By Aarti Johri
Hindu mythology is overflowing with tales. From the epics, to the Puranas, to folk lore, each family has its own endless treasure. My own favorite is a no-name one, or one that my mother would simply call “Asha, Pyaas, Neend, Bhook”. This translates in English to “Hope, Thirst, Sleep, Hunger”.
The story is a simple one, with a powerful message. It goes like this.“Once upon a time there lived a kind king and queen in a perfect kingdom with their son. The subjects were happy and life was peaceful in the palace. One day, a neighboring ruler overthrew the king. They imprisoned the king and queen in the darkest dungeon, and, not content with that, they banished the young prince, warning him never to return to the kingdom. The poor prince was blindfolded and left in the middle of the forest. When he got rid of his blindfolds he looked around, unable to make much of his surroundings. He started walking aimlessly until suddenly he felt a thorn prick him painfully. Bending down he picked the thorn out of his foot. When he looked up, he was surprised. He had believed he was alone in this thick forest, but there were four young maidens standing in front of him. “Who are you prince, and which one of us were you bowing to?” they asked. The prince replied “Why don’t you introduce yourselves first? I will then explain who I am, and tell you who I bowed to”. The first sister said “My name is Bhook (Hunger), and if you bowed to me, then you shall never feel hunger, no matter how long you have not eaten”. The second sister said “Well my name is Pyaas (Thirst) and if you bowed to me, you will never know thirst, no matter how long you have not had water”. The third sister said “My name is Neend (sleep) and if you bowed to me, no matter how weary your journey, and how long you have gone without rest, you will not need sleep. “Remarkable”, said the prince, these are all wonderful attributes to have. But what about your youngest sister, what is her name”. The shy maiden responded, “My name is Asha, which means hope- so if you if bowed to me, no matter how difficult a situation you find yourself in, you will never lose hope”. “Well then”, replied the intelligent young prince, “I bowed to you, for without hope, living is impossible; with hope, anything can be overcome”.
Needless to say, the brave and hopeful young prince soon returned to his father’s kingdom, overthrew the usurpers and reestablished his father’s reign. The story ends with the prince living “happily ever after” with his new bride, of course, Asha.
I was sharply reminded of this story a month ago when I attended a conference on the crisis of Global Poverty and Human Rights at Stanford. This conference was held to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While a key attraction to the conference was Amartya Sen’s keynote address; the opening address by Thomas Nazario was unforgettable. A picture is worth a thousand words, and Thomas Nazario used that notion to the best of its ability. The audience was forced to witness slide after slide of abject poverty and misery, pictures that one wished to avert one’s eyes away from; not only because they were so horrific but because they filled you with shame.
Nazario is founding director of The Forgotten International, a non-profit dedicated to alleviate global poverty and suffering. Breaking the myth that the world’s highest poverty is in Africa, he stated it is actually in Asia. Even more surprising is that India has the highest poverty in Asia. This is dismal statistics indeed, for the world’s next superpower hopeful. Even grimmer was the anecdote related by Nazario. He related a conversation with a Member of India’s Parliament about the deplorable state of poverty in the country and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. The response he received was “Oh, I know about those 200 million people; they contribute nothing to the country, and frankly if they were all to wake up tomorrow and die, there would be none happier than me”. Of course, Nazario withheld the name of the MP, the callousness of the attitude said enough. The MP had perhaps given up hope of ever bettering the lot of India’s poverty stricken.
Hunger is probably the biggest enemy of hope. Not everyone is fortunate like the prince in our story to have hope on his side; and the powers to vanquish hunger, sleep, and thirst as close allies. But if we agree with Amartya Sen that “human rights” is indeed a legitimate concept; and if like Martin Luther King Jr. we too “… have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits."; it would be hard to turn away from this issue, wishing it would just disappear one morning. We each have the ability to alleviate someone’s hunger, to help someone sleep on a full stomach, to offer hope in one person’s life. We have several options, local shelters, established charities, and international foundations. Just like the young prince with a thorn in his foot, we just need to look up and make the choice.