What Kubera can teach us about the miser philanthropist
Another Mahabharata story excavated from the tendrils of my Amar Chitra Katha memories. Specifically, from the period after the Pandavas had decimated 99% of the Kauravas clan.
The Pandava kingdom was in the grip of a famine and were desperately in need of food grains, having exhausted the royal granaries.
Yudhishthir the Wise (who always seemed to know what to do except when playing a game of dice) sent Bheema to Kubera for help.
The Hindu mythology dilettante would know Kubera as the God of Wealth, which means he held about 99% of the world’s gold bullion (by world, we mean the three worlds and let’s not get caught up in spatio/Cartesian coordinates).
A lesser known fact about Kubera is that he was also an amasser of commodities. It’s not clear whether he was a commodities trader or whether the grade of commodities he amassed were of the most premium (heavenly) kind which had an infinite shelf life. But I digress.
The Pandavas needed a few thousand cartloads of grain and Kubera had it (several times over).
Bheema’s mission was to seek the mother of all loans or the mother of all extraterrestrial aids.
Bheema was rather reluctant. He had heard very many stories of Kubera’s stinginess. The kind of miser who might well have inspired Walt Disney to create the Scrooge McDuck character a few millennia later.
But plod along he had to.. since elder brother Yudhishthir could not be refused.
When I say plod along, I mean metaphorically of course. Kubera lived in the Heavens and the Pandavas were (still) in Bharat on Earth. The nice picture book I read many moons ago had no account of how Bheema made it Kubera’s abode. I’m sure some super powers were involved.
Bheema found himself outside Kubera’s vast and majestic palace. He started to loiter.. he had not shaken off the grim foreboding that he had come on a fruitless quest. It’s hard enough to prepare oneself to “ask for money” when the potential benefactor is a certified lender. Believe me, I have some experience in this regard.
The loitering Bheema soon got transfixed by a sight. Inside a vast well-lit hall scores of Kubera’s men were assiduously at work.. doing some kind of ‘final sorting’ of food grains. Some small pebbles, sand and husk were being manually separated from the heavenly grains.
As Bheema watched, Kubera entered the hall. With the air of a seasoned Total Quality Inspector, he scanned the rows of workers and the piles of sifted grain and immediately spotted something that drew his ire.
One of the workers (in his zeal for speed) had accidentally tossed a small quantity of grain in the impurities pile. Not content with merely berating the worker’s shoddiness, Kubera sat down and personally did the re-sifting.
The episode, to Bheema, served as the final confirmation of Kubera’s miserly credentials and the cue to slink away, with the certitude that Yudhishtir would not admonish him.
To Bheema’s surprise and embarrassment, Kubera spotted him and rushed to welcome him.
After showering Bheema with heavenly hospitality, he quized him on the reason for his visit. Kubera immediately acquisced. As the dumbfounded Bheema looked on, Kubera started barking orders to his underlings to prepare for the mission of mercy.
Bheema would be surprised a few more times that day.
Kubera also offered to accompany Bheema with the convoy of grains.. presumably till the edge of heaven where a teleportation zone would safely and swiftly transport Bheema and his newly acquired divine bounty to earthly shores. (The problem with allegorical stories is that it’s hard NOT to take certain things literally)
So picture this. A convoy of 100+ carts drawn by bullocks laden with grain moving in heaven. On a single lane road. Heaven, in that era, did not have any Autobahns. Far from it. It seems India’s finest PWD engineers and BBMP’s most capable administrators were running heaven, at least in Kubera’s neighborhood.
It gets better.
The convoy starts to cross a bridge.. a bridge that was clearly not built with these kinds of loads in mind. As the fourth cart reached the middle, the timeless bridge collapsed. The driver and the animals escaped with minor injuries.
As Bheema morosely watched an assured victory turning into a wet defeat, Kubera sprung into action. He seemed to instinctively know exactly what to do. He started barking orders to his men and they responded quickly. The broken down portion of the bridge was being fixed using the grain from 2-3 carts.
Bheema watched dumbfounded. As the convoy resumed its mission of mercy, he asked Kubera “Back there at the palace, you were berating the worker for wasting a handful of grain yet here you scarcely hesitated in sacrificing a few cartloads of grain. Why?”
Kubera answered, “One should never waste anything, be it a single grain or a single mohar (unit of money) but when required, one should not hesitate to spend. Getting this grain to your kingdom on time is the need of the hour. What will I/we gain in being miserly now?”