Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, Nov. 06, 2011

So we make monuments so that the world will remember us when we are gone. We do great things, heroic deeds, so that the world will remember us when we are gone. We yearn to outwit mortality through legacy. Here is a little story from the Mahabharata about legacy, and how much of it is beyond our control.

Once upon a time there was a king was called Indradyumna and after a long reign he passed away and went to heaven, where he spent centuries, enjoying the rewards of his good deeds on earth. Then, one day, he was told by the gods to leave heaven. “Why?” asked a perplexed Indradyumna.

“Because,” said the gods, “No one on earth remembers your good deeds. If you can find at least one creature who remembers you for your good deeds then you can come back to heaven. Otherwise you will have to leave. That is the rule.”

Time flows differently on earth than in heaven. When Indradyumna reached earth, he realized that centuries had passed since his reign. The trees were different, the people were different, even his kingdom looked different. Who will remember me, he wondered. The buildings he built were all gone. The temples he built were no where to be seen. The people who were beneficiaries of his largesse were all dead. No one he met remembered any king called Indradyumna.

Disheartened, Indradyumna went in search of the oldest man on earth. He found Rishi Markandeya. But the Rishi did not remember him. “There is an owl who is older than me,” said the sage, “Go to him.” Indradyumna did as advised. He found the owl and asked him, “Do you remember King Indradyumna?” and the owl said, “No, I do not remember such a king but ask the stork who is older than me.” Even the stork did not remember. “But I know someone who is much older than me, who may know of King Indradyumna,” said the stork, “He is an old tortoise who lives in a lake.”

Indradyumna went to the tortoise and to Indradyumna’s great relief, he did remember a king called Indradyumna. “He built this lake,” said the tortoise.

“But I never built this lake,” said Indradyumna, rather bewildered by this piece of information. “This lake did not even exist when I was king.”

The tortoise explained, “My grandfather never lied. He told me that this king spent his entire life giving cows in charity, hundreds of thousands of cows” Indradyumna recollected that he had. He had been told that gifting cows assures one a place in heaven. Yes, it had, but only temporarily. Now, where were his cows? Where were the people who he gave the cows to? The tortoise continued, “As these cows left Indradyumna’s city, they kicked up so much dust it created a depression in the ground; when the rains came water collected in this depression and turned it into a lake. Now that lake provides sustenance to innumerable plants and animals and worms and weeds and fishes and turtles and birds. So we remember the great King Indradyumna, whose act of charity resulted in a lake which for generations has been our home.”

Indradyumna was pleased to hear what the tortoise had to say. So were the gods who welcomed him back. As Indradyumna rose to heaven, the irony did not escape him: he was remembered on earth for a lake that was unconsciously created, and not for the cows that were consciously given. He benefited not from things he did, but from the impact of things he did.