Category: Ancient Indian literature

152. The Laws of Manu (2nd century BC – 3rd century AD)

Contents : An encyclopedic guide to life as an ancient Hindu.

My thoughts : I tried several times to read this work – hoping to see and appreciate some glimmer of Hindu thought. I understood the four castes : priests, ruler/warriors, commoners and servants; I saw how the Laws were couched to rate the priest caste highest by their control of the sacrificial requirements of ancient Indic life and expectations, and how the Laws dictated virtually every aspect of every man’s life – from what he can wear to his choice of wife, and how a man is born again by his knowledge and experience of the Vedas.

And while reading advice to the man in his second quarter of life, who has studied the Vedas and is now living in a household, I reached the sentence “A man who eats while his feet are still wet lives a long life”.  I realized I wasn’t getting enough from this personally to read a further two hundred pages.

Favourite lines/passages:

 Desire is never extinguished by the enjoyment of what is desired; it just grows stronger like a fire that flares up … and burns a dark path.       Chapter 2, [94]

Plus some advice on choosing a wife:

A man should not marry a wife who is a redhead or has an extra limb or is sickly or has no body hair, or too much body hair, or is sallow; or who is named after a constellation, a tree or a river, a mountain, a bird or a snake, or who has a low-caste name, or a menial or frightening name. He should marry a woman who does not lack any part of her body, and who has a pleasant name, who walks like a goose or an elephant, whose body hair is fine and her teeth are not too big.       Chapter 3, [8-10]

Personal rating:  2 (but did not finish)

Next :  A month of Cicero, starting with his Murder Trial speeches.

151. The Dhammapada (Third Century BC)

151. The Dhammapada (Third Century BC)

The Dhammapada may be defined as the Buddhist Path to Perfection, or Nirvana, as depicted by a collection of 423 short homilies.  Although most are straightforward, I am sure at least some carry more meaning the longer they are thought over, or are not as easy to live by as they first sound. Perhaps the best example of what I am trying to say is the story related by the editor in the Introduction.

“It is said that once a man of arms undertook a long journey to see a holy follower of Buddha, and asked if the message of Buddha could be taught to him.

The answer was ‘Do not what is evil. Do what is good. Keep your mind pure. This is the teaching of Buddha.’

‘Is this all?’ asked the man of arms. ‘Every child of five knows this!’

‘It may be so, but few men of eighty can practice it’,  he was told.               page 21-22

There is naturally a similarity with the teachings of Christ in how Buddha asks us to deal with others to encourage a safe and harmonious society. However more strongly presented are the themes of self-improvement, including watchfulness, self-control, moderation, truth and harmony.

Key tenets include:

  • Hate can only be overcome by love.
  • Since our thoughts build our future, thoughts free of the feelings of hurt and defeat will be free of hate.
  • Freedom from desires provides joy. Transient pleasures, passions and cravings lead to sorrows, for to want but not obtain these pleasures causes sorrow.
  • Think not of the faults of others, but of your own failings
  • Life is dear to all creatures therefore man should not kill or cause to kill.

Rather than providing further inadequate summary here after my brief first exposure to this religion, I have copied out a greater number of quotes below than is my usual practice  –  not necessarily representative of the whole but those which resonated with me as I read.  The Penguin copy I read (ISBN 0140443847) was only about ninety pages, and a third of that was the introduction by Juan Mascaro, in which he makes many links to Christianity and other spiritual literatures.

Favourite lines/passages:

The mind is fickle and flighty, it flies after fancies wherever it likes; it is difficult indeed to restrain. But it is a great good to control the mind; a mind self-controlled is a source of great joy.

As the bee takes the essence of a flower and flies away without destroying its beauty and perfume, so let the sage wander in this life.

Better than a thousand useless words is one single word that gives peace.

Neither in the sky, nor deep in the ocean, nor in a mountain-cave, nor anywhere, can a man be free from the evil he has done.

How can there be laughter, how can there be pleasure, when the whole world is burning? When you are in deep darkness, will you not ask for a lamp?

It is easy to do what is wrong, to do what is bad for oneself; but very difficult to do what is right, to do what is good for oneself.

Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend. Nirvana is the greatest joy.

Speak the truth, yield not to anger, give what you can to him that asks : these three steps lead you to the gods.  

In days gone by this mind of mine used to stray wherever selfish desire or lust or pleasure would lead it.  Today this mind does not stray and is under the harmony of control,  even as a wild elephant is controlled by its trainer.

Personal rating:  As a pleasurable experience to read : 6/10.

 Next : From Buddhism to Hinduism. The Manusmriti (Laws of Manu)


17. The Mahabharata

Plot: Some similarities to the Ramayana, as five princes undergo exile in the forest before waging a war with their cousins, although in this case, to regain their kingdom.
Within the great expanse of text, there are many side stories, including the tale of the Ramayana read earlier, and a whole section discussing dharma (the correct way to live) of kings and warriors which has gained its own title – the Bhagavad Gita, and has had a deep impact on Hinduism.

My thoughts : The Mahabharata is the very definition of epic. The abridged version I read still ran to over 790 pages, but the original in Sanskrit can run to 32 volumes.
I felt that the Mahabharata was much more gritty and less fantastical than the Ramayana, despite the presence of gods, demons, supernatural weapons and superhuman stamina and abilities of the various heroes and their anatagonists. Much of the story centres on the battles of the war, with each encounter between heroes showering each other with thousands of arrows; and chariots, horses, elephants and drivers destroyed in their hundreds of thousands.
Favourite lines/passages:
“his weapon…. was as unbearable as a flesh-eating ghoul” p. 523 – What??!!!
“ Bhrgu’s son Cyavana performs [religious] austerities for so long that he becomes an anthill” p. 189. This has to be the most bizarre and random opening line of a chapter in the whole of world literature!

And finally, not so much a favourite as a jaw-dropping image repeated several times descibes a battle so ferocious that …”with his torrents of sharp arrows the wearer of the diadem set a dreadful river flowing on that battlefield: its water was blood from the wounds of weapons on men’s bodies, its foam human fat ….. corpses of elephants and horses formed its banks, the entrails, marrow and flesh of men its mud. Ghosts and great throngs of demons lned its banks. Its waterweed was hair attached to human skulls, its billows severed pieces of armour … fragments of the bones of men, horses and elephants formed the gravel of that fearful destructive, hellish river ; crows, jackals, vultures and storks, and throngs of carrion beasts and hyenas were approaching its banks from every direction”  p.377.
Diversions/digressions : When reading a 800 page epic with a huge cast and lots of repetition of circumstances and similes, everything else in life is a distraction
Personal rating : plenty of great ratings for the Mahabharata on, so I don’t feel too guilty giving this only 4/10. Just too long to enjoy (as The Prince said to Mozart in Amadeus), and I didn’t feel the ‘heroes’ demonstrated true dharma – quite the opposite : Arjuna burning the Khandeva forest and killing 1000s of animals, Yudhisthira lying to Drona in the midst of battle, telling him that his son was dead to demoralise and defeat him, the five Pandava heroes not acting to protect their shared wife from the humiliation and torment of the Kauravas. Or maybe I still don’t understand the true concept of dharma.
Next : The Homeric Hymns – not written by Homer, but are they hymns?

While you are waiting … The Mahabharata

I have started on an abridged version of the Mahabharata – only 800 pages instead of the 30 VOLUME set in my local university library. I am disregarding the warning by the editor in his introduction that it is “common throughout large parts of India is a superstition that reading the Mahabharata (or at least reading all of it) brings misfortune” and instead focusing on the actual promises in the first section, of the great boons granted to any one who reads or repeats even a small part.

My copy is a Penguin Classic abridged and translated by John D. Smith (9780670084159) which took him over ten years to complete, so will understand if I don’t finish it quickly. 🙂

We have also passed 100 views for this little blog, and considering its focus, I am pleased to have had that much notice in the first three months.

14. The Ramayana by Valmiki

Plot :  A young prince Rama, his beautiful wife Sita and his loyal brother Lakshmana agree to 14 years’ exile in the jungle on the eve of Rama’s coronation as King of Asoyada. In the last year of exile, Sita is kidnapped by the king of demons Ravana,  and it is Rama’s destiny to kill Ravana. He is aided by a race of magical monkeys (vanaras), bears and other demons (rakshasas)


My thoughts : A truly epic masterpiece, ranking in terms of literature with western classics such as The Lord of the Rings, yet with a very strong moral centre and a host of admirable and godlike individuals. Even the villain Ravana is described in noble and praiseworthy ways, and the reader has to be reminded how evil he is, when it is easy to sympathise with his Fate to love Sita leading him and many of his subjects to their doom.

I read a modern English version written by Ramesh Menon which was extremely approachable despite hundreds of unfamiliar Indian words (a glossary is provided in the back of the book, but the reader soon becomes in tune with the words and accepts their approximate meaning so as not to disrupt the story too much). Menon uses a great many small chapters within the original seven book structure, and it took me a long time to read the almost 700 pages.

Favourite lines/passages : In such a long epic, there are many scenes which stand out. Ravana’s gigantic brother Kumbhakarna who must sleep all but two days per year as his massive appetite would devour the world, and must be woken carefully with great piles of food and drink, and willing women, to satisfy all his hungers at once, was a wonderful villain, and his ravenous attack on the monkey army was chilling to read. The marvellous and wise vanara Hanuman, who flew to the Himalayas not once but twice to carry a mountain of medicinal herbs to the battle at Ravana’s citadel in Lanka (Sri Lanka), and his other magical tricks, was also a favourite.

Diversions/digressions : As Rama and Sita are human incarnations of Vishnu and Lakshmi, it would be appropriate to learn more about the Hindu pantheon. It was also interesting to speculate on the flying machine, the Pushpaka vimana, which Menon describes as a flying disc, bigger on the inside (able to carry the thousands of monkey-like vanaras at one time back to Rama’s coronation), and transparent from the inside.

Personal rating : Enjoyed immensely 8/10.

13. The Upanishads

Content : Roughly translated as “lessons at the foot of the Master”, The Upanishads are spiritual lessons originally written in Sanskrit, mostly between 800 BC and 400 BC.

Although there are over one hundred recognized Upanishads in Sanskrit (some over one hundred pages long), my copy is a selection from twelve of the older Upanishads, translated by Juan Mascaro, and published by Penguin (0140441638)

My thoughts: Far more spiritual than the Rig Veda, The Upanishads are about seeking union with the Spirit (Brahman) and despite the existence of other God figures (Siva, Vishnu, Krishna) in this pantheon, the Lessons are  much more monotheistic – indeed, there is a strong idea that all gods/religions are really coming from one source. Instead of praying for worldly advantage, there is a strong emphasis on attaining perfection via good deeds, and glorifying and rejoicing in God/Brahman.  Indeed, freeing oneself from earthly desires and longings is crucial to becoming one with the omniscient, omnipresent Spirit of the Universe by moving to a higher state of Self and Consciousness.  Faith is valued above seeking knowledge and the concepts of karma and reincarnation arise.

“The soul is born and unfolds in a body, with dreams and desires, and the food of life. And then it is reborn in new bodies, in accordance with its former works. The quality of the soul determines its future body : earthy or airy, heavy or light. Its thoughts and its actions can lead it to freedom, or lead it to bondage, in life after life”  Svetasvatara Upanishad, p. 94

 Favourite lines/passages:  “thus they realize the ineffable joy supreme”  Katha Upanishad, p.64

“At the end of the worlds, all things sleep; he alone is awake in Eternity. Then from his infinite space new worlds arise and awake, a universe which is a vastness of thought. In the consciousness of Brahman the universe is, and into him it returns”    Maitri Upanishad, p, 101

Diversions/digressions:  Despite the religious theme of the work, a piece of scientific/anatomical knowledge slipped in which is quite accurate and surprising for its time, regarding the circulatory system down to capillary level and its role in carrying oxygen through the body:

“In the Heart dwells the Atman, the Self. It is the centre of a hundred and one little channels. From each one of them comes a hundred channels more. Seventy two thousand smaller channels branch from each one of these. In all these millions of little channels moves the power of Vyana [Air]”

Personal rating:  5/10

Next : The epic Ramayana