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The Dharma of Rishi Markandeye


Abstract: In this cycle of karma, one strives for succeeding in certain objectives of human existence. These objectives as defined by sacred texts are Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksh. Our divine rishis taught us to achieve these goals on the lines of Dharma. It’s in fact considered as one of the objective of human life. Knowledge of Dharma helps one to achieve the other three objectives. This paper is an attempt to understand the Dharma taught by the great Rishi Markandeye. The ironical teaching of his text is that on one hand we learn that creator has already ordained how long one live for and on the other hand, through his devotion towards Dharma, the great rishi evaded his time of death. Every sacred text touches different aspects of birth, life, death, creation, earth, existence, relationships, gods, asuras and destruction. In each of these sacred texts, our rishis taught us some principles of Dharma. When adharma rises, lord Hari manifest himself in different forms to set up the balance of dharma. Dharma is necessary condition for any human to lead his/her life. Our approach is to comprehend the historical events/ stories, mentioned in the different purana and specifically in Markendeye purana, with respect to the dharma and the wisdom. This paper particularly focuses on different aspects of human life, the system of varna, human relationships and the responsibilities of a ruler, from the lens of Great Markandeye.  

The foremost Dharma we learn about a son through different purana is to follow the command of the parents. Whether it is the epic Ramayana or Mahabharata, following the commands of the parents is considered as an important Dharma of a child. Markandeye beautifully quoted a blessing of “May you serve your parents” to show how auspicious it is for any child to serve his/her parents. The son is considered as an excellent son when he enhances his father valour, fame and wealth. In other words, one should strive for achieving artha – prosperity. To achieve artha, one should follow the Dharma of his Varna (brahamin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudras). Markandeye defined the principle Dharma for all, irrespective of Varna, as – Truthfulness, Purity, non-violence, lack of envy, forgiveness, desisting from cruelty, lack of miserliness and satisfaction. Every human should follow these principles throughout the cycle of his/her life. Markandeye stresses upon the Dharma of donations and sacrifices for any human being. These are the common and the most important Dharma for every human irrespective of his Varna. This Dharma is connected with the samsara, i.e., the cycle of life, death and rebirth. The Dharma teaches us to donate/ sacrifice to the gods, ancestors, humans, other creatures and someone who is in need.  

Interestingly, while, Markandeye purana teaches us to aspire the goal of artha and serve the parents, ironically, he stresses upon not getting attached to the objects of pleasure gained through this artha. Liberation from these material and non-material objects, and eventually, non-attachment to anything made of the temporary elements of the universe is the important goal of Moksha.


A boy destined to be the intelligent soul with the knowledge of dharma, however, with a short life span, defied his death and became immortal, that is how the great Rishi Markandeye commenced his journey towards leading the mankind on the path of spiritual upliftment and dharma teachings. Being born in the Bhrigu clan, Rishi Markandeye wisdom became part of one of the Mahapurana – Markandeye Purana. The knowledge shared as the part of this Mahapurana, not merely touched the five characteristics of the purana[1], but hides the deep meanings of the basic objectives of the human existence – Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. The Mahapurana, in fact, started with the few doubts in the mind of rishi Jaimini, about the most sacred text on the objectives of human life – Mahabharata. Although, all of the objectives are important part of existence, dharma has a distinct significance which has been explained in various sacred texts.

O Jaimini !, Whenever there is a decline in dharma and a rise in adharma, he (Lord Hari) creates himself” – Markandeye Puran

The meaning of “Dharma” can be comprehended in various senses as “conduct”, “duty”, “virtue” or the righteous path to be followed under different stages of this life and the life beyond this world. The confusion which arises is that what are the rules of conduct or what is the righteous path to follow. This is often linked to the Dharamsatras which lay down the general as well as specific rules or code of conduct to follow under different stages of life like student life or householder life, however, it does not provide the challenge to question the codes or the rules, which might change or develop with time. This paper focuses on the experiences that taught certain moral ethics and principles which remain universal even beyond this life. These moral ethics or the dharma are taught by the dilemmas faced by our great ancestors in the sacred itihasa[2] of the Bharatvarsh. The approach followed is to look at the common dilemmas from different itihas with a major focus on the Markandeye Purana and understand the wisdom being taught.

The Supreme Dharma of a Son

The need to understand and perform Dharma as a Son is an important lesson which our itihas has taught in various ways. The Mahabharata which organically is the fight among brothers taught us an important lesson on Dharma of a Son. There was one noble man in the Mahabharata who never had any doubts about his Dharma. Being the son of dharma himself, Yudhishthira was challenged several times by the God of Dharma but he always took the path that made him Victorious. The supreme dharma as a son he taught us is that under any circumstances, obey the orders of the elders. Being invited by Dhritarashtra for a game of dice and knowing about the intensions of Shakuni, he didn’t refused the invitation by stating that a son must respect his father.

Mother is weightier than the earth and the father is higher than the heavens” – Yudhishthira

Similarly, Lord Rama never asked his father for the reason for his exile to forest for 14 years, since; following orders from the father is considered supreme. Markandaye also insist this Dharma through two historical events. In the first event, one great rishi asked his sons to let the hungry bird feed on their bodies so that his promise is not broken. In the dilemma of letting his sons die and the pledge he made himself, he considered to complete the pledge or the promise made to the bird to be a superior act of dharma than the former. This teaches us two important lessons on Dharma. First, protecting the pledge one has made himself is a vital dharma of an individual. Secondly, to follow the command of the father and serve the parents is an important Dharma of a son. The conclusive end was that the great rishi fulfil his promise by letting the bird feed on his body and consequently blessed by the god, however, sons remain in grief by living life as an inferior species for not obeying the father.

In another event in the Mahapuran, father asked his Kshatriya Son, Nabhaga, to live his livelihood as a Vaishya because of marrying a daughter of a Vaishya. Although, he disobey the law of marriage and indulge in a rakshasa form of marriage but he follow his father’s command to live a life of a Vaishya profession. Nabhaga commitment to his father’s command is so superior that even after his son gifted the kingdom to him, he refused to accept it by stating that it is better to follow the father’s commands and not rule over the kingdom. It can also be observed in this event’s dilemma, that son refused to follow the law of inter-varna marriage and accepted being transferred from a Kshatriya profession to a Vaishya profession, instead of suffering from not marrying someone he desires.

Another aspect of son’s dharma which is related to the rites is to serve the ancestors. Markandeye in many places insist that one must serve the ancestors or forefathers and make them happy through different nitya and naimittika[3] rites. This touched upon the two concepts; first that jivatama will exist no matter what and the ancestors demand respect through sacrifices from their children even after death. The Mahapuran mentioned that if ancestors sigh in dissatisfaction, the wealth accumulated in seven births is destroyed while if gods are dissatisfied wealth of three births is destroyed. The disservice to ancestors is considered a bigger adharma relative to the disservice to the Gods. This indicates that itihas placed an important duty for the son in this life and the life beyond this world to serve the parents and ancestors. The dharma performed with this respect will continue to reap fruits in the next several births.

From all of the above accounts, our understanding is that the son’s dharma of obeying and serving the parents is supreme. Here we are not analysing the parent’s perspective and the intension of their commands. Markandeye stressed upon the fact that the son is considered excellent if he enhances the fame, wealth and valour of the father and worst if he does the opposite. This led us to the next two objectives of human existence – Artha and Kama.

Dharma of a Varna

To achieve artha (Prosperity) and enjoy kama (pleasure) one should follow the Dharma of his varna (brahamin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudras). The concept of Varna is extensively discussed in Dharamsastra. There are codes and rules defined in the Dharamsastra and some of them are re-iterated in the Markandeye puran. However, as mentioned before our paper focuses on the dharma from moral ethic/ principle perspective and not the rules which might change/ develop with time.

The varna system is based on work as well as gunas[4] (qualities) endowed by the prakarti. This has been explained by the conversation between rishi Bhrigu and rishi Bharadwaja. As explained by Bhrigu, the gunas lead to the work one performs and this lead to division of work. The Brahamin are pre-dominantly sattva-guna, Kshatriya with rajo-guna, Vaishya with a mix of rajas and tamas while Shudras had predominantly tamo-guna. The concept has been explained in Markandeye Puran as well where King Prishadhra killed a cow belonged to a brahmana sage. On killing the cow, the sage’s son Babhravya mind and heart is overwhelmed by the rage and intolerance. At the rage of the Brahmana Son, king Prishadhra stated that the boy was succumbing to rage like a shudra as if he is not born to the lineage of Brahmana but born to a shudra. It shows that gunas are endowed by birth and the predominance of one or the other gunas will decide the varna of the being[5]. As explained by Markandeye to the Kroushtuki, in the beginning there was an eternal Brahman and the three gunas are originated in it. At the time of creation the gunas are created and the equilibrium of the gunas is based on the eternal Brahman.

With the basic understanding of gunas and division of work, Markandeye stresses on eight dharma to be followed, irrespective of the varna one belong to. These are: Truthfulness, Purity, non-violence, lack of envy, forgiveness, desisting from cruelty, lack of miserliness and satisfaction. Among all of the above dharma, Truthfulness and non-violence has an important significance. Truth is considered as the supreme dharma which always leads to salvation.  Truth is the virtue that leads to Dharma. Other aspect of truth is to remain fulfil to the promise one has made, i.e., being truthful to your words. King Harishchandra, in all his vain, sells his wife and son and lived life of an outcaste to remain truthful to his words.

Non-violence is considered supreme especially among the Kshatriyas. When King Harishchandra was leaving his kingdom, he was alleged by his citizens of doing violence by abandoning the people who love him. Abandoning someone who is devoted towards you is considered as adharma. In fact, this has been the case with Yudhishthira as well, when he was asked by Lord Indra to come to heaven but he refused to come because of abandoning the dog who was devoted to him till the end. Similarly, King Harishchandra refused to enjoy the pleasure of heavens without the people he ruled, since they were devoted to him. In another event, a king rejects to go to heaven abandoning the people suffering miseries in the hell. Hence, violence of any kind is considered as adharma.

The dharma of donations and sacrifice is common for all varnas. Following the above dharma as per his/ her own varna, one must accumulate wealth and perform donations. One must show compassion and faithfulness while sacrificing and donating. The sacrifice is not merely to the living beings but the share of sacrifice is for the gods and ancestors as well. As per Markandeye, the happiness obtained from heaven is nothing compared to the happiness obtained by providing relief to creatures. The man should be ashamed of himself if he does not show favours to afflicted people who seek refuge with him. Everyone should acquire artha through dharma and dharma through artha (donations and sacrifice). One of an example of donating or sacrificing the artha is given by King Harishchandra, wherein, he donated his fame and wealth to rishi Vishvamitra without even thinking twice.

Dharma of Moksha

Moksha is a state of liberation which is considered as an objective of human existence. Everyone should perform action without attachment to the results. In fact, attachment of every sort must be given up, if one is incapable of doing it, he should engage with virtuous. Desire of every sort must be given up, if one is incapable of doing it, he should engage in acts of liberation. In an interesting conversation between Lord Dattatreya and King Alarka which woke the concept of atman and open the path of moksha answer important question of this objective. The atman is above everything and attachment to anything made of the five elements leads to unhappiness. Markandeye described the root cause of misery as the sense of “I” and “Mine”. When a man’s intelligence has sense of ownership on something, it is that very thing that brings him misery. Everything is made of five elements and no one has an ownership on the water, air, earth, fire or space. The only thing that is permanent is Atman. Atman is beyond the body (Five Elements), beyond the mind and beyond the intelligence. Happiness or Unhappiness is a state of mind and atman is beyond the mind. So Dharma of the one who is looking for liberation is to cast aside the attachment and the sense of ownership on any of the things made of the five elements.

Lord Dattatreya explained about the usage of Yoga to help in achieving the liberation. Liberation as defined by Lord Dattatreya is the union with the Brahman and separation from the Prakarti’s gunas. A yogi uses knowledge to achieve this liberation. Through Yoga, one can go directly in union with the eternal Brahman and achieve liberation. The concept of yoga is not within the scope of this paper.

Dharma of a king/ Ruler

The dharma of a king or ruler is often discussed in itihas since he is the one who set up the system under which people in each varna strive for achieving the objectives of their lives. The time of King Harishchandra, as provided by the Markandaye puran, shows that during that time there was no disease or famine, citizens were not engaged in the acts of adharma and they were not intoxicated or insolent because of their riches, valour or austerities. The dharma of the king, as explained by King Harishchandra is to donate to Brahmanas and the others whose means of subsistence is suffering, Protect those who are scared and fight against those who caused obstruction. A king is destroyed by the sense of desire, anger, avarice, insolence, pride and delight. A king must formulate policy on the basis of sama, dana, danda and bheda. A king should make sure that everyone is following the dharma of his/ her varna and punish those who are doing the opposite.

Dharma of Bharatvarsha

The land of Bharatvarsha itself follows the dharma. It possesses the seed of everything and through auspicious and inauspicious deed one can achieve anything here. One can become Brahma, God, Apsara, Animal or any immobile object or even the immortal saint like the great rishi Markandeye himself. This is a land of karma and nothing like this exists anywhere. Even gods desire to be born here as humans.


The land of Bharatvarsha is the land of karma. In this cycle of karma, one must know the dharma to perform at each stage of the life. This paper focuses on the dharma defined in Markandeye Puran with respect to the objectives of human existence – Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksh. Our observation is that there are certain similarities in the itihas with respect to dharma being taught in each of our sacred texts. The supreme dharma of the son is to obey his parents. It is often cited at multiple places that, no matter what, son obeys the orders from his elders including Guru. The dharma learn with respect to varna helps one to achieve the artha and kama. It is important to follow the path of dharma one set for himself. In the end one should strive to achieve liberation from any attachment to accomplish the objective of Moksha.


  1. The Markandeye Purana, Bibek Debroy, Penguin Books
  2. The varna system as prescribed by Veda Vyasa – A socio-political dialougue, Dr. Rajani Jairam, Journal of Social Science and Humanities Research
  3. Yaksha Prashna The Story of the righteous crane, Kisari Mohan Ganguli, The Matheson Trust
  4. History of Dharamsastra, Pandurang Vaman Kane, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Archaeological Survey of India
  5. Dharamsutras, Patrick Olivelle, Oxford University Press
  6. The Markandeya Purana, F. Eden Pargiter, The Asiatic Society
  7. The Difficulty of Being Good, Gurcharan Das, Penguin Books
  8. Srimad Bhagvad-Gita, Archaeological Survey of India


[1] Five characteristics of Purana – Sarga, Pratisarga , vamsha, Manvantara and vamshanucharita.

[2] Itihasa are the written description of historical events occurred in Bharatvarsh. It includes Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas.

[3] Nitya means daily and naimittika means occasional

[4] Gunas – Rajas, Sattva and Tamas

[5] Gunas are not specifically for humans. It is for every matter and non-matter substance exists in this universe, including animals, birds, planets, etc.

Image Credit: Markandeya prays to Vishnu (Wikipedia)

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