By the time of the Mahābhārata, it seems that several people had given up worldly life and had taken up saṃnyāsa; they practiced abstinence and lived on roots and fruits in āśramas (hermitage) that they constructed in the wild. It was common for the kings to take up the lifestyle of a muni (sage, ascetic) during old age. Saṃnyāsa is the fourth āśrama (stage of life).
Even when slightly perturbed, Yudhiṣṭhira repeatedly spoke words of detachment; he often exclaimed in despair that he would give up everything and walk away. Standing between the two armies ready for battle, at a crucial moment Arjuna says that he would take up saṃnyāsa and walk away from the war. Kṛṣṇa does not approve of saṃnyāsa that is devoid of discernment and it is for this reason that he counsels Arjuna in many words. Kṛṣṇa says that if Arjuna gives up war and takes up saṃnyāsa, it would certainly violate dharma and would lead to sin. Bhīma says the same thing in his typical rustic manner, “If such renunciation leads to the highest heaven, then even deer, pigs, birds, and other animals would easily attain the highest; mountains, plants, and trees too would acquire perfection, for they are eternal saṃnyāsis, forever restrained. They cause no harm to anyone! Therefore, each one needs to adhere to the karma prescribed to them; work leads to perfection, not staying away from it!”
A similar discussion occurs in the eighteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-gītā. Discretion in the execution of kāmya-karma (action motivated by desire) is saṃnyāsa; true renunciation is karma-phala-tyāga (giving up attachment to the fruit of action) (See BG 18.2 – काम्यानां कर्मणां न्यासं संन्यासं कवयो विदुः। सर्वकर्मफलत्यागं प्राहुस्त्यागं विचक्षणाः॥ “Saṃnyāsa is giving up actions driven by selfish desire. Tyāga is giving up attachments to the results of all actions.”)
None should abstain from yajña, dāna, and tapas; those are the prescribed duties. True renunciation is not the abandoning of sva-karma considering it to be difficult. We have seen earlier what Kṛṣṇa means by yajña. Dāna refers to ‘giving;’ sāttvika-dāna is giving with the spirit of sharing, keeping in mind the appropriateness of place, time, the receiver of the gift and nature of the gift. Rājasika- dāna is giving with the expectation of something in return or with certain vested interests and feeling that giving is a burden. Tāmasika-dāna is giving something while paying no heed to the place, time, the recipient or the gift.
देशे काले च पात्रे च
तद्दानं सात्त्विकं स्मृतम्॥
फलमुद्दिश्य वा पुनः।
दीयते च परिक्लिष्टं
तद्दानं राजसं स्मृतम्॥
– Bhagavad-gītā 17.20-22
It is needless to say that sāttvika-dāna is the best. This has been discussed in detail in the Anuśāsana-parva. Here, the receiver of the gift, or ‘pātra’ does not merely refer to a brāhmaṇa. Just as receiving gifts is prescribed for brāhmaṇas, it is also expected of them to perform sāttvika-dāna. Even today (c. 1950), brāhmaṇas with integrity refuse to take mahā-dāna (a great gift far above their needs) and durdānas (an inappropriate gift); even if they are obligated to receive the gift, they will put aside a significant share for the deva-brāhmaṇas (brāhmaṇas of a superior kind); they perform japa (chanting) and tapas (penance) to absolve themselves from the sin of accepting a gift. In the Mahābhārata, there is not a single account of a brāhmaṇa becoming rich through the receipt of gifts. (This is also possibly true of ancient and modern Hindu society). Nowhere does the epic mention that Droṇa and Kṛpa —archery tutors to the crown-prince Duryodhana—were wealthy. The Mudrārākṣasa describes Cāṇakya, the minister of Candragupta-maurya as living in a hut (and not enjoying royal comforts).
"इदमार्यचाणक्यगृहम्। यावत् प्रविशामि। This is the house of Ācārya Cāṇakya. I shall enter it.
अहो राजाधिराजमन्त्रिणो विभूतिः। Oh look at the grandeur of the minister of the king of kings!
तथाहि। This is it:
बटुभि रुपहृतानां बर्हिषां स्तूपमेतत्।
शरणमपि समिद्भिः शुष्यमाणाभिराभि-
र्विनामितपटलान्तं दृश्यते जीर्णकुड्यम्॥ (Act 3, verse 15)
Here’s a stone for breaking cow-dung cakes
Here’s a heap of sacred grass brought by disciples
The lower ends of the roof of this house with dilapidated walls seem to
bend under the weight of the sacred wooden sticks left to dry in the sun (Mudrārākṣasa, Act III, verse 15)
Vidyāraṇya, the minister of the Vijayanagara Empire and Ramadāsa from the Marāṭha empire were both saṃnyāsis. In the past, brāhmaṇas carried out their secular and spiritual activities with royal patronage. The epic says that Dharmarāja was nourishing thousands of snātakas (fresh graduates). Even a person like Jarāsandha had regard for snātakas. Duryodhana was jealous that he could not match Dharmarāja in the nourishment of brāhmaṇas. Because of such patronage, brāhmaṇas could dedicate their time and energy to study and teaching without any other worries; the Vedas and the śāstras were firmly established; they grew extensively; knowledge spread widely.
Now, we shall say a few words about tapas. Just like yajña, tapas too spread widely once upon a time. At the end of the Mahābhārata, there is a detailed and subtle description of the tapas undertaken by Vidura. There might be people who bow down to tapas merely by reading this description! Different scholars have given different meanings to the word ‘tapas;’ however, its primary connotation is ‘a tireless effort, constant practise;’ it does not refer to meaningless struggle. The essence of tapas is the following:
One must not fatten the body; if one does that, it will be like crop with excess manure; in such crops, there will be an excess growth of leaves; it will neither bear fruits nor flowers; that said, one should not emaciate the body; in a dried up crop, no leaves are present, let alone fruits. Along with a light and healthy body, the intellect must also be sharp and life should be full of activity. If the intellect becomes dull, then the vision of this Self behind is also blurred. Therefore, mindful physical toil is essential, as is mental work; this is tapas. Meaningless toil, torture of the body, non-activity and lethargy don’t amount to tapas. (See BG 17.6 – कर्शयन्तः शरीरस्थं भूतग्राममचेतसः। मां चैवान्तःशरीरस्थं तान्विद्ध्यासुरनिश्चयान्॥ “They foolishly torture the body and also the divine spirit within. Know them to be of a demonic resolve.”).
Due to improper food habits, the rājasika and tāmasika tendencies increase resulting in heaviness of the body, dulling of the mind and general instability. This is something we know from our own experience. If the intellect gets blurred and becomes unstable, the Self does not awaken and get enlightened. Self is like the fire that is hidden in the araṇi (fire producing sticks). To extract fire, one must forcibly rub the fire-sticks and put efforts; it first appears as a tiny spark; one needs to preserve it with care just like a child; having preserved it so, subsequently, we can use the fire for performing any yajña, or burning anything. Therefore, food, enjoyment, sleep, wakefulness, work and leisure – all of these must be appropriate. It should never cross limits.
जाग्रतो नैव चार्जुन॥
(Indeed yoga is not for one who eats too much or too little. It is also not for one who sleeps too much or stays awake for too long.)
योगो भवति दुःखहा॥
(Whereas, yoga destroys all sorrows for one who takes the right measure of food, is moderate in sleep and in staying awake, works in a disciplined manner, and enjoys moments of recreation.)
– Bhagavad-gītā 6.16-17
Tapas is not closing the eyes and sitting quietly for a few moments, but is to constantly practised in thought, speech and action. The Gītā says:
शारीरं तप उच्यते॥
(Simplicity, self-restraint, purity, chastity, benevolence, and respect for gods, dvijas, gurus, and the wise – this is austerity of body.)
सत्यं प्रियहितं च यत्।
वाङ्मयं तप उच्यते॥
(Speaking words that are truthful, pleasant, beneficial, and not causing distress or anxiety, as well as the study and recitation of scriptures – this is austerity of speech.)
(Silence, serenity of mind, self-control, gentleness, and purity of thought and being – this is austerity of mind.)
– Bhagavad-gītā 17.14-16
This is not something that is extremely difficult or terrifying; it is possible for everyone. It is this kind of tapas that Sāvitrī also did; in addition, meditation, regulation of food intake and service to elders.
In summary, it would not be incorrect to say – attaining mokṣa through jñāna and by not abandoning karma that is undertaken in alignment to our innate temperament (sva-dharma) and increasing sattva while reducing rajas and tamas in all aspects of our life is the dharma prescribed in the Gītā and it is the dharma of the epic as a whole.
[“The Purusha is hidden behind the veils of corruptible flesh and restless mind, all of which offer hindrances to the method of yoga.” – Dr. S. Radhakrishnan; Indian Philosophy, Volume II, p. 352]
Dharma results in peace. It is not to be undertaken with a utilitarian mindset or with a specific goal in mind. Yudhiṣṭhira says this clearly to Draupadī – “One must not think of dharma as raising a cow with the purpose of milking it.” However, in general, we all have the feeling that if we adhere to dharma, we will attain happiness. Draupadī complains that ‘dharma, ahiṃsā (non-violence), kṣamā (tolerance), ṛjutva (straightforwardness), dayā (compassion) – these never help man.” Bhīma adds, “a person who blindly followed dharma never gained kingdom, wealth, or prosperity; one who undertakes a profitless business is just rubbing the back of a donkey!”
[For a similar discussion on the aspects of dharma, compare the śloka
‘शुभे वर्त्मनि तिष्ठन्तं त्वामार्यविजितेन्द्रियम्।
अनर्थेभ्यो न शक्नोति त्रातुं धर्मो निरर्थकः॥’ –
Lakṣmaṇa tells Rāma, “Just because you tread a noble path and have subdued the senses, (blind adherence to) dharma cannot protect you from adversities; such dharma is meaningless.” – Yuddha-kāṇḍa 83.14.]
Dharmarāja consoles them saying that their utterances are a result of rājasika tendency. Their intention, however, was to incite him to action; it is not sufficient if he merely stands in the realm of dharma; he should also move about in the realms of artha and kāma. In that case, what is the nature of sattva and what role does ahiṃsā play in our lives?