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Not quite the cuddliest thought…

india Updated: May 17, 2008 00:11 IST
Renuka Narayanan

What made him do it? Steal away into the night from a sleeping, trusting wife, to go find himself? And what made him do it? Send a provenly faithful wife away into the woods while pregnant, because some drunken fool said something? The men got away with everything when it came to women. So the first truth is: There is no maryada purshottam, even when he speaks excellent sense in every other department. Having acknowledged that, what next? Rant endlessly about the patriarchy? No. We could look instead at everything that its better thinkers said and see if any of it makes sense, while sticking with the truth that nobody has ever had the perfect argument, because humanity itself is so flawed.

So let’s try looking (again). In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, 4:5.6, Rishi Yajnavalkya, lawgiver and author of the Shukla Yajur Veda, taught his wife Maitreyi that “a wife does not love her husband for his sake but for the sake of the Self.” A fine exposition on this disturbing conclusion is found in the Panchadashi (Fifteen Chapters), a post-Adi Shankara classic on Vedanta by Vidyaranya who was pontiff of the Sringeri Math from 1377 to 1386 CE. The edition of his work that I cherish is from the Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Chennai, with Sanskrit verses in Devanagari and English translation and notes by Swami Swahananda. The Panchadashi’s fifteen chapters are grouped in three quintads: Viveka-panchaka (discriminating the real from the non-real), Dipa-panchaka (expounding the nature of that enigmatic Self) and Ananda-panchaka (on the incredible lightness and happiness achieved by understanding the way we are).

Vidyaranya Swami’s purpose in writing the Panchadashi was to explain Vedanta rationally while remaining rooted in faith. You may disagree with his views on the importance of sons, for instance, but you do touch a very fine mind at work. Chapter Twelve in the last quintad offers this rather frightening perspective. Taking up the point that a wife’s love is not for her husband’s sake but for her own, Vidyaranya explains that similarly the husband’s love is also for his own satisfaction and not for hers. Thus, even in the mutual love between husband and wife, the incentive is one’s own desire for happiness. Just so, a child, when kissed by its father, may cry when pricked by the father’s bristly beard. Yet, the father goes on kissing it — not for its sake, but his own.

Infinite love, says Yajnavalkya’s diamond-hard mind that never waffles sentimentally, is always felt for the Self, which is primary in every context. As for whatever is related to it, there is just moderate love, and for all other things, there is no love whatsoever. ‘Other things’ are of two kinds: to be either hated or ignored. So things fall into four categories: loved, dearly loved, disregarded or hated. And we slot a thing or person into one of these categories according to the effect they produce on us under particular circumstances. So when a tiger confronts man, it is hated. When it is well away, it is disregarded. And when it has been tamed and made friendly, it causes joy: thus it is related to man and is loved. It is not the ‘other’ that you love, but the use you have for that ‘other’. Cynical? No. Starkly realistic and actually liberating, because it lets you look upon everybody with a kindly eye, instead of feeling that you can only like people with whom you have a demand-and-supply relationship.

Take the Buddha, whose jayanti we honour this Tuesda. He seems to have gone into deep Upanishadic reflex to attain nirvana. For in the Bhrikurvalli, the third section of the Taittiriya Upanishad, Bhrigu, the son of Varuna, asks his father to teach him about Brahman (the nature of God or the ultimate Truth).

Varuna explains that ‘existence’ is made up of matter, sight, hearing, mind and speech. But, where ‘life’ (awareness in action) comes from, how it sustains itself and where it departs into are mysteries that Bhrigu must meditate on and discover himself. And he does: “Manaso hy eva khalv imani bhutani jayante, manasa jatani jivanti, manah prayanti abhisamvishanti: for truly, beings are born from the mind; when born, they live by the mind; and into the mind, departing, they enter,” he says (Taittiriya Upanishad, 4;1). Cold, maybe. But empowering perspective, don’t you think?