Hindus and Buddhists are brought up to consider the inevitable dukkha that sentient beings experience throughout their lifetime. Western scholars have translated dukkha, a sanskrit word, as suffering which can be both physical and mental. Physical dukkha then, if not very serious, can be eradicated in a reasonable time but mental suffering, such as bereavement, can last till one loses consciousness, for example, in death. For a long time in India, a serious persistent recommendation has been 'tyaktena bhunjita', a Sanskrit word, which can be expressed as 'be detached from the object of your desire and then enjoy it'.
Such an axiom has bewildered many Indians because if the object of your desire, say, a pot of gold, is no longer availabe to you what is there to enjoy? For the last ten years Raghu, a man of 51 years, listened and tried to comprehend such Hindu-Buddhist precepts. Books, as known in modern times, were not available in India in the 18th century but Indian scholars and philosophers wrote about such subjects on dried palm leaves and, of course, delivered their theses orally to interested audiences.
Raghu, lived with his large extended family in the black town of the city of Calcutta and whenever he came home to his ancestral home in Agradip, a village in today's West Bengal, he spent most of his spare time with the family purohit. A purohit, always translated by the then British as priest and accepted without question by Indians while speaking in English is not quite correct. A purohit is one who conducts rites and rituals related to religion, births, deaths and various pujas. Pujas are procedures employed to look after devas or devis although petitionary mantras are addressed to them by the purohit for material gain or warding off dangers, such as those arising from disease.
Rghu's purohit was, unusually, a man who was thirsty for knowledge; he read available writings and debated his own theorems with other scholars. Just by associating with him Raghu learned a lot about Hinduism and Buddhism.
The other source of information on the subject was one Brahmin sahib of Calcutta where Raghu had a large house in the black town in view of the fact that he was an employee of the East India Company. He became wealthy very quickly and passed all his activities to his only son, Gopal, a very competent 28 years' old young man. Brahmin sahib was an English man holding high office in John company.
To the astonishment of everybody in Bengal he studied the esoteric texts of Hinduism in Sanskrit and spoke Bengali.
Governor Drake was requested to relinquish his high office with John Company and one Harry Verelst became the Governor of the East India Company after Robert Clive in 1767. Raghu liked him particularly when such an important sahib stated on one occasion that the condition of the people in Hindustan is on the verge of ruin; this fine country which prospered. Raghu understood that the governor was implying the culprits for India's ruination were the foreign invaders who ruled Indians from the 8th century till today in 1767. Unfortunately, he heard him say also that the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle was correct when he said that the Asiatics were servile by nature- hence they endure despotic rule. Verelst also believed that the Europeans were imbued with the principles of honour, good faith, rectitude and humanity. Raghu felt disappointed at Verelst's inference that Indians were without the qualities that made a nation
civilised and sophisticated. He got pushed into the negative coordinates and remained there. His pragmatism made him ask the governor sahib to let him retire because of his advanced years but let his son Gopal replace him. In view of Raghu's faithful
service to the company for so many years, his request was granted in full.
Raghu was glad about his retirement and the closeness of his large family made him joyful but his life centred around Savitri, his wife, who was 45 years old. They had happy times in Raghu's family home in Agradip about 80 miles north of Calcutta.
Since his boyhood, Raghu roamed both the negative and positive coordinates of life. The former created despair, the latter happiness and optimism, that is, dukkha and its opposite, sukh, respectively. The close proximity of the members of his family filled him with immensurable depth of happiness but thoughts came to him with saddening recurrence that he may die prematurely creating debilitating grief for his life-long companion, his wife Savitri; he then roamed the negative coordinates and sank deeper and deeper into the treacherous quicksand of dukkha.
He said one day to Brahmin sahib, “I wish I was dead sahib. I cannot bear the quagmire of dukkha.”
“No, no,” admonished Brahmin sahib. “Know this: human beings and who knows possibly all conscious creatures go about in a self-centred manner without quite knowing the ten fetters that obstruct them from obliterating dukkha. The fetters are: Ego, Doubt, Attachment, Craving, Greed, Ill will, materialism, Conceit, Dissatisfaction and Ignorance.”
Raghu said, “In that case sahib if I abandon pran, life breath, all the fetters will fall away from me as the autumn leaves do from a deciduous tree.”
“But,” said Brahmin sahib, “your pran will take resort in some other body due to your karma prabaha, karmic flow, of this life.”
Seeing Raghu's puzzled looks, Brahmin sahib said, “In the Chhandogya Upanisad,
mantra No. 549 says : The way the many spokes are held by the hub of a wheel, all sentient beings in our phenomenal world are anchored in pran in like manner. The motive power for all things kinetic is pran.”
Brahmin sahib noticed Raghu's restlessness and lack of attention. He was glad when Raghu sought his permission to leave but added, “The Sanskrit version is,
Jatha Ba Arah Nabhou Samarpita,
Ebamasmin Prane Sarbam Samarpitam,
Pranah Pranena Jati.”
Raghu wrote the sloka down but his mind wandered. He kept thinking of asking
Savitri to go to Chitpur with him. The region was several miles to the north from their house but he was certain that Gopal could organise a hackney-carriage from John Company; he could when he worked for them! The thought of Brahmin sahib being displeased with him for his inattentiveness kept nagging at him but he managed mainly to dwell in the positive coordinates. However, he was engulfed in a state of despair within a week. The reason was that Savitri was too fond of the proximity of her large family. So much so that she would not go to Chitpur and be away from them even for a day.
Wthin a month Raghu went to Chitpur by himself and then took a ferry to go up north. A shiver went up and down his spine as the boat left Baranagar; came the French city of Chandernagar then the Dutch Chinsura; then Niasarai, Patli, Catwa, Palashi Grove, Palashi house, Daudpur, Mancar, Kasimbazar and then Murshidabad, the capital city of Moghal Bengal. Raghu disembarked and within a week found a boat bound for Kasi, up northwest, some 700 miles from Calcutta.
Often in the past the purohit of Agradip advised him to engage in dhyan if he wanted to put in practice the axiom, tyaktena bhunjita.
The closest approximation to dhyan, a very ancient Indian practice, is what today passes as meditation. In Pali, another ancient Indian language and much used in Buddhism, the word for dhyan is jhana. A Jhanic state is single-pointedness to nirvan. A human being like ,say, a flower blossoms and passes away. The state of ceasing- to- be is nirvan whose beginning can be compared with the blowing out of a flame as in a lamp or candle.
Raghu was determined to practise dhyan which will disentangle him from his attachment to Savitri so that he could achieve nirvan. Kasi was the ideal place to find a guru who was authentic. Within a few weeks he found one who agreed to help him. He had to learn Padmasan. Sitting cross-legged was natural to him. The back had to be straight while in a seated position and lightly balanced on the pelvis. Both hands had to rest on the lap lightly, one above the other, the thumb-tips touching.
Raghu decided to concentrate first on a bunch of flowers which he picked himself.
After taking a careful look at them, he took padmasan, closed his eyes and began to recall what they looked like. He fell asleep. As he awoke, the flowers were gone but a very young goat was standing there looking at him. Raghu tried the same exercise day after day with exactly the same result involving the flowers and the goat but no progress regarding his quest which brought him to Kasi. A couple of months passed and Raghu's money nearly ran out because he was in the habit of buying dhoti and kurta and never gave up his two sumptuous daily meals in the roadside eatery. Guru knew of Rahu's activities and failure.
“Who is your ista-devata?” asked Guru one day. For our purpose we could say that an ista-devata is one's personal devata who helps him or her if petitionary mantras are chanted to him or her pertinaciously.
“Gautam Buddha,” replied Raghu immediately as he remembered his statuette in the puja room of his house
in the black town of Calcutta.
“Go and buy a murti of Gautam Buddha. Forget about the flowers and meditate on him,” said the guru.
Raghu did just that but, for good measure, he bought one each of Visnu and Shiva. “You can't rely on these devas and devis. Safety in numbers,” muttered Raghu.
He still did not succeed in carrying out even one single session of dhyan successfully but he managed to do the accounts of many rich businessmen in the nearby city centre which he now knew very well and earned quite a bit of money.
The bulk of his current income went to Savitri with the help of one of the businessmen who had connection with John Company in Calcutta. He refrained from divulging his whereabouts to his wife but sent her money regularly. The goat proved to be a liability as it followed him everywhee and developed a taste for vegetables which he had to buy. Raghu roamed the negative coordinates nearly all the time.
One day the goat disappeared. Raghu spent all morning looking for him. He went to his eatery by noon and was surprised to see the owner waiting for him.
“Have you lost your goat?” he asked. The owner took him to an eating place belonging to a Muslim, catering for his co-religionists about 200 yards up the road.
“Can you smell?” asked the owner. Raghu smelled what to him was strongly spicy and not unappetising. “That is meat they are cooking”, said the owner.
Raghu's heart melted. He muttered, “Stupid goat; stupid, stupid goat.” He himself went without any food.
Tragedy struck again. Thieves raided his little room attached to Guru's cottage and stole the statuettes, clothes and money.
Guru said, “Think of someone and be one-pointed towards him or her. That person is your raft. When he or she disappears from your consciousness while you are in the jhanic state, you have reached the opposite shore. That is very, very close to nirvan.”
Day after day, taking padmasan, Raghu shut his eyes. Savitri appeared ; the precautious teenager in pigtail; the woman in her third decade in a green sari; the pomp and splendour of their marriage ceremony at midnight. He recalled his running away to the black town with his family. He saw his wife everywhere and she never disappeared. Yet she was beyond his reach. He rmembered helplessly the torment of Brahmin sahib's
Tantalus, a son of Zeus, who was forced to stand in clear clean water which ebbed away each time he was thirsty; who was compelled to stand under hanging grapes which would move beyond his reach whenever he was hungry and tried to pick them.
Raghu lost his appetite and became ill frequently. He just sat by the river bank most of the time when well. He shed tears occasionally which was uncharacteristic of him.
Guru called him. “You are a man of attachment,” he said. “You are attached to your family. You miss Calcutta. You even grieve over your goat. Above all you are lost without Savitri. Go home. Nirvan is not for you.”
Raghu nearly swooned. Home! Savitri! He fell on his knees and did pranam by touching Guru's feet with his forehead three times. He gave him Guru dakshina in the form of some money as a resident disciple does to his preceptor at the end of his instruction. He then ran to the river and caught a boat. It took a few days but he arrived at Kasimbazar. He disembarked because he would have to catch another boat which does not leave for Calcutta till the following morning. As he walked about in town he was glad to see the same hustle-bustle; sahibs adorned in abundant garments and huge hats; Indians in dhotis and robes; hotels and shops. He ate a hearty meal and boarded the boat for Calcutta which was waiting and busy. He could not sleep but time passed easily as he saw workers loading the boat with saltpetre, calico, indigo, jute, rice and lentils among others. In the morning, still in darkness, he jumped into the river and bathed. Expectedly, the sky effused light and the scanty, flimsy clouds reflected the crimson sun as it approached the eastern horizon. The boat sailed in the southerly direction. Raghu watched the birds and the beasts on the shores of river Bhagirati. He saw people walking, bathing and chanting mantras to the sun. He sang himself out of tune but inaudibly.
Raghu roamed the positive coordinates with reckless abandon as he sailed through the familiar route he had taken so often in the past many years; came the town, Catwa, then Patli, Khulna, Niasarai and Candernagar. The boat sliced through the laminar river and docked near Chitpur. Raghu disembarked and walked as fast as he could those many miles home. An excited family fussed over him.
While alone in the night in their bedroom, Savitri said, “Your skin has gone darker. Were you roaming in the sun? You lost so much weight. Were you not eating properly?”
In spite of being with his wife again, Raghu got trapped in the negative coordinates. An unceasing forebodement engulfed him and he got enmeshed in fear, anxiety and uncertainty. He thought sorrowfully of the fragility of living. Raghu held Savitri's hand tightly and uttered falteringly, “I wanted to deny myself this sparsha (contact) and hence vedana(pain) so that there will be no more trisna(thirst) in me and I will be detached from you.”
Effulgent Chandu Omol, the moon, the formidable wife of Sing bonga, the sun, the very superior female deo of the adibasis, the first peoples of India, glistened and shone. She poured waves of soothing, loving light into the room of the couple through the open window.
Savitri asked softly, “Will you try again? Will you let go of me?”
Raghu's voice broke. He held her tightly as he muttered, “Never, never again. It hurts so to let go.”