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Guilty Conscience Is An Infallible Teacher

A guilty conscience is a mental drag, a psychic liability. But it seems to have one great merit: it is also an infallible teacher. It has an uncanny knack of picking up the right message from a vague clue, an oblique hint or even a monosyllabic utterance. This is amply illustrated by an Upanishadic story.

The celestials, humans and demons once betake themselves to Prajapati for spiritual instruction. To the celestials, who go to him first, Prajapati imparts his cryptic instruction in a single syllable, da. To the humans, who approach him next, Prajapati repeats the same monosyllable as his special teaching. The demons also get their message encapsulated in the mysterious syllable. All of them return to their abodes immensely satisfied with the profound instruction given to them.

What is the message that the three distil from the enigmatic instruction? The celestials revel endlessly in sense pleasures, of which there is no dearth in heaven. Their indulgence is so unrestrained that they hear their pricking conscience expostulating against their excesses. It makes them interpret the syllable to mean dama, or sense-control, and they conclude that Prajapati was enjoining them to control their senses.

The demons are notorious for their extreme cruelty, bereft of even a trace of pity. Deep inside they feel their gnawing conscience reproving them for their ruthlessness. It causes them to construe the syllable as indicative of daya, or compassion, and they think Prajapati was counselling a modicum of mercy in their dealings with others.

Humans are known for their greed. They love to acquire and amass things, rather irrationally. The ‘still, small voice within’ keeps admonishing them for their ugly avarice. Naturally, they understand the teaching to be dana, or charity, and they deduce that Prajapati was recommending to them the virtue of generosity.

Source -  excerpts from an article titled 'Greed' by N Hariharan in the May 2004 edition of Prabuddha Bharata magazine.