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'Hitopadesa' for Our Times

Three crucial morals for the times we live in.

A most mighty yagna was performed, in which cause a thousand forests were cleared and the timber felled from them set ablaze in order that Mother Nature might be propitiated and requited for her bounteous gifts to the land.

And in a great sacrificial gesture, under the benign gaze of a million ornamented sacred cows, even as the wind carried in all four directions the mingled scent of their bovine alimentary produce and the sandalwood paste they had been smeared with, the king fed a few thousand slaves of the lowest order to the flames, that a citizenry still unaccustomed to the refinements of the higher realisation might learn the virtue of venerating sacred beasts in favour of inferior humans.

And the king, in the presence of the great assembly, touched his feet and paid obeisance to the foremost of all the revered seers and teachers who from the beginning of time had fasted and penanced to achieve enlightenment, that they might impart their knowledge and wisdom to their rulers, and so guide them in the conduct of the affairs of their kingdom and their subjects.

And this foremost, this unequalled, this nonpareil was, of course, the most venerable sage and scholar Tantrabuddhisarman, who had reared and instructed the king from early childhood under his careful tutelage, educating him in the finer aspects of the moral and political sciences, and the principles of ethical statecraft and a king’s sacred obligation to the king’s subjects, in a manner that was best suited to the task of piercing the thick encasement that protected the precious if elusive grey matter of the Royal Brain, to wit, through the medium of fables about donkeys and elephants and the like, which could be relied upon to appeal to His Radiant Majesty’s simple mind.

And so it was that, at the conclusion of the mighty yagna, the revered sage Tantrabuddhisarman, in the presence of the great assembly, delivered himself of speech and addressed his king and disciple, even thus, and in these words:

‘O King! Thou hast come a long way in the last five years of Thy reign, but that was just the groundwork for the cataclysmic changes that Thou art about to embark upon in Thy quest for leaving behind Thy indelibly immortal Footprint upon the palm leaves that will chronicle, for all the ages to come, the history of Thy Kingdom. So pay heed, O King, to thy old Teacher, that Thou mayest learn how work well begun may be well completed. Listen to these stories, and learn their simple truths, that Thou mayest implement them as Policies of the Realm, with the help of Thy trusted lieutenants and obedient law courts and obliging screed-writers.’

And Tantrabuddhisarman told many tales and fables, of which just three are re-told below, as examples of how well the king learnt from his most cherished and esteemed mentor.

The first story

Once, on the banks of the river Drishavati, there lived a deer called Mriganayani, whose best friend was a crocodile called Magarmachchhini. This was a bit strange, because as we all know, crocodiles tend to eat rather than chat with deer. However, Mriganayani and Magarmachchhini were exceptions to this rule. Being of a somewhat intellectual bent of mind, they loved to talk to each other about freedom and democracy and other such tiresome things.

It turned out that Mriganayani was a much quicker learner than Magarmachchhini, as we shall shortly see. When the edict on the Right to Information was repealed by the forest king, Magarmachchhini became very agitated. When Mriganayani came by to the river for a drink of water, Magarmachchhini waded up to her and asked her if she did not think it was a shame that the Right to Information had been repealed.

Mriganayani disagreed. She said that it was best that there were certain things one did not know about, such as that one was going to be imminently eaten by one’s best friend. So saying, and darting a quick look to right and left, she opened her mouth and ate up Magarmachchhini.

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This story upholds the moral that insisting that you have a right to know can be injurious to your health. Just then, Mriganayani saw another friend of hers, Hissavardhini the Snake, to whom she told..

The second story

Once, on the banks of the river Lauhitya, there lived a fox called Nirmala-nyaya, so named for the supposed purity of his logic and reasoning. Nirmala-nyaya was the forest king’s finance minister. He was a very versatile minister who had done many things for the forest economy. He had demoned it, gsted it, busted it, disemployed the forest creatures, promised to double their produce and halved it, appropriated the forest reserves from the forest bank, and found a naturopathic remedy for of all of this by concocting the data in a heady brew of hallucinogenic herbs.

Bheevananda the beaver was a friend of Nirmala-nyaya’s who discovered that his hard work was being less and less rewarded over time, while the wealth of Ālasi, the rich alligator, kept increasing over time.

When upon a certain day Bheevananda chanced upon Nirmala-nyaya, he asked the latter what he proposed to do to revive the economy, apart from concocting the data. Nirmala-nyaya said the economy needed a stimulus, so he proposed to reduce the taxes he had earlier announced on the wealth of Ālasi and various other rich animals.

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Bheevananda questioned the purity of Nirmala-nyaya’s logic. (This happened because Bheevananda had an unhealthy admiration for the writings of the worldly philosopher Jāna-menāda.) He pointed out that repressing the wages of the poor creatures and offering tax concessions to the rich creatures in an environment of inadequate effective demand was going to do nothing to revive the economy. Apart from which, was this fair and equitable?

Nirmala-nyaya said that such criticisms were outlandish. So saying, he opened his mouth and ate up the beaver, upholding the moral that a beaver should be a beaver and not an ass. Just then, Nirmala-nyaya saw another friend of his, to whom he related..

The third story

Once, on the banks of the river Vetravati, there lived a clever little fly called Makhiavalli who had learnt that the best of all possible ideas anyone could have was to be on the side of the powerful. So, when the Three Hundred and Seventieth Edict of the Laws of the Land was abrogated by the king, Makhiavalli, who had been appointed as the Defender of the Freedom of the Palm-leaf Screed-writers of the Forest Kingdom, merely hid her lips behind her hairy front legs and smiled.

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When the king forbade all palm-leaf screed-writers from reporting on events following on the revocation of the Three Hundred and Seventieth Edict, Makhiavalli applauded the decision whereas one mentally deficient screed-writer – Pandu-ranga-natha-nanda, the panda – protested, and moved the Highest Court of the Kingdom against the revocation.

The king’s counsel, Vakra-svabhāva-maitreyan, the monkey, argued that it was not the Three Hundred and Seventieth Edict, it was only the provisions of the Three Hundred and Seventieth Edict that had been revoked. On hearing this, the judge of the highest court, Nyaya-dhisha-murthy, the owl, woke up from his slumber and winked at Vakra-svabhāva-maitreyan, who then nudged Makhiavalli, whereupon Makhiavalli opened her mouth and ate up Pandu the panda, the moral of the story being that whereof one may wink and nudge, thereof one may not speak, thus proving that it is wiser to be a live crook than a dead idealist.

S. Subramanian is an economist who lives and works in Chennai.