Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday on 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.