The Enduring Possibilities of the Vasistha-Visvamitra Story and a Contrast with Leo Tolstoy

Maharshi Valmiki has given us a timeless raw material in his Vasistha-Visvamitra story. A contrast with Leo Tolstoy's popular fable shows a clear contrast between Bharatavarsha and the Christian West.
The Enduring Possibilities of the Vasistha-Visvamitra Story and a Contrast with Leo Tolstoy

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The Enduring Possibilities of the Vasistha-Visvamitra Story and a Contrast with Leo Tolstoy
A Passage from Maha-Brahmana: Transforming Sacred Lore into Literary Pearls

AS MENTIONED IN THE PREVIOUS episode of this series, the story of the Vasistha-Visvamitra encounter occurring in the Bāla-kāṇḍa of Srimad Ramayana is well-known.

The Story of Vasistha and Visvamitra in a Nutshell

In his previous edition, Visvamitra is Kaushika, the Emperor of the Earth, endowed not only with a fabulous army and unlimited wealth, but in prowess, he rivals the Devatas. He is also a compassionate ruler, a Prajāvatsala, who genuinely cares for his subjects. Once, he goes on a hunting expedition with a large army and after a long and exhausting day, arrives at Rishi Vasistha’s hermitage in the jungle.

In the true Sanatana tradition of honouring guests, the Rishi extends unprecedented hospitality not only to Kaushika but also his vast retinue numbering in thousands. It is a mammoth feast comprising the choicest delicacies. Even as Kaushika is relishing the heady contentment of the hospitality, a thought arises in his mind: how did this forest-dwelling sage who has taken a lifelong vow of voluntary poverty manage to arrange such a grand feast? What was the secret, what was the magic spell that enabled this magnificence?

Kaushika seeks the answer and Vasistha gives it: the secret is Kāmadhēnu or Śabala, the divine cow which grants any wish. Kaushika, the Emperor of the Earth, naturally wants Kāmadhēnu. Vasistha, the Emperor of the Atman, refuses. What follows is a conversation that Kaushika escalates into a confrontation culminating in a avarice-driven war against the Rishi. A war he loses at every step. The selfsame Kāmadhēnu he covets, the same cow which had selflessly fed him and his substantial entourage, has now transformed into an unrecognisable monster. Every limb of Kāmadhēnu emits thousands of warriors who slaughter the hundred sons of Kaushika and his large army. In the end, the inflamed Kaushika launches a direct assault against Vasistha but every arrow that touches the Rishi turns into a flower. The world-conqueror’s humiliation at the hands of this simple, unarmed hermit is total and complete. The loss of his entire army and his sons is a mere trifle compared to the real loss he experiences. The monarch of the world still possesses everything the world has to offer but is now worse than a destitute.

At this point, Kaushika realises that Vasistha’s secret is not Kāmadhēnu but something that granted him Kāmadhēnu, unasked. This realisation transforms Kaushika’s rapacity into a profound voyage, which ultimately finds fruition in his exalted vision of Gayatri and earns him the grand pedestal of Rajarshi, the King among Sages. Kaushika the king of mortals has now become Visvamitra, literally, the friend of the world. A synonym for Mitra is Surya or Sun, signifying the resplendence of true spiritual knowledge (Darshana).

The Sanatana tradition correctly regards the Gayatri Mantra as one of the greatest gifts that our Rishis have bestowed upon humankind.

An Extraordinary Raw Material

ALTHOUGH ON THE SURFACE the Vasistha-Visvamitra encounter in the Ramayana is a straightforward tale of the material vs spiritual (to put it crudely), its innate value is the manner in which it works on multiple planes. In another sense, Maharshi Valmiki has provided a timeless raw material offering limitless possibilities, another sublime testimony to his deserved prestige as Bharatavarsha’s Adi Kavi. The incident where Kaushika covets Kāmadhēnu, followed by his unprovoked war against Vasistha is entirely Valmiki’s creation, not found in the Vedic annals. The fact that the Vedic accounts of Vasistha and Visvamitra have largely been eclipsed by Valmiki’s rendition in our popular cultural consciousness speaks volumes. Overall, the lasting fame of both the Ramayana and its sagely author rests on sturdy grounds. Or in the memorable words of the eminent Kannada poet Kuvempu whose fame rests on the selfsame Ramayana, “Valmiki’s divine work, akin to the fundamental elements and powers of nature, has ascended to the pedestal of the Veda. But unless we invoke and realise the Ramayana—that Valmiki Maharshi sung so long ago—within ourselves, other efforts at “understanding it” are futile. It has to be recreated in the hearts of both the reader and the listener. But what is required for such a realisation is not a mere worldview but an all-encompassing insight of symbolism (pratimā) because the Ramayana is not merely a worldly saga. It is a profoundly philosophical work depicting the eternal truths hidden behind apparent truths.”

As we shall see, Devudu Narasimha Sastry, in his Mahabrahmana, goes far beyond this ken described by Kuvempu.

A Contrast with Leo Tolstoy

From a different perspective, it is instructive to contrast Kaushika’s desire to possess Kāmadhēnu with a popular contemporary short story by Leo Tolstoy. Titled How Much Land Does a Man Require?, this well-known tale is about a peasant named Pahom. He is promised by the landowning tribe of Bashkirs that for a thousand rubles, Pahom can walk around as large an area as he wants, starting at daybreak, marking his route with a spade along the way. If Pahom returns to his starting point by sunset, all the land his route encloses will be his, but if he does not reach his starting point, he will lose his money and receive no land. Pahom’s greed overtakes him and he begins his journey in heady earnestness. However, as the day begins to end, he realises that he has come far, far away from the starting point. Desperate to amass all this land, he runs breathlessly towards the starting point just before sunset and falls down dead from exhaustion. His servant buries him in a grave measuring six feet long. The question posed by the story’s title is thus answered.

The apparent similarity in both stories is the ultimate futility of human greed. But the yawning contrasts illustrate all the difference between Bharatavarsha and the West.

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

TOLSTOY'S STORY, WHILE EVOCATIVE, works only on the mundane plane, delivering the eternal maxim: excessive greed causes death. Its underlying impulse is thoroughly Christian. Right at the opening of the story when Pahom says that if he had a vast tract of land, “I would not fear the Devil himself!” Unknown to him, Satan has overheard the conversation and feels insulted. Later in the story, Pahom has a dream in which he sees himself lying dead by the feet of the Devil who is laughing victoriously. Clearly, it is Satan who induces greed in Pahom leading him to his fatal end. How Much Land Does a Man Require? is thus an allegory expounding upon Avarice, one of the Seven Deadly Sins enumerated in the Christian doctrine. But it is Tolstoy’s storytelling skill that has elevated it to the status of a classic fable.

Kaushika’s case is markedly different. He is the monarch of the world, not just an ordinary peasant. But avarice spares none. His desire to possess Kāmadhēnu arises from his ignorance, which mistakes her as a magical cow which grants unlimited material bounty. In reality, Kāmadhēnu is a profound symbol of eternal and universal spiritual knowledge, which cannot be owned by anyone, and attempts to do so will assuredly end in disaster. Thus, the hand that freely granted such a grand feast to Kaushika also punished him with equal ferocity. This in turn led not to Kaushika’s death but an inner awakening. It was punishment that purified and then sanctified.

The contrast is therefore pronounced. Tolstoy shows that greed is eternal and death is final, and that the sinful person’s place after death is at Satan’s gloating feet. However, Visvamitra’s story shows one of the finest instances of transcendence. In a nutshell, the difference between Bharatavarsha and the Christian West is the difference in conception between Kāmadhēnu and Satan. We are reminded of the Master, Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri’s words in this context:

Indian culture gives immense importance to individual freedom. Differences of opinion exist among various schools of Indian philosophy… However, all these schools also universally recognise the fact that the individual, based on nature and temperament, is free to lead a life of his choosing. It is because of this that there is no scope for totalitarianism in Indian culture… Indian culture, far from being incomplete like other cultures, has a wholesome beauty… In other ancient cultures, only specific facets of their respective cultures flourished excessively and because it wasn’t balanced by a corresponding development in other facets, they died out in the course of time… Indian culture is thus like Atman, the Self: timeless and imperishable… However, the most distinctive aspect of Indian culture is the strain of Advaita that characterises it. Fear originates in discrimination. From fear originates egotism, intolerance, feelings of superiority-inferiority, and base behavior. Other cultures and religions are premised on an assumption that Otherness is both absolute and unalterable through human efforts. This prohibits free philosophical and spiritual inquiry in these religions. These religions preach that feelings of superiority and inferiority are eternal… Although some religions do have the concepts of God as the Father and Universal Brotherhood, they hold that these concepts apply only to the adherents of those religions and proclaim that the rest are condemned to Eternal Hell. Thus, no such religion can truly have universal appeal. Likewise, any faith or system that preaches Soullessness cannot bring about peace in the world.

Small wonder that no Visvamitra could emerge in the Western literary or philosophical canon.

To be continued

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