The Lost World of Ancient Raconteurs

The Lost World of Ancient Raconteurs
By Manoj Das
Glimpses of an oral tradition that brought light and delight to millions.

THE last time I had seen one of the members of that tribe — by then already rare- — was in the early ’40s of the last century. Vast rural India was decades away from the telephone and radio. Maybe in a cluster of 100 villages one leading family received a weekly newspaper. The concept of tourism was as unreal as that of family planning was preposterous, and travel was more or less limited to traders and pilgrims.

But guides were there for the latter category of travellers. They were aides of the premier priests attached to major temples in the country. They descended on distant villages like angels for those among the rustic folks who had pulled together through years of hardship money enough for a journey to a holy place of their dream, mostly Puri so far as my part of Odisha and the adjoining areas of Bengalwere concerned, but felt discouraged at the inevitability of having to board as alien a thing as the locomotive and the uncertainty of a trouble-free Darshan of the Deity.

These holy guides were austere in appearance, though sometimes well-versed in Puranic texts, but they were often men of insight and, as they led the devotees to their destination, they became their friend-philosopher-guides. The devotees would find in them a trusted empathiser and confide in him not so much their worldly woes — for a pilgrimage was not the occasion to remember litigations or a disobedient son or a quarrelsome consort — but the riddles of fate and freewill, doctrines of sin and the consequence or the mystery of suffering and death. The guide would, of course, enlighten them, not through any awesome pedantry, but through a unique means — stories.

This art was even more adroitly applied by yet another tribe of disinterested wanderers, a kind of mystic mendicants. The purpose of the pilgrims’ guides was to lead the seekers to the holy city, but the former had no such motive, in fact no motive of any kind. All he had was goodwill for his listener, rich or poor. He could be your companion in your auspicious trip to Varanasi or Brindavan or Dwarka or Kedar-Badri; he could be your guest for a night in the course of his own non-stop wandering from one holy place to another; or you could be his guest in his camp-hermitage — for he never settled down at any one place — but he was willing to entertain and boost you with his stories, witty, revealing, sometimes rich in psychological insight and spiritual profundity.

But this tribe, too, like that of genuine exorcists, who were partly psychiatrists, had disappeared, probably totally.

Thus, a narrow though vibrant stream of prudence, an oral tradition, that flowed between the two robust torrents of Indian literature, the classical one consisting of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the epics and the Puranas, and the pragmatic one consisting of the Kathasaritsagara, the Panchatantra and the Jatakas, had dried up. The great Masters like Sri Ramakrishna made unique use of them and so did some other mystics. Many of them had been written down, but the warmth and the conviction of his own faith the raconteur infused into his narration would be missing.

The Concealed Option

We often scratch our heads when Confronted by an unforeseen problem :hat appears insoluble. Could there be a simpler solution to it that evaded us because we were ourselves stubborn in our own predictable resolution?

A man walked miles to buy a milch cow at a weekly cattle market. By the time he finalised his choice and the bargain concluded, it was evening. The market had dissolved and he found himself virtually alone with the cow and its calf. He must begin his homeward journey immediately. He dragged the cow, but she refused to move. He changed his strategy and pushed her forward, but to no avail. The man pulled and pushed alternately, sweating and swearing, but the situation remained unchanged, while it was growing dark. What could he do but curse his own luck and the inauspicious moment when he set out on his mission?

“My friend, can I help you?” asked a sadhu who happened to pass by.

The farmer looked at the slim figure. Though hardly impressed, he was too tired to reject his offer outright. “Well, try,” he said wryly.

The sadhu stooped and lifted the petite calf and, holding it close to his chest, began walking. The cow mooed and quietly followed him.

The Ultimate Boon

THERE could not only be a solution simpler than we knew to a naughty problem, but also a shorter way to the final goal of our life.

It was the second quarter of the night when the king, donning a disguise, rode through his capital to get an idea of the night life of the city. His bodyguards were asked to follow him, keeping some distance.

The moonlight and the quiet other hour were disturbed by a drizzle, A hoof of the king’s galloping horse got stuck in a crack on the road. At once a gang of bandits surrounded the solitary rider. Even if their prey were not to yield any valuables, the handsome horse itself should prove good enough booty.

It so happened that six young men who had come to the city from a cluster of Hearty village in search of luck were returning to their inn after witnessing an opera. They surprised the bandits, one of whom had already raised his sword at the king. A fight ensued between the bandits and the village boys. It did not have to continue for long as the royal bodyguards caught up with them and rounded up the bandits.

The king then revealed his identity to tin- youths and asked them to report at the court the next day for their rewards, while the guards tied up the bandits and led them to the gaol.

The youths who had come looking for some ordinary jobs were now assured of the king’s favour. They passed the night in joyous excitement and presented themselves before the palace at daybreak. They were ushered into the court as soon as the session began.

The king narrated his nocturnal adventure and predicament before the courtiers and said, “But for these brave and kind-hearted youths, who did not even know whom they were protecting, you all would by now be in a state of mourning. What is the reward that would match their service? Better I leave the choice to them. Let each one of them ask me for whatever would satisfy him.”

The courtiers in one voice endorsed the king’s decision.

“What would you like to have, young man?” asked the king, fixing his gaze on one.

“My lord, the people of my village are poor vegetable-growers. They must sell their produce in the town for which they have to plod through mud and mire as there is no road connecting our village with the town. It becomes horrible during monsoons. I do not ask anything for myself. Kindly sanction my villagers a good road for our men and women to walk to and from the town,” said the young man.

“Sanctioned!” said the king and directed his PWD minister to take note of it. He then looked at the second young man.

“My lord, my family lives in a wretched house. Kindly grant me a mansion,” was his prayer.

The king granted it and looked at the third young man.

“Well, my lord, I wonder if I can pray for an estate that would sustain my household.”

“Why not!” The king made the young man a landlord. He then signalled the fourth young man to speak out.

“My forefathers, my lord, had done great service to the noble ancestors of yours. Your grandfather, my lord, had promised a rank of nobility to my grandfather and a matching hereditary title. But the illustrious king left for his heavenly abode before fulfilling his promise. My grandfather died a heartbroken man. Pray, let that status be bestowed on my father,” was his submission. The court records showed the young man’s claim to be true. The king bestowed on his father a hereditary noble status.

“What about you, my son?” the king asked the fifth young man.

He stood blushing for a minute. “My lord,” he intoned, “I will like Your Majesty to find a bride for me. That will be my family’s pride.”

The king found out that he was an eligible bachelor. The court jester had a beautiful daughter. The king fixed the match right away.

Now was the turn of the last young man. “Come on, my son, state your desire,” said the king.

“My lord, kindly promise me that I will not be denied my prayer, for it will not be for anything of utility. I will need rather a gesture of kindness from Your Majesty,” he stated.

“My son, I will of course grant your wish unless it is impossible for me to do so,” assured the king.

The young man bowed. “It is so kind of you my lord. Now, grant me the boon that once every six months Your Majesty would spend a night in my house as my guest.”

There were whispers and murmurs among the courtiers. Had the young man gone crazy? Was he not inviting a burden instead of a boon? The king sat thoughtful for a moment. This was surely not something that could be counted as an impossibility!

“Well, let it be so!” was the royal announcement.

Now it was for the different departments of His Majesty’s government to see that a road suitable for the royal chariot’s movement connected the capital with the young man’s village, that the young man owned a mansion befitting the king and his entourage camping in it, not once but again and again, year after year, and that the young man owned an estate productive enough to maintain the affluent establishment.

But the king’s host had to be a nobleman. Hence the young man was bestowed a status with appropriate titles.

Now, for the king’s stay to be made comfortable and the king to be properly entertained time and again — and long live the king! — the lady of the house should be familiar with his exclusive needs, taste and peculiar habits. Now that the young man had acquired nobility, owned a mansion and enough wealth, there was no reason why a princess could not be offered to him in marriage!

Thus the sixth young man asking for one boon, received all the boons that had been granted to the others.

“So, my friend.” the mystic raconteur would inform his listener in conclusion, “as long as we asked for this or that from the Divine, well, that may be granted, but if we were wise enough to ask for Him, we will receive everything — of course in terms of inner satisfaction or fulfillment!

The Hermit’s Truth

MANY an issue in life and the world could cease to be vexing if we remembered that conflicts occur not inevitably between the right and the wrong or the true and the false. There could very well be a clash between a truth and a truth, unless we expand our perception to embrace different laws of truth operating at different planes.

Of the two classmates at a Gurukul, one, being a prince, succeeded his father to the throne. The other took to asceticism, performed penance for years and lived as a hermit at the foot of a hill. The king loved his classmate very much and made it a point to visit him once in a while and pass some time in his enlightened company.

The hermit was immensely wise and had achieved several siddhis and was simple like a child and kind to all. But he had an insurmountable weakness: he could never tolerate falsehood. A lie or a show of hypocrisy or exaggeration would instantly provoke him to burst out in anger and what was worse, he would pluck a knotted lock from his head — his way of giving vent to his disgust.

That was woeful; only a few people close to him knew that he would die the moment his last lock had gone. Once a profusion of hair sat like a crown on his bead; by and by the mop had disappeared, leaving only few precious locks to dangle precariously. Time and again his friend, the king, earnestly appealed to him to control his anger, but to no avail.

The king was about to breathe his last. Among the parting advice he gave his son, the crown prince, one was to keep a vigil on the hermit and try to prevent such happening around him that could make him lose temper.

The king died and the crown prince ascended the throne. Before long the dutiful scion paid a visit to the hermit but felt distressed that only a pair of locks had survived the hermit’s occasional feats of outburst. Unless he was under strict surveillance so that there was no chance for anybody to utter any lie before him the remaining locks would be uprooted, in no time bringing about his demise.

“Baba, I will consider myself the luckiest man on earth if you condescend to live in our palace, so that I, my family and my ministers can have your darahan every day,” he submitted to the hermit.

Because environment no longer mattered to the old sage and also because he deeply loved his friend’s son he agreed to the proposal and shifted to the palace. The young king put him up in a corner apartment of the sprawling mansion and passed strict orders that nobody was to show the slightest sign of disrespect to him or to talk in his presence.

The hermit would whimsically walk into the king’s court, and occupy a chair and listen to the proceedings. Not that he cared for them, but well, he hardly cared for anything for that matter!

One morning the emissary of a subordinate state visited the court and as was the custom, addressed the king with hyperboles such as “My master greets Your Majesty who can only be compared to Indra in might, to Kuvera for wealth and Kandarpa for charm…”

Suddenly a scream shook the court. “What! Must my friend’s son, this princeling, be compared to Indra, Kuvera and Kandarpa? How does Mother Earth put up with such falsehood?” shouted the hermit who had stood up trembling with rage. The king jumped off his throne and rushed to him in order to pacify him. But the hermit had already plucked the last but one of his locks.

After a spell of silence the king, his palms folded, explained to the hermit that the emissary’s speech was a mere formality and was not meant to be taken literally. The hermit’s anger used to be like a cracker-burst. There would be no trace of it in a second. He smiled and nodded.

However, the alarmed king, in order to save the hallowed guest’s last lock, which amounted to saving his life, shifted him to a solitary hut at the farthest end of the royal orchard-cum-garden behind the palace. All his needs were met there and he did not care to visit the court any longer.

The unorthodox young king had married a poor widow’s daughter, for she was not only beauty extraordinaire, but also highly intelligent. It was a spring noon and the garden was a riot of colours. The royal couple ambled amidst the blossoming plants in the course of which the king plucked a flower and hurled it at the queen. Playfully the queen sprawled on the grass, feigning to have swooned. The amused king had just given out a mild mock cry of horror when both were startled at a piercing real cry. The queen sprang to her feet and the king looked askance. They were ignorant of the fact that the hermit sat in front of his hut and had observed them. He happened to know the miserable condition in which the queen lived in her pre-marital days.

“O Mother Earth! How do you bear with such falsehood? This girl and her widowed mother earned some little money by selling guavas generously yielded by their tree. The widow would climb the tree while this girl would wait under it, doubling up. The widow would pluck the fruit and drop them on the girl’s back so that the rough ground did not scratch them. Now, must this girl faint because a flower is thrown at her? O Heavens!” cried out the hermit.

The old man plucked out his last lock before the king could reach him. The embarrassed and hapless king and queen could only sigh while the hermit breathed his last, but not without smiling for the last time at the couple whom he indeed loved!

Who was to blame? The hermit saw things from a plane that did not relate itself to other planes of reality. He judged matters strictly in terms of their gross veracity whereas the king and the queen acted at a different plane of truth — that of romance and the antics that went with it. The tragedy resulted out of dichotomy between two different planes of truth.

I’m Brahma

WE judge people by their cleverness, wisdom, education, culture, so on and so forth. Could any of these qualities qualify one for a radical inner revelation or for a reversal of consciousness? No achievement belonging to these orders could ensure that end while something most ordinary could unexpectedly lead one into that extraordinary state, for we can never gauge the psychic maturity of a person — can never read the history of his soul’s adventure through lives past — from his outward appearance or accomplishments, his smartness or dullness.

The little Bholanath had been dismissed by all as a nincompoop, a thick-skull. However, one day his fond father led the boy to the village school and appealed to the Pundit to let him sit in the class so that he could at least breathe the air of learning. “He will sweep the floor and dust your seat. Sir, in lieu of the privilege,” he said.

The Pundit found nothing objectionable in it. Faithful to his father’s instruction, Bholanath would report at the school before the class began and sweep the floor and clean the teacher’s seat and retire to a corner of the shed and keep sitting, leaning against a wooden pillar. Days passed. One day he heard the teacher making his students recite in chorus a Sanskrit phrase and that sounded to him sweet and significant. He went to the teacher after the students dispersed and asked him if the phrase was a pure sound or if it had a meaning.

The learned teacher burst into one of the loudest laughs in his career.'”You desire to know the meaning of that profound phrase, Brahmosmi, do you? Well, that means I am Brahma.All right?” The dialogue ended with the teacher laughing once again and saying in conclusion, “What did you get out of that?”

Bholanath had heard a hundred times that Brahma is God. I the Supreme Reality, and had a vague sense of the magnitude of the concept. What came as a great surprise to him was that the Pundit was Brahma!

“Brahmosmi means the Pundit is Brahma!’ he went on muttering at home.

“My boy, the phrase means I’m Brahma, not the Pundit!” his father affectionately corrected him.

This was yet another surprise for the boy. His father would never tell a lie. So his father was Brahma! Wonder of wonders!

Out on the street he walked muttering, “Brahmosmi means Father is Brahma!”

“You naive chap, Brahmosmi means I am Brahma!” said the chief priest of the village while passing by.

The old dignified priest was widely respected as a man of truth. Bholanath was bewildered, but he could not distrust him. He retired to solitude and marvelled at what he had just learnt — that the Pundit was Brahma, his father was Brahma as well as the priest was Brahma.

He sat concentrating and meditating on his new-found truth only to emerge with the realisation that he indeed was Brahma himself — as much as all was Brahma!

God’s Labour – Goes On!

ONCE upon a time, in the sacred city of Prayag lived a money-lender. He had amassed wealth enough to build a castle and live like a prince. But if he continued in his humble ancestral house and as frugally as the poorest man in town, it was not because he was humble but because he was an arch-miser. His only son, disgusted with his lifestyle, bved separately. There was no one with the miser save his faithful wife.

“So many of our neighbours undertake long journeys to holy places. I had a great desire to see Mathura. What about a brief pilgrimage?” his wife pleaded with him.

“Don’t you know that we are residing at the holiest of pilgrim spots in the world? This is where all the three sacred rivers, Ganga, Jumna and Saraswati, meet. Gods frequently visit this place invisibly. Is there any sense in our wasting money on pilgrimage to Mathura?” was the husband’s reply.

Over the years the lady repeated her request a hundred times, but it fell on deaf ears. She sighed and forgot it. However, once, on a rare auspicious day dedicated to Lord Shiva, she proposed that they should have a dip at the confluence of the rivers, only a mile away from their home. Thousands of pilgrims from all over the country had come to Prayag for the occasion and she was sore her husband would find no reason to disagree to it. But, alas, he asserted that the water of the pond in their courtyard was sacred enough to earn them the desired piety, for the secret source of all the water in the city were the three rivers.

“But what’s the difficulty in our bathing at the confluence?” she demanded, quite exasperated.

The difficulty, you foolish woman, is, one of those hawk-like Brahmins would swoop down on us and mutter some abracadabra and demand a fee for it.”

The lady knew that there was no argument over the position her husband had taken. She proposed that they avoid the main ghats and stealthily take their dips away from the crowd and the Brahmins. The money-lender agreed willy-nilly.

It was a foggy dawn when the couple set out for the rivers. They avoided the ghats thronged by a multitude of devotees who sang hymns to Lord Shiva as well as to the river goddesses and walked to a lonely spot near a banyan tree and entered the water. It so happened that Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, invisible, were observing the ceremony. Lord Shiva had commented with some anguish that while he was in a mood to bestow some boons, he did not find people truly ready to receive them.

Parvati’s attention went over to the money-lender and his wife. “What a quiet, deeply devoted couple! Away from the hullabaloo they are offering their obeisance to you! If you are in a mood to grant a boon to anybody, I think here is the couple to deserve it.”

Shiva did not wish to disillusion the Divine Mother immediately. “Well see,” he said. While the goddess remained invisible, Shiva assumed the form of a Brahmin and waited.

No sooner had the couple emerged from the water than Shiva advanced towards them and began chanting a hymn. “Recite your lessons as long as you wish. But be sure, you are not going to receive anything from me,” sternly warned the man.

“My son,” said Shiva in a tender tone, “You need not pay me a substantial amount. Just pay me a token, for that is indispensable for the rite to bear fruit.”

“Brahmin, what I told you is final. Did I ask you for your favour? I’m not going to oblige you in any way!”

“My son, since I have already started chanting the hymn, it will be a sacrilege if I do not complete it. Would you mind paying me the smallest possible token — just a paisa?” pleaded Shiva.

The lady stood deeply embarrassed. “What’s the harm if you give him just a paisa?” she asked her husband through tears.

“All right. But I cannot pay you right now,” the man informed the disguised Shiva. “I’m not supposed to carry my treasure with me!”

“Paying later will do,” said Shiva as he completed reciting his hymn.

As the couple walked back homeward, Shiva followed them. But on reaching home the man told him that he had no money to pay him at the moment and that he could come another day. Shiva agreed to come the next week.

Alas, he had to repeat his visit week after week, but the precious paisa remained elusive. The man finally promised to pay him on a certain day, but the moment he saw Shiva at the gate, he rushed into his room and instructed his wife to tell the visitor that he had just died.

The hapless woman acted as advised. Shiva appeared deeply touched by the tragedy and said, “My daughter, having known the nature of your late lamented husband, I wonder if the neighbours would come forward to help in disposing of his body and if any other Brahmin would care to perform his last rites. But, don’t worry; I’m there. After all, he had been generous enough to promise me a paisa. I will offer his body to the sacred confluence and recite the funeral hymns for him.”

Shiva stepped into the house and lifted up the man who lay like a corpse and carried him on his shoulder towards the rivers. As he approached the banks, the man feared that the next thing the Brahmin would do was cast him into the deep confluence.

He wriggled off his tough bearer’s shoulder. “You must be a great soul. O Brahmin! That alone explains how, though dead for hours, I suddenly revived. Your God-like touch did the miracle. I bow to you. Now, let us part.”

Shiva at once changed himself into his natural form and said, “Not Godlike, but I am indeed God Shiva.” “Well, man, I’m awfully impressed by you. Will you like to ask me for a boon?”

“Thanks a lot, my Lord. Well, if you’re willing to grant me a boon, why not consider exempting me from having to pay you that one paisa I owe you?”

“Let it be so,” said the great God as he disappeared.

It was a revelation for Parvati. “What a pity!” she muttered.

The mystic would say in conclusion. “Providence is always ready with his bounty, but alas, how mean is our capacity to receive! To arouse the right aspiration in us is God’s labour. But his labour goes on and on!”

(Courtesy: “The Statesman Festival” 2005)


About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.