Monday, April 21, 2014


Tulsidas (1532 – 1623)
In Hindu mythology Goswami Tulsidas, the author of Ramcharitmanas, is regarded as a reincarnation of Valmiki. It is stated in the Bhavishyottar Purana that Lord Shiva had once revealed to Parvati that Valmiki had a boon from Hanuman for being reincarnated on earth during the Kali Yuga. Shiva states that after being reincarnated, Valmiki would sing glories of Lord Rama in vernacular language. It is traditionally believed that this prophecy of Lord Shiva came true in the year 1532 when Valmiki got reincarnated as Goswami Tulsidas. Nabhadas, a contemporary of Tulsidas, has written in his work titled Bhaktmala, that Valmiki had been born again as Tulsidas to explain the beauties of the Ramayana in the popular language for the benefit of the masses. The Ramanandi sect, to which Tulisidas originally belonged, continues to believe till this day that Tulsidas was an incarnation of Valmiki in the Kali Yuga.


It is difficult for us to create an authentic portrait of Tulsidas’s life. We do have access to accounts that some of his contemporaries and successors have written, but most of these texts are laced with apocryphal legends. It is difficult to say where the mythology ends and real history begins. There is some confusion about Tulsidas’s place of birth as well, though it is generally believed that he was born in a village called Rajapur, Uttar Pradesh, during the period of time when Emperor Akbar reigned in Delhi. He belonged to the Brahmin caste; his father’s name was Atmaram Shukla Dube and mother’s name was Hulsi. According to some legends, he had a full complement of teeth at the time of his birth, and instead of crying, he uttered the name of Ram, which is why his parents decided to name him Rambola. But the fears of the parents were aggravated by the fact that the child had been born at a time when there was an inauspicious configuration of stars in the cosmos. According to the then popular belief, a child born during this period was destined to bring death to his father.

In order to ensure his own survival, the father was supposed to destroy such a child. But Tulsidas survived, perhaps, because his parents were incapable of taking the extreme step of destroying their own progeny. Instead, they abandoned him. Some legends say that Tulsidas got adopted by the midwife who had assisted his mother helped during his birth, and wet-nursed him. There are other legends that suggest a wandering sadhu, who went by the name of Narharidas and was a descendant of Ramanand, adopted him. The foster parent played a key role in leading Tulsidas towards the path of devotion to Rama. Tulsidas mentions in Ramcharitmanas about how his foster-father took pains in relating the story of Rama to him until he was able to grasp it fully. Narharidas is also credited with changing the boy’s name from Rambola to Tulsidas. Even though Tulsidas has refrained from writing about the youth or the grihastha period of his life, with a careful study of the Ramcharitmanas it is possible for us to learn about some aspects of his life. He does not mention the name of his original father, but his mother, Hulsi, does find a mention few times.

It is popularly believed that the Bhaktmala written by Nabhadas has important information on Tulsidas’s life and career, but that does not seem to be the case. The Bhatmala has very few lines devoted to Tulsidas; even these are devoted to elucidating the mythological ideal that Tulsidas was a reincarnation of Valmiki. Almost a century after Tulsidas’s death, a Brahmin called Priya Das wrote his religious commentary, which has now become a source of much of the legendary material that we have on Tulsidas. It is from Priya Das that we learn about the infatuation that Tulsidas had with his wife before he became fully immersed in devotion of Ram. According to this account, Tulsidas had married a girl whose name was Ratnavali. The couple lived at Rajapur; their only son, Tarak, had died in infancy. Being devoted to his wife, Tulsidas could not bear to be away from her for even a day. On one occasion, when his wife had departed for her paternal home, Tulsidas’s infatuation forced him to cross the Yamuna so that he could spend the night with her.

When he reached her, she chided him with these words:

Hada mamsa-maya deha mam, taso jaisi pritti, 
Vaisi jo sri-ram mein, hot na bhav bhiti.

(Had you for Sri Ram as much love and you have for my body of flesh and bones, you have overcome the fear of existence.)

Priya Das is the only commentator who says that Tulsidas’s wife had chided him with this set of words. It is possible that in reality the wife might have used a less dramatic set of words. There are other legends that offer a more interesting slant to the same story. For instance, it has been suggested that Tulsidas’s father-in-law had on more than one occasion suggested that his daughter should be spending more time in his father’s house. However, Tulsidas always refused. One day, while he was away, the wife’s brothers arrived and took her away. When Tulsidas returned, he learned from neighbours where she had gone. He might have felt a little indignant at her going away without telling him first, so it was natural for him to follow to get her back. That is when she reproached him for his inordinate affection. Her words might have been a spur of the moment reaction, but he took them to seriously. The realisation dawned on him that he was wasting his life by remaining mired in worldly issues. He immediately set out of his father-in-law’s abode, with the intention of becoming a peripatetic monk.

His response was much more than what his wife could have ever expected. She followed him outside and implored him to stay behind and have his food. She is said to have promised to accompany him back to their home after he had eaten. But he told her to stay where she was, as he wanted to go back alone. From that day onwards, he lived the life of an ascetic. He and his wife were never together again. There is another interesting legend that describes the poignant meeting between Tulsidas and his wife when he was an old man and she an old woman. During the course of his wanderings, he reached his father-in-laws village, where he found himself outside his father-in-law’s house. When he knocked, it was his wife who opened the door and asked him what he would eat. He told her that he would prepare his food by his own hands. So she got the eating-place ready for him. At first she had failed to recognise him, but by his movements and gestures she realised that he was her husband. She begged him to take her with him on his journeys, but he refused.

In his commentary, Priya Das has also recorded the story of incidents where Tulsidas obtained a vision of Lord Rama through the interventions of Hanuman. After being told by Hanuman that Lord Rama would give him a darshan in the forest of Chitrakoot, Tulsidas visited that holy town, where he used to spend much of his time in praying. One day while he was doing a parikrama of the hill in Chitrakoot, where Lord Rama is said to have stayed, he saw two handsome princes, one dark complexioned and one fair complexioned, riding beautiful horses at some distance. The beauty of the two princes mesmerized him, but he failed to realise that he was seeing Lord Rama and Lakshman. Later on when he learned about their identity from Hanuman, he was saddened by his failure to recognise the God. There is another legend that describes how some thieves who intended to rob Tulsidas’s house were confronted by a mysterious blue skinned youth who was armed with a bow and arrow. When they learned that it was Lord Rama himself who was trying to protect Tulsidas and his belongings, they gave up their wicked ways and became a devotee.

Priya Das has also attributed a few miracles to Tulsidas, who on one occasion is supposed to have raised a dead man to life. His miracles made him so famous that he was summoned to the court in Delhi and was ordered by the emperor to conjure a miracle. Tulsidas refused oblige, preferring to chant the holy name of Rama. This infuriated the emperor, who had Tulsidas arrested and locked up in a cell. Tulsidas appealed to Hanuman, who dispatched a large number of monkeys who created a great havoc in the emperor’s court. Eventually, the emperor had to let Tulsidas go. As in case of most legends associated with Tulsidas, there is no historical proof to suggest that he had managed to outsmart the emperor of Delhi. Tulsidas was 91 years old, when he left for the heavenly abode. According to ancient sources, he was cremated at Asi Ghat by the Ganga in the holy city of Varanasi.


According to a popular legend, one night when Tulsidas was engaged in meditation in his hut in Kashi, Lord Shiva manifested himself before him and inspired Him to write Shri Raam Kathaa in vernacular language. In his Ramcharitmanas Tulsidas makes a brief allusion to the inspiration that he got from Lord Shiva. It is also stated in the scripture that work on it had started on the night day of the month of Chaitra, which was the birthday of Lord Rama. Many scholars are of the opinion that Tulsidas began working on the scripture in Vikram Samvat 1631 (year 1574) when he was based in Ayodhya. In the A large portion of the poem was composed at Varanasi, where the poet spent most of his later life. In a literal sense, Ramcharitmanas means “The Lake of Deeds of Lord Rama.” Tulsidas thought that the story of Lord Rama was as purifying as taking a dip in the holy waters of Himalayan Lake Mansarovar. That is why he has compared the seven parts of this great epic to the seven steps that lead to the lake, whose holy waters, it is traditionally believed, carry the potential of purifying the body and soul.

Much of the material that Tulsidas wrote in Ramcharitmanas has come from the original Valmiki Ramayana. But that is on expected lines as both the works are centred on the narrative of Lord Rama, the crown prince of Ayodhya. However, it would be wrong to say that Tulsidas’s work is a literal translation of the Valmiki Ramayana. He was a great poet on his own and he also had a personal point view. He might have been filled with the desire of interpreting Lord Rama in a way that would make him relevant to his generation.  Some scholars like to credit Tulsidas for the creation of a more modern rendering of the Ramayana. Valmiki had composed his Ramayana many centuries ago, since then the Hindu thought had shifted a great deal. It is indeed the truth that Tulsidas was an orthodox Hindu, whose mind was filled with sincere belief in all the scriptures of Hinduism. But he also harboured religious aspirations that were inspired by the realities of his own era. In order to satisfy these aspirations, he created the Ramcharitmanas, which was written in the vernacular language, and was filled with several new ideas for expression of devotion.

Tulsidas identifies Lord Rama with Vishnu, one of the three Gods of devotion, and also with the Supreme Spirit. God, to him, was not a passionless being, he saw Him as an entity that is capable of heeding to men’s prayers. The everlasting popularity the Ramcharitmanas enjoys is also due to Tulsidas’s masterful use of poetic imagery. Also, whereas Valmiki had condensed the story of Rama, Tulsidas expanded it and led to the creation of an epic that is much broader in scope. The seven books in Ramcharitmanas are Bal Kand, Ayodhya Kand, Aranya Kand, Kishkindha Kand, Sunder Kand, Lanka Kand and finally the Uttar Kand. The first two episodes are the longest and make up more than half of the work. There is a rhythmic quality in the Ramcharitmanas. The quatrains, popularly known as the Chaupais, that Tulsidas has composed have a timeless appeal. As a poet, he was definitely an innovator, but he did not have any iconoclastic zeal. While being firmly devoted to Rama, he made no attempt to dethrone other Gods, and remained true all the central dogmas of Hinduism, including polytheism. Throughout his life he continued to worship many different Gods.

Today Tulsidas is a household name in India. His Ramcharitmanas is read and worshipped with great reverence. Many scholars believe that by retelling the Ramayana in the popular language of his own day, Tulsidas rejuvenated the Hindu faith. Over the centuries, the Ramcharitmanas has served as an inspiration for many social and bhakti movements in the country. It is certain that the popularity of the Ramcharitmanas has directly led to rise of the tradition of celebrating Ramlila, during which we have the dramatic enactment of the text.  

Friday, April 18, 2014


Shakuntala stops to look back at Dushyanta, Painting by Raja Ravi Varma 
Eight forms has Shiva, lord of all and king:
And these are water, first created thing;
And fire, which speeds the sacrifice begun;
The priest; and time's dividers, moon and sun;
The all-embracing ether, path of sound;
The earth, wherein all seeds of life are found;
And air, the breath of life: may he draw near,
Revealed in these, and bless those gathered here.

Even though Kalidasa is regarded as great poet and dramatist in the Sanskrit language, very little is known about his personal life. We don’t even have clarity about the century in which he was born. Some scholars believe that he lived in the 4th or the 5th century AD, but there are those who suggest that he could have been an even more ancient figure. There is similar confusion about the place of his birth. Though he was a prolific writer, in his works, he hardly mentions himself, so in reconstructing his life we have no other recourse except depending on the tantalising legends, which often deliver conflicting accounts. He was definitely close to the ruling class, because his plays carry the feeling of a lofty language that would certainly be more appealing to a refined court audience. These plays have stood the test of time, and they continue to be an intellectual treat for the erudite class as well as for the common readers of modern India. Today it is difficult for us to imagine Sanskrit literature without taking into account the distinct and glorious contributions that Kalidasa made many centuries ago.


None of the legends about Kalidasa contain even a grain of historical truth. According to one of the most popular ones, he was born in Benares, to a Brahmin family. He was six months old when he became an orphan and was adopted by an ox-driver. Even though he didn’t have any formal education, he grew up into a remarkably handsome and well-mannered man. It could have been his fate to eke a living as a humble ox-driver, but it was his good looks that changed the course of his life. The Princess of Benares had already rejected many suitors, among them a senior member of her father’s court, because she was filled with the desire of marrying a scholar and poet of high calibre. The rejected member of the court developed a plan to extract cruel revenge. He picked up Kalidasa from the street and gave him the garments of a learned person, and also a retinue of eminent thinkers. Thereafter, he brought him in presence of the princess. Kalidasa had already been coached that he was not supposed to open his mouth in front of the princess; in response to anything she said, he was only supposed to make random gestures, which would be interpreted by the thinkers accompanying him.

According to the legend, the princess was impressed by Kalidasa’s beauty and by his obstinate silence, which she thought was a sign of profound wisdom. She expressed the desire of marrying him, and so they departed for the temple. But while the marriage ceremony was still on, Kalidasa perceived the image of a bull, and he could hardly stop himself from behaving like an ox-driver. The bride was furious, but now it was too late for her to back out. They had already been married. The realisation dawned on Kalidasa that he had made a grave mistake by tricking her into marrying him. He entreated her to forgive him. She advised him to pray to goddess Kali for the boon of learning and poetry. The prayer was granted, and eruditeness and poetical power descended miraculously on the young ox-driver, who in gratitude towards the goddess assumed the name of Kalidasa, which means servant of Kali. According to another twist in the same legend, Kalidasa is said to have invoked goddess Kali for solace when he was going to the pond to commit suicide because he had been humiliated by his wife, the princess, for his ignorance and coarseness. The goddess came to his rescue and he was rewarded with the sudden and extraordinary gift of literature and wit.

There is another interesting legend that depicts Kalidasa engaging in a pilgrimage to a shrine of Vishnu in Southern India in the company of two other famous writers, Bhavabhuti and Dandin. But this legend is certainly false, as the three writers were not contemporaries. The mystery surrounding Kalidasa’s birth and life has created the leeway for some scholars to opine that he might have been of foreign origin. To prove their theory, these scholars suggest that Kalidasa’s name was almost certainly an adopted one, as it has been suggested by many different legends. Also during this period there was a strong stigma associated with the suffix ‘dasa’ in anyone’s name, and orthodox Hindus tended to avoid its use. It is also felt that Kalidasa’s resolute devotion to Brahminical creed might be indicative of the zeal of a convert. But the idea of Kalidasa being of foreign origin is simply too farfetched to be true, and so it has to be rejected immediately. There is no historical evidence to suggest that he could have immigrated to India from some foreign land. He is the foremost cultural and literally icon for most Indians, and so it is difficult for us to even consider the theory that he could have been foreigner.


Many legends suggest that there was a strong connection between Kalidasa and the court of the King Vikramaditya, who ruled from the city of Ujjain, located in west-central India. Vikramaditya was a noble and powerful ruler; the citizens of his country liked him, as he was kind ruler, who showed concern for the welfare of his people, and was a great patron of all kinds of arts and sciences. He had won glory in war by engineering a decisive victory over barbarians who were pressing into India through the northern passes. In his court, King Vikramaditya is said to have ‘nine gems,’ which included leading intellectuals from the fields of literature, science and religious discourse. Kalidasa was one of the nine gems. It is generally believed that the Vikramaditya, meaning ‘son of valour’ is not a proper name; it is a title, like Pharaoh or Tsar. Kalidasa’s writings indicate that he had spent a major part of his life in Ujjain, so a case can certainly be made that he had an important role to play in the court of King Vikramaditya. Perhaps, the plays he wrote were meant for the entertainment of the king. There are some instances in his plays where he seems to be directly or indirectly paying a tribute to the king.

The affection that Kalidasa had for city of Ujjain shows in his literature. This is especially obvious from the lines in his lyrical poem Meghaduta (Cloud Messenger), where he has focussed mainly on the city’s charms. He goes to the extent of bidding the cloud to make a detour in its long journey, so that it would not miss the opportunity of witnessing the beauty of the city. His works also indicate that he must have travelled through many different parts of the country. For instance, in the fourth canto of Raghuvamsa (The Dynasty of Raghu), he has described an engrossing tour of many far off lands. It is unlikely that Kalidasa could have given such realistic description without personally experiencing the scenery of those places. There could also be an element of truth in the legend that has him going to the southern parts of India on a pilgrimage. For that matter even Meghaduta carries extensive passages describing long journeys over India, through regions that are located far from Ujjain, where Kalidasa was based. The natural landscape that impressed him most was the mountains. Almost all of his works are full of highly descriptive passages on the Himalayas or other picturesque mountain ranges. He is thought to be the only Sanskrit poet of antiquity who has described a flower that grows only in Kashmir.

According to some legends Kalidasa was a devotee of the goddess Kali, by whose boon his poetic talents seemed to have developed. However, in his poetry, he shows same amount of empathy to the different sects of Hinduism that had evolved during his time. The dedicatory poems that form the prelude to his dramas are always addressed to Lord Shiva. But this might be merely a case of his keeping up with the convention, as Shiva is traditionally considered to be the patron of literature. From the readings of Kalidasa’s works, one can also draw the conclusion that he was a man of considerable learning. A very able master must have tutored him, and Kalidasa himself must also have done lot of self-study. During his time, the usage of Sanskrit had become restricted to the elite circles of society and still he was able to have a great mastery over Sanskrit language. He had also developed an acute sense of observation, which is very essential for a man of literature. He describes the various phenomenon of nature with the accuracy of a proficient poet.

It is so easy for the modern reader to empathise with words that Kalidasa has used to describe a water lily at sunset:

    The water lily closes, but
    With wonderful reluctance;
    As if it troubled her to shut
    Her door of welcome to the bee. 

Kalidasa’s works lead us to the conclusion that he was handsome, and he possessed a fascination for women. He had an optimistic or a positive view of the world, and that is perhaps the reason why his stories always have a positive ending. Such personality traits have also been accorded to Kalidasa by a number of scholars whose accounts appear in ancient works.


The three dramas that are generally attributed to Kalidasa are, Mālavikāgnimitram ((Malavika and Agnimitra), Abhijñānaśākuntalam (Shakuntala) and Vikramōrvaśīyam (Urvashi won by Valour).  All three are written in prose, which is generously intermingled with lyrics and descriptive stanzas. The playwrights in Sanskrit, who followed Kalidasa, seem to have been highly inspired by his style. That is why most Sanskrit plays consist of an intermingling of prose with lyrics and descriptive stanzas. It is not quite clear to what extent Kalidasa was inspired by the literary traditions that existed in his own era, but it is generally believed that he was remarkably faithful to traditional ideas. Most scholars are of the opinion that Malavika and Agnimitra was the first play that he wrote. Urvashi won by Valour was his last work. The famous play called Shakuntala was written in the middle of his career, when his prowess as a writer was at its peak. Till this day Shakuntala is considered to be a masterpiece, it was the first to be translated into English and since then it has been translated into many other languages.

The play titled Malavika and Agnimitra narrates the story of King Agnimitra who becomes infatuated with the image of Malavika, a servant girl who has been exiled. Unfortunately, the queen learns about the king’s infatuation with the servant girl. In a fit of fury and jealousy, she has Malavika incarcerated. But it soon comes to light that the servant girl was a trueborn princess, so the affair between her and the king was a legitimate one. Urvashi won by Valour is the story of eternal love affair that gets kindled between the mortal king Pururavas and the celestial nymph Urvashi, when he rescues her from demons. Their only wish is to live together, but Lord Indra of heavens forces Pururavas to part from Urvashi. She goes back to the heavens, where an unfortunate accident transpires, and she is forced to return to earth, with a curse that she will die and return to heaven the moment her lover sets his eyes on the child that she bears for him. Pururavas and Urvashi start living together, and series of mishaps ensue. At one point of time, Urvashi gets transformed into a vine, but play ends on a happy note, with the curse being lifted and the two lovers being allowed to live together on earth.

The theme in Shakuntala, Kalidasa’s most popular play, is borrowed from Mahabharata. This is a play in seven acts, each one of which revolves around the vagaries in the life of the eponymous heroine. The drama begins with King Dushyanta, who enters the stage in a chariot with a bow and arrow in his hand. He is perusing a deer, when he meets Shakuntala, who is the beautiful adopted daughter of a sage. It is love at first sight. They get married, but before the marriage can be announced to the world, a mishap happens and the king is summoned back to the court. While the king is away, the sage returns to find Shakuntala pregnant. He is furious and he curses her that her husband, King Dushyanta, will forget her completely until he sees the ring he has left with her. After that even more misfortunes strike her. In an advanced state of pregnancy, while she is on her way to King Dushyanta’s court, she loses the ring, and the king fails to recognize her. But the ring is found by a fisherman, who notices the royal seal, and returns it to King Dushyanta. The moment the King sets his eyes on the ring, he remembers Shakuntala and he immediately sets out to find her. Soon they are reunited.

These are the lyrical words that Kashyapa, the father of the Gods, uses to declare that the curse had been lifted and Shakuntala was free to live happily with King Dushyanta:

The curse it was that brought defeat and pain;
The darkness flies; you are his queen again.
Reflections are not seen in dusty glass,
Which, cleaned, will mirror all the things that pass.

Kalidasa has developed Shakuntala’s character with such mastery that every other character in the play pales into insignificance beside her. She dominates the play. She is on the stage in five of the seven acts; in the other two, in which she does not participate directly, her spirit drives the drama forward. When we encounter her for the first time, she is a simple maiden, whose entire life has been spent in the secluded confines of a hermit’s cottage. Yet she proves capable of meeting with courage all the travails with which life tests her. For more than 1500 years this play has captivated the hearts and minds of the Indian audience. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Ramanujacharya is one of the first philosophers to develop a systematic and theistic interpretation of the Vedas. He is the leading expounder of Vishishtādvaita, which is a philosophy that, among other things, provides a synthetic view of the spiritual experience that can only come from a realisation of the Brahman, or the supreme universal spirit. The Vishishtādvaita of Ramanujacharya is often translated as - “Non-duality with qualifications.” The doctrine stands out by taking a middle ground between the other two classical expansions of the Vedanta, the Advaita and Dvaita philosophies. In essence, Ramanujacharya’s attempts have been focussed on defending the plurality of distinct individuals, qualities, values and objects, while affirming the substantial unity of all. He asserts that the Atman is real, and the world is real, they don’t have any separate existence from the Brahman. The principal goal of the Vishishtādvaita philosophy is to gain an understanding of the Brahman, who provides sustenance of the entire universe.

Just as the body cannot exist without the soul, the material world cannot exist without the Brahman. All the sentient creatures and insentient objects have Brahman dwelling inside them. Ramanujacharya maintains that it is possible for us to gain knowledge of the Brahman through the use reason, but reason cannot be an independent means of knowledge. There can be cessation of ignorance only when reason is subservient to the teachings of the scriptures. According to the Advaita doctrine the idea that an individual is real comes from Maya or illusion, which in itself is a product of ignorance. Ramanujacharya argues that if there is ignorance, then there must be a person capable of being ignorant. If we assume that the world is nothing more than the Brahman, then that leads us to the absurd contention that Brahman is ignorant. Ramanujacharya goes on to say that since it is impossible for the Brahman to be ignorant, there must exist many distinct individuals, who are under the spell of ignorance. He also rejects the idea that the human mind is an illusion and hence all cognition must be illusory. As the world is real in a limited way, an individual must be held responsible for his own actions, and hence the subject of ethics is of crucial importance for Ramanujacharya.

In the Indian philosophical tradition, Ramanujacharya stands as one of the most important philosophers. By taking an uncompromising stand on the side of common sense and moral realism, he successfully moved Indian philosophical thought away from the otherworldly and amoral systems.


It is commonly believed that Ramanujacharya was born in the small township of Shri Perumbudur on the outskirts of modern day Chennai in 1017 AD. His Brahmin parents were known for their scholarship and learning in the Vedas. The family might have been bilingual, fluent in both the local vernacular, which is Tamil, and the language of scholarship, Sanskrit. Ramanujacharya displayed prodigious intellect from a young age; he also showed liberal attitudes in matters related to caste. He is said to have become friendly with a saintly man, going by the name of Kancipurna, who belonged to the Shudra religion and was engaged in performing services at the local temple dedicated to Vishnu. The young Ramanujacharya was so impressed by Kancipurna’s devotion that he requested him to be his guru. The request shocked not just the members of the society but also Kancipurna, because, during those days caste feelings were really strong in India and it was unthinkable for a higher caste man like Ramanujacharya to become the disciple of a lower caste person like Kancipurna.

Ramanujacharya got married while he was still in his teenage years, and shortly after that his father died. The family now moved to the city of Kancheepuram, where Ramanujacharya started studying Vedas under Yadavaprakasha, who was an accomplished teacher of Vedanta, which had its roots in both the Advaita philosophy and the Bhedabheda philosophy. At first, Yadavaprakasha appeared pleased to have a student as brilliant and dedicated as Ramanujacharya, but disagreements on the issue of proper interpretation of the Upanishads soon drove a wedge between them. Quite often Ramanujacharya used to point out the mistakes in the master’s exposition of the Vedanta. Whereas Yadavaprakasha was for an amoral, impersonal and non-theistic interpretation of the Upanishads, Ramanujacharya preferred a theistic interpretation. At times, Ramanujacharya even came up with his own interpretations in which he would dwell on the aesthetic and moral excellences of the Brahman. With his convincing style, he was able to convince many of his fellow students about the correctness of his philosophy. Instead of being pleased at the brilliance of his student, Yadavaprakasha became jealous.

It became obvious that Ramanujacharya’s alternative interpretations of the Vedanta had the power of threatening Yadavaprakasha’s authority. So Yadavaprakasha hatched a plan along with some other students to have his brilliant pupil murdered. He arranged for Ramanujacharya to go on a pilgrimage to Varanasi. However, a classmate learned about the plot while they were travelling. He promptly informed Ramanujacharya that his life was in danger. It is believed that with the help of a hunter and his wife, Ramanujacharya managed to escape. He returned safe and sound to Kancheepuram, but refrained from making public the story of the attempt on his life. He even resumed attending Yadavaprakasha’s classes as if nothing had gone wrong between him and his teacher. On his part Yadavaprakasha kept quiet about the incident and pretended to be happy at seeing Ramanujacharya back. However, when a disagreement over the interpretation of scripture came up between them once again, Yadavaprakasha asked Ramanujacharya to leave the school. As he was still not ready to forge his own independent path, Ramanujacharya needed a teacher, so he went back to his childhood mentor, Kancipurna.

Kancipurna told Ramanujacharya that for the time being he should become engaged in manual service at the temple of Vishnu. As they were very close, Ramanujacharya often invited Kancipurna to his home so that they could have their meals together. One day, Kancipurna arrived for dinner, but Ramanujacharya was not there at home, so Ramanujacharya’s wife served the meal. When Ramanujacharya returned, he found the house washed and his wife having a bath after serving the meal to a low caste person. Feeling extremely irritated by the false morals of his wife, Ramanujacharya decided to leave the household and become a sanyasi. Around this time, Yamunacharya had been looking for a successor to take his place as the head of the Mutt at Srirangam, as he himself was very old and close to the end of his life. Having already heard of Ramanujacharya through his disciples, he made up his mind to install Ramanujacharya in his place. Yamunacharya’s trusted disciple left to fetch Ramanujacharya to Srirangam. However, by the time Ramanujacharya arrived, Yamunacharya had already died. Once again Ramanujacharya found himself without the teacher that he had been questing for.

According to traditional accounts, when Ramanujacharya was taken to the body of Yamunacharya, he noticed that the teacher’s three fingers were folded into the palm of his right hand. When he inquired from his disciples, he was told that the three folded fingers symbolised the three unfulfilled wishes that the teacher had. One of the three wishes was that a commentary on the Brahma Sutra should be written. When Ramanujacharya pledged that he would devote his life in fulfilling the teacher’s last three wishes, the three fingers uncurled one after the other. The crowd at the cremation ground took this as a sign of Ramanujacharya being the true heir to Yamunacharya. Mahapurna, who was the senior most disciple of Yamunacharya, supervised Ramanujacharya’s initiation into the Shri Vaishnava fold. For sometime, Mahapurna served as a teacher to Ramanujacharya, who soon mastered verses of the Tamil Vaishnava saints. Once the period of his training was over, Ramanujacharya began his life as an independent and self-assured philosopher. He travelled across different parts of the country, and participated in debates with rival philosophies. Many rival philosophers whom he defeated in debates became the followers of his school of thought.

As his fame spread far and wide, Ramanujacharya gained control over many Vaishnava temples, whose rituals he standardised and reformed.  To this day, the instructions that he once laid down are considered to be the norm for Vaishnava temples in all parts of the world. According to the Shri Vaishnava tradition, Ramanujacharya authored nine books, all of them in Sanskrit. We learn from the works of his disciples that he used to lecture in Tamil on the verses of the Tamil Vaishnava saints. The fact that Ramanujacharya has not made any explicit mention of the Alvars in his Sanskrit writings does seem remarkable given the central role that Alvars have to play in the Shri Vaishnava tradition. But most scholars believe that Ramanujacharya wanted to articulate his philosophy to the pan-Indian community and that is why he refrained from mentioning the local saints whose appeal is limited only to the Tamil society. As the foremost philosopher of the Shri Vaishnava tradition, he might have faced prosecution from the Chola king, Kulothunga I, who was a staunch Saivite. According to some accounts, the king tried to force Ramanujacharya to start acknowledging Shiva as the foremost God. But Ramanujacharya preferred to leave the kingdom and move into a neighbouring kingdom where he was allowed complete freedom for religious thought.

He returned to Srirangam only when Chola king, Kulothunga I, died. New Chola king was a Vaishnavite and he allowed Ramanujacharya to do his religious work freely.


As a true philosophy of religion, the Visistadvaita philosophy preached by Ramanujacharya avoids the two extremes of blind faith in the authority of scriptures and the belief in omnipotence of reason. In his exposition of the nature of reality, he harmonizes the claims of revelation, intuition and reason. He shows great genius for synthesis while making liberal interpretations of scriptural authority. He accepts as the word of God, not only the Vedas, but also the Pancaratra, which are the Vaishnava Sanskrit texts dedicated to worship of Vishnu. He also places a similar spiritual importance to the utterances of the Alvars. Ramanujacharya was of the view that truth can only be found if the Vedas are taken as one unified corpus, whose aim is to express a singular doctrine. He felt that the mistake that his opponents were making is that they made interpretations based on isolated portions of the Vedas. Visistadvaita recognises the verifiability of the Vedic truth in spiritual experience. It relies on the knowledge given in sense perception, inference and revelation, while affirming that the Brahman is first and the final cause of everything in the universe. Both the Bhedabheda and the Advaita schools are classic forms of anti-realism, but Visistadvaita stands out by insisting on the reality of the external world.

Purely on logical grounds, Ramanujacharya has criticised many arguments of the Bhedabheda and Advaita philosophies, which typically conclude that the only undifferentiated consciousness in the world is the Brahman. Ramanujacharya argues that if this were so, then it would follow that all cognition is illusory. However, by the same philosophy such knowledge can be termed as being illusory and hence it cannot qualify as genuine. Ramanujacharya argues that even if the views expressed by the rival schools of philosophy were to be correct, they would only be so if some cognition were not illusory. According to the Visistadvaita School, the universe of the sentient and the non-sentient has its ultimate source in the Brahman. During the act of creation, the Brahman wills the man and becomes the manifold of sentient and non-sentient beings. Also the idea of the Brahman being the cause of all things does not imply that creation should have a beginning in time. The universe is a dynamic entity and the acts of Pralaya (dissolution of the universe) and Sristi (creation) keep alternating with each other. The purpose of the cosmic process of Pralaya and Sristi is to provide an opportunity to the sentient beings to realise their divine destiny.

Ramanujacharya asserts that consciousness is always recognition of some object, which is distinguished by a characteristic. This implies the view that all epistemic states, be it consciousness or perception, are intentional or object oriented. But the moment we accept that consciousness requires an object for its existence, it follows that it is not possible for a pure consciousness to exist. Hence, if consciousness exists, then it can only do so in a world that is full of plurality. Ramanujacharya goes on to defend the reality of the individual. While refuting the view promoted by the Bhedabheda and Advaita philosophies, he argues that the very idea that something can be ignorant presumes that there is an individual capable of being ignorant. Brahman is not an absentee God who makes the world and lets it go. Nor is He identical with the created universe. If every entity in the world were to be divine then there would be no need for individuals to make attempts to attain moksha (release from the cycle of birth and death. While being immanent in the universe, Brahman also transcends it. Ramanujacharya uses the concept of immanence to justify the intimate relationship between the God and the finite self; and he uses the concept of transcendence to establish the infinity and absolute perfection of the Brahman, which inspires reverence, humility and religion.

The theory of Karma consists of the application of the law of cause and effect to moral experience. It establishes the righteousness of the Brahman. According to the nature of the Karma performed by each individual, a certain amount of rewards or punishments get apportioned. This is the manner by which the divine righteousness ensures that the finite self, or the individual, becomes the cause of its own destiny. What a man sows, he reaps; nothing in the universe has the power to circumvent the moral law of Karma. From a purely ethical point of view, the law of Karma affirms the freedom of the self. However, if justice were to function purely through the rigorous process the law of Karma, then Mukti, or liberation would become impossible for any individual to attain. That is why the ethical religion entails that law of Karma can be overcome through the power of redemptive law of God. When there is absolute self-surrender to God from an individual, Brahman can intervene to transmogrify the law of Karma. Hence, punishment can also be seen to be born out of God’s mercy, as it nudges the individual towards the path of rightful spiritualism. Ramanujacharya also makes the point that avatara or divine incarnation has redemption as its central motive. A divine incarnation happens at critical moments of cosmic history in order to arrest the progress of sin.

The central idea of Vishishtādvaita is that Brahman is life of all life. This school of thought insists on the idea of God as redemptive love. It lays down the path of devotion and self-surrender, as the sole means of attainment of eternal bliss. He who desires release must maintain a physical and mental purity, while performing his duties with truthfulness, and practicing ceaseless meditation of the God.  Vishishtādvaita guarantees salvation to all finite beings, human, sub-human and celestial. Hence it is widely regarded as a religion of equality, peace and harmony. Ramanujacharya has served as in inspiration for the great teachers of Vedanta who followed him – Madhavacharya, Nimbarka, Vallabhacharya and others. Today the Vishishtādvaita philosophy has maximum number of adherents in India, even though a large number of these devotees might be referring to their belief system by a different name. In other words, the core ideas of Vishishtādvaita continue to be strong, even though the name of the doctrine has become confined to the scholarly circles. Ramanujacharya is believed to have died in 1137 AD.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Widely recognised as the first philosopher of the Bhedabheda School, Bhaskara was either a younger contemporary of Shankaracharya, or he could have lived few years after Shankaracharya. Bhaskara’s only extant work is the commentary on Brahma-Sutras in which he elucidates the tenets of his own Bhedabheda philosophy. He does not mention Shankaracharya by name anywhere in his work, but the indirect way in which he refers to Shankaracharya makes it obvious that Bhaskara wrote his commentary with the primary intention of refuting many of the cardinal principles of Advaita. It is Bhaskara who started the tradition of attacking Shankaracharya’s doctrine of Maya or illusion. Bhaskara displays great dialectic skill in refuting and demolishing what he calls the false and distorted interpretations of the Vedic hymns. Beyond his approximate period of existence and his commentary on Brahma-Sutra almost nothing else is known about Bhaskara. Even about his philosophical system Bhedabheda, very little is known.

The work of Bhaskara is of profound importance because of the influence that it has had on the development of Vedanta as a philosophical and religious force. The Bhedabheda philosophy has inspired the development of Vishishtādvaita philosophy of Ramanujacharya, and Dvaita philosophy of Madhvacharya. Ramanujacharya had a rather complicated relationship with Bhedabheda philosophy, as his teacher Yadavaprakasha was a firm believer in Bhedabheda. There are only some minor differences in the Bhedabheda of Yadavaprakasha and the Bhedabheda that Bhaskara had originally preached. Many scholars prefer to think of a Bhedabheda as a tradition or family of philosophies rather than a single school. It is also possible that Bhedabheda may predate Bhaskara and even Shankaracharya. In his commentaries Shankaracharya has criticised the philosophy of a teacher relation between Brahman and individual souls as one of difference and non-difference. However, most scholars take Bhaskara as the first Bhedabheda philosopher as his commentary is earliest extant work on this philosophy.

Bhedabheda is a Sanskrit word created by mingling two words – Bheda, which means difference, and Abheda, which means non-difference. Along with inspiring Vishishtādvaita and Dvaita schools of thought, Bhedabheda has also exercised enormous influence on the devotional (bhakti) schools of India’s medieval period. Nimbarkacharya is also considered to be a thinker of the Bhedabheda School. Even Vallabhacharya, the founder of Pusti-marga, is essentially a Bhedabheda thinker.


In its theory of knowledge, the Bhedabheda School takes the validity of the Vedas, which are a body of eternal, impersonal and infallible truths, as self-established. Through his interpretation of Vedic sutras, Bhaskara reaches the basic tenets of the Bhedabheda philosophy. He also uses his sense perception to confirm what he has learned from the Vedic sutras. One of the most crucial differences between Bhedabheda and Advaita lies in their view of the phenomenal world. While Advaita philosophy holds that the phenomenal world is maya or illusion, the Bhedabheda philosophy insists that the world is not illusory, it is real. It is Brahman or God Himself who by His own will, knowledge and omnipotence transforms Himself into the world. The relation between the Brahman and the individual souls in the created world is similar to that between the fire and sparks, which emerge out of the fire and is also a form of fire and yet it is differentiated from the original fire, as the sparks occupy a separate point in space. Bhaskara stipulates that the Brahman is immanent in all beings without being tainted by their imperfections.

The relation between Brahman and the material world is one of behda and abheda at the same time. Just as the infinite space can remain enclosed in pots and pitchers, the physical and mental faculties can influence the parts of the Brahman and this leads to the creation of an individual. In this way there exists a dualism between the Brahman and the world. However, it is possible for abheda aspect to gain primacy so that there can be a mystic union between the soul and the Brahman. According to Bhaskara, the Brahman embodies both cause and effect in the universe, thus He has both bhoktr-sakti, which means power as enjoyer, and bhogya sakti, which means power as the enjoyed. During the period of Sristi or creation, the Brahman wills to be many and becomes manifold. Yet even as the Brahman creates the finite and imperfect world, it itself continues to remain infinite and perfect. In the beginning, the creative urge of the Brahman leads to the creation of Brahma, who is the first-born of the absolute. After that Brahma manifests Himself into a wide varieties of living and non-living elements of the world. The cycle of Sristi and paralaya, or destruction, is continuous.

The theory of finite self that Bhaskara preached is based on the concepts of Upadhi, which is the limiting adjunct, and the Amsa, which means part. The jiva, or the individual souls of the world, are not an appearance or mode of the absolute, they are a fragment of the reality. They are like space enclosed within a jar. The space is limitless and infinite by itself, but once it is enclosed in a jar, it develops the attribute of finiteness. Hence, the finiteness is an attribute or a defect of everything in the world. According to Bhaskara, the formless and the infinite Brahman limits Himself as jiva and acquires spatial and temporal attributes. He also gets caught up in the perils entailed in the moral law of Karma and starts suffering from all the vagaries of life that must inflict everyone in the world. The limitless Brahman can limit Himself into an individual soul through the concept of Upadhi, which has these three elements - avidya, or ignorance; kama, or desire; karma, or action. Also, as Brahman, the Infinite, makes Himself finite, he is not conditioned by the finitude. The individual soul that comes into being possesses all the qualities of cognition, conation and feeling. In all psychic states the self continues to harbour a sense of self-identity in different degrees of limitation.

As a cause, Brahman contains the whole universe potentially within Himself. Essentially the universe is the cause actualised, though in part only, since the cause has not exhausted itself in the effect. Likewise, as an effect, the Brahman is both jiva and the world. As long as the self remains mired in the affairs of the world, it will be inflicted with such limitation. However, if a self attains salvation, then it becomes free of all limitations and becomes one with the Brahman. Bhaskara has explained in detail the methods that a devotee can use to attain salvation. He says that it is the fate of every soul to be subject to cycle of birth and death. Even the effect of punya-karma, or good deeds, is fleeting. Once the merits earned by punya-karma are exhausted, the soul is once again thrust back into the world of birth and death. Mere punya-karma is not enough, a self also needs to undergo janana, or practise of religious austerities, in order to attain salvation and be allowed to enter Brahmaloka, the abode of the Brahman.

The usage of both punya-karma and janana are necessitated by the fact that the obstacles to salvation are both moral and intellectual, and one needs to utilise the values of both moral endeavour and philosophical insight. When work is done as a duty, or nishkama-karma, the activity becomes spiritualised and it becomes equivalent to worship. Similarly janana, or the practise of religious austerities, will lead the self into the path of meditation of the highest reality, the Brahman. As the combination of janana and punya-karma leads to the dawning of true knowledge, the bonds of bheda, which is difference, break down, the truth of abheda, which is non-difference dawns. This is when the finite of the soul grows into the infinite and unites with the absolute. Just salvation implies not just an awakening but also an activity. At the time of salvation, every desire is at once fulfilled. The feeling of the singleness of the self gets dissolved, even though the self continues to exist. The Bhedabheda of Bhaskara was not at all concerned with bhati or prayers; his only concern was to refute the theories of Shankaracharya.

Both Shankaracharya and Ramanujacharya have rejected the Bhedabheda doctrine on the ground that behda and abheda are contradictory ideas and cannot exist in unison. If the self is an emanation of the Brahman, then the imperfections of the self must also originate from the Brahman. In such a situation good and evil become the part of the same divine. However, despite the contradictions that lie at its core, the Bhedabheda doctrine is important because of the fact that it is a system through which one can avoid the two extremes of theism and pantheism. Bhedabheda also serves the important purpose of reconciling the ideas of two of the most dominant schools of thought in Vedanta – Advaita and Dvaita. The enormous influence that Bhedabheda has had in the development of many devotional (bhakti) schools, which ushered a religious revival in India during the medieval period, only adds to the appeal of this doctrine. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014


One of the most important philosophers in the history of language and religion in ancient India, Bhartrihari is known primarily as a grammarian. He played a significant role in the development of the Sabdadvaita, or word monistic, school of thought, which believes that at an ultimate level cognition and language are ontologically identical concepts that refer to one supreme reality, Brahman. Bhartrihari’s philosophy of grammar is preserved in the great work called Vakyapadiya. With this work, Bhartrihari has moved grammar directly into the realm of philosophy and religion. He believed that in the notion that any word, or shabda, transcends the bounds of the spoken or written language and meaning. This principle, known as Shabda-tattva, or the word principle, seeks to explain the nature of consciousness, by positing that all words and meaning are the different aspects of the same entity, which is none other than the supreme Brahman. Bhartrihari has gone further than any other ancient philosopher in harmonizing the grammatical speculations with the sublime teachings of Advaita philosophy.


Bhartrihari’s works have always been widely known, but we hardly know anything about his personal life. His date of birth is uncertain. The noted Chinese traveller, I-tsing, has written that Bhartrihari died about AD 615. However, some scholars believe that Bhartrihari lived in the fifth century, between AD 450 and 500. There are other scholars who place him in the third century, or even earlier. There are some narratives about his background, but these are not supported by actual historical evidence. According to one legendary account, Bhartrihari was of noble birth and for a time was attached to the court of the Maitraka king of Valabhi, which was located in modern day Gujarat. In the royal ambience of the court it was easy for Bhartrihari to form a taste for sensuous living and material possessions. However, deep inside he was filled with fervent belief that he should renounce the world like many other Indian sages. For years he was existentially torn between two ways of life – the path of pleasure and that of a yogi, who has renounced the world.

Some traditional accounts state that Bhartrihari attempted to follow the path of monastic living seven times, but each time he failed because of his attraction to a sensuous way of life. After a long struggle, he was finally able to overcome his desires. He became a yogi and spent rest of his life in a cave located in the vicinity of Ujjain. According to this legend, it was Bhartrihari’s pleasure-seeking nature and philosophical insight that enabled him to give birth to works that are possessive of great literary and spiritual beauty. In his writings Bhartrihari has said that some of his theories were based on the teachings of his teacher. But he has not mentioned the name of the teacher. Scholars believe that Bhartrihari’s teacher was a contemporary of Candracarya and his name was Vasurata.


The most major work attributed to Bhartrihari is the philosophical treatise called, Vakyapadiya. This work is also known by the name of Trikandi, as it is in three Kandas or parts. The kanda one is known as the Brahma-kanda and it deals with the relationship between the Brahman, world, language, and the individual soul. The kanda two is the Vakya-kanda and it deals with sentences. The kanda three is the Pada-kanda and it deals with words. The third kanda is also known as Prakirnaka-kanda. The entire book has 1966 Karikas, or comments, in metrical form. Of these, 1323 Karikas are to be found in the Pada-kanda, which is divided into fourteen Samuddesas, or chapters. At times, the Vakyapadiya has been considered to be consisting of the first two kandas only.  Pada-kanda has been considered to be a separate work as it has large number of verses and several sections of its own. In his discourse, I-tsing has said that Bhartrihari was the author of Vakyapadiya of two sections, and another work called Prakirnaka-kanda. Many other commentators before the time of I-tsing have referred to the Prakirnaka-kanda as a separate work.

In the beginning of the Vakyapadiya, Bhartrihari explicates the scope of his inquiry into the subject of grammar. By using correct speech a human being can reach the limits of his conventional and spiritual capacities. The study of language and grammar must dwell on not just the meanings of sentences and words, but also on the spiritual merit that can be obtained by correct usage of language. Even though Bhartrihari’s views on language were quite radical, essentially he was building on the teachings of Patanjali and Panini. All three of them believed that the science of grammar belongs to the class of religious texts. In other words, there is a religious consequence resulting from the study of grammar. One of Bhartrihari’s famous works is the Mahabhasya-dipika, which is a commentary on Patanjali’s Mahabhasya. Bhartrihari also wrote a commentary on Panini’s Astadhyayi. However, this work known as Bhaga-vrtti might not be extant or is yet to be discovered by scholars.

Bhartrihari is thought to be one of the principal preachers of the doctrine of Sphota, which marks the climax of mysticism reached by Sanskrit grammar. The term ‘Sphota’ has been mentioned in Panini’s Ashtadhayayi, but it is Patanjali who was discussed the concept in detail in his Mahabhashya. Literally Sphota has been translated as “that from which the meaning bursts forth.” Patanjali has used the term to refer to the idea that exists in the mind at the moment when words get uttered. The acoustic aspect can be long or short, loud or soft, but the idea in the mind that inspires that sound remains unchanged. Bhartrihari has taken the doctrine of Sphota much further. According to him, Sphota is a spiritual phenomenon to which all sounds are reducible and from which all meanings follow. It is the remotest form of sound, which is akhanda, or indivisible, and represents caitanya, or consciousness, in its purest form. Letters and words are the means by which Sphota gets outwardly manifested. Bhartrihari advocated that sabda-tattva, or essence of words, is the same as Brahma-tattva, or the essence of the supreme Brahman.

As a first principle, Bhartrihari rejects the philosophy of realism expressed by Mimamsa and Nyaya. This philosophy states that words have meaning because they refer to external objects, and words can be combined into sentences in the same way by which external objects can be combined. However, in Advaita school of thought all words have a sublime meaning, and they ultimately lead to the Supreme Brahman. A large part of Bhartrihari’s teachings have been focussed on harmonising grammatical speculations with the teachings of Advaita philosophy. He has preached that all words and meanings are the myriad aspects of the one and the same thing, which is the Highest Truth, or the Supreme Brahman. He believed that all knowledge is linguistic and the distinctions between objects are traceable to distinctions between words. Even though grammar appears to be secular and artificial, a grammarian must keep his eyes focussed on the ultimate reality, which is Brahman. Furthermore, he held that that the sentence is not a collection of words or an ordered series of them. Rather, the word is an abstraction of the sentence, and this would make the sentence-sphota a primary unit of meaning.

Grammar and philosophy are not the only fields in which Bhartrihari made a contribution. He was also a poet. His poetic work is known as the Satakatraya. The title is made out of two words ‘Sataka’, which means hundred, and ‘tryaya’, which means three. Essentially, the Satakatraya is the compilation of three thematic compilations - shringara, niti and vairagya - of hundred verses each. The Shringara-sataka is on love; the Niti-sataka dwells on the subjects of ethics and politics; the Vairagya-sataka dwells on the issue of dispassion. The poetry is aphoristic and is mostly focussed on commenting upon the social mores of the times. Another work, which sometimes gets attributed to Bhartrihari, is the Bhatti-kavya, or the poetry of Bhatti. The focus of this work is to demonstrate the myriad subtleties that are the part and parcel of the Sanskrit language. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Kapila, one of the most deified sages in Hindu religion, belongs to antiquity. We come to know about him only through many mythological legends, some of which identify him with the God Vishnu. He has also been depicted as a direct descendent of the primal human being, Manu, and a grandson of the creator-God, Brahma. Kapila is widely believed to have been the originator of the Samkhya School of philosophy, which is the oldest philosophical system in India. The importance of the Samkhya School in Indian thought is unquestioned, as it is the oldest and it has had an influence on every subsequent philosophical system that emerged out of this country. The religious and philosophical literature of India is full of ideas and terminology that are characteristic of the Samkhya system, which for the first time started the trend of metaphysical analysis in Hindu philosophy. Kapila’s philosophical and religious ideas pervade the Puranas, including a significant portion of the Mahabharatas.


Some details on Kapila’s life are given in the Bhagavata Purana, where it is mentioned that the names of his parents were Kardama Muni and Devahuti. The Bhagavata Purana also says that Kapila was an avatar of Lord Vishnu and he took birth in the world of humans for the purpose of propagating theistic Samhkhya philosophy, which can lead to self-realisation and salvation. According to the description given in the Puranas, Kapila was not a mild-mannered sage. He was a reclusive and wrathful sage. His name Kapila has also been translated as raudra or angry. He has been described as an ascetic God, whose matted hair is so thick that his face was scarcely visible. He used to be seated in lotus posture and the nostrils would always be swelled up due to suspension of breath. This means that he must have been deeply involved in yogic and breathing exercises. He is also said to wear an antelope skin and the sacrificial cord of a Brahmin.

It is traditionally believed that Kapila had a major role to play in bringing down the River Ganga from heaven. King Sagara of Ayodhya, who was an ancestor of Lord Rama, had performed the Ashwamedha yagna ninety-nine times, in which a horse is released and an army follows it. If any king dares to come in path of the horse, a fight ensures, and if the battalion on the side of the sacred horse wins, the defeated king is supposed to bow in front of the owner king. On the occasion of the hundredth Ashwamedha yagna by King Sagara, the horse was sent around the earth. But the Lord of heaven, Indra, became jealous of Sagara’s rising power. He stole the horse and hid it in the hermitage of Kapila. So the sixty thousand sons of King Sagara set out in search of the holy horse. Finally they found the horse in the hermitage of Kapila. But they made such a ruckus that they succeeded in waking up Kapila who had been meditating for several years. Kapila’s hermit regimen is said to have produced in him an inner store of such intense heat that with a mere glance he managed to reduce the 60,000 sons of Sagara to ashes in an instant.

As their last rites had not been performed, the sons of Sagara wandered as ghosts. Anshuman, the great grandson of King Sagara, came to Kapila and prayed for the redemption of the souls of his 60,000 ancestors. Kapila replied that the 60,000 souls could only be redeemed if the River Ganga descended from heaven and its waters washed over the ashes of their bodies. Ultimately it was Bhagiratha, another descendent of King Sagara, who brought Ganga to the earth. Lord Krishna has mentioned Kapila in Gita.


The Samkhya system that Kapila preached is thought to be theistic, but the system that has come down to us has a strong atheistic element in it. The system is frankly dualistic. It recognises the existence of two ultimate entities, Prakriti, or nature, and Purusa, or spirit. Neither Prakriti, nor Purusa, can be derived from each other. The Samkhya views have been dwelled upon in the Manu Smrti, Bhagavad Gita and in the Mahabharata. While enumerating the major philosophical schools prevalent in India, Chanakya in his Arthashastra, mentions Samkhya, Yoga and Lokayata. The Ayurveda works of Caraka and Susruta, known as Caraka Samhita and Susruta Samhita respectively, also deal with Samkhya. Much of the philosophy of Yoga, as formulated by Patanjali, is thought to be a version of Samkhya system. In fact, despite its antiquity, the Samkhya system is so deeply ingrained in almost every text of Hindu tradition that it is considered to be the most representative of the philosophy of Hindu thought.

The name of the doctrine, Samkhya, which in a literal sense means buddhi, or mind, indicates that the system preferred a rationalistic explanation. It prefers not to dwell on the system of revelations to reach its conclusions. The Samkhya-Karika, which is attributed to Isvarakrsna is considered to be an authoritative work on Samkhya system. Of Isvarakrsna, also, we don’t have any historical information, but it is generally believed that he flourished in the third century AD. In his Samkhya-Karika, Isvarakrsna described himself as being in the succession of the disciples from Kapila. It is through Isvarakrsna’s Samkhya-Karika that most of our knowledge of the Samkhya system comes.


In the Samkhya system Prakriti is the name given to the principle or entity out of which the objective universe gets evolved in its infinite diversity. The Prakriti, or the primal entity, is unknowable through human senses, and its existence can only be inferred. Even though Prakriti is first and the unique cause of the universe, it is constituted of three gunas. Normally a guna is considered to mean “a quality,” but in this case it does not. The Samkhya system does not recognise any distinction between a substance and an attribute. According to the doctrine any attempt to think of attribute as something that is wholly separate from the substance, whose attribute is being discussed, is a typical case of indulgence in an illegitimate abstraction. In other words, an attribute and a substance are part of a single whole, and it is only the concrete unity of both that any material thing represents. So the term ‘guna’ in case of this doctrine means a ‘constituent’ of Prakriti.

The three gunas are – sattva, rajas and tamas. Essentially all three gunas are distinct from each other, and hence can be conceived as distinct entities, but they can never be separated from each other. In various degrees of potency they must always be part of the same Prakriti. Sattva denotes whatever is pure and sublime. Rajas signifies whatever is active. Tamas signifies whatever is stolid and offers resistance. The dominance of the three gunas will vary in various manifestations of nature – the sattva guna rules in the highest manifestations, while the tamas guna rules when manifestation reaches it nadir.

Because of the existence of three distinct gunas it might seem that the universe, which is a physical manifestation of Prakriti, is full of divisiveness and antagonism. But that is not the case. According to the Samkhya system, the working of Prakriti is always marked by harmoniousness. Just as the flame flickering out of a lamp is the result of the cooperation between three distinct entities – the oil, the fire and the wick – the various manifestations of Prakriti are the result of harmonious interaction of the three gunas. However, the proportions of each of the three gunas that enter into different manifestation of Prakriti can be different. This is how Prakriti differentiates itself and all kinds of substances in the universe get produced. Every substance must have the three gunas of Prakriti, but the proportion in which each of the three gunas is present is what actually differentiates the substance. Even though the gunas are only three in number, they can lead to an infinite variety of substances in the universe. It is also important to understand that Prakriti, the material principle, produces not only the external world but also the aspects of the human mind, such as the ego, intellect and external sensory organs.

Along with being omnipresent and complex, Prakriti is also marked by constant change. Nothing in the physical universe is permanent. Change is a continuous process. The stone that you see might seem like a solid entity, but it is undergoing changes constantly. The stone is only able to maintain its identity for as long as it can last. However, while the physical manifestations of Prakriti are undergoing constant change, Prakriti itself remains changeless. As it is omnipresent in the universe, it will never change its place; it will only physically manifest itself in a different form. The various manifestations of Prakriti that lead to the creation of the universe are periodic in nature. Every period of srsti, or creative evolution, is followed by pralaya, or dissolution. But even in dissolution, it is not as if Prakriti is destroyed or ceases to be omnipresent. The pralaya, or dissolution, is only a period when the various manifestations of Prakriti become latent, or go to sleep.


The second important element that the Samkhya system acknowledges is Purusa, which roughly translates into the element that leads to awareness or sentience. According to Samkhya, a truly empirical evidence of Purusa is impossible to find, and hence like in case of Prakriti, the existence of Purusa is also to be reached through reason. If Prakriti is postulated on the belief that if there is an effect there must be an underlying cause, then the doctrine of Purusa is derived from the principle that objects must point to a subject, more precisely, the existence of a non-sentient implies a sentient. The existence of Purusa is also proved by study of the body of any living organism. A living organism’s body is made out of so many parts, which are designed to work in perfect harmony so that that the needs of the sentient entity, the Purusa, residing in the body are fully met. Both Purusa and Prakriti are eternal and independent of each other. However, creation as we know it, happens when Purusa and Prakriti can come together.

In many ways the conception of Purusa is the very opposite of Prakriti. Prakriti is dynamic and complex, whereas Purusa is static and simple. Purusa is passive, whereas Prakriti is active. Even though Purusa is also omnipresent, like Prakriti, its manifestations are confined to limits of the bodies and the internal organs in which it is based. Creation as we know it happens when Purusa and Prakriti cooperate and act as a single entity. There cannot be a spirit, or soul, without a living organism, or a living organism without a spirit. Prakriti is the medium in which Purusa can manifest itself, but it is not its source. The Samkhya system also uses the idea of salvation to prove the existence of Purusa. It is stated that salvation, which entails complete emancipation from nature, would be impossible if a separate Purusa did not exist to be liberated. Thus Purusa must exist. Once Purusa comes in contact with Prakriti, the empirical self that comes into being ceases to be a detached entity, like the Purusa. It no longer remains a passive spectator of the events transpiring in its vicinity, it becomes an active participant and tries to influence the course of events. During the course of evolution Purusa mistakenly identifies itself with aspects of Prakriti. Right knowledge consists of the ability of Purusa to distinguish itself from Prakrit.

If everyone in the world had the same Purusa, then they would perceive the world in the same way. But that is not the case. Different people perceive the world around them in different ways, there can be agreement between them and there can also be disagreement. Hence it follows that they must be having separate Purusas. Of course, the different world views are relative to the subject, but the diversity of views also points to a world that is real and can be perceived through the senses. The idea of separate Purusas is fundamentally different from what the Advaita Vedanta preaches. In Advaita there is one super-soul that pervades the entire universe, whereas in the Samkhya system there is separate Purusa, or soul, for each one of us. However, later on Advaita Vedanta started exercising greater influence on the Samkhya system, and there were more interpretations given to the meaning of inactivity of the Purusa, and its lack of gunas. The Samkhya system insists that the world is the same for everyone; perception does not lead to creation. The different views are a result of the fact that men impose their own personalities onto their judgements.


All knowledge that comes to us is personal and fragmentary. At best we have partial knowledge, but as it is not recognised as being partial, the knowledge becomes flawed. Such a flawed knowledge can lead to conflicts and contradictions in the life of an individual and even in many individuals at the same time or at different times. So the Samkhya system preaches humility and charity in our interactions with fellow men, and emphasises that it is in our best interests to see the world through the eyes of others just as we do through our own eyes. The idea of toleration, which is a most fundamental feature in Indian thought, seems to have originated in the Samkhya system. So if all knowledge is partial and hence imperfect, then the question arises what is truth? According to Samkhya tradition, truth is the comprehensive knowledge in which one part supplements and corrects the other. In other words, the complete knowledge is one in which all aspects of the object are clearly understood and there is no room for any exclusion.

The Samkhya system holds that even with human senses, such comprehensive knowledge is possible through the process of perception, inference and reliable tradition. This sounds similar to what is preached in Aksapada Gautama’s Nyaya Sutras. But the point of difference is that the Samkhya system insists that sattva guna is most well fitted to reveal the truth. However, in most individuals the rajas and tamas guna predominate, hence they are incapable of accessing the right knowledge. The Samkhya ideal may appear to one that can never be reached, but it is always possible for a human being to make a progressive approximation to it. A long course of discipline is advocated for those who aspire to reach the Samkhya idea. The discipline that Kapila has mentioned is Yoga. The practical side of Yoga was later on elaborated upon by Patanjali. In many mythological texts, Kapila has been portrayed as an exemplar of yogic stringency.

The importance of the Samkhya system lies in the fact that it has served as a fountainhead of ideas for almost every other philosophical system in India. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014


The ancient sage Jaimini was the author of Mimamsa-Sutra and the originator of the Mimamsa School of philosophy. The Mimamsa-Sutra is devoted to explaining the meaning of the Vedas. However, this work is not a commentary on the Vedas, it confines itself to shedding light on the way by which one can arrive at the real meaning of the Vedas. Can the assemblage of words in the Vedas be taken as true in totality or other forms of inference also need to be applied? Such questions have been discussed in detail in the Mimamsa-Sutra. The aim of work is also to provide a philosophical justification for the Vedic-rituals, and shed light on dharma, which in this school of thought is understood as the set of ritual obligations and prerogatives that must be properly performed for the maintenance of harmony in the world, and also for the furthering of personal goals of the performer. Till this day, the rules that Jaimini laid down are considered to be important by scholars who wish to arrive at the real meaning of the Vedas. The Mimansa-Sutra is fundamental to Vedanta and has strongly influenced the evolution of Hindu law, as it exists today.


We know next to nothing about Jaimini. There is considerable difference of opinion amongst scholars about his identity. It is not clear if he is the same Jaimini who has been mentioned in Mahabharata as a disciple of Vyasa, or if he is some other sage. Jaimini has also been mentioned in the Sariraka-Sutra, a work by Vyasa. But Sariraka-Sutra does not state if Jaimini was Vyasa’s disciple or not. In his Mimamsa-Sutra, Jaimini mentions the name Badarayana. Badarayana’s identity is traditionally conflated with that of Vyasa, the author of Mahabharata. The famous ancient commentator on Jaimini’s Mimamsa-Sutra, Sabara Svamin, has postulated that Jaimini had lot of respect for Badarayana. Sabara Svamin says that by invoking Badarayana’s name, Jaimini wanted to show that the knowledge presented in the sutra had the sanction of Badarayana himself and hence it was completely valid. On the authority of Sabara Svamin, many ancient Indian scholars have accepted a teacher-disciple relationship between Vyasa and Jaimini The Mimamsa-Sutra is thought to have been composed in the 4th or 3rd century BC.


Mimamsa is a Sanskrit word, which loosely translates into reflection and also critical investigation. The philosophy of this school is often referred to as the Purva-Mimamsa or Uttara-Mimamsa. Purva gets roughly translated into “earlier” and Uttara can be roughly translated into “later.” The Purva-Mimamsa philosophy deals primarily and exhaustively with the method of reasoning regarding the rites, which form the Purva, or the earlier part of the Vedas. The Uttara-Mimamsa is also known as Vedanta, and it deals with the later portion of the Vedas, which are collectively known as Jnanakanda and are concerned primarily with knowledge. All the Vedas are composed of four parts: the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads. The first two parts are generally focused on the rituals and they form the Karmakanda portion of the Vedas. The later two parts form the Jnanakanda of the Vedas and are concerned primarily with knowledge.

The Jaimini’s philosophy in Mimamsa-Sutra forms the basis for Purva-Mimamsa. Many ancient scholars have expressed the view that the Uttara Mimamsa is also a continuation of the Purva-Mimamsa. However, there are many points of difference between the two. The most significant difference is that Purva-Mimamsa takes dharma, or virtue, as the highest ideal, whereas Uttara Mimamsa accepts that moksha, or salvation, is the ultimate aim of life. The Purva-Mimamsa doctrine of Jaimini has more affinity with the Nyaya philosophy than with the Vedanta philosophy. The most essential thing about Purva-Mimamsa system is that it is purely a study of Vedic rites. There is a detailed discussion of the Vedic rites, we learn about their results and purposes, and also the sense in which any particular Vedic injunction is to be interpreted to bring about the best possible results. Sabara Svamin, who is believed to have flourished in second or third century BC, has interpreted the Mimamsa-Sutra of Jamini.

The Kumarila Bhatta and Prabhakara, who lived around seventh century AD, have further commented upon the work of Jaimini and Sabara Svamin. While interpreting the Mimamsa thought, Prabhakara and Kumarila seem to have reached somewhat different conclusions. Kumarila Bhatta tries to show that we perform Vedic rites because such performance is beneficial to us in the end. Prabhakra is of the view that we perform Vedic commands as we are born with an inherent, or instinctive, desire to do so.


The Vedas are central to the Mimamsa School. The main objective of Jaimini’s Mimamsa-Sutra is to explain the meaning of the Vedas, which have been regarded as uncreated and eternal. The Vedas, according to Mimamsa School, are apauruseya, or self-revealed, that is to say, they have not been written or composed by man. The school argues that had the Vedas been written, then the name of the author would have been remembered by us, just as Valmiki is remembered as the composer of Ramayana and Vyasa is remembered as the composer of Mahabharata. As no one remembers the name of the man who connected the Vedic words with their meaning and introduced the Vedic rites, the Vedas must be regarded as self-revealed. Almost the same argument gets used in proving the pramanya, or the authority of the Vedas. According to the Mimamsa doctrine, since the Vedas consist of words that are apauruseya, or self-revealed, and have come down to us from time immemorial, their authority stands unassailable.  Hence in the Mimamsa view the authorlessness of the Vedas is by itself a proof of their self-evident authority.

The Mimamsa-Sutra goes on to provide an elaborate analysis of the various aspects of the Vedic injunctions. A vidhi, or injunction, leads an individual to acts that are nitya, or obligatory, naimittika, or necessitated by occasions, and kamya, or optional acts performed with the view of obtaining some kind of boon or worldly good. In his commentary Kumarila Bhatta has expressed the opinion that as all the three kinds of actions fall within the scope of the Vedic injunctions, they constitute dharma. However, Prabhakara advises that only the first two actions, nitya and naimittika, are moral. The kamya or optional acts can lead to demerit. The Mimamsa system follows a realistic epistemology. It holds that knowledge without an independent object is impossible. But the power of judging the correctness of any knowledge that has been acquired is inherent in our nature. It is due to this inherent power of judging the validity of any knowledge that man is able to carry on with his practical affairs in all ages. There can be two kinds of knowledge, pratyaksa, or direct, and paroksa, or indirect. The knowledge that we acquire through sensory perception is pratyaksa, and the knowledge acquired through inference or verbal authority is paroksa. The ultimate proof of the validity of any knowledge lies in Vedic texts.

In the Mimamsa-Sutra of Jaimini there is no specific mention of the Jivatman or self. The commentary of Sabara Svamin has some passing references to the self. However, Sabara Svamin has not stated if Jivatman is infinite, or of the size of the body, or atomic. The later ideologues of the Mimamsa School have emphasised upon the separateness of the self from the body, sense and the mind. They seem to have regarded intelligence, will and effort as the natural attributes of the self. They have also stated that the self is all-pervasive like ether. Jaimini has stated that heaven is the summum bonum of life, but he has not clarified if this heaven is identical with bliss, or it is a place where prefect happiness can be enjoyed. Most followers of the school believe that heaven means the feeling of bliss. Jaimini has not indicated in Mimamsa-Sutra if there is any possibility for moksa, or salvation, of the self. However, Kumarila Bhatta has stated that moksa was the highest good possible to a human being.

When it comes to metaphysics, the Mimamsa School rejects the Advaita doctrine, which states that the world is maya, or illusion. According to the Mimamsa School, the world is real and it is also eternal. Hence they do not believe in the theory of maha-pralaya, or absolute dissolution of the world. They state that there is no proof that the world of Vedas will ever cease to exist. In his Mimamsa-Sutra, Jaimini has not mentioned anything about the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent and all-merciful God, who is the creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe. Sabara Svamin and Kumarila are also silent on the subject of God. However, this does not necessarily mean that the Mimamsa School is atheistic. Many later exponents of the Mimamsa School have stated that Jaimini and his two leading commentators have been silent on the subject of God because the objective of the Mimamsa-Sutra is not to existence of God, but to explain the real nature of the rites and ceremonies that are given in the Vedas. It is generally admitted that the school is nontheistic.

There are more than twenty-five hundred sutras, or aphorisms, in the Mimamsa-Sutra. The work is divided into twelve chapters. Such a large collection of sutras is not found in any other system of Indian philosophy. It is generally believed that Jaimini flourished in the 4th century BC. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014


Popularly known as Chanakya, the ancient philosopher Kautilya occupies an important space in Indian culture and philosophy. He has seminally influenced the development of modern society through his political treatise, Arthashastra. At times, he gets depicted as the Indian counterpart of Machiavelli, even though he predates Machiavelli by close to two millennia. There exists enough historical evidence to suggest that Chanakya could have been the chief strategist behind the rise of Chandragupta Maurya as a ruler of Magadha Empire. The political and philosophical ideas that Chanakya has expressed in Arthashastra might have a Machiavellian aspect to them, but for the era in which he flourished, Chanakya was a reformer. His basic purpose in Arthashastra is to delineate the art of statecraft. Another important objective of the treatise is to strengthen the Brahmanical order; Chanakya has enjoined upon the king that he must safeguard the varnashrama system. He might not have been a democrat, but in an era when monarchs were revered as Gods, he stood out by preaching the ideal that a ruler’s first duty is to look after the welfare of the people.


A lot is known about Chanakya’s political and philosophical achievements, but very little is known about his personal life. He must have flourished in the fourth century BC, as it is certain that Chandragupta Maurya ascended the throne around 321 BC. It is Chanakya who changed the course of Indian history, by destroying the empire of the despotic Nanda kings and paving way for a more capable ruler, Chandragupta Maurya, to attain power. According to some traditions he was born in the famous university town of Taxila. His father was a Brahmin called Chanak, who being a teacher knew about the importance of education. When he was still very young, Chanakya started reading the Vedas, which are considered to be the toughest scriptures for even the most experienced scholars. Such was the young boy’s devotion towards study that he managed to memorize most of the Vedic verses. After attaining adulthood, Chanakya arrived in Patliputra, which is the ancient name of Patna, and he started winning accolades in philosophical debates. There exist some other accounts according to which Chanakya was a Brahmin from Kerala, who somehow reached Patliputra, where he soon distinguished himself in the court of the Nanda king.

Some Buddhist and Jaina sources state that Chanakya’s parents had noticed that he had been born with full set of teeth, which in the ancient times was considered to be the mark of a future king. But his parents didn’t want him to be a king; they would rather see him become a scholar of renown. According to the legend, they had the infant’s teeth removed. Perhaps that is the reason why instead of becoming a king, Chanakya played the role of a king-maker later in his life, and ruled through the person of another king. His mastery in all the Vedas, in the mantras and in political strategy and intrigue, has been described at length in many ancient texts. Another Buddhist source dwells on Chanakya’s physical appearance. He is described as being physically ugly; he had a disgusting complexion and suffered from deformity in legs and other limbs. Along with Kautilya, Chanakya has also been referred by the name of Vishnugupta in certain texts. But a small minority of scholars believe that Vishnugupta might have been the redactor of the original work done by man who was known as Kautilya or Chanakya.

The king to whose court Chanakya arrived in Patliputra was Dhana-Nanda, or the Nanda of great wealth. In complete negation of what his name stood for, the king was extremely miserly in nature. He was also base-born, as his father was a barber, who according to ancient accounts had become the secret lover of the nation’s queen. The father managed to assassinate the king, and while pretending to play the role of guardian to the royal children, he had them put to death. Thereafter he usurped the throne and started his own dynasty. Much of citizenry in the country hated Dhana-Nanda not only for his base origins, but also because of his miserly and arrogant nature. Dhana-Nanda expedited the process of his own downfall when he made the mistake of insulting Chanakya. According to traditional accounts, Chanakya had started eating at a royal banquet, when Dhana-Nanda heaped insults on him, and ordered him to leave. This incensed Chanakya, and he immediately took the vow that he would not tie the knot in his forelock till he had destroyed every root and branch of the Nanda dynasty.


In the years to come Chanakya would prove that he was a man of his word; the war of attrition that he and Chandragupta waged led to the obliteration of the Nanda dynasty. Some historians believe that Chandragupta was the illegitimate child of a Nanda prince and a maid named Mura. A family of cowherds raised him. According to a legend, Chandragupta was playing with his friends, when Chanakya arrived. He was amused to see the young Chandragupta enacting the role of a king; he was dispensing justice and giving orders to other kids of his own age who were playing the role of ministers. Out of amusement, Chanakya went up to Chandragupta and beseeched him for alms. The boy immediately obliged by grandly offering the ascetic an entire herd of someone else’s cows. Chanakya was so impressed by Chandragupta’s demeanour that he immediately took him under his wing. He is said to have purchased the boy, who would be the future king, from his guardians at the price of a thousand panas. Thereafter he took the boy to Taxila and gave him the education that was fit for a king, so that one day he would achieve the objective of ending Dhana-Nanda’s despotic rule.

At first Chandragupta and Chanakya met failure when they clashed with Dhana-Nanda’s forces. How they came upon the right strategy of achieving victory is described in another legend. One night they had to take shelter at the home of an old woman. They didn’t tell her their real identity as the king’s soldiers were looking for them. The old woman served them food that was piping hot, and Chandragupta made the mistake of starting to eat from the centre of the hot dish, as a result of which his fingers were hurt and he let out a cry of pain. As soon as the old woman heard him, she said, “You are just like Chandragupta, because instead of eating from the sides of the dish, where the food would be at normal temperature, you dip your fingers in the centre where it is hottest.” These words from the old woman enlightened Chanakya. He realised that he must start attacking Dhana-Nanda at the borders of the empire. Accordingly he advised Chandragupta, who went into an alliance with the ruler of a neighbouring mountain kingdom and began harassing the forces loyal to Dhana-Nanda in the outlying areas.

There is another legend that describes how the close collaboration between Chanakya and Chandragupta helped them to finally win a town that their forces had been besieging for many days. Chanakya entered the town disguised as a mendicant and predicted that the siege would be lifted if the people moved the idols from the temple. The gullible population immediately did so, and besiegers obliged them by seeming to withdraw. A wave of happiness swept through the town; the people let down their guard and started celebrating. Chanakya and Chandragupta arrived with their army and took the town easily. After capturing all the towns in the border areas, they started moving into the interior areas of the kingdom. Along with devising strategies for attaining success in battle, Chanakya also played the pivotal role of an able diplomat and negotiated advantageous alliances neighbouring kings and local warlords. One day they became powerful enough to converge their forces on the city of Patliputra. Dhana-Nanda was driven out and Chandragupta Maurya was installed as the King of Magadha.

Some accounts suggest that once Chanakya’s aim of overthrowing the regime of Dhana-Nanda had been accomplished, he retired from active life and began the process of reflecting on his life’s experience. But there are other accounts, which suggest that he became the prime minister to Chandragupta Maurya and wielded considerable amount of power and influence. There is no way for us to verify any of these accounts, it is also not clear when Chanakya started working on his political treatise, Arthashastra. But one thing is certain, he must have started writing the work only after Dhana-Nanda had been driven out and Chandragupta was installed as a king at around 321 BC. Chanakya has himself stated that there were many other Arthashastras, all of them dwelling on statecraft, in existence before he wrote his own Arthashastra. He says that he was dissatisfied with the other Arthashastras and that is why he decided to come up with a more improved and refined treatise.


There continues to be intense debate amongst scholars on whether Chanakya wrote Arthashastra himself or was he a teacher of the subject. Some scholars believe that the work could be a compilation of disciples who came much later; however, the overwhelming majority view supports the idea that Chanakya composed the work himself. If one were to make a careful study of the Arthashastra, then it becomes obvious that the work is an integral whole. There exists uniformity in the style that can only come if a single person had composed the work. It is possible for us to look at Arthashastra from a historical point of view and gain important understanding about the way of life in the kingdom of Magadha between the periods of 300 BC to 150 AD. Even though the work was written many years after Buddha, the state of society that it seems to describe is primarily pre-Buddhist. Some scholars believe that Chanakya’s work might have had an influence on the development of Manusmriti, which is supposed to have been codified in the first two centuries AD.

The views expressed in Arthashastra also lead us to believe that the social norms, that existed during the days of Chanakya, had faded into oblivion in just two or three centuries after his death. For instance, during Chanakya’s times it was possible for a husband and wife to gain separation on grounds of incompatibility. Widows and women who had been deserted by their husbands for a long period of time were allowed to remarry. Brahmins were not prohibited from picking up arms or eating meat. On the subject of society’s attitudes towards Brahmana class, the treatise gets somewhat preachy. According to Chanakya, the Brahmana is the custodian of the ideological foundation of the social order that existed in his time, and hence he was entitled to enjoy certain special privileges that would be unavailable to others. For instance, the Arthashastra holds that if a Brahmin commits an offence, he can be prosecuted in accordance to the law, but he would always be exempt from physical torture. Corporal punishments were quite common in that era; only the Brahmins were exempt from it. Chanakya also tends to take the existence of a kingdom and a king as axiomatic or undeniable facts. He writes, “The King and his rule encapsulate all the constituents of the state.”

Much of the book is devoted to offering instruction to the King and his high officers about the best ways of administering the state. In this he has made an attempt to provide for every possible contingency. At one place in the book, he recommends that the forces for the defence of the city should be placed under a number of chiefs, in order to mitigate the risk of anyone of them usurping the power in the time of king’s absence. Most of the time, he is advocating a sane way of exercising power, and he pointedly says that the king should not indiscriminately attack those who stand in his way. The Arthashastra says, “The king who attacks a righteous ruler will be hated by his own people and others. Conversely, one who attacks an unrighteous ruler will be liked by all.” He advocates that the victorious king should treat conquered territory with fairness, “The conqueror shall substitute the virtues of the defeated enemy’s vices and where the enemy was good he shall be twice as good.” But while advocating fairness, Chanakya has also chosen to include torture as a means of criminal investigation.

He displays a marked preference for the noble royal line when it comes to choosing the nation’s ruler. As far as the different communities within society are concerned, he prefers to give special status to Brahmins, and he reposes very little trust in the community of traders, because he feels that they are always ready to make money at the cost of the consumer. The Arthashastra says that a wife, who shows excessive grief at the death of her husband, should be suspected of having murdered him. Despite the surfeit of conservative and hard-line thoughts that he has expressed in the Arthashastra, Chanakya can be seen as a reformer. The counsels that he has offered on the relationship between the ruler and the ruled and on the role of the state in safeguarding and maintaining the wealth of the nation, as well as the welfare of the people are timeless in their scope, and pertinent to the functioning of a modern liberal society.

In the modern era Chanakya and Chanakya-neti have seen a revival of sorts. The term Chanakya-neti (the statecraft of Chanakya) is often used to denote the functioning of the government. Today Chanakya is regarded as brilliant intellectual and a great theorist of statecraft. What he has preached in Arthashastra has a timeless appeal.