Tales from the Mahabharata 17 - Charity

When trying to opine on an epic like the Mahabharata, perhaps the most appropriate way to keep one’s ego in check to be reminded of a verse from Ch 279 of the Shanti Parva, Moksha Dharma, that describes among the reasons for grief being "a foolish person who is eloquent." I pray that I avoid the curse that otherwise may befall the eloquent but foolish person!

Yudhishthira, Bhisma
[credit: Mahabharata, Gita Press]
The festival of lights is with us. There is talk of giving and charity and receiving and wanting and wishing in this time of Diwali. It is only appropriate that we take a look at a story about Lakshmi, found in Ch 218 of Shanti Parva, Moksha Dharma. Indra saw Shri emerge from Bali. Bali had seen better days; he now roamed the earth in the form of an ass, bereft of all his riches, his power, his glory. Indra, never one to let go of an opportunity to gloat, approached Bali, taunting him. In-between their dialogue, Indra saw Shri emerge from Bali. Intrigued, he approached her. She replied, "I am known as Duhsaha and also known as Shri, Lakshmi. … Dhata and Vidhata cannot control me. Time determines my movement." Shri then asked Indra to bear her; i.e. she had left Bali because he had left the path of dharma, had become intoxicated with power. She wanted to reside elsewhere. Much as Indra was a jealous god, even he knew his limitations. And by the way, we know that Indra is to blame (or should take at least substantial credit) for the start of the Bharata dynasty, for wasn’t it on his bidding that Menaka, the celestial apsara, descended down on earth to tempt Viswamitra from his tapasya. Wasn’t the union of that distraction the birth of Shakuntala, who would become the mother of Sarvadamana. Sarvadamana - who would go on to be known better as Bharata? Indra replied to Shri’s request, "There is no single man amongst gods, humans, or amongst all beings, who is capable of bearing you forever." Shri then asked Indra to divide her into four equal parts. And thus Shri was vested one quarter on earth, one quarter in clear water, one quarter in the fire, and one quarter in the virtuous


Indra, the king of gods, knew enough to know that one person could not bear all of Lakshmi. It had to be distributed, shared, equally. And yet, we spend our entire lives in the delusion that Lakshmi, Shri, is ours to possess completely, forever. Is it not conceit, arrogance, and ultimately the wasted pursuit of an entire life to spend it in trying to climb what Vyasa called the tree of desire?
The tree of desire is described most eloquently by Krishna Dvaypayana in Ch 246 of the Shanti Parva, Dana Dharma:
Anger and arrogance constitute its trunk
Ignorance is its root
Delusion sprinkles it with water
Jealousy makes up its leaves
Earlier acts provide the fertilizer
Lack of judgment and thought are the branches
Sorrow the smaller branches
Thirst are the creepers
Desire for knowledge is its liberation
Bhishma, [credit: Mahabharata, Gita Press]
The most detailed descriptions of charity to be found in the Mahabharata are to be found, unsurprisingly, in the Dana Dharma Parva. This parva is contained within the Anushasana Parva, the thirteenth parva. Actually, not many people realize, and I certainly did not till quite late, that the two parvas, Shanti and Anushasan - that mostly cover Bhishma’s advice to Yudhishthira - form a full 25% of the Critical Edition’s 79000 shlokas. Shanti Parva is thirteen thousand shlokas, while Anushasan Parva six and a half thousand!

Bhishma’s answers to questions on donations were mostly straightforward - "when you give, think that in that task of giving, you are performing a sacrifice." He did not call it a bargain, an exchange, but a "sacrifice." A sacrifice it is, not meant to be a bargain the way one enters into with a shopkeeper!
"Just as water washes away dirt, and light from a fire dispels darkness, similarly donations cleanse sin."
[Anushasana Parva,
credit: Mahabharata,
Gita Press]
Remember the tale of Shri at the start? Once Shri came to a place full of cattle, and told the cows there that she wished to dwell among the cows. The cows, on the other hand, told Shri that they considered her temporary and fickle, and that she was free to go where she wanted. An astounded Shri told the cattle that there was nothing mobile or immobile that ignored her. Without her, there was neither artha, nor kama, nor dharma! The cattle however were clear – "we are not disrespecting you, nor are we slighting you. You are temporary and fickle. Therefore we are forsaking you." Upon her persistent requests, the cows agreed, and thus Shri came to reside among cows –in the urine and dung of cows.

Thus the Mahabharata talks about cows as the most precious of gifts, they provide milk, curd, butter, ghee, dung, hide, hair, and even bones (Ch 65). It was the theft of a cow that led to the Vasus being born on earth – the eldest of them, Bhishma, condemned to live the longest in mrityulok.

The epic however does not focus on cows as a gift to the exclusion of other items. Therefore, in the same parva, we are told that "There is nothing superior to giving land." Brihaspati tells Indra that "There is no gift that is equal to giving away land. There is no teacher who is equal to the mother. There is no dharma equal to the earth. There is no wealth equal to donations." In Ch 62, Narada tells Bhishma, who in turn passes this on to Yudhishthira: "There is no donation that is equal to food. If a man gives food, he plants a tree of food that provides all the objects of desire, in this world and in the next. Like farmers who wait for excellent rains, the ancestors hope that their sons and grandsons donate food." In Ch 64, we are told that umbrellas make good gifts, and in Ch 65 that footwear is also a good gift.

The long and short of this therefore is that there is hardly any gift per se that is good or bad in itself. It is the intent of the giver and the intention of the receiver that determines the outcome.

Do we ask for something when we give? It would certainly appear so, wouldn’t it? Will I get a receipt? Is it deductible under section 80G? I gave money but they didn’t publish my name on the front page; only the secretary called and thanked me, and so on… But these are minor quibbles compared to some of the bargains that are struck. There is a calamity, an earthquake, a flood. An organization offers clothes to the suffering people, but asks for their very souls in return. Is this giving? Is this charity?
How do you ask? Why are you asking? What are you taking? Even the one giving should ask this. But, do we?
And what about those who give? What do you give? Is it even yours to give? Why are you giving?

Drupada and Drona [credit: twitter.com/epified_]

Let us go back to the epic, this time to the Ch 121 of the Adi Parva. Here, we are looking at Drupada and Drona, both friends, both pupils at Sage Bharadwaja’s ashram. Drona, of course, as we know, was the sage’s son. A relationship between friends where perhaps Drona had the upper hand? Now grown up, Drona is a father. Drona first approaches Parashurama, and gets not riches but the knowledge of the weapons that Parashurama had. He then approaches Drupada, hoping to get a cow – the best of gifts – so his son can taste milk. We know that story, don’t we? Pitra-moh, the memory of an old childhood friendship, and perhaps just a little bit of arrogance drives Drona. What does he do when he approaches Drupada in his court, who, remember, is now a king? He tells him, "Recognize me." Drupada wears both the crown and the ego of a king. His words cut through Drona like a knife through butter, and the Mahabharata does not pull any punches either. Ponder the stake of words that Drupada drives into Drona -
Drona, Drupada. [credit: twitter.com/epified_]
"Your wisdom is lacking and inferior if you suddenly begin to address me as your friend.  O one with a dull mind! No great king can ever be friends with someone like you. You have no prosperity, nor do you have any riches. Time decays everything, including friendship. It is true we were friends once, but that was based on a relationship of equality." 
Drona walks out of Drupada’s court, and into Hastinapura as the guru of the Kuru princes.

[Upajaja, Yaja, and Drupada
credit: Mahabharata, Gita Press]
How does it end? Well, it took decades to truly end, but the first chapter of the gruesome end was a very special kind of guru dakshina that Drona asked of his pupils. It was – "capture Drupada and bring him here. That will be my greatest dakshina," Drona said, demanded. Thus, when Drupada stood before Drona, captive and under the complete control of Drona, Drona told Drupada – "As a boon, I am granting you half of your kingdom." An utterly humiliated Drupada went to the banks of the Ganga, and found two brahmins – Yaja and Upayaja – and told Upayaja, the younger of the two brothers, "If you perform the sacrifice that will give me a son who can kill Drona, I will give you ten crore cows." The word used is "arbuda", which means 100 million. Out of the fire of the sacrifice (or should I say, the raging fire of revenge) emerged first Dhrishtadyumna, and then Draupadi.

Was this charity? Something asked is not given, so it is taken, and then partly returned. A favor is asked of a sage, in exchange for money. Did it end well?
Both the fathers died in the war; Drupada first, killed by Drona, and Drona after that, killed by Drupada’s son, Dhrishtadyumna. Dhrishtadyumna died an ignominious death at the hands of Ashwatthama - defenceless, and pummeled to death by Drona’s son. As for Ashwatthama, he was cursed to wander the earth, unrecognized, unloved, for three thousand years, by one no less than Krishna. And I am not even talking about that other son of Drupada – Shikhandini, or should we say Amba?

Shibi [credit: Mahabharata, Gita Press]
Does selfless charity exist? Yes. In my opinion, the most striking and pure – in whatever sense of the word you mean pure to be - example of a donation and charity can be found in the Aranyaka Parva. The Pandavas were spending the twelve years of their exile in the forest (the thirteenth was to be spent in disguise, among other people), visited by several sages. It was a period of learning for the Pandavas. The Aranyaka Parva at this stage tells us the stories of Parashuram, Sage Chyavana, and then, in Ch 131, of Shibi. To test whether Ushinara was the equal of the gods, Indra became a hawk, and Agni a dove. The dove, trying to escape the hawk, alighted on Shibi’s thigh. Shibi refused to hand over the dove to the hawk, saying, "It has come to me for its life. Giving it up merits condemnation." The hawk’s counter argument was that by depriving the hawk of its natural food, in this case the dove, the king would be responsible for not only the hawk’s life, but also of its wife and son. Shibi then offered to cook for the hawk whatever it desired. The hawk demurred, saying, very reasonably I would say, that the dove was the natural food of hawks. Shibi offered even his entire kingdom, and then his flesh, and finally himself.
Charity is not giving what does not belong to you. Charity truly is giving what is you; a part of you. Can we part with that? Isn’t that what makes charity truly noble and uplifting?

In case you were wondering how could there be a piece on giving and the Mahabharata which did not talk about Karna, I confess I wanted to end with Karna, not start with him.

The die had been cast and the war was but on the horizon. Actually, the die could have been said to have been cast more than thirteen years ago in the halls of the palace at Hastinapura, when the Pandavas lost their entire kingdom, themselves, and then even Droupadi. Do you remember that one act of charity performed by Dhritarashtra, when he gave back the Pandavas their freedom, their kingdom, more out of fear of Droupadi’s curse? Shall we even call it charity?


Surya appears before Karna
[credit: Mahabahrata, Gita Press]
Anyway, we are now in the Aranyaka Parva, Ch 248, and within that major parva, in the Kundala Aharana Parva. Yes, you know this one, don’t you? Indra feared for his son Arjuna, knowing that as long as Karna wore his armour and earrings – kavacha and kundala – he could not be killed. Indra decided to take them. Karna didn’t refuse brahmanas after he had done his morning prayers. So Indra decided to approach Karna in the guise of a Brahmana. Agni warned Karna and advised his son to refuse to hand over his kavacha and kundala. Karna disagreed, for it would be his fame that would suffer - "Like a mother, fame ensures the life of a man in this world." Surya’s answer was practical and logical - "the fame of a dead human is like a garland on one who has lost his life." That is, if Karna gave up his armour, he would be rendered vulnerable. Of what use would fame be to him? Father and son went back and forth on this, till Agni finally parted with some advice for Karna. Thus, when Indra approached Karna with his request the next morning, Karna at first refused. He offered the Brahmana riches, cows, gold, even his kingdom, but not his kavacha and kundala. The Brahmana persisted. Finally, Karna had this to say to Indra - "If I give you my earrings and armour, I will be liable to be killed. You will become an object of ridicule. I won’t give them to you. But take them in an exchange." The exchange? Indra’s Shakti. Therein lies an even more fascinating tale. But perhaps for another day.

Indra giving Karna the Shakti weapon
[credit: Mahabahrata, Gita Press]
Charity there was, a most noble donation was made, but what was the intention in asking? Certainly not the most noble of intentions. And certainly an element of deception there was – no different from today when the most dubious of people come asking us for donations in the garb of the whitest of robes, don’t they?

Perhaps the story I identify most with kaliyuga is that of Shalya, the uncle of Nakula and Sahdeva. the king of Madra, brother of Madri. For this story, we turn to the Udyoga Parva (sandwiched between the Aranyaka and Bhishma Parvas). War loomed, and while Krishna had not yet made one last trip to Hastinapura to avert war, preparations had begun in earnest. Shalya started to march with his large army towards the Pandavas, who were camped in Upalavya. How large was the army? It extended for one and a half yojanas. Duryodhana got to know of Shalya’s march, and along the way had large pavilions constructed. Shalya was honoured and shown homage at all these locations. But this was deceit and a basic lack of due diligence! How so? Not only Duryodhana kept himself hidden, but Shalya also did not bother to inquire, before accepting the hospitality, as to who was responsible for these gifts, what were their intentions. On top of that, he started to develop an inflated opinion of himself – thinking very highly of himself and lowly about Indra! When Duryodhana finally revealed himself, Shalya agreed to whatever Duryodhana asked him. What did Duryodhana ask him – "be the general of my entire army."

Hasn’t this become a standard operating procedure of sorts for many today – lavish praise, gifts, and then, while your head is in the clouds, the ground shifts from beneath your feet. You find yourself so indebted that it is your faith itself that is shaken, stirred, and finally harvested.
Receiving with eyes shut is not wisdom. Receiving is also an action, a karma, and the Gita says this best, when it tells us that "Action begun under delusion, without considering consequences, destruction, injury, and one’s own capabilities, is known as tamas-type."

Let us embrace giving – call it charity, dana, dakshina, bhiksha, sacrifice – the words do not matter. What matters is that we give, and that we give with our eyes open.

Give such that the cause of dharma is served.

[this is a lightly edited version of a talk I gave in October 2015.]

© 2015, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.