Sunday, May 31, 2015

Aangirasi: Woman who Changed Rama’s Ancestry


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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Thursday, May 28, 2015

How Great Masters Teach: A Few Stories



A legendary spiritual master born in Kerala, the land famous for acharyas like Shri Shankara, is Pakkanar, a pariah by birth. Numerous stories are told about how he gave lessons in the highest wisdom to people in his unique ways. In one of these stories, Pakkanar meets on the road a group of brahmanas who were on their way to Kashi, the holiest of holy places in India. He greeted these men as was appropriate for someone born to one of the lowest castes in the caste hierarchy and enquired of them where they were going. When they replied they were going to Kashi, Pakkanar showed them his walking stick and asked them, “Could your lordships do me a favour? Could you take this stick along and give it a dip in the Ganga too?”
They were offended by the request. They did not want even to touch a pariah’s walking stick. Why should they carry it all the way to Kashi and give it a bath in the Ganga and bring it back? But the man who was making that request was known to be not an ordinary pariah but a man of great wisdom. So instead of refusing him, they asked: “Why do you want the stick to be given a dip in the Ganga?” And all Pakkanar would say was that he would tell them when they brought the stick back. 
Reluctantly they took the stick with them.  
When the brahmanas reached Kashi, one of them dipped the stick in the Ganga and the force of the current carried it away. It disappeared before they could snatch it back. The brahmanas were upset about what happened, but there was nothing they could do. They finished their ritual baths in the Ganga and after visiting a few other holy places en route, eventually came back to their native place. When Pakkanar heard they were back, he went to them and after greeting them with due reverence, enquired about his stick. Did they give it a bath in the Ganga? Have they brought it back? And they told him they lost it. 
“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 muddy 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 realized the invaluable lesson Pakkanar was giving them: Ganga is sacred. But every pond in the world is Mother Ganga herself, and all water is as sacred as the water of the Ganga.
Once we are able to see every place as equally sacred, all life becomes a sacred pilgrimage. Then you have no more to make special pilgrimages – be it to the sacred places of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism or any other religion.  And once you are able to see God in all living beings, then every breath you take becomes a sacred act.
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Sometimes even great masters fall under the spell of illusion in a rare moment of unawareness. That does not mean they are not enlightened; it only speaks of the great power of maya over the human mind. Speaking about this the Adhyatma Upanishad says it is like moss on water. You move it away with your hand, and a moment later it comes back: yathā apakrshtam śaivālam kshanamātram na tishthati, avrnoti tathā māyā prajnām vāpi parāngmukhām. A moment of inattentiveness, of carelessness, and maya takes over your enlightened mind. For that reason the Upanishad asks even great masters to be constantly aware of the power of illusion.
This story is about the great Acharya Shankara himself.  Once he was in Kashi and was walking along a narrow lane that led to the Vishwanatha temple accompanied by his disciples and a small crowd of devotees when he saw a chandala, the lowest of the low in the traditional caste hierarchy of India, coming across him, surrounded by his pack of dogs. The chandala was covered in dirt and had rags wrapped around him and the dogs barked continuously. Any chandala would have moved out of the way to give way to the acharya and his disciples, as was the social practice in those days, but this chandala was moving steadily towards the acharya, his steps showing no sign of slowing down, nor his eyes any sign of hesitation. “Gaccha! Gaccha!” the acharya shouted – “Move away, move away!”
But the chandala still did not slow down his steps or move aside. He advanced steadily towards the great master and standing before him with a smile on his face asked the him who had conquered practically all known scholars in India, “Mahatman, tell me one thing. When you said move away, what did you mean? Did you mean this body should move away from your body?  In that case your demand is ridiculous. Because my body is made of the same five elements that your body is made of and it consists of blood, bone, flesh and marrow as yours does. In case you mean my self, then you know that my self is as pure as yours. The soul cannot be corrupted at all – not by dirt, not by sin, not by pollution, not even by ignorance. What then did you want to move away?”
The acharya was shaken to his very soul by what the chandala had said. He was absolutely right. The body – his body as well as the chandala’s body consisted of blood, flesh, bone, marrow and other substances any of which you would take a bath if you touched. The soul was ever pure, its purity beyond the reach of all impurities. To what was he then shouting, asking it to move away?
The great acharya realized that in spite of all his knowledge, for a moment he had become a victim to habitual ways of thinking – for a moment he had been blinded by social expectations, the customs of the society in which he had lived all along. Instead of the Vedantin he was, he had become an ordinary individual bound by societal conventions.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the great acharya whose feet crowned heads touched in humble obeisance kneeled at the feet of the chandala touching his dirty feet with his forehead. The chandala had opened his eyes, reminded him of his own wisdom, the wisdom that he had taught so many people. The chandala was his guru, as much as Govindapada was.
Tears of joy flowed from the acharya’s eyes and he felt a current of rapture filling his whole being. With intense devotion the great master raised his head from the chandala’s feet and stood up, his eyes still closed in bliss. The ecstasy he felt in his heart found its expression in beautiful words as it had done on so many other occasions when was moved by rapture. What came out of the acharya in those moments of ecstasy and gratitude is what the world today knows as the five verses of Maneesha Panchakam, maneesha meaning wisdom. The acharya rises above social perceptions and declares fearlessly the truth of Vedanta in those verses and says:
chāndālo’stu sa tu dvijo’stu gururityevā maneeshā mama: whether he is a chandala or a brahmana, he is my guru, such is the wisdom of my heart.
At the end of the ecstatic song, the acharya opened his eyes and it was no more a chandala standing before him that he saw, but the great Lord of the Universe, the Master of the Holy City, the teacher of teachers, Shiva himself.
Was it that Shiva appeared as a chandala before Shankara or was it that the acharya saw Shiva in the chandala? Or does it really matter, since the entire universe is Shiva himself and all we need is the eyes to see?
The greatest of all teachers had given yet another lesson in his own unique way not just to Shankara but to all humanity.
Our tragedy is that in spite of all these great lessons, we live our life unconsciously, holding on to our petty beliefs, practices and concerns, thus reducing ourselves to ignorant men and women.
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In this story, Acharya Shankara Bhagavadpada forgets his wisdom for a moment. His eyes are opened and he is given a lesson in humility by Lord Shiva himself.
In another popular story Bhagavadpada himself opens the eyes of his scholarly disciples and gives them a lesson in humility. There are different versions of this story, as in the case of most Indian stories and the version I am narrating here is the one I heard from my guru.
One evening the acharya and all his other disciples except Sanantana were seated, ready for their daily session with the master. But on that day the acharya wouldn’t begin. The seated disciples asked him why he wouldn’t start the lessons and the acharya said he was waiting for Sanantana. This produced mild laughter in the scholarly disciples – the acharya must be joking. Sanantana was illiterate and served the master more like a personal attendant and less as a disciple. He was not expected to benefit from the scholarly expositions of the acharya who perhaps was the greatest intellect our land has ever seen. Why should he wait for Sanantana?
The acharya understood their silent question and told them they would all go and look for Sanantana. The disciples looked at one another and reluctantly got up and followed their master. Bhagavadpada went straight to the bank of the river near which they were staying at that time. They could see Sanantana on the other side of the river – he had gone there for some work. The acharya raised his voice so that it could be heard above the murmur of the river and called, “Sanantana, come! It’s time for class.” Sanantana raised his head as he heard the acharya’s voice. He looked this side and that – there was no boat available. Without another moment’s hesitation, Sanantana started walking towards his master across the river.
It is said that as Sanantana placed each step on the water, a lotus flower rose up and supported his feet. He crossed the river and fell at the master’s feet. The master raised him up, hugged him and looking at his other disciples who stood wonderstruck, said, “Now you know why I waited for him to begin the class. His strength is not scholarship but shraddha and in shraddha none of you excel him. And it is shraddha that gives the highest knowledge, not scholarship. Scholarship is no value when it comes to enlightenment, as the Upanishads themselves say.”
That day the great master renamed his fond disciple Padmapada, the name by which we know him today. Padmapada means Lotus Feet – the man who was supported by a lotus that rose up from the river as he walked on water like a great yogi at the call of his master.
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Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, my parama guru, is one of the greatest spiritual masters the world has ever seen. There are innumerable stories of miracles happening around him, though he never claimed, or even owned up, any of these miracles. One of my teachers who lived with him in his ashram for forty-five years was certain he was brought back to life from certain death when he was a young man by the Maharshi. But in this article I will not be talking about his miracles, but of his unique way of teaching. Of course, the Maharshi is famous for frequently teaching through silence, for which he is often compared to Dakshinamurti, Lord Shiva incarnated as a teacher. The incident I shall discuss here is much simpler, though – it is of someone asking him what nishkama karma is and the Maharshi teaching him what it is.
The incident is reported by Prof K Swaminathan, who at one time taught English at Presidency College, Madras and was the Chief Editor of the monumental 100-volume Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Let me reproduce here his own words, from the book Face to Face with Sri Ramana Maharshi compiled and edited by Professor Laxmi Narain and published by Sri Ramana Kendram, Hyderabad.
“Once Rangachari, a Telugu teacher in a Vellore college, asked the Maharshi to explain nishkama karma [desireless action]. There was no reply. After a time, the Maharshi went up the [Arunachala] hill followed by a few devotees and Rangachari. There was a thick, strong, thorny branch lying on the way which the Maharshi picked up and began working on. The spikes were cut off, the knots were made smooth and the surface polished with a rough leaf. Hours of hard and careful work resulted in a nice stick that Maharshi presented to a passing shepherd boy who appeared dejected because he had lost his stick. Rangachari confessed that he had learnt a new lesson in the art of teaching, for this silent practical demonstration was the Sage’s perfect answer to his earnest question.”   
Of course Ramana Maharshi’s entire life was the most powerful teaching – in jnana yoga, in bhakti yoga, in dhyana yoga and in karma yoga. To speak of one more lesson in Karma Yoga, for years the Maharshi entered the ashram kitchen at 2.30 in the morning and began chopping vegetables so that breakfast could be served to the hundreds of people who came to see him every day from all over the world. They were coming to see him, to be in his presence and to be blessed by him – to be blessed by a man who had spent months at a stretch in Samadhi as a result of his intense meditation that lasted for years, who had climbed to the greatest heights meditation can take you, just by being near whom people went into powerful states of meditative trance and were healed of life-threatening diseases and perhaps even escaped death. But he would go to the kitchen hours before brahma muhoorta, long before these guests woke up, to help in the preparation of their breakfast! What could be a greater lesson in karma yoga?
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Here is another incident reported by Prof. Swaminathan that happened in the 1940s, a few years before Ramana Maharshi’s death. It was a day like many other days in the ashram. The Maharshi was reclining on a couch in the hall and there was a group of scholars seated in front of him, debating the intricacies of the wisdom of the Upanishads enthusiastically. The debate was absorbing and everybody seemed to be fully lost in it. All on a sudden Bhagavan rose from his couch and started walking towards a man who looked like someone from one of the nearby villages. He was standing with his palms joined towards Bhagavan. Bhagavan went to him and soon the two were engaged in deep conversation, oblivious to everything else. The scholars had stopped their debates and were now watching what was happening. After a while Bhagavan took leave of the man and came back to his couch to continue to sit as though nothing had happened, while the villager went away. The debates among the scholars started once again.
Prof. Swaminathan who was watching the whole incident with great curiosity rushed towards the departing villager. Stopping him, he asked the man what exactly had happened. Why had the villager come to the ashram and what had the Maharshi been asking him, coming to him getting up from the middle of an absorbing discussion on the ultimate reality as discussed by Vedanta?
The villager told Prof. Swaminathan that he was a stranger to the place and had come to the ashram to have Bhagavan’s darshan when the Master saw him and came to him. The Maharshi had made enquiries about him and his family and their welfare. He had asked the Maharshi how he could earn his blessings and the sage had enquired if there was a temple in his village and who the deity was. Then the sage had told him to repeat the name of the deity constantly and assured him he would receive all the blessings he needed through it. 
This is how Prof. Swaminathan concludes the incident: “I came back to Bhagavan’s presence, but lost all interest in the discussions. I felt that the simple humility and devotion of a peasant had evoked a far greater response from our Master than any amount of learning. I then decided that though a scholar by profession, I should always remain a humble, ignorant peasant at heart and pray for Bhagavan’s grace and blessings.”

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Years ago one of my friends, a Bengali gentlemen several years my senior in age, presented to me a beautifully produced copy of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, one of my cherished possessions which I open and read at random every now and then. The book refers to several meetings of Sri Ramakrishna and Keshab Chandra Sen, the great Brahmo Samaj leader. One of their last meetings took place in Sen’s house when the Brahmo leader was extremely sick. Here is how the Gospel describes that meeting:
“At this moment Keshab entered the room. He came through the east door. Those who remembered the man who had preached in the Town Hall or the Brahmo Samaj temple were shocked to see this skeleton covered with skin. He could hardly stand. He walked holding to the wall for support. With great difficulty he sat down in front of the couch. In the mean time Sri Ramakrishna had got down from the couch and was sitting on the floor. Keshab bowed low before the Master and remained in that position a long time, touching the Master's feet with his forehead. Then he sat up. Sri Ramakrishna was still in a state of ecstasy. He muttered to himself. He talked to the Divine Mother.
“Raising his voice, Keshab said: "I am here, sir. I am here." He took Sri Ramakrishna's left hand and stroked it gently. But the Master was in deep samadhi, completely intoxicated with divine love. A stream of words came from his lips as he talked to himself, and the devotees listened to him spellbound.”
What a complete change from the response Sri Ramakrishna produced in Keshab on one of the first occasions – perhaps it was their first meeting – when the master visited Sen. The following words are the master’s own, again from the Gospel:
"I visited him at his house in Colootola Street. Hriday was with me. We were shown into the room where Keshab was working. He was writing something. After a long while he put aside his pen, got off his chair, and sat on the floor with us. But he didn't salute us or show us respect in any other way.”
Well, of course, it was only by and by that Keshab Chandra Sen came to understand the master and learn to revere him. But there is more to it than that. The master, out of his infinite compassion, made sure that such a great man as Sen did not remain closed to his influence and thus miss what he could have learned from the master. He went out of his way to teach humility to Sen and thus make him more open. Here is how the master did it, in his own words:
"He used to come here now and then. One day in a spiritual mood I said to him: 'One should not sit before a sadhu with one leg over the other. That increases one's rajas.' As soon as he and his friends would arrive, I would salute them before they bowed to me. Thus they gradually learnt to salute a holy man, touching the ground with their foreheads.”
That was Sri Ramakrishna’s way!
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One of the most unforgettable lessons the saint of Dakshineshwar gave in his unique way was to young Narendranath, the future Swami Vivekananda. Narendranath’s family had at that time been living in extreme poverty, even finding two meals a day was difficult. This pained Naren deeply. The sensitive Naren was pained by the suffering of even strangers, what to speak of his own family that had once lived in rather lavish style, since his father was a lawyer who had a solid income. Unable to endure his pain, young Naren asked the master, on whose spiritual powers he had by then developed great faith, to pray to Mother Goddess so that she blessed him with some wealth. Naren was sure that Mother Kali would never refuse anything to the master – he was her child, Kali’s child.
Sri Ramakrishna understood the dire straits in which his young disciple found himself and his need for money, even if it was only so that he can focus more on his sadhana. When your family’s poverty and hunger are constantly pulling you down to misery, how is anyone with a sense of responsibility to concentrate on his sadhanas? The master explained to Naren that the mother was the source of all knowledge, all wisdom and all power and if it was her blessings in the form of money that he wanted, why doesn’t he himself go to her and ask her? She is capable of giving anyone anything – she has created the universe and what can she not do? The master added that it was a Tuesday, a day special for the worship of the Goddess, and he should go to the Mother that very evening and place his need before her. 
Young Naren went to the temple of Bhavatarini at nine that evening. As he stood there, he forgot all about his family and its poverty, all about his suffering and instead was enveloped by a divine feeling of pure bliss. The Mother Goddess’s name came out of his mouth in a never ending torrent and he felt boundless love emanating from the idol before him. The Mother appeared to him the source of all beauty, all bliss and all knowledge. All he could do was to stand transfixed in devotion before her, fervently repeating her name. Eventually when he brought himself to ask the Mother for something, it was not for financial help that he asked, but for the highest knowledge and untainted devotion, for her repeated visions.
When he came out of the temple, Sri Ramakrishna was sitting outside, waiting for him. “Did you ask the Mother to help your family?” he asked. When Narendranath confessed what had happened, the master sent him back to the temple, telling him to make sure this time he asked for wealth from the Mother.
As Naren stood before the deity, once again he was immersed in bliss and it was fervent prayers for deeper devotion, for the visions of the Divine, and the bliss of knowledge that came out of him. He couldn’t bring himself to ask the Mother for money.  Naren came out of the temple in a state of ecstasy to find Sri Ramakrishna still waiting for him outside.
The master was rather rough with the young man this time. He scolded him for failing to ask for money once more and sent him into the presence of the Mother for a third time, strongly admonishing the youth for his repeated failure and instructing that this time he should not fail to ask for monetary help. But in spite of all the instructions given by the master in strict words, Naren failed to ask the Mother for wealth for his family once again.
Which of course delighted the master. That precisely was what Sri Ramakrishna had expected from Naren, knowing who he was, knowing his potentials, knowing what he was born to. The disciple had passed another test by the master. The master hugged Naren and congratulated him. He assured the young man that his family will never want for food and clothing, will always have enough to live by.
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Recently I was teaching a course to the students of 3-Continent Masters in Business Management in one of the top business schools in India. The students come from some twenty-five different countries of the world and do one part of their course in Europe, one part in India and one part in the US [hence the “3-Continent]. I was talking to the students about spiritual leadership when an American student suddenly raised her hand and said, “Professor, please tell me one thing. Why are all the spiritual masters men?”
I explained to her that was not the case – all over the world there have been several great spiritual masters who were women. In India in particular there have always been and there still are any number of great women spiritual masters – and I named a few beginning with Vagambhrini and Lopamudra of the Vedas down to today’s women masters venerated by millions.
The masters we have discussed so far are all men. So let us talk of a great lesson in the highest wisdom given by a woman master – by Rubia, one of my favourite Sufi masters and perhaps the most venerated of women Sufi saints.  
One evening a passerby found Rubia searching for something under a street lamp. The man went to her and asked her what she was looking for and she said she had lost her needle. Of course, the great Rubia was looking for lost needle – you couldn’t let her do it all alone and go away.  The man joined the search. Soon another person came by and he too joined them. And then another, and then another and soon there was a large group of people looking for Rubia’s lost needle under the street lamp.
A long time passed and the night was fast approaching. Suddenly one man stopped, stood up and asked Rubia, “Mother, are you sure you lost the needle here under this lamp? 
There was complete stillness as the group waited for Rubia’s answer.
Rubia laughed and said, “Of course not. I lost it at home.”
“Then why are searching for it here?”
“Because there is no light at home.”
Aren’t we all looking for what we have lost at home under the street lamp because there is light there? Every single one of us has lost a precious treasure and all our life, all that we do, is nothing but a search for that priceless treasure. The only problem is we are not looking for it where we lost it, but where all the razzle and dazzle of the world is, where all the neon lamps glitter.     
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I will conclude this article with a Zen story I love in which another great master teaches very unconventionally. The story is about Hakuin.
One day a soldier named Nobushinge came to the master as he stood chopping wood in his garden. “I have heard about heaven and hell. Is there really a heaven and a hell?” asked Nobushinge.
“Who are you?” asked Hakuin. The soldier said he was a samurai.
There was an expression of great contempt as Hakuin asked, “You a samurai? What kind of master will hire you as his guard? You look more like a beggar.”
Enraged, Nobushinge began to draw his sword. Unimpressed, Hakuin continued, “So you have a sword too! What is it for – slicing bread? It doesn’t look good for anything else!”
Nohushinge’s sword was out in a split second, ready to strike off Hakuin’s head. “Here open the gates of hell!” said Hakuin serenely.
Nohushinge looked at the master’s face. There was great calm there. He sheathed his sword and bowed to the master.
“Here open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin
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Ancient India used birds as symbols for the highest awakening. For awakening is leaving our small world and soaring into boundless skies. And what masters do is give us wings to do so. And masters would use any method that would help us spread our wings and soar. Their interest is not in the method, but in giving us wings.
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