Mahabharata – The philosophical and social anchor

I had this great opportunity to attend the two day intensive workshop on Mahabharata by Prof. Vishwa Adluri and Dr. Joydeep Bagchee, at the NIAS, Bangalore. It was an enlightening session for me, and I am grateful to Indic Academy and Takshashila Institute of Indian Studies, for making this happen.

I have a little background on Rig Veda Samhita, and have been studying it since last couple of years. There is a popular perception in the circles of the Veda enthusiasts that the Epics and Puranas constitute adulteration incorporated to the main pristine body of the Vedas, and that the main point is pushed to the background, and non-essentials decorations have been put forth into forefront, into this subsequent corpus of Hindu texts. Also a clear disconnect is drawn between the Upanishads and the Vedas, bringing forth that Upanishads were unidirectional insights towards “Nivritti”/”sannyasa”, and that Veda constitutes a more holistic approach to be able to live a meaningful life in the “Pravitti”/ being in the thick and thin of daily life.

My personal little ongoing journey in the world of Rig Ved Samhita, leaves me with a body of sparkling philosophical insights scattered all over the 10,000 mantras spread across 10 big books known as Mandalas. They are truly inspiring and beautiful. However, in these years of my relationship with the Vedas, I have always struggled to derive a unity in the text, searching tirelessly to carve out a holistic story to arrive at a coherent understanding out of it. I tried this by creating visualisations, mind maps, notes, exploring the semantics of the Rig Veda and discovering the pattern of the hidden meaning in the proper nouns used repeatedly across the text. With the intensive reading of the text, and their rigorous and precise translations and commentaries for stalwarts, I was able to progress much in this journey. But then that aesthetic thirst to find a coherent binding story remained in me.

This workshop on Mahabharata was the exact and precise dose of nectar I was looking for, in my scholarly struggles all these years. Trying out a satire, Prof Adluri proclaimed in the beginning of the workshop that the Mahabharata was the fifth Veda, and that Duryodhan was the modern man and Dhritarashtra was the postmodern man. That was a shock to me. I started listening with extra attention and concentrated into all the details Prof Bagchee and Prof Adluri were putting forth in their characteristic, world class scholastic rigour. (Both have PhDs form the hallowed – “The New School”, NYC).

I was fascinated, to finally having been introduced to that complex, humongous but extremely unified and coherent body of Myth that I was looking for, which was efficiently binding the entire corpus of the Vedas, Upanishads and the Puranas. So, here was the ultimate creation of the great sage Vyasa, where he gives to the world, a complete story, which if one understands, its profound philosophical nuances, can drive home all the world of the wisdom primarily from the Veda Samhitas and Upanishads.
Getting a view of that was the greatest ‘Ahaa’ moment for me. The authors focused on the first book of the Epic – The Adi Parva, and the Moksha Dharma – part of the Shanti Parva book, to bring to the point that the war story and the related historical narrative of the Mahabharata is just a small aspect of the Epic. The Epic is primarily impregnated with profound philosophical and theological narrative to drive home into the psyche of its readers the cyclical nature of time and at the same time the futility of violence, anger, hatred, jealousy, lust, anger, attachment, and arrogance. Beautifully the Epic draws fractals of self-recursive narration to bring forth this point very strongly and all pervasively. At the same time the Epic clearly and precisely demarcates the two worlds – the world of Vasu, guided by ephemeral temporality and bondage due to that (Pravritti) and the world of Vasudev – inspired by the constant companionship with Dharma leading one to the realm of ultimate freedom, continuing to carry out the daily responsibilities (Nivritti).

The professors also gave several examples of the self-recursive frames of stories within stories and the repeated parallels from various parts of the Epic to drive the point of Unity and the coherent design of the Epic. Contrary to the limited view of the German Indologist, the professors were able to present their rigorous research proving the ill-founded prejudices against the Epic by German Indologist that Mahabharata is a chaotic collection of non-relevant and extraneous stanzas. Also the limited view of the Epic as a merely historical work was challenged. Over the two days of the workshop the professors were beautifully and rigorously able to drive the point that Mahabharata goes much farther in being an aesthetically rich, literary, philosophical and symbolical tale which has a strong purpose to drive in Dharma in the everyday life of common man. Along with the heroic glorification it also drives in systematic methods that can be practised by common ordinary readers to achieve that ultimate freedom and peace.

The Profs established with their rigorous research work that Mahabharata is not a chaotic text. Everything in the book has a definitive meaning and weaves out a unified narrative which has a central dharmic theme. The epic also shows that ‘nirguna’ and ‘saguna’ are not contradictions. Rather they complement each other to strengthen that relationship with the divine. Also it proclaims that ‘Bhakti’ is not a prejudice, but rather a mode of enhanced understanding. Also finally it was brought to the table that history and dharma are not interdependent. Historicity of the epic has nothing to do with its dharmic implications and importance.

The audience of the workshop was a great conglomeration of Sanskrit scholars, and also youth and veterans from varied professional domains. The discussions and debate on the nuances of the text and philosophy rendered in this great Epic were immensely invigorating and intellectually very stimulating. I express my heartiest gratitude to Indic Academy and Takshashila Institute of Indian Studies for organising this. I request them to kindly arrange for follow up sessions to go in details into the Epic under the guidance of Prof. Adluri and Prof. Bagchee, remotely over the Internet. I am sure there would be thousands of eager scholars like me, all over India and the world, who would like to continue their journey exploring, and practising with the Epic in our day to day life. And such a difficult and worthwhile enterprise will certainly require Gurus of the like of the Profs. Adluri and Bagchee.

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On Diversity

There is a personal inclination that a person develops over a lifetime, influenced by their genes as well as childhood conditioning. A fully grown man hence has those unique impressions, needs, talents and interests hardened in his psyche. This process sprouts diversity.
By definition, it might be excruciatingly painful for people of two starkingly diverse groups to get along with each other. But at the same time it might be immensely important for diverse groups collaborate because each brings on the table something complementary to the other. Hence there has been lot of emphasis on this mutual friendship and collaboration between diverse communities over the centuries of all major civilisations.

Give all the plus points on being able to manage and integrate diversity, it is at the same time imperative to enable the individual differentiation to be nurtured. A disproportionate focus on integration without helping an individual to develop his own uniqueness and strength aligned to his innate abilities would lead to a cohort of spineless and mediocre individuals. Such a group might have an increased ability to please others and forcibly enforce a pseudo unity and team spirit. Such a group generally lacks creativity and self defeats the foundational purpose of farming such teams and communities. The direction the community is led is decided by the most powerful and most vocal.

Hence before forming a diverse team it is important to nurture the diversity in the first place. And such a diversity cannot be incubated without adequate support, guidance, inspiration and examples. Now here is the trick. Such an ecosystem can only be created by the stalwarts of of the same inclination as the person at hand. Forced diversity in the formative years might at the outset, smother any possibility of a unique blossoming of the person. Differentiation has to be concretised before the appreciation of the integration, can be developed! Diversity works well with a set of people who equally know the weight of their own individuality. Only then creative thoughts and diverse ideas sprout, compete and complement. Otherwise what starts with an ostensive diversity, ends up as a homogeneous cohort.

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The realm of immortality

We all humans crave for connection. We are social beings, and need to relate to others like us. We thrive in their company. We get reduced being left out. We need connection. This fundamental need of humans has been catered to through various means and methods in society. There used to primitive races which entered in community orgies every month, to replenish that need to connect. Other institutions like marriages, family, church, etc were created to foster such bonding.

Now, one thing is very important to understand here. That is what is the fundamental basis of such bonds! If the basis is merely physical and emotional, then such bonds break fast as the emotional and physical need change. Then we need to have frequent changes in the companionship. We would always be in search of novelty, trying out newer and newer experiences and relationships. This is what most of the western societies go towards. And now, the new generation is also getting swayed. That socially accepted rituals of community orgies is not a possibility in the modern world, due to the obvious issues with such a set up in long term. So, what is the way out for the post modern mankind?

The only way out as appears to me is to explore and find the common platform of bonding from the realm of immortality between two individuals. This realm of immortality are those that never perish, and which help us to become better at the same time. Such common platforms of bonding are hobbies, studies, research, sports, games, yoga, art, religion, social service, etc. All these are examples of activities which need a big amount of expertise and skills and are difficult to do. When people engage with each other to do activities that they like and that needs enough work to develop proficiency on and are at the same time difficult to perform, people connect very well to each other and are at peace and glorious about their progress.

This set up serves mankind in the following ways –

  1. Create bonding and satisfies that primordial craving to connect and engage into social bonding with fellow human beings.
  2. Improves the skill of the person into that activity, and makes them more differentiated and unique. That enables them to more positively impact their community and create value. This sets up a continuous engine of growth and prosperity.
  3. Their sense of peace and joy is now centered and founded upon an immortal domain that never perishes away. Rather it continues to pull them into higher complexities and challenges, and there is no looking back. One can continue to enhance their expertise in an art, game, activity etc, and there is no limit to excellence. That journey is eternal and constant.
  4. They are not anymore attached to the ephemeral aspects of nature like a particular human, animal, institution, relationship etc. They are free. This sense of extreme freedom breeds immense courage and that is a starting point of creativity.
  5. One does not need loo much wealth to engage into a spontaneous activity that inspires them. Moreover int his world of internet things are more easily accessible.
  6. With age this capacity does not diminish. Brain is ever capable to recreate new abilities. This phenomenon is known as brain plasticity.
  7. There is no more emotional baggage of hatred, anger, jealousy, lust, arrogance etc which has very debilitating impact on mind body and other human abilities, and their capacity to connect to fellow human beings.
  8. Man is at ease with the mere uncertainties of life. He rather thrives in the inherent unpredictability of life.
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Being eclectic, yet compassionate

Being eclectic in one’s pursuits is probably one of the most important key to peace, creativity, productivity and potency. We are most of the times in pursuits of something or the other. The pursuits might be that of friends, companionship, materials, inspiration, peace, joy, happiness, schools to study from, subjects to pursue, books to read, authors to know, languages to learn, places to visit, clothes to wear, food to eat, etc. One needs to understand that it is essential to pursue the highest. For the quality of our pursuits define our identity.

It helps to remember the the thumb-rule – ‘Give up the small for the infinite’. One needs to continuously give up the ordinary and embrace the ideal – in anything and everything. This habit ensures that one is evolving, and confirming to one’s nature of being human. For it is in the most primordial nature of man to evolve; for that matter of any living entity. The quality of our moment to moment constant companionship determines the quality of our soul. If one mourns at the loss of petty people and things in one’s life, one squanders the possibility of investing one’s time and creative efforts in the pursuits of the ideal. At times, this ideal also would need to be painstakingly discovered from the plethora of the entities around ones own self, which one might have not even noticed, in the first place. These entities might be people, processes, things or ideas – both within and outside.

Being eclectic about our pursuits brings forth focus. At the same time it helps us to avoid distractions from the ocean of noise around. This saves time, energy and efforts. It is the foundation of “Nishtha”, “Shraddha”, Perfection and Peace. That breeds productivity, quality and potency. This drives value creation – both in one’s own life and the society one belongs to.

This art of being eclectic arises from the ability to let go the mediocre. The ability of letting go, the mediocrity in people, vocation, activities, thoughts, speech and action sprouts in man only when he is pulled by the enchantments of the Ideal. This enchantments need to be continually fuelled. The practice to invoke the divine with the usage of the inspiring models, literature and art in the scriptures, pursuits of difficult disciplines of study, reading a good book, time spent in gym, yoga, running amidst nature, stroll by the side of the ocean etc are some means to maintain the eternal pull towards that Ideal. This constant pull makes this ability of letting go the mediocrity but natural.

This entire scheme can be depicted in this flow –

Step 1 – Engage in inspirational activity, thought, and speech

Step 2 – Maintain the pull towards the Ideal

Step 3 – Let go the small for the infinite

Step 4 – Let that sense of rejection from masses peel of naturally

Step 5 –  Automatic setting in of a self sustaining evolution towards the Ideal

Step 6 – Spontaneous setting in of the feeling of Gratitude , Peace, Glory and Joy in the self and the chosen eclectic world around

Step 7 – Productivity and potency in one’s ideas, speech and action

Step 8 – Go to Step 1

Interestingly in the shloka 5.18, Bhagavad Gita proclaims that wise is one who sees equally the learned who is endowed with knowledge and humility, cow, elephant, dog or the most crude in the darkness of ignorance! Here the sameness of these different groups have not been proclaimed. The mere fact that they are named separately, implies that they are not same. Rather the point is that the wise is able to accept all these diversity, and has the equal sense of belonging and inclusiveness for all forms of creation. It is like having a satellite view in which one is able to see the big picture, and all-inclusive perspective, where all the aspects appear part of the whole, without any obstructions of judgement which blind us from see the person, events, situation as – is!.

So, the point is not relinquish the attitude of eclecticism. Rather, it is about develop that eclectic discernment on the foundation of compassion, inclusiveness, and love. As per the shloka, the idea is not seeing cow, dog, elephant, ignorant, and the learned in the same level. Rather it is about seeing them in a detached mode from a “bird’s eye view”, with the same “bhav” or attitude of compassion, inclusiveness and love.

The shloka goes like this  –

5.18 – विद्या विनय सम्पन्ने ब्राह्मणे  गवि हस्तिनि शुनि चैव श्र्वापाके च पण्डिता: समदर्शिन:

The wise sees all with the same detached attitude of compassion, love, understanding, like a ‘bird’s eye view’, no mater the entity is a learned or an ignorant. Or the entity is an elephant, dog or cow.

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Bhagavad Gita 5.15 Mind Map

Bhagavad Gita

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The World of the Virtues

Meditation, hatha yoga, writing journal helps me to connect to my own self. They are portals to know the self in me more closely. Life appears a never ending journey of friendship with the macrocosm inside me. So many entities, so many dimensions this microcosm within constitutes of! Its like being a feature matrix hung in an n dimensional space. Each moment of calm, settling stint of meditation goes to unravel and reveal each of these position vectors, with n dimensional components. n appears so large! Is it infinity?

Also one more interesting aspect to know these multiple vectors within is developing a sense of co-existence with diversity. Coexistence is also about exploring, knowing and respecting the other existence. There are so many thought quarters, personality, nature, visions, ambition, agendas all floating around – as different stories riding on the mind of varied people, institutions, events etc. Knowing them, and going beyond shutting off with shallow judgement makes so much more sense.

For example a blind fundamental leftist how easily misses the appreciation of the neutral insights of Marx in his book Capital. And a crony capitalist, how easily misses out the nuances of the invisible hand of Adam Smith. Or for that matter, a shallow uneducated nationalist, misses out the wonder of the rich culture of other worlds.

Hatred, conflicts and strains appear in relationship many a times due to this laziness of a self proclaimed end to continue the journey of exploration, learning and listening.

More i read, more i reflect, more i think, it appears to me that the archetypes and human ideals like love, courage, sincerity, commitment, perseverance, aspiration, veneration, respect, sacrifice etc has nothing to do with nationality, region, or for that matter humans themselves! Humans might be at max considered as a temporary basin to hold these virtues. These virtues have their own independent existence in the realm of not man, but his inspiring creations! These virtues belong to an immortal world. Men, countries, societies, institutions are all temporary place holders. They belong to the ephemeral world of temporality.

Its like motherhood is beyond a mother, brotherhood is beyond a brother, sisterhood is beyond a sister, love is beyond a lover. These are virtues from the immortal realm. Mortal entities just wear those garbs.

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Adi Shankaracharya and Institution building to keep Guru Prampara and Advaith Vedanta alive.

Adi ShankaraAdi Shankara (pronounced [aːd̪i ʃəŋkəɾə]; early 8th century CE[2][note 1]) was a philosopher and theologian[5] from India who consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta.[1] He is credited with unifying and establishing the main currents of thought in Hinduism.

His works in Sanskrit discuss the unity of the ātman and Nirguna Brahman “brahman without attributes”.[9] He wrote copious commentaries on the Vedic canon (Brahma Sutras, Principal Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita) in support of his thesis.[10] His works elaborate on ideas found in the Upanishads. Shankara’s publications criticised the ritually-oriented Mīmāṃsā school of Hinduism.[11] He also explained the key difference between Hinduism and Buddhism, stating that Hinduism asserts “Atman (Soul, Self) exists”, while Buddhism asserts that there is “no Soul, no Self”

8th – 12th century AD marked the cultural renaissance in Kashmir .In a period spanning four hundred years Kashmir produced some of the greatest scholars, who were instrumental in shaping Indian thought and Philosophy. It was in this time that we see the resurgence of Agama and Tantra in Kashmir. The revelation of Siva Sutras could be termed as a milestone in the re-establishment of the Shaivate philosophy.

Adi Shankara travelled all the way from Kerala to Sharada Peetham(a shakti Peetham in Kashmir) in the second decade of 9th century . There he consolidated and established his ideas on Advaith philosphy. Then he travelled down south to Shringeri, Karnataka (near Chikamangalur), and set up the first Matha on Advaith Philosophy, and established the Sharada Temple Peetham in the Matha. This came to be known as Shringeri Sharada Peetham. After that, he established 3 more such peetham in the remaining 3 corners of India. This gave India the 4 seats of scholars and masters who were engaged in maintaining the eternal Sanatana Dharma, from the view point of the Advatya Vedanta Philosophy.Shankaracharya Mathas

The ancient Sharada Shakti Peetham in Kashmir was the seed of the Shakta and Agamas.  This influence is so very well seen in the works of Adi Shankara. He wrote a collection of 6 shlokas known as Atmana Shatakam or Nirvana Shatakam. This is provided below  with translation –

The same influence of Kshmiri Shaivism and Kashmir’s Sharada Peetham is visible in his first matha in Shringeri, Karnataka. Shringeri Sharada Peetham is the first Matha created by Adi Shankara after his inspiration from the Kashmir’s ancient Sharada Peetham.

Later he established his eastern pheetham – Govardhana Pitham which houses the famous Jagannatha Temple. Lord Jagannatha is considered to be the 9th incarnation of Vishnu. But also he is worshipped as Bhairav (the fierce incarnation of Shiva) in the same temple. There are many tantrics who perform their rituals in this temple precincts.

He continued to travel the length and breath of India, and established 2 more pethams – one in Dwarka and the other at Badrinath. Following are the maths Adi Shankaracharya set up.

Sharada Srigeri Peetham Shrigeri Sharadamba Temple (Shringeri, Karnataka) Sharada/Saraswati/Shakti
Govardhan Peetham Lord Jagannath Temple (Puri, Odhisa) Lord Jagannath/Bhairava (Vishnu/Shiva)
Jyorthimatha Pitham Badrinath Temple (Badrinath town, Uttarakhand) Badrinath/Badrinarayana (Vishnu)
Dwarka Peetham Dwarkadheesh Temple (Dwarka town, Gujarat) Dwarakadheesh (Vishnu)

Setting up of these mathas were important. They were building of institutions that would continue the Guru Parampara continuously from 900 AD till date, ranging across a huge period of 1,117 years till date! This was a strategic move to enable the wisdom to be created and maintained across generations, going beyond the intellectual prowess of a single person.

Another important thing that Sankara did was that he made the 4 mathas specialize in different Vedas. This enabled deep dive into different Vedas by people who were more inclined to one of them. Following are the different themes of the Vedas, which are totally different from each other, and people would need to really spend enough time and efforts to know, apply and practice the wisdom in them. Hence it made pure sense to set up 4 universities to specialize in the 4 Vedas.

Govardhan Peetham, Jagannath Puri, Odhissa Rig Ved Principles of existence It has 10 Books known as Mandalas. These contain 10,552 mantras. These mantras are known as riks, which is chanted in various meters such as Gayatri,
Anushtup, Trishtup. The meter is determined by the number syllables ending wiht a vowel. A mantrain Gayatri meter should have 24 such syllables.
Sharada Peetham, Shringeri, Karnataka Yajur Ved Applications of the knowledge. It is divided into two books – Shukla Yajurveda and Krishna Yajur Veda. This contains a combination of rik mantras and yajus mantras. Unlike rik mantras yajus mantras are short and rhythmic phrases, such as, ‘namah shivaya’.
Dwaraka Peetham, Dwaraka, Gujarat Sama Ved It is a subset of Rig Veda, and the same mantras are sung in rhythms Every mantra has a number mentioned to the left of the text. It runs from 1 to 1,875.
Jyotirmath Peetham, Badrinath, Uttarakhand Atharva Ved Impact on the world. Sustenance. Sociology, politics, battles, education, healing, longevity, Ecology. Many popular Shanti mantras from the Upnaishads are found here. This Veda contains the “Bhu Suktam” – An Ode to Earth. THe only one in teh entire ancient literature of the world. It begins with the idea that earth is not a mere physical structure, but an organism.

Such was the constructive and organisational aptitude of Adi Sankara. Due to his systematic approach of building institutions in the right manner, he revived the Santan Dharma, when it was increasingly losing popularity due to the increasing appeal of Buddhism and Jainism.

His philosophy of Advaith Vedanta is inspiring, and enables us to reflect on the non-dual aspect of your unchanging experience that is a silent observer amidst the changing ephemeral dram of the mind and the world of the physical.

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