Yayati: a classic tale of lust (page 5)

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‘I am not simple like Lord Shiva to bless anyone and everyone. How can I bless you without knowing who you are?’

‘I am a Prince.’

‘Then you are unworthy of a blessing.’

‘Why?’ I asked in trepidation.

‘Because you are a slave to your body. The greater the status, the greater the degradation of the soul. Every moment he succumbs to the animal pleasures. He enjoys to his fill the fragrance of flowers and the perfume of scents. He rules over his subjects but is ruled by his senses. A woman is the epitome of all pleasures, that is why we ascetics look upon her as utterly forbidden. Prince, go your way. If you wish to be blessed by me, renounce all worldly things and come to me. Then ...’

‘But, Sire, I have promised that I shall never turn an ascetic.’

‘Why?’ asked the ascetic in curiosity.

‘My elder brother ran away as a child to renounce the world. Mother has still not forgotten her grief.’

‘You are ...’ ‘Yayati of Hastinapur.’ ‘Your brother?’ ‘Yati.’

‘Follow me,’ said the ascetic and started off. A little later when he looked back, I had not moved. He said a little softly, ‘Yayati, your elder brother is asking you to follow him.’

Fear, like hope, prompts all kinds of ideas. I had met Yati for the first time. I should have been glad at the unexpected meeting. But I was chilled by his words. I did not know what to say to him in his cave.

We soon arrived there. It was a straggling cave with its opening covered by thorns. It was when Yati pushed them aside that I realised it was a cave. A tiger growled. I instinctively put my hand to the bow and arrow. Yati turned back and smiled. He said, ‘No, that has no use here. He growled because he smelt your presence. Otherwise he lies here like a rabbit. I make friends of wild beasts wherever I go. They are purer than human beings.’

Yati patted the tiger’s head and it started playing with him like a kitten.

We were now well in the interior of the cave. There was an unusual glow of light there. I looked round and saw masses of fireflies. There was a cobra quietly curled up in every corner, with the jewel in its hood sparkling. To the right, Yati pointed to his bed.

I looked down. A small stone served for pillow and the thorny creepers at the entrance served for a mattress. I shuddered that Yati slept in such a bed. He was my elder brother. Why had he renounced all the royal pleasures for this kind of life? What pleasure was there in it? What was Yati going to gain in the end? What was he in search of?

Yati picked up a deerskin lying near the bed and spread it on the uneven ground for me to sit on. He himself sat on his thorny bed.

Yati’s philosophy of life and the cave had deadened my feelings. Otherwise, on my meeting him for the first time, I would have embraced him, wept on his shoulder and insisted on taking him to Hastinapur to meet Mother. But as if aware that this was not possible, I sat there like a dumb animal.

Then for something to say, I said, ‘Mother will be very happy to see you.’

‘There is only one abiding happiness in life ... eternal happiness. Worldly pleasures end in unhappiness ... be it the pleasure of touch or sight. The body is man’s greatest enemy. It is the prime duty of man to strive persistently for mastery over the body. Look at the fruit I eat.’

I took the fruit he offered and broke a small piece and ate it as a sacramental offering. It was bitter and the bitterness must have been reflected in my face. He said, ‘Man loves sweet fruit. Indulgence in them leads to a craving. It is this indulgence which makes man the slave of his body. Man’s love of the body deadens his soul. It is only continence that awakens the soul. I eat these bitter fruit with relish to attain that continence.’

He picked up one and ate it nonchalantly. The small piece in my mouth remained there. If I could have gone out of the cave, I would have spat it out.

Yati and I were brothers. But there was a deep chasm between us. I could see it clearly now. I was emboldened to ask, ‘How did you turn to asceticism so young?’

‘Renunciation dawned on me in the hermitage of the same ascetic by whose blessing I was born. Mother had taken me to him. She was fast asleep but I had dreams. I came out of the hut and stealthily stepped across to another one nearby. The disciples were talking and I heard them saying, “The children of King Nahusha will never be happy.” ’

I was startled by these words. I was also King Nahusha’s son. ‘Why should it be so?’ I asked.

‘There is a curse on him cast by a great rishi. I was warned by the words of those disciples and I decided to be a happy hermit rather than an unhappy prince. I wandered into the Himalayas and found a guru. Now, you had better go. It is past time for meditation. I shall show you the way out and ...’

I tried to persuade him to let me bring Mother to see him, to no avail. We came out brushing aside the thorny creepers at the mouth of the cave. I had now to take leave of him. I said in a broken voice, ‘Farewell Yati ... remember me.’

He had not even touched me since I went into the cave. My words must have touched him. With his hand on my shoulder, he said, ‘Yayati, one day you will be king. You will be a sovereign. You will celebrate a hundred sacrifices. But never forget that it is easier to conquer the world than to master the mind ...’

I returned victorious to Hastinapur with the horse. The capital gave me a rousing welcome. The whole town was bedecked like a bride, immersed in dance and song like a dancing girl and showered me with flowers as if they were the glances of young maidens.

But my mind was not roused even by such a grand welcome. It was like a beautiful garland of fragrant flowers, in which one’s favourite flower was missing! Alaka was not to be seen among the maids who welcomed me with the sacred lamp.

The joy of my mother was evident in every move she made. She appeared to have grown younger. But even though I was bathed in the love overflowing from her eyes, one corner of my heart remained dry. In the end I pretended to have casually remembered her and asked, ‘Alaka does not seem to be here?’

‘She has gone to her aunt.’

‘Where is her aunt’s house?’

‘It is very far way, at the foot of the Himalayas. It borders on the Kingdom of the Demons.’

All that night, I thought of Yati and Alaka. Gradually, in the celebration ofAshwamedha, I forgot all this. Almost before the end of the celebrations, the disciples of the ascetic who had blessed Father with a son, brought a message from him.

It was the rule in our house not to mention the name of that ascetic. Whether it was from awe or anger nobody knows. But in recounting the story of my life, I keep repeating to myself nothing is to be kept back. His name is Angiras.

It appeared that a fierce war was likely to break out between the gods and the demons. In order to prevent it, Maharishi Angiras had taken the vow of a sacrifice for peace. Kacha, his favourite disciple was the leading priest. It was feared that the demons would raise obstacles in it. As protection against any obstacles to the sacrifice Angiras had begged of the king for his son, the renowned warrior, to be there.

This was an honour even greater than the Horse sacrifice. Indra himself would send for me, as the young hero who defeated with ease the demons. I shall travel to Heaven and assure Indra thus, ‘Oh, King of Gods, I shall ever be on your side in any battle with the demons. But there is one thing you must do. My father carries a curse that his children will never be happy. I wish to be blessed with a counter-blessing to nullify it.’

* * *

My bodyguard was following leisurely. My horse grew tired of jogging along at a slow pace. He galloped like the whirlwind and I was near the cottage in no time.

It was evening. Black smoke from a cluster of trees ahead was coiling up to the bluish sky. Its movement up was like the graceful steps of a dancer. Birds returning to their nests were twittering sweetly. The west looked beautiful with the glow as of a sacrificial fire. It was as if pieces of cloud were being offered to the fire as oblation and the birds were chanting hymns like priests. Bird life was returning to roost. I had not seen so much colour even in the palace. I reined in my horse. I was enchanted by their song and colour in flight. A multicoloured bird flew past me. I was overcome by the temptation to shoot him for his lovely plume as a keepsake. I mounted the arrow when, in a harsh voice, someone said, ‘Hold back.’

It was not a request. It was an order. I was absorbed in the beauty of the colours and had not noticed my surroundings. To the left, on the branch of a tree, was perched a young ascetic, admiring the beauty of the twilight. The next instant he jumped down from the tree, came near and said, ‘This is the sacred hermitage of Maharishi Angiras.’

‘I am aware of that,’ I retorted.

‘Did you intend to kill a bird in the precincts of this hermitage? That would have been a sin.’

‘I am a Kshatriya ... hunting is enjoined on me by my religion.’

‘There is religious sanction to killing in self-defence or to subdue evil. How did this innocent dumb bird hurt you? What harm has it done?’

‘I admired his plume.’

‘You seem to be an epicure. But remember, He who gave you that quality also endowed that bird with life.’

I was annoyed and said, ‘Such dry sermons sound very well in a temple.’

The boy smiled and said, ‘You are in a temple itself. Look, there in the west, the lamp of this temple is getting low a little. Higher up, you will see oil lamps being lit one after another.’

In appearance he was a common young ascetic. But his talk would have become a poet more than an ascetic. In disparagement I said, ‘My venerable poet, can you ride?’

‘No.’

‘Then you will never experience the pleasure of hunting.’

‘But I also go hunting.’

‘And pray, what do you hunt ... the sacred grass?’

He calmly said, ‘My enemies.’

‘Is it possible that an ascetic wearing a tree bark and living in a cottage has enemies?’

‘Not one but many of them.’

‘And, pray, what do you fight with?’

‘A spirited steed faster than Lord Indra’s and of the Sun ...’

‘But you said you cannot ride!’

‘Not your kind of horse ... no. But my own, yes. It is beautiful and fast. How can I describe its lightning speed? In an instant he can travel from earth to heaven. He can fathom fastnesses where light does not penetrate. Horses for the victory sacrifice pale before it. He has the power to make man a God and a God ... a greater God.’

In irritation I spurred my horse, saying to the insolent boy, ‘Show me your horse.’

‘I cannot show him to you. But he is with me all the time, eternally at my service.’

‘Can you name it?’

‘Yes ... the soul.’

I was taken aback when that night Maharishi Angiras introduced the ascetic to me. He was Kacha, the leading priest of the sacrifice for peace. He was the son of Brihaspati, the tutor of the gods. He looked my age or maybe a year or two more! I was surprised that a selfless great rishi like Angiras should make one so young the leading priest. Love is no doubt blind, be it of mother for child or of preceptor for disciple.

Kacha was also surprised when I was introduced. My mother had impressed on me the need to be humble at the hermitage. I had removed my royal attire and must have seemed an ordinary soldier to him. Just that evening we had had a clash of views in the forest.

‘One must be truthful but in adhering to the truth, one must put it in agreeable words. This teaching of my tutor I have not yet imbibed. Please do not take offence. It is uncertain how and when one’s mind gets out of control like the horse. Please forgive me,’ he said.

We two were given separate huts at one end of the settlement. ‘Prince, we are neighbours now,’ said Kacha smilingly. ‘Kachadeva, have you heard of the proverb ... there is no worse enemy than the neighbour,’ I replied in jest.

‘There is a half truth in every proverb,’ he said with a smile.

Maybe because of my duty in regard to the sacrifice for peace or maybe because Maharishi Angiras kept flattering me with the words: ‘The demons know that you are here and dare not interfere with the sacrifice.’ Maybe the friendship of the learned philosopher Kacha did it, but the ache in my body was dissolved in some other happiness, like the drone of the insects of the forest in the chanting of hymns.

As the leading priest of the sacrifice Kacha lived on water alone for the day. As the principal guardian of the sacrifice, I should have done the same. But Maharishi Angiras chose six of my bodyguards and between the seven of us we had to live on water only one day each. That one day in the week was very difficult for me. Hunger gnawed at my insides and made me restless. It was not that, when out hunting or escorting the victory horse, I kept regular mealtimes: but then the mind was absorbed in something else. Hunger was not noticed. I was all admiration for Kacha on fasting days: I wondered how he had acquired the power to fast cheerfully all seven days of the week, when I found it so difficult to go through it only one day. I never found an answer. I would console myself thus:

I lead the life of a warrior. The body is my mainstay. I was taught to cultivate it, to make it strong and well nurtured. That is why I cannot prevail over hunger. Kacha is different. An ascetic may have thin limbs like dry brushwood. But the limbs of a warrior must be like steel. There is no derogation then, even if I cannot prevail over hunger like Kacha. Would Kacha be able to escort the victory horse through Aryavarta? His body is lustrous by virtue of his penance and beautiful because of his youth. But, for his life he would not have been able to sling a bow and arrow.

When the principal part of the sacrifice was over without a hitch there was a three day celebration. Kacha participated actively like a child. He had an ear for music and could swim as if he had been a fish in an earlier birth. Once while a lyric was being sung, a child started to cry. Even his mother was unable to soothe him. Kacha picked him up and went outside to pick some berries strewn on the ground. He ate a couple of them and put his tongue, now tinged a rich purple from the berries, out to the child. The child was amused and smiled. It was as well that I knew that this childish Kacha and that other who chanted the religious hymns with sonorous clarity were the same. Otherwise I would probably never have believed in two such divergent personalities. Did I say two personalities? No. Kacha was a many-sided personality. I was baffled by every new appearance of it. Once a lovely sweet fruit had a worm in it. He turned to me and said, ‘Prince, life is such. It is sweet and beautiful but no one knows how and when it will be infected.’ He paused in deep thought and recited a verse which said, ‘In life, it is the sweet fruit that is most likely to be infested.’

That night, I saw Kacha as a poet. Now and again when anything struck him, he used to compose lines like this. I should have jotted them down as they came. But it is only when a thing is lost that we value it. We were together for a long time. But I cannot recall a single line of any of his compositions — only a few words of one line — ‘Oh, leaf of the tree of life.’

The occasion for that verse is distinctly before my eyes. It was a moonlit night. Suddenly there was a gust and a leaf dropped in Kacha’s hair. He was anxious that it should not fall off and get trampled over, but he could not catch it. He picked it up from the ground and gazing at it in a trance came out with, ‘Oh, leaf of the tree of life.’ I do not recall the other lines of that verse but they were to this effect; ‘Oh little leaf, why should you grieve over this sudden death? You have in your own way contributed to the beauty of this tree. You have done your part in giving your little shade to us. Your life is fulfilled and your place in Heaven is secure.’

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