The paper is written by Vasanthi Srinivasan of Univ of Hyderabad. She questions the ethical reasoning shown by King Vikramaditya while giving his verdict at the end of each story:
Besides canonical texts such as Bhagavad Gita and Dharmasutras, reflections upon dharma’s complexity and dilemmas abound in popular narratives such as Pancatantra, Hitopadesa and Vikram and Vetaal stories. Popularised by Amar Chitra Katha and Chanda Mama as Vikram and Vetaal, this classic is second only to Pancatantra and has been part of the narrative repertoire of many Indians. It is about the encounters between King Vikramaditya and a superhuman daemon, Vetala dwelling in a corpse. In several stories, King Vikramaditya is presented with two or more instances of noble or generous or virtuous actions and asked to judge which is greater.
This essay examines ethical reasoning and judgment as they are presented in five stories about superlative nobility, magnanimity and virtue. Focusing on Vikramaditya’s verdicts, I argue that judging extraordinary nobility or generosity or virtue involves going beyond dharma whether we take it as customary duty (based on caste and class, stage of life or family usage) or even occupational duty (svadharma). It appears that ethical greatness is all about sovereign gestures through which one responds to the challenges posed by the sacrifices of others.
The author picks five stories from the twenty five stories. At the end of each tale Betaal asks King Vikram a question. So eah of these five stories have a common q which is who was the more nobel one in the story. The summary is:
Thus while the kings are judged greater in the first and final stories summarized here, the Rajput warrior, the robber, and Sankhacuda turn out to be greater in the other three. Except for the story of Madanasena (Tale 9) which involves a merchant-prince, all others involve a royal person who is ruling (Tales 4, 8, 16) or fit to rule (Tale 15). Addressed as they are to an ideal king, it is probable that the author intended these stories for aspiring princes who must be educated about and encouraged to perform great deeds.
The author goes on to explain that in none of the five stories, the King points the women are more nobel. This is despite the fact that women in each of these stories have made some sacrifices etc. So it seems there was discrimination towards women back then as well.
All the stories involve women who follow dharma which lays down that they support and obey their husbands, fathers, or sons. Tale 4 involves a devoted wife who rejects her husband’s entreaty to go away, allows him to sacrifice their son, and commits suicide after the gory event. Tale 8 involves a woman who passionately implores the king to command her and is compelled to marry the retainer to keep her word. Tale 9 involves a woman who is determined to safeguard family honor until her marriage and consequently to fulfill a vow made under duress. Tale 15 involves, among other heroes, a mother who would not allow a king to substitute for her own son who is destined to be killed. Tale 16presents Unmadini, who follows her husband into the funeral pyre. The Vetala takes into account a woman’s virtue only in the last instance when he poses his riddle to King Vikramaditya as to who is more or most noble.
Thus all the stories considered here involve heroic women but the two men discussing virtue (the Vetala and King Vikramaditya) ignore women’s virtue. Is this because all these women invoke family honor and may be said to act within the bounds of their respective dharma as wives or daughters? However, following their dharma does not disqualify men from being considered for ethical excellence (though they do not finally get chosen by the King). Also not all women are rigidly bound by their filial piety and pre-defined duties.
With the competition thus being restricted to men, what is the reasoning underlying King Vikramaditya’s judgments? It may be noted that conventional hierarchy plays no role in the King’s judgments.
The author then goes on to question the verdict given by King on the higher nobility in each of the five tales.
In our text, there is no hint of state building or the attendant conflicts with marginal groups. What is clear is the pedagogical intent of educating the ideal king about those who have no specific dharma, thus forcing him to reckon with virtuous conduct that is different from what is routinely observed. But in the absence of customary norms, how do we even know that the conduct of these figures was exceptionally virtuous? That the Rajput warrior, the robber, and Sankhacuda were kind is not difficult to make out. For when the Rajput gives fruit to the famished king or the robber lets the woman go, are they not following common virtues (sadharana dharma or samanya dharma)? What makes their conduct so exemplary that they are exalted over other agents we encountered before such as the king (Tale 8), the generous husband (Tale 9), or the noble ascetic (Tale 15)?
Despite these issues, one thing does come out: ordinary and oppressed persons face ethically demanding circumstances heroically:
These figures direct us to what may be called the contingent nature of some ethical acts; none of the actors were seeking glory or reward. They found themselves by chance in ethically demanding circumstances. They defy the general idea that ethical habituation and mature reflection upon ethical conduct are essential for ethical excellence. Ethical greatness is not only about more of the same courage or magnanimity as displayed by those who are used to fighting or giving; sometimes ordinary and oppressed persons face ethically demanding circumstances heroically and prove that morality feeds upon the human spirit of self-mastery rather than selfishness.
They also show that elaborate theologies such as the Bhagavad Gita may be helpful but are not necessary for great conduct. There is no talk about soul or spirit by any of these agents. In fact, the Rajput prince laments that “He who provided me with milk, means/to sustain my infant years, is He asleep? Or dead?”33 An ideal king must know about the unexpected sources of ethical greatness even though his primary responsibility is to preserve and sustain the conventional moral order based on right habits and norms of reciprocity.
Hmm… What is the conclusion?
Even though not a canonical dharma text, Sivadasa’s rendering of Vikram and Vetala cycle reveals that dharmic situatedness did not exhaust the range of ethical possibilities and that there were instances when ordinary beings went out of their way in responding to challenging ethical contexts.
In doing so, they often rose above their immediate self-interest without the aid of elaborate theologies or ethical theories. Even though the text was mainly addressed to kings – who aspire to greatness – and to the leisurely class with a taste for ethical discourse, its lesson about the unexpected sources and unconventional character of ethical greatness deserves more consideration, for there are still poor beggars who return lost wallets and it is they, more than preachy patrons, who sustain and nourish our everyday moral sensibility.
Superbly said and written. A very different perspective (atleast for me). One needs to watch all these mythological tales and perhaps question what Indians consider as an accepted behavior/decision etc in the tale. Just because the tales are written in a way does not mean we need to accept it completely.