ONE OF THE FAMILIAR LAMENTS you will find on The Dharma Dispatch is the manner in which the inexhaustible treasure of Hindu folklore has been buried, almost never to be found again. In sheer numbers, its corpus easily rivals that of the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas. As we’ve remarked on numerous occasions, we find a unique folklore or its tradition every sixty kilometres.
A specialty of Hindu folklore is the manner in which these simple, rustic tales embody profound truths and layers of meaning in their raw simplicity. Like Bharatiyata, our folklore is both dateless and undateable and that’s how it should be.
The folktale that follows is quite extraordinary. On the surface, it is simple and straightforward. The “modern” Hindu mind might even dismiss it as childish. But on deeper reading, we unearth resplendent gems of timeless wisdom. These are the kind of stories that our children must be exposed to at a very young age. Better still if the parent narrates these tales to their kids at bedtime.
IN A CERTAIN VILLAGE, there lived an extremely poor Brahman named Bhikshu, who had nothing to live upon. Every morning he rose in the Brahma-muhurtam, went to the river, bathed, and finished his prayers by the third or fourth ghatika of the day. After this, his wife gave him a copper vessel, cleaned and washed. He took it in his hand and went a-begging street by street, and house by house, reciting the Upanishads.
At about the tenth ghatika, Bhikshu used to return home with the vessel filled with rice and a few vegetables — this was the Bhiksha he typically received. He then performed his noonday Sandhyavandanam and Devata-archana. His wife cooked the rice meanwhile, and after each platter had been duly offered to the household deities, Bhikshu sat down for his meals. Whatever remained after serving her husband, his wife, the Brahmani ate.
This was their daily routine. Sometimes fortune smiled on Bhikshu. On such occasions, he brought more rice and vegetables than was sufficient for one meal for himself and his wife. Then, the hearth was lit up for a second time and a second meal was cooked. If not, they had to be content with a single meal for the day, and passed their night in hunger, lamenting over their poverty.
This kind of life trudged along for several years. Finally, Bhikshu’s wife could no longer bear this existence and told her husband:
“My dearest Bhikshu, we have remained in this misery so long that death seems preferable than life. But the great Mahesvara will not take us to his abode until we have undergone the full punishment for all our past Karma in the form of extreme poverty. And as for yourself, you’ve never cared to learn anything by which you can earn an honourable livelihood. The only thing you seem to have studied in your younger days is unchchhavritti— the collection of alms. I beg you to go somewhere and return with some real education that gets us money.”
Bhikshu felt deeply ashamed when he heard these words. He resolved within himself to start the next morning in search of some knowledge to eke out an honourable living. His wife, too, did not cook all the rice he got that day, but reserved a portion to give him for his journey the following day.
Early next day when Bhikshu went for his bath, his wife awoke and bathing hastily in the well in her garden, cooked the remaining rice. She packed the food and kept it ready for him.
When Bhikshu returned home, he smiled at his wife for her kindness. He passed his left hand under the food bundle and placed it firmly on his left shoulder. His wife then ran out before him to see whether the omen was good. Then she spotted an old lady with a ghat (pot) full of freshly drawn water coming towards her.
“My dear husband, the great Maheshvara favours your journey. A Sumangali is approaching us. Start at once,” she said to her husband.
Bhikshu’s journey was tough and dangerous. He had to pass through a pathless forest in order to reach a city in his quest for useful knowledge. The scorching sun was too much for him, and he was quickly fatigued and hungry. However, he bore this with great fortitude and walked along till he came to the bank of a dry river bed. He saw a small stream flowing gently. His exhaustion was so immense that he took the bundle off his shoulder, and after hanging it on the branch of an ingudi tree, fell into a deep slumber beneath it.
Fortunately for him, the divine parents Parvati and Paramesvara happened to pass that way. The Mother Goddess was very hungry. She said to her husband, “Bhagavan, here sleeps a poor Brahmana. The rice he has brought for his meal is hanging on the Inguli tree. I am very hungry. Let us both have our meal and resume our journey.”
Paramesvara agreed. He himself took down the bundle and went to the flowing stream. Parvati followed him and they both ate their fill and came back, while Bhikshu was still soundly asleep. Parvati looked at him and said in a voice filled with compassion, “Look, Bhagavan, how soundly the poor soul is sleeping! He does not know that we have emptied his bundle of food. What will he do for his meal when he gets up?” Paramesvara smiled at her and said, “don’t you worry.” Then he materialised five gold cups and tied them up in the now-empty bundle of food. The Divine Mother’s face glowed with joy and she hung the bundle with the five gold cups in it on the same Inguli tree. After this, both returned to their home in Kailasa.
IN THE EVENING BHIKSHU AWOKE, and calculated that only five or six ghatikas were remaining before the sun would set. He took down his bundle hastily and ran to the stream. The bundle felt heavier. Puzzled, he opened it. The five gold cups, neatly arranged one over another met his eyes. As he separated the cups, a Being from the Divine World (Devaloka) emerged from each and served him a grand feast comprising scores of varieties of dishes. He was delighted and correctly interpreted the phenomenon as the work of Paramesvara.
When he put the cups back into their original position, the Divine Beings disappeared. He concluded that this was the signal that his poverty had ended. And so, instead of travelling forward, he returned home with a cheerful countenance.
Meanwhile, the poor woman had given away the little rice she had had to her husband, when she sent him on his expedition in search of knowledge. Because there was no one to give her another handful of food, she had fasted the whole night and was praying for death or the return of her husband to put an end to her miseries.
At about the seventh ghatika, she heard a couple of taps on her door followed by a call, “O my Lady!” It was an intimately familiar voice. She immediately ran to open the latch. A small light from a thin single wick was burning in her left hand, while with her right hand she opened the latch. She saw her husband standing there with a cheerful grin.
“Has my lord returned so soon!” she said.
“ Yes, my dear. The gift of Paramesvara has been bountiful,” said Bhikshu. He stepped in, and carefully bolted the door.
Then he told her how Paramesvara had conferred upon him five gold cups of extraordinary merit. To prove that what he told her was not untrue, he fed her by means of the newly acquired vessels. She ate heartily. It was the feast of the eons. She said a grateful prayer to Paramesvara. Then an idea struck her. The proper method to honour Maheshvara was to give a public feast to the entire village. Bhikshu was pleased at this. He said he was fortunate to have a wife and companion who had such a magnanimous character. After all, the divine cups would feed any number of persons.
And so, Bhikshu undertook to invite the next day all the males of the village and told his wife to invite all the females.
After performing his morning ablutions and Sandhyavandanam, Bhikshu went to each house and invited the male inhabitants of the village to a meal at his house. Likewise, his wife invited all the female members. They were uniformly stunned and their response was similarly uniform: “How could a beggar invite the whole village for a feast?” But they did not voice their surprise and agreed to come. They didn’t want to make him feel small by refusing. But they thought that it was better to first eat in their own homes and then attend the feast as a mark of formality and courtesy.
And so, they all duly came to Bhikshu’s house, and seeing no signs of cooking or of a meal in the place, they were all glad of having eaten first in their own homes.
Bhikshu received all the male guests and seated them in their proper places, while his wife received and seated all the female guests. When the arrangements were complete, Bhikshu went inside and opened his bundle of five gold cups and separated them. Several divine damsels came out from each cup, highly ornamented. Wreaths of sweet-scented jasmines were entwined in their coiled locks, and each had a dish in her hand. The first lady spread the plantain leaves. The second sprinkled water and placed a water cup by the side of each guest. The other divine damsels served the contents of their platters onto the plantain leaves of the guests.
It was an incredibly charming sight. The bevy of fair maidens happily went about serving the food until the plantain leaves of all the guests were full. It was also an unfortunate sight. The foolish guests had already eaten at home and so, all they could now do was gape at the sight of this massive spread. Still, they nibbled at the food and congratulated Bhikshu and his wife on this manifestation of the divine favour granted by Paramesvara. Then they went home.
NEWS OF THIS EXTRAORDINARY MIRACLE reached the ears of a rich but scheming Zamindar in the village. He was notorious for his ambition for snatching the wealth and property of others. His name was Ashaavaan.
He came to Bhikshu and requested him in a beguiling voice to narrate the story of how he had obtained the five gold cups. The unsuspecting Bhikshu told him the whole story. Ashaavaan listened intently, pretending to be impressed with Bhikshu.
Then he went home and ordered his wife to give him some food tied up in a bundle. The next morning, he went to the same spot at the river bed where the Ingudi tree stood. There he tied up his rice bundle exactly as Bhikshu had done, and pretended to sleep, but only kept his eyes closed.
That day, too, Parvati and Paramesvara passed that way and ate the food in his bundle. And just like before, Paramesvara placed five cups in Ashaavaan’s bundle. Ashaavaan observed all this slyly and was delighted at the divine favour. He did not even open his bundle, but came running home.
His great idea was to invite all the villagers and give them a grand feast. However, he had not yet tested the boon. Accordingly, he invited the whole village the next morning. This time, the villagers had been wisened from their previous experience. And so, they all came hungry, and sat in a row to feast on the divine dishes to their heart’s content.
Ashaavaan treated them courteously and then went to his room to retrieve the five gold cups. He came to the dining area and opened the cups. The next moment, dozens of barbers poured out of the cup and shaved all the guests clean — males and females. Not a single guest could escape because they were divine barbers.
When the ordeal was finally done, all the guests left the house cursing Ashaavaan.
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