Bhakti Stories – Part III

HARISCHANDRA

Honesty is one of the most important virtues.  It is the basis of our relationship with God and with others.  Honesty is the guide to one’s conscience.  Honesty means not seeing things on a superficial level, but from a holistic perspective in which one is able to perceive the deeper significance of a particular situation or person.  It is seeing everything as it is, not adding or subtracting anything from the whole.  When one lies, one has to tell ten more lies to cover up.  When one is honest, however, one needs to say things only once.  Now we are going to read the story of King Harischandra who always spoke the truth.

Harischandra is said to be the twenty-eighth king of the sun dynasty and was famous for his sense of justice.  His queen was named Taramati.  For his boundless generosity and his numerous sacrifices to the deity Indra, the latter invited him to come and live with him in heaven. 

One day while the King was riding through a forest, he heard loud lamentations which seemed to be coming from a group of women.  King Harischandra saw it as his duty to protect those in trouble so he decided to investigate.  As he approached the group, he recognised a brahmin sage called Vishvamitra.  The sage was so provoked by this intrusion into his territory that he insisted the King make amends and as part of this, began to test Harischandra in a variety of ways. 

Harischandra, who regarded it as his duty to honour all brahmin sages and sacrifice to them all he owned, relinquished unquestioningly whatever Vishvamitra asked for.  In this way Vishvamitra took all the King’s possessions: his palace, his treasures and his rights to the kingdom.  He also demanded that the King pay an additional large sum of money as compensation.  To do this, Harischandra, as well as his wife and child, had to leave the kingdom so they could earn the compensation money.

With his wife and son, Harischandra left for the pilgrimage place of Benares.  Alas!  When they arrived there they found Vishvamitra waiting for them.     At an auction the King decided to offer himself as a slave but, because he was very lean and frail and unused to hard work, nobody wanted him.  However, somebody at the auction did offer a huge sum of money for his wife.  Realising that nothing lasts for ever, the poor King felt he had no choice but to let her go.  Weeping bitterly, he sold his wife because he needed to raise money to honour his obligation to Vishvamitra.  The wife begged that their child be allowed to stay with her and her request was granted.

The King had now got together most of the money he needed but there was still a little more to be paid.  Unfortunately, nobody wanted to give him a job so, finally, Vishvamitra himself sold Harischandra to a greedy slave-dealer called Chandala, who used to beat his slaves daily.  The King was sent every night to a cemetery to steal treasures from the dead.  He thought to himself, sadly, “Have I come to such a low state that I have to steal from dead bodies?” but realised that he had virtually no choice. 

By working there, Harischandra envisaged he would be able to raise the money he needed to pay the remainder of the compensation, as was his obligation.  Before he could accumulate the required amount, however, a woman in a white veil came to cremate her child, who had died of a snakebite.  The rules stipulated that she first had to pay a cremation fee but she had no money.  During their brief encounter the two recognised each other and the King realised that the dead child was none other than his own son. 

His wife then proposed to him that they die together on their son’s funeral pyre.  The poor King agreed but first insisted on the payment for his son’s funeral, as it was his duty to collect fees for the rites performed   This he had to do because he was not his own master any more, but a slave.

At this point of utter conscientiousness and honesty Harischandra was finally rewarded for his integrity.  The gods Indra and Vishnu appeared in front of him to honour him for having borne his suffering for so long with such dignity, and praised him for being a great King who had kept his word and had never uttered even one lie in his whole life.  He had even been willing to sacrifice his own family for the sake of truth.  The deity Indra, then invited Harischandra to heaven but the King protested that he could not go without permission from his master.  Chandala, his master, then revealed himself to be the god Dharma, the god of justice, who descends in disguise to test those with a reputation for great honesty and integrity, such as King Harischandra himself. 

Vishvamitra then renounced all claims on the King’s property and family.  Thus Harischandra and his wife became king and queen of their former kingdom once more.  However, the good King protested that he still could not go to heaven if it meant leaving his faithful subjects without a ruler, just as Brahma Baba does not want to go back to heaven without his children.  This problem was solved by Indra, who brought the King’s son, Rohit, back to life so that Vishvamitra could crown the young prince as king in his father’s place.  Harischandra was now free to go to heaven.

This story teaches us that one should always adhere to promises made, should always speak the truth and always be honest.  Honesty means never to misuse anything given to us in trust.  Even at the point of death one should not utter a falsehood.  A further significance is that we have to pass all tests and obstacles that come our way with dignity and fortitude before we can go to heaven.  The story of Harischandra is an example of simple living and high moral thinking.

HATAMTAI

Once upon a time there lived a family in which there were always arguments, quarrels, confusion and tension, all because of the vice of anger.  One of the members of the family thought to himself, “How long can this go on?”  Fed up with the situation and looking for a solution, he went to Hatamtai, a guru. 

The guru gave him a bead, telling him to put it in his mouth whenever another person in the family became angry.  The guru also told him that the bead would be effective only if he kept it in his mouth for at least ten minutes.  The man took the bead and went home.

One day when one of the family members grew angry again, the man quickly put the bead in his mouth, closing it tightly.  The angry person grew increasingly frustrated because there was no response from the man.  What was the point of shouting if the other person didn’t react?  So, gradually, he gave up fighting and peace reigned in the household.

What does putting the bead in the mouth signify?  In bhakti stories a bead signifies light.  So in this story it signifies that the individual now has the awareness of being both a bead of the rosary and a point of light.  In this awareness, no matter what the other person says or what the situation may be, a soul will not react but will remain in a peaceful, soul-conscious state.

The spiritual lesson we can all learn is that our silent and peaceful attitude will help influence others to be peaceful too.  Our attitude must be pure.  With our positive attitude we can change not only the attitude of the other person but also the atmosphere around us.  The Supreme Soul has also said that when an individual is angry it is best to remain cool and shower that person with coolness.  So the bead of Hatamtai serves as a reminder of the original form of the self, a point of light, and of the soul’s original nature of peace.

HIRANYAKASHYAP AND PRAHLAD

Many believe that ascetic practices (tapas), undertaken over a period of time, will fulfil some specific worldly goal.  However, if the practice of asceticism were to be used for worldly gain and selfish purposes, then the end result would be more of a disastrous one.  If the achievements are used for a good cause, then truth will always triumph over falsehood.  To illustrate this point, the following story of Hiranyakashyap and Prahlad is told in India, specifically during the festival of Holi. 

Holi is the festival in which people sprinkle wet colours on one another, have an auspicious reunion with friends and relatives and end the festival by lighting a bonfire which represents Holika.  The story is also related to mythology and is about one of the incarnations of Vishnu as half man and half lion, Narasimha.

Once there was a demon king, Hiranyakashyap, who wanted to be free of old age, disease and the might of his enemies.  In fact, Hiranyakashyap wanted to gain immortality and rule the whole universe.  Even though he was a demon, he was also a great devotee of Shiva.  As a result of his intense austerities, tapas, Shiva agreed to grant him any boon of his wish.  Just as his brother had done before him, Hiranyakashyap asked for the boon that he might “never be killed by humans, beasts or gods, neither inside nor outside, neither by day nor by night, neither up nor down, nor by any weapon”.

Bholanath Shiva, the Lord of Innocence, and who was easily pleased, gave boons to anyone, even devils, as He saw only their love and devotion.  So Shiva gave him the boon.  Feeling protected, Hiranyakashyap immediately over-reached himself.  He forbade worship of all gods, substituting worship of himself.

Hiranyakashyap had a young son called Prahlad, who was a pious devotee of god Vishnu.  When Hiranyakashyap demanded that everyone worhip him as God, Prahlad refused, saying that there was only one God.  Hiranyakashyap tried persuasion and torture but still Prahlad refused to give up his worship of the true God.  Now furious, Hiranyakashyap ordered serpents to bite him to death but Prahlad was unaffected and the serpents fell into feverish disarray, their fangs broken and fear in their hearts.  Huge elephants were also sent to trample the boy, but all to no avail.

Since his many attempts to kill Prahlad were unsuccessful, Hiranyakashyap finally conspired with his sister, Holika.  Like her brother Hiranyakashyap, Holika was also a devotee of Shiva and had been granted the boon of not being destroyed by the fire whenever she wore a special robe.  Holika sat Prahlad on her lap.  Hiranyakashyap took a match and set fire to them.  Immediately the robe flew off Holika and wrapped itself around Prahlad.  Holika was destroyed in the fire but Prahlad remained safe.

Hiranyakashyap turned to his son and said, “All right, if your god exists, show him to me.  Is he in this pillar at the doorway?”  Prahlad answered with full faith, “Yes.”  Then, saying that he would kill the god, Hiranyakashyap kicked the pillar.  At that moment Vishnu stepped out of the pillar in the form of Narasimha, a creature who was half man and half lion.  By this time dusk had fallen which is the time that stands at the confluence of day and night.  Narasimha seized the chance, took Hiranyakashyap in his lap and tore him apart with his claws. 

In this way Hiranyakashyap met his end without the conditions of the boon granted by Shiva for eternal life being broken.  The circumstances of Hiranyakashyap’s death fell outside the conditions of God’s boon: the time was dusk – neither day nor night; the place was the doorway of the palace – neither inside nor outside the demon’s house; and the assailant was half man and half lion – neither human, beast nor god.

The significance of this story is that the demon, in the form of the vices (lust, anger, ego, attachment, greed and jealousy), is destroyed only at the auspicious Confluence Age, which is neither the Iron Age (Kaliyug) nor the Golden Age (Satyug).  As stated earlier, this story is usually told during the festival of Holi.  A thread is tied around a small piece of bread and placed on the fire and, although the bread is burnt black, the thread remains clean.  This is a memorial of how the evil of the entire old world (the bread) is destroyed, while Prahlad (the thread, the soul) is eternal.

During Holi people make bonfires and burn everything old in their household.  This symbolically implies that truth will always triumph over falsehood.  Furthermore, Narasimha represents God Shiva, who comes to remove all the sorrow and vices in the world.  Prahlad represents the child of God Shiva, the soul, who was unaffected by the wrong actions done to him by his family members and relatives when he refused to bow down to the vices.

THE STORY OF IMMORTALITY

In many stories Shiva and Shankar have been identified as the same character, but in reality they are not. This aspect is not under discussion in this book.  It is the intention here simply to narrate the stories, showing their spiritual significance.  There are many stories pertaining to Shiva and his wife, Parvati. The following one, which is quite well known, tells how Parvati falls asleep while Shiva is relating to her the story of immortality.  Spiritually, the significance of this story is that Shiva, the Supreme Soul, is telling all of us souls, who are also Parvatis, the story of how to become immortal.

One day on the top of a mountain, Shiva was telling the story of immortality to Parvati.  While Shiva was speaking, Parvati began to fall asleep.  When Shiva remarked on her eyes being closed, she explained that she was not actually asleep but had closed her eyes because she was then able to concentrate better on the story.  In reality, however, she had been asleep.  Nearby there was a pigeon also listening to the story.  While Shiva was speaking, it kept answering, “Mmm, mmm”, which gave Shiva the impression that Parvati really was listening.  (One version of the story says that it was a parrot rather than a pigeon.) 

When Shiva finished the story, he asked Parvati if she had enjoyed it and asked her to repeat the content.  Parvati apologised, saying that she could not do so. Seeing the pigeon, Shiva realised that it was the bird which had been listening and responding to the story.  The pigeon became afraid because it had pretended to be Parvati.  Seeing Shiva’s anger, it flew away in an effort to escape being punished.  Shiva wanted to shoot the pigeon with his arrow but the pigeon reduced itself in size and flew into the mouth of Vyas’s wife, who at that time was drying her hair.  (Vyas is often mentioned in the murlis as the writer of many of the scripture stories.)  The pigeon sat in her stomach for twelve years and during that whole time she was considered to be pregnant.

After twelve years the pigeon was born as a twelve-year-old boy named Sukhdev.  As soon as he was born, he started running into the jungle.  Vyas, his father, ran after him to stop him.  A few women were bathing in the Ganges and Sukhdev ran straight past them.  Vyas, however, stopped and looked at the women who became angry and said to him, “The way you’re looking at us is offensive.”  Vyas said, “You didn’t mind the boy looking at you as he ran past so why are you getting angry with me?”  The women replied that the boy was so soul-conscious that he hadn’t even noticed that they were bathing, whereas he, an old man, was so body-conscious that his way of looking at them was insulting.

The significance of this story is that the one who has heard the story of immortality goes beyond seeing the physical form, by remaining soul-conscious.  So by listening to knowledge, we enjoy the fruit of it, not only for twelve years but for 2500 years in the Golden and Silver Ages when we are constantly soul-conscious.  Being soul-conscious, the boy was able to live happily in his mother’s womb for twelve years as if he were living in a palace.  The Supreme Soul tells us we can also exist in great comfort in the mother’s womb during the Golden and Silver Ages, if at this time we have listened to and understood the story of immortality.

The second aspect of the story is that the vision of those who have heard the story of immortality is totally pure, that is, it is soul-conscious vision, whereas the vision of those who read or write the scriptures is body-conscious.  Once we listen to the story of immortality, we become immortal, which means we cannot die.  That is why Shiva could not kill the pigeon in the story of immortality.  Even if we are like the pigeon, without any sort of understanding, we can become wise like Sukhdev; totally innocent in our vision.

The Supreme Soul is saying that we can become like Sukhdev by listening to the godly versions and giving happiness to others.  The significance of this story relates to the Confluence Age, the Age in which supersensuous joy and immense happiness are attained. If we listen to the story of immortality, that is, the knowledge from God and implement it in our lives, we can gain immortality, happiness and purity.

KANS AND PUTNA

At the time of Krishna’s birth, Kans, the demon king, was king of Mathura.  Kans had dreamt that the eighth child of Devaki and her husband, Vasudeva, would kill him.  So he ordered all of the newborn babies in the kingdom to be killed.  Over the years as soon as a child was born to Devaki, Kans would take the child and kill it.  Devaki lost her first seven children in this way .

Devaki received a vision of Vishnu, who said that he would be born to her and that he would be responsible for killing Kans.  (Krishna is said to be an incarnation of Vishnu.)  In time Devaki gave birth to her eighth child at midnight.  (The celebration of Krishna’s birth is called Janmashtami, meaning eighth birth; Krishna’s birth heralds the dawn of our eight births in the Golden Age.) 

It was a dark, rainy night and Vasudeva was able to smuggle the child past the sleeping guards and take him to another kingdom.  As he carried the child, the head of a cobra rose up to protect them from the rain.  When they reached the river, Krishna’s foot touched the water and Jamuna, the river goddess, rose up and bowed as the waters parted to allow them to pass through.

Vasudeva reached the cottage of a villager, Nandalal.  His wife, Jashoda, had just given birth to a baby girl (who was, in fact, a goddess), and they exchanged babies.  Vasudeva then made his way back to Mathura, his absence undiscovered.  Kans, hearing of the birth of Devaki’s child, came to kill it.  The moment he took the baby girl in his hands to dash her to the ground, she flew into the air and, before disappearing, cried out, “The one who will kill you already lives.”

Word reached Kans that Krishna was living in the neighbouring kingdom and he made many unsuccessful attempts to kill him.  At last he devised a plan wherein Putna, one of his courtiers, dressed as a beautiful woman, visited the village where Krishna lived and asked Jashoda if she could feed the child, Krishna, with her milk, intending to poison him.  Jashoda agreed and Putna sat Krishna on her lap. However, Krishna recognised that she was a devil and, before taking her milk, he reached up and strangled her.

In later years Kans finally challenged Krishna to a battle.  Jashoda didn’t want him to accept the challenge but Nandalal knew that he was a god and sent him to the kingdom of Kans.  Kans used all his powers against Krishna, but to no avail, and so he finally met his end.

The significance of this story is that good triumphs over evil.  The evil-doers seem to get away with whatever they do for a time, but in the end those who are good and follow the righteous path triumph.  We can say that according to the law of karma, those who do evil will reap their just rewards.

KARNA

Sura, the most famed of the Yadavas, had a daughter, Kunti, who was very beautiful, and a son, Vasudeva, who was later to become the ruler of Mathura.  Kunti’s father gave Kunti to his sister’s son who had no children.  When she was a young girl, she used to worship the gods and also look after the comfort of the guests.  Once she was asked to look after a sage called Durvasa.  She greeted him with humility and devotion, and regularly brought him offerings of food.

The sage was very pleased with her and, before leaving, gave her a mantra, a secret charm.  He told her that any deity she might choose to invoke would present himself to her and would give her a son.  She chose the sun-god, Surya, the most radiant of all gods.  The sun-god responded to her invocation and came down to earth in his full brilliance.  He told her that he knew of the boon given by Durvasa and said that he would like her to bear him a son.  She hesitated, saying that she was an unmarried girl and was afraid of how her relatives might react.  However, she did conceive a child and finally gave birth to a beautiful son whom she called Karna.  In reality this child was born through the power of yoga.  The sun-god represents God Shiva who is the Sun of Knowledge.

It is said that Karna was born in full armour (kavacha) and earrings (kundala), which would protect him throughout his entire life.  The sun-god told Kunti that her son would be a great warrior and very generous and would earn everlasting fame.  The sun-god also told her that nobody would pass judgement on her.  Kunti, however, still fearing the censure of her community, wrapped the shining child in a piece of silk and placed him in a wooden box, setting him afloat on the river Jamuna.  There, the little foundling was picked up by Nandana, charioteer to King Dhritarashtra.

Kunti subsequently married Pandu, the brother of King Dhritarashtra.  Pandu became the father of the five Pandavas by his two wives, Madri and Kunti.  Each woman was then considered to be the mother of all five of them.  Since Dhritarashtra was blind, and ancient law deemed him incapable of reigning, Pandu became the king of Hastinapura.  When the Pandavas’ parents retired to the forest, King Dhritarashtra invited the Pandavas to the palace.  Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandavas, was made heir apparent, which aroused the jealousy of Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra’s eldest son and the leader of the Kauravas.  It was this jealousy which became the underlying cause of the great Mahabharat war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

Karna grew up to be a very handsome boy.  The god Indra, noticing the shining armour of the sun-child, persuaded him to hand it over to him.  In exchange, Indra gave Karna a spear that would never miss its target.  Later Duryodhana made Karna king of Anga, which is an old name for Bengal.

One day Karna appeared as a suitor at the swayamvara of Draupadi.  He won the contest with his javelin that never missed its target but Draupadi spurned him because she thought he was the son of a lowly charioteer.  Little did she know that, from all those present, only Krishna was the equal of Karna, son of the sun-god.  As a result of Draupadi’s contempt, Karna gave his allegiance to her enemy, Duryodhana, the chief of the Kauravas.

At this point Krishna went to Kunti and told her that the time had come for Karna to know who his real mother was.  Summoning up her courage, Kunti told Karna the truth and asked him for a boon.  She wanted him to protect all her five sons, irrespective of what might happen in the future.  Karna agreed to spare the lives of all her sons, except Arjuna, because he had already promised Duryodhana that he would kill Arjuna.  However, Karna reminded her that, even if Arjuna should die, she would still have five sons because he would be alive.

When the great Mahabharat war broke out, Karna was killed by Arjuna, his half-brother.  It was then revealed to Arjuna that Karna had been the eldest son of his own mother.  The Pandavas then mourned their mother’s first-born with all due respect, and showed kindness to his widows and dependants.

The spiritual lesson we learn from this story is that although Karna was a great warrior and donor, he made the mistake of being on the wrong side, the Kauravas, who stood for evil.  Thus, he was destined to fail from the beginning because Krishna himself was adviser to the Pandavas, those who followed the directions of God.

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