Right to the first passage

Indian Mythology 11 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, April 08, 2012


A learned sage called Shakti-muni was in the middle of a very narrow bridge when he saw  a powerful king approaching from the other side. “Please turn around,” said Shakti-muni, “So that I may pass.”

“No, you turn around,” thundered the king, “So that I may pass.”

“But I stepped on the bridge first.”

“Yes, but I can push you back.”

“That’s not fair. Know that I am a teacher, a priest and the most respected philosopher in the land. Hence, I must be given the first right of passage.” Argued the sage

The king sneered, “I built the school you teach. I pay for the rituals you perform. Without me as patron, you would not be able to indulge in philosophy. So you must give me the first right of passage.”

So the arguments continued, each one refusing to give way to the other, each one justifying why the other should turn back. Finally, the king raised his whip and struck the sage. Furious, the sage cursed the king, “You have behaved like a demon, so may you turn into one.” Instantly, the king turned into a demon – a man-eating demon. He pounced on the sage, opened his mouth wide and ate him whole.

This story of  two men stuck in the middle of the bridge, neither letting the other pass, is a recurring theme in mythology. What mattered more – crossing the bridge or crossing the bridge first?

Clearly the latter, for the sage. That is why, instead of simply turning back to make way for the bully king, he demanded first right of passage. The demand turned to insistence on moral, ethical and legal grounds. But what happened finally? The sage did not win the argument; he did not even get to cross the bridge; in the end, no thanks to his rage, he was himself reduced to cannibal-fodder.

We often fall into the trap of ‘wanting to be right’. Righteous indignation is a self-indulgent path, one that often distracts us from our destination.

Sometimes in our obsession to be right, we lose sight of the goal and lose the game. What would have happened if he had allowed the king to pass? He would have been on the other side, alive, albeit a little late and with a dented ego. Would that have been so terrible? Though learned, the sage was not wise enough to realize, in the long run, being right does not matter; getting on with the job does.

That the other person is described on the bridge as  a king is significant. The king simply assumes he has the right to first passage because he is king. His sense of entitlement comes from his status in social hierarchy. The sage’s sense of entitlement comes from the fact that he stepped on the bridge first. Both parties have a different measuring scale based on which they make demands and reach decisions. Both measuring scales are human constructions, artificial, not natural. There is no objective answer to this riddle: who should get right of first passage?

But it is considered noble, when we make way for the other, whether the other is powerful or not. Both the sage and the king in this story , failed to be noble.

  • Being Noble is a good thing, but in modern materialistic times, the mind would ask what do i get if I am being Noble ? Perhaps one should also listen to his heart and be content with a good deed.

  • shah

    Whenever there is a fight, no one wins. 
    Even the king in this instance looses – he is no longer a king but a cannibal and hence pushed out of civilized society.

    Stepping outside-the-box and finding a work-around to satisfy both sides would be the ideal thing to do. 

    In this instance, the sage could have stepped aside to show his virtue of “dhairya – patince” or he could have  walked on water / flown etc to show the king that he had the msytic powers but chose not to waste them on such a simple task as “crossing a bridge”.
    The king could have stepped aside to show his virtue of “vinay – respect” for the learned people of his kingdom or he could have had a bridge created of elephants (he must have had plenty in his retinue) to show he can create a new bridge if he should so choose. 

    Either way – there are no winners in a war – except KALA – death. 

  • Vjameta

    Anna Hazare and team should read this

  • Vikram1788

    This is an interesting article it tells us that nobility is a virtue but here both wise men failed to their stature as ego corrupted their thought process. It could easily be linked to ROAD  RAGE  we experience day in day out.By letting other pass through the bridge  they would have set a good example and but unfortunately both lost their life on a petty issue.

  • Vinayak Iyer

    The bottom-line is shred your ego. Nothing is as destructive as your own ego. Amazing article Devdutt!

    • devduttp

      Ego is a strange thing…without it we would not walk, let alone cross a bridge.

  • lovemythology

    I love your work sir you are simply the best for me you are a guru a guide

  • 301rprasad

    w e shoud not deviat from our aim whatever may be the way to achieve,

    • devduttp

      Who said so? Destinations are delusions we create to cope with our fears.

  • Santhanamukundan

    nice Tale for Indian politicians sir. Nowadays some politicians are doing silly stuff like the king and sage sir. They are standing on our back and we holding them (for a long time for their useless arguments) by voting sir. Nice job sir

  • shikhee

    This is what happens with most of us both at home and at work….ego, feeling of being let down.Ideally both of them should have taken a step back to mellow down each others ego, smiled and let the one cross the bridge whoever wished first….