The Mahabharata Home
"Yudhishthira said, 'When the high righteousness suffers decay and is transgressed by all, when unrighteousness becomes righteousness, and righteousness assumes the form of its reverse, when all wholesome restraints disappear, and all truths in respect of righteousness are disturbed and confounded, when people are oppressed by kings and robbers, when men of all the four modes of life become stupefied in respect of their duties, and all acts lose their merit, when men see cause of fear on every direction in consequence of lust and covetousness and folly, when all creatures cease to trust one another, when they slay one another by deceitful means and deceive one another in their mutual dealings, when houses are burnt down throughout the country, when the Brahmanas become exceedingly afflicted, when the clouds do not pour a drop of rain, when every one's hand is turned against every one's neighbour, when all the necessaries of life fall under the power of robbers, when, indeed, such a season of terrible distress sets in, by what means should a Brahmana live who is unwilling to cast off compassion and his children? How, indeed, should a Brahmana maintain himself at such a time? Tell me this, O grandsire! How also should the king live at such a time when sinfulness overtakes the world? How, O scorcher of foes, should the king live so that he might not fall away from both righteousness and profit?'
"Bhishma said, 'O mighty-armed one, the peace and prosperity of subjects, 1 sufficiency and seasonableness of rain, disease, death and other fears, are all dependent on the king. 2 I have no doubt also in this. O bull of Bharata's race, that Krita, Treta, Dwapara, and Kali, as regards their setting in, are all dependent on the king's conduct. When such a season of misery as has been described by thee sets in, the righteous should support life by the aid of judgment. In this connection is cited the old story of the discourse between Viswamitra and the Chandala in a hamlet inhabited by Chandalas. Towards the end of Treta and the beginning of Dwapara, a frightful drought occurred, extending over twelve years, in consequence of what the gods had ordained. At that time which was the end of Treta and the commencement of Dwapara, when the period came for many creatures superannuated by age to lay down
their lives, the thousand-eyed deity of heaven poured no rain. The planet Vrihaspati began to move in a retrograde course, and Soma abandoning his own orbit, receded towards the south. Not even could a dew-drop be seen, what need then be said of clouds gathering together? The rivers all shrank into narrow streamlets. Everywhere lakes and wells and springs disappeared and lost their beauty in consequence of that order of things which the gods brought about. Water having become scarce, the places set up by charity for its distribution became desolate. 1 The Brahmanas abstained from sacrifices and recitation of the Vedas. They no longer uttered Vashats and performed other propitiatory rites. Agriculture and keep of cattle were given up. Markets and shops were abandoned. Stakes for tethering sacrificial animals disappeared. People no longer collected diverse kinds of articles for sacrifices. All festivals and amusements perished. Everywhere heaps of bones were visible and every place resounded with the shrill cries and yells of fierce creatures. 2 The cities and towns of the earth became empty of inhabitants. Villages and hamlets were burnt down. Some afflicted by robbers, some by weapons, and some by bad kings, and in fear of one another, began to fly away. Temples and places of worship became desolate. They that were aged were forcibly turned out of their houses. Kine and goats and sheep and buffaloes fought (for food) and perished in large numbers. The Brahmanas began to die on all sides. Protection was at an end. Herbs and plants were dried up. The earth became shorn of all her beauty and exceedingly awful like the trees in a crematorium. In that period of terror, when righteousness was nowhere, O Yudhishthira, men in hunger lost their senses and began to eat one another. The very Rishis, giving up their vows and abandoning their fires and deities, and deserting their retreats in woods, began to wander hither and thither (in search of food). The holy and great Rishi Viswamitra, possessed of great intelligence, wandered homeless and afflicted with hunger. Leaving his wife and son in some place of shelter, the Rishi wandered, fireless 3 and homeless, and regardless of food clean and unclean. One day he came upon a hamlet, in the midst of a forest, inhabited by cruel hunters addicted to the slaughter of living creatures. The little hamlet abounded with broken jars and pots made of earth. Dog-skins were spread here and there. Bones and skulls, gathered in heaps, of boars and asses, lay in different places. Cloths stripped from the dead lay here and there, and the huts were adorned with garlands of used up flowers. 4 Many of the habitations again were filled with sloughs cast off by snakes. The place resounded with the loud crowing of cocks and hens and the dissonant bray of asses. Here and there the inhabitants disputed with one another, uttering harsh words in shrill voices. Here and there were temples of gods bearing devices of owls and
other birds. Resounding with the tinkle of iron bells, the hamlet abounded with canine packs standing or lying on every side. The great Rishi Viswamitra, urged by pangs of hunger and engaged in search after food, entered that hamlet and endeavoured his best to find something to eat. Though the son of Kusika begged repeatedly, yet he failed to obtain any meat or rice or fruit or root or any other kind of food. He then, exclaiming, 'Alas, great is the distress that has overtaken me!' fell down from weakness in that hamlet of the Chandalas. The sage began to reflect, saying to himself, 'What is best for me to do now?' Indeed, O best of kings, the thought that occupied him was of the means by which he could avoid immediate death. He beheld, O king, a large piece of flesh, of a dog that had recently been slain with a weapon, spread on the floor of a Chandala's hut. The sage reflected and arrived at the conclusion that he should steal that meat. And he said unto himself, 'I have no means now of sustaining life. Theft is allowable in a season of distress for even an eminent person. It will not detract from his glory. Even a Brahmana for saving his life may do it. This is certain. In the first place one should steal from a low person. Failing such a person one may steal from one's equal. Failing an equal, one may steal from even an eminent and righteous man. I shall then, at this time when my life itself is ebbing away, steal this meat. I do not see demerit in such theft. I shall, therefore, rob this haunch of dog's meat.' Having formed this resolution, the great sage Viswamitra laid himself down for sleep in that place where the Chandala was. Seeing some time after that the night had advanced and that the whole Chandala hamlet had fallen asleep, the holy Viswamitra, quietly rising up, entered that hut. The Chandala who owned it, with eyes covered with phlegm, was lying like one asleep. Of disagreeable visage, he said these harsh words in a broken and dissonant voice.
"The Chandala said, 'Who is there, engaged in undoing the latch? The whole Chandala hamlet is asleep. I, however, am awake and not asleep. Whoever thou art, thou art about to be slain.' These were the harsh words that greeted the sage's ears. Filled with fear, his face crimson with blushes of shame, and his heart agitated by anxiety caused by that act of theft which he had attempted, he answered, saying, 'O thou that art blest with a long life, I am Viswamitra. I have come here oppressed by the pangs of hunger. O thou of righteous understanding, do not slay me, if thy sight be clear.' Hearing these words of that great Rishi of cleansed soul, the Chandala rose up in terror from his bed and approached the sage. Joining his palms from reverence and with eyes bathed in tears, he addressed Kusika's son, saying, 'What do you seek here in the night, O Brahmana?' Conciliating the Chandala, Viswamitra said, 'I am exceedingly hungry and about to die of starvation. I desire to take away that haunch of dog's meat. Being hungry, I have become sinful. One solicitous of food has no shame. It is hunger that is urging me to this misdeed. It is for this that I desire to take away that haunch of dog's meat. My life-breaths are languishing. Hunger has destroyed my Vedic lore. I am weak and have lost my senses. I have no scruple about clean or unclean food. Although I know that it is sinful, still I wish to take away that haunch of dog's meat. After I had filed to obtain any alms, having wandered from house to house in this
your hamlet, I set my heart upon this sinful act of taking away this haunch of dog's meat. Fire is the mouth of the gods. He is also their priest. He should, therefore, take nothing save things that are pure and clean. At times, however, that great god becomes a consumer of everything. Know that I have now become even like him in that respect.' Hearing these words of the great Rishi, the Chandala answered him, saying, 'Listen to me. Having heard the words of truth that I say, act in such a way that thy religious merit may not perish. Hear, O regenerate Rishi, what I say unto thee about thy duty. The wise say that a dog is less clean than a jackal. The haunch, again, of a dog is a much worse part than other parts of his body. This was not wisely resolved by thee, therefore, O great Rishi, this act that is inconsistent with righteousness, this theft of what belongs to a Chandala, this theft, besides, of food that is unclean. Blessed be thou, do thou look for some other means for preserving thy life. O great sage, let not thy penances suffer destruction in consequence of this thy strong desire for dog's meat. Knowing as thou dost the duties laid down in the scriptures, thou shouldst not do an act whose consequence is a confusion of duties. 1 Do not cast off righteousness, for thou art the foremost of all persons observant of righteousness.' Thus addressed, O king, the great Rishi Viswamitra, afflicted by hunger, O bull of Bharata's race, once more said, 'A long time has passed away without my having taken any food. I do not see any means again for preserving my life. One should, when one is dying, preserve one's life by any means in one's power without judging of their character. Afterwards, when competent, one should seek the acquisition of merit. The Kshatriyas should observe the practices of Indra. It is the duty of the Brahmanas to behave like Agni. The Vedas are fire. They constitute my strength. I shall, therefore, eat even this unclean food for appeasing my hunger. That by which life may be preserved should certainly be accomplished without scruple. Life is better than death. Living, one may acquire virtue. Solicitous of preserving my life, I desire, with the full exercise of my understanding, to eat this unclean food. Let me receive thy permission. Continuing to live I shall seek the acquisition of virtue and shall destroy by penances and by knowledge the calamities consequent on my present conduct, like the luminaries of the firmament destroying even the thickest gloom.'
"The Chandala said, 'By eating this food one (like thee) cannot obtain long life. Nor can one (like thee) obtain strength (from such food), nor that gratification which ambrosia offers. Do thou seek for some other kind of alms. Let not thy heart incline towards eating dog's meat. The dog is certainly an unclean food to members of the regenerate classes.'
"Viswamitra said, 'Any other kind of meat is not to be easily had during a famine like this. Besides, O Chandala, I have no wealth (wherewith to buy food). I am exceedingly hungry. I cannot move any longer. I am utterly hopeless. I think that all the six kinds of taste are to be found in that piece of dog's meat.'
"The Chandala said, 'Only the five kinds of five-clawed animals are clean food for Brahmanas and Kshatriyas and Vaisyas, as laid down in the scriptures. Do not set thy heart upon what is unclean (for thee).'
"Viswamitra said, 'The great Rishi Agastya, while hungry, ate up the Asura named Vatapi. I am fallen into distress. I am hungry. I shall therefore, eat that haunch of dog's meat.'
"The Chandala said, 'Do thou seek some other alms. It behoves thee not to do such a thing. Verily, such an act should never be done by thee. If however, it pleases thee, thou mayst take away this piece of dog's meat.'
"Viswamitra said, 'They that are called good are authorities in matters of duty. I am following their example. I now regard this dog's haunch to be better food than anything that is highly pure.'
"The Chandala said, 'That which is the act of an unrighteous person can never be regarded as an eternal practice. That which is an improper act can never be a proper one. Do not commit a sinful act by deception.'
"Viswamitra said, 'A man who is a Rishi cannot do what is sinful. 1 In the present case, deer and dog, I think, are same (both being animals). I shall, therefore, eat this dog's haunch.'
"The Chandala said, "Solicited by the Brahmanas, the Rishi (Agastya) did that act. Under the circumstances it could not be a sin. That is righteousness in which there is no sin. Besides, the Brahmanas, who are the preceptors of three other orders, should be protected and preserved by every means.'
"Viswamitra said, 'I am a Brahmana. This my body is a friend of mine. It is very dear to me and is worthy of the highest reverence from me. It is from the desire of sustaining the body that the wish is entertained by me of taking away that dog's haunch. So eager have I become that I have no longer any fear of thee and thy fierce brethren.'
"The Chandala said, 'Men lay down their lives but they still do not set their hearts on food that is unclean. They obtain the fruition of all their wishes even in this world by conquering hunger. Do thou also conquer thy hunger and obtain those rewards.'
"Viswamitra said, 'As regards myself, I am observant of rigid vows and my heart is set on peace. For preserving the root of all religious merit, I shall eat food that is unclean. It is evident that such an act would be regarded as righteous in a person of cleansed soul. To a person, however, of uncleansed soul, the eating of dog's flesh would appear sinful. Even if the conclusion to which I have arrived be wrong, (and if I eat this dog's meat) I shall not, for that act, become one like thee.'
"The Chandala said, 'It is my settled conclusion that I should endeavour my best to restrain thee from this sin. A Brahmana by doing a wicked act falls off from his high state. It is for this that I am reproving thee.'
"Viswamitra said, 'Kine continue to drink, regardless of the croaking of the frogs. Thou canst lay no claim to what constitutes righteousness (and what not). Do not be a self-eulogiser.'
"The Chandala said, 'I have become thy friend. For this reason only I am preaching to thee. Do what is beneficial. Do not, from temptation, do what is sinful.'
"Viswamitra said, 'If thou be a friend desirous of my happiness, do thou then raise me up from this distress. In that case, relinquishing this dog's haunch, I may consider myself saved by the aid of righteousness (and not by that of sinfulness).'
"The Chandala said, 'I dare not make a present of this piece of meat to thee, nor can I quietly suffer thee to rob me of my own food. If I give thee this meat and if thou take it, thyself being a Brahmana, both of us will become liable to sink in regions of woe in the next world.'
"Viswamitra said, 'By committing this sinful act today I shall certainly save my life which is very sacred. Having saved my life, I shall afterwards practise virtue and cleanse my soul. Tell me which of these two is preferable (to die without food, or save my life by taking this food that is unclean).'
"The Chandala said: 'In discharging the duties that appertain to one's order or race, one's own self is the best judge (of its propriety or impropriety). Thou thyself knowest which of those two acts is sinful. He who would regard dog's meat as clean food, I think, would in matters of food abstain from nothing!'
"Viswamitra said, 'In accepting (an unclean present) or in eating (unclean food) there is sin. When one's life, however, is in danger there is no sin in accepting such a present or eating such food. Besides, the eating of unclean food, when unaccompanied by slaughter and deception and when the act will provoke only mild rebuke, is not matter of much consequence.'
"The Chandala said, 'If this be thy reason for eating unclean food, it is then clear thou dost not regard the Veda and Arya morality. Taught by what thou art going to do, I see, O foremost of Brahmanas, that there is no sin in disregarding the distinction between food that is clean and food that is unclean.'
"Viswamitra said, 'It is not seen that a person incurs a grave sin by eating (forbidden food). That one becomes fallen by drinking wine is only a wordy precept (for restraining men from drinking). The other forbidden acts (of the same species), whatever they be, in fact, every sin, cannot destroy one's merit.'
"The Chandala said, 'That learned person who takes away dog's meat from an unworthy place (like this), from an unclean wretch (like me), from one who (like me) leads such a wicked life, commits an act that is opposed to the behaviour of those that are called good. In consequence, again, of his connection with such a deed, he is certain to suffer the pangs of repentance.'
"Bhishma continued, 'The Chandala, having said these words unto Kusika's son, became silent. Viswamitra then, of cultivated understanding, took away that haunch of dog's meat. The great ascetic having possessed himself of that piece of dog's meat for saving his life, took it away into the woods and wished with his wife to eat it. He resolved that having first gratified the deities according to due rites, he should then eat that haunch of dog's meat at his pleasure. Igniting a fire according to the Brahma rites, the ascetic, agreeably
to those rites that go by the name of Aindragneya, began himself to cook that meat into sacrificial Charu. He then, O Bharata, began the ceremonies in honour of the gods and the Pitris, by dividing that Charu into as many portions as were necessary, according to the injunctions of the scriptures, and by invoking the gods with Indra at their head (for accepting their shares). Meanwhile, the chief of the celestials began to pour copiously. Reviving all creatures by those showers, he caused plants and herbs to grow once more. Viswamitra, however, having completed the rites in honour of the gods and the Pitris and having gratified them duly, himself ate that meat. Burning all his sins afterwards by his penances, the sage, after a long time, acquired the most wonderful (ascetic) success. Even thus, when the end in view is the preservation of life itself, should a high-souled person possessed of learning and acquainted with means rescue his own cheerless self, when fallen into distress, by all means in his power. By having recourse to such understanding one should always preserve one's life. A person, if alive, can win religious merit and enjoy happiness and prosperity. For this reason, O son of Kunti, a person of cleansed soul and possessed of learning should live and act in this world, relying upon his own intelligence in discriminating between righteousness and its reverse.'"
314:1 Literally, 'preservation of what has been got, and acquisition of what is desired.'
314:2 These depend on the king, i.e., if the king happens to be good, prosperity, etc., are seen. On the other hand, if the king becomes oppressive and sinful, prosperity disappears, and every kind of evil sets in.
315:1 In India, during the hot months, charitable persons set up shady thatches by the sides of roads for the distribution of cool water and raw sugar and oat soaked in water. Among any of the principal roads running through the country, one may, during the hot months, still see hundreds of such institutions affording real relief to thirsty travellers.
315:2 Such as Rakshasas and Pisachas and carnivorous birds and beasts.
315:3 Abandoning his Homa fire.
315:4 i.e., flowers already offered to the deities.
317:1 No one of the three regenerate orders should take dog's meat. It thou takest such meat, where would then the distinction be between persons of those orders and men like Chandalas?
318:1 Agastya was a Rishi. He could not do what was sinful.
Next: Section CXLII