As a child, I remember reading stories of the adventures of the great king Vikramaditya. There are 32 spellbinding tales of the magnanimity, courage, wisdom, humility, and greatness of Vikramaditya. These stories are narrated by the 32 statuettes that are a part of the carving in the king's famed throne. After many years of Vikramaditya's death, King Bhoja finds this throne and wishes to sit on it. One by one, the statuettes recount the adventures of Vikramaditya and tell Bhoja that only if he is as worthy can he ascend the throne. The 32nd story is one that I particularly loved when I was young:
A skilled sculptor makes a beautiful but malevolent statue, which was the very embodiment of misfortune. After he completed sculpting it, he tried to sell it, but in vain. Nobody would buy the statue of misfortune from him. Finally, after many failed attempts at selling the statue, he reaches the palace and tells his tale of woe to king Vikramaditya. The king listens to it and immediately decides to purchase the statue. The generous king even pays a handsome price for it. Then he has it installed in his private bedroom.
The same night, as he is about to retire to bed, he sees the image of a beautiful woman emerging from his body. When he asks her who she is, she replies, "I am Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. I have always filled your royal treasury but now that you have the statue of misfortune, I am forsaking you." The king lets her go. Then a powerful being emerges from his arms and suddenly, the king feels weak. The king asks him who he is. "I am Hanuman, the god of strength. I have resided in your arms from the time you began your martial training and it is because of me that you could wield your gigantic sword. But now that you have the statue of misfortune, I am forsaking you." The king lets him go too. A beautiful woman emerges from his head. The king asks her who she is. "I am Sarasvati, the goddess of wisdom. I have lived in your mind from the time you began thinking but now that you have the statue of misfortune, I am forsaking you." The king smiles and lets her go as well.
Then a brilliant being emerges from the king's heart. The king asks him who he is and he replies, "I am Courage. Ever since your heart began beating, I have pervaded it but now that you have the statue of misfortune, I am forsaking you. Goodbye Vikrama!" In an instant Vikramaditya lunges forward and holds Courage in a tight embrace. He says, "When wealth, strength, and wisdom abandoned me, I said nothing but I cannot let you go. Without you, I might as well be dead. Courage, I will not let you go! You shall always be with me!" Courage tried his best to escape the clutches of Vikrama but the king simply wouldn't budge. Finally he had to yield and return to Vikrama's beating heart. Wisdom, Strength, and Wealth soon followed. And thus even the gods had to yield to the great king - because he never let go of his courage.
I love this story because it gives such a visual image of gods and goddesses who, in essence, are representing certain qualities in human beings. The strength of Hinduism itself has been in conjuring up such formidable images to help explain abstract ideas. Therefore, the traits that are desirable are seen as friends while those that are avoidable are seen as enemies.
One of the fundamentals of Hindu thought is the conquering of the six primal enemies (ari-shad-varga) by every individual. If we truly want to attain the highest level, we have to defeat six enemies: lust (kaama), anger (krodha), greed (lobha), infatuation (moha), arrogance (mada), and envy (maatsarya). When we look at these as enemies, it becomes somewhat easy to stay away. Further, when we see someone under the influence of one of these traits, we empathise with them because they are lost souls, constantly being defeated by their enemies. We cease to look at them as bad guys. On the other hand, when we see people without such traits, we respect them, for they are truly conquerors and victors.
Similarly, when we consider good qualities as our friends, it doesn't become a burden to adhere to those traits. Whenever we set out to achieve something, we feel the full force of our gang of friends with us. On the flipside, there is a less chance of falling prey to the attitude of "holier-than-thou" because we know that even our best friends can forsake us. This leads to a natural humility. Tulasidas says in one of his well-known couplets -
tulasi saathi vipatti ke, vidya vinaya viveka |
saahasa sukrta susatyavrata, rama bharose eka ||
(Tulasi! In times of trouble, our friends are wisdom, gentleness, sagacity, courage, good deeds, integrity, and devotion to god.)
This brilliant observation of Tulasidas gives a new perspective to the treatment of good and bad traits as friends and foes. In times of trouble - real, visceral trouble, when we don't have time to phone a friend or cry for help - who comes to our aid? It is our own resourcefulness and courage. And if we are to succumb, who would be to blame? At least in part, it would be our own stupidity and cowardice. After all, isn't it in times of great adversity that our true self emerges, without the masks and affectations of social behaviour? This is possibly why Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita (6.5) -
naatmaanam avasaadayet |
aatmaiva hyaatmano bandhuh
aatmaiva ripuraatmanah ||
(We should advance by our own efforts. We should not degrade ourselves. The self alone is our friend. The self alone is our enemy.)
So the next time you are faced with a situation, look for your friends within!