We do not know her name, so we will call her Aangirasi. It is the Mahabharata that tells her story – and in the story she has no name. Like so many other women in our epics – Rama’s mother Kausalya, Bharata’s mother Kaikeyi, Duryodhana’s mother Gandhari, to name just a few important women – she is a woman without a name. And yet her story is powerful in itself to be told here, apart from the fact that she plays a decisive role in the ancestry of Rama. Since her time, the blood of the Ikshwaku’s would no more be pure kshatriya blood, assuming it had so far been so. It would be mixed with brahmana blood, through an act of niyoga – the same act through which at a later time Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura would be born in the Bharata family through Sage Vyasa, through which the founders of Anga, Vanga, Kalinga, and Paundra would be born to the family of Emperor Bali through the sage Deerghatamas.
We would call her Aangirasi because her husband, whom the epic simply calls a brahmana and who has practically no role in this story, is mentioned as belonging to the Angirasa gotra.
The story is related to an ancestor of Rama – King Saudasa, also known as Veerasaha, Mitrasaha and Kalmashapada. His father was Sudasa, hence the name Saudasa. Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata tell us his story. And, as it usually happens in Indian culture where authors and story tellers enjoyed endless freedom to tell stories in their own ways, the stories they tell are significantly different. The Mahabharata tells his story in much greater detail than the Ramayana does. However, for our purposes, I shall follow the shorter Ramayana story for the first part of Aangirasi’s story that deals with the curse Kalmashapada receives and for the second part the Mahabharat since, Aangirasi does not appear in the Ramayana story.
King Mitrasaha Saudasa was doing what was expected of every righteous king in those days – killing wild animals of the jungle that were a threat to the people of his land. Thick, wild jungles abounded everywhere and villages and cities were built on land claimed from the wild. He had been camping in the jungles for several days and had killed a large number of ferocious animals when it happened. He saw all on a sudden not far from him a particularly ferocious looking pair of lions roaming fearlessly in the forest, sending all other animals scattered all around. Animals just fled screaming at their sight – a rather unusual sight since animals usually fled from a lion only when it began chasing them, not at its sight. These lions had to be dealt with instantly. Mitrasaha’s hands went effortlessly at the thought to his quiver and by the split second it took for him to fetch an arrow from it, his left hand was already holding the bow ready for the arrow. The next instant the arrow pierced one of the two lions and lo! what fell, its vitals pierced by the arrow, was not a lion but a terrifying looking rakshasa.
The jungles were the favourite haunts of wild rakshasas in those days – they loved to terrorize animals. And the pair was in fact two rakshasa friends who had the ability to assume any form – as most people of this race of awesome power had. They were enjoying themselves in the jungle, spreading terror wherever they went, killing animals at random for fun.
Before the king had time to fully realize what was happening, the other rakshasa had turned upon the king in explosive fury. “Wretch,” he said. “You killed my friend! What harm had he done to you to deserve death?”
The king did not know what to say. Of course, as the king he had the right to kill anyone or anything within him kingdom that he considered a threat to his subjects. And the rakshasa deserved death, though it was mistaking him for a wild lion that Saudasa had killed him.
In any case, the rakshasa did not give him a chance to speak. “You deserve to die for what you have done,” he said. “But that will be letting you off too easy. You deserve a punishment worse than death. And that’s exactly what you will get.” Saying this the rakshasa wept over his dead friend for a while more and then, carrying his body with him, disappeared into the darkness of the jungle.
A few months passed. Since nothing happened that he could relate to the killing of the rakshasa, the king forgot all about it. After all, a ruler of the land has a thousand things to think about every day that it is not always that he gets time to ponder over things that no longer mattered.
The next incident in the story of Saudasa takes place towards the end of a sacrifice that the king had been conducting with Sage Vasishtha as the chief priest. In those days, life moved leisurely and Vedic sacrifices lasted months, sometimes years. It was the concluding day of the yajna, people were waiting for the ritual avabhrita bath that marked the conclusion of the sacrifice when the king received instructions in person from Vasishtha himself – on that day his meal should be prepared with meat.
The king was shocked. The great sage asking for meat in the last meal of the sacrifice? What a sacrilegious thing! How can you even think of something as shocking as that? The perplexed king looked again at the sage and the sage repeated his words: “You heard me, rajan. Today I need my meal to be served with meat.” And the sage walked away.
Unknown to the king, it was the rakshasa he had left alive who had given this instruction to the king, appearing in Vasishtha’s guise and speaking in his voice. The revenge the rakshasa had spoken of. The worst thing a king could do in a sacrifice was to insult the chief priest – and that too by serving him a meal with meat in it! The rakshasa wanted the king to do precisely that. An act so unholy that it would be no wonder if the sage laid a curse on the king along with seven generations of his children.
Such was the authority and reverence Vasishtha commanded, the king could of nothing but to obey his words, however strange they were. Though it puzzled the king deeply, confused him, disturbed him, even angered him. What was the sage doing? Trying to destroy him? Destroy all his merit acquired through the sacrifice? Destroy the kingdom with all its people? What was he punishing him for? What Vasishtha was doing would certainly destroy him with all his family. The kingdom was nothing but an extension of the king. It will destroy the kingdom too, as other angry sages had done with other erring kings.
The king called the chief royal cook and gave instructions that the meal for the sage that day should include meat. The royal cook listened in shock to what the king was saying and walked away silently. He was not going to do something as evil as that.
But the rakshasa will not be discouraged by the cook’s lack of cooperation. When the time for the meal to be served to the sage came, the rakshasa himself brought it to the king in golden plates, this disguising himself as the chief chef. What he had brought in one of the plates was cooked human flesh. When the cook decided not to obey the king, the rakshasa had gone even further than he had instructed earlier.
Of course, there was no way the king could find out the man standing in front of him was not the royal cook but the rakshasa in disguise.
The king accompanied by his wife offered the meal to the sage and the sage immediately recognized the food for what it is. He couldn’t believe a king would do something like that to him. His eyes burning in anger, he cursed the king: “Since you feed me human flesh in place of sanctified food, Oh king, from today your food shall be human flesh. I lay this curse on you – you shall be a rakshasa living the life of a cannibal from this very day.”
Saudasa was no ordinary king. He himself had done years of tapas and acquired great yogic powers through it. As far as he was concerned, all he had done was obey the rishi’s shocking order. And yet now he was being cursed. This was completely unjust.
In a moment of flaring anger, Saudasa took sanctified water in his hand and raised his hand to sprinkle it on the sage laying a counter course on him. His wife, Queen Madayanti, though stopped him and brought him back to his senses. She told him the person in front of him was his guru, his preceptor, and he cannot curse him back. Cooling down, the king sprinkled the water on his own legs – mantra empowered water couldn’t go waste. As the drops of water fell on his feet, his feet developed spots everywhere. That is how he acquired his new name – kalmashapada means dark spotted leg.
Struggling to master himself with great difficulty, the king now explained to the sage that it was he himself that had ordered for the meat and all he had done was to obey him. The rishi realized what exactly had happened. But the words of a sage cannot be waste, even if uttered in anger. The sage felt sorry for the king and did the best he could do under the circumstances – he limited the power of the curse and said that after twelve years of life as a rakshasa, he could regain in original nature and once again become the virtuous ruler of men that he was. Vasishtha advised him that nature as a rakshasa was wicked and powerful and he should try his best to retain his mastery over himself, an essential virtue for any ruler, and refrain from evil in spite of becoming a rakshasa. Perhaps regretting what he had done without understanding the full picture, Vasishtha blessed Saudasa with eternal fame – so long as the sun and the moon lasted, his name would remain in the world.
Saudasa thanked his guru for the blessing but knew what the sage was asking was impossible. He had already seen the power of rakshasa nature. Hadn’t he taken water in his hand and empowered it with mantras in order to curse his guru in a moment of anger? He also knew the rakshasa has already had his revenge. He, Saudasa, the noble Ikshwaku king, would now live for twelve years as a rakshasa. And what evils wouldn’t he now commit as a rakshasa? He knew he was doomed. The vengeance of the rakshasa was a thousand times worse than death.
There is a saying in Sanskrit that when Time wants to punish a man, it doesn’t take a stick and beat him up with it. Instead, what it does is to corrupt his brain. And that is what the rakshasa had done. Corrupt not only the brain of the king, but his heart too, his very nature.
As darkness began taking greater grip over his soul every second, Kalmashapada left the kingdom to the care of his ministers and hurried out of the capital before he could do any more harm.
The next twelve years he would live in the jungle the life of a rakshasa, thinking the thoughts of a rakshasa, feeling the feelings of a rakshasa, eating the food of a rakshasa.
It is in the jungle while he was in this sad state that his encounter with the brahmani
Aangirasi takes place.
Aangirasi takes place.
Incidentally, the story the Mahabharata tells us about how Saudasa became a rakshasa is very different from this story and far more complicated. We shall skip that story to move on to the story of Aangirasi and how she changed Rama’s ancestry – the blood of all the Ikshwaku kings following Saudasa, beginning with his son Ashmaka.
One day Kalmashapada was roaming the thick jungles that were now his home. Since he became a rakshasa, his hunger had become intolerable – the more he ate, the hungrier he felt. And he would eat anything that came to his hand – there were no more any rules for him as to what to eat and what not to eat. Food that he wouldn’t once touch with a barge pole was okay with him now. Of course he ate fruits and roots if they came to his hand, but he had a strong preference for meat. Any meat would do – usually meat eaters preferred the meat of animals that fed on vegetables – like the deer, the wild buffalo and so on. Kalmashapada felt no such compunctions about his food habits. Anything was okay, anywhere was okay, anytime was okay with him now. It was as though he was obsessed with food and eating. He lived for eating and relished the killing that prefaced eating. Violence thrilled him, blood thrilled him. He enjoyed giving pain, even his own pain seemed to please him. All that he once considered dirty, evil and untouchable was what he relished now. As he sunk into the darkest of evil deeds the very thought of which would have shaken him to his soul earlier, he laughed uproariously, sending terror throughout the jungle, making even the most ferocious of animals run for their life.
On that day too he was terribly hungry – it is not that he hadn’t eaten anything, but hunger never seemed to leave him. He had just woken up from sleep after a heavy meal and was roaming the jungles searching for food, already tormented by hunger. As he roared in hunger, wild animals fled, their eyes wild with pure terror. He could lay hand on not a single animal and his eyes, maddened by the raving emptiness he felt in his stomach, roved everywhere. It was then that he saw them – a young brahmana and his beautiful wife, lost in the games of love.
It was such a beautiful sight – a loving young couple surrounded by all the beauty of a wild jungle. The season was spring, trees were in blossom, the breeze intoxicating, their passion for each other riveting. But to Kalmashapada none of these existed. When one sinks into the world of tamas, all beauty disappears from one’s life, all sensitivity disappears, all refinement disappears. All one is left with is the most basic urges of the body and mind. We become like pigs that enjoy themselves in offal.
Kalmashapada, the once beloved king who was always surrounded by the best of comforts and enjoyed the most refined pleasures, did not feel the spring breeze, did not see the lovely flowers that hung thick from every bough, did not breathe in their intoxicating fragrance that filled the whole jungle, did not see the beauty of the young couple lost to this world in the sweetness of their love. All he saw was food. And he jumped at it and seized it.
In a mighty leap, Kalamashapada grabbed the brahmana in his mighty rakshasa arms and lifted him up in the air, ready to sink his teeth into the flesh of the hapless man. Aangirasi screamed in anguish, her bloodcurdling wails shattering the peace of the jungle. Her tender body shook in violent tremors. Eyes wild with pure horror, she looked at what was happening unable to comprehend it, unable to believe it, unable to accept it. Her man had been violently snatched away from her arms while their bodies were still united, while they breathed in union, while their hearts beat as one.
And then she understood. This was Kalmashapada, their once noble king, turned into a rakshasa by a curse. She had heard that the king now lived in the jungle, but hadn’t imagined he would come anywhere near where they were. And there he was standing, his appearance monstrous, his body mighty as the sal trees in the jungle, every limb of his exuding violence and brutality, his roars shaking the very earth, his arms holding her beloved in a mighty grip, his mouth open with his teeth ready to sink into him. The brahmana’s body twisted about in his hands, the terror of the grasp of the rakshasa taking away all his senses, his mouth open but not a sound coming out of it – his dread so great.
Aangirasi stood straight, mastering herself with superhuman will. Looking steadily into the eyes of the abominable monster standing in front of her, she said, “Great king, you are the son of King Sudasa, the performer of a hundred holy sacrifices. You are a descendant of mighty Ikshwaku, who name will be taken with reverence by all so long as the sun and the moon last. Your ancestor is the sun god himself – Vivaswan, to whom millions pray every morning chanting the very soul of the Vedas, the gayatri mantra. And Manu, the first law-giver of humanity, the one who taught us all what is right and what is wrong, what to do and what not to do, is your ancestor. True you have been turned into a rakshasa by a curse, but should you sink so deep? In the name of the honour of your ancestors, in the name of all that is sacred, I beg you: please let go of my husband.”
The words of the gayatri mantra came out of the brahmani’s heart, seeking solace as she had done in a thousand crises in the past, reminding through it once again the rakshasa his unsurpassed noble heritage.
“Om bhur bhuvah suvah,” she chanted. “Tat savitur varenyam. Bhargo devasya dheemahi dhiyo yo nah prachodayat!”
But it was not Mitrasaha Saudasa who was standing in front of her, but Kalmashapada, Saudasa who had been turned into a rakshasa by a curse.
Wild, terrifying laughter that shook the very vitals of the jungle was Kalmashapada’s only response.
But the brahmani stood her ground, with great will power mastering her violent emotions, holding together her being that had been shattered into a thousand fragments by the rakshasa’s act. “No one kills even animals while they are in the middle of the act of mating,” she said addressing the erstwhile king. “And you! You have pulled him away from my very arms while I was united with him in my passion. We are humans – who deserve to be protected by you under all circumstances. Don’t do what you are doing. Let him go, let my husband go. Show mercy to us. Or else eternal shame shall fall on you and all your posterity and all your ancestors. Raja Mitrasaha Saudasa, remember who you are and release the brahmana in your hands. Remember who you are in spite of what has happened to you, in spite of the curse on you.”
At those words Kalmashapada sank his teeth into the flesh of the brahmana. His strong arms tore the brahmana from limb to limb. Tearing his chest apart, Kalmashapada pulled out the dying man’s heart and tore a mouthful of it, relishing the taste of human flesh, a rakshasa’s favourite delicacy. As he swallowed the bite, he roared again thunderously.
There was a moment of stunned silence from the brahmani. And the next instant tears of unendurable agony fell from her eyes.
As the first drop of tear fell on the forest floor, the grass on which it fell caught fire. The next moment she was surrounded by mighty flames that leapt up all around her. The roaring fire began to spred in all directions, engulfing the jungle.
Aangirasi had made up her mind. She would live no more! Separated so monstrously from her husband, her man snatched away from her arms while they were in the act of making love, his heart torn out from his chest and eaten up by a rakshasa, she would destroy herself.
But there was something that she would do before that.
Her eyes blazing, Aangirasi turned to the rakshasa, “Raja Saudasa,” she said, “what you have done is unforgivable, even for a rakshasa. And what you have done to others – like eating up the one hundred sons of Sage Vasishtha – cannot be forgiven either. With great grief in my heart, with deep anguish, I curse you. You have snatched away my man from my arms and killed and eaten his heart like common meat. For that sin of yours, I lay this curse upon you. When your present curse is over, you will go back to Ayodhya. There, filled with desire, you will approach your wife. But the moment you touch her, that moment shall be your last on earth. You shall die as painful a death as I am going to die now. And I lay this further curse upon you. You have made me childless – my life is wasted. And you have made the Sage Vasishtha chidless, by eating up all his children. For that sin you shall pay in the worst possible way. The only way you can have a child will be by sending your wife, your queen, to Sage Vasishtha, for your eternal shame. And your son will not have your blood in him, nor any of your future generations in them. No more will Ikshwaku blood flow through the veins of your future generations. Ikshwaku blood in your royal family shall end with you!”
The next moment the fire that had leapt up from her tears and was roaring all around her swallowed her. Soon nothing but a small heap of ashes lay where the brahmani stood.
Later when the curse is over Kalmashapada goes back to his palace and takes over the administration of his kingdom once again. The first night he approaches his wife Madayanti filled with desire for her and for a child, she reminds him of the curse on him and begs him not to touch her, for fear of his death. Eventually Kalmashapada begs his guru Vasishtha whose sons he had eaten up to give him a son through his wife.
The next king of Ayodhya to succeed Kalmashapada is Ashmaka, Vasishtha’s son born to Madayanti.
Aangirasi’s is a powerful story – the story of the power of a woman’s tears. Through this story ancient India tells us that no earthly power can stand the might of a woman’s grief.
There are other valuable lessons in Aangirasi’s and Kalmashapada’s story. In the story, Vasishtha is impulsive in cursing Kalmashapada without looking into the whole picture behind his action, violating the ancient injunction: krodham kuryat na chakasmat – do not explode in sudden anger. The price he has to pay for this is the death of his one hundred sons and endless suffering to him. So deep is his grief that he attempts to end his life at least half a dozen times, failing each time. Eventually his daughter-in-law Adrishyanti sustains him by giving him hope in the form of his grandson growing in her womb.
Kalmashapada’s first failure is trusting appearances and failing to see the reality hidden behind appearances. A king should have eyes to see what is not visible to others. And his subsequent failure is impulsively attempting to curse Vasishtha, his guru, himself. And then, in spite of the warning given him by Vasishtha, he fails to retain his mastery over himself – he becomes a victim to his rakshasa nature. Atma jeyah sada rajna – says the Mahabharata, advising kings and leaders of men: a king should always be a master of himself. True, the curse of the rishi is powerful and all of us are slaves to the power of our nature – but Kalmashapada had the responsibility to retain his self-mastery. He had been warned, he was an Ikshwaku king.
We also wonder if Kalmashapada’s eating up the sons of Vasishtha as well as the brahmana was not at least in part a decision taken by him under the spell of his need for vengeance – the man who had cursed him and turned him into a rakshasa was a brahmana. And the victims were all brahmanas. The Mahabharata tells us another story of Kalmashapada being cursed by another brahmana, this time for feeding him human flesh. Vengeance can be a powerful force and destroys boys the perpetrator of vengeance as well as its victim.