When I was contemplating the topic of today’s mythology post, a strange thought occurred to me: I sympathize with the ‘bad’ people in many of our myths. I remember that when I was a kid, when my mother first told me the story of Ramayana, I used to feel bad for Ravana, and in the Mahabharat I had (still have) a soft spot for both Dhritarashtra and Duryodhan.
Is there something wrong with me?
Whether the answer to that is yes or no, I thought it would be interesting to make a list of stories from mythology that made my heart weep for the bad guys.
1. The Mohini myth
The Gods and the Demons churn the ocean of milk for the nectar of immortality. When it appears, the Demons, ever alert to possibilities, rush to the amphora and secure it for themselves. But just as they’re about to vanish and begin their plans of grinding the Gods to the dust, there appears Mohini, an incarnation of Vishnu (though not an official one), to seduce, distract and cajole them into giving up a share of the nectar. And then, after giving half of the contents of the jar to the Gods, as the Demons get ready for their shares, Mohini disappears, leaving the now empowered Gods to fight and defeat their enemies.
This has always seemed unfair to me. You snooze, you lose. The Demons do all the work, only for the Gods to triumph owing to their superior cunning. It bothered me so much that I put an alternative version of the story into my novel, The Winds of Hastinapur.
2. The Bali-Vaman story
Bali, the king of Demons, is powerful, generous and noble. He defeats Indra in an open battle and becomes the undisputed emperor of all three worlds. The Gods must take back what’s theirs, and defeat Bali by whatever means possible. And what do they do? Once again they resort to trickery.
Disguised as a young Brahmin called Vaman, Vishnu comes to Bali’s court to beg for three paces of land. Even though Shukracharya, the preceptor of the Demons, warns Bali that this Brahmin boy is actually Vishnu in disguise, Bali grants him his wish. With one pace, Vaman covers the entire Earth and the underworld. With the second he covers the heavens. And he famously asks the king, ‘Where shall I put my third pace?’ to which Bali bends down low and says, ‘You can place it on my head, sire.’
Vaman then stamps Bali into the ground and kills him, but offers him a consolation by giving him a ‘place in heaven’ for his generosity.
I’ve always felt that Dhritarashtra and Duryodhan have a stronger claim to the throne than the Pandavas. First, Pandu was made king on a technicality and a hunch: that Dhritarashtra, being blind, cannot rule a kingdom – which he does end up doing after Pandu leaves for the forest anyway. Second, the sons of Pandu are not really the sons of Pandu. They’re the sons of Kunti, sired by five unknown men in the forest. Kunti claims they’re Gods. But who checked, right?
Has there been another negative character more sympathized than Karna? Poems and essays have been written by how he was was just a pawn in the game of fate, and yet even his staunchest supporters cannot help but admit that he made some wrong choices. Or did the choices only happen to be wrong in hindsight? Given a choice between those who ridicule and insult you and those who offer you the hand of friendship, whom would you choose?
Perhaps no other man suffered as much as Karna for choosing to be loyal.
5. The Iliad
In the story of the Trojan War, the Trojans always seem to me to be nicer guys than the Greeks. Yes, Achilles is the greatest warrior the world has ever seen. Odysseus is the smartest. Ajax is the strongest. Et cetera, et cetera. But Hector, Priam and all the other Trojan warriors – barring Paris, perhaps – seem so much earthier and human-like.
This story ends with trickery, too. After convincing the Trojans that the war has been won, Odysseus and a band of Greek warriors travel into the walled city concealed within a giant wooden horse, and at night, when the town is quiet with drunken sleep, they open the gates for their countrymen and begin the plunder.
In all of these it is the use of cunning that turns me off. The ethical line is rubbed off and redrawn. The ends justify the means. It is almost an admission on our part that good cannot triumph over evil without resorting to backstabbing. And that when the stakes are high enough, a little bit of ‘cheating’ is okay.
Or, as I said before, maybe there is something wrong with me.
What do you think? Does this ‘feeling sorry for the loser’ phenomenon happen with you too? Do you find yourself sympathizing with the ‘bad guy’ in any of our mythological stories?