He was tired. It had been a long day. His entourage had stayed back as they sorely needed to rest. But the King kept on. He wanted to have at least one successful hunt to take back home. The forest was dense and humid. He slowly pushed his way through, bow and arrow poised on his shoulder ready to be mounted and fired within seconds. Those seconds were not too far away. He spotted a deer, a lone male. He was huge and inviting. The King followed silently looking for the right moment. Before he could find fire the arrow, the deer disappeared behind the bushes. Within minutes, from behind those bushes, he heard a gurgling sound. “The deer is drinking water”, he concluded. “It is a good thing I can aim the arrow using the sound”. The King mounted his bow, aimed at the source of the sound and released the arrow. He heard a thud sound, as he expected, a body falling to the ground. And then he heard something that he did not expect. A human voice crying out in pain. The King hastily made his way through the bushes to see a man, pierced by his arrow, lying down with a jug in his hand, the source of the gurgling sound as he was trying to fill water.
The King was aghast with sorrow and guilt. He cradled the man’s head in his arms, fed him some water and tried to revive him. Between painful sobs, the man revealed his name as Sravan, the son of blind parents whom he was taking on a pilgrimage. He had come to the pond to fetch water for his parents. He consoled the King. It was not his mistake, he said. It was an accident. However, he was concerned for his parents. He urged the King to take the water to his parents and lay dead.
The King filled up the jug with water and took it to his parents. The old man and his wife realised within a few minutes that it was not Sravan. When they heard what happened, they were enraged with grief and cursed the King. “You will die of separation one day just like us. Your son will leave you too and the grief will kill you.” Saying thus, the old couple took their lives not wishing live without their son.
The King returned with a heavy heart. A couple of decades later, as his four sons grew into handsome and capable young men, the King decided to crown his eldest son and retire from worldly life. He had, albeit temporarily, forgotten about the curse. But the curse was about to strike. He had given his second wife two boons a while ago that she could claim at any time. Jealous of her son losing the throne to the eldest, the wife decided to use the boons on that day and requested that the King should crown her son and send the eldest to the forest for fourteen years. The eldest son left for the forest to satisfy the boon and the King died of sorrow, unable to bear the thought of his beloved son spending time in the jungle.
The rest is the legend Ramayana.
Karma, you say?
Fast forward to current century.
My friend’s sister was driving my friend’s car. In a difficult blind turn, she turned a little wide and the motorcycle coming in the opposite direction dashed on the car. The rider fell down with the motorcycle hitting his leg and ended up with a broken ankle.
Like the good samaritan she is, my friend took the wheel, laid down the hurt motorcycle rider on the back seat and took him to the hospital and paid for the surgery and medical care.
The issue didn’t stop there. The motorcycle rider went on to press charges and went to court. The car insurance settled by paying damages. She had to appear in court as the car was registered in her name, something she would have very much liked to avoid. Until the case was closed, days were tense and spent worried.
Things happen at times where you become an instrument in the unfolding of events and suffer the consequences although you haven’t intentionally caused harm.
How does one come to terms with that? Life is unfair you might say. Or that Karma catches up. If not in this lifetime, in some other life.
Whatever be the reason, your presence and your unintended actions cause pain and hurt and you are left bewildered. Pangs of guilt flow through. Could you have done things differently, you wonder. It is a difficult problem to reconcile. You feel guilty and at the same time you are wishing well and did not really want things to end like that. Consequences are terrible sans the evil laughter and satisfaction on your end, like we see in the villains at the movies.
In a case of story unraveling a story, I found a resolution to this in another version of Sravana’s story.
Sravana’s tragic story is retold in Buddhism. He is hailed as one of the previous births of Buddha when he lived an example to filial piety (translation: devotion to parents). He was devoted to his blind parents and took care of all their needs. While he was taking them on a pilgrimage, they ran out of water. Seating them in a safe place, Sravana, called as Syama in this story, went looking for water. He found a pond and started filling water in jug. All of a sudden he was struck by an arrow. The King of Benares who was out hunting mistook him a for a deer drinking water.
The stories traverse the same path until this point.
The King takes water to Syama’s parents, tells them what happened and carries them to the pond so that they can say their final goodbyes to the dying son. Seeing the parents’ grief and in appreciation of Syama’s devotion, Gods place an elixir in Syama’s mouth restoring him back to life and providing sight to his blind parents.
No curse. No Karma. No heartaches.
This story is part of Jataka tales and is prominent in Buddhist scriptures. You can also find scenes from this story in Cave 10 and Cave 17 of Ajanta caves.
Legends and myths are not mere stories. They carry the imprint of the culture they were born in and traces on cultures they have traversed through.
Buddhism was born as a pacifist religion. In Vipassana and Shamata, there is no room for angst or despair. Instead it is about acceptance with an open mind.
I am going to risk sounding emotionally blase and spell it out – Unintended consequences do not have to come with guilt and personal suffering. If we can recognise being an instrument, karma could become muted. Even if it does catch up, it will be without the drama and suffering.
That is probably why the Buddhists rewrote Sravan as Syama who lives without the curse and the sorrow that follows it in the older version of the story in Ramayana.
This is a hard lesson for many of us. For all what we do to avoid suffering and pain, we also look at lack of suffering as inhuman. But that is a human construct. Detaching one’s self when you recognise you are a mere instrument in a larger story and are causing unintended suffering is not a bad thing. By all means, do what you should to alleviate the pain. Help. Support. Say Sorry. Put in corrective measures. But it does not have to haunt you.