The Quest of Ruru

Section Three — The Square



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Chapter 10 — The Wise Gnani

Thus have I heard:

ONCE again Ruru commenced his travels; and this time he was not alone, but accompanied by his friend, the ascetic.

"Where shall we go?" asked the latter. "I know this part of the country very well and can lead you to some very interesting cities where you can see marvellous buildings, bazaars, and many kinds of people."

"No, not yet," decided Ruru; "who that has tasted the delights of Heaven desires the pleasures of a town? But," he continued, "I should like to visit the sea-shore, if that is not too far, for I have never seen the ocean."

"That is quite simple," replied the ascetic, "we can reach the sea by easy stages in a few weeks. It is a good idea, for by beholding the great ocean you will obtain a still better conception of the might of Brahmā."

So on they went, the ascetic acting as a willing guide, selecting the most beautiful parts of the land through which to travel. In the morning the Spirits of Light bore up the Sun, who on his rosy couch all night had slept and turned from West to East in restless dreams. But now he opened wide his golden Eye and beamed upon the worlds around in benediction. The lovely trees, like the champac, bok, and the nagesour with its pensile flowers like earrings; the strong and giant peepul; the bramble with its matted hair, and thousands more with green tiaras, golden crowns, crimson helmets, bedecked with forest vines that creep and cling o'er all, did shake their glorious heads and basked in the aureate light of bright Sūrya.

The fair, waving pampas were covered with gleamy dew and silvery at eventide when rose the Moon, a flame of argent amethyst, and the scrannel of the tiny living things of night produced a weakly, screeching choir of elemental sounds. Then there shimmered a supernal light within the woods, as if the air were filled with essences squeezed from moonstones, and it seemed as if among the sparkling stars there sounded ringing harmonies, as if Tumburu, the Heavenly Musician and dancing-master of the Apsarases was playing on his lute.

Thus turned the wheel of Time 'twixt rosy quintessence of dawn and alchemy of magic eve.

At last they reached the mighty ocean, the home of Timin, the fabulous fish who swallowed Gila, and the laughter of the gods rang in the thunder of the waves. The hot wind descended to the sea to cool its burning breath, and an albatross, his giant wings of power spread o'er the billows, sailed stately along in majesty of airy speed. Far in the distance a sail caught a smile from the sun, and nearby there was a lashing and roaring of the boisterous waves among the rocks and adamantine cliffs. Whirling wisps of emerald foam besprayed Ruru who had descended right down to the waves and inhaled the glorious scent of salty air in deep breaths. A great breaker rose up, ringed round with caps of froth, as if the goddess of the sea had risen from the depths, attended by a thousand nymphs, shaking their white tresses with joy; and Ruru greeted them with shouts of delight.

And ever came along great rolling waves that kissed the shore, impetuous with caresses, as if the two were passionate lovers: strand the patient bride, sea vehement groom! Thus rolls the wild, profound, eternal, boundless main in majesty unchanged from age to age, as youthful as it was when first created; a mirror of the Infinite. Such were the thoughts that passed through Ruru's mind, as, with the ascetic by his side he first felt all the grandeur of the glorious deep.

Above the roaring of the billows there sounded a thin, shrill, high-pitched voice and, when they both looked round they saw the small and shrivelled form of a kindly-looking old man, dressed in the robes of a gnani, or philosopher. Scrambling over the wild rocks and heavy boulders that lay spread all o'er the shore, he came stumbling towards the two, raising an arm in greeting.

Ruru and his companion regarded him with interest and went forward to meet him on his awkward path. When they met, the gnani said: "It is true that the most sublime attribute of the great is to have mercy on the wretched; it is kind of you to come to meet a stranger on his stony way, the more so as he has lost all sense of direction and does not know where he is at all. Could you give me some information?"

"Certainly," replied the ascetic, and he told him in a few words where he was and offered to direct him to wherever he wished to go.

"I am in search," said the gnani, "of a most wonderful and holy cave which is said to be full of ancient statues of the gods; do you know where it is?"

"I do," replied the ascetic, "and, as I had the intention of going there myself to show it to my friend Ruru, we can accompany you to that holy spot which must have been cut out by a heavenly sculptor, so very beautiful it is."

"Oh, thank you," replied the gnani, "I shall be very grateful for your company."

The three climbed up the cliffs, pausing frequently to give the old philosopher a chance to recover his breath, and they reached the top at last, where the gnani laid himself down on the grass, exhausted. After several minutes he observed with a mischievous twinkle in his eye: "It is an old saying that the best way to hear is to overhear, and the best way to see is to peep; but I should like to add that the best way to climb a tall cliff is to be carried, or to have wings and fly like the Garuda bird, the vehicle of Vishnu, with its body half man, half bird; the head, wings, beak and talons of an eagle, a human body and legs, and its white face, red wings and golden body. That one would make short work of it."

Ruru and his friend smiled at the quaint but descriptive humour of the old man, and Ruru remarked: "You seem to be fond of quotations, for this is the second one in a short time, and you also seem to like the beings described in mythology."

"Well," replied the gnani, "I have spent a lifetime in the study of proverbs, which often contain the highest wisdom spoken by the mouth of the lowest people, and I certainly like mythology, which is but an echo of the true conditions of ancient times, describing in an interesting and sometimes amusing manner the weird beings which were then alive on this earth."

"But as a philosopher," said Ruru, "for such I presume you to be, judging by your robe and what you have just said, do you really believe in these things, or has your wisdom, acquired by much study, told you differently?"

"There is truth in everything," remarked the philosopher, "as well as untruth. A true philosopher should be able to distinguish the one from the other and know them for what they are."

"And what is your opinion of superstition?" asked Ruru. "I have heard," he continued, "so many superstitious sayings—on which people act—that I often wonder too, if there is any truth in them. Take, for instance, the saying that when a person goes out and meets some one with an empty pitcher, he must return home and wait a few minutes before setting out again. It is also said that shell-bracelets keep a lover true, that they avoid widowhood, and protect the lady who wears them from all harm. Then there are the stories of ascetics (and he looked teasingly at his friend, the ascetic, out of the corner of his eye when he said this) who during the course of their austerities at first eat nothing but leaves, and then feed only on smoke. To my mind such things are nothing more than the haunts of snakes and vultures, who are incarnations of wrong beliefs. There is here a false harmony of thinking; as if a painter had mixed all his colours in one heap, resulting in a leaden hue of death-like, dire complexity of the imagination." (*see publisher's note in sidebar)

The eyes of the wise gnani glinted with amusement when he replied: "You speak well for a man as young as you are; but tell me: who can hide a great conflagration by covering it with a few leaves?"

"No one," replied Ruru.

"True," said the gnani; "and no more can a grain of truth be hid by a mountain, or even by man-made philosophies! In every superstition and in every myth, in every form of austerity as practised by inspired ascetics, there is hidden something which can be discerned by the simple of mind, which the over-educated fail to see in the pride of their great intellectual achievements. Such beings as the latter are blinded by self-exaltation, conceit and vanity, while the simple man looks on with the eyes of a child and beholds all verity in his sublime innocence, although he cannot put it into high-sounding words by means of well-rounded phrases."

Ruru hung his head in shame, for he had been showing off, led on by his pride, and he had sneered at the simple and innocent beliefs of the pure in heart and mind.

A single tear fell from the eye of the ascetic, for, although he well knew that Ruru had deserved a wise rebuke, his heart was soft towards his friend and he felt a pang of sorrow when he beheld his shame.

Presently Ruru looked up, and fixing his great dark eyes upon the wise gnani, he said: "I am grateful, Sir, for the well-merited lesson you have given me; a moment's exuberation of the spirit has made me commit an error which I regret; will you forgive me?"

The old man took Ruru's hands in his own and said in a kindly voice: "Do not feel hurt by my words, my son. The heart that's touched by the steady flame of devotion cannot be extinguished by a little puff of wind when once it has been set alight by that divine Fire; and so a short moment of pride cannot destroy a generally humble disposition. That you have such humility is shown by your answer, and there is nothing to forgive when two intellectual people argue intelligently on a point of view. You were carried away by your enthusiasm, that's all."

"I thank you, Sir, for your generous leniency," said Ruru, "but, as you have made a deep study of superstitions and customs I should like to sit at your honoured feet for a while and learn something about these matters, if you will grant me that boon."

"Very well, then," replied the philosopher; "but you may sit at my feet, as it were, while we are walking to the holy cave which your friend has promised to show us; during that time I can talk to you."

"What is the most important custom, based on superstition?" asked Ruru, soon after they had commenced their journey to the cave.

"If we can place it under that heading," said the gnani after a moment of reflection, "I should call an 'Act of Truth' the most important."

"Then," said Ruru again, "I should be grateful to you if you would tell me something about it, although it is not altogether unknown to me, just as many other customs and superstitions are not outside my general knowledge; but I should value your own views and opinions."

The gnani said: "By performing an Act of Faith it is possible to produce the greatest phenomena, if we do not wish to call them miracles. The performer has a temporary power as great as the mightiest king or the most righteous Brāhman. By this Act one may produce rain, extinguish a fire, cause the ocean to roll back, counteract poisons, walk dryshod across a stream, make a river return to its source, and many other wonderful things. One may become a rich inhabitant in Alakā, the City of Kuvera, the God of Wealth. One may overcome the enemies of the Gods, which are the Asuras, Daityas and Dānavas. One may force the Servants of the Gods into one's own service, and they are the Gandharvas, Apsarases, Ganas, Kinnaras, Guhyakas and Yakshas. One may freely mix with such superhumans as the Nāgas, Siddhas and Vidyādharas. The demons hostile to man may be conquered and tamed, and they are the Bhūtas, Kumbhāndas and Kushmāndas."

"Ha!" interrupted the ascetic, "now you have the answer to your question about some of the gods at last; and you received it this time without asking for it, Ruru! In this I see a precept for patience; just as the greedy carp had to learn patience when he tried to swallow a loaf of bread whole; he had to wait until he incarnated as an elephant before he could accomplish the feat, and then he preferred a bundle of hay! Being never satisfied, the portion of the greedy is ridicule"; and having uttered this piece of wisdom the ascetic chuckled to himself, elated with his sudden flash of harmless wit.

"The Gandharvas," continued the gnani smilingly, "as the trusted servants of the Gods, have guard of the Celestial Soma, and so become divine physicians, as Soma is a panacea. They also direct the Sun's horses and act as servants to Agni, God of Fire and Light, and to Varuna, the Heavenly Judge. They dwell in the fathomless spaces of the Air, and stand erect upon the Vault of Heaven. The Apsarases—who once were water-nymphs—are now their wives or mistresses. The Gandharvas love beautiful women, and are very dangerous to them. The Apsarases often frequent trees, which resound then with the music of their lutes and cymbals. Sometimes they become the wives of the Gandharvas whom they join as singers, dancers and musicians at Indra's court. When a pious devotee has acquired so much merit by the practising of his austerities that the Gods themselves are in danger of becoming subservient to him, a beautiful Apsaras is dispatched to distract him from his devotions; as Menakā seduced Vishvāmitra and became the mother of Sakuntalā. The Apsarases are the reward for fallen heroes in Indra's Paradise. They can change their forms and are very affectionate to those humans whom they favour. They preside over the fortunes of the gaming table, and it is here that their friendship is most desirable.

"The Kinnaras sing and play before the God of Wealth and Lord of Treasures, and while they have the body of a horse, they have a human head. The Guhyakas help to guard Kuvera's treasures and they dwell in great caves. The Yakshas are possessed of magical powers, as is indicated by their name.

"The Nāgas are snake-gods who dwell in Patālā, the underworld, in a city named Bhogavatī. Sometimes they have the body of a snake, sometimes human heads, and at other times they are human down to the waist. Their enemy is Garuda, the Sun-God, from whom they fly. Siddhas are friendly ghosts to mankind, and they are of great purity.

"The Vidyādharas, according to their name, possess spells and are adepts in witchcraft. They live in great communities and have kings, officials, wives and families.

"The Rhākshasas are very malicious superhumans; they delight in disturbing sacrifices, upset holy men in their prayers and meditations, and they can animate dead bodies; their name indicates them as harmers and destroyers. They are of blue, green or yellow colour and deformed in body, which grows at once to maturity at birth. Their finger nails are poisonous, and it is most dangerous to be touched by them. They eat horses and corpses, and prowl about the burning-ghats at night. But if they favour you—then they can bestow wealth, for they are fabulously rich. Their chief is Rāvan, the great enemy of Rāma.

"The Pishāchas resemble the Rhākshasas in many ways; but they possess healing power, and if you know how to propitiate them they will cure any disease.

"The Bhūtas have no shadow; they flee from burning turmeric, and when they speak they have a nasal twang. They are the spirits of men who have met with a violent death, in consequence of which they hate all living humans.

"Such, then, are some of the beings who can be overcome by an Act of Truth. There are many other uses, such as proving the paternity of a child; to obtain drinking water when none is available by ordinary means; to cause a forest fire to turn back; to obtain safety in a fire-test; to get a ship back into harbour; to obtain a son; to free captive animals; to rescue a man from prison; to ascertain the truth; to cure leprosy; to heal wounds, and a thousand other things."

"How should an Act of Truth be performed correctly?" asked the ascetic.

"One example will suffice," replied the gnani. "There is a well-known tale in which the Lord Buddha, in a previous incarnation in which he was a woman named Rūpāvatī, came across a starving woman who was about to devour her newborn child. Immediately Rūpāvatī went up to the woman, cut off her own breasts, and gave them to the woman to eat. When her husband learnt of it he performed the following Act of Truth: 'If it be true that so wonderful and marvellous a thing has never been seen before, or heard before, then may your breasts be restored.' And immediately her breasts were restored."

Here the ascetic sneezed suddenly.
"God bless you," exclaimed the philosopher and Ruru in one breath.
"God bless you kindly," replied the ascetic.
"Here," said Ruru, "we have another custom I should like to hear about."

"That is easy enough," replied the gnani. "Sometimes the wish is for long life, at other times sneezing is regarded as a good or a bad omen. In one instance the Lord Buddha reproved one of his disciples for saying: 'Long life,' after someone sneezed. One of the Brethren then asked: 'Sir, when did people begin to answer "Long Life" by "The same to you"?' And the Master told them that this was a long time ago, and he told them a tale of one of his previous incarnations, when he was the son of a lawyer who gave in his charge a costly jewel when they were travelling. And one day when they could not find lodgings, they had a meal at a gate-keeper's house; for wayfarers who arrived late were not accepted at any lodgings. There was a vacant building outside the city, but, the gate-keeper told him, it was haunted. But the lad told his father to have no fear of ghosts, for he undertook to subdue them. So they went in and the father lay down upon a couch, and his son sat beside him, massaging his feet.

"The ghost had been permitted to haunt that place on condition that if any man entered and should sneeze, and in reply to the ghost's 'Long Life to you' should answer 'Long life to you,' or 'the same to you,' he should keep his life; but any not answering in this manner might be eaten by the ghost.

"And so he decided to make the lad's father sneeze; and by means of his magic he raised a cloud of fine dust which entered the father's nostrils, and he sneezed. But the father did not reply to the ghost's wish for a long life, and then the son, who saw the ghost, thought: 'Hah! this ghost wants an answer'; and he uttered a little verse in which he wished long life to the ghost.

"So the ghost thought: 'Ah! I must not eat the son, but I will devour the father.' But the father now understood and divined the ghost's purpose; so he spoke the second verse, confirming the 'Long Life' his son had wished the ghost.

"Then the lad spoke to the ghost and told him that undoubtedly he had in a past life committed some error which forced him to remain a ghost, but that by means of his habit of eating people he would sink lower and lower in the darkness, and be utterly lost in the end.

"So he taught the ghost the Five Precepts, and that poor ghost became his obedient servant for ever after.

"In later days it was believed that a sneeze was caused by a Bhūta entering or leaving the nose.

"Sneezing once is a good sign; twice it is a bad sign; but if one sneezes many times there is no meaning to it.

"A true Hindu never fails to exclaim: 'Rāma; Rāma!' when one sneezes."

"Yes," said Ruru, "that is true; but I never knew why one should say 'Rāma' after sneezing."

"Pronouncing holy Words is always dangerous," observed the gnani. "They have a double effect, of which one should beware—one of utter Bliss, one of dire damnation."

At that moment a fox crossed the road in front of them and disappeared among the bushes.

"Here is another form of superstition," said the ascetic. "To see a black buck, foxes or deer, is a good omen if on the right; on the left it is a bad one; but why this should be so I do not know," he added sadly.

"Such simple beliefs have grown within the mind of man," said the philosopher, "and it is impossible to trace them all to their source. Are we still far from the Holy Cave?" he added, turning to the ascetic.

"We are there!" cried the latter, and, turning into a narrow lane, they suddenly beheld a large rock which was hollowed out and had an entrance like unto a huge yawning mouth. All three entered and to their surprise they found that it was quite light within, owing to several clefts in the roof and sides which let in the light of day.

It was filled with the images of the Immortal Gods, demons, lesser deities, satellites and servers. There stood a colossal three-headed bust of Shīva, with its central countenance filled with a divine calm majesty; mystic and beautiful in immense repose.

There were huge Dvarapālas, Pischāchas, grinning Kirtlinukhas, mysterious Abhāswaras of whose real nature little is known, for they originated in the dim past ages. There stood Abhimānī, the eldest Son of Brahmā, surrounded by his wife Swāhā and his three Sons. There, by the side of Shīva, was a lovely bust of his wife, 'The Goddess,' or 'Māha-Devī,' the 'Great Goddess,' and her twofold character of mild benignity and fierce fury was engraved upon her wonderful features.

There was Gov-Vinda, the Cow-keeper, whose other name is Krishna; and there seemed to be no end to the number of gloriously sculptured divine Beings, who had stood in the cave for untold centuries.

There was an indescribable atmosphere of consecrated sanctity in that place, and Ruru gasped with awe when he saw that great procession of the Gods; come to Earth, as it were, to assure the devout that their counterparts ruled in Heaven.

Who were the Master-Sculptors that had created these divine statues, and how long had they been there, as if watching in silence over the world, and waiting. . .for what?

The silent representatives of the Great Powers!

They: that cause the waters to ascend to heaven and pour down the mountain-sides towards the sea. They: that cause the trees to spread their leaves, and blast them in one stroke of igneous wrath. They: that make the planets travel in their orbits, while with their starry eyes they look on Man. They: that cause the rains, the winds, the seasons, the mighty tides that keep the earth in balance as it swings upon its course. They: who bear up all the Universe with powerful hands and build the tiny gnat in all its marvel of frail strength.

Thus dreamt Ruru as in adoration he beheld those hallowed Symbols of the Spirits of the Gods.

Next: Chapter 11 — Onwards! (The divine Goddess and the pious Bee)

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