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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Story of Sibi - Maha Bharata Series 26

In Book 3, Section 131 comes the story of Sibi. All of us know the story in which a hawk comes after a pigeon, which lands on King Sibi’s lap asking for protection. Later we learn that Sibi would rather give his own flesh to the hawk than let the pigeon be eaten. What most of us do not hear about is the conversation between the hawk and the king. It is a remarkable discussion on what virtue is and how one decides what is right, when there are competing interests.

A king’s duty is to give protection to whoever comes asking for one. So Sibi refuses to give up the pigeon. The hawk says: “How can you do this deed unworthy of you. I am hungry and you are withholding my food. You think you are practicing virtue; but, in reality you are not”. The king replies: “This pigeon is afraid of being eaten and has come to me asking to save its life. Why do you think that allowing him to be eaten by you is a greater virtue?”.

The hawk says: “it is from food that all beings derive their life and get sustained. One cannot live long without food. If deprived of food, I will die. If I die, members of my family will also perish. By protecting this single pigeon, you jeopardize many other lives. A virtue that stands in the way of another, is certainly not a virtue, but in reality, is unrighteousness. After comparing opposing virtues, and weighing their comparative merits, one should act in a way not opposed to some other virtue. O king, strike a balance between virtues and follow a path which is more righteous”.

The king said, that forsaking one who has sought asylum is not virtuous. And says: “You are hungry. You need food. There are so many other options – an ox, a deer, a buffalo. Ask me for one and I will get you”.  The hawk says: “I do not eat a fox or an ox. A pigeon is my natural food. That is way nature has ordained things.”. The king refuses and says “ask for any other thing – but not this pigeon”. The hawk asks for the kings flesh and he does so etc.

Finally, the hawk declares himself to be Indra and the pigeon declares himself to be Agni and say that they were there to test the greatness and magnanimity of King Sibi.

It is interesting that this story is repeated in Book 13, Section 32. In that section, King Sibi is referred to as Usinara and Vrishadarbha and as a royal sage of the kingdom of Kasi.

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