COVID spotlighted the question that is at the back of everyone’s mind – who will be there for me when I need someone the most? Devdutt Pattanaik tells us an ancient story from the Vedas of a young boy who was abandoned by everyone he trusted. 

Hinduism’s most ancient texts, the Vedas tell the story of a young boy called Sunahshepa.The story begins with a king who is very ill. He invokes a god and offers to sacrifice his son if cured. The god cures the king, but the ruler now hesitates to offer his son. He consults his ministers, and they come up with a way out: adopt a son and sacrifice the adopted son. The king likes the idea. Proclamations are sent across the land. The king wants a son, messengers and heralds put out the word.

Everyone is excited. Who doesn’t want their son to become a prince? But as soon as they hear what is to follow – the dark condition – they recoil in horror. Give up our son to be executed? No, never! After great difficulty, the king’s men find one man who says he is willing to give up his son. When he presents himself at the palace, the king asks, ‘Why are you giving your son away?’ The man replies, ‘I’m very poor and have no food to eat. And you are promising us a thousand cows. It will change our fortunes.’

The king is still dissatisfied. ‘But you’re giving up your son,’ he says. ‘Can you live with that?’ The man says, ‘I have three sons. The eldest son is dear to me, the youngest is dear to the mother. This one in the middle, we can spare.’

And so the boy, Sunahshepa, is taken to the sacrificial altar. But now arises another complication. The priests refuse to go ahead. They say, ‘We cannot sacrifice a human being. We will sacrifice an animal, a plant, but a human, this cannot be done.’ ‘Why don’t you do it?’ they ask the king.

And the king says,‘I don’t want to do it either.’ He decides that he will give another thousand cows to anyone who sacrifices the boy. The boy’s father returns and says he would be happy to do it. The king looks at the father in disbelief. ‘The first time your excuse was poverty. What’s your excuse this time,’ he asks.

Sunahshepa is listening to this conversation. He thinks to himself in despair, ‘I have been abandoned by my father. I’ve been abandoned by my king, and a god wants me as sacrifice. Where do I go? Who do I cry out to? Who will come to my rescue? The people who are supposed to take care of me – my family, the state, and even god – seem to be against me.’ He feels hopeless.

What happened to Sunahshepa? The story goes that the gods finally intervened and saved his life. I have always found this story deeply powerful – the boy’s utter helplessness and aloneness embody the emotions all of us feel in our time of darkness. Who is there for me? Will anyone help? What can I do?

Sunahshepa embodies the feeling of hopelessness of a child who when abandoned looks for the support of others, especially the almighty, to survive. Is that god within us? Are we to save Sunahshepa? Or are we Sunahshepa?

Let Devdutt help you navigate through the post pandemic world and feelings of hopelessness that we are all going through in his latest book – Hope: Wisdom to Survive in A Hopeless World. 



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