Amarakosa defines Arya as one who hails form a good family, of gentle behavior and demeanor, good nature and righteous conduct".
Description such as this may not sink in our minds in the way it should. But a story might convey the meaning better. There is a story or rather a conversation between a robber – hunter termed as a Chandala and the sage Viswamitra which is in the lines of Vyadha Gita.
It was narrated by Bheeshma lying on the arrow-bed to Yudhishtra in Shanthi parva, Mahabharartha. (12-140).
The scene was a time when a terrible famine struck the land. Sage Vishwamitra was one among the many people affected by the famine. Unable to bear hunger that was eating his life, he dared to steal the meat of a dog from a Chandala's hut. The conversation that occurred between him and the Chandala contains a fantastic exposition of the Aryan morality brought out by the Chandala.
The hidden effects of karma caused by the acts are also brought out in this conversation. Till the end, the Chandala does not approve of the sage taking the meat. The kind of karmic results of a sage stealing the meat and eating a forbidden food, of the Chandala being a silent spectator of such an act by the sage or giving him that food so that the sage can be saved of the karmic effect of stealing are all raised succinctly in this conversation.
The translation of that part is given here:-
The great Rishi Viswamitra, urged by pangs of hunger and engaged in search after food, entered that hamlet and endeavoured his best to find something to eat. Though the son of Kusika begged repeatedly, yet he failed to obtain any meat or rice or fruit or root or any other kind of food. He then, exclaiming, Alas, great is the distress that has overtaken me' fell down from weakness in that hamlet of the Chandalas. The sage began to reflect, saying to himself, What is best for me to do now' Indeed, O best of kings, the thought that occupied him was of the means by which he could avoid immediate death. He beheld, O king, a large piece of flesh, of a dog that had recently been slain with a weapon, spread on the floor of a Chandala's hut.
The sage reflected and arrived at the conclusion that he should steal that meat. And he said unto himself, I have no means now of sustaining life. Theft is allowable in a season of distress for even an eminent person. It will not detract from his glory. Even a Brahmana for saving his life may do it. This is certain. In the first place one should steal from a low person. Failing such a person one may steal from one's equal. Failing an equal, one may steal from even an eminent and righteous man. I shall then, at this time when my life itself is ebbing away, steal this meat.
I do not see demerit in such theft. I shall, therefore, rob this haunch of dog's meat' Having formed this resolution, the great sage Viswamitra laid himself down for sleep in that place where the Chandala was. Seeing some time after that the night had advanced and that the whole Chandala hamlet had fallen asleep, the holy Viswamitra, quietly rising up, entered that hut. The Chandala who owned it, with eyes covered with phlegm, was lying like one asleep. Of disagreeable visage, he said these harsh words in a broken and dissonant voice. The Chandala said, Who is there, engaged in undoing the latch? The whole Chandala hamlet is asleep. I, however, am awake and not asleep. Whoever thou art, thou art about to be slain'
These were the harsh words that greeted the sage's ears. Filled with fear, his face crimson with blushes of shame, and his heart agitated by anxiety caused by that act of theft which he had attempted, he answered, saying, O thou that art blest with a long life, I am Viswamitra. I have come here oppressed by the pangs of hunger. O thou of righteous understanding, do not slay me, if thy sight be clear' Hearing these words of that great Rishi of cleansed soul, the Chandala rose up in terror from his bed and approached the sage. Joining his palms from reverence and with eyes bathed in tears, he addressed Kusika's son, saying, What do you seek here in the night, O Brahmana' Conciliating the Chandala, Viswamitra said, I am exceedingly hungry and about to die of starvation. I desire to take away that haunch of dog's meat. Being hungry, I have become sinful. One solicitous of food has no shame.
It is hunger that is urging me to this misdeed. It is for this that I desire to take away that haunch of dog's meat. My life-breaths are languishing. Hunger has destroyed my Vedic lore. I am weak and have lost my senses. I have no scruple about clean or unclean food. Although I know that it is sinful, still I wish to take away that haunch of dog's meat. After I had filed to obtain any alms, having wandered from house to house in this your hamlet, I set my heart upon this sinful act of taking away this haunch of dog's meat. Fire is the mouth of the gods. He is also their priest.
He should, therefore, take nothing save things that are pure and clean. At times, however, that great god becomes a consumer of everything. Know that I have now become even like him in that respect' Hearing these words of the great Rishi, the Chandala answered him, saying, Listen to me. Having heard the words of truth that I say, act in such a way that thy religious merit may not perish. Hear, O regenerate Rishi, what I say unto thee about thy duty. The wise say that a dog is less clean than a jackal. The haunch, again, of a dog is a much worse part than other parts of his body. This was not wisely resolved by thee, therefore, O great Rishi, this act that is inconsistent with righteousness, this theft of what belongs to a Chandala, this theft, besides, of food that is unclean. Blessed be thou, do thou look for some other means for preserving thy life.
O great sage, let not thy penances suffer destruction in consequence of this thy strong desire for dog's meat. Knowing as thou dost the duties laid down in the scriptures, thou shouldst not do an act whose consequence is a confusion of duties Do not cast off righteousness, for thou art the foremost of all persons observant of righteousness' Thus addressed, O king, the great Rishi Viswamitra, afflicted by hunger, O bull of Bharata's race, once more said, A long time has passed away without my having taken any food. I do not see any means again for preserving my life. One should, when one is dying, preserve one's life by any means in one's power without judging of their character. Afterwards, when competent, one should seek the acquisition of merit. The Kshatriyas should observe the practices of Indra. It is the duty of the Brahmanas to behave like Agni. The Vedas are fire.
They constitute my strength. I shall, therefore, eat even this unclean food for appeasing my hunger. That by which life may be preserved should certainly be accomplished without scruple. Life is better than death. Living, one may acquire virtue. Solicitous of preserving my life, I desire, with the full exercise of my understanding, to eat this unclean food. Let me receive thy permission. Continuing to live I shall seek the acquisition of virtue and shall destroy by penances and by knowledge the calamities consequent on my present conduct, like the luminaries of the firmament destroying even the thickest gloom' The Chandala said, By eating this food one like thee cannot obtain long life. Nor can one like thee obtain strength from such food, nor that gratification which ambrosia offers.
Do thou seek for some other kind of alms. Let not thy heart incline towards eating dog's meat. The dog is certainly an unclean food to members of the regenerate classes' Viswamitra said, Any other kind of meat is not to be easily had during a famine like this. Besides, O Chandala, I have no wealth wherewith to buy food. I am exceedingly hungry. I cannot move any longer. I am utterly hopeless. I think that all the six kinds of taste are to be found in that piece of dog's meat' The Chandala said, Only the five kinds of five-clawed animals are clean food for Brahmanas and Kshatriyas and Vaisyas, as laid down in the scriptures.
Do not set thy heart upon what is unclean for thee' Viswamitra said, The great Rishi Agastya, while hungry, ate up the Asura named Vatapi. I am fallen into distress. I am hungry. I shall therefore, eat that haunch of dog's meat' The Chandala said, Do thou seek some other alms. It behoves thee not to do such a thing. Verily, such an act should never be done by thee. If however, it pleases thee, thou mayst take away this piece of dog's meat' Viswamitra said, They that are called good are authorities in matters of duty.
I am following their example. I now regard this dog's haunch to be better food than anything that is highly pure' The Chandala said, That which is the act of an unrighteous person can never be regarded as an eternal practice. That which is an improper act can never be a proper one. Do not commit a sinful act by deception' Viswamitra said, A man who is a Rishi cannot do what is sinful In the present case, deer and dog, I think, are same both being animals. I shall, therefore, eat this dog's haunch' The Chandala said, Solicited by the Brahmanas, the Rishi Agastya did that act. Under the circumstances it could not be a sin.
That is righteousness in which there is no sin. Besides, the Brahmanas, who are the preceptors of three other orders, should be protected and preserved by every means' Viswamitra said, I am a Brahmana. This my body is a friend of mine. It is very dear to me and is worthy of the highest reverence from me. It is from the desire of sustaining the body that the wish is entertained by me of taking away that dog's haunch. So eager have I become that I have no longer any fear of thee and thy fierce brethren' The Chandala said, Men lay down their lives but they still do not set their hearts on food that is unclean. They obtain the fruition of all their wishes even in this world by conquering hunger. Do thou also conquer thy hunger and obtain those rewards'
Viswamitra said, As regards myself, I am observant of rigid vows and my heart is set on peace. For preserving the root of all religious merit, I shall eat food that is unclean. It is evident that such an act would be regarded as righteous in a person of cleansed soul. To a person, however, of uncleansed soul, the eating of dog's flesh would appear sinful. Even if the conclusion to which I have arrived be wrong, and if I eat this dog's meat I shall not, for that act, become one like thee' The Chandala said, It is my settled conclusion that I should endeavour my best to restrain thee from this sin. A Brahmana by doing a wicked act falls off from his high state. It is for this that I am reproving thee' Viswamitra said, Kine continue to drink, regardless of the croaking of the frogs. Thou canst lay no claim to what constitutes righteousness and what not.
Do not be a self-eulogiser' The Chandala said, I have become thy friend. For this reason only I am preaching to thee. Do what is beneficial. Do not, from temptation, do what is sinful' Viswamitra said, If thou be a friend desirous of my happiness, do thou then raise me up from this distress. In that case, relinquishing this dog's haunch, I may consider myself saved by the aid of righteousness and not by that of sinfulness' The Chandala said, I dare not make a present of this piece of meat to thee, nor can I quietly suffer thee to rob me of my own food. If I give thee this meat and if thou take it, thyself being a Brahmana, both of us will become liable to sink in regions of woe in the next world' Viswamitra said, By committing this sinful act today I shall certainly save my life which is very sacred.
Having saved my life, I shall afterwards practise virtue and cleanse my soul. Tell me which of these two is preferable to die without food, or save my life by taking this food that is unclean' The Chandala said: In discharging the duties that appertain to one's order or race, one's own self is the best judge of its propriety or impropriety. Thou thyself knowest which of those two acts is sinful. He who would regard dog's meat as clean food, I think, would in matters of food abstain from nothing' Viswamitra said, In accepting an unclean present or in eating unclean food there is sin. When one's life, however, is in danger there is no sin in accepting such a present or eating such food. Besides, the eating of unclean food, when unaccompanied by slaughter and deception and when the act will provoke only mild rebuke, is not matter of much consequence' The Chandala said, If this be thy reason for eating unclean food, it is then clear thou dost not regard the Veda and Arya morality. Taught by what thou art going to do, I see, O foremost of Brahmanas, that there is no sin in disregarding the distinction between food that is clean and food that is unclean'
Viswamitra said, It is not seen that a person incurs a grave sin by eating forbidden food. That one becomes fallen by drinking wine is only a wordy precept for restraining men from drinking. The other forbidden acts of the same species, whatever they be, in fact, every sin, cannot destroy one's merit' The Chandala said, That learned person who takes away dog's meat from an unworthy place like this, from an unclean wretch like me, from one who like me leads such a wicked life, commits an act that is opposed to the behaviour of those that are called good. In consequence, again, of his connection with such a deed, he is certain to suffer the pangs of repentance' Bhishma continued, The Chandala, having said these words unto Kusika's son, became silent. Viswamitra then, of cultivated understanding, took away that haunch of dog's meat. The great ascetic having possessed himself of that piece of dog's meat for saving his life, took it away into the woods and wished with his wife to eat it. He resolved that having first gratified the deities according to due rites, he should then eat that haunch of dog's meat at his pleasure. Igniting a fire according to the Brahma rites, the ascetic, agreeably to those rites that go by the name of Aindragneya, began himself to cook that meat into sacrificial Charu.
He then, O Bharata, began the ceremonies in honour of the gods and the Pitris, by dividing that Charu into as many portions as were necessary, according to the injunctions of the scriptures, and by invoking the gods with Indra at their head for accepting their shares. Meanwhile, the chief of the celestials began to pour copiously. Reviving all creatures by those showers, he caused plants and herbs to grow once more. Viswamitra, however, having completed the rites in honour of the gods and the Pitris and having gratified them duly, himself ate that meat. Burning all his sins afterwards by his penances, the sage, after a long time, acquired the most wonderful ascetic success. Even thus, when the end in view is the preservation of life itself, should a high-souled person possessed of learning and acquainted with means rescue his own cheerless self, when fallen into distress, by all means in his power. By having recourse to such understanding one should always preserve one's life. A person, if alive, can win religious merit and enjoy happiness and prosperity. For this reason, O son of Kunti, a person of cleansed soul and possessed of learning should live and act in this world, relying upon his own intelligence in discriminating between righteousness and its reverse