‘Shakuntala- The Woman Wronged’ (Book Excerpt) by Utkarsh Patel

Utkarsh PatelUtkarsh Patel is the author of Shakuntala- The Woman Wronged. He has qualifications in Mythology, both Indian and World from Mumbai University. He is also a faculty on the subject of Comparative Mythology, at the Mumbai University, India. Utkarsh is also a regular trainer and lecturer on varying subjects at private organisations and educational institutions. Below you can read an excerpt from his book, Shakuntala- The Woman Wronged. Courtesy: Utkarsh Patel.

                       Indra-Sabha

“Narayan Narayan,” intoned Narada Muni, as he breezed into the intoned Indra-sabha, the court of Indra. His words echoed in the unusually quiet court as he floated near an indolent Indra. Indra respectfully acknowledged his presence, carefully concealing a „what-now?‟ look. Narada, seeing through this, kept smiling and continued, „Narayan, Narayan, how is the lord of the gods, the slayer of the mighty Vritra, Lord Indra today?‟ Indra forced a smile and said, „I am fine, O great Muni. What brings you here?‟ Narada smiled and said, „Well…I was returning from earth and passing by your court. None in the universe can resist entering this court, and I am no exception. So, here I am.‟ Indra said, „You over-exaggerate the importance of my court, Munivar, but I will accept your compliments nonetheless. Is everything fine on earth?‟ As soon as Indra asked the question, he had the uncanny feeling of something ominous coming his way. „Well things couldn‟t be better,‟ said Narada, which was not the kind of response Indra had expected. But Indra knew…this was not the end of the subject.

“Tell me O lord of the gods, why is the court so quiet today? Where are all the apsaras and gandharvas of your court? Why don‟t I hear any music and dance, the hallmark of your court?‟ This was a question typical of Narada. Indra knew the muni would not come to the point till he decided to or intended to. Indra knew this was going to take time. „Well, nothing is hidden from you, O Muni. Nothing exciting is happening here or elsewhere. Vishnu rests peacefully in his annual slumber, Mahadev is meditating and Brahmaji is working on another Veda I am told. Menaka, Urvashi and Rambha have danced to the best of celestial music, and have nothing new to offer. The asuras, are looking for some new cause to fight and a leader to lead them. The humans seem to be complacent about their lives and go on living it every day. In short, I am bored to eternity!‟

Narada smiled again, “Maybe I can entertain you with a story!” “Oh sure,” said Indra, knowing quite well that this was not a suggestion, merely a preface to the sage‟s pre-meditated plan! Narada said,

“However, Lord Indra, my story might not have the romantic flavour of your court or the action of celestial battles or the intrigues of heavens. Do you still want to hear it?‟ Indra knew these delaying tactics and said, „Munivar, I am bored with all that, maybe it‟s time for something pristine and simple…just like you!‟ forcing the words „pristine‟ and „simple‟ through his teeth. The effort was visible to Narada, but he chose to ignore it. Narada was used to such snide remarks and comments; he never took them to heart. After all, didn‟t he always have the last laugh?

But this was just a harmless story, meant to get Lord Indra out of the woods. How could the lord of the gods be so dull and down? Wouldn’t this harm the equilibrium of the heavens? What was an Indra-sabha without the usual fun and frolic, without music and dance and joyous merrymaking? It was with this in mind that Narada ignored Indra‟s lack of interest and extreme formality.

Narada began, “O lord of the gods, this is not just a story. This is based on some things that I have just witnessed on earth. It also involves some of the powers bestowed on people that you favoured. I am relating this as I find the events that have unfolded very interesting. In fact, I think this will bring about significant changes in the fabric of mankind and the way they work and live.‟

“This is regarding the mighty King Kaushik. Kaushik‟s father, the great King Kadhi was of the lineage of the famous Kusha. Kaushik turned out to be a brave and handsome young man and an able successor to the throne of Kusha. People were happy under his rule. Recently, when he was returning from one of his conquests, he decided to rest with his army at the hermitage of the great sage Vasishtha. As you know, O Indra, Vasishta‟s hermitage is like a small heaven on earth. The peace and tranquillity is unmatched in the human world. You can hear the birds chirping mantras and the air is aromatic from the different yagnas being performed all over the hermitage. There are no barricades to the hermitage, yet no wild animals venture in and none of the domestic animals step out. No one has seen blood being shed in the hermitage nor has one ever heard of violence or greed of any sort.‟

“Kaushik was impressed by the serenity of the ashram and decided to camp there for a few days, allowing some rest to his army too. Sage Vasishtha was delighted to hear about the king‟s desire and decided to reciprocate the gesture by offering the best of his hospitality, befitting the king and his army. After all, the king had been kind and noble enough to provide his people with a trouble-free regime. The king and his army were treated to food and rest. However, Kaushik was intrigued by the sage‟s ability to muster up resources in no time for so many people, meal after meal. Just how could a sage with simple means manage such lavish and sumptuous meals for a big army?‟

“Kaushik decided to satisfy his curiosity and asked the sage about it. Vasishtha told him about his treasure trove, the cow Nandini. Nandini, I am sure you remember, O Devendra, is the off-spring of your cow, Kamadhenu, and a gift from you to Vasishtha. The sage went on to explain to the king that Nandini provided him with everything he needed. King Kaushik was impressed and felt that such a cow was required more by him than a simple sage. He expressed his desire to have the cow for himself, as it would be of far greater service to the kingdom.

“Vasishtha smiled but declined. Kaushik‟s tone changed from request to an order, but Vasishtha did not change his mind. The matter took a turn for the worse when the king ordered his soldiers to seize the cow. Vasishtha then used his yogic powers and conjured up an army which decimated King Kaushik‟s troops in no time. The king was then presented to the sage, who looked at him sorrowfully and said, “O King, you are the ruler of the kingdom and we are your subjects. It is your responsibility to look after your subjects. Using your powers on sages does not befit you. I am setting you free as my objective is not to rule and demean you. I am a man of few words, but let me give you some advice. Never misuse your power and, above all, never underestimate the power of knowledge.”

“What the king didn‟t know was that when the sage saw the huge army of the king, his mind revolted against the mayhem that was about to be unleashed. He spoke to Nandini and gave her a choice of going with the king or staying back. Nandini made her choice known by creating a host of warriors, who, along with Vasishtha, were responsible for the rout faced by the king‟s army.

“A crestfallen King Kaushik went back defeated. A single thought continued disturbing him. He had the powers of the body, but the sage had the power of the mind. Vasishtha could conjure an army with his powers, while he had to maintain an army all the time. What was the use of such power which could be decimated by a simple sage? He realized that power lay in penances and meditation and not in armies and weapons. He has now renounced the world and is meditating…meditating to become a sage!‟

The last words startled Lord Indra, “Did you say he is meditating to become a sage?‟

“Yes, O lord! Isn‟t this interesting?‟ asked Narada.

“Interesting?‟ said Indra. “This is against the laws of mankind!‟ Narada had regained his impish smile. “Why do you say so, O lord of the gods? There is no harm in seeking knowledge.‟

Indra was beginning to get agitated. “Who said anything against seeking knowledge? That is for all. Do you not see the problem in a king becoming a sage? Let me rephrase this for you—can a Kshatriya become a Brahmin?‟

Indra went on, „I am appalled, O munivar, to see that you find nothing wrong in this. A Kshatriya is trying to become a Brahmin. One who is supposed to provide benevolence, is trying to become the recipient of the benevolence. A ruler wants to acquire knowledge and become a sage. The protector of the Vedas is going to read the Vedas and you find nothing wrong in this?‟

Narada continued in his cool-as-a-cucumber demeanour, “Aren‟t all human beings the same? Don‟t they all feel hungry, suffer pain, and have urges and needs? Don‟t they all protect themselves from sun and rain? Don‟t they all take birth, grow, marry and reproduce?‟

Indra protested, “What are you saying and whoever denied any of this? But can you overrule the laws of Manu? The earth is not like heaven. Human beings are ruled by a set of laws laid down by Manu who had the divine blessings of the gods of heaven; and trying to change them without our intervention will lead to a state of disequilibrium, which is not good for them.‟

“So…are you disappointed by the lack of divine permission or just upset about a Kshatriya becoming a Brahmin?‟ interjected Narada.

Indra was making efforts to conceal his anger. “How come you always get the point wrong, munivar? Don‟t you see that this is going against the norms? Don‟t you see that what is achieved by one today can become a norm for all tomorrow? I am surprised that I have to explain this to you!‟ concluded Indra, presuming he had the last word, till he heard “Why?‟, as Narada persisted.

Indra was beginning to get angry, as he did not seem to have an answer to this. “Why? What do you mean by why? Munivar, is there anything that you don‟t know? Have I said anything till now, which you didn‟t know already? Then why are you insisting on a discussion which is meaningless? You know that this is against the law…‟

“Law of…?‟ Narada Muni interjected.

“Law of…of…mankind,‟ Indra fumbled.

Not one to give up, Narada asked “Is it?‟ with his usual smile, which was unsettling Indra. Indra thought, Just why do I have to endure this person? He is a learned sage himself and he finds nothing wrong in this, is he trying to pull my leg or just being ignorant of the rules laid down for the conduct of mankind?

“But my lord, King Kaushik has been meditating for close to four hundred years now. I am just returning from his kingdom and everyone is talking about it. I spoke to Sage Vasishtha, but he didn‟t seem too bothered about it,‟ said Narada.

Indra was surprised, “You mean Vasishtha knows about it and is not bothered? He didn‟t find anything amiss in a Kshatriya changing his caste to become a learned Brahmin?‟

Narada seemed amused and said, “Well, I don‟t think it matters to him, he is not feeling insecure!‟

“Insecure? What has insecurity got to do with this?‟ Indra retorted, “This is going against the rules laid down for mankind and I am appalled to see that neither you nor Sage Vasishtha seem to find anything wrong with it. Is it not the duty of learned men like you and the rishi to ensure that laws are not breached?‟ Indra continued, „Do you see what a disequilibrium this could cause in the three worlds, if one mortal acquired power that he does not deserve to have? You can‟t even comprehend what a hot-headed Kshatriya—who tried to raze Sage Vasishtha‟s ashram and forcefully acquire Nandini—is capable of if he achieves the power. A mortal tries to transgress his status and break the barrier set for him. Today he does it supposedly in the quest of knowledge; tomorrow he will do so in the quest for immortality. What is transgression today will become transcendence tomorrow. Have you thought about what this will lead to? Man will ask for the heavens!‟

Narada tried to say something, but Indra raised his hand indicating that he had not finished. “I don‟t think I want to waste my time trying to impress upon you the malefic effects of such an act. If you cannot do anything, then maybe I will have to step in.‟

Narada felt that the conversation was over and his staying any longer was pointless. “Well, I guess I would like to leave now. I came in to say hello, but it seems like I have overstayed my welcome. I hope I have been able to cheer you up with what I thought was an interesting story which I witnessed on my trip to the earth. Narayan, Narayan!‟ said Narada before leaving.

Indra was beginning to feel better after Narada‟s departure. I wonder why this person unsettles me, he wondered. However, Indra noticed that he was not feeling bored anymore.

Had he found some purpose? Or, maybe, a celestial pastime?

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