The Upanishads contain many stories that carry an eternal relevance for mankind. These employ a direct and subjective approach to spiritual experience, facilitating a better understanding of abstract truths they teach, Sri Mani Dravid Sastrigal said in a lecture.
The story of rishi Usasti Chakrayana, a preceptor well-versed in spiritual truths and in the conduct of Vedic rituals, is narrated in the Chandogya Upanishad which belongs to the Sama Veda.
Usasti lived in the Kuru land where once famine raged and crops were destroyed. Usasti suffered extreme pangs of hunger and was in the throes of death. With his wife, he approached a rich elephant owner for food when he was partaking of his meal.
The owner felt helpless, saying he had no other food than what was before him. Since he had already tasted it, the same was unfit to be offered to the rishi. Yet, the rishi asked for some of the food and ate it. The owner then offered water which the rishi refused saying it was impure. Perplexed, the owner asked: “What about the food you ate? Was it not impure?” The rishi said he ate the food because he was in a desperate state and declining it would have cost him his life. With the life-threatening crisis circumvented, he should not go against his dharma any further, so he would not accept impure water.
This illustrates that in extreme situations when there seems to be no other alternative, one can deviate from one’s ordained dharma; and that when other courses are open one should refrain from doing wrong. In the case of Usasti no demerit touches him. Puranas also illustrate sage Vishwamitra transgressing this avowed dharma. After doing penance for 1,000 years, he was driven to consume unclean food to tide over extreme hunger. However, once he regained strength, he did ‘prayaschitta’ to absolve himself of the ‘dosha’. This concept is reflected in various discussions in Brahmasutra where it is reiterated that there are exceptions to the rules enunciated by dharma sastra. Indeed, transgression under extreme conditions is no sin.