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Importance of Story Telling in Sanatana Dharma
|by Aurpon Bhattacharya|
Hiranmayena patrena satyasyampihitang mukham,
'The face of Truth is covered with a brilliant golden lid;
Every religion has narratives or parables that impart moral beliefs that followers are supposed to inculcate, and in doing so, inaugurate the quest for a higher truth. This paper is a study of some of the various methods by which morals important to Hindu society were narrated through Shruti (that which is heard) and Smriti (that which is remembered). In doing so, I analyze the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Kathasaritsagar and how the Bhagavad Gita pulls the major themes of these scriptures together. None of these texts prescribes a single strict mode of life by which one can become a Hindu and herein lies the problem with the term 'Hinduism.' There is no single prescribed way by which the 'golden lid can be removed.' This is why I prefer to refer to Hinduism as Sanatanana (the eternal) Dharma (virtue)--the eternal religion. Perhaps it would be prudent to explain the wisdom behind choosing the term Sanatana Dharma. Dharma, etymologically from the root dhr., 'to sustain' or 'to uphold,' has been given diverse meanings in various Indian schools of thought. The meaning pertinent to this paper is that 'which gives sustenance to the universe of the universal principle of things.'3
The term 'Hinduism' owes its origin to chance. It was first used by the Persians (and, consequently, other invaders from the West) to designate the land that that lay east of the Sindhu (Indus) river. In the strictest sense, this would include everybody living in the Indian subcontinent. Also, it is a term that came into use millennia after 'Hinduism' had been flourishing. Indian scriptures do not contain the word 'Hindu' at all. It is ironic that the oldest living civilization in the world should announce its identity with a foreign word coming millennia later. This kind of ambiguity calls for a different type of definition, a doctrinal definition similar to those applying to Islam or Christianity, a brief credal statement summing up the essence of what all Hindus believe. But this is still difficult, because Hindus do not swear allegiance to a simple creed, the way Catholics solemnly affirm the Nicean Creed in mass, or the way Muslims affirm "There is no God but God and Mohammed is His prophet".
What then is Hinduism?
Sri Aurobindo says:
The enormous literature that followed in the tradition of sanatana dharma directed a path towards attaining that one truth through parables. From these stories, instruction on behavior and everyday matters is derived. It is through this moral life that the path towards the divine becomes clearer. A major theme that emerges in the later sanatanitradition is that man, being born into samsara (society), has to work through samsaratowards moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death). By being born intosamsara, lokasamgraha (conserving society) is of vital importance. This paper demonstrates this through four examples: the Naciketas-Yama discourse, the story of the three brothers in the Kathasaritsagara Vikram-Betal tales, the cause and effect cycle of the Mahabharata's underlying theme and the caturvarnasharama dharma (the four prescribed stages in the life of the Brhamin, Kshatirya and Shudra). The point to remember is that all these three examples are stories through which this basic theme is underlined. They are not a set of rules or beliefs one has to follow to attain release from samsara.
Yajnas (fire sacrifices/oblations) like the Rajasuya and Ashvamedha, which took long to perform, and spanned this world and the other, had stories as an integral part of their rituals. The narration by Shuna Shepa, and the stories by Bharat and Parikshit are parts of the yajna process. The dying Parikshit is told the story of the Bhagavad Purana. What do these stories do? Do they present an ideal to be followed? TheRamayana says that the conduct of Rama is worth emulating. But the Krishna, in theGita never tells Arjuna that he should follow Krishna's conduct. However, people copy the conduct of leaders, hence Arjuna, as a leader, has to set an example and not collapse. What exactly, then, do these stories do? They provide an ideal to follow: a road to moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth and death. The meaning of moksha, according to Maheedhar on the Yajur Veda 5 is spontaneous understanding of karma.When a person knows what his karma-load is, he is dead (not in the literal term but rather, mukta or liberation from material attachment and from the cycle of life). Herein we see the Vedic importance given to Karma.
The Upanishads indicate that one cannot escape death simply through yajna while the Yajurveda expounds and promotes the ritual. This is where the importance of thesanatani stories steps in.
Vaajasravas, in the Katha Upanishad, is supposed to get rid of all his attachments by donating what he is attached to through the Viswajit Yajna. 6 Instead, he donates his old, ailing cattle, of which he has no need. This thoroughly puzzles his son Naciketas who realizes his venerable father is not being very righteous. Realizing Vaajasravas is very attached to him, Naciketas demands to know whom he is being donated to. Annoyed by his son's persistence, Vaajasravas says, 'I gift thee to Yama.' Being an obedient son, Naciketas takes his father's words as his final command and goes in search of Yama, the god of death. Later, Yama, impressed by Naciketas thirst for knowledge, tells him how the wise man can attain atmajnana (knowledge of theatman) The story of Naciketas does not mean all Hindus should go in search of the god of death! The story is neither meant to be taken literally nor is it meant to be taken historically or treated as a myth. The Naciketas story might easily be misconstrued as paradoxical. Does not Naciketas' unquestioning obedience to his father and devoted search for Yama, indicate complete obedience to his elders? Yet his relentless quest for the ultimate truth through persistent questioning is also an argument with the god of death, Yama. These questions are superficial to the actual gems that one can discover from the Naciketas and Yama discourse. The syllable Om is both the lower and the higher nature of the Brahman that Naciketas wishes to realize. He is wise who relinquishes all desire and turns his mind towards Brahman. Sorrow does not touch him. This is the crux of Yama's teachings to Naciketas.
What is the need of the elaborate story plot if this is all that is entailed in the discourse? It demonstrates the fallibility of the greatest. Vaajasravas is a great sage, yet he is not entirely honest when while performing the yajna that is most important to his personal search for the divine. He loses his mind and orders his son to die. But is he not a sage--one who has control over his emotions and desires? Yama yields to the persistence of a mere child. But is not Yama the lord of death, of knowledge'a god? Naciketas is an ideal child because he takes his father's word as his command. He clearly respects his father. But on the other hand he argues against Yama. Naciketas has been sent to Yama but in his childlike innocence he wants to know what death is. Thus, in his thirst for knowledge, argument, even with the most venerable Yama is necessary. It is through Naciketas that the way to moksha is revealed. Finally, the discourse is a lesson against arrogance. Vaajasravas, despite his spiritual stature is wrong in his conduct while Yama, a god has to answer a mere child's queries. Both have a lot to learn from Naciketas' childlike innocence and thirst for knowledge. One can never have enough knowledge. Naciketas is a son. In obeying his father he is doing his duty as a son and by doing his duty he attains enlightenment. Yet, he is not blindly restricted to doing duty. The crucial point is using discrimination--not just going to death--but having that burning aspiration within to reach the ultimate truth'the same truth that prompted Maitreyi to exclaim to Yajnavalkya, 'What shall I do with that which does not give immortality?' Thus her husband imparted her knowledge that is amrita (the nectar of immortality).
Somadeva's Kathasaritsagar, composed around the sixteenth century AD, is a collection of ancient tales that extols social values. It is the precursor to A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The Vetala Pancabimsati or the 'Twenty-Five tales of the Vampire' forms an important segment of Somadeva's composition. In this segment, King Vikramaditya has to transport a vampire from his place of resting to a Tantric guru (an occultist). 7 Enroute, the vampire tells him twenty-five tales and at the end of each, asks a question relating to the story. The king's head would burst into a thousand pieces should he fail to provide the correct answer. 'The Vampire's Sixth Story: In which three men dispute about a woman' 8 is a perfect example of a story that demonstrates the duties involved in lokasamgraha.
Keshav, the Brahmin, had a daughter whose name was Madhumalati. She had three suitors: Tribikram, Baman and Madhusudan. However, before Keshav could decide on the best suitor, Madhumalati was bit by a serpent and died. Each, deeply embittered by the death of their beloved, acted differently. They divided the relics of their beloved before parting and went their ways. Tribikram collected Madhumalati's bones and became an ascetic. Baman tied up a bundle of Madhumalati's ashes and went to live in the forest. He mourned Madhumalati's death while in sannyasa lying in her ashes from dusk to dawn. Madhusudan, like Tribikram, became an ascetic. However, he was so disheartened by his love's demise that he chose not to have anything to do with her remains.
On his journeys, Madhusudan learned how to bring the dead back to life. He hurried back and assembling the others brought Madhumalati back to life. The question that the vampire asks here is who should lay claim to her? The King answers correctly. Tribikram preserved her bones, and in doing so, placed himself in the position of Madhumalati's son. Madhusudan, by restoring his beloved's life, placed himself in the position of a father. Baman by preserving Madhumalati's ashes and lying in them performed the duty of a husband.
King Vikramaditya is a ruler of high virtue. Obviously he knows the intricacies oflokasamgraha. This story outlines the various duties associated with different people in samsara. The credibility of these duties is enhanced since a king of as high virtue as Vikramaditya extols them. This story provides another perspective tolokasamgraha. Instead of simply setting down rules as in Manusmriti, it is far easier to learn how to work through samsara by following precedents set down in a story.
The story of Uddalaka Aaruni and his son Svetaketu in the sixth book of the Chhandogya Upanishad is another instance of self-discovery through story-telling. For twelve years Svetaketu studied the Vedas in his guru's ashram and when he returned home he was arrogant, full of pride in his knowledge. So proud was he that he would not talk to to anyone. His father Aaruni told him, 'Svetaketu, going through the Vedas you have become arrogant and full of yourself. Did you ask about that command, knowing which the unheard can be heard, the unknown can be known and the one can determine the indeterminate?' Svetaketu, realizing he hasn't, asks his father to instruct him. Uddalaka imparts the knowledge of Brahman by which humility is born to his son. But Svetaketu asked for further clarification.
Aaruni asked him to cast a lump of salt into a vessel of water and bring it to him the next morning. The next day Aaruni told him, 'Bring me that salt which you cast into the bowl of water.' But Svetaketu could not locate the lump of salt in the water, though he had put it inside the bowl. Aaruni asked his son to taste the water from the top, the bottom and the middle and to tell him what he sensed. Svetaketu told him it was salty at all depths. 'Throw it away and return,' said his father. Svetaketu came back and said,, 'The salt was all the time in the water.' 'Yet,' said Aaruni, you could not see it. Similarly, within this very body that Truth which is the cause of all exists. All is that Truth, that atman. Tat tvam asi.' This is the major underlying theme of the Upanishads.
In the Gita, Sri Krishna exhorts Arjuna to fight because it is his duty to do so. Arjuna's apathy is most obvious. He does not see the point in attacking his teachers, cousins, family, and friends. Yet he has to, for chaos will prevail if he does not. This is the central point of lokasamgraha. Arjuna says:
Krishna convinces Arjuna to fight as there is a higher duty towards lokasamgraha. Ajuna is the divine's instrument to restore order. Even without Arjuna, order will be restored, the righteous will win. Man has free will. This is emphasized when Krishna tells Arjuna, 'jatha icchasu, tatha kuru,' (do as you will). However, Arjuna is the chosen one. By fighting, he will be promoting the absolute truth'that of Brahman. 10
It is in the Mahabharata that we get the syncretic picture of lokasamgraha through the concepts of caturvarnashrama dharma and moksha. The Pandavas follow each stage of the caturvarnashrama. They spend their early years as brahmacarin as students. They marry Draupadi and lead the life of grihastha with her. Their years of exile act as their retreat to the forest (vanavasa) as it does when then finally take upsannyasa and leave their kingdom. Thus they get trained in this twice over: after the gutting of the house of lac and after the dice game, in both cases losing their birthright.
It is a very interesting mix of the Vedic and Vedantic tradition. Arjuna, by fighting is keeping the universe in order as well as realizing his personal spiritual ambition to realize Brahman. Yet, because he is born into society, all his acts have results. Even the same conditions apply for Vishnu avatar Krishna. Krishna, despite being divine, is born into society 11. He exhorts Arjuna to maintain order in society. In doing so Arjuna needs to ensure that the people are ruled justly and, consequently, Arjuna has to fight to wrest the throne from the Kauravas. Krishna succeeds in motivating Arjuna but at what cost? The Pandavas lose all their children and relatives to the war. Only the five Pandavas, Yuyutsu, Kripa and Aswatthama are left alive from the hundreds of warriors who had fought at Kurukshetra. Queen Gandhari, mother to the Kauravas, holds Krishna responsible for the war at Kurukshetra after the war is over and curses him that his clan, the Yadavas, will be annihilated in a similar internecine holocaust. This results in Krishna's clan (the Yadavas) being wiped out later on in the Mahabharata.
Thus the major concepts of sanatana dharma come together in the Mahabharata: one's duty to society (lokasamgraha through caturvarnashrama dharma and one'sdharma 12 and one's karma. We are born into society because each of us have our individual duties to perform. Escapism is not the answer. Moksha is possible throughlokasamgraha. Krishna provides divine legitimacy to lokasamgraha by stating that the caturvarna is his creation. However, it is quite clear that the caturvarna is more different categories of personality types than a formula for one's duty by birth. How would one explain Drona'a Brahmin'leading the Kaurava's into battle in that case? How then would one explain Krishna'a Kshatirya'taking over the reigns of Arjuna's chariot in that case? How could Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo and Mahatma Gandhi'neither of them Brahmins'be considered spiritual leaders in India in that case? King Janaka, Sita's father in the Ramayana, is the finest example. He was the philosopher king (a Kshatriya) to whom sages sent their sons/disciples to gather knowledge of Brahman. It is in his court that Yajnavalkya worsted all others and had that famous dispute with Gargi.
The innumerable stories in the Sanatani tradition shows how the absolute truth can be attained. However, Vyasa'who is traditionally credited with bringing all these different traditions together to show how moksha is possible through lokasamgraha-- turned away from society and became a yogi. Krishna in the Gita says that there are many ways to turn to the divine. Moksha through lokasamgraha is simply one of them. This is the richness of the santana dharma.
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