Mother Teresa. For hundreds of thousands of people, the poorest of the poor, she is saviour. But for many scholars and journalists and politicians, who are atheists or simply not Roman Catholic, she is the oppressor. In a world where atheists mock everyone religious, the religious mock the liberals, where one religion thrives on rejecting other religions, such dual qualification is routine. You are a saviour for some and oppressor for others, noble martyr for some and vile villain for others. Gandhi is seen so. Godse is seen so. Jinnah is seen so. Nehru is seen so. Modi and Kejriwal will also be seen so, considering the strong reactions they evoke among the Twitterati.
Across the world, researchers have found a particular pattern in people. When shown the image of a tiger chasing the deer and asked who they would they save, most people reply they want to save the deer, not thinking that saving the deer would result in starvation and death for the tiger. Yet, when asked which animal would you like to be, most people would say they want to be the lion, the apex predator, ignoring the fact that it kills to survive. We want to save the prey, but we want to be the predator. We want to fight for the oppressed in our public lives, but we want to be the dominant one in our personal lives. We have these twin personalities that we are very often not aware of. So it is for public figures.
In Greek mythology, the hero fights for justice, standing up defiantly even against the gods. He is the model on which modern superheroes have been built. In Abrahamic mythology, the prophet gets everyone to align to God’s will, laying down his life and becoming a martyr in the process. We fight against what is wrong. We want people to do what is right. In the one, we become saviour. In the other, we become the oppressor, as we impose our view of righteousness on others.
There is no escape from it, all desires for justice and fairness notwithstanding, unless humans embrace wisdom and empathy.
Devdutt Pattanaik is an Indian physician turned leadership consultant, mythologist, author and communicator whose works focus largely on the areas of myth, religion, mythology, and management.