You are here: Sri Vaishnava Home Page : Bhakti List : Archives : May 1998

PART I MYTHS- Sec.2 Anec 3 to 5

From: Nutech (Nutech_at_ix.netcom.com)
Date: Sun May 03 1998 - 08:14:54 PDT

Dear Bhagavatas,

We present Anecdotes 3, 4 and 5 from Section 2 of Part I - Myths

Dasoham
Anbil Ramaswamy
=====================================================================================3.
The power of Omnipresence ( Uddalaka and Svetaketu)

In a conversation between Uddalaka and his son Svetaketu, the son asked
his father how the vast Universe with its infinite variety could be
produced, sustained and supported by God who, however, remained
incognito.  Uddalaka asked him to fetch a fruit of the Nyagrodha
(Banyan) tree, break it and tell what he saw. Some seeds were seen. He
asked him to crush a seed and tell what he saw. " Nothing" replied
Svetaketu. Yet in that subtle substance inside the tiny seed which could
not be seen lay the power that produced the Nyagrodha tree with its
massive branches. Uddalaka explained that in the same manner, all that
exists in the Universe was potentially in the 'Sat'  of Brahman- the
material, instrumental and supportive cause of everything.

Again, he asked him to put some salt in water. Next morning, he asked
his son to find out whether the salt was still there. Svetaketu replied
that he could not find the salt but when he drank the water it tasted
saline. Uddalaka explained that in the same manner, even though God
could not be seen, he was the cause of the Universe and was very much in
the world supporting it from within and without, controlling it and
directing it.

Comment

This 'Brahman' which controls conducts, directs, ordains, supervises,
pervades, performs and regulates our lives, our desires, our wisdom, our
actions, our very being, our knowledge, our happiness, the universal
truth and beauty, besides time, space and matter - remains humble and
non-interfering. It refuses to force itself upon us. However, it
imperceptibly envelops our every thought, word and deed in our
existence. Out of sheer grace it does all this without making itself
felt as overbearing. This Brahman lives in the horizon of mystery
revealing itself when occasion demands but content to remain
unrecognized by us while all the time recognizing us, in its all
encompassing compassion in its ' presence-in-absence'. This is no
abdication  of responsibility but a selfless self distancing
deliberately undertaken to be more involved than any specific localized
presence would allow. This absence is meant to give the world a sense of
autonomy and the living beings a sense of  freedom. Thus, this
unobtrusiveness, this masterly non-intervention  actually  underscores
the other facet of his concern for us.

4. The power of perseverance ( Nachiketas )

Vajisravas performed a Yagna in which he was to give away all that he
had. But, actually, he gifted away old, scrawny cows. His son,
Nachiketas, a boy of 8 years was put off by this. He asked his father "
To whom would you gift me?' At first, the father ignored. But, when
Nachiketas persisted, in a fit of rage, he said" I would gift you to the
Lord of death". Soon, he realized that a word given at a Yagna had to be
kept up. Undaunted, the boy agreed to go to the Lord of death.

Yama, the Lord of death was away and Nachiketas had to wait for 3 days
to get an audience with him. On his return, Yama regretted his having
kept the guest waiting and offered to grant him 3 boons. The first boon
was that his father's anger should vanish and  should receive him with
pleasure as he returned home. The second boon was to instruct him on the
Yaga that would open up the way to Heavens. Yama instructed him in
detail of the procedures of Agni Vidya. The third boon was to know what
happens to the soul after death. This was a big question deserving an
elaborate answer. Yama tried to dissuade him offering to grant him
whatever other boons he desired. But, Nachiketas was steadfast, insisted
on Yama delineating on the 'after death scenario'- a secret that cannot
be ordinarily revealed to anyone. After satisfying himself that he was
fit to receive the secret, Yama advised him.  Nachiketas returned home
and finally attained immortality.

Comment

The story of Nachiketas aims to prove that when a disciple shows utmost
sincerity in learning and prays to be instructed, there is no secret, no
truth that cannot be revealed to him by  a qualified preceptor. Also, in
this case, the willingness and ability of both the teacher and the
taught were of a very high order - the capacity to impart was as great
on the part of Yama as the capacity to receive on the part of
Nachiketas. The perseverance of Nachiketas proved his depth of sincerity
which Yama could not ignore. Thus, this episode brings out in bold
relief the duties of the preceptor and those of the pupil in the matter
of spiritual knowledge.

Another lesson the story  conveys is that when a guest arrives, the host
should extend all courtesies due to him. This is one of the Panchamaha
Yagnas prescribed for being observed by a Grihasta  ( householder) and
the guest in fact is considered to be a divine visitor as the saying
goes " Athithi Devo Bhava" next only to the mother, father and
preceptor. Any lapse in this duty has to be atoned and recompensed as
Yama did by offering any boon that Nachiketas desired.

5. The Power of Exception (  Sage Ushasti )

The  Kuru kingdom was once afflicted with a severe thunderstorm. A great
famine followed killing thousands of people, cattle and all other living
beings. This led to an exodus to other places. A Brahmin sage by name
Ushasti also trekked long distances in search of food and shelter along
with his wife. At one stage, he was so famished and exhausted with
hunger and thirst that he almost fainted and apprehended that his end
was near at hand. 

A mahout riding on an elephant passed by. When Ushasti inquired whether
he could offer any food, the mahout had only left over remnants of baked
horsegram part of which he had eaten. Ushasti gladly accepted the
grains. But,later when the mahout offered water to drink, Ushasti
declined saying that he cannot accept water contaminated by his spittle.
The mahout asked how in the first place, he accepted the horsegram when
that was also equally contaminated. Ushasti explained that he accepted
the grains since he was in a life-threatening situation and that if he
had not eaten, he would have died instantly whereas drinking water was
not in that category, life having been saved and the danger to life had
disappeared.

Comment

Some people posing to be more puritanical than the real puritans
question whether one could eat onions, garlic etc. which are not
approved by the Sastras. At the other extreme are those who argue that
in the background of modern hectic activity and struggle for survival,
one cannot be too meticulous  about observing the age old stipulations
of Dharmic duties, one cannot be too fastidious about avoiding such
foods, or too fussy about partaking in 'socializing' involving as it
does imbibing intoxicants. Neither of them is correct. What CAN BE eaten
and what MAY BE avoided 
(note the difference between can be and may be) have been clearly
indicated in our Sastras. Again, it is not as if activity has become
hectic only now, or the struggle for survival has become intense only in
our days. Life has always been  hectic and the struggle for survival was
perhaps much more poignant in the past  than now, since the people in
those days lacked much of the luxuries and comforts we have converted to
be necessities for us today.

The moral of the story is that in times of danger to life, Sastras do
permit consuming any vegetarian edibles and such intake will not go
against  Pramanas. This point is clearly declared in Sri
Ramanujacharya's Sri Bashyam Sutras 446 - 448 " Sarvaanna Anumaty
Adhikaraanam". 

But, Sutra 449,  clearly and categorically forbids consumption of meat
(on grounds of Ahimsa) and liquor in any form even in the face of danger
to life.

The restrictions on food prescribed are only for general guidance. The
Sastras do not prohibit but only advise avoidance of certain foods like
onion, garlic etc for the purpose of regulating / eliminating Rajo /
Tamo gunas which mold one's attitudes and character adversely, if
consumed in the long run  and as a matter of addiction. Swami Sri
Desikan has listed such items in his " Aahaara Niyamam". 

It should be understood that should a person  be unable to fulfill his
Dharmic duties or is compelled by circumstances beyond one's control
(individually or socially) to resort to consuming such items when
nothing else is available and to avoid life threatening hunger, for
example in a foreign land, one can partake, (more by way of exception
than as a routine) and with a sense of remorse  (Nirveda) and perform
atonement (Prayaschitta). 

This can be seen from the fact that where Sastras have prescribed severe
observance of certain rites like repeating mantras 1008 times, or
observing Vratas for as long as even 36 years, the same Sastras also
provide for substitutes like repeating the same  Mantras for just 28
times or even 10 times and observance of the same  Vratas for
incredibly  short periods. The Sastras also prescribe purificatory
procedures like Punyavachanam (sprinkling holy waters with appropriate
mantras), eating Panchagavyam (the five products of the cow also with
appropriate mantras) - only to drive home the fact that should one be
compelled by circumstances to get polluted, there is always a way to
cleanse oneself. But, mere ritualistic cleansing will have no value
unless they are accompanied by sincere remorse and atonement as
mentioned above. Our fault lies in making the exception the very rule.
=====================================================================================