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The scene that takes us to this text occurs in the Udyoga-parva, wherein all the negotiations between the Pandavas and the Kauravas take place through messengers and ambassadors. King Dhritarashtra has just sent his own personal messenger Sanjaya to the Pandava camp to find out whether they really want war or they would agree to some terms. Sanjaya comes back during an evening, with the answer that they would, as a minimum, besatisfied with five villages for their ownership. But this answer he plans to reveal only in the court the next morning. Dhritarashtra is curious, impatient and excited, to know the answer. For he is afraid, very rightly, that once the war starts, all his hundred sons will be wiped out, more because of the sinful weight of the atrocities they had been committing on the Pandavas rather than the might of the Pandavas.

So that night he calls Vidhura, his younger brother – born of a lower caste woman and so not eligible to the throne, but acclaimed by all as the wisest man on Earth coupled with an erudite scholarship – to tell him all about justice, morals, fairplay and politics. Vidhura waxes eloquent on  these matters and this portion of the Mahabharata is called Vidhura-nIti, which is usually studied also as an independent work on political science and ethics. At the end of it, Vidhura concludes by saying that these do not constitute an end in themselves. The ultimate for man is not material greatness but it is the total release from the divine cycle of births and deaths and this is called Immortality (amRRitatvaM).

The word ‘amRRitatvaM’ catches the attention of the King. He wants to know more from Vidhura about this ‘Immortality’ that he is referring to.  While the war is round the corner the King is frantically fearful of its possible consequences and so he is ready to catch hold of any straw which smacks of ‘absence of death’.  Ignorant of the spiritual content of the words of Vidhura, he thinks ‘Immortality’ is exactly what he wants for his sons!

But Vidhura refuses to oblige; he tells the King that having been born of a Sudra woman, he (Vidhura) is not fit to teach the Kshatriya King any subject of Spirituality. So by his yogic powers he calls the divine sage Sanat-sujAta from the higher worlds, to teach Dhritarashtra about Immortality and the Ultimate Reality. Sanat-sujata arrives, and, in four chapters, of around 130 verses, gives a gist of what Spirituality is. Dhritarashtra is enraptured and keeps asking question after question. The whole night is spent in this interaction between the earthly King who is full of tamas and the divine sage who is full of sattva. The SanatsujAtiya thus turns out to be a beautiful synthesis of the entire world of Vedanta ShAstra, taught by the most authentic person.

The importance of Sanat-sujAtIya for spiritual evolution may be inferred from the fact that Shankaracharya selects it as one of the only three pieces of spiritual literature from the Mahabharata for which he ever wrote elaborate commentaries – the other two being, Vishnu Sahasra-nAma and of course, the Bhagavad-Gita.

The first question that Dhritarashtra asks of Sanatsujata is:

What is this Immortality that I am hearing about? Is it possible to avoid death?

Sanat-sujata, without beating about the bush, goes straight into the subject and begins his discourse with a bang. “PramAda is death”, says he, “living without PramAda is Immortality”.

PramAdam vai mRRityum-ahaM bravImi. sadApramAdaM amRRitatvaM bravImi

 What is this pramAda, which Sanatsujata introduces so suddenly? ‘pramAda’ comes from the root verb ‘mad’ to be intoxicated, to be drunk. ‘PramAda’ means therefore intoxication, carelessness, negligence of duties. Shankara in his commentary, elaborates it:

Man’s natural state is divine. Any slipping from that divine status is a default, slip, negligence, pramAda. From that Brahman-consciousness, which is the natural state of man, if he slips, that becomes the seed and cause for all knowledge of falsity, ignorance of the Self within. This is Death, for it becomes the further cause for future births and consequent deaths and therefore a total chaos.

prachutiH svAbhAvika-brahma-bhAvAt tam pramAdaM mithyA-jnAnasyApi kAraNaM AtmA-anavadhAraNaM AtmAjnAnaM mRRityuM janana-maraNAdi sarvAnartha-bIjaM ahaM bravImi.

If one is always in a state of the opposite of pramAda, that is, stabilised in the state of one’s natural divinity, that is Immortality:

sadA apramAdaM svAbhAvika-svarUpeNa avasthAnaM amRRitatvaM bravImi

Immortality in Hinduism is not in any sense a continuance in time. Time or Eternity is an out-of-place concept in the Absoluteness of Vedanta. Immortality means coming into its own of the Self. Very often in a Vedic passage the words ‘we have become immortal’ or ‘this would make you immortal’ would occur. This does not mean that they have transcended physical death. Naive translations of such Vedic passages without an understanding of the full meaning and significance in relation to the total philosophy involved, have given rise, to misconceptions about Hinduism that it promises ‘immortality’ through its mumbo-jumbo of mantras!

If Realisation of one’s true status is Immortality, then surely Ignorance is bondage and enlightenment is release. The scriptures also say: Having known that one reaches beyond Death; there is no other path for release:

tameva viditvA ati-mRRityum-eti,

na anyaH panthA vidyate ayanAya – 

                                            SvetAshvatara U. III – 8.

If so, and if that is all there is to it, shall we not have to do our duties and actions? Not so. A jnAni does not have to do action. He delights in the Self and he is fully satisfied with the Self. For him there is no action:

yastvAtmaratir-eva syAt Atma-tRRiptascha mAnavaH /

Atmanyeva ca santushhTaH tasya kAryaM na vidyate // B.G. III – 17

Then who has to do the works? Only an unenlightened person, only a seeker. That is why the Lord says that he has prescribed two distinct ways: that of jnAna yoga for the evolved ones and karma yoga for the practitioners.

But, even for the latter kind, namely, the seekers and those who are involved in worldly actions, would not the maxim that karma (action) always leads to bondage apply?  No, not if the works are done with dedication – IshvarArpaNa, is the word Shankara uses.

But why at all have they to be involved with works or action or karma? The answer comes with the same emphasis throughout the scriptures:


 That is, the mind has to be purified and so works have to be done, and done with dedication, dedication to the Lord, and without an egocentric desire or attachment to the fruits thereof.  They should be done just by the senses and the body, with a complete absence of attachment or feeling of proprietorship, for the purpose of purifying the lower self. This is the considered opinion of the Lord Himself as he winds up in the eighteen th chapter of the Gita:

Acts of sacrifice, giving and askesis are purifiers of the wise, so they have certainly to be donebut without hankering for their fruits:

Yajno dAnaM tapashchaiva  pAvanAni manIshhiNAM /

etAnyapi tu karmANi sangam tyaktvA phalAni ca /

kartavyAnIti me pArtha nishcitaM matam-uttamaM //  B.G. XVIII – 5, 6.

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