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Morality by The Mahabharata

 

From The Mahabharata
Santi Parva, Section CXLI
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

King Yudhishthira said: When the high righteousness suffers decay and is transgressed by all, when unrighteousness becomes righteousness, and righteousness assumes the form of its reverse, when all wholesome restraints disappear, and all truths in respect of righteousness are disturbed and confounded, when people are oppressed by kings and robbers, when men of all the four modes of life become stupefied in respect of their duties, and all acts lose their merits, when men see cause of fear on every direction in consequence of lust and covetousness and folly, when all creatures cease to trust one another, when they slay one another by deceitful means and deceive one another in their mutual dealings, when houses are burnt down throughout the country, when Brahmanas become exceedingly afflicted, when the clouds do not pour a drop of rain, when every one’s hand is turned against every one’s neighbour, when all the necessaries of life fall under the power of robbers, when, indeed, such a season of terrible distress sets in, by what means should a Brahmana live who is unwilling to cast off compassion and his children? How indeed, should a Brahmana maintain himself at such a time? Tell me this, O grandsire! How also should the king live at such a time when sinfulness overtakes the world? How, O scorcher of foes, should the king live so that he might not fall away from both righteousness and profit?

Bhishma said: O mighty armed one, the peace and prosperity of subjects
[Note: Literally ‘preservation of what has been got, and acquisition of what is desired.’], sufficiency and seasonableness of rain, disease, death and other fears, are all dependent on the king.

[Note: These depend on the king, i.e., if the king happens to be good, then >prosperity, etc., are seen. On the other hand, if the king becomes oppressive and sinful, prosperity disappears, and every kind of evil sets in.] have no doubt also in this, O bull of Bharata's race, that Krita, Treta, Dwapara, and Kali, (the four Yugas) as regards their setting in, are all dependent on the king’s conduct. When such a season of misery as has been described by thee sets in, the righteous should support life by the aid of judgment. In this connection is cited the old story of the discourse between Viswamitra and the Chandala in a hamlet inhabited by Chandalas

One should, when one is dying (of starvation because of draught), preserve one’s life by any means in one’s power without judging of their character. Afterwards, when competent, one should seek the acquisition of merit. Life is better than death. Living, one may acquire virtue.

When the end in view is the preservation of life itself, should a high-souled person possessed of learning and acquainted with means rescue his own cheerless self, when fallen into distress, by all means in his power. By having recourse to such understanding one should always preserve one’s life. A person, if alive, can win religious merit and enjoy happiness and prosperity. For this reason, O son of Kunti, a person of cleansed soul and possessed of learning should live and act in this world, relying upon his own intelligence in discriminating between righteousness and its reverse.

Mahabharata, Santi Parva br> Section CXLII

Yuthishthira said: If that which is so horrible (like having to steal and eat dog’s meat to preserve one’s own life) and which like falsehood should never be an object of regard, be cited (as duty), then what act is there from which I should forbear? Why also should not robbers then be respected? I am stupefied! My heart is pained! All the ties that bind me on morality are loosened! I cannot tranquillise my mind and venture to act in the way suggested by you.

Bhishma said: I do not instruct thee in respect of duty, taught by what I have heard from the Vedas (scriptures) alone. What I have told thee is the result of wisdom and experience. This is the honey that the learned have gathered. Kings should gather wisdom from various sources. One cannot accomplish his course through the world with the aid of a morality that is one-sided. Duty must spring from the understanding; and the practices of those that are good should always be ascertained, O son of Kuru! Attend to these words of mine. Only kings that are possessed of superior intelligence can rule, expecting victory. A king should provide for the observance of morality by the aid of his understanding and guided by knowledge derived from various sources. The duties of a king can never be discharged by rules drawn from a morality that is one-sided.

A weak-minded king can never display wisdom (in the discharge of his duties) in consequence of his not having drawn any wisdom from the example before him. Righteousness sometimes takes the shape of unrighteousness. The latter also sometimes takes the shape of the former. He who does not know this becomes confounded when confronted by an actual instance of the kind. Before the occasion comes, one should, O Bharata, comprehend the circumstances under which righteousness and its reverse become confused. Having acquired this knowledge, a wise king should, when the occasion comes, act accordingly, aided by his judgment. The acts he does at such a time are misunderstood by ordinary people. Some persons are possessed of true knowledge. Some persons have false knowledge. Truly ascertaining the nature of each kind of knowledge, a wise king derives knowledge from them that are regarded as good.

They that are really breakers of morality find fault with the scriptures. They that have themselves no wealth proclaim the inconsistencies of the treatises on the acquisition of wealth. Those who seek to acquire knowledge for the object only of carrying their sustenance by it, O king, are sinful besides being enemies of morality. Wicked men of immature understanding can never know things truly, even as persons, who are not conversant with scriptures are unable in all their acts to be guided by reason. With eyes directed to the faults of the scriptures, they decry the scriptures. Even if they understand the true meaning of the scriptures, they are still in the habit of proclaiming the scriptural injunctions are unsound. Such men, by decrying the knowledge of others proclaim the superiority of their own knowledge. They have words for their weapons and words for their arrows and speak as if they are real masters of their sciences. Know, O Bharata, that they are traders in learning and Rakshasas (demons) among men.

By the aid of mere pretexts they cast off that morality which has been established by good and wise men. It has been heard by us that the texts of morality are not to be understood by either discussion or one’s own intelligence. Indra (king of gods) himself has said that this is the opinion of the sage Vrihaspati. Some are of opinion that noscriptural text has been laid down without a reason. Others again, even if they properly understand the scriptures, never act according to them. One class of wise men declare that morality is nothing else than the approved course of the world. The man of true knowledge should find out for himself the morality laid down for the good. If even a wise man speaks of morality under the influence of wrath or confusion of understanding or ignorance, his deliverances go for nothing. Discourses on morality made with the aid of an intelligence that is derived from the true letter and spirit of the scriptures, are worthy of praise and not those which are made with the help of anything else.

Even the words heard from an ignorant person, if in themselves they be fraught with sense, come to be regarded as pious and wise. In days of old, Usana said unto Daityas this truth, which should remove all doubts, that scriptures are no scriptures if they cannot stand the test of reason. The possession or absence of knowledge that is mixed with doubts is the same thing. It behoves thee to drive off such knowledge after tearing it up by the roots. He who does not listen to these words of mine is to be regarded as one that has suffered himself to be misled. Do you not see that you were created for the accomplishment of fierce deeds? Behold me, O dear child, how, by betaking myself, to the duties of the order of my birth (Kshatriya, the ruling class warriors), I have despatched innumerable Kshatriyas to heaven! There are some that are not delighted with me for this. The goat, the horse and the Kshatriya were created by Brahma (the Creator) for a similar purpose (viz., for being useful to everybody). A Kshatriya, therefore, should incessantly seek the happiness of all creatures. The sin that attaches to killing person that should not be killed is equal to that which is incurred by not killing one who deserves to be killed. Even such is the established order of things which a weak-minded king thinks of never attending to.

Therefore, a king should display severity in making all his subjects observe their respective duties. If this is not done, they will prowl like wolves, devouring one another. He is a wretch among Kshatriyas in whose territories robbers go about plundering the property of other people like crows taking little fishes from water. Appointing high-born men possessed of Vedic knowledge as thy ministers, do thou govern the earth, protecting thy subjects righteously. That Kshatriya who, ignorant of the established customs and contrivances, improperly levies taxes upon his people, is regarded as a eunuch of the order. A king should be neither severe nor mild. If he rules righteously he deserves praise. A king should not cast off both the qualities; on the other hand, becoming severe (on occasions demanding severity) he should be mild when it is necessary to be so. Painful is the observance of Kshatriya duties. I bear a great love for thee. Thou art created for the accomplishment of severe acts. Therefore, do thou rule thy kingdom. Sakra possessed of great intelligence has said that in times of distress the great duty of a king is chastising the wicked and protecting the good.

Yudhishthira said: Is there any such rule (in respect of kingly duties) which should, under no circumstances, be violated? I ask thee this, O foremost of virtuous persons! Tell me, O grandsire!

Bhishma said: One should always worship Brahmanas venerable for learning, devoted to penances, and rich in conduct conformable to the injunctions of the Vedas. This indeed, is a high and sacred duty. Let thy conduct towards the Brahmanas be always that which thou observest towards the gods. The Brahmanas, if enraged, can inflict diverse kinds of wrong, O king. If they be gratified, high fame will be thy share. If otherwise, great will be thy fear. If gratified, the Brahmanas become like nectar. If enraged, they become like poison.

 

 

Published with the kind permission of www.hinduism.co.za.

Their ‘Understanding Hinduism’ website is an award winning site featuring a whole host of various articles promoting Hinduism. It truly is a wonderful, thoughtful and thought provoking work and a true beacon for the promotion of Hinduism and Vedic culture in the world today.

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This article was published on Wednesday 27 May, 2009.
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