaya" a celebratory poem of victory of Pandavas in the battle sung by charioteers (soothas and magadhas, classes assigned to care for horses and in evening sing paens of kings around the war camp fires) grew to become 25,000 odd shloka Bharata, and finally in its last stage becoming 100,000 shloka strong Mahabharata, which has been among other things called a "most monstrous chaos" by befuddled western scholars.
They can be pardoned for becoming flummoxed by something that is 8 times the size of Iliad and Odyssey put together. (You might want to read what I have written on the same a year back, here).

Mahabharata (here after referred only as MB for efficiency) is not just an epic for Indians. MB itself calls it "itihasa" - meaning "thus it happened", which makes it to mean in simple terms, history. Though there has been debate as to whether any part of MB has real historicity, it has now been more or less accepted by everyone that there indeed was a war that happened in Kurukshetra around 1000-900 BC or slightly latter based on archaeological diggings at main sites and the weapons excavated from the area etc. It is worth noting here that there are some far left historians, atheists and even some western scholars who maintain that nothing of that sort ever happened and it is all pure myth which are no amenable to scientific scholarship. (Personally, in transparency of stating my position, I do not agree with them)

Though I tend to believe the war referred to in Jaya (and by extension in MB)  did happen, it is impossible for the war to have been as grand as it is proclaimed in MB. MB says the Pandava faction had 7 akshauhinis (comparable to platoons in today's military terms) and Kauravas had 11. Each akshauhini is composed of around 2,20,000 people. This in fact means the total war had around 40 lakh people. To have a 4,000,000 strong army, the country should have had around 40 Million people (assuming as high as 10% of the society are in military, which obviously is too high a number). The absurdity of this number hits hard when you realize population of whole of India even in 500 BC (almost 300-500 years after MB) was around ~25 Million. Hence it is fair to say some war happened but not at the grandeur that it is mentioned in the book.

Narrative structure

Narrative structure of MB is probably one of the most complex in any written literature. In many ways it can be attributed to the vast refinements and additions that the text has had in its multi century  development from sometime in 300-400 BCE all the way to 200-300 CE. So its absolutely not clear when did first narration start, who narrated about someone narrating it which was witnessed by someone else who then narrates etc etc. You peel the onion peel by peel - challenge is you don't know where to start because you don't know which is the outer peel, which is the inner one.

Originally, the contexts of narratives are as follows

1. There was once a 12 year yagna (ritualistic sacrifice) being conducted in the forest named Naimisha, into which comes a bard named Ugrashrava. Shaunaka and other rishis present there asks him where from is he coming to which he answers that he is coming from up north after having seen the blessed land of Kurukshetra from where he heard the blessed story of Bharata clan (MB). At the Kuru land there was a snake sacrifice being conducted on behalf of king Janamejaya ( who was son of Prikshit who was son of Abhimanyu, a young war hero who died in MB and was in turn son of one of the Pandavas named Arjuna). Vaishampayan (student of Vyasa, supposed author of MB) had recited the MB there for the audience - this is where Ugrashravas says he heard the story from.

The first narrative structure of MB thus is, as told by Ugrashrava to Shaunaka and other rishis at Naimisha forest.

2. Ugrashrava is not the author. He just hears the story. He hears it from Vyasa's student Vaishampayan. Janamejaya had a grudge against snakes (likely a tribal chiefdom with snake totem as symbol instead of the reptiles itself) who had killed his father Parikshit. The tribals kill Parikshit ,in turn, as revenge for destruction of their forests and land by Parikshit's grand father, Arjuna with the help of Krishna. To avenge this, Janamejaya starts a sarpa satrah (huge sacrifice to kill all snakes, likely symbolically means preparing for a way against the tribal chiefdom). It is said Vaishampayan retells the story to let Janamejaya know the futility of revenge and of war and asking him to let bygones be bygones. Bloodshed begets more bloodshed and in the end no one really wins.

3. Vaishampayan is not the author either. He is just retelling the story written by his guru (teacher) Ved Vyas. Vyas literally means "an editor". Many scholars are clear that there is no way a single authorship can be attributed to something as complex and huge as MB. That too something that developed over 1000s of years unless one assumed Vyas was immortal. Earliest references to authorship of MB (likely Jaya) assumes it was written by someone named Krishna Dwaipayana (literally a black man from an island, likely someone who took birth in one of the many islands in river Ganga or Yamuna) who is assumed to be the first Vyasa (compiler). He likely compiles the victory songs of all the sautas (bards) through whose tongues the story of a major war has survived over the course of 500 +years to form Jaya 8800 shlokas.

Ved Vyas is not only the author but also a participant in the story, which complicates matters even further.

So it is fair to assume Vyas composed the core of MB - but it is worth noting that he taught 5 of his students (including his own son, Shuka) and that the narratives for each was supposedly slightly different. One of the narratives survive to this day (Vaishampayana's), 3 are completely lost (that of Sumantu, Pyla, Shuka) and one has survived partly (Jaimini's). Some of the tribals and scholars believe Jaimini's version had Kauravas as the dharmic (righteous) fighters and not Pandvas. Essentially Pandavas cheated their way to victory !

It's also worth noting that MB is not sruti (its no revelation like vedas, which mantra drashtas, seers, "see" in their minds), its part of Smriti (that which is remembered) and hence human derived.

The other much debated aspect of narrative structure and ownership is one based on class structure prevalent in India at that time. Ugrashrava is soota (one of the lower castes) where as every other narrative is shown as brahmins. It wouldn't have been any miracle if Ugrashrava himself had the narrative ownership since anyways the core of MB were songs of victory that people like him had sung for ages at war tents. This has inspired some scholars atleast to profess that MB originally was literature coming from sub-alterns whose ownership was usurped by the brahmins while putting it into text. It is difficult to prove it one way or the other, but it is nevertheless an important point to note.










  

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

600-400 BC : Origin & teachings of Budhism and Jainism

563- 483 BC: Budha, the enlightened one. (Note: Both birth and death dates are approximate and also often debated ; latest archaeological findings from Lumbini, his birthplace, posits a much earlier date of around 560 BC than the previously thought 490 BC)

Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini, close to today's Indo-Nepal border, in the royal palace of the kshatriya Shakya clan sometime around 560 BC. India of that time was spiritually open, thriving and was the hotbed of some of the most venerated spiritual thinking for humanity. He would go on to become Budha, the enlightened one. It is said he got enlightenment while meditating under a tree in Bodh Gaya (in today's Bihar in India) at the age of 35. He passed away in Kushinara, in todays Uttar Pradesh in nothern India around 483 BC, at the age of 80, 45 years after he got enlightenment. His impact on Indian and global spiritual sphere would remain almost unassailable. Not only did he collate his ideas of enlightenment and true happiness into what would later become the religion of Budhism, he impacted Vedic thinking of the day. It is obvious that some of his teaching had long lasting impact on Hinduism, starting with some of the ideas in Upanishads especially around renunciation and mokhsa. Fact that Gautama lived at a time Upanishads were being written makes it impossible that there was no give and take of ideas between his teachings and teachings of Upanishads. One might even say his teachings in prakrit (Pali) as against Sanskrit (the language of the Vedic priests) and the huge following of laymen he created in North India inspired Vedic hinduism to change - move from vedic rituals to one of deep contemplation & thinking as evidenced in Upanishads, move to incorporate local myths and languages into vedic fold, and invite its followers to think about life after death - especially the path of moksha as against the path of rebirth. Concept of Karma, was also likely developed during this time through learnings from both Budhism and sanatana dharma.

His core teachings / truths were laid down as  : Suffering exists (it is real and universal), there is a cause for it (attachment), there is an end to suffering (through Nirvana), and eight fold path to attain nirvana (around wisdom, virtue and meditation)

599-527 BC : Vardhamana Mahavir and Jainism

Similar to Gautama, Vardhamana was born into a royal family around 600 BC. As a contemporary of Budha, his teachings have many similarities with Budhism. He established Jainism which a major focus on shramana way of life - life of monks. He was, like Budha, opposed to the ritualistic aspects of Vedic religion of his time. He was also instrumental in further developing concepts of karma and moksha. The ultimate goal behind practicing the teachings of Lord Mahavira is to attain freedom from the cycle of rebirth as human life is representative of pain, misery and vices. According to him, the accumulation of bad karma leads to the repeated cycle of rebirth. He preached that the real path leading to attainment of liberation from the cycle of Karma is through Samyak Darshana (right faith), Samyak Jnana (right knowledge) and Samyak Charitra (right character).

The impact these sages had on Indian spiritual and social space is unique - it touched upon almost all spheres of life - religious, social, class distinctions, royal patronage, women empowerment, non-violence, food preferences (esp vegetarianism which was almost unknown in India till then). Their exchange of ideas with Sanatana Dharma, a.k.a Hinduism, has led to some of the deepest spiritual awakening in India of yore. Some would go to the extend of saying they transformed, albeit indirectly, Hinduism from being a predominantly ritualistic vedic religion to one of deep philosophical thoughts.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Thoughts and content of Upanishads

At the outset, one must confess it is almost impossible to write about all that is in the Upanishads and synthesize it to a single post. First of all, I have only very basic Sanskrit knowledge and second of all I have not read all the Upanishads. Equally important, is that fact that there are so many immensely deep ideas in Upanishads that it is beyond my intelligence level to synthesize them to any degree of honesty and comprehensiveness.

For people interested in understanding Upanishads in detail, I can only refer them to Sankara bashyam - where Sankaracharya wrote commentaries on the Upanishads. We don't really know if he got hold of the Upanishads the way they were originally written since he wrote the commentaries around ~730-750 AD where as the earliest Upanishads were written around 600 BC.

Some of the noteworthy content themes for me are being noted below.

Two paths for life : Samsara and samnyasa

Upanishads are the first port of call across the Vedas where a system of renunciation is developed in much depth. Most of Vedas, pre Aranyak deals with material life. What is it that humans should do so that they can amass good karmas which will help them go to heaven and be reborn in an exalted form (e.g. wise humans) rather than as say, insect or dog. This is samsara, the cycle of life. Most of the the vedic people thus far were bothered only with this life, in this material world.

With Upanishads, new path is introduced - one of moksha through samnyasa. This is moving away from the cycle of life and death and instead attain moksha , renunciation.

While the former explains what should be done to amass good Karma (at its most simplistic definition, it pertains to all human actions), the latter disassociates itself from all forms of Karma. Any form of Karma, whether good or bad, ties one up with cycle of life. Hence to escape the cycle of rebirths the best is to avoid all forms of karma, the core of renunciation philosophy that was developed during this times.

The second brahmana of brihadaranyaka upanishad, deals directly with these two paths

On the path of samnyasa it says,

'Those who thus know this (even Grihasthas), and those who in the forest worship faith and the True (Brahman Hiranyagarbha), go to light (arkis), from light to day, from day to the increasing half, from the increasing half to the six months when the sun goes to the north, from those six months to the world of the Devas (Devaloka), from the world of the Devas to the sun, from the sun to the place of lightning. When they have thus reached the place of lightning a spirit comes near them, and leads them to the worlds of the (conditioned) Brahman. In these worlds of Brahman they dwell exalted for ages. There is no returning for them"

On the existing path of samsara driven largely by householder sacrifices and rituals, it says

"But they who conquer the worlds (future states) by means of sacrifice, charity, and austerity, go to smoke, from smoke to night, from night to the decreasing half of the moon, from the decreasing half of the moon to the six months when the sun goes to the south, from these months to the world of the fathers, from the world of the fathers to the moon. Having reached the moon, they become food, and then the Devas feed on them there, as sacrificers feed on Soma, as it increases and decrease. But when this (the result of their good works on earth) ceases, they return again to that ether, from ether to the air, from the air to rain, from rain to the earth. And when they have reached the earth, they become food, they are offered again in the altar-fire, which is man, and thence are born in the fire of woman. Thus they rise up towards the worlds, and go the same round as before"
It is unclear whether there was a hierarchy between the paths but clearly renunciation was increasingly becoming a preferred form of following dharma / religion. In fact, the later Upanishads, especially the Sanyasa Upanishads, even goes on to prefer the renunciation path over the vedic householder path.

It is worth noting here that later treatises (especially dharmasastras), integrate the two paths and maps them to stages of life - life divided into brahmacharya (pre-wedding, student life), gruhasthashram (householder life), vanaprastha (forest dweller) and sanyasi (renouncer). First two, you act in accordance with path of samsara (how to lead a good householder life - learn, acquire wisdom, have sex, make children, build house, acquire wealth, do charity / rituals etc) while the focus of last stage is moksha. And third stage is preparing for the final stage while residing and contemplating in the forest. It is in some ways a hedge - do the best you can in first two stages (sat-karma) so that if you take rebirth you are at least reborn in favorable circumstances. And in the last renunciant stage do what you can to avoid rebirth altogether and achieve moksha, escaping from the cycle of birth and death.


Developing Advaita philosophy

Advaita means non-dualism. At its core it believes in oneness of all creation - all creations are one and are parts of the universal spirit (brahman). The only reality is Him and everything else is mithya / maya (non-existent, illusory).

The world has no separate existence apart from Brahman. The experiencing self (jīva) and the transcendental self of the Universe (ātman) are in reality identical (both are Brahman), though the individual self seems different as space within a container seems different from space as such.

It establishes that Brahman is nirguna (formless, without attributes) while each individual might perceive an ishvara (lord) - which is saguna (with attributes including form)

The key difference Advaita with regard to dvaita philosophy is the belief that jiva is same as brahman and saguna ishvara's perceived existence to normal humans is due to avidya (ignorance). For Dvaita, jivatma (soul within humans) and param atma (supreme soul) each has an independent existence. However, God (brahman in Upanishads) is personal in nature, saguna and controls the world and all creatures.

Let us now look at select shlokas from a variety of the principal Upanishads to get a gist of Vedantic thought 

Ishavasyam

Isha Upanishad, IU, one of the shortest Principal Upanishads, but well know), writes thus

iśāvāsyamidaṃ sarvaṃ yatkiñca jagatyāṃ jagat |
tena tyaktena bhuñjīthā mā gṛdhaḥ kasyasviddhanam ||


All that there is (in this world) is abode of the Lord (is enveloped/pervaded by the Him)
Renouncing possessions, enjoy (in this knowledge), do not desire any other wealth

Essentially pointing to the fact that everything there is, is Brahman - why would you hence want to possess anything ? You can enjoy this life without being desirous of any other wealth once you have this knowledge - when you are Brahman and everything else is also Brahman, why would you lack anything that you would be desirous of possessing anything outside of you.

Tatvam Asi

Chandogya Upanishad (CU), one of the oldest of the principal Upanishads says thus (Chapter.6.8)

Tat Tvam Asi Svataketo (तत्त्वमसि श्वेतकेतो) 

That thou (O! Svataketu) art

The pupil Svataketu returns after 12 years of rigorous study, quite pleased with himself. His father asks him if he know the truth of reality. When Svataketu expresses his lack of knowledge of It, his father explains the same to him, ending in the famous advise "That which is the subtlest, the Self within all, That is the truth.That thou (O! Svataketu) art ".

Each human is the unchanging reality. Names, attributes, positions changes but who we really are, that essence is the unchanging truth - your true identity. Svataketu's father is asking him to remove from his mind self attributes - I'm tall, I'm learned, I'm rich, I'm this or that - and come back to his true identify - that which Is. The true unchanging identity, the subtle essence present in all beings.

Aham brahmasmi

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (BU), along with CU above, it is one of the oldest Upanishads and probably one of the most studied. Chapter 1, 4.10

Aham Brahmasmi

On a passage that explains how only Self existed in the beginning and everything else verily sprung from it, BU says that "I'm Brahman, the ultimate reality".

"Verily in the beginning this was Brahman, that Brahman knew (its) Self only, saying, 'I am Brahman.' From it all this sprang" (This here refers to all that exists). It further goes one step ahead and says "Thus, whatever Deva was awakened (so as to know Brahman), he indeed became that (Brahman); and the same with Rishis and men".

Even gods are enlightened when they understand that they are brahman. Same goes for all learned rishis and ordinary men. Essentially, real awakening or enlightenment happens only when one understand that every man himself is the brahman, the ultimate reality. This chapter in BU extols the Advaita philosophy (which will only later be developed into a systemic structure) "Now if a man worships another deity, thinking the deity is one and he another, he does not know".

Once you know your Self is one with Ultimate reality (brahman), then you are never incomplete. You don't have to desire for "other" to complete yourself - whether it be a wife, wealth, possessions. 

BU Chapter 1, 4 Brahman ends with the following

"In the beginning this was Self alone, one only. He desired, 'Let there be a wife for me that I may have offspring, and let there be wealth for me that I may offer sacrifices.' Verily this is the whole desire, and, even if wishing for more, he would not find it. Therefore now also a lonely person desires, 'Let there be a wife for me that I may have offspring, and let there be wealth for me that I may offer sacrifices.' And so long as he does not obtain either of these things, he thinks he is incomplete. Now his completeness (is made up as follows): mind is his self (husband); speech the wife; breath the child; the eye all worldly wealth, for he finds it with the eye, the ear his divine wealth, for he hears it with the ear. The body is his work, for with the body he works. This is the fivefold sacrifice, for fivefold is the animal, fivefold man, fivefold all this whatsoever. He who knows this, obtains all this". 



Poorna mantra

IU and BU both commonly has the mantra as follows

पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात् पूर्णमुदच्यते ।

पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते ॥

ओँ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥

Which can be translated literally as "That is full. This is full. Fullness emerges from fullness. If fullness is removed from fullness, fullness is retained / shall remain. Let there be peace, peace, peace".

It can be interpreted in many ways but the most common understanding is one of merging one's self with infinity / Brahman. Our self is nothing but a part of the infinite brahman. 

Dvaita interpretation : Both jiva atman (individual soul within each human) and param atman (supreme soul) are complete in itself. Not only that, they are also identical - both being infinite. The jiva atman is made from param atman. Even after that param atman remains infinite. 

Advaita interpretation : That (brahman) is infinite, this (atman) is infinite. This came from that. But even after this emerged from that, that remains infinite.

Atleast, both interpretations agree on the final line - Let there be peace, peace, peace :-)

Pavamana mantra ; prayer for purification

Brihadarnyaka has another famous mantra that is commonly recited in school morning prayers in India and also for many other occasions. (Chapter 1, 3rd Brahmana)

Asato ma sad gamaya; tamaso ma jyotir gamaya; mrtyor ma amrutam gamaya

The straight forward interpretation of this is as follows

Take me from unreal to real (verily the truth)
Take me from from darkness to light
Take me from death to immortality

BU on this chapter though is focused on bringing immortality and verily says all the three lines are around helping sacrificer attain immortality. Context is very complex starting with a fight between devas and asuras - simplistically good and evil. Breath helps Devas win over asuras and thus establishes the primacy of breath over other senses. The brahmana goes on to call breath, Angirasa ayasa. Ayasa = of the mouth ; angirasa (rasa of the anga = sap of the limbs, that which gives life to limbs). Further one breath is called brihaspati (lord of speech). It then gives the sacrificer mantras for purification including this one for immortality. 






 

Monday, May 11, 2020

600-300 BCE : Principal Upanishads composed

Important note : I'll use the term Hinduism/Hindu from now on instead of the technically correct terms like Dharma, Sanatana Dharma etc. As long as we remember that there was nothing called Hinduism/Hindu during these times and that it is a much later manifestation, it helps in avoiding being too pedantic. Funnily enough even if Krishna, a key character in Mahabharata (who would later become a storied Godhead in Hindu pantheon), were to be asked if he were a Hindu, he would not even have understood the question. 

Historical context

Vedic people move east and further south. Magadha emerges as the largest Mahajanapada few hundred years after the Mahabharata war. Despite the apocalyptic war (TBC, will explore the real breadth of war and deaths later in 300 BCE when we discuss about the literature), Indian population by 600 BCE had become the largest in the world (According to Greek historian Herodotus). The substantial surplus created by rice cultivation in the fertile alluvial plains of Gangetic plains produced many "urban" societies. People, relatively wealthy due to surplus, also moved far and wide - intermixing of various thoughts and cultures all across South Asia. It is in this milieu that Upanishads were composed.

This society in which Upanishads were composed could not have been more different from the Old vedic times in which first vedas were composed up in Punjab plains - open spaces, people living in forests, sleeping under stars, temporary shelters, no fixed housing, horses galore.

One could almost see a nostalgia of the Vedic past (from Punjab and prior to that the open steppe spaces beyond Hindu Kush) in much of Aranyaks and Upanishads - students and teachers living in forests, sleeping under stars, temporary hutments discussing about meaning of life and such other topics pretty cut off from every day city life that most Vedic people by now had accustomed into around the gangetic plains.

Upanishads are typically regarded as the last bit of Shruti scriptures of Hindu philosophy. The usage comes from the assumption that this was the last bit of knowledge that were "seen" by mantra drashtas - enlightened Rishis. Everything that comes after the last of  Upanishads are counted as Smriti, that which is remembered and put to text by humans, and hence not derived directly from the god. A practical difference of Shruti and Smriti was that, in ancient times at least, the Shrutis were never written down (passed on from generation to generation through only oral rendition) where as Smritis were not so (you could write it down, though epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata were sung over generations before being put to text)

Upanishads are also known as Vedanta, the end of Vedas. On one front, it is the end of Shruti scriptures and on the other it is regarded as the last append of Veda samhitas (after Brahmanas and Aranyakas)

It is, however, not quite easy to date Upanishads. It is even more difficult than dating Mahabharata. This is primarily because there is no one understanding among all scholars as to what all constitutes Upanishads. Since it denotes the end of Vedas and Shruti, there is a constant pressure to add something new to it - many composers would love their own composition to be added to the Upanishadic body of works so as it give it the sanctity of "words from the very mouth of god". Everyone wanted to board the last train !

But if you take most of the largest and well known works of Upanishads, one can approximately say they were composed sometime after Mahabharata war and before AD. Generally, scholars give a wide range of 800-300 or 600-300 BCE when they were written.

Structure of Principal Upanishads

Depending on which Veda it is appended to, we can broadly bucket Upanishads also into 4 or 5, if one were to split Yajurveda into the Black - Krishna and White (Shukla) ones.

10 Upanishads from the Rigveda
19 Upanishads from the Shukla-Yajurveda
32 Upanishads from the Krishna-Yajurveda
16 Upanishads from the Samaveda and
31 Upanishads from the Atharvaveda.

13 of them are regarded as core to Hinduism by vedic scholars (Called Mukhya or Principal Upanishads)

(A) Upanishads of the Rigveda :
(1) Aitareya Upanishad,
(2) Kaushitaki Upanishad

(B) Upanishads of the Shukla-Yajurveda:
(3) Brihadaranyaka Upanishad,
(4) Isha Upanishad

(C) Upanishads of the Krishna-Yajurveda:
(5) Taittiriya Upanishad,
(6) Katha Upanishad,
(7) Shvetashvatara Upanishad,
(8) Maitrayaniya Upanishad

(D) Upanishads of the Samaveda:
(9) Chandogya Upanishad,
(10) Kena Upanishad

(E) Upanishads of the Atharvaveda:
(11) MundakaUpanishad,
(12) MandukyaUpanishad,
(13) Prashna Upanishad.

Content of Upanishads

Unlike Samhitas (and most other early Vedic literature), Upanishad speak more about knowledge and less about rituals (move from karma kanda to jnana kanda, sphere of action to sphere of knowledge). Already in Aranyaks (literally meaning, pertaining to forest), we can see a shift in focus from material livelihood based rituals to much more philosophical discussions fit for forest dwelling monks /sadhus. While ancient Vedas pertained more to humans living in villages and going about their everyday life, the Aranyaks and subsequently Upanishads are more philosophical in nature - delinked from questions of every day material life. For this reason, many believe Upanishads are the real throbbing heart of Hinduism.

It is also worth noting the historical context under which Vedantic philosophies started finding favors. On one side, Vedic rituals were losing meaning for spiritual seekers among the vedic people and on the other side these times witnessed birth of Gautama Budha and Mahavira. They established Budhism and Jainism - two religions seeking answers to deep spiritual questions like meaning of life, obtaining nirvana etc- through creation of monastic orders. While vedic teachings thus far were meant for everyday village life, it lacked probing spiritual questions. Budhism and Jainism helped meet some of these needs and this in turn likely led to Vedantic thoughts getting prominence within the Hindu fold.  Hence one could say this was in many ways the golden time of Indian philosophy - which would go on to inspire millions of adherents across Asia and rest of the world.

Unfortunately, very few present day Hindus ever read the beautiful Upanishads given the complex philosophy involved and lack of easy to understand translations in regional languages. Also one must accept that there is no way to over simplify the philosophy and at some point one needs to accept that it is not for everyone.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

1000-600 BCE: Painted Gray Ware culture and Mahabharata war dating

1900-1200 BCE Late Harappan, early Vedic cultural association with pottery 

The excavations show usage of Ochre Colored Pottery in Northern India during the times of 1900-1200 BCE. These were less artistic and fine compared to the sophisticated IVC culture which used burnished, smooth surfaced, polished ware pottery.


However from around 1200-600 BCE, excavations show the Vedic people as belonging to the PGW (Painted Gray Ware) culture. The Rig Vedic sites have PGW but iron objects are absent. Hence it is considered a pre-iron phase of PGW. On the other hand, the Later Vedic sites are considered iron-phase of PGW.


Most of the places mentioned in Mahabharata has now been excavated with wide presence of PGW cultures in almost all key places in the epic (Hastinapur - now Meerut, Indraprastha-now Delhi), Kurukshetra -same name now, Gandhara (Kandahar, Afghan), Magadha (now in Bihar), dwaraka (under ocean now), Virata (now Jaipur), Mathura (same name now).

This has led to historians and scholars to place the dating of Mahabharata at around the time of 600-1000 BCE. Also most likely the war did not happen in early vedic times since Iron was not found. It had to happen in the Iron age given the weaponry used, chariots used etc. All these points towards late vedic age as time of the war. Though it is never easy to give an exact date, it is now more or less agreed that the war happened sometime in 600-1000 BCE time period.

What can be understood with reasonable probability are

1. It could not have happened before or during OCP times (before 1900 or in 1900-1200 BCE) simply because only two of the major Mahabharata sites gives any proof of well settled life in the OCP layer excavations. Also bronze age could not have produced the types of weapons and janapadas with their own kings systems as explained in Mahabharata.

2. Mahabharata tells about many Janapadas (anga, vanga, kosalam, avanti, gandharam,kalingam, chedi, panchalam) which joined either the Pandavas or the Kauravas faction. Could not have happened before 1000 BCE. (No janapadas originated before this time). 12 of the 16 Janapadas participated in the Mahabharata. (These Janapadas originates around 1000-800 BCE, stabilizing by 600 BCE) . Good samples and proofs of iron, agri wares, weapons / arrow heads in PGW layers across many of these.


3. By 600 BCE Magadha emerges as the main Mahajanadapa - and one of the first large states of India. However, Magadha has no special mention in times of Mahabharata. Hence it could not have happened after 600 BC.


It is worth noting that some historians / astrologers have, based on star signs mentioned in Mahabharata and understanding of Yugas in Indian mythology have put the date of Mahabharata as sometime around 3000-3100 BCE. It's now almost widely accepted that this is impossible given that even IVC hadn't matured, even Rigveda was not written and Iron age was still many centuries away. Hence a sophisticated war like Mahabharata which involved widely spread Mahajanapadas (even as far eastern as Anga - which was gifted by Duryodhana to Karna) could not have happened so early in India history. Aryans come east into the Gangetic plains after Rig veda was composed which itself is around 1700-1500 BCE. Hence it is impossible for Mahabharata to have happened in 3000 BCE.