The Questions of King Milinda

Book 4: The solving of dilemmas

Chapter 8

6.3.4. Dilemma the Seventy-Fourth. Offerings To the Dead

‘Venerable Nāgasena, these givers when they bestow their offerings, devote them specifically to former (relatives) now departed, saying: “May this gift benefit such and such.” Now do they (the dead) derive any benefit therefrom?’

‘Some do, O king, and some do not.’

‘Which then are they that do, and which do not?’

‘Those who have been reborn in purgatory, O king, do not; nor those reborn in heaven; nor those reborn as animals. And of those reborn as Pretas three kinds do not-the Vantāsikā (who feed on vomit), the Khuppipāsino (who hunger and thirst.), the Nijjhāma-taṇhikā (who are consumed by thirst). But the Paradattūpajīvino (who live on the gifts of others) they do derive profit, and those who bear them in remembrance do so too.’

‘Then, Nāgasena, offerings given by the givers have run to waste, and are fruitless, since those for whose benefit they are given derive no profit therefrom.’

‘No, O king. They run not to waste, neither are fruitless. The givers themselves derive profit from them.’

‘Then convince me of this by a simile.’

‘Suppose, O king, people were to get ready fish and meat and strong drinks and rice and cakes, and make a visit on a family related to them. If their relatives should not accept their complimentary present, would that present be wasted or fruitless?’

No, Sir, it would go to the owners of it.’

‘Well, just so the givers themselves derive the profit. Or just, O king, as if a man were to enter an inner chamber, and there were no exit in front of him, how would he get out?’

‘By the way he entered.’

‘Well, just so the givers themselves derive the profit.’

‘Let that pass, Nāgasena. That is so, and I accept it as you say. We will not dispute your argument. But, venerable Nāgasena, if the offerings made by such givers do advantage certain of the departed, and they do reap the result of the gifts, then if a man who destroys living creatures and drinks blood and is of cruel heart, were after committing murder or any other dreadful act, to dedicate it to the departed, saying: “May the result of this act of mine accrue to the departed"—would it then be transferred to them?’

‘No, O king.’

‘But what is the reason, what is the cause, that a good deed can accrue to them, and not an evil one?’

‘This is really not a question you should ask, O king. Ask me no foolish question, O king, in the idea that an answer will be forthcoming. You will be asking me next why space is boundless, why the Ganges does not flow up stream, why men and birds are bipeds, and the animals quadrupeds!’

‘It is not to annoy you that I ask this question, Nāgasena, but for the sake of resolving a doubt. There are many people in the world who are left-handed or squint. I put that question to you, thinking: “Why should not also these unlucky ones have a chance of bettering themselves?”’

‘An evil deed, O king, cannot be shared with one who has not done it, and has not consented to it. People convey water long distances by an aqueduct. But could they in the same way remove a great mountain of solid rock?’

‘Certainly not, Sir.’

‘Well, just in that way can a good deed be shared, but a bad one cannot. And one can light a lamp with oil, but could one in the same way, O king, light it with water?’

‘Certainly not, Sir.’

‘Well, so is it that a good deed can be shared, but not an evil one. And husbandmen take water from a reservoir to bring their crops to maturity, but could they for the same purpose, O king, take water from the sea?’

‘Certainly not, Sir.’

‘So again is it that though a good deed can be shared, an evil one cannot.’

‘But, venerable Nāgasena, why is that? Convince me of this by a reason. I am not blind, or unobservant. I shall understand when I have heard.’

‘Vice, O king, is a mean thing, virtue is great and grand. By its meanness vice affects only the doer, but virtue by its grandeur overspreads the whole world of gods and men.’

‘Show me this by a metaphor.’

‘Were a tiny drop of water to fall on the ground, O king, would it flow on over ten leagues or twelve?’

‘Certainly not. It would only have effect on that very spot of ground on which it fell.’

‘But why so?’

‘Because o its minuteness.’

‘Just so, O king, is vice minute. And by reason of its littleness it affects the doer only, and cannot possibly be shared. But if a mighty rain cloud were to pour out rain satisfying the surface of the earth, would that water spread round about?’

‘Certainly, Sir. That thunderstorm would fill up the depressions in the ground and the pools and ponds, and the gullies and crevices and chasms, and the lakes and reservoirs and wells and lotus-tanks, and the water would spread abroad for ten leagues or for twelve.’

‘But why so, O king?’

‘Because of the greatness of the storm.’

‘Just so, O king, is virtue great. And by reason of its abundance it can be shared by gods and men.

‘Venerable Nāgasena, why is it that vice is so limited, and virtue so much more wide-reaching?’

‘Whosoever, O king, in this world gives gifts, and lives in righteousness, and keeps Uposatha, he, glad, right glad, joyful, cheerful, happy, becomes filled with a sweet sense of trust and bliss, and bliss ruling in his heart his goodness grows still more and more abundantly. Like a deep pool of clear water, O king, and into which on one side the spring pours, while on the other the water flows away; so as it flows away it comes again, and there can be no failure there—so, O king, does his goodness grow more and more abundantly. If even through a hundred years, O king, a man were to keep on transferring to others (the merit of) any good he had done, the more he gave it away the more would his goodness grow, and he would still be able to share it with whomsoever he would. This, O king, is the reason why virtue is so much the greater of the two.

‘But on doing evil, O king, a man becomes filled with remorse, and the heart of him who feels remorse cannot get away (from the thought of the evil he has done), it is forcibly bent back on it, thrown back on it, obtains no peace ; miserable, burning, abandoned of hope, he wastes away, and gaining no relief from depression, he is, as it were, possessed with his woe! just, O king, as a drop of water, falling on a dry river bed with its mighty sandbanks rising and falling in undulations along its crooked and shifty course, gains not in volume, but is swallowed up on the very spot where it fell, just so, O king, is a man, when he has done wrong, overcome with remorse, and the heart of him who feels remorse cannot get away from the thought of the evil he has done, it is forcibly bent back on it, thrown back on it, obtains no peace; miserable, burning, abandoned of hope, he wastes away, and gaining no release from his depression, he is, as it were, swallowed up of his woe. This is the reason, O king, why vice is so mean.’

‘Very good, Nāgasena! That is so, and I accept it as you say.’

Here ends the problem as to virtue and vice.