Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sages (I): Agastya

Stories of Saints are wound through the Ramayana. They teach us lessons, sometimes through direct revelation to the characters themselves, sometimes as examples of how to act.  They are considered to have actually existed (and the events in the Ramayana are considered to have actually taken place 80 Kalpas [80,000,000 years] ago). I cannot say that I favor one story over another, so for no other reason than this is the first one I am writing, I give you the story of Agastya Rishi.

Once upon a time, in India…well above India, atop Mount Kailash, Lord Shiva prepared to give a discourse on the Holy Vedas.  Gods, celestial beings, rakshasas, and sages made a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash for the opportunity to learn directly from Shiva himself. Since this gathering was to take place on an Earthly realm, Earthly physics and metaphysics became an issue. The combined weight of the spiritual merit  possessed by the attendees pushed the Earth off balance. To avoid disrupting the Earthly realm, Lord Shiva asked the Rishi Agastya, who carried within himself more power and merit than the whole assembly combined, to travel southward in order to re-balance the Earth. Lord Shiva sought to compensate Agastya for this service, and for missing his teaching. Shiva decreed that while residing in the South, Agastya will have the opportunity to directly serve Vishnu in his human incarnation as Rama. This service would once again bring balance to the world and save the human race from destruction.

Agastya agreed without question.

As he traveled southward, Agastya was stopped by Surya, the sun.  Surya begged Agastya for help.  Vindhya Hill, jealous of Mount Meru, the center of the universe in the Himalaya, decided to grow larger and more magnificent than its cousin. Vindhya grew to an enormous size, dwarfing Meru and blocking the path of the sun. Vindhya’s ego grew in proportion to its physical size.  He demanded that the sun revolve around him rather than revolving around Meru.  The sun refused.  Vindhya would not let Surya pass, plunging everything West of the mountain into perpetual night.

Agastya agreed without question.

Agastya came to Vindhya mountain.  The mountain was indeed impressive.  Sheer cliffs rose above the clouds and extended into the horizon.  There was no way around. 

Standing in front of the mountain with palms folded, Agastya addressed Vindhya with reverence.

“Oh mighty Vindhya, I am blessed to be in your presence. Your size and grandeur make even the mighty Himalaya appear as small and as uninteresting as a mere pebble.  I have been sent by Lord Shiva himself to travel South. I must obey the Lord, but due to your enormous size, I am unable to continue my journey. Indeed, how can a poor traveler traverse your great self when even the sun cannot pass.Please allow me passage so that I may keep my promise to the Lord.”

Vindhya could see Agastya blazing with spiritual merit and knew he spoke the truth.  Out of respect for Agastya and his mission, the mountain returned to its normal size. It spoke to Agastya:

“Great sage, I gladly allow you passage so that you may continue to do the Lord’s work.”

“I give you thanks.  Please remain this size so that I may return to the Lord when my mission has been completed.”

“So be it,” replied the mountain.

Agastya continued his journey southward. He did not return to the North, and to this day Vindhya remains bowed, awaiting Agastya's return.

In the South, Agastya came to a forest which was plagued by two rakshasa brothers, Ilval and Vapti, who were systematically killing every Brahmin (holy man).  Their method was always the same:  Ilval took the form of a Brahmin.  He approached other Brahmins, speaking in holy Sanskrit, and offer to cook a meal. The Brahmins could not refuse—it is against scripture to refuse an offering.  At Ilval’s cottage, he would cook a freshly slaughtered ram (Brahmins were not yet forbidden from eating meat at this time), who was actually Vapti in disguise.  Once the Brahmin finished his meal, Ilval called to his brother: “Vapti come out!” Resuming his natural form, Vapti tore his way out of the Brahmin, killing him.

Vapti approached Agastya with his usual ruse.  Having accepted the offer of a meal, Agastya quickly cleaned his plate. He asked for seconds, and upon finishing that plate, asked for thirds. He kept eating until nothing was left of the ram save the bones. Agastya wiped his mouth after finishing the last morsel. Ilval grinned and shouted “Vapti come out!”

Nothing happened.

He called again: “Vapti, come out!”

“Beware the strong stomach of Dharma,” said Agastaya, and he burped.

Enraged, Ilval assumed his rakshasa form and lunged at Agastya.  The sage slightly glanced at Ilval. The rakshasa burst into flames and was reduced to ashes. 
After leaving Chitrakuta, Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana traveled southward. They were directed to visit Agastya’s hermitage near modern day Nashik. The sage, understanding Rama’s true identity, welcomed the trio and prepared a feast stating “The host who does not feed his guests is destined to eat his own flesh in the next life.”  Rama sought the sage’s counsel on how to lead the life of a Brahmin.  Rama was a Kshatriya, a warrior king.  He was honoring his promise to his father to live in the forest for 14 years, yet he did not quite know how to live the life of the Brahmin class.

Agastya replied: “The duty of a Brahmin is the search for Truth.  The search for Truth is nothing more than the search for the Self. Know yourself and you have found Truth.  You already possess this knowledge, you have only forgotten it.  I cannot teach you how to find it, but I can give you the tools to find it for yourself.”  Agastya presented Rama with a bow and an inexhaustible quiver, and to Lakshmana he presented a sword.  Both weapons had been used by Vishnu in a previous battle with the rakshasas.  Tools used by warrior kings, not Brahmins.

“Perform your duty and you will find Truth.”

Rama engaged Ravana in battle on the Island of Lanka.  Rama's arrows quickly cut down Ravana's 10 heads and 20 arms. Victory was short-lived, as the heads and arms immediately grew back.  Rama's arrows continued to be true.  Arms and heads off.  Arms and heads grew back.  This fierce play repeated until both sides retired (war, although still brutal, observed strict rules 80,000,000 million years ago when this story took place).

The next morning, Rama awoke and conducted his obeisances.  Agastya appeared before Rama as he engaged in prayer.

"Rama, know that Ravana's heads and arms are extensions of his ego and greed, both of which are limitless. They cannot be defeated by brute force. The only way to conquer the darkness of ego and greed, which live in and cloud the heart, is through the light of Truth. Repeat this mantra to call upon the infinite light of the sun:
Aaditya hridaayam punyamsarva shaatru binaashanam
[For the one who keeps the Sun in the Heart, all enemies are destroyed.]

Endow your arrow with the Brahmastra, take aim at Ravana's heart of darkness, and free him from the chains of ego and greed."
Agastya's words proved true.  Ravana was defeated. Dying a warrior's death with his thoughts fully fixed on Rama, Ravana attained the highest reaches of Heaven. Brahma's boon that Ravana could not be killed by any god or celestial being held true--although not quite as he had expected.  Ravana's earthly form was destroyed, but not his spirit, which is infinite and pure.

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