It has always been my desire to read at least a concise version of the Indian epics. This desire was slowly kindled by the stories that sometimes my friends related to me.
Most recently, I was reading The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and the references to Karna and the accompanying imagery she conjured with her expressive words made me extremely curious of the full story. I like stories which deal with moral and ethical dilemmas and which contain subtle hints of a particular philosophy of life. Also, the stories themselves offer a glimpse into the mindset of a certain era and helps you understand better people who are raised surrounded by these stories and myths. Myths and stories have a very subtle way of influencing thought and morality and I think understanding them is crucial to understanding some aspects of a culture.
I just read this story about the King Harischandra. He is often touted as the golden standard that a man should aspire to and is an example of virtue and uncompromising morals. He was once confronted by the great sage Vishwamitra who told him that the he had made a promise once (in the sage’s dreams or in some forest sometime) that he would hand over his entire kingdom and belongings to the sage. Vishwamitra had come to redeem the promise. Harischandra, being the sort of guy who never breaks promises kept his word and handed over the whole kingdom and his belongings to the sage. He then set out with his wife and child. But, before leaving the sage told him that he needed a dakshina as well. Harischandra, thus, being the very epitome of goodness, sold his wife and child and himself into slavery and used the money to give dakshina to the sage. The rest of the story is a tale of their hardships and of course, how in the end, the Gods reward his goodness.
I had a few problems with the story. They were with the part where he sells his wife and child into slavery for the sake of his virtue. There are mainly 3 problems I see with this part. First, who should be paying the price for his idea of righteousness? Shouldn’t he have figured out some way of pacifying the sage that did not involve his wife and child? I mean it was he who made the decision to not even think of refusing to satisfy the sage’s whims.
Secondly, the way in which the woman meekly agreed to be sold along with her child for the sake of her husband’s idea of fairness deeply disturbed me. If I were in her position, I would have told the king, ” Listen Mr., if you want to really please that guy, that is perfectly alright. But, I don’t belong to anyone and it is not up to you to sell me and look good at my expense. I am going to take my child with me, go now, find someone with a less screwed up moral compass and live with him.”
This notion that the suffering of a woman is inferior to the righteousness of a man is pretty idiotic. Say, my wife went to a beauty parlor and made some stupid bet about whether one brand of henna is better than another with a crazy nun there and agreed to give everything away if she lost. What if she finally loses the bet? How will it look when she comes home and tells me, ” Dude, I am really sorry, but I just lost us everything. But, it is okay, I have safe guarded my honor and virtue. Oh, and btw, I also sold you and our child into slavery. I also sold myself into bonded labor, just so that you won’t think that I am unfair or anything, you know! I knew you wouldn’t mind!”.
Somehow, despite this story being very similar to the one in the myths, I have a feeling that my imaginary wife won’t be considered a model of virtue. But, that won’t be her fault. It is simply because our society has grown up listening to stories like this which have a divine aura about them. They belong to a bygone era and espouse a set of morals which are somewhat biased and out-dated..
Also, it is rather obvious that the story tries to sow the insidious seeds of irrational reverence of sages and priests and an idea that the ideal man should be completely subject to their whims and fancies. It would be very understandable if this story was actually written by a sage or a priest.
This story does raise some interesting questions about boundaries and commitment in a marriage. I guess it is perfectly okay that one spouse might want to cover for the other. But the credit for that should go to the spouse going to the unnecessary trouble for the other’s sake. It should not be something that should be taken for granted. Here, somehow, Harischandra is the guy who gets all the credit despite the greatest hardship being born by his wife and child. Their suffering magnified by the fact that they are doing it for someone else’s sake!
I think our stories and myths need to either be enjoyed purely for it’s literary value or should evolve with the times to reflect our changing sensibilities.
The following paragraph is the result of a long debate that I had with a commentator:
This story is meant to demonstrate the value of dharma and satya. Harischandra was a king, a husband and a father. He had several rules to follow and commitments to keep. To satisfy the sage’s whim he decided to violate his dharma as a husband and as a father. If the story was intended to demonstrate the value of rule-based ethics, then I don’t think it has been very successful at it. It is possible that the story was okay. But, maybe the rules in those times placed greater value on the desires of sages and Gods than on promises and commitments made to one’s family. In that case there is something wrong with the rules themselves. In either case, we need to be wary of imbibing morals from them and seeing them in a spiritual light. It is also likely that there is the less than holy intention of reinforcing the hierarchy of the varnas and encouraging uncritical acceptance of the divine behind it. In my opinion, these are not healthy tendencies.
Also, to see them as a factual record of history and/or as a divinely inspired story does little justice to the imagination and literary prowess of the people who actually wrote it. It is an amazing work and all the triumphs and failings of the human spirit are reflected in stories like these. I think that instead of teaching us absolute truths, they should make us think, reflect and question.
P.S. I was a little hasty with the first draft of this article. There are several versions of the story and I had mentioned unnecessary details of it. This prevented me from being clear about what I really found troubling about the story. Also, I think I was a little harsh then. So, I edited out some sections of the post.
- Brief Biographies of Main Characters of Mahabharata (srilaprabhupadavaniseva.wordpress.com)
- Kalyana Rama (sujamusic.wordpress.com)