The Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata occurs right after the Stree Parva, as Yudhishthir is preparing himself to ascend the throne of Hastinapur after his victory in the Mahabharata war.
And here it is! From the birth of death to the difference between Pravritti and Nivritti, we have it all. Enjoy!
A Tree Called Desire
In the Shanti Parva, there is a conversation between two sages, Vyasa and Suka, about human desire in the form of a tree.
‘There is a wonderful tree in the heart of a man,’ says Suka, ‘and its name is Desire. It is born of a seed called Error. Wrath and Pride constitute its large trunk. The wish for action is the basin around its foot.
‘Ignorance is the root of this tree, and heedlessness is the water that gives it life. Envy constitutes its leaves. The evil acts of past lives supply it with vigour. Loss of judgement and anxiety are its twigs, grief its branches, and fear its sprout. Thirst of diverse objects becomes the creeper that twines around it on every side.
‘Greedy men who are excessively lustful sit around this tree, worshipping it, hoping that some of its fruit will fall into their outstretched palms.
‘That foolish man who nourishes this tree by indulgence in the objects of the senses is destroyed by those very objects in which he indulges in, after the manner of a poisonous pill destroying the patient to whom it is administered.’
Vyasa now has another metaphor to describe the body. ‘The body is like a city,’ he says, ‘and understanding is said to be its mistress. The mind dwelling within the body is the minister of that mistress whose chief function is to make decisions.
‘The senses are like citizens who have been employed by the minister. In order to gratify these citizens, the mind shows a great inclination to act in diverse ways.
‘The chiefs of the city are Mind, Understanding and Consciousnes. The two faults – Rajas and Tamas – live upon the fruits of those acts that are accomplished by forbidden means.
‘It is therefore important for the wise man to treat his body with this knowledge. By keeping the mind tethered to the senses at all times, and restraining them from their sense-objects, he can ensure that the true chiefs of the city are gratified. This is the only path to emancipation.’
Death Takes Birth
When Yudhishthir asks Bhishma about how death first came to be in the world of living beings, Bhishma narrates the story of how Sthanu (Shiva) once gave Brahma the idea of how to control the population of the world.
‘You have appointed me the presider over the consciousness of all living beings, sir,’ he says. ‘I pray that you introduce a phenomenon of slow decay into the lives of living beings, so that they may die repeatedly and return to the world in new bodies. By this process, we can ensure that the number of beings on Earth at any given time is controllable.’
Brahma thinks about this suggestion, and the more he thinks about it, the more he likes it. He suppresses the energy that has been pouring forth from him and swallows it completely. He also absorbs the fires burning all over the three worlds, and contains them within his own body.
After this, from all the outlets of his body, a lady attired in robes of black and red, with black eyes and black palms, springs out. She is covered in celestial ornaments. Her earrings are made of lustrous gold. She takes her station to Brahma’s right, and stands in a pose of reverence.
Brahma acknowledges her presence and tells her, ‘You are the goddess of death. I have created you with the intention of destroying living beings in the universe. Now go and kill everyone mercilessly. Do not discriminate between the foolish and the learned. They must all die. Go and fulfill my bidding.’
But Death turns out to be a reflective sort of goddess, keen to do good to mankind. She sheds copious amounts of tears at the ruthlessness of Brahma’s command, and she holds them in her outstretched palms.
Death Sheds Her Tears
The goddess laments to Brahma, ‘How can I, who has taken her birth from your body, a body that has created everything, go forth and destroy? I am unable to obey your command. I cannot take the lives of men indiscriminately.’
Brahma is suitably annoyed at this act of rebellion from a person he has given birth to. He pretends to get angry with Death, and tells her that she must either obey his command or risk being cursed. Death decides to brave it out, and leaves the hallowed region of Brahma to retire into a forest called Dhenuka, where she performs severe austerities for thousands of years, with her tears still held in her hands.
Eventually, Brahma comes to Dhenuka, drawn by the ascetic power that Death is generating with her penances. Seeing her shrunken to the bone, he asks her gently why she is doing all this. ‘I gave you a simple command,’ he says. ‘Why do you wish to complicate your life in this manner?’
‘I am unable to cut off the lives of living beings, O Lord,’ says Death, truthfully. ‘I seek to gratify you, but I cannot bring myself to end lives with such ruthlessness. Imagine the amount of demerit that will attach itself to me.’
‘No demerit will stick to you!’ thunders Brahma. ‘You are only carrying out my orders, so none of your acts of destruction will count as sins. If anything, they will be considered part of your virtue, because you have followed the orders of your preceptor to the letter.’
Death, though, is not convinced. ‘It is impossible that no demerit will attach itself to me, my lord,’ she says. ‘If I were to carry out your bidding, I shall be feared and loathed throughout the three worlds.
All that negative emotional energy will affect me, no matter what your assurances. In any case, even if no demerit were to pursue me, I still refuse to obey your command because it goes against my morality. It is wrong to take so many lives so brutally. And I shall not do it.’
Brahma finds himself in a predicament, but he then sees the tears Death is carrying in her hands. ‘Let us arrive at a compromise, then,’ he says. ‘Let me command you to drop your tears onto Earth.
‘Your tears will carry disease into the three worlds, and they will imbue human beings with wrath and desire, which will lead men to their deaths slowly but surely. You will not actively have to do anything, but your tears will set in motion events that will lead to death.’
What is Dharma?
The Mahabharata constantly wrestles with the idea of Dharma, loosely translated to ‘that which is right’.
During his conversation with Yudhishthir, Bhishma once again attempts to summarize the meaning of Dharma in the following words:
‘There are three sources of Dharma: they are practices of good people around us, the Smritis and the Vedas. Besides these, the learned have declared that the purpose for which an act is accomplished is the fourth indication of Dharma.
‘The sages of old have declared what acts are righteous, and they have also classified them as superior and inferior in terms of merit.
‘A wise man will understand that whether an act is righteous or not depends on the context in which it is committed. A man who speaks an untruth can be rewarded on some occasions with gifts commensurate with speaking the truth.
‘And a man who speaks the truth can often be given punishments given to a speaker of lies.
‘Conduct is also the refuge of Dharma. It is in the nature of man that he neither sees nor proclaims his own faults but notices and proclaims the faults of others.
‘The very thief, stealing what belongs to others, spends the produce of his theft in acts of apparent virtue. During times of anarchy, a thief is happy to appropriate for himself the belongings of others, but when the same thing happens to him, he is the first to call for punishment for the wrongdoers.
‘To speak the truth is meritorious. There is nothing higher than truth. Everything is upheld by truth, and everything rests upon truth. Even the sinful and ferocious have rules of truth between them. If they behaved falsely towards one another, they would then be destroyed without doubt.
‘One should not take what belongs to others. That is an eternal obligation. Powerful men regard it as a rule that has been introduced by the weak.
‘When, however, the destiny of these men becomes adverse, this injunction then meets with their approval. Even those that become more powerful than others do not end up becoming happy. Only adherence to Dharma makes a man happy.’
Continuing the discussion on Dharma, Bhishma tells Yudhishthir two stories:
- One concerning the sage Jajali
- And another about a trader called Tuladhara who has never read the Vedas.
By contrasting the two characters, Bhishma suggests to Yudhishthir that the path to Dharma can be manifold.
First we meet Jajali, who lives in a forest practising the ways of a recluse. He has carefully stepped through the four prescribed modes of life, and is now happily settled in the last. He practises severe austerities every day. He eats and lives as a recluse ought to.
In his wanderings, he comes into contact with many people, and he crosses many rivers and mountains. The more he travels, the deeper the realization strikes him that he has acquired all the merit that can ever belong to a man.
‘In this world of mobile and immobile objects,’ he says out loud to himself, ‘there is no one equal unto me. Who can roam with me among the stars and the planets in the firmament, and who can dwell with me here within the waters of the seas?’
Jajali’s words seem boastful, but it appears that he had earned the right to feel this way. He is described by Bhishma to be the model Brahmin, performing his ablutions every day, tending to his guests with love and care, and performing many of his austerities while standing on one foot in the harshest of conditions.
One day, when Jajali boasts to the world at large about the greatness of his asceticism, a Pisachas who hear him tell him that he is incorrect. ‘You have not yet met the great Tuladhara,’ they say. ‘He is without doubt greater than you are.’
Jajali therefore sets out in search of the wise man.
Tuladhara the Trader
Tuladhara is a spice and drug shopkeeper in the city of Varanasi. When he sees Jajali the Brahmin walk toward him, he stands up and salutes his guest. It appears as if he has been expecting him.
Jajali is amused that the man who is supposedly greater than him is nothing more than a shopkeeper. ‘You sell juices and scents, O trader,’ he says to Tuladhara, ‘And you sell barks and leaves of trees and herbs. How have you succeeded in acquiring the stability that has been denied even me? Where has your knowledge come from?’
Tuladhara replies, ‘I am not conversant with morality as it is laid out in the scriptures, O Sage,’ he says. ‘I know nothing of its numerous convolutions. But I know that a code of ethics founded upon total and unflinching harmlessness toward all creatures is of the highest order.
‘I just live according to that code. My house has been built by wood cut by other people’s hands. I paid them fairly for their services. Everything I sell in my shop, I purchase from other people and sell without cheating anyone. I am friend to everyone who deals with me. I bear in my heart animosity toward no one. In any transaction, I look for mutual benefit.
‘I do not concern myself with the past or the future, with thoughts of morality and righteousness. I believe in a world that is united with friendliness and love. I am not feared by anyone, therefore I fear no one. The concept of universal harmlessness has arisen thus.’
Tuladhara goes on to educate Jajali about his version of practical morality. With this story, Bhishma makes the point that Dharma can be studied from the scriptures, yes, but plenty of people arrive at Dharma by merely practicing it in their lives.
Chirakari the Thoughtful
In response to Yudhishthir’s question whether to act upon a thought immediately or after due thought, Bhishma tells the story of Chirakari.
He is thus named because from his childhood, he shows repeated glimpses of being a thoughtful boy, of someone who weighed the consequences of his every action before he committed it. He is the son of Gautama, the sage whose wife Ahalya was once seduced by Indra in disguise.
It so happens that Gautama encounters another incident (the details of which we are not told) which moves him to rage against Ahalya, and he decides that her transgression is serious enough to warrant punishment by death. He summons Chirakari and tells him to slay Ahalya immediately, and after pronouncing this judgement, he goes off into the wood to meditate.
Chirakari, true to his name, begins to reflect upon the matter. On the one hand his father had given him the order. It is every son’s foremost duty to obey his father. On the other hand, the person he has been told to kill is – first – a woman and – second – his own mother.
Killing a woman has been considered sinful in every scripture because a woman is the embodiment of Dhatri, the Earth Goddess. And on top of that, Ahalya had carried him in her womb, nursed him, and reared him into a young man. How could he kill her?
In that way he keeps wavering, and he spends so long in doing so that Gautama returns from his meditations and finds his son still sitting outside their hut, apparently lost in thought.
Some months have now passed since the sage had passed his order, and by now his anger has been forgotten. When he sees Chirakari, he grabs hold of him with tears of repentance, and says:
‘Even when Ahalya was fooled by Indra, I did not hold her responsible. I should have held my temper before I asked you to kill your mother. I hope that you have remained true to your name and have spent all this time just thinking it over.’
Chirakari says yes, and both father and son are overjoyed that Ahalya does not have to be killed anymore. Gautama gives his son many gifts for rescuing him from the sin of having killed his wife.
Having told this story, Bhishma suggests that it is always better to act after due thought instead of in haste.
The Origin of Jwara
In the great battle between Indra and Vritra, it is said that Shiva helps Indra by passing on a fever to Vritra, thus decapitating him and ensuring the gods’ victory.
Yudhishthir asks Bhishma about the origin of this fever – called Jwara.
Bhishma’s story takes us to a summit called Savitri situated among the mountains of Meru, where Mahadeva sits in deep meditation, accompanied by the daughter of the king of mountains, Uma.
It so happens then that the Prajapati Daksha commences to perform a sacrifice according to the ancient rites laid out in the Vedas. But at that time, it is agreed among the gods that no share of the sacrifice should be given to Shiva.
So Shiva is not invited to Daksha’s sacrifice. This understandably angers Uma, and in order to soothe her feelings, Shiva orders Nandi to lead a horde of Rakshasas in order to disrupt Daksha’s sacrifice.
It is said that when this is happening, the sacrifice itself assumes the form of a deer and runs away. Shiva himself gives chase after it with a bow and arrow. The exertion that he puts his body through extracts from it a drop of sweat, which falls to the ground and gives rise to a great fire.
A pale green monster takes form in this fire, and he begins to cause all sorts of destruction in the world. At last, Shiva decrees that this monster be divided into a million miniscule pieces, and be distributed to all parts of the world.
Fever, therefore, is nothing but the energy of Mahadeva distributed in miniscule amounts into the bodies of various animate and inanimate objects of the world.
A Day of the Unmanifest
Bhishma now tells Yudhishthir about the scale of time in the experience of the Unmanifest, or the Supreme Purusha. Ten thousand kalpas are said to constitute a single day of his. His night is of the same duration.
When his night expires, he wakes up and first creates herbs and plants which constitute sustenance for all embodied creatures. Then he creates Brahma who springs from a golden egg. That Brahma, as we have seen before, gives rise to all created things.
After spending a whole year inside the egg, Brahma emerges from it and creates the earth and heaven. He then separates the two by means of the sky.
Seven thousand and five hundred kalpas measure the day of Brahma. He then creates Consciousness called Bhuta, and out of that he makes the five great elements which become the building blocks of all embodied creatures, both mobile and immobile.
These five Bhutas are earth, wind, space, water and light. This Consciousness or Bhuta, which Brahma creates, has a day and night measuring five thousand kalpas each.
The five sensory properties called sound, touch, form, taste and scent are called Viseshas. They are associated with the five Bhutas.
All creatures pervaded by these five elements constantly desire one another’s companionship, become subservient to one another, challenge one another, transcend one another, and fight and kill one another.
Led by the immutable and seductive principles of matter, they live and die, and their destructible parts are broken down into the five elements once again. The five elements measure three thousand kalpas as one day, and their night is of the same duration.
When Purusha’s day expires and night comes, we are told, he becomes desirous of sleep. At this time, he brings into existence a being called Maharudra, who assumes the form of Surya with hundreds of thousands of rays.
He divides himself into a dozen portions, each one resembling a blazing fire, and without any delay, consumes the four kinds of living beings: viviparous, oviparous, those born of filth, and those who can be classified as plants.
Within the twinkling of an eye all mobile and immobile creatures are thus destroyed in this fire. The earth becomes bald as a tortoise shell. Rudra then quickly fills the bare earth with water, and then he creates the yuga fire which dries up that water after earth has been dissolved in it.
With earth and water disappearing, fire continues to blaze forth, but it is swallowed by wind that gathers up all its eight forms and blows all over space. Finally, it gets absorbed into space.
Then Mind appears and cheerfully swallows up space, the one remaining element. Consciousness, in turn, is swallowed up by Mahat, who is conversant of past, present and future.
This incomparable Mahat is swallowed by Sambhu the lord of all things, who is the supreme and the immutable. His hands and feet extend over every part. His eyes and head and face are everywhere. His ears reach every place, and he exists over all things.
He is the heart of all creatures. His measure is the digit of a thumb. That infinite and supreme soul, that lord of all things, now swallows the universe.
After this, what remains is the undecaying and the indestructible. The Purusha now goes to sleep as his night approaches, only to awaken in the morning and repeat the entire cycle once again. This is the secret of the creation and destruction of the universe.
This is the story of how Vishnu came to be known as Hiranyagarbha.
After Brahma has given birth to the Vedas, the lotus on which Brahma takes form has two drops of water on its leaves. From the first water drop, endued by the attribute of Tamas, a Daitya by name Madhu springs forth. From the second water drop, filled with the attribute of Rajas, another Daitya by name Kaitabha takes birth.
These two men plot together to steal the Vedas, and having seized them, they quickly dive into the ocean of waters and proceed to its very bottom.
Seeing the Vedas thus forcibly taken away from him, Brahma is filled with grief, and he asks the supreme lord Vishnu for help.
Having heard Brahma’s pleas, Vishnu wakes up from his yogic sleep and takes up the form of a horse.
The regions above and below become his two ears. The earth becomes his forehead. The two rivers, Ganga and Saraswati, become his two hips. The two oceans (presumably the western and the eastern oceans) become his two eyebrows. The sun and the moon become his eyes. The twilight becomes his nose. The syllable, Om, becomes his memory and intelligence. The lightning becomes his tongue.
With this form, he goes down to the nether regions and sets himself up on a rock, and assumes the position of a yogi. With a deep voice, with immaculate diction, he begins to chant Vedic mantras one after the other.
So loudly does his voice reverberate across the ocean floor that the two Asuras, thinking that the Vedas have escaped from captivity, come following the sounds.
While the Asuras are looking for the source of the Vedic sounds, Hiranyagarbha frees the Vedas and brings them back to Brahma. With the Vedas now secure, Vishnu engages in a long and fierce battle with the two Asuras and kills him.
This also earns him the name of Madhusudana – the killer of Madhu.
Pravritti and Nivritti
If the Shanti Parva can be summarized in a few words, it can be described as a philosophical treatise composed by Bhishma for the sake of Yudhishthir. In this space, two ideas emerge in the conversation:
- Pravritti, which is a predilection of all living beings toward action. This is the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita and Krishna, which states that one must always act while remaining detached from the fruits of our actions.
- Nivritti, which describes a state of renunciation from everything – even action. By turning off one’s sense organs, the argument goes that one manages to awaken the mind, and by turning the mind inward, one is able to glimpse the immortal part of onself.
The Shanti Parva declares that those who follow Pravritti are rewarded only in the physical world, with wealth and glory and power. But it is these rewards that give birth to covetousness and anxiety in the mind of a man.
On the other hand, those who follow Nivritti reap rewards that are intangible and eternal – they are happier, they are more peaceful, they are closer to the supreme consciousness that unites all creation, and after their death, they attain freedom from the cycle of rebirth.
Which is better? As always, the Mahabharata does not give us any easy answers to this question. Bhishma says often that men of both schools of thought have been found to attain emancipation, and he stops short of recommending one or the other approach.
But he does say that the supreme consciousness, the Purusha who creates the universe and places a tiny portion of himself in every living being, is a silent witness. He has adopted Nivritti, and he has decreed that the universe he created must adopt Pravritti.
So there is a subtle hint that if you adopt Nivritti, you get closer to the Purusha.
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