The Palimpsest of Sawbones Surio

Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will

Beauty, beholder and its perceived value

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Whenever I hear or read phrases such as “valued at”, “it is worth <ABC>”, etc., I am reminded of a small story from one of our puranas, the Rāmāyaṇa: In a nutshell,

Rāmāyaṇa is a narrative of the life and times of Sri Ramachandra (considered an avatara of Lord Vishnu, who took this form in order to fulfill his role in Ravana’s destruction). Rama, is the eldest of four brothers. Sita is his wife. Due to the machinations of one of his father’s wives, Rama, along with Sita and his brother Lakshmana was sent to the forests in exile for a span of 14 years.

Here, events conspire in such a way that Ravana abducts Sita, and carries her off to Lanka, his kingdom. This sets the scene for Rama’s meeting of Hanuman, Jambhavan and Sugriva setting the scene for the epic crossing of the ocean and the equally epic battle between the monkeys led by Rama and Ravana’s army.

The anecdote I am about to narrate, is set while this battle is in progress. One day, after a particularly hairy day of fighting, a few monkeys got to talking with each other. “Tell me something”, said one of the monkeys nursing his wounds and his sore body, “why exactly have we come all this way, and risking life and limb, fighting day after day?”. The others replied, “You know what, we don’t know either!”. So they all went to Hanuman with this question. Hanuman admonished their ignorance and explained that the mission was to rescue Sita, that “jewel among women”(*), “the most holiest” and “the most beautiful”. So, the monkeys’ curiosity is picqued and they ask for “a glimpse” of this great lady once the war is won.

(*) Ironically, Ravana’s wife, Mandodari is described as a much more beautiful woman in Valmiki’s Ramayana. When Hanuman, the monkey messenger of Rama, comes to Lanka in search of Sita, he is stupefied by Mandodari’s beauty when he enters Ravana’s bed chambers and mistakes Mandodari for Sita.

After the war is won, Hanuman, remembering the request of the troops, requests Sita to visit their camps once, to which she readily acquieses. As she is inspecting the troops, one of the monkeys lamented loudly, “What!? Is this is the most beautiful jewel for whom we fought day after day?”. As the others turned towards him, he continued, “But how can she be termed beautiful. For she has no tail!. How can someone be considered beautiful, without a tail!”. Continuing, now with a misty look in his eyes, “Now, my wife……”. “She’s got the most beautiful tail in her village”. And, turning to the others, “You’ve all seen my wife right, so don’t you agree?”. To which there were loud assents and murmers of approval to the same.

Surio comments: So, whenever, I am being hard sold on anything…. with “scarcity” and “value” thrown with good measure, I always recall this story. Pop comes the moral behind the story.

All value is perceived value. All value is perceived value. All value is…

In today’s consumerist culture, this takes on much further significance. No matter what you are told about “the next best thing after sliced bread”, in any advert, remember, it only takes as much significance as you allow it to take (i.e., It may be the “most best jewel”, but does it have a tail? 😉 ). Remember, the power of believing or rejecting the spiel is within you!

Considering how significant Sita is to Hindu culture, I am always impressed at the foresight of including this incident within the puranic versions of the text and its re-telling of this to this date.

So, this latest iFad of yours, does it have a “tail”? :-D!


Written by Surio

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Posted in Musings, Philosophy

2 Responses

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  1. A useful reminder that our perceptions can so easily become limited by familiar experience.

    Apropos of little but Indian classics, a long, long time ago, I studied Sanskrit as part of a comparative linguistics course. Our text was a section of the Nala/Damayanti episode from the Mahabharata. The trouble is, now I can remember so little of it, except an impression of the great clarity of the language.

    Personally, I find value a very difficult idea to grasp. It seems to be one of those things which the more you think about it the less you understand it. No wonder it tends to be ignored by economists. Yet, as Buffett, said “Price is what you pay, value is what you get.”

  2. Salis,
    Nala/Damayanti is the classical frame-story/story within story that Indian classical literature has given to the World ;-).

    You’ve answered ermine’s point about Indians and their general anathema towards lottery/gambling.

    The major plot device for the Mahabharatha as well as the Nala/Damayanthi story was of course the game of dice and in each case the protagonists went through hell and high water for engaging in it, despite being told of the odds of winning and the “house takes the wins”. Most Hindu Indians in the work force now, invariably were told these stories while young — unsurprisingly, shy away from games of chance, lotteries being precisely that.

    Of course, you’ll find some Indians try to “face their fear” and act grown up by waving Bernstein’s book or the religion itself: “In the North, people gamble during Deepavali, so we are all culturally gambling addicts!”. But truth remains, lottery is economically unrewarding for most if not all participants (prizes go unclaimed sometimes).

    I’ll say more by and by//


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