[Advaita-l] A Dialog on BrAhmaNahood in the MahAbhArata

S Jayanarayanan sjayana at yahoo.com
Wed Feb 2 16:54:02 CST 2005

During a discussion on BrAhmaNahood sometime ago in this list,
Vidyasankara Sundaresan mentioned that there were two dialogs in
the MahAbhArata that gave credence to the belief that
BrAhmaNahood was not by birth, but by conduct only. The posting
can be found at
http://www.escribe.com/religion/advaita/m831.html (21 Nov 1996).

I searched the online resources on the MahAbhArata and found
both a transliteration ( http://www.hindunet.org/mahabharata/ )
and an English translation (
http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/maha/index.htm ).

This dialog is between nahushha (in the form of a serpent) and
YudhishhThira, when the former captures BhIma and asks the
latter to answer some questions (Book 3, Section 179).
Interesting in the dialog is not only that according to *varNa*,
BrAhmaNahood is definitely by conduct and not by birth, but also
that it is difficult to ascertain anyone's *jAti* due to
intermixture between the castes.

Transliteration from
Translation from http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m03/m03179.htm


brAhmaNaH ko bhavedrAjanvedya.n kiM cha yudhiShThira . 
bravIhyatimati.n tvA.n hi vAkyairanumimImahe .. 15..\\

"The serpent said, 'O Yudhishthira, say--Who is a Brahmana and
what should be known? By thy speech I infer thee to be highly


satya.n dAnaM kShamA shIlamAnR^isha.nsyaM damo ghR^iNA . 
dR^ishyante yatra nAgendra sa brAhmaNa iti smR^itaH .. 16..\\
vedya.n sarpaparaM brahma nirduHkhamasukha.n cha yat . 
yatra gatvA na shochanti bhavataH ki.n vivakShitam .. 17..\\

"Yudhishthira said, 'O foremost of serpents, he, it is asserted
by the wise, in whom are seen truth, charity, forgiveness, good
conduct, benevolence, observance of the rites of his order and
mercy is a Brahmana. And, O serpent, that which should be known
is even the supreme Brahma, in which is neither happiness nor
misery--and attaining which beings are not affected with misery;
what is thy opinion?'"


chAturvarNyaM pramANa.n cha satyaM cha brahma chaiva ha . 
shUdreShvapi cha satya.n cha dAnamakrodha eva cha . 
AnR^isha.nsyamahi.nsA cha ghR^iNA chaiva yudhiShThira .. 18..\\
vedya.n yachchAtha nirduHkhamasukha.n cha narAdhipa . 
tAbhyA.n hInaM pada.n chAnyanna tadastIti lakShaye .. 19..\\

"The serpent said, 'O Yudhishthira, truth, charity, forgiveness,
benevolence, benignity, kindness and the Veda (Footnote: In as
much as the rites performed by the Sudras have their origin in
the Vedas.) which worketh the benefit of the four orders, which
is the authority in matters of religion and which is true, are
seen even in the Sudra. As regards the object to be known and
which thou allegest is without both happiness and misery, I do
not see any such that is devoid of these.'"


shUdre chaitadbhavellakShya.n dvije tachcha na vidyate . 
na vai shUdro bhavechchhUdro brAhmaNo na cha brAhmaNaH .. 20..\\
yatraitallakShyate sarpavR^itta.n sa brAhmaNaH smR^itaH . 
yatraitanna bhavetsarpata.n shUdramiti nirdishet .. 21..\\
yatpunarbhavatA proktaM na vedya.n vidyateti ha . 
tAbhyA.n hInamatItyAtra padaM nAstIti chedapi .. 22..\\
evametanmata.n sarpatAbhyAM hInaM na vidyate . 
yathA shItoShNayormadhye bhavennoShNaM na shItatA .. 23..\\
eva.n vai sukhaduHkhAbhyAM hInamasti pada.n kva chit . 
eShA mama matiH sarpayathA vA manyate bhavAn .. 24..\\

"Yudhishthira said, Those characteristics that are present in a
Sudra, do not exist in a Brahmana; nor do those that are in a
Brahmana exist in a Sudra. And a Sudra is not a Sudra by birth
alone--nor a Brahmana is Brahmana by birth alone. He, it is said
by the wise, in whom are seen those virtues is a Brahmana. And
people term him a Sudra in whom those qualities do not exist,
even though he be a Brahmana by birth. And again, as for thy
assertion that the object to be known (as asserted by me) doth
not exist, because nothing exists that is devoid of both
(happiness and misery), such indeed is the opinion, O serpent,
that nothing exists that is without (them) both. But as in cold,
heat doth not exist, nor in heat, cold, so there cannot exist an
object in which both (happiness and misery) cannot exist?"


yadi te vR^ittato rAjanbrAhmaNaH prasamIkShitaH . 
vyarthA jAtistadAyuShmankR^itiryAvanna dR^ishyate .. 25..\\

"The serpent said, 'O king, if thou recognise him as a Brahmana
by characteristics, then, O long-lived one, the distinction of
caste becometh futile as long as conduct doth not come into


jAtiratra mahAsarpamanuShyatve mahAmate . 
sa~NkarAtsarvavarNAnA.n duShparIkShyeti me matiH .. 26..\\
sarve sarvAsvapatyAni janayanti yadA narAH . 
vAnmaithunamatho janma maraNa.n cha samaM nR^iNAm .. 27..\\
idamArShaM pramANa.n cha ye yajAmaha ityapi . 
tasmAchchhIlaM pradhAneShTa.n vidurye tattvadarshinaH .. 28..\\
prAnnnnAbhirvardhanAtpu.nso jAtakarma vidhIyate . 
tatrAsya mAtA sAvitrI pitA tvAchArya uchyate .. 29..\\
vR^ittyA shUdra samo hyeSha yAvadvede na jAyate . 
asminnevaM matidvaidhe manuH svAyambhuvo.abravIt .. 30..\\
kR^itakR^ityAH punarvarNA yadi vR^ittaM na vidyate . 
sa~Nkarastatra nAgendra balavAnprasamIkShitaH .. 31..\\
yatredAnIM mahAsarpasa.nskR^ita.n vR^ittamiShyate . 
taM brAhmaNamahaM pUrvamuktavAnbhujagottama .. 32..\\

"Yudhishthira said, 'In human society, O mighty and highly
intelligent serpent, it is difficult to ascertain one's caste,
because of promiscuous intercourse among the four orders. This
is my opinion. Men belonging to all orders (promiscuously) beget
offspring upon women of all the orders. And of men, speech,
sexual intercourse, birth and death are common. And to this the
Rishis have borne testimony by using as the beginning of a
sacrifice such expressions as-- ``of what caste so ever we may
be, we celebrate the sacrifice.'' Therefore, those that are wise
have asserted that character is the chief essential requisite.
The natal ceremony of a person is performed before division of
the umbilical cord. His mother then acts as its Savitri and his
father officiates as priest. He is considered as a Sudra as long
as he is not initiated in the Vedas. Doubts having arisen on
this point, O prince of serpents, Swayambhuba Manu has declared,
that the mixed castes are to be regarded as better than the
(other) classes, if having gone through the ceremonies of
purification, the latter do not conform to the rules of good
conduct, O excellent snake! Whosoever now conforms to the rules
of pure and virtuous conduct, him have I, ere now, designated as
a Brahmana.'"


shruta.n viditavedyasya tava vAkyaM yudhiShThira . 
bhakShayeyamaha.n kasmAdbhrAtaraM te vR^ikodaram .. 33..\\

"The serpent replied, 'O Yudhishthira, thou art acquainted with
all that is fit to be known and having listened to thy words,
how can I (now) eat up thy brother Vrikodara!"


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