Readings from the Mahabharata: A Dialogue between King Janaka and Sulabha

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Readings from the Mahabharata
Santi Parva Section CCCXXI
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

A Dialogue between King Janaka and Sulabha

What the dialogue is about: a brief outline

A woman of the name of Sulabha, belonging to the mendicant order, practised the duties of Yoga and wandered over the whole Earth.
Sulabha heard from many Dandis of different places that the ruler of Mithila was devoted to the religion of Emancipation. Hearing this report about King Janaka and desirous of ascertaining whether it was true or not, Sulabha became desirous of having a personal interview with King Janaka.

Emancipation does not exist in poverty; nor its bondage to be found in affluence. One attains to Emancipation through knowledge alone, whether one is indigent or affluent.

The constituent elements of the body, which serve diverse functions in the general economy, undergo change every moment in every creature. Those changes, however, are so minute that they cannot be noticed. The birth of particles, and their death, in each successive condition, cannot be marked, O king, even as one cannot mark the changes in the flame of a burning lamp. When such is the state of the bodies of all creatures, - that is when that which is called the body is changing incessantly even like the rapid locomotion of a steed of good mettle- who then has come whence or not whence, or whose is it or whose is it not, or whence does it not arise? What connection does there exist between creatures and their own bodies?
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Janaka and Sulabha

Yudhishthira said: Without abandoning the domestic mode of life, O royal sage of Kuru’s race, whoever attained to Emancipation which is the annihilation of the Understanding (and the other faculties)? Do tell me this! How may the gross and the subtle form be cast off? Do thou also, O grandsire, tell me what the supreme excellence of Emancipation is.

Bhishma said: In this connection is cited the old narrative of the discourse between Janaka and Sulabha, O Bharata! In days of yore there was a king of Mithila, of the name of Janaka. He was devoted to the practices of the religion of Renunciation. He was well conversant with the Vedas, with the scriptures on Emancipation, and with the scriptures bearing on his own duty as a king. Subjugating his senses, he ruled his kingdom. Hearing of his good behaviour in the world, many men of wisdom, well conversant with wisdom, O foremost of men, desired to imitate him. In the same Satya Yuga, a woman of the name of Sulabha, belonging to the mendicant order, practised the duties of Yoga and wandered over the whole Earth. In course of her wanderings over the Earth, Sulabha heard from many Dandis of different places that the ruler of Mithila was devoted to the religion of Emancipation. Hearing this report about King Janaka and desirous of ascertaining whether it was true or not, Sulabha became desirous of having a personal interview with Janaka. Abandoning, by her Yoga powers, her former form and features, Sulabha assumed the most faultless features and unrivalled beauty. In the twinkling of an eye and with the speed of the quickest shaft, the fair-browed lady of eyes like lotus-petals repaired to the capital of the Videhas. Arrived at the chief city of Mithila teeming with a large population, she adopted the guises of a mendicant and presented herself before the king.

The monarch, beholding her delicate form, became filled with wonder and enquired who she was, whose she was, and whence she came. Welcoming her, he assigned her an excellent seat, honoured her by offering water to wash her feet, and gratified her with excellent refreshments. Refreshed duly and gratified with the rites of hospitality offered unto her, Sulabha, the female mendicant, urged the king, who was surrounded by his ministers and seated in the midst of learned scholars, (to declare himself in respect of his adherence to the religion of Emancipation). Doubting whether Janaka had succeeded in attaining to Emancipation, by following the religion of Nivritti (renunciation), Sulabha, endued with Yoga-power, entered the understanding (intellect) of the king by her own understanding. Restraining, by means of the rays of light that emanated from her own eyes, the rays issuing from the eyes of the king, the lady, desirous of ascertaining the truth, bound up king Janaka with Yoga bonds.

[Note: The Sanskrit word ‘sanchodayishyanti’ implies questioned. Here it means questioning the king internally or by Yoga power,]

That best of monarch, priding himself upon his own invincibleness and defeating the intentions of Sulabha seized her resolution with his own resolution. The king, in his subtle form, was without the royal umbrella and sceptre. The lady Sulabha, in hers, was without the triple stick (of a mendicant). Both staying then in the same (gross) form thus conversed with each other. Listen to that conversation as it happened between the monarch and Sulabha.

Janaka said: O holy lady, to what course of conduct art thou devoted? Whose art thou? Whence hast thou come? After finishing my business here, wither wilt thou go? No one can without questioning, ascertain another’s acquaintance with the scriptures, or age, or order of birth. Thou shouldst, therefore, answer these questions of mine, when thou hast come to me. Know that I am truly freed from all vanity in respect of my royal umbrellla and sceptre. I wish to know thee thoroughly. Thou art deserving, I hold, of my respect. Do thou listen to me as I speak to thee on Emancipation for there is none else (in this world) that can discourse to thee on that topic. Hear me also I tell thee who that person is from whom in days of old I acquired this distinguishing knowledge.

[Note: It is difficult to say in what sense the word ‘Vaiseshikam’ is used here. There is a particular system of philosophy called Vaiseshika or Kanada; the system believed to have been originally promulgated by a Rishi of the name of Kanada. That system has close resemblance to the atomic theory of European philosophers. It has many points of striking resemblance with Kapila’s system or Sankhya. Then, again, some of the original principles, as enunciated in the Sankhya system, are called by the name of Visesha.]

I am the beloved disciple of the high-souled and venerable Panchasikha, belonging to the mendicant order, of Parsara’s race.
My doubts have been dispelled and am fully conversant with the Sankhya and the Yoga systems and the ordinances as in respect of sacrifices and other rites, which constitutes the three well-known paths of Emancipation.

[Note: the mention of ‘Vidhi’ indicates Karmakanda (ceremonies and rituals). The value of Karma in the path of Emancipation is to purify the soul.]

Wandering over the earth and pursuing the while the path that is pointed out by the scriptures, the learned Panchasikha formerly dwelt in happiness in my abode for a period of four months in the rainy season. That foremost of Sankhyas discoursed to me, agreeably to the truth, and in an intelligible manner suited to my comprehension, on the several kinds of means for attaining to Emancipation. He did not, however, command me to give up my kingdom.

Freed from attachments, and fixing my soul on Supreme Brahman, and unmoved by companionship, I lived, practising in its entirety that triple conduct which is laid down in treatises on Emancipation. Renunciation (of all kinds of attachments) is the highest means prescribed for Emancipation.

It is from knowledge that Renunciation, by which one becomes freed, is said to flow. From knowledge arises that endeavour after Yoga, and through that endeavour one attains to knowledge of self or soul. Through knowledge of Self one transcends joy and grief. That enables one to transcend death and attain to high success.

That high intelligence (knowledge of self) has been acquired by me, and accordingly I have transcended all pairs of opposites. Even in this life have I been freed from stupefaction and have transcended all attachments. As a soil, saturated with water and softened thereby, causes the (sown) seed to sprout forth, after the same manner, the acts of men cause rebirth. As a seed, fried on a pan or otherwise, becomes unable to sprout forth although the capacity for sprouting was there, after the same manner my understanding having been freed from the productive principle constituted by desire, by the instruction of the holy Panchasikha of the mendicant order, it no longer produces its fruit in the form of attachment to the object of the senses. I never experience love for any spouse or hate for my foes. Indeed, I keep aloof from both, beholding the fruitlessness of attachment and wrath. I regard both persons equally, viz., him that smears my right hand with sandal-paste and him, that wounds my left.

Having attained my (true) object, I am happy, and look equally upon a clod of earth, a piece of stone, and a lump of gold. I am freed from attachments of every kind, though I am engaged in ruling a kingdom. In consequence of all this I am distinguished over all bearers of triple sticks. Some foremost of men that are conversant with the topic of Emancipation say that Emancipation has a triple path, (these are knowledge, Yoga and sacrifices and rites). Some regard knowledge having all things of the world for its object as the means of emancipation. Some hold that the total renunciation of acts (both external and internal) is the means thereof. Another class of persons conversant with the scriptures of Emancipation say that Knowledge is the single means. Others, viz. Yatis, endued with subtle vision, hold that acts constitute the means. The high-souled Panchasikha, discarding both the opinions about knowledge and acts, regarded the third as the only means of Emancipation.

If men leading the domestic mode of life were endued with Yama and Niyama, they become equals of Sannyasins