Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Salvation (a false ascetic tale)

I had almost forgotten about the false ascetic. It had been a long while since I last saw him and there were enough domestic woes for me to worry about so his rotund form and disgusting guffaw had all but vanished from my memory.

And then one day, I saw him again. I was on my way to buy morning milk from the village milkman when I saw him resting beneath the banyan tree. He was resting in his peculiar vulgar fashion, one foot dangling of the podium under the tree and another folded on the podium, the net result being that his loin cloth was skewed and his genitals were on for public display. The man blissfully aware of this sat looking up at the skies with a completely stupid grin on his face. The reason for this became evident when he raised his hand to his lip and took a long drag of a smoking chillum.

It was about time for the village women to draw water from the pond nearby, so I thought it best that I warn him to present himself a bit more decently. "I think you should cover yourself up a bit ascetic", I said. (I had to refer to him by the epithet as he was yet to disclose his name.) "Cover? Why? Do you expect rain?", he asked casually while reaching out to scratch his crotch. "No, not that way, you idiot. There are women about here and they can't see you...", I hesitated a bit before pointing vaguely, "like that." The man laughed aloud, the same disgusting guffaw that showed his stained teeth and convulsed his face into an expression more grotesque than what he normally had. "Like that? Like that?", he continued laughing, "You mean they can't see a man's penis? No, of course. It is most disgusting considering the fact that all of us came from it.", he suddenly turned very sad. He sat for a couple of seconds with a melancholic expression that seemed to make his face almost handsome. He took another drag from his chillum and burst into laughter again.

I realized teaching him decency was not going to work. So in public interest, I walked close to him and under the pretext of conversation hid his body from view. "So, where were you all these days?", I asked. "There was a feast. A feast in a village..." he broke off trying to recall some forgotten memory, "lots of meat, lots of wine...many women", he chuckled. "But aren't meat and women forbidden to you ascetics? Have you no piety?" I was a little indignant that this fool was soiling the reputation of the saffron robe that he wore. "I am an ascetic..." he chuckled again "I am free from everything. So nothing is forbidden to me." he leered at me in a perverse manner. "Oh yes, that is why you go around killing innocent beasts for your hunger eh?" I was incensed. It was only yesterday we were listening to a pious discourse by the village priest about ahimsa and this man's attitude filled me with righteous anger. "You'll know. You'll know when you are born in your next life as chicken and a human cuts your head off and eats you." I wagged my finger at him and pronounced an ominous curse.

"You mean like the chicken that I just ate last week? I wonder how many chickens that chicken ate as a human in its previous birth.", he winked at me and took another drag of his pipe. "Talking of rebirth, you want to hear a story?", he asked while picking his teeth with a broken twig.

If there was one thing I could not resist, it was a story. Besides, I had to stand here as cover for this indecent rogue for at least half an hour till all the ladies of the village were safe in their homes. A story should help pass that time pleasantly. "Tell me.", I said while trying to appear disinterested.

The ascetic lied down comfortably, his right leg crossing his bent left leg as he did so. I sat next to him to block the view of his shame. "There were once 4 brothers..." he began.

"Four brothers, all born of the same mother, but completely different. This was a time before occupation was passed on by birth, caste I believe you fools call it. So each of them had their own livelihood.

The first was a priest, pious and disciplined. He spent all his life devoted to the local deity. He was well versed in all the scriptures - daily ablutions, seasonal rituals, rituals that govern human life, he steeped himself in all of this. All his life was bent towards one aim, salvation by means of purity, prayer, penitence and penance. He bathed 5 times a day and kept his body, soul and mind uncontaminated by all external touch. No sinful thought ever entered his head. No unclean human or beast ever touched his body. His mere sight was considered a blessing by the people of his village.

The second was a warrior, fierce and strong. His life he dedicated to protection of his nation. All the wealth, women and children of the nation were forever under the protection of his sword. Honour, courage and compassion were his code. He would not hesitate to face a thousand elephants in battle and at the same time, he would not harm the hair on the head of an innocent child. He won many battles for his king and in times of peace, built bridges, roads and hospitals to help his kinsmen revel in the peace that he won. His work was ceaseless and his energy endless. His men looked upon him as a kind brother.

The third was a scholar and philosopher, erudite and curious. Knowledge above all he sought. In books, tales, songs and conversations he spent his time, seeking to understand all that was. The more he learnt, the wider his heart grew, to a point where he would not harm the army of ants that carried away his grains. He marvelled in all of creation, for his education also blessed him with poetry. He often sang and soothed the troubled hearts of his kinsmen. He listened to their troubles patiently and gave them a shoulder to cry on. His advice on most matters was rounded and sound. His capacity for love extended to all living things. His was the heart that consciously understood the joys and sorrows of all creation and he ever strived to make all his actions benefit the entire world. To sit at his porch in the evening and watch him sing as the koels perched on his shoulders and joined him was a glimpse of paradise.

And then the fourth. The least blessed. This man had an unfortunate accident when he was a child. He happened to fall down what was considered a haunted well and spent a whole night there before he was rescued. The trauma of the fall and perhaps the fear of what he saw there had rendered him mad. Although, he was not really a scared man. He frequented graveyards in the nights and howled with the dogs. He used to ramble about talking to himself or creatures that his mad fancy imagined. He was offered food at times by many kind souls. Attempts to clothe him all failed as he turned violent if his body were covered. At times, despite being offered cooked food, he would cavort with the hyenas and vultures feasting on raw flesh. He slept wherever he could find shade and defecated in any place that was sandy. In short, his was a life of a beast, mad primal and pitied by all civilized folk.

The three sane brothers used to discuss their mad brother once in a while when they gathered, but it was obvious nothing much could be done for him. They did do their bit by helping him get his daily meal, which he accepted or rejected on his whim. So time passed on thus for the four brothers. Then one night, an angel appeared in each of their dreams. She spoke in a tongue that they had never heard of but understood rather lucidly. She had come to tell them of their death. Death, sweet death that would carry them all to their sweet homes, for their life's purpose had been fulfilled.

But what after death? That is what the angel had come to tell them. The priest listened with tears in his eyes, the warrior with burning courage and the poet-philosopher with eager curiousity. The madman, he barely listened, twitching a bit in his sleep as a mosquito bit him. To the priest the angel showed light, glorious light of a thousand benevolent suns bathing him in bliss. To the warrior, there was the shade of a tree that shimmered in a silvery light poured forth from a misty moon. The poet saw a throne of stone, from which all worlds and heavens were seen, a throne of stone on which silence reigned supreme. The madman...to him, all the angel showed was darkness, overwhelming all consuming darkness of a moonless starless hopeless night.

The next morning they all died.

Seven days later they all came to their new lives.

The priest was born a prince. His life was a life of luxury from the moment he was born. It seemed like he was being rewarded for all his penance, his denial of material joy with a surfeit of the same now. He grew charming and well educated. Courage was his, wealth was his, wisdom was his. He married the prettiest princess in the country and fathered many children with her. He inherited the throne from his father and won many famous victories. Then, as he grew old, he developed diabetes and gout. But even in his bed, he was well cared for by his servants and the queen. However, his sons broke out into a bloody war over the crown and he died watching them go to battle against each other.

The warrior found himself in the seed of a tamarind tree. He sprouted one monsoon and was forever steeped in the lesson of silence. He held his head high in mute pride, but his roots were gnawed at by mice. He shivered in the rain, shimmered in the sun and swayed with the breeze. He watched silently as all creatures of the world were born, lived and died under his shade. With his beatific smile, he welcomed a thousand birds to nest on his branches. He laughed when little boys and girls ran up his belly to pluck some his tangy fruit and tickled him. He gave his silent assent when woodcutters cut of his branches for firewood. He stood by not helpless, but in a stoic silence as men killed men and life in all its beauty and cruelty unfolded. Of his death not much was known. Some say he lived forever and there are some who claim he fell to the sinister stroke of a wicked man's axe.

The poet was born a dog. A mangy flea ridden street cur. He ate his fill from the garbage and whatever was fed to him by kind strangers. Food when hungry, mating in season these alone were his life. He saw nothing lofty around him. His afternoons were spent in the sunny shade of a tamarind tree and his nights were spent roving the dusty streets. His life which saw neither disease nor worry ended one night as he drifted off into a pleasant sleep and woke no more."

At this point the ascetic abruptly stopped his tale and went to sucking out the last dregs of intoxication from his chillum.

"What of the mad brother? What happened to him?" I asked very curious.

"Oh him..." the ascetic grunted. He yawned a rather copious yawn that seemed to fill the air with a rotten stench.

"What can I tell of him!", the ascetic mumbled with a rather condescending expression. Then he coolly rolled over and fell into a deep dark slumber.

No entreaties, no attempts by me to wake him up helped. I realized the man had finished his tale. I shook my head at my own stupidity for having waited for such a tale. I gingerly lifted his loin cloth with a stick to cover his genitals and walked back home.

By the time I reached home, the ascetic had turned over in his sleep, letting his loin cloth slip again, his nakedness on open display.