Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Holy Virgin and the Juggler


My wife who is a writer was looking for a good love story to translate into Hindi for a reputed journal that is bringing out a special issue on love stories from the literatures of the world. It is her request for help in selecting a story that made me to go through some works of DH Lawrence and Gabriel Garcia Marquez [both among my favourite writers], a collection of short stories by Vladimir Nabokov of the Lolita fame, Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent short story collection Unaccostomed Earth, the Jaico collection entitled The World’s Greatest Love Stories and a few other books. It was in the Jaico collection that I came across the 1921 Nobel Prize winner Anatole France’s Our Lady’s Juggler, a story that perhaps should not have been there, for it is not a love story in the traditional sense of the term. Though it was not exactly a love story in the usual sense, it is in a different sense, and I loved it very much. Last evening I told the story to my daughter who is briefly home from her studies and will again be away on an internship with a newspaper in a couple of days. She was delighted with the story and seeing her pleasure, I felt I should share it with others too.

“In the days of King Louis, there lived a poor juggler by the name of Barnabas, a native of Compeiegne, who wandered from city to city performing tricks of skill and prowess.” Thus begins France’s charming, old-fashioned narrative. Barnabas was both a good man and a good juggler. One of his tricks was standing on his head with his hands on the ground and throwing into the air and catching with his feet six copper balls that glittered in the sunlight. Another was throwing himself back until his neck touched his heels and thus assuming the form of a perfect wheel. In that position he juggled with twelve knives. When he did that the poor people who formed his audience became generous with their admiration and threw coins on the worn out carpet on which he performed.

As I said, Barnabas was a good man and a good juggler. However, sometimes being a good man and being good at what you do is not enough to fill your stomach, especially if you have chosen a profession like juggling. Such was the case with Barnabas too, particularly in winter when people preferred to stay at home rather than crowd on the cold streets. Besides, the frozen earth was not exactly the ideal condition for him to spread his worn out carpet to stand on. Nor were rainy days any better for him. The poor man suffered the pangs of hunger in silence.

One rainy day evening, after the rains had ceased, he was walking sad and bent along a lonely road. He had his juggling balls under his arm. The knives were wrapped up in his old carpet. He was looking for some old wayside barn where be might go to bed hungry and supperless. It was then he fell in with a monk who was also going in the same direction.

The monk asked Barnabas who he was and our juggler introduced himself, giving his name and profession, adding sadly that it would be the finest calling in the world if he could eat every day. The monk admonished him mildly for his words. “Be careful what you say,” he told Barnabas. “There is no finer calling than the monastic. The priest celebrates the praise of God, the Virgin and the saints; the life of a monk is a perpetual hymn to the Lord.”

The juggler apologised for his words, and told the monk of his own devotion to the Virgin. He expressed his desire to live a life devoted to singing the praise of the Virgin every day. “I would willingly give up the art for which I am known from Soissons to Beauvais, in more than six hundred cities and villages, in order to enter the monastic life,” he said.

The monk was the prior of a monastery and he told Barnabas perhaps it was the Lord who had put him across his path. He took Barnabas to the monastery, where he became another monk.

The poor man however soon realized something. Everyone in the monastery was good at something useful. The monk who had taken him into the monastery wrote books. Another monk copied this and a third one decorated the parchments. Another monk was good at sculpting and yet another, at writing hymns. Only he was good at none of these things.

“Alas!” he sighed as he walked by himself one day in the little garden shaded by the monastery wall. “I am unhappy because I cannot, like my brothers, give worthy praise to the Holy Mother of God to whom I have consecrated all the love in my heart. Alas, I am a stupid fellow, without art, and for your service, Madame, I have no edifying sermons, no fine treatises nicely prepared according to the rules, no beautiful paintings, no cunningly carved statues, and no verses counted off by feet and marching in measures! Alas, I have nothing!”

Day by day the former juggler sunk into deeper and deeper misery. He sighed in his grief as he walked bent through the monastery, lost in his sad thoughts.

And then one day he jumped up from his cot where he was lying after his breakfast and ran to the chapel where he remained for more than an hour all alone. When he came out his face was beaming. That night, after dinner, once again he ran to the chapel with joyous steps and was all joy as he came out a long time later.

The juggler monk was now a transformed man. There was no more sorrow in his eyes, no more grief round his mouth. Every step he took had the jauntiness of a youth and his very presence exuded joy.

The whole monastery was mystified by the transformation. One day as the monk rushed towards the chapel, the prior followed him quietly, along with two other monks.

What met their eyes scandalised them. “They saw Barnabas before the image of the Holy Virgin, his head on the floor and his feet in the air, juggling with six copper balls and twelve knives.” He was now performing in the honour of the Virgin what he had performed earlier for the few copper coins it brought him.

Let me now say what happened in Anatole France’s own words. “The prior knew that Barnabas had a simple soul, but he believed that the man had lost his wits. All three set about to remove Barnabas from the chapel, when they say the Virgin slowly descend from the altar and, with a fold of her blue mantle, wipe the sweat that streamed over the juggler’s forehead.”

O0O

Is this a love story? I do not know. What I know is it is a beautiful story. Every culture, every religion, has similar stories. One of my favourite stories is that of Ekutana, which comes to us from the Buddhist tradition.

The story says that Ekutana was a simple unlettered monk who lived alone in the jungle. Since a monk was expected to teach every day, he would come in front of his tiny hermitage every evening and say in simple words whatever he had learned from the Buddha. His audience was the trees and plants of the jungle, and the birds and beasts.

One day it so happened that a small group of scholarly monks happened to be passing by and they stopped at Ekutana’s hut. That evening Ekutana requested the monks to speak to the jungle. They were confused, but they granted him his request. One by one, all the monks in the group spoke and as each finished, there was complete silence in the jungle.

‘What is happening?” asked Ekutana, surprised. “Your discourses are wonderful! But no one is applauding!”

“Who will applaud?” asked the monks. “There is no one here.”

‘Oh, but they do when I speak,” said Ekutana.

“Who does?” asked the monks.

“The whole jungle,” answered the unlettered monk.

The guest monks wanted to hear and Ekutana gave his discourse. He spoke – the same words he spoke every day, exactly the same way as he spoke them every day. For he knew no other words, nor any other way of saying them.

But when he finished, the entire jungle resounded with the sound of delighted applause. The story says that the trees and plants, and the birds and the beasts, all applauded thunderously at the end of Ekutana’s speech. Exactly as they have been doing every day.

O0O

There is a beautiful story said about the famous Guruvayoor temple in Kerala. The great scholar Melpattur Narayana Bhattatiri, author of the Sanskrit classic Narayaneeyam, was in the temple when he heard Poontanam, the simple poet of devotion, sing Vishnu Sahasra Nama, the thousand names of Vishnu. When he came to Padmanabho’maraprabhuh, Poontanam paused at the joint of the two words, thus changing the second word from Amaraprabhu to Maraprabhu, altering the meaning completely. It is said that Melpattur interfered and corrected him, asking him not to make such errors, which, he said, are sacrilegious. And out came a voice from the sanctum sanctorum: “I prefer Poontanam’s bhakti to your vibhakti.”

Bhakti is devotion and vibhakti, grammar.

In the Gita, Krishna says: patram pushpam phalam toyam, yo me bhaktyā prayachhati; tadaham bhaktyupahrtam, aśnāmi prayatātmanah. Whoever offers me a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water with devotion, I accept that gift of the pure-hearted presented with love!

What is offered is not important. Two things are important: how pure your heart is, and with what amount of devotion you make the offering. Frequently the words of an unlettered man are more acceptable to that of a scholar. A grammatically faulty hymn is more acceptable than a grammatically perfect one. And jugglery is more acceptable than a hymn.

Here is how Narada defines devotion: Sa tvasmin parama-prema-rūpa. Devotion is boundless love. Boundless love that can be born only in a pure heart.

Nothing else really matters.

Miracles happen where such love exists.

O0O

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