In an ancient tale, a message for today: Shebaba by Renuka Narayanan
The Tamil epic Manimekhalai upholds dharma as a way of life, free of present-day politics.
A powerfully worded passage from ancient Indian literature goes: “It is by love towards all beings, by pity towards those who suffer, by a feeling of joy at the success and happiness of others, that one acquires inner peace and rids oneself of anger.”
No, it’s not from the Big Three — the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Srimad Bhagvatam, which underpin most of Indian culture as we may know it, though these fine sentiments are found in those books too.
This worldview appears to drive the Constitution as well. So the resonances of the passage are very relevant today and ring with terrible poignancy in a time when so many of us seem out to rob, hurt or harm, by omission or commission, through thoughtlessness or through thoughts only of the self.
This moving passage occurs at the end of the thirtieth and last canto of the ancient Tamil epic Manimekhalai, written by the merchant-poet Shattan in the 2nd or 3rd century CE.
Manimekhalai reads like a movie script. It has it all — the human drama, the flying around, the foreign locations, special effects, goddesses, genies, ghouls and gadgets. It is also essentially propaganda for a creed that was relatively new to Tamil Nadu at the time but nonetheless one of ours: Buddhism.
The heroine, Manimekhalai, after many adventures — some horrific and some uplifting, much like so many life journeys — finally arrives at Kanchipuram, the foremost southern city in the old world. Here she is reunited with her mother, her friends and her well-wisher, the Buddhist monk Aravana Adigal. She throws herself at the monk’s feet and is initiated into the Buddhist dharma. She is reassured that she has only one more birth to endure and embarks on severe austerities and self-denial to attain moksha, liberation from the cycle of births.
Aravana Adigal — whose name means Dharmapurna Swami, ‘the teacher accomplished in dharma’ (here, the Mahayana school of Buddhism) — stands tall as the representative of the Buddha. He is revealed in his full epic eminence both as a guide through the plot and as the embodiment of the epic heroine’s goal.
He is the guru, the magnet that draws her away from the violent and destructive emotions that ravage all categories of beings outside the circle of enlightenment, from queens and kings to commoners and genies.
(In case you’re wondering, the six classes of beings, natural and supernatural, that populate the shared epic world of Hindus, Jains and Buddhists are humans; good spirits; gods; Brahmas or creative principles; Nagas or serpents / powerful genies; and evil spirits).
According to their merits, all souls are said to “be lodged at birth in the embryo of one or another of these six kinds of beings, and in due time, when their past deeds reach maturity, they gather the fruits and live for a time in suffering or delight”, goes a translation.
Manimekhalai is a strange, wonderful tale that reads like an antidote to the misery of daily news. It upholds dharma as a way of life, as do the Big Three books, but free of present-day politics.
It seems worthwhile to recall its beautiful message for our times.
The views expressed are personal