We need to tell the right story to keep a check on the animal in us

We need to tell the right story to keep a check on the animal in us

The recent incident of a poor man being lynched to death in Kerala for stealing `200 worth of provision, including a kilogram of rice, shook the conscience of the country.

The recent incident of a poor man being lynched to death in Kerala for stealing `200 worth of provision, including a kilogram of rice, shook the conscience of the country. That it happened in a relatively advanced society like Kerala was more appalling to many. However, this was waiting to happen. A society that had hunted down stray dogs mercilessly was not going to stop with just street dogs.

In Mahabharata, Shanti Parva: book 12, chapter 39, slokas 22 to 49, a story is told which is not often said in modern renditions. A fearless Brahmin comes to the court of Yudhishtira who is about to ascend the throne after his victory in the great war. Carvaka is a friend of the slain king, Duryodhana. The outspoken Brahmin, an atheist, was considered a rakshasa by many. Carvaka addresses Yudhishtira and says, “Shame on you wicked king. What have you gained by slaying your kinsmen and preceptors through unfair means? You should be ashamed and should throw away your life.” Hearing this, Yudhishtira is mortified and becomes speechless. People in the durbar cheer Carvaka’s outspokenness. However, other Brahmins rise and say, “Do not worry king. Carvaka is a rakshasa and a friend of Duryodhana. Let this anxiety of thine be dispelled. Let prosperity attend on thee with thy brothers.” Saying this, the Brahmins who were supporters of Yudhishtira slew Carvaka then and there at the sabha and burned him.

Yudhishtira, the righteous ruler, is conspicuous by his silent condonation of this gruesome act. In oral renditions of Mahabharata, this event is not told for a good reason.Our belief in India being a tolerant country is built on by such selective omission in our narratives. All civilisations are built on violence. India is no exception. Many people think that the advent of Buddhism and Jainism gave a peaceful attitude to India.

However, even Buddhism was no stranger in perpetuating mob violence. The Buddhist story of Ashokavadana mentions an event that is disturbingly modern. This Sanskrit hagiography of Emperor Ashoka tells the tale of a man from what forms the modern Bengal, drawing a picture of Buddha bowing down to Mahavira. The enraged Buddhists complain to Ashoka who orders the arrest of the man.

But soon another man draws a similar picture and a mob of Buddhists attack the Jain and burn him alive along with his family. Ashoka condones the act. Later, Ashoka remained a mute spectator or actively supported the mass killing of 12,000 Ajivika followers. The Buddhist text says Ashoka, who is now celebrated as the epitome of peace, had offered a gold coin per severed head of any Jain.  A shepherd group killed Vitashoka, the brother of Emperor Ashoka, thinking he is a follower of Mahavira. They brought the severed head to the Emperor’s court and demanded their reward. It was only after this that Ashoka became strict against such mob justice and withdrew his order.

Medieval era was peppered with Shaivite and Vaishnavite rivalry. However, the inclusive narratives of Puranas that even swallowed Buddhism by making Buddha the ninth avatar of Vishnu helped in curbing the tendency for violence. If we read the Puranas, we see that there is a conscious attempt to fuse together various sects.

The Ayyappa’s story, which is not a part of any of the 18 Puranas but quite popular in Southern India, tries to assimilate the difference between Vaishnavism and Shaivism by making Ayyappa the son of Shiva and Vishnu in his woman avatar of Mohini. The legend even fuses together Islam by making the closest friend of Ayyappa, a Muslim named Vavar.  Similar attempts can be seen in the Ramayana versions in non-Sanskrit languages. Shiva and Rama pray to each other in most versions. It shows the power of narrative.

Indian movement of independence is an example of building a successful narrative. Gandhi propagated the idea of a peaceful nation seeking a non-violent method. He was aware of the fragile nature of this narrative. When the mob set fire to the police station in Chauri Chaura and killed 23 policemen, he withdrew the non-co-operative movement. His foresight in keeping the mob away from violence made Indian freedom struggle one of the most peaceful ones in world history.

However, when the narrative was changed to hate from love, by fear mongers among Muslims and Hindus, the most gruesome civil war and mob violence in history occurred.Man is a social animal. For a greater part of evolution, he has been a hunter-gatherer. Like wolves, men hunt in packs. Even domesticated dogs turn feral when they are in packs. Mob thinks differently. When a mob is formed, it has the instinct of a hunting pack. That is why hate crimes are uncontrollable once unleashed.

Hate mongering frees the beast in the man. Like the hunting pack of wolves attacking the weakest deer in the herd, the mob hunts down the weakest members of society. Ashoka paid the price of unleashing the mob. His eyes opened only when his own brother fell a victim to the beast he had fed. Learning from the tragedy of Partition and the mindless mob violence of civil war that followed, our founding fathers had chosen the path of an inclusive India. There is no country that has so much diversity like ours. If we do not tell the right story to ourselves, we may end up unleashing the pack of wolves that would devour us all. 

Author, columnist, speaker

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