ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Of Whales and Wheels

Buddhist Lessons in Democracy

Of Whales and Wheels

There is a genre of tales in Buddhist narrative traditions that relates the ordeals of bodhisattvas who gave of themselves freely, to feed the hungry and bring succour to those in pain. Such giving was not merely metaphorical; often the bodhisattva consents to a dismembering of their body, or body parts. Whether ruler, ascetic, animal or plant, the bodhisattva’s self-sacrifice establishes the importance of the quintessential Buddhist virtue of maithri, the connectedness of all life, such that what is sacrificed continues to live on, nurturing and nourishing life in another form.

One of the stories in this genre features a king who gets anxious when a soothsayer tells him that his kingdom will receive no rain for 12 years and consequently be devastated by hunger. The king consults his ministers and feudal lords about what might be done, and if the present stock of grain in the kingdom would help the population tide over a reasonable period of time, before hunger sets in. Sadly, it came about that the grain would not last for long, and predictably the kingdom is plunged into famine. The king decides that his duty is to assuage the great hunger on display, and resolves to give of himself. He asks of the universe that he should be allowed to die and be reborn as a giant fish on whose flesh the populace could feed. His wish is granted, and he dies and is born again as a whale. The creature willingly offers itself to the hungry, first turning on one side and then the other, till all of its gigantic body is eaten up and hunger kept at bay over a 12-year period (Ohnuma 2009: 18−19).

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Updated On : 9th Jun, 2020

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