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Righteousness (Part 2) by The Mahabharata


From The Mahabharata
Santi Parva, Sections CCLIX to CCLXIV
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan ganguli


Yudhishthira said: Thou sayest that righteousness or duty depends upon delicate considerations, that is indicated by the conduct of those that are called good, that it is fraught with restraints (from numerous acts), and that its indications are also contained in the Vedas. It seems to me, however, that I have a certain inward light in consequence of which I can discriminate between right and wrong by inferences. Numerous questions that I had intended to ask thee have all been answered by thee. There is one question, however, that I shall presently ask. It is not prompted, O king, by desire of empty disputation. All these embodied creatures, it seems, take birth, exist, and leave their bodies, of their own nature. Duty and its reverse, therefore, cannot be ascertained, O Bharata, by study of the scriptures alone.

[Note: The argument, as explained by the commentator is this: Bhishma has said that righteousness and its reverse arise from one’s acts producing happiness or misery to others, and that they both affect one’s future life in respect to the happiness and misery enjoyed or endured therein. But living creatures, says Yudhishthira, are seen to take their births, exist, and die, of their own nature. Nature, therefore, seems to be the efficient cause of birth, existence, and death, and not the declarations in the Srutis (Vedas), consistent though those declarations be with considerations of felicity or the reverse. The study of the Vedas, therefore, cannot alone lead to a knowledge of righteousness and its reverse.]

Yuthishthira continued: The duties of a person who is well off are of one kind. Those of a person who has fallen onto distress are of another kind. How can duty respecting seasons of distress be ascertained by reading the scriptures alone? The acts of the good, thou hast said, constitute righteousness (or duty). The good, however, are to be ascertained by their acts. The definition, therefore, has for its foundation, a begging of the question, with the result that what is meant by conduct of the good remains unsettled.

It is seen that some ordinary person commits unrighteousness while apparently achieving righteousness. Some extraordinary persons again may be seen who achieve righteousness by committing acts that are apparently unrighteous.

[Note : The commentator cites the example of Sudras listening to forbidden scriptures in expectation of merit. They commit sin by such act. Then again high Brahmanas like Agastya, by cursing the denizens of the Dandaka forest, achieved great merit.]

Then again the proof of what I say has been furnished by even those that are well conversant with the scriptures themselves, for it has been heard by us that the ordinances of the Vedas disappear gradually in every successive age. The duties in the Krita age are of one kind. Those in the Treta are of another kind, and those in the Dwapara are again different. The duties in the Kali age, again, are entirely of another kind. It seems, therefore, that duties have been laid down for the respective age according to the powers of human beings in the respective ages. When, therefore, all the declarations in the Vedas do not apply equally to all the ages, the saying that the declarations of the Vedas are true is only a popular form of speech indulged in for popular satisfaction.

From the Srutis (Vedas) have originated the Smritis [e.g. The Mahabharata, Ramayana] whose scope again is very wide. If the Vedas be authority for everything, then authority would attach to the Smritis also for the latter are based on the former. When, however, the Srutis and the Smritis contradict each other, how can either be authoritative? Then again, it is seen that when some wicked persons of great might cause certain portions of certain courses of righteous acts to be stopped, these are destroyed for ever.

Whether we know it or know it not, whether we are able to ascertain it or not to ascertain it, the course of duty is finer than the edge of a razor and grosser than even a mountain. Righteousness (in the form of sacrifices and other religious acts) at first appears in the form of the romantic edifices of vapour seen in the distant sky. When, however, it is examined by the learned, it disappears and become invisible.

[Note: Sacrifices and religious acts at first appear romantic and delightful in consequence of the fruits they hold forth, viz., heaven and felicity. But when they are examined by the light of philosophy, they disappear and shrink into nothingness, for as acts, they are transitory and their consequences too are of the same character.]

Like the small ponds at which the cattle drink or the shallow aqueducts along cultivated fields that dry up very soon, the eternal practices inculcated in the Smritis, falling into discontinuance, at last disappear totally (in the Kali age).

Among men that are no good some are seen to become hypocrites (in respect of the acquisition of righteousness) by suffering themselves to be urged by desire. Some become so, urged by the wishes of others. Others, numbering many, tread in the same path, influenced by diverse other motives of a similar character.

[Note: The object of this verse is to show that it is extremely difficult to ascertain who the good are whose conduct should be taken as the standard of righteousness.]

It cannot be denied that such acts (though accomplished by persons under the influence of evil passions) are righteous. Fools, again, say that righteousness is an empty sound among those called good. They ridicule such persons and regard them as men destitute of reason. Many great men, again, turning back (from the duties of their own order) betake themselves to the duties of the kingly order. No such conduct, therefore, is to be seen (as observed by any man), which is fraught with universal benevolence.

[Note; The commentator cites the instance of Drona and others of that class. These men must be regarded as Mahajanas and Sadhus, but how can their conduct be regarded as righteous? What Yudhishthira means to say is that the standards of righteousness or that by which a good man may be known, is difficult to ascertain.]

By a certain course of conduct one becomes really meritorious. That very course of conduct obstructs another in the acquisition of merit. Another, by practising at his pleasure that conduct, it is seen, remains unchanged.

[Note: The example of Viswamitra, Jamadagnya, and Vasishtha are cited by the commentator. The first won pre-eminence by his mastery over weapons. The second lost his character as a Brahmana by the profession of arms. The third lost nothing although he punished Viswamitra’s insolence by using even carnal weapons.]

Thus that conduct by which one becomes meritorious impedes another in the acquisition of merit. One may thus see that all courses of conduct are seen to lose singleness of purpose and character. It seems, therefore, that only that which the learned of ancient times called righteousness is righteousness to this day: and through that course of conduct (which the learned so settled) the distinctions and limitations (that govern the world) have become eternal.

[Note: What Yudhishthira says here is that righteousness or virtue or duty does not depend upon the Srutis or the Smritis, nor upon considerations of happiness or misery. On the other hand, righteousness is arbitrary in respect of its standard, that being called righteous which was called so by the learned of ancient times. As regards happiness or misery, its cause is eternal nature.]


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This article was published on Wednesday 27 May, 2009.
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