Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Beautiful Concept of Rnas

Three or four days ago, I received a mail from a friend of mine asking me when the rnas [debts, often transcribed as rinas] which were originally three got increased into five. It is this that got me thinking about rnas.

The ancient Indian concept of rnas is truly beautiful. It said each human being is born on the earth with certain rnas and were bound to repay those rnas during his life time. The philosophy behind rnas is that we are indebted to the world we live in for the things we enjoy in the world, to the people who lived before us for many other things, and to our parents for our body and life itself.

This is an extension of the basic Indian philosophy that what makes life meaningful in the world is not the claims we have from it, but our responsibilities towards it. When everyone claims his right but none bothers about his responsibilities, no one gets anything. Whereas, when everyone fulfils his responsibilities, everyone gets all he needs. A philosophy based not on taking, but on giving. It is the duty of the parents to give to their children, of the children to give to their parents; it is the duty of the wife to give to the husband and the husband to give to the wife; it is the duty of the teacher to give to his students, of the students to give to their teacher; it is the duty of the subjects to give to the king, of the king to give to the subjects; and so on. The other becomes the centre of your life, rather than you. Everything is done based on others-centredness rather than self-centredness.

Those who accuse that Indian culture does not have a sense of charity should understand this. Indian culture does have a sense of charity – dana, charity, is considered one of the greatest human virtues by Indian culture. There is immense stress on charity. But our culture stresses on indebtedness more than it stresses on charity because in charity there is a feeling that the giver is superior to the receiver. There is the possibility that the giver’s ego becomes stronger through the act of giving – which is against the very soul of Indian culture. Everything in Indian culture is so designed that it leads to the elimination of th ego.

Our culture will not approve of gifting a chair worth five thousand rupees to someone and spending twenty thousand or more on the function organised to give it and on PR work.which makes the whole world know of it. Nor will it approve of what we see in certain places of worship – the pratishtha in the temple is hardly visible – all around it are small things donated by ‘devotees’ on which in big letters are written the names of not only the donors, but also of the persons in whose names the donation is made. Like a wall clock right behind the pratishtha, on which or under which in huge letters are these names. The tradition is that the left hand should not know what the right hand gives.

So Indian culture insists that in charity the giver should feel he is smaller than the receiver and that the receiver is blessing him by receiving from him, by giving him the opportunity to do charity. This is the reason why we give dakshina after charity. No dana is complete without dakshina. Dakshina is the ‘thank you’ that the giver gives the receiver. And before dana, the receiver is received formally, he is offered a seat with respect and his feet are washed, and on occasions, ritual worship is offered to him.

[Of course, all this is speaking from the standpoint of the giver. From the standpoint of the receiver, he should be grateful to the giver for giving him. Krtaghnata – ingratitude is is invariably treated as one of the worst possible sins.]

In spite of all this, there is still the danger that charity might corrupt the giver through ego development, for we are all human beings. For that reason the culture lays stress on debts – rnas. For the danger of the giver feeling superior to the receiver is not there with rnas. You are paying back what they have given you – you are not giving anything of your own. What you are giving back originally belonged to those to whom you are giving it back – that is why it is called a debt. And you become free from debt when they receive it.

Rnas are not mere cultural concepts, but the reality of life. We are indebted to the world in which we live in a million ways – for everything physical we take from it. We are indebted to the people of the past for the culture and civilization they have created – particularly to the makers of culture and civilization. And we are indebted to our parents and grandparents and ancestors for all our biological inheritance.

The rnas were originally three: deva rna, rishi rna, and pitr rna – debt to the gods of the different phenomena of the world like the sun and the moon and the rain and the air; debt to the seers of the past, the makers of culture and civilization, the creators of knowledge; the wise men, the teachers; and debt to the manes.

So deeply were these debts felt that the culture asked us to be grateful to every god and every sage and every ancestor. When one performed tarpana [literally, pleasing], which was a ritual of remembrance and gratitude to the manes, the ritual was performed so systematically that it left no possibility of forgetting any one we are indebted to.

One thing I like particularly about tarpana is that, even though our society is predominantly patriarchal, no distinction is made between one’s ancestors on the mother’s side and on the father’s side.

The tarpana began with a sankalpa, vow, made by the performer after he had ritually purified himself. Part of the Sanskrit mantra chanted at this time said: deva-rshi-pitr-prītyartham deva-rshi-pitr-tarpanam yathāshakti karishye – I perform as best as I can this tarpana of the gods, seers and manes in order to please the gods, seers and manes.

As one began the tarpana, one chanted: brahmādayah surāh sarve rshayah kashyapādayah āgacchantu mahābhagā brahmāndodaravartinah. May the great gods beginning with Brahma and the great seers beginning with Kashyapa, living in the heart of creation come here.” As offerings were made, mantras were chanted, which meant ‘May Brahma be pleased! May Vishnu be pleased! May Rudra be pleased! May Prajapati be pleased! May the gods be pleased! May the goddesses be pleased! May the Vasus be pleased! May the many Rudras be pleased! May the Adityas be pleased! May Rudra be pleased!...” [Om brahma trpyatām. Om vishnuh trpyatām!...]

Similarly, when offerings were made to the sages the mantras chanted included: “May Kashyapa be pleased with this! May Atri be pleased with this! May Vasishtha be pleased with this! May Vishwamitra be pleased with this! May Gautama be pleased with this! May Bharadwaja be pleased with this! May Jamadagni be pleased with this! May Angira be pleased with this! May Kutsa be pleased with this! May Bhrgu be pleased with this!” These are the most important rishis.

As one came to the tarpana to the manes, one invoked all one’s fathers in all one’s births – mama sarvajanmeshu pitarah trpyantām. Next one invoked all the fathers of those fathers and their fathers– pitāmahāh prapitāmahāh – and then moving on to the mother’s side, one made offerings to all one’s mothers in all one’s previous births – mama sarvajanmeshu mātarah trpyantām. Offerings were then made to the mothers of the fathers [pitāmahyah], their mothers [prapitāmahyah], wives in different births [patnyah], husbands [patayah], sons [putrāh], daughters [kanyāh], one’s people in general [ātmajanāh], and everyone that one can imagine, which included the gurus, gurupatnis, fathers-in-law, mothers-in-law, brothers, sisters, half-brothers, half-sisters, friends, disciples, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, grandchildren… Finally the ritual ends with prayers for the welfare of the whole world.

This indebtedness one felt was never felt as a burden that bent one’s back, but more as a sense of gratitude that elevated one’s spirits. One never feels, for instance, burdened by the gratitude to one’s father or mother – it is the happiest of gratitudes.


How many rnas are a person born with? Well, truth is that each one of us is born indebted to the whole existence. However, originally, three rnas were recognised: the debts to the gods, the seers and the manes. Manu thus mentions three rnas as when he says: maharshi-pitr-devānām gatvā anrnyam [Having freed oneself from the debts to the gods, the sages and the manes - Manu 4.257] and rnāni trīni apākrtya [having paid back the three debts - Manu 6.35].

However, eventually the rnas were recognised as five: the debts to the bhutas [elements or all living beings in general] and human beings added to the list. This growing of the list could have risen from a confusion with the five yajnas [sacrifices] that Manu prescribes – to the gods, to the sages, to the manes, to the bhutas and to other human beings. From five yajnas to five debts it is only a small step. Particularly since the yajnas were rituals of gratitude and thanksgiving.

Alternatively, it is possible that the concept of rnas kept evolving over time. In fact, I would like believe this is how it happened. As time passed, we became conscious of more things and people to which we were indebted. And the list of rnas grew.

Interestingly, one Sanskrit verse, the source of which I am not sure, mentions four debts: rnaiś caturbhih samyuktā jāyante mānavā bhuvi – people are born on earth with four debts. The Vishnu Samhita has six debts mentioned: devatā-pitr-bandhūnāmrshi-bhūta-nrnām tathā rnī-syāt adhīnaś ca varnādir janma-mātratah. Which means that the debts one inherits at birth are to the gods, to the manes, to friends and relatives, to the sages, to the bhutas and to other human beings.


I follow hardly any rituals in my own life. And yet I find the concept of rnas and the rituals associated with them beautiful. They are important for cultural reasons. And even if they are not important for cultural reasons, they are important for environmental reasons.

The concept that our physical and cultural words are our inheritance from the past and we are to pass these on to our next generation not in an impoverished condition but more enriched than we received it, is a beautiful one. Our world that is threatened with extinction because of man’s insatiable greed, power hunger, aggression and thoughtlessness needs such beautiful concepts for humanity’s, and the world’s, very survival.

Also, I do not mean everything that we culturally inherit is healthy. There are aspects of culture that need to be rejected because they are evil – as the Upanishad seers rejected aspects of Vedic culture that had by their time become meaningless, as Krishna rejected in the Gita many practices that had become meaningless by his time, as Vidya Sagar and Gandhi rejected many aspects of our culture that had by their time become positively evil. A Sanskrit saying says: purānamityeva na sādhu sarvam – everything is not good just because it is ancient.

One last thing. What is important is not that you perform the rituals – rituals do matter, I agree. They do have a symbolic value and are powerful tools of communication, particularly with the unconscious mind and the preverbal brain. But it is the way you live 24x7 that really matters. We should be able to sustain this attitude throughout the day, seven days a week. Without that a ritual becomes just that – a ritual and nothing more.

One happy thing that has been happening for a while now is that industry and business, corporate houses, have been taking these debts and yajnas seriously. True, they do not perform them as rituals, thank God, but social and environmental responsibilities are things taken seriously today by the business and industrial world. One of the criteria by which corporate houses are judged is to what extent they are committed to their social and environmental responsibilities. What are these responsibilities if not bhuta rna and manushya rna being paid back, bhuta yajna and manushya yajna being performed?

The name does not matter; what counts is the act.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Osho’s New Man and Krishna

On 1st January 1979, someone asked Osho what his message to humanity was and here are some excerpts from Osho’s answer to that question [If you want to read the entire answer, please see his darshan diary, Zorba the Buddha.]:

“My message is simple. My message is a new man, homo novus. The old concept of man was of either/or; materialist or spiritualist, moral or immoral, sinner or saint. It was based on division, split. It created a schizophrenic humanity. The whole past of humanity has been sick, unhealthy, insane. In three thousand years, five thousand wars have been fought. This is just utterly mad; it is unbelievable. It is stupid, unintelligent, inhuman.

Once you divide man in two, you create misery and hell for him. He can never be healthy and can never be whole, the other half that has been denied will go on taking revenge. It will go on finding ways and means to overcome the part that you have imposed upon yourself. You will become a battle-ground, a civil war. That’s what has been the case in the past.

In the past we were not able to create real human beings, but humanoids. A humanoid is one who looks like a human being but is utterly crippled, paralyzed. He has not been allowed to bloom in his totality. He is half, and because he is half he is always in anguish and tension; he cannot celebrate.

Only a whole man can celebrate. Celebration is the fragrance of being whole.

Only a tree that has lived wholly will flower. Man has not flowered yet.

The past has been very dark and dismal. It has been a dark night of the soul. And because it was repressive, it was bound to become aggressive. If something is repressed, man becomes aggressive, he loses all soft qualities. It was always so up to now. We have come to a point where the old has to be dropped and the new has to be heralded.

The new man will not be either/or; he will be both/and. The new man will be earthy and divine, worldly and other-worldly. The new man will accept his totality and he will live it without any inner division, he will not be split. His god will not be opposed to the devil, his morality will not be opposed to immorality; he will know no opposition. He will transcend duality, he will not be schizophrenic.

With the new man there will come a new world, because the new man will perceive in a qualitatively different way and he will live a totally different life which has not been lived yet. He will be a mystic, a poet, a scientist, all together. He will not choose: he will be choicelessly himself.

That’s what I teach: homo novus, a new man, not a humanoid. The humanoid is not a natural phenomenon. The humanoid is created by the society – by the priest, the politician, the pedagogue.

The humanoid is created, it is manufactured. Each child comes as a human being: total, whole, alive, without any split. Immediately the society starts suffocating him, stifling him, cutting him into fragments, telling him what to do and what not to do, what to be and what not to be. His wholeness is soon lost. He becomes guilty about his whole being. He denies much that is natural, and in that very denial he becomes uncreative. Now he will be only a fragment, and a fragment cannot dance, a fragment cannot sing, and a fragment is always suicidal because the fragment cannot know what life is. The humanoid cannot will on his own. Others have been willing for him – his parents, the teachers, the leaders, the priests; they have taken all his willing. They will, they order; he simply follows. The humanoid is a slave.

I teach freedom. Now man has to destroy all kinds of bondages and he has to come out of all prisons. No more slavery. Man has to become individual. He has to become rebellious. And whenever a man has become rebellious.... Once in a while a few people have escaped from the tyranny of the past, but only once in a while – a Jesus here and there, a Buddha here and there. They are exceptions. And even these people, Buddha and Jesus, could not live totally. They tried, but the whole society was against it.

My concept of the new man is that he will be Zorba the Greek and he will also be Gautam the Buddha: the new man will be Zorba the Buddha. He will be sensuous and spiritual, physical, utterly physical, in the body, in the senses, enjoying the body and all that the body makes possible, and still a great consciousness, a great witnessing will be there.

The old man’s ideal was renunciation; the new man’s ideal will be rejoicing.

I teach a new religion. This religion will not be Christianity and will not be Judaism and will not be Hinduism. This religion will not have any adjective to it. This religion will be purely a religious quality of being whole.

Once we have brought this new man into existence, the earth can become for the first time what it is meant to become. It can become a paradise: this very body the Buddha, this very earth the paradise!”


I love Osho. I love the clarity of his thoughts. I love his wisdom which feels like the wisdom of life itself. I have learnt much from him.

And yet my mind questions. Is this new religion that Osho speaks about really a new religion? Hasn’t anyone else ever before attempted to create such a religion?

I know of at least one man who tried to create this religion Osho speaks about. And he lived a long, long time ago. Long before Islam was born, long before Christianity was born, long before Buddhism was born.

I am talking of Krishna. And I am sure Osho would agree with me when I say the religion Krishna tried to establish through the Gita is this new religion Osho is speaking about.

Krishna is the greatest rebel, the greatest revolutionary, the world of religion has seen. It is amazing when you read his Gita. He gives new meanings to every word he uses there!

For instance, sannyasa in Krishna’s days meant karma-sannyasa – and Krishna says karma-sannyasa is not true sannyasa, the only true sannyasa is jnana-sannyasa. Sannyasa is not giving up your duties and responsibilities; it is performing them with the right attitude, with the larger vision of life. It is our misfortune that five thousand years after Krishna’s time, we have still not understood sannyasa. For us even today sannyasa means giving up our family and our personal responsibilities and retiring from active life in search of God.

Take another word central to religion – tapas, usually translated as asceticism, penance. The moment we think of tapas, images come to our mind – of ascetics engaged in tapas on the mountains and other lonely places through extreme acts of self-denial, like giving up sleep or food, or bath or speech or maybe even all of these, piercing and in other ways torturing the body and so on. But Krishna sees tapas as something very different. He says there are three forms of it: bodily, of speech, and of the mind. Observance of cleanliness, simplicity, non-violence and a few other things like that form bodily tapas according to Krishna. Words which cause no agitation and which are truthful, pleasing and beneficial, as well as self-study and recitation of sacred literature, these form tapas of speech. Contentment, gentleness, silence, mental discipline and purity of thoughts and feelings – these form mental tapas, says he. He further goes on to divide tapas into sattvic, rajasic and tamasic. The tapas as we commonly understand it, according to Krishna, is the worst kind of tapas – tamasic. Rather than raising the performer to spiritual heights, says he, such tapas pulls man down into abysses of darkness.

These are just two examples. But as I said, Krishna gives new meanings to every spiritual term he uses.

For Krishna, spirituality is not the denial of life, but its total acceptance, its full flowering. You become religious not by saying no to life, but by living it intensely, totally. You do not become religious by keeping away from life, but by immersing yourself in it: with awareness, with your eyes open, with your heart open, with an awakened mind, filled with an overflowing sense of sanctity and gratitude, celebrating each breath we take.

Krishna is Zorba, and Krishna is the Buddha. Krishna is the meeting of Zorba and the Buddha. Krishna is their merger and their oneness.

And Krishna’s life is the proof for his philosophy. There is not one word in the Gita that he does not validate with his life. It is difficult to imagine a man more involved with life than Krishna was. Whether it is his life in Gokul and Vrindavan as a child and an adolescent as portrayed by the Bhagavata, or his life as an adult as we see it in the Mahabharata, Krishna is ever active, ever involved. There is not one major event of his day of which he is not a part. Long is the list the Mahabharata gives us of the wars he fought throughout his life to establish dharma and wipe out adharma. And in the middle of it all, he celebrates, and celebrates constantly.

Read the Harivamsha, which is traditionally considered the Khila Parva of the Mahabharata, an appendix to the epic, its nineteenth chapter. And you will see Krishna celebrating there – thoroughly. A warning: be ready to be shocked by what you will see.

Krishna is totally involved – and yet he is not corrupted by the world. That is what being truly religious means. That is true sannyasa. Krishna is a sannyasi in the truest sense of the term, a sannyasi of the highest kind. The kind he speaks of in the Gita. A true yogi.

Osho says it is religiousness he is interested in, and not in religions. There can be no higher example for religiousness than Krishna himself.

Osho is right when he says that the new man has not yet come into being. Krishna tried to make the new man possible. But Krishna was so far ahead of his times, the world was not ready for him.

Osho knows this. For no man has understood Krishna better than Osho did, no man has explained him more meaningfully than Osho has done. All you have to do to understand this is to read Osho’s talks on Krishna: Krishna Meri Drishti Mein in Hindi, or Krishna: the Man and His Mission in English.

I recommend the book in the highest possible terms.


Incidentally, Zorba the Greek is one of my all-time favourite books and its author Nikos Kazantzakis, one of my all-time favourite authors. I love his Odyssey: A Modern Sequel as much as I love Zorba the Greek, if not more. Odyssey: A Modern Sequel continues the story of the Odyssey from where Homer left it off.

Perhaps of all his books, the most controversial is The Last Temptation of Christ. Listen to what Kazantzakis has to say in the Prologue of the book about the conflict Osho is speaking about:

“My principal anguish and the source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh. Within me are the dark immemorial forces of the Evil One, human and pre-human; within me too are the luminous forces, human and pre-human, of God—and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met.

The anguish has been intense. I loved my body and did not want it to perish; I loved my soul and did not want it to decay. I have fought to reconcile these two primordial forces which are so contrary to each other, to make them realize that they are not enemies but, rather, fellow workers, so that they might rejoice in their harmony—and so that I might rejoice with them.”

Kazantzakis speaks of the antipathy between the spirit and the flesh: “It [the spirit] is a carnivorous bird which is incessantly hungry; it eats flesh and, by assimilating it, makes it disappear.”

Krishna is a man who had transcended the conflict between the flesh and the spirit – he had no such conflicts.
In fact, there is no such conflict. For anyone. The flesh and the spirit are not enemies of each other. The conflict is something we have created, because of our confusion. The flesh is as sacred as the spirit. The battle is not between them – they are at peace with each other. But we take sides and we make them fight.

Come to think of it, we had in India once a religion in which this conflict of the flesh and the spirit so characteristic of contemporary religions was totally absent. This was long before Krishna, but by Krishna’s time it had degenerated into a religion of conflict and dichotomy. I am talking about the religion of the Vedas, which was a religion totally different from what we commonly understand as religion today. The Vedas accepted life in its fullness. Here is what an authority has to say about the Vedas and the Vedic religion: “The malaise caused by the loss of balance between the primary biological instincts and man’s active and contemplative faculties is completely absent in them. There is no clash between the flesh and the spirit in the Vedas. Nor do we come across signs of repression or self-torture, accompanied by morbid sin-consciousness. No negative attitude to life, induced by disillusionment or frustration, no world-weariness as later religious thought in India and outside would show. Instead what we find is a sense of festivity, the celebration of life.”

That was the religion of the Vedas.

As I see it, what Krishna was doing was trying to regenerate, revive, that old religion to its original purity. Remember, the Mahabharata repeatedly refers to Krishna as an incarnation of the Vedic sage Narayana [of the famous Nara-Narayana pair].

And perhaps that is what Osho means too, when he says he is trying to create a new religion. Bring religion back to its original purity. Not a particular religion, but religion itself, religion as such.

Osho says the new religion will not have a name. Interestingly, the religion of the Vedas had no name.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

J Krishnamurti and the Upanishads

I am still with Mary Lutyen’s beautiful book, Krishnamurti: The Years of Awakening.

So far as I know, J Krishnamurti never taught the Upanishads, never gave a lecture on the Upanishads. He did not believe in scriptures or teachers, did not believe in traditions or paths. And yet while going through Mary Lutyens’s book, I was once again reminded of how amazingly close his personal experiences and teachings are to those of the Upanishad seers.

Here is one of the profound, life altering experiences from his early life described in the book. This happened in August 1923, when Krishnamurti was twenty-eight years old. He describes the experience in a letter he wrote to Mrs Annie Besant, his adopted mother, two days after the experience happened.

“Then, on the 17th August, I felt acute pain at the nape of my neck and I had to cut down my meditation to fifteen minutes. The pain instead of getting better as I had hoped grew worse. The climax was reached on the 19th. I could not think, nor was I able to do anything, and I was forced by friends here to retire to bed. Then I became almost unconscious, though I was well aware of what was happening around me. I came to myself at about noon each day. On the first day while I was in that state and more conscious of the things around me, I had the first most extraordinary experience. There was a man mending the road; that man was myself; the pickaxe he held was myself; the very stone which he was breaking up was a part of me; the tender blade of grass was my very being, and the tree beside the man was myself. I almost could feel and think like the roadmender, and I could feel the wind passing through the tree, and the little ant on the blade of grass I could feel. The birds, the dust, and the very noise were a part of me. Just then there was a car passing by at some distance; I was the driver, the engine, and the tires; as the car went further away from me, I was going away from myself. I was in everything, or rather everything was in me, inanimate and animate, the mountain, the worm, and all breathing things. “

This oneness with the universe, in which we see ourselves in all beings and all beings in ourselves, is precisely the experience of the Upanishadic seers, which they give words to in numerous Upanishads.

The sage of the Taittiriya Upanishad, for instance sings out in the moment of self-realization:

“Hāa vu! Hāa vu! Hāa vu!
Aham annam aham annam aham annam!
Aham annādo’ham annādo’ham annādah!
Aha’m ślokakrt aha’m ślokakrt aha’m ślokakrt!
Aham asmi prathamajā rtāasya!
Poorvam devebhyo’mrtasya nāabhāayī!
Yo mā dadāti sa ideva māavāh!
Aham annam aham annam adantam āadmi!
Aham viśwam bhuvanam abhyabhavāam!

I have quoted the words of the seer in Sanskrit because of the ecstasy that pulsates in every word he utters. He is not making a statement, but singing out full throated, as the ‘āa’s appearing throughout shows. [These are the extra long vowels of Vedic Sanskrit, which does not exist in classical Sanskrit. The short vowels [hrasva] are one mātrā long, the long vowels [dīrgha] two mātrās long, and these, called plutas, three mātrās long.

Here is a translation of the seer’s song.

Hāa vu! Hāa vu! Hāa vu! [Sounds of his ecstasy] I am the food, I am the food, I am the food! I am the eater of the food, I am the eater of the food, I am the eater of the food! I am the maker of verses [poet], I am the maker of verses, I am the maker of verses! I am the first born of this world, the manifestation of truth as the formed and the formless! I existed before the gods! I am the centre of immortality! He who offers food, it is this me he protects! I am food, I am food and I am the one who eats up the eater of food! It is I that has become the entire universe! I am the golden light!

The seer of the Shwetashwatara Upanishad expresses the same idea – the only difference being that his expression is in the third person. Here it is ‘He’ the sage sees in everything, rather than ‘I’ – but for him the He and I are one and the same. Here is what he says:

“tvam strī tvam pumān asi tvam kumāra uta vā kumārī tvam jīrno dandena vañcasi tvam jāto bhavasi viśvatomukhah
nīlah patango harito lohitākshhas tadidgarbha rtavah samudrāhanādimat tvam vibhutvena vartase yato jātāni bhuvanāni viśvā”

“Thou art the woman, Thou art the man. Thou art the youth and the maiden too. Thou art the old man who totters along, leaning on the staff. Thou art born with faces turned in all directions. Thou art the dark blue butterfly, and the green parrot with red eyes. Thou art the thunder-cloud, the seasons and the oceans. Thou art without beginning, and beyond all time and space. Thou art He from whom all the worlds are born.”

The Upanishad seer might as well have sung: “I am the man, I am the woman. I am the youth and the maiden too. I am born with faces turned in all directions. I am the old man who totters along, leaning of the staff. I am the dark blue butterfly, and the green parrot with red eyes. I am the thunder-cloud, the seasons and the oceans. I am without beginning and beyond all time and space. I am He from whom all the worlds are born.’ Strangely, this sounds somehow more correct!

It is the sage of the Kaivalya Upanishad who says this:

“mayyeva sakalam jātam, mayi sarvam pratishthitam
mayi sarvam layam yāti tadbrahmādvayam asmyaham.”

“Everything is born in me, all things have their existence in me and everything merges back into me. I am that Brahman, the one without a second.”

The Kaivalya Upanishad rishi is very clear that there is only one way to attain the Vast and no other – by knowing oneself as existing in all beings and all beings as existing in oneself:

“sarvabhootastham atmanam, sarvabhootani chatmani
sampashyan brahma paramam yati nanyena hetuna.”

[I had an interesting experience while thinking about this mantra. The mantra came to my mind as I thought about such mantras in the Upanishads, but couldn’t recall from which Upanishad it is. I closed my eyes and I saw my teacher sitting majestically in our ashram temple, where he frequently taught us, sitting in the special teacher’s seat that was placed there. Tall and fair, he looked every inch a royal sage, as he always did. I heard him chanting this mantra in his deep, resonant voice, his body swinging with it, his eyes intoxicated with the power of the mantra. The words I heard were chanted in his unique accent and then suddenly I knew from which Upanishad the mantra came – Kaivalya Upanishad.]


Vagambhrini [Vak Ambhrini - Vak, the daughter of sage Ambhrina] is one of the several wisdom-intoxicated female seers [rishikas] of the Rig Veda. She too had the experience and this is how she sings about it:

Aham rudrebhir vasubhiś charāmyaham ādityair uta viśvadevaih
Aham mitrā varunobhā bibharmyaham indrāgnee aham aśvinobhā. [1]

I move with the Rudras and also with the Vasus, I wander with the Adityas and the Vishwadevas. I hold aloft both Mitra and Varuna, and also Indra and Agni and the twin Ashvins.

Aham somam āhanasam bibharmi aham tvashtāram uta pūshanam bhagam
Aham dadhāmi dravinam havishmate suprāvye yajamānāya sunvate. [2]

I uphold Soma the exuberant; I uphold Tvasta, Pushan, and Bhaga. I endow with wealth the offerer of oblation, the worshipper and the pious presser of the Soma.

Aham rāshtrī sangamanī vasūnām chikitushee prathamā yajniyānām
Tām mā devā vyadadhuh puritrā bhūristhātrām bhooryāveśayantīm. [3]

I am the ruling Queen, the amasser of treasures, full of wisdom, first of those who are worthy of worship. That me the Gods have installed in all places, with many homes for me to enter and dwell in.

Mayā so annamatti yo vipaśyati yah prāniti ya ī śrnotyuktam
Āmantavo mām ta upa kshiyanti śrudhi śruta śraddhivam te vadāmi. [4]

Through me alone all eat the food that helps them see, breathe and hear the spoken word. He is not aware of me, yet he dwells in me alone. Listen, you who know! You must trust the words I speak to you.

Ahameva svayam idam vadāmi jushtam devebhir uta mānushebhih
Yam kāmaye tam tam ugram krnomi tam brahmānam tam rshim tam sumedhām [5]

It is I who announces the tidings that the gods and men alike rejoice to hear. The man I love, I make mighty in strength. I make him a priest, a sage, or a learned scholar, as I please.

Aham rudrāya dhanurā tanomi brahmadvishe śarave hantavā u
Aham janāya samadam krnomi aham dyāvā prthivee ā viveśa. [6]

I bend the bow for Rudra that his arrow may slay the hater of the words of sacred wisdom. I rouse the people, and make them strive. I have entered the Earth and Heaven, filling everything.

Aham suve pitaram asya mūrdhan mama yonir apsu antah samudre
Tato vi tishthe bhuvanānu viśvotāmūm dyām varshmanopa sprśāmi [7]

I give birth to the creator in the heavens atop the world and my own origin is deep in the ocean, in the cosmic waters. From there I permeate all existing worlds, and even touch yonder heavens with my forehead.

Ahameva vāta iva pra vāmi ārabhamānā bhuvanāni vishvā
Paro divā para enā prthivī etavatī mahinā sam babhūva [8]

It is my breath that blows as the mighty wind, while I hold together all the worlds.
Beyond the heavens and above the earth I tower, such am I in my might and splendour.


Like the Upanishad seers, Krishnamurti too believes that Truth is a pathless land. His words while dissolving the Order of the Star, the organization that was created to make the world ready for the World Teacher [Krishnamurti] and of which he was the head, sound like they are taken straight from the Upanishads. Those words have the same quality – the same fearlessness, the same directness, the same clarity and the same lightning power of the truth.

“I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organisation be formed to lead or coerce people along any particular path. If you first understand that then you will see how impossible it is to organize a belief. A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do, it becomes dead, crystallized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others.

“That is what everyone throughout the world is attempting to do. Truth is narrowed down and made a plaything for those who are weak, for those who are only momentarily discontented. Truth cannot be brought down, rather the individual must make the effort to ascend to it. You cannot bring the mountain top to the valley….

“No man from outside can make you free; nor can an organized worship, nor the immolation of yourselves for a cause, make you free; nor can forming yourselves into an organization, nor throwing yourselves into work, make you free. You use a typewriter to write letters, but you do not put it on an altar and worship it. But that is what you are doing when organizations become your chief concern….

“Again, you have the idea that only certain people hold the key to the Kingdom of Happiness. No one holds it. No one has the authority to hold that key. That key is your own self and in the development and the purification and in the incorruptibility of that self alone is the Kingdom of Eternity.”

One of my all time favourite verses in Sanskrit is the first one in the Bhagavata Mahatmya:

yam pravrajantam anupetam apetakrtyam
dvaipayano virahakātara ājuhāva
putreti tanmayatayā taravobhineduh
tam sarvabhootahrdayam munim ānatosmi

The verse describes how once Shuka, the son of sage Vyasa, was going away from him, while he was still very young, while his Upanayana was yet to be performed. Shuka was leaving his father to wander the earth as a pravrajaka – a lifelong wanderer. A tormented Vyasa calls him back with a father’s natural agony, calling out “Oh son!” And the trees and plants around answer Vyasa, for Shuka had already become one with the whole creation and was in the heart of every being.

Here is a precious parting thought from Krishnamurti: “Meditation is the flowering of goodness; it is not the cultivation of goodness.”


J Krishnamurti: The Reluctant Messiah

Recently I was looking for a book that was handy to take with me for reading in the train. I debated between Mahashweta Devi’s Five Plays and Mary Lutyens’ Krishnamurti: The Years of Awakening. I do not know what eventually made me decide – perhaps the fact that I had already read two of the five plays – but it was an old copy of Kkrishnamurti that has been with me for several years now that I eventually picked up. I am back from the journey now, and I am only half way through Lutyens’s fascinating biography of one of the most original teachers the world has ever seen. I just finished reading the chapter entitled In Love, which, among other things, deals with Krishnamurti’s falling in love with an American girl called Helen Knothe. I had to stop reading here because my eyes wouldn’t allow me to continue.

As a genre I am not particularly fond of biographies and autobiographies, though one of my all time favourite books is an autobiography: The Sky Dancer, by Keith Dowman. Dowman is actually the translator of The Sky Dancer, which is, as the subtitle says, “The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel.” The book is what Tibetans call a ‘terma’, a book written for the future and kept psychically hidden until its time came. Yeshe Tsogyel was the chief consort of Bodhisattva Padmasambhava, Tibet’s greatest Buddhist guru. He is the Tibetan Buddha held by the followers of Vajrayana Buddhism as an equal to the Buddha himself, and sometimes even greater. Yeshe Tsogyel practiced tantric sadhanas with Padmasambhava and became an enlightened master and Tibet’s greatest yogini, or dakini, as Tibetan tantric yoginis are called. The book is a tour de force and reading it, depending on how receptive you are to it, could be a life transforming experience. It was, to me.

Mary Lutyens’s wonderful book covers the first thirty-eight years of Krishnamurti’s life. The book, as the author’s Foreword says, was written at Krishnamurti’s own suggestion and with help from the master himself. Describing the book, Mary Lutyens says: “It is a very personal account, recording his strange upbringing and the many phases he went through in growing to maturity – his difficulties, doubts, unhappiness, personal relationships and spiritual awakening, which was followed by years of intense physical suffering.”

Mary Lutyens is the daughter of Edwin Lutyens, the architect who designed New Delhi, and her maternal grandfather was a viceroy of India. She knew Krishnamurti from 1911, when she was three years old, and her mother was a major influence on Krishnamurti in his early years. She is a part of many of the experiences described in the book, particularly in the very crucial years between 1922 and 1929. Mary, however, appears as a character in the biography, rather than as the narrator. Much of the early part of the book is revealed through Krishnamurti’s letters to Mary’s mother, Lady Emily, whom he addressed in these letters as his ‘dear mother’.

I wouldn’t attempt to introduce Krishnamurti here – I assume he should be known to you. Well, if you really do not know, just this much: at one time he was accepted by much of the world as the new messiah that many religions have been waiting for – the new Christ, the new Buddha. And he had the courage to stand up and declare to the world one day that he was no messiah but an ordinary man like anyone of us, and what he is, is something anyone could become through inner awakening.

Richard Bach, of the Janathan Livingston Seagull fame, in the introductory chapter of his Illusions, narrates this tale.

Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river.
The current of the river swept silently over them all – young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”

The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom.”

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle!

A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!”

And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

But they cried the more, “Saviour!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour.

J. Krishnamurti is the messiah who was reluctant to don the robes of a messiah and showed the courage to tell the world he was like anyone of us and not special, and what he was, is something anyone of us could become, if only we would let go.

I once met J Krishnamurti. Met in the sense that I attended one of his sessions in the Krishnamurti Gardens [I am not sure if that is the official name] in Chennai, then called Madras in English [Chennai is not a new name – it was Chennai in Tamil even then.]. Perhaps saw is the right word – saw and heard. Mary Luytens’s book on him was published in 1975, and it is in that year that I heard him, or maybe in 1976. We were a small group, maybe around sixty people, and Krishnamurti was then eighty-two years old – he was born on May 11, 1895 [His zodiac sign is the Taurus, like mine!]. What I remember, above everything else, is the way he walked. At eighty-two, he was as sprightly as an eighteen-year old boy! In fact, I do not think a young boy of eighteen would have been able to keep up with him for long – he was so fast, energetic and agile.

He came before us and then, with the same nimbleness with which he had walked, ‘leapt’ onto the cement platform under a tree in the Gardens. And the next moment he was speaking to us, cool and relaxed, as poised as the tree under which he sat, and equally serene. His words had an elemental quality to them, and his speech, like his walk and his posture, was not that of an old man but of a youth. It was not an oration – neither in his gestures, nor in his words or facial expressions was there anything oratorical. He spoke to us in simple, everyday words, and he spoke to us as though he has known us all our life.
His talk was short and I do not remember a single word of what he told us in that talk – all I retain in me is the memory of his stillness, his serenity and his energy. That memory will remain with me forever.

For those who have not read any of his books, I recommend the small Freedom from the Known to begin with. It is a book one could read in a single sitting, but should never. Books like Freedom from the Known are not to be read in a single sitting. They are to be read slowly, relishing each phrase and each image. I read the book when I was passing through a personal crisis. A Swiss friend of mine who was at that time studying with me lent me the book asking me to read it, seeing how troubled I was. My indebtedness to her remains to this day. Incidentally, I believe that was the first Krishnamurti book I ever read, and it had to come from a European girl!

I have a close friend who worked for the Krishnamurti Foundation for several years – he frequently shares with me many lesser known incidents from JK’s life, including some about his final moments, which are shrouded in mystery.

In one of my recent blogs here [
Yatra Yatra Mano Yati: Sri Ramakrishna, Krishnamurti and Samadhi] I wrote about some of J Krishnamurti’s beautiful spiritual experiences. His Notebooks are full of such wonderful experiences, which used to happen to him on an every day basis. Here is one I have not covered in that article.

The moon was quite young yet it gave enough light for shadows; there were plenty of shadows and they were very still. Along that narrow path, every shadow seemed to be alive, whispering amongst themselves, every shadowy leaf chattering to its neighbour. The shape of the leaf and the heavy trunk were clear on the ground and the river down below was of silver; it was wide, silent and there was a deep current which left no mark on the surface. Even the afternoon breeze had died and there were no clouds to gather around the setting sun; higher up in the sky, there was a solitary rose-coloured whisper of a cloud that remained motionless till it disappeared into the night. Every tamarind and mango was withdrawing for the night and all the birds were silent, taking shelter, deep among the leaves. A little owl was sitting on the telegraph wire and just when you were below it, it flew off on those extraordinary silent wings. After delivering milk, the cycles were coming back, the empty tins rattling; there were so many of them, single or in groups, but for all their chatter and noise that peculiar silence of the open country and immense sky remained. That evening nothing could disturb it, not even a goods train crossing the steel bridge.

There is a little path to the right wandering among the green fields and as you walk on it, far away from everything, from faces, tears, suddenly, you are aware that something is taking place. You know it is not imagination, desire, taking to some fancy or to some forgotten experience or the revival of some pleasure and hope; you know well it is none of these things; you have been through this examination before and you brush all these aside, swiftly with a gesture and you are aware something is taking place. It is as unexpected as that big bull that comes through the darkening evening; it is there with insistency and immensity, that otherness, which no word or symbol can catch; it is there filling the sky and the earth and every little thing in it. You and that little villager who without a word, passes you by, are of it. At that timeless time, only there is that immensity, neither thought nor feeling and the brain utterly quiet. All meditative sensitivity is over, only that incredible purity is there. It is the purity of strength, impenetrable and unapproachable but it was there. Everything stood still, there was no movement, no stir and even the sound of the whistle of the train was in the stillness. It accompanied you as you walked back to your room and it was there, too, for it had never left you.

I wonder if the letters Krishnamurti wrote to Lady Emily are available in book form! At one stage in his life, those letters were written practically every day. I do not think any other master of Krishnamurti’s level has revealed his inner struggles in such intimate details through correspondence as Krishnamurti does in these letters. St Augustine’s name does come to mind, but then his Confessions are very different in nature and style.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bhishma and Iravati Karve’s Yuganta

It was only recently that I had the pleasure of reading Iravati Karve’s tour de force Yuganta, which I found one of the most brilliant and original studies of the Mahabharata. The first essay in the study is on Bhishma, and in it she talks about the futility of the grandsire’s long life that spans several generations.

Karve begins the essay by summarising the plot, leading up to Bhishma bringing home young Satyavati and presenting her to his old father as his new wife. Here the scholarly author makes a brilliant comparison of Bhishma’s sacrifice for the sake of his father Shantanu with that of his ancestor Puru’s for the sake of his father Yayati and then asks what Bhishma gained by the sacrifice in contrast to his ancestor who got his father’s kingdom overriding the rights of his elder brothers.

When you think of it, the sacrifices are strikingly similar. To begin with, both fathers are old and both sons young – Bhishma is perhaps twenty years old when he makes his sacrifice and Puru, though we do not know his exact age, is the youngest of his father’s sons, all of them in their youth. In both cases, the sacrifice is made by the sons so that their aged fathers can enjoy sensual, and more specifically sexual, pleasures. In Puru’s case what he sacrifices is his youth, whereas in Bhishma’s case, it is more than his youth that he sacrifices: he sacrifices right to the throne, his whole life, and more.

By taking the vow of urdhvaretatva, celibacy, he puts an end to his prajatantu – his family line. Indian culture sees few other sins as greater than that of breaking the prajatantu. In the famous convocation address in the Taittiriya Upanishad, when the Upanishadic guru gives his parting advice to his disciple, the very first duty he enjoins upon the student after giving gurudakshina is to see that he does not break the family line: achāryāya priyam dhanam āhrtya prajātantum mā vyavacchetsīh.

The Mahabharata itself and the Puranas tell us stories of men whose austerities turned void because they did not fulfil this duty enjoined on them. It is the Mahabharata itself that tells us the story of the ascetic Jaratkaru who was turned back from his ascetic life and asked to turn to family life in order to save his ancestors – Jaratkaru subsequently begets Asita, who stops Janamajaya’s sarpasatra through which the king was trying to exterminate the Nagas. The Padma Purana tells us the story of Mahasati Sukala, whose husband Krikala was similarly turned back from the ascetic life and asked to go back to family life by his ancestors.

Pitr-rna, debt to the manes, is one of the basic debts that each man is born with according to the ancient Indian tradition. Apart from rejecting the sexual urge and its expression for himself along with the pleasures and privileges of family life, what Bhishma did by taking his vow to remain an urdhvareta, was to fail in this regard. Bhishma had grown up fully aware of the tradition that said when a man failed to produce a son, his manes fell from their world.

Coming back to Iravati Karve’s question, in contrast to Puru who gains a kingdom and becomes the vamsha-vardhaka, the progenitor of the race, what does Bhishma gain by the great sacrifice he makes? True, the gods shower flowers upon him at the moment of his vow. True, the world calls him Bhishma from that moment on. But apart from that? The answer is: futility, emptiness, frustration and lifelong suffering.

Well, he did get one solid thing from his father, points out Karve: icchamrtyu, the power to choose the time of his death. However, the author clarifies this: what he wins in return for his sacrifice is avadhyata, not ajeyata – he cannot be killed by others, but it does not mean that he cannot be defeated. And avadhyata can be a curse at times, and it mostly is: through that privilege Bhishma lost the blessing of being killed on the spot in a battle, which privilege all kshatriyas had.

Karve observes that perhaps Bhishma got carried away by his own oath as a man who falls into a mighty river gets carried away helplessly by its torrent.

How true Karve’s observation is proved by words in which he refuses Satyavati’s subsequent request to break his vows, occupy the throne of Hastinapura, and marry and beget children. Satyavati makes that request because his vows had by then become meaningless. His vows were taken so that Satyavati’s children could inherit the Bharata throne, but her husband and children were now dead and the Bharata throne itself had become without a master. This is what Bhishma says in answer to the request of his widowed step mother:

“I shall give up the three worlds, I shall give up the empire of the gods, and if there is anything greater than these, I shall give up that too – but I will not give up my truth. The five elements may give up their nature, earth the fragrance it exudes, water the taste it brings, light the forms it reveals, air the sense of touch and space its capacity for sound. The sun may give up its splendour, the moon its coolness, Indra his valour and the lord of justice, justice itself – but I will not give up my truth. Let the world end in dissolution, let everything go up in flames – but I shall not give up my truth. Immortality holds no temptations for me, nor does overlordship of the three worlds.”

True, one should keep one’s vows. But at what cost? And when they have become totally meaningless? When keeping the vow defeats the very purpose for which it is taken rather than breaking it? And when the person for whose sake you took that vow requests it?

Iravati Karve is absolutely right in arguing that Bhishma is like a man fallen into a river. As I observe elsewhere [Krishna: A Study in Transformational Leadership] Bhishma becomes obsessed with his vows and gets helplessly carried away by them. He becomes narcissistic and lives trapped in his own self-image. In Karve’s words, he has become intoxicated with his vow, drunk on it.

The essay also questions the sincerity of Bhishma’s commitment to the throne of Hastinapura because of which he stood by it through thick and thin, eventually leading its army against the Pandavas whom he believed to be virtuous, competent and the rightful heirs to the throne of Hastinapura. She uses Bhishma’s refusal to break his vow and occupy the throne and beget children to question the sincerity of his commitment. If he had such intense love for the family of the Kurus, she asks, why did he not break his vows and accept Satyavati’s request?

Karve sees a dual purpose in Bhishma’s immediate acceptance of the position of the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army when Duryodhana requests him – that is, a dual purpose apart from his possible desire to lead such a mighty army as that of Duryodhana. One, to keep Karna away from Duryodhana’s side, which Bhishma knew he would so long as he was fighting, and thus weaken Duryodhana; and two, to persuade Duryodhana to give the war even at that stage by frustrating his victory through dilly-dallying, which, through an analysis of the battle of the first ten days, the author argues he did.


While Karve’s essay on Bhishma is brilliant on the whole, there are details and observations she makes with which one has to disagree, some of minor importance and others quite significant.

For instance, speaking of Vyasa’s niyoga with the wives of Vichitravirya, the author refers to the third queen learning that Vyasa [‘a terrifying brahmana’] is going to come to her and sending her maid to him. As we all know, there is no third queen – there are only Ambika and Ambalika. And the Mahabharata is quite specific about who was asked to receive the sage again in her bed after Ambalika gave birth to Pandu: Ambika, the elder of the two queens – jyeshṭhām vadhūm.

Karve talks of Bhishma getting Kunti to wed Pandu, sort of against her will. The expression she uses in the Hindi version is ‘gale bāndh diya’, clearly meaning it was not according to her wish. She then argues that this was an injustice done to Kunti because Pandu was incapable of intimacy with women. She asks how much her soul must have cursed Bhishma for this.

The facts are however different. Though there is a discussion between Bhishma and Vidura in which Bhishma talks of getting Kunti as a wife for Pandu, the Mahabharata tells us that it is in a swayamvara that she chooses him from an assembly of several princes, all on her own accord, and impressed by him. The critical edition is brief here, though that too says she chose him in the swayamvara:

rūpasattvagunopetā dharmārāmā mahāvratā
duhitā kuntibhojasya krte pitrā svayamvare
simhadamshtram gajaskandham rshabhāksham mahābalam
bhūmipālasahasrānām madhye pāndum avindata

Pandu, according to the critical edition verse quoted above, is elephant-shouldered, has the eyes of a bull, and is mighty powerful. [A slight aside: The critical edition, praising Pandu here, says he had the fangs of a lion – simhadamshtra. Very unlikely. Another case of the critical edition getting it wrong. The Gita Press edition has it right: simhadarpa – with the pride of a lion. Even the expression gajaskandha, elephant-shouldered, is strained. The Gita Press’s mahoraska in its place is beautiful] And Kunti wins [chooses] him from among thousands of kings in her swayamvara.

The Gita Press edition of the epic describes the swayamvara in greater detail. It describes how she sees him, the best of the Bharatas [bharatasattamam] in the assembly of princes, looking like a tiger among kings [rājashārdūla], with the pride of a lion, a powerful chest [mahoraska], the [intoxicated] eyes of a bull and mighty strong. Like the sun that eclipses all other celestial luminaries when it rises, he eclipsed all other kings with his glory. Seated in the assembly, he looks like a second Indra and seeing him, Kunti, every limb of hers tormented by longing [kāmaparītāngi], loses all control over her mind [prachalamānasā] and her heart becomes wildly disconcerted [hrdayena ākulā]. That is how she chooses Pandu from among the men in the assembly. Karve’s saying that Bhishma forced her upon Pandu [against her wish], thus earning her heart’s curses, does not agree with the reality of the epic at all.

Also, Karve implies that Bhishma knew Pandu was impotent when he got Kunti and Madri married to him. The epic states, though, that Pandu receives the curse that makes him impotent while he was living in the jungle with his two wives. He had left his kingdom to his brother Dhritarashtra, for whatever reasons, and had gone to live in the jungle and it is there that he comes across sage Kindama having sex in the form of a deer and kills him while the sage is in the middle of the act and receives his curse that he cannot have sex with his wife and if he did, he would die.

In an article of mine [The Puzzle of Pandu;] I have argued that Pandu’s impotency is unlikely to be the result of the curse but is psychological and has much earlier origins. However, in all probability, Bhishma had no clue of this and to imply that he got two wives for Pandu in spite of knowing he was impotent is definitely wrong.


Karve argues that people of Bhishma’s day did not approve his action of carrying away the three Kashi princesses, Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, from their swayamvara hall. She sites Shishupala’s words in the Rajasooya hall as a proof for this. Well, when Shishupala abuses Bhishme in the Rajasooya hall, he is fuming in hatred at Bhishma and Krishna and if we take his words to be true or representative of the general feeling of the people, both Krishna and Bhishma would me the most hated people of the age. The fact is just the reverse. And definitely so in the case of Bhishma – even when Krishna was controversial, Bhishma commanded universal respect in his age.

As for carrying the princesses away from their swayamvara, this was a perfectly respectable custom among the kshatriyas of the day. We must remember here that Bhishma does not just come there, snatch them and run away. He stands there and explains precisely what he is going to do and challenges the assembled princesses to stop him if they can. As Amba says later after she was rejected by Shalva, her swayamvara was not an ordinary one but one that required the suitor to prove his valour and claim her and her sisters – they were viryashulkas, their ‘bride price’ was valour. And as Bhishma himself explains in the assembly of kings, of the eight types of marriages practised in the land, what was considered the most desirable for a kshatriya was swayamvara and even among swayamvaras, what was considered superior by the virtuous was carrying away the bride/s after defeating the other kshatriyas through valour:

svayamvaram tu rājanyāh praśamsanti upayānti ca
pramathya tu hrtām āhuh jyāyasīm dharmavādinah.

Elsewhere Bhishma says, he went there after hearing they were to be won over through valour: vīryaśulkāśca tā jñātvā.

He challenges them repeatedly, announcing himself by name and informing them again and again that he is going to carry them away: bhīshmah śantanavah kanyā haratīti punah punah.

I do not think the people of the day considered this action of Bhishma evil. No, what he did was the most respectable thing for a warrior hero in his days.

Incidentally, even in his insane criticism of Bhishma, Shishupala does not accuse him of abducting the princesses for another person [for his half brother and not for himself]. Apparently there was nothing wrong with it according to the rules of the times. What Shishupala finds fault with Bhishma is for abducting a princess who was anyakāmā – who desired another man. He is referring exclusively to Amba.

Karve also makes Shishupala say that the whole world knew that Amba had chosen/married Shalva. In the Hindi text, Shishupala tells Bhishma: “ambā ne śālva kā varan kiyā thā. sārī duniyā is bāt ko jāntī thī. phir bhī tum ne uskā haran kar lāye.” The English text is: “Though it was known to all that Amba had been promised to Shalva, you abducted her.”

Well, here again Karve is wrong. This is how the passage she is referring to appears in the Mahabharata:

anyakāmā hi dharmajña kanyakā prājnamāninā
ambā nāmeti bhadram te katham sāpahrtā tvayi

Translated, this means: How was it that you, who think you know dharma, carried away the virtuous maiden called Amba who desired another man?

Unlike what Karve says, Shishupala does not say anywhere that the whole world knew Amba had chosen or married Shalva. All he says is she was anyakñmñ – desired, and/or was desired by, another man. In the Mahabharata, what happened between Amba and Shalva before she was abducted by Bhishma was their own secret. Amba herself says her love for Shalva and Shalva’s love for her was their secret - even their father did not know that. Even in her most furious moments, Amba does not accuse Bhishma of carrying her away knowing that she belonged to another. True, this is the version of the story that Bhishma tells on the eve of the Mahabharata war, explaining why he will not fight Shikhandi, who is a reincarnation of Amba. In spite of this, however, there is no indication anywhere in the Mahabharata that it was public knowledge [sārī duniyā is bāt ko jāntī thī. – it was public knowledge.] that Amba had chosen/married Shalva.

Apart from putting the words ‘the whole world knew Amba had chosen/married Shalva’ into the mouth of Shishupala, the author in her own words asserts this soon after: ‘ambā man se śālva ki thi jānte hue bhi bhīshma use rath mein baithākar kyon lāyā?” [Despite knowing that Amba in her heart belonged to Shalva, why did Bhishma carry her away in the chariot?]


According to Iravati Karve, the reason why other men of the Kuru family were not considered for the niyoga with Ambika is that choosing another male from the royal family would have given that person the position of the father of the future king and much power would have gone into his hands – and away from Bhishma’s hands. So, she says, it occurred to Satyavati and Bhishma that someone unrelated to the royal family of the Kurus would be the ideal choice.

Was Bhishma so power-greedy, like a modern politician? Was the choice made so that Bhishma’s power would not be reduced?

While that certainly is not impossible, I feel a different possibility. The choice, once Bhishma rejected the honour, was made not on the basis of whom to avoid, but on the basis of whom to select. Vyasa, the person chosen was not exactly some ‘forest-dwelling brahmana’, but Satyavati’s own son. And it is Satyavati who suggests his name when Bhishma puts forward the suggestion that the niyoga be performed by some noble brahmana.

We know that when Shantanu wanted to marry Satyavati, then commonly known as Kali, her father Dasharaja insisted that the marriage would take place only if a promise was made that the son born to her would inherit Shantanu’s throne. Going beyond this, he also looked into the possibility that if Bhishma married, his sons born in the future might make claims over the throne. To avoid this possibility, Bhishma takes his two well known vows: one, giving up his claim over the throne, and the other, forswearing sex and becoming a lifelong celibate. We generallynassume these were the conditions that Dasharaja set, and Kali Satyavati had nothing to do with them.

How true is this? Couldn’t Dasharaja have been expressing Kali’s desires and making demands on her behalf? From what we know of Kali, she was a hard bargainer. When Parashara, Vyasa’s father, saw her and desired her, she does not give herself to him straight away, but sets conditions before him. True, we do not see in the Mahabharata her setting these conditions – her story is told very briefly there. However, if we go by the Devi Bhagavata Purana, first she ridicules him for being obsessed with her, a fish-smelling girl, whose fowl smell spread for miles around. “Do I not disgust you,” she asks him. The sage’s response is to turn her fish smell into the fragrance of musk. Then she objects to making love in the day light. The sage creates a mist and through it, darkness. Then she objects to making love while they are in the river – she was ferrying him across the Yamuna. Parashara agrees to wait until they reach the other bank. She then takes from him the promise that her father [and other people] do not come to know of what they are going to do, and the boon that she will retain her virginity even after intercourse. It is only then she gives herself to him

Couldn’t this Kali-Satyavati have been the one who demanded all those vows from Shantanu and young Satyavrata? Couldn’t her father Dasharaja have been merely expressing her wishes? Isn’t it possible that it was Kali who was really power hungry and not Dasharaja?

I believe it is quite possible that Satyavati had a hunger for power. Perhaps in her there was the power hunger of a princess brought up as a fishergirl and it is that hunger that made her bargain with Shantanu and Satyavarata [Bhishma] in the beginning. And it is perhaps the same power hunger, once she finds an opportunity, that made her choose her son Vyasa as the man to perform niyoga with her daughters-in-law. That way she could make sure that it is her blood that inherits the throne. It would be the same, from her standpoint, as Chitrangada’s or Vichitravirya’s son occupying the throne. All three are equally her sons.

It is very possible that it was quite innocently that Bhishma suggested that the niyoga be done with a brahmana. It is very possible that Satyavati pounced on this opportunity and decided to have it done with her son Vyasa.


A very minor thing. Karve sees Kunti as ‘kafi moti tagdi” – quite hefty and fat, implying unattractiveness. But that is not how the Mahabharata sees her. She gives the impression of being a strong woman, but that is because of her great inner strength. Otherwise, the epic describes her as irresistibly beautiful. Here are a few descriptions of her physical beauty from the verses dealing with her swayamvara: prthulalocanā, with large eyes, which in India have always been a sign of beauty; tejaswinī – lustrous; rupayauvanaśālini – endowed with beauty and youth. Other words used to describe her are adbhutadarśanā, wondrous to look at, subhagā, auspicious one, and tanumadhyamā, slender-waisted. She is far from being ‘kafi moti tagdi’. [To Karve’s credit, in the English version, done by herself, she alters this and says that “she was apparently a large, big-boned girl.” Perhaps she was, who knows, though the Mahabharata says nothing like that.]


One of the most interesting questions Karve asks in her essay is why Bhishma chose to accept the position of the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. Why did he not decide to go to the forest and spend his old days there, when his stepmother did? Or if not then, at least why did he not go on a pilgrimage on the eve of the war, as Balarama did, since his heart too was divided? Karve’s answer is interesting: Bhishma accepted the position of the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army so that he could slow down the war in the hope of the war being called off by Duryodhana seeing that he was not winning. Karve also sees a second reason behind his acceptance of the postion: to keep Karna away from battling for Duryodhana so long as he lived.

In the context of this discussion, Karve makes this fascinating observation. Talking of Duryodhana’s offer of the position of the commander-in-chief of his army to Bhishma, the author says: Pandavon ne use kulvrddh hone ka jo gaurav nahin diya, us ki khaanapoori duryodhan ne ki. Duryodhana gave him the respect that was his due as the eldest of the kula, which the Pandavas did not give him. She is referring to the Pandavas not offering him the agrapuja during the rajasuya, as the English text makes clear: “the honor which had been denied to him by the Pandavas at the sacrifice.”

When you think of it, it is rather strange that the Pandavas did not do it. He was the eldest of the Kuru family [Bahlika was there, but he was not a dominant figure.] His reputation as an indomitable warrior was great – even the redoubtable Parashurama, his guru, had not been able to defeat him in battle. He was learned in every branch of knowledge and he commanded great respect for his integrity. In every sense of the word, Bhishma was a living legend. Besides, the Pandavas were very close to his heart, and they themselves held him in great reverence and were indebted to him for so many things. He seems to be the natural choice. I doubt if the thought of the agrapuja being offered to Krishna had come to anyone’s mind before Bhishma suggested it. Yet when it comes to the agrapuja, the Pandavas do not offer it to him. Instead, Yudhishthira asks the grandsire to whom it should be offered.

After Bhishma’s fall in the war, when time comes for the next commander-in-chief to be appointed, Duryodhana does a very clever thing. Rather than straight away making Drona the next commander-in-chief, he asks Karna, who is the other claimant to the position, who should be given that position. Asked thus, even if Karna desired that position and felt he was the best choice, it becomes rather delicate for him to do say so. He suggests that Drona be given that position and Duryodhana happily does so.

It is perhaps the same thing happening here. Rather than offering the puja to Bhishma, Yudhishthira goes and asks him who should be given the position. Bhishma naturally does not claim it for himself but suggests Krishna’s name. Was Yudhishthira deliberately denying that honour to Bhishma through that question? Was Bhishma’s ready acceptance of the position of the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army at least partly influenced by Yudhishthira’s not giving him the honour that was his due? I think there is a strong possibility of this being so, as Karve suggests.

Karve’s discussion on the age of Bhishma is one of the most conservative and clear I have come across. She argues that Bhishma should be at least ninety-two and possibly one hundred and two at the time of the war. In her discussion though, she forgets to add some years. After being appointed yuvaraja, Devavrata remains as the crown prince for four years [varshāni chatvāri]. The epic tells as that the battle between the two Chitrangadas lasted three years. These years are not added to her calculation.

According to Karve, at the time when he carried away the Kashi princesses from their swayamvara hall, Bhishma must be a minimum of thirty-four years old. Well, in the context of the swayamvara, the Mahabharata uses the word ‘vrddha’ meaning an old man to describe him three times in three consecutive verses and in the third verse it describes him as valīpalitadhāranah – his skin is wrinkled from age and his hair is white. The princesses take one look at him, and they turn around and run away seeing how old he is. This is hardly the description of a thirty-four year old royal warrior. There is no question of premature aging in the case of Bhishma – his health was perfect until his last days.

There are more years that Karve fails to add. She says Vichitraveerya died soon immediately after his marriage. The Mahabharata tells us that he lives a life of indulgence with his two wives for seven years [tābhyām saha samāh sapta viharan] after which he falls sick. Attempts are made to cure him through all known means, which too must have taken time.

She gives one year gap between Bhima and Arjuna – the Mahabharata mentions at least two years. Of course that does not make much difference in calculating Bhishma’s age. But she also mentions Arjuna must have been at least sixteen years of age at the time of his marriage with Draupadi. Well, he has completed his studies in the meantime, completed a digvijaya while Yudhishthira was the crown prince [this maybe an interpolation], and, after the house of lac was set fire to, lived in the jungle for some while. Sixteen seems too less. Also, there is a passage [again possibly an interpolation] which very specifically mentions that Pandu died on Arjuna’s sixteenth birthday – while the birthday celebrations were going on, while Kunti was busy serving meals to the invited brahmanas, Pandu takes Madri with him to the jungle and there meets with his death. If Pandu’s death happens when Arjuna is sixteen, then all the incidents mentioned earlier are subsequent to this, making Arjuna much older at the time of his marriage.

Of course, between ninety-two and one hundred and two is very old indeed and adding up all these years to that will make Bhishma impossibly old. Perhaps Karve was right in trying to arrive at a conservative estimate, though the epic differs from the figures she gives.


These problems are there with Yuganta. But in spite of all these, I want to repeat, Karve’s study is brilliant and extremely valuable. The stand she takes for looking at the epic story is thoroughly rational and boldly independent and her analytical powers are admirably superb.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Yuganta and the Vidura-Yudhishthira Relationship in the Mahabharata

In her brilliant and path-breaking study of the Mahabharata called Yuganta, Iravati Karve argues that there is a possibility that Vidura could have been Yudhishthira’s father – a strong possibility, though not a certainty. According to her, there is much in the Mahabharata to suggest this.

Whether Vidura was Yudhishthira’s father or not has important implications to the story of the epic, for, says Karve, “As soon as we consider the possibility that these two might be father and son, the whole Mahabharata takes on a new light. If Dharma [i.e., Yudhishthira] is the natural son of Vidura and the legal son of Pandu, the whole Mahabharata conflict is no longer between the sons of Dhritarashtra and Pandu, but among the sons of all three brothers. The triangular fight does not materialize because Vidura and Pandu have a common son. To prevent anyone’s finding out who were the fathers of his children, Pandu went and lived far away in the Himalayas and apparently the natural fathers of his sons remained unknown and unacknowledged.”

Speaking about Vidura’s possible fatherhood of Yudhishthira, Karve says: “The Mahabharata does not hide anybody’s secrets. It even reveals that Karna is the illegitimate son of Kunti. If Dharma was born from Kunti and Vidura, then, why should this fact be kept a secret? All the sons of Kunti are alleged to have been born from gods who were invited at Pandu’s wish. The children were born while Pandu was still living and were acknowledged by him as his sons. According to the legal conceptions of those times, they were Pandu’s sons and were thus called Pandavas. Supposing that one of the children had been born from Vidura, would he in any way have been inferior to the others? Dharma’s right to the throne rested on two things: he was older than Duryodhana, and he was the son of Pandu. His rival Duryodhana was indeed younger by a few months. But he was the son of Dhritarashtra, a prince of the royal house, and Gandhari, a princess. One wonders if Dharma’s claim would have been considered inferior if he were known to be the son of Vidura, a suta.”

Developing her argument further, Karve says, “When they were planning to call gods to father the children, it is very curious that the first god Kunti called was Yamadharma, the god of death. Vidura was said to be an incarnation of Yamadharma, so we can surmise that she did not call the god but her husband’s brother Vidura. Moreover, as the younger brother of Pandu, Vidura was, from the point of view of law and dharma, suited to father Pandu’s children. The child born from this union with an incarnation of Yamadharma or the god himself was
Yudhishthira, but because of the serious nature he early displayed he was called Dharma. Thus, for many reasons, Dharma seems to be the son of Vidura.”

According to Karve there are two more incidents which lend support to this argument. She cites the incidents: One, Vidura’s yogic merging with Yudhishthira just before his death; and the other, Vyasa’s statement in support of Vidura fathering Yudhishthira. She says that the fact that Kunti had a son by her brother-in-law Vidura was kept secret up to the end of the war.


Before taking a deeper look at Karve’s arguments about the fatherhood of Yudhishthira, one thing about my own thoughts about the problem. I consider the Mahabharata fictionalized history, in the sense that at the core of it all are incidents that really happened and people who really lived, and since it is history, though fictionalized, I do not accept that the god of Dharma or any other god fathered Yudhishthira. I believe it is perfectly fine for children to have non-human fathers at a mythical level, but at a realistic level it is not.

Now, while Karve’s arguments for Vidura being the father of Yudhishthira are on the whole quite strong, there are some problems with them, a few with regard to details and others with regard to the arguments themselves. To begin with, Karve says, referring to Yudhishthira: “Dharma’s right to the throne rested on two things: he was older than Duryodhana, and he was [legally] the son of Pandu. Let us see if this is true.

The clearest and conclusive discussion on Yudhishthira’s right to the throne appears in the Udyoga Parva of the epic. Here during a heated scene immediately before the war, in yet another attempt to make Duryodhana accept the truth, Bhishma tells him:

Andhah karanahīneti na vai rājā pitā tava
Rājā tu pāndur abhavan mahātmā lokaviśrutah
Sa rājā tasya te putrāh pitur dāyādyahārinah
Mā tāta kalaham kārshī rājyasyārdham pradīyatām

“Since your father was blind, he could not become king, being disqualified because of that. It was the noble Pandu, renowned everywhere, who became king. Since he was king and the Pandavas are his children, they are the heirs to his property. Don’t quarrel, son, and give [at least] half the kingdom to them.”

There is one single reason given here for the Pandavas’ claim to the throne: that they are the sons of Pandu and Pandu was the king. Unlike what Karve says, that Yudhishthira was older than Duryodhana is not an issue at all.

On this occasion, Gandhari, who too was present during the discussion, adds this clear statement supporting what Bhishma says:

Rājyam tu pāndor idam apradhrshyam;
tasyādya putrāh prabhavanti nānye.
Rājyam tad etan nikhilam pāndavānām;
paitāmaham putrapautrānugāmi.

“This powerful kingdom, indeed, belonged to Pandu. And after him it belongs to his children, and to no one else. The entire kingdom belongs to the Pandavas, for, the tradition is that the kingdom comes down from the father to the son and then to his son.”

Here too a single reason is given for the claim of the Pandavas over the kingdom – that they are the children of Pandu and Pandu was the king. The kingdom passes down from the father to the son. That Yudhishthira was older than Duryodhana is not an issue at all.

If these statements by Bhishma and Gandhari are not enough, here is what Dhritarashtra himself says on the issue on this occasion. Old Dhritarashtra point blank tells his son that he has no right to the kingdom. The kingdom belonged to Pandu, since he, Dhritarashtra, was disqualified by his blindness, ever since Pandu’s death, it has belonged to his son Yudhishthira. Dhritarashtra concludes his long discourse to Duryodhana here, saying:

Mayyabhāgini rājyāya katham tvam rājyam icchasi.
Yudhishthiro rājaputro mahātmā;
nyāyāgatam rājyam idam ca tasya
Sa kauravasyāsya janasya bhartā;
praśāsitā caiva mahānubhāvah.

This quotation is from the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata. The Gita Press edition has additional half a verse here, which should be part of the text: Arājaputro hyasvāmī, parasvam hartum ichhasi. When you add this half verse after the first line above, the verses quoted above mean:

“I was not fortunate to have the right over the kingdom; how can you then desire to be king? You are not the son of a king and therefore the kingdom does not belong to you. You are coveting what does not belong to you and trying to snatch it away from its rightful owner. The noble Yudhishthira is the son of the king, and this kingdom has rightfully been inherited by him. He is now the lord of all of us Kauravas, and that generous one is the [rightful] ruler of this land.”

As we can see, here too the only factor mentioned is that Yudhishthira is Pandu’s [eldest] son – that he is older than Duryodhana is not a matter of importance at all.

If at all a second factor is to be considered, as Dhritarashtra and others imply, it is whether the claimant is morally, physically and competency-wise qualified or not. Dhritarashtra explains here [not quoted] that Yudhishthira admirably fits every requirement of a king and Duryodhana does not.

Another minor thing here. During the discussion, Karve says “Duryodhana was indeed younger [than Yudhishthira] by a few months.” According to the Mahabharata, it is not by just a few months that Duryodhana is younger than Yudhishthira, but more, though we cannot be sure exactly how much. What the Mahabharata says categorically is that Duryodhana was born the same day as Bhima [Yasminn ahani bhīmas tu jajñe bharatasattama, duryodhano ’pi tatraiva prajajñe vasudhādhipa]. It will be safe to assume that Duryodhana was at least one year younger than Yudhishthira.


Another thing that Karve says in her essay on the Vidura-Yudhishthira relationship is: “When they were planning to call gods to father the children, it is very curious that the first god Kunti called was Yamadharma, the god of death.”

Yama and Dharma are names of the same god, with two functions, and that god is occasionally referred to as Yamadharma. However, the Yama name is more commonly associated with death, and the name Dharma, with dharma – virtue, righteousness, justice, etc. Karve refers to Yamadharma as the god of death. It would indeed have been strange if they had thought of the god of death – but when Pandu suggests that Kunti invoke the god, it is not his function as the god of death that he had in mind.

The Mahabharata repeatedly says that it is Dharma that was invoked by Kunti to beget her eldest son – not once does it use the word Yama in this context. Dharma is invoked is the god of virtue and not as the god of death.

When Kunti is persuaded to beget children by niyoga with a god, she asks Pandu to tell her which god she should invoke – āvāhayāmi kam devam brūhi. Pandu tells her to invoke Dharma.

Adyaiva tvam varārohe prayatasva yathāvidhi
Dharmam āvāhaya śubhe sa hi deveshu punyabhāk
Adharmena na no dharmah samyujyeta kathamcana
Lokaś cāyam varārohe dharmo’yam iti mamsyate
Dhārmikaś ca kurūnām sa bhavishyati na samśayah
Dattasyāpi ca dharmena nādharme ramsyate manah
Tasmād dharmam puraskrtya niyatā tvam śucismite
Upacārābhicārābhyām dharmam ārādhayasva vai.

"Hearing this, Pandu replied, 'O handsome one, strive duly this very day to gratify our wishes. Fortunate one, summon thou the god of justice. He is the most virtuous of the celestials. The god of justice and virtue will never be able to pollute us with sin. The world also, O beautiful princess, will then think that what we do can never be unholy. The son also that we shall obtain from him shall in virtue be certainly the foremost among the Kurus. Begotten by the god of justice and morality, he would never set his heart upon anything that is sinful or unholy. Therefore, O thou of sweet smiles, steadily keeping virtue before thy eyes, and duly observing holy vows, summon thou the god of justice and virtue by the help of thy solicitations and incantations.' [KMG translation]

I have quoted in Sanskrit the entire speech of Pandu in this context to point out that the word dharma appears several times in it, but there is no mention of the word Yama or any indication of Dharma’s association with death, whereas what Karve says is that the first god invoked by Kunti was the lord of death.

The passage quoted above also makes clear the reasons given by Pandu while asking Kunti to invoke Dharma: Dharma is the most virtuous of all gods – sa hi deveshu punyabhāk. And if he is invoked, the act that we are going to do will never be linked to adharma – adharmena na no dharmam samyujyeta kathamcana. A son given by Dharma will remain rooted in dharma, and there is no fear of his swerving from dharma, being the son of Dharma.

In innumerable places in the epic, Yudhishthira has been called the son of Dharma and in all these places the association of Dharma is with virtue and justice and other meanings of dharma, but never once with death.

Incidentally, the primary function of a king, according to the Indian tradition is the maintenance of dharma. The Mahabharata tells us that kingship was born out of the need to protect dharma. Considering this it is perfectly understandable that Pandu thought of Dharma on that occasion. He might also have been prompted by the thought that there has been adharma in the royal family in the previous few generations.

In contrast to this repeated references to Dharma as the god of virtue, when the god is discussed in connection with death, he is usually referred to as Yama, as in the Savitri-Satyavan story. The appearance of the god too on such occasions is that of the god of death, rather than of virtue. When he appears before Savitri to take away Satyavan’s life, what she sees before her an effulgent being in red clothes, with a crown on his head, his complexion dark, his eyes red, a rope in hand, and looking fearsome. When Savitri asks him, it is as Yama that he introduces himself, and not as dharma: viddhi mām tvam śubhe yamam.

He then informs her that her husband Satyavan’s life is over and he has come to tie him up and carry him with him.

ayam te satyavān bhartā kshīnāyuh pārthivātmajah
neshyāmy enam aham baddhvā viddhy etan me cikīrshitam

Savitri then engages Yama in a conversation. She tells him she has heard it is his agents [dutāh] that come to take the dead with them and asks him why he has come by himself.

Dharma is not associated with agents – dutas. There is nothing called dharmadutas. It is only in his function as the lord of death, Yama, that he has dutas.

Which is not to say that the two are not referred to as one god – they are. In the following verse in which the Savitri-Satyavan story is summed up, for instance, he is referred to both as Yama and as Dharmaraja.

tathety uktvā tu tān pāśān muktvā vaivasvato yamah
dharmarājah prahrshtātmā sāvitrīm idam abravīt.

However, generally the name Dharma stands for the god of virtue and the name Yama, for the god of death. And when Pandu asks Kunti to invoke the god, it is clearly as the god of virtue and not as the god of death.


Karve says: “Vidura was said to be an incarnation of Yamadharma, so we can surmise that she did not call the god but her husband’s brother Vidura. Moreover, as the younger brother of Pandu, Vidura was, from the point of view of law and dharma, suited to father Pandu’s children.”

Karve is right is implying that in calling Vidura, they would be in effect be invoking Dharma since Vidura is considered an incarnation of Dharma. However, she is wrong when she says that as Pandu’s younger brother, “Vidura was, from the point of view of law and dharma, suited to father Pandu’s children.” Vidura was not, for there was something that disqualified him completely.

One thing ancient Indian culture and the dharmashastras were very particular about is that marriages should be anuloma and not pratiloma. An anuloma marriage is when a man marries a woman of the same varna as his or of an inferior varna. When a woman married a man of an inferior varna, it was called a pratiloma marriage and all dharmashastras were in one voice against this. The rule regarding anuloma and pratiloma marriage applied to niyoga too. And this totally disqualified Vidura from performing niyoga with Kunti – though he was the son of Vyasa, he was throughout his life considered a suta as his mother was a slave woman, a dasi, and hence Kunti’s niyoga with him would have been pratiloma noyoga, disapproved by, or rather tabooed by, both the scriptures as well as tradition.

Would Kunti have quietly performed niyoga with Vidura, keeping it a secret? I do not think so. Varna/caste feelings were very strong then in the minds of people, as it is even today, and there is no reason why Kunti could have been tempted to perform niyoga with Vidura. In the Mahabharata, Vidura does not come out as a very ‘desirable’ man from the standpoint of a woman like Kunti for her to break the taboo and approach him for niyoga. She would have been particular, speaking in human terms, that her niyoga was with a kshatriya of royal descent or with a brahmana.

And, for that matter, I do not think Pandu would have considered Vidura an appropriate choice either, for the same varna/caste reasons as Kunti’s, in spite of any amount of affection he might have had for his younger half-brother.

Neither Kunti nor Pandu would have wanted their son to be the grandson of a household slave of the family of the Kurus.

We have several instances of royal niyogas mentioned in our epics. Rama’s ancestor King Kalmashapada asks his queen Madayanti to perform niyoga – with Vasishtha, the most revered sage of the day and a brahmana. Emperor Bali sends his wife Sudeshna for niyoga – with Deerghatamas, a sage and a brahmana. In the Mahabharata itself, when niyoga has to be performed with Ambika and Ambalika, the options were limited only to anuloma niyoga and the thought of a pratiloma niyoga occurred to no one. The queens expected some member of the royal family of the Kurus – all kshatriyas. Bhishma’s choice, since he himself would not do it, was some respected brahmana. And when he mentioned it, Satyavati immediately mentioned her own son Vyasa, universally acknowledged as a brahmana of the highest quality. The epics do not give us a single instance of a kshatriya queen choosing a man of an inferior varna or caste as the surrogate father of her child through niyoga.

Let’s recall Draupadi’s attitude towards sutas that she expresses in her swayamvara hall, which I am sure, would have been the attitude of any kshatriya princess of the day. As Karna aims the arrows at the target in the hall, Draupadi shouts for everyone in the assembly to hear: nāham varayāmi sūtam – I shall not wed a man of the suta caste.

And remember Karna was a king in his own right at that time and apart from being considered a suta, he was practically everything that a kshatriya princess could look for in a man – among the very best warriors of the day, greater than almost anyone in archery, particularly with the common knowledge that Arjuna was dead; noble in character, young, full of valour, glorious to look at. As he makes his entry in the Mahabharata, in a single verse the epic compares him to the sun, the moon and fire. He was born with golden armour and earrings, making him very, very special. Besides all these, he was a hater of her father’s enemies Drona and Bhishma – Draupadi had been born from a sacrifice her father performed to obtain a son who would kill Drona and her brother Shikhandi has been born from another sacrifice her father had performed to obtain a son who would kill Bhishma.

In spite of all this, Draupadi shouts there, even forgetting the good manners required of a bride: nāham varayāmi sūtam – I shall not wed a man of the suta caste.

I do not think either Pandu or Kunti would have considered Vidura fit for the niyoga, let alone the first choice.

Remember Vidura’s wife was a suta woman – Bhishma, who arranged his marriage, did not look for a kshatriya woman for him, quite possibly because no kshatriya woman would have been willing – certainly not a royal kshatriya princess.


Karve quotes Vyasa as saying “Vidura was Yama incarnate born to Vichitravirya’s maidservant and me through my yogic powers; and he in his turn, through yogic powers, gave birth to Yudhishthira, the king of the Kurus.” The Hindi translation of Yuganta, made from the Marathi, is equally clear. In it Karve quotes Vyasa as saying: “pahle vicitravīrya kī dāsī se mere dwārā sākshāt dharmarāj hī yogbal se janmā aur usne yogbal se kururāj yudhishthir ko janm diyā”

If we go by Karve, Vyasa’s statement here makes it crystal clear: it is Vidura, through his yogic powers, who fathers Yudhishthira.

Had this clarity been there in Vyasa’s words, we would not be discussing this topic now – the whole world would have accepted Yudhishthira as the son of Vidura. Unfortunately, however, there is no such clarity in Vyasa’s words in the Mahabharata. There are only two ways of describing Vyasa’s words in the epic in this context: either as ambiguous, or as clearly stating that it is the same god who became both Vidura and Yudhishthira. This is what Vyasa says:

Yena yogabalāj jātah kururājo yudhishthirah
Dharma ityesha nrpate prājñenāmitabuddhinā.

KM Ganguli translates this as: “From that deity of Righteousness, through Yoga-puissance, the Kuru king Yudhishthira also took his birth. Yudhishthira, therefore, O king, is Dharma of great wisdom and immeasurable intelligence.”

Yo hi dharmah sa viduro viduro yah sa pāndavah
Sa esha rājan vaśyas te pāndavah preshyavat sthitah.

“He who is dharma, is Vidura; he who is Vidura, is the Pandava [Yudhishthira]. It is that Pandava, of king, that is standing before you, obedient like a servant.

As we can see, nowhere does Vyasa say that Vidura through yogic powers gave birth to Yudhishthira. There is no such categorical statement from Vyasa here or anywhere else in the entire Mahabharata.

Incidentally, once again, Karve uses the word Yama [“Vidura was Yama incarnate”] here, though the Mahabharata text uses the word Dharma. On this occasion Vyasa uses the word Dharma seven times in the course of a few verses, and not once does he use the word Yama or allude to the deity of death. In fact, Vyasa here very clearly defines Dharma in a couple of verses, and the definition is not of the lord death but of righteousness and virtue [“who grows in the hearts of men when practiced as truthfulness, sense control, mind control, non-injury and charity”].

Karve gives another argument to say that Vidura could have been Yudhishthira’s father – a beautiful one this time. She refers to an Upanishadic custom according to which a father at the moment of his death makes his son lie next to him and then transfers all his powers into him. If there was such a custom, this is definitely a good argument, though a father-like person could also have done it with a son-like person and Vidura definitely had father-like feelings for his nephew Yudhishthira.


We now come to how Karve sums up her argument. In her final words about the issue, she says, “One thing at least is clear: the Mahabharata, which is outspoken about all relationships, has not made a single unambiguous statement about the affection of Vidura and Dharma [Yudhishthira], or about their relationship.”

Once again it is difficult to agree with what Karve says. Though we may find it difficult to accept it today on rational grounds, the Mahabharata clearly states in several places that Yudhishthira was the son of the god of Dharma. Vyasa states this in his own words spoken soon after Vidura’s death – he says here that Yudhishthira’s father was the god Dharma who “like fire, like air, like water, like earth and like space is present simultaneously both here as well as there, at the same time. He is at once everywhere and is immanent in everything, moving and unmoving.”

In the famous Yakshaprashna of the epic, god Dharma, who had earlier appeared as a crane and then as a Yaksha, eventually reveals himself as Dharma. This is what Dharma tells Yudhishthira:

Aham te janakas tāta dharmo mrduparākrama
Tvām didrkshur anuprāpto viddhi mām bharatarshabha.
Yaśah satyam damah śaucam ārjavam hrīr acāpalam
Dānam tapo brahmacaryam ity etās tanavo mama.
Ahimsā samatā śāntis tapah śaucam amatsarah
Dvārāny etāni me viddhi priyo hy asi sadā mama.

“I am your father Dharma, oh son of great valour and I came because I wanted to see you, oh best of Bharatas. Glory, truth, self-control, cleanliness, straightforwardness, modesty, steadfastness, charity, austerities, and brahmacharya – all these are my bodies [I exist in them]. Non-injury, tranquillity, peace, penance, purity, tolerance – these are the doors leading to me. And you are always dear to me.”

The Mahabharata is unambiguous here – according to it, it is the god Dharma who resides in truth, etc., and who could be reached through ahimsa etc., who fathered Yudhishthira.

Clarifying this position further, Dharma says a few verses later: tvaṁ hi matprabhavo rājan viduraś ca mamāṁśabhāk – you are born of me, oh king, and Vidura too is born of a portion of me.

The epic makes it absolutely clear here. Vidura is not the father of Yudhishthira. Both he and Yudhishthira are born of Dharma.

The question Yudhishthira asks the Yaksha/Dharma in the Yakshaprashna too is interesting: sa bhavān suhrd asmākam atha vā nah pitā bhavān? Are you a friend of ours, or are you our father? One of the several fascinating implications of this question of Yudhishthira to the Yaksha is he sees the possibility of the mysterious being in front of him being the father of the Pandavas. The Yaksha was certainly not Vidura – Vidura had no power to appear as a Yaksha [or as a crane] and yet Yudhishthira asks him ‘are you our father?’ According to Yudhishthira here, their father was someone other than Vidura.

Also, when Pandu asks Kunti to invoke the god, he asks her to do so through upachara and abhichara. Upachara is worship and abhichara involves rituals incantations that force a power/deity to appear before you, usually against his well. Pandu and Kunti do not need abhichara to call and make that request to Vidura who was Pandu’s younger brother and for all we know, very close to Pandu and to Kunti.

Also, Vyasa says that Dharma gave birth to Yudhishthira using his yogic power, just as Vyasa gave birth to Vidura using his yogic power. Vyasa was a man of enormous yogic power and he displays it many times in the Mahabharata. But as far as we know Vidura has no such powers, except what he develops in his very advanced age while he was living in the jungle as an ascetic. The man who gave birth to Kunti’s first son through yogic powers could not have been Vidura.

Our problem is that we believe Vidura should be the father of Yudhishthira and does not find a single clear proof for this.

The affection Vidura had for Yudhishthira is easy to explain even without assuming they were father and son. Yudhishthira was loved by all in his day, including most of his enemies, if not all of them. He was good natured, kind and compassionate, well-mannered, courteous, just, willing to accommodate other people’s views and had great self-control. Rooted in dharma like Vidura, a wise man like Vidura, he was so much like Vidura in so many respects. And he was Vidura’s nephew. There is absolutely no reason why Vidura could not have had a strong affection for Yudhishthira even without having a father-son relationship with him. Besides, that Yudhishthira lost his father [Pandu] at a young age and had to suffer so much in life, through the cruelty of his own cousins, could have deepened Vidura’s natural affection for him.


My own stand on Yudhishthira’s parentage is this: at a human level, we do not have a single clue as to who his father is. The Mahabharata gives us none. That secret dies with Kunti and Pandu and if anyone else in the epic knew it, with them.

As for the Mahabharata telling us that Dharma was Yudhishthira’s father, my view is this: It was ‘invented’ later – because Yudhishthira was so much preoccupied with dharma, he was called the son of Dharma.

I also believe that the fathers of the other Pandavas too were ‘invented’ or imagined later. Because Bhima was strong like the wind, it was imagined he was the son of Vayu, because Arjuna was an unsurpassed warrior like Indra, it was imagined that he was the son of Indra, and because Nakula and Sahadeva were twins, good looking, wise and inseparable, they came to be called sons of the Ashwins, the twin gods,.

Yudhishthira was not preoccupied with dharma because he was the son of Dharma. He ‘became’ the son of Dharma because he was preoccupied with dharma.


By the way, I do not believe that Yudhishthira and Vidura shared the same nature. They definitely had common preoccupations in life, but they were also two very different people. Vidura’s preoccupation with dharma was invariably a very earthly concern, without implying that Vidura was not concerned with dharma that was not practical. And at times Vidura did not mind circumventing the ordinary rules of dharma, the lower dharma or the words of dharma, for the sake of the spirit of dharma or the higher dharma. For instance, he did not mind being disloyal to and betraying his ‘masters’ when they were on the path of adharma, as when the Pandavas were treacherously sent to the house of lac by Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana. In this he is very close to Krishna, who would do the same for the same reasons – for Krishna too the higher dharma was more important than the lower dharma. Krishna had the courage to say that there are times when a lie is superior to the truth – satyāj jyeyo’nrtam vacah, and Vidura would wholeheartedly agree with this. Yudhishthira might eventually be persuaded to agree with this position, but it would be with great difficulty, as when he was persuaded to lie or equivocate about Ashwatthama’s death.

Yudhishthira’s preoccupation with dharma was essentially an intellectual pursuit, and for that reason different in nature from that of Vidura’s. I would call Yudhishthira an idealist obsessed with dharma, and Vidura a pragmatist with great respect for dharma.

Also, Vidura is almost a sthitaprajna, his inner world free from conflicts. Whereas Yudhishthira’s inner world is rarely free from storms, in spite of his external calmness, because of unresolved moral and psychological issues. Yudhishthira was a lost soul most of his life, all tied up within himself. His inadequacies, confusions and self-contradictions last till the very end, as shown by his response to Draupadi’s fall on the Himalayas. Vidura seems to have had absolutely clear perceptions right from the beginning. Vidura not once displays the suicidal tendencies that Yudhishthira repeatedly displays, nor does Vidura share Yudhishthira’s melancholy. Vidura is a ‘master’ from the beginning – if we are to go by the existing text of the Mahabharata, Bhishma begins consulting him on important issues even when he is in his mid-teens. By contrast, Yudhishthira remains a student till the end of his life. When we meet Vidura for the first time in the epic, he is already fully grown and finished and for Yudhishthira, his education is practically never over.

In literary terms, Vidura is a flat character, clear and simple, with no ambiguities about him; whereas Yudhishthira is one of the most complex characters in world literature.

The two individuals are not the same at all, though outwardly they look very similar.



Immediately after finishing this article, I came across a report in the Hindustan Times of 6th April, 2009, under the title “Is that sperm taken from the right caste?” I am giving below the relevant parts from the report, without adding any comment of my own.

“If many childless parents in Bihar had their way, they would want vaults at sperm banks with clear labels: “Brahmin”, “Bhumihar”, “Yadav”.

Couples opting for sperm donations in Bihar are demanding to know the caste of the donor before they go ahead and often getting their answers as well.

“Neither features nor height nor even IQ concerned us as much,” says Anuradha Rai [36], an Internet marketing manager from the Bhumihar community. “My husband felt that if the sperm donor was from a different caste, the baby would not get the right genes and wouldn’t be like us.”

It is a stunning statement of how even young, urban, educated and well to-do Indians, their lives transformed by the emerging India, have been unable to unshackle themselves from the centuries-old caste consciousness despite their desperation to have a child.

Dr Himanshu Roy, a gynaecologist and infertility specialist, says, “The most common questions are about culture, health…and caste. Parents from the upper caste are especially concerned about this.”

While sperm banks are not permitted to reveal identities or complete details of donors, many have to oblige when it comes to caste. “People are insistent, almost fanatical, about caste,” says Dr S Kumar, who owns the sperm bank Frozen Cell.


Note: All quotations from the Mahabharata are from the BORI Critical edition. However, for the sake of thoroughness, the Gita Press edition has also been consulted. All translations from the Sanskrit are mine, except where otherwise stated.