In the Ramayana, Ram is educated by two teachers – Vasistha and Vishwamitra. And these two teachers are as different from each other as day and night. Vasishtha is one of the primal seven sages. He is associated with Vedic wisdom. After Ram completes his study, he travels around the world and returns disillusioned by the illusory nature of the world, uninterested in worldly life. Alarmed, his father Dasharatha sends for Vasistha who declares that this is a good thing for Ram is now ready to receive the ultimate wisdom of the Vedas. Then follows, for 21 days, narration known as the Yoga Vasistha in the king’s court, after which an enlightened Ram is at peace with worldly life having understood the true nature of reality. One of the lessons he learns is not to mistake correlation with causality: Just because a coconut falls from a tree when a crow alights on it does not mean the crow is the cause and the falling of the fruit is the effect. We often mistake events that may be coincidence to be causality and this is the cause of much sorrow in the world. Another lesson is how in turbulent waters the moon has many reflections just as in turbulent minds we see many versions of reality and not the truth.
Vishwamitra, however, is a very different kind of teacher. Born a king, he is a great warrior before he decides to become a sage. He drags Ram into the forest, ignoring Dasharatha’s protests. There he makes Ram kill the rakshasa demon lady, Tadaka, who disturbs his yagna. He then makes Ram bring back to life Ahalya, the wife of Rishi Gautama, who had been turned into stone on charge of adultery. Thus he makes Ram take life in one incident and give life in another. He tells Ram stories of his great family tree, of how Sagar is responsible for the creation of the ocean, and how Bhagirath is responsible for the river Ganga. Finally, he takes Ram to Mithila where Ram strings the bow of Shiva and wins the hand of Janak’s daughter, Sita, in marriage. With Vishwamitra, Ram does worldly things: Killing, rescuing, learning about his lineage and securing a wife who will help him keep his family tree alive. These are worldly concerns. Vasistha comes across as spiritual, while Vishwamitra comes across as material. Vasistha brings a wider perspective to Ram, while Vishwamitra brings an immediate focus. Both are valid.
The same idea is presented in a different way in the Mahabharata. Under Drona, the Pandavas receive material education: Archery that lets them fight wars and vanquish enemies. But only through Krishna do they gain spiritual wisdom, Vedic wisdom that explains the world to them, enabling Arjun to step out of despair and dilemma.
When you think about it, it is rather funny that in both Ramayana and Mahabharata, Vedic wisdom or spiritual wisdom enables the protagonists participate in worldly life.
The lessons of Vishwamitra and Drona may be practical and goal-driven but not enough to make them cope with moral and ethical issues that life brings our way.
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.