The sadhu by the wayside

One morning last spring an American traveler in Nepal arose at 3:30 a.m. to climb an 18,000-foot pass in the Himalayas leading to the village of Miklinath, a place of holy shrines for pilgrims.

Three other parties besides the Americans had camped at 14,500 feet, anticipating the next day's climb: four backpackers from New Zealand, two Swiss couples, and a Japanese hiking club.

It was imperative that the travelers negotiate the ice steps cut in the steep pass before the sun could melt them.

The American, on his fourth visit to Nepal, lay awake most of the night, looking forward to what he counted on as a ''once in a lifetime'' experience - the summit of his three-month adventure of wandering 600 miles through more than 200 villages, with correspondingly rich explorations within himself.

Just after daybreak, when the American was resting at 15,500 feet, one of the New Zealanders who had started even earlier came staggering back with a nearly naked, barefoot body slung over his shoulder. A sadhu, an Indian holy man, had visited Muklinath, and instead of staying with the safe lower road, had inexplicably chosen to climb through the treacherous pass.

The American and the Swiss revived the sadhu and clothed him. Two Sherpa porters carried him down to where the Japanese hikers were resting. The Japanese gave him food and drink. A hut stood another 500 feet below.

Did the sadhu make it to the hut? Did he survive his ordeal?

The American, pressing on urgently and eagerly to the pass, could not answer these questions. But the brief encounter left him with other questions, and these - not the ''once in a lifetime'' ascent through the pass - became the central, unforgettable experience of his sojourn in Nepal.

He has attempted to answer the questions in ''The Parable of the Sadhu.''

His modern variation on the parable of the Good Samaritan holds a special fascination because the American happens to be an investment banker - Bowen H. McCoy, a managing director of Morgan Stanley Company - and the pages in which he performs his moral self-scrutiny happen to belong to the Harvard Business Review.

At first the ethical issue seems straightforward, even commonplace: What responsibility must an individual take for another individual in distress? Mr. McCoy and the other travelers in the pass all did something for the sadhu. But did they do enough as they hurried on, compromising their schedules, but finally refusing to sacrifice their private designs for the day? Would Mr. McCoy or the Swiss or the New Zealanders have done more if the sadhu had been a Westerner or a woman?

Mr. McCoy does not glibly play mea culpa. He argues that the civilized passersby did not shame themselves by ''leaving the sadhu in the sun with food and clothing, while he demonstrated hand-eye coordination'' - by throwing a rock at the Japanese hiking club's dog.

But the parable-teller is not content to rest with the neat little tag line: ''Real moral dilemmas are ambiguous.'' As a businessman, as a corporation man, he asks an interesting question, unexpected these days: What responsibility does the community share for the behavior of the individual? Would the Good Samaritan have been good if, at some point, some group - family, school, religious congregation - had not instructed him in a code of compassion?

Mr. McCoy simply doubts the ability of the individual to improvise his or her own moral code in the midst of a crisis. ''Without . . . corporate support,'' he writes, ''the individual is lost.'' The strangers in the sadhu's life remained strangers to one another - failed to form a community with acknowledged obligations - and this, Mr. McCoy suggests, accounts for their tentative responses.

Mr. McCoy may underestimate the passion of the individual conscience. But most individuals in these comically self-focused times certainly overestimate their powers to operate by instinct out of a sort of solitary moral confinement.

The traveler in Nepal has given us no new answers, nor did he promise to. But he has provided new-old questions to shake our fashionable complacency that we can solo through life happily and virtuously, if only all those silly, corrupt, and antiquated institutions would stop cramping our style.

The Age of Me, it should be clear, is bad news for sadhus by the wayside.

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