Truth in times of distress

Truth in times of distress

Wandering in the forest during a severe drought, sage Vishwamitra was starving. He saw the hind quarter of a dog hanging in a hut. He approached the owner of the hut and begged for food, pointing to the meat that was strung up. The simple forest dweller was horrified. What the sage wanted would defile not just the sage, but also him. Dharma does not allow a sage to eat dog meat nor does it allow the owner of a forest hut to be party to such a sinful deed. Vishwamitra convinced the man otherwise, ate the dog meat, and survived the drought. Did he, in order to save himself, compromise his Dharma and lose all the merit he had accumulated by his austerity?

The sage Kaushika, in contrast, would not deviate from his Dharma of speaking the truth. When a group of murderers asked him which direction their potential victim had gone, he told them the truth, leading them to an innocent victim who they killed. Under the circumstances did the sage do the ‘Right’ thing?
Bheeshma, lying on the bed of arrows, used both these parables to instruct a distraught Yudhishthira.

The battle of Kurukshetra had been won by the Pandavas, but Yudhishthira was burning with grief and shame. Grief for the havoc and destruction caused, and shame for the lies used in the war.

Bheeshma said Dharma and truth are not always fixed. Vishwamitra eating dog meat was less of a sin than Kaushika’s narrow interpretation of the truth. Bheeshma told a bewildered Yudhishthira that in times of acute distress and even dilemma the rule book was not the thing to turn to. In a severe drought, the Dharma is to survive. Vishwamitra’s lapse could be expiated by a rite of purification. Kaushika’s lapse was the hypocrisy of the learned, and more difficult to redeem. When an innocent life is at stake, truth may not be a virtue.

Ultimately, if dharma is all about doing the ‘Right’, it is only after considered discrimination between truth and falsehood that one becomes a knower of ‘Right’.

 This discrimination involves distinguishing between appearance and reality. What is ‘Right’ in these cases, said the grandsire, is difficult to specify.

 It has to be arrived at by discernment and reason.

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