Students have borne the brunt of the brute force of power over the ongoing countrywide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Be it the attack at Jamia Milia, Aligarh Muslim University or JNU. It is their opposition to the Act that has riled the leaders of the ruling party the most.

Labelled anti-national, beaten up and their understanding of issues mocked at in elaborate videos, students have been asked to stop wasting their time beating down the streets and thumb down books instead. Do not seek answers to questions you don’t understand: that’s the message being rolled out.

Thus was Nachiketa tutored too; son of a sage called Vajasravas, his story (ironically) is held up as an inspirational tale for children about how they must be dogged in their pursuit of answers. Nachiketa saw his father give away old and hence worthless cattle to Brahmins, who had gathered for a grand sacrifice where the sage had promised to donate all his wealth. Why, Nachiketa asked his father, are you not giving away the healthy cows?

At first the sage ignored the questions, but grew infuriated when Nachiketa persisted. Finally in a fit of anger, Vajasravas cursed his son and sacrificed Nachiketa to the god of death, Yama. The story told in the Katha Upanishad leads the reader into a philosophical understanding of life, death and karma as revealed in a dialogue between Yama and Nachiketa. Yama too is taken aback by Nachiketa’s questioning but he does not ridicule him or crush his desire for knowledge that was hitherto forbidden for men. The unsaid, unstated note here is that the tenacious impertinence of the young is not to be trifled with, respect not ridicule shows the way forward.

In the ongoing country-wide protests against CAA, the hostility against young protesters has been intense and relentless. Nothing seems to move the establishment—neither cracked skulls nor pleas for mercy. In many ways this is how barbarous bloodthirsty regimes are profiled in myth and legend.

The kingdom of Ravana, for instance, is prosperous but tyrannical. Bengali poet Chandravati sings in her version of the Ramayana that Ravana grew so arrogant and desirous of immortality that he stopped listening to his close aides. He went on a rampage, killing Brahmins and collecting their blood in jars to stir up a poisonous brew that could destroy the gods. His wife Mandodari urged him to stop. Brother Vibhisana warned him that a ruler who lost control over his passions was presaging doom for his subjects and himself. Neither his wife’s reservations nor his brother’s censure were a deterrent, until Ram came marching in with his army.

Similarly Kamsa. The son of Ugrasena and Krishna’s maternal uncle was an insecure king, always worried about being ousted by a challenger. When he was told that the eighth son to be born to his sister Devaki would bring his end, he killed all her children and when the chosen one (Krishna) escaped he hounded down and poisoned all infants in the city. Much like the Pharaoh whose fear of being removed from power led him to kill all Hebrew boys, when Moses was born. Both Moses and Krishna brought down the tyrants who wanted them dead.

The most tyrannical among rulers is considered to be Roman emperor Caligula who is believed to have said (Mary Beard’s documentary on Caligula’s rule for the BBC) ‘Let them hate me, as long as they fear me’. He ruled for just four years but so monstrous was his reign that his name, even today, signals the end of a political career for anyone even remotely compared to him. He was known to push his enemies over the cliff and those that survived the steep fall into the ocean were finished off by his men stationed in the water, who had been instructed to bash down the bodies with their oars.

Caligula, a historical figure, fits the mythical archetype of arrogant and cruel rulers whose end is foretold by their actions. But a story that is perhaps the most chilling is that of Greek king Lycaon. Lycaon challenged Zeus and having invited him over for a meal, sought to test his divinity by serving the god a slaughtered child. The child in some accounts is his own son/grandson. Zeus was furious and he rose from the table in a fit of anger and destroyed the 50 sons of Lycaon with lightning-bolts. And the king was transformed into a wolf. He lurks among us still, at times in sheep’s clothing and sometimes in full feral glory.

(This article first appeared in the Business Standard in January 2020)

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