Saviour versus oppressor

devdutt pattanaikMother Teresa. For hundreds of thousands of people, the poorest of the poor, she is saviour. But for many scholars and journalists and politicians, who are atheists or simply not Roman Catholic, she is the oppressor. In a world where atheists mock everyone religious, the religious mock the liberals, where one religion thrives on rejecting other religions, such dual qualification is routine. You are saviour for some and oppressor for others, noble martyr for some and vile villain for others. Gandhi is seen so. Godse is seen so. Jinnah is seen so. Nehru is seen so. Modi and Kejriwal will also be seen so, considering the strong reactions they evoke among the Twitterati.

Mother Teresa
Illustration/Devdutt Pattanaik

Across the world, researchers have found a particular pattern in people. When shown the image of a tiger chasing the deer and asked who they would they save, most people reply they want to save the deer, not thinking that saving the deer would result in starvation and death for the tiger. Yet, when asked which animal would you like to be, most people would say they want to be the lion, the apex predator, ignoring the fact that it kills to survive. We want to save the prey, but we want to be the predator. We want to fight for the oppressed in our public lives, but we want to be the dominant one in our personal lives. We have these twin personalities that we are very often not aware of. So it is for public figures.

In Greek mythology, the hero fights for justice, standing up defiantly even against the gods. He is the model on which modern superheroes have been built. In Abrahamic mythology, the prophet gets everyone to align to God’s will, laying down his life and becoming a martyr in the process. We fight against what is wrong. We want people to do what is right. In the one, we become savior. In the other, we become the oppressor, as we impose our view of righteousness on others.

In Jain mythology, the Vasudeva who fights the Prati-vasudeva is the saviour. The Chakravarti who imposes his laws across his vast empire is willy-nilly, the oppressor, for his laws force people to behave in a certain way, restrained and contained, not able to be free. Only the wise Tirthankara can see that the two mean well but do not realise how each one create the other. The excesses of the Brahmin results in practices such as untouchability creating need for a missionary who speaks of helping the poorest of the poor, but on condition of conversion out of Hinduism, which in turn creates the need for the Hindutva activist who fights to save his religion from erosion. The excesses of the capitalist results in exploitation creating the need for the union leader whose repeated call for strikes creates economic chaos establishing the need for totalitarian regimes stifling freedom for the benefit of industrialists.

The farmer drove the tribals into forests so that he could farm all fertile land. Now the miners drive tribals out of forests to get access to the wood and the metal. Yet farming and mining is done not to hurt the tribals: It is done to provide resources to a society hungry for development. The oppressor for one is also the saviour for others. There is no escape from it, all desires for justice and fairness not withstanding, unless humans embrace wisdom and empathy. But these can be private goals not public objectives. So the conflict will continue as it has in the past, with psychological resolutions for few not social ones for all.

The author writes and lectures on relevance of mythology in modern times, and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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