Spiritual practice- earlier the better

Mahabharata is a famous epic describing diverse aspects of human life, like family and its intrigues, kingship, loyalty, friendship, dharma, war, Vedantic teaching, etc. Bhagavat Gita is in the 12th Book named Bhisma Parva because Bhisma is the commander of the Kauravas army during this part. 18 chapters of BG are chapters 23 to 40 of Bhisma Parva.  BG is a moksha shastra and a student of Vedanta should have read and understood Bhagavat Gita fairly well.  Surprisingly, there are other portions of Mahabharata that too have Vedantic teaching.  Mokshadharma Parva as the title suggests has Vedantic messages. It is a conversation between Yudhishthira and Bhisma.

After the Mahabharata war is over, Bhisma is lying on the bed of arrows awaiting his death to come at a time chosen by him. Yudhishthira is the new king but is depressed due to the destruction caused by the war. At the behest of Sri Krishna, he visits Bhisma to get instructions on various topics. Bhisma, though lying on the bed of arrows, is willing to answer Yudhishthira’s questions. He does so mainly through stories. One such story in Mokshadharma parva relates to the teaching given by a son to his father.

Yudhishthira realizes that time is the ultimate destroyer of every created thing and he requests Bhisma to teach him the highest good to be sought for. Bhisma narrates a story in the form of spiritual teaching given by an intelligent son Medhavi to his father devoted to studying Vedas. Medhavi is a spiritual seeker and is worried that human life is passing away quickly. He, therefore, asks his father to tell him what should a wise person do and how should he discharge his duties and the fruits thereof. Medhavi desires to observe such duties as described by his father. The father explains the traditional four ashrams(stages) of life, namely, brahmacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha, and sannyasa, and their duties prescribed in the scriptures. Brahmcharya is for the study of Vedas, leading a family life in grihastha ashrama, and gradually withdrawing from worldly life in vanaprastha. In the final sannyasa ashrama, a person should live a secluded forest life devoting the rest of life to spiritual contemplation for the attainment of moksha.

On his father speaking so, Medahvi is surprised to note that his father has not given due consideration to the fact that everyday life gets shorter. The son questions his father for his casual reply in view of the stark reality that worldly life is constantly beset with suffering. The father asks his son to explain his pessimism in detail. Medhavi says that death is lurking all the time. It does not spare anyone and with each passing night, human life becomes shorter. In this view how can he pass his time without being suitably shielded? As death steadily approaches, a person cannot be happy like a fish that is not happy in shallow water. Nobody knows when death will hit. It may come before one’s desires are fulfilled. It may come when a person is busy plucking flowers like a sheep busy grazing blades of grass is attacked by a wolf. Attached with family and cattle like a tiger taking an animal, death may surprise him. It may come even today. Therefore, one should accomplish good in life today before becoming death’s victim. Tomorrow’s work should be done today, afternoon’s work in the forenoon. Cruel death does not see whether the goals of its victim are accomplished or not.

Medhavi teaches his father that in view of the uncertain nature of life, spiritual practices for moksha should not be postponed till sannyasa ashrama as suggested by his father. According to Medhavi, one should begin seeking Truth without loss of time so as to conquer death. Two courses are possible, death and immortality. Ignorance leads to death and truth leads to immortality. A wise person begins preparation for spirituality in the prime of age. An unwise person is busy otherwise. He forgets that death may strike him in the midst of worldly happiness and even while he is mulling over his finished, half-finished, and unfinished plans.

Bhisma advises Yudhishthira to conduct himself in the manner in which the father would conduct after hearing his son Medhavi.





3 thoughts on “Spiritual practice- earlier the better

  1. Thanks for that, Bimal. Interesting! I have wondered why such a relatively small part (the Gita) of such a huge work (the Mahābhārata) should be devoted to philosophical matters. Are the other parts separately published, like the Gita, or is one expected to read the entire work? Is the Mahābhārata widely read by seekers in India or do they just concentrate on the Gita like we do in the West?

    Is ’bed of arrows’ a metaphor, meaning ‘dying from whatever ailment assailed him’ (maybe he was shot by an arrow?)?

    Doesn’t the (usual) teaching of Advaita assume that people will follow the four-Ashrama progression and will NOT (normally) attain mokSha in the one lifetime? In fact it is implied somewhere (katha?) that very many lifetimes are needed. And it ought to be pointed out that ignorance does not lead to death but to rebirth!

    Best wishes,

  2. For those interested in the Vedantic import of the Mahābhārata, there is an instructive 4 hour series of videos on YouTube by Swami Tadatmananda of the Arsha Bodha Center called appropriately enough, “Vedantic Teachings of the Mahābhārata”. Swamiji held dozens of classes on the spiritual teachings of the Mahābhārata from 2015-2020 which are available as podcasts on the Arsha Bodha website. He also gave a two year set of classes on Mokshadharma Parva, the section of the Mahābhārata’s Shanti Parva (book 12) which describes behavior and rules to achieve moksha. The audio recordings of these classes are also available on the website.

  3. Hi Dennis,
    The complete Mahabharata( MB) is hardly available in any Hindu household. I too do not have one. The general perception is that the BG has the philosophical part and other portions of the Mahabharata are stories. The BG is therefore popular. To my knowledge, there may not be any publication devoted exclusively to all the philosophical portions of the MB in one place. It is to the credit of Swami Tadatmananda of Arshabodha Center that he has culled out the relevant portions ( ppt pdf) of Vedantic teaching from an ocean, nearly one lakh, of verses in MB and covered them in his weekly talks given during 2015-20. Rick has referred to them. Through these talks only, I have recently come to know about the unknown facets of the MB. The talks are worth listening as he explains the meanings of Sanskrit words.
    The bed of arrows is not a metaphor. Bhisma was pierced by the arrows of Arjuna but due to some sin committed in a previous life, his body was not allowed to rest on earth. He had the boon given by his father that he could choose his time of death. He was on the said bed for 58 days so that he could die on an auspicious day when the sun was on the northern side.
    Advaita does not reject the four ashramas’ way of life. It is compatible with the four purusharthas applicable to common people. Obviously, it is time taking. Moreover, there is no guarantee that sannyasa will lead to moksha. An unsuccessful sannyasi is prohibited to return to grihastha ashrama. Medhavi’s sermon that one should not wait till sannyasa for spiritual pursuits is legitimate and practical too. Even if such a seeker does not get moksha in the present life, s/he will be spiritually advanced so as to start therefrom in the next life. Best wishes

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