Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

August 5, 2019

First published August 4, 2019

 in Mumbai Mirror

Dharma focuses on empathy, not justice

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Published on 4th August, 2019, in Mumbai Mirror

Once upon a time, there were two friends in a school. They were the best of friends and they promised to share everything with each other. After they graduated, one became rich and one remained poor. The poor friend went to the rich friend and asked for help. The way the friend behaved led to two endings.

In one retelling of this story, the poor friend reminds the rich friend of their childhood friendship and demands help, in the name of this friendship. The rich friend mocks his poor friend and says that there cannot be friendship between unequals, and so, the poor one cannot demand help, but he can beg for help and get alms. This makes the poor friend so angry that he decides to take revenge. The story results in the Mahabharata war. The poor friend being Dronacharya and the rich friend being Drupada.

A similar retelling with another ending is found in the Bhagavata. Here, when the poor friend enters the rich friend’s house, he comes bearing gifts. He starves himself for three days and saves the rice and gives it to his friend. Without being told, the rich friend realises the poverty of his childhood friend and, without being asked, gives him a lot of wealth. Here, the rich friend is Krishna and the poor friend is Sudama and it is the story of bhakti and love that we are always taught.

Clearly, these stories depict that if you don’t help poor people and humiliate them, there is war and crisis in society. If you help poor friends and poor people, there is happiness in society. But the story is not so simplistic. We are told that Sudama starved himself for three days and gives his three portions of rice to Krishna. This is all that Sudama has. Sudama is giving Krishna three fistfuls of rice: knowingly or unknowingly, this is his investment in a friend. Krishna reciprocates to the kindness, by also giving Sudama ‘all that he has’ in ‘three measures’. We can argue that Krishna has to repay the debt resulting from receiving a gift. Else he will be trapped in debt.

Krishna eats two fistfuls. However, just as he is about to eat the third fistful, his wife catches hold of his hand and says, “Leave some for us.” His wives tell him not to give three measures but two. In essence, he could give two in reciprocity, which more than makes up for his debt, but must keep one for himself. Thus, we see prudence being brought in this story of kindness.

Through such stories, Indians were taught about commerce, debt, exchange, reciprocity, empathy and return on investment. You give in order to get. You cannot get something without giving something. To demand something as your right, as in the case of Dronacharya, leads to rage and violence. Exchange and commerce is more egalitarian while demanding/granting rights has something feudal about it.

Social justice, and justice, is a western discourse: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, equal distribution of God’s gifts, are the mythic themes that influence western, and now global, politics. Dharma, however, focuses less on the idea of justice and more on the idea of empathy. The strong must help the meek. Everyone has the potential to feed another. Things have to be given voluntarily, without being prodded, rather than asked or demanded. Great kings give of their wealth freely. This is not charity – this is investment for the future. Because hungry people are angry people who will attack and destroy what we have. Those who are fed are happy people who will collaborate.

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