Hitopadeśa : recognizing a deceptive spiritualist

The spiritual prospects of many a modern sādhaka fade owing to entrapment by smart and savvy individuals who come across as authentic, scholarly spiritualists. In the Indian cultural context, a lot of thought has historically been given to protecting oneself from such dangers. The Hitopadeśa is one such book that has many different types of stories with invaluable lessons. Several of its stories are composed to specifically explain the symptoms of the pseudo-spiritualist. These compact and easy-to-remember verses were taught to children from a very young age, and they remained valuable even as the children became adults and navigated the complexities of life. As such, in adulthood, they were able to avoid become enmeshed in inauthentic paths and misguided by unqualified people who posed as authentic preachers.

Deception requires two parties- the deceived and the deceiver

The Hitopadeśa begins with a request by a king, Sudarśana, to Viṣṇu Śarmā. The king asks Viṣṇu Śarmā to educate his young sons in the ways of the world. Viṣṇu Śarmā narrates a series of stories- each nested within the other. In each story, the characters are animals or birds of different types. Viṣṇu Śarmā presents one such story involving the tiger and the traveler, which opens as follows (translation by Sri Babaji):

अहमेकदा दक्षिणारण्ये चरन्नपश्यम्। एको वृद्धो व्याघ्रः स्नातः कुशहस्तः सरस्तीरे ब्रूते — ‘भो भो: पान्थाः। इदं सुवर्णकङ्कणं गृह्यताम्।“ ततो लोभाऽऽकृष्टेन केनचित्पान्थेन आलोचितं- “भाग्येन एतत् सम्भवति। किन्तु अस्मिन् आत्मसन्देहे प्रवृत्तिर्न विधेया”।

Once while wandering in a forest in the South (Danḍakāraṇya), I saw an old tiger, who after bathing, would stand on the bank of a pond with some sacred kuśa grass in his paw, saying to the passersby, “O traveler, please accept this gold bracelet in charity”. Hearing this, a greedy traveler thought, “This has occurred by good fortune; yet one should avoid activities which involve personal risk.”

Many a deception occurs because the deceived are readily available to be deceived. In this story, we are told about the traveller’s dilemma. He is greedy for wealth. He sees the risk involved in taking help from a tiger- who is obviously very dangerous. But at the same time, the traveller’s greed beckons. Similarly, modern sādhakas who get deceived generally want something- the comfort of curing loneliness by belonging to a group or organization, the need to give their children a cultural context, the desire to escape dull lives, the glowing feeling of dedicating oneself to some cause or the other and receiving praise for it, restoring meaning to one’s life and so on. There are many such reasons possible- but they have one thing in common. They lead to the lowering of one’s guard and eventual uncritical acceptance of even the most outrageous ideas in cultish sects. Here, the tiger is obviously dangerous, but in many situations, the deceiver need not be obviously dangerous. On the contrary, the deceiver may have the most pious appearance- tilak, the clothes of a devout practitioner and obvious scholarship and influence.

Claims of authenticity

Those who deceive proclaim their authenticity the loudest. Generally public proclamations and displays of piety and touting of miraculous accomplishments are in themselves sure signs of inauthenticity. This is made clear in the tiger’s conduct. The traveler is hesitant because of the risk but is considering taking the bracelet. The tiger senses the weakness, and speaks:

व्याघ्र उवाच—‘श्रुणु रे पान्थ! प्रागेव यौवनदशायामहम् अतीव दुर्वृत्त आसम्। अनेकगोमानुषाणां वधाद् मे पुत्रा मृता दाराश्च। वंशहीनश्चाहम्। ततः केनचिद्धार्मिकेणाहमुपदिष्टः ‘दानधर्मादिकं चरतु भवान्’ इति। तदुपदेशादिदानीमहं स्नानशीलो दाता वृद्धो गलितनखदन्तः न कथं विश्वासभूमिः?

The tiger said, “Listen, O traveler, in my youth, I committed many sins by killing cows and human beings. Consequently, my wife and sons have died and I am left completely alone. Some time ago, a wise saint instructed me to distribute charity and be dhārmic. Following his instructions, I now bathe regularly and afterwards give in charity. Now I am old and my claws and teeth are worn out. Why shouldn’t you have faith in my words? 

Here the tiger performs a classic sleight of hand. If a dharmic person performs dharmic acts, that is nothing special and people are not impressed by it. But if a person who was a rogue before, became reformed and took to spirituality, then people become very impressed. The person may recite eloquent stories of how he ‘came to spiritual life’, as seen in the tiger’s words. He may externally show his advancement through his actions of strict spiritual conduct. He may cite copious verses from scripture to prove his scholarship and authenticity. Indeed the tiger cites a series of verses from the scripture to defeat the traveler’s suspicions, including one from the Bhagavad Gita!

dātavyam iti yad dānaṁ dīyate’nupakāriṇe

deśe kāle ca pātre ca tad dānaṁ sāttvikaṁ viduḥ

Charity given as a matter of duty, without expectation of return, and in due consideration of the appropriate place, the suitable time, and the worthiness of the recipient is considered to be of the nature of sattva . (Since I don’t expect anything in return, please accept this bracelet.)

Posing as a compassionate person who wants to bestow mercy on the traveler, the tiger wins the traveler’s confidence. In a similar way, many spiritual aspirants become sucked in the whirlpool of the echo-chambers of cherry-picked verses used against them by preachers, and forever lose their ability to escape. The traveler goes to the tiger and gets stuck in the mud from which he lacks the power to extricate himself.

Inherent nature, and not words of preaching or external appearance, are tests of authenticity

 The tiger slowly moves in for the kill. As this happens, the traveler realizes his mistake and thinks as follows.

न धर्मशास्त्रं पठतीति कारणं न चापि वेदाध्ययनं दुरात्मनः । स्वभाव एवात्र तथातिरिच्यते यथा प्रकृत्या मधुरं गवां पयः ॥

Just as cow’s milk by nature is always sweet, an evil person’s nature will dominate, though he studies the dharma-scriptures. Hence one should not put faith in him.

and also,

सर्वस्य हि परिक्ष्यन्ते स्वभावा नेतरे गुणाः। अतीत्य हि गुणान् सर्वान् स्वभावो मूर्ध्नि वर्तते।।

Indeed one’s nature overshadows all acquired good and bad qualities. Therefore, one should note a person’s nature—not other qualities (such as education, taking bath, giving charity, and chanting mantras.) 

One may get impressed by external acts of austerity or piety of the deceiver, but just as people condition themselves to be disciplined in doing some things- like getting up early in the morning and jogging- they can also condition themselves to do activities of worship etc. External acts do not imply advancement. This is why many sādhakas get discouraged when they eventually discover their role models to be not as advanced as they thought, but given to pettiness, egoism and exploitative behaviors towards others in the name of accepting service. A person’s inherent nature can take a long time to discover, and therefore patience is a virtue in making decisions about accepting a guru.

Many deceivers join spiritual organizations due to personal needs and weaknesses without giving up their desires. As their desires have persisted, they simply mutate and are expressed through spiritual-looking actions. The deceiver essentially remains of the same nature, but his or her garb, speech and activities change. Really good deceivers even deceive themselves- they convince themselves of their own good qualities like humility, about the greatness of their purpose and tell themselves lies about their own motives. Slowly they amass a following and their group grows exponentially, setting into motion a paramparā of deception, now lent authenticity by a mass following.

Unlike the story of the trapped deer (which we find later on in Hitopadeśa), the traveller gives up efforts to free himself. He is quickly devoured by the tiger. If one is already trapped, one should not give up like the traveler and justify one’s continued existence in the clutches of deception. One should use all one’s wits to find the exit and leave the whirlpool. Unfortunately many people rationalize their condition (for fear of losing one thing or the other, like followers or sustenance) despite realizing the truth, and in turn promote the entrapment of others. Recognizing a tiger in sheep’s clothing requires courage, and freeing oneself requires even more courage.

Studying the amazing wisdom of the Hitopadeśa can protect one from entrapment by helping one discriminate between authentic and inauthentic paths. Finding an authentic spiritual path in modern times requires tremendous courage, intelligence and above all, integrity. This is exemplified in another story from the Hitopadeśa which will be presented elsewhere.

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