Ancient Vedic tale of wisdom retold by U. Mahesh Prabhu
Long ago there lived a Sanyasi (ascetic sage) who roamed the villages across the great Gangetic plain along with his small group of followers. During the day, they would collect the Bhiksha (food offerings) from houses, and at night either enjoy the hospitality of a kind and generous host or simply take shelter under a tree.
One evening, the Sanyasi was sitting under a banyan tree addressing a group of faithful. His audience, as usual, were spell bound for hours as he delivered discourses on the Bhagavad Gita and its relevance to the common man.
After the discourse, everyone left, discussing among themselves the sage’s words of wisdom. Only one man stayed back. He was Birendra, a petty thief, who had wandered in on seeing the crowd and sat down. He was hoping to get a chance to pick a pocket or two. In the beginning his attention kept wandering as he searched for prosperous looking faces. Gradually he was drawn to what the Sanyasi was saying. The Sanyasi spoke in simple words which even an illiterate boor like him could understand. As he listened carefully, he found himself absorbed in Sanyasi’s words.
After the discourse, when everyone had left, Birendra approached the Sanyasi with folded hands and a lot of hesitation.
“Swami, I am Birendra, a petty thief.”
“Birendra, you have come to the wrong person. I have nothing to offer you but my wisdom. Steal that,” Sanyasi said, smiling benevolently, as his followers laughed.
“Swami, your words have made a great impact on me. Suddenly my entire life flashed before my eyes and I realized that I have completely wasted it. I have decided to change. I want to lead an honest life. I want to repent.”
“That is very good. It is never too late to realize one’s mistakes,” Sanyasi said, looking at his disciples who nodded in agreement.
“Swami, I want to become your disciple. I want to be with you wherever you go.”
“My dear Birendra, I do not think you realize how tough an ascetic’s life is. It may look easy but it requires a lot of dedication and determination.”
“Please, Swami, give me a chance. If you don’t accept me, I will have no choice but to go back to my old ways or end my life.”
Sanyasi closed his eyes in deep concentration and then said. “Ok, from today you are one of my disciples. But you must be careful. Any sign of misbehaviour and I will throw you out!”
Birendra nodded humbly, then bending down, prostrated before the Sanyasi.
The next day onwards, Birendra was one of Sanyasi’s band of followers. He shaved his head, wore saffron clothes and lived the life of a wandering monk. Sanyasi was very happy with Birendra who was now called Birendranand. Wherever Sanyasi gave a discourse he would give the example of Birendra. “On listening to my words of wisdom even a criminal has become a sanyasi.” He would declare proudly.
One night, Sanyasi and his followers reached the outskirts of the village called Lohban and camped under a peepul tree. It was cold.
“Can someone go to the village and get some firewood so that we can keep ourselves warm?” Sanyasi asked.
Birendranand volunteered and set off quickly to fulfil his master’s command.
It was pitch dark. All windows and doors were shut. Birendranand went from door to door hoping to see a light or movement somewhere. It was all quiet; everyone seemed to be asleep. Birendranand didn’t want to disturb the villagers in the dead of night. He was wondering what to do, when he heard a familiar sound. He looked around. It seemed to be coming from a small hut in one corner of the village. It was as if someone was frying something.
He walked quickly towards the hut. It had a small window. Birendranand stood on his toes and peeped in.
A young woman, clad in a tattered saree, was sitting on her haunches in front of the fireplace. A frying pan was on the fire.
Two children, a girl aged five and a boy aged four were huddled in a corner. They were thin with their bones sticking out of their torn clothes.
As Birendranand watched, he found the mother doing something strange. Every few seconds she would take a few drops of water and sprinkle on the pan. She also kept mumbling to her children. Birendranand could not make out what she was saying. As Birendranand watched, she kept repeating the same thing.
Curiosity overtook Birendranand. Standing at the door he said, “Mother, I am Birendranand, a humble disciple of a great Sanyasi.”
The young woman was surprised to see a person in saffron clothes. She stood up and walked towards Birendranand and touched his feet. “Holy sire, I am indeed fortunate to have your blessed feet enter my humble abode. However, I am equally unfortunate because I have nothing to give you.”
“Mother, I have been observing you for the last few minutes. All you have been doing is sprinkling water on the pan. Why have you been doing that?”
“Holy sire, there is not a grain of rice in the house. My children have been screaming the whole evening for food. By sprinkling water on the pan I was giving them the impression that food was being cooked. The sound of water on the pan kept them under the illusion that something was being fried. Poor wretches, they are too innocent to differentiate between reality and illusion. See, with the hope that food is getting ready, they have gone to sleep.”
Birendranand looked at the two kids huddled together like pups. Tears welled up in his eyes. Without uttering a word, he walked out of the hut.
He searched the lanes of the village and finally found what he was looking for – a grocery store. He worked on the huge lock on the front door and within minutes, had succeeded in opening it.
“It seems I have not forgotten my skills,” he muttered and went in. He emerged ten minutes later, carrying two sacks. He went into the hut and placed the sacks at the woman’s feet.
“Mother, these provisions should last you for three months at least,” he said and walked out before the woman could ask any questions.
When he returned, he found Sanyasi still waiting for him.
Birendranand narrated the entire story.
“What? I cannot believe it!” Sanyasi jumped up. His face turning red. “You committed theft? My follower is a thief? What will people say?”
“But… sire… the poor children….”
“Stop talking nonsense! You cannot justify your action by making lame excuses. A sin is a sin. The end cannot justify means. This is your last day with me. Tomorrow morning I want you to go away. I do not ever want to see your sinful face again.”
The next morning, when Birendranand opened his eyes, there was a dazzling light in the sky. He looked around. Sanyasi and his followers were getting up, rubbing their eyes. A huge bird-like creature was descending from the sky.
“It is a Pushpak Vimana (celestial aircraft of the gods),” someone shouted.
“Yes, you are right. I think Indra – the king of Heavens – has sent his messenger to take me to heaven,” Sanyasi said.
His followers prostrated before him and he raised his hand in benediction. “Today my moment of nirvana has come. Finally, I will be freed from the endless cycle of birth and death. I will be attaining salvation. My entire life, I have never deviated from the path of Dharma. I have lived like a monk and never committed a single sin. And this is a reward for all my noble deeds.”
As a young man clad in fine clothes got down from the Vimana. Sanyasi stepped forward, “I am Brahmadutt. I have been sent by lord Indra,” he said.
“I know, I know. I was just telling my disciples the same thing. I am ready to go with you.”
“I have not come to take you. I am here for Birendranand.” Brahmadutt said, looking around.
“Birendra,” Sanyasi couldn’t believe his eyes, “that thief!”
“Yes, his kind act last night surpassed all the virtuous deeds of yours. If the intent and end is noble, then the means are not all that important. Lord Rama killed Vali by treacherous means. Lord Krishna resorted to deceit quite a few times in the Mahabharata, because he knew the end was right. Even though Birendranand’s means were improper, his end was virtuous.”
Sanyasi stood speechless as Birendranand followed Brahmadutt into the Pushpak Vimana and started towards the Indra Lok (Heaven).