Posted by: cochinblogger | February 9, 2011

The Wisdom of India

My father often recites the verses recounting the following episode from the Sanskrit play Shakuntala by Kalidasa. Shakuntala is finally leaving the forest abode of her foster father, Kanva Rishi, to join her husband. Kanva Rishi is in grief at her imminent departure, and says that his mind is vexed, he cannot see clearly because of worry, and that because of tears in his eyes there is a catch in his throat. He adds that if this is the grief that he, a forest-dwelling ascetic, feels at the departure of his daughter, how much greater must be the corresponding sorrow of a worldly townsman.

The tears-throat connection apparently does exist; our ancients were nothing if not observant.

Another example of the remarkable powers of observation of our forefathers was narrated by a biochemist relative. An Ayurvedic treatment involves chasing a rabbit and getting an extract from the rabbit’s thigh afterward; the active ingredient (probably adrenaline?) would be secreted only after exciting the rabbit in this way. The point is, how could they know this? (Also see The Enigma That Is Traditional Medicine)

The Hindu, a venerable newspaper headquartered in Chennai, is today run by a leftist, but a legacy of the past is the daily religion column. I usually skip this, but one day I happened to read it, and I’m glad I did. It is typical of the wisdom of ancient India, combining anatomy with morality. The subject is the damage harsh words can wreak. Here is an excerpt:

The tongue has been imprisoned in the mouth, with teeth on the sides, making the tongue appear like an animal entrapped in a cage.

And the tongue, if not held in check, can be more dangerous than an animal.

And later:

Only a coward uses his tongue as a weapon. There are antidotes to the poison of snakes. There are antidotes to the bite of a dog. But what is the medicine that heals a heart that has been wounded by harsh words?

Here is the full column:

Speak Sweet Words

Hindu philosophy has a unique, distinctive flavor. I’d earlier referred in this blog to the book A Marriage to India by Frieda Hauswirth Das. Here is how she describes the impact of Hindu philosophy on her:

I was at this time a student at Stanford University, to which I had come directly from my native Switzerland. Before I ever met any of the Hindu students, I had already become interested in Hindu philosophy and literature, and had been drawn strongly to the ancient theory of karma. The idea of inescapable justice beyond human or divine intercession or interference gave me my first conception of a sublimely ordered universe. It also seemed to place human life on a greater basis of dignity.

Then I came to read the great epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha. They gripped me far more than the epics of my own race, the Nibelungen and Beowulf. They seemed so much more profound, so intensely concerned with deeper and gentler truths. Our Norse legends seemed crude, gory, and physical by contrast. The revelation of that Song of Songs, the Bhagvad-Gita, with Krishna’s great teaching — Do right because it is right without fear of punishment or hope of reward — seemed a highly elevated type of morality.

The photograph on top is of a painting that occupies pride of place in the reception area of a leading eye hospital in Cochin. It depicts a medical procedure on the eye being carried out in ancient India.


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