Guiding Light of The Month

O LORD, Thou art my refuge and my blessing, my strength, my health, my hope, and my courage. Thou art supreme Peace, unalloyed Joy, perfect Serenity. My whole being prostrates before Thee in a gratitude beyond measure and a ceaseless worship; and that worship goes up from my heart and my mind towards Thee like the pure smoke of incense of the perfumes of India. - The Mother

Philippides and the marathon - duty to die for

The 2008 Olympics is upon us and while not trivializing some of the honest sentiments expressed, I am a little relieved that at least some of the high decibel protests associated with the Olympic torch have calmed down.

Never having been one gifted in any aspect of the celebrated arena of sports, my approach to the Olympics has always been to dig out legends, interesting stories and trivia associated with the event. I first started doing this when I was in school in Class IV. It was 1988 and time for the Seoul Olympics. We had a quiz organized at school which also happened to be the first quiz I had ever taken part in. So, my preparation involved going through all my text books (Hindi and social studies included) to see if something related to the Olympics was mentioned there (that explains the “Not in text-book” response that I gave to most of the questions in the quiz). It was on a day just before the quiz that I happened to overhear my sister mention the story of some “Philippides” to one of her friends. I found the story absolutely captivating. Imagine my delight when I saw a question in the quiz that read “In whose honour is the marathon in the Olympics held?”. I nailed the answer then and there! I felt on top of the world! Imagine the co-incidence! I spent the rest of the quiz dreaming about Philippides’ feat…and of course providing the response mentioned above to most of the other questions. I may as well mention here that against an average of 6 correct answers for the class, my score in the quiz added up to the grand Unity. Philippides had saved me from the ultimate ignominy of scoring a naught. But the result of the quiz didn’t really matter. I was just thrilled at having come to know of such a fascinating event in history. I went around telling the whole class the story of Philippides (which roughly went “He ran till he died…wasn’t that great?”).

Twenty years on, one of my colleagues, a couple of weeks go, made a reference to Philippides during one of our conversations. I was at once harked back to that afternoon in my classroom where I wrote the word “Philippides” as the answer to the question and went through it again and again to make sure the “P” was in capitals, that I had got the spelling right, that I had put in two “p’s” in the name…the sheer pleasure doing all that gave me! I felt a thrill go through my body on this trip down memory lane. I had to know more on this, my first hero. I launched myself into the ubiquitous Wikipedia (where was Wikipedia while I was taking the quiz?). Co-incidentally it was on the same evening that I received information on the theme for the forthcoming edition of this newsletter. This article is an output of these events and interchanges.

The sheer magnitude of what this Greek hero achieved in the space of a few days is staggering. The backdrop was the landing of Persian troops at Marathon in Greece in 490 B.C. The Persian Empire back then was the most powerful in the known world. Needless to say, this landing caused panic amongst the Greeks who were unsure of defending themselves against the might of the Persian army. They decided to ask the hardy Spartans for help. But how was the request for help to be relayed to the Spartans? In those days the chief forms of communications were on horseback or through a professional long-distance runner. The former was ruled out since the terrain was not conducive. It was decided that a human messenger would be sent to the Spartans with a desperate plea for help. On whom would this arduous task fall? Who amongst the Greeks would have the courage, temperament and stamina to carry out this mission? When you stand against the wall, you throw your very best resources against your adversary. It was decide to entrust the long-distance ace, Philipppides, with the responsibility of conveying the situation in Marathon to the Spartans with extreme urgency. History, through the Greeks, had chosen one of her heroes.

This is what Philippides did…he ran 240 km in two days all the way to Sparta, through harsh and inhospitable terrain. He conveyed the Greek plight to the Spartans (the Spartans, due to one of their religious customs that forbade them to fight till the moon was full, could not enjoin battle immediately). Success, however, was on the side of the Greeks and they defeated the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. It was now necessary for the Greeks to inform the people of Athens of their victory in order to prevent panic spreading further. Who do they rely upon to convey this equally urgent message? They didn’t have to look too far for an answer. Philippides was entrusted with the mission once more. He ran forty-two kilometres from the battlefield of Marathon back to Athens. Upon arrival he declared “Nenikekamen” (“We have won”)…and fell dead on the spot.


(Painting by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1869)
“When he reached the agora, he gasped “Nenikekamen”, and exhausted, fell dead”.

I still feel a rush of blood when I read his story. The sheer courage, large-heartedness and dedication to his duty that he had are beyond our normal comprehension. It was a simple, physical act that did not involve the vanquishing of any powerful adversary or a performance to an applauding audience. It was a feat performed in vigour but in complete solitude. The person performing the act was engaged in a fierce battle against his own perceived limitations. Victory was his in that battle.

What I find most inspiring about Philippedes’ story is his run from Marathon back to Athens. What could have inspired him to perform this act with the same dedication that he had done in his run to the Spartans? After all, victory had been achieved. The threat to the nation and family was no more there. This was the time to celebrate. Would such thoughts not have crossed his mind? While he was traversing the harsh terrain would it not have occurred to him that he probably could find a less inconvenient but far less urgent way of doing what he was entrusted to do? Would his “thinking” mind not have told him to “take it a little easy “, now that victory had been achieved?

We would never know the answers to these questions. Philippides did not live to tell his tale. Anything we say in this regard would be from the realm of pure speculation and it is into this realm that I now wish to enter.

My own feeling is that Philippides, while carrying the message back to Athens, had knowingly or unknowingly surrendered himself to a higher Power to take over his actions. A feat of this stature, I believe, could not have been achieved with the “rational” mind and intellect intervening. It required an effort that was, by definition, superhuman. A complete commitment to the task at hand and performing it without ego (for we know that if Philippides wanted to live on and bask in the glory of his run to the Spartans and being the messenger of victory, he could always have toned down his effort and reached Athens with enough breath to ensure he lived) and without a consideration of personal gain. It was, I would like to believe, a “vigorous and dynamic surrender” that Dr. Alok Pandey had mentioned in one of his talks at our Society.

If “Yogah karmasu kaushalam”1 be our credo, Philidpiddes can be one of our role models. If “Samatvam yoga uchyate”2 (it is in this regard that I find his run from Marathon to Athens particularly poignant) be our ideal, Philippides is truly an inspiration.

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