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Monday, 7 July 2014

Matsya Nyaya V/s Dharma/Adharma

Read an interesting piece of Indian mythology, said to have been elaborated in the Vishnu Purana.

Vishnu descends on earth in the form of a small fish and asks Manu, the first man, to save him from the big fish. The notion of a big fish feeding on the small fish is known as ‘matsya nyaya’ and denotes the law of the jungle. By promising to save the small fish, Manu, in effect establishes the code of civilization or ‘dharma’, where even the weak can thrive. Manu puts the small fish in a pot. But as the days pass the fish grows in size and becomes too big for the pot. So Manu moves him to a pond. The fish in due course becomes too big for the pond. Manu moves him to a river. As the days pass, even the river proves inadequate for the fish. The fish is then moved to the sea. It grows too big even for the sea. So the skies burst and torrential rains fall, which end up submerging the whole earth. This, the fish declares ominously, is Pralaya, the end of the world. The story ends with the giant fish, identified as Vishnu himself, towing a boat with Manu and his family through the devastating flood to safety. The latter part of the story is similar to Noah’s ark and establishes Vishnu as the savior. The earlier part explains the rise and fall of civilization. Civilisation comes into being when the small fish is rescued from the big fish; civilization comes to an end when the fish keeps growing bigger than the pond.

I am yet to come to terms with my own logical interpretation of the story.

The law of the jungle or ‘matsya nyaya’ is quite universally considered barbaric or primitive. In contrast, the code of civilization or ‘dharma’ is considered higher than the law of jungle. The sense of fairness or justice is a part of the code of civilization. Therefore, we abhor exploitation of any kind. ‘Matsya nyaya’ is the default or natural course, while this code is a value addition by humans.

This code of civilization differentiates ‘dharma’ from ‘adharma’ and right from wrong. It encourages one to be conscious of this differentiation. Consequently, one is often caught in the cross-fire between head and heart. Whether the head rules or the heart, one ends up in either guilt or self-piety. This unveils a host of other emotions: Anger over those who’re inconsiderate to the code, envy towards those who experience pleasures by ignoring righteousness, fear of not conforming, greed to manipulate those in such fear and so on.
In the story, the intervention of Manu or the establishment of this code has caused the end of the world.

Consider the law of the jungle in contrast. Amongst creatures governed by the law of jungle, these emotions don’t seem to hold sway, though they may be present. The law also ensures that one is alert. It establishes a hierarchy – very naturally. It gives space and freedom. It ensures balance. Thus, it is more sustainable.

When people like me think about the education of children, we emphasise that the child learns naturally, rather than be guided by a moral prescription. We place the natural course as higher than one, which is born out of thought. We seem to prefer the law of jungle over the code of civilization. At the same time, we shudder at the thought of being governed by ‘might is right’.

Perhaps, we limit the understanding of ‘might’ or strength as physical strength. Might can be gained from intelligence, skill and love. Perhaps we also infer that ‘having a right’ will lead to ‘asserting the right’. It may not be so…perhaps.