|Dr. Bibek Debroy|
Saturday, 1 March 2014
Dharma, Artha, Kāma, Mokṣa - XIX
Who were the sons of Krishna Dvaipayana Vedavyasa? Most people will mention Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura. However, Vedavyasa also had another son named Shuka. The word शुक means parrot and there is a story about how Shuka came to have that name. One wonders about Shuka, because the stories aren’t consistent. There is a very attractive story in the Mahabharata about Shuka obtaining moksha. The words निवृत्ति (nivritti) and प्रवृत्ति(pravritti) can’t be translated very well. Nivritti means cessation, inactivity, abstinence, abstention. Pravritti means application, exertion. But in the tension between nivritti and pravritti, what is really meant by pravritti is engaging in deeds, ceremonies, rites, sacrifices, even if one is not attached to the fruits. Nivritti means withdrawal from all these. Pravritti leads to fruits - dharma, artha, kama, even heaven. However, all fruits, even heaven, are temporary. Once those fruits are exhausted, one is dislodged and gets back to the cycle of life, birth and death, samsara. Beyond a point, quibbling about semantics is futile. Having said that, since pravritti doesn’t lead to true moksha and fruits of pravritti are transient, perhaps one should resort to nivritti, renunciation from everything. Let’s not start a debate on this here. In the Mahabharata, even the gods and the rishis were confused about this. If nivritti was desirable, why was the path of pravritti recommended? They went to Narayana for an explanation and that answer can wait, for the moment.
To return to Shuka, he desired moksha and went in search of it. His father, Vedavyasa, called him and asked him to stay, at least for one night, but Shuka didn’t listen. He left for the Himalayas. While there, he passed the river Mandakini and there were naked apsaras bathing there. However, though they saw Shuka pass, they realized he had conquered all desire and were not ashamed. Eventually, Shuka merged himself into nature there, into the mountains, the rivers, the lakes and the trees. He became one with them. He knew that his father would come after him. He told the mountains and the caverns that when his father came after him and called out to him, they should answer on his behalf. That is the reason we still hear an echo resound in mountains and valleys. When we call out, they are answering, on behalf of Shuka. When Vedavyasa followed, the naked apsaras saw him and scrambled to cover themselves. They hid in the water and rushed to grab their garments. They knew that Vedavyasa had still not conquered his desire. Vedavyasa was both delighted and ashamed. He was delighted because his son had conquered desire and obtained emancipation, but he was ashamed on his own account. I said the stories about Shuka are not very consistent. If he disappeared in this way, how could he have recited the Bhagavata Purana to King Parikshit? There is a further complication in the Devi Bhagavata Purana, where Shuka actually marries and has children, before taking to a life of renunciation.
The point I want to flag is being “selfish”. Selfish is a nasty word, with negative connotations. But surely the question is, what I am being selfish about? Being selfish about dharma, artha and kama is somewhat different from being selfish about moksha. When Vedavyasa asked Shuka not to go and Shuka didn’t listen, he was being selfish in a positive sense. There was an interaction between Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna. This is reported in a letter written by Swami Vivekananda to Pramadadas Mitra in 1890 and Swami Nikhilananda’s “The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna”. There is a slight difference in nuance between what the letter and the book say. But the substance is something like this. Swami Vivekananda wished to be perpetually immersed in samadhi and Sri Ramakrishna rebuked him for his “selfishness”.
Had Swami Vivekananda remained interested in his own spiritual upliftment alone, the rest of the world would certainly have lost out. I recently met a Buddhist scholar. He told me that there was a new biography of Gautama Buddha. As all of us know, Prince Siddhartha was married to Yashodhara and had a son named Rahula. At the age of 29, he left in search of enlightenment. This seems unfair to the wife. According to this new biography, and I am no Buddhist scholar, before departing Prince Siddhartha took Yashodhara’s permission. I don’t see how this makes much difference. It was no different for Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. His first wife died early. But when he decided to opt for sannyasa at the age of 24, the historical records tell us that his mother and second wife, Vishnupriya, were miserable. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu did console his mother. However, I haven’t read anything that describes any such conversation he had with Vishnupriya. For Adi Shankaracharya too, there is a story about his mother objecting to his taking sannyasa and accepting it when he was seized by a crocodile.
पिता नैव मे नैव माता न जन्म. I do not have a father. I do not have a mother. I do not have a birth. That is Adi Shankaracharya in Atma-Shatakam or Nirvana-Shatakam. That’s Vedanta and we know about the bonds of relationships becoming transitory and irrelevant. But it seems to me that the struggle for moksha also requires an extremely high degree of selfishness in the positive sense, discarding the negative and obvious nuances of selfishness. I have tried to think of all the possible Sanskrit words for selfishness. With the exception of केवल, I can’t think of a single one that doesn’t have that negative nuance. But if moksha is about the self, we do need to be selfish. We discard associations with the external world, immerse ourselves in the self and then, in a completely different kind of way, engage again with the external world.