Jewish & Hindu Heroes of Virtue

HarischandraPhilosophers have pondered the why’s of suffering for thousands of years. One such famous piece of philosophical literature has the following plot:

“The Lord of Heaven gives permission for a truly virtuous man to be tested. The bet: if wealth, status, family and more are taken from the virtuous man, he will forsake his virtue. But lo and behold, he does not! He is faithful to the Lord of Heaven.”

It sounds like The Book of Job (from the Jewish tradition), but it is from the Hindu tradition: The Legend of Harischandra. Job is thought to have been composed between 500- 300 BCE, while Harischandra was mentioned in the Mahabharata around 700s BCE. So, if your favorite tradition is the Judeo-Christian tradition, perhaps this will help you see that your scriptures are not so unique — nor are your wonderings.  For the rest of you, perhaps this will help widen your evaluation of religion in general.

Religious_Texts_HarischandraI first learned of this story last night as I watched a 1948 b&w Tamil (South India) film on netflix called “Harischandra” by K. S. Prakash Rao. And I was amazed to learn, according to wiki, that this moral legend deeply influenced Mahatma Gandhi who watched it several times in his childhood.  Indeed it continues to inspire billions of Indians to this day. It has been put into movies several times and is performed in plays all over India.

I have modified my Religious Scripture diagram to help you compare the timing of these two classic ancient texts on suffering and morality (click it to enlarge).

After watching the drama, I can see how it can be inspiring within the Hindu culture.  Like the Book of Job, however, I don’t find it impressive or inspiring. Both are considered “Great Literature” by their believers, but I can not recommend Harischandra except to the most stubborn Indophiles. Besides, it was 2 1/2 hours long!

Interestingly, both Job and Harischandra share to two horrible morals:

  1. We have no right to question God (the gods or our dharma) for the terrible things happening to us.
  2. All wrongs done to us can be made right by restoring property to us.
    In Job, for instance, God give Job back 14,000 sheep after 7,000 are taken from him.   God also allowed 10 of Job’s children killed and gets ten back, but the new daughters are more beautiful than any other women in the land.  HT: “Is There Justice in the Book of Job?
    While in Harischandra, the King looses his son and all his wealth but after his horrible suffering, all is OK when they are returned to him.

The ending of Harischandra is also reminiscent of Abraham sacrificing Isaac.  He is to behead his wife, out of duty, and as he swings the ax, the ax turns to a garland of flowers.

Did one tradition influence another?  I doubt it.  People are people everywhere, so it is not surprising that they create similar stories and similar solutions separately, even if bad solutions.

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7 Comments

Filed under Philosophy & Religion

7 responses to “Jewish & Hindu Heroes of Virtue

  1. When I read stories like this and others, I, at first, get an ‘ah ha’ feeling in order to refute believers, or at least get them to consider that there are possibilities that exist outside their own. On the other hand, there exists a feeling of awe in those moments, a feeling that causes me to consider the possibility of an all encompassing presence, whether that be a divine being or a blessed commonality of humans throughout time.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. @ CalledtoQuestion,

    Thanks for reading.

    Well, when I see humans all struggling with similar things, I too get that awe feeling of commonality of humans throughout time also. In this case, it was the common mistaken view that life is controlled by gods and demons. I am awed by our commonness and by our stupidity. But I see that it is an easy mistake to make, and hard to avoid even when you know better. This Hindu story, like Job, is tough because it tells of all the horrible things that we all go through — the common sufferings in life.

  3. TWF

    In my opinion, what makes Job and Harischandra “great literature” (if they can be considered “great”) is the persistence in integrity of character presented by the lead character, despite overwhelming, challenging, and disastrous circumstances which occur outside of that character’s control. It is an admirable triumph of the human spirit against adversity, in the meta-view.

    The religious perspective around the stories, with their demons and god(s), are nothing more than a backdrop of that human triumph, and, in these cases, represent a time capsule of the world views at that time. But the meta story of triumph is as popular now as it was back then, though our stories today are more often set against secular backdrops, such as in “Dallas Buyer’s Club“.

  4. @ TWF,

    If someone’s focus on life was not to ever be seen in bad clothes, and their life fell apart around them, but they maintained their pristine, crisp, sharp attractive attire to the day they died, I guess a few would applaud their “human triumph” and their “persistence in integrity” amidst their disastrous circumstances, but I wouldn’t.

    You see, in Harischandra, he sold his wife into slaver and eventual going to decapitate her for a crime she did not do because it was the right thing to do — his dharma. Abraham was command to sacrifice his son for a god (his dharma). Sorry, I don’t see “integrity” with those stories. I see glorifying a certain submission to a standard their society wanted to valorize.

  5. TWF

    I see glorifying a certain submission to a standard their society wanted to valorize.

    Indeed. But that’s the point. It’s not about morality. It’s about the ability to commit oneself to an ideal (ideal in the conceptual, not the perfected sense) regardless of what goes on around you. It’s glorified and valorized in nearly every culture. Seppuku, anyone? ;-)

  6. Hey TWF,
    Yes, commitment to an ideal or an idea — even if horrible. How can we call literature that reinforces bad ideas, “Great”?

    BTW, below I have included addition the addition I made to this post to help make my point. I found it in the New Yorker:

    Interestingly, both Job and Harischandra share to two horrible morals:

    We have no right to question God (the gods or our dharma) for the terrible things happening to us.
    All wrongs done to us can be made right by restoring property to us.
    In Job, for instance, God give Job back 14,000 sheep after 7,000 are taken from him. God also allowed 10 of Job’s children killed and gets ten back, but the new daughters are more beautiful than any other women in the land. HT: “Is There Justice in the Book of Job?”
    While in Harischandra, the King looses his son and all his wealth but after his horrible suffering, all is OK when they are returned to him.

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