Several people, mainly men, have expressed disgust at my choice of stories, particularly the Madhavi one. Why must you choose to write about these horrible stories, a pained friend asked. They are so regressive, harmful even. We need to put away these stories, bury them. I tried explaining that Pauranic stories are not necessarily to be taken literally. They are learning tools for us to acquire a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. But, said my friend, surely these stories are no longer relevant, nothing like this ever happens anymore, what’s the point. When someone tells me that our Puranas are irrelevant junk, I feel like Tinker Bell, who sadly exclaims that every time someone says they don’t believe in faeries, a faerie drops dead.
Puranas are the subjective truth of our culture. They are the stories that bring us together as a people, as a nation. They answer the difficult questions we all must at sometime ask of ourselves – who am I, what am I, why am I here, what is the right way to live or die, what is the Truth? The collective anger we feel at Sita’s Agnipariksha or the sigh that escapes us when we hear the story of the steadfast Dhruva are shared in the consciousness of our people. Whether we like them or not, whether we think ‘regressive patriarchal narratives’ or ‘comforting stories in the warmth of a grandmother’s lap’ we cannot escape the images that spring from them.
One day a friend, a fellow Indian, narrated a dream that he’d dreamt over and over-
He’s standing on top of a building watching some men brutally murder other men and throwing the dead bodies on the street. After which he, my friend, finds himself lying on the street, sleeping, covered head to toe in a blanket. He then notices through the blanket that one of the corpses is walking towards him. The other people of the street can see the animated corpse walking towards him, but they aren’t shocked nor do anything to stop it. The walking corpse reaches out to my friend cowering under the blanket, who at that cliffhanger moment awakens perspiring, his heart thumping painfully against his chest.
This friend is a pragmatic man, his job is of facts and figures and numbers and he is logical, methodical and certainly not given to flights of fancy. He didn’t grow up listening to stories and would have never found a connection to another young man who had a lived thousands of years before him, who too had to heed to the call of a corpse.
Vikramaditya was a dishy, gorgeous hunk of a king of the mighty Ujjain empire. He was not born with just a silver spoon, he had the entire cutlery jammed into his cute mouth. He was also the bravest warrior, sharpest shooter and the brightest bulb in the bunch. In short, it was one hell of a gene pool that he crawled out of.
One day while sitting on his throne giving audience to his fawning court, a bhikshu arrived and made an offering of a fruit to the king. This was, of course, nothing out of the ordinary. It was an everyday occurrence that people, important and unimportant, would come by and offer the great king a token, large or small, of their appreciation. The king graciously accepted the fruit and passed it on to his minister and the bhikshu bowed and left. The next day at court the Bhikshu appeared again, again with a fruit that he presented to the king, who thoughtlessly passed it to his minister. Day after day, the bhikshu would hand the king a fruit which he passed to his minister and promptly forgot about. No one took notice that this seemingly innocuous non-event had been occurring under everyone’s noses for 10 long years. One day at court, after the bhikshu had presented his fruit and left, the king offered it to his pet monkey sitting with him on the throne. No sooner did the monkey tear into the fruit than a rare jewel tumbled onto the floor. The startled king asked his minister about all the other fruits and the minister led him to a dark corner in the treasury wherein he had chucked fruits day after day, year after year. And there, among the rotten, stinking fruit, lay heaps of priceless, glittering jewels. The next day when the bhikshu returned with his offering, the king asked him why he had been presenting him with these fruits. The mendicant answered that he needed a true hero to help him in conducting a great yagna. And there wasn’t a champion more brave and true than Vikramaditya, was there? More curious than cautious, the king agreed. So on a desolate, moonless night, at the appointed hour, the young king met the bhikshu at the cremation ground. There, illuminated only by the light from the burning pyres, the bhikshu looked more a necromancer than a mendicant. Go to yonder tree, O King, instructed the sorcerer, and fetch the corpse hanging on it. And so Vikramaditya trudged into the forest beyond the cremation ground, beyond the sighing ghouls, beyond the shrieks of the tormented souls and beyond the wrathful blood red eyes of the Smashaan Devi
The King reached the tree and with some difficulty cut the corpse down and slung it upon his shoulders. At once the spirit that inhabited the corpse, the Vetaal, shrieked in laughter. Aha, so he did find a stupid one to do his dirty work after all, it cackled. Who are you calling stupid, bristled Vikramaditya and that very instant the corpse flew back to the tree. Vikramaditya had to climb the tree and cut down the corpse and sling it up again on his shoulders. After trudging a brief distance, the Vetaal chattily suggested that to pass the time he would tell Vikramaditya a story. If the king was able to answer a question at the end, but chose not to, then his head would shatter into a million bits. But if he were to answer then the Vetaal would fly back to the source tree and the king would have to re-start the process.
Most of us know how this went. The Vetaal tells Vikramaditya twenty-four stories filled with moral ambiguity, political dilemma or spiritual conundra and poses a question at the end and each time but the last, the king is able to solve the riddles.
The king speaks aloud the answers, the corpse floats back to the tree and he has to retrieve it from there. And when he is unable to solve the last puzzle and Vikramaditya is finally speechless and the Vetal speaks. Yup, he says. The sorcerer has found himself a true hero. Wise and brave Vikramaditya, you are indeed the most valorous amongst all men, the bright sun among the warriors. Hear my counsel, O Vikramaditya, for you have earned it. The sorcerer will worship me and and while you bow to the sacrificial fire he intends to kill you and offer you as the sacrificial victim. Pretend then that you as a king have never bowed to anyone and don’t know how and while he prostrates to show you, slay him with a single stroke of your sword. Then all the powers and knowledge of the Vidhyadharas will be yours. And you will be the greatest king of all time.
And that’s how it came to pass. The king takes the corpse to the pleased sorcerer who asks him to bow to the sacrificial fire that he has built. When the the king feigns ignorance, the sorcerer lays down on the ground to show him how. The king swiftly chops his head off with a quick slash of his sword.
The earth and sky and the spirit world explode in joy. The Vidhyadharas or founts of knowledge and wisdom rain flowers upon him from the skies for having saved them from being enslaved to the necromancer. And that very instant Vikramaditya is suffused with all the knowledge of the universe and he becomes the greatest emperor known to mankind. As a parting gift from the Vetaal, the 24 stories and the story of the endless night live on, long after the king passed, forever illuminating the hearts and minds of men and women who listen.
This story of Vikramaditya, known as the Baitaal Pachchisi is a tiny part of the Kathasaritasagara, that Shiva narrated to Parvati when she asked him to tell her a nice story. It was first transcribed by Gunadhaya in Paisachi and later translated into Sanskrit a 1000 or so years ago by Somadeva Bhatta. Incidentally, also a part of the Kathasaritasagara is another tale of tales, of a King who has three dullards for sons and in despair he sends them to a learned priest, Vishnusharman, for an education that would cure them of their interminable stupidity. Instead of going the traditional route, Vishnusharman, like the Vetaal, tells the boys story after story. At the end of their stay of a mere six months, the boys are transformed into well-informed, articulate and capable young men. That tale, and the tales within, we now know as The Panchatantra.
The odd tale of Vikramaditya and the Vetaal is rather dreamlike itself. A stranger entices the king to meet him in the middle of a moonless night in the cremation grounds, no less! How many times have we watched a horror film while screaming at the hapless heroine, don’t open that door, don’t open that door… Never in real life would a sensible, thinking human willingly, on the request of a stranger, offer to traverse the cremation ground on a dark night to cut a corpse off a tree for a sacrifice! Another friend, whose name incidentally is also Aditya, narrated a dream in which he finds himself climbing a terrifyingly hard-to-climb mountain. He added, you know, it would be something I would not even contemplate in real life. But that’s the power of a dream. You can cannot refuse a dream, nor the challenges it poses. In the passivity of a dream we are subject to symbolism and metaphoric imagery, some rooted in the dreamer’s own culture or his personal history and others common to all humanity. And some images, we don’t even know that we knew. Like the corpse in my friend’s dream.
The Buddhists believe that we come into this world with a cup full of merit. This is a gift that we have done nothing to earn, it is the collective merit of our ancestors, those who came before us, that keeps us safe and believing in our invincibility. As we go through life, this cup keeps draining and it’s up to us, our thoughts and deeds to keep the cup topped up. Like Vikramaditya who sat in his throne, accepting gifts and adoration, believing in his entitlement. But comeuppance visits kings too, for there is a price to pay even for freebies. Life will demand it of you. Help though, is always at hand. This is the voice of the vetaal, we could also call it instinct, or gut feel or the higher self. This is the voice that we occasionally kick ourselves for not paying heed to- I wish I had listened to myself, something told me not to go there and so on. Fortunately, that voice never stops calling. Like my friend, who has dreamt versions of the same dream many times over the course of the years. But even so, this insistent, patient voice within needs sustenance and when you pay heed to it, it grows stronger, more confident, that you will now listen, the way Vikramaditya did, finally, after traversing the forest 24 times.
In the darkly gorgeous Russian faerie tale of Vasalisa, this voice is given a more unexceptionable form. Vasalisa had a cruel unforgiving stepmother, who made her clean and fetch and slog the whole day long and never fed her anything but scraps and unkind words. But unbeknownst to her, Vasalisa had a secret ally. Before dying, Vasalisa’s real mother had given her a tiny doll and told her to pay heed to the doll’s words, to keep her close, to feed her from time to time. Vasalisa followed her mother’s instructions closely, and the tiny doll would magically make the girl’s load lighter. As a final task, in the hope of getting rid of her unwanted ward, the stepmother sent Vasalisa deep into the dark forest to seek a kindling from the stove of Baba Yaga, the evil hag. No one who had visited the hag’s lair had ever returned to tell the tale. It is here, that the doll, now grown in strength, is able to help Vasalisa achieve the unachievable. Finishing every one of Baba Yaga’s impossible tasks and escaping from the clutches of evil, Vasalisa returned with the kindling to one more piece of good fortune, her evil stepmother’s demise. Vasalisa had passed the test. She would now at all times have fire and having proved her mettle, she no longer needed the necromancer-stepmother.
High altitude climbers know a region in the mountains called the Deathzone. At an altitude above 8000 metres, the body loses its ability to adapt and acclimatize and slowly starts to die. And yet the greatest glory of being able to plant your flag on the tallest peaks in the world is only available to those who go through the Deathzone. For any great task that we set out to do, or are forced to submit to by life – be it the challenge of losing accumulated weight, or climbing a mountain or coping with the trauma of change, there has to be at the beginning, a submission to the task at hand. Vikramaditya, already a great king, acquiesced to traipse around the crematorium, an unclean place, carrying a corpse, an unclean object, as if he were a chandala and not a great king. But till he embraced the inner chandala, he would not become the Emperor that we know him as.
A hero is not born, he is made in the dark of a moonless night, in the crematorium, subject to the whim of the corpse of his underutilised human life. A putrefying carcass of thwarted desires, unfulfilled dreams, suppressed emotions and unassuaged guilt. Hanging upside down, the dark unexamined underside of the upright king’s squeaky clean life of luxury and comfort. And from time to time, the spirit that is housed in the corpse, the original spark, poses riddles that thoroughly test the body, mind and will and each time you solve those riddles, the Vetaal leaves. But when you no longer know the answer, when you fall silent, the Vetaal offers its counsel and rescues you from an inglorious death. When you finally submit to the macabre, unloved, ignored parts of you, only then is a total transformation is possible for both you and your corpse.