Swarnima's and Vaamdeva's visit to the hermitage of Rishi Shukamukha turns out to be an extraordinary pilgrimage, which changes the meaning of their relationship forever.
“I can’t. I can’t walk anymore”, declared Swarnima. The jungle did not seem to have an end and the hermitage of Rishi Shukamukha was nowhere to be found. To her, it seemed, that they had been walking for long hours, and by now, she was certain that they had lost their way. She felt too tired to walk anymore under the scorching sun and her frustration towards her husband made her reluctant to go any further. She looked around desperately for some cool place to rest. There were trees, tall ones, but somehow, not one of them deigned to offer any shade. While her eyes were searching for a shelter, her hands mechanically reached to the pallu of her saffron saree, which looked beautiful with all the embroidery and mirror work. As she wiped her face carefully, she noticed that her pallu was torn in a few places.
“This was a beautiful saree”, she looked disappointedly at her husband, and added sarcastically, “I still don’t understand what stopped you from beating the hell out of those people.”
She expected her husband to feel ashamed, look down, or at least try to console her, but he seemed absolutely indifferent to her complaints. She did not know what irritated her more- his apathy towards her or her not being able to comprehend his self-assured composure. She looked around again, and her sight fell on a big old banyan tree in the distance, behind her husband.
“Oh, Thank God!” she sighed and walked towards the tree. Her husband followed her silently.
“Now the only thing that I desire is some water.”
After sitting in the shade of the banyan tree, she tried to fan herself with the torn pallu. It brought a new wave of frustration, noting the condition of her saree. “My mother had done the embroidery with her own hands. It was her last gift to me.”
“You can still keep it safe. The embroidery is not spoiled. Just don’t wear it anymore.”
She recognized that tone. Living with him for two years, she could easily correlate his mood with the tenor of his voice. She realized that her husband was getting frustrated with her tantrums. But instead of calming down, she felt even angrier. “It is his fault that we are lost. His fault that everything we were travelling with is gone. I put hours into the preparation for this trip and that too, in this condition.” She gently caressed her pregnant belly without putting a break to her thoughts, “And he let those robbers take our belongings without a fight. Our bullock cart, our bulls, our food, our water, our gifts for Rishi Shukamukha, everything is gone. He did not oppose even when they took my jewelry, even my mangalsutra. Only gods can tell what cowardliness has struck upon him. He did not oppose even when they started beating him…”
For the first time in the two years of their marriage, Swarnima was unable to read the mind of her husband. Her relationship with him was such that even before he uttered a word, she would rightly guess what he wanted. Maybe, it was because she had fallen in love with him even before meeting him personally. She remembered the first time when she saw him. Her cousins had forced her to watch a combat match and she was getting bored until he appeared on the scene. Seeing him, her pulse had raced instantaneously. He had a handsome face, more handsome than any other man she had met before. His muscular body was shining due to the oil massage, his body tone was that of the aval payasam sweetened by jaggery. His mustache and beard were trimmed and matched the expressions of his face. He seemed an incarnation of Kaamdeva to her. She smiled, remembering how she had first misunderstood his name to be Kaamdeva, only to find out eventually that his name was Vaamdeva.
As luck would have it, Vaamdeva too had fallen for her, of which fact she was totally unaware of at the time. She had imagined him to be unreachable as far as she was concerned. So, when his marriage proposal came, she felt as if she was being asked to get married to a king. Even after the two years of their marriage, her love for him was unaffected and with time, she had also developed utmost respect for him and for his dedication to wrestling, which he practised as a sadhana, and not just a game. He always stood up for justice, offering his service to the people who needed his help. No goons dared to attack their village because of him and his students, whom he taught with love and patience.
“So what happened today? Why did he prefer getting beaten by those robbers, instead of fighting? They were ready to kill him, but he….”
Thinking about the incident sent shivers down her spine. She was half asleep when the robbers had attacked. She had heard a sudden commotion and felt a hand on her shoulder shaking her up from her slumber. When she opened her eyes, she noticed that their bullock cart was surrounded by five masked robbers. But she did not feel scared for even a second, for she was sure that the robbers would recognize her husband and obviously back off.
She heard one of them yelling, “Climb down from the cart and if you want to live, make no sudden movements!” The authority in his voice, gave her the clue that this one was the leader. He had a strong build and a high-pitched voice.
She expected her husband to say something. She thought that he will challenge those guys for a combat. But, when her husband climbed down the cart without making a scene, she felt confused. Then, Vaamdeva gave her a hand to climb down. They were surrendering without a fight. She stared her husband’s face for a moment, but could not make anything out of his expressions. He seemed peaceful, without any complaints or anger. It made her so angry that instead of taking his help, she climbed down by taking the support of the bullock cart.
One of the robbers took the reigns of the cart and two of them sat at the back. In a few moments, they began to ride back, probably to their den. Now, there were only two left. The leader and another one with a short physique. The short one stood right behind her husband. Though, his face was covered with a dirty white cloth, Swarnima could say that he looked ugly. His hair was long and a few random strands were kind enough to cover a part of his repulsive face.
She then looked at her husband, thoughtfully, “Maybe he was waiting for this moment. Maybe now he will challenge them for combat. The short one doesn’t stand a chance, and this leader, ah well, he’s no match too.” and felt relieved.
But when the leader asked Swarnima to hand over to him the jewelry she was wearing, her husband nodded.
“No, I am not giving him anything. Why are you so silent?” she questioned her husband.
“Swarnima, just do as he says. Don’t make an issue of it.”
“No, I will not. What’s wrong with you? Why won’t you fight them?”
“Yes, why don’t you fight us?” said the leader and laughed. The short robber followed and made a mockery of them. He pushed Vaamdeva again and again to provoke him for a fight. Every time he did so, Swarnima felt like slapping him, but Vaamdeva remained silent. Then Swarnima noticed the leader signaling something to the short robber. And the next moment, the short robber pulled out a sharp knife and stood ready to attack Vaamdeva.
“Just give them the jewelry, Swarnima.” spoke Vaamdeva. His voice was still calm, his face unaffected by the adversity that had befallen them. He did not look down. His expressions refused to carry any sense of shame.
Unable to make sense of his bizarre behaviour, Swarnima yelled, “What has gotten into you? You are a fighter, a wrestler. Why are you not fighting?” The two robbers exchanged glances with each other.
Sitting under the banyan tree, she realized now, what a big mistake she had committed. Her words had alerted the leader. He had immediately whistled and the three robbers who had taken away their cart turned back. The next moment, all five of them attacked Vaamdeva, mistaking him for a soldier. When the short guy tried to stab her husband with his knife, she intervened. It saved Vaamdeva, but the robbers pushed her to the ground and snatched all her jewelry. She was fortunate that the struggle did not harm her unborn child. Her anger turned into guilt. She looked at the wounds on her husband’s hands and neck but thankfully, he too had not taken any serious injury.
When the robbers left, Swarnima expected her husband to be very angry with her for not listening to him and causing such trouble. But he did not show any sign of resentment. He immediately stood up and came to her checking if she was alright. It was her guilt of being the cause of avoidable violence that was really the cause of her frustration but she didn’t have the courage to admit it.
Now that she gave his behavior a serious thought, she realized that he had seemed distracted even before they had started their journey. In fact, he was distracted since the last time he had gone for a wrestling competition at the royal court. It was his suggestion that they take the journey to get Rishi Shukamukha’s blessings. Now she wondered if he had some other reason for meeting the old sage.
“How far do you think it is?” she asked without being sarcastic anymore.
“I don’t know. Maybe a few more miles.”
“I think we have lost our way, and without any food or water, I don’t know how we will survive.”
Her husband remained silent. Then she saw him standing up and looking upwards, calculating something in his mind. In a flash, he started climbing the tree.
“What are you trying to do?”
“I guess I will be able to find the right direction or at least, some water source from the top.”
The tree was tall and she feared that if he lost his grip, it would be disastrous. But, she refrained from commenting further and silently watched him climb.
When he came down, he spoke to her, “Swarnima, there are some people coming this way. I don’t know if they are villagers or robbers or someone else. But, I think you should hide.”
“I should hide? And what about you?”
“I don’t think they will harm me.”
“No, I am not hiding alone. Either, we both are hiding or we both are staying.”
She did not wait for her husband to respond. She caught hold of his hand and dragged him behind the big bushes nearby. Swarnima sat holding her breath, closed her eyes and joined her palms to pray to the gods, “Let it be some help and not another calamity.”
When she opened her eyes and peeked from the gaps of the bushes, she realized that her husband had left her side and was lying down fully prostrate on the road with his arms stretched out towards some people. She shifted her position to see who they were and noticed an old sage with a charming glow on his face accompanied by a few of his followers.
“Rishi Shukamukha”, the words parted from her lips with a sense of devotion. Though, she had seen the sage long ago when she had visited him with her parents, she recognized him easily. The sage’s face was calm and glowing due to the years he had spent in severe penance. His hair had turned white and he had those lovely welcoming expressions that one sees in a grandfather’s face. He was also famous for being as kind in granting boons as Lord Shiva himself. Maybe that’s why people called him an incarnation of Lord Shiva. She felt relieved, finding the sage standing there. Finally their troubles were over.
“Rise up, O devotee of Mother Kaamaakshi, and tell me what is it that you seek?”
The Rishi’s voice brought joy to Swarnima’s heavy heart. All her anger and frustration vanished. She smiled, thinking that they were already blessed with the darshana of the old sage and now he would give her husband a boon.
She saw her husband rising. Though she was unable to see Vaamdeva’s face, she knew that his eyes would be filled with joyous tears. Then she heard him saying in a humble voice, “O incarnation of Lord Shiva, the knower of the cosmos, take me into your refuge and teach me how to get rid of this cycle of life and death.”
At first, the words did not sink in but when they did, her mind went blank. She sat there like a statue. Was it the world around her that started fading or was it her eyes that were blurring her view, she could not tell. She closed her eyes tightly. A few minutes ago, she had thought that they were lucky that Rishi Shukamukha gave them darshana, but now she was not sure.
In the last two years, Vaamdeva had never expressed anything of this kind. Swarnima slowly regained herself and started pondering on her husband’s words. “He wants mukti from the world, but did he forget that I too live in the same world or is it that…..he does not care? And if he does not care, why did he marry me? Maybe he has got bored with me, or maybe he is saying so because I became irritated with him during the journey? No, no, he WAS distracted for the last few days. So, this is the reason why he had planned this trip in the first place? No, no, it must be the effect of the old sage, which made him ask such a boon. Does the sage know about me? Will he consider my feelings before granting such a boon?” Her mind again cursed Vaamdeva, “Oh, why did he ask for such a boon? Has he gone mad? Does he think he is Siddhartha, the prince who left his wife and child for the sake of Sannyasa? Did he not think once about what will I do without him? I am no Yashodhara, I have no treasure or kingdom to take care of my child. Did he not think about the child I am carrying? How can he forget the responsibilities he has towards the child?” She felt attacked by so many thoughts at once that she thought her head would explode. She held her head tightly. Her heart feared that the old sage would say that magical word “Tathastu” any time now and her life would be destroyed. She did not want to hear it.
“And what shall I do with the one you are hiding in the bushes?” she heard the sage saying instead.
His words brought Swarnima back to her senses. She realized that she was still hiding. She felt that she had been there for hours and the blessed sage had taken too long to respond to her husband’s foolish demand. She came out of the bushes. No one had moved an inch. She walked and stood right next to her husband, she brought together her palms in the namaskara mudra and bowed her head in salutation to the sage.
“Will you not speak your heart, dear daughter? Your husband here has spoken his. And I am bound to fulfil his wishes, but it will change your life completely. Hence, ask for anything. Even if you ask for a kingdom, I will grant it to you. I see that you are going to be a mother soon, hence I will grant you two wishes. Tell me now, what is it that your heart desires?” Rishi Shukamukha asked Swarnima.
Swarnima’s eyes were fixed at the feet of Rishi Shukamukha. Listening to his words, her mind relaxed a bit. Though a kingdom was a tempting offer, her heart did not hanker after it. She only wanted everything the way it was, her husband by her side. And more than that, she wanted to ask her husband the reason for his turn of heart. She spoke, with as much restraint in her voice as was possible for her to muster, though her eyes betrayed her emotional trauma, “O great guru, you might have sensed my troubled mind and that is why you have offered to grant me even a kingdom. But, a kingdom is not what my heart desires. Right now, the only thing that will soothe my heart is a few minutes with my husband. I will ask my next boon only after my first boon fulfills.”
“Tathastu” and he gave them some time alone.
Swarnima looked at her husband, expecting to see downcast eyes. But he seemed to carry no burden of guilt. He was as calm as he was during the robbers’ attack. She, on the other hand, could not speak a word. He seemed so peaceful that she felt like keeping that image of him in her heart forever.
“I am sorry. I did not think of you or our child before asking the boon. But this is what my heart desires. Life is so ephemeral, I do not know which day will be my last. I want to know why life is so. I want to know who made it so. I want to know what happens to the atmawhen a person dies.”
“Is that why you planned this trip?”
“No, no, but…..”
“Would you be able to live and concentrate on learning what you seek with the knowledge that you did not fulfil your responsibilities towards us? Would it not haunt you? Do you not love me anymore? Have your feelings towards me vanished?” She asked with tears rolling down her eyes.
He did not say a word, but his expressions changed.
Restraining her emotions she said: “Please, do not think that I am being rhetorical. I am not. I sincerely want to know. If you think you would be able to give your hundred percent to your pursuit without a sense of guilt, I will let you go. And I assure you that I will not keep any anger or hatred towards you in my heart.”
“I don’t know. My desire for seeking the ultimate truth is irreversible, but I also don’t want to do any injustice to you or our child. As I said before, life is ephemeral, I don’t know how long I will live. And, so, I want to follow my heart. My mind is set, but yes, my love and feelings for you are unchanged. My heart cares for our child. I cannot say that I do not desire to see him. But, I also cannot wait to grow old, Swarnima. What if that never happens? What if I die without fulfilling my desire to learn under Rishi Shukamukha?”
“I never knew you had any such desire.”
“Even I did not know. I assure you that I had no plan for asking any such boon. I had planned this trip just to clear my head and also to get blessings for our child. But, as soon as the Rishi appeared, my heart could think of nothing but what I asked. I think it is for the good. I was anyway too confused after my last wrestling competition at the royal court.”
“What had happened there? What changed?”
“Nothing, the boy was too young to compete. He stood no chance. He might have been participating only for money and might not have thought about the consequences before challenging me. Though, I tried to dissuade him from wrestling with me, he did not listen to me. And then when the wresting started, he did not make it beyond the first round. We wanted to take him to a Vaidya. But he fell, even before we could do anything.”
“You mean he died?”
“Yes. A heart attack, they said.”
“Is that why you did not fight with those robbers?”
“No, of course not. I could have fought them. But, I could not guarantee that I would be able to save you from any harm. Fighting other wrestlers in a combat ground is different, Swarnima. These people were robbers. They don’t care about the rules of a combat. They would surely have attacked you to keep their control over the situation. And, also….” he paused and added with a thoughtful expression, “I kind of felt that this was nothing, but a test.”
“Yes, I had this strong feeling inside my head that maybe it was all arranged by Rishi Shukamukha.”
Swarnima was quiet. Then she asked again, “I still don’t understand your wish. I still do not see why you desire to leave everything?”
“I don’t know. But, when I looked into the eyes of Rishi Shukamukha, a strong desire spontaneously erupted and I could not stop myself from asking that boon. That moment I forgot about the world and those words just came out of my mouth. And let me be honest with you. I now feel happy, much better than ever before. I feel as if a big burden has been taken away from my heart” he smiled calmly, but his smile faded on seeing the pool of tears in Swarnima’s eyes.
“No, don’t worry about me.” spoke Swarnima, trying to control herself.
“I do worry about you and our child, Swarnima. I do love you both. But, I am confused. I don’t know what is right.”
She looked at him, trying to understand what he meant.
Suddenly, she felt a jolt through her body and the next moment Swarnima opened her eyes and realized that she was still hiding in the bushes.
“And what shall I do with the one you are hiding in the bushes?” she heard the sage saying and saw her husband and the sage waiting for her to come out. Was she dreaming, she did not know. She could not understand what was happening to her. She hesitantly got up and walked up to where her husband was standing. She looked at her husband once, but his eyes were fixed upon the sage. His face was calm and he did not seem to have any idea of what had just happened to her. Then she looked at Rishi Shukamukha, who gave her an understanding smile. She brought together her palms in the namaskara mudra and bowed her head in salutation to the Rishi.
“Will you not speak your heart, dear daughter? Your husband here has spoken his. And I am bound to fulfil his wishes, but it will change your life completely. Hence, ask for anything. Even if you ask for a kingdom, I will grant it to you. Tell me now, what is it that your heart desires?” Swarnima heard the old sage repeating the very same words that she thought she had heard just moments ago.
The only thing that was different now was that the sage did not offer her two boons. Was her vision real? Had he really offered her two boons, of which she had already availed one? Was it all her imagination or was it his maya? She felt overwhelmed and took a little time in absorbing everything that was happening.
” O great guru, please accept my salutations. It is very kind of you that you have considered us worthy enough to have your darshana. And I am overwhelmed by knowing that you considered my wishes before granting my husband the boon he has asked for. As his wife, I think it’s my responsibility to make sure that he gets what he desires and fulfills his life’s purpose. Hence, it is also my responsibility to ensure, that whenever he renounces the householder’s life and enters your tutelage to seek the ultimate truth, he does it with complete lucidity and without any confusion in his mind about what is right and what is wrong. Also, as a mother it is my responsibility to see to it that no injustice happens to my child as well. Likewise, as a husband even he has certain duties towards me and our son. Hence, O great guru, let no injustice happen. Grant my husband what he has wished for, only when he attains the vivekam that he has attended to all his duties towards me and our children.”
“Very thoughtful wish, indeed, dear daughter. I am impressed. Your wish will be fulfilled and you will also recover what had been taken from you in this jungle. You will live a long, happy life with your husband and when the time comes, I will take you both under my tutelage. Now go home.” saying so Rishi Shukamukha raised his both hands in the Abhaya Mudra and left the place with his pupils.