Basic Lessons from Indian Tradition*
The New Millennium has begun as an era of Knowledge Management, Information Technology revolution and Globalisation. Some years ago, an incident occurred that provoked me to rethink about what we are getting into.
June 1995. Up and away from the blazing Deccan plateau in the cool heights of Kodaikanal, two lines of poetry suddenly quoted by an agricultural scientist in the middle of Planning Commission deliberations shook me out of a pleasant post-luncheon stupor:
"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
Back home, digging out T.S. Eliot's The Rock, I was transfixed by the passage:
"Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"1
Humanity's attitude today uncannily echoes that of Mahodar, counsellor of Ravana, the mighty demon-king. Scoffing at the ruler's brother Kumbhakarna for criticising the king's sacrificing dharma at the altar of desire, Mahodar exclaims:
"Work without desire, a pure heart, liberation -
all take time. But work with desire
is fruitful promptly.
No waiting in this life,
no waiting for re-birth.
Hence, desire is supremely electable.
To fulfil desire is action's goal,
To enjoy is life's acme.'2
This is the hedonistic path of Charvaka which, intermeshing with realpolitik, produces the devastating explosions in Los Angele, New York, Baghdad, Jakarta, Kosovo, Birmingham, Grozny, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi, Chandigarh, Kashmir and Gujarat, spawns the world of narco-terrorism and corruption riving the polity apart. How true are the words of Eliot:
'men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason,
And then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic...
an age which advances progressively backwards.'3
Arnold Toynbee, the great historian, voiced a prophetic warning that we in India need to hear again and again today :
'It is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending, if it is not to end in the self destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in human history, the only way of salvation for mankind is an Indian way."4
But here we come up against an obstacle. Our educational system has reverted to Macaulay's scheme of schooling that divorces Indians from what is best in their own heritage for disempowering them and keeping them subservient to others. Speaking of six fatal mistakes in the past fifty years that have dragged the country down, the eminent jurist Nani Palkhivala writes, "The fourth major mistake of our Central and Stare governments was to completely insulate the people from our ancient culture and keep them totally ignorant of the priceless heritage which has never been equalled by any other country.'5 Centuries ago, The Guru Granth Sahib had put it so very pithily:
"If you wish to bear fruits
You must go to your roots.'6
The renowned novelist Nirmal Verma laments, "In the half-hearted process of trying to become 'modern', we have dried up even those life-giving sources which, in the darkest periods of historical crises, kept the flame of hope alive. By slavishly imitating the dazzling 'models' of other cultures, we have destroyed our own spiritual habitat, turning ourselves into orphaned refugees in our own native land."7 This is what the philoso'pher K.C. Bhattacharya warned us to be beware of: the "rootless universalism" of the Indian "shadow mind".8
Education is supposed to provide knowledge. Yes, but to what effect? After all, instead of ripening into a rich, life-sustaining wisdom if the net result is the pigmy-isation of man, perhaps we need to rethink. The new millennium offers us a timely opportunity to reflect on our present, look back to our past and decide on the path for the future, for
"Time present and time past
An; both perhaps present in time future,
And lime future contained in time past."9
Axiomatically, man-making is the goal of education. But what is it to be a man? It is to have to to be; is it existing or living; is it achieving a higher quality of being or a larger quantity of possessing? Indian thought is characteristically holistic in its answer: it is the development of human potential to the maximum; the harmonious fruition of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual possibilities inherent in the human being, develop'ing him from a self-centred individual into an integrated personality func'tioning as a responsible citizen of the world. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee found its finest exemplar in Krishna.10 The proposition is unexceptionable, but is it practical? Was it ever practised? Doubts understandably arise because in the New Millennium we witness:
"Things fall apart the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."11
We seem to have regressed to the welter of confusion Matthew Arnold wrote of towards the end of the 19th century in "Dover Beach":
"And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night,"
Luckily for us, three distinct lamps of ancient Indian tradition ' the Upanishads, the Puranas and the epics ' emit unwavering rays of light slicing through the oppressive gloom. The supremacy of Dharma has been an overarching value upheld in Indian tradition from the earliest times.
Because the concept is widely misunderstood by modern Indians, it is necessary to clarify what it connotes before proceeding further. Here is the insight offered by a Westerner, Margaret Noble, which would be more acceptable to us today than the words of our own savants:
"Dharma can in no sense be taken as the name of a religion. It is the essential quality, the permanent, unfluctuating core, of substance ' the man-ness of man, life-ness of life, as it were."12
As we choose to shy away from philosophical texts and pursue entertainment as our goal ' ye dil maange more, ye pyaas hai badi ' the support that we flounder about in search of is available in our Puranas arid epics. These have the built-in advantage, writes Sri Aurobindo, of contain'ing "the highest spiritual and philosophical truths, not broken up and expressed in apposition to each other as in the debates of the thinkers, but synthesised In a fusion, relation or grouping in the way most congenial to the catholicity of the Indian mind and spirit.'13 Both, specially the epics, portray dharma in action and are by no means "a mere mass of un-transmuted legend and folklore, as is ignorantly objected, but a highly artistic representation of intimate significances of life, the living presentment of a strong and noble thinking, a developed ethical and aesthetic mind and a high social and political ideal, the ensouled image of a great culture ... the Indian epic poems were fashioned to serve a greater (than the Greek and Latin epics) and complete national and cultural function.'14 Their accep'tance throughout the country at all levels of society for more than two millennia testifies to their being the repository of the life-blood of Indian civilization. We are prone to forget that no other living civilization in the world has a recorded heritage more ancient.
The Puranas contain some remarkable stones about children that are singularly appropriate for passing on, unobtrusively, the rich wisdom of Indian heritage. No child can fail to identify with the sufferings of Dhruva and Prahlad. These are outstanding and unforgettable instances of the child refusing to abandon the transcendent value he has chosen above the materialistic goal, despite being subjected to every type of physical torture by those desperate to bend him to elect their worldly values. Both stories are loo well known to need recounting here, but let us attend to five-year old Dhruva's musings after Vishnu has granted him prayer for earthly power:
"Vain is this worldly advantage that I have sought, just like the treatment given to a dead man. After propitiating the Lord, the Soul of the worlds, whose grace is so difficult to obtain, I have, alas, sought of him who is the destroyer of samsara, my continuance in it."15
In an inspired study, Prema Nandakumar points out that Dhruva's success is founded on his mother Suniti's advice to abjure hatred for his more favoured brother, for anger and hatred lie at the root of the human spirit's fall:
"This is what makes Indian culture unique. There is nothing here which can be compartmentalised as mine and yours; as belonging to childhood, youth or old age, as love or hate; as life or death. It is a wonderful quadrant made up of men and gods, earth and heaven. It is an integral world in every way with the Supreme firmly resting at the centre of everything. The Puranas teach us this truth repea'tedly. Suruchi's advice is for all times: let your life be a tapasya: tapasa aradhya purnsham! Worship the Supreme through askesis!'16
In Ramayana we have more than one sterling instance of material possessions sacrificed without demur at the altar of moral convictions and public duly, consciously electing shreya over preya. In the individual sphere of adult decision-making however, it is the lesser well-known Mahabharata Which presents for our edification an engrossing picture of "Desire under the Kalpataru"'17: desire, if powerful, gets fulfilled, but brings in its wake a price to be paid which, more often than not, outweighs the gratification experienced through fulfilment of the desire. In a way, it is very much like Stevenson's bottle imp. To appreciate the thematic brilliance of this concept, it is necessary to recount the story of the Kalpataru, the Wish-fulfilling Tree whose roots are in the heavens and whose branches permeate the cosmos, like the Norse Yggdrasill.1
Into a room in a village hut full of children at play walks the proverbial mama, the favourite maternal uncle, who invariable "knows better." He tells them to lift up their eyes, look out of the window and see the huge Kalpataru, wish-fulfilling tree, outside. He tells them they they should cast aside their silly indoor games, and go to the tree which will grant them whatever they wish ' the real stuff! The children know better and ignore the mama; but the moment he has left, they rush out, stand under the all-encompassing branches, and ask. They ask for what all children crave: toys and sweets. The tree grants them their wishes. But with it, they also get a bonus: the built-in opposite of the wish! Along with the toys, they get boredom; and with the sweets, they get tummy-ache. Sure that something has gone wrong with their wishing, the children ask again; this time for bigger toys and sweeter sweets. The Tree obliges, providing along with these greater boredom and more painful stomach-ache, Time passes. The children grow up into young men and women. Their wishes change with their age. Now they "know more". They ask for wealth, fame, power and sexual pleasure. Unquestioningly, the tree grants their desire, but also gifts them miserliness, insomnia, anxiety and a fevered brow and parched tongue. Time passes. The askers are now old. They gather in three groups under the tree. The first group exclaims, "All this is an illusion!" They arc fools, says the story, and they have learned nothing. The second group is "wiser" and decides, "Now we know better. Well wish better next time." They are greater fools, says the story; they have learned less than nothing. The third group, disgusted with everything, resolves to opt out and ask for death. The tree promptly grants their desire and, with it, us opposite: re'birth under the same tree. For, where can one be born or re-born but within the cosmos! They, says the story, are the most foolish of all.
All this while, one child has been unable to move out of the room. Being lame, he was pushed aside as his playmates crowded to the door, fighting to get to the tree first. He has been riveted to the window, watching the lila (the play) of the Kalpataru unfold itself. He has watched his friends make their wishes, get them along with their built-in opposites and suffer; yet, compulsively, continue to make more wishes. Transfixed by this fascinating play and counterplay of desire and its fruits, a profound swell of compassion wells up in the heart of this lame child, reaching out to his companions. In that process, lie forgets to wish for anything, (not, be it noted, re'membering to forget). In that moment of spontaneous compassion for others, he has sliced through the roots of the cosmic tree with the sword of non-attachment, of nishkama karma. He is the liberated one, the mukta-purusha.
It is this parable of the Kalpataru, whose roots are upwards, whose branches pervade the cosmos, that is the over-arching symbol encompassing the Mahabharata.
Where shall we seek for the path, floundering about in the darkling morass of information, lit up by will-o'-the-wisps of consumerism starting up where least expected, their greedy flames licking at us from all directions? It is to be found most trenchantly conveyed in the story of Yayati, king of kings, dynast of the Lunar Dynasty. He is the archetypal human driven by desire, surrendering to the siren song of consumerism. Yayati passes on to us what he has learnt with great anguish. This earth, he says, is a hell for egotists who are the slaves of greed, pride, anger and fear. Lust, money, power and pride are intertwined. The pursuit of one inevitably traps man in the others. Pursuing this adharma, man gains what seems desirable, but actually perishes at the root ' a profound insight that Yayati s descendant, Krishna, immortalises in the Gita. It is Yayati who sums it up in words of deceptive simplicity that go straight to the mark:
"Desire never ends,
Desire grows with feeding,
Like sacrificial flames,
Lapping up ghee.
Because the sole lord of
The world's paddy fields, wheat-fields,
Precious stones, beasts, women ...
Still not enough.
This disease kills. The wicked
Cannot lessen it, True happiness
Lies in controlling it.
I have lived in many realms,
I was adored by the gods,
I shone like the gods,
I was powerful like the gods ...
for millions of years I made love
to apsaras in the Nandana-gardens,
under clustering, lovely trees
ornamented with flowers
shedding delicate scent upon us ...
Then a fearful-faced messenger came
and shouted loudly, thrice:'
Lost! Lost I Lost!
And I fell from Nandana."19
The point is, as Aldous Huxley wrote in Point Counter Point,
"That's the enormous stupidity of the young people of this generation... they never think of life except in terms of... How shall I have a good time? .. Why am I not having a better time? But this is a world where good times... simply cannot be had continuously, and by everybody.. And alter it's been had for a little, it becomes a bore. Everybody strains after happiness, und the result is that nobody's happy. It's because they're on the wrong road... For it's not by pursuing happiness that you find it; it's by pursuing salvation. And when people were wise, instead of merely clever, they thought of life in terms of salvation and damnation, not of good times and bad times. If you're feeling happy now. Marjorie, that's because you've stopped wishing you were happy and started trying to he better. Happiness is like coke ' something you get as a by-product in the process of making something else'
Developing this insight, C.M. Joad, the philosopher, continues:
"The kingdom of happiness is not to be taken by storm any more than it is to be purchased by wealth... Set out to seek happiness and ii will elude you; in row yourself body and soul into your work; devote yourself to a cause: lift yourself up out of the selfish little pit of vanity and desire which is the self, by giving yourself to something which is greater than the self, and on looking back you will find that you have been happy. Happiness, in short, is not a house that can be built by men's hands; it is a flower that surprises you, a song which you hear as you pass the hedge, rising suddenly- find dimply into the night and dying down again."
Besides desire, Yayati warns us against pride and vanity as the destroyers of all merit, all good deeds. But the blitzkrieg of globalisation encourages in us precisely those impulses:
"The wise say: Seven gates,
Asceticism, charity, serenity,
Self-control, modesty, simplicity,
and kindness, lead to heaven.
Pride cancels all these ...
Study, control of speech, respect
For ritual, performance of yajna '
These remove fear. Mixed with pride.
These four create fear ...
'I gave so much,
I performed many sacrifices,
I am learned,
I keep my vows '
All vanity, all pride.
Give it up, absolutely."21
The warning is clear. The tragedy lies in Yayati falling into this pit despite' having before him the example of his father Nahusha. The only earthly monarch chosen by the gods to rule heaven, he was cast out because of his overweening pride and lust. Nahusha turned-boa, holding his mighty descendant Bhima powerless in his mortal coils, warns:
"the man who gives in to lust,
anger, malice and
greed falls from the human level
to the animal."22
If we wish to learn the way out of this consumerism-plagued, "affluenza"-afflicted earth-hell, we can turn to Yayati's descendant Yudbishthira as, over the corpses of his four brothers, he answers, unperturbed, the death-dealing, inscrutable, riddling Yaksha :
"Anger is the unconquered enemy of man.
Greed is his persistent frailty ...
Exaggerated self-importance is pride ...
Self-importance is massive ignorance ...
Renunciation of pride?
makes a man loved.
Renunciation of anger
brings freedom from sorrow,
Renunciation of lust
makes a man wealthy.
Renunciation of greed
makes a man happy ...
Moral knowledge is the; best wealth.
Health is the greatest gift.
Contentment is the greatest happiness.
The controlled mind means freedom from sorrow.'23
Modern man, chasing desire, experiences what the hosts of Lucifer. Son of the Morning, faced when greedily they swooped down on the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden:
"... They, fondly thinking to allay
Their appetite with gust, instead of fruit
Chewed bitter ashes."
This is an insight that we find later in Mahabharata memorably iterated in the Gita. Thousands of years later it has been reiterated in our own times by The Mother:
"The true freedom is to be free from desire.
The true independence is to be independent from passion.
The true mastery is to be master of oneself.
That alone is the key to happiness."24
Though voiced with desperate urgency by Yayati, and despite its destructive aftermath being exemplified repeatedly in the lives of Pururava. Nahusha, Samavarana, Shantanu, Vichitravirya and Pandu, it goes unheeded by the hungry generations of their descendants. How well it exemplifies the warning of Krishna!
"Greed is a fierce fire.
It destroys judgment.
It fools the wise.
It hides in the mind.
The intellect and the senses.
It destroys the atman.
By working through them.
Therefore, first control the senses."25
This is the existential experience pervading the Mahabharata which Vyasa, India's seer-poet, envisions as an outcome of man's fascination with the Kalpataru. Vyasa creates a marvellously eidetic picture of this symbol in the words of Krishna:
"Mention is made of a cosmic fig-tree
whose leaves are said to be the Vedas;
the knower of this fig-tree
is the knower of the Vedas.
Its branches reach out below and above.
Its flowers are the objects of the senses;
below the ground flourish more roots,
giving birth to action.
You may not see its real shape.
nor its end, birth and existence.
Slice this fig-tree with non-attachment.'26
But let us get back to education per se. The Upanishads give us the tale of a boy who tells his mother that he wants to be like the others he sees sitting at the feet of a preceptor, acquiring knowledge. His mother wonders if her child will be accepted, for the teacher will first wish to know the aspirant's parentage. Giving in to his importunate pleas, she lets her son go after his heart's desire. The mother gives her son his first lesson in life, as Suniti gave to Dhruva; grapple truth to your heart with hoops of steel, she tells him that all she can provide by way of introduction is that he is the son of a woman named Jabala who has dutifully served many a Brahmin in many a place. Touching his mother's feet, humbly and with unflinching determi'nation the boy approaches the sage Gautam, resplendent with wisdom. Satyakam replies to the inevitable query in the words he has heard from his mother. The pupils snigger; but the sage accepts him, admiring the pristine glow of truth that shines forth from this boy, and declares that none but one who is truly a Brahmin can speak the truth unhesitatingly thus. He gives him the name Satyakam-Truth-craver.
Two things stand out: an unflinching determination to acquire know'ledge from a worthy preceptor; and a devotion to owning the truth that supersedes egoistic concerns over social stigma. How Satyakam acquires spiritual knowledge is in itself a wonderful lesson in education that is well known. In turn, when he becomes a renowned acharya, he behaves in a peculiar fashion with one of his pupils, Upakosal. All the pupils leave the ashram having been declared successful, but for twelve years Upakosal goes on serving his teacher who imparts him the knowledge. At length, when even his wife upbraids him for neglecting this faithful pupil, Satyakam suddenly leaves on a journey. Upakosal, utterly wretched, fasts in the sacrificial enclosure, refusing all sustenance. Now, just as Satyakam had been imparted the supreme knowledge by an ox, the sacred fire, a swan and a water-bird while he faithfully tended his guru's cattle, so too Upakosal is imparted knowledge of the sacred by the three sacred fires of the yajna-shala. They advise him that his guru will provide the final revelation about the atman.
In Mahabharata we find a counterpart in Karna. Mere, too, we have an unflinching determination to acquire mastery of weapon-craft from the finest teacher. Turned away by Drona, who will only teach royalty, he decides to approach the legendary Brahmin-warrior from whom Drona got his knowledge: Parashuram. Unlike Satyakam, Karna is no poverty-stricken child. He is a young man constantly jibbing against the stigma of being a charioteer's adopted son, desperately craving recognition as a Kshatriyas warrior. For this he is willing to go to any lengths. Knowing that Parashuram hates Kshatriyas, he introduces himself as a Brahmin aspirant and successfully masters all that the ancient sage can teach him. At the end, however, it is his nature that betrays his identity and the guru curses him with inability to call forth the ultimate weapon when he needs it most. This is not all. Eagerly practising his newly learned craft, Karna ' like Dasharatha in Ramayana - indiscriminately shoots an arrow in the direc'tion of a sound and finds he has slain a heifer. Its Brahmin owner curses him that when he fights for his life, his chariot-wheel will sink into the earth, immobilising him. The Kalpataru is at work.
The account of the tutelage of the Pandavas is too well known to bear repetition; but a few points need to be made. Drona agrees to teach the sons of Dhritarashtra and Pandu provided they undertake to give him, in return, whatever he wants. The Dhartarashtras hesitate. Not so the Pandavas, who unquestioningly agree and thus prove to be ideal pupils. But it is not enough to be a dutiful pupil. All the brothers are obedient. It is the intense desire to master archery that marks out Arjun. When everyone stands petrified with shock as a crocodile drags their guru into the waters. Arjun shoots it dead in a trice and is rewarded with a special missile by the grateful Drona. Arjun alone can narrow down his concentration literally to a pinpoint so that he sees only the pupil of the wooden bird's eye that is the target, while the others see everything around too. Noticing that Ashvatthama, the guru's son, was getting extra tuition by reaching Drona first with water from the river, being the only student given a wide-mouthed vessel to fill. Arjun uses a special arrow to fill his vessel equally fast and is thus able to avail of the same extra lesson. At night, while he is eating, the lamp goes out and Arjun notices that even in the dark his hand reaches food to his mouth unerringly, without conscious effort. He draws a brilliant inference from this about the body's automatic responses and begins practising archery m the dark, becoming an archer without parallel. Yet, when lathi wielding Abhirs snatch the Yadava women he is escorting from Dwaraka, Arjun finds himself in Karna's predicament. The perfect warrior cannot summon up a single missile and can only watch in anguished impotence. The Kalpataru acts remorselessly, impartially.
However, when we speak of Arjun, we cannot do so without reference to his guru. We have named the national award for coaches after Dronacharya, not realising what a flawed model we are celebrating. Drona is devoid of the traits of forgiveness, humility and non-attachment that characterise a true preceptor. As in the case of Karna, it is a sense of deeply injured merit that drives Drona. He needs must avenge the insult suffered at the hands of his schoolmate King Drupada and become his equal in power and pelf. To achieve that end he calculatedly impresses the princes of Hastinapura with a display of his skills, is appointed their tutor, obtains his guru-dakshina by getting them to capture Drupada in an unprovoked attack, and appropriates half his kingdom. If he was indeed such a redoubtable warrior, why did Drona not campaign against Drupada himself?
Further, Drona diligently restricts his tutelage to royalty, turning away the suta Karna and the Nishada tribal Ekalavya. Doting on his son, Drona dissimulates by providing Ashvatthama a wide-mouthed water pot while giving the others narrow-necked ones to fill, so that he reaches the ashram first for extra lessons. He ensures that his son is treated on par with the princes but passes on to him none of the Brahminical qualities of forbearance, non-violence, compassion and humility. The result is the most horrifying episode of the war as Ashvatthama massacres the sleeping Panchalas and sons of Draupadi. Drona explicitly orders the cook never to serve Arjun food in the dark because the guru has the insight that it might provide opportunities that would make Arjun unbeatable, surpassing Ashvatthama.27 His plans fail as, by sheer happenstance, Arjun acquires the secret skill. Again, instead of admiring and rewarding Ekalavya's extra'ordinary devotion and dedication that make his skill in archery unsur'passable, even without any direct teaching from anyone, Drona ' keen not to lose royal patronage by alienating Arjun ' virtually emasculates him by demanding, quite shamelessly, his right thumb as fee. What a gulf separates Drona from Gautam and how similar are Satyakam and Ekalavya in their responses! Drona's fallen nature is revealed by the fact that during his generalship the code of conduct for battle prescribed by Bhishma that had prevailed during the first ten days when he was in command is no longer observed. Battle now rage at night. Drona himself engineers the killing of sixteen year old Abhimanyu by getting seven mighty warriors to encircle him and Ordering Karna to cut the stripling's bow-string from behind. Such is the person after whom we name our national award! What role models are we holding up to our children?
We usually overlook the fact that the Mahabharata begins with the Paushya Parva which is concerned with the subject of education in the stories of Aruni, Upamanyu and Utanka. Aruni, Upamanyu and Veda were the three disciples of Ayodah-Dhaumyah. The episodes concerning these three disciples cast fascinating light on the teacher-taught relationship in ancient India in which utter dedication and unquestioning faith in the teacher's commands characterised the pupil. This attitude built up a condi'tion of receptivity in the student and the various experiences he underwent acted as stepping-stones to the achievement of the final goal when the preceptor would declare;
"Because you followed my bidding so carefully,
you shall prosper
All the Vedas will shine in you,
all the Dharma Shastras also." (Shloka 34-35)
Aruni achieves this and is named Uddalaka in the process by his guru for using, not just his finger, but his entire body to plug a breach in a dyke in the fields that he was sent to inspect. Aruni-Uddalaka's son is Shvetaketu who laid down the law regarding monogamy (chapter 121, Adi Parva) for Brahmins, particularly women. After mastering all branches of learning over twelve years, the arrogant Shvetaketu returns to his father who notices that his son is bereft of wisdom. He sets about demolishing his egotism so that he opens up, becoming receptive to true wisdom. That is when Uddalaka conveys to him the supreme knowledge: tat tvam asi 'you are that" (Chandogya Upanishad).
Aruni's compatriot Upamanyu has a weakness for milk, Upamanyu's guru relentlessly prevents him from concentrating on his stomach by denying him, in succession, alms, milk and even the froth spat out by suckling calves till, driven by hunger, he chews leaves of arka (Calotropis gigantea) and goes blind. This makes him turn his sight inwards to invoke a vision of dazzling beauty that blesses him with spiritual revelation and restores his vision. The third pupil of Ayodah-Dhaumyah is Veda who is merely asked to stay with his guru and serve him, but that seems to be no easy task:
"Like an ox bearing his owner's yoke, he bore heat and cold, hunger and thirst, without complaint. Many years passed before his guru was satisfied."
Veda, when he himself becomes a guru, remembers those hard days and is never strict with his own pupils. One of them, Utanka, wins his guru's appreciation by refusing to have intercourse with Veda's wife in his absence, though urged by her companions that it is his duty. On his return, Veda blesses Utanka and gives him leave to depart and become a householder. Utanka, however, insists on paying fees before he can call it quits because:
"He who gives instruction without getting something,
and he who takes instruction
without giving something '
bitter hatred grows between them,
one of these two dies."
Veda refers him to his wife who demands the earrings of King Paushya's queen, wanting Utanka that if these are not produced on the fourth day, "you know what to expect." Showing gratitude to the preceptor Gould be fraught with mortal danger if the teacher's wife had not been appeased! The experience of Galava with Vishvamitra (Udyoga Parva, chapter 106) is a similar lesson. After fascinating adventures with thieves that disappear into the earth, snakes, a gigantic bull and a smoking horse, Utanka reaches his guru's wife in the nick of time, just as she is preparing to curse him on the fourth day.
These encounters use symbols that carry profound spiritual significance for the seeker which Veda, signifying "knowledge", explains to his disciple on his return. In the epic, Vyasa recasts the spiritual wisdom of the Vedas in the guise of stories for the general audience.28 Today we are not inclined to familiarise ourselves with these profound insights that make life meaningful, let alone consider passing them on to the next generation as a priceless heritage.
The unalloyed devotion to truth coupled with the humility that comes with purity of consciousness that shone in Satyakam is also found in the sage Sukesh, son of Bharadvaj, who approaches the sage Pippalad with a problem Hiranyabh, the prince of Koshal, had approached Sukesh seeking knowledge of the Purusha with sixteen qualities. Sukesh frankly admitted his ignorance The prince left in grave disappointment Sukesh, deeply pained by his own ignorance, approached Pippalad in all humility, and learnt from him knowledge of the atman within with sixteen qualities What a lesson in humility that is the foundation of true wisdom!
"The world is swaddled in the glory of the Lord
Renounce and enjoy;
Covet not others' wealth."
That master shloka of the Isha Upanishad sounds the keynote of our memorable learning episode is that of Nachiketa whose confrontation with Death is well known from the Katha Upanishad. As in Utanka's case, it is an ordeal spanning three days and three nights. Offered worldly goods (land, wealth, women ' all that Yayari mentions in his plangent lament), this boy remains unmoved, for they do not satisfy his questing spirit. He will not rest until he has wrested the answer to his question from the Yama himself What other literature offers such an astonishing confrontation between a boy and Death, or between a wife arid the Mortal Lord, and in both cases celebrates the human being as the victor? What shall we do with those who diligently keep such gems beyond compare away from our children?
The same thirst that impels Nachiketa makes Maitreyi ask her husband Yajnavalkya whether his property - which he proposes to leave her - will make her immortal. He answers, "No, your life would then be like that of the rich. You cannot hope to get immortality by being rich." Maitreyi responds, "What use is to me something which does not bring me immortality? Tell me. Sir!" Yajnavalkya, delighted, imparts to her the secret of the imperishable self.
"Because it cannot be comprehended, it is the incomprehensible.
Because it cannot be destroyed, it is the indestructible.
Because it does not involve itself, it is the uninvolved.
It is unfettered.
Il does not tremble.
It is not harmed....
This is immortality."29
The same Brihadaranyaka Upanishad contains the pithiest message for humanity. The gods demons and men approach the creator, Prajapati, after having dutifully performed askesis for many years to earn knowledge of the Supreme Brahman. To each Prajapati simply utters a single sound. "DA". Each understands it in accordance with his own nature and capacity. To the gods it connotes "Damyata: be restrained", for gods are self-indulgent. Men understand it as "Dalta: give", for mankind is greedy and selfish. The anti-gods understand it as "Dayadhvam: be compassionate", for demons are cruel. And that is what the thunder speaks to this day:
"The divine voice thunders:
DA! DA! DAI
This is the message for the Sattvic man, the Rajasic man and the Tamasic man for conducting his life in this world in a manner that ennobles him as a human being, giving meaning to life. It is these words, with which T.S. Eliot closed The Waste Land, his epic for modern limes, that arc the seeds of building character that we need to garner and embed as parents, teachers and elders in the hearts and minds and souls of the new generation at home, in school, in society. The problem we are faced with today, however, is the same that Vyasa himself had bewailed long ago to'wards the end of the "Ascent of Heaven" section of Mahabharata:
"I lift up my hands
And I shout; but no one listens!
From dharma come wealth and pleasure;
Why is dharma not practised?"
That question still plagues us: an immutable Sphinx facing man as he walks through life. Engaging with it is the secret of man-making.