A little bouquet of stories comes to mind after Republic Day, which I would like to retell. They illuminate the optimistic nature of Indian tradition, that even if we stray from goodness we can find our way back, sometimes in the strangest ways. One is about a ‘Gita’ or spiritual discourse, from the unlikeliest source, Kamsa. We find it in the Srimad Bhagavatam. Just after Yogmaya slips out of Kamsa’s death-grasp in Mathura Jail, she flies up and tells Kamsa that his killer is born and alive elsewhere.
They say that any association with anything genuinely holy improves us. That is why we are urged to seek the company of the good and reject the company of the bad. That brief contact with Yogmaya deeply affects Kamsa. He uncuffs Devaki and Vasudeva and tearfully begs their pardon for mistreating them. He then delivers a potted Gita on the delusional effects of attachment and desire, the harm caused by the ego’s ignorance, and the temporary nature of the physical body compared to the eternal nature of the soul inside each person.
Alas, the fit of goodness passes when Kamsa returns to his courtiers, who encourage his dark side. His surrender to the force of good is overtaken by plots to find and finish his appointed killer. But as a result, Kamsa can think of nothing but Krishna. Without meaning to, he becomes centred on God. It is a strange route to sharanagati or refuge in God but that’s what it is.
Kamsa brings back the parable of the thief who wanted to steal from Krishna. The story goes that a thief in South India happened to pass by a temple where people had gathered to hear a spiritual discourse by a well-known pauranikar or teller of religious stories.
Seeing them, the thief hoped to steal something and quietly found himself a place. He heard the pauranikar lovingly describe Krishna’s earrings, armbands and necklace of precious gems. The thief had grown up neglected; he had never been taken to a temple, nor had he ever heard a discourse. But he was most interested. He thought Krishna was a person somewhere nearby and wanted to steal his jewellery.
“Where does Krishna live?” he asked the people around him. They laughed and told him to ask the pauranikar. The thief waited until the discourse ended and the pauranikar emerged.
“Where does Krishna live?” he asked without preamble.
“You can’t see him just like that,” laughed the pauranikar.
“You’d better tell me!” said the thief menacingly.
“Go north to a place called Vrindavan. You’ll find him there if you ask,” parried the pauranikar, trying to escape.
The thief made his way north with the greatest difficulty, obsessed with finding Krishna. He thought of Krishna every step of the way to Vrindavan, where they nodded understandingly and sent him to the woods. And there, under a fine kadamba tree, he found Krishna looking exactly as described. Krishna spoke affectionately to the thief and fondly gave him some of his jewellery. The delighted thief went back south and sought out the pauranikar to tell him of his success.
The pauranikar was distraught.
“Lord, I have spent my life speaking about you,” he wept. “Why have you never favoured me with a glimpse?” But he knew why. The thief, though intent on thieving, had thought of nothing but God, which had cleansed his heart and blessed him. Unknowingly, he had attained sharanagati.
Another story tells us about a miraculous transformation. It’s about Charandas, the laziest person in his village, who was always looking for a shortcut. He was an orphan who was loosely adopted by the villagers and grew into a liability for he bunked the classes at the village school, refused to learn a trade or a skill but showed up at people’s doors rubbing his belly. He knew perfectly well that the villagers would give him food just to make him go away.
One day the village buzzed with excitement. The priest had come back safely from a long pilgrimage and in gratitude had exchanged the copper pot above the Shivling with a silver pot. It was a beautiful sight. Even Charandas dropped by for a look.
“Where did you buy this fine silver pot?” asked a villager.
“At Kashi, of course, you get everything there,” said the priest.
“A man could live for a year on its cost,” said another villager.
Charandas felt as though lightning had hit his body. He stole the pot at night and ran away to Kashi where he sold it and set up as a thief, preying on the scores of pilgrims. His fall from grace was as simple as that. The years of laziness had filled him with the sludge of tamas, of negative energy. All it took was one tempting possibility to push him over.
One day, Shiva and Parvati decided on a whim to visit Kashi in the form of two old beggars. They asked piteously for a drink of water but nobody bothered to spare them a glance for they were all so intent on their own salvation. Charandas strolled by, trying to spot victims, and tripped over the old man. But instead of scolding him, the old lady asked anxiously if he was hurt. Touched by her concern, Charandas offered the old man his gourd of Ganga water.
“Please speak a word of truth in his ear, child,” urged the old lady gently.
Softened already, Charandas felt a sudden rush of shame.
“The truth is that I am a thief, Granny,” he blurted.
The beggars vanished and in their place stood Shiva and Parvati, glowing in utter beauty as Gauri-Shankar. Charandas fell at their feet, stunned. The vision disappeared but Charandas was a changed man now. He wanted to keep his happy, uplifted state of mind. He counted his money, bought a new silver pot, and returned to his village to confess and make a fresh start. That one flash of pure honesty at God’s feet had retrieved him.