Test of Virtue
The Last Supper – Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) – Santa Maria delle Grazie
In the years before institutional justice systems(any form of them we would recognize, anyway), people invoked the gods, and stories about them promoted desirable behavior within the community. Regardless of one’s personal belief in gods and their power, they were useful social tools.
Whereas the Christian God is an all-seeing enforcer of good manners, however, polytheistic religions had more human-sized figures. A Christian says, “God is watching and he is everywhere.” A Greek cannot say the same of Zeus, protector of strangers.
So, the idea that a god could be hiding anywhere, watching you without your knowledge, becomes a common means to the same end.
Greek Mythology: Baucis and Philemon
One such story belongs to the Roman poet Ovid. In his Metamorphoses, he writes of Baucis and Philemon.
Hermes and Zeus decide for reasons unknown to become itinerant wanderers in Phrygia, a region in modern-day Turkey. They travel from door to door for lodging without success. “All the doors [are] bolted/ and no word of kindness given.” Finally, they stumble upon Baucis and Philemon, an old, destitute couple.
No questions asked, they invite the gods in and spoil them. They pull out the table linens they reserve for holidays, cabbage, bacon, plums, and wine. Based on the humble thatch of the cottage and the linens’ ragged cloth, Baucis and Phileomon must be providing everything in their larders.
Due to one detail, they realize that their new friends are not mere travelers: no matter how much wine the four of them drink, it never runs out. Immediately, they fall over themselves to find a proper sacrifice, apologizing for the simpleness of their home and food. They chase their prize goose about the room, but the goose outlasts their aged legs and flees to Zeus and Hermes.
The gods command Baucis and Philemon to cease, and they, in fact, compliment the two for their generosity. They ask them to accompany them to a nearby mountain, where they will cast down retribution on their wicked neighbors.
From the summit, Zeus and Hermes flood the valley below. Big-hearted Baucis and Philemon weep for their friends, as wicked as they were. But when the water subsides, their sorrow turns to awe. Their house has been transformed. “Where first the frame was fashioned stakes/columns of marble glistened, and the thatch gleamed golden in the sun, and legends carved/ adorned the doors. And all the ground shone white with marble rich.” Their hovel is now a temple.
The gods turn to them and ask, “Now tell us, good old man and you his wife / worthy and faithful, what is your desire?” This is an extension of ancient Greek guest rites. At the end of a visit, host and stranger would exchange gifts.
Philemon gathers his wife’s counsel first, then asks that they be named caretakers of the new temple for the rest of their days. And, he adds, let the same hour take them both. Let them die without seeing the tomb of their beloved or heaping the earth above it.
And so it was.
Hinduism: Krisha, the Wealthy Family, and the Poor Widow
In Hinduism, Krishna is one of its most revered divinities. He is the eighth avatar of the god Vishnu, merely one face that the four-armed deity assumes. There’s an absurdity, then, to the idea of Krishna posing as someone else. It’s like wearing a mask on top of a mask.
The following is drawn from a passage by Swami Tyagananda in the book Hosting the Stranger: Between Religions (page 148-149).
Krishna and his friend Arjuna travel as wandering mendicants, healers who live on the road and survive on alms from patients. They encounter a wealthy family. The family gladly offers shelter and food that matches their standard of living. As a parting gift, Krishna blesses them with continued prosperity and material abundance
After traveling further, they encounter a poor widow. Her sole possession is a sickly cow. She displays similar warmth, but she is only able to offer the god a glass of milk. As a parting gift, Krishna tells her that her cow will die soon.
Once they are back on the road, Arjuna upbraids Krishna. He is aghast. Why did Krishna bestow plenty on an already well-to-do household, then curse an old woman with the loss of her livelihood?
Krishna answers, “My wealthy host is insanely attached to his wealth and reputation; he has a long way to go before he becomes spiritually awakened. On the other hand, this poor devotee is already far advanced on the spiritual path. The only thing that is separating her from the highest freedom is her attachment to her cow. I removed the hurdle from her path.”