Where Heaven and Earth Meet

Where Heaven and Earth Meet

The Lives of Vishnu, told in 1904 by a Nebraska hardware store owner

By George Harvey

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Copyright 2019, George Harvey

Cover art: The Milkmaid, Raja Ravi Varma, 1904

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1. A Porch in Nebraska

2. Above the Brahamaputra

3. Parashurama, a Soldier in Training

4. Parashurama, the Slave

5. Parashurama, the Vengeful Warrior

6. Rama, the Prince

7. Rama and Ravana

8. Rama the King

9. Little Krishna

10. Krishna as a Young Man

11. Krishna’s Palace

12. Krishna and the Gita

1. A Porch in Nebraska

Gathering Storm, Georges Michel, ca 1830-1839

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Chapter 1

A Porch in Nebraska

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“What better place could there be to contemplate the world than this porch, on a bluff overlooking the flatlands?” August Altmann responded to a question with a question. It was unfair, he knew, but he felt it would guide the discussion in the best direction.

Justus Fowler persisted, however, asking again, “Come on Gus, why are you here?”

“I am here to participate in life.”

Justus was not satisfied, but his questions were cut off. Gus eyed him and threw his question back at him. “Why are you here, Just?”

Justus stumbled over his response and finally said, “I had to find a place to settle down.”

“A place where no one knew you?”

Justus had never been ready to air his past and went back to his thesis. “We are all here for a reason. I mean everyone has some mission in life. I am interested in knowing more about yours. You are a bright man, and you spend your life operating what may be the sleepiest hardware store in Nebraska, and I am curious about why.”

“After twenty-seven years of close friendship, you and I still have not really come to understand each other, it seems. You are not satisfied with my expressed reasons for keeping a hardware store in an obscure hamlet on a bluff above the Platte River. And I have still not heard much about your reasons for being the only lawyer who lives in that hamlet, even though it is technically a city and the seat of Midland County. You know that I inherited this store from my father. But surely a Yale-educated lawyer can find a more comfortable home than the one you live in, and a more sophisticated society, as well.”

Justus Fowler looked toward the setting sun. It was hidden completely by some of the sky’s fluffy clouds, but bright sunbeams streamed from it. The sky was a mass of radiant colors. “I guess I just wanted a change from where I had always been,” he said.

According to the census of 1900, Gorse, Nebraska, had a population of 448. Altmann’s store was the biggest building in town. It was somewhat larger than St. David’s Chapel, which operated under the auspices of the Episcopal Missionary Diocese of the Platte. But then, the store had to be bigger, because nearly all the city’s activity took place there. One corner of it housed the 768 books of the Gorse Public Library. Another had the post office. It was the site of the shipping agency, through which all railroad packages and passengers passed. And it had all sorts of goods for people to buy. It even had a couple of small rooms with beds, in case they were needed for an emergency.

Gorse had been built at the site of a spring from which particularly fine water flowed. It was remarkable because there was no higher land around it, and not even geologists understood quite where its exceptional water came from. It had a plentiful supply for all of the local residents, undiminished by the driest drought, and it always flowed, even on the coldest winter day. But it remained a bit of a mystery.

It also supplied water for any locomotives whose tanks were running low, though not many trains passed through. When the railroad had come to town, residents expected the community to grow, but the tracks only led to a few mines, farther to the west, and its passenger service was very inconvenient. Very few people moved in. Justus Fowler was one of these.

“My recollection,” August said, “is that you studied religion, before you switched to law.”

Justus bristled a little, beneath his skin. Gus was the lay reader who conducted most of the chapel’s regular services. Justus attended them, but for reasons that had nothing to do with his real beliefs. “Eastern Religions,” Justus replied, expecting that the subject would be dropped.

“Yes, I remember now.” Gus considered this a while, and then he said, “Do you know much about Hinduism?”

“Polytheistic religion. Not the sort of thing I expect you would be interested in. People worship many gods, who live in rivers, trees, the sky, or wherever. Some take the form of human beings.”

“Do you think I would be put off by animism?”

“Aren’t you?”

August looked again toward the setting sun. The sky was particularly beautiful. “Why should I be?”

“Well, perhaps the First Commandment.”

“Which admonishes the faithful not to worship other gods before God.”

“And it says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’”

“But that does not say that we should only worship God. It just says we should not worship others before Him and we should only serve Him.”

“Should I understand that you would advocate our worshiping beings other than God, provided we don’t place them above Him?” Justus eyed Gus, believing that he had got a bit too far out on a limb.

“Why not?” Gus said, “The Book of Common Prayer does.”

“What are you talking about?” Justus asked. His manner was more assertive than incredulous.

“‘With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.’ It’s in the wedding ceremony. We are to worship our partners with our bodies.” Gus continued to enjoy the glorious sky.

Justus glowered at him. After a moment he spoke. “You sound like you are out to undermine Christianity,” he said.

“Oh, not at all! I believe what I find in the Bible.”

“So you believe in the Trinity?”


“And yet you have no problem with animism.”

“Why should there be a problem?” Gus asked. “In the Book of Common Prayer, in the Morning Prayer service, is a canticle, ‘Benedicite Omnia Opera Domini,’ which was taken from the Bible. It calls on all the works of the Lord to worship Him. ‘O all ye Works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him forever.’ And among the creations it calls to worship God are the beasts and cattle, the fowls of the air, the whales and things that move in the deep. It calls on the green things on the Earth, the wells, seas, floods, mountains and hills, dews and frosts, lightning and clouds, winter and summer, light and darkness, sun and moon. It would seem silly to call them to worship, if they have no souls or consciousness.”

Justus looked at him in silent amazement.

“It’s right there in the prayer book. And people right here in Gorse say it on Sunday mornings.”

“People say that? On Sunday mornings?”

“Well, it is one of three canticles to choose from for its place in the service. It is rather long, so I usually choose one of the other two. If I use it more than about once every other month, people complain about the length. Then I point out that whenever I choose it, I give a really short sermon. Come to think of it, I am pretty sure you said it yourself a few times.”

Justus considered this for a moment. Then he asked, “Are you sure you are an Episcopalian?”

“Born and raised!”

“Why not Lutheran?” Justus sounded very slightly suspicious.

“When my grandfather came to this country, he settled in a place where the only church was Episcopalian. He looked at the Bible and prayer book, and found that they were just English translations of the same books Lutherans used.”

The sun was setting. The stars began appearing. The clouds in the west continued to hover there, but were starting to change color as the sunshine no longer lit them from behind, and they were being shown only by the pale light of the rising full moon. Sounds of night wildlife started to become noticeable.

“Do you think an owl has a soul?” Justus asked.

“Why not?”

“What about insects?”

“Why not?”

Justus paused, and then he asked, “What about fairies and pixies? Wait. Don’t tell me. You were going to say, ‘Why not?’”

“You took the very words right out of my mouth. But I will help you go on. You could include trees and grass, the moss and even the rocks it grows on. And yes, the clouds and the lightning. The prayer book mentions them also. Seasons, stars, all sorts of things.”

“I will refrain from telling the congregation.” Justus sounded rather sarcastic.

“Thank you for your consideration. Though if you did, I would open the prayer book to the appropriate page and remind them that they got a very short sermon the day that was read.”

There was a moment of silence, as the moon grew to be the only source of light. Then Justus asked, “And what about the Hindu gods? We started with them. What do you say about them?”

August shrugged. “They’re gods.”

“Were or are?”


“So you believe in Hindu gods?”

“I do. Justus, I want you to consider the Bible again for a moment. Our Lord is called ‘God of gods.’ So there must be other gods who worship Him. Who are they? Psalm 82 says this, ‘I have said, ye are gods, and ye are all children of the Most Highest.’ It is God speaking in the Psalm. And He is speaking to all of us.”

“So are we all gods?”

“We are, but you have to understand that some gods take their divinity seriously and some don’t. For that matter, some are rather good and some are a bit evil, and they are not usually called gods. But yes, we are all gods.”

“You astonish me. We are all gods, and we are supposed to worship our spouses, who are also gods.”

Gus chuckled.

“What do you know about Hindu gods, Gus. What have you learned out here, in the flatlands of Nebraska?”

“From here, you can see the horizon; you can contemplate life in a place where Heaven and Earth meet.” Gus chuckled again, almost laughing out loud.

“Well,” Justus said, “I don’t believe you know anything about it.”

“I do, Just. And a lot more than you could realize.”

“Have you ever read the Ramayana or the Mahabharata? I mean, how much could you know?”

“Have you read them?”

“I have. And more.”

“Perhaps I should tell them to you again,” Gus said. “I think you may have missed their point.”

“I am not going to listen to you read me the Mahabharata. It goes on forever. Besides, there probably is not a single copy in the whole of Midland County.”

“Yes, it does go on forever. And I would apologize, if I had offered to do that to you. I am, after all, the sort of person who apologizes for a long canticle by giving a very short sermon. No, I will tell simply tell you the story in a somewhat condensed form.”

“From memory.” Justus said. “You know the story by heart.”

August laughed. “Do you want to hear it, or not? I mean, here we are on a Friday night, sitting on the porch of a hardware store in a nearly deserted hamlet. Twilight is just about over. No one is around. The fields are planted, and nothing is ready for harvest, so no one will need to come into town tomorrow, and our only street will be just about empty all day. A train might come through, but it might not even stop. You have nothing to do tonight but listen to the stories of the lives of Vishnu and join me for a glass or two of beer. And you have nothing to do tomorrow but sleep late.”

Justus looked out to the west. The bright moon behind him made the clouds near the horizon glow faintly. He considered the offer of a beer or two.

“I’m all ears,” Justus said finally. Then he added, “But first, the beer.”

Together, the two friends went into the store to fetch some refreshment. And then they settled down to a long story.

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2. Above the Brahmaputra

Kangchenjunga from Darjeeling, Edward Lear, 1812-1888

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Chapter 2

Above the Brahmaputra

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The night air was still warm after the heat of the day. “I suppose we should start the story at the beginning,” Gus said.

“That is usually best.”

“You are aware of Krishna, hero of the Bhagavad Gita, and Rama, of the Ramayana. But we have to start long before them for their story to make sense the way it should.”

“Yes. There were six avatars before Rama.”

“Six avatars are spoken of, but there were many others. They were lives that Vishnu lived, but they went unrecorded. We will start with one of these.”

“If it was unrecorded, what do you know about it?”

“I am telling the story. Do you want to know about it? Or would you prefer to tell one of your own?”

Justus was silent. He took some beer, and Gus went on.

“Before Rama, there was Parashurama. And before Parashurama, there were others.”

“Yes, a fish, a turtle, a lion.”

“We don’t have to go back that far.” Gus said with a quiet smile. “Let’s just say that the gods often are on Earth simply to participate in human living. To do this, they have to be completely human, experiencing human desires, losses, failures, triumphs, tragedies, successes, and all the things that other human beings go through.”


“Why what?”

“Why do they live as humans, if they are gods? Can’t they do better than that?”

“In order to act as gods should, fostering humanity, they have to understand humanity. The only way to do that is to live human lives.” Gus paused briefly to add emphasis to what he was saying. “I mean they have to be entirely human. They are not gods who pretend to be human. In fact, they almost nearly never really understand their own divinity during those lives at all.”

“Don’t understand?” Justus asked.

“If they want to learn, which they usually do, they can’t live lives in which they can somehow magically create the solutions to problems that come before them. They can’t have all their desires met, simply by saying ‘I want this’ or ‘I want that.’ They have to live the same sorts of lives everyone else does.

“If famine strikes, they go hungry, just like everyone else, and their children go hungry, just like everyone else’s. If there is a war, they may have to fight, and in doing so, they expose themselves to the same risks as any common soldier. Unless they allow those things to happen, they will never understand humanity and will never be fit to guide or protect it. They are experiencing the human condition as human beings. ”

“Nice that they try so hard.”

“The gods have to be able to understand human failures, and so they have to be able to fail. They have to be able do things they probably should not do, and they have to be tempted, really tempted, to do those things. Otherwise, they will fail to see what it is to be human and suffer temptations and failures.”

“They were scamps.”

“Okay. If you like. They could be scamps, from time to time. But those that people would call gods were trying to do what was right.

“Perhaps we should start with a lifetime of Vishnu that is, as I said, unrecorded. It is a lifetime of a young man, who lived in the foothills of the Himalayas. He lived a simple life. He fell in love, in due course he married and had children. He and the wife he loved lived long lives, and as they grew old, they watched their children grow and prosper and have children of their own. Their lives were full of contentment.”

“What about the hardships that you were saying gods suffer from?”

“Well, even the gods can live contented lives from time to time. That is just one more way they are like everyone else. They have to know what the possibilities are for those, as well. They have to know everything about how human beings live.”

“I am curious. How do you know about this? Is there any scripture?”

“There was a hymn that was composed at one time. I can tell it to you, if you like.”

Justus shrugged a nod, so Gus recited this poem:

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Above the Brahmaputra

On the endless valley of the Brahmaputra, on the high and grassy meadows,
Far above the racing streams, far above the rivers of the valley floor,
There is the place of my life, there the joy and resting place of my immortal soul.

There, on the shoulder of the mountain, along the paths cut in the grasses,
By blue and yellow flowers, in the deep blue of the sky,
In the brightness of the dewy morn, in the piercing rays of the sun,
In the cold mountain air, in the rare still of the mountain air,
In the troubled winds, in the fog and rain and snow,
Among the tall and massive mountains, who stand in two great rows,
Among the many, noble mountains, who hold the valley to its course,
There is the place of my life, there the joy and resting place of my immortal soul.

The people call me ‘The Lover of the Milkmaid,’ (the one who does not place himself above the lowly).
I am the servant of my Master, the Holy Man of the shrine of these meadows,
The Holy Man of the mountains, who knows and understands all things that are.
He is the Master Who Knows All, and the people dare not draw near him.
I tend his herd, the people do me homage in his stead.

I hear his holy words, I hear his words and teachings,
His meadow is the place of my life, but his words are beyond my grasp.
They fall without effect upon my ears, their meaning is lost to such as I am.
I see the sun move daily, east to west, unfailingly making his appointed rounds.
My master sees the shadows in his shrine, and the smoky fire that lights his temple.
I lie upon soft grasses at his door, the lightning plays below me in the valley.
He knits his brows, he knits his brows.
I am the lover of the milkmaid, I am he who does not place himself above the lowly.

My little calf has lost her mother, she follows me and nuzzles against my legs.
I give her milk, I am the joy of her little soul,
The protector of the orphan, the feeder of the poor and hungry.
The love of my life walks broad fields to find me, she travels far to give her warmth to me.
She touches my face with soft hands; the joy of my soul touches my cheeks with soft hands.
Her voice is music, her words are my delight.
She is warmth and gentleness themselves, born in the cold and troubled mountain air.
She is the joy of my life. Ye Gods of Earth and Sky, let it be ever so!

I am the lover of the milkmaid, who does the lowly all honor to be among them.
She does the lowly honor, and they do not comprehend.
They ask me for my Master’s blessing, I give them only what I have,
It brings them joy, is it enough?
In joy they do my Master honor, is it enough?
I give them the only blessing I know, born of the love she gives me.
My Master Who Speaks to the Gods, for such the people call him,
My Master seeks the endless wisdom, and so he knits his brows.
What does he find beyond my ken? What is beyond the love of the milkmaid?

The joy in this land is boundless, and all of nature is glad.
Ye Gods, let it ever be so, for ever and ever. Amen.

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When Gus finished reciting this, Justus said, “Krishna was the lover of milkmaids.”

“Not the first, however.”

“Well, it is a very pretty picture you painted, but what does it have to do with anything?”

“It helps explain how the life of Parashurama came about.”

“How so?”

“During that lifetime, Vishnu experienced a joy that seemed to go beyond anything he had ever experienced. It made him feel that he had come to understand something exciting. He felt he had found the secret of happiness.”

“The secret of happiness,” Justus repeated dully.

“Vishnu had come to have a life that was profoundly happy, and it influenced him profoundly. It was a simple life. There was no greed among the people he lived with. There was also no want. The connection, in his mind, was at least partly true, and possibly entirely true. Where there is no greed, want has a hard time establishing itself.

“There was a girl …”

Justus interrupted, “There is always a girl.”

“Yes, really. In this lifetime, Vishnu fell in love with a girl who was beautiful, but she was also wise and had unmatched good character. I can see the imagine of that young woman so fully, with her posture erect, full of easy confidence, walking toward the man who loved her, across the hilly meadows.

“And no matter what he did, what lifetimes he lived, he was always able refer to that image, to his love for her, and the love she gave him. That love was an ideal, something that he always wished he could achieve. It was the source of profound motivation.”

“Who was this person again?”

“You know it’s funny. I don’t remember his name at all. It never struck me as even slightly important. I remember her name well, but his escapes me.”

“So, what was her name?”

“The gods, as you might imagine, discuss things, exchange ideas, tell each other about important events, successes, failures, just as anyone would. Truth be told, they sometimes act like a bunch of people gossiping as they wash their clothes together. In Vishnu’s case, he felt he had found the secret of happiness, and he wanted to be sure that everyone else understood it. He told them that the most important thing was to be free from greed, both in yourself and in others.”

Gus explained, “Of course, the other gods immediately saw that there was a serious flaw in Vishnu’s thinking. But they also saw that they could use that problem to the benefit of everyone. They used Vishnu’s own ideas to play a trick on him, and do a lot of good at the same time.”

“What was the problem with Vishnu’s thinking?”

“Gods might be able to find places where greed is not an issue, and they might be able to benefit from living in such places, but for ordinary people, it is not so easy. The problem is that Vishnu was failing to participate in the real sorts of lifetimes that real sorts of people experience. He lived happy lives while ordinary people did not. He was happy, himself, but that was of no benefit to anyone other than himself.”

“So what happened?”

“His friends among the gods decided they would play a trick him that would give him a more perfect understanding of the human condition. They started by making sure that his lifetimes were perfectly happy, among people who were untainted by greed. And they let this go on for one lifetime after another.”

“How long?”

“Vishnu lived seven lifetimes in which he started exactly the same way. He was a happy child, who was raised by loving parents, and he was given the instruction he needed to be useful in the society in which he lived. In every lifetime, he fell in love with a beautiful young woman who was intelligent and wise, who returned his love.

“In every one of the first six of those lifetimes, he and his true love raised a family whose children grew strong and wise, taking useful places in their society. And they live together to an old age, respected and loved by all about him.”

“And what happened in the seventh?” Justus asked.

“In the seventh lifetime, the protection he had become used to suddenly stopped. When his friends stopped providing that protection, his happiness suddenly ended with tragedy. It was a call to action … a very painful call to action.

“People are not likely to act wisely unless they understand both good and evil, unless they see how some actions can lead to happiness and others to sorrow, and unless they have had experience with both. Each of us has fail to see the possibility of failure and to understand its real meaning.

“To be what we were intended to be, good, decent, honorable, and wise, we must have knowledge and experience. We must avoid those things that are not good. And to do that, we must understand why they should be avoided.”

“So what brought this to an end?” Justus asked.

“It ended,” Gus explained, “with the life of Parashurama.”

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3. Parashurama, a Soldier in Training

Indian Woman, M. V. Dhurandhar, 1928

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Chapter 3

Parashurama, a Soldier in Training

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Parashurama’s name means “Rama with an Axe.” He grew up as simply Rama, but today he is called Parashurama to distinguish him from a later incarnation of Vishnu, also called Rama. For this story, I will simply call him Rama. You will know when I have gone to his next lifetime, and so there is no need to distinguish between the two.

For the seventh life in a row, Vishnu set about living a life of happiness. Avoiding living in communities of greedy people, he also avoided greed in himself. He sought people who were loving, and he returned their love. When he fell in love with a young woman, she was always a person he correctly understood would return the love he felt.

In the seventh life of this series, however, Vishnu was being set up for a fall. For one thing, the village and the people were simple, as his previous six lives were, but he was different. Though he was born in a small, mountain village, he was part of a Brahmin family.

Actually, his education was atypical for a Brahmin. Though he did learn much that Brahmins normally learned, he was thoroughly taught to be the perfect soldier. From this beginning, he should have known that he was destined for something outside his simple village. But he never guessed. For him it was simply what happened.

It was not a matter of arrogance on his part that he failed to see this. He had lost his edge, in a way, seduced by the joys of living among happy, loving people. The fact that he fell in love with a very beautiful young woman did not help this. His attention was taken by happy thoughts, and it never really occurred to him to put his attention on anything that might be amiss.

Something was very much amiss, however, not far to the south of where he lived. For generations, India had been divided into petty kingdoms, barely bigger than counties. The men who ruled most of these tiny kingdoms were not interested in goodness or moral uprightness. For them, something was only good if it added to wealth. Conquest was good. Greed was good.

For those men, the way to wealth was to take whatever could be taken from the people around them. They took whatever they could from the people of the countries they controlled, and they took whatever they could from the people of the countries around them. They went on taking until they made mistakes or had losses and then they fell victim to some more powerful neighbor.

That was a time when boys did not grow up to be men. They grew up to be soldiers. And they fought as soldiers. And they were maimed or disabled or killed as soldiers when they were still young. If they survived and returned to their villages, they could get wives and father children. If they were still strong enough to work, they could add what they could add to the welfare of their people. But too many of them never returned home.

It was a time when merchants could not travel through the lands without having their goods stolen by bandits or taxed by the authorities who said they needed the taxes to protect them. Since the merchants were unsafe in those places, they went elsewhere. Without the merchants, there was no trade. Without trade, the kingdoms and the people in them sunk deeper into poverty.

Whole fields of manufacture collapsed. The only things that were made were those things that could be purchased and used locally. And of these, only weapons were considered important by the kings. Without trade, there was nothing to exchange goods for, so potters made pots, and weavers made cloth, but only enough to trade for food for their families.

With the men gone, the business of farming fell to the women. They plowed, planted, and harvested. They raised the livestock, milked the cattle, and made cheese. They did what they could, but they never prospered. Farmers have always suffered from droughts, insect blights, floods, and the like. But in those days, if a crop was good, someone would come to take it away. The women worked for the sake of their children, but without much hope for their future.

For hundreds of years, this situation only got worse, spreading from one land to another until it wasted nearly all of northern India. For hundreds of years, ordinary people suffered because of the greed of their “betters” and the doctrines that might made right and greed was good.

The situation was exactly what Vishnu knew needed to be avoided. The fact is, he was avoiding it. But his doing so was not helping those who really needed help, and so the people of the countryside suffered.

Rama, the young Brahmin who was trained as a soldier, was sent for further education to a village some distance to the south of where he had been raised. There, he was trained in what we might call some very advanced skills. They were not the sorts of things most soldiers learn.

One thing he learned was to be invisible. It is a real skill. A person who has achieved it can function on a battle field without anyone having any understanding of where he is. He can attack almost at will, without his enemy having any defense. He can also defend himself by remaining invisible, so his enemies pass him by without knowing he is even there.

There are different ways to do this. One is to take on the appearance of being nothing. People just do not see you at all. Another is to take on the appearance of being something you are not, such as a goat or tree or a member of a party of the enemy you seek to fool.

Rama was also taught the problems with this ability. One is that while the enemy does not know you are there, neither does anyone else. While an enemy will not know where to aim arrows to hit you, your friend will not know where you are to avoid shooting you. Invisibility is much more complicated than the simple matter of fooling everyone into failing to see you. You must be vigilant about dangers around you.

Another thing he was taught was to understand an enemy’s mind, to know what the enemy is thinking. This meant that Rama could block enemy moves, if he chose. It meant that he could see through enemy deception.

When a soldier has such training, he is not easy to defeat. Even so, he cannot escape fate. All men are fated to die, even the gods who visit earth in human form.

While he was in that village, being taught the most advanced ways of soldiers, Rama met a young woman. For him, this was the same thing he had done for one lifetime after another, and he almost expected it. She was a gloriously beautiful woman with a joyous disposition. She was very bright. She had a native wisdom that made her even more attractive. Falling in love with her seemed so perfectly right that it seemed like intentional destiny unfolding. Perhaps it was, though not in a way he anticipated.

Rama felt he had to go back home to get permission to marry to be proper. In this case, his father had already died, and in theory he could have married without permission. But he wanted to see his mother and felt it was proper to get a blessing from his uncle, who was his oldest relative. And so he traveled away, and returned to the village where he had been raised.

He was not gone long, perhaps a month. It was not an easy trip because there were bandits on the roads, and though he found it easy to avoid them, doing so made travel a bit slow. One thing this did was to put him out of touch with the common folk of the countryside, so he lost track of events around him to a degree.

With permission to marry, he returned to village to the south, where the woman he loved was waiting. Again, he traveled in secret, out of touch, but this time it led to a shock. Walking down the path on the last hill of the trip, he expected to come out of a wooded area onto the farmland of a plain, seeing the village where his true love waited in the distance. Instead, he saw a blackened ruin.

The village had been attacked. It had been burned completely to ash, and there were no people left alive. Rama saw a few bodies that were burned beyond recognition. Some were animals. Some were human. No one remained.

It was clear to him that the people of the village who had died were only a small part of those who had lived there. There were not all that many bodies. Those who remained alive had clearly been taken away. Most probably, they were taken to be the slaves.

Rama thought of his love. He did not know whether she was alive, but he did not even think about what to do. He set out tracking the small army that had destroyed the town, in hopes of finding the slaves they had taken.

It only took a few days to find the people of the village. He devised a plan to free his young lady. He would go in without disguise, make it clear that he had come looking for a relative, and allow himself to be captured. Then, when he could locate her, he would make himself appear to be one of her captors, convince whatever guards there were that he was to take her away, and leave with her. That was the rough plan, which would have to be improvised as required.

There was one hitch. She had died in the attack.

Rama did not have a plan for how to deal with her loss. He had allowed himself to be captured. He had allowed himself to be enslaved. But his real enslavement was not to the enemy who had burned the village. The strongest bonds on him were of his own making. He was slave to his own dejection. He had lost all interest in living. And so, he did not even try to escape.

Not many days passed before a stranger named Timeer came to see him. The man wanted to know if he was a Brahmin. Rama did not want it to be known that he had been trained as a soldier, and in truth he actually was a Brahmin, so he simply answered in the affirmative. The man told him he would be sent to a town that had need of the services of a Brahmin.

Rama, having falling into apathy, allowed himself to be led into the countryside, toward a fate that was unknown to him. Fate, however, had more to say about what was happening than either he or his captor knew.

They traveled together on a path into the mountains. It was a more direct and safer journey than following the main roads would have been. After passing a number of tiny hamlets, they came to a group of huts on the brow of a mountain, overlooking a steep valley. There, Timeer fell sick.

There were no men in the hamlet at all. They had all been taken off to fight in wars. Timeer quickly realized that he was dying. He was being tended by the head woman of the settlement, and found himself honor bound to give her something in return. And so Rama was given to a peasant woman to be her slave.

❦ ❦ ❦

Justus stopped the story at this point. “I have studied the stories of Parashurama as they appear in scripture,” he said. “This story you are telling me bears no relationship with the life of that Hindu god.”

“None that you are aware of so far,” August replied. “This is just the beginning of the story. There is some background to Rama’s decision to take up an axe.”

“Well, it bears no resemblance to the real story.”

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4. Parashurama, the Slave

Star of the Hero, Nicholas Roerich, 1933

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Chapter 4

Parashurama, the Slave

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The path by the village was used from time to time by people who were traveling from one place to another. Since there were very few merchants, and no one traveled for pleasure, the women saw very little of people from other parts of the world.

Those they did see were mostly soldiers, who came annually to conscript the boys as they approached manhood, to satisfy the kingdom’s need for more soldiers. That need was so great that all the boys were taken off, barely after reaching puberty.

It was perhaps a matter of bad luck that in this hamlet none of the young men ever returned. None of them had ever had special skills of any kind, such as smithing, which would have made them valuable in any way except as foot soldiers. Of those that went away, none returned disabled. There were no men with missing limbs or eyes. So there were no fully grown men in the settlement.

There were only a few children, of course. The settlement’s boys managed to father a few children of their own before they were taken off. And there were a few others, born to men who passed through only briefly, mostly the same soldiers who took the boys.

Among the children was one named Adi, a boy of about three who had a joyous energy and a vital interest in everything he found. He ran along the path, chasing the chickens, who knew how to stay out of his way, and among the goats, who he had learned to avoid offending. He laughed and sang, as he played, engaging whomever he could to play with him.

In his first days there, Rama came to know a young woman named Masumi, who cared for Adi. “Is he your son?” Rama asked. When she told him he was, Rama asked, “And his father is away?”

Masumi suddenly stopped what she was doing and sobbed quietly. “He was taken before Adi was born,” she said. “That was over three years ago, and I have not heard anything about him since that day.”

Masumi might have been sixteen when Adi was born. She certainly looked like she was not as old as twenty-one. She was small, and she was sad. She had fallen in love with a boy of the settlement, but he was gone. With the loss of him, the greatest joy had been taken from a hard life. And she knew that the only joy that remained would be one day snatched from her, as her son grew to manhood.

There was a second path through the hamlet. It was not there by any intention, but just as a matter of convenience for the women who lived there. Each of the huts had a small plot of land behind it, and they were all connected together so the women could visit among themselves in an easy manner. They all knew what chickens or goats belonged to whom. They all helped each other with gardening, cleaning, washing, and mending clothes.

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“Let me guess,” Justus said cynically. “Rama had his way with every woman there in one night.”

August looked at him coldly for a moment. Then he said rather mildly, “Vishnu is a god known for his dedication and loyalty. In this Rama incarnation, he was still in rather shocked mourning for the woman he loved. At that point, he would have considered taking up with another woman a sort off desecration. It was not something he even thought about.”

Justus said, “Oh,” and looked away.

❦ ❦ ❦

One night, a very few days after he arrived at the settlement, Rama heard a muffled sob. He got up from the pile of straw where he was sleeping and went into that second path. The sound seemed to have come from that area.

It was very late. The full moon was very bright and almost directly overhead. He could see very well to walk around by its light. He heard the sob again.

He passed along the path past two huts. When he came to the third, he saw that a lamp was burning inside. He could see Masumi through the open back window.

Before her on a bench, Adi lay sleeping. Something about his posture looked unusual. He was not stretched out as one might expect a sleeping child to be. His pose seemed unnatural.

As Rama watched, Masumi picked something up. She held it carefully against her son’s ankle. Rama did not see what it was until she suddenly put all her weight into it. It was a piece of a broken arrow.

Masumi had stabbed her son, who Rama now clearly saw had been drugged. Working quickly, with intense emotion nearly blocking her, she used the blade of the arrow to cut the tendon.

Rama rushed into the room, but the deed was done. Adi would never walk normally again. Masumi had collapsed into a state of heavy sobbing. Rama asked her urgently, but quietly, “What have you done?”

“I have saved his life!” she said.

Masumi had taken a big chance. If the authorities in the army understood that she had maimed her son, they probably would have killed her. They might even have killed him as a warning to anyone else who might have the idea of doing such a thing. But he was young enough that they probably would not pay much attention to him for years. By the time they did, the wound would have long since healed. The scar would clearly be from a very old injury. When they were told he had been shot accidentally at an early age by a soldier, they would have had no reason not to believe it. So in her intense despair, she had created a hope for her little boy.

When they saw Adi, everyone knew what had happened, though no one ever spoke of it. He had to learn to walk again, after he healed. When he did it was a painful, slow process. Rama saw the perplexed look on his face when he tried to run, as he had loved to do, and found he could not. But he would be able to father children and see them grow.

❦ ❦ ❦

August looked toward Justus. He was just sitting there with his mouth open, as though he had something to say, but no words were coming out of his mouth. “Are you all right?” August asked.

“I will be,” Justus said quietly.

❦ ❦ ❦

Rama was made useful for the village women. He worked, doing a few things they found difficult. He was very strong, and he could lift things that would take two of them.

But every day, as he did chores, he saw Adi, who had grown dejected because of his inability to run and play. Over time, his physical wounds healed, but his soul had wounds of its own.

As time passed, Rama became increasingly outraged. His own loss, he understood, was only a small part of what was happening to many ordinary people.

They were victims of parasitic governments and the mindless greed of the men who ruled them. And the people who ruled were also victims of their own greed and lack of compassion. The wars they pursued were consuming everything, including themselves and their own families, destroying nearly everything of value.

❦ ❦ ❦

“War,” Justus said, “is like a game of poker. A lot of it is chance. You can win or lose. But it produces nothing of value. If you win, what you are getting is something someone else earned or made.”

August replied, “Actually, I think you are almost right, but there are a couple of big differences. It would be more like a game of poker, if the pot had a fire under it. You put money in, but if you don’t win quickly, the thing you are gambling over is destroyed.

“A more important thing about war is that it is not just money or property that is lost. It is the health and lives of the people. And in this case, the wars were destroying the lives of everyone around.”

The moon was well above the horizon by now, and it was shining brightly enough that walking about in the night was easy. The two men went back into the store to fetch another glass of beer. August brought out some bread, two knives, cutting boards, and hunks of cheese. One was was stinkkäse, a type of very smelly schmierkäse, a spreading cheese that was made on one of the local farms.

As they settled down, they heard a voice say, “I hope you don’t mind that I was listening just now. That is quite a story. Do you mind if I join you?”

It was Tom Allenby, one of the town’s residents. He had been out for a walk in the moonlight after a hot day. August and Justus invited him to sit down on the porch with them. Before they returned to the story, August fetched a glass of beer for Tom. And they all settled down as the story continued.

❦ ❦ ❦

In his anger, Rama decided that something had to be done about the incessant wars. The ordinary people of the land were not greedy, but they were being made the victims of greed. In his soul, Rama realized that he had been wrong. It is not enough to prove that freedom from greed was an important step to happy living. Something had to be done to stop the incessant cycle of fighting and enslavement.

Rama was still not over his mourning. Perhaps if he had been, he would have tried a different way to try to stop the destruction. But the passing of time did not make things easier, because he had the constant picture of Adi in front of him, to remind him of how bad things were.

In the end, he came to the conclusion that he had to destroy the armies that were ravaging the countryside so as to render the petty kingdoms in that land powerless. He decided that he had to do this himself.

❦ ❦ ❦

Justus laughed. “Yes, this is one of the things that I really love about Hinduism. Vishnu was a Mahamaharathi. I couldn’t get over this; I remember the numbers well. According to the Hindus, a Mahamaharathi is able to defeat 207,360,000 ordinary soldiers, all at once.”

“Some educated Hindus love numbers, I think,” August said with a smile. “But I am not sure that anyone ever took that number to be exactly accurate.”

“Well,” Tom interjected helpfully, “this is a mythological number. We don’t have to explain it.”

“And even if we could, it would not mean anything to anyone. After all, who understands such a number?”

❦ ❦ ❦

5. Parashurama, the Vengeful Warrior

Parashurama, Raja Ravi Varma before 1920

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Chapter 5

Parashurama, the Vengeful Warrior

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Rama, now full of rage, stole off in the night, leaving that settlement forever. He traveled along the path to the next village, and from there he went on to find soldiers.

To Rama, all the soldiers around were acting for the benefit of evil. He knew that was not how it had to be. Soldiers could act in defense of their people and their country. But in this age, they were acting to support the greed of kings and nobility, those called the “kshatriyas,” who were bent on conquest for the sake of their greed.

Rama set off single-handed to destroy the armies around him. He started by finding the weapons he would need to attack them. He would fight them with whatever he found at hand. And he would defeat them. At any rate, that was his plan.

He was thinking irrationally, but the word irrational has different meanings, and this should be kept in mind. For a person who has the highly developed mind and soul to support it, irrationality does not mean insanity, it simply means that the process does not include reasoning and logic. Without those things, the spirit can acquire its understanding of what to do directly from the energy of the universe.

Once his general plan was set in his mind, he set about more logically working on the strategy of how an individual takes on the armies of all kingdoms around him. And the plan Rama developed was one suited to the abilities of a highly skilled warrior, a Mahamaharathi.

Rama started on the premise that it was not necessary to kill anyone. It was only necessary to render them incapable of fighting. One example of how to do this had been provided by Masumi. If Rama could do to a soldier what that innocent young woman had done to her son, out of the overwhelming love she had for him, that soldier would be injured to the point of having no use for combat. But he could return home in a condition that was still valuable to the people who had raised him and to the children he would raise. The loss of a hand or a part of a foot was better than the loss of life that was happening on a regular basis in the field.

Having achieved that understanding without reason, irrationally, Rama reasoned about it. It was reasoning impelled by anger and painful memory, but it had the guidance he had received as his soul searched for ways to deal with the harsh realities of the times in which he lived.

If every soldier lost the use of a hand or foot, every soldier would return home. And while the soldier might never be compensated for that loss, even in his injured state he would be able to compensate his village for the loss it suffered by his being taken away. He could not only father children, he could also raise them. He might or might not be able to do heavy and important physical work, but he could certainly provide the love and guidance of a father.

If all the soldiers returned home, even in a somewhat debilitated state, it would mean that the nations could prosper based on their own production. They would no longer have to steal from each other to be wealthy. And so every nation could be wealthier. In fact the poorest nation could be wealthier than the wealthiest of the current regime, because wealth would be based on production, instead of invasion, pillage, and destruction.

Moreover, Rama could see that he did not have to attack every soldier. Defeating an army does not require defeating each person in it. It only requires that the army be rendered incapable of functioning effectively. Each army had its strengths and its weaknesses, and any army can be made useless by reduction of the most vulnerable of the strengths it depended upon.

If an army’s strength is in its archers, then it is sufficient to render the archers useless to the army. Similarly, an army can be made incapable of operating if it depends on its cavalry and the cavalry cannot function. Each army has its vulnerability. And each vulnerability carries its own fatal flaw.

Furthermore, all armies have one single type of weakness in common, because no army is stronger than the thinking of its leadership. Rama clearly understood that no leaders can think wisely if its intelligence is clouded. If it is fed bad information, the leadership of an army is rendered unable to act in accord with its own goals.

Giving an army bad information can be as simple as compromising its sentries and allowing whatever would happen next to take place. And rendering sentries useless can be as simple as making them distrust one another.

Knowing these things, Rama launched his first attack. Since he knew how to be invisible, he was able to enter a camp without causing any alarm. He went in at night without disturbing the watchful sentries. He went in among a group of sleeping soldiers, and he took an axe, a spear, a bow, and arrows.

On his way out of the camp, he saw two sentries close together. They had just finished talking, and now were facing away from each other a few feet apart. Rama passed between them, and with his axe, he cut deeply into the tendon at the ankle of one. As that man cried out in pain, the other turned, and Rama brought the axe down on his foot, injuring him badly enough that he would never walk normally again.

Rama did not leave the camp. Instead, he turned back into it. The cries of the sentries brought other soldiers on the run, and as the these men started to reach their fallen fellows, Rama threw the spear in among them, wounding the arm of one severely.

The men soldiers reacted badly to being attacked from within the camp, and soon they were fighting other soldiers who were arriving behind them. They could not identify each other easily in the night, and were too confused to be able to achieve any order.

Rama walked into the countryside.

❦ ❦ ❦

“Just out of curiosity,” Justus asked, “did he do this all at night because he planned a night attack? You know, did he plan for the soldiers to attack each other in the night? Or is it just that invisibility is easier in the dark?”

“He probably did it simply as it presented itself to be done,” Tom answered. “After all, that’s the way Hindu deities act, isn’t it, Gus?”

“Often it is,” August answered. “Sometimes they plan things pretty carefully. Sometimes they even do that in groups, planning together. But a lot of the time, they just take advantage of whatever opportunity presents itself. It is a pretty efficient way of acting, kind of like traveling on a river. If you want to go downstream, you can just sit on a raft; the only time you need to put out a lot of effort is when you are going against the flow.”

“Well, this invisibility thing bothers me,” Justus asserted.

“Why?” asked a voice. “A lot of people spend their entire lives being invisible.” It was Dora Snyder, who had taken a seat next to Justus without his noticing.

August, seeing Justus in slightly shocked surprise, said, “Yes, and those are the people you have to look out for.”

❦ ❦ ❦

The next night, an almost identical attack happened at a camp about twenty-five miles away, in a different kingdom. Between kingdoms, communications were so bad that it took a week before the leadership in either country learned about the attack on the other. By the time that happened, two more attacks had happened in other lands.

These attacks, which injured only about a dozen soldiers in total, show clearly the effects of Rama’s overarching strategy. Every one of four kingdoms found it necessary to increase security at its military camps. This meant that in every case soldiers were taken from other duties to act as sentries. In the tiny, county-sized kingdoms we are talking about, that had an appreciable effect on the numbers of men available for combat.

Also, the kings and military leaders of these kingdoms started to communicate with each other. They felt that they were compelled to search countrysides for the insurrection they believed had risen against all of them. They could see that the attacks were similar, so they correctly surmised that a single person could be planning them all. They also thought there must be a number of people involved in the attacks. They had no idea how many people they were up against, and this frightened them more than a little.

They sent out cavalry on patrols, looking for armed bands of resistance. The patrols, as they moved through the countryside, were vulnerable to further attacks. At first these came as the soldiers cooked, ate, or slept. Attacks were made on stragglers, as well, and these were most often performed by Rama with his bow. In the end, the cavalries of the petty kingdoms were very exposed, very vulnerable, and not at all effective. As they lost riders, more had to be assigned to duty.

The parties that passed into villages to conscript boys were especially vulnerable. The sizes of conscription parties had to be increased to provide greater security. It was not enough, however, as Rama was well aware of the desire of the boys to get away from the armies. Repeatedly, he released them and challenged the pursuers with his bow and arrows. Pursuers did not need to be blocked long for young men on the run to escape.

Amidst all the confusion, the kingdoms found they had to devote increasing numbers of soldiers to internal security. Increasing numbers of soldiers ran off, and the runaways were supported by ordinary country folk. Recruitments were getting ineffective. Passive resistance from the population was growing and becoming active.

In time, it actually became necessary for the petty kingdoms to start communicating regularly. They began sharing information and strategic understanding. They understood that only a small group of kingdoms, geographically bunched together, were being attacked, and this led all of them to be vulnerable, as a group, to attack from those whose strengths were not diminished. They had to be able to act together, or at least for mutual purpose, to counter the attacks Rama was bringing against them.

They did not know until later that those other kingdoms, which Rama had not attacked, were having troubles of their own. While the kingdoms had been largely out of communication with each other, the ordinary folk in them had not. When a border runs along a river, the farmers who work on its opposite banks do not simply stop talking because the kings have. The resistance in one kingdom informed similar resistance beyond its borders.

As we can see, the strength of an army can be brought to nothing by compromising only a fraction of it. And so the wars began to subside. Rama was winning his single-handed war against all the kingdoms, and part of the reason for that was because he was not fighting alone.

Anyone with sense could see that people who did not take sides were actually choosing to be victims. So the common folk acted pretty much in common, and in favor of a quiet life in which they could earn an honest day’s wages for an honest day’s work.

Perhaps Rama could have won his war, except for one thing. Just like all of us, whether we be great gods, like Rama, or little gods, like most people, Rama was human. And like all human beings, he was vulnerable to something that would bring about his death. In his case, it was Destiny. Fate had decreed the extent of Rama’s successes, and he was not allowed to surpass that limit.

One day, as he walked alone, he came across a young bull, contentedly grazing on soft grass. Rama walked past carefully, but as he did, the bull suddenly turned violent. Perhaps he was bitten by an insect. The bull gored Rama with no warning at all. Rama had a deep wound in his abdomen. Clutching it, he crawled into a cavity under a fallen log, and there he died.

❦ ❦ ❦

“Why did Fate decide he had to die? It seems like he could have been so successful, if he had just been allowed to carry on,” Dora asked.

“There was more to this story than anyone knew at the time,” Tom suggested. “Maybe more lessons needed to be learned, both by Vishnu and by the people of the little kingdoms.”

“But Vishnu was a god,” Justus protested. “What lessons did he need to learn?”

August replied to this. “Remember, Hindu scripture is full of examples of gods failing. They could be tricked, outsmarted, or even defeated in battle. They are not omnipotent, or omniscient, or infinite. If a Mahamaharathi can defeat 207,360,000 ordinary soldiers, can he defeat 207,360,001?”

❦ ❦ ❦

6. Rama, the Prince

King Dasharatha grieves, Hindu bazaar art, before 1930

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Chapter 6

Rama, the Prince

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After Parashurama died, next came Rama, the prince. In this lifetime, Vishnu tried again to quell the wars, which were still ongoing, through a more carefully planned set of actions. He realized he could not end the wars by himself. He decided to do it by using the resources of a kingdom.

He was born the son of Dasharatha, the King of Ayodhya, a country in the North of India. Ayodhya was peripheral to the wars of the petty kingdoms and was much more powerful than any of them. The plan was that Rama would inherit the kingdom. Then he would be able to conquer the warring kingdoms and end the wars by uniting them.

People are not necessarily conscious of the fact that there was a plan, and many act their parts without remembering that they had agreed to perform them. Dasharatha had three wives. For a long time they had no children, and then they had four sons at almost the same time. This was not an accident. It was all part of a plan on the part of the gods, to end cycle of war and poverty that had been going on.

The oldest of the four prices, Bharata was the very incarnation of the god of virtuous idealism. As such, he was pretty much beyond corruption. His mother, however, was not. She was Kakeyi, who had been raised as a princess of a neighboring kingdom.

At one time, Kakeyi had charmed Dasharatha into granting her two boons. It is said that she did this when she saved his life, when he had been wounded in a battle. For each boon, Dasharatha promised would be given whatever she wished for, if it was within his power to grant it. She deferred making her choices until the time was right.

When Rama was sixteen years old, he traveled to the kingdom of Mithila. Its king was a man named Janaka. He had an adopted daughter, a young woman of exquisite beauty, named Sita, and he had invited princes to compete to see if they could marry her. To do so, they would have to lift and bend a great bow called the Shiv Dhanush.

This bow was so stiff that it was nearly impossible to bend. One by one, princes tried to string and use the bow, but none succeeded. When Rama tried to string it, however, it broke in his hands. Because of this, he was deemed the winner of the competition.

And so, Rama and Sita were to be married. Neither knew he was an incarnation of Vishnu. And no one knew she was Lakshmi, Vishnu’s celestial consort, come to Earth to be his companion. For eons, they had been together, god and goddess, each lover and beloved of the other, often as man and wife. United once more, they wed, and they lived in the court at Ayodhya.

Their presence at the court brought it a joyous energy it had never had before. Nearly everyone in the place understood that something very special was happening, though no one really knew what it was. There was more music, more dancing, and more poetry and storytelling. Food tasted better. The decorations of the court were more brilliant, and artists took more delight in expressing their visions of life.

The birds sang more beautifully. The sunshine was more pleasantly brilliant. The rain made music as it fell. Rest was more restful. Work was more rewarding. All things were alive with a wondrous energy that was difficult to describe, nearly all the people, not just in the court but throughout the kingdom, understood that they lived in a time of divine blessing.

“Why was that?” the people might have asked. They did not know, and though there may have been a few who suspected, they never seemed to say it out loud.

The wondrous thing that brought this about was that the Lord Vishnu and the Lady Lakshmi were united, living together in a harmony so profound that all things in nature rejoiced in their being.

Rama’s brothers also married. Bharata, his older half-brother, married Mandavi, a cousin of Sita. Shatrughna, Rama’s younger half brother, married Shrutakirti, another cousin of Sita. And Lakshmana, Shatrughna’s twin, married Urmila, Sita’s step-sister.

The brothers were devoted to each other, and each was devoted to his wife with feeling that was returned in each case. And for years, they were the joy of King Dasharatha.

With time, of course, Dasharatha grew old. As he did, he decided the time had come for him to choose which of his sons would become King of Ayodhya after him. He favored Rama above the others, but he did not decide to make Rama king without consultation. He asked his other sons, who all said they would gladly support Rama, and he asked the assembled court, who all concurred. And so it looked quite set that Rama would be crowned King of Ayodhya. At that time, Rama was twenty-eight years old.

Of course, something quite unexpected happened. Kakeyi, the mother of Bharata, decided it was time for her to take the boons Dasharatha had promised her. She was influenced in this by a servant woman called Manthara, who convinced her that Bharata should be king instead of Rama. And so she made two demands.

First, she required that her own son, Bharata, would be crowned king in place of Rama. Dasharatha said he could not grant this, because he had already sworn that Rama would inherit the kingdom. That being the case, Kakeyi chose to have her own son become king and remain king for fourteen years, after which Rama could come to his inheritance.

Second, she demanded that Rama be exiled for that whole time.

Shocked over these demands, Dasharatha nevertheless considered them carefully. He had won the consent of the court for Rama to be king, and everyone expected that he would be crowned. On the other hand Dasharatha had the right to choose whichever of his sons he might choose to be king, regardless of the expectations of the court. Furthermore, though the time of fourteen years was long, there was still the prospect of Rama becoming king, and there was no reason why anyone would object to Bharata, aside from the irregularity of the sudden change in succession.

Dasharatha was in great sorrow over these demands. In large measure, this was because he would be separated from Rama. But because he felt bound by honor to make good on his promises, he gave Kakeyi what she had required of him. And so Rama went to a hermitage in the forest, and Bharata was crowned to be king for that same time.

Since that time, generations of people of India have spoken of the greedy demands of Kakeyi. She was a woman who wanted her son to have power, and who believed that in fourteen years he would be able to establish permanent control of the government. But clearly, she did not understand him or the state of the world. He was devoted to Rama and to duty.

And since that time, much has been made of the actions of Manthara, and generations of people have speculated about her evil nature. And so, she is not remembered for her good qualities. Instead, she is remembered as an ugly woman with a hunched back, who manipulated Kakeyi for her own benefit. Over the centuries since she lived, she has been roundly cursed by many who remembered her actions.

There was more going on than just self-centered greed, however. At some level, whether it was conscious or not, Kakeyi was acting in accord with a plan by the gods to prepare Rama for his task in life. Rama still needed to have an education that he could not get in Ayodhya as a prince or a king. Both Rama and his half-brother, Lakshmana, needed to be taught some very special skills by one specific sage, Vishvamitra, who lived in a forest hermitage. And so neither Kakeyi nor Manthara is judged here. We do not know their minds.

❦ ❦ ❦

“What do you mean, that you don’t know their minds?” Justus demanded. “If you are going to make this story up, you might as well be able to say what these two women were thinking.”

“But he’s not making this up,” Dora Snyder said.

“And besides,” Grace MacDougal added, “they might really not even have known themselves.” Grace had been out with her dog, and sat on the edge of the porch to listen to the story.

“What do you know about this?” Justice asked Dora.

“Oh, everyone knows this story,” she replied. “Go on,” she said to August, “Tell us about the hermitage. I love the part about dancing at the hermitage.”

“Wait a minute! Where did you hear about all this? Did Gus tell you this before?”

“Oh, no. I think my mother must have told me. I’ve known this story since I was a little girl. Go on, Gus.”

❦ ❦ ❦

Rama and Sita were joined by Lakshmana and Urmila in their exile. They went to a series of hermitages in the forests of India. Because they were members of the royalty, they had a small retinue with them, and these included musicians, jugglers, storytellers, and various people skilled at arms to protect them.

And so they danced the dances of youth and joy in the forests. Their musicians playing into the night were joined by birds and beasts, singing and calling. Chirping insects kept rhythm. And the young princes and princesses, gods and goddesses, stomped their feet, clapped their hands and sang their songs of love and merriment on the forest floor.

Theirs was a joy so profound that it seemed nothing could end it; it had to live on. Indeed, the echoes of their laughter and singing have never ceased in the forests of India, because the Earth and the stones and the rivers have kept them alive.

Those who travel there today, to visit those same place where Rama and Sita lived, can feel the joy of their love, millennia later. Be they ever so changed, those who can feel joy at all can still feel it there. And those places, turned from forests to farms and from farms to cities, and those rivers, however muddy they may be, still convey their blessings to all who are open to have them.

In Ayodhya, however, things were no longer happy. The joyous energy that had so recently filled the city was muted, as Rama and Sita had left. Their love no longer present, the streets were just streets that benefited from their memory, just streets that people walked on, instead of dancing as they went. The walls no longer echoed with the laughter of all people. And the songs were not uplifting in the way they so recently had been.

Dasharatha died in sorrow at the loss of Rama. Bharata became king, though he was reluctant to do so. One of his first acts was to ask Rama to return.

Rama felt bound by honor to fulfill his father’s wishes. Though he might not have known it, he was also bound by a need to finish the education he was getting in the forest, learning the magical skills he would need to meet his enemies.

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“Are we still talking about the wars of the petty kingdoms that Parashurama wanted to stop?” Justus asked.

“Well, those were the wars Vishnu wanted to stop. Whether he was being trained for those wars was another matter. All he knew at the time was that he was being taught special skills. And soon he found a need for the training.”

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