The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Sanat Sujata Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Sanat Sujata Arrives
The Sanat Sujata Parva gets underway by Vidura explaining to Dhritarashtra that a sage called Sanat Sujata will be invited to that place in order to answer some of the king’s further questions.
When Dhritarashtra asks Vidura if he cannot answer him, the minister replies, ‘I am but a Sudra, O King. I cannot dare speak for longer than I have, and there are some topics – like death – on which even I cannot expound confidently.
‘The great sage Sanat Sujata is the most suitable discourser in such matters.’
So Vidura, after taking Dhritarashtra’s permission, thinks of the sage and the latter appears there instantaneously by magic. After he is welcomed and shown his seat, the king asks him the following question.
‘Sage,’ he says, ‘I hear that you are of the opinion that there is no death. And yet, we hear that the gods, the Asuras and men practice severe austerities for years and decades just to escape death. Of these two notions, which is true?’
‘There is no Death’
Sanat Sujata replies, ‘King, both of those notions have a measure of truth in them. The learned are of the opinion that death results from ignorance. I have often said that ignorance is death, and that the absence of ignorance is immortality.
‘It is from ignorance that the Asuras have become subject to death and disease. Men too. It is from absence of ignorance that the gods have attained the state of Brahman.
‘Now, some men think of death as being equal unto a visit by Yama. This is untrue. Yama is merely a god who lords over the region of the Pitris, where he is a source of great joy to the virtuous and of great woe to the sinful.
‘It is true that he commands upon human beings death in the form of wrath, ignorance and covetousness. But it is also within the nature of man to be so proud as to not pay heed to the tenets of virtue.
‘Instead of striving to know themselves (and Brahman, who is manifest within them), they instead fall prey to their passions and thus are forced to eventually shed their bodies.
‘Nobody knows the form of death, O King. Nobody knows when it comes, and what it feels like. Nobody living can ever know death, so in that sense, there is no death. There is only life.
‘However, by allowing themselves to be ruled by lust, wrath and desire, men go through life as though they are dead, never attaining their true potential.’
‘If men were to cast off their natural propensity to chase things that are fleeting, and if they can turn their souls to the source of light that exists within them, if they can turn their minds to knowledge, they can banish the death of ignorance from their lives.
‘And such a man, no death can ever reach. For these men, truly, there is no death.’
Virtue and Vice
Dhritarashtra asks, ‘In this world, some practise the active form of virtue in order to conquer vice. Yet others renounce all action and adopt what is called the Sanyasa Yoga.
‘I have always wondered if virtue has the power to conquer vice, O Sage. Or is it that vice is always destined to win in this battle? If it is the latter, are the people who renounce all action right in their choice?’
‘One can reach emancipation both by virtuous action and perfect inaction,’ replies Sanat Sujata. ‘The materialist chooses to acquire merit actively by performing virtuous deeds. By doing this, he balances the amount of vice in the world.
‘However, no action is perfectly right, and therefore, every action brings about an unintended amount of vice which again has to be fought by more virtue.
‘This cycle of action and reaction, therefore, is endless, and carries on from generation to generation. However, those men who perform virtuous deeds do gain emancipation, regardless of the future consequences of their acts.’
‘The spiritualist, on the other hand, minimizes the number of acts he performs in the world, and therefore leaves less of a footprint, especially of vice. Instead, he focuses all his energy on acquiring self-knowledge.
‘This brings him closer to Brahman, and thus he gains merit that is sometimes denied the materialist.’
Renown versus Asceticism
Sanat Sujata says: ‘Remember, O King, that renown and asceticism cannot exist together. If you choose to be famous in this world, you will not become an ascetic, and an ascetic rarely achieves fame.
‘In this world, happiness lies in material wealth and fame, whereas the very same things will prevent you from becoming wise, which is the most important attribute to gaining heavenly wealth.
‘So practice the six virtues: truth, uprightness, modesty, self-control, purity of mind, and thirst for knowledge. These will destroy all signs of vanity and arrogance within you.’
‘There are two kinds of mauna (silence),’ says Dhritarashtra. ‘One is the restraining of speech, and the other is to actively engage in meditation to still the mind. Tell me, O Sage, which of the two do you think is better for a man seeking knowledge of Brahman?’
‘Brahman can be penetrated neither by the Vedas nor by the mind, O King,’ Sanat Sujata replies. ‘It is for this reason that all forms of asceticism focus on the soul.
‘So it is neither the restraining of your tongue or that of your mind that is important – the goal of an ascetic ought to be to still his soul in the hope that the knowledge of Brahman will be earned as a result.’
Knowing the Vedas
‘If a person knows the Vedas completely,’ the king asks now, ‘and he commits sins, do they sully him or does his knowledge protect him from them?’
Sanat Sujata shakes his head. ‘When I speak of knowledge, I do not refer to superficial knowledge such as those found in the Vedas, O King. Indeed, a deceitful person will find no refuge even if he is a Vedic scholar.
‘It is the virtue embedded in a man’s actions that either protects him or forsakes him when the time of judgement approaches.’
‘If that is true, O Sage,’ Dhritarashtra asks, ‘why is there a widespread delusion that Brahmins and the Vedas are helpful in destroying sin?’
‘The Supreme Soul and the universe are two different things, King. People who are caught in the never-ending cycle of birth and rebirth continue to believe in a small form of virtue, which rewards them or punishes them accordingly at the end of each life.
‘For this purpose a knowledge of the Vedas is perhaps sufficient, and performing sacrifices in the company of competent Brahmins too.
‘But in order to reach the Supreme Soul, who occupies a region above that of the universe as we know it, the only way is to renounce everything and focus one’s mind purely on attaining knowledge by means of soul-silence.’
Object of Austerities
‘We have heard that some ascetic austerities are fruitful but others are not, even though they might be identical in their rituals. What causes this disparity, O Sage?’
Sanat Sujata says, ‘The answer lies in the internal motivation of the person performing the austerities, Dhritarashtra. Asceticism stained by desire, vanity and lust invariably fails, while those imbued by a selfless quest for knowledge is more liable to succeed.
‘This is so even when both forms of asceticism – as you said – look identical to the outward observer.’
Dhritarashtra asks, ‘How does one hope to become a right-minded ascetic, O Sage?’
‘Adopt the trifold path of sensual restraint, renunciation and knowledge of self. These are not states to be achieved so much as journeys that you can start right now, O King.
‘Any person who has sufficient amounts of these three attributes in his character is well on his way to becoming an ascetic deserving of acclaim.’
Brahman in the Elements
‘The existence of Brahman, you say, O Sage, is what a wise man perceives in his own soul. But how does one know when you peek into yourself and find this exalted being? Is he red, white, blue, purple?’
‘It can be any of those colours and none at the same time,’ says Sanat Sujata. ‘Neither in the stars, nor in lightning, nor in the clouds, is its form to be seen. It is not visible in the atmosphere, or in the moon or in the sun or in the gods.
‘The Vedas do not have a picture of this being, nor do the many sacrifices that kings around the world perform daily. Even the Universal Destroyer, after the moment of calamitous dissolution, loses himself in the Brahman.
‘It is one; it is unchangeable; it is free from all forms of duality and contradiction. It is what everything has sprung from and everything must return to. The only thing about it that changes is the language men have used to describe it.
‘The primary seed of the universe, called Mahayasas, is pure Knowledge, and blazes with effulgence. It is from this that Surya takes birth. It is due to this seed that Brahman becomes capable of creating the universe.
‘It is that seed which enters luminous bodies of the cosmos – the stars, the comets, the moon and the sun. It does not derive heat and light from anything else outside of it. It is self-luminous.’
Hidden by Maya
Sanat Sujata says: ‘The form of Brahman, therefore, is hidden behind the veneer of illusion. This maya is a stream guarded by the gods, in which men swim blissfully from one shore to the opposite shore, and back again.
‘The creature-soul, called Ishwara, is the master of the sensual realities that we all see and chase, the master of the five physical senses that rule our bodies. He is the one who hides the form of Brahman from our eyes and our minds.
‘Dwelling in the heart and measuring no more than the size of a thumb, the illustrious one is not an object of sight or feeling. Indeed, he cannot be perceived by any of our physical senses. Unborn, he moves, awake day and night within us.
‘He is the mother and the father. He is also the son and the daughter. Of all there has ever been and of all there ever will be, he is the soul. He is awake in every creature, formless, fluid, subtle and eternal.
‘So ask not what he looks like, O King, for you will never see him with your physical eyes.
‘Indeed, the only way to behold him is to train your mind’s eye over years and decades – sometimes centuries! – so that when the moment arrives upon you, you know it is him without having to ask.’
Dhritarashtra thus spends the night in the company of Vidura and Sanat Sujata. The Sanat Sujata Parva ends in this way.