Best of Hitopadesha (Part 3): Good and Bad Company


elow is an extract taken from the first chapter of Hitopadesha. I have selected the forty-first couplet from this chapter. This is the third write-up of a series of total three articles that have been published in series.

“One’s intelligence is degraded by associating with uneducated people, remains the same by associating with equals, and is improved by associating with superiors.”

An Elucidation

Before I parse the essence of the statement above, let me throw some light on education. The phrase ‘uneducated people’ does not necessarily mean people with low formal education; the term ‘education’ has been used in its broader perspective. ‘Educated’ here means people characterised by rich experience, unsurpassed learning and sublime culture. They are people who live for fulfilling the five goals of life, dharma (socio-religious duties), artha (acquisition of wealth and the objects for life-facilitation), kama (enjoyment) and moksa (liberation). Above these four common goals of human attainment there is a fifth goal, which is prema or pure love of God. ‘Uneducated people’ are without any or all of the above qualities.

Mirror as a Metaphor for Man

A person’s mind reflects the influence of people around it as a mirror does nearby objects. A mirror, however, does not acquire the qualities of the objects it reflects; whereas the mind is influenced by the characteristics of people with whom we associate. It is said, therefore, that a man is known by the company he keeps.
There is no denying the fact that man is indeed influenced by his company—be he a saint, a sinner, an ascetic or a thief. A man is like a cloth that absorbs the dye it is soaked in.

In the epic Ramayana, Dvivida was a devotee of Lord Rama who fought against demon king Ravana’s army, yet later himself developed demoniac qualities from association with another demon, Narakasura. As a result, in the Mahabharata, Dvivida was killed by Lord Balarama for his abominable behaviour. In contrast, Narada was the son of a maidservant who became a great sage by holy association.

The mirror as a metaphor for the mind suggests that the effect of association is instantaneous, although people generally find it difficult to believe the almost instantaneous effect of one mind on another. Contemporary students of human nature are aware, however, that there is no exaggeration at all. For example, after studying human nature for more than fifty years, humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm made this observation about bad company:

“Bad company, on the other hand, is not only the company of merely trivial people but of evil, sadistic, destructive life-hostile people. But why, one might ask, is there danger in the company of bad people, unless they try to harm one in one form or another?
In order to answer this question it is necessary to recognise a law in human relations: There is no contact between human beings that does not affect both of them. No meeting between two people, no conversation between them, except perhaps the most casual one, leaves either one of them unchanged—even though the change may be too minimal to be recognisable except by its cumulative effect when such meetings are frequent.”

The Exception

The book Hitopadesha itself is a collection good instructions given by the learned man Narayana Pandit to the dull sons of King Dhavalchandra to make them worthy of ruling the empire when they grew up. The king exhibited wisdom, therefore, in arranging  for his dullards to associate with Narayana Pandit.

The Hitopadesha
The Hitopadesha

One may argue that to associate with the boys would negatively affect the learned brahmana (person with highest intelligence). While it is generally true that association influences both parties, there is no mutual exchange of influence in the case of one who is not weak-willed, but mentally strong and fixed in his own values. Otherwise ascetic saints would never grant their association to materialistic people. It is to be understood, therefore, that the learned brahmana would uplift the ignorant princes, while their company will have no ill effect on him.