Friday, December 31, 2010

Arabian Nights, Ananda Mimamsa and Happiness













I know an executive whose income runs into several lakhs per month and yet rarely have I seen him smiling.

In contrast, one of the happiest faces I have seen is that of my milkman Ketan. It may be peak winter, as it is now, or it may be raining torrentially as it was a couple of months ago – but he invariably greets me with a cheery good morning as he comes to deliver milk packets every day without fail. In the rainy season he wears a rain coat and goes from house to house to deliver the milk, stopping his bicycle in front of each house and getting down to walk to the front door. His clothes will be drenched in spite of the raincoat and inside the clothes, his body will be drenched. In winter, he would be shivering inside the old windcheater he wears. But that does not reduce his smile or the cheerfulness in his voice.

I made a social visit to a doctor sometime last year. We were friends, sort of. He is on the staff of a large hospital as a fulltime senior doctor, and saw patients at home before he went to the hospital in the morning – private practice. When he came home for lunch, he again saw patients. In the evening when he came back from the hospital, there were more patients waiting for him at home – he spent two or three more hours seeing them then.

When I visited the doctor on that day, he had finished his consultancies for the day and was somewhat relaxed. His wife brought us tea and we talked over the tea. Or rather, he talked and we listened – his wife, my wife and I. And he talked for more than an hour and a half, until I said we had to go, it was getting late, and he reluctantly stopped.

What the doctor talked about for an hour and half was about how his lot was worse than that of a rickshawwalla. Literally. The bitter doctor bickered about how the riskshawwalla makes more money in terms of the investments he has made. Looking back later we found it difficult to believe this, but he had earnestly and sincerely argued for full ninety minutes that he earned less in terms of his investments compared to a rickshaw puller. He spoke of the years he had spent as a student working hard so that he can join medicine, of the years he had spent as a medical student, of the years he had spent as intern, of the years he had spent as a fresh doctor; he spoke of the hours he had to study during each of these years and of the hardships he had to put up with, of the nights of sleep he lost in the process, and of the money he had invested at each stage. What did a rickshaw puller invest, he asked me rhetorically. Wasn’t the rickshawwalla making more money than he was?

0o0

I have always loved the Arabian Nights, right from my childhood days when I read stories of Sindbad, Alladin, Hatim Tai, Harun al Rashid, and of course of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. [Once, some thirty years ago, I took a group of, mostly, executives from two of India’s leading corporate houses for a fifteen-day study and meditation camp in the Himalayas. The executives were all older than me, I was the youngest. I remember the group in a moment of fun naming me Ali Baba and themselves the forty thieves – they were forty in number. I enjoyed it.] I have with me different versions of the Nights and I love picking up a volume and reading a story randomly every now and then.

Yesterday I came across a volume of Powys Mathers’ translation of the Nights in a used books shop and purchased it – I have a particular affection for this translation, done from the literal and complete version of Dr JC Mardrus’ original French translation of the Nights. Later, in the evening, I began reading the volume. One of the stories I read was The Tale of The Two Lives of Sultan Mahmud. This is how the story, told by Scheherazade starting on the eight-hundred and nineteenth night, begins:

“It is related, O auspicious King, that Sultan Mahmud, who was one of the wisest and most glorious of the Egyptian rulers, used often to sit alone in his palace, weighted down by a causeless sadness and beholding the world black before his eyes. At these times, life was tasteless to him and without significance; yes, even though Allah had given him, without stint, health and youth, power and glory, and for his capital, the most delicious city of the earth, where his eyes might ever be rejoiced by flowers, serene skies and women gilded like the waters of the Nile. These gifts were forgotten during the hours of royal sadness and Mahmud envied the lot of drudges bent over the furrow, and travellers lost in the waterless desert.”

One day the sultan was sitting alone, lost in his own dark world. His was more deeply dejected than usual. His inner world was bleak and the world outside looked to him blacker than ever. He refused to eat and drink, or to attend to his duties as king. There was only one thing he desired: that dark object of desire for all men lost in bottomless melancholy – death.

It was then his chief wazir came to him, informing that someone was waiting to meet him – a very old man. “If I may judge by his words,” said the wazir, “he is the greatest sage, the wisest doctor, and the most extraordinary magician who has ever lived among the sons of men.” The sultan silently agreed to meet him.

The withered old man who entered did not kiss the ground in front of the sultan or bow down deeply, as was the custom. Instead he announced in a voice that reflected nothing but authority that he has come to make him, the sultan, conscious of the gifts which Allah had showered upon him. He then took the sultan by hand and dragged him roughly towards one of the four windows of the chamber in which they were. “Open!” he commanded pointing at the window. Obediently Sultan Mahmud opened the window. “Look!” the old man commanded again.

“Sultan Mahmud put his head out of the window and beheld a vast army of riders pouring down upon him from the mountain citadel, and waving naked swords. The first lines had already come to the palace foot and were climbing the walls with a clamour of war and death. Mahmud understood that his troops had mutinied, and came to kill him. He changed colour and cried: ‘There is no God save Allah! This is the hour of my destiny!’”

The old man immediately shut the window and opened it again in a single movement. The army had disappeared now. The whole palace stood enveloped in peace, as did the city around it with its four hundred minarets.

Without giving Sultan Mahmud time to recover, the old man then took him to the second window. What the sultan saw when he opened it and looked out made him recoil in horror. “The four hundred minarets of the mosques, the domes of the palace, the thousand fair terraces stretching as far as the eye could reach, were all one flaming fire, fanned by cries of terror, and belching up black smoke to hide the sun. A savage wind whooped on the flames towards the palace, until the fair building was only cut off from that red ocean by the fresh green of the gardens.” But when the old man shut the window and opened it again, the fire had disappeared and everything stood bathed in serenity everywhere.

Again the old man rushed the sultan to the third window through which he saw a furious Nile rushing towards the city to swallow it up. The waves were so tall that the tallest terraces were already under water and the river was rushing towards the palace in a violent rage. The flood had disappeared when the old man closed the window and opened it again.

What Sultan Mahmud saw through the fourth window to which the old man had dragged him without giving him time to relax was not the green fields that were there, carpeted with roses and sweet basil, narcissus and jasmine, thickets of orange trees. There were no sweet singing birds there that usually filled the whole place with their wonderful music. Instead, Mahmud saw “a red and white desert of terror burned by an inexorable sun; among its aching rocks laired starving jackals and hyenas; vile snakes sped swiftly to and fro upon it.” The sight disappeared and the green reappeared, teeming in flowers and fruits and singing birds as the old man closed and opened the window once again.

Mahmud was now utterly confused and terrified. He was no more sure whether he was awake or asleep, sane or insane. But the old man gave him no time to relax and collect himself. Instead he dragged the sultan to a small fountain that was in the chamber and commanded “Look!” pointing at the water at the base of the fountain. As Mahmud bent down to look into it, two old hands with unbelievable power forced his head under the water.

0o0

Sultan Mahmud now found himself shipwrecked at the foot a mountain that overlooked the sea. He still wore his royal clothes and his crown. At some distance were a group of rough looking people. They were looking at him and making rude gestures. He walked towards the group and announced: “I am Sultan Mahmud. Depart!”

The people laughed at him all the more. The chief of the group came to him and removed his clothes and picked up his crown. He threw the whole lot the sea, and told him, ‘Dress sensibly.” He forced the sultan to wear the coarse farmer’s clothes they were wearing. “Come and work with us,” he told Mahmud, “for in our country those who do not work must starve.”

“I do not know how to work,’ Sultan Mahmud objected. ‘But you can be an ass,’ retorted the man. ‘Anyone can be an ass.”

They dumped all their tools on him and he staggered along behind them, carrying their spades, harrows, pickaxes and rakes. When he reached the village, he was shut into an old stable and given an onion and some stale bread to eat. By the morning, he found that he had turned into an ass – but with all his human memories intact.

In the morning he was taken out for ploughing the field. He refused to budge from his place and they beat him brutally. He brayed in intolerable humiliation and agony. For braying was the only thing he could do now – he was a donkey and had no human speech. Finding him stubborn and useless, the farmers sold him to a miller.

The miller blindfolded him and tied him to the mill, forcing him to turn the mill for hours at a stretch without a break. The miller mercilessly used his goad and stick on him, apart from the constant shower of curses and kicks. His food was a daily ration of beans along with a bucket of water and his only rest was the time he took to eat the beans and drink the water. The former sultan now kept treading along from dawn to dusk turning around the mill, walking in his own dung and urine all the time.

It was five years later that an accident saved from the miller – one day the roof of the mill collapsed on his head. Sultan Mahmud found himself a human being once again.

He now found himself a stranger in an unknown city where an old man spoke kindly to him. The old man enquired if he would be staying in that city for long, adding that he would be welcome there since he was young, strong and handsome. “I would stay in any place where they did not feed me beans,” replied Mahmud.

The old man assured him that he does not have to worry on that account – he would be eating the best food possible every day of his life. “Now,” he continued, “go and stand outside the hammam at the corner of this street and ask every woman as she comes out if she is married or single. When one tells you she is single, you will become her husband instantly, for that is the law of our land. But be very careful not to omit a single woman from your questioning, or you will find yourself in grave trouble; for that is also the law our land.”

The first female Mahmud saw coming out of the hammam was a pretty girl of thirteen. “This would console me for all my troubles,” he thought. He asked her his question and the girl informed him she had already married a year ago.

The next woman to come out of the hammam was an ugly old hag. Mahmud shivered as he saw her – he had never seen a woman half as monstrous as she was. “I would rather die of hunger or become an ass again than marry this venerable ruin,” he thought. But the old man who had befriended him had talked of the consequences of leaving out any woman who came out of the public bath. He asked his question, and, to his relief, the woman told him she was married.

The next woman to come out was infinitely older and uglier than this one. Mahmud had never seen anything – anything at all – as disgusting as this one was. But he had to ask his question – he had no choice. “Are you married or single?” he asked her in a voice quaking with terror at the prospect of having to marry her. And pat came her reply, “Single, O eye of my eye.”

“I am an ass, good aunt, I am an ass! Look at my ears, look at my tail! Nice old women do not marry asses,” he told her in a begging voice. But she had already fallen in love with him. She was taking steps towards him, her mouth poised for a kiss, her harms spread out to gather him in them. Her hands were now holding his head in them and she was bringing her mouth to his.

Mahmud shook his head in violent disgust. He was finding it difficult to breathe. He fought for air, fought for his life with all his might and with a final frenzied struggle, pulled his head back.

He found he had pulled his head out of the fountain and was struggling to breathe again. He looked around. He was in his palace. His wazir was standing on his right and the old man was on his left. There was one of his favourite slave girls standing in front of him, holding out to him on a gold salver a cup of sherbet that he had commanded a few moments before the wazir had come to him to inform him of the old man wanting to meet him.

Relief flooded him. He was a king. He was not shipwrecked, he was not an ass, he was not the husband of that disgusting old, old woman. Of what a pleasure it was to be a sultan, what a privilege! Sultan Mahmud wanted to shout, he wanted to sing, he wanted to dance for joy.

But the old man had begun speaking to him. “Peace be with you, Sultan Mahmud! I am here to make you conscious of the gifts that Allah has showered upon you.” With that he disappeared, leaving no trace behind, as though he had never existed at all.

Sultan Mahmud fell to his knees, weeping; he banished sorrow from his heart, and being happy, began a life that spread happiness about him.

0o0

The Taittiriya Upanishad has something incredibly beautiful to say about happiness, ananda, which is the ultimate object of search of all beings. It speaks about it in a small section called the Ananda Mimamsa – an enquiry into happiness, a study of happiness.
The Mimamsa asks us to imagine a young man. He is young, he is noble, he is educated, firm in body and strong, and he is the master of the entire earth with all its wealth. Let’s call the highest joy such a man is capable of experiencing a single unit of human happiness, says the Mimamsa.

Multiply that happiness a hundred times, continues the Mimamsa, and that is one unit of happiness of the gandharvas of earth. And a hundred times the happiness of the gandharvas on earth is one unit of the happiness of the celestial gandharvas. And a hundred times the joy of celestial gandharvas is one unit of happiness of the manes and a hundred times that is one unit of happiness of the gods in the transient heavens and a hundred times that, one unit of happiness of the sacrificial gods.

And a hundred times that happiness, says the Upanishad, is the happiness of the gods; and a hundred times that, the happiness of Indra. A hundred times that is one unit of bliss of Brihaspati; and a hundred units of that, one unit of the bliss of Prajapati. The happiness of Prajapati, multiplied one hundred times, is one measure of the bliss of Brahma.

As the Upanishad makes this count, it tells us at each stage: and that is also the bliss of a man versed in wisdom and free from desires. That is, the young man, cultured, educated, healthy, owning the entire earth with all its wealth experiences no more happiness than the man versed in wisdom and is free from desires. Indra experiences no more happiness than the man versed in wisdom and is free from desires. Nor does Brihaspati, Prajapati or Brahma experience any more happiness than the man versed in wisdom and is free from desires.

The highest happiness belongs to a man versed in wisdom and is free from desires. A man who has learnt to accept things as they are and surrender to them. A man who is not a victim to the fires of insatiable desire.

As the cheery smile and happy greeting of my milkman shows, one can be happy in the most ordinary circumstances too.

And as the instance of the executive who makes several lakhs every month shows, and as the instance of my doctor friend who feels he is less fortunate than the rikshaw puller shows, one need not necessarily be happy in the middle of riches.

A sultan can be unhappy too, until he learns to count his good fortunes.

Happiness comes from being contented and accepting. Where there is no contentment or acceptance, there is no happiness.

Years ago a Christian nun who was then my student gifted to me a copy of the Bible. Giving the book to me she wrote on the front page, quoting the Bible itself: “Happy the man who finds wisdom.”

Wisdom is finding contentment. Wisdom is finding acceptance. Wisdom is counting one’s blessings.

It is not the rich man that finds happiness. It is not the powerful man that finds happiness. It is not the famous man that finds happiness.

It is only the wise man that finds happiness.

Happiness is finding contentment. Happiness is finding acceptance. Happiness is counting one’s blessings.

0o0














I know an executive whose income runs into several lakhs per month and yet rarely have I seen him smiling.

In contrast, one of the happiest faces I have seen is that of my milkman Ketan. It may be peak winter, as it is now, or it may be raining torrentially as it was a couple of months ago – but he invariably greets me with a cheery good morning as he comes to deliver milk packets every day without fail. In the rainy season he wears a rain coat and goes from house to house to deliver the milk, stopping his bicycle in front of each house and getting down to walk to the front door. His clothes will be drenched in spite of the raincoat and inside the clothes, his body will be drenched. In winter, he would be shivering inside the old windcheater he wears. But that does not reduce his smile or the cheerfulness in his voice.

I made a social visit to a doctor sometime last year. We were friends, sort of. He is on the staff of a large hospital as a fulltime senior doctor, and saw patients at home before he went to the hospital in the morning – private practice. When he came home for lunch, he again saw patients. In the evening when he came back from the hospital, there were more patients waiting for him at home – he spent two or three more hours seeing them then.

When I visited the doctor on that day, he had finished his consultancies for the day and was somewhat relaxed. His wife brought us tea and we talked over the tea. Or rather, he talked and we listened – his wife, my wife and I. And he talked for more than an hour and a half, until I said we had to go, it was getting late, and he reluctantly stopped.

What the doctor talked about for an hour and half was about how his lot was worse than that of a rickshawwalla. Literally. The bitter doctor bickered about how the riskshawwalla makes more money in terms of the investments he has made. Looking back later we found it difficult to believe this, but he had earnestly and sincerely argued for full ninety minutes that he earned less in terms of his investments compared to a rickshaw puller. He spoke of the years he had spent as a student working hard so that he can join medicine, of the years he had spent as a medical student, of the years he had spent as intern, of the years he had spent as a fresh doctor; he spoke of the hours he had to study during each of these years and of the hardships he had to put up with, of the nights of sleep he lost in the process, and of the money he had invested at each stage. What did a rickshaw puller invest, he asked me rhetorically. Wasn’t the rickshawwalla making more money than he was?

0o0

I have always loved the Arabian Nights, right from my childhood days when I read stories of Sindbad, Alladin, Hatim Tai, Harun al Rashid, and of course of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. [Once, some thirty years ago, I took a group of, mostly, executives from two of India’s leading corporate houses for a fifteen-day study and meditation camp in the Himalayas. The executives were all older than me, I was the youngest. I remember the group in a moment of fun naming me Ali Baba and themselves the forty thieves – they were forty in number. I enjoyed it.] I have with me different versions of the Nights and I love picking up a volume and reading a story randomly every now and then.

Yesterday I came across a volume of Powys Mathers’ translation of the Nights in a used books shop and purchased it – I have a particular affection for this translation, done from the literal and complete version of Dr JC Mardrus’ original French translation of the Nights. Later, in the evening, I began reading the volume. One of the stories I read was The Tale of The Two Lives of Sultan Mahmud. This is how the story, told by Scheherazade starting on the eight-hundred and nineteenth night, begins:

“It is related, O auspicious King, that Sultan Mahmud, who was one of the wisest and most glorious of the Egyptian rulers, used often to sit alone in his palace, weighted down by a causeless sadness and beholding the world black before his eyes. At these times, life was tasteless to him and without significance; yes, even though Allah had given him, without stint, health and youth, power and glory, and for his capital, the most delicious city of the earth, where his eyes might ever be rejoiced by flowers, serene skies and women gilded like the waters of the Nile. These gifts were forgotten during the hours of royal sadness and Mahmud envied the lot of drudges bent over the furrow, and travellers lost in the waterless desert.”

One day the sultan was sitting alone, lost in his own dark world. His was more deeply dejected than usual. His inner world was bleak and the world outside looked to him blacker than ever. He refused to eat and drink, or to attend to his duties as king. There was only one thing he desired: that dark object of desire for all men lost in bottomless melancholy – death.

It was then his chief wazir came to him, informing that someone was waiting to meet him – a very old man. “If I may judge by his words,” said the wazir, “he is the greatest sage, the wisest doctor, and the most extraordinary magician who has ever lived among the sons of men.” The sultan silently agreed to meet him.

The withered old man who entered did not kiss the ground in front of the sultan or bow down deeply, as was the custom. Instead he announced in a voice that reflected nothing but authority that he has come to make him, the sultan, conscious of the gifts which Allah had showered upon him. He then took the sultan by hand and dragged him roughly towards one of the four windows of the chamber in which they were. “Open!” he commanded pointing at the window. Obediently Sultan Mahmud opened the window. “Look!” the old man commanded again.

“Sultan Mahmud put his head out of the window and beheld a vast army of riders pouring down upon him from the mountain citadel, and waving naked swords. The first lines had already come to the palace foot and were climbing the walls with a clamour of war and death. Mahmud understood that his troops had mutinied, and came to kill him. He changed colour and cried: ‘There is no God save Allah! This is the hour of my destiny!’”

The old man immediately shut the window and opened it again in a single movement. The army had disappeared now. The whole palace stood enveloped in peace, as did the city around it with its four hundred minarets.

Without giving Sultan Mahmud time to recover, the old man then took him to the second window. What the sultan saw when he opened it and looked out made him recoil in horror. “The four hundred minarets of the mosques, the domes of the palace, the thousand fair terraces stretching as far as the eye could reach, were all one flaming fire, fanned by cries of terror, and belching up black smoke to hide the sun. A savage wind whooped on the flames towards the palace, until the fair building was only cut off from that red ocean by the fresh green of the gardens.” But when the old man shut the window and opened it again, the fire had disappeared and everything stood bathed in serenity everywhere.

Again the old man rushed the sultan to the third window through which he saw a furious Nile rushing towards the city to swallow it up. The waves were so tall that the tallest terraces were already under water and the river was rushing towards the palace in a violent rage. The flood had disappeared when the old man closed the window and opened it again.

What Sultan Mahmud saw through the fourth window to which the old man had dragged him without giving him time to relax was not the green fields that were there, carpeted with roses and sweet basil, narcissus and jasmine, thickets of orange trees. There were no sweet singing birds there that usually filled the whole place with their wonderful music. Instead, Mahmud saw “a red and white desert of terror burned by an inexorable sun; among its aching rocks laired starving jackals and hyenas; vile snakes sped swiftly to and fro upon it.” The sight disappeared and the green reappeared, teeming in flowers and fruits and singing birds as the old man closed and opened the window once again.

Mahmud was now utterly confused and terrified. He was no more sure whether he was awake or asleep, sane or insane. But the old man gave him no time to relax and collect himself. Instead he dragged the sultan to a small fountain that was in the chamber and commanded “Look!” pointing at the water at the base of the fountain. As Mahmud bent down to look into it, two old hands with unbelievable power forced his head under the water.

0o0

Sultan Mahmud now found himself shipwrecked at the foot a mountain that overlooked the sea. He still wore his royal clothes and his crown. At some distance were a group of rough looking people. They were looking at him and making rude gestures. He walked towards the group and announced: “I am Sultan Mahmud. Depart!”

The people laughed at him all the more. The chief of the group came to him and removed his clothes and picked up his crown. He threw the whole lot the sea, and told him, ‘Dress sensibly.” He forced the sultan to wear the coarse farmer’s clothes they were wearing. “Come and work with us,” he told Mahmud, “for in our country those who do not work must starve.”

“I do not know how to work,’ Sultan Mahmud objected. ‘But you can be an ass,’ retorted the man. ‘Anyone can be an ass.”

They dumped all their tools on him and he staggered along behind them, carrying their spades, harrows, pickaxes and rakes. When he reached the village, he was shut into an old stable and given an onion and some stale bread to eat. By the morning, he found that he had turned into an ass – but with all his human memories intact.

In the morning he was taken out for ploughing the field. He refused to budge from his place and they beat him brutally. He brayed in intolerable humiliation and agony. For braying was the only thing he could do now – he was a donkey and had no human speech. Finding him stubborn and useless, the farmers sold him to a miller.

The miller blindfolded him and tied him to the mill, forcing him to turn the mill for hours at a stretch without a break. The miller mercilessly used his goad and stick on him, apart from the constant shower of curses and kicks. His food was a daily ration of beans along with a bucket of water and his only rest was the time he took to eat the beans and drink the water. The former sultan now kept treading along from dawn to dusk turning around the mill, walking in his own dung and urine all the time.

It was five years later that an accident saved from the miller – one day the roof of the mill collapsed on his head. Sultan Mahmud found himself a human being once again.

He now found himself a stranger in an unknown city where an old man spoke kindly to him. The old man enquired if he would be staying in that city for long, adding that he would be welcome there since he was young, strong and handsome. “I would stay in any place where they did not feed me beans,” replied Mahmud.

The old man assured him that he does not have to worry on that account – he would be eating the best food possible every day of his life. “Now,” he continued, “go and stand outside the hammam at the corner of this street and ask every woman as she comes out if she is married or single. When one tells you she is single, you will become her husband instantly, for that is the law of our land. But be very careful not to omit a single woman from your questioning, or you will find yourself in grave trouble; for that is also the law our land.”

The first female Mahmud saw coming out of the hammam was a pretty girl of thirteen. “This would console me for all my troubles,” he thought. He asked her his question and the girl informed him she had already married a year ago.

The next woman to come out of the hammam was an ugly old hag. Mahmud shivered as he saw her – he had never seen a woman half as monstrous as she was. “I would rather die of hunger or become an ass again than marry this venerable ruin,” he thought. But the old man who had befriended him had talked of the consequences of leaving out any woman who came out of the public bath. He asked his question, and, to his relief, the woman told him she was married.

The next woman to come out was infinitely older and uglier than this one. Mahmud had never seen anything – anything at all – as disgusting as this one was. But he had to ask his question – he had no choice. “Are you married or single?” he asked her in a voice quaking with terror at the prospect of having to marry her. And pat came her reply, “Single, O eye of my eye.”

“I am an ass, good aunt, I am an ass! Look at my ears, look at my tail! Nice old women do not marry asses,” he told her in a begging voice. But she had already fallen in love with him. She was taking steps towards him, her mouth poised for a kiss, her harms spread out to gather him in them. Her hands were now holding his head in them and she was bringing her mouth to his.

Mahmud shook his head in violent disgust. He was finding it difficult to breathe. He fought for air, fought for his life with all his might and with a final frenzied struggle, pulled his head back.

He found he had pulled his head out of the fountain and was struggling to breathe again. He looked around. He was in his palace. His wazir was standing on his right and the old man was on his left. There was one of his favourite slave girls standing in front of him, holding out to him on a gold salver a cup of sherbet that he had commanded a few moments before the wazir had come to him to inform him of the old man wanting to meet him.

Relief flooded him. He was a king. He was not shipwrecked, he was not an ass, he was not the husband of that disgusting old, old woman. Of what a pleasure it was to be a sultan, what a privilege! Sultan Mahmud wanted to shout, he wanted to sing, he wanted to dance for joy.

But the old man had begun speaking to him. “Peace be with you, Sultan Mahmud! I am here to make you conscious of the gifts that Allah has showered upon you.” With that he disappeared, leaving no trace behind, as though he had never existed at all.

Sultan Mahmud fell to his knees, weeping; he banished sorrow from his heart, and being happy, began a life that spread happiness about him.

0o0

The Taittiriya Upanishad has something incredibly beautiful to say about bliss, ananda, which is the ultimate object of search of all beings, in a small section called the Ananda Mimamsa – an enquiry into happiness, a study of happiness. The mimamsa asks us to imagine a young man. He is young, he is noble, he is educated, firm in body and strong, and he owns the entire earth with all its wealth. The Upanishad then says let’s call the highest joy such a man is capable of experiencing a single unit of human happiness. Multiply that happiness a hundred times, and that is one unit of happiness of the gandharvas of earth. And a hundred times the happiness of the gandharvas on earth is one unit of the happiness of the celestial gandharvas. And a hundred times the joy of celestial gandharvas is one unit of happiness of the manes and a hundred times that is one unit of happiness of the gods in the temporary heavens and a hundred times that, one unit of happiness of the sacrificial gods; and a hundred times that happiness, says the Upanishad, is the happiness of the gods; and a hundred times that, the happiness of Indra.

A hundred times that, continues the Upanishad, is one unit of bliss of Brihaspati; and a hundred units of that, one unit of the bliss of Prajapati. The happiness of Prajapati, multiplied one hundred times, is one measure of the bliss of Brahma.

As the Upanishad makes this count, it tells us at each stage: and that is also the bliss of a man versed in wisdom and free from desires. That is, the young man, cultured, educated, healthy, owning the entire earth with all its wealth experiences no more happiness than the man versed in wisdom and is free from desires. Indra experiences no more happiness than the man versed in wisdom and is free from desires. Nor does Brihaspati, Prajapati or Brahma experience any more happiness than the man versed in wisdom and is free from desires.

The highest happiness belongs to a man versed in wisdom and is free from desires.

As the cheery smile and happy greeting of my milkman shows, one can be happy in the most ordinary circumstances too.

And as the instance of the executive who makes several lakhs every month shows, and as the instance of my doctor friend who feels he is less fortunate than the rikshaw puller shows, one need not necessarily be happy in the middle of riches.

A sultan can be unhappy too, until he learns to count his good fortunes.

Happiness comes from being contented and accepting. Where there is no contentment or acceptance, there is no happiness.

Years ago a Christian nun who was then my student gifted to me a copy of the Bible. Giving the book to me she wrote on the front page, quoting the Bible itself: “Happy the man who finds wisdom.”

Wisdom is finding contentment. Wisdom is finding acceptance. Wisdom is counting one’s blessings.

It is not the rich man that finds happiness. It is not the powerful man that finds happiness. It is not the famous man that finds happiness.

It is only the wise man that finds happiness.

Happiness is finding contentment. Happiness is finding acceptance. Happiness is counting one’s blessings.

0o0

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Moth and the Candle: A Sufi Fable



“One night the moths gathered together, tormented by the desire to unite themselves with the candle. All of them said: ‘We must find one who can give us some news of that for which we seek so earnestly.’

“One of the moths went to a candle afar off and saw within the light of a candle. He came back and told the others what he had seen, and began to describe the candle as intelligently as he was able to do. But the wise moth, who was chief of their assembly, observed: ‘He has no real information to give us of the candle.’

“Another moth visited the candle. He passed close to the light and drew near to it. With his wings, he touched the flames of that which he desired; the heat of the candle drove him back and he was vanquished. He also returned, and revealed something of the mystery, in explaining a little of what union with the candle meant, but the wise moth said to him: ‘Thine explanation is of no more real worth than that of thy comrade.’

“A third moth rose up, intoxicated with love, to hurl himself violently into the flame of the candle. He threw himself forward and stretched out his antennae toward the flame. As he entered completely into its embrace, his members became red like the flame itself. When the wise moth saw from afar that the candle had identified the moth with itself, and had given to it its own light, he said: ‘This moth has accomplished his desire; but he alone comprehends that to which he has attained. None others knows it, and that is all.’” [Attar’s Fables]

0o0
One of the truths the beautiful fable tells us is that there is no way of knowing the Ultimate Truth, except through experiencing it by becoming one with it, no way of knowing God except through experiencing him by becoming one with him . Those who want to experience God must be willing to lose themselves in God. God cannot be known from the outside. He cannot be experienced so long as you are there as different from him. And when you cease to be, when you lose yourself in him, when you become one with him, then and then alone you know him.

Sri Ramakrishna, the great mystic, used to speak of a salt doll that goes to measure the depth of the ocean. But when the doll enters the ocean, it becomes one with the ocean. There is no more any measuring then, there is only a becoming – becoming one with the ocean.

It is this experience of the salt doll becoming one with the ocean that sages from all over the world give voice to in ecstatic words.

Here is Vak Ambhrini, the eloquent poet sage of the Rig Veda giving voice to her experience of becoming one with the Ocean. She says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yoga is the path to lose yourself so that you can be one with him and know him. Devotion is the path to lose yourself so that you can be one with him and know him. And meditation is the path to lose yourself so that you can be one with him and know him. This losing yourself and knowing him by becoming one with him is also known is jnana, as in jnana-yoga. This is the knowledge that wisdom books from across the world declare as the only knowledge worth knowing.

0o0

And another thing that the fable tells us is that there is no way of communicating that experience. To communicate, you must exist as a separate individual. And so long as you exist as a separate individual, you really have nothing to communicate.

Mind is like the moth that goes near it, but cannot experience it. That is why the Upanishads say: yato vacho nivartante aprapya manasa saha – the Ultimate Truth is that from which words return, having not attained, along with the mind.

In fact, the mind is the obstacle in attaining it. It is the mind that stands in the way of our experiencing it. And that is why Zen says there is only one thing to be attained: no-mind. When you attain the no-mind, everything else is already attained.

In the Chhandogya Upanishad, when young Shvetaketu’s father asks him if he had learnt that by which one hears what cannot be heard, by which one perceives what cannot be perceived, by which one knows what cannot be known, it is this knowledge he was talking about.

Just as the mind is the obstacle in knowing the Truth, so too are words obstacles. For it cannot be communicated through words either.

Actually, it cannot be communicated at all. But if there is a means of communicating it, then it is silence. Silence is the nearest means through which communication is possible. And that is why the Sufi sage poet Jalaluddin Rumi rued: “I wonder why I ever thought to use language.”

Silence can communicate it – perhaps. Dance can communicate it – perhaps. Singing can communicate it – perhaps. But certainly not words, not language, not reason, not the intellect.

It is gunge ka gur, sugar in the mouth of the dumb one, as we say in Hindi. When it comes to communicating it, the eyes are without words and words are without eyes – nain bin gira, gir bin naina. Those who have seen it do not speak, and those who speak of it have not seen it, goes a saying in Tamil: kandavar mindatillai, mindavar kandatillai.

The old story of ten blind men and the elephant tells us that each experienced the elephant differently since each felt with his hands a different part of the elephant. The one who felt its leg felt that the elephant is like a pillar. The one who felt its tail felt it is like a broom. The one who felt its stomach felt it is like a rock. And the one who felt its ears felt it is like the winnow. In their case, none of them knows the elephant as it is, but at the same time, everyone of them has some partial knowledge of it. But in the case of God, no partial knowledge is possible. God has no parts, no limbs, no qualities, and therefore the only way to know him is the way the moth experienced the flame in Attar’s fable.

It is for this reason that all theology is wrong and all philosophy is wrong. Because theologies and philosophies are products of the human mind and the mind can never reach it.

A mystic once compared the wisdom of those who have experienced it, like the seers of the Upanishads and mystics from other cultures, and the wisdom of philosophers and theologians. Theologians and philosophers are like a man fast asleep, he said. He has covered himself from feet to head with a thick blanket so that no light can disturb him. And all the windows of his room are closed. And from within his thick blanket, in the room with all the windows closed, fast sleep, he is trying to theorize about the morning. Whereas the seer is awake. He has thrown the blanket off. He has gone to the window and opened it. And he is looking out through it at the rising sun. He can see the glory that is the east. He can see the birds and beasts waking up. He can feel the morning breeze and smell its fragrance. He can see the trees awakening and the plants swinging in the breeze. He can see people going about their different jobs. He can hear the laughter of the children awake and at play.

The arguments of the philosopher and the theologian are like the arguments of the sleeping man. And what the seer is trying to do is to wake us up, so that we will throw the blanket off, get up and go to the window, open it and look out. He is not interested in logic or arguments, nor is he interested in constructing systems of thought. He may use logic, he may use arguments, he may use any other tool available to him, but he is not interested in any of those. His only interest is in waking you up. He has experienced the morning, and he wants you to experience it.

It is in this sense that the wisdom of the east begins with experience and ends in experience – begins with the seer’s experience and ends in our experience.

0o0

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Nalayani: the Past Life of Draupadi


[Translated from the original Sanskrit]

[The Kumbhakonam Edition of the Mahabharata gives us several details that are not available in the KM Ganguli translation of the epic or in the Gita Press edition. The following is one such instance. I believe there is no other English translation of this available at the moment. The passage below constitutes Chapter 212 and 213 of the Adi Parva of the epic in the Kumbhakonam Edition, 1906. In the narrative sequence, these chapters come after Arjuna has won Draupadi, and immediately before all the five Pandava brothers wed her.]

Vyasa Said: Oh king, do not grieve over your daughter becoming wife to all five Pandavas. Her mother had earlier prayed that Draupadi should become the wife of five men. Yaja and Upayaja, constantly engaged in dharma, made it possible through their tapas that she should have five husbands and that is how Draupadi was attained by the five Pandavas as their wife.

It is now time for your whole family to celebrate. For in the whole world there is no one superior to you and you are now invincible – no one in the whole world has the power to defeat you. Let me explain further how she attained five husbands. Listen to me, your heart free from sorrow.

In another lifetime, your daughter was called Nalayani, a woman of impeccable virtue. She served her husband Maudgalya, an old leper, with great devotion. The man was mere bones and skin, bitter by nature, lustful, jealous and prone to quick rages. He stank terribly – his body emitted every foul smell. Advanced in age, his skin was wrinkled, his whole body crooked. His head had grown bald and his skin and nails had begun to wear off. Nalayani served her husband who practiced severe penances; she lived by eating his left over food.

Then one day, while he was eating, his thumb fell off into the food. Without the least hesitation, Nalayani removed it from the food and ate the leftover food. The man, who had the power to do as he wished, was pleased with this. He asked her to ask for a boon.

“I am not old or evil-tempered, nor jealous or hot tempered,” he told her. “My body does not smell, nor am I short in height or lust-filled. My blessings on you, beloved. Now tell me how I can delight you and where you wish to live and enjoy. I shall do all that you wish, tell me whatever is in your mind.”
When he repeatedly asked her to ask for a boon, she asked for one.

Maudgalya was a man of pure actions and he was now pleased with her. He had the power to give boons and he gave all one wished. So Nalayani of blameless beauty told her husband: “O lord, unthinkable are your powers. May you attain great fame in the world by dividing yourself into five and pleasuring me in all those five forms! And after that I want you to become one again and continue to pleasure me.”

“Let it be so!” the great seer Maudgalya of surpassing spiritual power told Nalayani of beautiful hair and alluring smile. He then turned himself into five and pleasured her in those five forms in every imaginable way.

He then spent time in the ashrams of sages worshipped by them, moving from one ashram to the other, assuming any form he desired. He went to the world of the gods and there moved among the celestial sages taking her with him. He lived as a guest in the palace of Indra, worshipped by Shachi, his food the ambrosia of the gods.

Desiring to enjoy pleasures with Nalayani, also known as Mahendrasena, he, the great lord, boarded the divine chariot of the sun god and moved around with her. He then went to Mt Meru and started living on the mountain. He dived into the celestial Ganga with her. He lived in the rays of the moon as the never-ceasing wind does.

When the great sage took on the shape of a mountain range, because of his ascetic power she became a great river in the middle of the mountains. When the sage transformed himself into a sal tree full of flowers, she attained the form of a creeper and wound herself around him. Every time he assumed a body, she traveled with her husband assuming a similar body. And so living, her love for him and his love for her increased in equal measure. The great sage continuously reveled with her using his yogic powers and she, as Divine Will would have it, gave him pleasures in turn.

All this time, she remained the sage’s single wife, like Arundhati to Vasishtha and Sita to Rama, and like them entirely devoted to her husband. In this respect, she became nobler than Damayanti’s mother. Her mind became totally engrossed in the great brahmana Maudgalya, as though her soul itself had merged with him, and it never wavered from him.

This, oh great king, is the truth and for that reason, never think of it in other ways. It is this Nalayani who is born as your daughter Krishnaa from the sacrificial pit, as some divine plan would have it.

0o0

Drupada said: Great brahmana, best knower of all scriptures, tell me the reason why the auspicious Nalayani took birth in my sacrifice.

Vyasa said: Listen to me, King, of how Lord Rudra gave her a boon and why the glorious one was born in your house. Let me tell you more of Krishnaa’s former life story.

Famous by the name Indrasena, the noble Nalayani travelled around with her husband Maudgalya, no worries in her mind. For Maudgalya, those years of reveling with her passed like moments. And then one day, after years of enjoying them, the sage lost interest in pleasures. Desiring the highest dharma, his mind was now turned towards brahma-yoga. The great sage, now keen on austerities, abandoned her.

Abandoned by him, oh great king, Nalayani fell to the earth. As she fell, addressing Maudgalya, she said: “Do not abandon me, great sage. I have been enjoying pleasures as my heart desired, and I am still not satisfied with the enjoyment.”

And Maudgalya told her: “You speak to me without any compunction about things that should not be spoken of. And you are causing obstacles on my path of tapas. So listen to what I say. You shall be born on the earth as a princess and will attain great repute. You shall be the daughter of the noble-hearted king of Panchala. You shall then have five renowned men for your husbands. With those handsome men, you shall long enjoy the pleasures of sex.

Vaishampayana said: Cursed thus, the glorious Nalayani became miserable and went to a forest. Still discontented with the enjoyment of pleasures, she worshipped the Lord of the Gods through tapas. She gave up hopes and expectations, fasted with only the air as her food, and following the diurnal course of the sun, began practicing the tapas of the five fires – with the burning sun above her and four burning fires surrounding her. Rudra, the Lord of Beasts, the Great Monarch of all the worlds, the Great God, was pleased with her severe penance and gave her a boon. “You will be reborn again and in that birth you shall be a lustrous woman; and you shall have five renowned men for your husbands. They will all have bodies like that of Indra and in valour too they shall be like Indra. And there you shall achieve for the gods their great work.”

Hearing this, the woman said: “I requested you for one husband. Why have you given me these five husbands? A woman shall have one man. How can a woman belong to many men?”

And the Great Lord said: “You told me five times, repeatedly, to give you a husband. Noble woman, you shall have five husbands and you shall find happiness with all of them.”

The woman replied: “It has been decided long ago that it is the dharma of a woman to have only one husband, whereas it is the dharma of a man, as practiced by many, to have several wives. This is the dharma for women that the sages decided in the past. And it has also been said that a single woman would be the partner of man in religious rituals. And we also see in the world that a woman has a single husband, just as she has a single virginhood – once ended, it never comes back. The smritis allow a second husband to a woman for the purpose of conceiving through niyoga in an exigency. If she goes to a third woman, that is considered a sin and when she has a fourth man, she falls and becomes a prostitute. This is the path of dharma and for that reason I cannot accept many husbands. That is something not seen practiced in the world and how could I be absolved from the sin of corruption if that happens?”

The Great Lord said: “In the past women lived a free life sexually and were considered pure after their monthly periods. It was not just once that you asked me [for a husband]. But having many husbands shall not be against dharma for you.”

The woman replied: “If I am to have many husbands, and if I desire sex [rati] with them all, I request you to grant me that I shall remain a virgin after my unions with each of my husbands. In the past I attained spiritual merit [siddhi] through service to my husband. I also attained desire for sexual pleasures through that service. Grant me that I attain both in my coming birth too.”

The Great Lord said: “Listen to me, auspicious woman. Rati [sexual pleasure/the goddess of sexual pleasure] and Siddhi [spiritual progress/the goddess of spiritual progress] do not enjoy each other’s company. In your next birth too, endowed with great beauty and good fortune, enjoying with your five husbands after regaining your virginity repeatedly, you shall attain great glory. Go now and you will see a man standing in the waters of the Ganga. Woman of beautiful smile, bring him, the lord of the gods, to me.”

When the Great Lord, Rudra, the lord that has become everything, spoke thus, she went round him in reverence and walked towards the Ganga, the river of great merit that flows in the three worlds.

0o0



Translation by Satya Chaitanya

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Need: Where Do We Draw the Lakshman Rekha



Following a class presentation by students in a course in Leadership Excellence that I teach at XLRI School of Business and Human Resources, we were discussing some aspects of the presentation in my previous class when a student raised a very significant question: When do we say enough when it comes to needs? Where do we draw the line? In other words, when does need become greed? Is there a Lakshman Rekha to needs within which we are safe and happy, crossing which we suffer?

There is a story by Leo Tolstoy that comes to mind when I think of this question. It is a beautiful story – one which James Joyce described in a letter to his daughter as the most beautiful story ever written by man. Joyce must have been in a particularly impressionable mood when he read the story and wrote that line, but the story is without a doubt powerful.

The story is about a farmer called Pahom. He was a small farmer in a Russian village, unhappy about his lot. When he heard that a lady who lived close to his village was selling her estate, Pahom becomes interested. At the news that one of his neighbours, another poor farmer like himself, was buying some of it, Pahom becomes restless. "Other people are buying," he tells his wife, "and we must also buy some of it. Life is becoming impossible without our own land." So they put their heads together and consider how they could buy part of land. Eventually they sell a colt they had, half of their honey bees, and hires out one of their sons as a labourer, taking his wages in advance and borrow some. He is thus able to manage half the purchase money and bought forty acres of land, on condition that the remainder would be paid in two years.

Pahom had his own land now and everything is fine. With borrowed seeds he sows the land. The harvest is good. Rather than paying back the remaining money in two years, he is able to do it in one year.

Pahom is well contented and everything works beautifully until one day he hears that many people are moving away from the village to other places. His initial reaction is to realize what a good opportunity that would be for him: he could buy their land at cheap prices and make his land bigger.

Before this could be done, however, one day a stranger comes to his home as a guest – a peasant who was passing through his village. Over dinner they sit and talk and from him Pahom learns that he is from beyond the Volga and many people from Pahom’s village have settled there. “The land is so good,” the peasant tells Pahom, “the rye sown on it grows as high as a horse, and so thick that five cuts of a sickle made a sheaf.” One peasant, he says, “had brought nothing with him but his bare hands, and now he has six horses and two cows of his own.”

Pahom’s heart leaps in delight at what he had hears. This is where he would go. He does not want to rot the rest of his life in his small village.

He goes to the place beyond the Volga to find out. The news turns out to be true. They have formed a farmer’s commune there and each farmer who joins the commune is given twenty-five acres of fertile communal land for his use. Besides, anyone who had money could buy as much freehold land as he wanted dirt cheap.

Pahom sells everything he had and reaches the commune across the Volga. He is given five shares of communal land, against his own name and that of his sons – one hundred and twenty-five acres in all

However, he soon gets used to his one hundred and twenty-five acres and begins to think that he does not have enough. The land he is farming was communal land and he wants to own land – his own freehold land. His mind constantly dwells on that thought now. And then he hears of an opportunity to buy a huge piece of land – thirteen hundred acres – being sold cheap. He begins negotiations to buy it and almost finalizes the deal for fifteen hundred roubles when a passing dealer happens to stop at Pahom’s. From his conversations with the dealer, Pahom learns of the far away land of the Bashkirs where recently the dealer has bought thirteen thousand acres for a mere one thousand roubles.

In fact, the land is free, he learns. All one has to do is to make friends with the chief of the Bashkirs by giving him some gifts – like a dressing gown, a packet of tea, some wine, maybe a few carpets and so on. The land is near a river and the soil, virgin.

Pahom forgets all about the deal he had almost made and reaches the land of the Bashkirs taking the gifts with him.

The Bashkirs are very simple people who live a life of ease and comfort without possessions in their vast land which gives them all they need without any toil. The chief is pleased with the gifts and offers him all the land he needed. “Choose whatever piece of land you like and it will be yours,” he tells him.

But Pahom is cautious. "How can I take as much as I like?" he thinks. "I must get a deed to make it secure, or else they may say, 'It is yours,' and afterwards may take it away again."

The chief agrees to make over to him the land he chooses through legal documents. The price would be one thousand roubles for all the land he can measure out in a single day.

Pahom is surprised. "But in a day you can get round a large tract of land," he says. The chief laughs. "It will all be yours!" he says. "But there is one condition: If you don't return on the same day to the spot whence you started, your money is lost."

That night Pahom does not sleep, except for managing to doze off for a few minutes before dawn. He is up before the sun rises and goes and calls the Bashkirs. He does not want to lose any time. A minute lost is a piece of land lost.

They all ascend a hillock and the chief points out the land all around and tells Pahom. "See," he says, "all this, as far as your eye can reach, is ours. You may have any part of it you like."

What Pahom sees all around him is virgin soil, flat as the palm of a man’s hand, black and fertile, lush green with breast high grass. His eyes glisten.

Placing his cap on the ground, the chief says: "This will be the mark. Start from here, and return here again. All the land you go round shall be yours."


Pahom tekes out his money and puts it in the cap. He turns to the east, stretches himself, and waits impatiently. He would start the moment he sees the first ray of the rising sun.

Pahom digs a hole and places pieces of turf one on another to make it more visible after the first thousand yards. After another thousand yards, he digs another hole and piles up some surf there too. He has covered a large distance before he sits down for breakfast. He however decides to go another three miles more in the same direction before he changes the direction.

He can hardly see the hillock he had started from when he feels he should change direction again. But there is a beautiful damp hollow of land which he does not want to leave out. He proceeds in the same direction to cover that.

When he finishes that he finds that the sun has started going down a long time ago. In fact it was approaching the western horizon when Pahom realizes there is no time to measure out a rectangular piece of land. He will have to be contented with a triangle. He will walk back straight to the hillock now. He hurriedly digs a hole and turns straight towards the hillock.

He is now walking with difficulty. Walking the whole day in the heat, digging holes and piling turf has drained every ounce of energy in him.

The sun was now fast sinking lower and lower. Pahom is possessed by feverish anxiety, making even breathing hard.

The lower side of the sun has now touched the horizon. Pahom looks at the hillock. He is still far from his goal. He begins running, removing his clothes, flinging away his cap, to become lighter. He runs like a possessed man.

A terrible fear suddenly overpowers him. Perhaps he will not be able to reach back the chief’s cap that marks the spot from where he had begun!

The sun has almost disappeared from the sky when he is close to the cap. The last ray of the sun fades away as Pahom tales a final exhausted leap and collapses on the ground, reaching out for the cap with his hands.

That is the last movement he will ever make.

It takes all of six feet of land to bury him in.

0o0

‘Alam’ in Sanskrit means enough. ‘An-alam’ is not-enough. A person for whom things are never enough is called ‘Anala’. Conventionally this is one of the names for fire because fire never feels it is enough. The more you feed it, the more hungry it grows.

But the word anala could be used for many other things. Including our needs, including our desires.

Indian wisdom says:

na jaatu kaamah kaamaanaam upabhogena shaamyati.
havishaa krishnavartmeva bhooya eva abhivardhate.


“Never indeed is desire quenched by the enjoyment of desired objects. It grows more and more, as fire does the more you make offerings into it.”

Endless need, boundless desire, is called greed. Desire that knows no bounds.

Wisdom is recognizing where to draw the line between need and greed. And in the story of Pahom, what we find is genuine need gradually metamorphosing into greed. And once his need becomes greed, it preys upon Pahom himself.

0o0

I found the story of Julian Mantle, the lawyer in Robin Sharma’s The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari fascinating.

Julian was the very image of a successful man by today’s standards. Tough and hard-driving, he was “willing to work eighteen-hour days for the success he believed was his destiny.”

Julian had everything one needs to succeed in today’s world. Apart from toughness, hard drive and the willingness to work endless hours, he had brilliance, fearlessness, tact, aggression, dreams of greatness, theatrics . . . everything. As years passed, his cases kept getting bigger and bigger, he pushed himself harder and harder, his prestige grew to greater and greater heights, and money poured in. Such was his obsession with work that he now slept even less – for he felt guilty whenever he was not working on a file.

“As expected, Julian became enormously successful. He achieved everything most people could ever want: a stellar professional reputation with an income in seven figures, a spectacular mansion in a neighborhood favored by celebrities, a private jet, a summer home on a tropical island and his prized possession – a shiny red Ferrari parked in the center of his driveway.

Things never seemed to slow down. There was always another blockbuster case on the horizon that was bigger than the last. No amount of preparation was ever enough for Julian. What would happen if the judge brought up this question or that question, God forbid? What would happen if our research was less than perfect?”

Eventually, Julian’s marriage failed and he stopped speaking to his father. He had begun paying the price of his success

“It showed, emotionally, physically – and spiritually. At fifty-three years of age, Julian looked as if he was in his late seventies. His face was a mass of wrinkles, a less than glorious tribute to his “take no prisoners” approach to life in general and the tremendous stress of his out-of-balance lifestyle in particular. He had lost his sense of humor and never seemed to laugh anymore. Julian’s once enthusiastic nature had been replaced by a deathly somberness. Personally, I think that his life had lost all sense of purpose.

Perhaps the saddest thing was that he had also lost his focus in the courtroom. Where he would once dazzle all those present with an eloquent and airtight closing argument, he now droned on for hours. Where once he would react gracefully to the objections of opposing counsel, he now displayed a biting sarcasm that severely tested the patience of judges.

And then it happened. This massive heart attack that brought the brilliant Julian Mantle back down to earth and reconnected him to his mortality. Right in the middle of courtroom number seven on a Monday morning, the same courtroom where we had won the Mother of All Murder Trials.”

What Robin Sharma tells us is the story of a man taken over greed. In Julian Mantle’s case, it is no more a need to succeed, but greed for success. He has crossed the Lakshman Rekha like Pahom, and now his greed preys upon himself.

0o0

How do we recognize this Lakshman Rekha between need and greed? I think every one of us knows the answer in his heart, though many of us are not alert to that knowledge. In Pahom’s case, to begin with owning a piece of land is an absolutely genuine need for him. It has got a purpose – he is a farmer and as a farmer he needs land. But over time, his need for land becomes an end in itself. It is no more land for the sake of farming, but land for the sake of land. Now it is greed. The same is true in the case of Julian Mantle too. The need to excel, to succeed in one’s chosen profession is an absolutely genuine need. But over time this need takes over the man – when that happens it is no more a need, but greed that preys upon the heart that is its home.

The way to recognize this Lakshman Rekha is through self-awareness. And the danger lies in our self-forgetfulness.

Western culture puts it beautifully when it speaks of man selling his soul to the devil in exchange for one thing or the other. In the story of Dr Faustus, we have this concept immortalized by Ben Johnson. It is again the same story we come across in the recent movie Shortcut to Success.

Selling his soul to the devil is becoming a slave to the mind, for the devil is the human mind itself.

As the Upanishads say, the mind is beautiful so long as we are its master. And when we become its slave, it becomes an ugly monster.

Humanity today has sold its soul to the devil. We have become slaves to our mind. And what we see around us is the consequences of it: ecological imbalances, unsustainable models of consumption, our mineral resources running out, oil resources running out, the greenhouse effect that has started sinking our islands . . . And great dissatisfaction in the middle of affluence. Interestingly, in the movie Shortcut to Success, the lead character suffers precisely from this tragedy: in the middle of success beyond his wildest imagination, all joy disappears from his life.

Feverish greed is found more than anywhere else in our corporate world today. This world thrives on greed. And to question that greed is to commit a sacrilege. For, ‘Greed Is Good.” Maybe, Greed is God.

0o0

Monday, November 1, 2010

Shakuntala: Flaming Indian Womanhood



Vyasabharata 2

Shakuntala stands for all that is beautiful in Indian womanhood. She would risk her honour as a woman for the love of a man, and yet she would not take one harsh word that goes against her dignity from that man. She has the softness of the softest flower and yet she is as fierce as fire itself. She is strength that knows how to bend. She is the courage to trust. She is silence that knows how to be eloquent when the need arises.

In the Mahabharata her story is told by Vaishampayana in response to a question by King Janamejaya about his remote ancestors.

0o0

When we first meet Shakuntala in the epic, she is the gracious ashram hostess who receives the honoured visitor Dushyanta who has just entered Sage Kanva’s ashram. The king was on a hunting trip and had reached the banks of the Malini where numerous ashrams were situated. The most famous among them was that of Sage Kanva and it was to pay his respects to Kanva that Dushyanta had gone to the ashram.

Dushyanta is surprised to see the beautiful young maiden in the ashram. Her beauty takes his breath away. Desire for her is instantly born in him. And he tells the young woman in front of him it is not the habit of his heart to desire for the undesirable and had she been a daughter of Kanva and hence a brahmana maiden, he would not have desired her. He introduces himself and asks her to tell him who she is.

Shakuntala informs him that she is the sage’s adopted daughter and he is the only father she has known all her life. She was born to the sage Vishwamitra and the apsara Menaka. The sage was doing tapas when Indra asked the celestial dancer to go and tempt him and she was the result. She was abandoned at birth by both her parents and found by Sage Kanva. She was given the name Shakuntala because the sage had found her lovingly cared for by peacocks.

Shakunta in Sanskrit means a peacock. Shakuntala is short for shakunta-laalitaa, lovingly-cared-for-by-peacocks.

By the time she finishes her story, his desire for her breaks all bounds. He wants her, and he wants her now.

“So it is the royal blood of Vishwamitra that flows through you and for that reason you are a princess and a kshatriya woman. Marry me, be my queen and live in royal comforts in my palace. You will have all the ornaments you desire, all the diamonds and jewels, finest clothes and anything else you wish for. I give you my kingdom itself.”

The king presses hard. Passion for her has destroyed all his sense.

Shakuntala asks the king to wait until her father comes back. He has gone out to the jungle to collect fruits and should be back in a short while.

But Dushyanta wouldn’t wait. Desire for her is tormenting him. He asks her to marry him by the gandharva rites, in which a man and a woman in love give themselves to each other, without waiting for the approval of parents and elders, without mantras, without priests, without rituals.

Again Shakuntala says they should wait. It is only a short while, until the sage is back, which would be any time now. But the king persists and succeeds in overcoming her objections. He grants her the one thing she desires – that her son should inherit his kingdom.

The wedding is consummated immediately.

Rather than wait for Kanva to come back, to see whom was why he had originally come to the ashram, Dushyanta decides to depart immediately, telling Shakuntala his men would soon come to escort her to his palace.

The king does not keep his promise. Shakuntala waits for Dushyanta’s people to come and take her to his palace. They do not come. She gives birth to her child in the ashram and names him Sarvadamana, All-Subduer. Still no one comes from Dushyanta. Eventually, when her son is twelve years old, Kanva, her father, reminds her it is time for her to hand over her son to his father and to let him grow up in the palace where he belongs, learning the ways of kings. Shakuntala takes her son with her and reaches Dushyanta’s court.

0o0

Dushyanta refuses to acknowledge that he had ever met Shakuntala or had any relations with her. He refuses to acknowledge the adolescent she has brought along as his son. He calls Shakuntala a whore and the mother of a bastard child born of shameless lust.

He shows no respect even for the ashram clothes she is wearing.

At his words, Shakuntala becomes an enraged snake. This is the man she had chosen for herself thirteen years ago. This is the man to whom she had surrendered her heart and her body. This is the man who had begotten a child in her and left, promising to send his people to fetch her and then forgotten all about it. And now he is insulting her in the middle of an assembly, in the presence of his ministers and noblemen – insulting her in such crude, merciless words.

The young woman who grew up in an ashram does not know what fear is. She does not know what treachery is, what weakness is. She has received the best possible upbringing: in an atmosphere of love, kindness, truth and fearlessness. She does not care she is standing in the court of an all-powerful monarch. She does not care his ministers and nobles are listening to her. A moment ago she was embarrassed about coming to him like this and shy. But now she lashes out at him, in the only language she knows: the language of truth. “You know me well, great king,” she tells him, “and yet you shamelessly say you do not, showing total lack of culture.”

She reminds him that culture demands that a wife who comes to her husband’s place for the first time needs to be honoured, she needs to be offered worship. “You err by not worshipping me as I stand here,” asserts Shakuntala, demanding from her man the obeisance that is every woman’s right by Indian culture. “I deserve to be worshipped. And you do not offer me worship that is my due.”

Shakuntala’s power comes from her knowledge of her position, her rights. Our ancient culture held women at the highest level. Our women did not grow up internalizing a self image that told her that she was the creation of a lesser God. She was the creation of the same God, maybe even a greater God. She was not a source of sin for man, but of dharma, virtue.

It is thrilling to see this powerful self-image in woman after epic Indian woman. Practically all our epic women, be it Gandhari, Kunti, Draupadi, or Sita share the same self-image: that of an equal to her man. There is no feeling in her that she is the ‘second sex’. If anything, she is the first sex. Gandhari never once in her life cringes before her husband Dhritarashtra. Kunti never once feels she is inferior to Pandu. Draupadi knows she is in every way equal to her husbands. And Sita says she will walk not in Rama’s footsteps, but ahead of him, so that she can crush the thorns on his path with her feet and make his journey easier for him – agratah te gamishyaami, mRdnantii kuzakaNTakaan.

This amazing self-perception of power is not born of arrogance or haughtiness, but of her culturally given status.


We see this same status of women in their husband’s home spoken of by the Vedas too. The standard Vedic blessing for a new bride was:

samraajnii zvazure bhava
samraajnii zvazvraam bhava
nanandari samraajnii bhava
samraajnii adhi devRSu.
[RV 10.85.46] [AV 14.144]

Be thou an empress to your father-in-law.
An empress be thou to your mother-in-law.
Be thou an empress to your husband’s sister.
An empress be thou to his younger brother.


Shakuntala tells Dushyanta that he needs to worship her for she is his wife come home for the first time.

Perhaps the position of Indian women was at its best in the Vedic times. Since those ancient days, it has been a more or less steady decline for women. Today the respect given to a new bride is mostly ritualistic. She is still worshipped as she enters her husband’s home, though not by her husband but by his family, but her actual position in a traditional Indian home is far from what it was in the Vedic days.

Shakuntala tells Dushyanta that a wife is not a man’s plaything – she is an equal half of his being, his best friend in the journey of life, the root of his dharma, artha and kama [virtue, wealth and pleasures]. And for a man who wants to cross the ocean of samsara and reach moksha, she is his most powerful ship.

She reminds him that woman is the eternal sacred ground where man is reborn as his own son.

aatmano janmanah kSetram
punyam raamaah sanaatanam.



Shakuntala tells Dushyanta that she has not come to him for his charity – she does not need any of it. What she demands is justice – what is hers by right. In fact, she herself does not need even that. She is perfectly willing to go back to the ashram from where she has come – she will always be welcome there. She does not care for the comforts of the palace – such things do not tempt her. She needs just one thing: that his child be acknowledged as his. And she warns him of dire consequences if he ignored her.


Still Dushyanta does not acknowledge her or her son. Instead, he insults her father, the sage Vishwamitra, calling him wanton; and insults her mother, the apsara Menaka, calling her a whore. And she herself is speaking like a common whore, he tells her: pumscaliiva prabhaaSase.

He does not stop there. He calls all women liars.

Before answering him this time she apologizes, for she says what she is going to say is going to hurt him. And then she tells him the difference between a fool and a wise man is that the fool chooses evil where the wise man chooses the good.

“Truth,” she tells him, “is superior to a thousand ashwamedha sacrifices; the study of all the Vedas, bathing in every sacred teertha in the world – nay, even these are not equal to the sixteenth part of the truth.”

It is that truth that Dushyanta was rejecting in rejecting her and her son.

Shakuntala shows her culture by apologizing for calling him a fool in spite of Dushyanta’s use of such unpardonable words as a whore for her and her mother, and a wanton for her father.

As she turns around to leave, she tells Dushyanta her son does not need his kingdom. She did not bring him to Dushyanta in the hope of her son inheriting his kingdom. No, he does not require it. For, her son will rule over all the earth bounded by the oceans even without his help.

Rte’pi tvayi duSyanta zailaraaja-avatamsikaam
caturantaam imaam urviim putro me paalayiSyati.


Gods and celestial sages interfere here on Shakuntala’s behalf. They appear and testify that she is indeed Dushyanta’s wife and Sarvadamana is his son and suggest that he should now be renamed Bharata.

0o0

When the gods and celestial sages declare that Sarvadamana is indeed Dushyanta’s son, the king accepts him and says that he has never for a moment doubted it, nor had he ever forgotten Shakuntala. Had he accepted Shakuntala and her son straight away, the royal officers and common people would have had doubts about the legitimacy of his relationship with them – there would always have remained an amount of suspicion in their minds. For his marriage to Shakuntala was known only to the two of them. Now that the gods and celestial sages have declared her his wife and Sarvadamana his son, he is the happiest man.

Is Dushyanta speaking the truth? Or is it that he has no choice but to accept them since the gods and sages have made their declaration?

The answer lies not in Dushyanta’s words but in his acts since meeting Shakuntala for the first time in the ashram.

The moment Dushyanta sees her, he is smitten by her and desires her. After asking her who she is and finding that she is of royal blood, he straight away expresses his desire for her and asks her to marry him. He offers her everything that comes to his mind that might interest a woman according to his understanding of women – precious ornaments, beautiful clothes, jewels, and even his own kingdom.

Shakuntala tells him to wait a short while since her father would be back any moment – it is only to gather fruits that he has gone, he should wait until he comes back and ask for her from him.

Shakuntala was a woman any man could fall in love with instantly. She was desirable in every imaginable way as far as a man is concerned. But I want to make a distinction here between love and lust. If it was love for her that Dushyanta felt, he could have, and would have, waited until Kanva came back in a few minutes or at the latest in an hour or so. But no, he wouldn’t wait, in spite of being repeatedly requested by Shakuntala. Eventually she agrees to his proposal, after making him promise that the son born to them would inherit his kingdom. They enter into a gandharva marriage and the marriage is immediately consummated.

Dushyanta leaves the ashram straight away. He does not wait until Kanva comes back. Had he been an honorable man, had his intentions been honorable, he should have waited for him to come back at least now, told the sage what had happened and then left. Instead, he chooses to leave the ashram in a desperate hurry, promising to Shakuntala that his people would soon come to the ashram to fetch her to her new home, his palace.

There is no pressing business waiting for him, no emergency. He is on a vacation – on a leisurely hunting trip, accompanied by his ministers and a huge army. He has received no message informing him he is needed at the capital.

His ministers are just outside the ashram. He does not tell any of them what happened in the ashram. He does not tell them he has married a beautiful maiden he met in the ashram. They do not know a thing about what happened until the gods and celestial sages reveal it to them in Dushyanta’s court thirteen years later.

Let’s assume Dushyanta did not have other wives. But there must have been lots of other relatives living with him in the palace. The rest of his family. His mother Rathantari is certainly there, to whom he later introduces her, after the gods have spoken. His four younger brothers are in all probability living there with him – Shoora, Bheema, Prapoorva and Vasu. He does not speak a word about Shakuntala to any of them.

And he does not send anyone to fetch Shakuntala as he promises. There would have been no ill fame in sending for her. The beautiful daughter of Sage Vishwamitra – a former king – and the apsara Menaka, brought up in the ashram of Sage Kanva, would have been more than acceptable to people as their queen.

Shakuntala will have to come to the court on her own when her son is twelve years old.

Please remember that there is no curse involved here that makes the king forget her. That is a later addition by Kalidasa to make the king’s behavior acceptable.

I believe that the king accepted her because he had no other choice after the gods and the celestial sages made their declaration. And but for that, he would not have accepted them.

He says that he made her wait for twelve years, made her suffer all those years, humiliated her so brutally in the court in the presence of the nobles and ministers present there, in front of her own twelve-year-old son, all because she could honorably be accepted as his queen.

I find it hard to believe.

And even if it were so, did he have the right to make her suffer so much?

Krishna says in the Gita: yad yad aacarati zreSThah, tat tad eva itaro janah; sa yat pramaaNam kurute, lokah tad anuvartate – Whatever a great man does, other people also do; whatever he considers the ideal, the rest of the world follows.

Wasn’t Dushyanta setting up a very dark precedence when he left it to the gods and celestial sages to come and speak on behalf of Shakuntala? What would have happened if they had not? What happens when a mere mortal woman, an ordinary woman, is thus accused by her man?

In Valmiki Ramayana, Rama too makes Sita suffer agonies before he accepts her back at the end of the war with Ravana. He insults her, humiliates her publicly and rejects her. And there too the god of fire appears and vouches for her purity and then Rama says he did what he did so that she could be accepted back as his wife without dishonor.

Indian women are still asked to enter burning fire and dip their hands in boiling oil to prove their purity.

0o0

The women who people our epics are shaktis: each one of them is endowed with power, sure of herself, sure of the choices she makes, sure in her speech, protective, passionate, loving, giving, hungry for life, filled with adventurousness, a fearless wanderer in life’s vast fields.

She inherits her soul from our Vedic women: Independent, assertive, strong winners, who took responsibility for themselves. Authentic women who participated in all fields of life as men’s equals. They debated on the meaning of life with the best of philosophers. They explored the mysteries of existence just as the men of their times did. They composed poems, sacred and mundane, poems of the soul and of the flesh, singing of spiritual ecstasy and sexual longing, that survive to this day.

The changes Kalidasa makes in Shakuntala tells us much about the changes that took place in women’s status, her role in a man’s life and societal and familial expectations from her by the time we leave behind epic times and reach what modern historians call the golden period of Indian history. Vyasa’s Shakuntala is strong. She is shakti, bold and fearless. In the case of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, her strength lies in her weakness, in her helplessness. She is an abala: an infantilized woman whose strength is her capacity to invoke protectiveness in us.

0o0

One last thing. I puzzled long over why Shakuntala gave herself to Dushyanta without waiting for her father to do that honour as her culture expected her to. My answer is – a foundling’s insecurity. She was abandoned at birth and, though a royal child, had to grow up in an ashram. True, she was loved by her foster father, adored by all in the ashram, but when she would give birth to a son, she wanted him grow up in the palace, as the son of a princess should.

Dushyanta was the answer to this deeply felt need. The man she fell in love with at first sight. And she responded to that need.

And when she comes to Dushyanta thirteen years later, it is for the sake of her son. The Mahabharata makes it very clear that she wanted nothing for herself.

Our insecurities make us do strange things.

Sita displays the same insecurity of the foundling several times in her life.

0o0

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A King’s Lust and the Birth of Vyasa’s Mother


Vyasabharata 1

naaraayaNam namaskRtya naram caiva narottamam
deviim sarasvatiim vyaasam tato jayam udiirayet

A verse in the first chapter of the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata speaks of three ancient traditions of reading the epic: one beginning at the beginning of the text as it exists today with the prayer narayanam namaskritya, another beginning with the Astika Parva and a third one, beginning with the story of King Uparichara Vasu, Vyasa’s grandfather.

When we begin at the beginning of the text as it exists today, we begin with how Ugrashrava Sauti, son of Lomaharshana, narrated the epic to the ascetics present at Shaunaka’s twelve-year long sacrifice at Naimisharanya. And when we begin with Astika Parva, we begin twelve chapters later, with the story of the ascetic Jaratkaru and the birth of Astika who stops the snake sacrifice of King Janamejaya at Hastinapura.

But when we begin with the story of Uparichara Vasu, we begin at the sixtieth chapter of the Adi Parva of the epic text as it exists today and the epic then starts with the family saga of its author, Sage Vyasa.

And what a story we get to begin with then! A story of lust that man fails to control, and the actions that uncontrolled lust leads man to and their consequences.

Which is actually the theme of the epic.

The Mahabharata is a tale of uncontrolled lusts – lust for land, lust for wealth, lust for power, lust for honour, lust for fame, lust for acceptance, lust for vengeance, lust for pleasure, and, above all, plain sexual lust. It is the story of lust in every imaginable form and the terrible consequences that uncontrolled lust leads to.

The Sanskrit word for lust is kama.

The Mahabharata does not criticize kama per se. Nor does Indian culture do so. What is criticized is uncontrolled kama, kama that controls us, kama that becomes our master, that makes us its slaves. The Vedic culture sees kama as the beginning of the universe. The brilliant Nasadiya Sukta of the Rig Veda, the Hymn of Creation, speaks of Kama as the first being to emerge, or the first essence to come into being and then becomes the cause of everything else coming into existence. The Taittiriya Upanishad speaks of the spark of desire entering the heart of the Unmanifest Being, which then creates out of itself everything else, abstract and concrete, real and illusory, moving and unmoving, all.

The Mahabharata itself speaks of Kama as the son of Dharma. Accordingly Kama, the son, should follow Dharma, should be guided by it. So long Kama follows Dharma, life is beautiful. And when Kama ignores Dharma, goes contrary to Dharma, violates Dharma, tragedy results. What is born of Dharma and hence noble, becomes dark and evil and destroys life.

It is for this reason that Krishna both praises Kama in the Gita and warns us against it. In one place he says Kama is himself – is God – so long as it does not violate Dharma. When it violates dharma, what is divine becomes demoniac: dharmaaviruddhe bhooteshu kamo’smi bharatarshabha – “I am kama that is not against dharma in beings.” In another place he takes its name as man’s worst enemy.

0o0

Here is the story of king Uparichara Vasu, Sage Vyasa’s maternal grandfather, the first story told by Vyasa if we read the epic following the third tradition.

Vasu was a great king renowned for his competencies as a leader and for his royal virtues – generosity, charity, empathy, understanding, people skills, self-mastery, commitment to values, integrity, all. After ruling his kingdom for years, he decided to tread the path his ancestors had followed by going to the jungle and devoting the rest of his life to spirituality. He began performing tapas, powerful austerities. Such was his tapas that Indra, the lord of the heavens, became shaky. For anyone who climbed certain heights in ascetic practices became qualified to take over Indra’s throne.

The word Indra means the lord of the senses – indriyaaNaam raajaa. That is, the mind. Asceticism is a way of conquering the mind, mastering it, making it one’s slave, rather than living as its slave. And the mind resists this, sometimes directly, at other times through devious means. It does not want to be conquered, but loves to remain as the master. As hundreds of stories in Indian literature tell us, as innumerable stories from the life of ascetics from across the world and from all cultures tell us, the mind throws temptations on the path of the ascetic to waylay him, to distract him and to destroy him. Indian literature abounds in such stories: the Buddha is tempted by Mara, Sage Vishwamitra by Menaka, Sage Kandu by Pramlocha and so on.

In the case of Uparichara Vasu, it is not a woman, the most common temptation for a male ascetic, that Indra uses. This former king had in all probability had women aplenty in his inner apartments. Nor does he use power as a temptation – the bait thrown to Jesus by the Devil, another name for the mind. He takes a much more refined approach with Uparichara Vasu, sage Vyasa’s grandfather-to-be.

Indra comes down to meet him in the ashram where he is living a life of asceticism. He speaks to the rajarshi, the royal sage, of the nobility of his duty to the world.

Let there be no doubts. The Mahabharata is very specific about this: What Indra was concerned with is not the good of the world. What he wanted was for the royal sage to stop his austerities and go back to the world to live his life there. For, if he continued his austerities, the king would be a threat to his position as the lord of the gods.

Temptations could be of different kinds and at different levels. A man may be tempted from his higher goals by something as simple as sexuality. But some people require more than sex to distract them from their path. For some, it is power that tempts them; in the case of some others, it could be fame; it could even be something as refined and beautiful as kindness and compassion.

The Bhagavad Gita tells us that it is not only tamas and rajas that bind us, but even sattva binds us.

Indian tradition holds that even concern for the good of the world could be binding when it makes you forget the ultimate human goal, the parama-purushartha, which is spiritual freedom. It tells us through the story of Jada Bharata who devoted his life to look after a baby deer that even kindness and compassion could be bondages.

The Prashna Upanishad tells us there are two dimensions to spirituality – the higher and the lower, called Dakshinayana and Uttarayana, the southern and the northern paths.

Dakshinayana, or the lower dimension, consists of acts that are classified as ishta and poorta. Ishta consists of acts for the common good – like founding schools, hospitals, orphanages, charity homes and so on. In ancient India, it included planting trees on the wayside, digging wells for drinking water, digging ponds and lakes, establishing wayside inns where travelers could rest and spend the night free of charge, and so on. Poorta consists of acts of service to the individual – like giving a meal to the hungry, water to the thirsty, taking care of a sick or old man, adopting an orphaned child and so on. These are great in themselves, but should lead man to higher spirituality, to Uttarayana.

Uttarayana, the higher spirituality, consists of tapas, dhyana, samadhi etc – austerities, the practice of meditation, experiencing self-transcendence and so on. It is through these that man reaches spiritual awakening, bodhi.

What Indra did was to appeal to the innate nobility of Vasu to tempt him away from his spiritual path. As a king, Vasu was a great lover of dharma, the common good. He was totally committed to it. Now Indra uses this very commitment to dharma, one of the noblest qualities in any leader, to tempt Vasu from his spiritual goals.

Indra appears before Vasu accompanied by several other gods. He convinces Vasu that his highest duty is to the good of the world. The absence of someone like him as king is causing corruption in the world and he should go back to his life as king to uphold dharma and stop all corruptions. It is dharma that upholds the world and it is kings like him that uphold dharma.

Indra assures Vasu that there are no eternal worlds that he cannot attain by protecting dharma in the world. He also declares Vasu as his eternal friend, his sakha.

The lord of the gods calling you a sakha is indeed a great honour.

Indra has called others his friends too in the past. And usually this has lead to tragedy to the men whose friend Indra pretended to be. Indra declared himself a friend of his greatest enemy ever, Vritra, and it is with the help of that friendship that Indra betrayed and killed Vritra.

As we saw, Indra is the symbol of the mind. Several spiritual traditions hold that there is no good mind and bad mind – mind itself is bad. That in fact, there is nothing bad, other than the mind. What is good is the state of no-mind, the state in which you go beyond the mind. Zen is one such spiritual tradition that expressly speaks of the need to transcend the mind and reach the state of no-mind. Mind is ignorance, says Zen. Mind is bondage, says Zen. And no-mind is freedom, wisdom.

Indra has by now offered two temptations to the king: eternal worlds of pleasure in the future as a result of upholding dharma in the world as king and friendship with the lord of the gods. Now he offers Vasu more. He tells him to take the best part of the earth as his kingdom.

What is recommended is the land of Chedi. Indra describes Chedi as delightful, sacred, rich, abounding in animal wealth and crops, filled with precious stones and mineral wealth. He tells Vasu that the land of Chedi has an agreeable climate; is very fertile; the cities and towns devoted to virtue; the people are honest, contented, law abiding, truthful, kind even to animals so that if a bullock becomes weak they do not anymore yoke it to the plough or to the cart but is instead looked after until it becomes fat again; sons are devoted to their parents, all people follow their dharma.

Indra hasn’t finished his offerings. He promises him the power to know all that happens everywhere in the world. He gives him a garland of unfading lotuses which would make him invincible in battle, an airplane that can take him through the skies to anywhere he wants to go, or even help him remain in one place if he wished so.

Besides all this, Indra also gives Vasu a sacred bamboo pole, a yashti that could be used for religious rituals.

Vasu falls for the temptations. He accepts these gifts from Indra and chooses to go to Chedi to become its king. He looks after Chedi as a virtuous king, protecting dharma in the hope of attaining glory as a leader of men on earth and eternal worlds of pleasure after his death. In gratitude to Indra for the kindness showered on him, Vasu begins a celebration known as Indrotsava, the festival of Indra, in which planting the bamboo pole given by Indra marks the beginning of the festival.

Indra is worshipped in this festival as a divine swan, a hamsa. Which reminds us of the Greek Indra, Zeus, who is tempted by Leda and assumes the form of a swan to seduce her, an image repeatedly painted by European painters and sculpted by leading western sculptures.

It is this Indrotsava that celebrates on earth the glory of Indra that Krishna later stops and asks the men and women of Vrindavan instead to worship Mt Govardhan that protects them and offers food to their cattle.

Vasu now becomes attached to his airplane and spends much time in it, thus acquiring the name by which he will be known to all subsequent generations: Uparichara Vasu, Vasu-who-moves-in-the-skies.

That is the past history of Vasu. Let’s now move on to the day that most concerns us, the day on which he begets Sage Vyasa’s mother in an act that the Mahabharata describes as dhoomra – a word the dictionary explains as vice, wickedness, sin.

0o0

Everything about the remaining part of Uparichara Vasu’s story is strange and mysterious. Perhaps because the things mentioned are so unacceptable, it is possible that the original story has altogether disappeared and we have to infer it from the hazy and puzzling details that are now available to us in the Sanskrit epic.

The first thing we are told is that a mountain once raped a river and two human children are born to the river. The name of the mountain is Kolahala and the name of the river is Shuktimati. We are also told that the mountain blocked the river and Uparichara Vasu kicked it with his foot, splitting the mountain and releasing the river.

Vasu’s act of releasing the river from the power of the mountain reminds us of Indra’s act of releasing the waters from the captivity of Vritra in still more ancient times.

Of the two children born to the river Shuktimati, one is male and the other female. The river offers the two children to Vasu and Vasu makes the male child, when the children grow up, his commander-in-chief and the female child his wife. Her name is Girikaa, meaning the child of a mountain.

It is possible that the king went to the mountain to release waters that were blocked by it, found there two abandoned children, twins, a male and a female and brought them home and when the children grew up, he made the girl his wife, and the male his commander-in chief. It is also possible that the children were born of a rape committed on a woman by someone on the mountain or the river bank.

Sexuality in ancient India was different in its gender implications than in the contemporary world. Within marriage, sex was considered a woman’s right, her privilege, something that she was entitled to from her man and not something the man ‘took’ from the woman. It was a man’s duty to go to his wife when she was in her ritu – the first sixteen days after her ritual bath following her monthly period – on prescribed days, avoiding proscribed days.

Girikaa had entered her ritu and sent a message to her husband, informing him she was ready and waiting, and asking him to go to her. Precisely at that time, says the epic, he received an order from his dead ancestors, his manes, that he should go on a hunting trip to the jungle.

Now, this is very strange! Because generally speaking the main interest of the dead ancestors is in continuing the family line – frequently their only interest. They should thus have prevented him from going on the hunting trip precisely at such a time. Instead, they order him to forget his wife who is ready and waiting, who has just sent him a message that she is ready and waiting, and go to the jungle to kill wild animals.

One way of looking at it is that the king faced an inner conflict. It is possible that the temptation to hunt and kill overpowered the king’s desire to go to his wife – at least for the time being. In the clash between the thrill of killing and the thrill of sex, the king chose the thrill of killing and ignored, suppressed, his desire for his wife.

He had taken a very wrong decision if we go by what follows!

It was spring, the season when the whole nature celebrates life. What Vasu found was a jungle in the festivity of spring. Trees and plants – ashokas, champas, mango trees, bakulas, punnagas, madhavis, sandalwoods, arjunas, all – were at their best, filled with flowers whose intoxicating fragrance filled the jungle. The mating calls of the cuckoo bird and honey-inebriated hums of the bumble bee added to the intoxication of the environment.

What the whole world was celebrating was what he had rejected to come to the jungle, and that too in spite of being requested by his wife.

Apart from being tempted by nature, it is possible that he also felt guilty about what he had done.

Ancient India said that a woman’s request for sex should never be ignored: arthinii strii anupekshaniiyaa.

The king’s mind went back to the beautiful mountain girl Girikaa who was pining for him at home in the palace.

His head was already light with nature’s intoxication. The visions of Girikaa whom he had rejected in spite of her express desire complicated matters further for the king. Losing mastery over himself, he sat down under an ashoka tree, the scent of fresh honey and the flowers going straight to his head.

According to the Mahabharata, it was now that he was tempted by vice and felt compelled to do a wicked deed, to commit a sin - dhoomra. Sex per se is not a sin in Indian culture. So it is some kind of ‘wrong’ sex that happened, which could be called wicked or sinful.

I would skip some details of what the Mahabharata tells us here and proceed to the end of this episode. In any case, what the Mahabharata tells us is so preposterous, so fantastic, that our minds will not accept it. It is possible that storytellers over thousands of years have given the present form to whatever was the original story.

The end of the episode is that a female fish in the Yamuna swallows the king’s seeds and becomes pregnant.

The fish, the story tells us, is a fallen apsara, a celestial dancer of incredible beauty, called Adrikaa. Due to a curse she received from Brahma, she had turned into a fish and was living in the river. Her curse was to last until she gave birth to two human children.

It is interesting that the apsara who has turned into a fish is called Adrikaa. Because Adrikaa means precisely what Girikaa means – a daughter of the hills.

The fish becomes pregnant. The pregnancy grows to maturity and reaches the tenth month. The fish is then caught by fishermen and cut open. Inside the fish, the fishermen find two children, a male and a female.

When the fish is cut open, it dies and the aprasa is released from her curse. She rises up into the skies and travelling on the path of the siddhas and charanas, reaches back her home, the land of the gods.

What exactly are we to make of this story?

One way to understand it is that the king, unable to keep in check his passion, had sex with a fisher girl called Adrikaa on the banks of the Yamuna and the children were the result of that brief encounter.

We have no clue as to whether Vasu took her by force or she voluntarily surrendered to his desire. From the way Vyasa’s mother, Adrikaa’s daughter growing up as the daughter of a fisherman, surrenders herself to the desire of Sage Parashara later, it is possible to assume that in those ancient days it was perhaps fairly common for men of the upper strata of society to have their way with women of the lower strata of society.

The chief of the fishermen takes the two children thus mysteriously found inside the fish to the king – to Uparichara Vasu himself. Customs in those days said that anything precious or unusual found or grown inside the kingdom should be offered to the king. The king keeps the male child and returns the female child to the chief of the fishermen, Dasharaja.

This is the second time that almost identical incidents are happening to Vasu. The first time he had found two children on the banks of the Shuktimati, a male and a female. He had made the male child the chief of his armies and the female child his wife, when they grew up. Now once again fishermen bring two children to him, who are, unknown to him, his own children. This time he keeps the male child and returns the female child to the fishermen.

The first set of children, we are clearly told, were born of a rape. From the circumstances the epic mentions, combined with the use of the word dhoomra, it is possible that these children too were born of a rape.

The male child, whom the king keeps, grows up to become the king of the Matsya country, also known as the land of the Viratas. It is here that the Pandavas would eventually spend their one year in hiding as per the conditions of the second dice game they lose. Following which, the Virata princess Uttara would marry Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu. King Janamejaya who listens to the Mahabharata story from Vaishampayana is the grandson of Uttara. The kingdom of the Bharatas thus ends up in the hands of an heir of Uparichara Vasu. Of course, Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura are all have his blood in them – they are Vyasa’s sons and Vasu’s great grandsons.

But all that is later.

The female child returned by Vasu to Dasharaja with the instruction to bring her up as his daughter is named Kaali and Krishnaa for her complexion. Both Kaali and Krishnaa mean a dark girl. She gets the nick name Matsyagandhaa for the strong foul smell that emanated from her. Matsyagandhaa means a fish-smelling girl.

Krishnaa turns out to be a ravishing beauty. The epic tells us that she was so beautiful that she tempted even great siddhas. She begins to help her father in his work by taking people across the Yamuna in their ferry.

Children mature early among the poor and begin to work before they are out of their childhood.

One day her passenger in the ferry is the legendary sage Parashara. He sees her and is allured by her. He confesses to her his desire for her. She objects by saying other people are watching them on both sides of the river. The sage with his powers creates thick mist all around them and then, unable to keep his lust for her in check, takes her with her permission.

The child born was given the name Krishna Dwaipayana at birth. Krishna means dark or black. He was dark like his mother. Dwaipayana means born on an island. He was born on a small island in the Yamuna.

This Krishna Dwaipayana, later to be known as Vyasa, is the author of the Mahabharata.

0o0

What we have here thus is a tale of lust. Sage Vyasa’s great grandmother Girikaa is the result of a rape, whose story is presented to us in the impossible form of the rape of a river by a mountain. Vyasa’s mother Satyavati is born when his grandfather, Uparichara Vasu fails to control his sexual lust and commits a heinous act. And Vyasa himself is born because a seer fails to control his passion for a beautiful fisher girl.

That is three successive generations. As we go into the story of the Mahabharata, we shall see that this theme of naked lust and the failure to control it runs through the generations to follow. Vyasa himself becomes subject to it once in his life and thus is born his son Shuka. Satyavati’s son, Vyasa’s half brother Vichitraveerya, would die because of his overindulgence in sex. Vyasa’s own son Pandu would die of his inability to master his sexual drive. And in the next generation several powerful men would lust for Draupadi, the most hauntingly beautiful woman in Indian lore, leading to disastrous consequences. Her own past life stories tell us of a lifetime as Nalayani in which she receives a curse from her husband because of her insatiable sexuality.

Did Indra foresee these things when he turned Uparichara Vasu away from tapas into the world? Did he foresee the Mahabharata war and the destruction of India that followed as a consequence?

The Mahabharata says the four ages are born as a consequence of man’s actions, particularly because of the actions of men in positions of power. It also says that towards the end of the Mahabharata story, the Age of Kali, the Dark Age, began.

Was Indra’s fear of Vasu’s asceticism the cause of the beginning of the Age of Kali?

Indian Wisdom considers personal leadership expressed in terms of self mastery as the foundation of all leadership – in fact, of all that is good. When Bhishma begins to teach Yudhishthira from his bed of arrows in the Shanti Parva, one of the first lessons he teaches is in self-mastery. What we find here is leaders of men failing in self mastery generation after generation, right up to the days of the Mahabharata war. Is it any more than a natural consequence then that the Age of Kali begins immediately after the Mahabharata war?

0o0