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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