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On a Saturday night Maha Bir Maiti sat in front of his large family and reminded them that last time he described to them the event of Siddhartha Gautam leaving his kingdom which was there for him to rule in the distant future. Tonight he was going to continue with what happened next but before that he must explain the meaning of the Sanskrit title of his talk tonight. Veda means knowledge but in this title the term refers to the very large number of treatises written by Indians of ancient times. Para is the shore and ga means 'reached'. So the title means 'The one who has reached the opposite shore of the river which is Veda, knowledge'. To become a Vedaparaga one has to be very old because he has to read and discuss a huge corpus of literature and of course add his own interpretation if necessary. Now to continue with the story:
Siddhartha Gautam was at the boundary of the kingdom where he forsook his parents, aunt, wife and the only son, Rahul. He looked on with a broken heart as Ananda and Shariputra moved away from him and stopped at the bend of the road to take a final look at the prince. An unfathomable depth of dukkha descended on the prince as his cousins moved on after staring at him for a long time. He sat under a tree and sobbed until he fell asleep.
He woke up after being shaken and a voice shouting “Ho stranger, it is late afternoon, wake up, bathe and find shelter before the nocturnal predators devour you or human devils kill you after robbing you.”
In front of him stood a young man about the same age as himself dressed in a saffron dhoti worn in the manner of a sarong, a kurta hanging well below his knees and a folded chador, shawl, resting on his left shoulder. “I have nothing on me to rob,” said Siddhartha smiling pleasantly at the stranger who kept his long flowing hair which accentuated his handsome countenance.
“Am I right in thinking that you are a shraman?” asked Siddhartha. A shraman can be described as a wandering ascetic.
“You will be,” replied the young man. “But a novice. I found a Guru who has a cottage about a mile from here.”
They bathed in the river and while the shraman washed the clothes he was wearing and spread them on the river bank to dry, Siddharta wrapped his wet garment around him.
The shraman said as he changed into dry clothes, “I carry a spare set of clothes with me always. You will need to do that as well if you decide to wander.”
Siddhartha had a puzzled look about him. He asked, “You don't need a teacher to be a wandering ascetic, do you? I would say you are a Vedic student.”
“I am too old to be a student.,” replied the stranger. “But the Guru allowed me to build a hut for myself on his grounds in return for cultivating his vegetables. He said I could learn a little about the Veda if and whenever I wanted to. He is a very relaxed and kind man.”Siddhartha's clothes dried on him in no time and he felt glad of the cheerful shraman's company. He asked him: where did he come from? what was the reason for him to renounce all? The shraman said that he came from a kingdom in the Dakshin Desha, in the south, some 800 krosas (1600 miles) away. He was the only child but his father was addicted to drinking fermented palm juice. He did not care much for his son or wife and never tried to earn and maintain his family. His mother worked as a maid in the houses of rich merchants and did her best to bring her son up to become a good husband and a householder when the time came but his father was mean and selfish. He would come home inebriated and for no reason at all beat his mother and himself with a cane he prepared carefully from the branch of a date palm tree. One day the father accused his wife that she was unfaithful and announced that the shraman was not his son. He slapped and kicked both of them and throttled his wife to death. The son went numb with grief but in an hour or so he became wild with rage. He grabbed the iron axe his ancestors brought from Hariupa, very far away in the north-west and beheaded him.
He ran away and travelled. He made a living by working as a manual worker for many masters and spent his time as a man without a future for the next fifteen years. He was 23 years old when he came to this house where the owner was in need of someone like him to look after his vegetable fields because by then he had become an expert in many aspects of producing agricultural products. The owner was actually a Guru of great learning. He was a Vedaparaga, that is he reached the other shore of the Veda and knew every sloka, verse, in Rig-, Sam-, Yajur-and Atharva Veda. He knew the Aranyakas, Brahmanas, Upanisads and Darshans by heart.
“He instructed me in certain areas of the Vedas and the social structure of the Vedic Indians.” said the shraman. “He will be 100 years old in a year or two. The Guru allowed me to wander provided I returned for a few months when it rained to grow the vegetables and he himself, his family and students accepted me as a shraman. A part time one any way,” he added laughing.
Siddhartha listened with great interest. It was such an experience for him from the rich cloistered, privileged life he led. He felt his clothes mechanically which were now dry and said “I am hungry.”
“Tonight,” said the shraman, “A little over a krosa from here a rich merchant is giving a Nachiketa yajna, a ritual with fire. It is a huge affair. We shall both go there and eat heartily. Until then...;” he walked about 800 yards from where they were bathing until they reached a clear stream cascading down a shallow mountain. He sat beside it and undid the knot in the pouch he constructed at the end of his shawl which he spread on the grass. Siddhartha's mouth watered as he could smell the aroma from the mound of something in the middle of the spread-out shawl. It was roasted pearl barley mixed with spices and pepper from Dakshin Desha with a hint of tamarind. His last meal with peacock meat at his golden cage in Rajgriha paled to insignificance as he shared the barley with his benefactor. He drank clear cool water from the stream.
Siddhartha watched the rituals as he had done occasionally in the confined large space of his golden cage but he never understood the reasons for the set procedures of a yajna and did not now nor was he satisfied about the relevance of such ceremonials. He felt hungry again as he smelt the ox being roasted in open air and heard the alcoholic soma drink making a dripping noise as it was being filtered in fine linen into large vats. There were a variety of vegetables and unleavened bread. Both of them ate and drank until they were full and inebriated.
The merchant had many out-buildings. It was not safe to walk back to the shraman's house late at night so they slept in one of these. The following day, late in the afternoon, they sat down in front of the Vedaparaga as arranged. Siddhartha wanted to know what did it entail to became a Vedic student. Although the question was elementary and boring for such a learned man the Guru answered but he stated at the outset that such a student can return home to marry and be a householder whenever he wished. He can of course continue with the subject of Veda and become a Vedaparaga, There was no compulsion or regimentation. The choice was entirely his or hers as the case may be.
Although there is no age restriction a Vedic student should be ideally 12years old. He must find a competent Guru and study grammar etc. and the available literature on the subject. He would be expected to help his teacher in household chores or other work when requested. He must remain a Brahmachari throughout his studentship. It is customary for a Vedic student to follow certain codes and etiquettes throughout his period as a student. If he comes from the upper class, varna, his apparel should be made from the skin of a black antelope although, as in the case of students of lower classes, the material could well be from goat-skin or linen. This actually applies to the upper part of a student's garment, the lower part is made out of linen. If he is from the royal stock, his belt must be the bow string of hemp fibre and he should wear an initiatory thread across his chest made of the same material. Every Vedic student must carry a staff because the implement represents prajna, wisdom, which he would be expected to be endowed with when he becomes an adult member of his society. He must carry a staff which would be straight and made out of wattle, acacia, with the bark left on. It should be long enough to reach his forehead. He should carry a gourd filled with drinking water although such a water-pot could be manufactured also from wood or clay and he would need to carry a broom assembled from long grass.
He passes his early months in herding Guru's cattle or fetching firewood and when the teacher asks, with the staff in his hand, he should circumambulate a ritual fire. He would be engaged in pradaksinam, that is he must go round the fire clockwise. Once that is done he goes out with the staff in his hand and becomes a beggar. The first person he begs from must be a woman who will give him food without hesitating. He should then return to the Guru's home and eat the food obtained from the woman, sitting down on the floor and facing east.
For a week after this he has to carry out a few ceremonies with the ritual fire. On a fixed day the Guru comes to the student when he goes down on his knees, puts his hands on the teacher's feet and then stands up and with palms folded recites verses from the Vedas. Each verse must start with Om and end with that syllable. This must be done because the verses spoken slip away before recitation and dissolves after it if not encased in Om.
Came the month of April to belch heat and misery. One day clouds gathered and grew thick and heavy like a bulky buffalo. Storm blew; rain fell in torrents but only for an hour or so as if to torment all living creatures because heat returned accompanied by humidity. In a couple of months came the monsoon; very welcome to the shraman who got busy with his agricultural activities. Siddhartha pined for Rajgriha. He asked the Guru: why does his mind wander so? Why so much dukkha!
The Vedaparaga spoke at length. To understand dukkha, he began, one needs to understand Kapil Dev's theorem enunciated in Sankhya Darshan. The first element to appear when the latent Universe becomes manifest is buddhi, intellect. Buddhi evolves into ego which evolves, inter alia, into mind (mana), sense organs, organs of action, subtle elements and gross elements. Buddhi endows a conscious being with the power of discrimination. Ego expresses itself as the pronominal terms I, You, He and She or the genitive and dative variations such as My, Mine or Me.
All material things have three gunas, attributes, which are sattva, tamas and rajas translated respectively as lucidity, torpor and passion. One single guna may become active to create chaos in a system in relative equilibrium. Fortunately the other gunas become active and restore the system to a state quasi-equipoise. This goes on throughout the manifest state of the Universe and also in the societies of living beings.
The subtle elements as they evolve from ego are sound, touch, sight, taste and smell. They are a group which possesses sensory powers that propel a sentient being, jiv, into karma, action. Whether the karma is favourable for credit to provide a future congenial life or whether it is unfavourable to result in debit and a future undesirable life depends on the type of guna which is dominant as the jiv performs his or her karma.
There are many sensory objects too to which persons, in their life time, are attracted if one or more sensory powers become eager for interaction with those objects. To make sure of performing the correct karma a man, like a charioteer, must restrain the unruly sensory powers, the horses, otherwise he would succumb to karma which may be totally undesirable. If there is no restraint the mind and heart begin to harbour desire. If one surrenders to desire it gets fiercer like the flame of the ritual fire when ghee is poured on it as an offering.
Desire is trisna, thirst, which is really the unabated craving for the sensory object by the sensory powers. Trisna is the root cause for dukkha of varying severity. It pushes a jiv into attachment which gives rise to immeasurable dukkha when the object to which one is attached is no more. Trisna can only be eliminated by transformation of mana,mind, through knowledge about one's surroundings by engaging in dhyan, meditation. One should appreciate the existence of the three worlds around him,viz., Bhuh, Bhuvah, Svah meaning earth, atmosphere and sky respectively. He should endeavour to get to know the essence of them by chanting, before the sun rises, the Gayatri mantra apart from concentrated dhyan. Gayatri or Savitri is an aspect of Dev Aditya, the sun. It begins with Tat Savitur Varenyam ,that excellent effulgence of Savitri. The Vedaparaga said to Sjiddharta “You may start reciting this to begin with” and wrote down a few more mantras for him.
Siddhartha became restless. He concluded that some of the Vedaparaga's statements were equivocal. His mind persisted in giving chase to the many trivial incidents during his time at Rajgriha which have now run away from him but nothing could stop them from remaining vivid in his mind as memory. The monsoon stopped all day that day so he could sit on the river bank. Maharaja Suddhodan's son looked wistfully towards the north-westerly direction which he left behind.“Chilly”, he muttered, unfolded his chador and wrapped it around his torso tightly.