Friday, October 23, 2009

Teacher as the Creator, Teacher as the Destroyer

I have been talking to teachers and teacher trainees for years now in the context of teaching and training, and during these talks, I have always loved telling them stories. While a few of these stories are born of my own personal encounters with life and people, many others are by authors from across the world. Here is a story I love deeply for its profound wisdom as well as for its immense power. A story like this works silently with us, transforming us with its magic. No one goes through the story – and allows the story to go through them, as my guru used to say – remains the same, so beautiful is it.


Jean Thompson stood in front of her fifth-grade class on the very first day of school in the fall and told the children a lie. Like most teachers, she looked at her pupils and said that she loved them all the same, that she would treat them all alike. And that was impossible because there in front of her, slumped in his seat on the third row, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard. Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed he didn’t play well with the other children, that his clothes were unkempt and that he constantly needed a bath.

And Teddy was unpleasant. It got to the point during the first few months that she would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X’s and then marking the F at the top of the paper biggest of all. Because Teddy was a sullen little boy, no one else seemed to enjoy him, either.

At the school where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was required to review each child’s records and put Teddy’s off until last. When she opened his file, she was in for a surprise. His first-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is a bright, inquisitive child with a ready laugh.” “He does his work neatly and has good manners...he is a joy to be around.”

His second-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is an excellent student well-liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle.”

His third-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy continues to work hard but his mother’s death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best but his father doesn’t show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken.” Teddy’s fourth-grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends and sometimes sleeps in class. He is tardy and could become a problem.”

By now Mrs. Thompson realized the problem, but Christmas was coming fast. It was all she could do, with the school play and all, until the day before the holidays began and she was suddenly forced to focus on Teddy Stoddard.

Her children brought her presents, all in beautiful ribbon and bright paper, except for Teddy’s, which was clumsily wrapped in the heavy, brown paper of a scissor grocery bag. Mrs. Thompson took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents.

Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing, and a bottle that was one-quarter full of cologne. She stifled the children’s laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and dabbing some of the perfume behind the other wrist. Teddy Stoddard stayed behind just long enough to say, “Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my mom used to.”

After the children left she cried for an hour. On that very day, she quit teaching reading, writing, and speaking. Instead, she began to teach children. Jean Thompson paid particular attention to the one they all called “Teddy.” As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. On days where there would be an important test, Mrs. Thompson would remember that cologne. By the end of the year he had become one of the smartest children in the class and. well, he had also become the “pet” of the teacher who had once vowed to love all of her children exactly the same.

A year later she found a note under her door, from Teddy, telling her that of all the teachers he’d had in elementary school, she was his favourite. Six years went by before she got another note from Teddy.

He then wrote that he had finished high school, third in his class, and she was still his favourite teacher of all time. Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he’d stayed in school, had stuck with it, and would graduate from college with the highest of honours. He assured Mrs. Thompson she was still his favourite teacher.

Then four more years passed and yet another letter came. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor’s degree, he decided to go a little further. The letter explained that she was still his favourite teacher, but that now his name was a little longer. The letter was signed, Theodore F. Stoddard, M.D.

The story doesn’t end there. You see there was yet another letter that spring. Teddy said he’d met this girl and was to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering...well, if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit in the pew usually reserved for the mother of the groom.

And guess what, she wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. And I bet on that special day, Jean Thompson smelled just like...well, just like the way Teddy remembered his mother smelling on their last Christmas together.

They hugged each other, and Dr. Stoddard whispered in Mrs. Thompson's ear, "Thank you Mrs. Thompson for believing in me. Thank you so much for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference."

Mrs. Thompson, with tears in her eyes, whispered back. She said, "Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn't know how to teach until I met you."


One of the truths I keep telling teachers is of the enormous power that a teacher wields. Her power is God-like.

An ancient Sanskrit verse that every Indian is familiar with says:

Gurur brahma, gurur vishnuh, gurur devo maheshwarah
Guruh sakshat param brahma, tasmai shree gurave namah.

[In Sanskrit, it is gurur brahma, and not guru brahma; and it is gurave namah, not guruve namah.]

Translated, the verse says: The guru is Brahma, the Creator; the guru is Vishnu, the Preserver; and the guru is Shiva, the destroyer. The guru is the Supreme Brahman itself. Before that guru, I bow down.”

What the verse says is literally true as far as the student is concerned. To him, the teacher is the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer. She has the power to make him, to preserve him, or to destroy him.

I remember the days when my own daughter was a school student. On some days she would come home from school and dance in joy the whole day. Her reason for happiness: Her teacher had said ‘good’ to her. Her teacher had appreciated something she had done or said. That was enough to make her happy for the whole day. And if the teacher rejected her, or rejected something she said or did, throughout the day she would be in deep gloom.

A word of appreciation from the teacher, a smile, a pat on the back, stays with the child not only a whole day, but an entire lifetime. And so does a frown, or a word of rejection or criticism.

For, as every parent knows, the teacher is the most important person in the world of a young child. Her authority is far superior to that of the father or the mother. You may be the greatest authority on your subject in the world, but if the teacher contradicts you, it is the teacher’s word that your child would accept, and not yours. The younger the child, the more true this is. And it is in their younger years that children are most impressionable. That is the age at which children are made, or destroyed.

Transactional Analysis tells us of the enormous power of strokes. The positive and negative strokes we receive as children make or ruin us. We are made what we are by them. These strokes shape our life scripts, and we are what our life scripts are. Our strengths and weaknesses, our successes and failures, our self-image, the nature of our relationships with ourselves and with others, the nature of our intimacies or lack of it, our drives, our ambitions, our aspirations, are all, says Transactional Analysis, determined by these scripts. Every time a teacher praises or ridicules a child, the child adds something to his life scripts, which determines his destiny, makes him what he is. It is in this sense that I say teachers have the power to make the child, or to destroy him. Every teacher is really Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara – the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer.


A personal experience.

Little Anu had just come back from Kerala when Miss Pisces, her primary school teacher who taught Drawing, asked her class to paint a well.

Green is the permanent colour of Kerala: the whole state is green round the year. But when the rains come, it becomes a mad riot of green. And Kerala gets incessant rains for months at a stretch. In the words of Arunadhati Roy, a Keralite, “By early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn moss green. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across flooded roads.”
This is the Kerala that little Anu had seen.

Most homes in Kerala have a well. Her home in Kerala too had one. A very deep one, which gave cool water round the year. Cool water and plenty of exercise – you had to haul water all the way up with a bucket and a rope. The well had a laterite wall and this had a moss coating most of the time. However during the rains the wall, inside and outside, disappeared behind thick moss and ferns. Ferns and moss grew on the inner sides of the well too, much of the way down. And the water itself had a film of moss floating over it. Everything turned green.

And this is what little Anu painted when her teacher asked her to paint a well. The well she had seen in her home in Kerala. A green well.

Miss Pisces took one look at her work, held it up for the whole class to see and then said, “Look at Anu’s work! How stupid! How can a well be green? It has to be brown!” She paused for effect and then asked Anu, “Where do you have your brains, you stupid girl? In your bottom?” And she laughed, ridiculing the little girl before the entire class. Fifty titillated little girls joined her laughter at those last words, while little Anu hung her head in deep shame.

It took years for Anu to regain her self-confidence. Perhaps she still hasn’t fully. At critical moments, those words come back to her, “Where do you have your brains, you stupid girl? In your bottom?” Like when she is performing on a stage. Or when a speaker has said something in a meeting and she does not agree with it and would like to question it. She chooses to keep quiet instead.

Such words have a way of haunting you for your life.

Because the teacher is the Creator and the Destroyer.


It is amazing how callously teachers abuse students. A couple of years ago, my wife and I were conducting a short refresher programme for railway school teachers at Chakradharpur. It was a large group – as I remember, there were a hundred teachers or so. During an exercise, we asked the teachers to list on a piece of paper the abusive words each one of them routinely shouted at their students. The swearing words, the galis. When we listed all the galis, they filled four pages! And words like moron and idiot were the mildest of galis on the list. Almost sweet to hear compared to some others that were part of the teachers’ daily volley.

Teachers like Jean Thompson use their enormous powers constructively. Other teachers are like mighty giants who do not know their own strength and cause irreparable harm by destroying the very children they are expected to nurture and nourish.

The ancient masters who composed the words of that old Sanskrit prayer knew of the enormous power the teacher has to create, to preserve and to destroy. They meant exactly what they said. A teacher is Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The trimurtis, all in one.

Each of us has a choice before us: to be creators, or to be destroyers. Each one of us can choose to be a Jean Thompson, or a Miss Pisces.

I loved Jean Thompson’s final words very much – what she whispered, with tears in her eyes, when teddy thanked her: Her words were, "Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn't know how to teach until I met you."


Incidentally, Shiva in that ancient prayer is not really a destroyer, but someone who destroys the evil so that the good can be born, who destroys the old and decayed, so that the young and healthy could be born. But when teachers destroy in their ignorance and callousness, they destroy the best: young hearts, young lives, hopes, aspirations, ambitions, innocence, power, creativity, resourcefulness and all else that is good in humanity that the child represents. They destroy life’s best promises, they destroy beautiful tomorrows.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

How Stanford University Was Born

I do not know whose words these are. But when I read them, I knew I had to have the story on my blog so that I can share it with others. Initially I thought of adding a few words at the end, relating this to a few other similar stories, but then I thought, no, I’d just let the story speak for itself. Here is the story then, without any more words from me.


A lady in a faded gingham dress and her husband, dressed in a homespun threadbare suit, stepped off the train in Boston, and walked timidly without an appointment into the president of Harvard’s outer office. The secretary could tell in a moment that such backwoods, country hicks had no business at Harvard and probably didn’t even deserve to be in Cambridge. She frowned.

“We want to see the president,” the man said softly. “He’ll be busy all day,” the secretary snapped. “We’ll wait,” the lady replied. For hours, the secretary ignored them, hoping that the couple would finally become discouraged and go away. They didn’t. And the secretary grew frustrated and finally decided to disturb the president, even though it was a chore she always regretted to do. “Maybe if they just see you for a few minutes, they’ll leave,” she told him. And he sighed in exasperation and nodded. Someone of his importance obviously didn’t have the time to spend with them, but he detested gingham dresses and homespun suits cluttering up his outer office. The president, stern-faced with dignity, strutted toward the couple.

The lady told him, “We had a son that attended Harvard for one year. He loved Harvard. He was happy here. But about a year ago, he was accidentally killed. And my husband and I would like to erect a memorial to him, somewhere on campus.”

The president was not touched; he was shocked. “Madam,” he said gruffly. “We can’t put up a statue for every person who attended Harvard and died. If we did, this place would look like a cemetery”.

“Oh, no,” the lady explained quickly. “We don’t want to erect a statue. We thought we would like to give a building to Harvard.”

The president rolled his eyes. He glanced at the gingham dress and homespun suit, and then exclaimed, “A building! Do you have any earthly idea how much a building costs? We have over seven and a half million dollars in the physical plant at Harvard.”

For a moment the lady was silent. The president was pleased. He could get rid of them now.

And then the lady turned to her husband and said quietly, “Is that all it costs to start a University? Why don’t we just start our own?”

Her husband nodded. The president’s face wilted in confusion and bewilderment. And Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford walked away, travelling to Palo Alto, California where they established the University that bears their name, a memorial to a son that Harvard no longer cared about.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Masters Who Wear Masks: 3. Pakkanar, the Pariah

Stories about Pakkanar, the legendary pariah saint of Kerala, were among the most beautiful stories I grew up listening to. Like Lai-Khur [] and many other masters, Pakkanar too lived wearing a mask all his life: a mask of ordinariness, and at times a mask of stupidity and ignorance, a mask of being limited by the caste and class that society had ascribed to him. In spite of these, though, at times he allowed the world glimpses of his spiritual wisdom and powers, and the stories are mostly about these moments.

The birth of Pakkanar is a legend in itself, part of one of the most popular legends of Kerala which every one born in Kerala hears as a child. In my case, it was from my father that I first heard the story as a child and then subsequently I read it as a teenager in Kottarattil Sankunni’s Aitihyamala [Garland of Legends], the collection of myths and legends about Kerala.

Pakkanar, the legend tells us, was the pariah son of the pariah woman who married the brahmana Vararuchi, one of the nine jewels in the court of Vikramaditya. The couple had twelve children, all abandoned at birth, each growing up belonging to a different caste, each becoming great in his or her own way, each giving birth to numerous legends. [For more details on this, please see my blog posting []

Eleven of the twelve children met once a year to observe the shraddha of their parents. They met at the home of the eldest of the twelve sons, Melattol Agnihotri [frequently spelt Melathol Agnihothri], a brahmana, each bringing an item of his or her own for the feast that was part of the shraddha rites. At the end of the rites, all sat together and had the feast in remembrance of their parents.

There are certain things that are acceptable in a shraddha feast, and certain things that are not. And in any case, many things have always been taboo for brahmanas as food, purity of diet being part of being a brahmana. Meat certainly was not an item of food for a brahmana – no kind of meat was.

However, Pakkanar made it a point to bring meat for the feast every year, which deeply disturbed Agnihotri’s brahmani wife and other high caste participants of the sacred Vedic rituals. The family knew of the great spiritual heights Pakkanar had climbed to and of his awesome powers. For this reason, Agnihotri’s wife did not say anything about Pakkanar’s sacrilege, nor did the others. She cooked whatever he brought and served it at the ritual feast, and the participants ate it.

While all meat was traditionally taboo to brahmanas, beef was something that no Hindu ate. To the Hindu mind, no greater sin existed than killing a cow or eating beef. However one year what Pakkanar brought was the severed teats of a cow, packed in a leaf. His intentions were clear, for the udder and the nipples are considered the most sacred parts of the cow.

What Pakkanar had done was the limit. Nothing could be more sacrileges than that! The antarjanam [brahmani] opened the packet and saw what was inside. Her whole face reddened with shock. The packet fell from her hands and a scream escaped her lips. Violent retching shook her whole body and she rushed outside the house. She needed to bring out everything in her stomach, such was her horror.

Eventually she managed to master herself. Coming back, she tied the cow’s teats back in the leaf and took the packet outside and digging a hole in the yard, buried it in it. Then she took a bath to ritually purify her and after that, proceeded with her cooking.

The ritual feast began and the ten brothers and one sister sat down together to eat. Under the antarjanam’s care, the dishes cooked with the items brought by each were served to all.

Pakkanar noticed that what he had brought was missing in what was being served. “Where is what I brought?” asked Pakkanar, turning to the antarjanam. She remained silent, her head bent, her eyes on the ground at her feet. She couldn’t tell a lie, nor could she tell the truth. And in any case, she couldn’t insult a man like Pakkanar, that too during the shraddha, however shocking what he had done was.

Seeing his wife remaining silent, Agnihotri repeated Pakkanar’s question. She continued to remain silent, and he grew insistent on knowing the truth. It was then that she told what had happened, beginning to shake all over remembering what she had seen when she opened the leaf packet.

Agnihotri became silent when he heard his wife’s words. He was confused, and did not know what to say. He knew it was wrong on the part of his wife to throw away what Pakkanar had brought for the feast – but a cow’s teats! He had never said a word about the meat that Pakkanar had been bringing year after year, but this was unimaginable.

In the middle of the complete silence that had fallen over the place, Pakkanar suggested, “Since you planted it in the yard, maybe it has sprouted by now. Why don’t you go and see?”

Cow’s teats do not sprout, of course. But such was Pakkanar’s presence that the antarjanam went to the place where she had buried the horrid packet. What she saw there was a new creeper she had never seen before – never seen there, and never seen anywhere else.

The vines grew thick everywhere, climbing one over the other, climbing over all nearby shrubs. And there was a green vegetable growing on the vines, hundreds and hundreds of it, a vegetable she had never seen before, a vegetable shaped like the teats of a cow.

Unable to believe her eyes, perspiring, confused, the antarjanam rushed back and told Pakkanar what had happened. Pakkanar was cool, as though nothing more than the most ordinary had happened. “Why don’t you pluck the vegetables and make a curry of it? I am sure you can cook and serve that to all?”

And that is what the antarjanam did.

The vegetable thus born of the teats of a cow, says the legend, is koval, or kovakka [kundru in Hindi]. Shaped like the teats of a cow, kovakka is a vegetable widely used all over India. The vegetable is a part of shraddha feasts offered in Kerala till today.

Pakkanar was not encouraging or even condoning the killing of animals, for food or for other reasons. His lesson was about what we consider sacred and profane, shubha and ashubha, about what we consider good and bad. Everything in the universe is permeated by God, and there is nothing but God in the universe, say the Upanishads: ishavasyam idam sarvam. Everything is equally sacred for the wise man who has eyes to see.

To the Indian culture, the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane is an important fact–at one level things are either sacred or profane. But at the same time, from the beginning of Indian culture, at a still higher level, everything is sacred since there really exists nothing in which the Divine is not present, there is nothing that is not the Divine.

I once had an interesting experience. Many years ago, an American professor of mine asked me for a prayer from Sanskrit to be used at the beginning of a training programme he was shortly to conduct. I selected a few mantras from the Shatarudriya [Rudra Ahhyaya or simply Rudra] and on his request translated them for him. When he heard my translation, he was shocked to learn that the Shatarudriya addresses God using such terms as the chief of thieves [stenanam pataye namo namah], the deceiving and the elusive one [vanchate parivanchate] and so on, along with other appellations for God of the kind he was used to.

It is central to Indian culture and philosophy that everything is sacred and good and bad are good and bad only at a lower level. From the standpoint of true wisdom, nothing is impure.

This is true not only philosophically and spiritually, but also at a social level. As the Gita puts it: “vidyavinaya-sampanne brahmane gavi hastini shuni chaiva svapake cha, panditah samadarshinah.” “The wise look upon the educated brahmana endowed with humility, the cow, the elephant, the dog and the dog-eater, all with the same attitude.”

God is in everything, God is everything. “Prostrations to Thee who art in the form of the artisans who make arrows and bows; prostrations to Thee who art the hunters and the huntsmen; prostrations to Thee who art the hounds and the keepers of hounds,” says the Shatarudriya. To the Shatarudriya, the carpenters and chariot-makers; potters and blacksmiths; fowlers and fishermen and everyone and everything else in the universe is God.”

The creation and the created are not different since the creator created the universe from himself.

One of the strangest mysteries about Indian culture is that the very same people who chanted the Shatarudriya ritually every day insisted that if even the shadow an outcast fell on them, they became impure and had to regain their purity through purificatory rites – at least a ritual bath.

Such was the spiritual heights to which Pakkanar had climbed that for him everything we ate was the same. In fact, for him, the eater, the eaten and eating, were all the same. And he wanted at least those who were closest to him, who he felt had the potential to realize this, learn this – if not the common masses who might not be ready for such knowledge, to whom such knowledge could be dangerous.


Another beautiful legend about Pakkanar speaks about his encounter with a group of brahmanas who were on their way to Kashi, the holiest of holy places. Pakkanar met them on the way and after greeting them as was appropriate for a pariah to greet brahmanas, asked them politely where they were going. When they said they were going to Kashi, Pakkanar said, “Could your lordships do me a favour? Could you take this stick along and give it a dip in the Ganga too?”

“Why do want the stick to be given a dip in the Ganga?” asked the brahmanas. It was indeed a strange request.

Pakkanar said he would tell them when they brought the stick back.

They took the stick with them, perhaps prompted more by the strangeness of the request and the audacity of the man who had made that request.

When one of the brahmanas dipped the stick in the Ganga in Kashi, somehow he lost hold of it and the stick disappeared into the river. The brahmanas were all upset about what happened, but they finished their ritual baths in the Ganga and after visiting a few other holy places en route, eventually came back. Pakkanar went to them and after greeting them in due reverence, enquired about his stick. Did they give it a bath in the Ganga? Have they brought it back?

They told him they were sorry but they lost the stick.

“Where did your lordships lose it?” asked Pakkanar.

“In the Ganga, in Kashi,” they answered.

“Oh, that’s no problem, then,” said Pakkanar with a smile. With that he went to the dirty pond that was close by and made a request to it, “Please, may I have my stick back?”

Legend says that the stick immediately rose up from the pond to the amazement of the brahmanas and Pakkanar picked it up.

The brahmanas then realized that Pakkanar was giving them a valuable lesson: every pond in the world is Mother Ganga herself, and all water is as sacred as the water of the Ganga.

Speaking of visits to teerthas, holy places, which is what the brahmanas were doing in Pakkanar’s story, the Maitreyi Upanishad says: “teerthabhranti adhamadhama” – endlessly roaming from one pilgrimage centre to another is worse than the worst kind of sadhana. Pakkanar, like the Upanishad , rejects all paths to the Supreme that are less than the straightest one.

Here are a couple of other quotations related to ritualistic sadhana from Maitreyi Upanishad:

‘Deho devalayah proktah, sa jeevah kevalah shivah.
tyajed ajnananirmalyam, sohambhavena poojayet.”

“This body is spoken of as the temple, and the inhabitant of the body is none other than Shiva himself. Cast away yesterday’s garlands [nirmalya] of ignorance and worship him – with the bhava [attitude] that ‘I am He.’”

“Mrta mohamayi mata jato bodhamayah sutah
sutakadvayasampraptau katham sandhyam upasmahe
hridakashe cidadityah sada bhasati bhasati
nastameti na codeti katham sandhyam upasmahe.”

“Dead is my mother called delusion and a son has been born to me, called knowledge. How can I perform the sandhyas when I am in sootaka twice over? In the sky of my heart the sun of consciousness keeps shining and shining. It neither rises in the morning nor sets in the evening. How can I then perform the sandhyas?”

Sootaka is a period of ritual impurity following a birth or death in the family, when Vedic rituals are should not be performed. Sandhyas are performed in the morning and the evening.

Pakkanar would wholeheartedly agree with what the Upanishad says. And it is the experiences and sayings of such sages as Pakkanar that validate the sayings of the scriptures. So long as we do not have our own experience of the truth, which alone is the ultimate proof of their teachings.


Here is another legend about Pakkanar my father told me when I was a child.

Like other pariahs, Pakkanar too lived by making winnowing baskets and other household utensils from bamboo and selling these door to door. Every time he and his wife finished making ten winnowing baskets, Pakkanar took them to the village. He would give the bunch of winnows for them to see in the first house and then ask a high price for the winnows. They would naturally refuse to pay his absurd price, and he would refuse to lower it and say angrily, “Well, in that case, return all my nine winnows.”

People would laugh within themselves at his mistake – he had given them ten, and he was now asking for all the nine of them back. They would quietly keep one winnow back and return nine.

Pakkanar repeated his performance in the next house. He had nine winnows now. At the end of the bargain, he would angrily ask for all his eight winnowing baskets back, which is what they would give him back. This went on until there was just one winnow left.

In the last house he will sell it for the normal price. Pakkanar and his wife were content to live on what they earned from that one winnowing basket.

Stupid, some of us would be tempted to say, especially the profit-conscious ones. But that is how Pakkanar was, and that is how many saints are, particularly the ‘eccentric’ ones. Pakkanar’s ways would not make sense to the normal, rational ones among us. But the fact of the matter is that he produced more than he needed, and lived on the minimum that he needed.

Pakkanar was practicing what Islam calls zakat. Only he was far more generous than Islam’s minimum requirement of one-sixth of your produce. And it was definitely not to those who were poorer than himself that he was giving away the products of his work. Or maybe the people who were cheating the man they thought was a stupid pariah, were really poorer than him.

That stupidity was Pakkanar’s mask. That and the limitations imposed on him by his caste that he decided to submit to. He did come out from behind his mask occasionally, as we saw, like other masters who hid themselves behind masks.

If he hadn’t, most of us would have never heard of his existence.


To be continued...

The Pariah Woman and Her Twelve Children 2

Continued from part 1

Vararuchi’s world stood still. A thousand memories rushed chaotically through his mind. A whirlwind of memories. Memories of that long ago night under the tree when he had overheard the dark spirits. Memories of the court. A day that was at once bright because he was a winner celebrated by the king and everyone else and at the same was the darkest in his life. He had lied on that day for the first time in his life and lied to destroy. Destroy the life of an innocent baby. How cruel and heartless he had been. Years of wandering across many lands. Was it the first time he became a wanderer? No, the first time was when he had wandered in search of an answer the king sought. That was only forty days. And then there was the second round of wanderings. What was the answer he had sought during those wanderings? To questions about sin? About destiny? About acceptance and surrender? About purushartha? He knew it was not one question, but several questions. He had himself become nothing but questions. Endless questions. And then he had heard a voice. A voice sweeter than the sweetest notes of the veena. What was it saying? Please ask the guest to have his bath and come back, and by then everything will be ready – was it that? No, it was not that. It was something else. The voice was asking him what was wrong. Who was shaking him? Two hands were holding him and shaking him, trying to wake him up? There were questions in those eyes too – in the eyes that were staring at him. The sweetest of voices he had known – that was asking him questions. What was she asking? Why was the world going round? Why was everything whirling about? He clutched her tightly, clung to her, to the girl that was dearer to him than his life, to the girl he had married and was now his wife. And a baby screamed. Screamed in agony – a scream that he had heard a million times in his life. There was no sweetness in that voice. Pain, nothing but pure agony. Two men were holding a baby – a newborn baby – and one man had just stuck a burning torch into her tiny little head.

When Vararuchi came to, he was lying in his wife’s lap. He sat up. And then he told her everything that had happened. Beginning with the king’s question. He did not know how long he talked. Maybe hours and hours. Maybe it was only minutes. But he told her everything. Everything that led him to her. Everything that he had done to escape her.

When he finished, she was a dead woman. There was no colour on her face, no life in her eyes. All her brilliance had left her – a dead body is not brilliant. She breathed, but otherwise she was dead. She shrank back from him in horror. In horror of him, in horror of herself, in horror of life itself.

It was his decision to spend the rest of their life in pilgrimage. She and him – life wanted them to be together, destiny wanted them to be together, and they shall be together. But not in their home. On the roads, eating what life brought them, what destiny brought them, sleeping where life, destiny, took them by each evening. He wanted her with him – that is what life had taught him, she was inseparable from him.

He realized she had never been separate from him. Not from the moment he heard the dark spirits speak about her. Speak about her destiny and his destiny. He had wandered across the land for years, in summer and winter, in spring and in rainy season, under the scorching sun and pouring rain, in screaming winds. And in all those wanderings she had never been separate from him. There hadn’t been a moment when she was not with him.

And so shall it be. He shall again become a wanderer. Going where life took him, where destiny took him. And she shall be his companion in all those wanderings.


They were passing through a jungle when the pains started. She was going to give birth to their first child. “Go behind that bush and deliver the baby,” he told her. And that is what she did. She had become weak from her wanderings. Her agonies tore her to shreds – the first birth-giving. And she was no more than a little girl yet. In her teens, and almost too young to be a mother. But not a sound came out of her. She had cried only once in her life – when the torch was struck into her head. After that she had never cried. She hadn’t cried on that day either, the day Vararuchi told her about them. There was no way she could cry on that day, her shock was too great for that. And after that she had never cried either.

She did not cry as she delivered her first baby behind a bush, all alone, with no one to help her, no one to hold her hands, no one to give her strength. Not a cry escaped her. Not a whimper.

When Vararuchi heard the cries of the newborn baby, he asked her, “Does the baby have a mouth?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Then leave it there. God who gave it a mouth will also feed it.”

She left her firstborn baby there and got up. Should she clean the baby and herself?

He had started walking. She walked behind him.


When the second baby came a year later, he asked her again, “Does the baby have a mouth?’

“Yes,” she said.

“Then leave it there. God who gave it a mouth will also feed it.”

She left her second baby there and got up. He had started walking. She walked behind him.

And that is how it was with the third baby and the fourth baby and the fifth baby ... down to the eleventh baby.

Eleven years. Eleven babies. All left where they were born.

Vararuchi had admitted defeat before destiny. If destiny was all powerful, let it take care of its own, he had told himself with a vengeance. The birth of those babies were destiny’s decisions, and what will happen to them shall be destiny’s decisions too.

Vararuchi’s was not a happy surrender, but an angry surrender, a furious surrender.

The twelfth baby was born in the twelfth year. When Vararuchi heard the baby’s cries, he asked once again, “Does the baby have a mouth?’

“No,” she said. She was not going to abandon any more of her babies. She was a mother.

Vararuchi was silent.

The baby too had stopped crying.

She looked at the baby.

It had no mouth.


Vararuchi took the baby to the nearby hilltop. There he established him as a deity. Vayillakkunnil Appan, he is called today. There is a temple built for him and ritual poojas are performed for him, as for any other deity. Devotees visit the temple every day, where their wishes are granted by the all-powerful Vayillakkunnil Appan – God with no mouth, who resides on the hill.

All twelve of the pariah woman’s babies were born in Kerala, says the legend. The temple of Vayillakkunnilappan is in Kerala.

The other eleven babies were all found and brought up by different people as their children. Each of the founders belonged to a different caste, and for that reason, each grew up belonging to a different caste.

A Malayalam a verse combines the names of all twelve children.

“Melattol Agnihotree Rajakan Uliyannoor Tacchanum pinne Vallon
Vayillakkunnilappan Vatutala Maruvum Nayar Karakkal Mata
Chemme kel Uppukoottan periya Tiruvarankattezhum Pananarum
Nere Narayana Bhrantanum utan Akavoor Chattanum Pakkanarum.”

Melattol Agnihotri, Rajakan, Peruntachan, Vallon, Vayillakkunnilappan, Vatutala Nair, Karakkal Amma, Uppukoottan, Tiruvarankattu Pananar, Naranath Bhrantan, Akavoor Chattan and Pakkanar – these were the twelve children of the nameless parayi and Vararuchi mentioned in the verse.

My father had taught me this verse when I was a child and over the years, I had forgotten part of it. Last year when I was home in Kerala, I asked Father to sing that and I discovered he hadn’t forgotten a word of it. I recorded the verse in his powerful voice.

The twelfth child had already become a deity. Each of the other eleven grew up to become a legend in his or her own unique way. Stories about some of them are known to every child born in Kerala. Stories about others have been lost in the passage of time. They are lost, but they are there somewhere in the deep psyche of Kerala, in its deep collective unconscious.

Legend also tells us that in later years all the eleven children met. After their parent’s death, they came together to perform their shraddha every year – all except the twelfth child, who was a deity. Several stories are told about these get-togethers, some of which have survived till today.

Three of the children grew up to be great siddhas, saints with immense spiritual powers. Two of them belonged to the lowest of castes – Chattan and Pakkanar, both enlightened masters of the highest kind, both highly unconventional and authentic, their words and deeds reminding us of the words of the Upanishads. I remembered them when I recently wrote about Maitreyi Upanishad, the ancient Upanishad that rejects ritualism and idol worship, rejects all but the straightest path for the inner journey.

There will not be a single Kerala child who does not know the story of Naranath Bhrantan, the mad saint, one of whose stories parallels the myth of Sisyphus from ancient Greece. But with Sisyphus his eternal rolling the boulder up the hill only for it to come down when it reached near the top was a curse he had received from the gods; for Naranath, it was a teaching device, chosen by himself. Great masters have their unique ways of teaching, and this was his way of teaching. And that is only one of the many stories of Naranath that have survived. Each of them as thrilling as the others, and as enlightening.

And so does every Malayali know the story of Peruntachan, the super carpenter whose skill at his craft was mindboggling.

I mentioned at the beginning that I first heard the legend of the twelve children of the pariah woman from my father when I was a child. In subsequent years I would get the opportunity to read widely from all kinds of mythology, including ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology, Native American and Japanese mythology, and mythology from all over India. I love mythology. I love mythology from all over the world. But to me the legend of the twelve children of the pariah woman – parayi pettu pantirukulam – has remained unsurpassed in its charm.

True, the legend raises a lot of questions, some of them philosophical and existential. But we will have to wait for another opportunity to go into these questions.


The Pariah Woman and Her Twelve Children

Among the most beautiful stories I grew up listening to was that of the pariah woman who gave birth to twelve children, who grew up belonging to twelve different castes. Legends were told of each of the twelve children – so great did each of them become. Malayalis know her story as the legend of parayi pettu pantirukulam – ‘the parayi-begotten twelve castes.’ Translated that way, it could be slightly misleading because the legend does not say that the twelve castes or kulas were begotten by the parayi [pariah woman], but that her twelve children belonged to twelve different castes.

Hers is one of the most popular legends of Kerala and every child born in Kerala hears it as a child. In my case, it was from my father that I first heard the story as a child. Subsequently I read it as a teenager in Kottarattil Shankunni’s Aitihyamala [Garland of Legends], the collection of Kerala legends that was at that time available as an eight-volume set and has since been combined into a large, single volume. I have been obsessed with the beauty of the story ever since I first heard it.

The brahmana scholar, Vararuchi, says the legend, was one of the nine jewels in the court of King Vikramaditya. Vararuchi was a master of every known science and the unsurpassed scholar of pauranic scholar of the age.

One day it so happened that an idle question came to King Vikram’s mind: what is the most important verse in the Ramayana?

What an absurd question – how do you pick one out of the twenty-four thousand magnificent verses in Valmiki Ramayana as the undisputed best?

Vararuchi had no answer, which displeased the king very much. He asked Vararuchi to go, find out the answer and then come back – and if he couldn’t, said the king, he need not bother to come back to the court. He was given forty-one’s time to find the answer.

Vararuchi wandered wide and far, asking every scholar he met the answer to his question, but not one of them knew the answer. Some laughed at him for asking such a ridiculous question, others commented about the vagaries of kings and the foolishness of people who depended on them for their livelihood, and yet others named one verse or another, but Vararuchi was not satisfied.

Forty days passed, and yet he had no answer to his question. It was not only his position in the court that was at risk, but his fame itself. He knew even if the question was ridiculous he had to find a satisfactory answer for it – for, all that people would remember was that he could not find an answer Vikramaditya’s question, and not that the question was ridiculous.

That night, deep in despair and gloom, Vararuchi repaired to the bottom of a tree. He had failed. Now there was nothing left to be done. Forty days were past and when the night ended, it would be the forty-first day. And he would the laughing stock of the whole world.

He could hardly think as he lay down there. His body seemed to be already dead, so completely drained of all energy was he. Before falling asleep, he prayed: “May the goddesses of the forest guard me through the night!”

As he lay there, some dark spirits happened to pass by through the skies above him. They landed on the tree for a minute’s rest and as they were leaving, asked the forest goddesses who were on the tree if they were not coming along, they were going to a house where a birth was about to take place. The goddesses said they couldn’t leave the tree since the man sleeping under the tree had prayed to them before he fell asleep that they guard him through the night. They asked the spirits to let them know what happened on their way back.

Vararuchi was up before the night was over, as was his habit. But he did not open his eyes or get up. The deep gloom that had enveloped him before he fell asleep hadn’t left him. He had no answer to the king’s question and there was no point in getting up without the answer.

As he was lying there, the spirits who had gone to the house of birth came back and again rested on the tree. The forest goddesses asked them about their trip. “In whose house was the birth? Was the child male or female?”

The spirits told them it was to a lowly pariah’s house they had gone and the child born was a baby girl. “What is her future like?” asked the goddesses again. “What is she destined to become? Who will she marry?”

And the spirits answered, “Well, she is supposed to marry the idiot of a brahmana sleeping under this tree who does not even know that the most important verse in the Ramayana is “ramam dasharatham viddhi, mam viddhi janakatmajam; ayodhyam ataveem viddhi, yathecchasi tatha kuru!”

For those who are not familiar with this verse, it is taken from the Ayodhya Kanda of the Ramayana. As Lakshmana takes leave of his mother Sumitra to go to the forest with Rama and Sita, she tells him this verse as part of her advice to him. In the verse she asks him to look upon Rama as his father Dasharatha; upon Sita as herself, that is, as his mother; and upon the forest as Ayodhya; and for the rest, she tells him, he can do as he wishes. [In a different version of the Ramayana text, the verse ends in gaccha tata yathasukham; meaning, “Now son, go happily.”]

With those words the spirits took off again and Vararuchi got up and sat bolt upright. The first thing he realized is that he now had the answer he had been looking for. As for what the spirits had said he was destined to do, he told himself, it was disturbing but he would deal with it later. What he needed to do now was to go to his king and give him the answer.

Later that day Vararuchi reached Vikramaditya’s court. The king was delighted to see his scholar friend back again – he had been missing him and had even regretted the rash order he had given him.

Vararuchi, says the legend, not only gave the king the answer to his question, but also pointed out to him the most significant part of the verse: where Sumitra asks Lakshmana to look upon Sita as his mother. He then proceeded to interpret the verse in ten different ways, giving the verse ten different meanings.


As Vikramaditya, Vararuchi and the rest of the court sat talking, the scholar told the king: “Maharaj, a child has been born to a pariah couple last night. According to the time and place of her birth and the position of the stars, she is a great danger to the kingdom. If she continues to live, by the time she is three years old, the kingdom itself will be come to doom.”

The king was shocked to hear this. Vararuchi was the greatest scholar of jyotisha, the science of predictions, and author of a number of books. He has never been wrong in the past. Nor did anyone in the court have any doubt that everything Vararuchi predicted would come true.

They wondered what to do. It is a matter of a newborn pariah baby on one side and the whole kingdom on the other. True, a newborn baby cannot be killed, whoever she is. And in this case, it was a baby girl – all the more not to be harmed in any way. While all children were precious, girl children were infinitely more so. [How things have changed over time!]

But at the same time, ancient books of wisdom said that to save a family, an individual could be sacrificed; to save a village, a family could be sacrificed; and for the sake of the kingdom, a village could be sacrificed. Here it was the question of sacrificing an individual for the sake of a whole kingdom.

And yet they knew there was no way they were going to kill a girl child.

Eventually a compromise was arrived at, suggested by Vararuchi himself. They would float the baby down the river, on a raft made of banana stems, with a live torch stuck to her head. After that, let her fate be decided by destiny.

Vararuchi knew what he had suggested was the death of the new born baby. Though technically they would not be killing her straight away, she had no chances of surviving.

They say no blessing ever comes to man from dark powers. And if any apparently comes, the price you will have to pay for it will be shocking too heavy. Vararuchi had received the answer to his question from the dark spirits the previous night, and darkness has already entered the highly educated, pious brahmana’s heart, perhaps unknown even to himself. What was at stake was Vararuchi’s honour. It was not considered an honourable thing for a brahmana to wed a pariah girl. Great would be the social ignominy heaped upon a man who did so. But it was not an unheard of thing. While the society did look down upon it, the scriptures did allow it. It was what was called anuloma marriage, in which a man married a woman from a caste beneath his own caste. A brahmana was thus allowed to marry another brahmana woman, or a woman from a varna or caste beneath his. What the scriptures and tradition were against was pratiloma marriages, in which the woman was from an upper caste or varna, and the man from a lower one.

What Vararuchi was doing to save his honour was taking another life – an innocent newborn life. And that too the life of a girl child. All ancient scriptures are unanimous in this: there is no greater sin than taking the life of a girl child.

Such was the nature of the darkness that had entered Vararuchi that he condemned the little baby to death to save his honour.

Vararuchi’s suggestion was accepted. King’s men went to the hut of the pariah and snatched the baby from the hands of its screaming mother. They stuck a burning torch in her head and floated the baby screaming in agony down a river.


Years passed. Vararuchi was no more with King Vikramaditya. He was now a brahmana wandering restlessly from place to place. Perhaps his guilt tormented him constantly – what he had done to the little pariah girl was in all likelihood the first evil act of his otherwise pure life. At one time, one of the brightest jewels in the court, he had now become a yayavara, spending his nights where he reached. Yatra sayam grhah, that was his rule now: Home for the night is where you find yourself at the sunset. He lived on the charity of men – hospitality was always a part of India, particularly to wandering brahmanas, and their visits were always considered a blessing. After all, a guest was to be treated as God himself – atithidevo bhava, as the Taittiriya Upanishad puts it. Hospitality was also a form of tapas in the ancient tradition. Hosts went out of the way to make visitors comfortable. A situation that was, no doubt, at times exploited by ruthless guests. But that was accepted as part of life and no one ever complained, nor did they stop being hospitable.

Years of wandering. Vararuchi was fairly old by now. Once Vararuchi was a guest in the house of a brahmana. As they sat and talked, the brahmana was delighted to find his guest a great scholar. There was something lovable in the host brahmana too, something that endeared him to Vararuchi. And he really loved his home – he felt at ease in years. The great wandering scholar relaxed – and laughed. It has been years since he had laughed last. Laughter had left him the day he suggested to the king that the pariah baby be floated down the river with a burning torch stuck in her head. He laughed again for the first time in years.

He was still in a light mood when the brahmana invited his guest for lunch. So Vararuchi told his host he had certain conditions for accepting the invitation and unless these were met, he wouldn’t be able to accept the honour. Taken aback, the host asked him what he meant. And Vararuchi told him: “I need to feed a hundred people before I myself eat. For the lunch I need a hundred and eight curries. And after lunch, I need to eat three people and then I need four people to carry me.”

His host was now struck dumb. He couldn’t think of anything to say, he became so confused. And then he heard the voice of his daughter answering from inside the house, “Father, please tell the guest everything will be done as per his wishes.”

The girl’s voice sent a thrill through the aging scholar’s heart, a strange thrill that he had not known so far. He had never heard a voice as sweet as that. He had heard female voices of all kinds – cultured and refined voices in his days as a courtier, and every imaginable kind of voice in his wandering years. But never a voice like this. The exquisite notes the veena produced in the hands of the most talented musician were no match for the young female voice he had heard. A strange rapture rose up from the depths of the scholar’s being and spread through his body. Goosebumps appeared all over. Vararuchi was suddenly carried away to a different world, a world he had never been to before.

He had lived the first part of his life worshipping Sarasvati, the goddess of learning. And then his life had changed, and he had become a tormented wanderer. Thoughts of women had occured to him occasionally. After all, he was a healthy male and to which healthy male do they not occur; but he had known they were born of the urges of his body and had not allowed them to master him. But for the first time he wanted to hear that young female voice again and again. He wanted to hold the woman whose voice it was in his arms. He wanted to surrender himself to her, to make her his own and give himself to her. He wanted to travel with her into those worlds to which he was stranger, but had read about so much. He suddenly understood what his friend and fellow courtier of his court days, the royal poet Kalidasa meant when sang of the glory of women.

“Please ask the guest to have his bath and come back, and by then everything will be ready.”

That voice again.

She had asked him to have his bath and come back.

Vararuchi shook himself out of his thoughts and went to the nearby river for his bath.

After he left, the girl explained it all to her father. When the brahmana had said he had to feed a hundred people before he had his lunch, what he meant was that he had to perform vaishvadeva, the ritual that the scriptures said would please a hundred gods. When he said he wanted a hundred and eight curries, what he meant was he needed the ginger-curry, which is considered equal to a hundred curries. The three people he wanted to eat after lunch - that was a paan, made of betel leaves, aricanut and lime paste. And as for four people carrying him, all he meant was he needed a cot to lie on – the four legs of the cot are the four people.

When Vararuchi came back after his bath, his delight knew no bounds as he saw that everything was done as he wanted it. During the vaishvadeva, Vararuchi’s thoughts were less with the rituals and more with the girl.

And then when he was seated for the meal, the girl came and served the honoured guest. Vararuchi had the first glimpse of the girl whose voice had sent him into raptures. One look at her and Vararuchi knew that that voice had to belong her. He had never seen a girl like this before. Scholar that he was, his mind immediately associated her with his friend Kalidasa’s heroines – Yaksha’s beloved in Meghadoota, Shakuntala, Indumati...he knew none of them surpassed this girl in beauty. And how she moved!

While having his meal, his thoughts were contantly with her. And as he lay on his cot to rest after the paan and closed his eyes, he was unable to sleep. Instead, he saw himself with her. In a home of his own, with her as his beloved.

What a voice! And what beauty! And what brilliance!

He realized now that had never before thought of setting up a home.

Later, he talked to the girl’s father. He was more than pleased to give the girl to the scholar brahmana who was at one time a courtier of Vikramaditya. He talked to the girl, and told her of his age, but she had been listening to him from inside the house as he talked to her father and she had seen him when she came to serve him the lunch. She was already in love with him.


After their marriage, they settle in a home of their own. Vararuchi’s love for his wife was the love of an older man for a young woman. It is also the love of a man who had denied life to himself suddenly falling in love with life. He had much to teach her, scholar that he was, and she, with her brilliant mind, loved to learn from him, which endeared her all the more to him. And suddenly he learnt that he had more to learn from her than she had from him – this beautiful young girl whom she adored had the wisdom of a million of years of life on earth, and her wisdom surpassed his knowledge gathered from books. Hers was the wisdom of life.

Yes, he told himself one day, I am infatuated with this girl. And not ashamed of it. Woman was an altar, and he, a humble priest. Before her he felt the humility a devotee feels before the goddess he worshipped. There was nothing more worthwhile than spending the rest of his life worshipping at the altar she was.

One day she was lying on his lap and he was combing her hair. As he parted her hair, he noticed some strange mark right in the middle of her head. Something like a wound, healed a long time ago, leaving just the scar there.

A shiver ran through Vararuchi. His hands began to shake. He could hardly move. He could hardly speak. Was he imagining it? Or...? No, he did not want to name it. That was impossible!

Vararuchi’s words came out of him with great difficulty. “What is this mark...on your head?” he asked.

“Oh,” said the girl in her sweet voice that put the veena to shame,
“Father once told me that it was the mark of a wound. He said I wasn’t born to him, though he loved me more than if I had been born to him. I am a foundling, a baby who came floating down the river years ago on a raft of banana stems, with a torch stuck in my head.”

Continued ...part 2

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Masters Who Wear Masks 2: Lai-Khur

Lai Khur was a Sufi saint who lived with a mask on his face all his life. Rather than narrating his story, let me quote here Osho, who, if I understand correctly, too lived part of his life with a mask on his face. Osho speaks glowingly of Lai-Khur in his talks published as Unio Mystica, Volume 1. The following is an abbreviated version of what the master says of Lai-Khur:

The Sultan of Ghazna, Bahramshah, was moving with his great army towards India on a journey of conquest. Hakim Sanai, his famous court-poet, was also with him, accompanying him on the journey of this conquest. They came alongside a great garden, a walled garden. They were in a hurry; with a great army the Sultan was moving to conquer India. He had no time.

But something mysterious happened and he had to stop; there was no way to avoid it. The sound of singing coming from the garden caught the Sultan’s attention. He was a lover of music, but he had never heard something like this. He had great musicians in his court and great singers and dancers, but nothing to be compared with this. The sound of singing and the music and the dance – he had only heard it from outside, but he had to order the army to stop. It was so ecstatic.

The very sound of the dance and the music and the singing was psychedelic, as if wine was pouring into him: the Sultan became drunk. The phenomenon appeared not to be of this world. Something of the beyond was certainly in it: something of the sky trying to reach the earth, something from the unknown trying to commune with the known. He had to stop to listen to it. There was ecstasy in it – so sweet and yet so painful, it was heart-rending. He wanted to move, he was in a hurry; he had to reach India soon, this was the right time to conquer the enemy.

But there was no way. There was such strong, strange, irresistible magnetism in the sound that in spite of himself he had to go into the garden. It was Lai-Khur, a great Sufi mystic, but known to the masses only as a drunkard and a madman.

Lai- Khur is one of the greatest names in the whole history of the world. Not much is known about him; such people don’t leave many footprints behind them. Except for this story, nothing has survived. But Lai-Khur has lived in the memories of the Sufis, down the ages. He continued haunting the world of the Sufis, because never again was such a man seen. He was so drunk that people were not wrong in calling him a drunkard. He was drunk twenty-four hours, drunk with the divine. He walked like a drunkard, he lived like a drunkard, utterly oblivious of the world. And his utterances were just mad.

This is the highest peak of ecstasy, when expressions of the mystic can only be understood by other mystics. For the ordinary masses they look irrelevant, they look like gibberish. To the ignorant, his utterances were outrageous, sacrilegious, against tradition and against all formalities, mannerisms and etiquette – against all that is known and understood as religion. But to those who knew, they were nothing but pure gold.

[Let me add a small note here. The Indian tradition speaks of great realized masters as: balavad, unmattavad, pishachavat – they are like children, like madmen, like restless ghosts who haunt the world on dark nights.]

He was available only to the chosen few, because only very few people can rise to such a height where he lived. He lived on Everest – the Everest of consciousness, beyond the clouds. Only those who were fortunate enough and courageous enough to climb the mountain were able to understand what he was saying. To the common masses he was a madman. To the knowers he was just a vehicle of God, and all that was coming through him was pure truth: truth, and only truth. He had made himself deliberately notorious.

That was his way of becoming invisible to the masses. A master, if he really wants to work, if he means business, has to become invisible to those who are not authentic seekers.

Lai-Khur called for wine and proposed a toast: “To the blindness of the sultan Bahramshah.”

Now, first the great mystic called for wine. Religious people are not supposed to drink wine. It is one of the greatest sins for a Muslim to drink wine; it is against the Koran, it is against the religious idea of how a saint should be. Lai-Khur called for wine and proposed a toast: “to the blindness of the sultan Bahramshah.”

The sultan must have got mad. He must have been furious – calling him blind? But he was under the great ecstatic impact of Lai-Khur. So although he was boiling within, he didn’t say a thing. Those beautiful sounds and the music and the dance were still haunting him, they were still there in his heart. He was transported to another world. But others objected, his generals and his courtiers objected. When objections were raised, Lai-Khur laughed madly and insisted that the Sultan deserved blindness for embarking on such a foolish journey.

”What can you conquer in the world? All will be left behind. The idea of conquering is stupid, utterly stupid. Where are you going? You are blind! Because the treasure is within you,” he said. ”And you are going to India; wasting time, wasting other people’s time. What more is needed for a man to be called blind?”

Lai-Khur insisted, “The sultan is blind. If he is not blind then he should go back to his home and forget all about this conquest. Don’t make houses of playing-cards, don’t make castles of sand. Don’t go after dreams, don’t be mad. Go back! Look within!”

The man who has eyes looks within, the blind man looks without. The man who has eyes searches for the treasure within. The man who is blind rushes all over the world, begging, robbing people, murdering, in the hope that he will find something that he is missing.

It is never found that way, because it is not outside that you have lost it. You have lost it in your own being: light has to be brought there. Lai-Khur insisted that the Sultan was blind. ”If he is not, then give me the proof: order the army to go back. Forget all about this conquest, and never again go on any other conquest. This is all nonsense!”

The sultan was impressed, but was not capable of going back.

Then a toast was called, “To the blindness of Hakim Sanai” – because he was the next most important person with Bahramshah. He was his adviser, his counsellor, his poet. He was the wisest man in his court, and his fame had penetrated into other lands too. He was already an accomplished poet; a great, well-known wise man. Then a toast was called, “to the blindness of Hakim Sanai,” which must have given the great poet a considerable jolt. There were even stronger objections to this on the grounds of Sanai’s excellent reputation, his wisdom, his character.

He was a man of character, a very virtuous man, very religious. Nobody could have found any flaw in his life. He had lived a very, very conscious life, at least in his own eyes. He was a man of conscience. More objections were raised. Because maybe the Sultan was blind, he was greedy, he had great lust, he had great desire to possess things, but that could not be said about Hakim Sanai.

But Lai-Khur countered that the toast was even more apt, since Sanai seemed unaware of the purpose for which he had been created; and when he was shortly brought before his maker and asked what he had to show for himself he would only be able to produce some stupid eulogies to foolish kings, mere mortals like himself. Lai-Khur said that it was even more apt because much more is to be expected from Hakim Sanai than from Sultan Bahramshah. He has a greater potential and he is wasting it, wasting it in making eulogies for foolish kings.

And listening to these words and looking into the eyes of that madman, Lai-Khur, something incredible happened to Hakim Sanai: a satori, a sudden enlightening experience. Something died in him immediately, instantly. And something was born, something utterly new.

In a single moment, the transformation had happened. He was no longer the same man. This madman had really penetrated his soul. This madman had succeeded in awakening him. In Sufi history, this is the only case of satori. In Zen there are many cases. But in the world of Sufism this is the only case of satori, sudden enlightenment – not methodological, not gradual; in a shock it happened.

Lai-Khur must have been a man of tremendous insight.

Hakim Sanai bowed down, touched the feet of this madman and wept tears of joy that he had arrived home. He died and was reborn. That’s what a satori is: dying and being reborn. It is a rebirth. He left the Sultan and went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. The Sultan was not willing, he was not ready to allow him to go. He tried in every way to prevent him: he even offered his only sister in marriage, and half the kingdom, to Hakim Sanai. But now all was meaningless.

Hakim Sanai simply laughed and he said, “I am no longer a blind person. Thank you, but I am finished. This madman has finished me in a single stroke, in a single blow.”

So he went to Mecca on a pilgrimage, to meditate, to be silent, to be a pilgrim unknown to anybody, to be anonymous. The thing had happened, but it had to be absorbed. The light had happened, but one has to get accustomed to it. And when he became accustomed to the new gestalt, to the new vision, he came back to Lai-Khur and presented him his book, THE HADIQA [which he had written during his return journey from Mecca].


Continued ... Masters Who Wear Masks 3: Pakkanar, the Pariah

Masters Who Wear Masks

The Man in the Iron Mask [1998 version], is a movie I saw again on TV recently. It is a movie I love much for many things, including the invaluable lessons it gives in leadership, a subject I have been teaching for the last few years at XLRI School of Business, Jamshedpur. These lessons the movie gives us are both in the best kind of leadership, which I have been teaching as Daivi Leadership, and the worst kind, which I have been taching as Asuri Leadership. The two models of leadership are based on the Daivi Sampad and the Asuri Sampad that the Bhagavad Gita speaks about.

In the movie young prince Philip is the man in the iron mask, having forced to live with an iron mask on his face practically all his life, locked up in a dungeon in the notorious Bastille. However, towards the end of the movie, Phillip tells a dying D’Artagnan, “It is you who have been living under a mask.” Phillip is right; D’Artagnan has lived all his life wearing a mask on his life, in fact more than one mask.

But in wearing a mask, D’Artagnan was just being like any one of us. Most of us live all our lives wearing masks. That is, most of us ordinary mortals.

But it is not unusual for a great enlightened spiritual master to hide himself behind a mask either.

One such awakened master from the fictional world is Donald Shimoda in Richard Bach’s Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. “He learned of this world in the public schools of Indiana,” says Illusions. “But the Master had learnings from other lands and other schools, from other lives that he had lived.”

The master believed that every man was a son of God and had the power to help others. Other people see his power and come to him to be healed of their troubles and diseases. However, soon his fame spreads and large crowds always throng in front of the shops and garages where works as a mechanic – crowds of people who seek his learning and his touch, and long that his shadow might fall upon them and change their lives.

When the crowds become too big, he goes to the countryside where too people come to him. They start calling him a Messiah and worker of miracles. He teaches them that “within each of us lies the power of our consent to health and to sickness, to riches and to poverty, to freedom and to slavery. It is we who control these, and not another,” but people tell him he is different and they cannot become what he is, cannot do what he can.

He tells them a story. “Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all – young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”

The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom.”

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!”

And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

But they cried the more, “Saviour!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour.”

What the Messiah tells the crowds is the same truth that enlightened masters from across the world have been saying throughout history. We have all the power we can imagine and much more. We are the source of all the power in the universe. The truth is, in the words of the Maitreyi Upanishad, “I am me; and I am the supreme. I am Brahman, and I am the origin of all. I am the guru of the whole world and I am all over the universe. Such am I.”

“ahamasmi paraschasmi brahmasmi prabhavo’smyaham; sarvalokaguruschasmi sarvaloke’smi so’smyaham.”

When the master realizes that the crowd is not interested in waking up and in realizing the truth of what they are, but only in clinging to their ignorance and ignorance-born ways, that they want him to heal them and solve their problems for them forever, he decides to leave. “I quit,” he announces once day. He then goes through the crowds and leaves them, returning to the everyday world of men and machines. He has now put on the mask of ordinariness, and as far as the outside world is considered, he is one of them.

Says Osho, speaking about masters who wear masks to hide themselves from people: “Sufis do that; they have a very strange method of becoming invisible. They remain visible – they remain in the world, they don’t escape from it – but deliberately they create a certain milieu around them, so that people stop coming to them. Crowds, curious people, stupid people, simply stop coming to them; the Sufis don’t exist for them, they forget all about them. This has been an ancient method of the Sufis so that they can work with their disciples.”

In the following postings of on this topic, we shall explore some real-world awakened masters from across different cultures. We shall begin with Lai-Khur, a little known Sufi Saint who was one of the greatest ever.


Continued on Masters Who Wear Masks 2

Monday, October 12, 2009

Minister’s Job

I was watching a program on Asianet, the Malayalam TV channel, yesterday. The young girl who was singing the song on the stage was doing a brilliant job. She seemed to have become completely one with her singing. It looked as though the audience and the judges did not exist for her. And yet she was aware of the live background music – a slight disharmony, and she showed she had noticed it.

The song she was singing was a charming folk number with an interesting plot. The female monkey asks the male monkey, her lover, I believe, or maybe her husband, to bring a paan for her. He goes and comes back with a paan leaf – a betel leaf. Just the leaf. She asks for the betel nut to go with it – It is only then that he realizes his mistake. You don’t chew paan without the betel nut. He goes and gets the betel nut. She now asks for the tobacco to go with the betel nut and the paan leaf. He has to make another trip to get it. And then she asks for the last item – the lime paste to go with it. Of course he hasn’t brought it. He has to make a fourth trip to bring it!

Paan means all four together, though just the leaf alone is also called paan. She had to send him four times to get her paan.

The delightful song reminded me of a story my father told me when I was a child in Kerala.

Once upon a time there was a king, and he had a minister. The other officers of the king were very jealous of the minister, for his salary was many times that of the other officers. One day they went as a team to the king and complained of the injustice. Why should he be given so much, they asked him, when they were given much lower salaries? They can understand some difference, because he was the minister, but many times their salary? The king said he would explain.

Looking out of his window, he saw an elephant. The mahout was taking him along the royal highway. The king asked the minister to leave them all alone for a few minutes and after he had left asked one of the officers to go and find out the price of the elephant – he was interested in buying the elephant.

The officer came back and told him the price. Did you enquire how old the elephant is, asked the king. “Sorry, I didn’t,” said the officer.

The king sent another officer to find it out and he came back and informed the king that it was fifteen years old. “To whom does the elephant belong?” asked the king. The officer said he hadn’t asked the mahout that question.

“All right,” said the king and he sent yet another officer to find this out. When he came back and gave the answer to the king, he asked, ‘How long is its trunk?” Of course he did know the answer and another officer had to be sent to find out the length of the elephant’s trunk.

Ancient Gajashastra of India, the science of elephants, said that a good elephant should have a trunk that stretched to the ground and is longer still so that its tip has to be curled upwards. It should have wide ears and a wide forehead. The colour of its nails showed its health – and it should have either eighteen or twenty toenails. The right tusk should come out of its mouth at a place slightly higher than the left one did. Its breathing should be deep and even, its skin should have fine dots all over, its trumpeting should sound like thunder. The complexion of the elephant, how strong it is, how pleasing its shape is, its overall size, how glowing it is, how tranquil its nature is, the way it held its head, the season in which it went into rut, all these things were important.

By the time the king got all the answers he wanted, a long, long time had passed because so many trips up and down had to be made. The mahout had by then stopped on the roadside seeing the interest of the king in the elephant , or else it would have been a couple of miles away by the time the officers got all their answers.

The king now sent a messenger to the minister, asking him to come. When he came, the king asked him the question he had asked the first officer – precisely the same question. Telling him that he was interested in buying the elephant, the king asked the minister to find out how much the elephant would cost.

A few minutes later the minister was back. The king asked him about the price and the minister told him the answer. The king then asked him about the age of the elephant – the minister had found that out too and gave the king the information he wanted. When the king asked him to whom the elephant belonged, the minister had his answer ready for that too. The king asked the minister all the questions he had asked the officers and a few he hadn’t, and the minister had answers for all of them without making another trip to the mahout.

The king now turned to the officers who had been standing and watching the exchange between the king and the minister. They were now standing with their heads hung down in shame, their faces red with embarrassment. “Got your answer?” asked the king. The officers apologised both to the king and the minister and left.

“A minister’s job,” said my father, concluding the story, “is different from the job of other lesser people. A minister does things differently. That is why he is the minister.”

I never forgot the story Father told me though I cannot say I have been as successful in being like the minister in the story as I wish I had been.

A couple of months ago a friend of mine, a professor from Hawaii University, visited my home along with his wife and another common friend of ours, a professor from XLRI. We had a long, long conversation that began after lunch – and the conversation, we all knew, was to continue for hours more. [Eventually when we finally ended our discussions on that day, it was past midnight.]

In between I had to take a small break in the evening, though, on a small errand that could not be avoided. As I was leaving, I suggested that I would go the optician’s and get the spectacles of the wife of the professor from Hawaii repaired. One of its kamanis had come lose and we all felt all it required was to have the screw that had fallen off replaced. She needed the glasses for regular vision. It was no more than a minute’s work and in any case I was going near the optician’s place.

Reluctantly they agreed to my suggestion.

As I was leaving my drawing room where we had all been, the professor from Hawaii – let’s call him Prof. B – called out to me and said, “Do the minister’s job, acharya.” [He had just started calling me that.]

“Do the minister’s job.” My friend’s words were spoken that instant in my room, and yet I was hearing those wards from a long distance away, from a long ago. Strange feelings surged through me and for a moment I was not sure what I should do. I stood absolutely still.

That was the expression I had heard from my father years ago, and it had meant precisely what Prof. B had meant. So many decades had passed since my father told me the story, and I hadn’t heard from anyone else that expression. My childhood, that evening from long ago when I sat with my father on the steps leading to our house that was slightly raised above the ground level, the many, many other stories Father had told me on similar evenings sitting on those steps – all that had come back to me in an instant.

I walked out of the room quietly, without a word. I did not want the profundity of the moment disturbed by talk. Something beautiful had happened, and I knew I had to share its beauty with my friends. But I also knew it was not the moment to share. Sharing will have to wait. At that moment I had to be alone with my feelings.

I didn’t tell my friends anything about it later, after when I came back either. We were talking about different things – mostly Indian philosophy and psychology – and I hadn’t still digested what had happened fully. The only person I told of what had happened was my wife – the next morning.

I plan to send this blog to Prof. B and that would be the first time he would hear about what his words had done to me that evening.

Did I do the minister’s job that evening? I do not know. Perhaps I did, perhaps I didn’t. The optician said the frame had to be replaced and I wasn’t sure if I should choose a new frame on Prof. B’s wife’s behalf. I did find out all I could about fresh frames available in his shop [especially since the words ‘the minister’s job’ were fresh in my mind!]. The optician’s shop was the oldest and the most reputed in town, but I have always believed certain choices should be made by the individual concerned – and that included the choice of spectacle frames.

I remember that after I came back all of us went out together to the market. We decided to combine Prof. B’s wife’s choosing a new frame for her glasses with a little bit of much needed shopping. A short trip that we all enjoyed much.

Prof. B is originally from the lower Himalayas. I had no idea that fathers in such faraway places told their children some of the same stories that fathers in Kerala told their children.

That is, hoping it was from the story of the king and minister and the officers that he had learned the expression ‘the minister’s job’ and that it was his father who had told him that story. I am sure he would let me know after he reads this blog.

I must also thank the young girl on Asianet for singing that song yesterday.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Draupadi: The Day of the Jackals 3

Continued from …2

Krishnaa could not believe this was happening. She the sacrifice-born princess, the pet of King Drupada, the adored sister of Shikhandin and Dhrishtadyumna, the darling of the entire Panchala, the wife of the five Pandava brothers, the queen of Indraprastha, has been brought into an assembly of kings and nobles dragged by her hair. She who had faced a similar assembly of men only once before in her life during her swayamvara, was now in the middle of these nobles, while in her monthly period, clad in one cloth. And Dushshasana was pulling even that cloth away from her!

Was it really happening? Or was this all a mere hallucination? Was this a nightmare from which she will soon wake up to find that nothing has changed, everything was as before, that she was still the queen of Indraprastha, that her husbands were still masters of a rich and powerful kingdom, that the dice game had never happened?

But she knew the answer. Dushshasana’s powerful hands were pulling her cloth away from her. Duryodhana and Karna were laughing in uncontrollable mirth.

“Slave, slave!” Words that horrified her. “Whore, whore!” Words that were like whiplashes on bare flesh.


She held the cloth tightly to herself.

Her eyes were roving mad in despair. Filled with mortal dread she looked frantically all around. This was worse than death. Yes, she would have preferred to die, rather than being denuded in this assembly, being subjected to what they were doing to her.
But, no. She was not going to give up. She was not going to lose to brute force, to insolent might. She was a kshatrani. Born to fight. Born to win. She doesn’t give up life’s battles.

And there was unfinished work left. Dushshasana will have to pay – pay with his life for what he was doing to her. Duryodhana will have to pay. Karna will have to pay.

Bhishma will have to pay and Drona will have to pay. Pay with their lives. And the blind Dhritarashtra will have to pay – with the loss of the lives of all he loved. “Has the wager been won?” he had asked again and again, every time something new was wagered. He too will have to pay.

“Slave, whore,” shouted Dushshasana as he tried to free her cloth from her hands that were clasping it to herself.

She held on with all her might. Looking once again into the eyes of the men in the assembly. Her husbands. Bhishma. Drona. Others.

Her eyes met no other eyes. Except the eyes of Dushshasana, Duryodhana and Karna. Lust filled eyes. Perverted eyes. Mad eyes. Mocking eyes. Eyes that had gone insane with depravity. Eyes that exulted in their sheer power over her.

And she knew no help was coming.

The world had begun to reel. Everything was moving in a haze, in an incredibly fast haze. The whole world was going round and round. And she was finding it more and more difficult to stand on her feet.

She held the cloth all the more tightly to herself. Her whole past was unrolling before her as in a fast drama, as before the eyes of a dying man. She saw her father, her brothers…

And then from among the faces one face became clear. Another dark face like hers. A handsome face. An irresistibly beautiful face. A face full of power. A face untouched by wickedness, untouched by corruption, untouched by weaknesses. A face that made promises. Untold promises. Promises that were whispered direct to your heart.

Promises that were made directly to your soul.

Those inviting, irresistible eyes. Eyes from which the smile never seemed to leave. Eyes that held you by their magnetic power. Eyes that could be flowers in one moment and diamonds in the other. Eyes that hid immense power. Eyes that could command the very elements of the earth.

The eyes of a yogeshwara.

A man who shared her name. And a million other things with her.

And she surrendered to that man. Surrendered to his strength. Surrendered to his power. Surrendered to his promises.

And immediately felt herself letting go. Felt herself relaxing. Felt a sense of relaxation flooding her. Felt herself surrendering to that relaxation.

Felt power surging through her. Power she knew was enough to make any enemy bend his knees. Power she knew was enough to make any enemy powerless.

It was a different kind of power. Not the kind of power that Dushshasana was exerting over her. Not even the kind of power that Bhima possessed. But a different kind of power. A very different kind of power. A totally different kind of power.

A power that won victories without fighting a battle.

She felt an ecstasy filling her. A rapture surging through her. Felt as though she was being born afresh. Coming into being, coming into existence, for the first time.
Suddenly the word alive had a different meaning. Suddenly she knew what it was to live.

Perhaps she had felt this before. A long time ago. She could not remember when but she was sure she had felt this before. Known this feeling before. This sense of being alive. Just alive. Being one with life. One with the world. One with existence.

The oceans were not different from her. The sky and the sun and the moon and the stars were not different from her. The mountains were not different from her. And the trees and shrubs and the grass were not different from her. The animals and the fishes and the trillion creatures were not different from her. They all shared a common existence with her.

She was their existence.

The sleepy infant suckling serenely at its mother’s breast as the young mother rested in a contented ecstasy – it was she.

The little village girl feeling the thrill of the first drop of rain on her as she slowly whirls around in the rain – it was she.

The tender young woman wearing that thin white cloth and bathing under the waterfall – it was she.

She was the beautiful princess who parted the curtains of her palanquin to give a smile to the little fawn who came gambolling and stood watching some distance.

She was the tall young man with a wiry body sleeping contentedly in his boat as it floated serenely down the Ganga.

She was the rapturous young woman in her young lover’s strong arms swooning in the power of their passion.

She was the small child standing on her father’s feet and laughing in wild pleasure as he tossed her up and down.

She was the sole pink bud on the bank of the mountain lake standing in still ecstasy as the butterfly hovered over it. She was the green parrot with the red beak perched on that dry tree while rain clouds moved serenely in the distance. She was the heady fragrance of burning camphor that filled the tiny shrine on the mountain slope, the intoxicating scent of lemon blossoms in the little garden in the heart of the valley. She was the haunting music of the flute that filled the valley.

And then she suddenly realized it – that smiling dark face, those irresistible eyes, they were hers.

It was she who had been carried in a basket across the Yamuna that storm-torn night! It was she who had stolen fresh butter from Yashoda’s pots in Vraja! It was she who had killed Putana, who had subdued Kaliya, who had played on her flute on the banks of the Yamuna maddening all of Vraja, who had danced with the cowherd girls in Vrindavana all night long. It was she who had killed Kansa, Shishupala.

She felt the power of the Sudarshana in her hand.

She had the power to annihilate. And she had the power to create. Unmesha-nimishotpanna-vipanna-bhuvanavali. As she opened her eyes, universes came into being, and as she closed them they dissolved back into her.


And then the tumult reached her. Excited, ecstatic voices were shouting all around her. There seemed to be a million voices. All filled with thrill, with wonder, with disbelief.

What were they shouting?

And then she heard it.

“A miracle! Look, a miracle! A miracle has happened!”

She slowly opened her eyes.

She had no idea when she had closed them.

She was still in the hall, she found.

Instantly she clutched her cloth to herself.

When had she let go of it?

But Dushshasana was no more pulling it away!

Where is he?

She looked around.

Lying all around her was a huge, huge pile of clothes. Clothes in myriad hews. Fine clothes. Beautiful clothes. Endless clothes. All around her. And she was standing in the middle of it all. Still clad in her single piece of cloth.

And at her feet sat Dushshasana. Tired, sweating, his eyes wild with another kindness of madness. The madness of incomprehension. And the fury of helplessness.
Govinda had come to her! Her Govinda! Her Krishna!

Closing her eyes, she once again lost herself in the ecstasy of it.

And then, opening her eyes, she stepped out of the pile of clothes.


“Get up, Dusshasana! Take the slave Krishnaa to the inner apartments!” It was Karna’s voice.

She couldn’t believe it! They were not finished with her yet!

“Wait,” Krishnaa said as Dushshasana began to pull her towards the door of the hall.
“There is a duty I have to perform to this august assembly, to the elders here. I could not do it when I came here first. I know the fault was not entirely mine. For I was in no condition to do it then.”

Dushshasana let go of Krishnaa. Clad in her soiled cloth, Draupadi stood erect and proud before the assembly of kings and elders. Her eyes were serene. Clad in that one piece of soiled cloth, she still looked an embodiment of poise and dignity, of feminine beauty and grace.

“Elders of the assembly,” she addressed them. “I grew up not seen even by the sun and the wind. Only once have I come before an assembly like this. On the occasion of my swayamvara. For that reason, forgive me my omission. I now bow before you deeply. Please accept my regards.”

There was silence in the hall.

“Having done that, I now ask you once again. Am I a slave or not? You must answer me this question.”

Seeing that no one was responding to her question, Bhishma stood up. In voice that was steady and clear, he spoke, praising Draupadi’s conduct. This is how a princess should be, he said. A princess even in the midst of the worst crisis in her life. Never losing her dignity, never losing her poise, her grace, even in the middle of unspeakably humiliating circumstances. “Daughter,” he said, “You make your father proud. You make your mother proud. You make me proud – for you belong to my family.”

Draupadi acknowledged him.

“As for your question,” he continued, “there is only one person here fully qualified to answer it. Yudhisthira. Let him answer it.”

As Bhishma sat down, the assembly waited for Yudhisthira to speak. Yudhishthira sat with his head hanging low, without a word.

An infuriated Bhima shouted: “Get me some fire, Sahadeva. I shall burn these accursed hands of Yudhishthira.”

Karna’s triunmphant laughter answered Bhima’s call.

Bhima had never in his life raised his voice against Yudhishthira, never spoken a word against him.

And when no response came from Yudhishthira, Duryodhana spoke.

“The princess of Panchala shall be freed if the four brothers say that Yudhisthira is not their master…or let Yudhisthira himself say he is not your lord, and I shall free you this very instant.”

The entire assembly applauded Duryodhana.

And yet Yudhisthira spoke not a word.

Instead it was the anger-filled, fury-filled, helplessness-filled words of Bhima that the assembly heard. “Yudhisthira is our lord and master,” said Bhima. “Had it not been so, remember, not one of the Dhartarashtras would have been alive today. You owe your life, every breath of it, to the fact that Yudhisthira is our lord.”

Bhimasena is not known for his ability to control himself. Not usually.

And then Karna spoke again. He spoke words filled with arrogance, with contempt, words that ill-fitted that august assembly.

Or maybe, perfectly befitting that assembly that had silently, without a word of protest, witnessed the attempt of a man to denude a helpless woman in their midst.

“Krishnaa Draupadi, the sons of Dhritarashtra are your masters now – no more the Pandavas. Go you to their inner apartments. Go you to the quarters of the slaves. And I also ask you to choose one of the Kauravas as your husbands. A slave belongs to the household to which she is bound. Her masters are the masters of that house. The vows of marriage are not for a slave. She chooses a man to father children in her as and when the need arises. Choose you a new husband now. I recommend all the Kauravas to you. All of them are physically strong, well built, and masters of themselves. What more does a slave woman need? Go ahead and choose any one of them to mate with and beget children.”

Duryodhana laughed uproariously at these words. Laughing still, he once again asked Yudhisthira to decide once for all whether Draupadi was won by him or not. And then, still laughing, he parted his clothes before the disbelieving eyes of the whole assembly and revealed his left thigh. His eyes holding Krishnaa’s eyes steadily, he struck at it loudly, repeatedly.

Struck thus, Duryodhana’s thigh, stout and strong, full of powerful muscles, looking like a pillar cast from iron, produced sounds like that of the thunder when rain cloud met rain cloud.

With utter disregard for all morality, for all values, Duryodhana had done the unthinkable in that assembly of elders. Showing his left thigh, the place for a wife or a mistress or a whore, a woman of pleasure, offering it publicly to a woman. With utter disregard to all laws of courtesy, to all decency.

To his own sister-in-law. To Krishnaa.

Bhima jumped up from his seat at this. His eyes emitted fire. His whole body trembled at this insult to Draupadi, insult to all of them. “For this act of yours, Duryodhana, for this ugly, horrid act of yours, I shall break that thigh of yours in battle. Hear me, all you who are assembled here, here me gods in heaven, hear me my ancestors – if I do not do that, let the worlds that are mine after death, be denied to me for ever.”

Dushshasana caught Krishnaa by her hair once again. And suddenly she turned to him in fury. She wanted to strike him, strike him down like lightning strikes down a mighty tree. In front of all the assembly. And she knew for certain she could do that. She knew she had the power to do that in herself. She felt power coursing through her.

But instead she pulled her hair free from his hand. Holding it up in her hands, Krishnaa spoke: “This hair of mine touched by this wretch shall from now remain open until the day it is smeared with living blood from the heart of this beast. This I vow by everything that I hold sacred.”

Her vow was followed by Bhima’s booming voice. “And I vow that I shall pluck off that evil arm that dragged Krishnaa by her hair. And I vow that I shall tear open the wicked heart of this monster and drink his living blood. If I do not, may the worlds of my ancestors be forever denied to me.”

And Krishnaa saw it clearly then. Dead bodies lay strewn in their thousands in a vast field. And in the middle of it all was the living, pulsating body of Dushshasana, lying on its back. And Bhima kept his foot over his body, plucked off his right arm and flung it away, roaring like a lion. Then he plunged his sword into that evil heart. Tearing open that chest, Bhima gathered blood from that wicked heart and raising his palms up, drank that blood. And then, not content, she saw him chop off the head of the monster in a single stroke and raise the severed head in the air. As blood flowed into his mouth, Vrikodara’s roar of pleasure and triumph terrified the thousands of onlookers, making them flee in terror.

And then the vision changed. The battlefield was the same, the multitudes of dead bodies were the same and Dushshasana’s body was there. But it was not Bhima who had his leg over its chest – it was she. She was standing with her left leg on Dusshasana’s chest. Her head was held high, in triumph and in her hand was a mighty trident. Fire emanated from her eyes – from all three of them. Her nostrils flared in exhilaration as she breathed in deeply the smell of blood. Blood was flowing like rivulets in the field.

The sound of beejamantras filled the air…. shreem…hreem… kreem… aim… kleem…
The mantras came to her from the ten directions, chanted by a million voices, in which past, present and future mingled, the voices of gods mingled with the voices of men and women. The seven matrikas and the sixty-four yoginis sang her praises.

Her hair danced in the fierce wind, like dark flames, like a thousand black cobras. She felt someone behind her. Two hands were gathering her hair together and smearing blood on it. Hot blood. Sweet smelling blood. Intoxicating blood. Dushshasana’s blood.
The hands began braiding her hair with infinite love, with infinite tenderness.
Were those Bhima’s hands? They had to be.

But suddenly she was sure they were not.

She had known those hands more intimately than she has known Bhima’s hands, than any other hands.

And then she knew. Those were hands she had known through a thousand births.

The hands of someone who had been her companion through ages.

She couldn’t mistake the hands of her Govinda.


Vidura’s voice brought her back to the reality of the Dice Hall. In another vain attempt, he got up once more and declared that he considered Draupadi not won.

No one deemed it necessary to respond to Vidura’s words.

And then Arjuna spoke. He was talking to the assembly for the first time on that evil day.
His words were brief and simple. He turned the question over to the Kauravas. “Let the Kauravas decide this matter,” he submitted to the assembly.

Krishnaa was shocked beyond words. Arjuna! Her Arjuna! He had deserted her! It is as though he wanted to get it all over with, one way or another. As though Krishnaa did not matter to him. As though Krishnaa’s fate did not interest him any more! Let the Kauravas decide this matter!

Ugly words had been spoken in that assembly on that day. Krishnaa had been called a slave. Krishnaa had been called a whore. Krishnaa had been asked to go to the slave quarters to serve her new masters as a menial. Krishnaa had been asked to choose a man to mate with to beget children.

Evil words. Horrible words. Ugly, loathsome words.

But it is doubtful if any of those words had hurt her as deeply as these words of Arjuna.
Ugly deeds had been done in that assembly on that day. Like a common street gambler, a king had gambled away everything that was his in that assembly. In an act that even a street gambler does not do, that king, famed for his virtues, had wagered his brothers one after the other and lost them. And then, after wagering and losing himself, he had proceeded to wager his own wife! An act the vilest of men would be more reluctant to do than Yudhisthira had been to do. She too had been lost and declared, like the others, a slave to the Kauravas. She had been dragged out of her inner apartments where she was spending the days of her monthly period, and caught by her hair, had been dragged into the august assembly of the Kauravas, clad in a single cloth as the custom for a woman in her monthly season decreed. And, while the whole assembly watched, while her elders watched, while her husbands watched, an attempt was made to deprive her of her cloth and make her stand naked in the middle of that assembly. And then a man, again the middle of that assembly, in the presence of all of those people, in the brazen arrogance of his just won absolute power, contemptuous of all norms of decent behaviour, had removed his cloth to reveal his naked left thigh and invited her, his sister-in-law, to it – shaming her for ever.

Shocking deeds. Horrible deeds. Unheard of deeds in any civilized society.

But it is doubtful if any of these deeds had affected the princess of Panchala as deeply as this desertion by her favorite husband, the man who was among the five the closest to her heart, the man who had won her, won her body, her heart and her soul, in that swayamvara hall, the youth who had mesmerized her by his presence, by his competence, by his self-assurance, by his fearlessness, the man who was more truly her husband than any other.

Arjuna had deserted her.

A dark gloom rose up from the inner depths of Krishnaa. From that part of her being closest to the springs of life. From depths even she did not know existed. Deep, abysmal gloom rose up from those depths and spread to envelop her entire being. Clouding her senses, her mind, her heart, her entire being. Suffocating her senses, her mind, her heart, her entire being. Making her unable to breathe. Making her shiver in despair. In deep, indescribable pain. In pain so deep, no sound could express it. Pain so deep that silence, choking, smothering, enervating silence, silence that crushed her like a million tons of metal, alone could express it. Pain threatened to extinguish her.

Krishnaa surrendered to that silence.

And as she did so, the first howl of a distant jackal was heard in the Dice Hall. A howl of agony. A howl that tore at your heart with its immeasurable sadness. A howl that augured inauspiciousness. A howl that announced doom.

And then another, and another, and another. Soon a multitude of jackals were howling together, rending the skies with their agony. An endless multitude. Thousands upon thousands of jackals.

Which were joined by a hundred thousand donkeys braying together. In agony. In fathomless sadness.

And then a million wolves joined them. A million dogs. A million hyenas. A million owls. A million crows. A million vultures.

Filling the skies. Rending the skies.

And they heard a dissonance of eerie, bloodcurdling sounds joining these. Evil, horrible, monstrous sounds from another world, portending unspeakable evil. Cries of ghosts, cries of ghouls. Cries of restless souls wandering without a refuge for eternity in timeless dimensions. Cries of evil spirits. Cries of the souls of unborn babies choked to death in their mothers’ wombs. Cries of the souls of women who died without a sip of water in the middle of endless travails, trying to give birth to the babies in their wombs.

Cries from the depths of hell. Cries of the tortured souls from the many hells men feared to call by their names.

A million bats, dark, huge, eerie, risen from the depths of hell, covered the skies.

A thick horrid, obnoxious smell spread in the atmosphere of Hastinapura. A fetid stench as foul as people had never smelt.

The smell of death. The smell of rotting flesh.

The entire Hastinapura had come out of their homes.

They had never been witness to more inauspiciousness, to more horrible auguries. Hastinapura has suddenly turned hot. Hot like the womb of one of the horrible hells.
The cries of men and women, of children, multitudes and multitudes of them, joined the tumult.

There was deathly stillness In the Dice Hall.


And in the middle of that stillness, Dhritarashtra, tottering in his blindness, stood up, seeking the support of Sanjaya. His powerful body was bathed in perspiration.
“Daughter Krishnaa,” he stuttered, “forgive the Kauravas. Forgive my sons. They are evil. They were born evil and to an evil end they will come. I just wanted to see how far my sons would go in evil. And I see there is no end to their wickedness. Let not the Kurus come to an end through your wrath. Please forgive us for the humiliation you have been put through. You have made me proud by your conduct. I am pleased with you. Please ask for a boon – I want to give you a boon.”

It was a long time before Krishnaa could speak. When she spoke, she said these few words, “if you want to give me a boon, free King Yudhisthira from slavery. I do not want the king’s son to be laughed at by his friends, calling him a slave.”

“Let it be so. But I am not satisfied. Ask for another boon, Krishnaa.”

“I ask that my four other husbands be freed, with their weapons and their chariots.”

“So be it, Krishnaa. I free them all. And I free all their wealth. They can go back to Indraprastha with all that belonged to them. But ask for yet another boon. My heart is still not satisfied.”

“No, king, not another one, thank you. A kshatrani is entitled to ask for two boons. And I have asked for them. In any case, with my husbands freed, with their weapons and chariots, I do not need any other boon.”

Krishnaa bowed to the elders and walked towards her husbands.

The assembly exploded in a deafening explosion of approval.


Outside, the tumult had ended.

Peace had come back to Hastinapura.

The sky had turned diaphanous.

For the time being, at least.