excerpt from: The Difficulty of Being Good: On The Subtle Art Of Dharma by Gurcharan Das


Early on, the epic had established the theme of ahimsa when it recounted the story of Prince Ruru, who was so furious when a snake bit and killed his bride-to-be, Pramadvara, just before their wedding, that he vowed to kill all snakes that came across his path. One day a non-poisonous snake-lizard crossed his path. As he was about to strike it, the lizard said, ahimsa paramo dharma,’ ‘non-violence is the highest dharma.’ More than two thousand years later, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi made his wife, Kasturba, copy out these three words of the lizard in an exercise book when she was learning the alphabet. The words, ahimsa paramo dharma became Gandhi’s rallying cry during India’s non-violent struggle for freedom from Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. The cry was heard around the world and was adopted by Martin Luther King during America’s civil rights movement.


Since Yudhishthira had wanted to renounce kingship for the life of a wandering hermit, Bhishma addresses this problem- he extols the virtue of ahimsa, both as a principle of social behaviour as well as an ascetic ideal. As a part of the instruction of the future dharmic king, Yudhishthira is told a remarkable story. A brahmin named Jajali acquires enormous powers by performing fearsome penance in the forest. He boasts, ‘There is none like me in this world … who can travel through the air.’ Jajali is told about a trader of spices in Varanasi, Tuladhara, who is indeed superior to him and who can teach him something about dharma. Hearing this, Jajali goes to Varanasi and finds Tuladhara. He observes that the shopkeeper’s merchandise consists of spices and juices, which he weighs and measures with equanimity. Tuladhara treats all his customers alike and works diligently without a concern for blame and praise, without allowing his ego to come in the way of his work.


Jajali is intrigued by Tuladhara and he asks the merchant about his views on dharma. Tuladhara says that ‘everyone is confused about dharma.’ Right dharma is not just a code of conduct; it is an attitude. He offers the analogy of a twig that moves randomly in a stream:


As … a piece of wood is borne along in a stream, and may randomly join up with some other pieces of wood, [and as] other logs join with them from here and there, with straw, wood and refuse, from time to time, senselessly, so it is with behaviour … as it arises from one source or another.


O Jajali, in this world there is no dharma, however subtle, [which is] unmotivated: human formulations of dharma are made with past and future interests in mind. Because of its subtleness, the deeply obscured [true dharma] cannot be identified; only through grasping other [kinds of] conduct [can] it be conceived. For [this] reason one should seek [true] dharma, not follow the ways of the world.


If one man were to injure me and another praise me – listen, O Jajali, in such circumstances [my reaction would be equal].


There is an ironic twist here – a petty trader is teaching a high caste Brahmin how to live. The worldly merchant, who presumably ought to covet wealth, is being held up as a model of detachment for a forest – dwelling ascetic. Jajali is told to observe Tuladhara’s attitude of disinterested equanimity. Tuladhara is happy to go with the flow like a twig in the river that moves randomly with the current and joins up with flotsam. In the same manner, Yudhishthira is taught that a good king ought to dispense justice with detachment for the good of his people, unlike the usual ego-filled conquerors who want to stamp their mark on history through violence and conquest. It is similar to the message of detached action that Krishna gave to Arjuna on the battlefield – if one acts for the sake of the action and not for the personal reward, then one is liberated from the bonds of karma.


What Yudhishthira learns from Tuladhara’s example is that the search for wealth and social standing is an impermanent pursuit. It is wiser to have the attitude of a randomly floating twig in the river. It is not necessary to renounce kingship and become a hermit like Jajali in order to be virtuous. One should live in the world with Tuladhara’s attitude. A person who is distrustful of worldly achievement is less likely to step on the toes of others. Such a person is on the way to acquire the virtue of ahimsa.


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