The following story, told by Salya to Karna, from the forty-first chapter of the “Karna-parva” of Mahabharata nicely illustrates the dangers of pride.
There once lived a wealthy vaisya by the side of the ocean. He performed many sacrifices and gave generously in charity. He was quiet, observant of the duties of his order, and was pure in his habits and mind. The vaisya had a number of sons all of whom were pious and kind to all living creatures. Living in a place that was ruled over by a pious king, the vaisya was peaceful and free from anxiety.
There was a crow that daily came to the home of the vaisya to feast on remnants of the family’s food that the children gave him. After eating every day the opulent milk, puddings, yogurt, honey, butter, and other foods, the crow became very arrogant and began to think little of all other birds.
One day, some great white swans, who were practically equal to Garuda in terms of speed and range of flight, came to the shore of the ocean. When the sons of the vaisya saw the wonderful swans, they jokingly told the crow, “O ranger of the sky, you are superior to all of these big birds.”
Intoxicated with arrogance and false pride, the crow considered these words to be true. That foolish crow then challenged the leader of the swans, saying, “Let us have a flying competition to see who is the best.”
Hearing the words of the arrogant crow, those swans began to laugh. Those foremost of birds, capable of flying anywhere at will, said to the crow, “We are swans who live on the Manasa Lake. We traverse all over the earth, and amongst winged creatures we are always spoken highly of for the length of distances we fly. How can a crow like you hope to compete with a swan?”
The crow replied, “Great as I am, I tell you, that before your eyes, I shall fly for hundreds of yojanas [a yojana is eight miles] displaying a hundred and one varieties of motions in flight. Rising up, swooping down, whirling around, going straight, proceeding gently, going backwards, darting forward, moving with great velocity I shall display my great strength and expertise in flight.”
One of the swans said, “O crow, you may fly in a hundred and one different ways. I however, shall fly in only one way, which is the way all other birds know, for I do not know any other. O you of red eyes, you may fly as you like.”
Hearing this, all of the crows that had gathered there laughed and said, “Now we will see our brother crow defeat the swans.”
The crow and swan then rose into the sky, the swan flying in a simple straight motion and the crow making many elaborate movements. Seeing the variety of styles of flight he was exhibiting, all of the assembled crows were filled with delight and began to caw loudly.
For a moment it appeared that the crow had defeated the swan. Then suddenly, with great velocity, the swan began to fly westwards towards the ocean. After following him for some time out to sea, the crow could no longer see any land or trees, and he became afraid. He thought, “When I become tired, where shall I rest on this vast ocean? The water is immeasurably deep and is inhabited by hundreds of monsters who will devour me.”
Covering a great distance in one moment, the swan looked back to see how the crow was faring. Seeing him far behind, exhausted, and barely able to stay above the water, the swan felt pity and went to his aid. The swan said, “O crow, what is the name of this special flight that you are exhibiting now? You are repeatedly touching the water with your wings and beak.”
Unable to see the limit of the ocean and greatly fatigued by having flown so far, the crow replied, “O revered sir, we are crows. We move about here and there crying, ‘Caw! Caw! Caw!’ O swan, I seek refuge in you and place my life in your hands. Please take me back to the land.” Speaking thus, the crow suddenly fell exhausted into the ocean.
Seeing him fallen, with a sorry heart the swan addressed the crow who was on the verge of death, “O crow, how is it that you were previously praising yourself so loudly? Remember, you said that you would fly in a hundred and one different ways. How is it that you have become so tired and have fallen into the water?”
Overcome with weakness, the crow pleaded with the swan, “Eating the remnants of the family’s opulent foods, I thought myself equal to Garuda and did not care for the crows or any other birds. I now seek refuge with you and place my life at your disposal. Please take me to the land and save me from this calamity.”
Without a word, the swan picked up the crow, placed him on his back, and began flying back to the land. Nearly at the point of death, deprived of his senses, drenched with water, trembling in fear, and hideous to look at, the melancholy crow was weeping. The swan speedily restored the crow back to the land where they had originally started. Placing him gently on the ground and comforting him, the swan then quickly flew away to return to Manasa Lake.
[Salya then told Karna that just as that crow, fed upon the remnants of the vaisya children, became proud and thus disrespected his equals and superiors, similarly, living on the remnants of food left by Dhritarashtra’s sons, Karna had become proud and thought himself fit to fight with Krishna and Arjuna.]
Sometimes it is seen that after becoming uplifted by receiving the mercy of great personalities, some kaka-janas, crow-like persons, become proud and forget the color of their feathers. After having a little association with swanlike paramahamsa devotees, they begin to consider themselves far superior to their peers and perhaps even equal to the paramahamsas. Instead of anusara, following the instructions of the Lord’s dear devotees, they take up the cheap practice of anukara, imitation. By taking shelter of swanlike persons we may cross the ocean of birth and death, but if we try to imitate them we will certainly fall down into the ocean and drown. Bhaktivinode Thakur sings:
garhita acare, rohilama moji’,
na korinu sadhu-sanga
lo’ye sadhu-vesa, ane upadesi,
e bodo mayara ranga
“Remaining absorbed in abominable activities, I never really kept company with sadhus. Now I adopt the dress of a sadhu and act out the role of instructing others. This is maya’s big joke.”
Conceit is a great stumbling block on the path of devotion. In the Bhagavad-gita (16.4), Krishna describes pride as a demoniac quality:
dambho darpo ‘bhimanas ca krodhah parusyam eva ca
ajnanam cabhijatasya partha sampadam asurim
“Pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness and ignorance— these qualities belong to those of demoniac nature, O son of Pritha.”
Narada Purana (1.7.15) describes:
ahankaro mahan jajne masuyo lobha-hetukah
“Pride is the cause of destruction of all wealth, the source of false ego and all types of failure.”
Suffering from the troubles caused by trying to compete, the crow finally had no other recourse then to give up his pretension and take shelter of the swan. Similarly, if we find ourselves in such a situation our only hope is to take shelter of the paramahamsas. In Vraja-vilasa-stava, text 1, Srila Raghunath Das Goswami has compared our spiritual pursuits to traveling on a road where one is beset with thieves. Raghunath Das says that our only hope is to call out to the swanlike devotees of the Lord, like the crow that was nearing death and cried out to the swan:
pratistha-rajjubhir baddham kamadyair vartma-pattibhih
chitva tah samharantas tan aghareh pantu mam bhatah
“The highwaymen of lust, greed, and anger have captured me and bound me with the ropes of the desire for fame. I pray that the heroic devotees of Lord Krishna, the enemy of the Agha demon, may defeat my captors and cut the ropes that bind me.”
Srila Sanatan Goswami has advised us of the benefits of humility:
sarvotkarsanvite ‘pi syad buddhais tad dainyam isyate
“Even if one is very exalted, he should be humble and think himself very incompetent and lowly.”
yaya vacehaya dainyam matya ca sthairyam eti tat
tam yatnena bhajed vidvams tad-viruddhani varjayet
“A wise man should try to be humble in his words, deeds, and thoughts. He should shun whatever is opposed to humility.”
dainyam tu paramam premnah paripakena janyate
tasam gokula-narinam iva krsna-viyogatah
“Humbleness comes from advancement in love for Krishna, as is seen in the example of the women of Gokul when they were separated from Krishna.”
“paripakena dainyasya premajasram vitanyate
parasparam tayor ittham karya-karanateksyate”
Mature humbleness brings love for Krishna. It is seen that the two are in a relationship of cause and effect. – 2.5.221-225.
–Raghunath Das Goswami. Sri Vraja-vilasa-stava. English translation by Sri Kusakratha Das. The Krishna Institute. Los Angeles. 1987.
–Sanatan Goswami. Sri Brhad-bhagavatamrta. English translation by Kusakratha Das. Krishna Library. Culver City, California. 1990.
–Krishna Dvaipayan Vyasadev. Bhagavad-gita As It Is. English translation and purports by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. Bombay. 1995.
–Krishna Dvaipayan Vyasadev. Mahabharata. English translation by Manmatha Nath Dutt. Published by HC. Das. Calcutta. 1896.
–Krishna Dvaipayan Vyasadev. Brhan-naradiya Puranam. Kevalaram Chatropadhyaya. 1895. Sanskrit with Bengali translation.
–Krishna Dvaipayan Vyasadev. Narada Purana. English translation. Motilal Banarshidass. 1995. Delhi.