Does One Man’s Mistake Make Many Culprits?

By Gauranga Darshan Das - 6.5 2024

It’s natural to be angry with a person who hurts us. If the pain caused by someone’s actions is too severe, one might even consider punishing them. But how appropriate is it to condemn or punish an entire community or family for one person’s mistake? Here are some examples from Srimad Bhagavatam to explore more on this topic.

Overstepping While Avenging Brother’s Death

Once, king Dhruva’s younger brother Uttama went on a hunting excursion and was killed by a powerful Yak?a in the Himalaya Mountains. Overwhelmed with lamentation and anger, Dhruva got on his chariot and went out to attack Alakapuri, the city of the Yaksas. A fierce battle took place between Dhruva and Yaksas and at one point the Yaksas fled from the battlefield. Doubting his mystic enemies, vigilant Dhruva held his ground and did not retract. As predicted, the Yaksas attacked Dhruva with many bewildering illusions. Then, great sages appeared and prayed for the well-being of Dhruva. They reminded him of the Narayana weapon. Thus, with the Narayanastra, Dhruva destroyed all the illusions created by the Yak?as. Bouncing back with full force, Dhruva began to indiscriminately kill the Yaksas, almost to the point of destroying their entire race.

Seeing his grandson Dhruva’s overstretched spirit of punishment, Svayambhuva Manu approached him and said, “My dear Dhruva, enough! Excessive anger (atirosa) is the sinful path of ignorance. It doesn’t befit our dynasty, and especially you, who are destined to achieve the Lord’s abode. It has been proved that you are affectionate to your brother and are aggrieved about his death. But for the fault of one Yaksa, you are killing many. May I remind you, these Yaksas are not the killers of your brother for the Supreme Lord is the ultimate cause of birth and death. Please note that your overreaction to one man’s mistake has been very disrespectful to Kuvera, the king of Yaksa race. You should immediately pacify him.”

Svayambhuva Manu, the first progenitor of mankind, condemned this attitude and the act of punishing an entire race for one person’s mistake. Even devotees are subjected to undue anger at times. This is the nature of anger. If unchecked, it can keep increasing endlessly. By remaining in good association and under the guidance of mature devotees, one can check the force of anger and its actions. Devotees humbly give up anger upon receiving correction and guidance from another devotee.

Thereafter Dhruva apologized and pacified Kuvera. And being pleased with Dhruva, Kuvera granted him the benediction of unflinching faith in and remembrance of the Supreme Lord.

Lose Nerved While Defending Master’s Honor

Once all the sages, demigods, fire-gods and other leaders of the universe assembled to perform a thousand-year sacrifice. Daksa Prajapati, the expert and chief progenitor, entered that great assembly. Seeing him, everyone except Lord Brahma and Lord Siva stood up in respect. Daksa offered obeisances to his father Brahma. But seeing Siva sitting without showing him respect, Daksa was enraged.

On the pretext of speaking about good manners and culture of respect, Daksa criticized Lord Siva, “This Siva is shameless and proud. He married my daughter and thus accepted himself as my subordinate. He is impure, unclean, mad and the master of ghosts in ignorance.”

Vaisnava culture teaches us to be humble and not to expect respect for oneself. But proud and envious people desire respect and worship for themselves. They however, do not offer the same to others.

Due to his deep-rooted envy, Daksa cursed Siva, “May this Siva not have a share in the sacrificial oblations.” Daksa then angrily left the assembly in spite of the requests of assembly leaders.

Nandisvara, the devout servant of Lord Siva, became angry due to Daksa’s behavior. He cursed Daksa and all his brahmana supporters who tolerated his impudence. He angrily uttered, “Let Daksa have the head of a goat shortly and his followers continue in samsara, remaining attached to material activities.” Thus, Nandi condemned not only Daksa for his offense, but extended his anger to the brahmanas as well for being on Daksa’s side.

Triggered by Nandi’s angry outburst against all brahmanas, sage Bhrgu counter cursed. He cursed not only Nandi, but the entire clan of Lord Siva’s followers: “Let the followers of Lord Siva become atheists, be diverted from scriptural injunctions, become addicted to wine, flesh and take shelter of heretical views.”

Seeing the atmosphere surcharged with intense vibrations of anger, Lord Siva became morose and left the place. He found this a better way to stop the cursing and counter cursing. Pride, envy and resultant anger makes one blaspheme and offend exalted personalities. But great souls exemplify the quality of tolerance even in provoking situations.

Supporting and siding with a bad person is a mistake. But everyone who is circumstantially on the side of a bad person need not be bad. Therefore, one shouldn’t condemn an entire group for the mistake of one or few persons in that group. For instance, Bhismadeva circumstantially sided evil Duryodhana and fought against the virtuous Pandavas and Lord Krsna. But Bhisma was a pure devotee of Krsna and knowing this very well, Krsna gave him His darsana at the time of Bhisma’s departure.

Overlooking An Overreaction

Once King Pariksit was fatigued and thirsty while on a hunting excursion to the forest. In search of water, he entered the hermitage of sage Samika. Pariksit asked him for some drinking water but the sage who was absorbed in meditation, didn’t respond. The King felt unwelcomed and momentarily angry. With his bow, he placed a dead snake on the sage’s shoulder as a gesture of return for a cold welcome. He then left for his palace.

Shortly thereafter, Srngi the son of the hermit, came to know about these events at their hermitage. Being an immature boy, he arrogantly cursed Pariksit to die in seven days by the biting of a snake-bird. Short-sighted Srngi couldn’t understand the severity of his punishment and its grave implications. Finding out about his son’s thoughtless overreaction towards the sinless King, Samika Rsi regretted the curse. He prayed to the Supreme Lord to pardon the impudence of his son.

Anger and arrogance in people who possess power cause undue disturbances to others. Power without self-control turns out to be destructive.

Meanwhile in his palace, Pariksit contemplated on his act and repented for his misbehavior towards the sage who he realized was in trance. He condemned himself for offending a brahmana. He not only expected a punishment for his mistake, but also desired a punishment, so that he wouldn’t repeat such mistakes and his family members do not suffer due to his offenses.

The world can conveniently blame innocent family or friends of a wrongdoer simply held guilty by association. Thus, those who are connected to the culprit are also sometimes condemned or doubted. Being a sincere person, Pariksit took full responsibility for his mistake. He didn’t want his family members or any other person to suffer on account of his personal slipup.

As Pariksit was repenting thus, a student of Samika Rsi named Gauramukha arrived at the palace. He informed Pariksit with deep embarrassment that he was cursed to die in seven days. Hearing this, Pariksit didn’t become angry or impulsive to counter curse Samika or Srngi. A powerful devotee never misuses power out of momentary anger or condemn an entire race for one person’s impulsive behavior.

The punishment that Pariksit received was inappropriate and highly disproportionate to the insignificant mistake he had done. But being a mature devotee, Pariksit happily welcomed the curse as a blessing in disguise. He considered it an opportunity to retire from royal life and dedicate himself fully to the lotus feet of Lord Krsna. Though one brahmana boy Srngi cursed Pariksit severely, Pariksit didn’t condemn the entire brahmana race. Rather he took the association of several brahmanas on the banks of sacred Ganges and accepted another brahmana boy Sukadeva Gosvami as his guru, heard Srimad Bhagavatam from him and perfected his life!

Overreaching Reply to Father’s Death

After Pariksit heard the Bhagavatam for seven days, as cursed by Srngi, Taksaka, the infamous bird-snake bit him. The body of the great self-realized rajarsi Pariksit immediately burnt to ashes by the fire of the snake’s poison. With everyone astonished, a terrible cry all over the universe echoed.

Janamejaya, son of Pariksit, became extremely angry at his father’s death by the snake bite. He resolved to perform a mighty sacrifice to offer all the snakes in the world into the sacrificial fire. Because of one snake’s bitting his father, Janamejaya wanted to destroy all the snakes in the entire world! As Janamejaya’s fire sacrifice begun, many snakes were falling into that sacrificial fire. Taksaka however, was not to be seen. Janamejaya inquired from the brahmanas the reason for this. The brahmanas replied that Indra was protecting Taksaka. Because Taksaka out of fear approached Lord Indra and took his shelter.

Unrelenting Janamejaya then asked his priests to make Taksaka, along with his protector Indra, fall into the sacrificial fire. The powerful priests then chanted mantras for offering Taksaka together with Indra and the entire band of demigods as an oblation into the sacrificial fire. As a result, Indra, along with his airplane and Taksaka were thrown from their positions, and Indra became very disturbed.

Seeing the plight of Indra, Brhaspati came and spoke to King Janamejaya, “This king of snakes has drunk the nectar of the immortal demigods. Consequently, he is not subject to the ordinary symptoms of old age and death. Please understand that life, death and afterlife are all caused by oneself through one’s own activities. No other agent is actually responsible for creating one’s happiness and distress. When someone is killed by snakes or thieves, that person is just experiencing the reaction to their own past work. Please stop this sacrifice intended of do harm to others. Many innocent snakes have already been burned to death. Remember, all persons must suffer the unforeseen consequences of their own past activities.”

When Brhaspati advised Janamejaya in this way, Janamejaya humbly honored his words and desisted from performing the snake sacrifice. He was aggrieved due to his beloved father’s death, and became angry, but upon receiving the suggestions and counsel of an exalted brahmana, he gave up his anger.

Even great souls might succumb to extreme emotions at times, but they are humble enough to admit their mistakes, rectify them and not repeat them.

A Balanced Outlook

Drawing inspiration from the above cases, when we encounter people who commit mistakes, we need to be careful not to label their communities or families as sinful or partners in the crime. And not overstep or overreach with our response! However, we also need to understand that when we ourselves commit a mistake, our families or organizations that we belong could be condemned, lose reputation or even be liable for punishment.

Due to Indra’s mistake of offending Durvasa by dishonoring his garland, all the demigods lost their positions in heaven. On another instance, Indra neglected to welcome his guru Brhaspati, consequently all the demigods eventually lost of their opulence. So, one should be careful not to cause difficulties or ill reputation to one’s community, family or institution, by inattentive and inappropriate behaviour.

We need to conduct ourselves with integrity and responsibility, and try to carefully avoid conduct which may be deemed inappropriate. One person’s mistake could turn out to be a black spot on an entire community and become a cause of unnecessary problems to a larger group of innocent bystanders or future generations.