Over the past few months, chaos has reigned on the streets of Delhi. Literally so, as men in black coats have set fire to cars and buses in their clash with the police and metaphorically too, as a thick black smog licks its way through to every corner of the city, slowly choking the life out of its citizenry. Lawyers disregard the laws they were appointed to uphold, while leaders fail to protect those they have been elected to serve.

Of course this is not the only city in the country, nor is this the only country where irony has been reduced to an eye-roll and rules and principles are up in the air. Take the ongoing power tussle in Maharashtra where all parties unabashedly hop around the chief ministerial chair, with complete disregard to their manifestos or the constituencies they have nurtured. Power has corrupted all within its purview.

Such situations make for the fodder that myths thrive on, providing philosophical and psychological insight into human nature. The Greeks tell the story of Tyche, daughter of Zeus and the goddess who bestows fortune upon men. She is one of the Moirae (Fates) and represents the ‘varying unsteadiness of fortune’ and is shown in art and sculpture as a figure juggling a ball to reflect the chance and uncertainty of fortune.

Tyche is described thus: “On some she heaps gifts from a horn of plenty, others she deprives of all that they have” (Greek myths, Robert Graves) and is often seen as working in tandem with Nemesis who keeps a check on the favours bestowed by fortune. While Tyche could drop a bundle of riches and loads of luck on someone she fancies, if the receiver of her careless attention boasts of his abundance and fails to sacrifice a part of his fortune for the gods, Nemesis steps in with due retribution. Graves says that Tyche was invented by the early philosophers and Nemesis, an older goddess, was remodeled as her moral compass. Luck can take one only so far, the myths seem to indicate.  

Not just luck, even power comes with a sell-by date. One of the many Indian myths that bring this out is that of the King Bali. By all accounts he was a good and just king. However he was a daitya and as was the case with most of his clan, he grew vain and believed he was invincible. His devotion to Vishnu, he believed, was his armour. However the devas soon grew anxious about his unbridled power. And Vishnu stepped in to curb Bali’s influence. In the form of a vaman (dwarf-sized Brahmin), Vishnu famously asked Bali for three paces of land and finally, revealing his full form, used up all the space in universe. Left with no space for his third step, Vishnu placed it on Bali’s head and pushed the king into the ground. Bali was allowed to come back to earth every year, to visit the people he loved and who revered him too.

Pride and arrogance are the fatal fault lines that destroy power, flaws that mortals must watch out for. Wrapped into mythical narratives, such stories reveal the concern that writers, theologians and philosophers have had about the moral boundaries of the world we inhabit. So much so that these fears and warnings were also ritualized in daily life in the subcontinent.

The many vratas (vows that involve a fast and prayer routine, mostly for women) that the ritual texts have institutionalized carry kathas or stories that illustrate the follies of arrogance. In an essay The Goddess, women and their rituals in Hinduism, Samjukta Gombrich Gupta (Faces of the feminine in ancient, medieval and modern India, edited by Mandkranta Bose) writes that the vrata kathas follow a set pattern where the values of honesty, faith and humility are extolled. The typical narrative in vrata kathas point out the pitfalls involved in letting power get to one’s head and ignoring the gods, or failing to make the periodic sacrifices their worship demands.

Many of the principles espoused in myths were turned into rules and laws, enforced by a ferocious guardian deity. In Mesopotamian mythology, Ishtar and in India, Varuna were the gods in charge of ensuring that the rules are followed and order maintained. Any transgression was dealt a brutal fate.

Myths carry a bundle of coded messages, which are not always consistent with the present, nor understood correctly out of context. But the warning that power must be handled with care is universal and timeless.

By ARUNDHUTI DASGUPTA

(A version of this article first appeared in the Business Standard)