Through the ages, in the writings of great thinkers and social commentators, we find a certain weakness for nostalgia. We often find passages that bemoan the fall in moral values in the present generation (as it applied to them) and how the days of the past were so much better. In the good old days, there were people who upheld the highest principles of morality in private and public life but not anymore! Even in the past century and a half, we find this lament in the writings and speeches of Tilak, Vivekananda, Gandhi, Aurobindo, and Bose – all the way up to some of our modern minds. Often, all of us are guilty of this too. There is a tendency to assume that the past was beautiful while the present is troublesome and future will be worse, given the constant degeneration of morals.
Even as early as the Rigveda, we find the proposition of the-future-will-be-terrible. Yama, the god of Death, tells his twin sister Yami, “Those later days are yet to come when sisters will start behaving in an un-sisterly manner!” (Rigveda Samhita 10.10.10).
In the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata (Book 3, Section 186) there is a discussion between the immortal sage Markandeya and Yudhistira (as well as the other Pandavas, Draupadi, Krishna, Satyabhama, et al.) in the forest of Kamyaka. During the discourse, Markandeya paints a rather gloomy picture of the Kali yuga. He says that when the previous era (Dvapara yuga) ends and the new era dawns, these would be the repercussions:
People will start telling lies. Rituals and donations will be done by representatives instead of those who are supposed to do them. Brahmanas start doing the work of shudras while shudras start acquiring wealth; kshatriyas begin to engage in rituals and other religious acts. Brahmanas abandon the study of Vedas and become omnivores. On the other hand, shudras engage themselves in prayers and meditation. The world looks topsy-turvy and this is an omen of universal destruction. Numerous sinful kings rule the earth. They govern their people on the basis of false principles...
People don’t do what they are supposed to do... people die young, they are physically weak and lack energy, and they hardly speak the truth. Human population steadily decreases and beasts of prey increase in number. The workers call the learned ones by their first-names while the learned address the workers as ‘Respected Sir.’ The animal population increases steadily. Perfumes are no longer agreeable to the sense of smell and the tastes of dishes don’t carry any special charm anymore. Women have many children and they lose their good manners. Famine strikes the dwellings of people. The crossroads are filled with prostitutes. Women in general become immodest. Cows yield little milk and trees give few flowers and fruits. Those who kill the learned ones end up accepting gifts from kings who are liars. People from good families are filled with ignorance and greed – they outwardly appear to be religious and go around begging for alms. Householders, afraid of the tax burden, take to deception. Brahmanas wear the robes of ascetics and they earn wealth through business. Many people, driven by greed, become monks but their actions are totally contrary to their station – they are addicted to alcohol, they are willing to have sex with anyone, they are lost in worldly pleasures and in matters of flesh. Ashrams get filled with sinful wretches who glorify the life of dependence.
Indra does not shower rain at the appropriate season and the seeds sown in the ground do not sprout forth. Men become wicked in thought and deed, taking pleasure in malevolence. The earth is filled with sin. And those who are honest and virtuous don’t live long. The crafty merchants sell large quantities of things using false weights and measures. The good man does not prosper while the sinner thrives and lives long. Virtue loses its strength while sin reigns. People behave indecently even in public places. People seek to achieve their goals through means that are wrong. And even after earning a little bit, they become proud of their wealth. Men will embezzle public funds and when questioned, they shamelessly say, “There’s nothing in the deposit!” Beasts of prey, snakes, and birds can be seen in cities and towns as well as in temples.
Girls of seven and eight become pregnant while boys of ten and twelve become fathers. By the time they are sixteen, men are run down by decay and their lifespan reduces. More and more youths begin to act like old men. And the old men behave like youngsters. Women behave indecently and deceive even the best of husbands. They sleep with menials and servants. And even the wives of great heroes seek the companionship of other men, forgetting that their husbands are still alive.
While the theory of constant degeneration of morals seems to be more a cognitive bias than anything else, it is remarkable to go through these predictions of sage Markandeya. While some of the claims are in the realm of the hyperbole, many of them seem to ring true when we observe our modern era.
At that point of time, the sage felt that all these traits were immoral. Today, our notion of morality has changed. Of course, many of the fundamental principles like honesty, compassion, cleanliness, and fortitude are still regarded highly, many aspects of lifestyle are seen through different lenses – be it food habits, sexual freedom, or clothing. That said, it’s remarkable to see many of his predictions coming true even though there seems to be no sociological or other basis for these predictions.
More interestingly, when we reverse all these predictions, we learn what the people of that era held as the hallmark of good living.
Ganguli, Kisari Mohan. The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa (1883-1896) <http://sacred-texts.com/hin/m03/m03187.htm>
Kane, Pandurang Vaman. The History of Dharmashastras. Vol. 3. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1946
The Mahabharata (Sanskrit original) <http://sacred-texts.com/hin/mbs/mbs03186.htm>
This article was first published in Daily O as part of my column Commonsense Karma.