Monthly Archives: October 2012

Who was Mahidasa Aitareya – Part Two

Continued from Part One

11.1. As mentioned earlier, Aitareya Aranyaka and Aitareya Brahmana are fairly lengthy texts. The concepts and explanations therein do not also proceed in an order. We may not be able to discuss Mahidasa’s works thoroughly. But, we can attempt to glance at his views on certain subjects.

There are no clear-cut divisions or grouping of his doctrines. But, we can attempt to classify his views under some broad heads. Those classifications are our own; but, the concepts are of Mahidasa.

11.2. The main problems that Mahidasa tried to grapple were the origin of life and the development of consciousness.

Before we get to that, let’s briefly see a few other subjects discussed by Mahidasa.

The task of philosophy

12.1. To begin with, Mahidasa pointed out that the task of philosophy is to explain ones experience. By ‘experience’ he perhaps meant a person’s relation and interaction with the rest of the world and with himself. The maxim that Mahidasa laid down for himself was : “I know the universe and myself as far as I know the gods; and I know the gods as far as I know the universe and myself”(Aitareya Aranyaka-2.17.7;  

The term ‘gods’ in his statements is taken to mean the hymns (ukta) or the elements (bhutani).

12.2. How does one explain such experiences ? According to Mahidasa, there are two methods of understanding or two levels of experience: objective and subjective. These could be termed as conventional (vyavaharika) and philosophical (paramarthika).

Mahidasa and the world

13.1. In a philosophical perspective (paramarthika), Man is conceived as the miniature universe. Man is a microcosm just as the visible world is universal man (yadvad brahma vistitam tatvati vagiti; yatra ha kva ca brahma tad vaag, yatra va vak tad va brahmatiAA Every individual is like an egg, very similar to the oval shaped spherical universe (Brahmanda); curvilinear , bending around itself with no distinct boundaries.  . Both are complete in themselves. What is in one is in the other :

“whatever there is belonging to the son belongs to the father; whatever there is belonging to the father belongs to the son” (Aitareya Aranyaka:

What is true in respect of man is also true of the universe. The whole of nature is a purposive-order, a system of ends. The finite thing of experience is not only a part of the whole but is, in essence, the whole itself.

“I as a living nomad am the universe”.

But that does not mean, he says, that the universal completely explains the particular. Obviously, there are differences. But those differences are not of kind but of intensity and degree.

The physical world

14.1. As regards the conventional (vyavaharika) or the physical world, Mahidasa considered it as a combination of the visible world, the organic world and the man. By visible world Mahidasa meant the physical world as whole. The organic world included vegetable kingdom and the animal world, as also the Man.

14.2. Of these, the visible world is a living thing and man is a living being; and connecting the two is the organic world. He believed, ‘If we know one, we know the rest’. For, there is no difference, in principle, between the physical world and the organic world; or between the organic world and the man. The fundamental difference, if any, would be in the intensity or the degree of growth. That is to say; as a naturalist Mahidasa perceived the difference subsisting between things of experience; but as a philosopher he realized the unity underlying all existence (AA

14.3. According to Mahidasa’s classification, all those shining gods – the sun , lightening, the moon, the planets, and the stars; and all the five great elements (maha-bhutani) – the earth, water , fire, air and the sky – belong to the physical world. Mahidasa regarded nature as a living form, an interconnected whole, having a unity in the midst of all changes.

As regards the organic world, it included vegetable and the animal kingdoms. And, man naturally belongs to the animal world; and is classed among the animals (prani– the living).

According to Mahidasa, the distinction between the physical world and the organic could roughly be termed as that between the dead-matter and living-matter. As said earlier, the differences among them are in the intensity or the degree of their growth.

14.4. If one extends Mahidasa’s explanation, a so-called non-living thing is in fact an undeveloped life, in the same way as man could be taken as a developed thing. Because, according to him, what takes place in the world continuously is not creation or manifestation (prakatatvam), but it is the evolution (avistarah avirbhava) of life. He described it as the ceaseless flowering of the hidden potential in all matter.

Evolution – the rope of life

15.1. Mahidasa understood evolution (avistarah avirbhava) as an ongoing process, a continuing relation between a series of causes and effects. He regards evolution of life alone as the real process in the world. He views evolution as the unfolding of life; a transition from the hidden to the manifest; from potential to the actual. Each step in evolution comes from something and becomes something. Each step is the seed (bija) of the next.

15.2. Mahidasa visualized evolution as a series of knots on a rope; each knot representing a stage in evolution (AA . Such a rope or a chain has two extremities –  two ends  – two ultimate knots , either way , between which all other knots fall ; and which therefore determine the length of the rope ( duration of the evolutionary process). Each knot (stage) is the seed of the next. Therefore what we recognize as two separate knots are essentially two aspects of one and the same reality. If we take the first cause as Brahman or God the final cause too is God; and so is whatever that falls in-between.

[In the process of evolution, a living individual is one of the many knots on the rope of life. He is one of the developed stages which matter assumes or is capable of assuming.]

15.3.  In Mahidasa’s terminology, in the Universe the first and the last knots are termed Prajapathi (the efficient cause) and Brahman (the final cause or end). In the case of the individual they are termed prana and Prajna.

Prajapathi causes the world; the world causes water; the water causes life; life begets herbs and living creatures; the manas is the heart of thinking creature; it causes thinking mind; the thinking mind expresses through thoughtful speech ; the thoughtful speech leads to thoughtful action; and the thoughtful action is in reality the man (Purusha), the abode of Brahman”( AA

16.1. Each stage is the seed (bija) of the next. A seed (effect) is developed from a seed (cause) through a process of series of changes or natural transformation. That process of change from one seed to the next is at once both a destroyer and a creator. Let’s take the example of a real plant: when a seed moves into its next stage or when it becomes a whole plant, the essence of the seed is transformed into a wholly different object. The seed and its form would no longer be there.  But a plant would not have come into existence without the presence of the seed.

16.2. In the series of changes that take place, each stage (seed) gives place to the next stage. The seed is never inactive. When the seed (cause) becomes a shoot (effect) it is no longer continuing as a seed; but its nature has altered to that of a shoot. The seed series is transformed into shoot-series, when suitable conditions prevail. But one series is in as much a flux as another. The fully grown plant , in turn, puts out the seeds. That is the cycle of life.

The ultimate product of the seed is again the seed. Regeneration and perpetuation is the theme of life

16.3. Thus, according to Mahidasa, a higher form often presupposes the lower. The process that causes development of a seed from a seed must itself undergo a certain form of change; or itself must enter into motion. In order to attain a higher form, a seed is bound to lose its own form but not necessarily its substance.

That is to say, the root and shoot (cause and effect) are, for practical purposes, distinguishable from each other; but logically they are identical in substance or in essence (AA 

Mahidasa in his picturesque language asserts: ‘no one possess that which he does not eat or the things that do not eat him…the eater and the food are in reality the food. The food is that which feeds and is fed. What we call this moment as eater may later be the food’. That is to say, the food (cause) and eater (effect) are correlated. Each stage in development is the destroyer of its predecessor.

[The same reasoning is applied to show that no extraneous causes are needed for destroying a thing. The germs of destruction are inherent in every object. If a thing does not annihilate itself, nothing else can do it.]

[In these texts, food (anna), the eater (annada); seed (bija); or root (mula) or shoot (tula) were all meant to denote ‘cause’ or ‘effect’ depending on the context.]

16.4. The relationship that binds each successive stage  is, thus, akin to the relation between the food (anna) and the eater (annada); the material and the individual; the potential and the actual; the indeterminate and the determinate. A developed seed (the effect) is more individual (independent), more actual, and more determinate and more of an object of nature than that from which it developed (AA


17.1. Mahidasa did not look upon changes from one stage to the other as unrelated or isolated events. In his view, the evolution has a unity of its own; and that unity implies identity and continuity of a common substratum of change, that is the matter. Thus matter is the ground of all plurality of forms, just as speech is the ground for all plurality of names.

17.2. Matter, according to Mahidasa, is that out of which a thing becomes; and that from which a form (murti) or a purposeful order is brought forth (AA. Form is related to matter as shoot (tula) to its root (mula); as that which manifests it (AA. Matter and form are thus conceived by him as transition from something hidden or potential to something manifest and actual or express. That is to say, there is no transition from nothingness to being; but it is derived from that which is not- yet or the potent.  The more evolved the matter is the more manifest or recognizable or better defined it becomes. (This applies also to evolution of human from primitive forms.)

17.3. Mahidasa provides an illustration “A whispered voice is just breath; but when it is aloud it acquires a distinct form or a body (sarira) . The whispered speech is the latent or the underdeveloped form of clear speech. Going further backward, the whispered speech is loud breath which in turn is an expression of formless breath. When spoken aloud, the formless breath transforms into clear perceptible speech.

Speech in this case is a kind of form . Breath is the root of speech. Similarly, going backward, breath is a form of air. Thus , going backward in successive steps we may arrive at the first or pure matter which may be entirely be devoid of form,  indeterminate or in- cognizable by itself.

On the other hand, going forward from matter to form, root to shoot, we may proceed towards forms that are better defined.

Mind – Speech

18.1. Mind is that faculty in an organized body which thinks, wills and feels (A All desires dwell in mind because it is with the mind that man conceives all desires (AA A thought conceived in the mind is expressed through speech. Thus, logically thought is prior to speech (AA At another place, Mahidasa states that thought and speech are interdependent (van me manasi pratistitha; mano me vaci prathistam AA 2.7)

18.2. Like matter or mind, speech is conceived as a continuous structure. It also is compared to a rope or a chain with many knots. As the rope or chain that runs along, it has a first and a last knot, representing the first and the final forms. The knots or links that lie in between are the names or concepts corresponding to their existent forms (vak tanti namani daamaani -AA 2.6.2).


19.1. Matter according to Mahidasa is neither being nor non-being. And, the principle of motion or the energy that brings about changes in it  is  something other than matter itself.

Mahidasa recognizes that spirit or the agent which continually causes changes as prana, or the living principle of the universe, the pure vital energy and activity. He regards that vital principle (prana) by which virtue of which we keep changing and function as living organisms, as the soul (atman). The organisms are kept alive by the vital air. Therefore, the central or the fundamental function of an organism is breathing or respiration. For, even during sleep when all sensations and mental activities cease, the process of life, its vital air (prana) goes on all the while.

[It is not clear whether or not Mahidasa conceived the vital air (Prana) as a principle separate from the elements. At one place he says that in so far as the living beings are concerned the vital principle has no separate existence from the five elements (AA At another place he considers Prana as a principle by itself, a principle which is not altogether dependent on body or material conditions (AA :  “the immortal dwells in the mortal”]


20.1. Mahidasa says consciousness (prajnana) resides in and is a function of the soul. What is consciousness? He asks and says:

“The faculty by which we see form , that by which we hear sound, that by which we perceive odors, that by which we utter speech, that by which we taste food and all that which comes from the heart and the mind, namely , appreciation , comprehension, understanding, cognition, intellect, insight, retention, judgment, reflection, receptivity, remembrance, conceiving, willing, breathing, loving, desiring – bear in varying degrees the name of consciousness (prajnanasya namadheyyani)” — (AA.2.6.2)

20.2. He recognized   prajna as pure intelligence, the eternally active self-conscious –reason (prajnana).He said ; the whole realm of change is led the self-conscious reason (prajna – netra). He declared; you could call that consciousness as God, the deity which is ‘the best and without flaw’ –Prajnanam Brahma- (AA

20.3. As between soul and consciousness, he asks:

Who is this self on whom we meditate? Is it the self by which we hear, see, smell and taste; and through which we speak in words? Is self the mind by which we perceive, direct, understand, know remember, think, will, desire and love? No, these are but the servants of the self who is pure consciousness. It is Prajna which guides all. The world rests on Prajna; and, Prajna is Brahman.


21.1. Mahidasa seems to have conceived soul as the compliment of a living body. The soul is, in essence, just the vital principle (prana) by virtue of which we exist as living beings.

From a metaphysical position, Mahidasa understood soul as a part of change or the process; as the agent of all changes. It is directly connected with the mode of cognition and indirectly with the object cognized. He did not seem to make a serious distinction between abstract reasoning and sense perception.

21.2. According to Mahidasa, the development in a living being is not merely physical but is psychological as well. He considers sense perception and reasoning – mental functions –as not different in kind but only in the degree or the intensity. They develop gradually, stage – by- stage.  Those mental functions ranging from bare sensations to comprehension have the name of reason (prajna-nasya namdheyyani -AA 4.1.3).

21.3. According to Mahidasa, we should try to understand HOW we know, rather than what we know. Gargyayana, another philosopher of those times, took the alternate view saying what we know is more important than worrying about HOW we came to know.

21.4. An interesting aspect of the soul, as per Mahidasa, is its graduated scales of function. According to Mahidasa, the whole of nature is a system of ends; and that the self develops gradually in living world (prana-bhritsu). ‘As there are infinite gradations of types of existence, so there is a graduated scale of functions of soul.’  Its primary function is nutritive, desire for food and sensations of hunger and thirst. The next function is sense perception and other body -functions. And, the third function is that of ‘heart and mind’, meaning those relating to understanding and reason. All these are merely the stages of its existence; and do not mean different kinds of existence. Similarly, the various functions of the soul do not vary in kind, but only in their degree or intensity. Mahidasa relates these concepts to the growth of life in the world.

[Mahidasa’s ideas of graded existence of the soul perhaps were the nucleus or the seed-ideas from which the later concepts of Annamaya, Pranamaya and vijnanamaya were developed.]

Mahidasa’s biology

22.1. A fascinating feature of Mahidasa’s biology is his view that the intelligence principle (chitta or chidrupa) in the living world (prana-bhritsu) develops or evolves gradually – (AA.3.2.2). He asks:

‘understand the gradual unfolding of individual things’ – (atmanam avistaram veda). Materials (what we call as life-less) do have a sense of touch or feel.  In the herbs and trees, for instance, the sap (Rasa – life) has its own intelligence.

22.2. But, chitta (consciousness or thought) in the widest sense is seen in the higher form of life. Among the latter again, some show vitality and intelligence, while others are devoid of intelligence. Among all the animals, man alone has the capacity for acquiring higher wisdom; yet in him too the soul develops gradually.

22.3. Man differs from lower animals in these respects:  

“He says what he has known. He knows what is to happen tomorrow. He knows heaven and hell. By means of the mortal he desires the immortal – thus he is endowed (A With other animals, on the contrary, hunger and thirst (instincts and impulses) only are a kind of sensation; they possess voice but no speech; mind but not prudence (AA 2.2.1-5). Animals may possess rudimentary reason but not reasoned knowledge”.

Classification of living beings

23.1. His classification of living beings includes earth, water, fire, air, and heaven (space). According to him, the matter too has one fundamental sense that of touch or ‘feel’. In a way, matter is an ‘organic-thing’ as distinguished from plants and herbs which are ‘organic beings’.

[But, Sri Sayana differed from Mahidasa. He considered earth, stone and such others as unconscious objects .They merely exist and, they do not come under the strict definition of organic beings].

23.2. Mahidasa mentions Plants and herbs in general as distinct from things. For, they can be distinguished by the sap (rasa) or moisture (ardratvam) which exhibits its peculiar intelligence (AA It has faculty that takes sunlight, absorbs water and essece from soil and converts that into plant energy. Plants are alive ; and  are endowed with sense of light, sensations of thirst and hunger. According to Mahidasa, that sense itself is developed into reason; and, a plant becomes a man by the gradual process of evolution. But like the’ organic things ’, the plants too are immovable (sthavara) lacking the freedom to move around (AA.

23.3. But, those that are higher in the scale of development can move from place to place at their will – (jangama) and are also capable of experiencing other sensations and reasoning. Physically and mentally humans are the best of all such created things. But, again, the differences among the species are the mere question of degree.

23.4. Mahidasa explains the graded signs of freedom. The sign of freedom is the power of bodily movement, the power which the stones, herbs etc (sthavara as distinguished from jangama) are deprived.The second test of freedom is the power of the thighs (uru) or the power of regeneration by means of separate sexes, that is to say maithuna.The next higher test is by the stomach (udara) , that is to have  choice of food and  the power to assimilate  etc. The last test is that of the head (sirasah) or the power of heart and mind (hridayam manasa) by which human is endowed with knowledge. A human says what he has known; sees what he has known; knows what is to happen tomorrow; knows heaven and hell; and desires the immortal by means of the mortal.

Thus, the highest in the scale of development is man who alone is endowed with the faculty of reason (prajnanam sampannatama).

Whither Man

25.1. The continual advance of life is from mere existence   towards reason (prajna); from bondage to freedom of action. That is the story of evolution. Mahidasa maintained that the intelligence principle develops or evolves gradually. Among the higher animals the two footed man surpasses the four-footed. Therefore the quadrupeds though physically stronger obey man.

25.2. All the forms of life eat and drink. All lower animals propagate the species. Even the plants, when grown up, bear fruits and seeds  (A This alone cannot be the whole duty of human being who is endowed with the extraordinary faculty of reason, by cultivating which he acquires wisdom, builds his moral self and perfects his conduct.

25.3. It is his sense of duty and his performance of duty that distinguishes the human from the rest.  The highest duty of human is to attain perfection. And, his principle means is prajnana. That is, in order to realize the full freedom, a wise person must transcend in his thought all material conditions of existence and limitations . He should aspire to attain the immortal by means of the mortal (martyena amritam ipsa). The ultimate aim of man’s life and of all life is to attain perfection which consists knowledge (Prajna or prajnana), bliss (nandana) and immortality (amritatva).

Mahidasa’s views on Art

26.1. Mahidasa regards all human arts including art of generation as an imitation, in some way, of the works of nature, the living arts.  “The creations of the divine (daiva shilpa) in nature are indeed great works of art. All human arts (manusha shilpa ) such as brass work, garment, works in gold and such toys as elephants, mule and chariot are but a reproduction (anukarana) of nature” (AB .6.5.1) . All the skillful works that appear in this light (sense) are to be regarded as arts. 

Sri Sayana explains that self-development is also an aim of those arts. He says that by practicing art, the Yajamana ( the aspirant) would improve his awareness; he becomes chandomaya – harmonious with nature; he grows  in tune with the whole of nature ;  and ,  becomes  vedamaya,  endowed with intelligence .

(The generation of offspring and bringing up a healthy and well educated young generation is also regarded an art).

26.2. Gargyayana, also , at times, known as Citra Gargyayani, a sage–king , who appears in the Kausitiki Upanishad (and, said to be one of the teachers of Uddalaka Aruni), who followed Mahidasa, did not, however, entirely agree with Mahidasa’s view of art. He did acknowledge the existence of the divine order in nature ; but maintained that all art creations are products of human mind. He questioned ; if all art is an imitation or a reproduction of nature, where is the scope for free play of one’s expressions or imagination. According to Gargyayana, art is how the human mind conceives and experiences the nature and the surrounding life (maanasi pratirupa chaksusi) ; how it expresses that experience in its own way; and how it imposes its own forms and interpretations on nature.

26.3. Centuries later, the Buddha improved upon Gargyayana‘s view of art. The Buddha precluded all ideas of the divine as being external to man. He regarded art as a product of human experience and imagination, a representation of ideas that take birth in human mind- (caranam cittam citten^ eva cintitam Samyukta Nikaya, 5.8 quoted in the Atthasalini-204.). In addition, the Buddha brought in psychological aspect of art as influenced by the diversity of forms of life and human experiences.

26.4. Buddhagosha the Buddhist commentator explaining the Buddha’s view said “In drawing the finest pictures the thought arises in the mind of the painter: such and such figures are to be drawn in this picture. By this thought the drawing of the outline, colouring, polishing and other details follow in consequence whereupon a wonderful picture emerges on the canvas – (Saratthappakasini, Sri Lankan edition)


References and sources:

1. The History of the Pre-Buddhistic Indian Philosophy (1921); Calcutta University by Dr. Benimadhab Barua (Reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, 1970)

2. A Course in Indian Philosophy; by Prof. AK Warder; Motilal Banarsidass, 1998

3. The Essence of Aitareyopanishad by Swami Sivananda§ion_id=587

4. .Aitareya Aranyaka


Posted by on October 12, 2012 in Mahidasa, Upanishads


Tags: , , , , , ,

Who was Mahidasa Aitareya – Part One

The post Vedic period

1.1. The post Vedic period is generally reckoned as the one that fell between the end of Rig Veda and the commencement of Buddhism. And more particularly, it covered the period of the Aitareya and Taittairiya texts, Brahmana Schools and the early Upanishads. In regard to its teachers, it is the period encompassed by Mahidasa Aitareya and Yajnavalkya Vajasaneya. It is an obscure but a highly important period of thought- evolution that preceded the rise of Jainism, Buddhism and other later systems of Indian thought.

1.2. The period closed with Yajnavalkya whose philosophical teachings epitomized   the logical trend of the entire post Vedic thought tending towards the psycho-ethical. Yajnavalkya’s psychological speculations about the waking, the dreaming and the sleeping states of consciousness  ; and his theories of rebirth, death and birth laid the foundations of many of the Jaina, the Buddhist and the Hindu doctrines.

The discussions of this period form the basis for development of many psychological theories of the senses, the mind and the soul; and speculations of their functions and inter relations that are characteristic of the Buddhist traditions.

Shift in emphasis

2.1. The locale of the post Vedic period shifted from the Vedic  land of seven- waters (saptha-sindhavah) in the Punjab-Sindh region to Madhyadesha , which at those times meant the country lying to the east of Vinashana ( the region where the Saraswathi disappeared) stretching eastward up to Kalakavana or Black Forest , a tract somewhere near Prayaga.

2.2. The shifting of the knowledge-base from west to east must have taken place gradually. There is a long interval separating the last sage of the Rig-Veda from the first thinkers or the philosophers of the Post Vedic period.

During that long period  not only did the manner and the objective of life change but the aspirations of life too changed. It moved from a desire for a long and a cheerful life on earth to a will to secure release from the chain of births. The escape from Dukkha and delusions of the world took precedence over enjoying earthly fruits.

The gods too were steadily and slowly changing from their Vedic characteristics and functions of granting longevity, cattle, children, wives, victory, health and happiness and prosperity on earth to sage- like counsellors bestowing the knowledge that liberates. In the post Vedic texts the gods were approached with reverence for gaining an understanding of the nature of Man and his Universe.

2.3. The chief interest of the Vedic sages was centred upon the physical world as a whole. The thinkers of Aranyakas and Upanishads were, on the other hand, more concerned with the organic world and man, and his inner urges, culture of faith and intellect. While the Vedic hymns look outward in reverence and awe at the phenomena in nature, the post Vedic texts tend to look inward attempting to interpret the powers of nature as varied expressions of human consciousness.  In the post Vedic stage, logic and dialectics formed two wings of the discussions that were carried on; and, yet   the intellectual aspect was as much important as the contemplative. The shift in emphasis was gradual and natural.

2.4. Although the early hymns of Rig Veda are full of inquisitive questions as to the what, the whence, the how and the whither of things, they are not philosophical in approach. Those exclamations and wonderment were turned in to philosophical expositions in the Post Vedic era by Aghamarshana and other thinkers that followed him.

2.5. The highest aspiration of the thinkers of the post Vedic times was to approach and be one with what one looked up to as the Supreme. That soaring aspiration found its expression in hymns, verses, speculative thoughts, and the deeply absorbing discussions of the Aranyaka texts and the Upanishads. 

The question that mainly came up in the Post Vedic texts was ‘Who am I? ‘, which brought in its trail the other questions such as:’ ’Who is He?’; and ‘How shall I be one with Him?’ The thinkers of those times tried answering those questions in varieties of ways until it led them to the realization that  the questions seemingly separate were in fact two aspects of the same problem. On that, they exclaimed in amazement and joy:  ‘If I know Him, I know myself; If I know myself, I know Him’.  That finally led to the pithy aphorism  ‘So hum’ – I am He.

Mahidasa Aitareya

3.1. All such conceptions charged either by intellect or by intuition was in currency during the post-Vedic times. The earliest of its philosophers was Mahidasa Aitareya.  He is revered as the forerunner who showed the way to thinkers that succeeded him. Mahidasa is therefore recognized as the Father of Indian Philosophy, though many regard Aghamarshana as the first one to clearly state and put forward a definite explanation of his belief that Samvatsara (year) , time-principle which governs life and death was the essence of all things.

3.2. According to Sri Sayana-charya, Mahidasa was the son of a sage (identified by Dr. Radha Kumud Mookerji as Sage Visala) who had many wives, among whom was Mahidasa’s mother Itara. She came from a lower caste. Itara   named her son after her chosen deity Goddess Mahi , the Mother Earth.

Mahidasa the neglected one was gifted with a natural aptitude for study and learning. By dint of his sheer genius Mahidasa, years later, rose to eminence. Mahidasa called himself Aitareya the son of Itara; and, named the texts compiled by him – Aitareya Brahmana and Aitareya Aranyaka – in fond memory and in honor of his mother Itara.

[ Dr. Benimadhab Barua , in his “A History of pre-Buddhistic Indian Philosophy”, places Mahidasa in the post-Vedic period, which is the transition period from Vedas to Brahmanas.

Dr. Barua treats Mahidasa as the founder of the Aitereya tradition after Dhirgatamas ; but, before Gargargayana, Pratardana; and, much before Uddalaka (of Chandogya Up). He regards Mahidasa as the father of Indian Philosophy, because he was the first to systematically endeavor to understand, explain and suggest solutions to the questions concerning the origin of life, and development of consciousness. He paved way for all most all the thinkers who succeeded him.

• The Aitareya Brahmana (3.44) of Mahidasa says: “The Sun does never set nor rise. When people think the Sun is setting it is not so. For after having arrived at the end of the day it makes night to what is below and day to what is on the other side. Having reached the end of the night, it makes day to what is below and night to what is on the other side. In fact, the Sun never sets.”

The principle subject of interest among the thinkers of Mahidasa’s time appeared to be the primacy of Prana (vital energy or Life) OR Brahman (intelligence or consciousness). While Suravira, Mandukeya, Sakalya the senior and Raivaka argued for Prana; Badhva and Shandilya went for Brahman. It is said; whenever the arguments got into a tie, Mahidasa seemed to favor Prana.

Dr. Barua mentions that The Buddha regarded the Aitereya, Taittiriya and a few other Brahmana Schools as being among the oldest. Panini the Grammarian mentions (V.1.2) Aitareya and Kaushitaki Brahmanas. Similarly, Yaska also speaks of the two Brahmanas in his Nirukta (vi.8) . Thus, Aitareya of Mahidasa is of great antiquity.

A B Keith in his “Rigveda Brahmanas: the Aitareya and Kausitaki Brahmanas of the Rigveda”, after a lengthy discussion (from page 42 to page50) , places the texts around 800 BCE. He also says Aitareya is, doubtless, one of the oldest Brahmanas; older than Jaiminiya or Shatapatha.

Of course, given the state of chronology in Indian History, the dates are always open to debate.]


3.3. Nothing specific is known about Mahidasa’s life. The only definite information about him comes from Chandogya Upanishad and Jaiminiya Upanishad, both of which mention that Mahidasa lived a long life of 116 years. It is said; the first 24 years of his life were spent as a student; the next 44 years as householder; the remaining 48 years as hermit or forest dweller free from illness and weaknesses.

3.4. Mahidasa compared the life of a person to a Yajna. According to him, the first 24 years of life are the morning libation connected with the Vasus. The next 44 years of life are the midday libations connected with the Rudras. And, the next 48 years are the third libation connected with the Adityas.


4.1. Aitareya is an important name in the Vedic literature . The Rig-Veda supposedly had an Aitareya recession. Mahidasa was perhaps the founder of a Shakha or a School of the Aitareyins  whose philosophies were incorporated into the Aitareya Brahmana. To Aitareya Brahmana belongs the Aitareya Aranyaka , which includes Aitareya Upanishad. Even as early as in the sixth century BCE, the Buddha regarded the Aitareya along with Taittareya as being the oldest among the post – Vedic texts.

4.2. The Aitareya Brahmana and the Aitareya Aranyaka , omitting the Upanishad portions, together represent a homogeneous body of doctrines which may be regarded as the system of a particular school of thought , say that of Mahidasa Aitareya or of the Aitareya School. The case of the Upanishad is, however, different, as it contains the views of many individuals and schools other than of Aitareya clan.

4.3. Aitareya Aranyaka (appended to Aitareya Brahmana of the Rig Veda) consists five books each of which is treated as a separate Aranyaka. The Books One to Three are attributed to Mahidasa Aitareya; the Book Four to Asvalayana; and , the Book Five to Saunaka , the teacher of Asvalayana.

The status of householder

5.1. One of the moot questions that perhaps were in serious debate during those times was: whether one can coordinate or harmonize earnest spiritual quest with discharge of responsibilities as of a social being, a householder.

Mahidasa replied that with a very emphatic ‘yes’. There  is no reason, he said, why a righteous person should forego   the legitimate pleasures of the senses, in so far as these are in harmony with the purpose of the whole of nature. That is to say, in so far as these serve the real end for which these are meant , and no other.

5.2. He asserted that Marriage is a sacred human institution which must be respected by all human beings. Mahidasa believed, life is altogether imperfect and bitter without marriage and children (AA1.3.4.12-13). According to him, a happy life is one which is lived for a hundred years in health, strength and brightness (indriye, viryye, and tejasi) , in company with the loved ones..

5. 3. The householder, he said, is the pivot of social system; all stages and segments of life, either in family or in society, revolve around him. Just as all beings depend on air to exist, the other three stages in life (childhood, hermit and recluse) depend on the householder. He feeds, protects and clothes all. The householder generates life, nurtures, protects, educates and strengthens life for the well-being of the present and of the future society. The order, safety and governance in the society all come from the householder.  The values and virtues in life such as love, generosity, commitment, tolerance, prudence, right judgment, purity etc., all emanate from the family. The peace of the departed ancestors too depends on the householder. The gods and the Dharma too are maintained by the householder. Thus, the past, present and future all depend on the householder. All stages of life originate from, prosper in, and merge into the householder.

The art of Life

6.1. As regards the life in general, Mahidasa Aitareya advised: Live the life of nature. The art of self-building or the art of conduct should be based upon the art of the Divine, that is to say, to be in complete accord with the laws of nature. Nothing is bad in its right place; and everything is useless when it is out of its place. Even a precious diamond is a mere speck of dust when it falls into ones eye . Everything gains in value and significance so long as it discharges its proper functions and in proportion to  its contribution  to the general wellbeing of the whole system of which it is an integral , organic part .The eye for instance is good so long as it discharges its functions of seeing for which it is intended and remains an integral part of the organism. ” The eye cannot hear; the ear cannot see; the stomach cannot think ;and, the mind cannot digest and so on (AA” Anything out of its  place and out of context is useless.

6.2. Mahidasa said; the greatest virtue of man is truth (satya) , the flower and fruit of speech. The tongue that utters what is not truth dries up and perishes like an uprooted tree (AA.

The term truth had a far wider connotation with him than with us. Truth meant a perfect harmony in conduct between ones thought, speech and deed (manasa, vacha, kaya). It is the integrity in life. And, in philosophy, it is the harmony  that should exist between knowledge and reality.

The interconnected Systems

7.1. While Mahidasa accepted that all systems – state, society and family – are independent in their own context. He pointed out that it is only when each system is connected with the others in a meaningful manner that all systems together can perform as a harmonious unity. He also said; the family or the society or the state, though independent in a limited sense, should be so constituted within a super-system that each is harmoniously related and interconnected with the others, just as the organs in a human body. It is only then that all system-parts can together enable the organism to function purposefully and meaningfully.

7.2. Mahidasa extended the analogy of the ‘body-principle’ to explain the relationships that should exist between the State, the Society and Family. He said; each member in the society and each member in the family should have a free scope for a proper discharge of his or her functions or for the proper use of his or her capacities.

7.3. Mahidasa further extended that principle to explain the order prevailing in the universe. Mahidasa meant that all systems are independent, just as a living body is a inter connected whole – an order as the universe itself.

Thus, Mahidasa Aitareya and his school left many inferences relating to the practical life drawn from their study of human organism or of the constitution and nature of working of the physical universe.


The living and the dead

8.1. Mahidasa explained, a living organism is a system that is divisible into a number of component systems. Each member is perfect in its place; but, it is useless while out of place (AA Besides, each member has a distinct place, function or purpose of its own. It is so peculiar to it that no other member can take its place. Each member in a living body exercises its own functions independently; and also in harmony and co-operation with other members (AA

8.2. And, yet all their functions are of relevance only when the unity of the whole organization is maintained by the vital principle Prana. The term Prana, air or breath connotes that the working of the systems depend ultimately on the vital breath. He seems to suggest that the functions of the body such as eating, digestion etc all need the presence of air (AA  Mahidasa also says all members of an organization are not absolutely essential for its mere existence so long as there is Prana.

8.3. He pointed out that a living organism must be sharply distinguished from a dead body because a body without life joined to it is but a decaying corpse (sarira), whereas a living body is a self generating mechanism of nature. It is born perpetually, replacing the dead particles (anu) all the while  (AA. Thus , according to Mahidasa, in order to participate in what is called ‘life’ the relation between members in a living organism should not only be that of mere physical contact but should also be that of physiological connection. That is to say, each member of the organization must be animated by the same principle (Prana) and stimulated into activity by the same motive.

Man and Universe

9.1. Mahidasa conceived Man as a microcosm, a miniature universe: “whatever there is belonging to the son belongs to the father; whatever there is belonging to the father belongs to the son” (Aitareya Aranyaka: What is true in respect of man is also true of the universe. The finite thing of experience is not only a part of the whole but is in essence the whole itself. ‘I as a living nomad am the universe’.   (More of that in the next part)

9.2. The main concern of Mahidasa was the search for the central essence of Man; as also the essence of the Universe. The two independent streams of thought – one driven by the desire to realize the true nature of man; and , the other, to understand the objective world – became fused. The blending of the two apparently dissimilar concerns led him to his outlook. He tried to understand and express the world in terms of the individual and his place in it.

9.3. The major problems that Mahidasa tried to grapple were the origin of life and the development of consciousness.  The following explanation on the Aitareya Upanishad is said to be based on his teachings:

‘This which is known as the heart, this mind, mastering knowledge of arts, comprehension, power of retaining import of scriptures, perception, fortitude, reflection, independent power of thinking, distress of mind caused by diseases, etc., memory, volition, application, any pursuit for maintenance of life, desire for the company of women, all these are, indeed, names of Consciousness’.

‘This Brahman; this Indra; this creator; all these gods; these five great elements; all these small creatures; these others; the seeds of creation, these egg-born, the womb-born, sweat-born, sprout-born, horses, cows, men, elephants, whatever else which breathes and moves and flies, or is immovable, all these are guided by Consciousness and are supported by Consciousness. The universe has Consciousness for its guide. Consciousness is the basis or stay of all.

‘Verily, consciousness is Brahman: Prajnanam Brahma’.

बीजानीतराणि चेतराणि चाण्डजानि च जारुजानि च स्वेदजानि चोद्भिज्जानि चाश्वा गावः पुरुषा हस्तिनो यत्किञ्चेदं प्राणि जङ्गमं चपतत्रि च यच्च स्थावरं सर्वं तत्प्रज्ञानेत्रं प्रज्ञाने प्रतिष्ठितं प्रज्ञानेत्रो लोकः प्रज्ञा प्रतिष्ठा प्रज्ञानं ब्रह्म ॥ ऐतरेय उपिनषत् ३.३ ॥


9.3. Mahidasa was not given to flights of fantasy. He was analytical in his approach. That is commendable when one considers that Indian ‘philosophy’ was then just passing out of infancy. He preceded the Buddha by at least 600 to 800 years.

The scholars from west too recognize that Mahidasa compares favorably with Aristotle. The problems they point out with Mahidasa are in his use of ‘nomenclatures’ or terms that are not quite easy to follow; and lack of methodical treatment to his subjects. But, all acknowledge that his concepts and his understanding of nature and life were brilliant; and, Mahidasa was far ahead of his times.

His vision of treating Man as miniature universe; assertion that something can only come out of something and not out of nothing; bridging relations between root and shoot, cause and effect; notions of perpetual change and motion; the proposition that the motion or the energy that brings about changes in the matter is something other than matter; and his belief that ‘organic things’ too are endowed with life and sensations – all these found place in the doctrines of Samkhya and other Schools of thought (including Buddhism) centuries after his time. Mahidasa was without doubt a pioneer in the development of Indian thought.



10.1. Aitareya Aranyaka and Aitareya Brahmana are fairly large texts. The concepts and explanations do not also proceed in an order. There are no clear-cut divisions or grouping of his doctrines. We may not be able to discuss his works thoroughly. But we can attempt to glance at some of his views on few other subjects.

That we shall attempt in the next part

Continued in Part Two

References and sources:

1. The History of the Pre-Buddhistic Indian Philosophy (1921); Calcutta University by Dr. Benimadhab Barua (Reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, 1970)

2. A Course in Indian Philosophy by Prof. AK Warder; Motilal Banarsidass, 1998

3. The Essence of Aitareyopanishad  by Swami Sivananda§ion_id=587

4. Aitareya Aranyaka


Posted by on October 12, 2012 in Mahidasa, Upanishads


Tags: , , , ,

The essential teachings of the Buddha

[Siddhartha Gotama was the prince of the Sakiya clan , who ruled a prosperous republican community belonging to Kosala kingdom situated at the foot of Himalayan ranges. His father was Suddhodana , a Sakyan Chieftain; and his mother was Maya. Siddhartha was born under a Saal tree in the Lumbibi garden (along the Indo -Nepal border) , while his mother was travelling to her parent’s home. He lost his mother while he was still an infant; and, was brought up by his mother’s sister, Pajapati Gotami. He married Yasodhara, his cousin; and the couple had a son named Rahula. Siddhartha was a good looking person with a strong body. He had his military training in his upbringing ; and, was once invited by King Bimbisara to join his army as a General.

Siddhartha left his home, at the age of twenty nine, soon after the birth of his son, in search of ‘Truth’.  For six long years he studied earnestly, went from teacher to teacher ; and, lived the life of a mendicant , practicing severe austerity. He was satisfied neither with the teachings nor with the methods prescribed. He also realized   that with a body so utterly weakened as his, he would not be able to pursue his path with any chance of success. Finally, he broke away from his fellow Samanas; and, also abandoned extremes of self-torture and prolonged fasting. Thereafter , adopted the method of moderation; away from the extremes.

He practiced meditation under a pipal tree in the Uravela forests along the banks of the Neranjara River (near Gaya). Gotama , at the age of thirty-five, attained enlightenment on a full moon in the month of May (vaisakha, vesak).

The Buddha was a wandering monk for twenty years , starting from his enlightenment, continuously on move from place to place. He then settled down at Savasthi, living on alms, for about twenty years. He left Savasthi in his 79th year ; and, spent the next rainy season at Rajagraha , from where he moved northward. While on move, at the age of 80, he passed away quietly at Kusinara in the Malla country.

The Buddha is the precious jewel of humanity. No matter how you look at him, he must have been a wonderful person of majesty, tenderness, compassion and one who was free from prejudices. He always carried himself with dignity. You cannot fail to wonder at the brilliance, greatness, empathy and the nobility of the person and his teachings. Though twenty-five centuries have gone since the passing away of the Buddha, his message of love, compassion and wisdom continue to influence and guide us.]


1.1. It is said that the First Discourse (pathamadesana) of the Buddha introduces his teachings and his philosophy. Many think it holds the essential teachings of the Master : ‘There is no teaching of the Master outside the scope of this sermon.’ It also marks a watershed in his life. It was from here that Samana Gotama the wanderer emerged as the Revered Teacher (Bhagava), as the Blessed One (Araha) and as the perfectly enlightened One (Sammaa- Sambuddha).

1.2. The pathamadesana is of unique importance in the Buddhist history. It was from here the incomparable wheel of Dhamma was set in motion (Dhamma-chakka-parivattana) by the Blessed One. The full moon of Asadha is therefore celebrated as Dhamma Day and it marks the beginning of the annual retreat period in the monasteries for the monsoon (Vassa or chatur-masya).

A. My emancipation is won

2.1. It was on the full moon night in the month of Vesaka – the sixth month; on one of those nights he spent under the Bodhi tree, he understood the sorrows of earthly existence and experienced the supreme peace unaffected by earthly existence. He said to himself “My emancipation is won…Done what is to be done. There is nothing beyond this (katamkarniyam, naaparamitthattaya).”

2.2. For several days, he wandered in peace and tranquillity, among the woods. He enjoyed his quiet serene days and lonely walks in the forest. He wished the idyllic life would last forever. He pondered whether he should share his newfound wisdom with others. Yet, he wondered whether anyone would be interested or would appreciate his findings, which helps in seeing things clearly, as they are, and in attaining knowledge, higher wisdom, peace, and enlightenment or nirvana.

2.3. He debated, there might still be those not entirely blinded by the worldly dirt. He thought of his teachers Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, both “wise, intelligent and learned; and of nature scarcely tainted “; and said to himself they would quickly comprehend the knowledge he had just gained. Then, he sadly realized that Uddaka son of Rama had just passed away; and Alara Kalama died about seven days ago. Then the thought came to him of his erstwhile fellow Samanas, those who left him to pursue their ways. He decided to talk to his fellow seekers and share with them the new wisdom (Majjhima Nikaya; Sutta 26).

3.1. He journeyed from place to place from Gaya ; and at length reached the holy city of Varanasi after nearly seven weeks, covering a distance of about 144 miles .On his way a monk named Upaka enquired Gautama where he was headed to, “To set in to motion the wheel of Dhamma (Dhamma Chakkampavattetum)” he replied ” I proceed to Varanasi”.

3.2. There at Varanasi he learnt the five ascetics (Kondanna, Vappa, Mahanama, Assaji, and Bhadda) whom he knew before were at Isipatana (Rishipattana – where the sages live; now called Saranath), nearby. He found them in the garden Migadaaya (Deer park) at Isipatana. They were surprised to see him but were impressed by his majestic, pure and serene demeanour. They wondered whether he had achieved uttari-manusa-dhamma, the super human status.

He told them he had done what had to be done. He had attained it. He asked them to listen to his findings. He told them: “I teach about suffering and the way to end it”.

3.3. They listened to him in all earnestness. What he spoke to those five ascetics later gained renown as one of the greatest and most important discourses in religious history. At the end of the talk, Gotama emerged as the Teacher. He came to be revered as Bhagava (the Blessed One).

The talk was “The first teaching” (Pathamadesana). It later came to be celebrated as Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the discourse that set in motion the wheels of Dhamma.

B. Pathamadesana

4. 1.The Buddha spoke to the five ascetics at the garden of Migadaaya where the deer roamed unmolested and in peace, located in Isipatana near the holy city of Varanasi, in the evening of the full moon day in the month of Asalhi – the eighth month (Ashada-July). He spoke in simple Magadhi the language his listeners understood well. The discourse was brief, with short, simple and precise statements. There were no definitions and no explanations. It was a direct sincere talk.

4.2. It was a simple and a straight narration of how Samana Gotama transformed into the Buddha. He spoke from his experience, narrated his findings, and explained the four truths and the three aspects of each; and the middle path.

5.1. He opened the discourse by exhorting the five monks who believed in strict asceticism to avoid the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification, as both do not lead to perfect peace and enlightenment. “These two extremes should not be resorted to by a recluse who has renounced the world”. He advised them to follow the Middle Way (majjhiama-patipada). Then, he went on to explain four noble truths (cattariariya-sacchani) and their true nature: Sorrow (Dukkha) in life is a fact; it has a cause; that cause can be eliminated; and there is a method by which it is eliminated.

5.2. The Indian tradition looks upon the Buddha as the master of the analytical method (vibhajyavadin). His very first discourse is an excellent example of his consummate analytical skill.

5.3. The discourse is logically well structured. It puts forth certain postulates derived from observation and experience; and seeks to construct a logical structure explaining relationships among the postulates.

5.4. The Buddha did not stop at the intellectual edification. He was moved by compassion for his fellow beings and tried to show a method for eradication of sorrow. Dhamma preached here is both a theory and a practical procedure.  His postulates have therefore an operational aspect. The methods he suggested were drawn from his life and his experiences. His methods lead to a definite end (niyyana). It is like “putting down the burden” or to “cure the disease”. That is what Dhamma really means.

C. The Middle Way (majjhiama-patipada)

6.1. The Buddha arrived at a time when almost every shade of opinion was in currency in the Indian scene; but, excessive speculation was the bane of the period. In a way of speaking, he came to the rescue of Indian philosophy at its critical hour when no one seemed to have a clear view of things. He set himself to prepare a perfect –net (Brahma-jaala) of dialectics for entangling all sorts of sophistry.   The Buddhist philosophy is not only an integral part of Indian philosophy, but is a whole in itself. It therefore shares many characteristics   of the other streams of Indian thought; and, at the same time asserts its own beliefs.

6.2. The Buddha opened his celebrated discourse at the Migadaaya in Isipattana, saying:

“There are two extremes, O monks, from which he who leads a spiritual life must abstain. What are those two extremes? One is a life of pleasure, devoted to desire and enjoyment: that is base, ignoble, and un-spiritual, unworthy, unreal. The other is a life of mortification: it is gloomy, unworthy, unreal. The perfect one, O monks, is removed from both these extremes and has discovered the way which lies between them, the middle way (majjhiamapatipada) which enlightens the eyes, enlightens the mind, which leads to rest, to knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nirvana.”

6.3 The Middle-way that the Buddha taught here as the right conduct for a monk is compared to tuning a lute which emits melodious sounds of right pitch only when its strings are stretched neither too loose nor too tight.

7.1. His majjhiama-patipada was not merely his ethical teaching but was also the very foundation of his views on many issues including those on the nature of universe, the nature of soul sand such other subjects. One could even say that the metaphysics of the Buddha was based in the ’middle-way’. By this, he achieved a position that was away from extremes, away from dogmatism. He always maintained that one should avoid clinging to an idea or a concept for the mere sake of it. He is said to have remarked “I’ve used ideas as boats to cross the river, not to carry them around upon my head.”

Being and Non-Being

8.1. Even at the very early stages of Indian thought, two groups had clearly emerged: the one that asserted the hypotheses of the Being (sat-karya-vada), and the other of Non-Being (asat-karya-vada) .Both the camps left strong impressions on the later Indian speculations. The history of the subsequent Indian philosophy could be said to be mostly about the unfolding and expansion, a wider application, continued modifications of these two ancient postulates, or   departure from either.

8.2. The Buddha rejected both the extreme positions of Being and Non-Being. He preached the doctrine that embodied the middle mode (eteubho ante anupa-gammam-ajjhimena …Dhammamdeseti) of Becoming; believing neither in chance nor in necessity exclusively, but in conditioned happening.

The Universe

9.1. In regard to the Universe, the Buddha was questioned several times whether ‘it exists’ or whether ‘it does not exist’’; whether the universe (loka) is eternal or not; whether it is infinite or not. The Thathagatha, not going by the extremes, taught the intermediate way (Madhyama Prathipada). He explained that the concept of ‘it – exists (asti)’ represents an absolute and an un-changing substance; while ‘it- does not – exist (nasti)’ concept means that everything is annihilated without a trace. His middle-path was   that the world is neither Being nor is it Non-Being; but it is the Becoming. It is a continual change- to- be and passing away; ‘there is nothing permanent or eternal in the universe’. He preferred a dynamic explanation to the static changeless position.

9.2. The real nature of the universe, according to the Buddha, consists series of temporary principles, which change; each principle in the sequence of conditions becomes the condition for the next; there is continuity though there no continuous substance.

The Buddha explained  :

“ Just as from milk comes curds , from curds butter , from butter ghee , from ghee junket;  but, when it is milk it is not called curds, or butter , or ghee or junket; and, when it is curds it is not called by any of the other names; and so on”.

Here, he was not only putting forward his concept of the law of causation but was also pointing to the principle of identity at each stage. Each state in the chain of changes is real in its own context and when it is ‘present’; and it is not real when it was past as ‘something that it was’; and also not real when in future ‘it will be something’.

10.1. The Buddha held the view that the transmigration (samsara) was a process and it was beginning-less. No ultimate point of origin could be discerned. There is no final, ultimate beginning, according to the Buddha. One can go on forever tracing the cycle back from life to life. The same conditions will be found generating new life all the time. “Leave aside these questions of the beginning and the end “he said “I shall instruct you on the Law. If that is, this comes to be; on springing of that, this springs up. If that is not, this does not come to be; on the cessation of that, this ceases to be” (Majjima Nikaya: 2.32).

11.1. The Buddha was asked several times ‘who runs’; ‘who contacts’; or ‘who desires’ the universe, and so on. His reply was that the questions were ‘unsound’ or wrongly worded. The proper form of the questions, as he said, was ‘through what conditions is there contact or desire’ etc. For each condition there is the ‘cause’ (hetu), the source (nidana), the origination (samudaya); and there is a condition (pratyaya) for each principle we are examining. If the condition did not exist the principle would not happen. It is not, therefore, correct to speak of persons who do things; but we should try to understand the universe in terms of the series of events and the conditions that caused those events. In other words, there is action, but there is no agent such as a god, soul, self etc ‘who does things’ (Samyutta Nikaya: 2.13).There is just the process (vritti) a continuing coming-to-be and passing away or a series of related events; and, these are impersonal.

11.2. The Buddha was no mere logician; he was a philosopher endowed with a keen insight into the nature of reality. In place of theories of this or that agency constituting the source, the Buddha put attention on the order of things itself. The order he conceived was the continual coming-to-be and passing away of everything. He explained the reality , as he understood, in terms of change, movement, continual becoming; a change which does not consist of disconnected events or isolated freaks of nature, but one that presents a continuous structure, a closed series of forms, a series of causes and effects. It is not that the effect is identical with the cause, but it has its roots in the cause. When a seed grows into a plant, it becomes a wholly different object without the seed having survived (niranvaya-vada). But a tree would not have been in existence without the presence of the seed

11.3. That constant transition, change or becoming is not erratic, not pre-ordained; but, it goes on by the momentum of its own natural laws of causes and effects. Thus, the universe, according to the Buddha, is some kind of objective reality that is governed by natural and impersonal forces and processes; by conditions and principles that are transient, with no beginning. And, his universe has no enduring substances.


12.1. The texts tend to bracket the issue of universe with the question of the ‘soul’. He was often asked whether he who acts is the same as the one who (subsequently) enjoys the results of it; or, whether one (person) acts and another one experiences the results of it. Here too, the Buddha favoured a middle path avoiding the extremes of an entity called soul that survives birth after birth; and that of a soul which perishes as the body withers away. The Buddha explained a human as the dynamic inter-relation of five skandas. 

“Truly, if one holds the view that self is identical with the body, in that case there can be no holy life. Again, if one holds the view that self is one thing and the body another, in that case, too, there can be no holy life. Avoiding both extremes the Perfect One teaches the doctrine that lies in the middle.” (Sauyutta Nikaya: 2, 61).

13.1. Here, the Buddha opted for a sequence of conditioned events, where there is neither a permanent soul nor an agent, but where there are series of causes and effects, with each effect conditioning that which follows it.

The Buddha in his second discourse delivered a few days after his first discourse at Saranath on the outskirts of Varanasi, speaks about his concept of AnattaAnatta – lakkhana – sutta’. The teaching instructs one not to identify self with ‘”Any kind of feeling whatever…Any kind of perception whatever…Any kind of determination whatever… Any kind of consciousness whatever…”

13. 2. But, translating the Buddhist concept of an-atma or anatta as –   ‘no soul’ or that ‘self does not exist at all ‘- seems rather misleading.  An-atta, in the Buddhist context suggests that ‘self is not an enduring entity or eternal essence’. It is not the ultimate reality (dharmataa) either .The Buddhist tradition believes that the root of all suffering is in regarding the ‘self’ as a permanent or a static entity or as an unchanging essence; and clinging to it.

14.1. It must be mentioned that Buddhism does not deny a soul altogether. The Buddhist view is that the belief in a changeless “I-entity” (soul) is the result of incorrect interpretation of one’s experiences. As per the Buddhist view, self/soul is not a permanent entity, or a static substance, or as an essence, but it is understood as a dynamic process which one experiences as perceptions, ideas or desires. It says; self is wrongly taken as a fixed, enduring entity. According to Buddhism, there is not anything which is enduring, fixed, and eternal. Everything is interdependent and changing. Everything is an aggregate lacking self (samghata); and has no astitva or existence outside of shifting contexts . Everything is in constant flux (spandana). If things are not momentary, everyone and everything would be eternal. There is incessant change; but with continuity. All phenomena come into being as a result of causes and conditions, they change every moment, and eventually they pass away. A belief in a permanent or a changeless-self is a false concept leading to mistaken notions about reality.

[The later Buddhist texts refer to what they call as the Three Universal Truths enunciated by the Buddha:

  1. Nothing is lost in the universe: Nothing is lost in the universe. Matter turns into energy, energy turns into matter. A dead leaf turns into soil. A seed sprouts and becomes a new plant.
  2. Everything Changes: Everything is continuously changing. Life is like a river flowing on and ever-changing.
  3. Law of Cause and Effect: All events are subject to the laws of Cause and Effect.]

14.2. The Buddhism believes that the self is a changing phenomenon. It is like a raindrop. When it is in the ocean, it is a part of the ocean ; when it evaporates, it becomes a part of the cloud; and, when it rains, it becomes a part of stream or a lake or a well. It is its functions and relationship which give form to its character.


15.1. Similarly, in regard to consciousness too, the Buddha did not deny existence of feelings, thoughts, sensations or whatever; but, he did not also talk about a permanent conscious substance that experiences all these. According to him, the streams of consciousness ever changing, arise and perish leaving behind no permanent “thinker”. As Abhidhamma-kosa explains that there is no agency apart from feeling, ideas, volitions, etc “There is no self separate from a non-self”. In other words, there is no “self” apart from the process.

15.2. Each phase of experience, as it appears and disappears, is shaped into the next. That process of change with continuity ensures that every successive phase carries within it ‘all the potentials of its predecessors’. Hence, a man is not the same in any two moments’;  and yet he is not quite different. The body which is the aggregate (skandas) of sensations, the thoughts, and the physical frame is thus    not only a collective, but also a   recollective unit.

Suspended judgment

16.1. The Buddha is often blamed for maintaining silence on the key question of a permanent self. I reckon that was rather unjust. The Buddha was reluctant to define the indefinable, that which cannot be apprehended by mind.

When he suspended his judgment on certain questions, he really meant us to understand that no one answer (eka-amsika) could be taken to be the only right one. The Buddha chose not to give out a partial answer of either a ‘yes’ or ‘a no’ when other explanations seem quite possible. For instance, on the question of ‘soul’, had he said ‘yes’, it would not have been consistent with his position that all things are impermanent. And, had he said “no” then, he would be denying his own concepts of kamma, rebirth, and dependent origination etc. Merely judging the issue from individual (separate) stand points of view would lead to wrong conclusions. According to the Buddha , as most of those matters pertained to a ‘state – of –fact’ (loka-dhamma) it would be prudent to approach each from more than one point of view (aneka-amsika).

16.2. His teaching represents a reaction and an attempt to approach life rationally. He was averse to theoretic curiosity. He did not speculate on things beyond the sphere of perception and reason. He was pragmatic. The Buddha taught what was necessary to overcome Dukkha. He did not dwell upon all that he knew, since he saw no practical use for the rest. He denied speculative intervention; disassociated from dogmas. He perhaps thought that such speculations would fuel idle curiosity and distract the seeker from the task of getting past Dukkha. ‘Philosophy purifies none,’ he said, ‘peace alone does.’

Buddha preaching

D. Four noble truths (cattariariya-sacchani)

17.1. The Buddha then went on to explain four noble truths (cattariariya-sacchani): Sorrow (Dukkha) in life is a fact; it has a cause; that cause can be eliminated; and there is a method by which it is eliminated.

Briefly, he said:

:- Clinging to existence is sorrow (dukkha-mariya-saccham);

:- Thirst or craving (tanha) for pleasure (kamatanha), thirst for existence (bhavatanha), thirst for heavenly existence (vibhavatanha) is the cause;

:- Suffering ceases with the complete cessation of this thirst, and

:- The Path (dukkha – nirodha-gaminipatipadaariya-saccham) that leads to the cessation of sorrow is the Eightfold Path, that is: Right Belief, Right Aspiration, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Means of Livelihood, Right Endeavour, Right Memory and Right Meditation.

17.2. When a person properly develops the Noble Eight Fold Path (ariyo-atthangiko-maggo) he can eradicate craving which is cause of suffering. When he eradicates craving, he can stop completely the continuous cycle of suffering. When this craving and this suffering are removed completely (vimutti), one can realize Nibbana.

17.3. Based on these postulates the Buddha set out to teach his methods for the benefit of humanity. The rest of Buddha’s teachings are within the ambit of these principles.

 18.1. The first three Noble Truths (understanding, diagnosis, and prescription) are of theoretical import while the fourth is essentially a practical measure. The discourse explains this as the method (naya), the road (magga) and the steps to be taken (patipada) to eliminate sorrow and to obtain emancipation.

18.2. The second and the fourth postulates (origination of sorrow and the methods of eliminating sorrow) represent Buddha’s original contribution to Indian ethos; the former being his philosophical stand point and the latter his religious system.

18.3. Of the eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path, the first two relate to Wisdom, the second three to Morality, and the last three are about Concentration. Sila – Morality (right speech, right action, right livelihood), Samadhi – Concentration (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration), and Panna – Wisdom (right attitude, right understanding) are the three stages of the Noble Path. These factors denote the stages and attitudes of the aspirant.

18.4. The concept of path as it relates to the pilgrim and his progress occurs in Upanishads too. Yajnavalkya mentions it as pantha. The Buddha extends it to a series of steps patipada (step by step) leading to the goal (vaddanaka-patipada). The Buddha is thus the path finder of noble path (ariyapada or ariya-atthangika-magga). He preferred to describe it, simply, as majjima-patipada, the middle path.

18.5. The removal of Dukkha was also the stated objective of other doctrines (e.g. Samkhya), but the Buddha made it the central point of his teaching. Its special value lies in the explanation it gives of the origin of suffering, in the manner in which it deduces the possibility of its removal and in the means it recommends for doing so.

E. Dukkha: cause and cessation

19.1. The First Noble Truth deals with Dukkha, which, for want of a better term in English, is inadequately rendered as suffering or sorrow. In many English-language- Buddhist texts Dukkha is therefore often left un-translated. As a feeling, Dukkha means that which is difficult to endure. What is Dukkha? It is a phenomenon, which is universal (sabba-satta-sadharana); and is readily identifiable (suvinneya) by the troubles (badhana) it causes. It is like the ’burning heat’ (santhapana).

In the Canon, the Pali term ‘Dukkha’ is meant to denote disquiet, unrest, sorrow, affliction, stress, a sort of heat (tapana) etc caused by attachment. It is explained; attachment to whatever that is impermanent (anichcha) leads to Dukkha (Yad-aniccam tam Dukkham). It was meant to include both pleasure and pain; happiness and suffering; all arising out of impermanence of things. In short, whatever is subject to the law of causality is characterized by Dukkha.   The older texts equate Dukkha with ‘tanha’ (Snkt. thristna) meaning thirst, craving , dissatisfaction  or at times with burden.

19.2. Elimination (nirodha) of Dukkha, in contrast, has the character of quiet (santi). Nirodha is the absence of rodha (flood) of suffering. It is characterized by cessation (attagama), detachment (virago) and freedom from craving (mutti).

19.3. In this context, happiness (sukha) is not mentioned as an opposite of sorrow (Dukkha) or as an ideal state for aspiration. In the Buddha’s scheme of things, nothing phenomenal could appear to be sukha; happiness is not a reality. Suffering is a reality and when it is removed, we find quiet, wisdom and freedom as positive gains- and not happiness.

20.1. The Buddha, the Great Healer, looked upon Dukkha as a sort of disease and his method was naturally that of a physician seeking a remedy to cure it. Illustrating the Buddha’s design the second century scholar Upatissa in his Vimutti-Magga wrote: “Just as a skilled physician first sees the symptoms of a disease, then examines the cause of it, and then prescribes a suitable remedy; so the four truths may be known as coming in the same order”. The Buddha is therefore revered as the Beshaja- guru and Mahabeshaja (the great physician).

20.2. The Buddha believed that if one wishes to avoid certain types of results, one needs to change the conditions that give rise to them. The effect lies latent in the cause; and that effect in turn seeds the next effect. He said, removal of a basic condition will remove all its effect.

20.3. The Buddha reasoned that Dukkha the core problem of human existence has a cause; and, the removal of that cause must result in removal of its effects. The Buddha recognized that Dukkha is caused by the ignorance of the reality of things as they are and by clinging to things that have ceased to exist. Holding on to something that no longer exists, he observed, leads to delusions, attachments and stress.

20.4. He argued, if you find the principles, you should also be able to find the method, because the two are intimately associated; and, if we once know the process, we are on the most expedient way (magga) to get rid of its effects. Since the problem originates from lack of right understanding, the solution to the malady should be sought in gaining the right understanding. Therefore, the Buddha said, one desirous of seeking liberation (vimutti) must move away from attachments and discard mistaken ideas in order to acquire right understanding (samyak-gnana or prajna). That is to say, when ignorance is dispelled (attagama) by right knowledge, the succeeding links of the chain snap one after another automatically.

20.5. In other words, a person’s bondage is caused by ignorance or incorrect understanding. Liberation too is, in effect, caused by understanding- but it is the proper understanding; and nothing more. Bondage is the wrong understanding that binds; while liberation is the right understanding that frees. In either case, it is a matter of understanding. He said, ‘clinging to ideas is an obstruction to right –understanding; the best of states for right- understanding is non-attachment; and let-go all attachments, even the attachment to ideas and concepts’.

20.6. According to this scheme, prajna or right knowledge is the basis of the whole discipline of the four-fold truth. But if it were to result in a sense of freedom, it should be more than mere intellectual conviction, however strong it might be. It is essential that the knowledge be transformed into one’s own authentic experience. And prajna leads to that intuitive experience.


21.1. What is the logical aim of the eight-fold path? The object attained by following this discipline is designated Nirvana. The term Nirvana derived from the root va (to blow like the wind) qualified by a negative prefix nir denotes a state of motionless rest where no wind blows, where the fire has been quenched, where the light is extinguished and where the stars have gone out . The term therefore literally means ‘blowing out’ or ‘becoming cool’. It signifies attaining the Truth by cessation of craving (tanha) and clinging (upadana). Nibbana is a state of utter extinction – not of existence, but of attachment to things that are impermanent. It is a state beyond the chain of causation, a state of freedom and spontaneity.

The Buddha explained it with a simile of an oil-lamp sinking upon itself and expiring when its fuel runs out. Nirvana suggests a state of emptiness and nothingness; of the emptiness of ego and of the impermanence of all things. It is the realization of truth that destroys ignorance; and ends cravings, hatred and suffering.  And, Nirvana is described as a state of blessedness, unbound peace and deliverance. The Pali Canon speaks of Nirvana as a state beyond all conceptual thoughts; and yet, the one that could be experienced in meditation.

22.1. The Buddha refused to speculate on the nature of his Nirvana. His attitude was, in effect: If you want to know what Nirvana is like, then experience your own Nirvana. We therefore do not really know how the Buddha experienced his Nirvana.

22.2. The Buddha insisted that his followers should not try borrowing ideas or experiences from him; but they should arrive at their own. In other words, every person should win his/her own liberation. It is an attainment through self-reliance, not by the grace of a god; or by the blessings of a teacher or someone else.

22.3. The Buddha guides the aspirant on the path that leads to right-understanding. But he disclaims any personal authority; and asks the follower to work it out himself. The follower when he succeeds in attaining the enlightenment will not become a second Buddha or a replica of the Buddha. In the final analysis, both the Buddha and his follower free themselves from the bonds of samsara; yet, each retains his individuality.

22.4. The Buddha, therefore, emphasized that Nirvana is neither annihilation nor eternal life. It simply is a cessation of a process, of a sequence of events. In the Brahma-nimantanika Sutra (Majjhima-Nikaya), the Buddha said: Do not think that this (nirvana) is an empty or void state. There is this consciousness, without distinguishing mark, infinite and shining everywhere (Vinnana-mani-dassana-manantam-sabbato-pabham); it is untouched by the material elements and not subject to any power.


23.1. A right understanding when it arises frees instantaneously; and is not delayed until the exhaustion of the karmas that have brought the current life into existence. In other words, liberation need not wait until one’s death. An enlightened- one living in a body is termed an Arhant in the Buddhist lore. On one occasion, the Buddha describes the state of an Arhant as:

He who has gone to rest, no measure can fathom him / There is no word to speak of him/ What thought could grasp has blown away/  And every path to speech is barred. (Suttanipata)

23.2. The Buddha was rather reluctant to be drawn into a discussion on the state of consciousness of an Arhant after he discarded his mortal coils.  Asked what happens to an Arhant upon his death, the Buddha is said to have exclaimed: “What happens to footprints of birds in mid air?”. Suggesting perhaps to say ‘Like the footprint of a bird in the sky an arhat leaves no karma  behind‘.  Perhaps, the Buddha likened the death of an Arhant to the extinction of a flame when the fuel (karma or clinging) runs out.

 F. Compassion and ethics

24.1. The Buddha did not stop at the intellectual edification. He was moved by compassion for his fellow beings and tried to show a method for eradication of sorrow. The Dhamma he preached was at once the theory and the practical way of conduct in life. In his first discourse, the Buddha talked about the importance Sila-Morality: right speech, right action, right livelihood; and asked his listeners “To cease from evil, to cleanse one’s mind, to do what is good”.

24.2. The distinctive character of the Buddha’s teaching is his emphasis on compassion and ethics. The Buddha asserted that it is not adequate if one merely focuses on elimination of suffering; but one must acquire the skill of probing the nature of the object. Those efforts must essentially be rooted in ethics and a wholesome mental state. The cultivation of the four sublime virtues of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic Joy, and equanimity is of great importance; and should be practiced with mindfulness.

The practice of these virtues would help development of a well-focused healthy human being. It would also ensure common good and help moving toward a harmonious strife-less society.

24.3. The Buddha is the very embodiment of compassion the loving kindness towards all beings. Dharmakirti (c. 600 -660 AD), a Buddhist philosopher, a pupil of Isvarasena and a teacher at Nalanda, remarked that the greatness of the Buddha as a spiritual teacher lies not so much in his mastery or knowledge in various fields of learning but in his having attained boundless compassion for all beings.


Resources and References


2. Outlines of Indian Philosophy by Prof M Hiriyanna

3. A course in Indian Philosophy by  Prof. AK Warder

4. A Philosophical Analysis of Buddhist Notions by ADP Kalansuriya

Pictures are from Internet


Posted by on October 11, 2012 in Buddha, Buddhism


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Materialism of the Charvaka and rationalism of the Buddha

For my friend Prof.Dr. DMR Sekhar

A.  Intro

1.1. Rationalism is generally understood as that “where reason has precedence over other means of acquiring knowledge”. Materialism, in its simplest form, is the belief   that all that exists is physical; there is no higher reality independent of the physical world. The two concepts are in proximity; and, one could easily be mistaken for the other. The distinction between the two is delicate; and it also depends on what we mean by the term ‘material’. Let’s say; in case material is taken to signify anything that interacts with the observable world in a predictable way, allowing us to rationalize and predict its behavior, then, in such a case, photons (not considered ‘material’) are certainly a part of the material world. In the same vein; Science is the study of matter; yet science, in its normal mode, is only remotely material.

1.2. But, in case the scope of rationalism is restricted merely to what is directly experienced by human senses, then, it would no longer remain ‘rationalism’, because the essential element of reason is not present.    There appears to be a mistaken notion that denying everything that is not seen is’ rationalism’; and it is ‘scientific’. But, the scientific approach, as I understand, is, basically, free-thinking .It is not about taking a static position; but, is about giving a chance to reason and to shades of opinions. I, therefore, reckon, to equate science with the descriptions of a particular mode is fundamentally incorrect. It would do well not to lose sight of the uncomfortable fact that ‘…a scientific theory is one which can in principle be falsified’. Our Teacher summed it up well when he said, ‘clinging to ideas is an obstruction to right –understanding; the best of states for right- understanding is non-attachment; and let-go all attachments, even the attachment to ideas and concepts’ (Dhammapada).

1.3. Quite often we find that even rational knowledge cannot answer all the questions in every field of life and   in every sphere of human experience. In fact, critical questions on life cannot be solved through the rational knowledge that we possess. That might be because the knowledge we possess, in its present state, is rather inadequate to explain the integrated nature or the totality of a human individual in his world. Therefore, whenever a new challenge confronts us , springing forth from an unknown source, the ‘ scientific ‘ way of dealing with it would be to understand the structure or the style in which the new concepts are built,   by applying ‘scientific’ methods, as we know it . But, just disowning, altogether, the yet-unknown would surely lead us nowhere.

2.1. It is in that context that I tend to regard the life-sciences and innovative fields of research, such as Genopsych that Shri DMR Sekhar is attempting to explore, as the more enterprising frontiers of science and mankind. They strive to understand the manipulation of certain entities in order to understand the manipulation of certain others. Many of the properties they deal with are interrelated, each holding the key to the other; and, yet, it is   dreadfully difficult to bind them into any theory that makes sense . And at times the traditional view of science based on representative studies might just not work here.

B. Unorthodox   views in orthodox texts

3.1. The schools of rationalism as also of materialism are very ancient in the history of Indian thought.  In every age there have been sceptics, agnostics and atheists, though technically not labelled as such. A streak of atheism had always been there in Vedic texts as also in pre-Vedic traditions such as the Vratyas.

The skeptical or agnostic attitudes can be noticed even in the traditional texts. For instance, Rishi Dirghatamas (Asyavamiya Sukta – RV- 1.164.37a) exclaims in an agnostic vein: “What thing I truly am I know not clearly: mysterious, fettered in my mind I wander ”

na vi jānāmi yad ivedam asmi niṇyaḥ saṃnaddho manasā carāmi

Again , hymn RV_10.129.07.2 of Rig Veda speculates  whether the sun shining in the heavens was not a later development in the process of evolution; and wonders whether the sun himself knows the genesis of the cosmos (veda yadi vaa na veda)..!!

Dirgatamas again exclaims ‘ Who has seen him? Who is self-born?Was he there even before creation? ‘

  • ko dadarśa prathamaṃ jāyamānam asthanvantaṃ yad anasthā bibharti |RV_1,164.04 |

Kathopanishad too doubts about the possibilities of future existence of man . Similarly, the passages in Kenopanishad have a ring of skepticism.

The other ancient traditions: Samkhya, Lokayata, Charvaka and Sramanas et al, all based in the Eastern part of India,   rejected the idea of a god; stated that universe was run by its natural laws and not by a god; viewed universe as a system (not an entity) propelled by conditioned causes and effects; rejected authority of texts; appealed only to ones experience; and, all of them aimed to remove human suffering.

Among the Sramanas the wandering monks there were, according to Dr. Benimadhab Barua, famed debaters who were “clever, subtle, and experienced in projecting controversies, hair-splitters who ruthlessly splintered into pieces the arguments of their adversaries”.

The discussions on related subjects find place in traditional texts such as Upanishads, Mahabharata and other ancient texts. For instance, Svetasvatara Upanishad mentions about six types of heretical views. The better known among these are the two streams of explanations: One, the Yadrccha-vada (everything is by accident or chance) or Animitta-vada (there is no agent causing creation); and the other, Svabhava-vada (the world is run by its inherent nature or by its own natural laws).

kālaḥ svabhāvo niyatir yadṛcchā bhūtāni yoniḥ puruṣeti cintyam / saṃyoga eṣāṃ na tv ātmabhāvād ātmā hy anīśaḥ sukhaduḥkhahetoḥ // SvetUp_1.2 //


3.2. The former (Yadrccha-vada), sports a rather dismissive view. It states; what we call creation came about by sheer accident or by chance (Yadrccha); there is neither reason nor rhyme in this world; it is all chaos. It is the chance that governs the world.   Whatever order you happen to see in the world is purely by chance.  Surely there is no design here; and, do not go looking for one. It is futile to craft other explanations;   or to search for a cause to the world – be it either natural or supernatural- because there is no cause as such (a-nimitta).


3.3. The latter, (the Svabhava-vada) too rules out the role of super-natural in the process of creation or in maintenance of the world order. There is no doctrine of Creation .  The principles of karma (action) and Nyati (fate) are also rejected.  To speculate as to why the universe exists would be an exercise in futility. It argues (in contrast to Yadrccha-vada) that the world in which we all live is not a lawless world; the order in the world is run by its own inherent laws. The world determines its own mode of origin, patterns of growth and maintenance according to its inherent laws. Svabhava-vada recognizes the need for governance of the world.

But, at the same time, Svabhava-vada, just as the Yadrccha-vada, dismisses the need for an external agency or a supernatural being – a god or a creator –either to create, control or maintain the world. Both doctrines deny a soul that takes re-birth: ‘death is the end of all beings’.

3.4.  Of the two, Svabhava-vada is regarded more positive; and is believed to have derived its inspiration from the Samkhya ideology. It is interesting to see in the older texts, the orthodox (aastika*) and the heterodox (nastika*) existing side by side.

Prof. Hiriyanna in his ‘Outline of Indian philosophy’ (Chapter VIII Materialism or Carvaka-Darsana) remarks “this alliance of a heretical doctrine with orthodoxy gave rise to a new stream of tradition in ancient India which can be described as neither quite orthodox nor as quite heterodox. The old heterodoxy, like the old orthodoxy, continued to develop on its own lines. That may be represented as the ‘extreme left/ while the new became a middling doctrine with leanings more towards orthodoxy than towards heterodoxy”.

3.5. The Svabhava-vada in turn inspired emergence of materialistic school of thought: Lokayata-darsana or Charvaka-darsana or Brahaspatya (of the followers of Brihaspathi, the teacher).   This school too is ancient; and its views are mentioned   in the older texts and in Mahabharata.


[** Note: some explanation about the terms astika and nastika appears necessary here.

In the ordinary sense, astika and nastika are translated into English as: theism and atheism.

In the older texts, astika does not mean theistic; nor does nastika mean atheistic. Panini (a grammarian of 5th century BCE) explains astika as a term that denotes one who believes in the ‘other-world’ (asti paralokah). And, nastika, accordingly,is one who does not believe in the existence of the ‘other – world ‘.

The other explanations of the terms that were commonly meant in the ancient contexts were: astika is one who accepts the authority of Vedas; and, nastika is one who rejects the authority of Vedas.

And, interestingly, among the astika (who accepted Vedas) not all of them were theists. And, even in case they outwardly accepted a god, they did not assign, in their scheme of things, much importance to the concept of God .For instance; the Samkhya system does not involve a faith in existence of God. Yoga, which largely follows Samkhya theories, made room for a God, perhaps, to round-off its argument.

As regards, the Nyaya and Vasheshika schools, the God in their system, do not create the Universe, its building-blocks (atoms) or the individual souls.  Yet, all these schools are classified under the orthodox astika systems (darshanas).

But, what is surprising is that Purva–Mimamsa championed by Jaimini (which is also grouped under the orthodox philosophical systems of Indian philosophy) gives much importance to conduct of Vedic rituals; but, somehow, side-steps the question of the existence of God.

The Advaita Vedanta of Sri Sankara does, of course, reject atheism; and, asserts that the whole of existence originated from the conscious, spiritual being called Ishvara. Yet, in the ultimate analysis, Ishvara is but a relative (qualified) concept as compared to Absolute Reality that is Brahman.

As regards the other Non-Vedic religions :  The Buddha, Mahavlra, Gosala, and many other teachers of later period,  ignored the gods; and yet,  they were not thoroughgoing atheists and materialists. All admitted the existence of supernatural beings of strictly limited powers, and all accepted the fundamental doctrine of transmigration, though they interpreted its mechanics individually

David B. Zilberman

[ David B. Zilberman (May 25, 1938 – July 25, 1977) an unusual sort of philosopher gifted with amazingly sharp analytical skills, who (sadly died very young) wrote not merely about Indian philosophies but also about ‘the methodology of how they are to be studied’, in his ‘The Birth of Meaning in Hindu Thought’ (page 4), said:

It is a mistake to believe that typical Hindu philosophies are bound to what is called as ‘religion’ and ‘theology’ in the West. ..This must sound quite daring and contrary to the prevailing opinion which considers Indian philosophy religious through and through. But, Indian speculative thought is not  strictly speaking a kind of religious philosophy , perhaps, not even a religious philosophy at all… I do not mean that Indian philosophers are for most not religious at all – they certainly are. The point is, their philosophical work and their personal religious devotion  are not interlocked by necessity. ]

The scholarly opinion is that “the Sāṃkhya shows us that there is no essential  dichotomy between atheism and spirituality. Moreover, its understanding of the human condition, the self, and the universe provide us with profound psychological insights that may be utilized for better living in this world”

It was the later schools of non – Advaita – Vedanta (Vaishnava, Shaiva, Shaktha and others) that strongly projected the theistic conception of a Supreme God who pervades, creates and protects, and who is the ultimate refuge of all souls. At the centre of these systems is a personal god who answers the devotees’ prayers. The heart of their faith is in devotion (bhakthi)and the sense of absolute surrender (prapatthi) to a personified god dearest to one’s heart (ishta-devata). It is this theistic system that dominates what is now called Hinduism as it is  practised today.]

[Dakshinaranjan Shastri, in his A Short History of Indian Materialism, Sensationalism and Hedonism, (Calcutta: Book-land Private LTD, 1930) writes that Indian materialism has passed through four logical stages of development.

In its first stage it was a mere tendency to oppose the established beliefs/faiths. It questioned the then accepted methods of cognition – immediate as well as inference. It denied the authority of the Vedas. In that period, its name was Barhaspatya.

In Its second stage, it was known as Svabhava-vada, which essentially was the recognition of perception as a source of knowledge; and, the acceptance of the theory that identified the body with the soul. In that stage, it took the form of a system of philosophy; however low was its position. The prominent materialist- philosophers of that stage were Ajita Kes’a-kambalin, Kambalas’vatara and Purana Kashyapa. In that stage, it came to be known as Lokayata.

Its third stage was marked by an extreme form of hedonism, which was due, perhaps, to the corrupted free- thought – social, religious and political. Gross sensual pleasure took precedence over philosophical contemplation.  At this stage it was called Charuvaka, which preached – ‘Eat, Drink and be Merry, for, to-morrow we may die’. This extreme form of licentiousness was appalling; and, the Charuvaka lost its acceptance among the general people. And that   led to sapping away the very vitality of this school. . The literature of this school is now entirely lost, except what has reached us through fragments quoted by the rival Schools.

From then on the Charuvaka form of materialism leaned towards moderation in its stand. It even began to accept inference and probability as the sources of true knowledge. Philosophers, like Purandara, were the advocates of this form of materialism.

In its fourth stage, the materialists aligned with the Buddhists and the Jains in opposing the  Vedas and Vedic practices.  They all shared the common designation Nastika- the  one who condemns the Vedas – Nastiko Veda-nindakah.]

Indian Philosophy

[ In India’s spiritual traditions, all teachings and texts are termed Moksha Shastra, the way to liberation. However, liberation the final goal is perceived differently in various traditions.

The common belief is that each person is bound by his ignorance of the nature of the ultimate principle:   God, Self et al.  The attainment of Freedom is said to be the principle goal of human life. And, that is possible by overcoming ignorance by knowledge. How this knowledge may be attained and what it eventually reveals varies from one doctrine to another. But, beneath these diverse faiths there seems to be some coherence which allows for coexistence overlapping faiths and practices.

For instance; in Patanjali’s Yoga–darshana, which derives its inspiration from the   metaphysics of Samkhya   , liberation is conceived as separation of the pure consciousness (Purusha) from the inert (non-conscious) matter (Prakrti). For this reason; Raja Bhoja remarks that Yoga is in fact Viyoga (non-union or separation). In the ordinary unenlightened state, Purusha is deemed entangled with matter, forgetting its essential freedom. Patanjali’s Yoga recommends Viveka (discrimination) and Vairagya (dispassion) for separating Purusha from the tangles of Prakrti. The final state is called Kaivalya aloofness (stand-aloneness), meaning isolation of pure consciousness.

Tantra on, the other hand, speaks of the ultimate identity of Purusha and Prakrti or Shiva and Shakthi. For Tantra, the world of matter is not inert or non-conscious; but, is a living manifestation of the very same Reality that is also the pure consciousness.]


C. The Charvaka


4.1. The School of Charvaka (those of sweet-talk) or Lokayata (those of the world) pre-dates the Buddha and Mahavira; and has a history of nearly about three thousand years. Thus, the various schools of materialism or rationalism which denied a surviving soul and refused to believe in its transmigration existed in ancient India even prior to the times of the Buddha. The Charvaka was prominent among the materialist schools of the sixth century BCE. The influence of this heterodox doctrine is seen in other spheres of Indian thought.

4.2. It has been argued  that Charvaka far from being anti-Vedic, were originally a  Brahmanical  school of thought, but one that denied life after death.  They denied ‘another world’ (para loka). In doing so, they came into conflict with the Buddhist, the Jainas and also, of course, with most other Brahmanical schools, all of which had accepted the belief in rebirth and karmic retribution; and, therefore in ‘another world’.  It was perhaps only the ritualistic Mimamsa School that dragged its feet. Sabara Bhashya, one of the earliest commentaries on the Mimamsa Sutra, ignores the issues concerning rebirth and karmic retribution altogether. It even avoids issues concerning heaven, presumably a place where sacrificers end up after death, by denying existence of such a place. In fact, Kumarila Bhatta, a commentator of the Sabara bhashya, who lived a few centuries later ( say 7-8th century) , complains that Mimamsa  was on its way to become indistinguishable from Lokayata.

4.3. Sabara’s Bhashya on Mimamsa Sutra (Jaim_1,1.5)  contains a lengthy   passage that is commonly known as Vrttikara-grantha, attributed to an unknown author referred to as Vrttikara

vṛttikāras tv anyathemaṃ granthaṃ varṇayāṃcakāra tasya nimittaparīṣṭir ity evamādim.

The view of the Vrttikara (identified as that of a Charvaka) , presented here as the opposing view (purva paksha) argues against the existence of a soul. It avers that use of the words such as: ‘self’ (atman), and ‘I’ (aham) does not in any manner prove existence of an enduring soul. Similarly, is the position with regard to statements such as:  ‘he knows ‘(janati)    or ‘I saw’. –

yat pratyakṣam, na tad vyabhicarati / yad vyabhicarati, na tat pratyakṣam / – kiṃ tarhi pratyakṭam ?

yadi vijñānād anyo vijñātā nāsti, kas tarhi “jānāti” ity ucyate ? 

kim aṅga punar “jānāti” iti parokṣa-śabda-darśanāt

The Charvakas not only  denied  the existence of the soul,  they also denied life after death.


The texts

4.4. The texts of the Charvaka Darshana are lost to us. The doctrines and beliefs of that School have come down to us mainly in the form of references made in the texts of the rival schools for the purpose of rebuttal (as purva-paksha, meaning the stand of the opponent).The Sarva-darshanasamgraha, a   fourteen century text (written by Sri Madhava Acharya who became Sri Vidyaranya, the Acharya of Sri Sringeri Mutt, around 1331 AD ),  contains a chapter on Charvaka.

But, it is brief and adds little to what could be gathered from other sources. The purpose of The Sarva-darfanasamgraha, was to review the sixteen philosophical systems that were current in the fourteenth century in the South of India, and to present them from the Vedanta point of view. And, therefore Prof Hiriyanna opines that “in all probability it exaggerates the weak points of the Charvaka doctrine; and might even misrepresent its tenets”.

4.5. The only surviving treatise of the Charvaka School is the Tattvopaplava-simha (‘The Upsetting of All Principles) by Jayarasi Bhatta (Ca.7th-8th Century CE). But, its treatment of the subject is said to be rather disappointing.

[ For more on Jayarāśi Bhaṭṭa, please read the academic paper produced by The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.   Here is an extract

Jayarāśi represents what has been once labelled epistemological skepticism, or ontological skepticism (Hankinson 1995, 13ff), i.e., the position in which one refuses to accept the truth of some proposition or to affirm the existence of something, without denying it, as distinguished from negative (ontological) dogmatism, i.e., the attitude in which one actually rejects the truth of some proposition and denies the existence of the alleged objects

His main claim is that it is not possible to arrive at true knowledge, because one should first properly define basic criteria of validity for valid cognitive procedures, which is not possible without a prior true knowledge of reality against which we could test the procedures for validity etc. Clearly, our knowledge of reality and of objects depends on valid cognitive procedures. However, all valid cognitive procedures are either fundamentally flawed or ultimately unreliable or they require further valid cognitive procedures, and these stand in the same need etc. Therefore, we can neither formulate proper definitions of valid cognitive procedures nor define what reality is and what basic categories are. This is at least the case, he claims, with all the cognitive tools and epistemological categories which are now at our disposal.

A truly skeptical thesis Jayarāśi entertained was his assumption that all philosophical claims are always made within a particular set of beliefs, i.e., within a particular system which is based on arbitrarily accepted criteria, definitions and categories. His pragmatic, ‘commonsense attitude’ is highlighted in a verse he quotes:

The worldly path (laukiko mārgaḥ) should be followed, with respect to everyday practice of the world (loka-vyavahāra); the fool and the wise are similar’; because ultimately we all have to rely on our experience and defective and partial knowledge of reality.

laukiko mārgaḥ anusarthayvaha / loka-vyavahāra prati sadrusho bala panditau //]



5.1. The term pramana signifies the essential means of arriving at valid knowledge or prama; while the object known is described as prameya; and the knower as pramata. Broadly, the pramanas are three: pratyaksa (direct perception), anumana (inference) and sabda (verbal testimony). The value of the first two of these as pramanas is well recognized by most schools. But the third (tradition or verbal statements), is often treated with suspicion or disdain. The Vedanta of Sri Sankara   introduced insight or intuition as the additional means of cognition. He decaled that intuition, the ability to see the underlying reasons behind everything, is not opposed to intellect. Since then, the   Indian schools of thought are usually classified under three heads: (i) those that recognize only perception and inference, (ii) those that recognize intuition in addition, and (iii) those that substitute revelation for intuition.

5.2. Charvaka accepted the direct perception (pratyaksa-pramana) through the sense organs as the only means of valid knowledge; and as the only type of knowledge that could be verified by all others

 – rathyaksha – mevaikam pramanam; indriya-jnanamjnanam pratyaksham

“Regard only that which is an object of direct perception, and cast behind your back whatever is beyond the reach of your senses “

Pratyakshya-Pramana is again classified into Sa-vikalpa and Nir-vikapla ; meaning judgmental and non-judgmental. Of these two , the non-judgmental perception is regarded as the true source of immediate cognition.

5.3. It, however, totally rejected verbal testimony, tradition or texts; calling it mere hearsay. Charvaka was severe on Vedas, and particularly on the Mimamsa, which it threw out with contempt and ridicule: “Veda is tainted by the three faults of untruth, self-contradiction, and tautology. Then again, the impostors who call themselves Vedic scholars are mutually destructive; as the authority of the jnana kanda is overthrown by those who maintain that of the karma-kanda, while those who maintain the authority of the jnana-kanda reject that of the karma-kanda; and lastly, the three Vedas themselves are only the incoherent rhapsodies of knaves, and to this effect runs the popular saying: these are but means of livelihood for those who have neither manliness nor sense.”

5.4. As regards inference (anumana), the Charvaka adopted a rather selective approach. It was prepared to exercise inference in matters that were in the realm of the physical world and that were already in the common knowledge. This type of inference was termed Utpanna pratiti (that which is experienced). For instance, in the case of smoke being the evidence of fire, the Charvaka pointed out that the properties of both factors are in common knowledge; everyone knows the relation (vyapti) that smoke (hetu) has with fire (sadhya); and therefore we have no difficulty in exercising anumana, inference, in such cases.

In other cases where the equation involved unknown quantities about which reliable prior knowledge did not exist, the Charvaka refused to accept inference as the means of valid knowledge. This type of inference was termed Utpadya pratiti (that which is yet to be experienced). For instance, when it came to discussion on the reality of issues such as the soul or the other worlds or the god , the Charvaka questioned whether anyone has had direct perception or experience of these; does anyone has reliable knowledge of the nature of these so that their reality could be verified objectively .

In the absence of such reliable means of knowledge (pramana), the Charvaka said, we cannot accept either the soul or the god or even the other world as real. In other words, how could we establish a relation when the factors on either side of the equation happen to be unknown quantities? :” since in the case of such inference we would require another inference to establish it, and so on, and hence would arise the fallacy of an ad infinitum retrogression“.

The idea of a soul

6.1. Since the Charvaka admitted only the immediate evidence of the senses, it accepted only four elements (bhutas) – earth, water, fire, air; and denied the fifth the akasha, space .It also refused to accept the idea of a soul or an Atman as a surviving entity, for the reason their existence cannot be perceived.

charvaka four elements

6.2. The Charvaka said there is no soul apart from the body (tam Jivam tam sariram), which is composed of the four elements (bhuta). The body is material; consciousness is a by-product of material (bhutebyah – chaitanyaha); and, consciousness is a property of the body. There is no evidence for any soul distinct from the body. The soul is not different from the body distinguished by the attribute of consciousness.


7.1. In an argument titled ‘ bhuta – caitanya – vada ’ the Charvaka argued that soul or consciousness is just a concoction of the physical elements of the body; and it perishes when the body withers away or when body is no longer supportive. They put forward the analogy of intoxication produced by the liquor .

They said; liquor is produced by combination of various ingredients; but, each of which, by itself, does not possess the property of inducing intoxication. Even  the liquor , by it self , does not intoxicate ; they argued : one does not get intoxicated by pouring a jug of liquor over one’s head .  It is only when all those ingredients  that go to produce liquor  are mixed in a judicious proportion; and they  together  come  in contact with the relevant body cells,  it produces feelings of happiness, delusion or intoxication.

Thus, consciousness, pleasure pain etc.. are mere body functions; a set of feelings; and is not part of body as such.

7.2. In addition, the Charvaka put forward the following arguments for not accepting consciousness as a part o f body:

(i). If consciousness is a property of the body, it should then be essential to it; and, in which case it should never be separate from the body. But, it is not always so; for, in a swoon or in a dreamless sleep the body is ‘un-conscious’.

(ii). In case consciousness is incidental or accidental, it indicates that another agency is at work producing consciousness; and it uses the body. And, therefore consciousness cannot be ascribed to the body.

(iii). Let’s say a person experiences a dream in which he was a tiger. On waking up he says ‘yes, I had a dream”; but, he does not continue to behave as if he were a tiger. The Charvaka argue that the person owns the dream, but not the dream-body (tiger). If the dream is a property of the body, then, one should be tiger in dream  as also in real life ,  after the dream. Consciousness, they argued, just as the dream, is a fantasy created by the body cells and is  related with the body-function. Body merely provides a stage for the play called dream. But, that play (consciousness) is not part of the body.

(iv). In case one argues that consciousness is truly a part of the body, they said, the outsiders who come into contact with that body should be able to experience its consciousness. The outsider sees the body complexion, size etc but remains ignorant of the other person’s person’s thoughts, feelings, dreams and memories .

Charvaka gave the analogy of a philosopher’s experience of his toothache; and said that ache is perceived differently by the patient and by  the dentist who treats toothache. The two persons have different perceptions of the same ache or sensation.

The argument elaborately suggests that consciousness is not a property of the physical body, but of something else which only finds its expression in the body. It is not ultimate or independent (Refer back to the analogy of liquor).


No need for a god

8.1. As said earlier, the Charvaka did not find the need for a God; and, said- savabhavam jagathah kaaranam aahu – the evolution is caused by natural laws (svabhava – inherent nature); and there is no need to look for a cause beyond nature (nimtta-tara-nirapeksha).

The question they posed was  : why is it necessary to assume a super–natural cause, over and above the natural laws, merely to explain changes and modifications that take place in nature following their own accord?

For instance; they pointed out that milk flows from the udders of the mother cow naturally (svabhavena eva) to nourish its infant; the grass, herbs, water etc in turn transform themselves into milk (nimitta antara nirapeksa) according to their own natural laws  and that of the cow (svabhavat eva) .

Why do you bring in a god here? Neither God nor any other explanation is needed. Na parameshwara asti kaschith – Surely, there is no god.

8.2. They also denied the concept of god as the creator. They said; God as a creator is only an assumption; and a bad assumption.   They argued that if the creation came about because of the desire of the creator, he must then be wanting and inadequate in several aspects. “How could anyone be a god if his deficiencies are indeed  countless?”

8.3. It is said; that Brhaspathya or Charvaka adopted the svabhava-vada, perhaps at its later stage, to lend itself a metaphysical framework. Else, it would have been difficult for Charvaka to explain their stand on creation and governance of the world, in absence of a ‘god’.


Suffering in life

9.1. The Charvaka took an interesting position on pain or suffering in life. They admitted that pain is a fact of life. But, remarked “so be it; yes, there surely is pain; but, what is more important is, there is pleasure too in life; and that is what matters. Go after pleasure. And, in case that pursuit involves pain, takes that as a part of the process”.

9.2. They explained; there may be pain in life; but that is no good reason to deny ourselves the pleasure. Nobody casts away the grain because of the husk: “ The berries of paddy, rich with the finest white grains, What man, seeking his true interest, would fling away because covered with husk and dust…!!

9.3. The Charvaka did not try to secure freedom from pain; but strived to manage with it. It said; every man must make the best of a bad bargain and ‘enjoy himself as long as he lives- “While life is yours, live joyously; none can escape Death’s searching eye: When once this frame of ours they burn, how shall it ever again return?”


Pleasure in life

10.1. The elimination of human misery and the attainment of happiness was the declared goal of almost all the systems of Indian philosophy. All the ancient philosophers agreed that there was no happiness in the existing society torn by greed, egoism and cruelty. But, they heatedly argued and emphatically differed on the nature of happiness; and, on the means to attain it.

In the Charvaka scheme of things, the pleasure in itself and for itself is the only good thing in life (sukha-vada). Pleasure took precedence over every other priorities of life. “The wise man should squeeze the maximum pleasure out of life. He should not let go a present pleasure in the hope of a future gain”.

 The well-known verse attributed to Chárvákas is: ‘-

Yaváj jivam sukham jived runam krtva ghrtam pibet / bhasmibhutasya dehasya punar agamanam kutah? II

(While he is alive, let a man live happily; let him feed on ghee even if he has to borrow. How could  a body burnt to ashes ever come back?)

10.2. Furthermore, it rejected a utilitarian approach to pleasure. It adopted the perspective that an individual’s ends take priority over the ends of others .The Charvaka seemed to suggest that an individual had no obligation to promote the welfare of society; and, would only tend to do so if it were to benefit him as well. Nothing is recognized by this school as a duty. And, anything done for sake of pleasure is justified.

10.3. The Charvaka, predictably, chose Artha and Kama (pursuit of pleasure and wealth) as the major goals. It said, Dharma would become significant only in case it is interpreted in context of the physical world. As regards Moksha, it remarked that death is the only liberation- Maranam eva moksha ha.


Other concepts

11.1. As the Charvaka dismissed belief in a supernatural or transcendental being; it also did away with everything that constitutes subject-matter of religion. Charvaka denied: existence of after-life, rebirth (na- punarjanmaha), liberation (na- moksha ha), heaven, hell, soul or gods or goddess. Because,  those are not amenable to sense perception.

11.2. Charvaka believed that the material Universe did exist.  World is matter (butatmakam jagath). The matter consisted of four elements: earth, water, energy and air. The creation of life is a specific process of nature and it evolved out of the composite composition of four elements. With death everything ends.

11.3. The Charvaka did not deny the difference between the dead and the living; and they recognized both the states as realities. A person lives, the same person dies: that is a perceived fact, and hence it is the only provable, fact.

“Hence it follows: There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world; there is no other hell than mundane pain produced by purely mundane causes, as thorn, etc; the fate does not exist; the only Supreme is the earthly monarch whose existence is proved by all the world’s eyesight; and the only Liberation is the dissolution of the body”.


Attack on Mimamsakas

12.1. The Materialism of the Charvaka stood out because of the theism of the Vedic religion and the moral teachings of the Buddha and Mahavira. But, it was basically anti-Vedic and opposing its scriptural authority. Charvaka were particularly ruthless against the Mimamsa School. They went after Mimamsa with vehemence. They ridiculed and lampooned almost every doctrine of the Mimamsakas: their epistemology, metaphysics, beliefs and way of life.

:- If a beast slain in the Jyotishtoma rite wills itself go to heaven, why then does not the sacrificer forthwith offer his own father?

:- If the Shraddha produces gratification to beings who are dead and are in other world, Then, in that case why do the travelers have to carry lunch – bags when they  set out on long travel? Those at home can very well feed the distant travelers just in the way they feed their dead.

:- Whoever has heard that feeding one body would quench the hunger of another? All these ceremonies for the dead are   but   a means of livelihood that priests have set up here.

:- When once the body becomes ashes, how can it ever return again? If he who departs from the body goes to another world, how is it that he comes not back again, restless for love of his kindred?


:- All the obscene rites  for the queen commanded in the Aswarnedha, were invented by clowns s, and for all the various kinds of gifts to the priests.


12.2.   “Hence in kindness to the mass of living beings must fly for refuge to the doctrine of Charvaka”.

There were various schools of materialism in ancient India. They all shared certain beliefs; such as: the intense faith in this-worldliness; denial of  all religious and moral values; denial of any god or any supernatural power; denial of the independent existence of consciousness or soul and of a life after death. They all vehemently opposed the theories of karma which assigned happiness or misery according to the merits or demerits acquired in previous births; the notion of moksa; and the transmigration of the soul. They strongly condemned Vedic scarifies and offerings. There was an intense desire to enjoy the pleasures of life.  They all seemed to be fired by a desire to free humans from the bonds of religious dogmas and superstitions.

All those Schools of materialism were opposed to everything traditionally regarded as virtuous .They insisted on developing their own notions of truth, virtue and integrity. The only test of truth, according to them, was direct perception; and, not by inference. One should be guided by one’s own direct experience, sense-perception, which is verifiable. They all rejected the authority of texts (sabda-pramana)


[Materialism in ancient South India

13.1. Smt. N. Vanamamalai in her scholarly essay ‘Materialist Thought in Early Tamil Literature’ published during Nov 1973  mentions that around the first century AD many schools of materialist philosophy thrived in South India; and they flourished alongside   the other un-orthodox religions: Buddhism and Jainism. It was only by about the sixth century after the Vedic religion came back strongly that all the three non-Vedic religions receded into background.

13.1. According to Smt. N. Vanamamalai, three distinct schools of materialism (a) Bhutavada, (b) Lokayata and (c) Sarvaka were practiced in South India around the first century. There were slight differences among the three schools.

The followers of the Bhutavada recognized all the five elements; whereas Lokayata and Sarvaka accepted   only the four. (They did not reckon akasha- space as an element.)

Bhutavada classified the five elements into two categories: Bhutas (elements) with life – earth, water and air; and Bhutas (elements) without life- the other two elements.

This classification was not acceptable to  Lokayata who held the view that consciousness arises out of the combination of all elements ; and not by combination of earth and water alone .Perhaps the Lokayata believed that separation of the elements would not adequately explain the origin of life and of consciousness

13.2. The Bhutavadin in Manimekalai states that life has the attribute of consciousness and body is devoid of that attribute: life originates from living matter and body from lifeless matter.

13.3.   Smt. N. Vanamamalai quotes from the Buddhist epic Manimekalai (first century AD) passages discussing the Lokayata doctrine, presented as purva-paksha– the view of the opponent.

Manimekalai (the lovely daughter of Madhavi and Kovalan), the leading-lady of the epic, renounces the life of a courtesan at a tender age ; and enters a Buddhist  monastery. Her travels abroad are described in the epic. She meets teachers of various systems of philosophy then extant in South India, listening to expositions on Alavai Vadam (Mimamsa); Saivam; Brahma Vadam; Vaishanavam; Ajeevaka Nirkanta (Jainism) and Bhuta Vadam (Materialism- Lokayata).

While expounding the doctrine his school the narrator of the Bhuta-Vadam (Charvaka)  keeps insisting that she must rely only on direct perception (katchi or sakshi or pratyaksha).

Manimekalai who is a Buddhist, is rather amused. She teasingly asks the narrator a mischievous question, “Were you present when your parents conceived you? … How can you be sure they are your parents, other than by inference (anumana)? …Truth cannot be known without employing forms of reasoning though not based on direct observation. Therefore, do not view such conclusions with doubt.

You have to remember that Manimekalai was a Buddhist; and the poet of the epic was an ardent Buddhist. Buddhists rejected the ideas of materialism of whatever variety they might be. The conversation in question was perhaps just a demonstration of that attitude.]


Ajita Kesa-kambalin

14.1. The Samannaphala Sutta  (The fruit of the Homeless life) deals with the advantages of homeless life of a recluse as described by six heretic teachers Purana Kassapa,     Makkhali Gosala, Ajita Kesakambali, Pakudha  Kaccayana, Sanjaya Belatthiputta, and     Nigantha Natputta.). Each is recognized as being well-known  (nata)  and successful (yasassino)   founder of a sect (titthakara).Each was highly dissatisfied with the orthodox Vedic religion. But, the descriptions given by them could not satisfy the King Ajatasattu. He later approached the Buddha and all his doubts were cleared.

14.2. Among those six teachers was one ascetic named Ajita Kesa-kambalin (Ajita of the Hair-blanket). He was a materialist i.e.   a Charvaka  who preached Uccheda- vada (the doctrine of annihilation after death) or tam Jivam tam sariram (the doctrine of identity of the soul and body). He is said to have roamed about the countryside in a coat made of human hair–“’the worst of all garments, most uncomfortable, being cold in winter and warm in summer”. He held extreme radical views and expressed it sharply enough. He did not mince words; and, gave everyone a mouthful.

14.3. Ajita perhaps represented the extreme sect of the Charvaka School. The following is a summarized version of his teaching as described in the Samannaphala Sutta .

“There is no such thing, Oh King, as alms (dana) or sacrifice (huta) or offering. There is neither fruit nor result of good or evil deeds either in this world (idhaloka) or in the other world (paraloka). The ideas like generosity are the misguided notions of a Stupid person (dattu pannatti). He who speaks for them is confused; his words are empty cry of desperation (tesam tuccham musa vilapo ye keti attikavadam vadanti).

There are no obligations or duties towards anyone. There is neither father nor mother, nor beings springing into life without them.

Only the fools believe in a god and in life after death. If there is paradise somewhere, it surely is a fools-paradise. A bunch of clowns created what they called Vedas and mislead everyone into believing in it. It is a huge fraud on mankind. There is no such thing as sacrifice or offering; do not believe in that nonsense. The Yajnas, the three Vedas etc are but means of livelihood for those who have neither manliness nor sense.

A human being is built of the four elements, and when he dies the earthly in him, returns and relapses to the earth, the fluid to the water, the heat to the fire, the windy to the air, and his faculties pass into space. The four, bearers of the bier take his dead body away to the burning ground. The talk of offerings, this talk of gifts is a doctrine of fools. It is an empty lie, mere idle talk. Fools and wise alike on the dissolution of the body are annihilated on death. There is no soul apart from the body attributes.”

14.4. He however seemed to have recognized the difference between the dead matter and the living cells. He said the faculties return to space (akasamm indriyani samkamanti). Ajita perhaps represented the branch of Charvaka which believed that the soul or life is pure air or breath, which is a form of matter.


To Sum up

15.1. The Charvaka School exhibited number of admirable features. It tried to be rational, clearheaded, bold and angry in putting down superstitions, meaningless rites-rituals, exploitation and intellectual dishonesty. It employed strong, forceful logic and language for bringing into fore a fairly thoroughgoing positivism. It stormed and shook the old world of dogmas, rites and sorcery; and caused serious re-thinking within the orthodox circles. It urged everyone to cleanup centuries of cobwebs that cluttered human mind; and to think free and to think bold. It shunned indulgence in excessive and needless speculative metaphysics that led nowhere. It brought the world of man’s experience into center of life; and asserted that the world and the life in it are indeed very real; and it is not disgraceful to enjoy Worldly life. It assured there is pleasure in this life and an individual must deliberately exercise his freewill in securing pleasure.

At another level, the importance of Charvaka School is that it spurred many-sided philosophical activities in ancient India and lent scope for a great deal of liberty of thought as well as for freedom of expression.

15.2. The Charvaka School had its flip-side too. It seemed to lack a sense of vision and an ideal to inspire the generations to come.

According to Charvaka, the pleasure in this life and that of the individual is the most important thing that one should care about. The Charvaka, I fear, took an extreme position; and lacked a sense of balance in the totality of life. Their anger and fury was directed almost entirely at the Mimamsa School and its questionable beliefs. It was rather too simplistic and ham-handed. That perhaps worked for a while; but thereafter the Charvaka lost the initial advantage of shock, as it failed to develop and refine its scheme. They did not seem capable of evolving a sustainable long-term vision that could guide not merely the pleasure seeking individuals and recluse but also the society at large.

15.3. The problem appeared to be that the Charvaka did not seem to care for collective happiness or for the common good. In their scheme of things, Individual‘s happiness was paramount; and all the rest was secondary. In other words; the Charvaka vision lacked social consciousness. Therefore, in the world according to Charvaka, one’s pleasure and comfort took precedence over welfare of family and the community. It recognized neither duties nor obligations; and placed no responsibility on an individual who hurt others as he went after his pleasure. The school did not also suggest a sensible scheme for resolving the plausible conflict of interests as each went after his pleasure.

At another level, the Charvaka could not explain the process of human evolution, development and the unfolding chain of ever improving faculties and the genius of life to survive and adopt amidst the pressures and challenges of the ever changing environments.

It lent scope to the rival schools to argue, “OK. Let’s concede that death is final and nothing remains afterwards. But, that does not mean that human life should be stripped of all values and sensibilities”. They cautioned against the danger of de-generating the society to a primitive level.

15.4. I wish, the Charvaka were a bit more rational, allowing some breathing-space to reason and give it a chance to flourish, rather than being ruthlessly self-centred materialists. Had their rationalism been more inclusive, taking a broader perspective of life, tempered    with justice, compassion and a genuine concern for the fellow beings, I reckon Charvaka School would have lasted longer.

Charvaka was locked into itself and did not look beyond. Had it been able to develop social consciousness or a social philosophy, Charvaka would have anticipated Marx in the old world.

[ Speaking of Materialism and Marx reminds me of M N Roy (1887 – 1954) the Indian revolutionary; internationally known political theorist and activist; and, the founder of the Communist parties in Mexico and India. During the later years of life, after parting ways with Communism, M N Roy developed his own theory of Materialism which differed from the Lokayata (Charvaka) and the Materialism of Marx.

At the outset, Roy is opposed not only to speculative philosophy but also to the identification of philosophy with theology and religion. According to Roy, “Faith in the supernatural does not permit the search for the causes of natural phenomena in nature itself. Therefore, rejection of orthodox religious ideas and theological dogmas is the pre-condition for philosophy.”

The Materialism that Roy adopts maintains that “the origin of everything that really exits is matter, that there does not exist anything but matter, all other appearances being transformation of matter, and these transformations are governed necessarily by laws inherent in nature.”

Thus, broadly speaking, Roy’s philosophy is in the tradition of Charvaka materialism.

However, there are some important differences between the two.

According to Roy, the greatest defect of classical materialism was that its cosmology did not seem to have any place for ethics. Roy strongly asserted that without the element of ethics, human spirit, thirsting for freedom, will spurn materialism. In Roy’ view materialist ethics is not only possible but materialist morality is the noblest form of morality. Roy links morality with human being’s innate rationality. Man is moral, according to Roy, because he is rational. In Roy’s ethics,  freedom, which he links with the struggle of existence is the highest value. Search for truth is a corollary to the quest for freedom.

In a similar manner, Roy’s materialism is sharply different from that of Marx. Roy recognizes the importance of ethics and gives a prominent place to it. According to Roy, Marxian materialism wrongly disowns the humanist tradition and thereby divorces materialism from ethics. Roy asserts the contention of Marx that “from the scientific point of view this appeal to morality and justice does not help us an inch farther” , was based upon a false notion of science.

Roy  gave a very important place to ethics in his philosophy. According to Roy, “the greatest defect of classical materialism was that its cosmology did not seem to have any connection with ethics”.

Roy strongly asserts that if it is not shown that materialist philosophy can accommodate ethics, then, human spirit, thirsting for freedom, will spurn materialism.

In Roy’ view materialist ethics is not only possible but materialist morality is the noblest form of morality. Roy links morality with human being’s innate rationality. Man is moral, according to Roy, because he is rational. In Roy’s ethics, freedom, which he links with the struggle of existence is the highest value. Search for truth is a corollary to the quest for freedom.

Further, according to Roy, “materialism must be dissociated from certain notions which have been rendered untenable by the latest discoveries of science.” Roy’s revision and restatement of materialism embraces both the basic tenets of materialism. He, however, revised the concept of matter as well as that of physical determinism. ]

D. The Buddha

16.1. There are some obvious similarities between the doctrine of the Charvaka and the teachings of the Buddha; and, there are many differences too. But the differences are significant than the similarities.

Both dismissed notions of a personal god, religion, rites, rituals, sacrifices, heaven and hell. Both rejected Vedas as being infallible; and refused to admit Vedas as an authority on all matters. Both did not agree with concept of a permanent soul (though for different reasons). Both did not recognize class distinctions within the society; and treated men and women as equals. Both did not indulge in or encourage needless metaphysical debates or theoretic curiosity. And, both strived to rid their concepts and ideas of the super-natural appendage.

16.2. As said earlier, the differences between the two are indeed more significant than similarities.



The Charvaka regard the body as matter without consciousness.

The Buddhist view the body as an ever changing configuration of five factors or five aggregates – (Pali : khandha; Skt. skandha).These relate to the physical form (rupa); the sensations or the feelings (vedana) the perception or recognition (sanna or sanjnya) of physical and mental objects;  and , the fourth factor – sankhara or samskara – impulses or mental formulations or fabrications  etc. And, lastly there is the faculty of vinnana or vijnana the awareness or consciousness, which encompasses mental events and what is generally called sub-conscious in the West. Consciousness is conditioned and arises out of interaction with the other factors (physical or mental) .The consciousness, according to Buddhism, is one of the body-aggregates and is interdependent with the mind-body (nama-rupa).


Sukha – Dukkha

The Charvaka placed the pursuit of pleasure (sukha) for its own sake as the prime objective or the raison d’être of human life. They viewed suffering as an uncomfortable fact of life and obstruction to pleasure. But, they did not mind dealing with suffering.

The Buddha did not, in fact, speak much about happiness. In his scheme of things happiness (sukha) is not the opposite of suffering (dukkha).Happiness was left un-defined; but was largely viewed as the absence of conflict, stress and craving. Happiness, it is said, is so delicate that mere contemplation of it would disturb it. Pursuit of happiness would bring along strife and sorrow.

But, he did recognize Dukkha, suffering and sorrow as the reality in life; and stressed that life as it is commonly led is marred by sorrow and suffering. Elimination of Dukkha was the prime objective of his teachings. All his words and deeds were centred on that objective. The Buddha in all his discourses dwelt on the reality of Dukkha and also pointed the way out of it. ‘Just this have I taught; I teach ill and the ending of ill”.

Elimination (nirodha) of suffering has the character of quiet (santi). Nirodha is explained as absence of rodha (flood) of suffering. It is cessation (attagama), detachment (virago) and freedom from craving (mutti).


Compassion and Ethics

The Charvaka brushed aside values such as morals in life, compassion for the fellow beings, common good and community welfare.

The Buddha is the very embodiment of compassion the loving kindness towards all beings. Dharmakirti (c. 600 -660 AD), a Buddhist philosopher, a pupil of Isvarasena and a teacher at Nalanda remarked that the greatness of the Buddha as a spiritual teacher lies not so much in his mastery or knowledge in various fields but in his having attained boundless compassion for all beings.

The Buddha did not stop at the intellectual edification. He was moved by compassion for his fellow beings and tried to show a method for eradication of sorrow. The Dhamma he preached was at once the theory and the practical way of conduct in life. In his first discourse, the Buddha talked about the importance Sila-Morality: right speech, right action, right livelihood; and asked his listeners “To cease from evil, to cleanse one’s mind, to do what is good”. He stressed; Mindfulness is essentially rooted in ethics and a wholesome mental state. The cultivation of the four sublime virtues of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic Joy, and equanimity should essentially be practiced with mindfulness.

The practice of these virtues would help development of a well-focused healthy human being. It would also ensure common good and help moving toward a harmonious strife-less society.

The Buddha was averse to all theoretic curiosity. ‘Philosophy purifies none,’ he said, ‘peace alone does. He did not speculate on things beyond the sphere of perception and reason. The Buddha taught what was necessary to overcome Dukkha; that was his prime concern.


Punabbhav-becoming again

Some appear rather disturbed with the fact that the Buddha accepted the notion of re-birth; and remark that it was not pragmatic. Well, that objection seems rooted in dogma (materialism) than in reason; without appreciating the line of reasoning that Sakyamuni adopted all through his teachings. Since his concept of what now is called ‘re-birth’ is supported by the reason he evolved, I would call it rational. Let’s briefly see the reason he arrived at this notion.

The Buddha believed that nothing that we do disappears without leaving its result behind; and that the good or evil so resulting recoils upon the doer. The Buddha rationalized this belief and viewed it as an impersonal law working in according to its own inherent nature (svabhava) and by itself.

The other main feature of his belief was that everything is in a state of continuous flux (spandana). If things are not momentary, everyone and everything would be eternal. There is incessant change; but with continuity. ‘There is action, but there is no agent’. The world is a process (vritti)…“A continuing coming-to-be and passing away”.

The Buddha is regarded as the Master of Madhyama – Prathipada, the middle path. The Buddha’s concept of ceaseless movement of all things, of change with no underlying constancy is a middle path between two opposite views: One believing in Being and the other in Non-Being. According to the Buddha, the world is neither Being nor is it Non-Being, but it is the becoming. It is a continual change- to- be and passing away. He preferred a dynamic explanation to the static changeless position.

Each phase of experience, as it appears and disappears, is shaped into the next. That process of change with continuity ensures that every successive phase carries within it ‘all the potentials of its predecessors’. Hence, a man is not the same in any two moments’ and yet he is not quite different. The body which is the aggregate (skandas) of sensations, the thoughts, and the physical frame is thus    not only a collective, but also a   recollective unit.

The series of such births and deaths is ever current and is at every moment. What is called as ‘death’ is a mere extension of that process. Thus, transfer from one state to another takes place not merely at the end of this life but at every instant.

That process will carry on until the urge to perpetuate lasts; because, nothing that we do will disappear without leaving its result behind. The persisting momentum of one’s deeds, thoughts, urges and attachments causes another body to take shape. And, the being who is revived is not the same as the old one; he is not, on the other hand, different from the old one. This process carries on until the person in question has completely overcome his thirst, urge or craving to become.

That changeover is not transmigration or reincarnation, because there is no permanent entity. Buddhism does not also use the term re-birth. It prefers to call the process as punabbhava (Snkt.  Punarbhava), becoming again. It is just as the seed through a series of dynamic changes becomes a sprout. The seed is never inactive. The difference when the seed becomes a sprout is that instead of continuing as a seed its nature alters into that of a sprout. But one series is in as much in flux as another. Finally, as the sprout steps into the next series of changes the seed would already have died; yet the sprout would not have been there without the seed.

It is not merely when one lamp is lit from another that there is a transmission of light and heat. They are transmitted every moment; only in the former case a new series of flames is started.

References and sources:

Outlines of Indian philosophy   by Prof. M. Hlriyanna; Motilal Banarsidass; 1993.

The Sarva-darfanasamgraha ; Translated by ER Cowell; Turner & Co London; 1882.

Smt. N. Vanamamalai ‘Materialist Thought in Early Tamil Literature’ published during Nov 1973

Samannaphala Sutta 

RationalismMaterialism, Buddha, Lokayata, Charvaka ,Marx and Charvaka ,

Pictures are from Internet


Posted by on October 11, 2012 in Charvaka, Indian Philosophy


Tags: , , , , , ,

Chitrakavya – Chitrabandha

A. Chitrakavya

1.1. Sanskrit poetry has an amazingly vast variety of forms and structures. There is at the top the most elaborate Maha-kavya in classic style narrating a noble story element (kathavastu) of sublime characters   spread over several cantos (sargabandha),  adorned with eighteen types of descriptions (asta-dasha-varnana),  with well chosen forms (guna) of expression, syntax, and graces of Rasa and beauty (alankara) and endowed with  eloquent imagination; and, at the same time, satisfying all the norms and principles  (kavya-lakshana)  prescribed  for a Maha-kavya by the Alankara-sastra texts. The sophisticated thematic construction of such courtly epics is presented as a splendid unity of descriptive and narrative delight.

There is at the other end of the spectrum, the rather flippant or absurd minor poems, as also terse lyrical couplets that dispense in capsule form erotic or didactic (niti) wisecracks.

1.2.  In between there are verities of slightly less elaborate Laghu-kavya or Khanda –kavya, Champu Kavya (written in a mix of prose and poetry), Giti Kavyas, Mukutas, biographical poems, anthologies and stotras etc.

Among these, is a wonderful class of poetry based in brilliant flexible or rather mischievous play of vowels, consonants, words and sounds. The elements of the verse are, at times, picturesquely patterned into designs (bandha), geometric figures or into images of familiar things in life such as a flower, wheel, flag, drum, umbrella, mace etc. Perhaps because of its figurative quality this class of poetry is known as Chitra-kavya.

2.1. The term Chitra has several interpretations such as image (or picture), uniqueness or peculiarity (as in vichitra) or wonder. The Chitrakavya aims to generate a sense of wonder by resorting to unusual (peculiar) management of certain meters; innovative poetic structures, designs or patterns (bandha) resembling objects (vastu) or their movements (gati) that one commonly sees in life. The Chitrakavya also attempts to evoke poetic or emotive images.

And in that sense it is an imitation, a reflection or an image (Chitra) of true poetry (Kavya); but,  it is not the poetry itself. It is ‘image- poetry’.

The other way to look at it is to treat Chitrakavya as architecture of poetry where the sounds of syllables (matra) and letters (akshara) take a visible form.

[Incidentally, the Chitrasutra of Vishnudarmottara  wonders why the concept of Rasa is extended to all arts but not to architecture.]

2.2. The other interpretation extended to the term Chitra is: the figure of speech (Chitra-alankara),  where the poet plays on the sound of the letters with particular importance to similes (upama) and metaphors.

3.1. Even from its early stages,  the Sanskrit poetics has recognized the close association between the word and its sound; and,  between speech (vak) and meaning (artha). The word is that which when articulated gives out meaning; and meaning is what a word gives us to understand. The tradition, therefore, believes that Kavya is a unity or composition (sahitya) of word (sabdalankara) and its meaning (arthalankara).

The concept of Chitrakavya however seemed to be: whatever be the source of its inspiration, kavya is a ‘thing made of language’. The elements that go into a kavya are the words, meanings and the way in which the words have to be compounded. The Chitrakavya , therefore, treats pictures evoked by the sound of the word and its meaning as separate figures (sabda –chitra and artha-chitra); and , it also in some other ways, combines the word and the meaning into a common figure or an image (ubhaya-chitra).

3.2. Chitrakavya (marvel-poetry) embraces all ingenious forms of poetic compositions. The skillful  artistry of words and dexterous enterprise of the poet  is displayed in  unusual  and clever arrangement of letters, in  different combination of words , to evoke varied meanings where the sequence of words when read from the reverse direction –right to left – produce a different meaning; in alliteration of letters (anuprasa); alliteration of words (pada prasa); in ambiguous use of a word where it conveys different meanings depending upon the context (latanu-prasa); in the play of pun (slesha or sabda slesha) ; in change of voice (kaku) or in poetic subversion  or deviant expression (vakrokthi) and so on .

Chitrakavya also  uses certain other features that are peculiar to Sanskrit language. For instance; yamaka is a permutation of  identical set of syllabic strings described by the poet Bhamaha as ‘chimes’ where a letter or a word is repeated regularity at fixed positions in a stanza , say at the beginning, or the end of only  line , or at the middle of only two lines (paada).

4.1. As said; the object of Chitrakavya is to ignite awe and wonder; to evoke amusement and pleasure; and, to offer intellectual challenge. Such poetic tricks or riddles (kuta) have been employed in Sanskrit poetry for a very long time. In Mahabharata there are verses that play on alliterations, puns and chimes.  

For instance; (in Jatugriha Parva, a sub-section of the Adi Parva- CXLVII) Vidura, the uncle of the Pandavas , employs kuta an oblique form of verse, as described in Chitra-alankara, where the real intent is concealed ; and, is couched in philosophical or mystical words. Through a Kuta verse (riddle) Vidura, (who was conversant with the jargon of the Mlechchhas), successfully cautions Yudhistira that the house built for them at Varnavata by Duryodhana is actually a lac -house (Jatugriha) ; and , it is meant to burn them all into ashes.

He that knows the schemes his foes contrive in accordance with the dictates of political science, should, after knowing them, act in such a way as to avoid all danger. He that knows that there are sharp weapons capable of cutting the body though not made of steel, and understands also the means of warding them off, can never be injured by foes. He lives who protects himself by the knowledge that neither the consumer of straw and wood nor the drier of the dew burns the inmates of a hole in the deep woods. Those who live in a hole like rats will not be harmed by fire.  The blind man sees not his way: the blind man has no knowledge of direction. So always be vigilant.  He that has no firmness never acquires prosperity. Remembering this always be upon your guard. The man who takes a weapon not made of steel (i.e., an inflammable abode) given him by his foes, can escape from fire by making his abode like unto that of a jackal (having many outlets). By wandering a man may acquire the knowledge of ways, and by the stars he can ascertain the direction, and he that keeps  his five (senses) under control can never be oppressed by his enemies.’

paureu tu nivtteu vidura sarva-dharma-vit
bodhayan pā
ṇḍava-śreṣṭham ida vacanam abravīt

” prājña prājña pralāpajña samyag dharmārtha-darśivān
tathā kuryād āpada nistared yathā
niśita śastra śarīra-parikartanam
yo vetti na tam āghnanti pratighātavida
aghna śiśiraghnaś ca mahākake bilaukasa
na dahed iti cātmāna
yo rakati sa jīvati
ur vetti panthāna nācakur vindate diśa
tir bhūtim āpnoti budhyasvaiva prabodhita
anāptair dattam ādatte nara
śastram alohajam
śvāvic chara
am āsādya pramucyeta hutāśanāt
caran mārgān vijānāti nak
atrair vindate diśa
ātmanā cātmana
pañca pīayan nānupī

Its inner meaning was that the rogue Purochana would set the house on fire; he is a dreadful foe; you can guard yourself only when you runaway through the underground tunnel. 

Yudhistira replies “I understood what you said” (vijñātam iti tat sarvam ity ukto viduro mayā) ; and, saved himself, his brothers and their mother.

vidurea kto yatra hitārtha mleccha-bhāayā
vidurasya ca vākyena suru
ādyā pañca-putrāyā suptāyā jatu-veśmani
purocanasya cātraiva dahana
sapra-kīrtitam – 01,002.08

And thereafter, the Pandavas set out on the eighth day (aṣṭame ‘hani) of the month of Phalguna when the star Rohini was in the ascendant; and , arriving at Varanavata they beheld the town and its people.

aṣṭame ‘hani rohiṇyāṃ prayātāḥ phalgunasya te / vāraṇāvatam āsādya dadṛśur nāgaraṃ janam


 4.2. The other major poets such as Asvaghosha (sundaranabdana), Sri Harsha (naishabha-charitra), Bharavi (kiratarjuneeya), Magha (sishupalavadha), Kalidasa (Raghuvamsha) and many other later poets also enjoyed using Chitrakavya techniques as playful indulgence.

Further  , it  is surprising that Anandavardhana the rhetorician who looked down on Chitrakavya did himself used Chitra techniques in  his works Dhvanyaloka as also in Devistataka.  For instance; in Anandavardhana’s Devisataka (850 AD) almost every stanza contains a verbal display of some sort: Verse eight when read backwards becomes Verse nine; in verse ten,  four lines can be read forwards and backwards; in verse forty six , only two letters Ma and Na are used with the  vowels; in verse fifty nine ,  only two letters Tha and Va are used.

Anandavardhana’s stricture seems to have had   little impact on its practice.If anything, the popularity of Chitrakavya only increased in the following centuries.

4.3. Among the scholar poets, Sri Anandathirta who later became Sri Madhawacharya the founder of the Dvaita philosophy in his Yamaka-bharata narrates the Mahabharata in verses employing yamaka – chimes.

Sri Vedanta Desika (12-13th century) the remarkable scholar – poet in his Paduka Sahasram celebrating the glory of Sri Ranganatha’s Padukas in 1008 verses   employs Chitra-paddathi for 40 verses (911-950)- (we shall return to Sri Desika’s work later).

The noted Advaita scholar Sri Appayya Dishitar wrote a descriptive text of literary criticism Chitra Mimamsa studded with illustrations.

5.1. There are also kavyas written entirely in the Chitra paddathi. These are generally of two types: the poems of chimes (yamaka-kavya) having varieties of chimes yamaka at fixed positions in stanza to convey different meanings; and the other being the poems of pun (slesha-kavya) having the same set of words so that a line (paada) conveys more than one meaning.

5.2. An instance of Yamaka-kavya is Chaturvimsatika  ascribed to a Jain monk Shobanamuni (10th century). The poem has four groups of verses. The first group of verses is in praise of twenty – four Tirthankaras; the second of all the Jains; the third adulates the Jain doctrine; and, the fourth sings the glory of all deities.   The verses are so constructed that the fourth line has the same set of letters as in the second line, but conveys a different meaning.

5.3. There are too many Slesha-kavyas where each of its lines gives forth more than one meaning. For instance, the Rama-pala-charita   by the court poet Sandhyakar Nandin depicts at once two stories (dwi-sandhana—kavya), one of the Sri Rama and the other of King Rama Plala of Bengal (1104-1130) .

Another is the Raghava-yadava-Pandavveya(राघवयादवपाण्डवीय) by Chidambara-Sumati (16th century), a court poet of Vijayanagara which narrates simultaneously three stories (Tri-sandhana kavya’) those of Rama, Krishna and Arjuna. Such Slesha – kavyas, by laborious splitting compound words; by repetition of sounds (srutyanusara), of vowels (varna-anusara) and of words (pada – anusara);    and by interpreting the words depending on the context, can yield five or even seven stories.

The authors of the Slesha-kavyas must have gone into enormous  study and trouble in crafting  multiple headed literary works , employing varieties of techniques. Such works are unique to India;  and, in particular to Sanskrit. I believe no other literary tradition in the world has such bi-textual poetry, equaling the Slesha Kavya.  But , sadly, the theorists of the classical Sanskrit Kavyas deplored the Slesha Kavyas ; and, pushed it down to a low level. It was even treated as an aberration. Even during the modern times, there have hardly been any serious academic studies. concerning the Slesha Kavyas. As a result, this fascinating  creative literary form is now left in utter obscurity .

[ For more on Slesha , please read :Extreme Poetry , the South Asian movement of simultaneous narration by Yigal Bronner.]

5.4. There is also a Viloma-kavya where the first half of the verse is repeated backwards (viloma) in the second half; and they together form an entire line (pada). When the method is extended in a certain order the verse becomes all-moving (sarvathobhadra) or half-moving (ardha-bhrama).

A 16thcentury poet Daivajna Suryadasa Kavi from Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh wrote a Chitrakavya in the Viloma (reverse) style narrating the story of Rama and Krishna (Rama-Krishna-Viloma-Kavya) in 38 slokas.

Each sloka has four lines, of which the first two lines relate to Rama-story while   the next two lines to Krishna story. The specialty of this Kavya is that the third line is composed by reversing the order of letters in the second line, while the fourth line is a reversal of the order of letters in the first line.

For instance :

तं भूसुतामुक्तिमुदारहासं
वन्दे यतो भव्यभवं दयाश्रीः ।
श्रीयादवं भव्यभतोयदेवं
संहारदामुक्तिमुतासुभूतम् ॥ १॥

(Forward) तं भूसुतामुक्तिमुदारहासं वन्दे यतो भव्यभवम् दयाश्रीः ।

Taan bhoosuta mukti mudaarahaasan vande yato bhavan dayaashree ||

“I pay my homage to Him who rescued Sita, whose laughter is captivating, whose incarnation is grand, and from whom mercy and splendor arise everywhere.”

(Backward) श्रीयादवं भव्यभतोयदेवं संहारदामुक्तिमुतासुभूतम् ॥

Shree yaadavan bhavy latoy devan sanhaaradaamukti muta subhootaan ||

“I bow before that Sri Krishna, the descendant of Yadava family; who is a
divinity of the sun as well as the moon; who destroyed Putana who only gave destruction; and who is the soul of this entire universe

[ Please check for the text of the

 :  ]

There is also a Viloma kavya by Venkatadvari titled Yadava-raghaveeyam. The Yadava-raghaveeyam a poem with two meanings (anuloma-viloma-kavya) comprises 30 verses and deals with the story of Rama and Krishna together by adopting the style of anuloma and prathiloma, that is, reading each stanza as such and in reverse order, the former telling the story of Rama while the latter narrating the story of Krishna. Hence this work actually consists of 60 slokas in all.

For instance :

वन्देऽहं देवं तं श्रीतं रन्तारं कालं भासा यः ।
रामो रामाधीराप्यागो लीलामारायोध्ये वासे ॥

“I pay my obeisance to Lord Shri Rama, who with his heart pining for Sita, travelled across the Sahyadri Hills and returned to Ayodhya after killing Ravana and sported with his consort, Sita, in Ayodhya for a long time.”

In reverse

सेवाध्येयो रामालाली गोप्याराधी मारामोरा ।
यस्साभालंकारं तारं तं श्रीतं वन्देहं देवं ॥

“I bow to Lord Shri Krishna, whose chest is the sporting resort of Shri Lakshmi;who is fit to be contemplated through penance and sacrifice, who fondles Rukmani and his other consorts and who is worshiped by the gopis, and who is decked with jewels radiating splendor.”

It is said; Sri Venkatadhvarin or Venkatacarya was the son of Raghunatha and Sitamba of the Atreyagotra . His grand-father Sririnivasa known as Appayaguru was the nephew of the great Tatacharya of Kancheepuram , a contemporary of Appayadiksita .

Venkatadhvari who lived in the 17th century is believed to have been born at Arasanipalai a hamlet near Kancheepuram and was a follower of Sri Vedntadesika. He had mastery in poetry and rhetoric. He composed 14 works, the most important of them being Lakshmisahasram a hymn to Goddess Lakshmi which is modeled on “Padukasahasram” [पादुकासहस्रम्], the well-known work of Sri Vedantadesika.

5.5. And as late as in the 19th century a poet named Krishnamurthy (son of Gauri and Sarvajna) of Kanchipuram succeeded in producing a very difficult form of Chitrakavya. He narrates the story of Ramayana in a sloka by employing only 32 letters (syllables) and by arranging them in a circular form, as like bangle (kankana).The reading of the letters backward and forward, from a particular starting point can produce in all 64 verses. I learn a copy of his Kankana-bandha –Ramayana is placed at the Saraswathi Mahal Library of Tanjore.

: नेतादेवालीनामाशाधानाधीनानेकालोकी | मास्यानंभाख्यायोगीशं पायादेतं रामेराजा ||

6.1. Good and enjoyable Chitrakavyas are extremely difficult to compose and structure. It demands enormous skill and patience. A Chitrakavya poet should also have excellent command over the language and be thoroughly familiar with its mechanics for manipulating their multiple applications. The difficulty of the poet in constructing these types of poems is exacerbated by the requirement that each type of Kavya should be structured in its own prescribed meter.

For instance; the verses patterned into design of coiled snakes (kundali-naga-bhanda) are to be composed in a meter that has twenty-one syllables in each line. Such restrictions impose additional constraints on the poet.

The Vishnudarmottara a text of 6th century lays down that a riddle should be expressed in less than two full verses . That explains why Ubhyachitra class of verses which aim to maintain a balance between the sound and the meaning of the word, are difficult to produce. Much of the trouble is often of the poet’s own making; and that is compounded because of the tendency to use inscrutable or difficult words and expressions.

There are innumerable poems of the Chitrakavya genre, displaying immense variety .It is almost impossible to list out even their various   classifications.

[Shri V. Venkateswara  mentions : there is a long tradition of Chitra Kavyas in Telugu also, such as ,  Paada bhramaka, padya bhramaka, niroshtya kavyas, dwyarthi kavyas, bandhas etc. from 11 th century till date.]


7.1. Though the Chitrakavyas are highly enterprising and extremely difficult to compose, they are not rated high by the scholars specialized in literary criticism. The Chitrakavya  ( particularly its Sabda-chitra component )  is classified as an inferior type of poetry (Adhama-kavya) because it is viewed mostly as an artificial language-acrobatics, verbal jugglery that is not easy to understand; and confronting the reader with riddles, distractions and confusions. Generally, it is accused of giving the ’word-puzzles’ a poetic garb.

7.2. The Sanskrit scholars have always held that the emotive content (rasa) is the soul of poetry, while sound (sabda) and meaning (artha) form its body. The votaries of classical poetry, therefore, point out that Chitrakavya does not merit to be recognized as true or authentic poetry because it does not satisfy the objectives of a good poetry. It has no soul (kavyasya=atma) . Chitrakavya might amuse or entertain but it lacks the poetic beauty, the sensitivity of suggestion (rasa-dhvani) and does not inspire or elevate the reader to higher ideals. It also lacks, they say, mādhurya (sweetness), rasa the emotional content, or exquisite turn of phrases (pada-lalitya), descriptions (varnana)or vision (darshana) etc.

7.3. Shri Kalanath Jha in his scholarly treatise Figurative Poetry in Sanskrit Literature (1975) – ( which is a rare  book that is devoted entirely to discussion on all aspects of Chitrakavya; the others being Chitra Bandha by V Balasubraumanyam and The pattern Poetry : Guide to an Unknown Literature by Dick Higgins )  – defends its merits and remarks :

”What is called Chitrakavya, especially the one endowed with  arthachitra  (meaning), can be poetry of very high order provided there is a concord between the meaning of the word and its representation; and there is consistency in treatment of the subject. The figures with which this division of poetry is constituted are not irrelevant, as they succeed in evoking a fine poetic sense; or an equally superb poetic image. All this is related to creative urge of the poet. The strength of Chitrakavya is in evoking a visual image of the poetry, throwing open a new perspective and stroking imagination. These create a class of poetry which inspires and also impresses”.

7.4. Shri Jha also says, Chitrakavya is essentially not inferior; but the overuse of sterile techniques caused it great harm. The other reason for relegating Chitrakavya to a low position, according to him, is that adequate attention was not paid to the development of its Arthachitra component. And, because of that the figures of sound lost their inner appeal in the midst of verbal jugglery. Shri Jha concludes that Chitrakavya which entertains and challenges, far from being ‘inferior’, demonstrates the amazing possibility inherent in a language, along with the potential for originality and creativity. The excellence achieved in Chitrakavya is unmatched in any of the literature in the world over. Backed by a history of more than a thousand years, Chitrakāvya still continues to be composed by small pockets of scholars throughout India. Yet, sadly, it seems to be a dying art.


B. Chitrabandha

Classifications under Sabdachitra by Bhoja

8.1. There are too many texts and authorities on Chitrakavya. For the limited purpose of this post let me follow the explanations offered in Sarasvathi-kanta-abharana (ornament in the neck of Sarasvathi) edited by KN Sharma and V.L , Pansikar (1934). It is a text of the Alankara-sastra ascribed to King Bhoja (1018 – 1063) of the Parmara dynasty, ruling the Malwa region from its capital at Dhara (according to some, Bhoja shifted his capital from Ujjain to Dhara). Sarasvathi-kanta-abharana is an elaborate text of 643 verse enriched by as many as 1,563 examples (or illustrations) spread over five Chapters.

8.2. As said earlier, the concept of Chitrakavya seemed to be that kavya is a ‘thing made of language’. The elements that go into a kavya are the words, meanings and the way in which those words have to be compounded. In such a scheme of things, the Sabdachitra the word-picture occupies a key position.

9.1. Though the Sabdachitra , which relies more on the sound of letters and words than on their meaning , was  not rated highly the scholars of his time,  However,  Bhoja considered it as an important  aspect of  Chitrakavya; and , accorded it elaborate treatment.  He classified Sabdachitra into six varieties.

The first and the second are based in the use of vowels and consonants –Svarachitra and Vyanjanachitra. And they together constitute Varnachitra – the play on alphabets and syllables. In the Varnachitra he gives detailed descriptions and instances of verses composed of only one or two consonants having no dental or labial or palatal letters; or having any two or three of the short / long vowels.

9.2. The third is Sthanachitra, which is the use of sounds by classifying them dependent on their origin (pronunciation) in different parts of mouth and throat. Bhoja provides instances of verses composed by use of only one or two consonants not involving teeth or palate or throat; as also of verses using only two or three short/ long vowels.

[In the Sanskrit arrangement, all the vowels come first, alternating long and short (- a -, – â- etc.); then those consonants like –k-, -kh-, -g-, and – gh – which are pronounced in the throat, alternating aspirated and un-aspirated, voiced and unvoiced;then, in similar alternating fashion, those consonants that are pronounced on the palate, like –ch– and -j-; and after them those on the teeth, like -t- and –d-; and last but-one those on the lips, like -m- and -p- . All sounds are arranged as those from the inside of the mouth proceeding outwards, in order. The list is rounded off with semi-consonants like -ya- and -va-, and aspirated and sibilant sounds like -h- and -s-. No other ancient system of writing seems to have been so systematically thought out.]

9.3. The fourth and fifth are Aakarachitra and Bandhachitra , which closely resemble each other; and, therefore their distinction was not strictly followed in the later times. These categories detail the bandha-techniques by employing verses which  can be designed and woven into various patterns of objects, animals, birds etc.

Under the former , the Aakara-chitra , which is based on the shapes and forms of things, Bhoja mentions that the padma-bhanda (lotus) and chakra-bandha (wheel) are popular. Besides, there are mangala-chitras, the patterns of poetic structures that resemble auspicious designs such as Swastika, Shanka, and Chakra etc. About twenty such patterns are mentioned.

Among the Aakarachitra, Bhoja mentions varieties of lotus designs: four petalled, the eight petalled, the sixteen petalled; and an eight petalled one bearing the name of the poet. As regards the chakrabandha (wheel), it depends on the number of spokes on the wheel that one adopts.  There could be as many varieties as there are spokes on one’s wheel. Ten such types are described by Bhoja.

And, Bhoja remarks that all other designs can be treated as falling under the latter variety, the Bandhachitra. An important feature of  Aakarachitra or  Bandhachitra or even ofGatichitra is the repeated use of certain letters in certain specified positions in order to enhance the sense of wonder.  Thus,  alliteration and chimes is important to these designs. Bhoja however cautions that in the case of Bandha poetic-designs , it is essential to predetermine the positions for certain letters.

There are more than 200 known varieties of Bandhas. These include 12 types of Naga-bandha of single or multiple coiled or uncoiled snakes; 19 types of Ayudhas, weapons, such as sword, knife, mace and such others; 16 types of Abharana-chitras   resembling ornaments , such as bangle, armlet, girdle etc; and , 38 types of miscellaneous formations , Anya-aakara-Chitra: those resembling umbrella (chatra-bandha), banner or flag (pataka-bhanda), mace (gadha-bandha) in addition to  sun, moon , Meru, bed, swing, lamp, pestle, bell and so on.

The Yantras (charts) , which are drawn by Tantrics , employ many types of Bandhas. And, as poetic designs too the Bandhas seem to be gaining popularity, even in recent days.

9.4. The sixth is Gatichitra (movement) where a striking verbal effect is created through movement of certain letters or groups of letters in a specified order. The techniques commonly used in the Gatichitra are basically Viloma-chitra (reverse order), which when extended in certain order produce Ardha-bramana (half reverse) and  Sarvatobhadra (multiple movements).

Regarding the specific types of patterns under Gatichitra, six are mentioned. Of these, the first two are of Yamaka character where similar sounding letters are repeated giving out different meanings, depending upon their position in the Chitra. One is Aavali, an unbroken series of same letters; and, the other is  Srinkhala-bandha , a chain like formation where the entire verse is composed in such a manner that every succeeding word starts with the last letter of the previous word.

The next three Gatichitra patterns – rathapadagajapada and turagapada – are based on Chess board moves of a camel (Bishop), elephant (Rook) and horse (knight) respectively. The specialty of the knight-walk pattern is that when all the letters of the verse are systematically written so as to fill all the 64 squares of the Chess board , then the letters in the squares  where the knight lands on  each of its move give forth another verse.

And the sixth is Kakapada (crow feet), where riddles are posed in verses arranged in the shape of crow’s feet.

In addition, verses in image of musical drum (muraja) complete with straps ; and also Gomutrika – resembling patterns made by cow’s urine while the cow is on the  move –  are usually included under Gatichitra, by the later scholars.

Gomutrika , in turn, has several varieties . That which consists two or more lines is pada-gomutrika; a verse of four lines giving rise to another is ardha-gomutrika; and, where it involves two verses is sloka-gomutrika. There is also a class based in verses of reversed order or written in varied meters.

hamsa 5

C. Illustrations

All the illustrations provided under belong to the Sabdachitra class of Chitrakavya.

11. Varnachitra

11.1. Consonants

The following is a verse composed by aligning all the 33 consonants in Sanskrit in their natural order (It is like writing a verse by stringing together a, b, c etc in their order).

Who is he the lover of birds, pure in intelligence, adept in stealing other’s strength, leader among destroyer of enemies, the steadfast, the fearless, and the one who filled the ocean. He is the Maya, whose blessings destroy all foes.

At the other end, is a verse written by using only one consonant –da

Sri Krishna the one who confers all boons, the destroyer of evil minded, the great purifier, whose arms punishes the wicked and protects the virtuous shot his lethal arrow at the foe.

There are In between are plenty of verses made by using two or three consonants.


11.2. Vowels

The following is a witty verse formed entirely by the vowel Uu

The gods took refuge in Brihaspahi, the lord of speech, the Guru of gods in heaven, as they went into the battle. They prayed him to stay happy and strong; and not to fall back into sleep again and again.

This sloka uses only one vowel (e) in the first line and one vowel (a) in the second line.

O Lord Shiva of three eyes , knower of all existence, destroyer of the worlds, Lord of the eight-fold super-powers and of immense wealth, the Lord who killed Daskha and Kamadeva do protect me.


11.3. Vowel and Consonant

Here is an amazing sloka of 32 syllables using only one consonant (Ya) and one vowel (Aa):

यायायायायायायायायायायायायायायाया।  यायायायायायायायायायायायायायायाया।।

The Paduka (footwear) which adorn the Lord , which help in attaining all that is good and auspicious, which removes all ills, which gives knowledge, which inspires desire to be in presence of the Lord, by which all places of the world can be reached , these padukas are of the Lord

(This verse is taken from Sri Vedanta Desika’s Padukasahasram)


12. Sthanachitra

Sthanachitras are composed by using consonants of only one group. This verse uses only gutturals.


You the traveler who bathes in the rippling waves of the Ganga you are unaware of the sufferings of the world, you go up Mount Meru to rest, come down to save us from sins.


13. Akarachitra

Aakarachitras are based on the shapes and forms of things. Among these the padmabhanda (lotus) and chakra – bandha(wheel) are popular.


13.1. Padmabhanda

The following is an Illustration of an eight petalled lotus with a central part. The letter ya is placed at its centre. In this instance on two petals carry one letter each. And the other six petals have two letters each.

Now beginning with the central ya move upward to the vertical petal where there is the letter Sri and above that is the letter ta l. With this, you got the first four letter word: ya-sri-ta = Yasrita. Then move in the clockwise to the next petal which has the letters pa and va; then move to the next petal which has letters ta and na. Then move to the center of the lotus design to pick up the letter ya. And that gives: pa-va-na-ta-ya which forms the word pavanataya. Continue in similar manner clockwise following the dotted lines. And, finally you get the verse which reads:

Yasrita pavanatya yatanacchadanichaya/   Yacaniya dhiya maya yamayasyamstutasriya//


13.2. Naga-bandha

R. Rajaraja Varma (A. R. Rājarājavarmma; 1863–1918) known as Kerala Panini, was very well-educated in many fields of study. Although he wrote in Sanskrit and Malayalam; he was also English-educated. He knew Tamil as well ; and, had a working knowledge of Telugu and Kannada.

Rajaraja Varma created in 1880, when he was only seventeen-year-old, Citra-nakshatra-mālā, having twenty-seven stanzas, in various Chitra forms, using the whole range of possibilities. Here, Rajaraja Varma composed verses in the shape of magic square (Sarvatobhadra), drum (Muraja), snake (Naga) and the lotus flower (Padma).

Of these, his Naga-bandha is a extremely well crafted type of Chitra-bandha.

 And, it is addressed to the poet’s patron, Visakham Tirunal (19 May 1837 – 4 August 1885), Maharaja of the erstwhile Indian kingdom of Travancore from 1880–1885. He was held in high regard, for his contribution to the development of literature, arts and Sanskrit.

In this stanza, the poet picturesquely lauds the Maharaja’s devotion and love for the land, his commitment to the people of the Vanchi.


The text of the stanza can be read tracing the serpent from the head to the tail. Since at every fold and intersection the letter is read a second time, the pattern requires from a poet the repetition of the same syllables at particular positions. The easiest to notice are the repetitions of the second syllable at the end of the stanza (syllables in bold) and syllables placed at four folds of the serpent (underlined syllables)

  • ro ttaṁsakṣitīśāyutamakuaghaṭatpādavikṣobhitāre 
  • suśroṇīśreṇicittāvasatha damadamūrtiprayuktāvamāda |
  • pādātākṣīṇapāṇīsa danada parahr̥ttāpatīvrārtisoma
  • śrīvañcikṣoṇipālo raṇa ratasuguṇaśreṇipūra praroha ||CNM 21

He, the one adorned with a king’s diadem combined with a hero’s garland, the one who makes enemies’ legs tremble, [filled with] the number of thoughts concentrated on the goddess, giving punishment and abode, having the favour of being united with the idol, embodied passion, effecting exhaustion of not drooping hands of infantry, the nectar removing burning, excruciating pain of others, the protector of glorious land of Vanchi, filled with the mass of extraordinary fondness for the fight. Arise!


13.3. Chakrabandha

There are several varieties of wheel designs (chakrabandha) depending on the number of its spikes. In the instance given here the wheel is designed by using six spikes.


The Śiśupāla-vadha, of Māgha contains a verse written in the difficult wheel -design, or Chakra-bandha. If you rearrange the syllables in the form of a wheel, there is a message hidden among the spokes:

Magha Shishupala vadha

The following Chakrabandha was created in recent times by DEMIAN MARTINS

Here every line of the verse begins and ends on a separate spike. Except that the first and the last letters are on the rim of the wheel. The fourth line is on the rim of the wheel.

The middle letter of all the three lines is one and the same; and therefore it appears on the hub of the wheel at its centre.

Every fourth letter of the line on the rim is shared by the line that it relates to.

The verse is a prayer at the feet of Lord Chaitanya the personification of Krishna ; and ,also seeking the blessings of Srila Prabhupada.

[This chakrabandha was designed by DEMIAN MARTINS  in 2010]


13.4. Murajabandha -musical drum


This also is a popular example of Akarachitra. To start with, the four lines of the verse are written in their natural order. The first two major strings to tighten the  drum are (ABC in ‘V’ shape ) are drawn touching the top two sides of the drum and the middle of the bottom side.Then the next major string (DEF in inverted V shape) touching the bottom two side and the middle of the top side. The syllable laying on these two major strings form the first and the fourth lines of the verse. Then two minor strings are drawn forming two diamond shaped figures (GHIJ and KLMN) – the letters I and M are at the centre of the drum. The syllables on these two minor strings form the second and the third lines of the drum.

The army was very efficient and as it moved the warrior hero was very alert. The soldiers in that army raised a huge noise. The army was fierce with intoxicate and restless elephants. There was no thought of pain.


14. Gatichitra

14.1. The entire verse is a palindrome – the line can be read in both ways (say as in Malayalam, Noon etc)

O immortals, the lover of sharp sword s does not tremble like a frightened man in his battle full of grand chariots and demons the devourers of humans.

Magha is known for the beauty of his poetry and his skill of the storytelling.  That has impressed scholars throughout the ages.  Besides that, Magha was a manipulator of the Sanskrit language; and, there is none equal to him. The following verse, in the 19th chapter of Śiśupāla-vadha could be taken as an illustration of his skill in creating a palindrome in four directions ; the most complex poetic device ever created.

रसाहवा वाहसार-

rasāhavā vāhasāra-

Now, if you reverse the lines as though placing a mirror beneath them, this forms a palindrome in four directions:

Shishupala Vadha mirror effect

“ [That army], which relished battle (rasāhavā) contained allies who brought low the bodes and gaits of their various striving enemies (sakāranānārakāsakāyasādadasāyakā), and in it the cries of the best of mounts contended with musical instruments (vāhasāranādavādadavādanā).” (Trans. George L. Hart)

[ Source : Paul M.M. Cooper · in Art & aestheticsBooks, Literature & Creative Writing.]


14.2. Ardha-bramana


Ardha-bramana is half movement. In this design:

i. Only eight letters are used in the entire verse (otherwise, it just does not work)

ii. The verse has four lines.

iii. When that is converted into a grid it will have 32 cells.

iv. The first four letters of the top (first) line is formed by the first letter of each of the four lines, picked up in descending order in the grid.

v. The next four letters of the top (first) line is formed by the last letter of each of the four lines taken in ascending order in the grid.

vi. You will notice that the first four letters of each line are mirror reflections of the last four letters of that line (that is to say, the last four are the reversed order of the first four).


14.3. Sarvathobhadra

Sarvathobhadra is also a viloma (reversed) type of Chitrabandha. As seen above, in the Ardha-bramana the first half of the line (paada) is reversed (repeated backwards – viloma) in the second half. When this the design is extended into the Sarvathobhadra  grid of 64 cells (8 x 8) the verse gains  greater mobility.

Oh man , this is the battle field which excites even the gods. It is not mere battle of words. Here the men fight and risk their lives , not for themselves but for the sake of others. The field is dangerously filled with mad and intoxicating elephants. Those eager to fight and even those eager to survive but not fight have also fight.

[This is verse taken from Bharavi’s kiratharjuneeya. It is a description of a battle. It is said that both Sarvathobhadra and Gomutrika represent battle formations (vyuha). While Sarvathobhadra is a hallow square formation or disposition of troops facing outwards, the Gomutrika is a diagonal disposition of troops.]


Sarvathobhadra resembling a Chess board is a type of magic square. The 64 letters of the verse are systematically filled into each of boxes in the square.

You will find that the verse can be read horizontally, vertically and even backwards; and you will get the same verse. That becomes possible because each quarter-stanza (16 letters) is  composed of two sets of  palindromes (of eight letters each)  where in each set the last four letters are the reversed order of the first four. Again the first four syllables of the first quarter (de, va, ka, ni) are formed by taking the first syllable of each quarter, in sequence. Similarly, the first four syllables of the second quarter (va, hi, ka, sva) are the same as the second syllable of each quarter .

Sarvathobhadra is a complicated mix of a double palindrome and acrostics where the letters picked up from other quarters form a new word.


14.4. Gomutrika

Gomutrika, as the name indicates, is a design similar to the zig zag patterns on the ground made by the sprinkling cow’s urine, while the cow is on the move. In this composition, every alternate letter of the first and third lines of a verse is the same as every alternate letter of the second and fourth lines.   The first two lines of the verse are written in one sequence and the other two lines are written as another sequence.

May Indra, who wields the thunderbolt who disperses the clouds in the sky, who desires pleasures from his consort Sachi, the daughter of demon puloma-may that Indra remove illusions, protect you from fear of all dangers and misfortunes.


The following is another example of Gomutrika-bandha from Sri Rupa Goswami’s Citra Kavitani I – an amazing Sanskrit Poetry.  Sri Rupa Goswami (1489–1564) was a great Guru, poet, and philosopher of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition.




14.5. Turaga-bandha – the knights walk

The Turagabandha which mimics the moves of the knight pawn on the Chess board is the most celebrated of all the bandhas. Before discussing Turaga-bandha let me talk of a few other things.

There was for a long time a mathematical problem known as the knight’s tour problem. It involved the moves of the knight pawn on a empty Chess board. The problem posed was to move the knight so that it visits every square (64) on the board – but only once. And, at the end of the tour it must come back to the square from which it began. The first mathematician to investigate the Knight’s tour problem was Leonhard Euler (1707 to 1783) , a Swiss mathematician. Since then it has come to be known as Euler Chess Knight Problem.   (For more on that please





Sri Vedanta Desika (12-13th century) the remarkable scholar-poet in his Paduka Sahasram celebrating the glory of Sri Ranganatha’s padukas in 1008 verses   employs Chitra-paddathi for 40 verses (911-950).

Among these, the verse No.929 and N0.930 are hailed as astounding solution to the ‘knight’s tour problem’.

The syllables of the first Sloka (No.929) are posted, in sequence, on the squares of the Chess board.

स्थिरागसां सदाराध्या विहताकततामता । सत्पादुके सरसा मा रङ्गराजपदं नय ॥

O the sacred Padukas of the Brahman, you are adorned by those who have committed unpardonable sins; you remove all that is sorrowful and unwanted; you create a musical sound; (be pleased) and lead me to the feet of Lord Rangaraja.

Then if the syllables on the squares that the knight visits are put together in their sequence it produces the Sloka No.930

The Padukas which protect those who shine by their right attitude; who is the origin of the blissful rays which destroy the melancholy of the distressed; whose radiance brings peace to those who take refuge in them, which move everywhere,  -may those golden and radiating Padukas of the Brahman lead me to the feet of Lord Rangaraja.

The same table in English



The second verse not only provided the solution to the knight’s tour problem but went far beyond that.   It is said composing     such verse is far more difficult than solving the original Chess-knight problem. It is all the more amazing when you realize that Sri Vedanta Desika lived at least six hundred years before Euler.

References and Sources

1. Sarasvathi-kanta-abharana edited by KN Sharma and VL Pansikar (1934).

2 . Figurative Poetry in Sanskrit Literature by Kalanath Jha (1975)

3. Chitra Bandha by V Balasubraumanyam (2010)

4. The Wonder that is Sanskrit by Sampadananda Mishra and Vijay Poddar (2006)

I acknowledge the figures and Slokas taken from

The wonder that is Sanskrit  And from  The Figurative Poetry in Sanskrit Literature

The rest of the images are from internet


Posted by on October 10, 2012 in General Interest, Kavya, Sanskrit


Tags: , , ,

The bizarre story of Madhavi of the ancient times

This is a story of ancient times that appears in Udyoga Parva (sections 119-122) of Mahabharata. It is a story that is uncoiled in four stages. Initially, Narada narrated it to Dhritarastra, which Vyasa recorded; Vaishampayana narrates that to Janamejaya; and finally Suti recites the entire epic.

Narada’s narration comes about as an extension to his own story of fall owing to his conceit and arrogance. It is incidental; and not integrated into the Epic. It is not supported by any other narration in the Epic.

The story raises many uncomfortable questions about the status and treatment of women in a society of a bygone era, which was guided by its own set of values. The fascinating but disturbing episode has been studied, in depth, by scholars, feminists and dramatists from sociological, psychological and various other angles.

Mahabharata (in contrast to Ramayana) is a complex composition spread over several layers , across varied periods; and, its elements are derived from diverse parts of the ancient Indian land. It also is not entirely the work of a single person. It has grown in stages across many traditions. Like the Indian jungle, it spreads out in an endless wilderness of trees entwined with creepers of bewildering sorts, inhabited by an astonishing variety of creatures, birds and beasts. It is a wonder piled upon wonders. There are several contradictions arrayed , one by the side of the other. Mahabharata is not one book; but, it is many books running into each other.

With that , let’s, first, look at the story in its brief and summarized form; and then discuss some of the issues it throws up.

The story

1.1. It is said that Galava was a very devoted pupil of the sage – King- teacher Visvamitra. He stayed and served loyally even when his teacher was passing through difficult circumstances. At the end of the academic period, the teacher, pleased with the pupil, blessed him and let him go. But Galava requested the teacher to state the fee (guru- dakshina) that he would accept. The teacher was content; but the pupil pressed on earnestly. Finally, with a little displeasure, as it were, Visvamitra asked Galava ‘present me with eight hundred white steeds of good pedigree; white as the rays of the radiant moon, and every one of it having one ear black in hue. Go Galava, delay not ’.

Ektaha shamkarna hayana chandravarchasam, Ashto shatani me dehi gaccha Galav ma Chiram- (Udog, 106;27)


1.2. Galava promptly sets out in search of such rare type of horses ; but,he  was unable to find any. While he was brooding in desperation, his friend Suparna offered help; and, took him to many kings who might possibly possess horses of such rare description. After much wandering, the two reached the court of King Yayati of Prathistana. Suparna, on behalf of his friend, submitted the plea and requested the king to help Galava to be free from the burden of Guru-dakshina.

But, the King Yayati, whose wealth by then had depleted, had no horses that satisfied their specification. Nevertheless, he, as a king, would not disappoint a needy one who came seeking help. Therefore, he gifted, instead, his beautiful daughter Madhavi (also called Drishadvati); and, suggested that by setting her as price they could secure from any king/s who owned the horses of their required specifications. Yayati added;  Madhavi was capable of promoting every virtue (mādhavī nāma tārkṣyeyaṃ sarva-dharma-pravādini); and , her beauty was so striking that any king would gladly give up his kingdom, if it were needed, to be with her even for a short while.

asyāḥ śulkaṃ pradāsyanti nṛpā rājyam api dhruvam/kiṃ punaḥ śyāmakarṇānāṃ hayānāṃ dve catuḥśate – (Udyog, 113; 13)

Now, that there appeared a ray of hope, Suparna wished his friend well and took leave of him.

2.1. Galava first thought of the best of the kings, Haryasva of Ikshvaku race who ruled at Ayodhya. He was famed for his valour, wealth and large army. Galava offered Madhavi in marriage to the childless king Haryasva, in exchange for ‘eight hundred steeds’ born in good country, of lunar whiteness, and each with one ear black in hue’, saying ‘this auspicious and large eyed maiden will become mother of thy sons’. The king is struck with the beauty of Madhavi (rājā haryaśvaḥ kāmamohitaḥ).  He observes  that the six parts of this girl’s body which ought to be high are high, seven parts which ought to be slender are slender, three parts which ought to be deep are deep and five which ought to be red are red.  Upon her resides every auspicious  sign. 

unnateṣūnnatā ṣaṭsu; sūkṣmā sūkṣmeṣu saptasu; gambhīrā triṣu gambhīreṣv ; iyaṃ raktā ca pañcasu; śroṇyau lalāṭakakṣau ca ghrāṇaṃ ceti ṣaḍunnatam (Udyog, 05,114.002

Haryasva cried out “I most desire to have this beautiful maiden; but, sadly I have only two hundred steeds of the kind you wanted. He pleads with Galava – asyām etaṃ bhavān kāmaṃ saṃpādayatu me varam (Udyog; 114.9) – Let me fulfill my desire.  I beg you; allow me to beget one son upon this damsel and you make take away all those two hundred steeds”.

2.2. Madhavi intervened and suggested to Galava “I am blessed by a sage with a special faculty that each time after childbirth I will regain my virginity. Accept the offer made by King Haryasva; take his two hundred excellent steeds and let him beget one son upon me. Thereafter you may collect me and take me to the next king and to another, in similar manner, until you obtain all your eight hundred steeds. And, that should set you free from the debt you owe to your teacher”.

mama datto varaḥ kaś cit kena cid brahmavādinā / prasūtyante prasūtyante kanyaiva tvaṃ bhaviṣyasi/sa tvaṃ dadasva māṃ rājñe pratigṛhya hayottamān / nṛpebhyo hi caturbhyas te pūrṇāny aṣṭau śatāni vai / bhaviṣyanti tathā putrā mama catvāra eva ca/kriyatāṃ mama saṃhāro gurvarthaṃ dvija sattama (Udyog; 114.11-13)

That idea seemed to be a workable arrangement; and,  was acceptable both to Galava and the King. Galava became the owner of those two hundred steeds; but he let them continue in king’s care. In due time, Haryasva had a son by Madhavi. She thereafter, by the power of her wish, turned into a virgin again. The new born was as splendid as one of the Vasus; and was named Vasumanasa (also called Vasuprada – vasumanā nāma vasubhyo vasumattaraḥ; vasuprakhyo narapatiḥ sa babhūva vasupradaḥ). He later grew up to be one of the wealthiest and greatest of the benefactors among all the kings.

2.3. Galava next took Madhavi to Divodasa King of Kashi of great valor  having a large army (mahāvīryo mahīpālaḥ kāśīnām īśvaraḥ prabhuḥ;divodāsa iti khyāto bhaimasenir narādhipaḥ). Divodasa had already heard of Madhavi’s extraordinary beauty as also of her story (śrutam etan mayā pūrvaṃ). He rejoiced greatly upon the fortune to be with her. But, he too had only two hundred such steeds that Galava required. He agreed to beget only one a son from Madhavi in exchange for those two hundred steeds. Madhavi lived with Divodasa till a son was born to her. He was named Pratardana , who later became a celebrated hero (mādhavī janayām āsa putram ekaṃ pratardanam) . Madhavi having regained her virginity left her second son with his father and returned to Galava.

2.4. The next was, King Ushinara of Bhojanagari (jagāma bhojanagaraṃ draṣṭum auśīnaraṃ nṛpam) , who also had only two hundred of such horses. He handed then over to Galava and lived with Madhavi till a son named Sibi was born (he later gained renown as the upholder of truth and justice – śibir nāmna ābhivikhyāto yaḥ sa pārthivasattamaḥ). Madhavi turned a virgin once again.

2.5. Thereafter Galava collected Madhavi back from King Ushinara.  By then , Madhavi had three sons : pratardano vasumanāḥ śibir auśīnaro . But, Galava had so far gathered only six hundred horses, and still needed two hundred more to fulfil the commitment to his teacher. Then, his friend Suparna (Garuda) informs there were no more such horses; but makes a suggestion. As suggested by Suparna, Galava submits to his teacher the six hundred horses he had so far gathered, with a request to accept Madhavi in place of the remaining two hundred horses; and absolve him of the Guru-dakshina.

Visvamitra elated at the prospect of having Madhavi, accepts the offer gleefully  and discharges the pupil of his obligation –

viśvāmitras tu taṃ dṛṣṭvā gālavaṃ saha pakṣiṇā/kanyāṃ ca tāṃ varārohām idam ity abravīd vacaḥ/kim iyaṃ pūrvam eveha na dattā mama gālava (Udog, 117;14-15) pratigṛhṇāmi te kanyām ekaputraphalāya vai/aśvāś cāśramam āsādya tiṣṭhantu mama sarvaśaḥ

Madhavi bore to Visvamitra a son named Ashtaka –  ātmajaṃ janayām āsa mādhavīputram aṣṭakam (Ashtaka later gained fame as the king who performed grand Ashva-medha yajnas).

a_herd_of_white_horses_ga (1).jpg

3.1. With his debt discharged, Galava retires into the forest. As he departs, he thanks Madhavi for saving him, as also her father and the three childless kings: ” Oh Madhavi, the beautiful maiden, You have borne one son who will be a lordly giver, a second a hero, another fond of truth and right; and yet another a great performer of Yajnas. Farewell to you, virgin of slim waist”.

jāto dānapatiḥ putras tvayā śūras tathāparaḥ/satyadharmarataś cānyo yajvā cāpi tathāparaḥ/tad āgaccha varārohe tāritas te pitā sutaiḥ/catvāraś caiva rājānas tathāhaṃ ca sumadhyame (Udyog; 117.22)

After sometime, Visvamitra retreats into the forest. He hands over the six hundred horses to his son Ashtaka; and , sends Madhavi back to her father Yayati.

Yayati tries to arrange for Madhavi’s wedding, as many suitors (including the three kings who had sons from her) were eager to marry her. But, Madhavi is no longer interested in marriage or childbearing. She refuses all offers and retires into the forest as a hermit.

3.2. The recurring virgin Madhavi is not sovereign herself; but sovereignty passes through her to her four sons who grow up to become great kings whose deeds are celebrated in the Puranas.

In the end, everyone except Madhavi had something to gain: Yayati had the satisfaction of helping a needy person; the three childless kings beget worthy sons and heirs; Visvamitra gained six hundred of rarest horses as also the pleasure of living with the beautiful Madhavi; and, Galava extolled for his guru-bhakthi was relieved of the obligation to his teacher.

Madhavi’s salvation lies in her silence and her retreat into the woods. She prefers to select forest as her consort – Varam Vrivati Vanam (Udog, 120;5). Madhavi entered the forest, lived a peaceful life of a celibate –  ‘living in the woods after the manner of the deer ’ carantī hariṇaiḥ sārdhaṃ mṛgīva vanacāriṇī/ cacāra vipulaṃ dharmaṃ brahmacaryeṇa saṃvṛtā (Udyog, 118; 11)

00028zd3 (488×182)

Question of antiquity

4.1. Though the story of the ‘salvation of the kings by a maiden’ is re-told in Mahabharata, its principle characters come from the distant Pre-Vedic or early Vedic times.

[ In the Tevijja-Sutta: The Threefold Knowledge (Digha-nikaya, I.No.13), the Buddha distinguishes between the later Brahmana-teachers and the earlier Vedic-sages. Among these sages, the Buddha regards just ten as the ancient; as the true authors and the Rishis of the Riks.

The ten Rishis mentioned by the Buddha are: Astaka; Vamaka; Vamadeva; Visvamitra; Jamadagni; Angirasa; Bharadvaja; Vashista; Kashyapa; and , Brighu.

Astaka, mentioned by the Buddha as one among the ancient Sages, is said to be one of the sons of Madhavi, the daughter of the King Yayathi. ]

Yayati, the son of the legendry King Nahusha, is a prominent figure in the early Indian mythological history. He is progenitor of a great dynasty Chandravamsa – that ruled for countless generations stretching up to the Pandavas and far beyond.

 Please click here for the family tree of  the Yadus and the Purus – the descendents of Yayati . 

4.2. Yayati marks a watershed in the ancient Indian history. He is credited with bringing together two rival factions of the Angirasas and the Brighus. Yayati, a follower of the Angirasa, married Devayani the daughter of Shukracharya of the Bhrigu clan; and also married Sharmishta the daughter of Vrisha Parvan, the King of Asuras, who also was a follower of the Bhrigus.

4.3. Turvasha and Yadu were sons of Yayati by Devayani of the Bhrigus; while Anu, Druhyu and Puru were his sons by Sharmishta of the Asuras. Yayati’s story indicates that the five great lines of Vedic rulers were born of an alliance of Deva and Asura kings, which also meant the coming together of the followers of the Angirasa and the Bhrigu seers. Yayti’s marriage with the Bhrigu women was perhaps an attempt to reconcile two warring clans.

Yayati divided his kingdom among his five sons: to Tuvasha he gave the south-east; to Druhyu the west; to Yadu the south and west in the Narmada – Godavari region; to Anu the north; and to Puru the centre . Purus ruled as the Supreme Kings of earth.

The ‘Battle of Ten Kings’ (Dasarajna) described in the seventh Mandala of the Rig Veda was fought between the Puru clan and the Turvasha/Druhyu/Anu clans. The Kings involved in the Battle: Puru, Turvasha, Druhyu and Anu were all sons of Yayati.

4.4. The episode of ‘the eight hundred horses’ which we are now discussing mentions the hitherto un-named daughter of Yayati – Madhavi (but, her mother’s name is not mentioned).

Further, the Sukta No. 179  having three verses in  the Tenth Mandala of Rig Veda invoking Indra, is jointly ascribed to the three sons of Madhavi:

  • the first is Sibi the son of Ushinara (prathamo ushinarah Sibihi –  शिबिरौशीनरः );
  • the second Pratardana King of Kashi (dwithiyo kasirajah Pratardanaha- प्रतर्दनः काशिराजः); and,
  • the third Vasumanasa son of Rauhidasva (thrithiyasha Rauhidashwo Vasumana rishihi – वसुमना रौहिदश्वः) .

In this Sukta, Haryasva   is named as Rauhidasva.

Mantra Rig 10.179.001 ;  Mantra Rig 10.179.002  ;  Mantra Rig 10.179.003 ]

Madhavi’s story surfaces in Mahabharata. But she belongs to the very far-away pre-Vedic period. That is the reason I regard her story as of very ancient times.

5.1. As regards Visvamitra, there were many kings and sages who went by that name. Visvamitra who appears in the Madhavi-story may not be the same as the one who figures in the third Mandala of Rig Veda who envisioned the celebrated Gayatri Mantra; or the Visvamitra of Aitareya Brahmana, the adopted father of Sunashepa; or the father of Shakuntala; or even the quick-tempered sage in the Harischandra story.

5.2. This Visvamitra of Kanyakubja in the Madhavi-story may not also be the Visvamitra of Ramayana epic. Because, in the linage of kings (according to Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Puranas ; Vol 1 to Vol 5 by Swami Parameshwarananada ; page 187) Rama , son of Dasaratha comes almost fifty generations after Haryasva the King of Ayodhya , the father of  Vasumanasa . Some names of the kings have either gone missing or are unclear.

[ Haryasva – Vasumanasa – Sudhanva – Tridhanva (Tirvashana ) – Satyavrata (Trisanku) – Harischandra – Rohitasva – Harita – Chanchu – Sudeva – Bharuka – Bahuka – Sagara – Asamanjasa – Amsuman – Bhagiratha – Srutanabha – Vedhasa – Para – Nabhaga – Ambarisha – Sindhudweepa – Ayutayus – Rtuparna – Sarvakama – Sudasa – Mitrasakha (Kalmasapada ) – Asmaka – Mulaka – Khatvariga – Dilipa (Dlrghabariu) – Raghu – Aja – Dasaratha – Rama ].

Please also see the chart at the bottom of this blog.

You may click here for its complete and enlarged version for tracing the line of kings from Manu to Ikshvaku to   Mahabharata

Question of feminism

6.1. The Madhavi episode is roundly criticized in the recent times as being insensitive to a woman’s feelings, depriving her of any inner space or desire, and wiping out her very individuality as a person. She is robbed of any control over her life. Horses, it appeared, were valued more than women. And women were given away to get hold of good horses, which is shocking.    Madhavi is led just as a cow from one male to the other, traded for horses, impregnated and each time leaving behind her newborn. At the end, she is neither a wife nor a mother – despite having lived with four men and delivering to four boys.

That is a valid view, up to a point.

7.1. There is also an alternate view which is based in a field of study called Hermeneutics. It speaks of understanding a text by placing it in the context of its times and the society in which it was located; appreciating the cultural and social forces that might have influenced its outlook. Which is to say: before we impose our own set of perceptions or apply our the present-day standards of the rights and privileges accorded to women in our society, in order to judge Madhavi, lets pause and place her story in the context of her times and the norms that were evolved and accepted by that society in the environment of its own life patterns.

7.2. There is nothing lewd about the episode, by the manner it is depicted in the Epic. Everyone here is earnest, attempting to live honestly with a pious intent: Galava to fulfil his obligation to his teacher; Yayati to discharge his duty as the King providing for the needy who comes to him seeking help; and, Madhavi considers her   filial duty to save her father from disgrace; and in the process   to assist a dedicated student to fulfil his promise to his teacher, and to rescue of royal lines from dynastic extinction. And, she herself, in all her earnestness, suggests the arrangement of her exchange for horses.

7.3. The kings who figure in her life did not consider their relation with Madhavi as scandalous. The society in which she lived treated her with great respect. Her sons who were aware of their birth antecedents proudly called themselves the sons of Madhavi. The fact that they were the sons of the common wife of four kings did not prevent them from succeeding to thrones of their fathers. In fact, Sibi and Ashtaka were made kings by preference over the sons of their fathers’ individual wives

7.4. When her sons met her again after they had grown into fine young men, they greeted their mother with great reverence: “those monarchs saluted her and bowed down to her ‘O the abode of asceticism (tapodhane) , instruct us all thy sons, what command of yours shall we obey’ ”.

mādhavīṃ prekṣya rājānas te ‘abhivādyedam abruvan/kim āgamanakṛtyaṃ te kiṃ kurvaḥ śāsanaṃ tava/ājñāpyā hi vayaṃ sarve tava putrās tapodhane /  (Udyog, 119; 2)

Madhavi introduces herself to her father, at the hour of his need, as his daughter (duhitā ), a forest – dweller (mṛgacāriṇī) – ahaṃ te duhitā rājan Mādhavī mṛgacāriṇī .  Andat her command, her four sons help their grandfather Yayati  to ascend to heaven, again.

“It was thus that those daughter’s sons born in four royal lines, those multipliers of their races, by means of their virtues, sacrifices, and gifts, caused their maternal grandfather to ascend again to heaven. And those monarchs jointly said, ‘Endued with the attributes of royalty and possessed of every virtue, we are, O king, thy daughter’s sons! By virtue of our good deeds, ascend thou to heaven. ” (Mbh:  Udyoga Parva; section 122)

Yayati_ascend_to_Heaven (1)

7.5. Madhavi’s character, as I see it, is invested with a certain air of dignity. She had been true to her independent nature, fulfilling her womanhood in a manner she found appropriate in the given circumstances. Her unsullied and detached attitude to her unique encounters with four men perhaps defines her ‘virgin’ status. At the end of the episode she exercises her choice without disgust, rancor or regret; and retires into the woods.

8.1. The social ethos, the concept of marriage, the status and the treatment of women reflected in the Madhavi-story belong to those very ancient pre-Vedic times (perhaps older than 2,500 BC).They pre-date the Mahabharata – event period by several centuries. The society did not remain static during those centuries. It went through a prolonged process of evolution. The Rig Veda period that followed Madhavi’s time marked a watershed; and its society was in transformation.

Further, the Mahabharata-society was far different from the Vedic society. The values, norms and idioms of social conduct changed not merely during those centuries but also during the course of the Mahabharata story. You find in the Epic, each stage evolving into its next phase.

That is the reason the social values as reflected in early parts of the Epic are far different from those at its end-parts. Which in turn, were indeed much different from the customs that came into vogue at later times.

Those differences should not be seen as contradictions or aberrations, but be understood as marking changes in the evolution or the flow of the Indian society.

It is interesting, how the perceptions and values change in a society over long periods. They are usually born out of interactions between responses and challenges or demands of the times

On certain issues, the Pre-Vedic and Vedic women enjoyed a kind of liberty and social approval which was not available to the subsequent generations of women. And, some of the liberties of the Madhavi-period are not available to the present-day Indian women.

8.2. Generally, Mahabharata depicts a steady degradation or degeneration of what was once a cohesive society that cherished liberal values. The society in the early period of Mahabharata was more open than our present day society. But, as the Epic stepped into its later generations, the views and values got rigid. That downward trend, sadly, continued for long centuries (we shall come back to this theme later).

Question of recurring virginity

9.1. Madhavi mentions that she is gifted with a boon by virtue of which she will regain her virginity each time after she gives birth to a child (kanyaiva tvam bhavishyasi : Mbh.5.114.11).

Such wondrous instances of  women retaining or regaining  their maidenhood are found elsewhere in Mahabharata.

Satyavathi cajoled Sage Parashara into promising “when you have done me this favour you shall become a maiden again (garbham utsrijya mamakam . . . kanyaiva tvam bhavishyasi; Mbh: 1.105.13)”. She again (punar) became a virgin after giving birth to Vyasa.

 Kunti also became a maid each time after delivering to a son (punar eva tu kanyabhavam; Mbh: 15. 30.16).

Both Satyavathi and Kunti gained that unique faculty through boons conferred on them by the sages.

9.2. Draupadi too, despite having five husbands and bearing five sons, is regarded as a knaya – a maid or a virgin- emerging chaste like polestar after each encounter :  the lovely one with glorious waist , the very mighty one , at the end of each day shall become a maid again’(Mbh: 1.197.14) .

Kunti describes Draupadi to Krishna as sarva-dharmopa-carinam (the one who promotes or cultivates all virtues), in the very term used by Yayati to describe Madhavi while gifting her to Galava.

10.1. Obviously, virginity was regarded very precious in the Epics .Only a few virtuous women were blessed with the faculty of retaining or regaining maidenhood. Similar notions of valuing virgin –status exist in other religions too.

For instance; virginity is a recurring theme in the Bible which looks upon the mother of Jesus as a virgin. In Judaism there is much discussion about the virgins in the temples.

And, Islam too believes that a man who enters paradise will be received by 72 virgins.

The Shakta-Tantra cult worships virgin as a complete person who has the ‘whole potential of the total-human being’ (combination of Shiva and Shakthi); and, as the untapped source of life-energy, the ‘holding back of the potential procreative power’.

10.2. The treatment of virginity in the older texts is again a much contested issue. Many have argued that such notions of continued or restored maidenhood were evidently moral or legal fictions invented, at a later period, merely to disguise the murky cases of promiscuity, free license or strange relations that were neither rape nor adultery. Or, at best, it might have been a self-deceiving, make-believe reflexes or opinions, reluctant to accept the stark fact.

10.3. The classic view of the scholars, however, converged on the understanding that virginity in those contexts does not refer to the state of their bodies but to the state of their being. It was said; virginity here does not refer to the physical condition but to the unsullied mind and attitude of those remarkable women. It is a state distinguished by purity, detachment and independence.

It is explained; when these women in Mahabharata, who knew more than one man and bore children, were respected by the ancients as kanyas, that was meant to suggest  they were psychologically pure and untainted. Those women learnt to sublimate their ego. And yet, they were independent women enjoying an identity of their own.

Therefore, the status of Kanya also referred to the way they fiercely asserted their independence. Each one of those does whatever had to be done out of a sense of duty; and she is true to herself and to her nature. Each one’s life was authentic.

10.4. A common feature among the kanyas of Mahabharata is that they all had to endure countless difficulties. And, yet these ‘women of substance’ were not broken down by personal tragedies. Each went on to live with a certain pride around her. But, there was a sense of loneliness that surrounded them despite being placed amidst their men and offspring.

11.1. And, that is echoed by M. Esther Harding who writes in Woman’s Mysteries [Rider, 1971, p. 125- 126]

“the woman who is psychologically virgin is not dependent; she is what she is because that is what she is … (she is) one-in-herself (and) does what she does not because of any desire to please, not to be liked or to be approved even by herself but because what she does is true. Her actions may, indeed, be unconventional “.

M. Esther Harding again makes a telling observation:

“He does not know the difference before love and after love, before motherhood and after motherhood…Only a woman can know that and speak of that. …She must always be as her nature is. She must always be maiden and always be mother. Before every love she is a maiden, after every love she is a mother.”

She elsewhere while talking of purity of love says “Every Mother is a virgin. She is pure in love to her child. Every child comes out of pure love”.

11.2. How well this illustrates Madhavi’s life and her experiences with men. The disinterested series of marriages and childbearing came about as a necessity. She looked upon it as her filial duty to save her father from disgrace; as assistance to an earnest student to fulfil his promise to his teacher; and as rescue of royal lines from dynastic extinction.


Question of Motherhood

12.1. In the Epic, Draupadi had to live with five men, while Kunti had to endure momentary involvements; and the case of Madhavi lies somewhere in between the two. Madhavi had to live with four men; but, in succession, each for about nine months. The significant difference among the three was their motherhood.

12.2. Kunti treated with much respect in the Epic is projected as heroic mother who protected and guided her children on the right path.

In the case of Draupadi the mother of five sons, sadly, there is not much discussion in the Epic about her motherhood. Her five sons are mere names of the boys who appear on the scene very late in the Epic, only to be slaughtered while asleep. They perhaps lived their childhood and brief adolescence in Panchala under the care of their maternal uncle and grandfather while Draupadi was in exile serving her five husbands. It is particularly sad that her husbands  could neither protect her well nor offer her the honour and respect that a woman should have as a wife and a mother. All that they succeeded was in making her a Queen.


12.3. Madhavi could not be a wife and a mother, in true sense. She had to be a mother ‘technically’. Each tine after a childbirth, she is separated from the infant’s father; and she has also no opportunity to nurse the infant, to care for him and bring him up to manhood. The emphasis of her life seems to be elsewhere. Her detachment is not by choice; but forced upon her by circumstances.

13.1. There are instances in the Epic of women giving up their newborn, of their own freewill, as in the case of Ganga (Bhishma), Satyavati (Vyasa), Kunti (Karna) and the Apsaras: Urvashi (Ayu) and Menaka (Shakuntala).There are also instances of women who were denied motherhood because their offspring were snatched away from them.

The most well-known of such tragic cases is Devaki who was forced to surrender all her newborn. It is not Devaki but Yashodha the foster mother of Krishna that is celebrated in songs and legends as the very icon of loving motherhood.

 In that sense, Madhavi is closer to Devaki than to the other women of Mahabharata.

14.1. Motherhood and mothering are seen as naturally related. Bringing forth a new life, its protection and nurturing are functions that only womankind can perform. The motherhood is essential for human survival and development. Motherhood is also of profound importance in family structure; that is to say in holding a family together, in building relations within and outside of the family, and in providing stability to life . And these functions are also central to female existence; it involves her body, mind and heart. She, often, regards motherhood as the fulfilment of her life. There is, naturally, enormous reverence, devotion and gratitude to Mother and motherhood.

14.2. Paradoxically, her maternal functions, her life-giving and life-sustaining responsibilities are taken for granted and often undervalued. And, these responsibilities have tied down the woman, excluded her from authority and role in public life. Added to these are the countless taboos on women during menstruation and pregnancy.

14.3. In the case of Madhavi, Devaki and others like them, being ‘mother’ is distinct from motherhood. Some regard that as tragic, because they were deprived of an essential and a most endearing aspect of woman’s life. There are also those who see no reason to be unhappy about such situation; because they view it as the sort of liberation that the women have been searching for.

partnernhm (1)

Question of Many husbands

15.1. As said earlier, Kunti need not have to live with the gods who provided her with sons. But, Draupadi had to live with five husbands all her life. Madhavi had to live with four men; but, in succession, each for about nine months.  Draupadi’s husbands were brothers; and that helped to maintain and strengthen fraternal unity among the Pandavas. While in the case of Madhavi, her men were unconnected and unrelated, excepting that all the four were kings.

15.2. The polyandrous relations that Madhavi and Draupadi had to endure have been much discussed. These two women lived in different eras and were separated by several centuries. In the Pre- Vedic times during which Madhavi lived, polyandry might not have been unusual. But, Draupadi’s polyandry wedding/s was definitely a strange and a startling feature of the then Mahabharata society.

In the long list of the Pandava- ancestors there was no instance of polyandry. Draupadi’s marriage with five brothers did not, therefore, take place in accordance with the then prevailing custom or its old tradition. But, it came about as an extraordinary and an exceptional event.  Later in the Epic, her adversaries miss no opportunity to taunt, ridicule and humiliate her for being the wife of many men.

15.3. Yudhishtira’s proposal asking for Draupadi as the wife of all the five brothers came as rude shock to Drupada, Draupadi’s father; and it almost felled him.  He cried out it in anguish:  it is such an unheard of adharma   and is totally against the normal the codes of behaviour (lokadharma viruddham).

Yet, Yudhishtira attempts to clear Drupada’s bewilderment by lamely citing Vedic instances of Marisha-Varkshi (vārkī hy eā varā kanyā: a girl raised by the trees) mother of Daksha married to the ten Prachetas brothers; and of Jatila (nee Gautami) the spouse of seven sages. Drupada is now more confused because those instances were ancient and not many had heard of those.

Then, sage Vyasa the   biological father of Pandu (who was the de jure father of the Pandavas) steps in and convinces Drupada. Vyasa   succeeds in his attempt, not by reason or logic, but by narrating events from Draupadi’s previous birth/s. Drupada nonplussed, gives in.

[In the same episode, Sage Vyasa, in an attempt to convince the beleaguered Drupada, narrates the story of the most beautiful and virtuous Bhaumāśvī, the daughter of King Sibi of great fame and immense valor. Bhaumāśvī, the best and most auspicious among women, gifted with a sweet voice, melodious as the notes of the Veena. At her Svayamvara, the five valorous sons of the great King Nitantu (Salveya, Srutasena, Surasena, Tindusara and Atisara), bulls among kings, endowed with all good qualities and famous wielders of the bow, all fell desperately in love with the most enchanting Bhaumāśvi.

Ultimately, the five brothers married her, And, Bhaumāśvi as their common wife bore five most heroic sons. And, their descendants gained fame as: Salveyaas, Surasenas, Srutasenas, Tindusaras and Atisaras

In this manner, listen Oh Great King, Bhaumasvi, celebrated on earth as the most virtuous woman   became the common wife for five of Kings.

In the same manner,  your daughter of divine form, the blameless Parshati, Krishnaa is destined to be the wife of five Pandavas. 

etān naitantavān pañca śaibyā cātra svayaṃvare / avāpa sā patīn vīrān bhaumāśvī manujādhipān / vīṇeva madhurārāvā gāndhāra-svaramūrcchitā / uttamā sarva-nārīṇāṃ bhaumāśvī hy abhavat tadā /   yasyā naitantavāḥ pañca patayaḥ kṣatriyar-ṣabhāḥ /   babhūvuḥ pṛthivīpālāḥ sarvaiḥ samuditā guṇaiḥ – 01,189.049d@101_0008 -0013

As per Unabridged Southern Editions Of Mahabharata...Kumbakonam Edition]

16.1. It appears that polyandry was a relic of the Pre-Vedic era that was linked to ancient Sumer (c.2900 BCE). Rig Veda period, which represents an age of transition, was an open society which fully appreciated the virtues of marriage. The marriage was sanctified with due rituals and ceremony. There is no passage in Rig Veda clearly referring to the custom of polyandry. The practice was known; but mentioned mostly with reference to certain gods. Johann Jacob Meyer in his Sexual Life in Ancient India (Barnes & Noble, inc 1953) remarks (page 108)

“As is well known the polygamy of the man in Aryan India is as old as the hills and does not form the slighted offence in the Brahmanic system, although since Vedic times, indeed, one wife is seen to be the usual, often the obvious thing. On the other hand, polyandry is utterly repugnant to Indian feelings, and in the Epic only one or two cases of it are found, and these are exclusively cases of a community of wives among brothers”.

16.2. The earliest known evidence of polyandry refers to the twins Aswins (Nasatya) who represent the pre-Vedic horsemen known for swiftness and ability to heal. Rig Veda also refers to Rodasi of disheveled hair as Sadharani the common wife of the Maruts: ‘The Maruts cling to their young and radiant wife who belongs to them all’ (RV.1.167.4); ‘ride upon their chariot with winged steeds; the youths have set the maiden wedded to glory’ (RV.1.167.6). The Aswins and the Maruts are gods or mythical figures; and not men of the living society. Such references are inoffensive not scandalous.

According to Dr. Subimal Chandra Sarkar (Some aspects of the earliest social history of India – pre Buddihistic ages; 1924) it is best understood as the relic of a gradually disused custom transformed into allegories. Dr Sarkar also observes “The practice of polyandry is generally supposed to be un-Vedic; and clear evidences are not found in the Vedic texts”. Yet, he feels such imagery of Aswins and the Maruts were evidently inspired by polyandric – traits that must have existed in the past.

Madhavi’s story has therefore to be placed in the context of pre-Vedic times.

17.1. The instances that Yudhishtira mentions, those of Jatila and Varksi are indeed very ancient; and not much is known about these women. They are very rare incidents. In Aitareya Brahmana , a post Vedic text, attached to Rig Veda , there is a distinct prohibition against a wife having more than one husband at a time (AB: 2.23) .

By the time of Mahabharata, the polyandry as a cultural trait had fallen into disuse and was largely discredited. It was also not in vogue at the time of the Buddha (600 BCE).

The Dharma-shastras too do not speak of polyandry. Thus, even in the earliest times of which we have evidence, polyandry had become rare and discredited. It was not considered ‘respectable’ in the Madyadesha, the heartland of Vedic and Buddhist religions.

17.2. According to Dr. Sarkar, the practice of polyandry lingered among the Tribal communities in the Western Sub-Himalaya belts and among as also among the Tibet-Burma tribes. 

As regards Tibet, according to Melvyn C. Goldstein, professor of anthropology at Case Western University, in Natural History (vol. 96, no. 3, March 1987, pp. 39-48) , the practice is tied with limited tillable land, inadequate labor force and the skewed ratio of male -female. The custom  of polyandry occurs in many different economic classes, but is especially common in peasant landowning families.

But, it has been on steady decline; though it is occasionally still practiced.

Question of Women

18.1. In the stories through which the Mahabharata speaks of life, women occupy a central position. It is the women who take decisions, direct the course of events and decide the fate of men and their generations to follow. The women are the true leaders of the Epic. The three women (Satyavathi, Kunti and Draupadi) in particular wielded power, in more ways than one. Mahabharata is interwoven with their remarkable sagacity in exercise of power and leadership. They knew when and how to wield power; and more importantly, when not to slam it. These women demonstrated that the truly powerful do not have to cling to the seat of power, but can still influence the course of events.

[When you come to think of it ; the tragedy of the Kauravas was that their helpless mother Gandhari was unable to exert her influence upon her wayward children.]

18.2. One of the other ways of looking at Mahabharata is to view it as a reflection of the flow of woman’s life. The narrations in the early part of the Epic indicate that the women enjoyed a greater degree of freedom, were invested with authority to take decisions on crucial matters, and were accorded much respect. We have seen how Madhavi could preserve her independence; and exercise a measure of freedom of thought and action in a manner that was unique to her times.

Later, coming down to the core Epic, you find Ganga and Satyavati married on conditions they imposed and insisted upon. Satyavati the fisher-maid could upset the dynamics of the royalty. She prevailed upon her husband to ensure that only her progenies succeeded to the throne. Kunti and Madri could take their decisions independently on crucial matters. Kunti, in particular, exercised control and actively directed the lives of her sons. She could command a sort of respect and obedience that Gandhari the queen could not secure from sons.

18.3.   As the Epic steps into its middle and later stages when Kunti recedes to background and Draupadi   enters the lives of the Pandavas there is a noticeable erosion in the power and influence of women. The women in the Epic are no longer respected as they once were. The esteem of women plummeted to its nadir with the most brazen act of wagering Draupadi at a gambling game of dice, which led to   insult and humiliation of her womanhood in a public place. Thereafter, the women cease to play any significant role; they are treated rather coarsely and almost reduced to objects of pity.

Draupadi as a woman and mother is dealt a most grievous and mortal blow when her sons are slaughtered while asleep alongside her.   At the end, Draupadi the prime heroine of the Epic is left to die unattended as she stumbles and falls on mountain slopes while none of her five husbands cares to stay with her or to help her.

19.1. Thus, Mahabharata depicts a steady degradation of woman’s status, erosion of her authority, and degeneration of her esteem. That worsening downward trend, sadly, continued for long centuries. Let’s talk of this in bit more detail.

19.2. When Pandu attempted to force his wife Kunti to beget children for him by soliciting a worthy stranger, she recoiled in horror and flatly refused, screaming “not even in touch will I be embraced by another”. Pandu eventually succeeded in gaining her acceptance by cajoling and reasoning with her after narrating to her the sanctioned customs of the Uttara-kuru, Northern Kurus:

“Now will I make known to thee the true essence of dharma, listen unto me the ancient dharma perceived by the lofty-minded knowers of it (atha tv imaṃ pravakṣyāmi dharmaṃ tv etaṃ nibodha me – Adi Parva – 01,113.003). In former times, as is well known, women were left unhindered (anavrita)- anāvṛtāḥ kila purā striya āsan varānane; O thou of the lovely face, going the way of their desires, in freedom they followed their own inclinations.  (kāma cāra vihāriṇyaḥ svatantrāś cārulocane),

O sweet-smiling one, neither man nor woman knew jealousy (Irshya nasti nari- nara- naam); and, were free from fear, excessive attachment and anger.   When they, from the years of maidenhood on, did trick their husbands; that was not seen as wrong. But, that was the right thing in former times. 

This was the moral order laid down by the rule of conduct; it was honoured by the great Rishis through observance, and to-day is still honored among the Uttara-kurus –

purāṇadṛṣṭo dharmo ‘yaṃ pūjyate ca maharṣibhiḥ uttareṣu ca rambhoru kuruṣv adyāpi vartate / strīṇām anugraha-karaḥ sa hi dharmaḥ sanātanaḥ – Adi parva – 01,113.006.

For, this is the eternal law that shows favour to women. But, sadly, the barrier of to-day was set up in our world short while ago.  Learn this now, O brightly-smiling one, from me “.

He then narrates the bizarre story of Svethakethu son of the Rishi Uddalaka; and, the circumstance that prompted Svethakethu to bring into effect the new moral order of conduct for woman and man, replacing the ancient law under which the women were unhindered (anavrita)   .

“Until then, women were not restricted to the house, they were not dependent on family members; they moved about freely, they enjoyed themselves freely. Until then they  were free; they could sleep with any men they liked from the age of puberty; they could be  unfaithful to their husbands, and yet were not viewed  sinful… the greatest rishis have praised the ancient  tradition-based custom;… the Northern Kurus still practice it…the new custom is very recent.” (Mbh: Adi Parva; 113.4-8)

19.3. During the Vedic ages, the women were generally not discriminated against merely on the grounds of gender. They did have their say in matters of education; marriage; re-marriage; managing the household and the property. Many women engaged in intellectual pursuits, participation in public debate; and many were teachers. There were also few instances of women on the battlefield fighting along with their men folk.

I am not suggesting that the Vedic society was a perfect one. I wonder if there ever was a perfect society. Even Plato’s idealized Utopia was not perfect. Rig Vedic society too suffered from poverty, destitution, slavery and exploitation of the weak. But, the sorrows and suffering that the women of those times had to endure in their day- to-day living were not for the mere reason they were women. The depravity, social evil and injustice do exist in all societies – modern or otherwise- just as the strong, affluent, educated, enlightened, independent and liberated women do exist in all societies. The Vedic society was as good or bad as any other society of its time; but it appeared to be a tolerant and moderately unbiased society.

20.1. What happened after the Buddhist period, particularly after 300 BCE, was a totally different story. Woman lost the high status and some of her independence she once enjoyed in society. She became a piece of property, an object to be protected.

The period after 300 B.C witnessed a succession of invasions and influx of foreigners such as the Greeks, the Scythians, the Parthian, the Kushans and others. The political misfortunes, the war atrocities followed by long spells of anarchy and lawlessness had a disastrous effect on the Indian society. Fear and insecurity haunted common people and the householders. Sons were valued higher than the daughters because of the need for more fighting males in order to survive waves of onslaughts. It was also imperative to protect women from abductors. It therefore became necessary to curtail women’s freedom and movements’; and confining them within limited spaces. Early marriage was employed as a part of those defensive measures. The education of the girl child was no longer a priority, as was her safety.

20.2. The   Dharmashastras came into prominence at the time when the orthodox society was under dire threat and when it was fighting for survival. The society had entered into an inward looking self preservation – mode. The severity of the Dharmashastras was perhaps a defensive mechanism, in response to the threats and challenges thrown at its pet social order. The Shastras compromised social values by accepting early marriage as a substitute for Upanayanam and education of girls. The neglect of education, imposing seclusion and paranoid sense of insecurity that gripped their lives had disastrous consequences upon the esteem and status of women. The society in turn sank into depravity.

The social conditions deteriorated rapidly during the medieval period.

21.1. The long centuries stretching to almost 2000 years – from 300 B.C. to 1800 A.D. – are truly the dark ages of India. The development of woman steadily stuttered though she was affectionately nurtured by the parents, loved by the husband and cared by her children.

21.2. Now, it is the time of reawakening. Women of India are beginning to get opportunities to establish their identity and be recognized for their potential, talent and capabilities. This is a good re-beginning; though there is still a long way to go. The process must improve both in terms of its spread and quality. The ancient principles of equal opportunities for learning and development; equitable position in work-place; and the right to seek out her destiny with honor, must soon find place in all segments of the society. It might sound like asking for the moon. But, that is the only option India is left with, if it has to survive as a nation…and, if only the opportunities and freedom are utilized sensibly.


[You may click here for its complete and enlarged version for tracing the line of kings from Manu to Ikshvaku to   Mahabharata ]


References and Sources

1.Some aspects of the earliest social history of India –pre Buddihistic ages (1924)   by Dr. Subimal Chandra Sarkar.

2. Sexual Life in Ancient India (Barnes & Noble, inc 1953) by Johann Jacob Meyer.

3. Polyandry in Ancient India (1988) by Dr. Sarva Daman Singh

4. A Social History of India (2009) by Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya

5.The story of Yayati’s daughter Madhavi in the Udyoga Parvam

The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, Volume 3 Books 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12

6. Apropos Epic Women: East & West 




Posted by on October 10, 2012 in Madhavi, Mahabharata


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Bijaya Ghosh’s Book – A Child and A War

I am delighted that Bijaya Ghosh’s long wait has ended. And,  her  novel  A Child and A War is eventually published. Though she has to her credit many published short stories in Bengali as also some in English, this is her first novel published in English. This came about neither easily nor quickly. She had considerable difficulty in finding a publisher. She did have to endure pain and frustration caused by repeated rejections. After seven years of wait her Book was   finally published in February 2012 by Samatat Prakashan, Kolkata, a prestigious Bengali publishing House. Samatat   is ‘an inter-disciplinary’ Bengali quarterly magazine providing, as it says, ‘a common ground or meeting place where people with different pursuits can converse’. And, Samatat, basically, prefers to publish in Bengali; but it does occasionally publish in English if the work is of merit and quality. And, Bijaya Ghosh’s Book is one of such rare kind.

The person who discovered and encouraged Bijaya Ghosh is none other than Shri Arghya Kusum Dattagupta the doyen of Bengali literary magazines, the grand-old publisher of Samatat. He, incidentally, is the younger brother of one of India’s top Economists, the Late Dr.   Amlan Datta (1924-2010), known for his lucid style of writing. Among Dr. Datta’s many admirers was Albert Einstein who in July 1953 wrote expressing his pleasure and appreciation on reading his work. I am happy for Bijaya Ghosh. She eventually found a worthy publisher. Both deserve to be congratulated.

A Child and A War fulfils a long felt need. It brings focus on that side of the painful issue that is often sidelined or glossed over. Most Books written about the torturous birth pangs of Bangladesh  paint , exclusively,  the horrific pictures of  the reign of terror and  atrocities unleashed by the  Pakistani Military in East Pakistan; the popular upsurge and underground resistance  aided by India ; and , the inevitable the political manoeuvres associated with thebirth of a new nation. But, few have written about the plight, fears and near-death-experiences suffered by the hapless minority Hindu families of East Pakistan caught in the cauldron of avenging Pakistani army, pro-establishment Muslim League and anti-establishment Awami League supporters. They were a beleaguered island unto themselves amidst a circle of fire.

Bijaya Ghosh’s Book fills that gap, to some extent.

As regards the Book;  A Child and A War is a remarkably candid account of the birth pangs of Bangladesh and the unenviable plight of the hapless Hindu minority families stranded in East Pakistan , caught amidst  bloodthirsty warring groups .

In Bijaya Ghosh’s Book A Child and A War, the horrific events triggered by   the confusing mêlée of freedom struggle, sabotage, fear, greed and ruthless oppression    are narrated as seen   through the eyes of a free-spirited sensitive girl of eleven just stepping into adolescence. The girl belonging to a traditional Hindu family witness and experiences a full lifetime compressed into those ten horrid months. She has grown wise beyond her years.

Though the story is told in the first person and the events are part of history, it should not be taken as autobiographical. The little girl who witnessed and experienced the traumatic events symbolically reflects the collective experiences of all the minority Hindu families who went through the ordeal during the ten harrowing months of the year 1971.

During those horrific ten months, countless Hindu families uprooted from their homes, rendered destitute and robbed of their possessions fled from one village to another clutching their pathetic household essentials, tagging along the aged , the infirm and the little ones, crossing streams at night by stealth, seeking shelter   and food at strange places . But, all the while they were under the threat and mercy of roaming bands of Razakars or the freedom-forces. They could neither live in East Pakistan the land of their birth, nor could they crossover to India the promised land. They are now refugees in the land of their birth; and have also to be weary of exploitation by the unscrupulous hordes that run the new-found but thriving business of refugee-transportation. Many young women and children perished in the cross-fire. But, the girl in the story lived to recount the travails of her family. Bijaya lives through the girl’s spirited character.

A Child and A War is remarkable for its insight into the complex and uneasy love-hate relationship between the majority Muslims and minority Hindus, perched precariously, hanging against the backdrop of the complicated socio-political unrest and civil war of 1971. It is also about how the external pressures deepen the fissures in the already brittle family bonds. The Book is enlivened with wealth of intimate details in the day-to-day living, rituals, customs and beliefs in the lives of Hindu and Muslim rural families of the then East Pakistan . The petty rivalries, false pride, irrational  prejudices and  sham hypocrisies; the dynamics of their play within the family; and how they tend to color ones outlook and decisions even in desperate circumstances lend liveliness to true-to-life events in the story. The intimate family relations, bonding, little pleasures and agonies of shared living in cramped make-shift dwellings; mutual commitments; and betrayals are pictured poignantly. The private world of dreams, fantasies and fears of a girl just awakening to life but placed in strange and stringent circumstances are painted with great sensitivity and imagination; tinted with slight humor in playful writing.

The sharply drawn sketches of countless minor characters bring to fore , how during dire times the caste- religion ridden obsessions fueled by fear, mistrust, insecurity, greed and long suppressed hatred can take on monstrous forms and dig deep chasms between men and women who for centuries have shared a common land and its heritage . In an atmosphere poisoned by fear and mistrust, the unstable communities descend into anarchy. And, each household turns into a fortress, as it begins to suspect even the ordinary looking mild faced neighbour to be the next enemy intent on robbing its every meagre possession. The women in the family and the vulnerable young daughters are now, suddenly, the gravest source of one’s anxiety and fear. To protect them from threats and violation is now the utmost concern of the parents. The trust, the faith and mutual regard among men is dead buried.

There are also instances of ordinary men and women clutching their hearts in their hands, stepping out of their limited spheres, risking their lives to lend shelter, food and sympathy to beleaguered Hindu families.

There are of course the inevitable double-faced community leaders who go to any extent in order to gain even a slightest advantage. It is man’s inhumanity to man, at its worst

The story, though it revolves around strife, mistrust, fear, greed and violence, is truly about the triumph of human spirit. It is about very common and very ordinary people fighting the extraordinary and overwhelming circumstances far beyond the realm of their control, with rare courage and fortitude. There is a certain air of dignity and honesty around them even while they are robbed of their possessions and placed in poorest circumstances. They do eventually rise above the miseries mounting upon them, triumph over adversities and emerge smiling slightly, rather nervously, though a bit bruised and a bit tired.

Amidst the deluge of threats, insecurity and hopelessness, the two that guard and guide the family are:  the gentle, thoughtful and almost self-effacing Baba the father; and Maa the mother.

The Mother is indeed the true ‘Hero’ of the story. She symbolizes the spirit of sanity, courage and sacrifice .She is the very centre of life. It is she who holds the family together and attempts to bring order into chaos. She instils hope as also a sense of purpose into an otherwise scattered family desperate for survival.

Incidentally, none of the characters bears a name. Each is known or addressed by his/her pet-name  or by the relation he/she  bears to the main character.

A Child and a War is a well written Book; a fruit of honesty and love. It deserves a wider readership.

I wish someone renders A Child And A War into Bangla.


The story

Kanya in her review dated 25 April 2012 has very well summed up the story of A Child And A War. Please check the  link provided in the ‘comments’ page.

The story starts in March of 1971, when after the failure of negotiation between the Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Sheikh Muziboor Rahman, the Pakistani Military cracks its whip of oppression on unsuspecting Bengali population. A Khulna- based (third largest city of Bangladesh) Hindu family takes it to be a passing phase and goes to live with an influential relative at a subdivision town, Bagerhat. Here, the political movement takes the shape of communal riot, where both theirs and their relatives’ home get looted. Unable to predict the course of event, they further move onto the countryside for a temporary respite and get trapped in a remote village- Gotapara. Here they face the organized terror. Some educated elites of the majority community decide to utilize the situation to serve their own purpose and unleash an all out offensive against the group of hapless Hindus. Another spree of looting and torture takes them to the verge of breaking point. Then the threat of forced conversion stares them in the face. At this juncture, a Muslim youth comes forward and takes control of the situation. Risking his life, he rescues the family and supports them throughout the troubled period. To evade the Razakars (Supporter of Pakistani military regime), they keep changing place and live under the protection of some very poor Muslim families. As situation turns grave, they make an attempt for India. The father could have a safe escape but the boat carrying mother and children runs in trouble. Because of a skirmish between  Mukti Bahini (underground freedom army of Bangladesh) and Razakar, the border security is suddenly tightened and the boatman after extorting their last penny leaves them at a border village. For eleven days, the family leaves under charity of a total stranger and incidentally comes back with an intention to live at their own house at Khulna. Here comes the worst moment—they learn and their last asset– the ancestral house was usurped by a lady. The store of gold jewelry gets exhausted —gulping her pride, the mistress- goes to appeal at Martial-law court to claim the house.

During their journey through the unknown territory, they come into contact with various aspects of the movement; the thriving business of refugee migration, the battle between freedom forces and Razakars, finally the war which leads to the liberation of the country.

The story operates at two levels. At one level, it is the story of a Hindu family struggling for survival in a hostile environment. As the political events gather momentum, the reader gets to experience the complicated socio-political changes sparked off by the civil war; The equation of caste and community; the exploitation of uneducated poor Muslims by the educated elites; the suppressed religious and intellectual conflicts.

At another level, it is the story of the mental journey of a free-spirited girl, born in an orthodox minority community. The forced interaction with the other community opens up her mind and she instinctively realizes shortcomings of her own community and hypocrisy of her own family.


A Child And A War by Bijaya Ghosh; Samatat Prakashan; 172, Rash Behari Ghosh Avenue; Sarat Bose Road; Kolkata – 700 029  – (Feb 2012) – Rs.200/Rs.150

Tel. No. 033 – 24665590


Posted by on October 9, 2012 in Books


Tags: , , , ,

The After-story of Teesri

This is a sequel to my earlier post.

Earlier, I posted the story of a girl who came to be tagged with the unlikeliest epithet ‘Teesri’; and of her travails. It was the story of an unenviable girl who once was a proud dreamer with stars in her eyes. Something about her eyes or voice always suggested the hint of a free spirit, trapped in a cage, dreaming of distant love. Given the gift of believing, she for a moment pretended to believe that ‘heaven is never too far’. But, sadly she hitched her fate to a wrong star which was also a fake. And, that little indiscretion loomed large day after day, eclipsed, suffocated and devoured the meaning of her very existence. It mocked at her with a wicked glee; and obliterated the sense of beauty and the pride of being a woman.  She ended up, virtually, as a domestic slave, before she realized the enormity of her blunder. She was robbed of her pleasant ways, hope and joys of the loveliness of tender youth. She hid her face behind a veil and covered her eyes lest any should gaze at her hurt vanity, the bitterness brewing within and the emptiness of it all.

Perhaps, a stronger woman in her place would have known how to keep the priorities of her life in order. With tears in her eyes, she might have smiled rather wryly and managed to say ‘Nah, I am fine ‘; and parted ways with the sinister wisp of the willow that flickers and lures the weary to swamps. Just because she comes off strong it does not mean that her heart doesn’t cry.   But otherwise, don’t we often see beauty and anguish walking hand in hand, leaving behind wisdom twiddling its thumbs.

When I met her years later, the freshness of youth had left her while still young in age; and sobriety had descended on her lined face. I asked her with a blank stare the why of it all. She sighed and said with a slight smile “I know how you look at it.  Yes; there is neither logic nor reason here; do not look for what is not there. I know well my life was bruised and hurt; and my sons were confused searching for identity. Things did not turn out well. But, thanks to all of you I have come out of the maze (bhul bhulayya); I know where I stand and so do my sons.

About the times you are wondering at; let me tell you, as the saying goes, every woman’s heart has different instructions. Sometimes she is glued listening to sound of her voices. In my case, my mind went mute while the heart jabbered on; and my fortune was painted blind….. Let’s leave it at that.

’Don’t be angry at my fallibility. Shall we sit down and talk?’

I cannot truly tell how happy I am to see you again. “


I had not mentioned in my earlier post how Teesri was rescued from her plight; and how she regained herself. And, many, therefore, did remark that I should write about how Teesri was rescued; ‘it’s not fair to hold back’.

I hesitated to post about the ‘rescue act’. Because, I was not sure I could talk about this candidly. I reckon a couple those who figure in the story are still alive. I have no heart to embarrass them.

Then, my friend Dr. Ghosh asked me to get it off my chest before it is too late. Who dares to disobey the wise Doctor?

Well, before I say about the rescue,  let me direct you to the earlier story. Please click here.

As for those who have already read the earlier part, they may safely skip the link and go straight to the ‘rescue’, narrated under.


The rescue of Teesri came about six years after her ‘suicidal’ wedding with her one-time sitar teacher of Mahim.

During those agonizing years many things did happen. Teesri was no longer the chirpy girl she once was. She was by  now a mother of two sons who clung to her for love and protection . She had lived through all those news items which she used to read earlier with half amusement  and suppressed  disbelief . She had by now gone through the ordeal of abuse, exploitation, wife beating etc and had aged by twelve years. She had also kept on working forced by necessity and compulsion.

Haldankar duly chastened had distanced himself from Teesri; and that was not surprising. But, Hem somehow tried to keep track of Teesri’s plight.  I learnt later that Hem’s parents came from East Bengal; and he had seen Hindu girls marrying Muslim men. Teesri’s wedding per se did not disturb him much. But he was truly moved and aghast at her miserable plight; and wanted to help her out in some way or the other. But he lacked the means and the power to rescue her.  Once in a while he would try to broach her subject with me. I admit I was not comfortable with such talk , for there was nothing we could do about her. Besides, each of us had our own miserable existence to wade through. After much persuasion by Hem we somehow got Teesri a better paying job in a National bank.

About Hem’s concern for Teesri, I forgot to mention earlier that sometime after her disastrous wedding, her aged parents came down to Bombay, shocked and clueless. They were indeed very old and she was a daughter they got late in their life; they had done their best to educate her. Since they came from orthodox background they would not dare go into the Muslim ghetto, but stayed with Hem. They were heartbroken to be witness to their daughter’s stupidity. As they helplessly went back to Calcutta (somewhere in Nadia district) they begged Hem to do whatever he could and to put some sense into her thick skull.

Now we are about five years after her fatal error of marrying the wrong person. Hem had kept touch with Teesri. It was now easier as she also worked at a Bank. But things had moved from bad to worse and life had become unbearable for Teesri. She surely would have committed suicide but for her two little sons.

I kept off Hem, saying that she was now a Muslim living in virtual Muslim enclave and it was not only risky and dangerous but also highly improper to interfere with her domestic life, however miserable it might be. Then an idea surfaced, rather reluctantly, that the only way was to recruit the help of a Muslim who was willing and insane enough to help out Teesri.

It was then Abdur Rahman emerged as an answer to Teesri and Hem’s prayers. Rahman, incidentally, was past his middle age, sporting thick mop of long grey hair, with a half-burnt cigarette  perpetually hanging down his lower lip. As he talked to people with a slight cough or wheeze he would peer over the glasses placed precariously at the tip of his nose. At the outset he didn’t seem a very likable person.  Since Rahman worked in our office I could rope him into Operation Teesri (OT) without much effort.

Now, I must say a few more words about Rahman. To say the least, he was a very unusual person I ever befriended. I hardly have come across a more secular Muslim. He had a terribly irreverent attitude towards all religions, alike. He was indeed a hard core communist holding a Red-Card. How he could do that while working in a bank beats me. He spent more time talking to people than on office work. His colleagues would willingly take care of his portion of work. Rahman had of course refused promotions over the years and had chosen to stay as non-transferrable class three employee. But Rahman had developed a wide net work of contacts with the communist workers and labor leaders in Kerala, Bombay and with the underground in Bengal. Through his contacts he had sent his elder daughter to study medicine in the Moscow University; and the other daughter to Ukraine.

After he heard the sad story of Teesri, Rahman agreed to help . But he asked for time, as nothing should be done in a hurry especially in such matters. He instructed all not to interfere or even to talk to him about the subject till he was ready. Now, OT  was entirely in care of Rahman.

I came to know of the following much after it was over:

Rahman through his network systematically gathered information about the happenings in the Khan household:  about the ill-treatment, exploitation and beating of Teesri and the neglect of her sons. He let that spread to all households in the surrounding area through the workers in the Bakery. He enlisted the Dhobi, the milkman, the butcher and such others, regularly visiting the house , as witnesses. This process took about three months.

Thereafter, the first complaint was filed in the Mahim Police Station alleging ill-treatment etc in presence of the local Mullah and the witnesses. Teesri’s husband was summoned, duly reprimanded and warned. At Teesri’s office, based on the complaint filed with the police, an arrangement was worked out to credit 40 % of Teesri’s monthly salary to the Trust account of her minor sons.

Complaints were filed at the Police Station regularly once in two or three months. By after the third complaint, lot of pressure was built upon the Khan household. And, teams of women officials would periodically visit and check the status. I learnt later they were fake-officers tutored by Rahman.

About eight months after the Operation Teesri (OT) started, Rahman met and briefed me about ‘progresses; and asked if it would be possible to transfer Teesri to Calcutta. It took me about one month to arrange for her transfer to the Calcutta branch of her Bank.

About a fortnight thereafter Teesri with bleeding head injuries and cuts on her arms staggered into Bandra Railway Police Station. According to her statement to the Bandra Police while she was alighting the train at the Bandra – East Station she was attacked by her husband and his goons. She said, she somehow had managed to escape and run to the safety of the Station. She also requested for the safety of her sons. By about that time, Rahman and a couple of Bengali families walked into the Bandra Station as if by accident. They graphically narrated to the police the misery of Teesri, as also of the complaints filed with the Mahim police and such other gory details. And, finally the Police along with the family court officials and three Bengali women went into the Khan-house and took charge of Teesri’s sons. The kids were then deposited for care with a Bengali family.

Bandra station incident was immediately followed by Teesri’s hospitalization and her husband’s arrest. She stayed in the hospital for about three weeks while her sons were under the care of the Bengali families. In the mean time, Teesri’s husband obtained bail and later came to know of Teesri’s transfer as also of Rahman and my role .He promptly stormed into my office and shouted at me. It was not difficult to defend myself, as I said that his wife was working at a Bank and not my office:  “I am the wrong tree; bark elsewhere”.

But the bigger difficulty was to follow. Teesri’s husband had come to know that she with her sons would be leaving Bombay for Calcutta from Bombay Central on a Saturday evening. The Bombay Central that evening was a virtual battle field. Rahman’s Party workers, labor union from the Railway Coolies and some Bengali families had thronged to the station .The Police had been informed earlier. Teesri’s husband did not disappoint any. He marched into the Station along with about 25-30 Muslim young men shouting, screaming and waving long knives. That was followed by scuffles, fist fights and knife thrusts between Teesri’s protectors and her husband’s supporters. . Luckily not many were seriously injured, as the Police intervened and took away Teesri’s husband and his supporters.

It must be said to the credit of the Bengali families that three of them including Hem travelled along with Teesri and her sons. They were guarded all along the journey by six of the party workers. Again, at the Howrah Station she was safeguarded by the Party workers and taken to a ‘safe-house’. For about two months the Party workers kept vigil on Teesri and her house. Since the Marxists, in the Calcutta of those days, were very strong and militant, the embittered Muslim supporters could not harm Teesri or her sons.

About three months after her escape into safety, Rahman travelled to Calcutta along with case papers, copies of police complaints, hospital records and such other documents and evidences. Teesri did not have much difficulty in obtaining a divorce.


All these happened in the early eighties. I have since completely lost touch with the principle actors of these episodes.

When I look back at the events that took place about a quarter of century ago, I am amazed at the turn of events. What could be called as the rescue came about because of the concern of a harmless dreamer Hem, for a fellow Bengali girl who wide-eyed walked into a death trap. It was Hem’s dogged persuasion; and Rahman’s ingenuity, dexterousness and organizational capacity that saved Teesri and her sons. I was also much touched by concern and unity of few Bengali families; as also by the commitment and valor of the party workers.

I am aware there have been countless Teesris over the year’s . But I wonder whether any was as fortunate as this Teesri despite the awful mess she got into.


I had little or no role to play in the series of events. I was mostly a witness who learnt of the events much after they had taken place.  It was the concern of Hem and the capacity of Rahman that saved Teesri.

As regards Rahman, he was a sort of veteran of resistances. Right from the days of Marxist movement, the Bangla war, the infamous emergency and such others he had been associated with underground. Not only he had the talent but also enjoyed such tasks. Strangers would normally take him for a lazy Bank Clerk; and as I said, he was not very likable. But beneath all that he was a wonderful person and a very efficient, silent organizer. He, like Rodriguez had virtually risen out of scum, and was mostly self-taught. They both had seen much sorrow and suffering in their life.

I respected them for the way they handled their grief and for their equanimity in the face of disasters. The other reason was that despite the injustices that life meted out to them they seemed remarkably free from bitterness and hatred. I am not suggesting that Rahman or Rodriguez were angels. No, they had their weaknesses in plenty. They were men, nether beasts nor angles.

I do not think that Rahman ever considered himself a hero; or his effort spread over a year or more as acts of bravery. He in past had done more hazardous tasks.  Similarly, Hem too never regarded himself compassionate. They both did what came to them naturally. To come to think of it, had their roles been reversed, it would have been an absolute disaster.



Posted by on October 9, 2012 in Story


Tags: , , ,

How I learnt of Sribilash and his hypothesis

How I learnt of Sribilash and his hypothesis long before I read the Book

Long years back I came to know of Sribilash’s hypothesis of gullible girls falling for weird guys and ignoring normal dependable men.

But had not read the Book Chaturanga. I read it just recently. How I learnt of Sribilash and his take on irrational loves is a rather a long story but a sad one; and it belongs to the period of my earlier years in Bombay. It might sound filmy, but it is factual (except that a few names are changed).

Vinu Haldankar was then a very bubbly, busy looking young man given to instant likes and dislikes. One cloudy Saturday afternoon just as the wind was picking up speed he was rushing to the safety of the Church Gate Station. Suddenly from nowhere a beautiful looking girl, working in an office in the Flora Fountain area, in her anxiety to catch the 3-45 train almost breezed past   Haldankar, but didn’t quite make it. Both bumped into each other and nearly fell one upon the other. That bump somehow did strange things to Haldankar.

By next afternoon he had located her office and   discovered she was indeed a Bengali girl – Manjusha Goswami. That sharply heightened Haldankar’s   sense of romance, as those were the days of Satyajit Ray’s Black and White films and his bashful heroines with dark long lashes.  He promptly started running round her in circles (chakkar lagane laga); but was not getting anywhere near her. Then, a wise guy offered him a sage like counsel; the shortest route to a Bengali girl’s heart is through her ears especially when filled with Bangla Gana and poetry. That was something Haldankar had not known or even thought about.

A quick and almost frantic search unearthed one Hem Gopal Sen working at a Bank in the Fort area. He appeared to be the right sort of quick help that Haldankar needed, as Hem (it was how he insisted to be called, it meant gold) was given to Bangla Gana, poetry and Dramas too. I was dragged in by Haldankar to recruit Hem’s help. That was done rather easily.

When Haldankar offered to pay tuition fee, Hem paused for a while and slowly said “Dekho Baba, poetry sikhane ke liye paisa lena mere ko teek nahi lagtha” (I am not comfortable with accepting fee for teaching poetry).Well, the next best alternative was quickly worked out. Each evening at the Bascos after downing a couple, Hem would break into Bangla songs of appropriate mood. Haldankar closely followed Hem every word, intonation, tune and the gestures to go with; practicing evening after evening.

One evening I was asked to join the sessions at the Bascos. And, I was quite impressed with what Hem had done with Haldankar. Since, singing was not one my talents, I asked Hem if he could teach me to read Bengali. Hem groaned almost in pain “Dekho Saheb, aap galath time par pooch rahe hain. Ab my aankh bhee nahi khol saktha” (Look here Sir, you are asking me at a wrong time, I can hardly keep my eyes open).

Yet, we both – Haldankar and I – did learn something from Hem. But, both of our learning was awfully incomplete. Haldankar could neither read, nor write nor speak Bengali; but, could only sing. I could neither write nor speak Bengali, and of course, singing was beyond my ken. I however learnt to read Bengali though haltingly.  When in difficulty I was helped out by Hem. The greater difficulty was stopping Hem’s prolonged explanations and letting me read on. It took me about a fortnight to wade through Srikanto .But then, I was not good enough to get past Geetanjali or Nazrul Islam. Hem was sorely cut up with his pupil; but, could not afford to spit out his anger and disappointment. [I have , sadly, forgotten most of what Hem taught.]

In the meantime, Haldankar was making enviable progress with Manjusha . Many evenings he would lovingly coo into her ears Bangla Gana with matching gestures as she sat looking over the Chowpatti beach gulping down mistis, vada-pau and ice-cream that Haldankar bought her fondly. She would occasionally punctuate her eating-pleasure with ogling at Haldankar and brimming from ear to ear. This is what they call rapture, Haldankar would say to himself.

As all good things have to end, Haldankar’s romantic days too came to an abrupt halt. She was not seen for about a week. Haldankar’s feverish search at her office and with her friends revealed that Manjusha had just married. It was truest doomsday for Haldankar, the whole of Dalal Street looked so gloomy to him even the worst stock market crash could not have made it darker. That evening the Bascos reverberated with Hem’s soulful sad songs of love and betrayal.

But, the worse was to follow.

The news trickled in saying Manjusha had in fact married her Sitar teacher a Muslim from Mahim area. It appears their affair was long drawn as his slow meends   on Sitar strings. Hem shrieked in pain with sad and angry songs with his heartbroken pupil joining in.

One evening Kathuja Begum (that was her name now) presented herself at the most unlikeliest of places, at the Boscos. She was looking pale, frightened and worn out. Her eyes were small, puffy with crying . Haldankar almost jumped out of his skin; and anxiously enquired: was anything wrong? Could he be of help? Etc. But, from what Kathuja sobbingly narrated it looked that she was beyond any help; at least far beyond Haldankar’s short reach.

After the bliss of the customary three wedding nights , when Kathuja stepped into her new home at Mahim she was greeted at the door by two other Bibis of her new found husband. Kathuja was now Bibi No.3 at the Mahim residence. And later, as the two senior Bibis learnt that Kathuja knew next to nothing about cooking beef or preparing Biryanis and such other stuff they promptly assigned to her the only tasks she could perform without much training. They put her to cleaning the cooking vessels, scrubbing floors and sweeping the backyard. When she raised voice that night “what have you done to me, you rascal’,  her Lord and master stretched on the bed just yawned and turned to the other side lazily mumbling “As of now, I am allowed to take one more”.

By the way, she lost the name given by her parents as also the one by the Mullah who converted her; but acquired a new name. In the Mahim household she came to be known and shouted at by all, including the half dozen brats ,   as Teesri, the third one.

But the two senior Bibis (Badi and Choti) did not overlook to send Kathuja, the Teesri, back to her job, to keep strict vigil over all her movements and to take turns in standing sentry at her office gates on all paydays.


That evening, after the sudden entry and doleful exit of sobbing and chastened Kathuja the Teesri, Hem sang no songs but just stared out of the window   with a blank face watching two stray dogs fight over the garbage dump.”Bolo, hum kis kis ke liye royen” (Tell me, for how many can we shed tears).

It must be said to the credit of Haldankar that he recovered from the shock, sooner than anyone expected. But the old fire had gone out of his eyes. One afternoon, he along with Hem came into my office (Hem was sober, this time) ; and while Haldankar was mostly sombre and silent, Hem went on philosophizing, in a rambling monologue, over irrational loves and their devious ways leading to pain , sorrow and humiliation  ; and how  ‘beauty and anguish walk hand in hand downward slope to death’ etc

I thought you’d always be with me.
Always by my side but then you betrayed me,
humiliated me in more ways than one,
You left me to face
this cruel world alone. 

Set adrift in a sea of night, my tears fall freely,
my face an open book showing all the pain
you’ve caused.
First you lie, then cheat,
then deceive, then lie again, then cheat
again, then deceive again
When will this circle of pain end?


[For more about Sribilash please Check Chaturanga Part Two]

Continued in After-story of Teesri


Posted by on October 9, 2012 in Story


Tags: , , ,

Chaturanga: a novella by Tagore Part Two

Continued from Part One


As said earlier, the Book is the interplay among the four main characters – Jagmohan, Sribilash, Damini and Sachish. Let’s talk of these four and some issues they throw up


12.1. The first part of the Book belongs to Uncle (Jyathamosai) Jagmohan. It is the only part displaying social concerns. It also opens a window in to the world of college students in Calcutta. A wave of atheism was sweeping across the youth of Bengal leading to fierce controversy between the traditionalists and the rationalists. Jagmohan, a teacher by profession, is an amalgam of western intellect and Indian sensibility. Jagmohan is a well informed ‘English-educated’ thinking person. To some, he is the Macaulay of Bengal; and to some others he is Bengal’s Dr. Johnson. He is influenced by Hebert Spencer and John Stuart Mill’s agnosticism, Bentham’s ideology of ‘greatest good of the greatest number’, and by Comte’s creed of vivre pour autrue – to live for ones neighbor. Jagmohan was much exercised by Thomas Robert Malthus’s premonitions of the dangers that would befall India due to rapid explosion its population. He refused to get married after losing his wife at a young age, as he was unwilling to contribute to India’s worsening population crisis

12.2. Jagmohan was a rational-idealist. He vehemently believed in ‘no God’. Jagmohan is described in the Book as `a celebrated atheist of those times’ (takhankar kaler namjada nastik).He must have been a well known person in the society. As he explains to his brother, “Brahmos accept a formless deity who cannot be seen. You (Hindus) accept deities who cannot be heard. We (Atheists) accept the living who can be seen and heard. It is impossible not to believe them.”

Jagmohan took special pride in being a staunch Atheist; and his mission was to blast every notion of god. With that, he combined the motto of ‘doing good to others’ irrespective of their caste, creed or position in society. He advised his nephew Sachish:

‘We are atheists. And, therefore the very pride of it should keep us absolutely stainless. Because we have no respect for any being higher than ourselves, we must respect ourselves.’

12.3. Jagmohan treated the young Sachish as a friend and an equal. He rejected every social / religious norm and practice that tends to dwarf human dignity.  He considered reverence for age an empty convention that chained human mind to slavery. He was also intolerant of submissive behaviour. For instance, his reply to Noren, a young man who had married into the family, is highly amusing, dripping in ridicule. All that the poor Noren did was to address Jagmohan in the traditional style: ‘To Your Auspicious Feet (Sreecharaneshu).’ Jagmohan found it very irritating and shot back:

My dear Noren: Neither you nor I know what special significance it gives to the feet to call them ‘gracious.’ Therefore the epithet is worse than useless, and had better be dropped. And then it is apt to give one a nervous shock when you address your letter only to the feet, completely ignoring their owner. But you should understand that so long as my feet are attached to my body, you should never dissociate them from their context.

Further, they are neither hand nor ear; to make an appeal to them is sheer madness. Lastly, your use of the plural inflection to the word ‘feet,’ instead of the dual, may denote special reverence on your part (because there are animals with four feet which have your particular veneration) but I consider it my duty to disabuse your mind of all errors concerning my own zoological identity.–Yours, Jagmohan.

13.1. Jagmohan’s character is accentuated by depicting his younger brother Harimohan as a weak, self-seeking escapist who is soaked in fake-orthodoxy. Harimohan’s character serves no other purpose. Jagmohan comes in to conflict with his brother and the neighbours, and also loses his share of income from the family property – a religious trust – because he insists on helping the low-caste leather workers and the poor Muslim labourers. His relations with his relatives soon worsen. Because,   he is determined to provide shelter, despite protests and threats from his brother’s family, to Nanibala a young widow seduced and made pregnant by a lecherous fellow, who later turns out to be Purandhar, Sachish’s brother. Jagmohan sells his cherished collection of books to take care of the beleaguered girl. He was immensely pleased with Sachish when he offers to marry the destitute young widow. Tears streamed from Jagmohan’s eyes. He had never shed such tears at any time in his adult life.

The only occasions when Jagmohan was distraught and heartbroken were when Nanibala committed suicide; and when Sachish manipulated by Harimohan is forced to leave Jagmohan’s house. Jagmohan shut the door of his room, and flung himself on the floor.

13.2. The humanism of Jagmohan comes through in his tender and compassionate treatment of the luckless Nanibala in whom he sees motherhood; and also in his sympathy for the fellow beings in distress. Soon after   the city was struck by plague, Jagmohan converted his house in to a hospital for treatment of Chamars and Muslims afflicted by plague. But, Jagmohan dies while serving the plague victims. His last words to his nephew Sachish were: ‘ The creed I have lived by all my life has given me its parting gift. I have no regrets.’

The narrator remarks: Sachish, who had never made obeisance to Uncle when he was alive, bent down and for the first and last time reverently touched his feet.

14.1. Jagmohan is really the most attractive and most morally admirable character in the Book. His atheism is tinged not only with intolerance of hypocrisy and social cruelty, but also with compassion for fellow beings. His belief that people can live without religion; and, that people can lead a sensible life using their intelligence and reason without depending on a god or religion is truly splendid. Jagmohan was a humanist in its true sense.

14.2. Many have attempted to locate the ‘real-life’ model or inspiration for Jagmohan’s character. Shri Prasanta Kumar Paul, a biographer of Tagore, surmises that Jagmohan could have been modelled after the college teacher and writer Krishnakamal Bhattacharya, described as a romantic rebel. Shri Paul bases his argument on Shri Bipinbihari Gupta’s delightful memoirs, Puratan prasanga, an indispensible source-book on 19th century Bengal , which describes sequences where Shri Bhattacharya , an Atheist, is eloquently discussing at park Beadon or Heuda :  Comte, Mill, Isvarchandra Vidyasagar and other atheist heroes. His robust and witty way of talking was said to be similar to Jagmohan’s. But, Shri Bhattacharya seemed to be given to self-criticism and introspection.

[Krishnakamal Bhattacharya (1843-1932) was a teacher at Vidyotsahini Sabha (of Kaliprasanna Singha) and at Surendranath College (of Surendranath Bannerjee) and later at Presidency College Calcutta. He then became a lawyer and a Law Professor at Calcutta University; and Principal of Rippon Collage (1891-1903). He had remarkable literary talent and wrote books on Law. He was known for his lucid and charming style.

Asit Kumar Bhattacharya describes Krishnakamal Bhattacharya, who died at the ripe age of 92 when a fish-bone stuck in his esophagus, as an epicurean. a romantic rebel. He was truly a highly gifted literary artist and humanist, who wanted freedom for his country from the British; freedom for women from the tyranny of men; as also, freedom for himself from the dead-hands of the outdated customs that had coerced him into an arranged marriage when he was barely a lad of sixteen, and would not let him be free ever thereafter.]

14.3. Shri Ashok Mitra however suggests that Isvarachandra Vidyasagar himself could have been the original of Jagmohan’s character, tinted with shades of David Hare (1775–1842) a Scottish watchmaker and educationalist who established the  Hindu School, and Hare School;  and helped in founding Presidency College . He enjoyed a great affinity with the student community.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (26 September 1820 – 29 July 1891)

There were of course many well known personalities during those times dedicated to social progress, the right of the widows to remarry and to order her own destiny.

14.4. I reckon, Tagore had a sort of fascination for creating Jagmohan-like characters. I can quickly recall Amito in Sesher Kobita, overtly practical and ready to criticize the traditional and orthodox society. But, Amito, unlike Jagmohan, is prone to criticize anything and everything that is traditional, sometimes without reason.

Tagore also liked to draw characters of social reformers with liberal attitudes who try to synthesize and reconcile the opposing streams, and thus reform the old society and its values. Tagore infused something of his own person into such characters. Take for instance Paresh Babu in Gora who is much like Tagore: a Brahmo sage, serene and unruffled even amidst very annoying domestic crisis. He is always dignified, exuding warmth and affection; and respected and accepted as Guru, even by such an ardent Hindu fighter like Gora. Similarly, Ananda Moyi is Mother India herself.


15.1. Sribilash is a friend, admirer and follower of his collage-mate Sachish. He  is well read, has an excellent command over English language and is a very effective speaker. He was drawn to Sachish the moment he set his eyes on him; and stays loyal to him ever thereafter. It is his ability to recognize Sachish’s special qualities that sets him apart from the other students. His selfless love, affection and regard for his friend are remarkable. Though Sribilash was in every way as capable as Sachish he never tried to push ahead, compete with or take advantage of Sachish. He always had in his heart the best interests of Sachish. Sribilash was the quintessential average man; a gentleman. The best friend one can have.

15.2. Sribilash is the one who narrates the events in the novel. It is his words that fill the Book. Tagore perhaps chose Sribilash to be the narrator because he, of all the characters, is the one who is well balanced, without prejudices or intolerance. The very name Sribilash evokes a certain warmth, comfort and relaxation. It is his moral courage and social consciousness tempered with relaxed tolerance that standout amidst conflicts of ideas, prejudices and passions. Though Sribilash might seem rather ‘less deep’ than Sachish, he is never fanatical; is free from self-pity and bitterness; and, has always space for the opposing view. He tries to go by reason and to act as Sachish’s conscience keeper; a sort of soundboard.

15.3. Sribilash, seemingly ordinary, is intelligent, sensitive and unbiased. And above all he is of great integrity. He understands the binary philosophies and thus is able to comment on all the characters dispassionately without rancour. At the commencement of the Book , he looks somewhat a minor clog. But, as the story progresses his character too unfolds; and, one comes to realizes how central he is to the events in the story , and how well  he holds together the lives of his friends.

16.1. Sribilash was not merely an admirer of Sachish but was also his reflection and alter ego. To begin with, Sribilash was a ‘believer’. He could hardly trust the rumours going around that Sachish was an Atheist. But when Sachish himself candidly confirmed that harsh reality Sribilash was aghast, heartbroken and deeply disappointed. And yet, he reconciles to the inevitable; and embraces Atheism for the mere reason that his dearest friend was an Atheist and staunchly believed in it. He is amazed that: ‘my fanatical zeal in the creed of atheism would surpass even that of my instructor’. He began to practice Atheism under the influence of Sachish’s uncle Jagmohan the celebrated Atheist of those days.

16.2. Later in the story, the shell-shocked Sachish drifts away from his home and his friends in a state of utter confusion following the sudden death of his uncle, guardian and mentor. Two years thereafter the news reaches Sribilash that Sachish had now become an inmate of an Ashram. Sribilash could scarcely believe that his friend and instructor in Atheism was now ‘was making the heavens resound with his cymbals in some out-of-the-way village, singing frenzied kirtans and rousing whole neighborhoods into a state of excitement’. He could not comprehend how someone like Sachish could have become an Atheist, and then again suddenly how he could turn into a devotee dancing to the tunes of a religious Guru.

Yet, out of sheer concern and love for his friend, Sribilash travels all the way from Calcutta to a remote area near Chittagong. He then realized now how much he loved Sachish.

17.1. There at the Ashram, Sribilash is shocked to see his old friend in a sort of spiritual intoxication (nesa); such was the nature of the cult he was caught up in. Sachish greets Sribilash warmly. And yet,

“I realized that the world into which Sachish had been transported had no place for me, his particular friend. The person, whom Sachish has so effusively embraced, was not Sribilash, but a representative of all humanity,–just an idea. Such ideas are like wine. When they get into the head any one can be embraced and wept over. I,  only as much as anybody else”.

17.2. He was pained that Sachish had lost his individuality and had become a servant of his Guru. He argues with Sachish that none of what he is doing at the Ashram made sense and begs him to regain his sanity and freedom : ‘Uncle could have nothing to do with this kind of pipe-filling, leg-massaging business. Surely this is no picture of freedom’. But, when he realized that further arguments and pleas were clearly useless he decided to stick with Sachish and his current-faith.

“I could not desert Sachish. So, as his satellite, I also danced from village to village, carried along the current of kirtan – singing…The intoxication of it gradually took hold of me. I also embraced all and sundry, wept without provocation, and tended the feet of the Master.”

18.1. Just as Sachish, Sribilash too is drawn to the lightning-like beauty of the young and vivacious Damini. Although Sribilash confesses that he lacks ‘experience of the secrets of a woman’s heart’, she strikes him as ‘the lightning in the heart of Sravana rain clouds, having youthfulness to outward view, but flickering with restless fires within.’

18.2. But the moment he realizes that something very serious was going on between the two – Sachish and Damini- he stays neutral but observant. He even lets himself be toyed by Damini in her charade of indifference and anger towards her true love Sachish.

Incidentally, Sribilash develops a sort of hypothesis on how women are more likely to fall for the weird sorts or those with their heads in the clouds. He laments women tend to shun average, normal and dependable men:

“We (the normal) know them (women) as they really are; that’s why even if they like us they won’t fall in love with us. We are their true refuge, they can count on our loyalty; but our self-sacrifice comes so readily they forget that it has any value. The only baksheesh we receive from them is that whenever they need us they use us, and perhaps even respect us a little, but. …”.

19.1. For a while, Sribilash is drawn in to the cult and follows Sachish just as he followed him earlier during the Atheism-days. But he is too level-headed to be sucked in to it, and be absorbed in a state of drunkenness or ecstasy. When Sachish is hopelessly confused about the three points of the triangle that have enclosed him: Atheism, religious fervor and natural attraction for women (Prakrti); and rambles along, saying `We must sever all connections with Nature’, Sribilash retorts: “What you call Nature is a reality. You may shun it, but you can’t leave it out of the human world. If you practice your austerities pretending it isn’t there you will only delude yourself; and when the deceit is exposed there will be no escape-route”.

19.2. And when again , when Sachish expresses his fears  :

“It is obvious that woman is Nature’s (Prakrti’s) spy, forever trying to deceive us with her artful ways” , Sribilash tries to infuse some common-sense; and reasons   “Woman is a natural phenomenon who will have her place in the world, however much we try to get rid of her. If your spiritual welfare depends on ignoring her existence, then its pursuit will be like the chasing of a phantom, and will shame you so, when the illusion is dissipated, that you will not know where to hide yourself… Our problem should not be to stop the current; our problem is to keep the boat from sinking and in motion.”

It is his tolerance, sound commonsense, loyalty to his friend and his persistent questioning of the validity of the cult that awakens Sachish. Finally, Sachish’s spell is broken and the three walk away from the cult.

20.1. Sribilash steps in and proposes to Damini only after it becomes very clear that Sachish has his own priorities in life and marriage is certainly not one among them; and only after Damini in her nobility has released Sachish from her love. His wooing Damini is playful laced with wit and modesty. It also displays his loyalty to Sachish and the courage to defy social opinion. Damini marries him; and they return to Calcutta to lead a married life.

The Women

From the day when man, refusing to recognize the efflorescence of life and establishing ideals to his own convenience instead, and following those ideals tried to create the woman, seeds of rebellion were sown in the heart of woman since then….Since that day when she is denied the true potential of womanhood she has also been denying man his complete manhood, as a form of revenge.” —Rabindranath Tagore (About Chaturanga)

21.1. Among   the favourite subjects of the Bengali social novels of the late 19th century the prominent   were the women’s’ questions in general and the problems of the child-widows in particular. The image of a ‘new-woman’ who stands up to question the current social morality and seeks justice for women was developed as the ideological face of women’s re-emergence. The New Woman is never static ; and, is not a mere artefact to be admired and put away. Nancy Paxton who reviewed female characters in literature between 1830 and 1947, observed: ‘Although the New Woman is able to have equal rights as men, she is never able to break the social bounds with her sexuality’.

21.2. As regards Tagore’s novels, from Chokher Bali (1903) onwards, they are set in Tagore’s own times or in the just recent previous years. Except in Gora the dominant character in each of his novels is a woman who is projected as a symbol of Indian psyche; emerging from shadows and taking her place in the family and in the society; and, responding to the challenges mounting on women. She might not always succeed entirely, but her effort speaks for her innate nobility and courage; and of her sacrificial heroism. While depicting the femininity, tenderness and devotion of traditional Indian women, Tagore also brings to fore their sufferings, pains and sense of betrayal; the discrimination they face;  the humiliation they put up with endless patience; and , the abuses they endure.

[Chokher Bali (initially serialized in the periodical Bangadarshan from 1902 to 1903;  and, later published as a book in 1903) is the story of Binodini, a beautiful young widow, who enters the house of Mahendra and Asha; newly married , living happily. The couple’s pleasant relationship takes a down turn when the pampered, vain and self centred Mahendra falls passionately in love with the maid, Binodini, a young widow. His closest friend Bihari is also smitten with Binodini. And, Asha, the simple untutored wife, is turned into a helpless onlooker.

And, there is also another type of complicated triangular relationship in which the fond and jealous  mother gets into covert fight with the daughter-in-law  to compete, to ensure her son’s  love  ; and , also to gain greater control over the son. That perhaps marked the on setting disintegration of the rather cumbersome joint-family system.

Rajalakshmi, the mother-in-law , initially blames the daughter-in-law Asha for not being able to hold on to her husband. But later, Rajalakshmi and Asha close their ranks; and,  together confront Mahendra.

As regards the rudderless young widow Binodini , frustrated and rebellious ; she , in her sense of insecurity and emotional fallibility , first succumbs to Mahendra’s overtures; but, having realized its futility , then tries to win over Bihari, Mahendra’s friend. Tagore brings out the intensity of her feelings and her fluttering state of mind at different times in the story

And, in contrast, there is Annapurna, the pious aunt, a docile widow (of the type of  the by-gone era, se kaal) who lost her husband at the age of eleven; and , has only a faint memory of her dead husband.  She is a shadowy figure in the novel, serving as a contrast to other female characters.

Between the two types, there is Asha, the sole married woman in the novel. She somehow, could   neither be a perfect a companion to her husband, nor be a good daughter in law, although she succeeded in taking charge of her life and of the household.

The novel is located during the uncomfortable transition period, when the Hindu orthodoxy was coming into conflict with the encroaching western social milieu. Here, Binodini, the widow, of the then modern times e kaal,  aware of her physical needs and desires; pines for love; and, does not mind favouring sexual relationship with married men. She, of course, does not fit into the frame of a typical orthodox widow. Binodini is the symbol of a new class of emancipated women, prepared to assert; and, to fight for their rights in a patriarchal society riddled with its taboos.

But, again, in the end, Binodini does not remarry; and, dies childless, just as Tagore’s other young-widowed heroines. Perhaps, he thought that “widow remarriage  , after all, was not  a realistic possibility of his times.

Tagore chooses to end in a rather defeatist way. Binodini rejects the marriage proposal from Bihari; gives him whatever little money she had; renounces her earthly life; and,  goes to Kashi with Annapurna to live the  life of a pious widow, purged of all desires.

Tagore seemed to suggest that Binodini  retreats from life , not because she was defeated ; but, she exits on a high moral pedestal of not willing to secure victory, regardless of its cost.

It is , to say the least, a rather bizarre end to a story that aimed to  project the image of a modern woman rebelling against orthodoxy. All said and done, Tagore , at that stage of his literary career, was still bound by the spell of Bankimchandra, whose heroine, the young widow Kunda Nandini  (of Bishabriksha)  consumes poison and dies.

You cannot fail to notice that in the novels of Tagore, widows are carefully presented. They serve the twofold purpose of expressing the conflict both within the Bengali society and within the women themselves. The widow, Binodini, struggles with her own passion and unfulfilled love ; and yet , she chooses to abide by the  social norms and conventions set by the orthodox society.

This, in a way, seemed to be a common feature of Tagore’s novels, particularly in regard to young women characters.  Below the veneer of rebellion  there is an undercurrent of tragedy, the note of  regret arising out of frustration  in not being able to break free ; and  , having to  tacitly accept the fatality  of  the structured social norms.]

21.3. Through these novels , Tagore intended to delineate the contemporary social norms and hold up its ills. Each character, in that context, is a tragic metaphor of the time they lived in, unwitting victims of a social structure they had no role in shaping into what it had become. In the novels of this genre – where the society treats widows as ’unclaimed bodies –physically alive and socially dead’ – spirited young widows rebellious in their own ways and raising voice against the system  invariably take the centre stage.

21.4. But somehow, his female characters pushing for reforms keep returning in one guise or the other. For instance, Suchitra’s aunt in Gora is Annapurna’s prototype; and Binodini of Choker Bali   has much in common with Damini of Chaturanga. Yet, they do not lose their individuality and freshness. Another feature is that, for some reason, many of his young female protagonists are child-less; and  those that are caught in throes of passion usually die young. And, many of his widowed heroines (including Binodini) do not actually get married. Damini the young widow in Chaturanga appears to be a rare exception. But she too dies  young and child-less. Some say these features are the shadows cast across by Tagore’s life-experiences.

Woman as the mother and Motherhood is rarely discussed and analyzed by the characters in most of his novels, including Chaturanga.

22.1. The two women of Chaturanga – Nanibala and Damini – are both young widows. While Damini is the heroine of the novel, Nanibala has just a marginal presence. But, the two are totally different in their circumstances, nature and attitude.

22.2. Nanibala‘s is a sad story of a typical young widow uncared, unprotected and much abused. True to her name (cream – puppet- like girl) is frail, weak and passive; and her plight is decided by her uncles and cousins. She is totally defenseless; and is seduced by cowardly rouge, Purandar who happened to be Sachish’s brother. But, what is worse is that she came to love the one who ruined her life; and she recoils from the idea of accepting anyone else as her saviour. Therefore, in her case re-marriage is ruled out. When Nanibala is pregnant and in dire straits with nowhere to go Jagmohan and Sachish rescue her and do their best to provide for her. Jagmohan accepts Nanibala with warm affection and regards her as a symbol of motherhood. His efforts to re-habilitate the luckless girl go in vain. After she gave birth to a dead child, Sachish offers to marry her with a view to protect her from ignominy. But, Nanibala is totally against that idea. She is unable to fight back or rebel – like Binodini or Damini .But she ensures that her silent –protest is heard through her suicide note in which she declares her love for her seducer:

“Baba, forgive me. I cannot do what you wanted. I have tried my best, for your sake, but I could never forget him. My thousand salutations to your gracious feet. Nanibala,   the sinner”.

Nanibala takes on herself the whole burden of sin; and gives up her life for the sinner’s sake.

23.1. Damini is portrayed in an entirely different mould. She is a widow, yet her attitudes and behaviour differed from traditional norms of widowhood. Tagore has depicted Damini as a worldly, outgoing, bold, vivacious young woman who attracts everyone with her charm, grace and glitter, as her name (lightening) suggests. She is so real that no reader can forget her. Except Damini, all the other characters in Chaturanga are meant to compliment Sachish’s life experiences either as an atheist or as a cymbal banging Ashram inmate or as a confused young man. In a way of speaking, those characters are fragments of Sachish’s personality. They have their relevance only in the context of their relation to Sachish. Damini, on the other hand, stands by herself. She alone defines her role.

23.2. The character of Damini is a fascinating one. There are many hues and shades to her character. Damini can be docile, then vociferous, and even downright hostile at times. She is volatile, but committed. She is submissive, yet has her own voice. She exudes sexuality of a woman in her prime and fills the hearts of those around with desire. She can be manipulative with ploys of mock anger or indifference just to stroke the fire of envy and desire in men.   She can argue logically with vehemence and knock down seemingly intellectual positions. She is not afraid to pose disturbing questions.

In one sweeping stroke she demanded justice after she questioned the rationale for treating her as a piece of property. She raises her voice in defense of a woman who commits suicide after coming to know the illicit affair between her husband and her unmarried sister. Damini is enraged about the vulnerability of a woman who can be hurt easily, and shrieks against the social injustice that makes a mockery of a woman’s love and life. She is not much educated, yet she has a certain sensibility. And, at all times she is intriguing; never lets anyone take her for granted. A critic has described Damini as ‘a deadly mixture of enigma and voluptuousness’.

23.3. Damini in an outburst of rage takes the Swami to task – through Sachish- and hurls at him the irrelevance of his cult and its beliefs: `what use to the world are the things that engross you so day in and day out? Who have you succeeded in saving? ‘Damini went on:

`Day and night you go on about ecstasy, you talk of nothing else. Today you have seen what ecstasy is, haven’t you? It has no regard for morals or a code of conduct, for brother or wife or family pride. It has no mercy, no shame, no sense of propriety. What have you devised to save man from the hell of this cruel, shameless, fatal ecstasy?’

It is not surprising that the Swami is scared of Damini and that Sachish is perplexed.

24.1. Damini stands out as the only character who is sure of her likes and dislikes. Damini is steadfastly stubborn, defining her sexual freedom and her spiritual one as well. Like Binodini of Choker Bali, Damini refuses to be tied down to a state of ineffectual nothingness, a role that the society ascribes to the widows robbed of ‘free will’. She registers her protest in no uncertain terms, when she says to Sachish “…Haven’t you people put chains round my feet and flung this woman without faith into the prison of devotion? …Some of you will decide this for me, some that, to suit your convenience – am I a mere pawn in your game?”

24.2. Like Binodini, Damini too is denied sexual pleasure in her early life; but for very different reasons. Her husband Sivatosh, while alive, abstains from sex as part of his discipline, and to keep away from earthly delights; unwilling to be corrupted by  kamini or kanchan .  Sivatosh dies entrusting his entire property, his Calcutta house and even the guardianship of his young wife who still had a zest for life, to his religious guru Leelananda Swami. Damini demands of the Swami to explain to her the rights of her dead husband to will away her house, her jewelry and even herself while none of that was acquired by him. She questions Swami’s right to accept her custody without ascertaining her willingness to be taken care by him.

25.1. Sachish and Sribilash are intrigued by her presence even before they set eyes on her. Damini distracts them even without being seen: the clink of keys, the call of voice to a maid servant, is enough to divert the attention of the disciples gathered around the Swami. The moment Sachish sets eyes on her the ground under his feet caves away. He sees in Damini the reflection of the latent desires concealed within him. He wants her desperately and is also fatally afraid of her sexuality. Though he acknowledges her as ‘the artist of the art of life’ he is uncertain and shy, not knowing how to deal with her voluptuousness.

25.2. Sribilash too desires her. The relation between Damini and Sribilash at the Ashram is an interesting one. She is more relaxed, informal and friendly with Sribilash, perhaps because she neither hates him (as she hates the Swami) nor loves him (as she intensely loves Sachish). Sribilash gets to know Damini, as a person. She pours out to him all her past grief and memories. He however is not much elated, but laments:

“ I happened to be the only person about whom she was not bothered for either love or resentment, which explains why she would pour out to me whenever she could an endless chatter about her past and present, what was going on among her neighbors and all kind of trivial talk. She would sit on the covered terrace in front of our rooms on the upper floor and talk on and on…   That evening Damini laid her heart bare. She said things which are difficult to touch on even if one wants to and everything she said flowed from her mouth with an easy grace and beauty. As she continued I felt as though she was engaged in exploring many hitherto unsuspected dark chambers of her mind, as though by chance she had had an opportunity of meeting herself face to face”.

His understanding of Damini provides him conviction to counsel and reason with Sachish in order to wean him away from the mistaken notions about Prakrti, woman and spirituality.

26.1. It is however the complex relation between Sachish and Damini that forms the central theme of the novella. It attempts delineating the intricate and sensitive conflicts of the spiritual and the sensuous. Sachish believes the human love is a trap; and wriggles to avoid her; but cannot help being away from her and worse being ignored by her.

26.2. Damini, on her part, is not afraid to express her physical desire for Sachish who hesitantly reciprocates, but is afraid to express it fully. She employs many strategies to win over her lover. She beguiles him ; lures his attention by some pretext or other; plays tricks on him with mock anger and indifference using Sribilash as a dummy; She begs him ; implore him; prostrates bore him; and in the darkness of the cave she clasps his feet trying arouse his desire for her.

26.3. Sachish pleads with Damini to vacate the Ashram since she is not a ‘believer’ and he no longer has the strength of mind to resist her. She refuses to go away and rightly argues her case. Sometime later, Sachish begs her to forgive him for asking her to go away; and requests her to join the Kirtan singing.

Finally, he begs her forgiveness and to set him free from the bonds of her love. ‘My need for Him whom I seek is immense, is so absolute, that I have no need for anything else at all. Damini, have pity on me and leave me to Him ’.

26.4. That marks a turning point in Damini’s attitude and behaviour. Damini with her woman’s instinct understands Sachish who views human love as an impediment or a distraction on the way to his goal. She recognizes it is his relentless, obsessive search for truth that is important for him. She also understands that he needs to pursue his quest alone.  She realizes the rigor of the test she subjected Sachish. She resolves the situation renounces her love for him; sets him free; and accepts him as her Guru. She touches his feet in obeisance and promises ‘I shall never transgress’

27.1. Damini never sought to  harm Sachish, nor did she try to prevent him from his spiritual pursuits. Seen in this light, Damini emerges as a powerful mother-figure. From being a seductress, trying to fulfill her desires, she eventually lets Sachish walk the path towards his salvation.  Her feminine instincts do not allow her to see Sachish suffer while she was alive.

[Bijaya Ghosh in her comments, remarks that there is certain nobility ingrained in Damini’s character. She would like to have won, but not at the cost of wrecking the very object of her love; because such a hollow win would have robbed her life of all sense and dignity. She is prompted by a deep sense of justice and fairness. It is the woman in her that  protects, nurtures and loves which  releases Sachish and lets him grow to reach out to his aspirations – whatever that might be , even if it didn’t  make sense to her.]

27.2. It is only because she sets him free that Sachish is able to work towards his liberation. Some have tried to see shades of Samkhya in the relation between the two. As per Samkhya, Prakrti functions solely for the sake of Purusha (purushartha).And Purusha can find his true identity only when separated from Prakrti. Unless Prakrti sets him free there is no release for Purusha. Thus, Prakrti is the liberator of Purusha by taking onto herself and seeing through (jnana, vijnana) Purusha’s blinkered view of himself.

28.1. Thereafter, when Sribilash proposed to her, she accepts him. She marries Sribilash not out of a desire for sensuous pleasures but to clear the way for Sachish in his quest for Truth. Damini asks Sribilash to take her back to Calcutta where they get married later. They move in to the house that Jagmohan had bequeathed to Sachish and resume his (Jagmohan) work of serving the needy Chamars and Muslims. Sachish visits Calcutta briefly to give away Damini in marriage to Sribilash .But, he refuses to stay there “No, I am afraid, my work lies elsewhere”.

28.2. She married Sribilash; though she might not have loved him. After about a year of married life Damini dies due to an unknown pain in her chest, the one she sustained in the cave. Damini is a remarkable character. She has the rare capacity and the strength of mind to renounce without rancour.

Her dying words to Sribilash, at the end of the Book, were:” My longings are still with me. I go with the prayer that I may find you again in my next life”

[Kaiser Haq said , he found it hard to render the words in original to English: sadh mitila Na, janmantare abar yena tomake pai. According to him, the import of those words was that her marriage with Sribilash had not totally fulfilled her aspiration (sadh). She hopes that it may happen in some future life – presumably that can happen if Sribilash moves forward, attain spiritual growth.

I however tend to think Haq’s interpretation is rather contrived. Damini might simply have wished to live a fuller life with Sribilash in her next existence.]


29.1. In the words of Srbilash :” Sachish appeared to me like a constellation of stars, his eyes shining, his long slender  fingers like tongues of  flame, his face glowing with a youthful radiance. As soon as I set eyes on him I seemed to glimpse his inner self; and from that moment I loved him”. To say the least, Sachish was very handsome. He was also a bright, I intelligent and sensitive person.

[Bijaya Ghosh, in her comments,  has summed up her impressions of Sachish crisply: After Naibala episode his behaviour becomes inexplicable…he is aimless like a Ghuri (kite) separated from Latai (string). He loves freedom of skies but does not take responsibility. His depth is great; but his attention span is short.]

29.2. As said earlier, the Sachish story is mainly about his reactions to the varied influences that exerted on him – Uncle Jagmohan, Swami Leelananda and the irrepressible Damini; his strife to break free from each of those influences in succession; and finally his determined effort to be rid of all influences , attachments and bonds in search of his quest for freedom. As he said, his journey is from bondage to freedom and from form to form-less. We have already recounted, elsewhere, his life-event. Here we shall briefly talk about certain that keep coming up, despite the years since the book was published.

29.3. The questions that often asked are: why did Sachish a clone of Jagmohan a staunch Atheist suddenly catapulted in to the lap of a Swami heading a religious cult? And, again why was he disillusioned with the Swami and threw over board his cult beliefs’ and practices? What really happened at the cave; and why he felt so overpowered? Why was he so desperate to get away from Damini? And, what was the Truth he said he discovered?

30.1. Sachish was devastated by twin disasters that struck in quick succession – the suicide of a wronged woman whom he was about to marry, and the sudden death of his uncle (almost a foster parent) on whom he totally depended for ideologies and approach to life. Sachish was totally disoriented and became rudderless. The ground under his feet was totally swept away. He aimlessly wandered from place to place, and eventually drifted in to a religious cult following devotional practices. The cult stood for everything that his Uncle hated; and which, following his Uncle, he too had condemned.

30.2. Tagore, however, does not explain this swing from one extreme to another. Many have taken Sachis’s inexplicable behavior as a sign of basic weakness in his character. Kaiser Haq, the translator, tries to explain it as symptom of an ‘underdeveloped ego’ by referring to psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakkar‘s speculation; and says, however incredible it might appear, it is both psychologically and historically plausible.

Shri Kakkar in his book The Inner World (1978) had pointed out to the peculiar Indian tendency of withdrawing into mysticism when confronted with sudden and grievous loss of family relations, caste and clan (biradari) support or irreplaceable loss of dear one. When these supports suddenly fall away one is threatened, totally lost, and is likely to accept irrational solutions to life’s problems (including political extremism). Such a one is an easy prey for anyone offering a shoulder to weep on. He mentions that historically, the Indian humanists underwent a crisis at the turn of the nineteenth century, when they found human problems to be not particularly amenable to a positivist approach. Many of them  (like Sachish )  religion, spiritualism or extreme irrational positions, not knowing how to fill the void in their lives.

30.3. Some say that Sachish led a sheltered existence; and his Uncle-mentor had not prepared him to face and absorb the shocks of life. When Sachish went off the rails his dead uncle is partly to be blamed for that. I am not sure how credible is that view.

31.1. The cave episode in Chaturanga is truly bizarre. Sribilash narrates the incident as an extract from Sachish’s diary.

`The cave had many chambers. I spread my blanket in one and lay down. The darkness of the cave was like a black beast – its moist breath seemed to touch my skin. It seemed to me like the first animal to appear in the very first cycle of creation; it had no eyes, no ears, it had only a huge appetite. It had been trapped for eternity in that cave. It didn’t have a mind; it knew nothing but felt it sobbing noiselessly.’

He is unable to sleep at first, but eventually `After I don’t know how long, a thin sheet of numbness spread over my consciousness. At some point in that semi-conscious state I felt the touch of a deep breath close to my feet.

That primordial beast!

`Then something clasped my feet. At first I thought it a was a wild animal. But a wild animal is hairy, this creature wasn’t. My entire body shrank at the touch. It seemed to be an unknown snake-like creature. I knew nothing of its anatomy-, what its head looked like, or its trunk, or its tail-nor could I imagine how it devoured its victims. It was repulsive because of its very softness, its ravenous mass.’

The beast with ‘mass of hair’   tugging at his feet turns out be Damini in her desperate effort to be one with her lover Sachish. But Sachish is more desperate than Damini and wants her to get off his way and set him free. The episode is symbolizes Sachish’s internal turmoil and his mortal fear of Damini’s sexuality and his frantic effort to escape from the sensuous female.

The imagery of the ‘primordial beast’ was perhaps meant to   project the nature of unfulfilled desires, which when reaches the brink, overflows violently in a beastly manner.

31.2. The cave-episode per se without its undertones, some say, was prompted by an incident narrated by Sister Nivedita in her book ‘The notes of wanderings with Swami Vivekananda – pages 148-150 ’ (1913). The incident relates to the experience that almost overpowered Swami Vivekananda when he entered the cave of Amarnath   in Kashmir on 2nd August 1889.  Sister Nivedita writes:

“the place was vast, huge enough to hold a Cathedral and the great ice-Shiva was in a niche of the deepest shadow, sacred as if throned on its base.  …to him, the heavens had opened .He had touched the feet of Shiva. He had to hold himself tight, he said later, lest he should swoon away and fall. But so great was his physical exhaustion that a doctor said afterwards that his heart ought to have stopped beating, and had undergone permanent enlargement instead”.” Afterwards he would often tell of the overwhelming vision that had seemed to draw him almost into its vertex.”

31.3. Some have wondered whether Tagore was not influenced by Freudian theories of sex and psychoanalysis while writing the cave – episode. Santanu Biswas in his paper ‘Rabindranath Tagore and Freudian thought’ had gone into this question. According to Shri Biswas, at the time Chaturanga came to be written (1915) one cannot be sure whether Tagore was familiar with Freud‘s theories. It is most likely, Freudian thoughts could not have influenced the composition of the cave scene in Chaturanga. He also mentions ‘in the several letters that Tagore wrote to different persons about these novels during or shortly after their composition, there is no mention of the term ‘manobikalanmulak ’, nor any statement warranting that description’.

Further, even after Tagore got to know Freud’s psychoanalytical work and met Freud at Vienna on 25 October 1926, he was not much impressed with Freud’s theories; and in fact seemed to disliked it.

Tagore Freud

31.4. Santanu Biswas in his paper also mentions of the communications   that took place between Kalidas Nag and Tagore on the subject perhaps sometime later than 1927. In this context he reproduces Tagore’s explanation with regard to Chaturanga:

To the authors of yesteryears life meant desire and frustration, union and separation, birth and death, and certain other similarly imprecise events. Therefore, the play called life had to end either in a cherished and revered union, or with a scene devoted to death’s vast graveyard. Since a few days now, our impression of our life has been changing—it seems we were so long loitering about the entrance—after a long time we seem to have discovered the way to the inner chambers for the first time. We are awake at the outer side of our consciousness—there we are consciously fighting battles, striking others and are being struck by others. But within these strikes and counter strikes, these ups and downs, something is being created in our ignorance of it. The arena for that gigantic game of creation is our submerged consciousness [magna-chaitanya-lok]. It is a new world, as if gradually coming into existence before us “

32.1. Why Sachish was disillusioned with the Swami and threw over board his cult beliefs’ and practices is another interesting question. His release from the Swami may have come about because of Sribilash persistently chipping away his faith in the Swami, and also because of Sachish’s own introspection.

32.2. Sachish by then had realized that he had to work out his own salvation not by depending on someone else’s guidance or grace. He mentions to Srbilash: ‘Today I have clearly grasped the significance of the saying, “Better die for one’s own faith than do such a terrible thing as accept another’s.” Everything else can be taken from others, but if one’s faith isn’t ones own it brings damnation instead of salvation. My god can’t be doled out to me by someone; if I find him, well and good, otherwise it’s better to die.’…  ‘The god within me will tread my road and none other; the guru’s road only leads to his own courtyard.’

`One who is poet finds poetry in his soul,’ Sribilash said, `and one who isn’t borrows it from others.’ `I am a poet,’ replied Sachish brazenly. That perhaps was Tagore himself speaking.

At the end

33.1. Sachish sets forth his vision of Truth:

 `He loves form, so He is continuously revealing Himself through form. We can’t survive with form alone, so we must pursue the formless. He is free, so he delights in bondage; we are fettered, so our joy is in liberty. Our misery arises because we don’t realize this truth.’

‘The singer progresses from the experience of joy to the musical expression of the raga; the listener moves from the raga towards joy. One moves from freedom to bondage, the other from bondage to freedom. He sings,  we listen. He plays by binding emotion to the raga and as we listen we unravel the emotion from the raga.’

The path that Sachish chose was one leading from bondage to freedom, from form to formless. Tagore too aspired for the Upanishad ideal of formless entity.   I am not sure if Sachish was echoing Tagore’s philosophy. But what is more important here is the process, his integrity and intense search for what he considers as The Truth.

33.2. No character in Chaturanga achieves the human ideal in full. But taken together – Jagmohan’s humanism, Damini’s passion, Sribilash’s loyalty to selfless friendship and Sachish’s quest for truth- all express facets of human aspirations in each sphere of life. That is the unity of the Book.

Jagmohan, Sachish, Damini and Swami and even Sribilash pursue their traits along a single direction; and keep running away from the centre of life. Each one of those characters is not complete in himself/herself. It is only when the attitudes peculiar to each are amicably blended into living experience they gain some sense. That is what I mentioned as the unity of the Book.

At another level, extremes of Atheism and irrational religious frenzy or extreme asceticism are set aside. It is the sense of balance in life that Tagore seems to be aiming at.  At the end, Sachish too returns to social work, to life among men and women of the world ;  but, with greater understanding and compassion.


In a way,  Love  could be taken to be the theme of the book.Whatever  be the failings of the characters in the book, none of them, by contrast, is lacking in love: Jagmohan loves Sachish, Nonibala and the Muslim tanners; Sachish loves Jagmohan and Damini; Damini loves Sachish and Sribilash—and also her pet animals; Sribilash loves all the other three.

[While explaining this aspect , William Radice remarks :’ Whenever Tagore tried to express moral, spiritual and emotional purnata he used the language of love’; Thus he begins one of his finest Santiniketan sermons, on Sa¯man˜jasya (‘Balance’).

And  he quotes a passage from Santiniketan, Rabındra-racanabalı vol.13:3 (Visva-Bharati, Calcutta, 1961), p. 467.

amra ar kono caram katha jani ba na  jani nijer bhitar theke ekti caram katha bujhe niyechi seti hacche ei ye, ekmatra premer madhyei samasta dvandva ek sange mile thakte pare. yuktite tara kata kata kare, karmete tara maramari kare, kichutei tara milte cay na premete samastai mitmat haye yay. tarkaks.etre karmaks.etre yara ditiputra o aditiputrer mato parasparke ekebare binas karbar janyei sarbada udyata, premer madhye tara apan bhai

‘Whatever supreme things we know or do not know, there is one supreme thing I have understood from my own inner experience: only through love can all conflicts be resolved. Those who cut themselves to pieces in arguments, or who fight over actions, those who don’t want to agree at all, can reach agreement only through love. Those who, whether in the fields of debate or activity, are always ready to destroy each other like gods and demons, become brothers to each other through love.’ ]

Tagore by Prof D Sampath

Tagore by Prof. DSampath

Let me explain:

Finally :

Rational thoughts, emotions, Love, self-introspection and selfless friendship and loyalty are all admirable virtues that enrich human life. But, each of those – harsh Atheism, religious frenzy, overpowering passion, total reclusion or even the self-erasing over attachment- is just an aspect ,  part or anga of life; they need not or should not account for all of life. Tagore named the Book as Chaturanga – four aspects of life – perhaps for that reason. But, Four is just a number to make up a catchy title; such distinct aspects of life are surely many more. But , it is Love that holds them all together. 

If a single trait overstates itself and becomes so dominant that it overpowers , engulfs and stifles every other aspect of life, then human life becomes one-dimensional; and loses its sense of balance and versatility. Tagore, I presume, was looking at the totality of human life – balanced and wholesome. And, he, therefore, rejected the overextended projections of each of those traits (uncle’s strict Atheism; Swami’s irrational cult-faith; Damini’s passion; and Sachish’s reclusive escapism), one after another. Even Sribilash’s life , which erases itself at each stage , is incomplete; and, at the end, he is rewarded but  with n o  sense of achievement. A judicious and harmonious blend of varied aspects  alone sum up an ideal life; but, such a life is rarely ever lived.

Javier Rubinstein - FB awakening art

Javier Rubinstein – FB awakening ar

Sources and References

1. Broken Ties and Other Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (1925)

2. Chaturanga –Quartet- Translation   by Kaiser Haq

Heinemann, 1993

3. Chaturanga –Translation by Ashok Mitra

Sahitya Akademi, 1963

4. Humanism and Nationalism in Tagore’s novels

KN Kunjo Singh, Atlantic, 2002

5. Atheists, Gurus and Fanatics: Rabindranath Tagore’s `Chaturanga’

By   William Radice

6. Rabindranath and Freud by Santanu Biswas



Posted by on October 9, 2012 in Books, Sarat-Tagore-Bankim


Tags: , , , , ,