Indian wisdom says that a mystic who has awakened to the highest truth is “baalavad, unmattavat, pishaachavad” – like a child, like the intoxicated, like a ghoul. He is innocent like a child, naïve, open to life’s varied experiences, has what Zen would call the beginner’s mind or shoshin and is trusting, accepting and yielding. He is intoxicated because of the joy of existence that fills his heart – joy that has no reason other than itself, joy that spontaneously flows out of him like water from a spring, joy that is unaffected by the different experiences of life such as success and failure, heat or cold, sorrow or elation, and other dvandvas – dualities that form life. He is like a ghoul because what is night to all beings is day to him and what is day to all beings is night to him – yaa nishaa sarvabhootaanaam tasyaam jaagarti samyami; yasyaam jaagrati bhootani saa nishaa pashyato muneh. Which is to say that he is awake to that truth about which all beings are ignorant, lives in a world of which the unawakened has no clue.
Such great masters, whose very presence is a blessing to humanity, to the whole world, are not a monopoly to India, but have existed in every culture, though perhaps India has had a larger number of such masters than any other culture in the world because Indian life was planned towards a single aim: the awakening of the human mind. And also because India has had a timeless tradition of such masters to inspire others.
The Japanese tradition, which too has produced hundreds of such great masters, calls them crazy clouds – crazy for the same reason for which India called them unmattawad – intoxicated. Clouds because like clouds, they are wanderers in the vast skies of life, go where life takes them, with no plans of their own. To borrow an expression again from the Gita, they were anaarambhas – begin nothing on their own, initiate nothing, but become mere nimittas – instruments – for life to work through.
One such crazy cloud from ancient India is the man whose stories I grew up with. My father told me the first story about him when I was a little child and subsequently I came across others in the great collection of Kerala legends called Aitihyamala by Kottarathil Shankunni. The great mystic I am talking about is Naranath Bhrantan [naaraaNat bhraantan] – literally the Madman of Naranam.
The first half of each day of Naranath was spent in teaching people. As in the case of the other great masters, his lesson was highly unconventional and intelligible only to the deserving – to the right patras. Those who did not have the patrata, found his actions crazy and they gave him the name by which we know him today – The Madman of Naranam.
Greek mythology tells us the story of Sisyphus – the man who was condemned by the gods to roll a huge rock up a hill for eternity. Sisyphus would roll the rock up the hill, sweating and toiling for hours and hours and as soon as the rock reached the top, it will roll down on its own so that he will have to roll it up again. Do that day and night, for all eternity. That was his punishment – given to him by the angry gods for the ‘sin’ of bringing fire to the earth. Sisyphus’ is one of the most painful stories that Greek mythology tells us.
The great mystic Naranath did exactly the same thing day after day. Every morning he would go to a hill and roll up the rock that lay at the bottom and then when it reached to top, he would let go of it, so that it came tumbling down at a frightening speed, now rolling down this way and now that, smashing everything that stood on its path. As the rock came crashing down, Naranath would stand atop the hill, clip his hands like an excited child and laugh his madman’s wild, unbridled laughter of irrepressible joy. Laughter so loud that it could be heard for miles. And then he would climb down the hill, and, as though nothing had happened, start rolling the rock up again, only to let go of it again when it reached the top of the hill.
Of course, unlike Sisyphus in whose case it was a curse, Naranath did it out of his own choice. There were no gods involved, no curse involved, and he could stop it any time he wanted. But he chose not to. Instead, he kept doing that day after day.
While the vast majority of the people who gathered to see the madman and his mad action missed the meaning of what he did, a few understood. What he was enacting on the hill was the human drama, plain and simple. What he showed us was our life – everyman’s life.
What we do throughout our life, lifetime after lifetime, is to roll a rock up a hill and then let it roll down when it reaches the top. Life should be an utsava, a celebration, a lila, a kreeda, a sport, but instead, we make it an endless toil, running after meaningless pursuits. And then, at the end of each lifetime, all we acquire slip out of our hands and we move on to yet another lifetime in which we begin our toils all over again. We act out the same absurd script again and again, a million lifetimes over. It is as though each of us is living under the curse of Sisyphus – a curse from which there is no escape, a curse that never lets us take a break, or breathe deeply, enjoy a sunrise or a sunset, the opening of a flower, the smile on the face of a child, or relish the touch of the fresh breeze on our skin.
Paul Stiles speaks eloquently of this in his book Is the American Dream Killing You?, where he paints vividly the life of a modern executive, who should be enjoying life in the middle of all the comforts that modern technology has made available but instead is condemned to live a life that drives him to the brink of insanity, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. This is how Stiles puts it, opening the first chapter of the book:
“The alarm is ringing. You jerk awake, tense, aware only of the blare, then fall back in recognition. There is a brief moment of peace, as if your consciousness were confused about what to do next, and then it hits you, arising from your subconscious, where it has lain all evening: The List. All those things you did not complete yesterday, and all those other things you have to get done today. The List is its own infomercial, in full sound and video, complete with snippets of conversation and shots of the office. And stuck on auto replay. Okay, you think: just put your feet on the floor.
“That’s it: the race is on. In the next hour the entire house fires its engines and rolls to the starting line. Kids up, dog out, showers all around, paper fetched, breakfast on the table...You pass your wife in the hallway several times, both of you half-dressed, seeking to check off the next item. Mayhem.”
A story told by Tolstoy that I read as a child often comes to my mind. It’s about a poor farmer who approaches the rich feudal lord asking for some land. The generous landlord tells him he can have as much land as he can measure out in a single day. The man begins measuring out land for himself the next morning at sunrise, putting marks with a pickaxe as he proceeds. He has already proceeded straight ahead quite some distance when he sees another piece of tempting, rich land to his right, and then another and then another. He marks them all out taking detour after detour when he sees the sun has fast begun to sink in the west and he is a long way from where he started. He runs, panting, breathless, putting a rare mark here and there on his way. But alas! He is still some distance away from where he started when he collapses and breathes his last. Eventually, Tolstoy tells us, what he gets is six feet of land – enough land to bury him.
If this is a story about land and wealth, it is also a story about name and fame, about power, about sensual pleasures, about all other things in life we run after endlessly.
Our life should be an expression of our joy, which is our essential nature. Each of our actions should emerge from our sense of joy, not seeking it. Children play nor for happiness, but because they are happy. And so should each our actions be. But we roll stones up various hills, toiling day and night, hoping we would find joy at the end of it. It is the absurdity of this toil that Naranath was teaching through his inimitable lesson.
Of course, the truth of what Naranath teaches us is difficult to accept because we see all around us everyone running after these things – and standing by the roadside and not running like them looks stupid. Even when we know the truth of the worthlessness of what we do, it is almost impossible to resist the brainwashing that takes place when we watch millions and millions all around us engaged in this endless pursiit.
I have heard of a beggar. One fine morning he was sitting idle enjoying the sun when it occurred to him that it will be fun if he spread a rumour. He told the beggars around that he had heard that the richest man is celebrating the birthday of his firstborn and he was distributing a hundred rupees to every beggar who came. The beggars got up and started running towards the rich man’s place. When other beggars asked them what they were doing, they told them of the rich man’s charity and they too started running. The story tells us that by and by every beggar in town was running toward the rich man’s house. The beggar who had spread the news saw this and eventually began developing doubts in his heart. Perhaps it was possible that the man was really distributing hundred rupee notes! How else could the whole town be running. And what is there to lose in any case? But if he did not, then…. And the man too got up and began running with the rest of the crowd!
We are hypnotized by the world and that hypnotism is what India calls maya. And it is from this maya that Naranath was trying to wake us up. And when we wake up there comes the stage where we need nothing from the world, but has only to give the world, if anything, as Krishna demonstrates through his life and words.
There are several other stories told about Naranath – like that of his sitting for hours counting ants passing by busily, breathless in their hurry, on their errands as though their very life depended on it. I am sure once in a while he spoke to the ants and they told him, like the White Rabbit of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late! ”
A beautiful story is told about his encounter with Great Mother Goddess Kali.
As usual, Naranath had rolled the stone up the hill the whole morning. And then, having finished that job, he went on his rounds of collecting alms, as he did every day. He had a small copper vessel for collecting alms, in which he received gratefully whatever was given to him: raw rice, green vegetables, whatever. Naranath never accepted cooked food from anyone – he cooked for himself. The evening found him near a cremation ground where a few of dead bodies were still in the last stages of burning. The strong smell of burning bodies was everywhere, smoke still rose from the bodies, and there were wild animals around fighting with vultures and other carrion eating birds.
Naranath went to the stream nearby, gathered some water in the begging bowl with the rice and vegetables already in it and with that, settled down near one of the still burning dead bodies. It was a cold winter evening and the heat rising from the burning fire was pleasant. He collected three stones, which formed his temporary oven and pulling out a few pieces of firewood from over the dead body, put them in the oven and placed his pot there, to cook over the fire. Naranath’s left leg was swollen with elephantiasis. He stretched out this leg closer to the fire thus enjoying its pleasant warmth waited for his one meal of the day to be ready. On his lips was a song of contentment, which he hummed to himself.
When the food was ready, he ate it, and then stretched himself out there waiting for sleep to come. Above him was the vast sky, changing its patterns ever so slowly in a never ending game of pure magic. All around him was the stillness of the deserted place, interrupted only by the sound of the crickets and an occasional cracking of wood made deeper by the hoot of an owl or the cry of a vulture. Now and then a dog barked.
It was around midnight that he heard other sounds. Wild hoots, shouts, screams, yells, roars. Laughter that would send terror shooting through any man. Shrieks, howls, yowls, wails. The clamour of a thousand drums being played all at a time. Tumultuous clanguor, clatter, bellowing. And as they came near, other sounds: sacred mantras…kreem kreem, hreem hreem, kleem kleem…the sound of anklets, the sound of a girdle. And then the roar of Kali as she came near.
It was the goddess Kali on her rounds of the cremation grounds, accompanied by her countless, monstrous ghouls. All creatures fled at the arrival of the goddess who struck terror in every living heart.
Naranath sat near the still smoldering cremation fire as though he was not aware of any of these. His breathing was calm and even, the serenity in his eyes unaffected.
Soon Mother Kali was standing near him, a thousand grotesque ghouls accompanying her. Her eyes were spitting fire, her tongue lolling out. Her open hair formed a thick dark cloud behind her. From the piercings in her ears hung down two blood-dripping heads. Around her neck was a garland of skulls that reached right down to her knees. One of her hands held a freshly chopped off head, another her sword. With two other hands she offered boons and protection.
Mother Kali was clothed in the skies, as they say – stark naked. And thunder-like hoonkaras emanated from her, shaking the whole earth, it appeared.
Naranath did not even look up at her.
Kali’s feet moved in the most terrifying dance imaginable. And the thousand ghouls went into bloodcurdling capering and cavorting, skipping and romping insanely – their smashana-nritya. They screamed and thundered, raged and ranted. It was as though the earth itself shook in awe. The cremation ground animals that had already withdrawn in terror now slunk back further, watching what was happening from the safety of distance with eyes frozen in sheer dread.
Kali was calm now, seeing that none of these had any effect on the man who sat enjoying the last bits of warmth arising from the fire that had began to die out.
“Aren’t you afraid of me?” asked the Mother. “There is none living that does not fear me.”
“Do you see me afraid of you?” asked Naranath calmly, as though he was having a light conversation with a passerby.
“Hmmm…. That’s interesting. Who are you? The first man I have come across that is not afraid of me or my ghouls?”
Naranth Bhranthan burst out laughing. “Who am I? You are asking me? I am you. And you are me. There I am, in the form of the terrifying Mother Kali. And here you are, in the form Naranath, with elephantiasis on one leg.”
A smile appeared on the face of the goddess – a smile so beautiful it can bewitch even the greatest of all ascetics, Shiva himself. “Leave the place, so that my ghouls and I can dance, Naranath.”
“Show me a place where I am not and I’ll go there,” said Naranath.
This time it was the turn of the Goddess to burst out laughing. “All right,” she said. “Let me and my ghouls go then, in search of another cremation ground. But ask me for a boon – since I cannot go away without either cursing or giving a boon to any human being I encounter.”
“I need nothing,” said Naranath. “There is nothing you can give me.”
“True,” said the goddess. “What can anyone give to one who has seen that which lies beyond all seeing, touched that which lies beyond all touching, heard that which lies beyond all hearing and tasted that which is beyond all tasting. But still….no one should say Kali met Naranath and went away without giving him anything. Ask for something.”
Naranath looked at Kali, with a loving smile on his face. It was at the same time the smile of a grown man smiling at a child and a child smiling at his mother. He then looked around, as though thinking. And then, finally, he looked at his own left leg swollen with elephantiasis. His smile broadened.
“Mother Goddess,” he said. “I ask for a boon. Change the elephantiasis on my left leg to my right leg.”
Mountains shook as Kali laughed from the depths of her heart. Clouds scattered away in the distant sky. Waves rose up into the skies in the ocean that was not far from where the conversation was taking place. Kali’s laughter! The laughter of existence! The laughter of life, of death! The laughter of pure consciousness! Laughter the soul of which was the most hauntingly beautiful silence! Laughter arising from silence that was Kali’s truest nature, her very being!
And Naranath heard Kali speaking for the last time: “Tathastu”, she said. “Let it be so.” And then there was only laughter left where Kali and the ghouls had stood. Pure laughter. The laughter of ecstasy. Rapturous laughter. Laughter in which the mountains and the sea joined. Laughter in which the night and the sky joined. Laughter in which the cremation ground and dying fires joined.
Laughter in which Naranath joined.
Naranath Bhrantan is part legend and part historical. The legend part belongs to a much bigger legend – the greatest and the most popular legend of Kerala. The larger legend, which I first heard from my father in my childhood, is known by the brief name “parayi pettu pantirukulam’, which roughly translates as the twelve castes born of a pariah woman. The legend is in part one of the power of destiny. Vararuchi, the great Brahmin scholar of the court of Vikramaditya learns through astrological calculations that he is destined to marry a pariah woman. Vararuchi does all he can, including attempting to murder the newborn baby, to avoid that destiny but through a series of miracles ends up marrying the pariah woman, by now a woman more than his match in intelligence and wit. The marriage is a few months old when Vararuchi discovers that the brilliant girl of breathtaking beauty he had married is the pariah woman he was destined to marry and whom he had tried to kill in her infancy. It is one of those strange stories in which what happens happens because you try to prevent it. Eventually twelve children are born to the couple who had by then taken to a life of pilgrimage and each child is abandoned at birth. These twelve abandoned children are taken up by men belonging to different castes and raised as their children, each ending up as a legend in his or her own right. One of them is our Naranath Bhranthan.