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“Sheelam pradhanam purushe,” says the Mahabharata

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  • “Sheelam pradhanam purushe,” says the Mahabharata

    “Sheelam pradhanam purushe,” says the Mahabharata, meaning character, or integrity, is the most important thing in man.

    Where Integrity is not, there can be no Dharma, no Truth, no Morality, no Strength and no wealth, prosperity or good fortune.

    “dharmah satyam tatha vrttam balam chaiva tathapyaham
    sheelabhoota mahaprajna sada nastyatra samshayah.” - Mahabharata 12.124.62

    Where there is no Integrity, there is no Divine grace too. When Dharama, Truth, Morality, is absent, Divine Grace also will not be there.

    After the Mahabharata war is over, while Bheeshma is lying on the bed of arrows waiting for an appropriate time to die, Krishna sends the victorious Yudhishthira to his grandsire to learn about life, about human nature and about leadership from the dying man who was a master of every major branch of knowledge known to man then. One of the questions that Yudhishthira asks Bheeshma is about the importance of sheela to a leader. Though sheela is commonly translated as character, integrity is a better translation. In any case, character at its heart means integrity.

    In response to Yudhishthira’s answer, Bheeshma refers to a discussion between his cousin and rival Duryodhana, now dead, and his father Dhritarashtra that took place soon after Yudhishthira’s rajasuya.

    Such was the glory of Yudhishthira when he performed the rajasuya sacrifice that it would have incited envy in anyone. During the sacrifice, eighty thousand Brahmin scholars were his guests throughout the sacrifice and arrangements had been made for the stay of each of these scholars in a lavish house, each of them provided with thirty beautiful slave girls. Ten thousand other Brahmins were royally fed every day in the palace, the food served in dishes of pure gold. Precious gifts had come from every corner of the known world, kings lining up before Yudhishthira’s palace in miles-long queues day after day with gifts in the form of jewels, diamonds and other precious stones, priceless clothes and furs, weapons and vehicles, and heaps and heaps of gold. One king had come with a gift of a thousand slender-waisted, beautiful young girls, of exquisite complexion, their skins without a blemish and shining, all highly talented in the arts of serving men, all decked in gold and jewels! It was acknowledged openly: no ruler on earth possessed wealth comparable to Yudhishthira’s. His wealth then exceeded the wealth of the Himalayas, of the oceans and of all the mines of gold and jewels in the world together, says the Mahabharata. And the person whom Yudhishthira had made in charge of receiving the gifts was none other than Duryodhana himself – Duryodhana who hated Yudhishthira’s very existence! Duryodhana’s jealousy knew no bounds and he confesses it openly to his father.

    Dhritarashtra tells his intemperate son that if he wanted to attain wealth similar to Yudhishthira’s, he should first cultivate character, integrity. Shree, the goddess of wealth, stays only with men who have integrity. To illustrate his point, Dhritarashtra tells Duryodhana an ancient story about Narada and Prahlada.

    Prahlada the Asura was then emperor of all the three worlds, conquered by the power of his integrity. As it always happens, Indra becomes jealous of Prahlada’s power and feels shaky – there is the threat of losing his throne to someone like the mighty Asura. For the throne of Indra belonged to the man who had the highest character, who performed the most difficult austerities. Indra assumes the form of a Brahmin and goes to Prahlada and serves him as a disciple, with the desire to learn from him the secret of his success. Prahlada tells him his success comes from his following the noble teachings of wise men. However, Indra still continues to serve Prahlada and eventually the Asura emperor, pleased with the devotion shown and the service rendered, asks his disciple to ask for a boon, not knowing he is Indra.

    Initially Indra refuses politely, saying that all his desires have been fulfilled. But when Prahlada insists, he asks: “If you are pleased with me, Emperor, please give me your character, your integrity.”

    Prahlada is shaken by the request, but he grants the boon since he had offered it: after all, that is what a man of integrity does. Indra accepts the boon and goes away.

    Soon Prahlada sees a dazzlingly lustrous being emerging from his body and leaving him. When Prahlada asks him who he is, the being tells him that he is Sheela [Hindi: Sheel. Integrity], and he is leaving him because Prahlada has given him away. “I shall now happily live,” Sheela adds, “in the Brahmin to whom you have given me away.”

    Soon Prahlada sees another radiant being emerging from his body. Asked who he is, the being introduces himself as Dharma: virtue and righteousness. After Dharma too leaves him, telling him he is going to join Integrity to live in the body of the Brahmin since he, Dharma, lives only where Integrity is. Soon Prahlada finds another effulgent being emerging from him, this time Satya, Truth, and then another, Vritta, Uprightness, and then yet another Bala, Strength, all leaving him one by one to live in the Brahmin, following Integrity.

    Following Bala, it is a splendorous goddess that emerges from Prahlada’s body and when asked she tells him she is Shree, the goddess of wealth, prosperity, good fortune and all else that is auspicious. Shree tells Prahlada that she had on her own come and begun living in his body, but now she had no choice but to leave him, because she always followed Integrity, Virtue, Truth, Uprightness and Strength.

    Answering Prahlada’s question, she also tells him the Brahmin was none other than Indra, Indra has robbed him of his Integrity and where Integrity is not, there can be no Dharma, no Truth, no Morality, no Strength and no wealth, prosperity or good fortune.

    “dharmah satyam tatha vrttam balam chaiva tathapyaham
    sheelabhoota mahaprajna sada nastyatra samshayah.” - Mahabharata 12.124.62

    concluding his story, Dhritarashtra tell his jealous son that even if a man without integrity achieves prosperity, it would soon leave him since Shree cannot stay where there is no Integrity.

    “Learns from this story and practice what it says,” Bheeshma tells Yudhishthira concluding the story about the importance of integrity to a leader.

    Yudhishthira sums up the lesson he has learnt from his grandsire: Sheelam pradhanam purushe. Integrity is the most important thing in man.