Shubha Deepavali! Diwali Shubhkamnayein! Happy Diwali! Happy Tihar! and all the many regional variations of this sacred festival. Deepavali is the great utsav that unites us all, being celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists alike.
So enjoy this great Festival, and like last year, burst crackers to your hearts content!
From all of us at ICP: Shubha Vaisakhi! Happy Baisakhi! Baisakhi di lakh lakh badhai! Shubho Nabo Borsho! Pana Sankranthi ra Subheccha! Shubh Jude Sheetal! Happy Bihu!
The other half of the assorted New Year’s of Bharatavarsha fall this well. Though the majority are today. We have two more tomorrow.
Today is most famously the Baisakhi Mela of Punjab, celebrated vivaciously by Sikhs. It is the Harvest Festival, and a time of great happiness.
In Vanga, that is the Bengal region, it is referred to as Pohela Boisakh.
In Utkala/Kalinga, that is Odisha, it is called Pana Sankranthi, and is celebrated with a delicious sacred drink of the same name.
Maithilis ( the people around the region of ancient Mithila, Bihar/Nepal) call it Jude Sheetal.
The rest of Nepal celebrates Vikram Samvat. Their New year refers to the Vikrama Era of King Vikramaditya Panwar of Ujjain. This day begain in 57 B.C.E, and the New Year for most Nepalis begins this day.
Also, the Sinhalas of Sri Lanka celebrate Aluth Avarudda today, which is their New Year. Tulus of the Tulu region of Karnataka celebrated Bisu today.
This completes the New Year’s Celebrations for all Bharatiyas using the sidereal calendar (except our fabulously wealthy Gujarati siblings). The Solar Calendar New Year festivals remain.
The soul of a culture and civilization is embodied in its National Epics. Not just the values and high-minded principles, but also its emotions, core, and national character. That is the importance of High Culture and the Indigenous Indic Literary Canon, and that is the value of today’s topic in our continuing Series on Classical Indic Literature.
From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Prose & Poetic Edda, Epic Poetry has a crucial place in the annals of World Literature. It is often adapted as was Milton’s Paradise Lost, re-constructed as was the Aeneid, or even outright constructed, as was the case of the Silmarillion. In fact, J.R.R. Tolkien of Lord of the Rings fame, is said to have written the latter on account of a desire to create a mythology for the English, and mythos to reference in LOTR. Allegations of anti-semitism aside, Richard Wagner is said to have held a similar fascination for Norse Mythology, which was adapted for the Germanic people for a Teutonic mythos. But what others called mythology, we call Sacred History. 
Indeed, the category of Epic Poetry in the Indic context is better served by native terminology of Itihasa-Purana and Mahakavya For us, these stories, names, and even places are not made up, but in most cases, stories, names, and places that are still being lived or lived on today. Ayodhya is not some imaginary city, but an important municipality that stands even today and is revered by millions. Mathura is not on some distant planet, but a place of pilgrimage to the common person. Kasi is not merely a crowded, polluted town, but the holiest city in Hinduism. They are as much the cities of Rama, Krishna, and Divodasa, as they are Pradhan Mantri Narendra’s.
That is why, even when characters and various lokas seem fantastical in the modern world, they still hold a very real relevance because the earthly places themselves still exist. Whether we believe these stories took place verbatim, or believe them to be mere atisayokti (hyperbole) added to true events per the storyteller’s prerogative, Itihasa-Purana is at the heart of our heritage. Empires may fall, cities may be destroyed, but the heritage of a people, indeed their historical memory and civilizational identity, is contained in its stories and epics. That is also why “mythologists” and assorted videshi vipers have been hissing and spreading sometimes sweet, but usually sour, poison about our stories and figures, whether male, or increasingly female. When they are ‘Invading the Sacred‘, it becomes all the more important that we reassert the sacredness of our epics and adapt them to the modern context.
Classical Indic Epics
What are the civilizational epics of Bharatavarsha? How many are the national epics of India? The short answer is 2, 20, and 32. Virtually every Bharatiya when prompted about the sacred epics of their society will instantly respond: Ramayana & Mahabharata. And this is for good reason. They are our two most important epics and central stories as they are not only spotlights on the national character, and guidebooks on dharmic living, but they in turn connect us to the overarching Puranas and our ultimate Vedic tradition. Both are stories within stories. As the Silmarillion provides the backstory that makes the Lord of the Rings all the more compelling, so too the Puranas provide the backstory that makes the Ramayana and Mahabharata all the more compelling.
But while Tolkien had to invent a mythology for a nice story, we have ready made Pauranic punditry to bring to life the Ramayana and Mahabharata’s sacred history. The Lord of the Rings and the western literary canon are generally mere fiction meant to provide entertaining stories. But the Ramayana and Mahabharata provide a moral compass for society.That is why we study them and make serials which no Hollywood or Bollywood could replace. Their profundity surpasses production capacity of the big screen.
But along with these 2 Sanskrit epics and the 18 Maha Puranas that form the corpus of Pauranic literature, we also have contributions from Baudha Dharma and Jina Dharma via associated Sanskrit and Tamizh Literature. First, there is the Buddhacharita of Ashvagosha. Then there are the 5 main epics of Tamizh Literature. Finally, there are the Mahakavyas. These are the 5 main great poems of Sanskrit: Kumarasambhava, Raghuvamsa, Kiratarjuneeya, Sisupalavadha, and Naisadheeya Charita, by Kalidasa, Bharavi, Magha, and Sri Harsha respectively.
Despite being mere adaptations of Pauranic history as Paradise Lost was to “biblical history”, these Mahakavyas have over the course of time acquired a potent character so as to be almost sacred. The truth is, given the 30 million texts in sanskrit alone (leave aside Tamizh, Prakrit, and Pali), countless tomes can be classified as Epic Poetry. But what what is it that truly makes a work Itihasa-Purana, or a Purana, or a Mahakavya?
That is where the tradition itself and the adhyatmic authorities who guide it, play the presiding role, not some self-appointed videshi “dhotiwallah’, pretending to go native. What text has served to provide moral education and critical understanding of our Dharmic tradition? That is what elevated even the Mahakavyas to the level of secondary epics.
Before we commence with this exegesis on the epics, it is important to briefly touch on those two mightiest of poets, who art the fount of both poesy and wisdom, from which men of the dread Kali Age derive their dharma and direction.
Known as the Adi Kavi, Maharishi Valmiki, and his own wondrous story of redemption, needs no introduction to the cultured Indian person. From robber-hunter to wise Sage to majestic poetic, he is the man who gave us our most inspiring tale of familial and fraternal love, and yet inspires us with his own biography.
He uses the anushtubh metre in his wonderful poem, imbued with the spirit of his tapas. Like the Ramayana, his is a story of vindication. Indeed, his life alone demonstrates that it is not mere learning or knowledge or certified scholarship that marks an acharya or authority on literature (let alone a Maharishi), but rather, sadhana and shraddha. Like the Aayana of Rama, Valmiki’s journey is one that awakens not just the mind but also the soul, and the fruit of his Tapas, is our beloved Ramayana.
Better known as Krishna Dvaipayana, “the Island Born” Krishna (as distinguished from the other Krishnas: Draupadi, and Vasudeva), Maharishi Veda Vyasa is famous for, among many other things, compiling the Vedas and presenting them in their present form.
Per the tradition, the full corpus of the Vedas could no longer be memorised and understood by a single human being in a single lifespan, due to the moral and physical degeneration of man in the Kali Yuga. As such, at the End of the Dvapara, he divided the Vedas into the Chaturveda as we know them today. However, in their original form, these only constituted Karma Kanda, that is, the portion of Vedic Knowledge associated with ritual and yajna. The remaining portions of the traditional “Veda” include Jnana Kanda (The Upanishands) and Upasana/Bhakti Kanda (Bhagavata Purana).
As such, the work of this mighty Maharishi spans the breadth of our tradition: from the Vedas, to the Itihasas, to the Puranas. The son of Satyavathi and Maharishi Parasara not only compiled the Vedas, and composed the Mahabharata, but features in the latter as well. Nevertheless, his story and greatness are a matter for another time. It is time to understand what makes an epic, epic.
The sway of our epics has spanned the breadth of the world. However, nowhere outside of India has their impact been more obvious than South East Asia. Our ancestors crossed the oceans, and the love of Indic culture and civilization created new Ayodhya’s across the samudra. Mahakavi Dandin wrote that “lore is the boat for those who desire to cross the deep ocean of poetry”[5, 7]. That is the value of not only the epics, but understanding of Itihasa-Purana and Sastra. The value of each reference, each allusion, each simile, and their respective depths-of-meaning can only be fully absored by one well-versed in lore.
Despite the sophistication of Classical Indic Poetry, its brilliance is in capturing the most elevating of sentiments and philosophies in the simplest and most sundaram of stories.
Divided into six books, kandas (though the 7th Uttara Kanda is sometimes added), the Ramayana is the most beloved of all Indic epics, and the masterpiece of Maharishi Valmiki. [10, 72] It is for this reason, known as the Adi Kavya, and its author, the Adi Kavi. It is 500 cantos and 24,000 verses of pure spiritual beauty. Was it history? When did it take place? Some say thousands of years ago, some say, Chatur-yugas ago. Nevertheless, this is the singular work that binds the heart and soul of Indic civilization together. This is not due to geography or history or even morality, but the pure sentiment of the work. Despite being dharmopadesa, it is a poem of vatsalya (familial affection).
So much so is this the case that even the video game, Sid Meier’s Civilization, refered to the Ramayana as a civilizational achievement that boosted the morality and happiness of a populace. Yet in our era, this timeless tale is attacked from all corners without proper understanding, or unwillingness to undertand, its subtlety and moral high-mindedness.
From Presidents of the Republic, to local dhobis, it is the universally known and universally recited epic of our civilization. From the small child, to the greatest warrior, all draw inspiration from its simple elegance, profound sentiment, and hope against hopelessness. The well-known story of Lord Vishnu’s 7th incarnation as Rama, the Crown Prince of Ayodhya, his wife Princess Sita, his loyal brothers, his beloved bhaktas, his vaunted lineage, and his destiny’s enemy Ravana, are all so woven into our being that it is verily part of our national character, and can be discussed at another time.
Nevertheless, it is a guidebook for individuals and the conducting of individual relationships.It captures the sweetness of family life and provides a cautionary tale of how selfishness and jealousy lead to division. But it is also a triumph. While the Mahabharata destroys one family, the Ramayana victoriously reunites this one. It is a tale of a family reunited, because they were able to surmount the bitterness of circumstantial division (caused by fate), and ultimately triumph because all the brothers and all the sisters-in-law did their duty. One sin by one mother nearly destroyed a kingdom. But it was the nobility of the eldest brother and the sacrifice of the second-eldest, and the selflessness of the two youngest, that ensured the family was ultimately able to triumph over all tragedies. The rightful heir became king, and the people received good government, not only because they were worthy of Ram Rajya (unlike our current crop), but because all rejected the Perils of Ambition.
Fittingly, this very theme of ambition and its perils would be evaluated in the Epic that defined the very geography of Bharatavarsha, the War of the Bharatas.
The epic of epics, the Bharata of Bharatas, the incarnation of incarnations, all are so contained in this magnum opus of Maharishi Veda Vyasa that the very name evokes sweeping grandeur. The familiar story of a family divided, and the fratricidal war that follows, shows not only the ultimate restoration of dharma, but also the dangers of internecine and inter-familial rivalry.
That, incidentally, is also part of the lesson of the epic Poem for which the future Sapta Rishi is famous for. Originally known as Jaya, and Bharata, the Mahabharata is the single greatest epic known to man. Requiring no introduction to any Bharatiya of worth, it is more than just the record of a rivalry or war as with the Iliad or the tale of journey a la Odyssey, but is an expression of the philosophical, political, societal, and strategic culture of Dharma itself. “It is not an epic written to please the kings sitting on the throne” [10,62]. It is a guide of societies. “The artistic unity and symmetry, the harmony and the right proportion of the various parts and the natural way in which events follow events and items are introduced in various contexts –all these make the epic a real work of art.” [10,62]
At 18 chapters and 180,000 verses, and 1.8 million words, it is the single longest epic poem in World Civilization. Ten times larger than the Iliad and the Odyssey put together, it is four times longer than the Ramayana. Simultaneously discussing various aspects of humanity, and with numerous side stories and side instruction, a veritable lifetime itself could be spent poring over its plentiful details and nuances. What begins on the banks of the Ganga, featuring its eponymous Goddess and the Kuru King Shantanu, ends not on that famous field of the Kurus, or even with the end of Sri Krishna avatar, but concludes with an exhortation to moral behaviour. While the Ramayana is written in the form of a recitation, the Mahabharata is written as a dialogue, of Rishi Vaisampayana recounting the story to King Pareekshit. It predominantly uses anushtubh chanda (metre). Said to take place in the Dvapara Age, the passing of Krishna, iniated the start of the Kali Yuga (3102 B.C.E).
As the world’s longest poem, veritable tomes let alone articles could be written on the best of Bharatas. Where to begin and where to end in the discussion of the sum total of human experience? Maharishi Veda Vyasa himself notes that while what is contained in it may be found elsewhere, there is nothing found elsewhere that is not contained in it. Therefore, better to end this section on the Mahabharata with the sloka that best defines epic:
Oorddhva baahurviromyesha na kashchit shrnothi me Dharmaath artthasha kaamascha kim na sevyati? (Svargarohanika Parva, S.5)
I raise my hands up [in frustration] and say “The way to wealth and love is through Dharma—why doesn’t anybody listen?!”
Classical Indic Literature traditionally maintains the category of Itihasa-Purana. While the two Civilizational epics cross the threshold of that liminality, because our tradition holds them as sacred physical history, there are nevertheless the namesake Puranas that are clearly meta-physical in nature.
There are traditionally 18 Maha Puranas and 18 Upa Puranas. While the Ramayana and Mahabharata are often referred to as Puranas, per the tradition, in the Pauranic context, they are referred to as Itihaasa. Many such as the Vayu Purana are mentioned in supplements to the Epic of the Bharatas. Thus, the 18 Maha Puranas, generally of later origin, can therefore be distinguished. Of these, the Bhagavatha Purana is of the greatest importance, while the others are often assigned a younger date circa 300 B.C.E. [10, 76] This is because when Maharishi Veda Vyasa, at the end of the Dvapara (5117 years ago) was compiling the Vedas, it was determined that the traditional corpus could no longer be mastered by a single brahmana. As such, he divided it into karma-kanda (Chatur-Veda), jnana-kanda (Upanishads), and upasana/bhakti-kanda (Bhagavatha Purana). The other 17 Maha Puranas are as follows: Padma Purana, Vishnu Purana, Shiva Purana, Skanda Purana, Vayu Purana, Brahma Purana, Brahmanda Purana, Brahma-Vaivarta Purana, Agni Purana, Garuda Purana, Linga Purana, Markandeya Purana, Matsya Purana, Kurma Purana, Varaaha Purana, Vamana Purana, and Naradheeya Purana.
The Dasavatara of Lord Vishnu is predominantly discussed here. Per tradition, the Puranas are all said to be extensions of the Mahabharata, and thus, all are sometimes credited to Maharishi Veda Vyasa. [10,74] Nevertheless, there is more to them than moral instruction. Interestingly, we find that despite being spiritual in nature, and dealing with the creation story of the universe, they remain works of great literary significance. Women too are provided with a prominent place. The Shiva Purana itself critically features episodes concerning Goddess Durga.
The 18 upa-puranas typically deal with matters of lesser importance. These include the history of place names, and thus, many are called “sthala purana”. [10,79]
Nevertheless, Jina Dharma (Jaina/ Jainism) and Baudha Dharma (Buddhism) also made significant contribution to Epic Poetry.
Ashvagosha wrote his famous Buddhacharita in the days of Kanishka. Considered a good poet writing “true poetry”, he nevertheless has, unlike Mahakavis, the intention to sermonise, and he does so plentifully. Despite differing in panth, he looked to Adi Kavi and the compiler of the Vedas for inspiration. He himself annointed it a Mahakavya and composed it in Sanskrit (as opposed to the traditional Pali). [7, ii] Only half the work (17 cantos) is said to have come down to us, four of which are not considered authentic. In fact, in a recurring issue, we have a later poet adding on to the original work. Translations in Tibetan and Chinese take the original number to 22 cantos at least. [10, 131] We see the episodes involving Siddartha Gautama‘s life in the palace, eventual despair at the cycle of samsara, and quest for enlightenment. The language used is simple but elegant, and very much in line with the Vaidarbhi style of Acharya Dandin.
Interestingly enough, Ashvagosha is credited with a lesser known epic the Saundara-nanda. A work in 18 cantos, it begins in the city of Kapilavastu with the father (Suddodhana) and brother of the Tathagatha, namely Nanda. Here we see the rise of the Buddha’s half brother to the throne, and understand his ambivalence between the exigencies and pleasures of the material world, and the buddhist beatitude of the spiritual world. [10, 132-4]. Whether it should be considered a formal epic in the league of the Buddhacharita is another matter, but in “the Saundara-nanda, there is a deliberate introduc-tion of the poet’s erudition in the ancient lore of India, various names of sages and of poets of the ancient times, the Vedic rituals and customs and manners, stories of the heroes of old and so on.” [10,133]
Considered a work of great dexterity and kavya skill, the Saundara-nanda of Ashvagosha gives us an understanding of sampradayic relations. In fact, in “his works we see the great reverence which the poet had for Vedic literature and Vedic culture”. [10,133] As such, the actual “integral unity” of our tradition is apparent once again. This is also apparent in the Jain canon and in the classical Tamil language.
Tamizh & Jain Literature
Among the other classical languages, Tamizh (Tamil) naturally stands out. There are 5 epic poems credited to the Sangam Age that define this branch of the Indic canon. These epics, nevertheless, are the Silappathikaram, the Manimekalai, the Sivaka Chintamani, Valayapathi, and Kundalakesi. Interestingly enough, though most of Jain literature, especially the Purvas and Angas, is in Ardh-Magadhi (Prakrit) or Sanskrit, it is in Tamizh that we see its philosophy come to life in epic form.
While the Manimekalai favours Baudha Dharma, Jain themes are replete in the Sivaka Chinatamani and the Valayapathi. Tamizh itself by tradition is attributed to Lord Shiva, and its grammar credited to Maharishi Agasthya, per his disciple Tolkappiyar (who wrote the Tolkappiyam). Sangam literature itself is presently dated to the 3rd Century B.C.E. to the 1st, though it is likely older. The most famous however remains the Silappathikaram. It too is a tale that is replete in Dharma, and the heroine, Kannagi, said to be an incarnation of Devi herself. These epics are filled with themes of heroism and valour. 
Tamil literature in fact contains numerous resplendent gems, such as the Thirukural and the Kamba Ramayana. Nevertheless, in order to properly appreciate these classics, it best to learn from proponents of the tradition themselves, here.
There are, according to tradition, 5 Mahakavyas in number, and thus, they are known as the Pancha Mahakavya. [10,136] Of course, alert students (and motivated videshis) are quick to question why Ashvagosha’s work or Bhatti’s Kavya are not included in this number. But that is a matter for another time and another article. At present, we shall limit ourselves to the traditional number and works.
These are: Kumara-Sambhava and Raghuvamsa of Kalidasa, Sishupala-vadha of Magha, Kiratarjuneeya of Bharavi, and Naishada Charita or Naisadeeya of Sri Harsha. In his Kavyadarsa, Mahakavi Dandin has stipulated conditions for a poem to be classified as a Mahakavya:
The truly great work of Poetry is the Mahakavya (Great Poem).A type of this is the Sarga-bandha, which is” a Mahakavya that has a beginning with a benediction or indication of contents, it deals with purusharthas and has one of the four types of heroes. It describes the various phases of romance between great lovers, their journeys, trials and tribulations, uses rasa and bhava, has reasonable size chapters and will survive several kalpas. [5, 8-10]
Reputed scholar M.R.Kale defines it as follows: “A Mahakavya is a metrical composition which ought to be divided into cantos, not less than eight and more than thirty in number, and not containing less than thirty and more than two hundred slokas in each.” [6, v]. He further writes that it may be concered with the life of a single hero (Kiratarjuneeyam) or an entire race of kings (Raghuvamsa). The hero should possess the qualities of the Dhirodatta Nayaka (hero of sublime qualities). Moreover, each canto is required to have a uniform metre, which much be changed at its end–with some exceptions. What’s more, at the conclusion of each canto, the subject matter or predominant rasa should be indicated. “A Mahakavya must, as well, contain descriptions of great cities, oceans, mountains, seasons, the rise of the sun and the moon, sportings with ladies in gardens and water, drinkings, separations and unions of lovers &c. The style should be highly sentimental and embellished with figures of speech &c. Nothing that violates the dignity of poetry, such as unmeaning talk &c. should find place in a Mahakavya.“[6,vi]
Given these guidelines, it is obvious to see that only a poet of great skill, a true Mahakavi, can aspire to complete a true Mahakavya. It is for this reason that, while many epic poems have been attempted before and completed since, it is only these 5 poems in Sanskrit that are traditionally referred to as Mahakavyas. It is also why 3 of the 4 poets below wrote at least 1, and the remaining 1 was a master of poetics.
The simile of Kalidasa, the depth of meaning of Bharavi, the word-play of Dandin, in Magha all three qualities are found! 
There are of course many other poems that are epic in nature, not only in Sanskrit, but many other languages. By some estimates 3000 sanskrit works have been composed since Bharatiya Svatantra (Indian Independence). But these Pancha Mahakavya have acquired a certain sanctity that, like canon law among the Anglo-Saxons, has a certain authority of their own. The first of these authorities is none other than poet extraordinaire, Mahakavi Kalidasa.
Kalidasa is reckoned the poet among poets, and an artist of the first echelon. Reams can be written on him, and indeed have been, and will be. Nevertheless, the focus of today is not on his life or even his poet grace, but the majesty of his mahakavyas, the first of which is the Kumarasambhava.
“The Kumarasambhava of Kalidasa is a tour-de-force of literary effort of a very high order, and is in fact the oriflamme of Indian poetic genius. It is a gem among Kalidasa’s poetic works“. So wrote eminent scholar C.R. Devadhar. But what is it that makes this recounting of the Birth of the War God, so resonant with power and redolent with sentiment?
Adapting the a portion of the Skanda Purana, it discusses the marriage of Shiva and Parvati and the Birth of their child, Kumara (Karthikeya/Muruga/Skanda), who will grow up to become the commander-in-chief of the Devas and defeat the demon Tarakasura. There are some who assert that due to presence of eros in the gandhamadhana episode, that Kalidasa’s pupils must have finished sections of it, to account for the disparity. There are others of more foreign disposition who assert that all of Sanskrit kavya is eros, so there is no point in drawing morality from it (this specifically is patent nonsense). It is true that as both Kama and his mate Rati feature in the Kumarasambhava, so too do Sringara rasa and Rati bhava accompany each other. But as both this mahakavya, and the one we end with demonstrate, the nava rasa is present in the discussion of dharma, because dharma pervades all 9 of them. A poem in 17 cantos (though Kalidasa is usually credited only with 8),[10,120] its predominent rasa is Sringara, but due to the great battle that is to ensure, it has elements of Vira rasa as well, as can be seen here:
God Kumara, too, indulging in the sport of war, snapp-ed into bits the arrows and the bow of the Asura, just as a Yogi, himself dry as dust, by his yaugic practices, snaps the infallible bonds of Samsara s.47,C.7 [7,252]
The Raghuvamsa is one of the most beautiful epic poems composed by man. This mahakavya of Mahakavi Kalidasa, is singularly one of his best works. While he normally distinguishes himself through upama (that is simile), here we find a magnificent work conceived from start to finish, encapsulating the glory of the dynasty of the Raghus. The maturity of the poet’s age and talent is seen in the sophistication of this composition.
There are by tradition 25 cantos, of which 19 have come down to us. [7,ii] The great Telugu commentator Mallinatha, from new Telangana state, famously did a commentary on it. Raghuvamsa begins with a salutation to Lord Shiva and then commences with the story of King Dilipa. From there it proceeds to the rise of Raghu, then Aja, then Dasaratha, and the veritable tilika of the Raghus himself, Sri Ramachandra. After relating key episodes in the Ramayana, in proceeds to successors from Kusha down to Agnivarna. In a long line of kings of high character, the last one named proves a libertine. Nevertheless, it ends on a note of hope, mentioning his pregnant wife.
In an era of special effects and CGI, the Raghuvamsa nevertheless proves an engaging and even engrossing read. Filled with action, softened by sentiment, and replete with deep-seating meaning and moral principle, it is the complete Mahakavya. And discussing Kings from the Uttarapatha down to the Dakshinapatha (the Chola king is invited to a Svayamvara), it is the complete Indian Mahakavya. 
As the title indicates, this poem adapts an infamous episode from the Mahabharata, known as the Slaying of Sishupala, the evil cousin of Krishna. But what marks the skill of the poet is not the description of the blades of the Sudarshana chakra. Rather, it is the very apogee of not only poetic skill, but imagination and conception of rhetoric device. That is why makes Sisupala-vadha an unique, intricate, and memorable work.
It is said by some that Magha, in whom all three qualities of great poetry are said to be found, was in fact inspired by Bharavi. There are many points of resemblance. “It is said that the name Magha was assumed by the poet to indicate when Magha (a month in the cold season) comes Bharavi (the sun) loses his splendour“. [6, xxii] A few examples alone will demonstrate the consummate skill of Mahakavi Magha.
“Sri Krishna, the giver of every boon, the scourge of the evil-minded, the purifier, the one whose arms can annihilate the wicked who cause suffering to others, shot his pain-causing arrow at the enemy.”
“Naisadhiya-carita is philosophy and all sciences and other currents of thought brought into poetry, or poetry presenting all the systems of philosophy and all the sciences and currents of thought knit around a simple and familiar story. There are elaborate descriptions, both of nature and of human emotions.“[11, 147]. Such is the glowing the glowing account of the Naisadheeya Charita of Sri Harsa Deva. But of all the why’s and who’s that come up, the first is whether the aforementioned Harsa is in fact Emperor Harshavardhana of Kannauj, the famous king of Kanyakubja who ruled Northern India in the 7th Century C.E.
From all accounts, this appears to be the case. He, in fact, is credited with a number of other works including the dramas Ratnavali, Svapnavasavadatta, and Nagananda. If this is in fact beyond a doubt, then it only goes to show that the model of Indic manliness and kingship, the embodiment of Nara Dharma, is in fact shown through harmony of prowess in battle and cultivation of culture.
A composition in 22 cantos, the Naisadheeya is an account of the famous episode in the Mahabharata concerning the Nishada King Nala and his lady love Queen Damayanti.[11,xx] It discusses their romance, and marriage. Harsha’s language is described as “lucid and grand“. “Harsha’s philosophy does not affect the art in his poetry; on the other hand, he beautifies his philosophy by giving it a coat of art”. [11, 147]
The Kiratarjuneeyam is that famous Mahakavya that celebrates the episode of Arjuna fighting Lord Shiva in the guise of Kirata (mountain-man) and later receiving his blessing and Pasupat-astra. Composed by Mahakavi Bharavi, its predominant sentiment is Vira rasa (heroic). While little has come down to us about its author, it is not the clash of arms that has elevated this composition to the stratosphere, but for the power of the poetry itself.
Bharaver-artha gauravam is a famous portion of a sloka on the sanskrit Mahakavis, and this is not without cause. Bharavi is famous for his depth of meaning and we understand why from the first canto. His expertise in political philosophy and rajniti is apparent throughout, and thus, it is as much as a pragmatic work as it is poetic. It has been referred to by other commentators as “one of the most vigorous and spirited poems in the Sanskrit language“. [6,xxi] Mallinatha remarked that Bharavi’s style was like a coconut “which has to be broken before one can get at the sweet kernel“. [6,xxii] But why learn second hand what you an see for yourselves. Here is a sample sloka.
To a man regarding self-respect as his wealth and seeking imperishable (lasting) glory by (at the cost of) perishable life,
wealth which is unsteady like a flash of lightning is but an object of secondary consideration. [6, 112]
In the era of 300 Ramayanas, Ravanleela, Siya ke Ram, and Sita sings the Blues, the very accuracy, let alone efficacy and sanctity of epics has been questioned. Bharatiyas, particularly the English-medium variety, are being “saved” by foreigners who are falling over themselves to rescue them from the very upper castes who feature in and composed these epics…if only we’d gosh darn let them! But why are they and their 300 Ramayana’s theories so full of Beowulf?–because our tradition also asserted what is the original. Despite being a proud Telugu speaker, I know that the Andhra Mahabharatamu may be a wonderful re-telling, but it does not have the authority of Vyasa.
It is the height of foreign arrogance to think that a Nina Paley could have the same authority as Maharishi Valmiki. This is because if countless and contradictory variations serve as ultimate authority, than what is the lesson we are meant to draw? So why do our “phoreign sabiours” insist?–It is because if epics can be and mean anything, then they are and mean nothing. That is the true value of epics: Dharma Upadesa. They give us upadesa (moral instruction) and niti (lesson) from which to guide our life. Does the heartbroken Nina Paley have the same authority of a tested Philosopher? Why the reverence of Derridas, but not Valmiki? That is why regional variations and assorted 300 Ramayanas, whatever their literary merit, provide adaptation to local needs, but the paramount authority remains the original version composed after sadhana and intense tapas, repeatedly chanting the syllables “Ma Ra”, as japa, resulting in that sweetest of phala:
Accordingly, the Valmiki Ramayana and the Vyasa Mahabharata stand out not only because they are the originals (and therefore, canon) but are pan-Indic in nature and their influence spans the subcontinent. In fact, it is not the “Valmiki Ramayana”, but simply The Ramayana, as it is the authentic version that all others bow to, draw from, and depend upon. That the Mahakavyas all draw their inspiration from these two as well as the Maha Puranas, only further demonstrates their status and that they are in a class of their own. Epic Poetry is itself a non-Indic classification. As such, as feted as the Mahakavyas are for their literary merit (and deservingly so), it is only the original Ramayana and Mahabharata that are worthy of the appellation Itihasa-Purana, and the due reverence they deserve. The others are unofficial upa-puranas at best, but more likely mahakavyas.
Those pseudo-intellectual Ivory & Ivy tower pinheads who mock our stories and serialised epics as “masculinasation of [effeminate] hindoos” should keep their shameless colonial terminology to themselves. The Raj era racist tripe against “Hindoos” is well known (and its modern day variants easily detectable), and these Western Europeans are the modern-day bearers of that ‘White Man’s Burden’. Perhaps that is why they decry the popping of that bubble so much (and having failed, perhaps that is why their attack is from the other end of the spectrum now). Yes, our heroes were manly, but also respectful of women. It is not a cowardly Parthian shot by retreating central asian horse archers, or conquest through canon from a distance and deception that marks manliness. It is not just power, but strength of character… integrity.Do these self-proclaimed, self-assuming “masculine” races have it?
Why do they attack our sacred stories? A certain Shri Srinivasan has ventured a theory. Perhaps that is why they brand Bhagvan Ram and deride Durga Ma, because they themselves are insecure at the piffle they’ve produced. Can the Iliad and Odyssey, or Lusiad and or assorted tales of chivalry, even hold a candle to just our two epics?
Indic Epic Poetry is attacked so heavily for other reasons as well. “This immense literature consisting of the Itihaasas and the Puraanas held the nation together, resisting the tendencies for separation and even disruption on account of geographical distances, introduction of new religious beliefs and practices, presences of different races in the country and the incursion of foreign tribes into country, and also the development of many regional languages into literary languages. ” [10,79]
It is no wonder that the Vedas and the Itihaas and the Puraanas are worshipped by the nation as the path for salvation. These specimens of poetry and their poets are the real saviours of the country from utter ruin. [10,79]
As a cosmopolitan person, it is important to appreciate what the rest of the world has produced. From Sun Tsu to Ovid, there is in fact much to appreciate in global literature, whether practical or philosophical. It is good to read widely and recognise wisely what is good in others. But it is even more important to do so, while being firmly rooted in one’s own tradition. That is the value of our Sacred Epics and Epic Poetry. It is only by juxtaposition (upamana) that we understand the beauty of what we have, and it is only by knowing the beauty of what we have, that we can correctly appreciate beauty in others.
But above all, Epic Poetry and Itihasa-Purana are crucial for reasons, ironically, that the Lord of the Rings itself best expressed.
And we shall conclude with that.
The Mahabharata. http://sacred-texts.com/hin/maha/index.htm
Srinivasan, Rajeev. Firstpost. “Modi right to Ditch English”. (June 11, 2014) http://www.firstpost.com/india/modi-right-to-ditch-english-but-he-should-speak-sanskrit-at-un-1563899.html
The following Post was originally published at Andhra Cultural Portal on April 27, 2014
We have received some offline questions (though comment questions are preferable since all can see) about why, if I think Prema/Bhakti is the highest of qualities, I have been so critical of Dhritarashtra and Gandhari. Some see a contradiction between my emphasising Dharma over parental attachment—but nothing could be further from the truth.
Our shastras discuss how the Arishadvargas (the 6 spiritual enemies) are to be defeated. These are Kama (lust), Krodha (wrath), Lobha (greed), Moha (attachment), Mada (pride), Matsarya (jealousy).
While Mada is the worst of these (because it is the enabler not only of Ambition but is the Arishadvarga that gives us permission to give in to the others—as Ravana famously showed), Moha is also exceedingly dangerous. This is because Dharmic and even Sattvic people can give into this one—after defeating the other 5.
Moha is attachment rooted in delusion. Moha comes from the mistaken thinking that this material world is permanent, our bodies permanent, and even our relationships permanent.
Moha leads to such foolhardy and overly sentimental actions as Bhishma’s Oath and Gandhari’s Vow.
Both of these actions were undoubtedly self-sacrificing and even noble, and could be seen as examples of Prema, but they were in actuality contrary to Dharma. This is because as crowned Yuvaraja of Hastinapura, Gangaputra Bhishma (literally meaning “Terrible Oath”) did not have the authority to put his love for his father above his duty for the Kuru Kingdom and his duty to continue the Dushyanta branch of the Chandravanshi lineage.
In fact, Devavratha (Bhishma’s original name) should have known that as he was the most qualified heir Shantanu could possibly hope to have, it would be wrong to deny such a future King to his prajas (subjects). After all, there was no guarantee that future sons of Shantanu would be so qualified or capable (as both Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya demonstrated). In fact, there was no guarantee that Shantanu would even have sons with Satyavati. Thus while Bhishma’s action was truly self-sacrificing and sentimental, it was not Dharmic, or for that matter, even selfless—as the he was unwilling to break his oath on account of his own reputation.
As the later incident with Dushasana and Draupadi showed, Bhishma’s own understanding of Dharma was imperfect. When Draupadi in disbelief asked why the noble Bhishma thought his oath to the throne came before protecting a woman, he is recorded to have said:
na dharmasaukshmyaat subhage vivektutm shaknomi te prasnam imam yatthaavat;
“I am unable to answer your question because Dharma is subtle”
(dharmasya tattvam nihitath guhaayaam) “Dharma is subtle (sukshmam) because its essence is concealed in a dark cavern”
But he was wrong.
While dharma is sukshmam (in fact, it is ati-sukshmam), there is nevertheless a right and wrong answer in every scenario. It is the duty of each person not to conceal it and himself in a dark cavern, but to use the light of logic (nyaya) and justice (yuktata) to illuminate Dharma. As a kshatriya mandated to protect women and the weak, Bhishma’s dereliction of duty to Draupadi in fact was the true reason for his suffering on the Kurukshetra (just as Yudhisthira’s brief tour of Hell was not for the one lie but in actuality for ordering that his brothers to respect his foolish and unjust wagering of Draupadi). People may say that Bhishma had no choice because he was bound by his word, but there is always a choice.
Sri Krishna had in fact given his word to Duryodhana that he would not fight in the war. But the moment Krishna realised that Arjuna was not willing to take Bhishma’s life in battle due to moha, Krishna took up the wheel to strike Bhishma. This demonstrates that if dharma itself will ultimately be violated by the promise or oath, then the oath too must be dropped—not because it is easy, but because it is hard. While Gangaputra is often—and not unjustifiably—seen as an object of sympathy and pity for his life of suffering and self-abnegation, the sins against dharma include sins of omission as well as sins of commission. Bhishma’s sin of omission (failure as a kshatriya to protect a woman being dishonoured) resulted in his own suffering. His attachment was to his oath and reputation.
Similarly, Gandhari was undoubtedly a devoted wife and loving mother, but her action in covering her own eyes as a testament of her loyalty to her husband, and willingness to share in his suffering, was foolishness. The duty of a wife is surely to be faithful and loving to her husband, but it is also to give him sight when he does not see properly.
Thus, Gandhari and Dhritarashtra are more than just stock characters with a particular affliction, but in fact metaphors for how Moha can blind us to Dharma. Their attachment to their family members, especially their sons, was the cause for their repeated injustice to the Pandavas—which ultimately led to adharma. Thus both Bhishma and Gandhari represent the dangerous hyper-sentimentalism present in our stupid movies today.
Moha also leads to terrible Sin
Rather than conscious desire to do evil, it is thoughtlessness driven by animal urges or fears driven by attachment that most frequently cause us to commit injustice. Some can be small, moral infractions, and others, large and terrible. For all the Star Wars fans out there, it was fear of losing the love of his life that drove Anakin Skywalker to embrace the Sith and commit terrible acts on behalf of the Dark Side.
That is the importance of Achara and Dharma. It wasn’t Anakin’s conscious desire to commit evil or that he was seduced by it for pure personal gain; it was that he was willing to commit a terrible evil against society for the all too human, but still very selfish, personal end of saving the one he loved.He had failed to use Achara to bridle the horses of his emotions and senses, thereby causing his chariot to fall over, resulting in this unenviable fate–ultimately becoming the infamous Darth Vader.
In contrast, Obi-Wan (who was his mentor) says he will do what he must despite their friendship, in the name of justice. Kenobi’s grief is seen (at the end of the video) when he exclaims how Anakin was like a brother to him, and mourns how the latter’s turning to the Dark side led to this terrible result. More compellingly, Anakin’s wife herself specifically states that she cannot follow him on the wrong and horrendous path he’s chosen.
Thus, no matter how much she loved him, her love never became attachment over a person or object that privileged him/it over virtue. That is the value of Dharma. It is not to turn us into feelingless, loveless karma-robots, but rather to protect ourselves from an imbalanced attachment to one person/object that causes us to harm the rest of society. (By the way, before the all you fashionable types shake your heads at my linking Star Wars with Achara/Dharma, you should know that there is an established view that thekshatriya ideal was in fact the model for the Jedi…so there!).
The 7 should defeat the 6
7 ideals of Dharma— Pavitrata (purity), Karuna (compassion), Saamyama (self-control ) Satya (truth), Tyaga (self-sacrifice), Yuktata (justice), and above of all Bhakti/Prema (Divine love)—must take precedence over and defeat the 6 arishadvargas—Kama (lust), Krodha (wrath), Lobha (greed), Moha (attachment), Mada (pride), & Matsarya (jealousy).
Kama is cured through Pavitrata, Krodha is cured through Karuna, Lobha is cured through Saamyama, Mada is cured through Satya, Matsarya cured through Tyaga, and Moha is cured through Yuktata. Bhakti/Prema is what grants us God’s grace to ensure the rest of the 7 defeat the 6.
Some of you may ask, how is each cured by the other. I will tell you:
Pavitrata deconstructs Kama
…because it forces us to think whether a particular act of pleasure is in fact saucha (or clean). Many of you have sophisticated imaginations (especially in this post-Lewinsky/Abhishek Manu “Sexvi” era of ours), so I needn’t go into detail, but suffice it to say, you all can figure out which acts would come under this label.
Therefore, the point is not that God wishes to deny us pleasure, but rather, to make us understand that there is a time, place, and most importantly—manner for which pleasure is to be enjoyed. Pavitrata is of course not only about understanding body parts, but also about relationships.
While kama with one’s lawfully wedded wife or husband is not only accepted, but also seen as a duty (as it reproduces species, nations, and lineages), the Sastras explicitly condemn pleasure that transgresses the nuptial or familial boundaries. Extra-marital and intra-familial relationships are therefore impure as well. Extensions of this also apply—and should be obvious. A man who gives himself (or a woman who gives herself) over to lust and surrenders to iccha (desire) without restraint, will soon find himself (or herself) feeding and rolling at the filthy trough of swine (literally and figuratively). Of course, we must not be hypocrites by engaging in bigotry and also recognise that we are all at different stages of spiritual evolution (and thus, if we cannot live up to the highest, should attempt the next highest, and so on).
As we ourselves have not always (at least in previous life times) always lived up to the ideals set by God, we must recognise that the same understanding and leeway be granted to others as well, within legal/ethical limits. Youth should be taught the difference between right and wrong, but also that wrong in others should not generate hate. After all, let ye without sin cast the first stone… An entire column can be written on this (and in fact will be), but we’ll leave it at that for now.
Karuna defeats Krodha
…because it forces us to think of the consequences of our anger and put ourselves in the shoes of others.
Anger and Hate are exceedingly dangerous because they can consume our personality and reduce us to sating our desire for vengeance at all costs. Compassion dissipates anger because it makes us realise that our predicament may actually be more bearable than someone else’s, thereby mollifying our indignation. This approach also drains our pride which is the fuel of anger.
We must give a margin of appreciation (5%–though not 50%!) to those around us, so that we understand that their actions may often be due to their own troubles. There is a difference between thoughtlessness and malice. Thus, karuna helps us reframe our perspective and not unyoke our wrath at the slightest provocation. A man who is ruled by krodha is a beast for he neither listens to logic nor well-intentioned appeal. It is for this reason that we are told “To err is human, but to forgive is divine”
Saamyama cures Lobha
5 senses must be steered to steady the chariot of life
… because self-control gives us the power to resists the appeal of the indriyas (senses ).
It is for this reason that our ancient society encouraged ascetism (tapasya)—not because self-abnegation by itself is the path to God, but rather, because ascetism helps us blunt the power of the indriyas. If we fast or do without something on our terms—say skip a meal or do without TV for a day or give some wages to charity—then when we are going through an actual difficult period, the sense object will not be irresistible, as we have resisted it before from a position of strength.
In fact, ascetism is one of the four legs of Dharma (the other 3 being cleanliness, mercy, and truth), though it was bent at the end of the Satya yuga. While in our own Kali era, Dharma only stands on the leg of truth (and barely standing at that), all four legs, even ascetism, should be valued for how they help us better ourselves, especially when it comes to resisting greed.
Satya defeats Mada
… as it forces the individual blinded by delusional arrogance to face reality. Many if not most of us live in a realm of concocted conceit.
We mask ourselves to truth either because it is too unpalatable to face or because it would prevent us from achieving our own ill-conceived and unjust ambition.
We may desire something, a natural impulse in our material existence, but it is pride which gives us permission to seek it out. We may come up with umpteen excuses to justify our pursuit of a beautiful but very married woman (i.e. “we are both attractive and she too likes me, we are a better match anyways, so why not? I am a powerful man with powerful appetites”), but it is Satya which pops this bubble (“I have no right to covet my neighbour’s wife. If I injure someone today, they may seek to injure me tomorrow. Ultimate power is wielded by God, I am only the steward, so my fleeting power does not justify such appetites”). That is the power of Satya. Facing and wielding the truth helps us hammer down the wall of pride and vanity into oblivion.
Tyaga overthrows Matsarya
…since self-sacrifice allows us to accept, digest, and even be happy for the wealth, possessions, and advantages of another.
If we are willing to step aside for the gain of another, then we are willing to swallow our envy, which stews into jealousy (jealousy = envy + hate).The spirit of self-sacrifice stems from the noble calling of “all for one and one for all”. The four sons of Dasaratha exemplified this as their brotherly love and willingness to sacrifice for the others ensured that jealousy never subverted their unity–no matter what catastrophe came their way.
Because they were each willing to give up the throne, or even life, for the other, this noble sentiment ensured that the one who deserved the throne was the one who ultimately ascended it…neither of them ever claimed the right or possession of the other. This not only secured unity among them, but preserved and nurtured fraternal affection.
And Yuktata cures Moha
…due to the illuminating quality of justice.
Attachment causes us to only look at what will happen if we lose a person or an object. We only think of our personal sadness rather than the cost to the common good. But justice is concerned specifically with the common good, with rightful claims, with fair shares, and with the well-being of everyone. Thus, no matter how much one may be attached to a son, a wife, or a desire–justice will force us to put aside that attachment and do not what is merely in our own interest, but in the interest of all.
While the 7 may be the Astras against the 6, Atma vichara (self-reflection/introspection) and Viveka (distinguishment between right and wrong) are the respective bow and arrow that allow us to fire these 7 Divine weapons…and as always, God’s name is the empowering mantra we chant to wield the weapons properly.
Thus, true Bhakti & Prema are based not on the attachment to the individual relationship, but on recognition that we are all emanations of Parabrahman, and that our love, ultimately, should transcend fixation only on the ephemeral relationships of this life and extend to all living creatures for all time. That is true Prema.
So love, dear reader, love to all your heart’s content, for verily Satya is love. But also remember that true Prema is not, nor can ever be, Moha.
Shubh Deepavali! Happy Diwali! Happy Tihar! and all the many regional variations of this sacred festival. Deepavali is the great utsav that unites us all, being celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists alike.
So enjoy this day and safely but joyously burst firecrackers to all your hearts’ content. It is after all, the Festival of Lights. Shubha Deepavali!
A version of this Post was published on Andhra Cultural Portal on August 7, 2013
To understand Dharma is to understand Indic civilization and its myriad cultures.
It is Dharma that is the organizing principle of Bharatavarsha and indeed, the most powerful idea in the literary heritage of the Indian Subcontinent in general, and India in particular.
The four native religions of Bharat (Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, and Sikh) all emphasize the centrality of Dharma as the core ideal of our Sanskriti and Bharatiyata. Therefore, to understand and appreciate the culture of Indic Civilization, one must be conversant in the ways of Dharma. This Post will highlight the subtlety, context sensitivity, and profoundness of Dharma.
The essence of Dharma is not based on an obsession with caste or ritual. Rather, it is about righteousness and duty and sacrificing one’s self for others. To understand dharma is to understand the cosmic order of the universe, Rta, which is rooted in truth, Satya. Dharma’s root word in Sanskrit is dharyate (literally, to uphold the order). Thus, practitioners of dharma must uphold this order.
The core of this order is not focused on the trivialities of caste and the divinely intended accident of birth, but rather, of mother raising child, husband protecting wife, child taking care of old parents, and rich assisting poor. It is about strong defending weak and putting societal interest before self interest–that is the heart of Dharma.
This essence is expounded not only in Sanatana Dharma, Hinduism, but also in the great texts and philosophies of Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, all of which venerate Bharatavarsha as their punyabhoomi, or home of their holy sites (both North and South of the Vindhyas). Whether it is the Eightfold path or Ashtanga Yoga, the same concepts of right conduct and yama-niyama form the foundation of all these paths, and therefore, transcend all panths (religions). Whether it is the Five Main Vows or the Five K’s (kesh, kanga, kirpan, kara, kachera), the guidelines (and the symbolic ideals that they embody) have a similarity that is identifiable to even the unschooled. The common values, courtesies, and guiding principles are immanent in the Purvas and Guru Granth Sahib alike. The same distinguishment between illusion and reality and encouragement of self-study and spiritual knowledge can be found in the Dharmasastra as well as the Dhammapada. Even the same reverence for life through common practices and encouragement of vegetarianism is apparent. This is because Dharma (righteousness), and especially Bharatiya Dharma, transcends religion (panth).
Vaidika Dharma (sanatana dharma as expressed by the Vedas) has three parts, karma kanda (which requires ritual and yagna), jnana kanda (knowledge of the truth as contained in the Upanishads), and upasana/bhakti kanda (which emphasizes compassion for all and devotion to God as seen in the Bhagavata Purana).
Karma kanda is the spiritual kindergarten (Swami Vivekananda himself spoke of this). It disciplines the individual so that he is fit to receive knowledge of reality (jnana). This knowledge and awareness of God, or Brahman, in all things, is what leads to worship/devotion and compassion (upasana/bhakti and karuna) It is for this reason that Vedanta, literally the End of the Vedas, is the object, rather than mere yagna and ritual.
Those who misunderstand or even misinterpret dharma get lost in the trivialities of karma kanda. They grow arrogant of their religious merit and birth and forget the true purpose of the exercise. If we are all mere creations of God, where is the place for arrogance and contempt towards our fellow man or even living thing of whatever background? After all, could not the brahmin have been a dalit in a previous life? Could not the dalit have been a brahmin in a previous life?
Arrogance of birth, lineage, caste, knowledge, and religious merit are some of the most dangerous as they lead away from the path of sanatana dharma to false ego, pride, anger, and destruction. Mere puja and archana doesn’t take us to God; they are but a start and also an aid to the troubled and anxious. Dharma is the path, and it is acted in the outside world. How we conduct ourselves in all settings (not just in the puja room) and how we treat others is how we are ultimately judged for fitness to reach God (or attain Nirvana).
Vaidika dharma does stipulate Varnashrama Dharma. Literally this emphasizes the division of labour (varna–caste is a misnomer) and stage of life (ashrama) as stipulating the right course of action in a given context. The logic behind this is that no member of society will simultaneously have spiritual, politico-military, commercial, and labor power. Any concentration of power with 2 or more of these types of power leads to tyranny, oppression, and adharma.
While historically traditions naturally passed from father to son (even outside India), in our era, people foolishly believe that birth itself grants privilege. What people forget is that with privilege comes duty.
As such, it is conduct that is the key determinant of a person’s true varna. The dharma or duty that one chooses to follow, whether as teacher/spiritual guide, administrator/warrior, merchant/farmer, or artisan/worker must not be cause for arrogance, but cause for humility. With each varna dharma comes a responsibility to society.
Each individual, no matter how privileged his birth, has a solemn and inalienable duty to society, and should not only behave in harmony with his varna dharma, but must behave in line with the moral commands of Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Dharma, which is the origin of all dharmas. Each varna is but a mere spoke in the wheel of society, and it is the Chakravartin who turns the wheel in order to uphold Dharma under the auspices of God. Thus those who become arrogant should remember that God has the ability to both grant and take away their position, and they must not abuse their power. Stewardship must be the mindset. Kings do not rule for only their pleasure and glory, and brahmins do not conduct yagnas for their own privilege; both operate as stewards, ruling and teaching respectively, while being ultimately accountable to God.
To move Dharma forward into the modern era, the mistakes of the past must be rectified. This means that the dalit communities of Indian Subcontinent have to be fully integrated. As is the law of the land, so to must untouchability be eliminated at the social level. After all, if the original thinking behind the system was that those who transgressed Dharma would be ostracized from society, how can upper and middle castes continue to bar dalits if they don’t outcaste their own caste brothers who eat beef, etc. today? People cannot ask for privilege while failing to do their duty. What kind of system gives only rights without responsibility? This is certainly not Varnashrama Dharma, let alone Sanatana Dharma.
According to the dharma sutras themselves, outcasted members of society or their descendants can be readmitted after prayascitta (penance/observance) and shuddhi. It is possible to do this by properly and sincerely readmitting the Subcontinent’s dalit jatis back into religious society. This is the best means of not only ensuring social justice to a wronged community, but of ensuring Dharma itself.
Accordingly, there have been many misinterpretations of dharma along the way. One such example is the treatment of the leather worker. While it is one thing to outcaste brahmins, kshatriyas, vaishyas, and sudras who commit personal sin, it is another to unfairly outcaste entire jatis of honest workers performing a service that all of society requires. If leather-working itself is sin, then let all those who wear leather be outcasted as well. People cannot have their cake and eat it too. Leather working is honest work as is sanitation and all members of Indic society must be integrated. Certainly, God himself will not enter, let alone bless the entrants and employees of, a temple that bars his devotees from entering.
Ultimately, what must be remembered by the more ritually inclined of whatever varna is that karmakanda is merely the kindergarten. It is the starting point so that people are fit to receive true knowledge of the existence of God in all things and all living creatures, and most importantly, all human beings. While one can read to know, reading is not understanding. So whatever are the requirements of ritual, be kind and courteous in the performance of those duties, for one will find that jnana and upasana kanda will lead to understanding why humility and compassion for all living things are the gunas that God ultimately wishes to encourage.
Think of others before you think of yourself, that is the surest path to God and at the heart of Dharma.