STORIES OF GOD’S AVATARS & HIS DEVOTEES –III
It was customary for kings in bygone days, to hunt animals in the forests around their kingdoms. The forests were larger than human habitation then, and unless checked, the beasts strayed into the villages, killing like cattle and people.
King Pariksit would also dispatch the ferocious creations, whenever people complained. During a hunting expedition once, hot on pursuit of a herd of beasts he was separated from his retinue. Yet single–mindedly he went after the animals notwithstanding the hot sun and the thickness of the jungle. But the animals proved to be swifter than the arrows of the King .
Angry at being outrun by the wild beasts, Parikshat further realised that he was very thirsty and tired. he looked around, but there was no water. This made him angrier.
With exhausation weighing him down the King shuffled in search of water and a place to rest. At length when the circumstance has turned him quite truculent, Parikshit came upon a hermitage. Refreshed by the sight, the King entered in expectantly. He saw a hermit lost in meditation.
"Sir?" the King called out with reverence
Though Parikshit was reluctant to disturb a venerable sage during his sadhana, driven to desperation by thirst and fatigue, he risked to do so.
"Sir!" he called out a little louder.
The sage was evidently very deep meditation, for again he showed no response.
The kings’s foul mood began to re-surface. Yet, suppressing his annoyance, he tried to get the attention of the sage — but without success.
Parikshit’s parched throat began to hurt by his repeated address to the sage, who oblivious to the external world, could hear nothing.
To understand what happened next, we must know the custom of those times. The king was considered as ‘God on earth’ and welcomed with reverence and pomp wherever he went. His every word was command, and most people regarded it a great privilege to abide by his wishes, even obsequiously. Though great spiritual personages were a notable exception to this custom — in fact the king showed them reverence. The Sage’s silence, drove Parikshit to fury.
The verses 60 and 63 in chapter II of Bhagavad Gita, declare:
"Even the mind of the wise man is carried away by the vehement insistence of the physical senses. Denial of desires leads to anger. Anger upsets the mind; that causes loss of memory of past and present condition, duties etc. and presence of mind; consequently the power of discrimination is lost; the result is destruction."
The king angrily turned to go, but stopped short as he felt something under his foot. He looked down to investigate and found a dead snake.
In an overpowering moment of weakness, the king’s ire turned him mean. With the end of his bow, Parikshit wickedly flung the dead snake on the holy sage’s neck, and walked away derisively What a compulsion of fate!
Sameeka, for that was the sage’s name, remained unmoved, even with the dead reptile dangling on his neck. He was still beyond physical consciousness.
Sameeka’s son, Sringi though very young, was as powerful hermit as his father. He had gone out to play when the king came to the hermitage. One of Sringi’s friends who has seen the King Parikshit walk into the hermitage of his friend’s father, had followed the king our of curiosity. He had reached just in time to witness the king’s inglorious act. Aghast, he quickly ran to Sringi and told him what had happened. Sringi dashed into the hut and was shocked to see the dead serpent on his father.
What Sringi did then can be cited as a second classic example of the Gita verses quoted earlier. Sringi possessed equanimity, and was restrained, tolerant and kind. But his excessive attachment to his father led to an emotional outburst. He rushed to catch the culprit. When he approached the king who was walking away, he realised by Parikshit’s gait and apparel that the culprit was no ordinary man — probably the king himself. But this made the crime even more punishable. He pronounced a terrible imprecation: "May He who threw the dead snake round the neck of my father be bitten by a snake on the seventh day from today and die on that day."
The curse of a Brahmin well-versed in potent formulas of sacred sounds and well-trained in harmonising the body and mind in tune with the soul forces, has great power and begins to take effect immediately. When the Sage Sameeka came down to normal consciousness and came to know what had happened, he was appalled. "What a calamitous curse for this trivial offence! You have no strength of mind to bear such little affronts," he scolded Sringi. Then closing his eyes, activated his yogic vision. He discovered that saving the king (which was within his powers) would be going against the dictates of Divinity The king’s karma (past action) caused the curse to be awarded to him.
People often wonder why Baba cures the diseases of some but not of all those who come to Him. Baba’s omnivision sees the past and future possibilities and in His deep love to ensure the best and the most just course of life in long range perspective. Diseases and difficulties may be well deserved punishments; or, may be conducive to the learning of some truths otherwise neglected; or, may be challenges to bring forth hidden forces and strengths within. So, Swami appears hard as steel in spite of being aware of sufferings of individuals or societies though He may be melting like butter in sympathy within.
And yet the Sage Sameeka decided to do whatever he could to help the fate-driven king. He called one of his disciples and despatched him forthwith a message to the king. Meanwhile the king had reached his palace and in retrospect realised the enormity of what he had done. He was deeply repentant and struggled within himself for a suitable course of action to atone for his sin.
Just then the disciple of Sage Sameeka arrived and intimated the king about the inexorable curse pronounced upon him, and broke into tears. But Pariksit was not an ordinary man. His response showed the greatness of his spiritual attainments. He said: "This is not a curse but a gift of Grace! Immersed in the affairs of the empire, I had become somewhat negligent about my spiritual life. The merciful lord has made it known in advance that I have just seven days to live. So, I can spend every moment henceforth in the contemplation of my beloved Lord and seek to merge in Him!".
What a positive attitude he had! Thereafter the king acted very quickly. He called for his son Janamejaya and crowned him King. Then Parikshit set out barefoot. He planned to sit by a river, and contemplating on the Lord, fast unto death. The news of the curse broke. King Parikshit’s subjects were shocked and dismayed that their beloved king should die so soon. So, they began to gather on the banks of the river and began to chant sacred verses and vedic hymns. Indeed the place appeared like the site of a grand religious festival.
All were proud and happy that their king was such a great soul who exemplified passionate concern for his subjects during his reign and great dispassion during his last days, just as the scriptures enjoined.
Soon the crowd was joined by bands of ascetics who marvelled at the spirit of renunciation shown by a royal personage. When the king saw them, he asked them most humbly: "What is the best thing to do when death is imminent?"
While the ascetics debated over the issue, a young ascetic appeared like a beam of light. His face shone with an extraordinary effulgence. He was undoubtedly a Master. Soon his identity was discovered by an old ascetic who exclaimed, "Ah! We are singularly fortunate to have the great Maharishi Shuka in our midst!"
Shuka was indeed a great spiritual master. Right from birth (Shuka is the son of Sage Vyasa, who authored the 18 puranas and the epic Mahabharata, etc.) he was ‘self’-conscious. Vyasa doted over Shuka, barely letting him out of his sight Thus 16 years passed. Then he could no longer be restrained to one particular place or person and the vast expansiveness of his Self sought the fullest freedom from all bonds and barriers. So he suddenly left and walked away from his father. Vyasa was grief-stricken and could not bear the separation from his son, the alter ego, who was the personification of his own ideals which he could not however realise in his own life. So Vyasa ran after his son seeking desperately to stop him. Shuka was already in a dense forest. Thorns tore off his garment. He continued walking in the nude.
Some nymphs from heaven were bathing in a stream, Shuka walked by in all his splendour. He was said to be as handsome as Lord Krishna Himself! These maidens who were in the nude, soon continued their bath. After, Vyasa came on the scene in hot pursuit of his son, and lo! the maidens quickly and frantically hid themselves! Vyasa was perplexed at this paradox – the maidens seemed to be unmindful of their nudity when the youthful Shuka walked by but suddenly bashful when an old man with beard etc. walked by! Indeed it could or should have been the reverse!
Vyasa asked the nymphs the reason for this strange behaviour. They answered: "Sir! When your son walked by, we did not feel separate from him and he was a Being one with the sky, the air, the trees, the birds the nature itself. There was no question of being ashamed. But as soon as we saw you we felt a man in our midst! You are like us are on the level of dualities, whereas your son has transcended it and merged non-dually with the One who projects as all this creation."
Vyasa realised keenly his limitations and also the limitlessness of the essential personality of the son and so returned to his place. Such was the greatness of Suka!
The same Shuka now stood before the King Pariksit. The king realised his great good fortune (for persons like Shuka can only be drawn by the spiritual needs of advanced aspirants), and approached the Master in great humility and joy. Hardly had he begun to ask about the best course of action when faced with imminent death, that Shuka lovingly interrupted him and said, "Pariksit! It is exactly to clear your doubt that I have come to you! There is no activity holier than listening to the BHAGAVATAM, the stories of God’s Avatars and Devotees!
"The Universal Absolute, the birthless, formless, unmanifest Infinite, took on the limitations of Name and Form and concretised Itself as Avatars on several occasions and manifested countless instances of Divine Grace. Through these and through the ideas propagated in these incarnations, God saved virtuous men and women from downfall and danger. The Bhagavatam binds Bhakthas (devotees) with Bhagavan. That is to say these stories fill you with God and transmute you into Divinity.
"The Bhagavatam is as worthy of reverence as the Vedas, as worthy of study and observance. I had listened to Bhagavatam from my father Vyasa. I shall repeat the same to you. Listen with earnest devotion and reflect upon its value and act according to the Light it sheds, because those will merge in Bliss of which the Lord is the embodiment."
"Oh! King! Do not worry that your time is so short! Not much time is needed to win the Grace of God. I shall tell you during these seven days about the main Avatars and how the devotees blessed by them crossed the ocean of birth and death. Wisdom can achieved only by placing complete faith in what is heard."
Dear reader! So began the first public narration of Srimad Bhagavatam (the holy stories of God’s Avatars and Devotees) that continued for seven days. Hence the tradition of telling or reading these stories in seven days (or instalments) under the name Bhagavata Saptaham (Sapta = seven; ahan–day).