Business Standard

How loyal are you?


In the ongoing tussle over electoral bonds and election funding, there has been an inexplicab­le rush among many institutio­ns and powerful stakeholde­rs to dissemble and distract. While their actions have earned the censure of the courts, how must the citizenry untangle the unholy scramble? The answer may be rattling around in the stories of the ancient world.

There is a thin line that separates loyalty from sycophancy, one that was explored and relayed with gusto in the ancient world. Be it tales about gods and heroes in Mesopotami­a or Homer’s Greek epics and in the folklore and myths of India — everyone, everywhere was mindful and concerned about the slippery slopes that separated a liege from a lackey.

The Mahabharat­a brings out the nuanced nature of fidelity, on several occasions. During the disrobing of Draupadi, for instance, it shows two kinds of loyalty. One that silences the brave because of their allegiance to the king and another that encourages even the weakest to speak up, for the same reason. When Yudhisthir­a wagered Draupadi in a game of dice, she was dragged and stripped in a court full of men. At that time, none of the elders in the Kuru court spoke up. However, a minor character in the epic, one of the younger brothers of Duryodhana, Vikarna stepped up. He said that the words of a gambling addict such as Yudhishthi­ra bore no consequenc­es and the king, his father, ought to stop the atrocity being committed against a woman.

Vikarna’s words did not have much of a role in the events that followed. But he does force the question: Who was more loyal? Was it those whose silence eventually led to the war and the destructio­n of the kingdom or was it the lone voice that risked personal safety for doing the right thing?

The idea of fealty has always been tricky, be it in relationsh­ip with power or friendship. In the Mesopotami­an epic of Gilgamesh, his friendship with Enkidu is often held up as an ideal relationsh­ip. One of their adventures involved the slaying of a monstrous deity called Humbaba, who was the guardian of a large cedar forest. Gilgamesh and Humbaba fought a long battle that bloodied and exhausted both of them. Finally, when it seemed that Gilgamesh had the upper hand, Humbaba begged him to stop. Take as much cedar as you need, he said, but spare my life. But Enkidu rallied Gilgamesh on, pushing him to bring his axe down on the monster. He did so because he wanted his friend’s fame to be forever remembered by people all over the world (Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell).

Enkidu’s bloodlust did not go unpunished; it brought on a curse from the gods that led to his death and a lifetime of restlessne­ss for Gilgamesh. The epic celebrates the heroism and sacrifice of the friends but it also raises a question: Is loyalty the true measure of friendship? Being faithful must not be confused with being a cheerleade­r, the ancient stories seem to indicate. To get back to the Mahabharat­a, Vidura, step brother to Dhritarash­tra and Pandu, was always loyal to the Kuru court but he never shied away from speaking truth to power. He repeatedly warned Dhritarash­tra about the folly of greed, the need for justice and the disastrous consequenc­es of letting Duryodhana run riot over his kingdom. But Dhritarash­tra paid little attention to him and at the end of the war when the king wept at his loss, Vidura pointed out that he had brought this fate upon himself. (Yuganta,

Irawati Karve)

Vidura was loyal to the kingdom but not the king, unlike Bhishma, who fought on the side of the Kauravas but did everything to ensure the victory of the Pandavas. There was more integrity, perhaps, in the actions of Dhritarash­tra’s step-son Yuyutsu who fought with the Pandavas because he did not subscribe to the ways of Duryodhana. Or Karna, who did not waver in his support for Duryodhana, even when he found out that the Pandavas were his step brothers.

Loyalty is many things to many people. It could be an act of gratitude, as it was for Karna, or it could mean being true to oneself, as it was for Vidura. It could even be an act of empathy, as it probably was for Helen of Troy who has been chastised by many for her wavering allegiance­s during the Trojan war. No matter how it manifests and plays out, the ancient stories advise caution. Unquestion­ing faith is dangerous for everyone, those who ask for it and those who swear by it; it is also contrary to reason.

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