Why do scriptures give extreme examples?

Scriptures such as Ramayana, Mahabharata or Bhagavatam often give extreme examples: sages who perform extraordinary austerity, warriors who exhibit inconceivable heroism, spiritualists who manifest incredible compassion or saints who have astounding devotion. These texts also give extreme examples in the opposite direction: seekers get massively deviated by minor temptations or protagonists suffer catastrophically due to small mistakes. The Bhagavad-gita too depicts an extreme example of human perplexity: Arjuna, a peerless warrior, is reduced to tears and paralysis in the middle of a battlefield on the verge of the biggest battle of his life.  

What is the purpose of such extreme examples? To convey universal truths through attention-catching illustrations. We all are consciously and subconsciously influenced by the examples of people around us, especially people who are leaders in fields important to us. The Gita (03.21) stresses the trend-setting nature of the behavior of leaders  — what they do, others emulate. 

In fields of achievement such as athletics, aspirants often long to know about the sacrifice and commitment that enabled champions to rise to phenomenal peaks. Such knowledge inspires serious candidates to become more disciplined and dedicated. 

The field of moral and spiritual improvement, which is the focus of scriptures, also requires enormous discipline and dedication. Aiding us in such improvement, scriptures provide time-tested paths and recommended standards in following those paths. To demonstrate commitment to those paths, scriptural traditions often cherish some sacred examples of extraordinary practitioners. On hearing about such examples, we may be prone to two unhealthy reactions: reject them as impractical and stay uncommitted, or deem them as essential and imitate them literally. Between these extremes is the healthy middle way wherein we appreciate the principle of dedication and apply it according to our capacity. 

One-sentence summary: 

The purpose of extreme examples is to reinforce the standards, not to standardize the extremes. 

Think it over:

  • Have any examples from scripture struck you as extreme?
  • What are the two unhealthy reactions to extreme examples? Are you prone to either of these?
  • What is the healthy response to extreme examples? How can you apply that response in your life?


03.21: Whatever action a great man performs, common men follow. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.


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1 Comment

  1. Standards are difficult to act upon.

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