With the rule of law violently challenged in our world today, a much-retold Indian story, the Mahajanaka Jataka, may offer perspective.
The Bodhisattva appeared in this tale as the prince of Mithila. His father, the king, was killed by a younger brother in a palace coup. The pregnant queen fled disguised as a poor woman, hiding some jewels in a packet of muddy rice.
Unused to the outside world, she trustingly asked passersby the way to the kingdom of Champa, the only faraway place she knew of. Her plight attracted the pity of Sakra (Indra), king of the Devas. He came by disguised as a man with a fine, cushioned cart and offered to take her to Champa, getting her there overnight by magic. The queen then went to bathe in the river. The enlightened being she carried made her glow and she caught the eye of a wise, kind priest, who, like Valmiki had once saved Sita, took her home as his adopted sister.
The Bodhisattva was born in safety and the queen named him Mahajanaka, meaning ‘Happy Outcome’ or ‘Fruitful’, after his royal grandfather. Though a bright, beautiful boy, the Bodhisattva was often taunted as ‘the widow’s son’. At 16, he made his mother tell him who his father was, which gave him confidence.
He took a portion of the jewels his mother had saved and took ship to Suvarnabhumi, the golden land across the Eastern Sea, to make his fortune in trade before he went to Mithila to win back his kingdom.
More than 350 people from seven caravans were crowded on board ship. When it hit a storm in the high seas, it began to flounder. The Bodhisattva filled his stomach with ghee and sugar to nourish him until heaven knew when, hastily rubbed oil over his limbs for insulation from cold sea water, climbed to the top of the mast and jumped as far as he could. In this way, he escaped the turtles and sharks circling the sinking vessel.
He swam back resolutely towards India, pouring all his energy into the effort. He did not stop trying, despite being alone in the ocean.
After seven long days, Manimekhala, the goddess of the Eastern Sea, deputed to save the deserving, returned from a visit to friends and spotted the Bodhisattva. She floated above him and, to test his worthiness, asked, “Unable to see the shore, why are you nevertheless trying to reach it?”
“Goddess, I know that effort is human duty. So though I cannot see the shore from the middle of the ocean, I won’t stop trying,” he answered.
Wishing to test him more, she said, “The ocean stretches much farther than you imagine. Your effort is useless, you are bound to die.”
The prince said, “Dear goddess, how can effort ever be useless? He who never gives up will have a clear conscience. He won’t be blamed, either by society or by the gods. Plans may succeed or fail. But knowing you did your best while you could is the reward.”
Pleased, the goddess whisked him ashore and, soon after, he won Mithila back.
(The views expressed are personal)