Friday, May 8, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata - 10 - On Pollution

My post on what the Mahabharata says on pollution appeared in Swarajya Magazine on March 10, 2015.

Here is the original article:

Jayadratha comes across as a rather despicable character in the Mahabharata. He tried to kidnap Droupadi - his sister-in-law - while the Pandavas were in exile, and escaped with his life only because of Yudhishthira's intervention. During the war, on the thirteenth day, he held back the Pandava army from entering the formation - the chakra vyuha - that Drona had formed, and thus preventing help from reaching the beleaguered Abhimanyu. The Kaurava warriors ganged up against the lone teenager and killed him in a battle most unequal and most unfair.

You can imagine Arjuna's wrath at this murder most foul. It had to be avenged. While the Kaurava warriors were also to be blamed, the principal culprit was the one who prevented help from reaching Abhimanyu - Jayadratha. Arjuna took two vows to avenge his son. The first was to kill Jayadratha before sunset the next day.
"I will kill Jayadratha tomorrow. I will slay him, unless out of fear, he abandons the sons of Dhritarashtra, or seeks refuge with us, or seeks sancturary with Purushottam Krishna, or with you." [7.51, Vol VI]

That Arjuna was intent upon fulfilling his promise should not have been in doubt in any case. He was willing to condemn himself not only in this life - by self-immolation if he failed - but also after life itself. Note his words:
"If I do not achieve this in the battle, let me not attain the worlds meant for those with meritorious deeds." [7.51, Vol VI]

First he swore to deny himself the worlds meant for the brave. He then went one step further, by asking for the worst kinds of hell to be reserved for him were he to fail to kill Jayadratha:

"There are worlds meant for those who kill their mothers and those who kill their fathers, for those who have intercourse with the wives of their teachers, and for those who are wicked, for those who hate virtuous ones and speak ill of others, for those who misappropriate wealth left in their custody and for those who violate trust and for those who speak ill of women they have enjoyed earlier. ... If I do not kill Jayadratha, let those worlds be mine." [7.51, Vol VI]


"There are worlds attained by those who touch brahmanas, cattle and fire with their feet and those who release phlegm, excreta and urine in water. If I do not kill Jayadratha, let those terrible ends be mine." [7.51, Vol VI]

In case you missed the import of what Arjuna uttered in the last paragraph, let me intervene - the worst kind of hell and after-life that Arjuna could imagine was meant for people who polluted rivers and water bodies by releasing "phelgm, excreta and urine" in them.

This abhorrence of polluting our rivers and water bodies also combined with a general revulsion at poor personal hygiene habits. The Mahabharata has a number of shlokas that talk about bathing and good eating habits, especially found in the latter part of the epic. The Anushasan Parva in particular has several shlokas on the topic of pollution: 

  • "One must not release excrement in a field or near a village. Both urine and excrement must never be released in water." [13.107, Vol X]
  • "If a person passes urine or excrement towards the sun, towards a fire, towards a cow, towards a brahmana or along the road - then his lifespan s destroyed." [13.107, Vol X]
  • "One must always pass urine at a spot that is far away from a habitation. After this, one must always wash one's feet at a distance. Those who desire benefit must throw away food that has been partially eaten by others far away." [13.107, Vol X]
  • "Those who follow dharma do not release urine or excrement on a royal road, amidst cattle, or in the midst of a cow pen." [13.148, Vol X]

In summary, the Mahabharata cautions against performing these ablutions near one's house, near habitation, near a village, in water, in a water body, along roads - where people would travel, and also advises that people wash their feet before returning. These are sensible pieces of advice that would not be out of place in any twenty-first century manual of personal hygiene. 

While comparisons can sometimes distract, it would however be instructional to contrast some European attitudes and practices towards hygiene. Medieval Europeans believed that bathing could help carry disease through the body. Rumour has it that Luis XIV took only three baths in his lifetime [1]. Streets in Medieval Europe "tended to be coated in feces and urine thanks to people tossing the contents of their chamber pots into the streets." [2] Unsurprisingly, poor personal and civic hygiene also played a large part in the Black Death - a deadly plague that "is estimated to have killed 30–60% of Europe's total population." [3]

The trigger for this post was two-fold. First, for a country where rivers have been venerated as goddesses (or gods, but that is comparatively rarer), the levels of pollution in our rivers is alarming. The Ganga river sustains a population in excess of a quarter billion, yet is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Leaving aside the larger economic and policy reasons for the pollution, what does our most venerated and celebrated epic have to say on the topic of pollution? The second was an article in a US newspaper written by one of its reporters that sought to pin the blame for India's poor sanitation on Hindu texts. Of course, it did not directly say so; rather, the article's style was a distressingly familiar miasma of innuendo and sly comparisons with plausible deniability.

The first number in the reference is the Parva. So "7" is Drona Parva, while "13" is "Anushasan Parva". The second number is the chapter number within the parva. The third number, a Roman numeral, is the book number in the ten-series volume brought out by Dr. Bibek Debroy, which is an unabridged translation of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, and published by Penguin.

[1], accessed March 10, 2015.
[2], accessed March 10, 2015.
[3], accessed March 10, 2015.

Disclaimer: views expressed are personal.

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