Monday, April 2, 2007

Duty is supreme


The Vedas appear in a language (form of Sanskrit) and style (symbolic) beyond easy comprehension. It is said that the epics have been written to convey the messages hidden in the Vedas. The main message is Dharma or the right path and conduct in life. What that is, depends on the adopted profession.

Many of the stories in the epics seem to suggest that following the Dharma in its letter and spirit gives human kind the ultimate goal in life, salvation. The following story tells something more.

There is something that pervades the entire universe, transcending both matter and force. What sages achieve through long years of penance seems to be the key to this substance that unifies the universe. Once that stage is achieved, then man is no more restrained by both space and time.

The following story is of a Brahmin, a housewife and a butcher. (The word used for the butcher is Vyadha which means a hunter. But, hunting was his way of collecting meat. His livelihood was by selling it. Hence, we use the word butcher in the story.) All the three follow their respective Dharmas. The Brahmin’s Dharma is the most difficult and he did not attain perfection in following his path. The other two did and, as a result, attained superior levels in spirituality.

Sage Markandeya told the following story to Yudhishthira in reply to the question on Dharma, especially, of a woman devoted to her husband.

The Brahmin

There was a Brahmin by name Kausika. He was once meditating under a tree. A crane was perched on one of the branches and its dropping fell right on the head of the meditating Kausika. He was upset and looked at the bird angrily. The poor bird was turned to ashes in the next instant by the Brahmin’s power from meditation. The Brahmin did feel sorry for the bird, but, at the same time was proud of his power.

The housewife

The Brahmin went to a housewife one day asking for food as was his custom. The lady received him with due respect and asked him to take seat. She would soon come back to him with food.

She was getting ready to serve the visiting Brahmin. Her husband arrived home in the meanwhile. The lady turned all her attention to him. She started helping him with his bath. She then served him food without even bothering about the waiting guest.

The Brahmin was getting furious. He called the lady and spoke. “Why are you ignoring me like this? I came hungry and you promised to serve me soon. Now, it looks like you have forgotten me. Are you not afraid of my wrath?”

The lady laughed and replied. “Don’t think I am like the crane that you burnt down with your anger. My supreme duty is to serve my husband. Everything else comes next. I do not think that your anger will work against me. I would have earned enough merit to make up for any shortcoming in serving a distinguished guest like you.”

She, then, went into the virtue of following one’s Dharma. She pointed out to the Brahmin that he did not follow his duty fully. As a Brahmin he should have overcome anger instead of punishing an innocent bird for a mistake it made unwittingly. She said that she was busy serving her husband. The Brahmin should visit the butcher in Mithila who was called a Dharma Vyadha or the righteous butcher to know more about one’s Dharma.

The Brahmin was surprised. How did the lady come to know what happened to him and the bird? She was so sure of what was right and wrong. There was something very convincing in the way she asked him to see the butcher. So, the Brahmin thanked the lady and left in search of the butcher.

And the Butcher

The butcher lived in the city of Mithila as the lady told him. The famous king Janaka was the ruler of Mithila at that time.

Dharma Vyadha was widely known for his wisdom. The Brahmin, Kausika, had no difficulty getting directions to the place where he worked. The butcher was busy cutting meat and serving his clients when the Brahmin reached him. Kausika was disgusted seeing the way carcasses were cut into meat.

The butcher spotted his guest from a distance and welcomed him as the one sent by the housewife. That came as the next surprise to the Brahmin. How did he and the lady get the sixth sense to know what happened elsewhere?

Dharma Vyadha took the Brahmin to his house as the butchery was not the right place to receive a distinguished guest. The Brahmin could not hide his repulsive feeling finding the wise man in the butchery.
The butcher replied. “For each man doing his duty properly is what is important. This was the profession of my father and all the other ancestors. If you are worried about the killing, try to understand that you cannot live in this world without that. You take lives even when you eat vegetables or fruit”.

Then, he went into the secret of his superior spirituality. He looked after his aged parents diligently and made an honest living by hunting and selling the meat.

He gave a long lecture to the Brahmin on Dharma. Veda Vyasa has nearly five hundred stanzas of poetry covering the advice given by the Dharma Vyadha. At the end the butcher asked the Brahmin to go to his parents and take good care of him. Meditation should take only the next place.

The Brahmin bowed before the Vyadha and took his leave. He returned to his parents and started looking after them with dedication.


Melissa said...

This story left me a bit confused. Both the housewife and the butcher had lessons for the Brahmin that suggest that duty to one's husband and parents has significant value in the pursuit of dharma. But it is still the meditation of the sages that holds the key to salvation, ie freedom from time and space. How to reconcile these apparently opposing positions?

Kunjunny said...

Sorry, if I have confused the two issues. The title should have been "duty is fundamental" and not "supreme". Following one's own Dharma is the most fundamental. Salvation is to become one with god, and not freedom from space and time, and is extremely difficult. Following Dharma fully is a basic duty for all. Meditation makes sense only after that. One may get power through meditaion, but, it is extremely rare that one gets salvation that way. The Kausika Brahmin had acquired power through meditation, but, had not followed his Dharma fully. The lady and the butcher had done theirs. The message of the story is that.

Melissa said...

Thank you for the additional explanation--in reading the chapter again I can see where I did not make the distinction between power achieved through meditation, and salvation. That actually also clarifies for me the concept of gaining and spending power that was alluded to in earlier chapters--I was having some trouble fitting that into the larger picture.