7. Rama and Ravana

Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana Crossing Sarayu river, Raja Ravi Varma, 1848-1906

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Chapter 7

Rama and Ravana

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Bharata did not wish to be king. He understood what his father wanted for Rama and the kingdom, and he lived according to his father’s wishes. At court, he underscored the fact that he was really just a regent, acting on behalf of Rama, by refusing to sit on the throne. He sent to Rama, asking for a pair of his sandals, which Rama gave him, and these were placed on the throne to take the place of Rama himself. And so Bharata administered his brother’s kingdom.

In time, Rama and Sita moved to a different land somewhat to the south of where they had been. This placed them in about the center of India. There they settled down for what would have been two years, waiting for the end of the exile’s time. Together with Lakshmana and Urmila, they broke the ground and planted their crops. They lived a rustic cottage they had built with their own hands.

It happened that at that time there was in that place a Rakshesha, or demon, in the form of a woman named Shurpanakha. She could be very beautiful, when she had a desire to be beautiful. Shurpanakha had the unusual ability to be able to appear in whatever form she wished, however, and she could also be very ugly, when she felt so inclined.

She had a great deal of skill, to be sure. Her abilities took intense spiritual training over a long time. She was able to change her form to please or horrify anyone she encountered, but her training had no positive value, because it had no moral foundation. It was a type of training that can only lead to a downfall.

Shurpanakha had led a troubled life. She had married a man who took her as part of an attempt to kill her brother, Ravana, the King of Lanka. When the time came for the attack, the brother killed her husband, and though Ravana had acted in self defense in this case, Shurpanakha broke off most relations with him. Having to leave her home, which had depended on him, she traveled through southern India and Ceylon, staying in different places according to the time of year.

During the course of her travels, she came across Rama. She was so struck by his good looks that she could not stop thinking about him. She wanted to possess him, with a feeling that to her way of thinking was love. Adorning herself in the finest gowns and jewelry, she made herself into a woman of astonishing beauty, and in that form she approached him.

Though she had believed that she could seduce any man, Rama would not have her. She asked boldly why not, and he replied that he was married, was in love with his wife, and would have no other. When Shurpanakha tried to press further on the matter, she found that he was quite adamant. He was loyal to Sita, and he would remain so.

Perhaps acting out of frustration, Shurpanakha next tried to seduce Lakshmana. In this, she was no more successful than she had been in trying to win Rama for herself.

Shurpanakha had gone through intense spiritual training, but she did not understand of the nature of real love at all. Not only had she never experienced it herself, she had never even really witnessed it. The closest she could get to it was a base sort of animal desire, untutored, undeveloped, and even unexamined. The deep love that ordinary people had for one another, the devotion that they had to their families, and the sense of belonging that these feelings bring were all unavailable to her. Somewhat cynically, she thought of the ideas people have about love as the fraudulent inventions of impostors.

Feeling scorned, she sought revenge. Shurpanakha decided she would murder Sita.

Her plan was foiled by Lakshmana, who was able to see easily what Shurpanakha was up to. He stopped her.

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“Stopped her?” Justus exclaimed, “He cut off her nose and her ear!”

“I don’t believe it.” It was Gloria Evans speaking. “I think she lied to make her brothers angry. Besides, what good would it do to cut off her nose. She could take any form she chose. She could appear with or without a nose as she chose, and cutting it off would not have changed her.”

“That is not what the scriptures say,” Justus said a bit assertively.

“What they say is that she could change her form to look as she wished. And if that is true, she could appear with or without a nose. Her brothers were taken in simply because they were prone to anger and believed her lies. She told them Lakshmana cut her nose off, and they did not think about whether that was true. And so they acted like fools because she had made them into fools.”

“Nonsense!”

Everyone sat in silence for a moment. A far-off cloud glowed briefly as lightning flashed within it. Overhead, the sky was still clear. A meteor made a quick streak and disappeared.

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Shurpanakha appealed to her brother Khara, who sent seven assassins to kill Rama and Lakshmana. They were all Rakshasas, the same type of demon that he, Shurpanakha, and their brothers were. These were quickly killed by Lakshmana, so Khara went himself to attack Lakshmana. In the end, Khara was defeated and killed in this attack.

Another brother, Dushan, similarly attacked Rama over the insult Shurpanakha claimed he had given her. That brother fared no better, and, like Khara, was defeated and died.

Shurpanakha next appealed to Ravana, the King of Lanka, the brother who had killed her husband. Ravana was willing to fight with Rama, but Shurpanakha had a better idea. Sita, she told him, was a enchantingly lovely woman, and Ravana should carry her away to force her to be one of his wives.

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Owen Evans, who was sitting on the porch next to Gloria, said, “Well, Ravana was not a nice man, and Shurpanakha knew how to move him to action.”

The little gathering was joined by Evan Owens. The fact that Owen Evans and Evan Owens lived in the same tiny city was a source of occasional mirth. “What are the chances?” People would ask. A clue to the answer could be seen in the fact that the local chapel was dedicated to Saint David, the patron saint of Wales. Evan sat and listened.

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Ravana went to the little farmstead where Rama, his brother, and their wives lived in a cottage and grew their food. He found that Sita was every bit as beautiful as Shurpanakha had said. He was suddenly overcome with lust. He felt an overwhelming need to possess her, and he was filled with compulsive desire to punish her husband by doing so.

To achieve his ends, he enlisted the aid of Maricha, another demon. Maricha loved nothing more than to terrorize the royal and noble human families. He had run afoul of Rama twice previously, however, and did badly both times. He tried to persuade Ravana not to run such a risk. He told Ravana that nothing good would come of the project, and that those undertaking it would almost certainly die. He said he would not take part in it.

Nevertheless, Ravana was not to be put off. His blood hot with anger and desire, he threatened to kill Maricha if he did not help with the task. And so, knowing Ravana could do this, Maricha complied. He expected to die, but he may have reflected that dying at the hand of Rama would be a much more merciful end than being killed by Ravana.

Like Shurpanakha, Maricha could take whatever form he chose. He made himself appear as a glistening gold-colored stag, and he walked near to Sita. When she saw him, she called Rama and Lakshmana to capture him, so she could have him as a pet. Lakshmana went after the stag, leaving Rama with Sita.

Not much time passed before Rama and Sita heard what sounded like Lakshmana calling for assistance. But it was not Lakshmana. It was Maricha. And when Rama was only gone an instant, Ravana, disguised as a beggar-monk, approached Sita. As he came close, he suddenly snatched her, with one hand covering her mouth so she could not call. And he took her away.

Sometimes, when things go terribly wrong in the affairs of human beings, nature itself revolts. And so it was when Ravana kidnapped Sita. Horrified by his actions, much of nature stood against Ravana. Streams swelled unnaturally, rain poured down unexpectedly, and the earth shook.

The birds and beasts, stood in the way of their progress also. In one case, a vulture named Jatayu attacked, only to have his wings cut off by Ravana’s sword. His wounds were mortal, and he fell to the Earth.

Rama and Lakshmana returned to their cottage and found that Sita was missing. As students of nature, they were easily able to see Sita’s tracks on the ground, and they could see that a man had carried her off. They realized in an instant that Sita had been kidnapped, and they went after her frantically.

Not very far off, they found Jatayu dying. Jatayu was able to tell them that a demon had taken Sita and had headed south with her. And with that, Jatayu died.

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“I love these fanciful Hindu stories,” Justus said. “A talking vulture! The gods need to know which way to go, and they are given guidance by a talking vulture!”

“Don’t forget, Hanuman, the monkey,” Gloria reminded him. “He did really important service, carrying messages.”

“There must be a meteor shower tonight,” Gus said absently, as he looked up at the sky. “That is the third I have seen this evening.”

“Well, you won’t be able to watch them much longer. It looks like a storm is coming,” Evan told him. The distant clouds continued to glow from time to time.

Gus looked off toward the west. “Somehow, I don’t think that storm will hit us,” he said. “I think it will pass to the north.” And then he continued, “Hanuman – yes, we will get to him soon. In fact, we get to him next.”

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While nature did not give much aid to Ravana, it aided Rama and Lakshmana. Ravana, who was a king in Ceylon, had an army at his disposal. Rama, however, had armies from nature.

Early on in his search, Rama became aware of the fact that someone was spreading a story that Sita had run off with Ravana willingly. This was, of course, a lie intended to discourage him and turn his followers against her. He came across Hanuman, a monkey, who was willing to enter Ravana’s compound and discover whatever he could about Sita.

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“Well, Hanuman was a monkey,” Justus said. “Who could you trust more to find the truth?”

“I think he was an avatar of Shiva,” Gloria said.

“And the fact that he was a monkey made it really easy for him to get to Sita without being noticed,” Dora Snyder added.

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Hanuman found Sita and asked her about her treatment by Ravana. She told him that she wanted nothing more than to be able to get back to Rama. She also told him that Ravana, while he had kidnapped her and held her prisoner, had otherwise not harmed her.

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“If Ravana was so evil, why didn’t he just do despoil her has he wished? I think you have him wrong. He was not as bad as you think,” Justus said.

“It was not good intentions that saved Sita from being attacked physically by that rascal,” Dora replied. There was a note of vehemence in her voice as she continued. “He was hoping to win her affection for himself, so he could triumph all the more over Rama. He was just evil.”

“How could you possibly know that?” Justus demanded.

“He told Queen Mandodari. And she didn’t like it one bit! You can bet your last dime on that!” Dora sounded angry.

Those looking at Justus could see his head shake in surprise, even in the dark.

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Knowing that Sita wanted him to rescue her, Rama put together armies of human beings, birds, monkeys, bears, and other natural and supernatural creatures. Together, they invaded Ceylon, destroyed Ravana’s army, killed Ravana, and rescued Sita.

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“Wait a minute!” Justus exclaimed. “Is that all you have to say about the war? You are dismissing great struggles of both Rama and Ravana as though they were worthless! There were brave and courageous deeds to be retold! What way to tell a story is that?”

“I am not telling this story to extol the fighting abilities of a demon,” Gus replied.

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8. Rama the King

File:Sita Mughal ca1600.jpg
Sita in the fire ordeal
Artist unknown, ca 1600

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Chapter 8

Rama the King

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“Well, Rama had an unfair advantage,” Justus Fowler said. “So there is no special honor in his actions or reason to extol his successes.”

“How so?” Gus Altmann asked.

“He was a god. Presumably he could just ‘snap his fingers,’ or ‘wave his hand,’ say some magic incantation, and get what he wanted.”

“Actually, Just, that is part of the difference between a god and a demon. When he is acting for himself, a god incarnate as a human being normally acts as a human being. He relies on the skill he has developed, the knowledge he has learned, and his own hard-won wisdom. He can fail, as I said earlier, just as any human can. A demon, by contrast, does whatever it takes to achieve his ends.”

“So why did Rama win?”

“Because Ravana was in the wrong.”

“I don’t understand that at all.”

“Rama and Ravana were both highly skilled in all sorts of arts, physical and arcane. When Ravana tried using magic, he was properly countered by magic. The two were pretty evenly matched in many ways, except that Ravana was in the wrong. When all else is equal, what is wrong fails. It does this because it is wrong.”

“So the right always wins,” Justus said sarcastically.

“All else being equal, which it often is not.”

“And Rama won because he was right.”

“Yes, but winning did not end the troubles Ravana caused him. The evil results of Sita’s kidnapping unfolded for years. In fact, some still remain, unresolved, today.”

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Rama rescued Sita with the help of multitudes. And they returned to Ayodhya. They were welcomed by Bharata, Rama’s brother, who had ruled for fourteen years as his regent.

Rama and Sita were crowned king and queen. They sat enthroned, and all things in the country rejoiced, just as they once had, when the couple had lived there in earlier times. Once again, Ayodhya felt like a magical kingdom.

Despite the prosperity and happiness of nearly all of the people, there were those who wished to stir trouble. They whispered and spoke, sowing discontent. They fomented against Sita, pretending to be righteous and questioning her innocence. They professed that they did not believe she could have been faithful to Rama, while she lived for a year in the household of Ravana.

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“They wanted to avenge the death of Ravana,” Dora said. “They were demons, too.”

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Very quickly, the people of the land began to act discontented. Hearing of this, Rama decided to go out among them himself. He took on the appearance of a worker, the sort of man who would go from place to place looking for whatever employment he could find.

As he walked through the streets, he could hear whisperings. They spoke of the faithlessness of Sita. They seemed to come not just from the windows of buildings or people passing by, but from the breezes and the leaves they rustled. Their sound seemed to come from a brook and from the grain in the fields. It was as though all nature was trying to express one truthless idea, and the one idea was a lie about the woman he loved.

He called Rudra, a god of wind and storm, to find what was behind the lies. That god told him, indeed, it was demons. They kept themselves invisible, and their voices expressed in words that sounded as the sounds of nature. They imitated nature to spread deception.

Rudra told Rama to go to the river Sarayu, which ran through the city, to learn the truth. There, Rama heard a laundry man rejecting the entreaties of his weeping wife. “King Rama may not have the courage to reject a cheating woman, but I will have nothing to do with you!” The woman protested her innocence, but in a day ruled by division and hate, she was cast off.

So it is, Rudra said, everywhere the wind blows. And so, he said, it shall be, until the voices are stopped and the minds of the people were put to rest.

Rama called Bharata, the brother who had been his faithful regent, for advice. Bharata said he had never seen such discontent in Ayodhya, and he did not know how to counter it. He suggested that if perhaps Sita could convince the people of her innocence, the rumors could be silenced.

Rama called Lakshmana, his brother who had lived so long with him and Sita, for advice. Lakshmana said that Sita was both strong and wise. She was the object of the slander, and she should be consulted. She would know what she could do.

When Rama told Sita about the problem, her reaction was decisive. Outraged at the falsehood and the cruel cowardice of the attack, she told Rama at once that she would undergo the fire ordeal.

Rama was horrified. The fire ordeal, Agni Pariksha, came in different forms. One had a person mount a funeral pyre while mantras asked Agni, the god of fire, to protect the innocent. The fire was lit, and if the person survived, innocence was considered proven.

Sita chose a form of the fire ordeal in which a ring of fire like the walls of a tunnel was formed around a path big enough for a person to walk through. In this way, she would prove her innocence. Rama was not satisfied, but very reluctantly agreed to allow this because Sita was absolutely, indignantly adamant.

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“I thought Rama insisted on the ordeal,” Justus said.

Grace MacDougal answered him. “Rama was really upset about the whole idea,” she said. “He believed that by allowing the practice, he would be giving it a sort of sanction in the eyes of the people. He knew that Sita would be able to go through it without harm, because he knew her strength and innocence. But he knew that other people would die in such an ordeal if it were used much.”

“The truth is, he trusted Sita.” August was speaking. “He knew her innocence, as Grace said, and he knew her wisdom. He allowed the ordeal to proceed, because he trusted her judgment. But he was not happy about it.”

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The fire tunnel was set up. The smoky fire was lighted, before a large crowd of people. Prayers were said, and all looked at its exit.

Sita’s emergence from the fire had a magical effect on the people. And even those who had been most disparaging of her broke into cheers and applause when she appeared. She was wearing a jeweled blue gown trimmed with gold, and she stepped out of the fire unhurt, unsoiled, and immaculate. She was stunningly beautiful, and all rejoiced. Peace and order returned to Ayodhya.

But peace and order did not last. The voices were stopped for a while, but it was only for a few short months. And this put Rama into a dilemma.

When he was married, Rama had promised Sita that he would be the best husband he could be, and that was a promise he meant to keep. But he had also promised the people of Ayodhya, when he was crowned, that he would be the best king he could be. Knowing that the people were likely to go into rebellion if he kept Sita, he had to act. Weighing his options, he decided to send Sita away, back to the ashrams where they lived in the time of their exile.

Sita was not happy about this. It was not that she minded going to the ashrams, forgoing the pleasures of royal life in a cultured city. She did not want be separated from Rama again, and the fact that the separation was of his doing made her feel abandoned. Nevertheless, she went to the forest to live.

Immediately, the demons felt that they had won. There was no need to keep working on this particular evil, and so most of them went away. The voices of dissent fell silent. The people were no longer dissatisfied. The kingdom returned to peace. But there was no peace for Rama.

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“No peace?” It was Annie Altmann, who had come out to find out what Gus was doing. “That’s putting it a little mildly. He cracked his gourd!”

“Hi Annie. Get a beer and join us. I’m telling Justus here the story of Rama.”

“Ah! I was wondering when you would get around to that. All these years!”

Annie was the daughter of a Scottish Presbyterian minister who she had not seen since she was very small. He had gone on a missionary trip when she was five years old, and died within months. His absence was contrasted by the care of her Pawnee mother, who raised her. She spoke as she thought. She also never got over feeling abandoned by her father.

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Rama was faced with the dilemma of whether to be true to his wedding vows or his royal vows. In his view, he could not do both.

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“He was a god, but he could not make up his mind.” Justus was again being sarcastic.

“He could not see the right and wrong of the situation, Just. And he could not make sense of its complexities. It was monumentally important to him, and he failed to find a solution. It is possible that no solution existed.”

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It was clear to Rama that the people would not allow Sita to return. If she came back, so would the voices against her. Eventually, that would have led to rebellion. People would die, the peace would be destroyed, and only the demons would think themselves happy.

The people pressed Rama to take another wife, but he could not do that. He had promised Sita that she would be the only woman in his life, and he was true to his word. It was not just that he had made a promise. He really loved only her. When the people pointed out that he needed a queen consort for an important religious ceremony, he had a statue made of Sita, covered with gold leaf, and had that image sit in for Sita’s part.

He was the avatar of the great god Vishnu, the god for whom, some people said, this world was made. But he had taken on being human, and in that capacity, he fell prey to a very human problem. In the end, it was clear to everyone that he was gradually losing his mind.

He had been alone for sixteen years. During those years, his advisers tried one thing after another to raise his spirits. Their last attempt came when they decided some exercise would do him good, and they took him hunting. In the woods, not far from the ashram Sita had been living in, Rama found a boy who looked very like her.

Rama wanted to find out who the boy was, and so they talked. But before he could learn anything, another boy joined them. That boy looked exactly like Rama did when he was young. The first boy said the second was his twin brother.

Rama asked who their mother was. When the boys said, “She is called Sita,” he felt faint.

At just that moment, Sita herself appeared. When she saw Rama, she started to weep. “Take me back with you!” she pleaded. When Rama said he could not, Sita, overwhelmed by grief, fell to the earth and died.

An extremely sad Rama took his sons back to Ayodhya. He made arrangements for succession, passing the government to the next king. And having done that, a job taking about two weeks, he died also. He felt, as he died, a sense that he had been utterly defeated.

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“So he failed,” Justus said.

“Certainly, he failed to do what he had come to do, which was to stop a plague of little wars that had been going on for centuries.”

“Even though he was a god – he failed despite the fact that he was a god.”

“He was human. He felt as a human and thought as a human. He had to deal with the human condition, and so he had to be subject to human failures.”

“Perhaps,” Annie said as she sat down on the porch, “You should tell Justus what the difference is between gods and demons.”

“Yes. A god tries to act for the good of all. Sometimes he fails. A demon, by contrast, acts for his own good, which means that he always fails in the end, because he has to live with the results of his own misdeeds.”

Justus asked, “And Rama failed because he was unable to deal with the voices of invisible demons who spread lies?”

“No, Rama failed because by sending Sita away, he was not the best husband he could be, and by allowing himself to be overcome by grief, he was not being the best king he could be.”

“So what should he have done?”

“With Rama in the misery he was in, Bharata would have been a much better king. Perhaps he should have abdicated and gone to live with Sita in the ashram.”

August went on, “No hero can exist without the possibility of failure. And so all heroes fail, sooner or later, because they can. For Rama, some failure was part of the job. The truth is, fate had placed him in a situation where success at all things was not even possible.”

Justus looked at August and asked, “So what good is there in being a god?”

“Patience,” Annie said. “I think we will get to that.”

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9. Little Krishna

The Milkmaid, Raja Ravi Varma

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Chapter 9

Little Krishna

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“And of course, that brings us to the story of Krishna,” said August Altmann.

“No doubt a very different one than most Hindus believe,” Justus Fowler suggested.

“Well, probably. But not in ways that are important for most people. It may not be what is in the Mahabharata, but it is the story I have to tell. And remember, even Hindu scriptures vary on the details. But the details of the story are not the point, it is the underlying message.”

“So tell me, was Krishna really the child of a king and queen? That is what the story says. But I have always suspected that the royalty made that the story up after he became important.”

Annie Altmann spoke up in a tone that seemed at once reflective and determined. “He was an orphan whose mother gave him away as she died by the roadside.” She paused. And then she said. “His father had been killed in the wars. His mother was from a wealthy family, but had become separated from them. Perhaps she was royal, but she was not the queen.

“He was so beautiful.” She paused, and then went on. “He was so small, just able to stand and take his first steps. And as she lay by the side of the road, knowing that she would soon die, she tried to give her little son to anyone who would take him, so he could be cared for and live.

“Again and again, she called to people who were passing by, asking them to take her little boy. But they just kept on walking. She wept. She was desperate. He was the joy of her life, more precious than any jewel, and no one wanted him. No one would tend him, and he would die alone of thirst and hunger. Abandoned.

“Just as she had nearly lost all her strength, two people, a man and a woman, bent over her and asked who she was. When she asked them to raise her son, they took him, and they took her with him, so before she died, she could see where he would live.

“They were not wealthy. He was a huntsman and game keeper for the king. She was a cowherd, what they called a “gopi.” They looked kind and loving, and the young mother could see that he would be protected.

“She died, feeling grief that she had abandoned her son by dying. Her sorrow was so great that did not pass with death. It outlived her body and lives on in her soul to this day.” Annie was choking up a bit at this point.

“It was not until after she died that they noticed that she had the soft hands of a woman who had never worked, and they found the jewels she was wearing under her rude clothes.” Annie asked to be excused, got up, and went into the store.

Justus looked at Gus with a sense of astonishment and asked “Is that what happened?”

“Surely, it happened sometime. I don’t know whether that boy was Krisha. He might have been some other incarnation of Vishnu. He might have been someone altogether different. I just don’t know.”

The other people sitting on the porch of Altmann’s hardware store might have had their own thoughts on the subject, but no one spoke. Most of them looked off to the distant storm, pretending to wonder whether it would hit them.

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Krishna was raised by a woman named Yasoda, who tended cattle, and her husband, Nanda Baba, a huntsman and game warden for King Vasudeva. They were simple folk. Nanda Baba had been a soldier, and was actually a relative of the king. He had been injured in combat, with a cut ankle tendon, so he had difficulty walking. But he had other abilities that were useful in the field, so the king gave him a job as a game warden.

Nanda and Yasoda raised their little adopted son in surroundings that were full of love and joy. They were delighted with him. He was the child of their dreams. And like them, he was filled with love and laughter.

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“He was a scamp who stole butter and took the gopis’ clothing as they bathed so they would have to come to him naked to get them back,” Justus said.

“But they loved him all the same,” Dora replied.

Gus added to this, “He was small and full of playful tricks, but he was not malicious. It was a game, I think, to all of them. Perhaps, if he had acted that way when he was ten years older, they would have felt differently. As it was, they all loved him dearly and each treated him as though he were her own child.

“There was a saying about Krishna. ‘When he was a little child, all the gopis were his mother. When he flowed with youthful vigor, all the gopis were his lover. When he came to be quite old, all the gopis were his daughter.’ Of course, they were talking as though the gopis were all women, which nearly all were in those days.

“Justus, you already know many of the stories of Krishna. Perhaps I should just tell you the parts that you would have missed, because you could not have read about them. For example, there is a rarely told story of how Krishna got his magic flute.”

“That I want to hear.”

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There was a good reason why Nanda Baba was made a game warden instead of being given some other job when he was disabled, despite the fact that he could not walk easily. It was that he was highly skilled at calling birds and animals. These were skills he started teaching Krishna almost as soon as the boy could talk.

Of course, Krishna had very little interest in calling birds or beasts. By the time he was six, he understood that the skills he was learning could provide him with a livelihood. But at that age, he was much more interested in other things. Indeed, his place in life, he thought, was most likely to be a gopi, a cowherd, just like all the women around him. It had not occurred to him that there was a reason the gopis were almost all women.

It is an odd fact that in those days, in that place, nobody whistled music. They sang and played instruments, but it seems no one had ever heard anyone whistle tunes. Krishna, who loved music and dancing, decided that if the birds could whistle their songs, he could do the same, and so he started whistling music. After only a very little time passed, his whistling was good enough that he sounded like a flute.

The people around him were astonished when they heard him. Krishna made the effect on them all the more powerful by pretending to hold an invisible flute as he whistled. When that happened, the people came to believe that he actually had a magic instrument. They concluded that there was something very special about him. Some came to wonder whether he was a god.

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So that was the magic of the flute,” Justus said, with a tone of disgust. “It was not magic at all. It was just a fraud.”

August looked at him for a moment, and then he turned and asked, “Is Warren Andersen here?”

“Over here!” came a quick reply.

“Warren, what were you telling me the other day about magic?”

Warren Andersen was a mining engineer by profession, but his inclinations went more toward his hobby, the history of mathematics and science. He had gone to work briefly in the mines to the west of Gorse as an engineering consultant, some years before. When the train that was taking him back home stopped in Gorse for water, he stepped off to stretch his legs, and he never got back aboard. There was something about the tiny city that made him feel it should be his home. Warren replied to the question, “Magic is just science that is not yet understood.”

“It was magic,” August said, “because no one understood it. It was not a magic object. It was a magic skill. It was not something Krishna could have given to a flute player to use. But it was something Krishna could have taught other people to do. Today, the magic of Krishna’s flute is a common skill, and people do not think of it as magic. Nevertheless, many remember that Krishna’s flute was magical, what they had thought it to be originally.”

“You make it sound so trivial,” Justus told August.

“It was a creative act, an act of genius, if you like. From a local point of view, Krishna, as a young boy, invented the art of whistling. And perhaps that is magic.”

“But it sounds like you think magic is rather uninteresting.”

“In a sense, I think it is. Krishna’s flute is rather inconsequential, except that it provided a step to his being able to do some really important things, because it set him apart in a way that was necessary.

❦ ❦ ❦

When the people started to understand that Krishna could have magical abilities, some of them got very worried. The people in power, the royalty, the aristocrats, and the priests, quickly understood that there were things about Krishna that they had not seen before They saw that there might be a hero for ordinary people in the land. To them, Krishna might be a threat, who could cause the common people, on whom the powerful people depended, to rise up in revolt.

Even the ordinary folk, those of the countryside who worked to raise food, and wove cloth, and turned pots from clay, people who did manual work, were often troubled by the idea. For them the fact that they might have had a hero, possibly even a savior, was sometimes overshadowed by a feeling of risk. This came to a head when he advised them, when he was still very young, not to make a sacrifice to the god Indra for good weather.

❦ ❦ ❦

“Now you’re going to tell that ridiculous story about holding a mountain over a village.” Justus’ tone was sarcastic. He added, under his breath, “What drivel!”

“Like most people, Justus, you miss entirely the point of the story,” August replied. “Whether he literally uprooted a hill and held it over a village to protect it from a deluge is utterly irrelevant. The point is that when he advised people to look to the welfare of their children and themselves before they gave up some of their desperately needed food for a ritual sacrifice, Indra was not offended by Krishna, as people expected him to be.”

“I thought he was offended.”

“He wanted the people to eat good food and live good lives, just as the other gods did.” It was Tom Allenby speaking. “He was grateful that the people were given that message. Sacrifices did him no good. He did not need them.”

“So what was that mountain thing all about?”

“It was just part of the story, told in a way that made clear that Krishna was more than just a boy with a magic flute. The fact that Krishna could stand up to Indra and be heard, despite his being just a little boy, suggested to the people that he was at least intimate with the gods. It made many more people believe he was a god himself, possibly one who had come to save them from a cycle of misery.

“Look, you knew that story, except for what I think is its most important point, and I have told you that. Perhaps I should go on to some other part of the life of Krishna that you don’t know.”

“Tell him about the dam!” Annie exclaimed. She had returned and settled in next to August. “Everyone should know about the dam! And nobody ever does!”

“Yes!” Dora chimed in. “You tell Justus about that dam, and some of us will go gather wood for a bonfire!”

“What does a story about a dam have to do with a bonfire?” Justus asked.

“Fred Williams has that old wagon he got from Herman Bauer.” Warren suggested. “He said it was useless.”

“It is useless for any other purpose. I have taken every part off I could save.” Fred Williams said. He smiled as he added, “What could be more appropriate?”

“Okay, have a bonfire, if you wish. But please promise to clean up after it tomorrow.”

“We will make the spot immaculate,” Warren said. And then he, Fred, and about six or eight others walked off to Williams’ Livery to fetch the wagon.

August shook his head and chuckled. He looked off into the the distance and commented, “That storm is getting closer. We might get some action here after all.”

Justus replied, “If we get a good downpour, it will put that bonfire out. It seems like a wasted effort. We will all just huddle here on the store’s porch as the rain comes down, like so many bored cats.”

“Where were we?” August asked.

“You were just about to start the story of the dam,” Dora answered.

“Should I wait for them?”

“Naw. They all know about the dam already.”

❦ ❦ ❦

10. Krishna as a Young Man

File:Ravines at Etawah, Uttar Pradesh. Coloured etching by Willia Wellcome V0050407.jpg
Ravines at Etawah, Uttar Pradesh, by William Hodges, 1787.

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Chapter 10

Krishna as a Young Man

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Krishna had a brother named Balarama, and the two of them worked together so well that some people came to believe they were probably manifestations of the same soul. When they were young men, they did a lot of things to make their mother’s life easy. One of the things they decided was that their mother might like to have a lake of her own.

❦ ❦ ❦

“A lake?” Justus exclaimed.

“You are being told the story of the dam,” Dora scolded. “What else would a person build a dam for?”

“Sorry, I should not have been surprised. Please go on.”

❦ ❦ ❦

Krishna and Balarama had spent part of their childhood exploring a gully about a mile and a half from where they lived. It was not a place many people would go to. In fact, Nanda Baba had told them to stay out of it, because its sides were unstable and it was unsafe. It was narrow for the first three hundred yards, or so, and then it broadened into a little valley, which also had steep sides and was not big enough to be of much interest for grazing. The result was that the little open area at the end of the gully was rarely visited by anyone.

Near the top of the bluffs, above the gully and the little valley, were areas where animals grazed. The cowherds did not allow the animals to get very close to the bluffs, however, because they also knew that those areas were unstable. A cow’s footfall might be enough to set loose a landslide, and this could put any living thing above or near the cliff sides into mortal danger.

The brothers’ plan was simple. They would lay poles for a short distance along the top of the cliff where the gully was narrowest. At that point, the bluffs were so steep that they were nearly sheer cliffs. The poles were tied in place with ropes going to anchors set back from the cliff. They were fitted with a trip system Krishna devised so that all would be loosened at the same time.

Behind the poles, rocks of any size the young men could move were piled up. The idea was that when the rains came in earnest, they would trip the holding ropes to cause the rocks to tumble down the sides of the cliff, causing a landslide. There would be enough material moved, they reasoned, to block the stream that ran through the gully. This would dam the stream, and the dam would back up the water to form a lake.

The cowherds who saw them working did not understand exactly why they were piling rocks against the top of the cliffs, but they were quite aware of them. Since they were the only people who ventured into the area, no one else really knew anything about it.

It happened that about this time, the king and members of the nobility had come to be sufficiently alarmed about the idea that Krishna was somehow connected to the gods that they had ordered that he be stopped and brought to them. It was not that they wanted to harm him, or even to constrain him. They just wanted at least to find out what he was trying to accomplish; at best they hoped he would be willing to cooperate with them.

Word got out, however, that Krishna was a wanted man. And so he was warned not to go back home for a while, and to stay away from anyone in any official capacity.

❦ ❦ ❦

“This is getting more and more absurd, Gus. If anything like that had happened, we would see it in the literature.”

“It was really just a minor misunderstanding that only lasted for a short time. Remember, they were not plotting against him. They just wanted to have him on their side. But also, what happened was embarrassing to them, and they did not want it known, so it went unrecorded.”

❦ ❦ ❦

One day, while he was walking not far from the gully, he spotted some horsemen about a half mile off. He could see that they had turned toward him at a trot. He ran away from them, up the gully.

They gave chase, but when they got to the gully, they could not find him. In the excitement of the pursuit, they decided to send for more soldiers, not saying why they needed support. In short order, a whole company of chariots was on its way.

Meanwhile, Krishna had climbed up the cliff face on a knotted rope he and Balarama had put there so they would not have to walk the long way around. He was unseen by the soldiers, because he was fifty or sixty feet above them, sitting behind the logs he and Balarama had readied. He watched the soldiers below him for what seemed to be a couple of hours.

The rain started to come down. The stream started to flow. Chariots arrived, picking their ways slowly along the stream, which had a bed made up of a mix of fair-sized rocks and mud. Just after the last chariot passed the point where he was waiting, Krishna pulled the trip, the poles broke free, the rocks he and Balarama had piled up crashed down the cliff face, and the landslide began.

The effect of this was the creation of an instant dam, just as a heavy rain began. All the water falling in that narrow valley rushed down the stream, and the lake was formed in minutes.

There was no way for the chariots to go home.

The soldiers had no choice. The chariots could not return. The horses would have to negotiate very rough ground covered by water, so they could not carry heavy loads. They would have to be led. And so the chariots were abandoned, along with any heavy equipment on them, including shields, swords, bows, and javelins. And the men sadly returned home, without any clue to tell them what had caused the mess they were in.

Almost as though it had been arranged, the rains ended for the night, just as the soldiers exited the gully.

The next day, when they came back to find a way to retrieve their chariots, they found that the dam had been breached by the stream and had washed completely away. When they got to the chariots, however, they found there was nothing left of them but ash and coals. The gopis had piled them up and made a bonfire of them.

❦ ❦ ❦

“It sounds like the dam scheme failed,” Justus said.

“What would you expect from a couple of hydro engineers with no education?” August asked, sounding a bit amused.

Dora broke in, saying, “Look who’s here!”

The men who had left to get Herman Bauer’s wagon were just then returning with it. They were rolling it on three wheels. The fourth wheel was not attached, and a couple of men carried the corner it would have supported. They all turned the wagon over on top of the pile of wood that had already been thrown together. With the wagon upside down, the wheels reached eerily toward the sky. The men laid the fourth wheel, which they brought along, against the wagon.

“They must have had quite a party,” Justus said.

“The gopis? Yes, I suppose they did. And the only thing left was the mess of char and ash they made of the chariots and the other gear.

Lightning flashed not very far away, and they heard thunder about three seconds later. “That was only a bit more than half a mile away,” Warren Anderson told everyone.

“Yes,” August said. “Hey! Everyone! Come on over to the porch. That lightning is getting close. I wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt.”

As they started to get up on the porch, Justus said, “It hasn’t even started to rain. Why would you worry about lightning?”

Suddenly, there was flash and a loud crash with it.

“Good Lord!” someone said quietly. The lightning had hit a wagon wheel. Fred Williams had evidently forgotten that he had not removed the iron wheel rims, and they had served as a lightning rod. Small flames were rising from the old, dried wood.

“Gus, did you do that?” an astonished Justus asked.

“Not I, certainly. Weather is not my department. I don’t know much about it, so I guess you could say that was just magic to me.” He chuckled and said, “If you want to know, maybe you should ask Indra. He’s the storm god.”

“Hey, Warren,” Annie called, “what is going on with the weather?”

“I think that was just an isolated lightning bolt. Still no rain. In a few minutes, if there is nothing more going on, it might be safe to gather around the fire. Certainly, it is already lit.”

❦ ❦ ❦

As the soldiers tried to pass back down the gully, they were stopped by a powerful voice. It called, “Swear kindness to the gopis if you want to pass alive!”

“Who is that?” someone called from deep in the gully.

“Look at the pot before you!”

A large clay pot had been placed in the middle of the stream bed. They could not see any person, just the pot. After a few seconds, a stone fell from above, followed by fifty or sixty more. Together, they utterly demolished the pot.

“Swear kindness! Each of you may pass, one by one, but you must say your name and swear kindness!”

After a few seconds, a voice came up. It said, “I am Abhiraj, and I swear kindness to the gopis.” It was followed, one by one, by the names and oaths of each of those present.

The king and nobles never guessed how the gully wall collapsed. They suspected that the gopis had thrown the stones that broke the pot, but after talking the matter over, they decided that Indra had caused the storm that trapped them. And they guessed that another god, possibly Vishnu, might have been behind the landslide. They consulted the priests, who told them this was, indeed the case.

They saw that one lesson in this was that whoever was behind their problems was protecting Krishna. That being so, he had to have some mission. They decided never to talk of the issue, but to send an ambassador to him to learn what he could. They let it be known that they only wanted to hear his wisdom, and after a short time, they were able to find him and ask what he wanted.

“I want you to stop these foolish wars!” he said. “They have been going on forever, and they will continue to go on forever, unless you stop them. The young men, who should be tending herds, are put into armies that just kill each other to no avail. And so whole nations depend on the work of the women, who should be raising their children.

“Only the nobility should be allowed to fight in the wars, because they only are the ones who start them. The merchants must be protected, as must the priests, and all their families must be protected too. And the lives of those who work the Earth, those who tend herds, those who till the soil, the woodcutters, the potters, those who make bricks, and all other workers must be regarded as sacred as the Earth they tend.”

❦ ❦ ❦

Suddenly, Justus was almost stunned by a thought. “Was that how the caste system began?”

“Yes, or at least how it came to be strictly enforced.”

“It is all so simple.” He paused, and then he said with some level of awe, “It is all so sane.”

“I am glad you can appreciate it.”

“But one kingdom can’t do that by itself. It would be at such a disadvantage, surrounded by other kingdoms that could draw on the peasants for their armies.”

“Gopis talk to gopis, across borders. They know what is going on. They banded together in other lands to put pressure on their rulers. And since the pressure came from the strongest human force on Earth, those who worked the Earth, it was irresistible.”

“It was the women,” Annie added thoughtfully.

“Truth be told, the kings and nobles of all countries saw a simple, fundamental fact. They were not getting rich by killing each other. In reality, they were just barely getting by. And so they talked among themselves in ways they had not for many years.”

By this time, the bonfire was blazing, and those who had gathered the wood were celebrating around it. A fiddle played a jig. A flute arrived and joined it. Music and the light of a fire lit by Indra woke those who slept and brought them from their beds to see what was going on. They gathered around the bonfire and had a party, a joyous echo of a night when the gopis had danced, so many years before.

❦ ❦ ❦

11. Krishna’s Palace

File:Krishna with flute.jpg
Krishna plaing a flute, artist unknown, ca 1750 to 1800

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Chapter 11

Krishna’s Palace

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Of course, the kings and nobles of the countries around did not trust Krishna. They had promised to stop using peasants for their wars, but they believed neither in Krishna’s good will nor in their own promise. They thought it would be necessary to align him with them materially. They did not think they could bribe him, but they did think they could subvert him.

Because of the connection between Nanda Baba and King Vasudeva, Krishna had visited the palace a number of times as a boy. Queen Devaki, knew him well, as did a number of others. In fact, the queen claimed him as her own child, born at a time when any son of hers would have been in mortal danger.

❦ ❦ ❦

“Was he hers?” Justus asked.

August ignored him. In a moment, Annie put her hand on his.

❦ ❦ ❦

There were powerful people at court who understood that Krishna was very attracted to women, as they were to him. Based on this, they made a plan. And they decided to make a proposal to him. They thought they could use a marriage to secure an alliance with him.

They were a bit confused about how to go about doing this. At court, a negotiation of the sort they planned normally went through ambassadors. They considered using his parents as go-betweens, but they decided against it. In the end, they went to him directly, though it put them on rather uncertain ground.

“We would like you to meet Princess Madhavi,” they told him.

“Why?”

“You are not an ordinary mortal,” they said. “You should be living in a palace, married to a princess.”

“What palace?”

The emissaries were taken aback by the question. It was not what they expected. “You could live in the king’s palace, as part of the king’s family.”

“If I marry a princess, we will live in my own palace.”

They asked, “What do you mean?” They wondered whether he was demanding a palace for himself.

“My palace. The palace I live in now. That is where I will live.”

Their wonderment increasing, they asked “Where is that palace?”

He told them a precise location, a meadow on the bank of a river.

“That area is just pastures and hedges,” one of them said. “There is no palace there. Are you saying you want a palace built there?”

“No. It is there already. If you come in three days at twilight, I will show you my palace. Its magnificence is like nothing you have ever seen before. It is a place where Heaven and Earth meet. Bring your princess, so she may see the palace in all its glory. Then she can decide for herself whether it is what she wants.”

This short speech caused a great deal of speculation among the members of the nobility and the priests. It had been pretty much accepted that he had a magic flute, but here he was clearly saying that he had a magic palace. Perhaps he was implying that it was a palace for the gods.

Three days later, as the stars were filling the sky, the princess arrived at the place Krishna had designated. She had with her an entourage that included priests, her parents, other members of her family, guards, attendants, musicians, and more. She was carried in a palanquin. Curtains in its windows concealed her.

“Where is the palace?” a male voice demanded.

“You are in it. Just look about you, and you will see it,” Krishna told them. And then he went on.

What palace has a foundation stronger than the Earth beneath you?
What ceiling is more brilliantly jeweled than this vaulted, starry dome?
What tapestry is more intricate than the leaves and thorns of these hedges?
Whose sentries are more diligent than the trumpeting cranes?
Whose soldiers are more powerful than these cattle in this field?
What court has musicians finer than the larks?
What perfume is more exquisite than the flowers of this meadow?
What bed is softer than the moss?
Welcome to
a palace for a king to envy!

Some people of the entourage were angry. But while Krishna was speaking, an animal had ambled up and quietly sat down about fifteen feet from him. In the growing darkness, all anger was forgotten when the animal stood erect and they saw it was a bear.

The princess thanked him graciously and asked to be taken home.

❦ ❦ ❦

“But how old was Krishna here? I thought he had a number of wives when he was still very young. And what about Radha? Wasn’t she a lover who was married to someone else?”

August said, “In time, Krishna had a lot of wives.”

“Over sixteen thousand of them,” Gloria Evans added helpfully.

“Yes, Krishna married a lot of women, nearly all to take them out of harms way in one way or another. He also had more than one real wife, as was the case with most important men of his time. And he had a lover called Radha, who had been married to someone else. These are stories you can debate at your leisure, as people have for centuries. You might derive something from them worth having. But here, the story is about Krishna and two princesses, one who did not want him, and one other who was – well – what was she, Annie?”

“You might say she was her own person.”

❦ ❦ ❦

The kings and the nobles felt they had to try again. They decided that maybe they could tempt Krishna by showing him a number of the most beautiful princesses around. They would do this by holding a number what were called Swayamvara ceremonies. At each of these, a number of young men would be presented to a young woman, so each might be tested in ways devised to establish his worthiness, and the woman would be allowed to choose her husband. Typically, the marriage happened immediately.

The question of whether Krishna would be chosen by a princess was irrelevant at the beginning of this exercise. The issue was to get Krishna to understand that he would benefit from being married into a royal family. And so, Krishna was invited to a Swayamvara ceremony, as one of the young men offered to a princess, whose name was Bhadra.

From the moment Krishna arrived, almost everyone there felt that he was slighting them. Where all the other young men were dressed in fine clothes with jewelry, he was dressed just as he always was, ready to go out with the cattle. His clothes had been cleaned for the occasion, but they were not the clothes of the royal suitor.

The princess had devised tests for the young men. Each was asked to sing, dance, or play an instrument. Each was asked to act out a scene of a play or tell a story of special importance. And each was asked to show how he was more powerful than all other people. There were many suitors present, and all participated in each test. What follows here are just samples of the things that happened.

One man played a veena with unmatched skill.

And another danced in perfect time to music played by his own ensemble of musicians.

Another sang so sweetly that some thought the gods themselves would weep.

Krishna stood up in the center of the room. He put his hands up, the way a musician would hold a flute, and he began to whistle. And he danced to his own music. It was a simple dance of simple people, performed to the music of a magic flute.

One young man recited a poem extolling the history of his family.

Another man told a story of the lives of Shiva.

Yet another young man recited a poem about the history of the princess’ family.

Krishna stood and made a sound, cooing like a dove. A moment later, just such a bird flew in the window and landed on his shoulder, cooing in response.

One of the suitors said he was more powerful than all others. He lifted a bench above his head, while two men sat upon it. Then he put it down gently.

Another took his sword, asked those sitting on the bench to rise, and cut the bench in two with a single stroke.

Another man took a cushion from the bench, tossed it up in the air, and sliced it in two as it fell. Those who understood swords were amazed at this. None of them had ever seen anything so soft as a cushion sliced through by a sword before.

Krishna got up, broom in hand, and walked over to where the two halves of the cushion sat on the floor, in the middle of a pile of feathers. He swept the mess up, and then he disposed of both it and the ruined bench, leaving the area as clean as though nothing had happened.

Many people, even those who were aware of why he was invited, were outraged by the antics of the cowherd and surprised that the host allowed him to stay.

In time, Princess Bhadra clapped her hands for silence. “I have made my decision,” she said. She picked up the garland she would use to indicate her groom. She walked across the room, and put it on Krishna.

“Why?” Krishna asked, almost inaudibly, looking into her eyes.

“I want to live with you in that palace.” She whispered.

❦ ❦ ❦

“Did that get Krishna into good graces of the Royal families?”

“Yes and no.”

“I don’t understand this,” Justus said. “Why would Princess Bhadra choose to marry a cowherd? What appeal was there in his presentation.”

“For everyone else it was a presentation carefully designed to tempt a princess,” Annie told him. “Krishna gave an honest presentation of who he was. And as I said, she was her own person.”

❦ ❦ ❦

The members of the royal families did not trust Krishna immediately, nor did he trust them.

Krishna always stood up for the gopis and those who worked. But now, he was no longer alone in this. Bhadra was not merely a good wife, but a good ally as well. He insisted that the deal he had made for the protection of the casts be honored. And she worked with him to make sure that happened.

Naturally, the nobility was not happy with this because they believed it reduced their power. They could see that Krishna was willing to go along with them to some extent. But they found it hard to deal with a person of his character, who would put the needs of ordinary folk above the desires of those in power. They did not understand why he would do that, and so they feared him.

Interestingly, they eventually saw that Krishna had shown up precisely at the beginning of a time of plenty. They saw that the peasants were more prosperous. And when the peasants were more prosperous, they could trade for things they wanted, making the merchants more prosperous. Both of these groups gave to the priests. With everyone else in a state of prosperity, there was more income from taxation. With no need for wars, there were fewer expenses of government. And with fewer expenses and more income, the kings and nobles could live in a time of wealth beyond what anyone could remember.

❦ ❦ ❦

“So did the wars just end?” Justus asked.

“You know they didn’t,” Grace MacDougal told him.

“Yes, and I am a bit surprised you asked.” August smiled. “We have not even got to the Bhagavad Gita yet.”

“I had forgotten completely!” Justus exclaimed.

❦ ❦ ❦

The fact that there is relative peace does not mean that everyone is free of such problems as jealousy, greed, and the insane need for revenge. There are always people who want more than other people have, or who what the possessions of other people. And when greed is established in places of power, evil can thrive. And so, the nobles began to war among themselves.

It happened that since Krishna was married to a princess, he was a member of a royal family. And as such, he had a duty to fight in wars. He became a chariot driver. And for this, he was paired with Arjuna, who also was a friend.

❦ ❦ ❦

The dancers around the bonfire carried on with their revelry. Justus expressed the opinion that they would not clean up their mess in the morning. August remarked on how much fun they clearly were all having.

❦ ❦ ❦

12. Krishna and the Gita

File:Krishna Arjuna Gita.jpg

Krishna and Arjuna, Unknown artist, ca. 1830

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Chapter 12

Krishna and the Gita

❦ ❦ ❦

“The Bhagavad Gita,” Grace MacDougal said, “has an infinite number of meanings.”

“How can you say such a thing?” Justus Fowler asked with a frown.

“Well, it means something different to everybody, and all people who might read it have not yet even come into existence. They could read it any time in the future. The time in which they could read it is infinite, and so the number of them is infinite.”

August Altman broke in, seeing that this could lead to hours of pointless discussion. “The salient point may be different for each person who reads or hears it,” he said. “But it teaches certain things to all. The idea that the soul is eternal, the importance of duty, propriety, and an underlying goodness, are clearly made available to everyone. But there are certain points that one person might miss, though they be central issues to others.”

“Would you like to expand on that?”

“Well, let’s start with the text itself.”

❦ ❦ ❦

The Kurukshetra War pitted friend against friend, brother against brother, son against father. The war was based on greed, and it ended with disaster for nearly all involved. No one gained. Almost everyone who fought in it and survived was diminished. And most of the people involved in the war were killed.

Krishna was one of several people who attempted to mediate a fair solution, but he could not succeed because of the hardness of the hearts of those involved. Unable to stop the war, he tried to mediate to get a truce at least.

Arjuna was one of the princes, and it was his chariot that Krishna drove. As the chariots were drawn up on the battlefield, the two of them went out between the lines, and Arjuna looked about himself. All his brothers would fight on the same side he did. But the enemy was made up of close relatives, cousins, friends, men who been his teachers when he was a child, people he loved, people he admired and respected. He tried to prevent the bloodshed, but he could not. When Arjuna returned to his place in the battle line, he told Krishna that he wanted to drop his weapons, abandon his chariot, and leave the battlefield altogether.

Krishna told him all the reasons why he should not do that. He had to fight, and if this meant that he had to hurt, or even kill, those arrayed against him, then it did.

❦ ❦ ❦

“It is a paradox,” Justus asserted. “It is one thing about the Bhagavad Gita I have never been able to understand.”

“Arjuna had to fulfill his destiny,” Dora Snyder commented.

“That is one way of putting it,” August added.

“I still don’t understand.”

“In any life, there are likely to be times when the only possible action is one a person would naturally want to avoid. Try as they might, people caught in a situation of that type cannot find any alternative. We saw that in the story of Rama, who could not be both the good husband and the good king he wanted to be.

Arjuna’s story is another such time. “He tried over and over to avoid the bloodshed. He tried to prevent the war. He tried to end the war once it started. He tried to find a way not to inflict pain on those he loved, despite the fact that they were trying to harm, or even kill, him. Nothing he did along these lines succeeded.

“It was when he expressed a desire to run away that Krishna told him the lessons of the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna pointed out that the life of a physical body can only come to an end, because that is the nature of physical existence, but the life of the spirit goes on without end. In all things, it is necessary to find what is good and honorable, one’s duty, and perform that task.”

“If Krishna was really a man, or a god, of peace, then how could he advocate war and killing? Why didn’t he tell Arjuna to run away?” Justus asked.

“Arjuna was a hero,” Grace told him. “If he had run off, he would have been forgotten. He would have been a nobody.”

Dora Snyder added to this, “There are people who say the real reason why the Kurukshetra War was fought was just so Krishna could tell Arjuna the lessons in the Bhagavad Gita. And that was just so it could be told to other people who would come after. Krishna’s words were not advice to be violent. However hard they were, they were lessons of goodness and duty.”

August chuckled at this. “You know, this is interesting to think about. What would have happened if Krishna had told all those things to Arjuna, and then Arjuna had run away?”

“That would have made the Bhagavad Gita meaningless!” Fred Williams sounded astonished.

“Well, it might have meant that the story would have been lost for that particular time, anyway. Arjuna probably would not have told anyone about it. And Krishna would have presented what the world has come to regard a wonderful religious text to no avail. Yes, in a sense it would have been meaningless – at least to Arjuna, as he would have been.” August sounded reflective.

“That is hard to imagine,” Grace said. “It would have been lost!”

“I think, “August replied, “that it would have altered the story somewhat. Perhaps Krishna would have had to tell the story again, to some other hero, on some other battlefield. Perhaps Vishnu would have had to incarnate another time, just to fulfill the task of giving it to everyone. But it was fated to be, and so it would have been.”

“But why?” Justus asked. “What is so important about it?”

“Arjuna was presented with a job,” August answered. “It was a job he hated. It was a job he even found morally reprehensible. But no matter which way he turned, it was the job that came to him to be done.

“That is a lesson for all of us. In the end, he was moved by his duty, by something greater than duty, Dharma, if you will. He came to understand, through the words of Krishna, that there was a greater good that he had to fulfill. And he had to perform that job, even though he did not understand all of the reasons why.

“Krishna made the path clear. The issue here was not about the fate of physical bodies on Earth. It was about things that are eternal. It was not just about duty. It was about what is right. It was not just about honor. It was about love, grace, and faith. It was a lesson that is available, at least in part, to anyone who reads the Bhavagad Gita.”

“And you are leaving me with a question.” Justus asked, “What does all of this have to do with me?”

“Why are you here?” August returned to the question that started the whole story. As he did so, he looked at the bonfire and the people dancing around in its light. They had moved on to waltzes, and danced to music of an orchestra that had grown larger than just a fiddle and a flute.

“I don’t know. I needed a home, and this seemed as good as any.”

“You know, Just, I think you were running away from something.”

“And what would that have been?” Justus sounded sarcastic.

“My guess is that you were running away from a situation you found untenable.”

“Right. And what do you suppose that might have been?”

“Based on your reaction when Victor Solothurn was appointed to the Supreme Court, I could guess that it had something to do with him. Or possibly it had to do with his family. Should I get more specific?”

Justus looked at August in surprise. “No,” he said.

“I could surmise that you were not doing what was presented to you to be done,” August said. “You were running away.”

“And somehow, through some act of Destiny, you wound up here,” Annie added with a gentle smile.

“Certainly, we all might have wondered why an attorney, educated at Yale, would wind up in this tiny metropolis, with its very simple accommodations and barely functioning communication ties to the rest of the world.”

“We might have wondered,” Annie added. “But we didn’t.”

Justus did not reply to this. He just looked on, wondering what would come next.

“You asked me why I was here,” August said. “I said that I was participating in life. I could have said more, but you would not have understood without knowing the story I have told you tonight.”

Justus formed two words slowly, “What more?”

“The people living in Gorse all share some interesting things in common,” August said. “One of them is that we all came here, or in some cases were born here, to spend some time together, celebrating a memory of something that happened long ago. It is an interesting memory. And you, who came along in the middle of the celebration, happened to be part of it.”

“What memory? What part?” Justus asked as though he was afraid to hear the answer.

“Everybody in this town knows you, Justus.”

“Yes,” Dora asserted, “Every single person here knew, right from the first time you got off that train, that you were the one who kidnapped Annie!”

“Kidnapped Annie? What are you talking about?” Justus asked with a tone of astonishment.

“Ravana kidnapped Sita.”

Justus was speechless.

“Justus, you cannot escape your past. Either you deal with it, or you come to a place where it lies in wait for you to deal with it. You can run away. You can run away every time you meet it. But until you deal with it, it will always be there.

“And the more things you run from, the more often you find yourself facing them. You ran away from a simple past in Connecticut. And you ran into a much more complicated past in Nebraska.”

“Justus, you have an air of emptiness about you. You present an image of a person who feels that he has to look out for himself, to see that he gets the things he needs, because no one else will give anything to him.”

“Truth be told, Justus, you act like a person who is afraid of being consigned to oblivion because you think you have no positive value.”

“What else can I do?”

“You could act like a god,” Annie told him. “You could act for the benefit of all, and if you do that quite well, the things you need will come equally well.” She turned to August. “Could you tell him again what the difference between a god and a demon is?”

“The demon acts for himself,” he answered. “A god acts for the good of all people, and all creatures, for that matter.”

“And that does not mean that you have to be perfect,” Annie continued, “or that you must never fail. Every one of us fails. And if you decide to be a god, instead of a demon, then you could be quite a god, indeed. You have that in you. And think of it – you would not have to be afraid of having to deal with your own past any more.”

“There are also other differences between gods and demons,” August added. “A god has a feeling of fulfillment where a demon has a feeling of emptiness. This gives a god a feeling of value, where a demon has a feeling of worthlessness. It gives a god a sense of connection to all things, were a demon feels alone.”

“Do you really think I can do that?”

“If you decide to put your love for all things ahead of what you feel is a need to satisfy your own desires, you would be a god,” August said. “It is entirely your own decision.”

“Why would you ever wish to be a demon, when you can be a god?” Annie asked.

The moon appeared as the clouds passed. Bright stars shone across much of the sky. The dancers continued to waltz around the bonfire. And those who sat on the porch drank their beer, ate their toasted cheese, and chatted amiably about the fullness of Destiny and the roles of the gods in the lives of human beings. That night, the people of Gorse, Nebraska, had quite a party indeed.

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