Thursday, October 9, 2008

What is good and what is evil?

On Dussera Day, while people prepare to burn effigies of Ravana to commorate the victory of good over evil, I can’t help wondering who decides what is good and what is evil.

We have been brought up to believe that the evil Ravana abducted the pure Sita Maiya, thereby forcing the noble Prince Rama to go to war against Lanka to rescue his beloved wife.

But is that where the story really begins? Doesn’t the story begin, as so many stories do, with a young girl meeting a handsome man and falling in love with him? When Princess Soorpanaka saw the young hunter in the forest, she did not know anything about him – all she knew was that she was physically attracted to him, and that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. Soorpanaka did nothing wrong in proposing to Lakshman – she just did what any other high-spirited maiden would have done in her place. It was Lakshman who was in the wrong – he should have gently told her that he already had a wife at home, and was not interested in taking on another wife. Even if he was repulsed by her advances, there was absolutely no need for him to cut off her nose, either literally or metaphorically. Men, especially Kshatriya men, were supposed to protect women, not declare unprovoked war on them.

When a favourite sister comes to a brother with a broken heart and a story about mistreatment in the hands of the man she had fallen in love with, how else is the brother supposed to react? In seeking revenge, Ravana did no more or less than what any other brother would have done in his place. In fact, it could just as well be argued that he abducted Sita in order to force Rama to persuade his brother to take Soorpanaka as a mate.

During her year in captivity, Ravana never made any advances on Sita. By all accounts Sita was a very beautiful woman – any man would have wanted her as his wife. Had Ravana chosen impose himself on Sita, there was little she could have done to protect her chastity. He knew that and she did too, yet he waited for her to come to him willingly. Is that the behaviour of an evil man, or an honourable one?

How honourable was the conduct of Prince Rama during the Battle of Lanka? Ravana and Rama were fairly evenly matched during the battle – it was treachery and betrayal that tiled the contest in Prince Rama’s favour. Did Vibhishan join forces with Rama because he wanted to end the evil excesses of his brother, or did he do so because he wanted to usurp the throne for himself? Did the virtuous Prince Rama even try to ascertain the real motives of Vibhishan before joining forces with him?

Would not history have judged both Rama and Ravana quite differently had the other side claimed victory?

If Prince Rama was the epitome of virtue that he is made out to be, why did he kill Bali by putting an arrow through his back? The laws of Kshatriya warfare leave no room for ambiguity – you can only fight an opponent when he is face to face with you. Prince Rama did not do so. Worse, he tried to justify his action by saying that he was forced to commit a sin in order to end evil. Does any one person, even if the person is a God, decide what is evil and who needs to be terminated? Had it been Ravana who had killed Bali through stealth, it would have been taken as further proof of his evilness – since it was Prince Rama who did the dishonourable deed, it was justified and forgotten.

Some actions are unambiguous – they are either good or not good regardless of the context in which they took place – but many actions fall in the borderline of subjectivity. Depending on how you look at it, you can classify it as good or as evil.

What is good and what is evil? Who decides? Do you? Do I? Should anybody?

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