Three stories are featured here; to view all the stories, visit the Epic Proportions subsite at epic.vibral.co.za
The Robber Saint
The Divine Sage Narada was ambling happily through the forest glades along a well-travelled footpath. Wearing his robes of yellow silk, jewels glittering in his hair and on his chest, he was a fine sight. Murmuring hymns of devotion, his mind engaged in lofty ruminations, he failed to see the robber hiding behind the tree he was just passing.
The robber pounced upon Narada brutally. “Your jewels and coins – hand them over right now!” he growled.
If he expected terror, he was disappointed; at best, the Sage’s eyebrows rose in mild surprise. Conversationally, Narada asked “Oh, do you need these?” – and he began calmly removing them from his person, handing them over to his assailant. To his credit, the robber realised that here was a Sage of some merit, and the first pang of guilt troubled him.
“Yes, I need them! I have a family to feed!”
Narada smiled and replied quite agreeably “Oh, I see. Well, I hope these help then. Here you go. Also, please do visit the temple near the palace walls – the priest there should be able to help you with the karma.”
He turned as if to go, and the robber took the bait. “What karma?!”
Narada’s expression became thoughtful. “Well, you are robbing me, you know. The bad karma for that – that you’ll need to see to.” Again, he made as if to leave.
“I told you. This is for my family. We’ll share the gold, and we’ll share the karma too. That’s the way of it.”
“But my dear fellow, that is not the way of it. Why would you expect your family to share the karma?”
“Well but of course they…”
“I’ll wait here, you go and ask them.”
He saw how the robber was wrestling with his suspicion of a trap, and at last proposed
“I’m not going to try to follow you or call the palace guards. If you want to, you may restrain me by attaching me to this tree. You do appear to have a rope of suitable length slung over your shoulder.”
This robbery was not going the way the poor robber had planned at all. The Sage even taught him how to tie an effective knot, but he did it so kindly that the robber was not made to feel foolish. He made his way to his home with a sinking heart. The Sage was clearly very wise and the robber’s confidence in his family’s reply was waning.
An hour later, he was standing before Narada again.
“I can show you where the temple is, you know.”
“Don’t you even want to know what they said?”
“Well… alright, if you’d like.”
“They said that as the head of the house, it was my duty to feed and clothe them. How I did it was my business. They will accept none of the karmic burden.” His voice broke slightly.
He saw the Sage give a half-start, as if wanting to touch him compassionately. Miserably, he handed back the jewels.
“What am I going to do?”
“Listen to me”
The strength and warmth with which Narada gave the command made the robber look directly in his eyes. A warmth and a power was thrumming in the air.
“Do you really not remember who you are?” he said gently.
Something in the robber’s mind stirred, but it was too hazy and unformed.
“I want you to chant God’s name. I want you to chant Rama Rama Rama – chant it again and again. In this age, only God’s name will save us.”
The robber’s ego reasserted itself, and he growled “How is saying something over and over again ever supposed to help me?” Then, more honestly “Just look at me!” His arms parted slightly, to show the filth and the rags.
“Everyone is worthy to say God’s name, you know. But alright. If you cannot say God’s name right now, then at least repeat a word more suited to your profession. The word is Mara – kill. Repeat that word over and over again.”
Strange though this advice was, the robber by had complete faith in Narada’s word. Perhaps, he had mentally taken Narada as his guru. He found a quiet spot, and began repeating the horrible word over and over again. He continued in his “profession” for some time, repeating Mara whenever he could.
This incessant repetition helped quiet his mind, which over time achieved some focus and clarity. The syllables transposed themselves, and the robber, who was now a hermit, found himself accidentally chanting Rama instead of mara. The Rama mantra established itself in his mind over time and he slowly lost interest in the worldly pursuits. He would do the bare minimum needed for the upkeep of him body, spending as much time as possible in repeating Rama Rama Rama.
At some point, he stopped doing even the bare minimum; he became completely absorbed in mantra and he sat rooted to one spot in the jungle. A deep bliss was flowing from the mantra; he was absorbed it, and it sustained and maintained him. The jungle creepers grew about him; wild animals did not trouble him, and heat and thirst and hunger did not ail him. He stayed where he was, unharmed and unnoticed, deep in the bliss of Rama.
Some years later, a band of labourers came to that spot, clearing away the jungle for construction of new buildings. They came across a massive ant-hill, which they dug in to with their shovels. As they dug, they caught the soft whisper “Rama Rama Rama…”
Carefully, they broke apart the ant hill. His eyelids fluttered open and he rose to his feet. Since he was standing after such a long time he was a little unsteady, but the labourers feel the greatness of his presence, and they were silent. He regarded them for some minutes, and his eyes were brimming compassion.
Very softly, he spoke. “I am going to tell you all about him. I am going to tell the whole world about Rama. I am going to write and write and write, and you are going to know all about Rama. Now, may I have a pen please?”
Such was the birth of the Sage Valmiki, Author of the Ramayana (The Deeds of Lord Rama). Valmiki itself means “Born of the ant-hill”
The raised dais was a perfect circle, and unusually large. It was simply adorned with a clear white cloth, and it suited the massive hallway, bare as it was of ornamentation. But the hall was ablaze with a golden glow, the glow from the jewels and weapons of the thousand gods gathered there.
The heavenly host made a beautiful sight. The gods sat gracefully, surrounding the dais like the petals of a flower. Their robes were light and patterned in colours that mortal eyes could not begin to comprehend, draping forms that were elegant and perfect. Each god was free of blemish or scar, with skin smooth and golden. Jewels twinkled softly, draped over lightly muscled arms, in softly shining hair or upon wide and noble brows.
But it was not a celebration, their hands and arms moving rapidly as each god spoke vigorously with his neighbours. The clamour filled the hall, and at last the preceptor seated on the dais held up his arm ‘Stop!’
The din died, and he reached inside his robe and removed a pure white conch shell. ‘You are forbidden to speak unless you hold this in your palm. I am ready to take your questions now.’
He flung it through the air, and a young male god caught it neatly. ‘Where did Vishnu go?’
‘Where did you ask him to go? To Earth, to see to Ravan’
‘Yes, but in what form?’
‘Human. As the son of Dhasharath.’
The murmuring started at once, but the preceptor glared them back into silence. A senior female raised her arm, and the youngster flung the conch at her. She did not bother to move her arms, merely raised her eyebrow, and the conch floated at her shoulder.
‘So it begins. How many years until the conflict with Ravan?’
‘And will it come here?’
‘For your sake, you’d better hope not. Ravan has the boons of Brahma. All your weapons’ – the preceptor’s arm swept the hall ‘- will not dent even his armour.’
‘Then this is to be played out entirely on Earth?!’
‘Ravan asked for invulnerability against the Gods and the Demons, other powerful astral forms, against forces of nature, and various life forms. But he forgot to ask for invulnerability against the weaker forms: humans, monkeys and bears.’
The conch faded into nothingness, and the goddess looked about in irritation. It re-appeared floating above a bearded god.
‘Why are you circling the matter? We all know he’s gone there to see to Ravan. And we want to know how we can be included in this. I myself haven’t been to Earth for thousands of years; few of us have been there; Ravan is preventing the humans from any kind of vrat; he even manages to stop the chanting of the mantras. Very few among us are able to exert any kind of influence there. We will need more information before we can plan our incarnations beside Vishnu.’
The preceptor was silent for a time.
‘Incarnation on Earth is not as easy as it once was. And you will have to decide how much worth it will serve anyway.’
‘What do you mean? Vishnu will need an army; Ravan surely has gathered one there already. We have always incarnated among the kings of Earth without major difficulty. There must be pockets of devotees able to perform the procedure needed for our incarnations.’
A god stepped over to grab the shell. But his fingers passed through it and he glared at the bearded god. The preceptor spoke on.
‘You have no idea how few devotees remain there this time. It will take much time to prepare sufficient numbers; so much so that your incarnations will be too young to join any such army. No. If you wish to see Vishnu, you will have to wait until he sees to Ravan, in his own way. He will do the needful, and then there will be plenty of devotees to make your visits to Earth easy; without even needing the inconvenience of incarnations!’
A god clad in warriors’ colours raised his own shell and spoke ‘Are we really to sit here and wait for the end of the war?! Vishnu never excluded us like that before.’
The preceptor shook his head. ‘This time is different. I cannot see any other way. Besides, the kingdoms of Earth are totally under the control of Ravan. Ayodhya alone stands untouched, and Vishnu has already incarnated the few companions he wanted there. Immortal we may be, but Ravan still knows how to make us suffer. Even in our True Forms, Earth would be too uncomfortable, let alone taking human births there. The coming of Vishnu himself had significant difficulty.’
‘And where is Siva?’
The preceptor again shook his head.
‘The route that one took is best left unmentioned.’ And the disgust in his voice made them speak as one.
‘We demand to know how Shiva went!’ came from every direction, the conch forgotten now.
Shaking his head, he spoke with some irritation. ‘Well, you know the kinds of servants and companions that that one keeps! In a way, what he did is appropriate for him. Oh yes, Shiva is gone… he incarnated among the monkeys!’
The preceptor sneered ‘That’s the only way to be a part of the Ramayana. The only route left is among the lowest forms of life; the monkeys and the bears that disgust you so are the only forms remaining to Rama now!’
And they all sat upright, hearing for the first time the name that Vishnu had taken in his new birth. But he spoke on
‘What did you think?! With Earth as it is, do you think Ram is going happily about, visiting kingdom after kingdom? His boyhood training will be in forest ashrams besieged by demons. When he goes to find a bride, he will have to compete for her hand against demons that will gather there! The whole of the Ramayan will not unfold conveniently along some path of Kingdoms for you to join as you please; no, the Ramayan is going to unfold in the forests and in the mountains, among wild animals and under a scorching sun!’
He took a breath, and calmed himself. ‘Rama has Shiva with him. This Hanuman-form of Shiva’s is powerful beyond your imagining. They will do what you cannot now do.’
He changed his tone, and spoke soothingly, reasonably.
‘I know you want to be included in this tale. But your names will not be remembered in this thing. Even the human is disgusted by the monkey and the bear. There’s just no way. Once its over, Ram will still be on Earth for a time; you can be involved in the easier and better work of helping humankind regain their dharma once Ravan’s gone.’
There was silence for a long time. Then, a small voice said
‘And what about my dharma?’
The preceptor’s shoulders sank, and he bit back his wild smile of joy. They had passed the test. He sharpened his gaze, wanting to remember every detail of how it would unfold.
It was a youth, a devotee. He spoke slowly, as if still working out his thoughts.
‘I don’t know what you mean, about my name. How can it matter whether anyone remembers my name?’
He stood, and looked the preceptor in the eyes.
‘Vishnu and Shiva, are on Earth. What am I doing here? Please, please tell me how to go there. Shiva will lead the armies… the armies of monkeys and bears… won’t he? Where are these… these tribes? I have to incarnate there as soon as possible!’
Pretending reluctance, the preceptor replied
‘Very well, for a god, you are still young. It has not been so long since you struggled out of the cage of rebirths. So, you find your life here less interesting; very well, you can re-enter the cycle. You can go. I will myself take you to the Portals, and show you how to become a monkey.’
‘And I will go with you!’ A more senior god stood. He nodded at the youngster. ‘I cannot miss a moment of these new incarnations of Vishnu and Shiva. Please, let me come too!’
The preceptor sneered. And what a fine monkey you’ll make! How will you wear those beautiful jewels, naked as you’ll be in a deformed body, your knuckles dragging on the ground?! Your jewelry will snag on the pebbles!’
From some unknown corner of the hall, a bracelet arced through the air and struck him neatly on his forehead. There came the clicks and snaps of a thousand pieces of jewellery being unfastened, and his eyes widened in horror. He sprang to his feet and leaped from the dais.
‘You old fraudster!’ they bellowed at the preceptor. And the air was filled with golden projectiles, pelting him with their jewellery as they laughed, realizing how subtly he had guided them. When the laughter was finally over, they stood and roared as one:
I am not an evil woman. I know that my actions were evil, and I accept full responsibility for their consequences. One of these consequences was the death of my husband. Yes, I have done evil – but I am not an evil woman.
In the telling of my story, please try to see me for what I am – a woman, only human, whom fate chose as a vehicle in the telling of a story far greater than yours or mine. That is not to say I was justified in what I did, but try to think of yourself in my situation, and ask yourself if you would have done any better than I.
You must believe that I loved him as my own. Even as I stood there and asked of my Lord what I did, my love for him was burning in my chest, and I wondered with horror at the words spilling out of my mouth. I loved him as my own son when he was a youth, and I thrilled to hear of his every deed. Wherever I thought I heard his name, be it from preceptors in temples or from serving girls about the kitchen, I crept closer and strained my ears. I loved him as my own child in his manhood when he took his vows of marriage, in his youth drawing his first sword, when he was but a babe, cooing and chuckling over the sight of his own finger. But I am losing the thread of what I wanted to say to you.
Remember me first as a young queen, a queen of Dhasharata. Of the three queens of Dhasharata, I was the youngest. Kausalya, the senior, was like a mother to us, to Sumitra and I. And as the youngest of the queens, of whatever was distributed, I received the smallest part. But in our Kingdom, in ever-abundant Ayodhya, even the smallest part will satisfy Gods, and so this did not inconvenience me. And while I did not receive materially as the others did, I received in love from Dhasarath what they never would. For we all knew that his love and affection were mine to command.
So, you can see that I have my pride too. It would be a lie to show myself as a saintly woman; no, I was a young queen of Ayodhya. Of course I had my pride.
I know that you have heard the tales of Ayodhya, and I know that you never quite believed them. How could one city command such wealth? How could just one city have ministers wise and noble, citizens wealthy… when I was told I was to wed Dhasharata, and told of his Ayodhya, I too doubted these stories as enticements. But the stories are true. Ayodhya was like that. Before me, Ayodhya was just like that.
And what shall I say of Ram? The storytellers and the poets have said it already. You cannot but fall in love with him. He had every kind of strength, every kind of beauty, every kind of virtue.
But you roll your eyes at me, and think me a liar. ‘How can you love him, and still exile him?’ you want to know, as if you’ve always done the right thing, as if you’ve never fallen prey to your mind, the dark hidden places of the mind that know how to whisper just the right lie or play on the tenderest insecurity. The mind that knows how to preserve the foolish thought that you laugh at in the bright sunshine and magnify it in the dark hours to a festering wound that squeezes your head in a vice and shows as certain that which you know cannot possibly be true.
How I thrilled to hear the words of Manthara, my maid-servant: “The crown prince is to be king! Ram shall be your king!” So what if you roll your eyes; I know my only feeling was one of joy and happiness. My heart beat with sheer excitement and I swear to you that my one thought was “My child is to be king!” And there is real evidence for you, for I at once took off my own necklace and gifted it to Manthara as the bearer of good news.
Be fair, and acknowledge this as real evidence of my joy, and see that you must listen more closely to my tale before you can condemn me.
Manthara at once dashed my necklace to the ground and gave a look of amazed indignation. There were many words after that; she reviled me as a stupid woman too slow to understand how Ram’s coronation meant a diminishment of my and my ‘real’ son Bharata’s position and rank. Words about the bleakness of our future under the rule of Ram, about the unseeming haste of this coronation during Bharatha’s leave of absence. So many words.
But it was that first look of amazed indignation that said more; it was the look that said ‘You are too young and too stupid and too beautiful to understand anything.’ The look that magnified the small guilt I always felt for commanding so much of Dhasharata’s affection, for stealing so much from Kaushalya who was not too young or too stupid or too beautiful.
Oh, how I grow weary of you. Still you insist that I am foolish. Of course I was foolish. But think within yourself, think within of all the petty worries in your own life, and tell me that you and I are so very different.
Is the mind such an easy thing to control? Would our sages need their ashrams and their yogas and their mantras if the mind were an easy thing to control? And it is an even harder thing to control when the goddess of learning is working against you.
Yes. It was Saraswathi that twisted the tongue of Manthura with such eloquence and her mind with the knowledge to exploit my fears and guilt until I did the unthinkable.
When I finally realized what I had done and the first thoughts of self-destruction made so much sense, it was she who came to me and whispered what she had done. ‘They made me’ she whispered. ‘We Gods need this play to be acted. The people of earth need a hero to remember. Kaushalya gained her honour by birthing this man. You lose your honour but birth a hero. Only you and I will know you as the secret mother of the Ramayana.’
I know you don’t believe me; sometimes, I scarcely believe it myself. Whatever the truth may be, I acknowledge my weakness and my actions were selfish.
But I am no weaker and no less selfish than any other human. Remember that with compassion the next time you point your self-righteous finger.