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Vishnu’s Favorite Devotee Myth and its Relevance to Social Enterprises

Pic: Courtesy pcworld.com

Narada, a divine sage in Hindu mythology, is arguably the greatest of Vishnu’s many devotees. But Narada was considered to be vain about his devotion to Vishnu – every now and then he needed some validation from Vishnu. As the story goes, Narada once went to Vaikuntha (Vishnu’s abode in the heavens) and asked him, “Who is your favorite devotee?” Vishnu knew fully well what Narada was hoping to hear but he wanted to teach Narada a lesson. Vishnu names a poor farmer in a village on distant Earth as his favorite devotee. A crestfallen and baffled Narada wants to know what was so special about the farmer. Vishnu suggests that the two of them travel to the farmer’s house – Narada could then see for himself.

Narada and Vishnu promptly beam themselves down to the village and arrive at the farmer’s hut, disguised as weary travelers. The farmer is extremely hospitable and makes them feel at home. The next morning, Narada shadows the farmer as he works hard in his fields. Throughout the day, Narada doesn’t get any glimpse of the farmer’s extraordinary devoutness so when they return to the hut in the evening, a visibly puzzled Narada asks “When and how many times do you pray to / think about Vishnu?” The farmer replies “Once in the morning, once in the evening, and as many times during the day as I can during my time in the fields.” Narada and Vishnu thank the farmer for his hospitality and leave.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Narada lets out a guffaw and confronts Vishnu with “The farmer thinks about you a mere 5-6 times a day while I think and sing paeans to you every single waking minute. How could you possibly consider the farmer to be a more superior devotee than me?” Vishnu smiles, materializes a pot (filled to the brim with oil) and places it gingerly on Narada’s unsuspecting head. He then commands Narada to walk the width of the field and return to the original spot without spilling a single drop of oil. With utmost concentration, Narada manages to accomplish the feat.

Vishnu: “So Narada, how many times did you think about me during your walk across the field?”

Narada: “Not even once! How could I when all my attention was on the pot and ensuring that not a drop would spill?”

A smiling Vishnu delivering the checkmate: “The farmer works hard in his fields all day, yet he finds the time to think about me a few times. You, on the other hand, couldn’t think of me even once!”

Okay – mythology story over. Time to tell you why it’s relevant in a blog on social enterprises. There are many definitions for social enterprises but the one I favor is this – social enterprises operate at the intersection of social impact and financial self-sustainability. Both social enterprises and non-profit social organizations are striving to deliver positive social impact. The difference is that social enterprises use a self-sustaining business model that generates revenue/profit and delivers social impact whereas non-profit social organizations are reliant on a steady stream of donor/philanthropist grants to deliver social impact. You see, social enterprises are like the farmer in the Vishnu/Narada story – they need to work hard to achieve the fine balance of delivering significant social impact and financial sustainability.