30 June 2020

Error cuts heroes down, humility resurrects

‘He who acquired the undisturbed sovereignty of the three worlds by dint of sacrifice, austere fervor, sacred study, self-restraint, and valor, was nevertheless ruined for want of virtuous humility.’ Thus is Nahusa, the king of the Aila Dynasty in Hindu Mythology described in Manusmruti, the ancient legal text among the many Dharmaśāstras.

The power acquired made him arrogant and abusive. He was duly punished. He fell from the heavens and when he descended he was not even a lesser man but a serpent.

History and legend are fully of heroes and the heroic. Few among them have charmed lives. They rise, much like Nahusa, through hard work, sacrifice, determination and virtuous conduct but success does not necessarily guarantee immortality of one kind of another. Frailty after all is the constant shadow of the human being.

This is why epic literature is full of tragic heroes. This is why those who are cheered are later jeered. This is why the adoring multitude turn their backs, look for other heroes and also vilify the fallen.

Mind you, it’s not on account of performance, in the case of sports for example. No one stays at the peak forever. Fans know that even those who retire when at their peak cannot deliver deliver the spectacular over and over again. It is always on account of some other flaw such as envy, greed, ill-temperedness or even resorting to underhand tactics that bring heroes down. 

The particular sport can be brought into disrepute in many ways. For instance despicable on-field gamesmanship or off-field violation of basic discipline. Such things are not necessarily illegal but they nevertheless dent the spirit of the game, especially if the perpetrator has acquired god-like status in the eyes of peers and fans.

However, the ‘transgression’ doesn’t have to be related to the sport either. Any transgression outside ‘the game’ can result in ‘gods’ being taken off pedestals. It’s a price the famous have to pay. Simply, they are more visible than others and therefore are subject to greater scrutiny. Moreover, the public are less likely to forgive them — gods that fail disappoint because people feel they’ve worshipped in vain, that their adoration was misplaced, that indeed they had been taken for a ride.

None of it erases the track record of course. The names and the achievements will remain in the relevant books. The posters, however, will come down.

It seems unfair that certain individuals are held to higher standards than their fellow creatures, but that’s part of the story. Adulation, whether desired or not, is showered on ‘the greats.’ It follows them wherever they go. Not their fault. Even the most humble heroes can’t dodge the spotlight. And so, if and when they err and the public turns off the light, they can’t be seen any longer. They become not lesser deities but lesser mortals as well. This is partly because when gods fall from grace, the mortals feel more divine. ‘They are no different from any of us,’ they can then tell themselves. The finger-pointers are not saints, but when the moral high ground ceases to exist, everyone ends up in Ordinary Street — those who used to be godlike and those who could never aspire to such heights.

The two key words in the Nahusa story in the Manusmruti are virtue and humility. Those who have cultivated self-restraint and are inclined to reflect on the eternal verities are less likely to fall. And those who fall, if they are humble enough to acknowledge error, can rise again. They can stand up and walk among people, no less and no more taller but with respect restored. Among those who err, the arrogant are the least likely to have any degree of respect resurrected.

It is worthwhile noting, in conclusion, that according to legend following a discourse with Prince Yudhishthira on the Dharma in the Dwapara Yuga, Nahusha finds redemption and returns to heaven.

Other articles in the series titled 'The Interception' [published in 'The Morning']
Paul Robeson didn't scream 'BLM' but he knew what mattered
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