Vedic thought and philosophy prescribe twenty ethical guidelines called yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances) in the observance of dharma. Compassion is an important yama, a deep awareness and sympathy for another’s suffering. This humane quality does not stop with understanding the suffering of others but also wanting to do something about it.
Compassion or daya in the Indian context is a deeply thought out and discussed topic in all faiths like Jains, Buddhists and Hindus. The Vedas and Puranas give many instances of practicing compassion. It begins with overcoming cruel and insensitive feelings toward all beings. It means to see the Divine everywhere. It entails being kind to people, animals, plants and the Earth itself. It asks the ordinary human being to forgive anybody who feels remorse and apologizes. When we develop sympathy for other people’s needs and suffering, when we step forward to help those who are weak, impoverished, aged or in pain, when we can speak against and fight abuse and cruelties especially towards children and women, then compassion is the foremost emotion or quality that we exhibit.
Let us take Sita, who with Draupadi, is the leitmotif of every Indian woman’s life. There is this constant image of these women that are the basis of all the behaviour of Indian women—strong, faithful, analytical and family oriented women. Whatever the education, the situation in which we are placed, whatever the rebellion against established norms of behaviour and culture, whatever the dictates of society and the reaction for or against it, these two women lurk somewhere at the back of our minds influencing our thought processes.
Sita was the epitome of compassion. Her compassion for other women, including the women in The Ramayana who were considered enemies by the men, comes across very strongly. Sita questions Rama killing the demons in the forests and asks him why he is doing so when they have not harmed him. She cares for all the creatures in her environment. A crow attacks her again and again as Rama sleeps on her lap. She keeps quiet for two reasons—that he should not be disturbed and knowing that if Rama sees the crow he would annihilate the crow! That is compassion!
She believes that Lakshmana’s heady decision to cut off the demoness Surpanaka’s (the ten-headed King of Lanka—Ravana’s sister) nose led to her (Sita’s) abduction. This was the base for the war in Lanka. Sita says, “Violence breeds violence, and an unjust act only begets greater injustice”.
Again when Sita is a prisoner in Lanka and Ravana tortures her with his advances and lewd behaviour she keeps her cool. Sita becomes close to one of her demoness guards: Trijatha, who, unlike the other guards, feels compassion for Sita. It is Trijatha who tells Sita the story of the war between Rama and Ravana. When Hanuman wants to kill Trijatha and the other demonesses, Sita protects them saying that they are only doing their duty and are not to be blamed.
As much as Sita is overjoyed that Rama won the war, she still feels compassion for Mandodari, Ravana’s widow, as well as for all the other Rakshasa women. “They would be queens no more, and their people had met death on the battlefield–for what? For one man’s unlawful desire. . . . It was such a high price to pay.” In an instant, she forgets the one year of torture that she underwent amongst these women when not one spoke up for her.
Finally, after her banishment to the ashram of Sage Valmiki, after her delivery of her twin boys she exhibits great compassion to all creatures there. She is a vegetarian. One of the viewpoints expressed is that the Ashvamedha horse that is let loose as a sign of Rama’s undisputable sovereignty to roam the land, comes to her abode. It knows instinctively that she is the compassionate one who will give it refuge and protect her.
Compassion in the Indian mind is linked to sharing and giving. We share our food with all creatures. The crow is fed rice first before the cooked meal is eaten by the family members. Daan or sharing or donating cows, clothes, food, household goods to the needy and deserving is part of daily life, an important aspect of festivals and celebrations, rites of passage and religious rituals.
The Buddha is the symbol of compassion. Lord Vishnu and his consort Goddess Lakshmi are the last word in compassion. Lord Siva is the compassionate one who rushes to the rescue of his devotees and answers their prayers.
The Pandian King punished and imprisoned Siva’s great devotee and poet Manickavachagar. The king had to be taught a lesson. An enraged Lord Shiva flooded the Vaigai river. The Pandiyan king ordered every family in Madurai to send one man from each family to build embankments to contain the waters of Vaigai. Prisoners, including Manikkavasagar were conscripted and he used his basket to throw lumps of mud to build the embankment.
There was an old lady called Vanthi, who used to make a living by selling ‘Pittu’ or balls of sweetened broken rice. She could not send anyone from her family as she was alone. The lady was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva and prayed to him. He appeared as a labourer in front of her and the poor lady offered to pay him with the Pittu instead of money. He accepted the condition and carried mud on his head to throw into Vaigai. After his great labour, he would sleep off his exertion after eating the heavy to digest Pittu.
The Pandiyan King heard reports about Vanthi’s servant sleeping through his soldiers. He ordered that this fellow who was shirking his work be brought to him. Shiva was sleeping and refused to move. The angry king felt insulted and began to whip Shiva on his back. Lord Shiva got up laughed, threw a basket of mud into Vaigai that immediately stopped the flood and disappeared. The king then realised that it was Lord Shiva who came as servant to rescue the old lady and Manikkavasagar.
There are any number of stories told to children from the cradle to inculcate the quality of compassion. All religions talk about their Divine beings representing compassion…the most important quality in any creature or human.
This is a blog dedicated to a blogging initiative, ‘1000 Voices For Compassion’ http://1000speak.wordpress.com/ that goes live on February 20, 2015.