Friday, March 01, 2013


Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan journal had a very nice telling of the story that follows. It is one of the stories I remember from my childhood.  I found this narration on the web, there is a lot more commentary here,  but I just excerpt the story, with one or two minor modifications.

Sheela means "character/conduct" In the Indian traditions character is not separable from conduct.}

Sheelam pradhanam purushe,” says the Mahabharata, meaning character, or integrity, is the most important thing in man.  

Prahlada the Asura was then emperor of all the three worlds, conquered by the power of his integrity. As it always happens, Indra becomes jealous of Prahlada’s power and feels shaky – there is the threat of losing his throne to someone like the mighty Asura. For the throne of Indra belonged to the man who had the highest character, who performed the most difficult austerities. Indra assumes the form of a Brahmin and goes to Prahlada and serves him as a disciple, with the desire to learn from him the secret of his success. Prahlada tells him his success comes from his following the noble teachings of wise men. However, Indra still continues to serve Prahlada and eventually the Asura emperor, pleased with the devotion shown and the service rendered, asks his disciple to ask for a boon, not knowing he is Indra.

Initially Indra refuses politely, saying that all his desires have been fulfilled. But when Prahlada insists, he asks: “If you are pleased with me, Emperor, please give me your Sheel.”

Prahlada is shaken by the request, but he grants the boon since he had offered it: after all, that is what a man of integrity does. Indra accepts the boon and goes away.

Soon Prahlada sees a dazzlingly lustrous being emerging from his body and leaving him. When Prahlada asks him who he is, the being tells him that he is Sheela [Hindi: Sheel. Integrity], and he is leaving him because Prahlada has given him away. “I shall now happily live,” Sheela adds, “in the Brahmin to whom you have given me away.”

Soon Prahlada sees another radiant being emerging from his body. Asked who he is, the being introduces himself as Dharma: virtue and righteousness. After Dharma too leaves him, telling him he is going to join Integrity to live in the body of the Brahmin since he, Dharma, lives only where Integrity is. 

Soon Prahlada finds another effulgent being emerging from him, this time Satya, Truth, and then another, Vritta, Uprightness, and then yet another Bala, Strength, all leaving him one by one to live in the Brahmin, following Integrity.

Following Bala, it is a splendorous goddess that emerges from Prahlada’s body and when asked she tells him she is Shree, the goddess of wealth, prosperity, good fortune and all else that is auspicious. Shree tells Prahlada that she had on her own come and begun living in his body, but now she had no choice but to leave him, because she always followed Integrity, Virtue, Truth, Uprightness and Strength.

Answering Prahlada’s question, she also tells him the Brahmin was none other than Indra, Indra has robbed him of his Integrity and where Integrity is not, there can be no Dharma, no Truth, no Morality, no Strength and no wealth, prosperity or good fortune.

“dharmah satyam tatha vrttam balam chaiva tathapyaham
sheelabhoota mahaprajna sada nastyatra samshayah.”
- Mahabharata 12.124.62

Here is another narration, again with some minor changes:

"'Dhritarashtra said, 'In this connection, the following old narrative is cited. It was formerly recited by Narada on the subject of virtuous behaviour.

In days of yore, the Daitya Prahlada, by the merit of his behaviour, snatched from the high-souled Indra his sovereignty and reduced the three worlds to subjection. Sukra then, with joined hands, approached Vrihaspati. Possessed of great wisdom, the chief of the celestials addressed the great preceptor, saying, 'I desire thee to tell me what is the source of felicity.

Thus addressed, Vrihaspati said unto him that Knowledge (leading to emancipation) is the source of the highest felicity. Indeed, Vrihaspati indicated Knowledge to be the source of supreme felicity. Indra, however, once more asked him as to whether there was anything higher than that.

"Vrihaspati said, 'There is something, O son, that is still higher. The high-souled Bhargava (Usanas) will instruct thee better. Repair to him, blessed be thou, and enquire of him, O chief of the celestials!'

Possessed of great ascetic merit and endued with great splendour, the chief of the celestials then repaired to Bhargava and obtained from him with a ratified heart, a knowledge of what was for his great good. Obtaining the permission of the high-souled Bhargava, the performer of a hundred sacrifices once more asked the sage as to whether there was anything higher (as the means for the acquisition of felicity) than what the sage had already told him. The omniscient Bhargava said, 'The high-souled Prahlada has better knowledge.' Learning this, Indra became highly delighted.

The chastiser of Paka, possessed of great intelligence, assumed the form of a Brahmana, and repairing to Prahlada, asked him, saying, 'I desire to hear what conduces to felicity. Prahlada answered the Brahmana, saying, 'O chief of regenerate ones, I have no time, being wholly occupied in the task of ruling the three worlds, I cannot, therefore, instruct thee.'

The Brahmana said, 'O king, when thou mayst have leisure, I desire to listen to thy instructions about what course of conduct is productive of good. At this answer, king Prahlada. became delighted with that utterer of Brahma. Saying, 'So be it!' he availed of a favourable opportunity for imparting to the Brahmana the truths of knowledge.

The Brahmana duly observed towards Prahlada the conduct which a disciple should observe towards his preceptor, and began with his whole heart to do what Prahlada desired. Many a time the Brahmana enquired, saying, 'O chastiser of foes, by what means hast thou been able to win the sovereignty of the three worlds? Tell me, O righteous king, 'What those means are.' Prahlada, O monarch, answered the question the Brahmana asked.

"Prahlada said, 'I do not, O regenerate one, feel any pride in consequence of my being a king, nor do I cherish any hostile feelings towards the Brahmanas. On the other hand, I accept and follow the counsels of policy they declare unto Me based upon the teachings of Sukra. In complete trustfulness they say unto me what they wish to say, and restrain me from courses that are unrighteous or improper. I am ever obedient to the teachings of Sukra. I wait upon and serve the Brahmanas and my seniors. I bear no malice. I am of righteous soul. I have conquered wrath. I am self-restrained, and all my senses are under my control. These regenerate ones that are my instructors pour beneficial instructions upon me like bees dropping honey into the cells of their comb. I taste the nectar dropped by those learned men, and like the Moon among the constellations I live among the members of my race. 1 Even this is nectar on earth, even this is the clearest eye, viz., listening to the teaching of Sukra from the lips of Brahmanas and acting according to them. In these consists the good of a man.' Thus said Prahlada unto that utterer of Brahma.

Served dutifully by him, the chief of the Daityas once more said, 'O foremost of regenerate ones, I am exceedingly gratified with thee in consequence of thy dutiful behaviour towards me. Ask of me the boon thou desirest, blessed be thou, for verily I shall grant thee what thou wilt ask. The Brahmana answered the chief of the Daityas saying, 'Very well. I will obey thee.' Prahlada, gratified with him, said, 'Take what thou wishest.'

"The Brahmana said, 'If, the king, thou hast been gratified with me and if thou wishest to do what is agreeable to me, I desire then to acquire thy Sheel. Even this is the boon that I solicit. At this, though delighted, Prahlada became filled with a great fear. Indeed, when this boon was indicated by the Brahmana, the Daitya chief thought the solicitor could not be a person of ordinary energy. Wondering much, Prahlada at last said, 'Let it be so.' Having, however, granted the boon, the Daitya chief became filled with grief. The Brahmana, having received the boon, went away, but Prahlada, O king, became penetrated by a deep anxiety and knew not what to do.

While the Daitya chief sat brooding over the matter, a flame of light issued out of his body. It had a shadowy form of great splendour and huge proportions. Prahlada asked the form, saying, 'Who art thou?' The form answered, saying, 'I am the embodiment of thy Sheela. Cast off by thee I am going away. I shall henceforth, O king, dwell in that faultless and foremost of Brahmanas who had become thy devoted disciple.' Having said these words, the form disappeared and soon after entered the body of Sakra.

After the disappearance of that form, another of similar shape issued out of Prahlada's body. The Daitya chief addressed it, saying, 'Who art thou?' The form answered, saying, 'Know me, O Prahlada, for the embodiment of Dharma. I shall go there where that foremost of Brahmanas is, for, O chief of the Daityas, I reside there where Sheela dwells.'

Upon the disappearance of Dharma (Righteousness), a third form, O monarch, blazing with splendour, issued out of the body of the high souled Prahlada. Asked by Prahlada as to who he was, that form possessed of great effulgence answered, saying, 'Know, O chief of the Daityas, that I am Satya (Truth). I shall leave thee, following the way of Righteousness.'

After Truth had left Prahlada, following in the wake of Righteousness, another great person issued out of Prahlada's body. Asked by the Daityas king, the mighty being answered, 'I am the embodiment of Vritta (Good deeds). Know, O Prahlada, that 1 live there where Truth lives.'

After this one had left Prahlada, another being came out, uttering loud and deep cries. Addressed by Prahlada, he answered, 'Know that I am Bala (Might). I dwell there where Good deeds are.' 'Having said these words, Might went away to that place whither Good deeds had gone.

After this, a goddess of great effulgence issued out of Prahlada's body. The Daitya chief asked her and she answered him saying that she was Shree, the embodiment of Prosperity, adding, 'I dwelt in thee, O hero, O thou of prowess incapable of being baffled! Cast off by thee, I shall follow in the wake of Might.' The high-souled Prahlada, penetrated, with great fear, once more asked the goddess, saying, 'Where dost thou go, O goddess, O thou that dwellest amid lotuses? Thou art ever devoted to truth, O goddess, and thou art the first of deities. Who is that foremost of Brahmanas (who was my disciple)? I desire to know the truth.'

The goddess of Prosperity said, 'Devoted to the vow of Brahmacharya, that Brahmana who was instructed by thee was Sukra. O puissant one, he robbed thee of that sovereignty which thou hadst over the three worlds. O righteous one, it was by thy behaviour that thou hadst reduced the three worlds to subjection. Knowing this, the chief of the celestials robbed thee of thy behaviour. Righteousness and Truth and Good deeds and Might and myself, O thou of great wisdom, all have our root verily in Sheela.'

"Bhishma continued, 'Having said these words, the goddess of Prosperity went away, as also all the rest, O Yudhishthira!

Duryodhana, once more addressing his father, said these words: 'O delighter of the Kurus, I wish to know the truth about Behaviour. Tell me the means by which it may be acquired.'

"Dhritarashtra said, 'Those means were indicated by the high-souled Prahlada while discoursing unto Indra. Listen, however, O ruler of men, as how in brief Behaviour may be acquired. Abstention from injury, by act, thought, and word, in respect of all creatures, compassion, and gift, constitute behaviour that is worthy of praise. That act or exertion by which others are not benefited, or that act in consequence of which one has to feel shame, should never be done. That act, on the other hand, should be done in consequence of which o tie may win praise in society. O best of the Kurus, I have now told thee in brief as to what Behaviour is. If O king, persons of wicked behaviour do ever win prosperity, they do not enjoy it long, O son, and are seen to be exterminated by the root.'