Dharma and Self-interest

A Tale from Mahabharata

Stories, from ancient epics have firm and authentic background, consistency, sane counsel, softness, truth perennial and indirect method to tell man that in case, he adopts a path of truth and dharma, nothing can damage or humiliate him. Yudhishtra is confronting the worst period of his life when all known and unknown people are engaged in a war, which has an all-pervasive darkness in the end. It is a war to uphold ethical values. However, in the end one finds, it is violence and tragedy staring blankly. A sad and embittered king wants to know the secret of a majestic and noble life where, as a king, in case he ascends the throne, he performs his duties as if that were dharma. The grandsire tells him how best a king in difficulties can overcome financial or other crises. Here, it is also revealed that self-interest determines the depth of relations of all kinds. No bonds on earth exist without an element of self-interest and self-preservation. Every one of us works to that direction. This truth of ancient times told through the mouths of the mouse and cat is still so relevant. Nevertheless, alas, man refuses to accept this.

A wise man, even if weak, can work wonders if he utilizes his hidden powers of the intellect properly. During dangers to the self and the country at large, a person or a king should work for harmony and goodwill through negotiation, and keep in mind the words of Palit, the mouse.

As the king engages in a war with his intimate relations, he wants to get rid of the unfortunate dilemma. Perhaps in the mind, he believes that only the grandsire would be in a position to take him out of the present imbroglio where everything looks extremely uncertain and indefinite. He feels innumerable enemies surround him. No immediate escape route is visible he realizes.

He possibly knows the answers but still he wants to ask or maybe he is desirous of spending more time with a man who has even stopped the Lord of Death. It happens with all great souls, who know much more than the visible and still feign ignorance, for they want to know from another. Many a time, the great Bhisma with a rare humility tells Yudhishtra that he (Yudhishtra) understands the ways of the world in a more realistic and philosophic manner than anyone else but still to quench his unappeasable thirst, he goes on to advise him on various aspects of life including the art of statecraft.

Pitamahah listens to the words of anxiety and then, slowly recalls the tale of a mouse and the cat. It is predicament of a king surrounded by enemies. He is helpless and weak. He is confused whether he should fight or enter into a treaty. Even if he is powerful, it is not possible to fight with so many friends and relations, now turned enemies. He wants to know the duties of such a king. He understands that only Bhishma can give an authentic opinion because he is wedded to truth and dharma.

Showering love, the grand old man says, “Son, you have asked a right question. Not everyone knows what to do in moments of grave crisis. I will divulge the secret. Listen carefully.”

After a brief pause, he resumes, “Due to different reasons, a man becomes an enemy, and an enemy turns into a friend. In fact, this situation of foe-friend is not stable and keeps changing its position. One should circumspectly examine all aspects of one’s duties as enshrined in the regal dharma. If life is in danger, then one must take measures to protect it even if one has to agree to certain conditions predetermined by the enemy. That is why I want to relate an old story of a mouse and a cat living under a big peepal tree.”

If one goes into the import of the tale, one will understand its contemporary relevance with a difference. Here, faith and reposing faith have lost meaning. Self-interest matters a lot even if national interests are mortgaged.

That very old peepal tree was spread over a huge area. Many creepers and other plants grew over it, and the sacred tree provided shelter to many birds and other crawling insects, big or small. Its branches stretched everywhere and shadowed a vast area where anyone could retreat and enjoy as if in a sanctuary. Its shade provided solace and much-needed respite from heat. Many types of snakes and lizards, squirrels and magpies and numerous birds of various varieties relaxed on its branches. Near the roots of this large tree, a very wise mouse, named Palit, lived in a big hole, which had hundred doors. On one of its huge branches, there lived a cat named Lomesh. He filled his belly and lived happily by killing birds, which took shelter during the night.


For a long time, the routine did not trouble anyone. One day, a cruel hunter, a chandala with a net — a man of low karma who earns living by working in the cremation ground or graveyards or by hanging someone awarded death sentence, temporarily decided to camp in the jungle. He would often spread his net at sunset and go back to sleep in a hut nearby. During the night, many birds or other animals were often caught in the mesh. Early in the morning, the hunter would come, collect the animals or birds, and so made a fabulous living by selling meat. The cat often remained alert and took sufficient precautions to stay away from the net. However, one day, he was trapped in the net and all efforts to break open the strong thin ropes of the net proved futile.

Observing that the cat Lomesh was now facing the end of life, mouse Palit was happy and found pleasure in moving about in the jungle freely in search of food. Unfortunately, for him, he spotted many pieces of meat that the hunter had scattered within the area covered by the net.

Greed and hunger encouraged him. He immediately rushed to the pieces of meat and began to eat and relish. While enjoying meat, he was laughing within, at the miserable plight of his enemy Lomesh. At that moment, he saw another enemy Harin, a mongoose who lived nearby in a big hole. He smelt the presence of Palit, the mouse, and emerged out of its hole. Palit saw the mongoose with a watery tongue waiting to pounce upon him at an appropriate moment. When he looked above towards the tree, he found another enemy sitting on the branch of a tree. This foe, Chandrak, an owl, also lived in the hole of a big branch of the tree. Therefore, the poor mouse shivered with fear as he visualized a grave danger to his life, in case he committed a mistake and made a wrong move. Thus he, in fright, was lost in deep thought.

Palit was intelligent and, after a few moments, a thought occurred. If one faced a danger to life and safety, one must devise methods to protect oneself whatever may be the circumstances. Now, the situation was serious and there was likelihood of immediate death in such calamitous conditions he deliberated. An owl above and a mongoose below were now ready to attack.

‘If I get down,’ the mouse thought, the mongoose will devour and if I stay here, this owl Chandrak will eat me up. And if I cut the thin ropes of the net, this cat Lomesh will make me his food.’ The mouse kept on deliberating upon the dangers he was confronting from all sides. He was trying to assure himself that it was improper to get panicky. If death was the ultimate outcome of this tricky position, then it was better for a wise person to think of a way out. He thought of the dangers to the cat. As both were facing threats to life, the wise mouse thought of discussing the matter with the cat, a sworn enemy. One can discern the political acumen working in the minds of these living beings who spoke like human beings. It was total killing to make a livelihood and it was a thought to save life.

Lomesh was in danger. The owl and the mongoose were opportunists, and so they wanted to exploit the situation to their advantage. One knew that the cat was strong but now that he was in danger, perhaps, the mouse thought to try to win him over.

The mouse was quite aware of the selfish motive working in his mind but even then, he wanted to talk to the foolish cat. Now that Lomesh was in danger, he might agree to the proposal Palit thought. All wise men opine that in times of misfortunes there is no harm even if one has to strike a mutually satisfying bargain with an enemy for the sake of protecting one’s life. A battle of wits then begins. The weak are finally to act intelligently. For the strong are always correct even if they commit a murder. Palit knew this. Lomesh understood, and Harin and Chandrak watched silently the moves of Palit and Lomesh. The mouse thought of all probabilities and arrived at the conclusion that it was better to have a wise enemy than to believe in a stupid friend.

‘The cat is his avowed enemy, so I must offer help,’ thought the mouse and went to the cat.

Palit suggested to the cat, “Brother Lomesh, are you alive? I speak as a friend to you.” Like a foresighted fellow, he spoke, “I want you to be saved from the danger to your life. This act will benefit us. Brother, do not worry. You can live happily. If you do not kill me, I can protect you. It will be a salvation for you. After contemplating for a long time, I have thought over and here we are secure, for it benefits us. Look, the mongoose and the owl are ready to attack, and it will be a deadly ambush if we are not wary. I am safe, as they have not yet assaulted me. Listen to what the owl says ironically, and has no doubt fixed his eyes on me. I am afraid of this sinner. You can befriend noble people instantaneously.”

He continued, “You are wise and so you are my friend.

I am not afraid of you. I shall follow the principles of dharma faithfully in future. I know that without my help you cannot cut this net. Yes, if you do not kill me, I can cut it and free you. Therefore, I want that the love between us increases so that both live together. You know when a man crosses a river with the help of a staff he keeps the staff, on one side. Similarly, we can come to an understanding. I can save you from this imminent danger and you can also reciprocate.”

The reasons and arguments given by the mouse appeared quite rational and agreeable because there were advantages to them. The cat looked at his position, which was prone to danger. A solution had to be found soon, and so he praised the mouse quite generously. While looking at him, he said, “O good fellow, Palit, I am very happy that you wish to see me alive. At this time, I am in a grave danger. More than that, you are also facing a threat to life. In this calamitous situation, we must reconcile and find a possible solution to the dangers hovering around. I shall definitely try to do your work on time. I shall not forget your offer of help and charity. My self-respect is endangered and so I feel devoted to you. I have taken refuge under you and now whatever you say, I will agree.”

After listening to the prayerful words of Lomesh, Palit said in meaningful words, “At this moment, the mongoose is a terrible threat to me. I want to hide myself under you. You protect me but do not kill. On the other hand, an owl is also after my life. You should save me from him also. Afterwards, I shall cut asunder the net. This I say on oath.”

The words of the mouse were well reasoned. Lomesh looked at him in a cheerful gesture and welcoming him, he said with a feeling of forceful sociability, “Move fast and come here. God will help. You are dear to me like my life. At this time, mercy that you shower on me will save my life. You come here. Let us reach a favourable conciliation.” He was silent and after a pause said, “Brother, when I am free from this danger, I shall, with all my friends and relations, come forward and shall do beneficial work, and so I shall help you.”

Palit spoke in soft, mollifying words, “O noble fellow, after the danger is over, I shall strengthen the bonds of affection. When you do well to me, I shall also work towards your welfare. He, who does acts of charity, is a great fellow. Because if I do good to you after you have protected me from the claws of death, your deeds bestowing favours on me will still be quite huge.”

After explaining without reservations, the mouse swiftly moved out of his hole and sat in the lap of the cat. The cat behaved like a good friend and dispelled initial fears of Palit who now felt assured, as a child, feeling relaxed in the embrace of his mother, and therefore, had a deep sleep in the lap of Lomesh. When Harin (mongoose) and Chandrak (owl) found that the mouse had taken shelter in the secure embrace of Lomesh, they were quite disappointed and after sometime, they went to their respective places. The wise mouse was quite aware of the movement and spirit of the time and place. Therefore, he came out and sat on the back of the cat, and while waiting for the hunter, began to cut apart the stout threads of the net quite leisurely.

The cat was feeling hurt and bored by the net and its strong threads. He looked at the mouse and observed that he was not very quick in cutting the threads. Therefore, the cat was impatient and provoked the mouse saying, “Dear Palit, why don’t cut the threads quickly? See, that hunter must be on his way. Before he arrives, cut the net.”

On hearing this, Palit said, “Dear brother, don’t be frightened. I understand the movement of time. I will not fail you and at the right time, I will do correctly. The work, which is not done on time, is not good or beneficial to anyone. However, if the work is done at the right time, it is of great benefit.


If I cut the net asunder before time and set you free, it can cause fear from you. So wait for the exact time, and in the meantime, tell why you are in a hurry?”

After sometime, he said, “When I find that the hunter is coming along with the weapons towards us, exactly at that time, when I see fear in the eyes, I shall do it. At that time, out of fear of the hunter, you will climb up the tree and I will hide myself in the hole.”

After hearing the words of the mouse, the cat said, “A good man does the work of his friends with love and affection. He does not behave like you. Look, when I found you in difficulty, I saved you at once. Likewise, you must act speedily and help. This will be reciprocally valuable. Act in such a way as it helps us. If in ignorance I have done some wrong to you, please forget. I seek forgiveness. Please do not nurture ill-feelings about me.”

The mouse was wise and knew the politics of relations. He told the cat, “If one is afraid of a friend, one should do the work like a snake charmer who always makes the snake dance but saves himself. A weak person who does not take steps of suitable precautions and protection, while coming to an understanding with a strong person has his friendship with the powerful man like an indigestive food. One should leave the work half-done or incomplete for such a person. When the hunter arrives, you will only think of running away immediately, and at that time, you will not catch hold of me. I have cut off many threads of this net. Only one thread is left. You need not feel shaky. I shall cut it at the correct time.” There was anxiety and uncertainty. Those were tense moments. One is astonished at the words of mouse that plays the game shrewdly without annoying Lomesh.


The whole night was spent in talking to each other. Each one had his point of argument. Lomesh’s fear continued to increase each minute. In the morning Parigh, the hunter, was seen at a distance with weapons. He was looking like a messenger of Yama, the Lord of Death. Lomesh was very disturbed at the very appearance of Parigh. Sighting the hunter, the mouse quickly cut the last thread of the net. Freed from the net, the cat hurriedly climbed the tree, and, the mouse out of the paws of the cat quickly entered its hole. The hunter Parigh, finding no catch in the net, returned home saddened.

It was the wisdom of the mouse, which saved the two. However, it was not the end of the tale. It appeared the cat was hurt by the conduct of the mouse.

When they felt relaxed, seeing there was no danger to lives, Lomesh, the cat, sat on the branch of the tree and said to Palit, the mouse, hidden in the hole, “O brother! Without talking to me, why did you rush to the hole immediately? I am grateful to you. You have been very kind to me. Do you have any doubt about me? You reposed faith in me during the crisis and gave new life to me. Whatever your ability and strength was, you fully utilized it to help me. Now, I am your comrade and you should enjoy the pleasure of friendship with me. All my friends and relations will serve you like the disciples before a guru. Tell me, who could be that ungrateful man who would not respect a life giver? You are the lord of my body, my home and me. Whatever the property I have, you become its manager. You are very wise, so please accept the post of a minister and advisor, and like a father give good and upright guidance. I promise you. You should not fear me. In wisdom, you are like Shukracharya – the great guru of demons. With your wisdom you gave me another life and so I am under your obligation.”

The wise mouse listened to the glib talk of the cat, thought long and then said, “Dear brother, a man, when alive, serves another man with a feeling of self-interest and with the death of that man, the other suffers.

A relation turns into friendship and lasts longer until the ties do not oppose self-interest. Neither does friendship stay forever nor does enmity last longer. It is an element of self-interest or loss of it that makes friends and enemies respectively. At other moments, the nature of living conditions and time makes friends and foes when enemies turn friends and friends become enemies. A person who conducts himself according the dictates of religious doctrines (shastras Holy scriptures) and always believes his friends and reposes no faith in enemies or stays away from them, and keeping in mind the truism of religious books lives detached from human bonds and worldly life and shows no love to anyone, can be driven to a rootless living. Knowledge of the shastras does not mean that one should just live disinterestedly. While living on earth, one has to live among men sharing their joys and miseries. One must know a single truth that all human relations continue to thrive so long as self-interests exist among or between men. When interests no longer exist, relations suffer. A loss of self-interest, at any time, in any individual or relations, means the end of it giving birth to another. With the death of a relation, another is born and that is an eternal truth.”


Simple and soft words appeared surprising to the cat. The deep import of the words impressed Lomash. Palit was extremely wise and shrewd, he could imagine.

Palit continued, “Parents even abandon a son when he lives a degenerate life, and brings disgrace and shame to the family. Everybody in the world wants self-protection and so self-interest is the gist of life. This you must know. Everyone in the world protects himself, and this self-interest is the substance. All living being are tied up in self-interest. Love for another man is not without reason. However, fissures in relations develop among brothers, husbands and wives due to differences in opinion, and out of anger, they quarrel with one another yet a feeling of love remains. However, one does not have this love for others. There, the love is limited up to seeing and exchanging sweet words.” There was a prolonged silence. They observed each other with meaning, doubt and hopes.

He thought and added after a pause, “Love between us grew because of special reasons. Now, the reason is over and so affection is gone. Why you still love me, I fail to understand. The sentiments of amity and hostility are like floating clouds in the sky that take birth and die alternately. You can be my friend today and can be an enemy now. Earlier our relations were based on solid reasons. After the purpose is served, we are enemies again. Your difficulty is over, and the dangers I faced are no more. There is no other ground excepting that you kill and devour me. I am your food. I am weak and you are strong. Our strength is unequal. After being separated, conciliation is not possible. I know very well that you are hungry and this is the time of your meals. By enticing me, you want to eat up. That is why while sitting among the children and wife, you want to befriend me.”

For a while, a harsh truth unsettled the cat. Perhaps, the mouse spoke of the realities and principles of a truth, which living beings follow but still refuse to accept. Such facts and realities of life often silence many wise people who understand the basic instincts of nature governing the psychology of animals, birds, other living beings and men alike. That stark self-interest determines the depth of relations is an eternal truth.

Palit said and after a pause, “But friend, I do not possess the ability to serve you, which you have in mind. When your wife and children will find me sitting with you, they will gobble me up. Therefore, I cannot live with you. The reason for our getting together is dead. How, even a man with a little brain can go to an enemy who is cruel, suffering and hungry. Therefore, my brother, may God bless you. I go now. I fear you even from a distance.” He was quiet.

After a second, he said, “You may also go. If you know I have done any good to you, then keep fellow feelings alive and do not pounce upon me on finding a suitable opportunity.” After saying these words, he was quiet.

After a brief pause, he added, “If you have no self-interest, let me know, what I can do for you? I can give you everything but not self –this body. To safeguard the self, one can sacrifice even children, state, jewels, wealth and everything. Not only this, each living being should protect oneself by surrendering every bit of property. I have heard that a man, who lives after that, will earn everything that was lost.”

These bitter truths brought Lomesh close to the realities of life. If one looks at the ordinary behavior of a man or even a saint or a rich man, these peculiar characteristic cannot be eliminated. These make men survive. Those who claim they are saints, even they are also victims of self-interest, if examined in the light of human nature and general principles of life.

After listening to the blunt and plain truth, Lomesh felt humiliated and said, “Brother, I, on oath, say betrayal is bad. You helped me and so I understand your wisdom. You have talked of good policies in human conduct. I fully agree with you. You should not think otherwise. You gave me another life and became a friend. I also know dharma and admire virtues, and I express gratitude. Specially, love for you is immense. You should also reciprocate. If you say, I can sacrifice my wife, children and relations, you are right. All should trust wise men like us. So, you should not doubt.”

When the mouse heard so much praise, he told seriously, “You are truly a man of virtues. Whatever I heard from you, is correct. It has made me happy. But I cannot believe you.”

There was a long pause as probably different thoughts occupied the minds of the mouse and the cat.

Before the cat could say a word, the mouse fortified his argument as he resumed, “The great sage Shukracharya has spoken of two essential thoughts. When two enemies confront similar disasters, then the weak should with great caution strike some conciliation with the strong and when the menace or threat to life is over, he should not rely upon the strong. He who is not a confidante should never be believed, after a certain degree. Again, a person who tries to win the trust of others but does not repose faith in anyone should never be trusted.”

He stopped for a while, thought and then added, “Those who are apt in laying down principles of an ideal attitude and laws of policy also confirm this. Not to believe in the enemy is always gainful. Therefore, I must protect myself from living beings like you. Likewise, you should also shield yourself from the hunter, Parigh”.

The moment the cat heard the name of the hunter, it slipped away to another place and the mouse returned.

The lessons drawn are quite apparent. A wise man, even if weak, can work wonders if he utilizes his hidden powers of the intellect properly. During dangers to the self and the country at large, a person or a king should work for harmony and goodwill through negotiation, and keep in mind the words of Palit, the mouse. To believe someone blindly is foolishness, and it pushes the person to sufferings and to the ultimate death trap. If a man lives with courage and confidence, is not afraid of anybody, and demonstrates so, he should not totally abandon fears and suspicions within, for these will teach him the art of caution and watchfulness. One observes an intelligent striking of a note of compromise in hours of crisis that leads one to peace and harmony, which in the meantime, teaches a man intricacies of practical behavior and principles of religious conduct – dharma. It teaches a king the art of administering a country while serving the people justly with a spirit of dedication.


More by :  P C K Prem

Top | Hinduism

Views: 3405      Comments: 2

Comment We have all the dimensions to support us with a healthy state but, we are not realizing anything. A so called responsible section is infested with greed to such an extent that one of my friend said "Sir, if a politician is burnt (cremated) with all the Rs. 1000 notes he has stolen, there will be heaps of such notes after his cremation. What is the purpose of accumulation of such wealth ?

Vasan K S S
09-Jul-2013 20:11 PM

Comment An outstanding and incisive piece of writing. This stands in contrast to the concept of romantic glorification of love and sacrifice and propounds very significant existential realities; can be successfully applied to our intriguing matrix of relationship.

Taraprasad Mishra
02-Jun-2013 10:49 AM

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