The Gospel of St Matthew says, “I tell you, on the Day of Judgment, people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36).? But such warnings against slander, found in every religion, did not stop the low-minded from maligning even a personage like the Buddha.? A courtesan named Sundari developed a grudge against the Buddha because several of her paramours, on whom she depended for a living, had become followers of the Buddha and no longer patronized her. This made her plot revenge with some disgruntled men who were against the Buddha. She let it be known that a monk had made her pregnant and that the Buddha and his sangha were debauched, not pious. But the months went by and there was no sign of pregnancy. Sundari could not sustain her accusation. Her fellow-conspirators killed her in chagrin. The truth came out and the sangha’s name was cleared.
Nor did common people refrain from speaking ill of a high-souled princess like Sita. The shadow they cast on her is our enduring heartbreak.
Similarly, Draupadi, for no fault of hers was shamed for having five husbands, shamed for her husband’s weakness, and blamed for being a ‘kritya,’ clan-destroying figure, whereas it was Duryodhana who was the kulantaka, destroyer of his clan. Slanderous sayings were invented about Draupadi, as though she were some kind of witch -- ‘Ati keshi pati naasha’ – ‘A woman with long hair destroys her husband’, referring to Draupadi’s vow to leave her hair unbound until she could anoint it with Kaurava blood.
These chronicles highlight the need for empathy, the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings. Sundari could have found other patrons instead of grudging her old patrons their new lives as Buddhists. She did not see them as individuals on the path of Self-realisation but only as golden geese. A more balanced person would have shrugged and moved on. Where did her slanders lead her except to her own doom?
In the case of Sita, it is stating the obvious to say that this too was a shattering lack of empathy. A husband and wife quarreled. The husband dragged in Sita’s name with no qualms. How easy it was for him to demean her, and how cruel were people to destroy Sita’s life through their slanders, as if they had been witnesses. Be it the Buddha, Sita or Draupadi, these stories seem intended as cautionary tales for society, to have empathy for a maligned person and go by fact, not fiction. They teach us not to be careless in what we say.
Meanwhile, an overlooked social point is that a woman could remarry if her first marriage went awry, without occasioning gossip. Princess Damayanti of Nala-Damayanti fame sent word to King Rituparna of her second swayamvar, wedding-by-choice, after Nala deserted her.? It was a ruse to lure Nala back, and it worked, as he had become the king’s charioteer and drove him to the event. However, the very fact that she could announce a second swayamvar and the king showed up for it tells us that it was a positive, liberal-minded situation, not a cause for negative gossip.
Empathy has many shades as a spiritual quality. Draupadi was not perfect. But let’s recall how Krishna befriended this maligned person and set an example to us.