Living the Full Life: 50 Instructions from the Mahabharata

Article of the Month - Aug 2021

This article by Nitin Kumar

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Bhishma undoubtedly is one of the central figures of the Mahabharata. When he was at his deathbed after the great war, his grandson and would-be king Yuddhishthira approached and asked him numerous questions encompassing all aspects of life. The dialogue between the two is one of the highlights of the Mahabharata and the instructions imparted by Bhishma give us an immense opportunity to lead better and more fulfilled lives ourselves. One particular part of the conversation highlights how we can lead a fuller, longer and relevant life. This dialogue runs as follows:

Bhishma of Mahabharata (in The Modern Environment)

Yuddhishthira: "O Grandfather! The Vedas clearly stipulate that a man has a life of 100 years. If this is the case, why does a man often die before completing his full life-span? Also, tell me how does one obtain fame in this life? How does one obtain prosperity?"
Bhishma replied: "I will now answer what you have asked. It is good conduct (achar) that ensures a long lifespan. Prosperity and fame are also obtained through good conduct only. The one who takes recourse to good conduct, even if his whole body be sinful, removes anything that is inauspicious. Actually, the sign (lakshana) of dharma is good conduct only. Now I will enumerate the rules of conduct which lead to a reduction in one's lifespan:

1). Those who are nastikas (non-believers in the Vedas), those who do not do anything (nishkriya), those who go against the word of the shastras or the guru, all these have their lifespan reduced.

2). One should never be stubborn against one's guru. If the guru is unhappy with us we should make all efforts to please him. There is no doubt that criticizing the guru burns down a man's age.

3). The one who crushes mounds of earth, uproots grass, bites his nails, eats food tasted by others and is restless, such a person does not obtain a long life.

4). A person must wake up at Brahma-muhurta (roughly one-and-a-half hour before sunrise), and ruminate over his dharma and artha. Then he should get up from his bed, have his bath, etc., and then with folded hands perform his morning sandhya, facing the east. In the same way, the evening sandhya should also be performed facing the west, it being imperative that no conversation should be made with others during the two sandhya. The rishis of yore gained a long life only by performing the two sandhyas. Therefore, restraining speech at that time, one must respectively face the east (morning sandhya) and west (evening sandhya) daily. Those twice-born who do not perform the two sandhyas follow "adharma."

The Bhishma Way (Ancient Dharma for Modern Business and Politics)

5). One should never look at either the rising sun or the setting sun. Nor look at the sun during an eclipse or at the middle of the day.

6). Whatever be one's varna, one should never have intercourse with another person's wife. For a man, there is nothing which shortens a lifespan as much as having intercourse with another person's wife.

7). Dressing one's hair, applying kajal to the eyes, brushing the teeth and doing puja to gods, all these should be done only before noon.

8). One must never look at urine or excrement. One must not speak when passing urine. We should never do these two functions in water or in a cowshed. One should never pass urine while standing.

If a person passes urine or excrement facing the sun, fire, a cow, a brahmin or alongside a road, then his lifespan is destroyed. Also, after performing these functions, one must wash one's feet.

9). One should not venture out too early in the morning, too late in the evening or when it is exactly afternoon. One should never travel with someone unknown nor should one travel alone. One should never set out without worshipping the gods first.

10). One must not speak while eating. One should not criticize the food one is having. For a long lifespan, one should face east while eating food; for fame south and for wealth west. Having finished eating one should mentally touch fire.

One should eat only while sitting and never standing or walking around. One must wash one's feet before eating food (i.e. one should eat with one's feet wet). But one should not go to sleep with wet feet. The person who washes his feet before eating lives for a hundred years. In addition, one should not eat food cooked by a woman having her monthly periods.

One should not eat food without sharing with someone who is looking at it intently.

11). Three things are personification of energy - fire, cow and brahmin. They should never be touched with a hand that has not been washed after eating. If one follows this precept, one's lifespan is not diminished.

Life Is As Is - Teachings From The Mahabharata

12). One must never look at the following three objects when one is impure - the sun, the moon, and the nakshatras.

13). When an elder person arrives, a young person's prana ascends upward (thus threatening his life). By standing up and greeting the elder person, the young person is able to regain his prana. After greeting the elder person, a seat must be offered to him. When he is seated, the young one must remain standing. When the aged person walks, one must follow behind him, i.e. the younger person should not walk ahead of an older person.

14). One should never sit on a broken seat, nor ever use a broken brass vessel.

15). One must never eat while clad in a single garment, i.e. the upper garment would also be worn.

16). One should never bathe naked, nor should one sleep naked. One should never bathe in the night.

17). One should not eat food that has been eaten by another person (i.e. one should not share one's plate of food with any other person).

18). One should never touch the head (one's own or any other person's) with impure hands because all the pranas are concentrated there only. While bathing do not pour water again and again on your head. Then the lifespan will not be reduced.

19). After taking a bath one should not apply oil to one's limbs (i.e. oil massage is prohibited after bath).

20). One should never study in an impure state.

21). A person who desires to live long should never irritate the following three, even though they may be weak: a brahmin, a kshatriya, or a snake. All three all extremely poisonous. Therefore, a wise person makes efforts to be at peace with all the three.

A Dharma Reader - Classical Indian Law

22). Those who, violating the ordinances of dharma, indulge in physical relations with women of a different varna than their own, their lifespan is shortened and they go to hell.

23). One must give way to the following: a brahmin, cattle, the king, old people, those carrying a weight, pregnant women and those who are weak.

24). One must never footwear or clothes worn by others.

25). One must not indulge in physical relations with one's wife on the following days: purnima (full moon), amavasya (no moon), ashtami (eighth day when moon is exactly half) chaturdashi (one day before full moon and also before no moon), and on all festivals and days of fasting (parva).

26). One must not pointlessly eat meat (i.e. one should only eat meat offered in sacrifices).

27). One should not utter cruel words that make another person feel inferior. One should not agitate others with our words. If a forest is cut down with an axe it grows again, but wounds caused by harsh words are never healed.

28). One must shun the company of people who criticize the Vedas or slander the gods.

29). One should never hit another person with a rod; however, one can hit one's own son or disciple, but that too only for instruction purposes.

30). Sweets like kheer or halwa should never be cooked for one's own self; they should always be offered to the gods first.

31). One should not be in bed when the sun rises. If this happens, one must atone for it (prayashchitta). After waking, one must greet one's mother, father and other seniors. This is the way to attain greatness. Also, sleeping during the day reduces one's lifespan.

32). One must always eat according to the instructions of the shastras and fast on auspicious occasions.

33). One should never have physical relations with an unknown woman or a pregnant one.

34). One should not lie on a bed diagonally.

35). One should never wear wet clothes. One should never wear a garland of red flowers. The learned person uses white flowers.

36). One must wear a different garment when one goes to bed; a different garment for going outside and a different garment when worshipping the gods. Otherwise, the gods are dishonored.

Inspiring Tales from the Mahabharata

37). A learned person should not lick salt out of his hands.

38). One should never eat curd in the night.

39). One must eat once in the morning and once in the evening, and avoid eating in between. One must not talk while eating. One should not eat without being seated.

40). One should not have physical relations with a woman during the day. Nor with a woman who has not bathed.

41). One should not be intimate with doctors, children, the elderly and servants.

42). If a wise person desires his benefit, he must live in a house constructed in consultation with architects and brahmins expert in the science of Vastu.

43). One should not sleep during the two sandhyas nor study during them. An intelligent person does not eat during the period of the two sandhyas. This is the way to obtain greatness.

44). Shraddha (ancestral rites) should not be performed at night.

45). One should not eat in excess at night.

46). One should never marry a woman from the same gotra.

47). Jealousy reduces one's lifespan, hence jealousy must be avoided.

48). One must not injure women and always protect one's wife.

49). One must have a bath after shaving or having one's hair cut off.

50). One must not do namaskar to the gods, brahmins or one's guru in an unbathed state.

51). If we are traveling, one must find shelter inside a house before the western (evening) sandhya arrives.

52). One must follow the commands of one's mother, father, and guru, without thinking whether their instructions are desirable or not.

53). One should always hear the Puranas, history (itihasas), and the conduct of great-souled people."


Then Bhishma ended his discourse with the following words: "It is good conduct which leads to prosperity, enhances fame, increases the lifespan and destroys anything that is inauspicious. Good conduct is the birthplace of dharma and dharma increases the lifespan. Above I have enumerated to you the nuances of good conduct. It was Brahma Ji himself who first gave this discourse on good conduct out of compassion towards the people of all varnas."

Bhagavad Gita: The Gospel for Holy Life (Sanskrit Text, English Translation and Notes on the Bhagavad Gita)

(The detailed treatment of this specific dialogue can be found in the Mahabharata, Anushasan Parva, Chapter 104 Gita Press edition; and Chapter 1788 (107) of the Penguin edition).

References & Further Reading:

Debroy, Bibek. The Mahabharata: Complete and Unabridged (Ten Volumes): Penguin India, 2015.

Pandey, Pandit Ramnarayandutt Shastri. The Complete Mahabharata (The Only Edition with Sanskrit Text and Hindi Translation) - Six Volumes: Gita Press, Gorakhpur, 2017.

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  • Excellent composition of Mahabharata. Heartily thanks for sharing.
    Santosh June 22, 2018
  • Thank you. What a wonderful article!
    Gerald June 20, 2018
  • Thank you so much for sending this precious piece of knowledge. I highly appreciate it.
    Nandita June 20, 2018