(This is the fifth in a series of excerpts from From the Gita to the Grail: Exploring Yoga Stories and Western Myths by Bernie Clark. The previous excerpt is here.)
Societies are kept functioning through the power of the class systems, through varna, but in India two other tools were also required to keep everything in order: dharma and karma. Together varna, dharma and karma kept Hindu society safe from any internal threats. While conquerors came from outside India and forced new ways onto society, there never occurred a revolution from within Indian society as happened in Europe during the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. The conserving power of varna, dharma and karma was just too strong to be broken from within.[i]
Dharma is the way the universe is supposed to work. Dharma works smoothly because people are following their own personal dharma. Your dharma, which is a microcosm of the universal dharma, is your role in society, your path and your virtue: it is what you were born to do. Dharma also means virtue: if you fulfill your role in life well, you are virtuous: with such virtue comes power, as we will see in the story of Bindumati. Before we hear about her, we need to know a little bit about an Act of Truth.
Hanuman was caught: the soldiers of Ravana were tormenting him and attempting to set his tail on fire. Through the windows of her cell, Sita watched as her would-be rescuer was abused. She had been captured by the demon and taken away to his palace here in Sri Lanka. Her husband, Rama, is still seeking her all over India. Only the great friend and devotee to Rama, only Hanuman, had been able to find out where she had been taken.
Hanuman was the king of the monkeys – he was a super-monkey with super-monkey powers, but with one small defect: he had been cursed. Although Hanuman possessed many miraculous powers, his curse was that, unless reminded, he could never remember that he possessed these abilities. He had tracked Ravana and Sita to the tip of India in the south and was stymied by the open ocean. Ravana had taken Sita aboard his flying chariot to his palace that lay one hundred miles away over open water. Hanuman had no idea how to get to Sita, until someone reminded him, “Hey Hanuman – you can jump!” So jump he did: he found Sita, but was found in return.
The soldiers set fire to Hanuman, but before the fur on his tail could burn, Sita said, “Let the fire be cool.” She performed her Act of Truth and the fire was cooled. Hanuman managed to escape back to Rama, who in due course came to rescue his wife from the ravenous demon.
Rama is one of the ten incarnations of Vishnu: he was sent to earth to rid the universe of the demon Ravana, whose name mutates into the English word ravenous. Ravana’s appetite was unquenchable. Through ten years of tapas, cutting off his own head ten times, he was granted a boon by Brahma. His request at first was for immortality, but this Brahma could not grant: all things end. Ravana then asked to have the power to never be killed by any god, demon or heavenly spirit. This he was given, but in his pride he never thought to ask for protection from mere mortal men. Thus it was that, in answer to Indra’s prayers, Indra having been conquered and humiliated by Ravana, Vishnu incarnated as the great mortal hero, Rama.
This tale of Hanuman’s tail being set alight is one of many in the epic called the Ramayana: such a story it is that in its full telling it extends over seven books and consists of twenty-four thousand verses. It is second only to the grand Mahabhrata in length and importance: these two works form the great epic poems of ancient India, and are as important to the common people there as the Iliad and the Odyssey were to the ancient Greeks.
The Act of Truth that Sita performed allowed her to control the universe. If you have led your life in a way that exemplified dharma, if you always spoke only the truth, if you always followed your own personal duty as defined by society, then you had the power to command the universe by simply speaking your truth. With this background, we can listen to the story of another woman’s Act of Truth: the story of Bindumati.[ii]
King Ashoka was a great conqueror: he subdued all the lands along the Ganges River – from source to sea. His wonderful palace sat in Pataliputra, a great city by the great river. Tired of war, he turned to the peaceful meditations of the Buddha and sent missionaries all over the Greek Empire to share the teachings. Life settled down for Ashoka, but there were still lessons to be learned. This particular lesson was to come from the Ganges herself.
One day the river started to rise: incredibly fast the waters grew higher, closer and closer to the banks that protected the capital city. In alarm the townsfolk watched the rising waters, and among them, standing on the banks of the river, was their king and his ministers. Ashoka knew that in a matter of hours his city would be drowning. He looked to his ministers, sages and brahmins and asked, “Will none of you speak a word of truth and make the waters go down?”
The counselors and priests looked at one another and simply mumbled. No one could perform the Act of Truth that the king requested. But far from the king, at the edge of the crowd, was an old prostitute named Bindumati. Like everyone else, she heard that the king was asking for someone to speak a word of truth. She muttered to herself, “Well, I can speak a word of truth.” Her friends could barely hear her, but took heart. “What was that, Bindi?”
“I can speak a word of truth,” she replied more loudly.
“You can!” squealed her friends, “Then quickly – speak your truth and let the waters recede. Save our city, Bindi!” Bindumati did as bade and sure enough, with a roar, the waters backed up and then started to recede. The city was indeed saved.
At the center of the crowd the king watched the river reverse. In amazement and delight he turned to his priests and ministers and asked, “Who did this? Who caused the river to return to normal?”
All the ministers asked each other, “Did you do that? I can’t do that.” Finally, through the crowd it filtered to the king’s ear – it was Bindumati!
The king went down through the throng to address Bindumati: “Bindumati! You old whore! You, a wicked sinner, did an Act of Truth?” Like the crowd, King Ashoka was astounded that this old prostitute had saved them all.
“Yes!” replied Bindumati boldly; “I have an Act of Truth so powerful that if I wished, I could turn all the gods on their heads.”
The king replied in a hushed and humbled voice, “How can it be that you could perform an Act of Truth?”
“My truth is simple,” came the answer. “In the performance of my duty, I treat all men exactly the same. I curry no favor with handsome or rich men: I do not refuse ugly or displeasing men. I treat the lowborn and the highborn equally. I hold no contempt for anyone and never fawn. I serve only the money that comes to me and do not judge the hands that give it. And it is through this truth that our city has been saved.”
King Ashoka learned that day a valuable lesson: there are people whose dharma may be clean or unclean, but everyone participates in the ways of the universe. Virtue is found anywhere one performs his or her duty perfectly.
If this story was a Western fairytale, what would the king do for Bindumati? He would have rewarded her richly, or he would have taken her back to the palace and married her, like Cinderella. But Bindi is not Cindy: not in India are such the rewards for these heroic acts. Bindumati was following her dharma. She had gained great virtue by being a perfect prostitute, a solid shudra. This virtue gave her the power to perform an Act of Truth, but her reward was not to be found in this life. Through her merit, perhaps, in her next life she would return as a queen, or, even better, as a man.
[i] When new ideas did arise the orthodox Hindus subsumed them into the workings of society rather than let the new replace the old: the Buddhist threat was quite strong for many centuries. Like Jainism, it was a casteless worldview that could have stripped the Hindu concept of varna away, but eventually the attractive teachings of Buddhism were brought into an updated version of Vedanta, and the Buddha was cast as just one more incarnation of Vishnu: the threat was effectively neutralized. With this absorption of Buddhist teachings into Vedanta by the sage Shankara [788 – 820 C.E.], and with the Islamic conquest of India, by the 14th century Buddhism became virtually extinct in India.
[ii] See Philosophies of India by Heinrich Zimmer, (Princeton University Press), 1989, pages 160-162.