Monday, September 28, 2009

Maitreyi Upanishad

There is a beautiful story about my parama guru [teacher’s teacher] Ramana Maharshi. Once a European journalist met him. During his interview, the journalist asked Maharshi: “Do you believe in God?”

“No. I don’t,” said Maharshi.

The journalist was taken aback. He was sitting in front of the greatest sage of India, revered by millions, and he was saying he did not believe in God. Perhaps he had heard it wrong. He wanted to confirm. He asked, “Did you say you do not believe in God?”

Ramana Maharshi said, “Yes, I did. I do not believe in God.” Then the sage of Arunachala saw the confusion in the eyes of the journalist and added after a pause, “I do not believe in god, I know God.”

The Maharshi could have said “I am God,” but he must have realized how much more confused the journalist would have become when he heard that.

Nisargadatta Maharaj did say that, though. In fact, he said more than that. He said, “The world is my garden and God is my gardener.”

Each teacher teaches the path by which he has awakened into the truth. Neither Ramana Maharshi nor Nisargadatta Maharaj followed the path of rituals to reach the truth and for that reason, in their teachings they express no need for external rituals. These teachers go direct to the truth rejecting everything else. In this, they are in a class with the teacher of Maitreyi Upanishad, who, I love to believe, is the Maitreyi of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, who asked her husband Sage Yajnavalkya, when he said he would divide his wealth between her and his other wife Kalyani, ‘kim aham tena kuryam yenaham namrta syam?” – “What shall I do with that by which I shall not become immortal?” Maitreyi chose, instead, his discipleship and wisdom.

The Maitreyi Upanishad is a rare beauty even among the Upanishads which are all, without exception, incredibly beautiful. It is counted among the minor Upanishads, but there is nothing minor about this Upanishad.

Here is a mantra from the Upanishad.

“chittam eva hi samsarah, tat prayetnena shodhayet.”

What we call samsara, the world of changes in which we live, the world of joys and sorrows, is nothing but our chitta, our mind. Purify the mind, and that is all we have to do to end sansara and awaken into the truth behind it.

There is a beautiful story about a Chinese painter who reached the court of the Sultan of Turkey. He introduced himself to the Sultan and challenged the best painter in Turkey for a painting competition. The Sultan was a lover of paintings and he was delighted – it would be really wonderful to have a competition between this travelling painter who has come from so far and his own best painter. The time set for the completion of the paintings was forty-five days. The Sultan asked for the painters’ requirements. The Turkish painter gave a long list but the Chinese painter said he did not need anything – no brushes, no paints, no canvas, nothing. The only thing he required was that nobody should peep into his work, he needed complete privacy. Of course, it was granted, but everyone was confused about it all.

Then the painting began. The painters were given two sides of the same hall. The Turkish painter worked on one wall and people could see a magnificent painting coming into being slowly there. The Chinese painter’s side of the hall was closed in, with nobody getting even the slightest glimpse. But people knew he was working there – occasional sounds could be heard.

Time passed soon. The fortieth day came, then the forty-first, the forty-second, and people could see what a splendid work the Turkish painter was producing. They were sure there was no way the foreigner was going to beat their painter – it is not possible that anyone could paint more beautifully.

The final day came. The sultan was the judge, of course. He came to visit the finished paintings. He first went to the Turkish painter and saw his work. He almost declared him the winner on the spot, even without taking a look at the Chinese painter’s work. He was sure, as other people who had seen the painting were, that nothing could surpass this. But then to be fair to the Chinese painter, he decided to take a look at his work too.

The partitions that covered the Chinese painter’s part of the hall were removed, and the sultan and his ministers entered. And then they stood thunderstruck. There on the wall before them was precisely the same painting as the local painter’s, only it was still more beautiful than his work. It had a certain quality that the Turkish painter’s work did not have, a certain depth, a certain something mysterious.

“How did you do that?” asked the Sutan, amazement making his voice thick. And the Chinese painter said, “My apologies, Your Highness. I am no painter. I do not know how to paint. I am a Taoist monk. All I did was to make this wall a perfect mirror. And what you see here is my rival’s work, reflected in that perfect mirror.”

Our mind is capable of reflecting the world perfectly, showing us the world exactly as it is. All that it needs for this is that the mind be a perfect mirror. A perfect mirror means a mirror without deflections, without dust on it, or other impurities.

And this is precisely what the Maitreyi Upanishad is speaking about. Tat prayatnena shodhayet – purify the mind through your prayatna, hard work, and you see reality reflected in it exactly as it is, without distortions. At the moment our mind is full of impurities and we do not see the world as it is. All we need is to purify it, and nothing else is required. Vrittikshaya, the Upanishad tells us, is the only requirement – vrittikshaya means the silencing of the disturbances in the mind.

Vrittis are like waves and ripples in water. When the surface of the water in a lake is disturbed by waves and ripples, it cannot reflect the sky perfectly. Quieten the ripples and waves, quieten the vrittis, and the reflection will be perfect.

Patanjali defines yoga as chittavritti nirodha – as the process through which the cessation of the vrittis of the mind is achieved, the path of achieving stillness of the mind. When the mind is still, what we experience is reality without distortions.

Maitreyi Upanishad goes straight to the truth, as Ramana Maharshi does, as Nisargadatta Maharaj does, as Patanjali does.

After saying that all that you need is to stop the vrittis in the mind and achieveng purification of the mind, the Upanishad takes time to point out what it calls an eternal secret – guhyam sanatanam. And this secret is: yacchittah tanmayo bhavati – you become what your mind is. A truth on which volumes have already been written and volumes more will be written. We are what our mind is. The difference between the saint and the sinner is the difference in their minds, the difference between the happy man and the unhappy man is in their minds, the difference between the conqueror and the conquered is in their minds, the difference between the winner and the loser is in their minds.

One of the books I am reading at the moment is Herbert Benson’s Timeless Healing. The book is subtitled The Power and Biology of Belief. The book says it is our mind that decides whether we are sick or not, and healing is as much a mental process as a medical one, if not many times more. And Maitreyi Upanishad says: yacchittah tanmayo bhavati – you become what your mind is. If your mind is sick, you are sick. And when your mind is healed, you are healed.

Having pointed out that eternal truth, having pointed out the direct path to the eternal truth by saying “chittam eva hi samsarah, tat prayetnena shodhayet,” the Upanishad moves on to reject the common paths that are circuitous, which too lead to the truth, but which are like going round and round the mountain to reach the top, and not climbing straight to the top, and some of which are ways of avoiding to journey to the truth rather than travelling towards it.

Speaking of temple worship, the Upanishad says the real temple is not the temple out there, but your own body and the real deity is not the deity in the garbhagriha – the sanctum sanctorum – of the temple, but the deity residing within your own body.

“deho devalayah proktah, sa jeevah kevalah shivah.
tyajed ajnananirmalyam, sohambhavena poojayet.”

This body is spoken of as the temple, and the inhabitant of the body is none other than Shiva himself, says the mantra. Cast away yesterday’s garlands [nirmalya] of ignorance and worship him with the bhava [attitude] that I am He.

puja punar-janana-bhogakari mumukshoh;
tasmad yatih svahridayarcanam eva kuryad
bahyarcanam parihared apunarbhavaya

This is the glorious mantra of atmapuja – of worship of oneself, and if that term is shocking, then worship of the Self. The mantra reminds us strongly of the beautiful Atmapuja Upanishad, which says: sohambhavo namaskarah – true prostration before the deity is the attitude that I am He. And of the Avadhuta Gita which apologises to the Lord for going to the temple and thereby declaring He is out there in the shrine and not in one’s own heart; for going on pilgrimages, thereby declaring that God is elsewhere and not right here; and for chanting His names in devotion, thereby declaring that he is other than oneself.

The Maitreyi Upanishad mantra says: “If you are a seeker after liberation, remember: worshipping God in idols of stone, metal, jewels or clay only brings repeated births [as a limited ego]; and for that reason, worship only [the deity in] your own heart and no other. Do you want apurnarbhava – the cessation of births as a bound self? Then abandon external worship.”

Continuing, in the shortest possible way, the Upanishad defines knowledge and meditation. Knowledge [jnanam] is seeing non-difference [abhedadarshanam] and meditation [dhyanam] is when the mind is without thoughts [nirvishayam manah]. You cannot be more precise than this.

To Maitreyi Upanishad, real shaucha [cleansing through washing] is the control of the senses [indriyanigrahah] and bathing is throwing away the impurities of the mind [snanam manomalatyagah].

What is food that is allowed, and what is food that is prohibited? Food we should eat, says the Upanishad, is the constant remembrance of non-duality [advaitabhavana bhaikshyam] and what is prohibited is the thought of duality [abhakshyam dvaitabhavanam ].

What is the family a monk should give up? Your son, your brother, your home, and your wife, says the Upanishad. And then the Upanishad explains what it means by each of these. The son you must give up is your ego [ahankara-sutam], the brother you should give up is your mind [chitta-bhrataram], the home you must give up is delusions [moha-mandiram] and the wife you must given up is your ambitions and hopes [asha-patnim].

The teacher, Maitreyi perhaps as I said, does not believe in things like the evening rituals every twice-born is expected to do every day, for it is not rituals that take you to the truth, but emptying the mind of all content and seeing non-duality with that mind. Speaking about sandhyas, morning and evening ritual prayers, Maitreyi says: How can I perform the sandhyas? For my mother is dead and dead is my son too, because of which I am in sootaka [the ritual period of impurity following a birth or death in the family, when vedic rituals are not performed] twice over. And she explains: Delusion, her mother [mohamyi mata] is dead; and a son called knowledge [bodhamayah sutah] is born to her. How can she then perform sandhya – katham sandhyam upasmahe?

There is one more reason for not performing the sandhyas, says Maitreyi Upanishad. The morning sandhya is performed at sunrise, and the evening sandhya, at sunset. But in her case, she sees neither sunrises nor sunsets. In the sky of her heart [hrdakashe] the sun of consciousness [chidadityah] neither rises [nodeti] nor sets [nastam gacchati]. How can she then perform the sandhyas? Katham sandhyam upasmahe?

It was a special pleasure for me to come across in the Upanishad these two mantras about not performing the sandhyas. I was familiar with them from an old legend I had heard as a child, growing up in Kerala – the legend of Kakkasseri Bhattatiri,the genius who could as a child recognize which crows had come the previous day and which crows were new as he fed them grains. When he was accused of not following rituals and not performing sandhyas, these two verses were his response. Of course, I did not know at that time that Kakkasseri was quoting Maitreyi Upanishad – I took them to be his own words.

Maitreyi Upanishad arranges sadhanas in a hierarchical order. The best, says the Upanishad, is reflection on the truth [uttama tattvachintaiva], the mediocre is the analysis of the scriptures [madhyamam shastrachintanam], and the lowest is occupying your mind with mantras [adhama mantrachinta cha – repetition of the mantras, mantrajapa]. But no, there is one thing that is worse than the lowest – endlessly roaming from one pilgrimage centre to another [teerthabhranti adhamadhama].

I want to add a few words here, before the Upanishad is misunderstood. The Upanishad does not reject any of these paths. These are slow paths, and frequently those who use them, use them for avoiding the need to face themselves, avoid the need to face the truth, than for anything else. This Upanishad is not for all kinds of seekers – it is only for the bravest among the brave, who have the courage to look the truth in the eye. This is the path for heroes – heroes in the truest sense of the word. For people with nerves of steel, people like Maitreyi herself, who can say kim aham tena kuryam yenaham namrta syam – say and mean it. People who are willing to fearlessly face their final death – not the death that is like discarding old clothes, but death that is really the end; for people who are willing to become like water in a pot immersed in the ocean where it becomes one with the ocean and ceases to exist as separate [poornakumbha ivarnave], like the river merging with the ocean becoming inseparably one with it.

The Upanishad stresses this final experience so much, it laughs aloud, with no inhibitions, at people who only delight in intellectual knowledge without experiencing the truth it is speaking about. Their joy, says the Upanishad, is the joy of relishing the taste of fruits on a branch reflected in water – pratibimbita-shakhagra-phalaswadana-modavat.

The mantras I have discussed so far are from the first and the second chapter of the Upanishad. The third, final, chapter of the Upanishad is what Ramana Maharshi did not tell the journalist interviewing him: it is a song in praise of the Self – one of the most beautiful songs in praise of the self in Vedantic literature. It begins with: “I am me; and I am the supreme. I am Brahman, and I am the origin of all. I am the guru of the whole world and I am all over the universe. Such am I.”

“ahamasmi paraschasmi brahmasmi prabhavo’smyaham; sarvalokaguruschasmi sarvaloke’smi so’smyaham.”

Maitreyi Upanishad’s teachings are precious, but they are also dangerous. It is only for those who can travel to their goal straight like an arrow. For others, the Upanishad can become just another excuse for continuing to sleep, their eyes shut tightly, refusing to get up from their bed. It depends on whether you are sattvic or tamasic – if you are sattvic, this is the straightest path that leads you to the goal, and if you are tamasic, you can remain exactly where you are!


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Upanishads: A Personal Encounter 2

Continued from 1

Ishavasya Upanishad

The Ishavasya Upanishad is one of the most beautiful Upanishads. This Upanishad forms chapter forty of the Vajasaneyi Samhita of Shukla Yajur Veda, for which reason it is also called Vajasaneyi Samhita Upanishad.

One of the most fascinating features of the Upanishads is that the sages who ‘authored’ them had an exquisite sense of aesthetics and as works of literature, they are unsurpassed and rival even contemporary literature in their beauty. Which is to say nothing of the depth of their perception. It is difficult not fall in love with the Ishavasya Upanishad, so beautiful is it. It is short, with just eighteen mantras. It was the first Upanishad that I learnt from my guru in his ashram where I was an antevasin, and for this reason too it is special for me.

The Upanishad begins with the mantra ishavasyam idam sarvam, a statement of the omnipresence of God: All this is permeated by God. And then it quickly moves on to state, in the same mantra, a philosophy of life that has been central to India for the last several thousand years: tena tyaktena bhunjeethah: “for that reason, renounce and enjoy.” This is the philosophy of non-attached attachment, non-involved involvement, which the Bhagavad Gita subsequently speaks of in great details. It is also at the core of the philosophy of sannyasa, particularly as taught by Krishna in the Gita and lived by him as we in the Mahabharata.

While every mantra in the Upanishad is exquisite and profound, one of the most thrilling, personally for me, is the fifteenth mantra that says: hiranmayena patrena satyasyapihitam mukham; tat tvam pooshann apavrnu satyadharmaya drshtaye. I love the mantra for the passion in the words of the seeker who cries out those words. The seeker is at the threshold of discovering the truth and all that separates him from it is a disk – a golden disk, a disk of transcendental light – and he cries out, ecstasy and agony mingled in his words: “The face of the Truth is covered by a golden disk, O Lord of Light! Remove it for me, O God, so as I, traveller on the path of Truth and Dharma, may perceive it!” From ages across, I can still feel both the thrill of the seeker and his angst as he stands there, with just one final step before he discovers the Truth and becomes one with it.

He continues his cry in the next mantra: “O Nourisher of the Universe, Solitary Seer, Controller of All, Lord of Light, Offspring of Prajapati, withdraw your rays into yourself, gather up your radiating brilliance! That form of thine, most graceful, let me behold it! He, the Purusha who abides in you, I am He!”

Commenting on that last statement, that the seeker is the same as the Purusha who abides in the Sun God whom he worships, Shankara has something beautiful to say. “Kim cha aham na tu bhrtyavad yache,” says the acharya: “I am not begging of you [abjectly] like a servant.”

The cry of the seeker is not an abject begging, but a demand by someone who is no less than the true being of the Sun God himself. Remember the words of Nehru quoted earlier: “There is no humility about all this quest, the humility before an all-powerful deity, so often associated with religion.” That is what the acharya is speaking about. The seeker here is not begging the Sun God to remove what stands between him and the truth – but is telling him to. It is not the yachana of a bhrtya, but the command of an equal.

The Tibetans have a beautiful symbol for humility: the Himalayan tiger. Be humble like the Himalayan tiger, they say, be humble like the snow leopard. It is the humility of the powerful we are speaking about, the humility of the seeker who knows he is the power behind the universe, who knows that it is because of him that the sun rises in the east every morning, that the wind moves...

“bheeshasmad vatah pavate, bheeshodeti sooryah, bheeshasmad agnischedrascha, mrtyur dhavati panchama iti.’

“Out of fear of this [purusha who is in me] the wind blows unceasingly, the sun comes up in the morning in the east, the fire and the Lord of the Gods themselves do whatever they do, and Death stalks the earth frantically. [Katha Upanishad]

That is the spirit of the Upanishads. It is not arrogance. It is knowing what you are and stating that with all the majesty that that statement deserves. Exactly like the Himalayan tiger walks in the jungle in the pride of his being, the snow leopard moves about among the mountain in his own dignity.

Katha Upanishad

Another of my favourite Upanishad from among the so called major Upanishads, is the Katha Upanishad, which we just quoted above. It is again an exquisitely beautiful Upanishad and those who are familiar with the Bhagavad Gita would find several mantras of the Upanishad already familiar to them the first time they come across the Upanishad. This is because the Bhagavad Gita is in a way a retelling of the Katha Upanishad. The Very image of Krishna and Arjuna in the chariot is straight from the Upanishad, which says: “atmanam rathinam viddhi, shareeram rathameva tu, buddhim to sarathim vidyad manah pragraham eva cha...” “Understand the self as the rathi, the master of the chariot, and this body as the chariot; understand the intellect as the charioteer and the mind as the reins...”

When Upanishads are quoted, it is likely that you will come across more quotations from the Katha Upanishad than from any other. And the story of Nachiketa at the beginning of the Upanishad is a thrill to read and inspiration for ever.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is, as its name suggests, brihad – huge. Upanishads are as a rule small – and by that rule, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is really huge. It is one of the oldest and for that reason, one of the most precious, Upanishads. The dialogue between Sage Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi in the Upanishad never fails to thrill me, though I have been reading it for decades. And above all, the question that Maitreyi asks Yajnavalkya as he says he would divide his property between her and his other wife, Kalyani, and go away. Maitreyi asks him then: “kim aham tena kuryam yenaham namrta syam?” “What shall I do with that by which I shall not become immortal?”

Maitreyi’s words are an eternal inspiration to humanity. Especially so because it is a woman who says those words – women have been denied spiritual opportunities throughout the world, throughout history, the Vedic-Upanishadic culture being practically the only exception, apart from the few women-centred religions all of which have now disappeared from the world. In India itself in subsequent periods women would be denied all opportuinies. I was reading Tryambakayajvan’s Sanskrit classic Streedharma Paddhati recently and Yajvan is quite categorical: the only thing women have to do is serve their husband, that is the only purpose of their life. They neither need nor have the right to do anything else, including even such things as visiting holy places, observing vratas and so on.

It is the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that gives us the other equally unforgettable scholar rishi Gargi, another woman sage. She stands up in the middle of scholar rishis who have assembled in Mithila from all over the world and tells the assembly after Yajanavalkya has defeated in debate numerous scholars: “Let me ask this sage two questions, and if he is able to answer my questions, we can all admit that he is the greatest knower of Brahman in the world.” That is confidence – and it is a woman speaking! If the sage is able to defeat her in debate, then all have been defeated! Amazing! And how sad to think an India that began as this kind of land eventually reached a stage where women became the property of man, to be treated anyway he liked, to be abandoned in a jungle in the middle of her pregnancy when he liked, to be pawned in a dice game when he liked!

Here is a quotation from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. And believe me, it is from the ancient Upanishad, every word of it, and not from a twenty-first century self-help book: “atha khalu ahuh kamamaya evayam purusha iti; sa yathakamo bhavati tatkratur bhavati, yatkraturbhavati tat karma kurute, yat karma kurute, tadabhisampadyate. “For that reason, it is said: man is nothing but his desire. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your attainment.” Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.4.5

Maitreyi Upanishad

Speaking about the self-actualized man, Abraham Maslow says that one of his characteristics is resistance to enculturation – he has the ability to see beyond the confines of his culture and the era he lives in. This is made possible by his love for freedom, independence, originality and authenticity. He sees things with his own eyes, rather than through borrowed views and ideas.

Like Maslow’s self-actualized men, all Upanishad seers, who are without exception self-actualized men and more, are unconventional, both socially and spiritually. But it is difficult to imagine a seer more original and rebellious than the teacher of Maitreyi Upanishad, and is counted among the minor Upanishads.

The Maitreyi Upanishad is part of the Sama Veda. I love to believe that the seer of the Upanishad is Rishika Maitreyi – yes, the same Maitreyi of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. If the woman who said kim aham tena kuryam yenaham namrta syam – what shall I do with that by which I shall not become immortal – if that woman authored an Upanishad, this is exactly how that Upanishad would be. I believe that as a rule women go to the extremes more than men do. The Maitreyi Upanishad is an extreme Upanishad, by an extremist seer. There is no middle path for this Upanishad or its teacher.

I wish I could just quote the Upanishad in the original Sanskrit here – but that of course wouldn’t serve much purpose and so the free rendering of the mantras, which will be no more than a pale shadow of the original. The original is pure power – and it hits you with the speed and power of lightning.

“This body is the true temple – and not the temple out there. And the one who lives in this body – he is none other than Shiva. Caste away the worn out garlands of ignorance and worship Him with the bhava of ‘soham’ – I am He. Remember, the true bath is discarding the dirt in the mind, and purificatory rites are mastery over the senses. What is bhakshya, what you are allowed to eat, and what is abhakshya, what you are forbidden to eat? Well, bhakshya is the advaita attitude that I am He and abhakshya is the dvaita attitude that I am different from Him. You want liberation? Then give up your son called ahamkara [the ego], your brother called chitta [your past], give up your wife called asha [hopes], and you are a liberated man.”

A religious man in India, as in many other cultures, is asked to offer ritual prayer – and since these are performed at sunrise and sunset, they are called sandhyas, rituals performed at the meeting points of the day and the night. The teacher of Maitreyi Upanishad, speaking in the voice of Shiva, says: “My mother is dead, my mother called Moha [delusion], and a son is born to me, a son called Bodha [knowledge]; since I am observing sootaka [the ritual period of impurity due to a birth or death in the family] on two counts, how can offer my sandhyas? Besides, says she, there is one other reason why I cannot observe the sandhyas: “The sun of consciousness keeps shining forever in the sky of heart – it neither rises nor sets; how can I then offer my sandhyas?”

I cannot resist the temptation to quote these two mantras in Sanskrit here:

“mrta mohamayee mata jato bodhamayah sutah; sootakadvaya-samprapte katham sandhyam upasmahe.
hrdakashe chidadityah sada bhasati bhasati;
nastameti na chodeti katham sandhyam upasmahe.”

All these quotations are taken from the second chapter of the Upanishad, which has three chapters. The third chapter of the Upanishad is the prayer of the advaitin who has experienced the High. Because he cannot really pray since there is no one for him to pray to, it is a song in praise of oneself, and one of the most wonderful songs in the Sanskrit language. And there can be no more beautiful prayer for the advaitin than this. Here is how the fairly long prayer begins:

“aham asmi paraschasmi brahmasmi prabhavo’smyaham; sarvalokaguruschasmi sarvaloke’smi sosmyaham.”

“I am me; and I am the supreme. I am Brahman, and I am the origin of all. I am the guru of the whole world and I am all over the universe. Such am I.”


This then is what the Upanishads are. To know them is to find life’s fulfilment and to miss them is to miss a life’s opportunity. India in her several millennia of existence has produced boundless wealth in numerous forms, but there is no wealth she has produced that is more precious than the Upanishads.

Here is final quotation from one of the Upanishads: iha ched avedeet atha satyam asti; na ched iha avedeet, mahatee vinashti. “If you know it here, then the truth is yours; and if you do not know it here, then great indeed is your loss.”


Upanishads: A Personal Encounter

Speaking about Indian thought, EWF Tomlin says in his book Great Philosophies of the East: “Indian thought arrives at subtleties of distinction so varied and acute that the uninitiated and unprepared reader may well receive the impression that Indian philosophers enjoy the use of half a dozen intellects instead of one. We are accustomed to the idea of scientists constructing artificial brains to effect calculations which neither a single individual nor a team of individuals devoting a lifetime to the task, could hope to achieve. The elaborate system of certain Indian philosophers sometimes appear to be the product of such socially-constructed intellects.”

Of all Indian thought, the most highly respected is the philosophy of the Upanishads. Strictly speaking though, the teachings of the Upanishads cannot be called either thought or philosophy. For, they originate at a dimension beyond thought. The wisdom of the Upanishads is born when all thought has been transcended, when the mind itself has been transcended. Speaking of a dimension beyond the mind and thought, the Upanishads themselves say: yato vacho nivartante aprapya manasa saha – “that from which words return, having not reached, along with the mind.” It is in this dimension that the wisdom of the Upanishads is born. And when anyone, at any time, reaches that dimension, the wisdom of the Upanishads is again revealed to him.

A modern master uses the metaphor of an awakened man and a sleeping man to point out the difference between the wisdom of the Upanishads and philosophy. Philosophy is like the thoughts of a man who has never seen the morning lying in his bed, the widows of the room closed, speculating on what the morning is like. He has never seen a sunrise, he has never heard the sounds of the birds and animals that wake up with the dawn, never seen plants and trees bathed in the glory of the morning light. And he lies there, refusing to open his eyes, speculating about that the morning is like. And he forms theories of what the morning is like, he contradicts the theories of other men like him who have formed other theories of the morning but have like him never seen a morning. Since none of them have seen the morning, you can have as many theories about what the morning is like, and one man can have many theories about what the morning is all about. The Upanishads, in contrast, are the wisdom of the man who has woken up, opened the windows of his room and looked out. He has seen the rising sun, he has heard the birds and the animals, he has seen the plants and trees bathed in morning glory, he has smelt the freshness of the morning and felt its wonderful touch on his skin.

The Upanishads preserve for us from across time the teachings of the ancient masters who had seen the morning, who had the direct experience of the highest truth.

All the Upanishads speak of the same truth – for truth cannot be different. And yet their experiences will be different – different to the extent that ten people looking out of their windows will experience the same morning in ten different ways.

The Upanishads are not logical thought systems. They do not have the consistency of philosophical systems. For, they are ecstatic outpourings of masters inspired by their experiences. Nor are the seers of the Upanishads interested in constructing meaningful thought systems. For, their aim is something entirely different from that of the philosophers. The seers of the Upanishads are interested in only one thing. In making us wake up, in making us open the windows and look out through them. Uttishthata, jagrata – that is their call: Get up, wake up. They are interested in intellectually convincing us only to the extent that it will inspire us to wake up, open the windows and look out. So they use logic, they use words, they use shock treatments, they use all other means available to them, not with the intention of constructing systems, but to motivate us to wake up, get up, open the windows and look out.

The Upanishads begin in experience and their end is experience. The Upanishads originate in the experience of the seers and their end will be achieved when we experience the truth that they have experienced.

The word seer is interesting. It literally means that – one who has seen. In Sanskrit, rish [rsh, actually] means to see, and rishi means one who sees or has seen, a seer. The teachers of the Upanishads are the seers who have seen That and who constantly see That One [tad ekam] even when they look at the many.


Some of the most beautiful things about the Upanishads were told by a man who was professedly a nonbeliever in religion. In Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, with an ecstatic thrill in his words, says: “Again and again the restless mind peeps out, ever seeking, ever questioning: “At whose behest doth mind light on its perch? At whose command doth life, the first proceed? At whose behest the men send forth this speech? What god, indeed, directed eye and ear?” Again, “Why cannot the wind remain still? Why has the human mind no rest? Why, and in search of what, does the water run out and cannot stop its flow even for a moment?” It is the adventure of man that is continually calling and there is no resting on the way and no end of the journey.

“There is no humility about all this quest, the humility before an all-powerful deity, so often associated with religion. It is the triumph of mind over the environment. “My body will be reduced to ashes and my breath will join the restless and deathless air, but not I and my deeds. O mind, remember this always, remember this.” In the morning prayer, the sun is addressed thus, “O sun of refulgent glory, I am the same person as makes thee what you art!” What superb confidence!””

I still recall vividly the thrill that passed through me as I read these words of Nehru as a young boy. I remember taking the book straight to my mother and reading Nehru’s words out to her and sharing my ecstasy with her. Reading these lines was an important event in my life. I believe I was born with strong spiritual urges, I believe I was born carrying with me forgotten memories from across lifetimes of searches for the truth the Upanishads speak about. Many of us are. All that we require to ignite the fire within is a spark. I was transformed by my contact with these lines from Nehru.

Coming back to the Upanishads, here is what the great scholar C. Rajagopalachari had to say about them: “The spacious imagination, the majestic sweep of thought, and the almost reckless spirit of exploration with which, urged by the compelling thirst for truth, the Upanishad teachers and pupils dig into the ‘open secret’ of the universe, make this most ancient of the world’s holy books still the most modern and the most satisfying.”

Numerous western scholars too have found in the Upanishads the highest wisdom of humanity. The philosopher Schopenhauer praised them endlessly and read a few pages from the Upanishads every night before he went to sleep. He said about his reading of the Upanishads: “In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads; it has been the consolation of my life and will be that of my death.” Schopenhauer felt that “the Upanishads are the production of the highest human wisdom and I consider them almost superhuman in conception,” and held that “From every sentence of the Upanishads deep, original and sublime thoughts arise, and the whole is pervaded by a high and holy and earnest spirit.”

“On the tree of wisdom there is no fairer flower than Upanishads and no finer fruit than the Vedanta philosophy,” said Paul Deussen. Other famous westerners who came under the spell of the Upanishads include Wagner, Tolstoy, Emerson, Thoreau and Walt Whitman, my favourite American poet whose Songs to Myself closely echo the wisdom of the Upanishads.


Most of the Upanishads are in the form of questions and answers, and one of them is indeed named the Upanishad of Questions – Prashna Upanishad. In their attempt to communicate the incommunicable, the seers use all tools available to them: similes, metaphors, illustrations, symbolism, stories, self-contradictions, all. The truth of the Upanishads is not validated by any of these though – these are merely the tools the teachers use. To use an ancient example, it is like pointing out the moon with the moon with your finger and saying it is the bright thing that you see among the branches of the three – neither your finger nor the branches of the tree has any connection with the moon.

The truth of the upanishads is validated only by one thing – the experience of it, initially by the teacher and subsequently by the student. The Upanishads themselves reject the intellectual understanding of their content and call it worthless. “Yadi manyase suvedeti, dabhram evapi noonam tvam vettha brahmano roopam,” says the Kena Upanishad: “If you think you know it well, indeed you know very little of the nature of Brahman.” And then the Upanishad explains why it holds so; For: “This Truth is that by which the mind understands, and not that which the mind can understand. This cannot be seen by the eyes, it is that by which the eyes see; this cannot be heard by the ears, it is that by which the ears hear.”

The Upanishads are a journey into the nature of ourselves and the world in which we live. Speaking of the nature of the world [jagat], the Upanishads tell us that the world is not real the way we experience it. A man under hallucination does not experience the world as it is, but the world is to him whatever his mind shows it to be. So too is it with all of us. We do not perceive the world as it is.

You do not really need the example of a man under hallucination to understand what the seers tell us. A straight rod as it leaves one medium and enters another is deflected. Our eyes see a mirage in the desert where there is no water. So too, the sages tell us, the world is not seen by us in its real form. Our mind distorts reality as a defective, or a concave or a convex mirror does. To see the world as it is, say the seers, we need a mind that has been purified of all the things that distort it, a mind that has been emptied of thoughts and made still.

The Upanishads use a word to speak of the illusory nature of the world – maya. Under the influence of maya, the impossible becomes possible, the unreal appears as real and the real as unreal. One other metaphor used by the Upanishads to explain the nature of the world as it really is and as it appears to us is that of the alata [alaata] – the circle of glowing fire that appears when a child waves a burning stick. While the fire at the tip is real, the fire circle is not. It is mere appearance. And so is the world, say the Upanishads. While there is a reality behind the world, the world is not real as it appears to us.

Incidentally, Adi Shankara’s paramaguru [guru’s guru] Gaudapada wrote a scholarly treatise on the Mandukya Upanishad, a short Upanishad that discusses the four states of consciousness, and one of the chapters in the treatise is called alata-shanti-prakarana, the chapter on putting out the alata.

In their enquiry into the nature of the self [jiva], the Upanishads discover and declare that the source from which we spring and the source from which the universe comes into existence are one and the same. They also declare that we have never been separated from our source, our roots are still there. The tree might hold its head up in the skies, but its roots are still deep in the earth. In the same way, even now our roots are in that Truth and we are that Truth, even as an ornament made of gold forever remains gold.

Aham brahmasmi: I am Brahman, the Boundless, the source of all creation, say the seers of the Upanishads, declaring this truth.

Four mahavakyas, great statements, selected from different Upanishads beautifully summarise the teachings of the rishis on this topic. The four mahavakyas are: ayam atma brahma – This self is Brahman; prajnanam brahma – Brahman is consciousness; tat tvam asi – You are that; and aham brahmasmi – I am Brahman. While the first three are the teachings of the rishis based on their personal experience, the final statement is of the student based on his eventual experience of the self.

According the seers, all suffering is because we consider ourselves different from what we really are and all human life is nothing but a search for oneself, a pilgrimage into oneself, and all our struggles are our attempts to reclaim our true self which we have apparently lost. Suffering will not end, grief and misery will not end, whatever we do, whatever we attain, so long as we do not realize our real nature. One of the metaphors used by the ancient teachers to explain this is that of the musk deer, which frantically, madly, searches for musk all over the mountains and forests, without knowing that the source of it is itself.

Unlike most other religions and even subsequent Hinduism, the Upanishads are not too preoccupied with Go [ishwara], though it does speak of God, and of the reality that functions as God.

The God of the Upanishads is precisely the God of the Vedas, whose vision of God is unique in the history of world’s theistic thought. As Dr Abinash Chandra Bose puts it, “Vedic theism is neither monotheism nor polytheism, but the worship of the One Divinity in many names and forms. This is precisely what the Vedas mean when they say ‘ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti’. Divinity is the One as many and many as the One. And while that one is contemplated upon in the neuter, the many could be masculine or feminine, of any age and of any relation to man. In form the deities are many, but in essence they are one. When the one is conceived as many, each one of them carries all the ‘vibhutis’ of the one: all of them are splendorous [jyoti], have glory [bhargas], greatness [mahas], loveliness [shri], and so on. Each of them is all powerful, all knowing and all pervading. At the same time, each of them has all qualities, is beyond time and place, beyond all limitations, like the One Divinity which is at once saguna and nirguna – It has no attributes and yet all attributes are Its.”

It is this God that the Upanishads too speak of. Ishavasyam idam sarvam, says the first mantra of the Ishavasya Upanishad, which sees all existence as pervaded by the One God, permeated by the One God. Here is a mantra from the highly poetic Shvetashvatara Upanishad, which says precisely the same thing in different words: “You are woman, you are man, you are the young boy and the young girl and you are the old man walking with the help of a stick. You, becoming manifest, become all this. You are the blue moth, you are the green bird with red eyes, you are the lightning-bearer [the cloud], carrying lightning in your womb, you are the seasons, the oceans. All things are born of you though you yourself are without a beginning, and you are pervaded in everything.” Shvetashvatara Upanishad 4.3-4

Apart from pointing out the true nature of ourselves and the world and the higher reality called Brahman, the Upanishads also teach us how to realize – to reach, to discover, to experience – the truth of their teachings.


How many Upanishads are there? The traditional answer is one hundred and eight, which in fact, is the wrong answer. The Motilal Banarsidas collection of Upanishads alone, for instance, has one hundred and eighty eight Upanishads. The correct answer is we do not know exactly how many Upanishads are there – many have been lost, and many are still being discovered from obscure sources. At one time the Upanishads formed a huge collection of literature. The reason why we say Upanishads are one hundred and eight is that one of the Upanishads give us a list of Upanishads and this consists of one hundred and eight Upanishads – but there is no reason why this list should be considered as all inclusive.

One of the highly misleading classifications of the Upanishads is into major and minor Upanishads. I do not know who originally classified them so [there is no such classification in Sanskrit], but whoever did it did a great disservice to the Upanishads, to Indian wisdom and spirituality itself. The classification gives us the impression that some Upanishads are more important than the others, of speaker of deeper truths, both of which are very wrong. Some Upanishads are called major only because several great acharyas have commented upon them, including Adi Shankara. These are the Ishavasya [Isha] Upanishad, Kena Upanishad, Katha Upanishad, Prashna Upanishad, Mundaka Upanishad, Mandukya Upanishad, Taittiriya Upanishad, Aitareya Upanishad, Chhandogya Upanishad and Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. [Isha-Kena-Katha-Prashna-Mundaka-Mandukya-Tittiri, Aitareyam cha Chhandogyam Brihadaranyakam tatha, says the sloka that is traditionally used as mnemonic device to remember their names. The names are conventionally listed in this order.]

The reason why the great acharyas chose to comment upon specifically on these Upanishads could be that together they cover most of what the Upanishadic lore teaches us. Or it could be that Acharya Shankara chose to comment only on these for his own reasons [Time, for instance; he lived a very short life, constantly travelling and constantly engaged in debates, constantly teaching.] and the subsequent acharyas chose to focus their attention mainly on these.

Let’s now take a look at some of the Upanishads.

Continued ... 2.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Parable of the Young Bird and the Termite Salesman

She was young and beautiful. Each of her feathers sparkled. And she loved to use those feathers, to lift herself into the sky on their power. She loved to soar into the open sky. She loved to stretch her wings and float effortlessly in the open sky. Floating with the wind – there was nothing she loved more than that. She loved the freedom it gave her, the experience of boundlessness it gave her. She felt her boundaries melting and herself becoming one with the sky and the wind. As though she did not exist as separate from them, as though was one with them. As though she was not floating in the wind, but was the wind itself. And she sought greater speeds, because the greater the speeds she achieved, the less she existed as separate from existence, and the more she became one with existence. She knew it is for this she was born and there was nothing more important in life to do than this floating in the vastness of the skies.

Then one day it happened. She was perched on a tree pruning her feathers she loved so much after spending hours in the skies. Looking down, she saw a man standing under the tree. I am a white ants salesman, he said – give a feather, take a termite, he said. There was a scheme too, he said – buy one, get one free.

She was hungry from all that flying she had done The sun had been more glorious than ever before, and the winds the strongest. She had spent so much time in the skies that she was truly hungry. She pulled out one of her feathers and gave it to him – she had so many, what difference would one make. She ate the first termite he gave her and she liked the taste. And then she ate the second one too – the one she got in the scheme. The termites were delicious.

The salesman came the next day too, and again she bought a termite paying a feather, and got one free. Yummy termites! Soon this became a habit with her. And soon she grew addicted to eating termites. One by one, she kept giving the salesman her feathers.

Flight was not that easy or effortless now. She really had to struggle. She found it difficult to float in the skies, or even to soar into the skies. The blue sky was now something she preferred to sit and watch from the tree, to which she could somehow just manage to fly up from the ground to which she came down for food.

And then came a time when all she could do was hop on the ground.

Food was scarce under the tree on which she lived. She had to cover long distances to fill her stomach. One day in her search for food she came across a huge termite hill. Thousands and thousands of white ants! She ate to her fill. And then it occurred to her – she could give back two for each of the termites she had eaten and buy back her wings. Maybe three or four for each, if needed!

She saw the man who sold termites passing by. She called out to him aloud: “Enough. I have had enough of termites. You take your termites back and give me my feathers back.”

The man who sold termites said: “I sell termites for feathers. I don’t buy termites paying feathers.”

It was too late. The young bird had forever lost his freedom. He had given away his sky.


Life is often like that. We sacrifice lasting good for immediate satisfaction. And we regret later, when it is too late.

The Upanishads use two beautiful words to describe this truth of life: shreyas and preyas. And, says the Katha Upanishad, at each juncture in our life, we are confronted by the choice between them. Fools take the path of preyas, of immediate satisfaction – it is so wide and smooth, so well-travelled. And it is only the rare brave man that takes the path of Shreyas, lasting good, what is truly valuable, and walk on the path less travelled.

A student of mine has a great job in London. His pay is very good, superb. He earns in a month what most people do not earn in several years. And of course he has to slog for it. Seventeen to eighteen hours a day, officially six days a week, but almost invariably all the seven days. After a whole year in London, the only part of London he has seen the route from his house to his office. He does not know London exists outside this route too.

I wouldn’t have minded that, if it had only been for a while. Why not earn all that you want and then live your life? But no, he now plans to buy a house in London, for which he has to take a loan, and to pay back that loan he has to work harder than ever before. He has more plans – getting a Ferrari is the next item on his agenda. And his agenda is long, I have no doubt.

He has forgotten the skies. It is for the termites that he now lives – bigger and better termites, tastier termites.


The Beggar in the Boat

It was a beautiful evening. The sun was a glorious sight in the western sky. There was not a hue in creation that was missing there. Birds could be seen against the fabric of colours, returning home at the end of a busy day. Boats lay idly at the ghat. Men sat and talked about nothing, in great leisure. A slight breeze touched the river and a thousand ripples of ecstasy were born the next instant.

The ferry that took people across the river was about to go when an old beggar hurried towards it. He was a quite old man, his clothes all worn out, his feet bare, owning nothing more than the bundle on his shoulder. As he entered the ferry, some passengers moved away from him in disgust. One or two others pushed him away roughly. A few young boys made fun of the old man.

The old man sat down quietly on the floor of the ferry and his closed his eyes. A few moments later he was deep in prayer – his daily evening prayer. There were tears in his eyes as he prayed silently in his heart.

The abuse and the taunting did not stop in spite of his sitting down quietly on the floor, away from others. They were getting bolder seeing that he did not react. Then suddenly a young man got up and kicked him with his foot. He wanted to show his friends he was the boldest of them all.

All on a sudden there was loud thunder and a voice spoke from the skies. “Shall I overturn the boat, my son? That will teach these people a lesson.”

There was complete silence for a moment. And then the very people who had abused him rushed at him and fell at his feet. This was no ordinary beggar, but a great sage! God watched over him and spoke to him. The boy who had kicked him shook in terror.

The old man continued his prayers as though nothing happened. Then he got up and raising his head towards the sky asked, “O God, when did you start speaking the language of the devil?”

The sound of thunderous laughter filled the skies. And God answered, “That was not me speaking, son. That was the devil. And I am pleased that you weren’t tempted by him.”

Frequently, the devil speaks in the voice of God. At times what we hear as the voice of God is the devil’s voice.

All blessings do not come from God. Some blessings are from the devil – curses disguised as blessings.

Wisdom is recognizing blessings from the curses packaged as blessings.

Pray for true blessings, and not for curses packaged as blessings. And remember: both will be granted.

In his bestselling Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff at Work, Richard Carlson says: “A man I knew dreamed of a job he felt would be “so much better” within the same company he was working with. He lobbied for that job for quite some time, constantly complaining about his current position. It wasn’t until he finally secured that job that he realized the major tradeoffs that were involved. It was true that he had a bit more prestige and a slightly better salary, yet he was now forced to travel several days a week, often much more often than that. He missed his three kids terribly and started missing important events – soccer games, music performances, teacher conferences, and other special dates. In addition, his relationship with his wife became strained as their relatively peaceful routine was set aside for the alleged “better” life. He was also forced to scale way back on his much loved exercise routine due to his busier, less flexible schedule.”

We live in an age which criticizes contentment and adores endless ambition. Young people frequently ask me – and these are some of the most promising young men and women in India, who are waited upon with choice job offers by the best national and multinational companies – shouldn’t we constantly aspire for the still higher? Isn’t that the way humanity progresses, an individual grows? These are bright young people and they do have a point.

Contentment is not always good. Contentment is considered sattvic, but all contentment is not sattvic. There is also tamasic contentment, and discontentment is far better than contentment born of tamas. For instance, the kind of contentment in which India lived for a long time is tamasic contentment. When we are contented with slavery, with injustice, with poverty that is avoidable, with inhuman treatment, that is tamasic contentment.

Similarly, ambition is good too. The bird that doesn’t aspire for the sky remained bound to the tree on which it was born. And if we did not aspire for greater comforts, faster communication, and more efficient technology, we would not be living in the world in which we live today.

But that does not mean all ambitions are good.

Wisdom lies in recognizing ambition that is good from ambition that is bad.

This reminds me of the story of the young man on his first date with a new girl. As he was leaving home, his father asked him, “Where are you going?”

“On a date, Dad” the boy said. “I am meeting a new girl.”

“Why are you taking the torch,” asked the father. “I never took a torch when I went courting.”

“That figures,” said the boy looking at his mother. “Look what you got.”

Keep the torch of awareness with you, and you will always be right about the choices you make. Keep the torch of awareness with you, and you will always know what blessings to pray for, and what not to. Keep the torch of awareness with you, and you will always know which blessings to accept and which to reject, even when they are given unasked for.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Heaven on Earth

In a passage titled the Kingdom of Heaven in Heart at Work by Jack Canfield and Jacqueline Miller, Thich Nhat Hahn says: “We do not have to die to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, we have to be fully alive. When we breathe in and out and hug a beautiful tree, we are in Heaven. When we take one conscious breath, aware of our eyes, our heart, our liver and our non-toothache, we are transported to Paradise right away. Peace is available. We only need to touch it. When we are truly alive, we can see that the tree is part of Heaven, and we are also part of Heaven. The whole universe is conspiring to reveal this to us, but we are so out of touch that we invest our resources to cutting down the trees. If we want to enter the Heaven on Earth, we need only one conscious step and one conscious breath. When we touch peace, everything becomes real. We become ourselves, fully alive in the present moment, and the tree, our child and everything else reveal themselves to us in their full splendour. The miracle is not to walk on thin air or water, but to walk on Earth.”

Hahn puts it beautifully. Most of us live through life as though we are asleep. Somnambulists – that is what we are. And that is why our life is so dull, so mechanical and empty. That is why we find so little satisfaction from living. Our eyes may be open, but we do not see. Our ears may be open, but we do not hear. And we do not taste, we do not touch, we do not smell.

A young man was once on a trip to the Himalayas. Someone in a family he was close to learnt about the trip, and she told him to look for brahma-kamal flowers in the Himalayas. She told him it is a very rare sacred flower and gave him a description. He spent two months in the Himalayas, staying in an ashram on the Varanavat mountain associated with the Pandavas. He took long walks almost daily, exploring the nearby mountains all alone, and sometimes just walking along the Ganga. Since he loved to walk, the walks usually lasted three or four hours each morning, and sometimes stretched to longer periods. He searched for brahma-kamals everywhere, and he couldn’t find any. He asked a lot of people about brahma-kamals, but no one in Uttar Kashi, at least no one that he met, had seen them. Some people pointed out to him a flower called the sthal-kamal. He decided this was perhaps what the lady had meant and on his way back brought back a small sapling of it. It was a difficult job – he had to bring it all the way down from Uttar Kashi by bus to Rishikesh, look after it in Rishikesh during the couple of days he spent there, then bring it by bus to Delhi, where too he spent a day or two, and then bring it by train to the eastern city where he lived. All the time he had to keep it watered so that it did not die.

The sapling was alive when he neared his residence and he was happy and proud of the fact. But the next moment all joy was gone. As he stretched out his hand to open the gate, his eyes fell on the thick bush growing just inside his gate in his garden. It had some twenty flowers in bloom on it – beautiful pink flowers! And he recognised the bush instantly with a shock – sthal-kamal! The sapling that he had brought all the way down from the Himalayas with so much difficulty had been growing in his own garden and he hadn’t noticed it!

This is true of the majority of us adults and has been so for a long time. But the frightening reality of our times is that it is it is becoming increasingly true of our children too.

I once conducted an experiment. I was then running a long experimental workshop called Creativity Theatre for senior school children. The children had spent around ten to twelve years in their school and the school had uniform grills on the windows in every classroom. I asked the children not to look at the grills and without once looking at them, draw their pattern on a sheet of paper. There were around forty children in the workshop at that time. And not one of them was able to reproduce the pattern correctly on paper! And they had been looking at the pattern for eight to ten years, seeing it every school day for hours!

In the modern Zen classic The Three Pillars of Zen, Roshi Philip Kapleau reproduces the following story from Zenso Mondo [Dialogues of the Zen Masters]:

One day a man of the people said to Zen master Ikkyu: “Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?”

Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word “Attention.”

“Is that all?” asked the man. “Will you not add something more?”

Ikkyu then wrote twice running: “Attention, Attention.”

“Well,” remarked the man rather irritably, “I really don’t see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written.”

Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running: “Attention, Attention, Attention.”

Half-angered, the man demanded: “What does that word “Attention” mean anyway?”

And Ikkyu answered gently: “Attention means attention.”

Attention is all that we lack in our life. Attention is all we need to make our life heaven on earth.

To pay attention is to be conscious of.

Consciousness is life. Unconsciousness is death. Consciousness is heaven. Unconsciousness is hell.

Consciousness is what India calls jnana, mukti, moksha – knowledge, liberation, freedom – and unconsciousness what India calls, ajnana, bandha, samsara – ignorance, bondage, misery.

When you are conscious, when you pay attention, you see life as it is. When you are conscious, when you pay attention, you see the world as it is. Bathed in beauty. Bathed in glory.


There is a beautiful passage in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha which talks of an experience of awakening that Siddhartha had:

Siddhartha opened his eyes and looked around, a smile filled his face and a feeling of awakening from long dreams flowed through him from his head down to his toes...

He looked around, as if he was seeing the world for the first time. Beautiful was the world, colourful was the world, strange and mysterious was the world! Here was blue, here was yellow, here was green, the sky and the river flowed, the forest and the mountains were rigid, all of it was beautiful, all of it was mysterious and magical, and in its midst was he, Siddhartha, the awakening one, on the path to himself. All of this, all this yellow and blue, river and forest, entered Siddhartha for the first time through the eyes, was no longer a spell of Mara, was no longer the veil of Maya, was no longer a pointless and coincidental diversity of mere appearances, despicable to the deeply thinking Brahman, who scorns diversity, who seeks unity.

Blue was blue, river was river, and if also in the blue and the river, in Siddhartha, the singular and divine lived hidden, so it was still that very divinity’s way and purpose, to be here yellow, here blue, there sky, there forest, and here Siddhartha. The purpose and the essential properties were not somewhere behind the things, they were in them, in everything.

“How deaf and stupid have I been!” he thought, walking swiftly along. “When someone reads a text, wants to discover its meaning, he will not scorn the symbols and letters and call them deceptions, coincidence, and worthless hull, but he will read them, he will study and love them, letter by letter. But I, who wanted to read the book of the world and the book of my own being, I have, for the sake of a meaning I had anticipated before I read, scorned the symbols and letters, I called the visible world a deception, called my eyes and my tongue coincidental and worthless forms without substance. No, this is over, I have awakened, I have indeed awakened and have not been born before this very day.”

When we pay attention, when we are lead by awareness, by light, beautiful things happen to us. Attention, consciousness, is like a lamp that shows us things as they are, without distortions. And when we live without its light, we make errors.

A young boy was going out one evening. His father asked him, “Where are you going?”

“On a date, Dad” the boy said. “I am meeting a new girl.”

“Why are you taking the torch,” asked the father. “I never took a torch when I went courting.”

“That figures,” said the boy looking at his mother. “Look what you got.”

It is not only in marriage that we make mistakes when we do not pay attention. We mess up our whole life.

The world is meant to be heaven. It’s Her leela, Her krida, Her sport. And it should be fun. Life should be a celebration, a festivity. But look at what we have made of it.

Because we do not pay attention.

Jesus’ words are beautiful: the kingdom of heaven is within us. Thich Nhat Hahn is right: heaven is on earth. Zen master Ikkyu puts it precisely. The only thing that matters is: attention, attention, attention.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Shantaram and The Human Zoo

Desmond Morris is the celebrated author of such bestsellers as The Naked Ape, The Human Zoo, Manwatching, Intimate Behaviour and so on. They are powerful books that give deep insights into human nature, particularly the nature of the urban man. I remember reading and reading greedily The Naked Ape as a teenager and then The Human Zoo when it was published later. The books changed the way I looked at men and women and the world around me. The Naked Ape and The Human Zoo are the first books on what is today known as Sociobilogy and Desmond Morris, a brilliant pioneer in his chosen field.

In The Human Zoo Morris compares animals in the wild and animals in captivity, as in a zoo. He also compares people living in the openness of villages and people in big cities. He then compares people in these two different states with animals in the two different states. According to Morris, the neurosis and psychoses that the urban man frequently displays is akin to similar behaviours exhibited by animals in captivity. Morris ascribes human violence, his frustration and anger, his boundless aggression, his hysteria, the madness that often possess him and so on to his being captive to urban civilization.

Reading a passage from Gregory David Roberts’ international bestseller Shantaram, I remembered Morris. Roberts describes the sudden violence that erupts on a Bombay street – and I am sure those who are familiar with Bombay would agree that Roberts is doing no more than describe what happens in some part of Bombay or the other every day. In fact, in some part or the other of every metropolis in India and in many other parts of the world.

When the passage begins, Lin, who is the narrator of the story and Prabaker [Prabu], his friend and guide, are in a taxi. Prabu has promised Lin to take him to the ‘real’ Bombay, which European visitors rarely get to see. The taxi driver is reckless and rude and in an irate mood – apparently that is how this driver always is. An accident has just been avoided because Lin shouted a warning to the driver in time.


“The taxi driver—a burly, dark-skinned man with a bristling moustache—seemed to be outraged at my impertinence in saving our lives. When we first took the taxi he’d adjusted his mirror until he saw nothing in it but my face. After the near miss he glared at me, snarling a growl of insults in Hindi. He drove the cab like a getaway car, slewing left and right to overtake slower vehicles. There was an angry, bullying pugnacity in his attitude to everyone else on the road. He rushed to within centimetres of every slower car in his path, sounding his horn, then all but nudging it out of the way. If the slower car moved a little to the left, in order to let him pass, our driver drew beside it, pacing it for a time and shouting insults. When he spied another slow vehicle ahead, he sped forward to repeat the procedure. From time to time he opened his door and leaned out over the road to spit paan juice, taking his eyes off the traffic ahead for long seconds as we hurtled along in the rattling cab.”

Eventually an alarmed Lin and Prabu ask the driver to stop the car. But that only makes the driver more enraged.

“With the car hurtling along at top speed, he turned his head to snarl at us. His mouth was wide open, and his teeth were bared. His eyes were huge, their blackness streaked with rage.

“Arrey!” Prabaker shrieked, pointing past the driver. It was too late. The man turned quickly. His arms stiffened at the wheel, and he hit the brakes hard. There was a skating, sliding second ... two seconds ... three seconds. I heard a guttural gasp of air from deep in his throat. It was a sucking sound, like the lifting of a flat stone from the moist clay on the edge of a riverbed. Then there was the whump and crash as we slammed into a car that had stopped in front of us to make a turn. We were thrown forward into the back of his seat, and heard two thumping explosions as two other cars rammed into us.

“Shattered glass and chrome fragments rattled on the road like thin metallic applause in the sudden silence that followed the impacts. My head had hit the door in the tumble spill of the accident. I felt blood flowing from a cut above my eye, but I was otherwise unhurt.”

Prabu now shouts urgently that they must get out of the car. “Out! Out of here! Now!” he says.

But the door on his side is jammed shut, and he begins to push at it with his shoulder. He can’t budge it. He reaches across to Lin to try the door on his side, but sees at once that another car is jammed against it, pinning it shut. With great difficulty, after a nerve-wrecking struggle, they manage to get out of the damaged car. Lin tries to pull the driver out of the car, but Prabu shouts, ““Don’t touch him! Leave him and get out. Get out now!” Prabu takes a confused Lin to a safe distance, and from where they watch what is happening at the accident site.

“We stood, stretching the ache from shoulders and whip-lashed necks, and looked toward the wreckage some ten metres away. About thirty people had gathered around the four crashed vehicles. A few of them were helping drivers and passengers from the damaged cars. The rest huddled together in groups, gesturing wildly and shouting. More people streamed toward the site from every direction. Drivers of other cars that had been blocked from travelling further left their vehicles and joined the crowd. The thirty people became fifty, eighty, then a hundred as we watched.

“One man was the centre of attention. It was his car that had been trying to turn right, his car we’d smashed into with the brakes on full lock. He stood beside the taxi, bellowing with rage... His hand had been cut from the palm to the wrist. As the staring crowd grew more silent, subdued by the drama, he smeared blood from the wound on his face and beat the redness into the grey of his suit, shouting all the while.

“Just then, some men carried a woman into the little clear space around the man, and placed her on a piece of cloth that was stretched out on the ground for her. They shouted instructions to the crowd, and in moments a wooden cart appeared, pushed by bare-chested men wearing only singlets and short lungis. The woman was lifted onto the cart, her red sari gathered up in folds and wrapped about her legs. She may have been the man’s wife — I couldn’t be sure — but his rage suddenly grew hysterical. He seized her roughly by the shoulders and shook her. He pulled at her hair. He appealed to the crowd with enormous, histrionic gestures, flinging his arms wide and then striking his own bloodstreaked face...”

“As the semi-conscious woman was trundled away on the humble cart, the man hurled himself at the door of the taxi, wrenching it open. The crowd reacted as one. They dragged the dazed and injured taxi driver from his cab in an instant and flung him on the bonnet of the car. He raised his arms in feeble pleading, but a dozen, twenty, fifty hands punched and tore at him. Blows drummed on his face, chest, stomach, and groin. Fingernails scratched and ripped, tearing his mouth open on one side almost to the ear, and shredding his shirt to rags...”

“We’ve got to do something ...” I said lamely.

“Enough people are doing, baba,” Prabaker replied.

“No, I mean, we’ve got to ... can’t we help him, somehow?”

“For this fellow is no helping,” he sighed. “Now you see it, Lin. Accidents is very bad business in Bombay. Better you get out of that car, or taxi, or what is it you are in, very, very quickly. The public are not having patience for such business. See now, it is too late for that fellow.”

“The beating was swift, but savage. Blood streamed from many cuts on the man’s face and naked torso. At a signal, perceived, somehow, through the howl and shriek of the crowd, the man was lifted up and carried off at head height. His legs were pressed together and stretched out, held rigid by a dozen hands. His arms were splayed out at right angles to his body and held fast. His head lolled and fell back, the soft, wet flap of skin hanging from cheek to jaw. His eyes were open, conscious, staring backward and upside down: black eyes, scudded with fear and imbecile hope. Traffic on the far side of the road parted to let the people pass, and the man slowly disappeared, crucified on the hands and shoulders of the crowd.”

“What ... what are they going to do with him?” Lin asks Prabu.

“They will take him to police, I think so. Behind Crawford Market is one police station, for this area. Maybe he will have the luck—maybe alive, he will reach there. Maybe not.”


This is the hysteria that Desmond Morris is talking about in The Human Zoo. This is the aggression and violence, the brutality and mercilessness, the mad rage in the human heart that Morris talks about. Our crowded urban lifestyles and living conditions frequently reduce us to this.

In Munnabhai MBBS, a movie I love, there is a similar scene. It is again Bombay – one of the crowded railway stations, Churchgate perhaps, or maybe VT. Munna’s father [Sunil Dutt] is in Bombay to meet his son, and at the station he discovers that someone is trying to pinch off his purse. He shouts and the thief is caught. The next instant the public pounces upon the pickpocket, hitting him, kicking him, shouting at him abuses and giving vent to their blind fury in any way that comes to each. After a minute or so, Dutt interferes. Those who have seen the movie would recall what Dutt tells the pickpocket and the crowd is precisely what Desmond Morris says in The Human Zoo.

Metropolises are a fact of life. They cannot be avoided, they cannot be wished away. But it is also a fact that each of us needs more space for ourselves than these crowded metropolises permit us. Space in our life, and space out there. Without space there can be no serenity, and man needs to get in touch with his serenity every now and then, even if he cannot be always in touch with it. When that serenity, inner solitude, inner sanctuary, is denied to him, he goes berserk. It is this inner serenity that keeps man sane, and when that is denied to him, he goes insane. Without serenity and open spaces, man ceases to be an individual and becomes part of the mob.

Unfortunately, open spaces are fast disappearing. Both from our cities and from our lives.


Women, Gender and Power in Bheel Mahabharata 2

Part of a paper presented by the author at the national seminar on Mahabharata organized by National Manuscripts Mission and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Government of India at India International Centre, New Delhi in February 2007.

Continued from Part 1.

Lesser women than Kunti, Draupadi and Ganga too are no less independent and sufficient to themselves in the Bheel Bharath. Take the Naga king Vasuki’s daughter Hirapath for instance. Arjuna goes to her land in search of virgin gold which he requires for use in a sacrifice the Pandavas are conducting so that their father Pandu, reborn as a dog after his sinful death, may get absolution from sin. The snakes guarding the palace grounds bite him and he dies. It is then that Hirapath sees him and falls in love with him. To revive him, Hirapath gets magical substances from her father who initially tries to deceive her by giving her poison in place of ambrosia. Hirapath is no lovelorn helpless lass. She knows her father and suspects he might do exactly this. She tries out the contents of the bottle her father has sent her on a donkey and the donkey dies instantly. A furious Hirapath now threatens her father Vasuki with a curse – unless she is given ambrosia instantly, she would curse and reduce Vasuki’s land to ashes. Her father complies instantly. However, competent woman that she is, she knows that Arjuna might leave her the instant he is brought back to life to complete whatever his mission is without giving a thought to her. So she takes the independent decision to marry him – on her own, with the knowledge that her father does not approve of her decision. He asks her maids to fetch everything needed for the wedding and conducts the marriage on her own with the dead Arjuna, and he is brought back to life by her immediately after the wedding with the help of the ambrosia and other magical substances obtained from her father. On finding out that Arjuna is in search of virgin gold, she procures it for him.

Interestingly, one of the substances the sacrifice requires is a man sold by a woman. Bhima obtains such a man from a prostitute in Kamrup.

The gender switch in the famous story of the Yakshaprashna also speaks of the changed gender perception of the Bheel Bharath. While in Vyasa’s Mahabharata the man testing the Pandava brothers is a male, a yaksha, here it is a female, the jal-jogani, a water sorceress. It is no more a man testing another man, but a woman testing a man. And appropriately, it is not a test of cerebral matters men are so preoccupied with that the test is in, but in matters of the heart – in love, acceptance and commitment.

It is in the context of the senetaro sacrifice that the Pandavas conduct to save their father Pandu who has been reborn as a dog because of his sin that we come across the jal-jogani. One of the samagris, ingredients, required for the sacrifice is virgin water. Nakula volunteers to fetch it. He reaches the tank where virgin water is and gathers it in his pot and then the jal-jogani speaks, demanding that he cannot carry her, a virgin, away just like that, he must first marry her. [She is both a water sorceress and the water in the tank in which she lives. She is a virgin and since the water is she herself, the water too is virgin.] Nakula excuses himself saying he has no time for it right then, he is too busy with the sacrifice and has to take the water immediately to Hastinapur for the sacrifice. The jal-jogani asks him to look at her and pour the water back into the tank. As their eyes meet, Nakula faints and falls down. He dies there.

It is Bhima who comes now with a pot in hand, to look for Nakula and to fetch water. Bhima too gives the excuse of not having time and he too falls down and dies. Sahadeva who comes now sees the dead bodies floating in the water. The jal-jogani appears and tells him the same fate awaits him if he tried to take her, the virgin water, away without marrying her. When Sahadeva gives the excuse of not having time, the jal-jogani asks him to give a promise to marry her afterwards and Sahadeva does so. She brings Bhima and Nakula back to life and allows Sahadeva to carry the virgin water away with him.

The jal-jogani of the Bheel Bharath is another empowered woman. She is proactive and assertive. Instead of passively allowing men to have her, she demands her rights. Before a man can have her, he must marry her, commit himself to her. It is only to such a man she would give herself. And she is not for anybody’s taking – until she gives herself to a man, she is not his. And she is strong enough to turn to stone any man who tries to force himself upon her, to have his way with her against her wishes. The jal-jogani, a minor character in the Bheel epic, behaves as Kali Satyavati, a major character, does in her encounter with Parashara in the Mahabharata.

Indra’s wife Indrani is another empowered woman in the Bheel Bharath who is fiercely independent and sufficient unto herself. Unlike Indrani in mainstream mythology, she would not be dominated by her man. To her, devotion to her husband means something entirely different from blind obedience to his wishes. She is a person in herself, authentic, with full autonomy, and does not find the meaning of her existence in her unquestioning service to Indra. If Indra does not treat her with the dignity she deserves, with the honour Indra owes her as an equal human being, she would walk away from him, as a modern woman would do and choose to live on her own, or with whomsoever she chooses. It is important to her that her man commands her respect because of his dignity, courage and honour.

The Anushasana Parva of Vyasa’s Mahabharata tells us the story of Oghavati and her husband Sudarshana . Oghavati was the daughter of King Oghavan and Sudarshana was the son of Agni, the fire god, and Princess Sudarshanaa. Having taken a vow that he would conquer death while leading the family way of life, one day Sudarshana tells his wife that she should never do anything against the wishes of their guests. “Give our guests whatever makes them happy; even if you have to give yourself to them to make them happy, do so without a second thought,” he tells Oghavati and she agrees to obey his least wish, including this. One day a guest comes to their home, a Brahmin, while Sudarshana is away. Oghavati receives him, offers him ritual offerings and asks him what else she can do for him, what else he desires. And he Brahmin tells her he wants her, it is her body that he desires. Oghavati tries to persuade the Brahmin to ask for something else but he refuses and sticks to his demand. The princess blushes in shame and embarrassment but eventually yields to his demand so that she obeys her husband and her husband does not fall from his vow, from his dharma. The Brahmin takes Oghavati inside the house, to her bed, and it is then that Sudarshana returns after collecting samit, kindling for ritual fire, from the jungle. Not finding Oghavati waiting for him as she always did, he calls out her name repeatedly. She does not answer for she is ashamed of herself; she has been polluted by the Brahmin – she has become his ucchishta, his ‘left-over’, that is how Oghavati puts it to herself.

It is interesting to note the difference in Indrani’s behaviour under similar circumstances in the Bheel Bharath. Indra boasts to a group of sages that his wife is a perfect sati and she would do anything he wishes. He invites them home so that they can have proof for this. The sages come and they start misbehaving with Indrani. One of them winks at her sexually, another rubs against her foot with his foot, and a third pinches her at her waist. Indrani will not have any of this. She shouts at the sages and threatens them with dire consequences unless they behaved. Indra interferes and tries to pacify Indrani – she is proving herself to be short of being a true sati and he is losing his honour. She does not care. His attempts enrage her. “From where the hell did you get such rotten guests,” she asks him. “One winks at me, another caresses my foot with his foot and a third pinches me at my tender waist, making it bleed. These guys are rogues and I won’t put up with their shamelessness. What do they think they are doing? Do they think that a woman’s body is something for them to etch their artwork on?” When Indra does not stand up for her and begs her to put up with the behaviour of the sages, she walks away from their home, leaving Indra forever.

She goes and offers herself to the Kauravas as a wife but they dread Indra and refuse her. She then goes to the Pandavas and offers herself as the wife to one of them, and they too refuse her out of fear for Indra. Eventually the twelve-year old Abhimanyu takes her home and makes her his. An infuriated Indra offers a fight through Vayu, the lord of winds, and Abhimanyu beats him in a fierce encounter. Indra runs away in terror from Abhimanyu. In the last scene of this episode, we find Indrani in the arms of Abhimanyu in a tight embrace of love and the two of them swinging together merrily on a swing.

Let’s take yet another woman now – Uttara, young Abhimanyu’s wife. If Abhimanyu is an unsurpassed young hero in the Mahabharata, his heroism is several times multiplied in the Bheel epic. The Mahabharata war in the Bheel epic is essentially a battle between him on the Pandava side all alone against the Kauravas [who are seventy-eight in number and not a hundred], though on the last day of the war he is assisted by Bhima. [Arjuna is lying dead in Patala where he had gone to fetch rhinoceros skin for making shields for the war, though he would be revived later and reach Hastinapura after the war is over.]

The Uttara of the Mahabharata, however, is no match for Abhimanyu – in fact, we know hardly anything about her as a person in Vyasa’s epic. She is a mere shadow figure there. In the Bheel Bharath, though, she is a magnificent woman, splendorous in her womanliness. Like all other women in the Bheel epic, she is proactive and does not wait for life to come to her but goes out and meets it on the way. Her marriage is a splendid event described in great details. After her marriage, she is left behind with her parents, as per the traditional custom, until her gauna can take place when she would go to her husband’s place for the first time.

In the meantime Abhimanyu, whom the Bheels know as Balo Emmant, Child Courage, accepts the war with the Kauravas all on his own in the distant land of Hastinapura and Uttara in her heart feels the dread that Abhimanyu does not feel. She sees dreams in which she senses the events to come and is restless to go and meet him. Her fear is not that he would die in the war, but that he would die a virgin, which is unacceptable and a great sin. In her dream she sees that people have come from Hastinapura to take her to Abhimanyu and jolted out of her sleep, she realizes this is true.

She breathlessly urges her parents to hurry and complete the rituals so she could go immediately. She realizes the danger her young husband is in and wants to take with her an amarkuppi, containing the magical nectar that brings the dead back to life, and gets it from her mother. Fate though is against her on this night and she forgets to take the amarkuppi with her as she hurriedly leaves for Hastinapura, jumping onto the back of the camel that travels at the speed of the wind so that she could reach there before dawn when the war would begin. En route she remembers her mistake, sends her escort to fetch the amarkuppi, and Krishna, who wants Abhimanyu dead because he is in fact a demon reborn as Subhadra’s son, makes him forget it and instead of the nectar of immortality, it is a bottle of kerosene oil that he fetches. There is no more time to lose, so Uttara hurries to Hastinapur without the amarkuppi and what she sees there is Abhimanyu leaving for the war. She runs after him, calls out to him again and again, begging him to turn around and look at her just once, but the brave Abhimanyu, whose heart longs for her dearly, knows it is not right for him to turn around and look at her then and forces himself to move on ignoring her pleas. His eyes shed tears of blood for her.

On the Kaurava side all the seventy-eight brothers would die in the war. On the Pandava side, the only death would be of her husband Abhimanyu with whom she hasn’t spent a single moment alone. Fate was against the poor girl. As was Krishna, who treacherously kills Abhimanyu while the youth is resting in the middle of the war.

Subhadra, Krishna’s sister, comes to us as another woman of substance in the Bheel Bharath. True her ‘womanly curiosity’ gets her into trouble when she opens a casket Krishna has specifically forbidden her to open and the demon Iko Danav, trapped inside the casket by Krishna, escapes from it, enters her through her mouth and she becomes pregnant. It is Iko Danav that grows up as Abhimanyu in her womb. But apart from this one incident that is so characteristic of female characters in folklore traditions across the world, we find Subhadra as a highly competent woman throughout. When the Pandavas allow Abhimanyu to accept the war with the Kauravas all alone, she has the courage to walk straight into the Pandava assembly and upbraid the Pandava brothers for their shameless cowardice and meanness in allowing her young child to face the war all alone.

Finally, a quick look at two female characters who appear in the Bheel Bharath for just one instant: Ambika and Ambalika, who have no names there, so brief is their appearance. In the Bheel Bharath, they are ‘the widows of Chitrangada and Vichitravirya’. After the death of their husbands, one day they approach their mother-in-law and ask her what they should do to obtain children and she advises them to walk naked before Gangeya in the rising sun. They do so and that is how they beget Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Even these two female figures that appear so briefly show themselves different from their selves in the Mahabharata. Here they are more independent, and their pregnancies are not forced on them by others but are results of their own initiatives and a fulfilment of their own natural desires. It is interesting that while following their heart, they seek the advice of their mother-in-law and in the moments of their encounter with Gangeya, they do not lose their womanly shame. One of them covers her eyes in embarrassment, resulting in the birth of a blind child, Dhritarashtra, and the other hides her private parts with her hand and her child is born impotent.


A letter from a collection of articles and letters from Manushi published under the title In Search of Answers, says: “The ideals, ethics and morality heaped on women since time immemorial are suffocating and killing. The adjectives used to praise us have become oppressive. Calling us loving, they have locked us in the closed room of culture, calling us gentle, they have reflected us in a mirror of helplessness, calling us kind, they have tied us in cowardice, they have handcuffed us with modesty and chained our feet with loyalty, so that far from running, we have not been able even to walk.” Well, the women of the tribal land of Bheel Bharath are certainly not locked in, they are not helpless, they are not cowards, nor are they handcuffed or chained.

In her fascinating work Women who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, Clarissa Pinkola Estes says wildlife and wild woman are both endangered species. “Over time, we have seen the feminine instinctive nature looted, driven back and overbuilt. For long periods it has been mismanaged like the wildlife and the wildlands. For several thousand years, as soon and as often as we turn our backs, it is relegated to the poorest land in the psyche. The spiritual lands of Wild Woman have, throughout history, been plundered or burnt, dens bulldozed, and natural cycles forced into unnatural rhythms to please others.”

What we see in the Bheel Bharath is perhaps a bit of the spiritual lands of the Wild Woman that have refused to be plundered or burnt, dens that have resisted bulldozing, and natural cycles that have survived against attempts to force them into unnatural rhythms to please others.

Speaking of the Wild Woman archetype, Estes says: “Healthy wolves and healthy women share certain psychic characteristics: keen sensing, playful spirit, and a heightened capacity for devotion. Wolves and women are relational by nature, inquiring, possessed of great endurance and strength. They are deeply intuitive, intensely concerned with their young, their mate and their pack. They are experienced in adapting to constantly changing circumstances; they are fiercely stalwart and very brave.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s words sound like they were written to describe the women of the Bheel Bharath.


Note: All translations from Sanskrit are by the author. ‘Mahabharata’ always refers to Vyasa’s Mahabharata. When the Bheel version is referred to, it is mentioned as Bheel Bharath [the ‘th’ in Bharath pronounced as the ‘th’ in katha, a story].

Women, Gender & Power in Bheel Mahabharata 1

Part of a paper presented by the author at the national seminar on Mahabharata organized by National Manuscripts Mission and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Government of India at India International Centre, New Delhi in February 2007.

An epic of one culture incarnated in another is at once the same as the original and yet very different from it. It is not that its soul is the same and body is different. No, it becomes a different entity altogether, with a different identity, a different flavour, a different feel, perhaps even a different heart and a different soul, and yet it retains its original being. That is why such an incarnation is a kind of miracle.

The Bheel Bharath, the incarnation of Vyasa’s Mahabharata in the tribal world of the Bheels, is a miracle for its marvellous beauty, its unbelievable simplicity and elemental quality, and the ineffable charm of its rusticity. It is a miracle for the way it so perfectly reflects the world in which the Bheel lives: a world that is still shrouded in primordial mystery, where things are possible because you can imagine them, where everything appears clothed in a dream-like quality, where men and women walk on the earth without masks on their faces, where each hunger of the body and thirst of the heart appears naked, where the dark fears in our depths stalk us in the open.

The many transmutations the story and characters of the Mahabharata undergo in their Bheel incarnation and what these transmutations reveal to us about the world of the tribal Bheel are fascinating. It is intriguing, and entrancing, to see how the Mahabharata looks when it leaves its traditional world and incarnates in an entirely different world – in the world down under, as it were; in the world of those who live on the fringes of Indian society, in the world of those whom our society has always kept either at its lowest rung, or perhaps even outside its boundaries.

This paper, however, focuses only on two aspects of the endlessly fascinating different facets of the Bheel Bharath. The dynamics of male-female relationship in terms of equality, dominance and submissiveness in the epic [in this part]; and attitudes towards sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular in the Bheel Bharath [in the second part of the paper].

This study is based on the text of the Bheel Bharath by Dr Bhagavandas Patel, who spent four years among the Doongri Bheels studying the epic that is an oral tradition among them and recording the narrations of the epic on four hundred and fifty audio cassettes, thus making an invaluable contribution to literature in general and folk literature and Mahabharata study in particular. The book has been published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi with an excellent Hindi translation of its prose by Dr Mridula Parik.

Created in the Image of the Goddess

The dynamics of the male-female relationship in the Bheel Bharath differs from that in mainstream India and in the Sanskrit Mahabharata. We see that gender, the socially constructed differences between the male and the female, is portrayed here in tones that are very distinct. The women we encounter in the Bheel epic are not exactly creations of a lesser God, lacking in wisdom and created with great imperfections, incapable of acting without male assistance, whose every decision has to be taken for them by their men. They are not women abjectly dependent for their protection on their fathers in their childhood and adolescence, on their husbands in their youth and middle age, and on their sons in their old age. In the Bheel Bharath, the traditional gender construct of men being dominant and women being submissive or passive in relation to them is frequently absent.

In the mainstream Indian culture, power, prestige and an unyielding personality are usually associated with men and in the Bheel Bharath, we often find female characters possessing these qualities. If, as Gerda Lerner puts it, “gender is a costume, a mask, a straitjacket in which men and women dance their unequal dance,” these costumes, masks and straitjackets are different in the Bheel Bharath. And, at least in part for these reasons, we find the leading women in the Bheel Bharath, unlike the leading women in Vyasa’s epic, do not have shades of neurosis to them. They are, unlike in the Mahabharata, quite comfortable with themselves, at peace with their social and psychological selves.

Anais Nin refers to Lawrence Van der Post, the Jungian psychologist and poet, in her A Woman Speaks and says “there is a beautiful part in one of his books where he says the Africans never suffered from loneliness as we have; they never suffered from the feeling of the meaninglessness of their life, as we occasionally have.” Reading the Mahabharata, we have the perpetual feeling that the women there are very lonely – be it the young fishermaid Kali wedded to the old emperor Shantanu and later the widowed Empress Satyavati, or the bright and bold Gandhari wedded to the blind, cowardly Dhritarashtra, or Kunti and Madri wedded to their impotent husband, or Draupadi wedded to her five husbands. Kunti on one occasion specifically speaks of her loneliness when she refers to her life at Kuntibhoja’s place after her father gave her away to him. Draupadi is nathavati anathavat – like an orphan, though she ‘belongs’ – all through her life, and she ends her life in utter, unspeakable loneliness on the Himalayas where she falls down towards the end of the pilgrimage and her five husbands walk away without a word to her, without a backward glance at her, without slowing down their steps. We do not find such loneliness in the lives of the women of the Bheel Bharath, nor do we find any of the women here suffering from meaninglessness in their lives, which too is the lot of practically all the women in the Mahabharata.

Let us begin with the first major female character we encounter in the Bheel Bharath, Ganga, who is perhaps closest to her self in the Sanskrit epic. When we first meet her in the tribal epic, she is taking a bath in the river Ganga, for which she has come up from the thirteenth Patala, the thirteenth netherworld. Subsequently, she marries Shantanu after rejecting his attempts to woo her in two lifetimes. The Bheel Bharath builds on the unequal relationship the two have in the Mahabharata and while Ganga is a river goddess with supernatural powers in Vyasa’s epic too, in the Bheel epic she is awesome.

As per her conditions Shantanu had agreed to prior to their marriage, Ganga asks Shantanu to drown one by one the children born to them. Three children are born to them, Gagivar [Gangeya, Bheeshma], Setar [Chittar, Chitra, Chitrangada] and Vihag [Vichitra, Vichitravirya], and Shantanu, against the desires of his heart, kills them all by dashing them against rocks in the Ganga. His heart does not allow him to kill the fourth child, a girl, though, and he saves her by giving her away to his guru. Interestingly, it is a girl he tries to save, not a boy, and part of the reason for this is given as the hope that the girl would look after him in his old age.

We find Ganga walking to the sea to find out if Shantanu has followed her wishes about killing the girl even as Shantanu returns from his secret trip to give away his daughter. In a breathtakingly beautiful scene filled with thrilling folk magic we are shown Ganga going to the sea and bowing down before it. She plants two rows of barley and standing on one foot , prays to God to reveal the truth to her, calling upon him by the power of her truth. As she looks at the barley again, she finds some of them have dried up. Ganga now knows the truth: Shantanu has broken his word to her. She returns to the palace.

Back at her cloud palace she dresses up in all the sixteen shringaras. She prepares an elaborate dinner for Shantanu and serves it to him by herself. During the dinner, she asks him: “Raja, tell me the truth. How many children have you killed?” Shantanu says four. A shiver passes through Ganga at Shantanu’s lie. She asks him again and again, giving him chances to come out with the truth, her words and voice telling him their relation has come to an end but Shantanu still persists with his lie. In the end Ganga claps her hands and at each clap a child appears before her – Gangeya, Chitra and Vichitra, the three children whom Shantanu had killed. The girl child, whom Shantanu had saved, fails to appear. Ganga now calls him a liar and informs him their relation has ended. She disappears giving Shantanu a gold bangle through which she would be able to recognize him in her next birth and leaving in his hands five strands of her hair that break off as he tries to hold her back by her tresses.

One interesting aspect of the relation between Ganga and Shantanu is that it is Ganga, the woman, who is dominant throughout. It is she that takes initiative in the sex act between them and not Shantanu, the man. At each step of the elaborate ritual of their mating, lovingly described by the tribal narrator, Ganga has the upper hand[for details see Female Sexuality in Bheel Mahabharata by the author]. Shantanu, almost puppet-like, follows her suggestions, which are really her orders to him. Her pregnancies are results of her deliberate decisions to conceive, and not accidents, nor results of her submitting herself to her man. Shantanu is in awe of her, dreads her, though he loves her dearly; and her upper hand in their relation remains till the end, though in spite of this she is never unkind to him, even when she leaves him. It is with a promise to be his wife again in her next life that she abandons him finally.

The Ganga we find in the Bheel Bharath is comfortable with herself, comfortable with her body and her sexuality, with her social and psychological selves. Within the dynamics of their male-female relationship, she wields the power. Though she is dominant, she is never domineering. She is assertive, she is unwilling to demean herself by compromising where she should not compromise. Every single time she speaks, her words have finality, without ever being rude.

Tryambakayajvan, beginning his classic Sanskrit treatise on the duties of women, Stridharmapaddhati, says: the most important duty of a woman as enjoined by the scriptures is service to her husband. Subsequently concluding the book he says again: since a woman should serve her husband even ignoring her life, since she should accept even her husband’s selling her, since she should fulfil his wishes even when they are in conflict with her other prescribed duties, it is clear that the ultimate dharma of a woman is obedient service to her husband. The central thrust in all scriptures dealing with women’s duties is that women should find their fulfilment in serving their husbands and that on its own their existence has no meaning to them. To underscore the view that the focus of their life should be the obedient, humble service of their husbands and nothing else matters, women are told again and again that there is no need for them to perform any religious ritual – since service to their husbands alone will take them to heaven.

Through Ganga, the Bheel Bharath gives us a different dynamics of power between the male and the female. And this different dynamics of power continues in the case of other leading women as well.

Kunti, for instance, is another awe-inspiring woman in the Bheel Bharath. She is born of Shakti, of the blood and flesh of Shakti in the form of a bird that dies on a sage’s trident. In a powerful scene that happens at midnight, her awesome power and her true nature are revealed to Bhima, her son.

Bhima once requests Draupadi to reveal the secret of her immense power to him, and she asks him to go and hide on an ancient banyan tree in the open ground outside the city at night and observe whatever happens underneath the tree. He does so and sees Indra, the lord of the gods, arriving there at midnight and cleaning the grounds. Thrones descend from the heavens and arrange themselves on the cleaned ground. Soon a great commotion is heard and all the nine hundred thousand gods come down to the earth and occupy their seats according to their status. God himself comes down from Vaikuntha and occupies a silver throne. It is only after God has taken his seat that Kunti arrives.

Her arrival is preceded by the sound of deep bellows. Soon Kunti is seen approaching riding a young buffalo. She alights sprightly from the buffalo and, in contrast to God who occupies a silver throne, occupies a golden throne.

Later, in the morning, after the meeting of the gods is over and they have departed, after Kunti has gone back to the palace, Bhima rushes to her and falls at her feet in obeisance and addresses her as jagajjanani, the mother of the universe.

If Kunti is thus awesome, still greater is the glory of Draupadi in the Bheel Bharath. Like Kunti, she too is a dain, a witch, but unlike Kunti who is brought into existence by yogic powers from the flesh and blood of Shakti as a bird, she is unborn. The Pandavas find her in a banana plantation and she is a full-grown woman then.

Since all of them found her together, she couldn’t be any one brother’s wife, so all five of them marry her and install her in her seven-storeyed ‘cloud palace’. Except Yudhishthira, the other four brothers are soon trapped in Draupadi’s magic [maya]. Yudhishthira is more cautious; he fears her nature and instead of sleeping with his wife, offers her ritual worship. Hearing the sound of the conch and bells ringing from her room one morning Bhima peeps in through the window and sees Yudhishthira lying in prostration at Draupadi’s feet. He sees him getting up after the prostrations and offering her an arati accompanied by all the rites of ritual worship to a goddess. Subsequently, questioned by Bhima, Draupadi asks him to watch her from the banyan tree at night if he wants to learn the truth about her. That is how Bhima hides on the banyan tree and witnesses his mother’s immense power that awes even the gods.

The occasion is the festival of Draupadi. If it is on a bellowing buffalo that Kunti arrives at the assembly of the gods, it is on a roaring lion that Draupadi comes sometime after Kunti has arrived. She holds a lit lamp in one hand and has a drawn sword in the other. Seeing her approaching, God gets up from his silver throne and receives her. Her own throne is of pure gold, like that of Kunti.

Numerous other occasions prove the great status of Kunti and Draupadi in the tribal epic. No important decision, be it of a wedding or of war, is ever taken in the Bheel Bharath without their involvement.


Continued.... Part 2