Indian Scriptures – Epics

In this article we will talk about the Indian epics. There are specially two epics named Ramayana and Mahabharata. These two epics have influenced literature for several centuries in all parts of India. We are not concerned with the literary value of these two epics but we are interested in philosophical value. Since there is nothing philosophically new in Ramayana so we need not consider it. It is sufficient to know that Ramayana is based on the principles of Sanatana Dharma and duties of ruler. Mahabharata is valuable philosophically.

There are two important philosophical issues in Mahabharata. One is in Bhagavad-Gita which is mainly a work in theistic tradition. Second one is morality and polity expounded by two important characters- Vidura and Bheeshma. But these philosophical issues in Mahabharata suffer from a serious drawback from philosophical point of view. Discussion and criticism are important to go deeper into philosophy but nowhere in this work we find these qualities. We find nothing special but just a sermon. Therefore it is sufficient to explain these issues in brief.

The Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is a sacred Indian scripture and a part of Mahabharata. It is also called Gitopanishad, implying its having the status of an Upanishad, i.e. a Vedantic scripture. Gita is a part of Mahabharata so it is classified as a smriti but having a status of Upanishad also considered as a sruti or revealed text. It is also called ‘the Upanishad of the Upanishads’ because it represents a summary of all the Upanishadic teachings. It contains 700 verses. The speaker of the Bhagavad Gita is Krishna, and is referred as Bhagavan, the Divine one; and the listener is Arjuna. Gita is a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna, taking place on the battlefield before the beginning of the Kurukshetra war. Arjuna is confused about fighting his own cousins in war. Krishna explains to Arjuna his duties as a warrior and prince and talks on different yogic and vedantic philosophies. This is the reason, Gita often being described as a concise guide to Hindu theology and also a practical guide to life.

There are three important features in Gita; knowledge (Jnana Yoga), social obligation (Karma Yoga) and devotion (Bhakti Yoga). Gita has explained the role of these three features in life which is known as Yoga. There is a drawback in Gita that it does not provide any reference to the philosophical foundation for these three features. For example, if we talk about devotion (bhakti), it is sensible only when ‘devotee’ or ‘bhakta’ is distinct from ‘Parmatama’ or ‘God’; not otherwise. In simple words, we have to reject the theory of ‘Advaita’ to accept the relevance of ‘devotion’. But Gita does not provide any reference or information about ‘Dvaita’ or ‘Advaita’.

‘Knowledge’ is called ‘Jnana Yoga’ in Gita which means the realization at highest level.

Now talk about ‘social obligation’ or ‘Karma Yoga’. Karma has a very different meaning in Gita. In the vedic age, karma meant only performing Yajna. But the Gita changed the meaning of karma completely. Gita explains karma as social obligation and without any selfish motive. This explanation debars yajnas because one performs it with selfish motive. The meaning of yoga is considered as dedication in Gita. So the karma means performing duty as social obligation with a sense of dedication. The most important thing in the Gita is the doctrine of ‘nishkama karma’ which consists in discharging social obligations in an impersonal manner. Gita does not say to renounce the karma. What it clearly says is that ‘karma phala’ or the fruit/result/benefit of karma should be renounced. So the Gita rejects the personal interests and upholds the social welfare. In this way, individual becomes the means and society becomes an end. This way to perform the duty, does not affect the performer in any manner. This way is the equanimity of mind.

Social obligation is the most prominent feature in Gita and it explains that no one can attain moksha if he renounces the world because by renouncing the world… he renounces the obligations too. Gita is not prioritizing the spiritual life at the expense of worldly life, but it is more logical and significant. Gita explains a very unique way to attain moksha in relation to karma.

We are talking about karma, but we must understand its relation to varna to understand it completely. In this manner, varna or four-fold classification becomes important. Performing karma according to the profession. Gita explains, quality and profession determines the verna or class. In simple words, we can say that quality determines profession; and commitment to profession is what dharma is.

Gita explains a clear difference between dedication and motive. Dedication is impersonal, but motive is personal. We all know the meaning of vested motive but there is nothing like vested dedication. Gita is clear on the point of profession and there is no confusion. It explains the difference between good and bad, constructive and destructive. It is good to perform the duty which is according to the doer’s nature. If it is not so; it is bad. We can understand that there is division of labor, and it is for the welfare of society that such division is made mandatory. Therefore qualitative distinction in profession is strongly disapproved.

Vidura’s Moral Philosophy

An epic must be vast. It must include all the aspects of life. Life has all the colors of possibilities and facts. Mahabharata is a great epic and contains all the true colors of life. In this epic, there are characters which are regarded as personification of morality and virtue; and there are characters which are regarded as personification of evil too. Vidura and Bheeshma belong to first category, the personification of virtue.

Vidura explains his theory of moral principles with a clear distinction between shreyas (good) and preyas (pleasing). Vidura says that the good (Shreyas) is one thing, the pleasant (Preyas) is another. These two having different purposes, bind a man. Of these two, it is well for him who takes hold of the good; he who chooses the pleasant misses his end. The good and the pleasant approach a man; the wise man considers and distinguishes the two. Wisely does he prefer the good to the pleasant, but a fool chooses the pleasant for its worldly good. He compares shreyas (good) with medicine which does not have a good taste but beneficial for health. On the other side he compares preyas (pleasant) with honey. The honey seeker is busy only in seeking honey and falls into the abyss. So this way, he explains that a wise person always choose the ‘good’, not the ‘pleasing’. It is difficult to choose the ‘good’ but very beneficial; it is very easy to choose ‘pleasing’ but dangerous.

In Mahabharata, Vidura has a role of a counselor and his counseling is based on morality. He explains the difference between two states of mind; state of mind of a wise man and state of mind of an ignorant one. Vidura explains it in a different way. He talks about the six cardinal vices. He defines a wise man by listing remaining vices which are greed, anger, lust, irrational attachment, jealousy and arrogance. He explains that one, who does not have these six cardinal vices, is a wise man. Here we should not an interesting thing that, Vidura agrees with Plato on the qualities of an ignorant person. Vidura defines an ignorant person as, on who neglects his duty but tries to perform what is not his duty; and one who cannot understand the difference between a true friend and enemy. You can find all these qualities in Thrasymachus who is a character in Plato’s Republic.

Vidura makes a list of ten commandments. One of which commandments is identical with Plato’s classification of man into three classes; guardians (philosopher kings), soldiers and artisans. Vidura and Plato, argue that these three classes ought to perform duties assigned to them only. The definition of justice according to Plato and definition of Dharma according to Vidura… is same. They both agree that it consists in everyman doing his own duty and this is the principle of a welfare state. This is the essence of Vidura’s moral philosophy.

Vidura talks about death and the need to accept its inevitability. It is important to accept the inevitability of death to get rid from the fear… and to understand the true wisdom. This is same as the Buddha says about the desire. Buddha says that desire is the root of misery and one must understand it completely to realize the truth. Realization and acceptance of truth is the only remedy for the misery.

Bheeshma’s Political Philosophy

There is a difference between western model of political philosophy and ancient Indian concept of polity. The difference essentially consists in shift from one end to other, from rights to duty. In Bheeshma’s political philosophy, he explains only the duties and responsibilities of ruler with no mention of the duties of citizen. According to Bheeshma, it becomes obvious that in real sense, citizen is the king and ruler is his guardian. Many centuries before, Plato had explained a picture of the role of guardians, the Bheeshma’s philosophy is almost similar. He explains in Mahabharata, the qualities and duties of the king in a detailed manner; and it is first ever treatise on public administration.

The most important qualities according to Bheeshma is that king should be proactive, truthful and straightforward. She should be compassionate but not too soft. If we read Plato, he talks about the same thing but in a different manner. He says that kings should be given moderate physical training coupled with music otherwise they will become beasts. Bheeshma explains thirty six qualities in an ideal king which are important to follow the Raj dharma. Raj dharma is the safe guarding the interests of citizen and without which the citizens do not receive protection from the king.

Foreign policy is an important part of public administration. It involves two forces, enemies and friends. Bheeshma does not talk more about the role of friends but he explains that king must know how to handle enemies. A king should be sensible and careful when he takes decisions or makes judgments; so can avoid all unnecessary risks. He explains that war is not the solution not he says that an enemy should be ignored. Constant vigil, understanding one’s own weakness, proper judgments and wakeful decisions only can ensure safety and security. All these descriptions apply under normal circumstances, whereas in distress even enemy should enjoy compassion because humanitarian treatment may destroy enmity.

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