“Do the right thing!” we say. But then, how can we tell what is the ‘right’ thing to do? An action choice can be viewed from many different angles. It may seem ‘right’ to some and ‘not right’ to others. The same act can also be viewed differently in different situations.
Srimad Bhagavatam, the incredible book of life, gives clear insight into this seeming conundrum.
Here’s a classic example. To be moved by a dying deer and its helpless new-born fawn is indeed compassion, isn’t it? How can taking loving care of a motherless baby deer be considered a folly? Yet, the same scriptures that preach ahimsa and compassion and love towards all beings, show the dire consequences an ascetic faced, for saving a baby deer and giving it a warm, loving home.
We all know the story of King Bharata that is spoken of in the fifth canto of Srimad Bhagavatam. Bharata was a great, righteous king. After many years of fulfilling his duties towards his kingdom and subjects, Bharata renounced his throne, his family, his kingdom, his life of kingly comforts and riches, to pursue the ultimate goal of life – of realizing the Truth. Taking up the ascetic life of a renunciate in a forest, he dedicated his entire life to attaining his spiritual goal. Soon, by divine grace and his own fervent efforts, he began to progress in his spiritual endeavors and began to experience the joy of communion with Divinity.
It was at that time, when he was nearing the height of spiritual attainment, that the ascetic Bharata did something that to a normal eye may appear to be a truly compassionate act and the absolute right thing to do; but which our scriptures and saints point out in unison was the greatest folly of his life – because he didn’t know where to ‘draw the line.’
An innocent, pregnant deer was grazing on the banks of the river by Bharata’s ashram. Suddenly, a lion’s roar rent the air. The terrified deer tried to jump across the river to escape its fear, but instead, gave birth to its fawn right there in the middle of the river and itself died in the process. Bharata who noticed these happenings saw the plight of the mother deer and its fawn. His heart, which had become filled with love for all living beings, melted with compassion and he rushed to save the deer. He could not save the mother but found the delicate, helpless fawn in his hands. He was moved. The baby had no one to protect it. It had no mother to feed it. Bharata felt a bond with the fawn and began to take care of it. The rest is history. It then took this ascetic, who was at the height of spiritual attainment, hundreds or possibly thousands of years, and two more births, to finally attain the purpose of his life.
One may wonder. How can it be wrong on Bharata’s part to take care of the helpless fawn? Why is this act of his considered a folly, when in another angle it could be considered the perfectly right thing to do?
This is where Srimad Bhagavatam beautifully shows us – the aptness of an action is not absolute. It is relative to the ultimate purpose of the person who is considering that action. In Bharata’s case, his ultimate purpose was to attain Bhagavan. It was for that purpose that he had taken the huge step of renouncing his kingship, his family, and all material comforts. Protecting a fawn from death and possible harm is indeed mandated to one and all. But Bharata could have taken care of it for a couple of days and let it join a herd. Instead, when he began to spend time and energy in taking care of his pet deer and became immensely attached to it, then this decision became detrimental to his goal. And hence his actions are considered a folly.
Perhaps if Bharata had remained a king, leading a life where he aimed to take care of the needs of every one of his subjects, then his love for a deer in his kingdom may have been hailed and might even have enabled him in his path of dharma. But that was not the case.
So what Srimad Bhagavatam says is that actions can be similar, but whether it is the ‘right’ course for us, depends on being crystal clear on our personal purpose.
Srimad Bhagavatam actually shows us this value of purpose at its very outset. In the first chapter of the second canto itself, when King Parikshith asks Sri Shuka what one should, in general, do or listen to, Sri Shuka beautifully says that there are thousands of things that one can do or listen to in this world. But the action one finally chooses to do needs to depend on what his or her purpose is. He says that if the purpose is the Realization of the Truth, then one must listen constantly to the glories of Bhagavan.
Hence it is Purpose that determines the rightness of an action. Of course, this purpose also needs to be aligned to the universal law (dharma) as defined by our wise seers (rishis) and scriptures (shastras) for being in a true state of happiness.
Based on the talks of Sri Ramanujamji, disciple of Sri Swamiji
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