Sunday, April 12, 2009
(Courtesy: The Chronicle Review)
My one-year-old and I spent the bulk of this week down at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, sitting in on both a dissertation defense and a dissertation proposal defense. It was a wonderful way to spend three days.
I always tell people that my favorite moment as a Columbia graduate student had to be during the two hours (maybe it was only an hour and a half) that I spent discussing/defending my dissertation proposal with a dissertation committee that included faculty members from Columbia and NYU, the Department of Anthropology and Columbia Law. They were critical and encouraging. They cautioned me against methodological missteps and challenged me to think more ambitiously about my intellectual endgame. I appreciated them taking the time to really engage my work, and the session gave me the nerve I needed to strike out for “the field” and begin my ethnographic research.
But the other side of that dissertational experience is equally fulfilling, maybe even more so. There’s nothing like watching a confident doctoral student frame his or her research on the fly. Nothing like admiring the way a dissertator deftly answers questions with a purposeful deployment of “the literature” and a nimble analytical mind. That’s particularly thrilling when you can recall such students’ graduate school applications so many years before, or their first few semesters as tentative and uncertain graduate students. The growth this process sometimes demands can be amazing.
The dissertation defense, at its best, represents one stunning culmination of an early scholar’s developmental trajectory. Is there anything more inspiring than sitting in on an unequivocally successful dissertation defense, especially when the student demonstrates real nuance and rigor, even shades of true brilliance?
I sometimes balk when academics call specific colleagues or students “brilliant.” “Smart.” Every once in a while it feels like a throwaway comment, something people just say. But I can certainly understand why a person might witness a stellar dissertation defense and label that student-cum-doctor brilliant for all time.
I definitely think that signing-off on a well-written dissertation and its compelling oral defense can be the most fulfilling part of an academic’s job. And this week’s defenses were so wildly successful that I can’t help but feel energized about my own writing plan this summer.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Aarttee Kaul Dhar
To quote S Vivekananda, “The Ramayana and Mahabharata are the two encyclopedias of the ancient Aryan life and wisdom portraying an ideal civilization which humanity has yet to aspire after.”
Tracing Indian philosophical and literary history is an interesting exercise as it reveals records of religious and philosophical developments all striving towards ‘samanvaya’ which is synthesis, reconciliation and concord.
Cultural patterns different environments diverse racial contributions and numerous local and historical traditions must have though influenced the Indian culture and philosophy they could not but affect its continuity during six thousand years or more.
It would be impatient on my part to just talk of the epics without mentioning the itihasas, puranas, dharmas and other shastras significant in their own way providing necessary base and background to the whole picture in this humble tour-de-force. It is a huge topic but this is just a glimpse.
The wisdom correctly imparted by these ancient epics and shastras is specially felt to be significant in the present day Indian conditions and invaluable for a proper solution of the problem of national integration exercising the minds of the Indian leaders. Also in global context it’s of imminence as it talked of the world being one family the ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’ centuries before the development of the mass communications actually made the world a global village.
The message brought forth by these ancient texts is the conviction of the presence of the Supreme Being or the param Brahma in every animate entity leading to the realization of the dignity of each individual thus creating bond of love and mutual sympathy. It is indispensable for today and tomorrow and it puts values emphasized in modern civilization in proper perspective.
Neither stark individualism nor collectivization can solve the problems confronting humanity today and this message is specially conveyed by the puranas dharmashatras and the epics. As pointed out by Amarkosha the Vedic commands are like those of the master [Prabhu samhita] whereas the pauranic teachings are like advice and counsel of friends [Suhrit samhita].
The age of racial and ideological conflict that produced the epics also produced the Manu dharmashastra, yagyavalkya’s code and other puranas, this time was characteristic of mental expansions and new political outlooks resulting in the emergence of the idea that India in spite of all its diversities of race caste kingdoms cultures and creed was essentially one. This fundamental unity is enforced in various passages of the puranas Ramayana and Mahabharata. For ex. The Kurma purana & the Vayupurana talk of one Bharatvarsha. The Hindu scheme of life - dharma artha kaam & moksha was perfected and codified during this period. Ideal characters representing all stages of human life became epic heroes whether rishis sanyasins students or princes all were presented. Their influence cannot be exaggerated as perfect examples of human potentiality and relationships as well as achievement may it be Ram Sita Bharata Bhishma Arjun or Yudhishthir. The purpose of these holy books was not to record events in dry detail but to furnish role models. The fact that these books have been proven by researchers as more accurate geographically n historically than supposed to be is beside the point, they did provide examples to emulate.
Though each Purana exalts a particular deity the uniformity of the Hindu approach to the supreme one is confirmed at every turn, e.g Ram is described as a devotee of Shiva and aditya so is Arjuna, the Vayu purana calls one a sinner if one asserts the superiority and inferiority among divine manifestations. Some may accuse these texts of exaggeration distortion or gross over accentuated virtues of some characters like Ram Harishchandra and even Karma but these great products of human genius were not intended to be part of historical directories. These are works of great seers who wove certain traditions inherited truths and ideals into narratives anecdotes episodes and homilies reflecting a certain attitude towards life intending to diffuse their purport amongst the people at large.
The Ramayana presents a picture of kings leading a spiritual life and seers playing a vital role in assisting and advising them in the affairs of the nation. Difficult situations and their impacts are analyzed. Dharma or righteousness is the chief factor and the underlying motive of all human lives in the Ramayana. No compromising correctness for convenience is the message.
The Mahabharata is a manual of ethics and politics, picture of great struggle illustrating conflicting human motives and attributes but a repertory of comprehensive secular and religious learning. Together the two epics have been the foundations of Hindu ethics and beliefs. They deal with actions of heroes as mortal men who embody both human virtues and frailties whereas the puranas celebrate the power and work of various superhuman personages and deities. They are a valuable record of Hindu beliefs originating next after Vedas and incorporated hero worship and divine worship. They can be called pantheistic in character with an underlying quest for unity of life and of Godhead.
All puranas are in dialogue form between the exponent and the enquirer. Vayu purana is the oldest, Vishnu purana was Brahma’s gift to pulatsya who communicated it to parashar and then to maitreyi. Markandey purana and Bhagwat purana are the most celebrated. Bhagwat is estimated equal to Ramayana in popularity and Mahabharata in value, dealing in detail with
Characters are animated by strong passions good and evil. The basic purpose is to show futility of betrayal of ideals and of pursuits of shams and evils. It stresses that an underlying purpose and a guiding destiny are inseparable from human history.
Bhagawat purana appeals to the bhakta or devotee. Various attractive stories embody devotion and detachment in several forms supposedly composed on advice of Narada to Maharishi Veda Vyas that by doing so he would attain serenity and peace of mind as a true devotee of God and his incarnations. The psychology of bhakti has been inimitably studied and expounded in the most popular Bhagawad purana. The spiritual prescriptions in it are adjusted to different stages of individual development.
The itihasas and puranas are also most remarkable for the no. of episodes contained. Here The Gitas deserve special mention most famous being the Shrimad Bhagwad Gita, a revelation granted to Arjun by Shri Krishna at a critical period not only for the kurus and pandavas but for humanity as a whole. It’s been described as embodying pure monism or qualified monism with introduction of prakriti stated as Sankhya Yoga rightly viewed its not a weapon for dialectical warfare. In Shri Aurobindo’s words – “It is a gate opening on the whole world of spiritual truth and experience and the view it gives embraces all provinces of the human mind and soul.”
Gita maps out but does not cut up or build walls. It came into existence after Vedas and Upanishads starting with a freshly conceived synthesis and constructs harmony of knowledge love and action, gyan bhakti and karma through which a human soul can directly approach the eternal it seizes on the real obstacles to spiritual life and compels them to become the means for a richer spiritual conquest. The body and mind are to be utilized for the opening up of a divine life. Gita is said to be a gospel of the divine perfectibility of life.
There are other works entitled Gitas e.g. The ashtavakra samhita – a dialogue between janak and ashtavakra, the Avadhuta Gita- dialogue between rishi Dattatreya and Skandha, the Anu Gita found in ashwameghparvam of the Mahabharata and udhavgeeta embodied in bhagwat purana containing lord Krishna’s instruction to his devotee udhav. The basic message of all geetas is enunciated in the ashtavakra samhita – ‘’ you the immanent self do not belong to any caste or ashram, are beyond any visual perceptions, detached and beyond forms. Witnessing all phenomena you are happy and maintain your equilibrium”.
In udhav geeta
The dharma and artha shastras and legal treatises comprise normative sciences devoted to practical methods by which life should be regulated people should be trained, educated, trade and economic progress can be attained and stimulated and right end of human life can be secured
The Manu smriti is called the leading dharmashastra, kautilya’s ArthaShasta and kamandikas NitiShasta are celebrated manuals on polity. The mitakshara dayabhaga and other legal treatises were based on dharmashatras and governed human and family relationships amongst Hindus through centuries expounding rules that outlined rights and obligations; the king was the fashioner of the times the final appellate authority but was bound by dictates of dharma and custom founded on practice of good men all over the country. In essence it meant that law moved with the times and was not static.
The Manu dharmashastra contains teachings of Manu or the primeval man expounded by his pupil ‘Bhrigu’ setting out rules of living. Many verses of manusmriti occur in Mahabharata. Other dharmshastras were compiled by yagyavalkya, Narad, Gautam, bodhyayan, apasthamba, and others in a period when after epic age
Dharmashastras treat social life from point of view of religion and morality whereas the Arthashastras take account of earlier literatures and study contemporary states from the point of view of their political and social nexus. Kautilya’s treatise in this regard is the most well knit and logical. He says ‘artha is the object of man’ and this Shastra aids in acquisition and protection of property and governance of each country. He mentions schools of polity example jaimini, bhadranarain and others. Arthashastra is based on logic of material interest of kings monarchs and means of securing them keeping in mind presence of small states and their interrelations. Kautilya is in favor of an expanded empire (chakravarti) Vishnu gupta/ chanakya/ kautilya was not only a celebrated king maker but also regarded now as greatest exponent of realistic policies of governance and methods of diplomacy during period of foreign impact and internal disunity. Both economic and political, practical and theoretical problems were studied by our ancients, herein lies their greatness.
In general the epics may be regarded as describing the penetration of Aryan culture into the rest of the country. Where Ramayana is regarded as describing exemplary behaviour, Mahabharata reflects various forms of struggle between good and evil, Bhagwad Gita is a great form of synthesis and Bhagwad purana is marked by spirit of accommodation. In the Hindu view of life ideals and activities were interdependent, society was indivisible, the harmony of the whole creation, not only the state or country depended on reconciliation and equipoise of duties and obligations whether of individuals classes or functionaries.
‘’Life hence was a continuum’’, to quote K V R Aiyangar in his Rajdharma- “not interrupted by death and so were deed and thought”. Along with development in
In the two great epics which we are going to discuss here are said to be unique documents in the literary history of the world depicting phases from transcendental to empirical view of life from divine to mundane.
In Ramayana the divine unknown and nature are brought together and in between are encrusted gods and goddesses, gandharvas, apsaras, nagas, asuras and others. Human mind not resting here we also find moral code common to both gods and men in antipathy to whom the devils and demons are always shown as acting. We thus have a separate pantheon a separate moral code and treatment of religious mysticism and philosophy. The Mahabharata being encyclopedic in nature contains whole chapters on these. In histories of various peoples of the world we find religio-superstitious aspect is meant for the layman mystic elements for the saintly and philosophical features for the analytical mind. As the age of the epics oscillates between the bharata war and the age reaching almost the precincts of the Christian era. We find in epic texts a spiritual fountain quenching the thirst of all alike the agnostics the mystics the philosophers and others. Different systems of philosophy are all described in the epic that is the yoga, Sankhya, Vedanta (aranyak), the sects of shaiva, saura, nandidharma etc. These ageless epics have eventually imbibed the Aryan and non Vedic Aryan element of mythology creating a background for the Hindu religion. For example, the
In addition to Vedic elements epics present the holy trilogy – Vishnu /
The epic pantheon has eight major gods- Surya, Som, Vayu, Agni, Yam, Kuber, Varun, Indra called as lokpalas by manu of the guardians of the quarters.
Vayu vat marut and anila are designations of the wind god and life of the world. Marut is vataskandha, vayumarut is serving god to Indra, hanumat is son or messenger of vat or pawan, skandha is army chief or senapati of Vishnu, yama is bestower of bliss upon the good and woe upon the wicked, is hell guardian and carries souls of the dead to his realm yamaloka. His assembly hall is built by vishwakarma the engineer god. Yama’s dialogue with nachiketa and savitri figure prominently. He is son of god Surya and all gods are in awe of him as he is god of justice or dharma. Varun described by Rig-Veda as supreme moral and physical ruler is shown as mere lord of the west in the epics accompanied by male and female rivers snakes demons half gods and deities called daitya and devata. Kuber is a dwarf residing in
Then there are ribhus higher gods, guhayakas, demons, physicians of gods, the golden birds weaving black and white of time, the first borns among gandharvas are vishvasu and chitrartha. Lore of singing and war music is referred to as gandharva tatva and yudh gandharva. Menaka sahejanya panini punjaktasthala manovati are daughters of prada and are renowned apsaras. Kamadeva or cupid with the ensign of makara is mentioned with his arrows. Reference is made to sadhayas the vidyadhars the 12 adityas the 8 vasus the 11 rudras and the two ashwins. Identical with gods are pitris or pretas. They worship prajapati Brahma in his paradise with pishachas yatudhawas rakshasa etc. They are of one being (ekibhuta) and can assume mortal forms. The stars are believed to be the souls of the departed. After devs and pitars come the divine rishis like agastya and bhrigu. Agastya is the lord of the south who drank the whole ocean benumbed the vindhyas and married lopamudra the perfect woman. Under the category of zoolatry we may include surabhi the divine cow with her own heaven hanumat the divine monkey, elephants or the dig-gajas - mythological guardians of the quarters, nandi - shivas bull vehicle, hansa- the swan, garuda- Vishnu’s eagle vehicle and snakes like the sheshanaga. Divine rivers are mentioned as
Gandhamadhan devaranya divyavana etc. some gods at times are associated with trees as Vishnu with udumbara nyagrodha and ashwatha,
THE THREE GODS
Among gods of the epic pantheon Brahma Vishnu and Shiva represent the three functions of creation, preservation and destruction of the universe; from them and their spouses (from who has stemmed the cult of Shaktism) the epic period gathers the religious beliefs and practices. The existence of god Brahma can be mainly assigned to the efforts of the Brahmans of the day. The neuter Brahma is turned into Brahma (masculine) father god. Shiva and Vishnu Krishna have their own history. Shaivism arose out of contemporary religious notions and beliefs. Vaishnavism may have emerged as combination of many faiths found in the brahmanical and the non brahmanical circles. During the epic period the Brahmin bards were said to be busy assimilating the lore of the indigenous Indian people. They must have met with success at the end of the period.
Trinity Gods have their own heavens. Brahmaloka Vaikunth and Kailash. Sectarian rivalry was but a natural outcome. Hence efforts were made in Mahabharata to smoothen the ill feelings. The scene of Vishwaroop and final fight of Narayan and RudraShiva emphasize unity of Narayana and Shiva giving rise to the notion of ‘hari-hara’. Vishnu and Brahma supposedly sprung from right and left sides of Shiva. Many a time one of the trinity praises another hinting at sometimes subordination and sometimes basic unity and absence of difference. Later these three became starting points of different systems of philosophy and also were identified with three gunas – satva rajas and tamas.
Brahma - is the supreme creator in the epic pantheon, passive wise eternal god sprung from lotus in Vishnu’s navel. He’s designated as prajapati parampita pitamaha chaturmurti chaturmukh etc. MB refers to his seven mind born sons his heaven is above Indralok, Shiva is born from his forehead, gets a son by procastration before him.
Vishnu – Vedic works as Rig-Veda, kathopnishad, taitreyi Upanishad, show different stages through which Vishnu attained eminence. In Bhishma parvam the supreme spirit is identified with vasudev and is addressed as Narayan and Vishnu. Anugita speaks of virat roop shown by
The ten incarnation theory Dashavatar is only mentioned in the interpolated sections of Mahabharata.
Narayana – The taitrye aranyak mentions Narayan for the first time as Supreme Being endowed with upanishadic attributes. Mahabharata identifies
Stage 1– as an ordinary human being, arjuns friend and pandavas counselor
Stage 2 – a semi divine being and finally 3- the Supreme Being.
The harivansh and puranas hint at gopal
Shiva rudra – in the MB there are three stratas presenting Shiva 1. Is the older reference being maha-yogeshwar, maha-sepa-nagna, urdhav-linga, digvasa and urdhava-ratas indicating early yogic and nude representations of Shiva familiar to mohen-jo-daro period. Apparently the naga tribe was closely associated with Shiva indicates the mention of the seven hooded serpent, the second period Vedic and brahamanic refer to Shiva as fierce malevolent destroyer or shatrudriya and rudrahoma kritivasa makhagna with mujavat mountains as residence of Shiva and parvati. He’s mentioned as kuru karta maker of kurus kuruvasi dweller amongst kurus giver of boon to markandeya and weapon to arjun pashupatastra. The third strata refers to Shiva as neelkanth bhootnath his bearing a crescent his association with nandi and ganga episodes of his father - in - law daksha, tripurari etc and versions of 11 rudras. Like Vishnu Shiva is also the super being. The all in all ruler of universe though his principle job was to be the destroyer.
In Ramayana Shiva is designated as Shankar or raudra. He’s god of north and ram defeats him in his role as hara. Shiva is described as destroyer of the universe at the end of the Yug. Hara drinks poison at the insistence of hari. He’s called mahadev maheshwar and shambhu, also has a wonder tree on himvat. When Kuber sees him he becomes yellow eyed. Shiva has 11 epithets as triyambak amaresh bhootnath tripurari burner of kamdev skandha’s father drinker of world destroying poison destroyer of daksha’s sacrifice gangadhar carrier of rosary etc. In the interpolated uttar kand Shiva is more exalted and put under Vishnu. The institution of gods and goddesses was hence coming of age and in Mahabharata it was in full vogue. Their spouses are listed in udyog parvam.
Then there is kartikeya who is son of Agni and aakashganga married to devasena also referred to as son of durga and Shiva responsible for destruction of tarkasur. The epics accept authority of Vedic scriptures as means of knowledge perception and recognize their influence as valid.
The philosophical systems found are
· Cosmology - creation of universe from the cosmic egg by the primordial person, by duality of the sex and by the unmanifest or avyakt. The personalistic hypothesis of creation is introduced by raising Shiva or Vishnu Krishna to the status of the Supreme Being then considered ishwar. A direct development of ardh-narishwar theory may have paved way for theory of purusha and prakriti. Prakriti is different from cosmic purush and they are two aspects of Brahma. Brahma is also said to have been created from Brahman or avyakta or the unmanifested.
· Sankhya – Mahabharata speaks of Sankhya as a system, darshan or philosophy and an enumeration parisankhya. The shantiparvam besides the panchashikha and deval theories gives three different accounts of cosmic principles of Sankhya system. Yagyavalkya explains to janak the eight prakritis comprising the avyakta unmanifest mahat cosmic intelligence and ahankar or egoism. Five gross elements 16 vikaras comprising 5 finer elements 5 organs of perception and 5 organs of action and the manas gyan Buddha etc. thus 24 principles. Sankhya in early phase is called nirishwar or atheistic devoid of a belief in one personal supreme god. Later by addition of 25th principle it became panchavinshatika the yogins pashupaths bhagwats super added 26th principle namely one exalted spirit as supreme god. The epic Sankhya assumes the three gunas satva rajas and tamas - all varnas animals and beasts come under these three categorizations the plurality or unity of souls is discussed in detail. Panchashikha kapilaey is said to be the first disciple of asuri who was a disciple of kapila who was the propounder of the Sankhya system. Disgusted with birth actions and with all things, sarva nirveda it’s on these foundation of panchashikha system is based. It says nirvana is attained by rejection of unnecessary and untrustworthy delusion anavashyak moh which leads to religious practices and hopes of reward. It uses the terms Sankhya jeeva and kshetrayan (atma). The 31 principles given by panchashikha are 5 karmindriyas 5 gyanindriyas budhi satva ahankar vasan avidya prakriti maya sukh dukh priya apriya dwandwa kal panchamahabhuta sadhav asadhav (5 gross elements with being and non being) 7 constituents vidhi shukra bal, purush and atma. Probably after this gita added 7 elements to its 24 principles making 31 in all. Elements added were desire aversion pleasure pain body perception and courage. The highest goal lies in anand in the state of Brahman.
· Yoga – two kinds of yogas are described in Mahabharata – one, which enables a person to wander in 10 directions, the other eightfold path or ashtangyog described in Vedas and accepted in classical schools. Correct diet, mode of attaining bliss, such rules are also described. Sankhya ensures knowledge and yoga health. The Mahabharata effects an amalgamation of the two by declaring both to be as equally efficacious. The first gives knowledge and the second direct perception.
· Vaishnavism – this in epics is varied in character. Mainly found in anugita and bhadwadgita and moksha dharmaparvam. At places its like pantheism to which is superimposed a personal god at others it’s a theistic doctrine explained by the vyuhas. The doctrine of the vyuhas explained in narayaniya section can be summarized as vasudev is the supreme soul, sankarshan is the primeval matter or prakriti pradyumna is cosmic mind or manas anirudh is cosmic self consciousness or ahankar. Sometimes one form of the lord or vyuha is taught and sometimes more than one.
Ekantika religion is said to be the best from of vaishnavism at many places equivalent to narayaniya shashwat bhagwat. Sole devotion to narayan or supreme god is preached in it as the only means of seeing god. The shantiparvam states ekantika was revealed to janmejaya in harigita and to arjun before the big war.
· Vedanta – some passages or chapters are found on vedantic doctrine on Brahman. The shrimadbhagwad gita also refers o the expression vedantakrit hence to most it appears that the epics gave philosophies in transition between Upanishad period and that of later systems. Epics describe 4 purusharthas or human ends and dharma is code of life keeping the society together that is dharmo dhariyate prajah.
Itihasa samavadas belonging to ascetic poetry teach universal morality. Love of all human beings and renunciation of the world and they come under category of niti or ethical standards. The epics also enunciate the doctrine of karma and state that by knowledge a person becomes free from bonds of birth and rebirth. Discussions on types of karma and on the issue whether destiny or self effort prevails in life are also met with. Dictums like that ‘which is conducive to the utmost welfare of the human being is the truth’ are found.
On the whole the summumbonum of life is to have a perfect piece of mind and joy that does not know sorrow in this world and next. Epics teach first of all that in the pursuit of emancipation nothing can get in your way no barrier like cast creed birth or sex. Women philosophers like sulabha and courtesan pingala are also mentioned.
The epics for the first time it seems bring together diverse systems of philosophy and give them new color and vigor preaching karma bhakti and gyan with a widened meaning. God showers his grace on everyone irrespective of divisions even a leaf flower or a little water offered with devotion and love is acceptable to him. In the light of these teachings the frustrated human mind calms down as does Arjuna’s after he puts non desire in place of fears worries attachment and hopes.
It is said epics became the real Vedas for the masses. Their influence was so profound lasting and continuous in moulding life and character of the Indian people that not only on literature but it was witnessed on all forms of art and culture and general texture of social life. Works which have affected so large a population over such a long period of time and moulded the character and civilization of so vast a region often transcending geographical limits should not be termed mere epics they should better be called history of
Aarttee Kaul Dhar hails from Jaipur [Rajasthan]. She writes in English, Urdu and Hindi.