Chapter 3 — The Great Drought
Thus have I heard:
AFTER Ruru's first meeting with the black dwarf the lonely hours and days and weeks descended slowly, like falling leaves, upon the breast of Time. Ruru regarded that meeting as an ill omen, which is a warning sent by the Gods, and those who neglect that warning will be afflicted in the end. Oh, if only the holy man would come once more to give him counsel! But he remembered that the visitor had said that they should meet no more. Ruru thought of all the unlucky omens he had ever heard of, such as the meeting of a tiger, cat, hare, or a four-horned deer when one sets out on a journey in the morning; the only thing to do then is to return home and postpone the journey. Or when one starts out on any business and sees a black-faced monkey passing on the right or left, or when a snake crosses in front; then the omen is inauspicious as far as the business is concerned. Or when a hen cackles or lays eggs at night; or when one sees a dust-devil blowing in front along the road; or when a jackal or dog wags his ears; or persons lamenting the dead, a kite screaming while sitting on a tree, or a woman breaking the earthen vessel in which she may be drawing water; or if a person drops his head-gear, or when a man sneezes when one meets him, or a dog howls, a cat passes on the right hand, or when a woman meets a widow, or a person with dishevelled hair, or a woman who carries a plate of flour. Or if one sees the lightning, a smoky fire, a pot of oil, a blind or lame man, or a sick one, a bundle of sticks, buttermilk, an empty vessel, a leper, a beggar, or when one hears a quarrel.
All these omens he knew, and many others, but within his own mind he considered the meeting with the black dwarf as the worst of all. He consoled himself—or tried to—by comparing the dwarf with Prapan cha Buddhi, which means a deceitful-minded person, whose every word is a lie, and he hoped that what the dwarf had said was nothing but a pack of untruths and that he would never meet him again. But deep within his heart he was not so sure. The dwarf had given him a foretaste of passion, which is like the fruit of the colocynth: bitter in its aftertaste.
To distract his thoughts he practised archery for hours, so that he became as proficient as Vishnu, the bow-handed God, and his skill was like that of Arjuna, and he became like Bhūma in strength. He thought that if he could only forget the vision of the glorious maiden that he would be saved; for when a man is attracted by objects of passion he strays from the path of goodness. No man should dwell too long on such things. He should distrust them with all his might, for was there not a saying which taught that confidence in the charms of women robs even wise men of their power of reflection? And is a woman not more dangerous than a wood full of apes and tigers? To give way to passion is to become a tree of evil; and how can such a tree bear the sweet fruit of spiritual beauty?
Yet, as he wandered in the forest at times, it was as if lovely, fanciful shadows lingered between the trees and seemed to glide from stem to stem; ever half revealed, ever half hidden; and it seemed, too, as if they were pitifully turning away from the light which could destroy their frail unreality for ever with a glance. Ruru resembled the night of ignorance in his indecision, waiting for the dawn of wisdom.
"Well," he sighed at times, "as long as life is preserved, anything and everything can be obtained; even Wisdom." But from amidst the rustling leaves of the trees there sounded forth a soft, malicious chuckle.
One day there appeared at the little town nearby a troupe of wandering magicians who erected several tents, in which, for a small piece of money, one could see the wondrous automatic figures and other mechanical contrivances they had invented by means of their magic art (*see footnote).
Ruru went with some of his friends, and all were amazed at the ingenuity of the magicians, and some of the good country folk were not a little frightened. There were machines that flew in the air like birds or butterflies; there was the figure of a great bronze warrior who would engage in single combat with any one who dared to test his powers; there was a magic car, drawn by metal dragons and steered by the ravishing figure of a goddess; there was a wooden bird, bedecked with shining feathers; and if you sat astride it and tapped its head it flew up in the air, and if you tapped its sides with your heels it descended again. There were clocks which struck the hour and gave the correct time of the day by means of indicators on a picture of the moon's face, which had its hare painted on it as well! There were musical instruments with many pipes like flutes through which the water streamed, driving the air, and so producing dulcet music; there were bulbuls and nightingales, who sang the loveliest bird-tunes; there were hissing dragons, roaring tigers, screaming jackals, trumpeting elephants; there were automatic warriors sounding trumpets; dancing and revolving figures of elegant maidens, balls that were kept bobbing up and down in mid-air, ever-burning and inexhaustible lamps, golden peacocks which flapped their wings if you clapped your hands, perpetual fountains from which issued forth music as they spouted water in many colours, and hundreds of other marvels.
Never had Ruru seen such wonders, and for the first time there arose within his mind the longing to go forth in the world and see the great cities and nature scenes of which he had often heard his elders speak. But he suppressed the thought at once, for what would become of his ageing parents if he left them now? Moreover, he did not want to leave them in order that he might indulge in selfish wishes, for he loved them truly; old age had come upon them swiftly of late, that thief of beauty, who makes a man look like a snow-smitten lotus, its petals withered in the icy blast.
As Ruru walked home that evening he beheld in the Arcadian surroundings a number of lovers who conversed with tender smiles and honeyed words. Such things had passed unnoticed in his previous life; but now the vision of the maiden beneath the trees was often with him and all things had taken on new aspects. Apprehensively he looked around, lest the wicked dwarf should chance to be about and mock him with his coarse jests and teasings. But the only ominous thing he saw was the red star of war, shining in the sky above, while baleful-looking watchfires scarred the distant plains where herdsmen watched their flocks, protecting them from the wild beasts that roam about at night. And the dragon of night devoured the hours, and golden stars throbbed in the swarthy density of darkling air. High above rode the full and silver moon, and as Ruru stood still for a few moments to admire sweet Soma's beauty, he saw to his terror that a dark shadow was slowly creeping over it, as if a ghost with ebon wings devoured the glittering orb and hovered above the land, or if the great Shadow of Time loomed up with occult menace. There was a distant sound of shouting which Ruru recognised as the voices of the scavengers; for during an eclipse the Methar caste of scavengers collected alms to appease their god Rāhu, so that he will let go his hold on the eclipsed sun or moon. Rāhu is the Asura who, disguised as a god at the Churning of the Ocean, obtained possession of some of the Amrita, and proceeded to drink it in order to become immortal. But Sūrya and Soma noticed what was going on and they told Vishnu, who instantly cut off Rāhu's head with a discus. As the head contained Amrita it became immortal, and it was filled with revenge against the Sun and Moon and tries to devour them time and again in its hatred. Only the giving of alms to the scavengers who are under his protection, or the making of loud noises, will persuade him to let go his victim. All this Ruru knew, but an eclipse is always a very evil omen and he thought in sudden fright about his parents, so in the menacing darkness he flew home as if he wore winged sandals. "Aid me, oh Protector of all Creatures," he sobbed as he ran, "and protect my poor father and mother."
But all he heard in reply were the despairing sounds of wailing, carried on the wind, and the dark was filled with unseen dangers. The jackals screamed in the deeps of night with terrible voices, like women in dire agony. At one spot near a village he was passing he saw a line of devotees of Rāhu worship him by walking barefoot along a trench filled with burning cinders—to appease the god.
It had become so dark that it seemed as if all the myriads atoms of Time and Space had been gathered together and woven into a velvet curtain which would for ever hide the Light of God. Vague murmurs as of voices of the dead within the grave, vain wailings of a host of souls in torment and lost within the eloquent solitudes of black gloom sighed all around him. It was as if a universe of death was waiting for the Word to bring it back to Life.
Ruru reached his home at last, and, panting like a hunted deer, stormed into the room . . . . where his parents lay fast asleep within the arms of one another. The knot of pain was loosened by the tears of gratitude that fell from his eyes as Ruru sought his humble couch and fell into exhausted sleep in the midst of his prayers and thanks to God.
Ruru might well have felt apprehensive about the evil omens of that night, for a great trial and disaster was hovering over the fair lands of India, ready to strike terror in the bravest hearts, bringing ruin and death to many. The rains were already overdue, and torrents of heat drowned all the land with blistering waves, burning up the crops and drying out the brooks and streams, till even the joyful voices of the very waterfalls were stilled. The sky had lost its blue and looked like a sea of molten copper, in which the sun blazed forth like an all-destroying flaming beacon. There was not the slightest vestige of a cloud, however small, and a hot wind scorched all the grass, the corn, the trees and flowers, and raised huge clouds of choking dust. The cattle were dying in the fields, the birds were silent, and the people were listless and only moved around at night, although even then the heat was unbearable.
In their enfeebled condition, Ruru's parents suffered much, and though Ruru wandered far and wide he could not add provender to the meagre store of food within the hut. The only living thing he saw on all his wanderings was a great baboon who sat in the crest of a tree, scanning the surrounding grounds; still like a statue he sat there watching, his wicked eyes alert for enemies or danger and perhaps for grubs to eat; for who can tell the thoughts of an ape? But even the insects seemed to have disappeared, and soon the tortures of thirst began to levy toll of human beings, for there was little to drink anywhere.
"Alas," said Ruru to himself when he returned home one day, empty-handed as usual, and saw the silent sufferings of his dear father and mother: "Fate has opened to us the door of calamity. It is true that one cannot acquire knowledge by vows and fasting, for learning cannot be obtained without study. In the same manner one cannot find food by simply praying for it, nor can one obtain it when all the lands are burned up so that there is none left, no matter how hard one seeks. Likewise are the Sages easily induced to listen to reason, but the greatest Sage with all his powers of listening to reason and giving good counsel, cannot induce nature to grow food without water. Surely, the Rakshasas, Pishāchas, the Bhūtas, and all the other demon forces hostile to mankind have brought about this state of affliction"; and he went forth to worship the sole of the foot of the god Kartti Keya, but without results in the shape of food and drink.
One day, by accident, he came across a number of women who had set up a plantain tree during the night in honour of the god Hudum Deo, and they danced around it naked, singing songs the while to propitiate the god and induce him to send rain. But all of no avail.
At eve, the dull red glow of the sinking sun faded into citron tints and then to grey, and the mystic shadows of the night silently enthroned reluctant earth, which ever turns to the rays of the sun as to a new birth, but always must succumb to the dark symbol of sorcery and death at the end of the day . . . to reach another incarnation with the dawn. But now each dawn was but another death, and the blossom of Ruru's spirit was turned to dust and ashes when it seemed to him that at every new sunrise he beheld instead of golden Sūrya, great Asmodel, the terrible Lord from Venus, descending in tawny splendour with his aureole of Flames blazing in magnificence from out the stellar deeps; for the upper air was so thick with the dust of burning earth that the sun's normal beauty at sunrise was almost extinguished.
In the meantime, his parents became weaker and weaker and were no longer able to leave their couch, where all day long and all the night they lay panting with heat and thirst. And Ruru roamed far and wide on his never-ending quest for food and drink for his beloved old parents, once so full of vigour and kindness and now so helpless and sad. He surpassed the Heroes of the Three Worlds in valour and perseverance and went farther and farther afield in his endless search, so hopeless and in vain. Then was added another terror when deep down in the inscrutable abyss of the nether gods was heard an ominous rumbling like far-off thunder and the ground suddenly heaved up and sank like the waves of an angry ocean.
"Oh, Brahmā," cried Ruru in despair as he thought of his father and mother at home, "oh, hearken to my prayer, and send relief!" A tongue of flame from heaven was the fiery answer, and in the distance could be seen a heavy cloud of smoke above the forest. Ruru ran quickly to the top of a hill and watched from its high parapet the fire spreading in his direction. The sky, incarnadined with distant purple clouds was big with coming storms. And now came the first gust of a choking hot wind, and the forest was like straw to the sylvan fire fanned by it and like a tornado the flames came roaring along. And from out of their hiding places in the woods came the noise of frightened animals. There was a shrieking of startled birds, the gasping sobs of beasts in terror, the angry humming of the fretting wings of infuriated bees and wasps. And all the time the lightning cleaved the sultry air and struck great showers of leaves with rending, tearing flame from crashing trunks and branches. Indra, the wielder of the thunderbolt had mounted Airavata, the elephant of the gods, who cleft the hills asunder with one mighty stroke of his great tusks, and a fearful storm raged.
The sleek and slinking forms of fierce leopards snaked their sinuous bodies towards Ruru, angry tails lashing their yellow, spotted sides. Adders and snakes sneaked silently along in urgent celerity, their eyes reflecting the flashes of flurried lightning; huddling onwards odiously, swaying their elongated hips like sorry queans pursued by burly bullies.
Now there was another heaving of tumultuous earth, and amid the crashing of the trees and rocks and howling of the animals, Ruru was hurled down from that hill and lay stunned for a moment. Then came into his mind the anguish of his parents who by now must be frantic with anxiety about their only son; and he ran, and ran, and ran as fast as he could to get home, while in the depths of night and darkness, lit up by the flames from heaven and the burning forest, the dim trampling of unholy forces was felt, gathering their armies of destruction; and the formidable clamour, sounding from afar drew near apace. The vivid lightning, dressed in purple robes of flaring ferocity, like arrowed Words of Wrath from the fierce Sons of Fohat, now glared above his head and struck in all directions; and from the tumultuous fires of the wood, mingled in manifold tongues of crimson flames, leapt elemental sparks in irate passion. The thunders crashed unceasingly, and the uproar was so great that it seemed to Ruru as if all the planets and the sun and moon were falling with fearful speed into the great abyss of Space to smash in detonating booms upon the granite floor of Universe's lowest recesses while malicious goblins danced in mad malignity.
At last he reached the hut, and after entering it with sobbing breath he beheld his father and mother lying on their couch, their smiling, peaceful faces lit up by the lightning. Dead still they lay there with joined hands, side by side, the lustre gone from their lifeless eyes, which seemed to look to far abodes where they beheld the unutterable wonder of Divine Bliss and sweet rest after their life of labour.
With a loud cry Ruru collapsed in a heap at the foot of the bed and lay unconscious for an hour. When he came to, he stumbled up and closed the eyes of his beloved ones and reverently pulled a piece of cloth across their faces. When he looked outside, the forest was still blazing and it was as if he could see evil forms leaping amid the flames. The awful thunders of God's wrath were dumb; his lighting rods had ceased to strike; and all nature now awaited with beating heart the final cataclysm which was bound to break, rending and destroying that witches brood within the ardent fires.
And suddenly there was a huge flare and a final clap of thunder, ear-splitting in its fury, and at the same moment the earth rose up once more in mad convulsions, and then the rains came down in mighty floods, and soon great torrents of water descended from the still swaying mountains, sweeping all before them in their barbarous precipitation, and all the land was flooded and the waters were covered with the wrecks of trees and homes, dead animals and drowning, shrieking human beings, till Ruru turned away with anguish in his eyes; for who can withstand or bear the fury of the lower gods?
At last a dreary sun lit up the drifting, driving clouds, and Ruru, from the small elevation on which the hut was built, now faced the sullen inundation, roaring past in dreadful haste, and the waves were bestrewed with pallid foam and bobbing, jerking corpses which seemed to writhe in vain contortions, as if those flaccid, pendulous remains were making final efforts to escape from the squalid grip of the strumpet—drab corruption.
*All the inventions described are historically correct for ancient India and other lands of the East.
Next: Section Two — The Hexagon — EARLY GLIMPSES.
Chapter 4 — The Quest
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