The Curse of Saraswati

by Ricky Toledano

“But why help just Brahmin children? Why not help all children? Why not help all those poor and in need of food? If you want to love God so much, why don’t you clean up this sacred ghat – that you say is the holiest in all the world – so that those cows, right there, don’t choke to death on that plastic filth? Why can I not leave here and feed any children I want?” barked my very good friend in a battle stance, pointing to the cows in fury. Even if he weren’t among my closest of friends, I might have assessed astrologically that the mild, diplomatic Libran – quite like myself – had been dangerously crossed when he had approached the lake so peacefully, freeing him to restore justice at any cost.

And I mean any.

Incensed that the alleged Brahmins had the audacity to try to coerce him into handing over money, my burly and handsome friend had silenced the scrawny five of them. They made a pitiful lot: with no help from me, he could have smashed them for daring to block our path. He had already been on such a rant that I considered my options when I saw things escalate in his reaction to what I deciphered had been the Brahmins’ unscrupulous attempt to save their own face with a condescending retort. They made the treacherous miscalculation of disregarding my friend’s questions as ignorant, his attitude typical of someone from a “lower” caste who did not understand the Vedic Tradition.

Not only had they insulted his intelligence, but they had piqued what had already been the tingling opinion of my rationalist and argumentative friend regarding the twistedness of caste prejudice, and – if caste was indeed the card they wished to throw down – it was then that they heard the roar of a warrior. They quickly scattered, realizing they had chosen the wrong tourist to intimidate with what has become known in the locale as the “flower scam”, whereby a flower is pushed into the palm of the hand of an unaware tourist upon arrival at the holy lake, and which can only be released according to a tradition, which naturally must be conducted by Brahmins and requires certain “donations”.

I watched them scurry away, abject looking, trying to maintain both dignity and what had distastefully been revealed as an ugly business. It was obvious that they had not only run from my friend, but also fled his questions, which remained unanswered and echoing on the ghats of the holy lake of Pushkar, the teardrop of Brahma, the sacred place of pilgrimage to what has traditionally been the site of the only temple to Brahma – the Creator – in all of India. Although the temple had been founded in antiquity by none other than Sri Adi Shankaracharya himself, becoming a center of pilgrimage for centuries, the city had already become a hippy tourist mecca before my first visit 10 years prior.

I could not but help to feel a little responsible for the mishap at the ghat. Knowing the limits of my friend’s tolerance, I would not have suggested going to Pushkar if I had known its religiosity had taken on an unsavory edge. Ten years ago, I found the ghats of the city peacefully empty and conducive to reflection. My friend believed me about the past, but what seemed not to have changed with time were the same kinds of tourists, both conventional and escapist, as well as the murmurs about how to curb some of the more outlandish behavior from foreign visitors – such as bringing alcohol and wearing inappropriate clothing to the holy city – while trying to reconcile a lucrative tourist business, local customs, serious enviro-infrastructure issues, and of course, the worship of Brahma.

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Curiously, the Great One – who together with Shiva and Vishnu form the trinity of Hinduism – goes virtually unworshipped by Hindus. There are many stories as to why, but most refer to variations of the curse of Saraswati, his greatest creation and his wife – Knowledge – who scorned him for his lust. Like many a great artist, the Creator fell in love with his creation passionately, so that He couldn’t keep his eyes off of Her, Knowledge being his first and most beautiful of all his creations. Besides representing each of the four Vedas, it is said that the four faces of Brahma that peer into each direction had sprouted to keep his gaze upon his wife who was always fleeing. Saraswati became irritated by His persistent stare and leapt upward into the universe in order to avoid his gaze. It was then that his legendary fifth head sprouted from the top of his crown and was severed by Shiva, to whom she had repaired for help. The odd and unruly couple, Creation and Knowledge, eventually begat All that there is, but not without their abrasive misunderstandings, which, legend has it, culminated at the great yajna, or fire sacrifice, held at Pushkar in the presence of all the Gods – except Saraswati.

The Great Lady had been late due to all the duties that Knowledge requires and the fire ceremony could be not conducted by the Gods without their consorts, according to ritual. When Saraswati finally arrived – only to discover that a new wife, Gayatri, had been procured in her absence and was seated next to her husband – she lashed out in a mutiny that none would soon forget. Cursing her husband, she proclaimed Brahma would be worshipped by no one, except for one day a year and at one place— Pushkar. Others of the pantheon did not escape her wrath. Several Gods were forsaken as accomplices in providing Gayatri, and her curses sowed the seeds of all they would suffer as told in the legends and myths of the Puranas. And even her sister Goddesses – Wealth and Power who had always upstaged her with their glamour and snide comments as to what use was Knowledge without their Resources and Action, respectively – got a nice piece of Knowledge for refusing to leave their husbands’ sides to escort her out.

Her relationship with her sister goddesses had always been difficult, if only for the fact they were naturally inseparable, since together they formed another trinity, shakti, the very energy of this universe. Although she was just as beautiful as her sister goddesses, she was always curiously dressed in lifeless yet pure white and with no need for the colorful adornments that beckon attention. How they loved to remind her that having sufficient resources and taking action were necessary for knowledge. As Wisdom, she had always smiled, with no need to challenge them with the question: what would be a life without meaning? But it was there in her mutiny that she reminded them that a life dedicated to power and wealth – as opposed to knowledge – was worthless, producing nothing: “Barren”, she cursed them, grabbing her veena before exiting and retreating to the highest mount above Pushkar to be alone, which is probably where she would have rather been anyway, since the loner goddess had always been uninterested in pomp and ceremony.

It was not the first time the Brahma’s lovely wife had left him speechless. When he lost his fifth head, it was because he had committed the most basic of mistakes. It might even be called the original mistake – one attributed to mortals, not Gods.

The Creator had disrespectfully treated his Creation as if it were an object – not a subject – as if it belonged to him, thereby generating duality, division, and thus submitting himself to desire by coveting an object, as if an object had the power of fulfillment.  Brahma had fallen under the spell of the very illusion he created. Blinded, he could not see that he was both the cause and the form of All that there is. Mesmerized by the beauty of an object, he longed to possess it, as if it weren’t already his, as if it had been missing, as if it could bring fulfillment, as if happiness depended upon an object, something external, which was not already a part of all Creation.

You would think Brahma would have learned from his mistake. But then he slipped again at the great yajna in Pushkar, committing the same mistake when worrying about mere ritual: in his impatience, he treated Knowledge as if She were replaceable, dispensable.

This original mistake is called ignorance, the cure for which is called knowledge, more specifically the Knowledge of Brahman, as it is taught by the Vedas. In fact, it is self-knowledge: the wisdom contained in the awareness of oneself as indivisible from the universe; that there is no difference between creator and creation, subject and object; that duality is but an illusion for however practical and alluring an object may be. Therefore, there is nothing in this universe that can be acquired, obtained, possessed or consumed that can provide fulfillment. The only thing that can provide liberation from the endless cycle of desire is the self-knowledge that is Plenitude. It is the Wisdom that there is nothing missing: one is already the Happiness one seeks.

And Plenitude cannot simply be replaced by a substitute.

That is why Knowledge is still worshipped in her beautiful form by Hindus until this very day, seeking her blessing, the greatest gift of all. As for her husband, well, the Great One has remained worshipped in Pushkar, despite all those who have asked why worship such a desirous god who has already fulfilled his role: Creation of this and all worlds has already been done.

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My good friend lived up to his name, the Sanskrit root for which means he who his mighty, all-pervading, victorious – at least his furious questions certainly were. While I was proud of his acumen for questioning dogma and unwavering in the face of what we had concluded was hypocrisy, one should never be too certain of their footing, even when standing on the firmest ground from which to judge others. Trap doors and quicksand have a funny way of going undetected by those who believe they have all the information necessary to reach a conclusion, if not for the fact that even gods have fallen into such snares.

I started my inspection of my footing by considering that a great many Brahmins – the so-called “high caste” – do often live in conditions of abject poverty across India. This situation may indeed have many reasons, but not the least of which is that the unlucrative trades of priests and teachers have gotten an even shorter end in a capitalist world. Besides, would anyone take to scouring the streets and ghats looking for tourists if there was a choice in earning a living? I do not think so. It may even be that such activity supports families, however meagerly. People have to find ways to make money in this world, which is a situation I cannot change and one in which I have to include myself. What is more: there are those that might consider my work just as futile. Everyday there is more of us in this world, which means there is more of us with whom we must divide the same, depleting resources in order to satisfy our desires that never diminish. And human desire has done nothing but expand since it was born upon Brahma’s very first creation.

Therefore, before reaching a conclusion about people I know nothing about, I also felt it important to consider the context of the Hindu Tradition, called the sanatana dharma, which has indeed been under siege – both from outside and within – whether it be via the historical waves of conversions both forced or seduced or the internal revolts and tangents that have taken off. It might be a stretch, but those ragged Brahmins blocking our path could have been part – however remotely – of recent, albeit clumsy efforts to restore certain traditions or even to bring order to unscrupulous tourism, even if such measures are conducted in ways that are extorsive or inconvenient.

And it was speaking of unscrupulous tourism upon leaving the ghats and walking through the bazaar filled with foreign visitors that I saw a curious t-shirt hanging in one of the typical, colorful souvenir shops. It stated in simple bold type: chai, chillum, chapati.

Not only have I always found the noise created by wearing t-shirts with messages distracting, polluting and unentertaining, I’ve never understood why people would proudly associate themselves with a few boasted words or labels so publicly, however innocuous they might be. Chai, chillum, chapati, nevertheless, was the opposite of innocuous; it rang of something suspicious. It was as if someone had found poetic humor in reducing Indian culture to drinking chai, smoking dope and eating bread. If my immediate impression was indeed correct, I found it insult to the injury of the many foreign tourists disrespectfully dressed and with inappropriate behavior for puja at the ghats of the holy city, whether inadvertent or not.

That is why I wondered if I should retreat from my conclusion before I took another step: despite my discontent with the antagonistic pundit gatekeepers and regardless of their intentions, their behavior struck me as somehow preferable to the escapist, chai-chillum-chapati tourists.

Conferring my understanding of the obnoxious t-shirt with my friend, he quickly smirked, apparently returning to his usual, swift humor after seeing it for himself. He found it funnier than I did, but confessed in afterthought that it was indeed a little strange.

“I find nothing amusing about it”, I replied.

“What do you expect? Why should tourists respect our culture if we Hindus treat each other so horribly? We care more about who is drinking alcohol, who is eating meat and who is getting married than how we treat one another…and we make lucrative business out of coercing one another over our spiritual traditions.”

He was still seething underneath his cheer, but from much more than his encounter with the Brahmins in Pushkar.

According to the traditions of his caste, the death of his father some years prior had led him to the conduct the last rites on the legendary plain of Kurukshetra, the site of the great battle of the Mahabharata. It was there that he encountered the Business: presented with a menu of packages for last rites with escalating prices, he was instructed as to the spiritual consequences of conducting them on the cheap. It was that cowardly fleecing in the most vulnerable moment of his life that changed the way he saw his own tradition, stoking resentful questioning, firing up a hot iron tawa inside him, one that the indelicate Brahmins in Pushkar had unwittingly splattered just a little water, sending them running in every direction with second-degree burns on their integrity.

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It was later that day when I would have my own unpleasant encounter with the Business. Our Brahma puja was finally conducted by a Brahmin who expected payment for every prayer for every family member: “A good parameter is US$ 2,000.00 per member. How many brothers and sisters, sir?” The happy Brahmin sat me down alone with him on a mat with my thali of flowers and offerings on the ghat.

“Seven”, I said flatly. The pundit was pleasantly surprised by the size of my Western family.

“Are you married?”

“No”

“We’ll pray to God to bring you a good wife”

“Don’t hold your breath”, I mumbled, finding more humor in the fleecing.

“And your parents? We will pray for them.”

“They’re dead”, I said even flatter than before.

“I’m so sorry, sir. We will pray for their moksha, their liberation. So that makes 10 prayers and mantras accordingly…”

“That’ll be $20,000 US dollars, I think.” I pretended that I was merely confirming something ineffectual, as if I were bad at calculating pocket change.

“Yes, sir. One cannot put a price on moksha, ultimate liberation. People come from around the world for these sacred prayers. People spend great amounts of money on worthless things: Why not spend it on moksha? What is money when there is the health and happiness of family?”

“I do not have $20,000 USD in my pocket, I’m afraid.”

“No problem. We accept credit cards, sir.”

“Fat chance trying to pull that amount from my card,” I mumbled.

“Sorry, sir?”

“Listen, I don’t have much money, so you decide what is best”

“No problem, sir. Afterwards, you make the donation at the booth. You will be helping poor Brahmin children who do not even have enough for food.”

The priest commenced the rituals, whereby I repeated all the Sanskrit mantras and prayers – emptily – since the puja had already been ruined for me. On the other side of the ghat sat my friend with another priest, who had apparently promised him that the sacred mantras would have the power to destroy his enemies.

“Why should I want to destroy my enemies? I wish health and happiness to them” he corrected the pundit in an ambush. The pundit quickly changed the subject after seeing the gaping hole in his own logic had been cleverly exposed: what wisdom can be found in wishing ill upon anyone?

My friend and I finally met at the water’s edge to conduct our final rituals. In our incessant contest to make one another laugh, I could not help but to whisper in his ear, Wrong Number hai! Immediately remembering the unforgettable blockbuster movie ‘PK’—the theme of which was precisely about religious hypocrisy and fraud – he burst into laughter.

“I dare you! Do it! I dare you to yell that here!” he responded with delight. We continued to chuckle before dipping our feet into the lake and collecting our prayer thalis. We told each other about the respective spiels we had been given about donations, which could do nothing but become the butt of constant jokes for days to come.

I had in fact made one last effort to bring some intention to my act of worship after our clowning. Closing my eyes, I focused on my breath and then threw the flowers into the lake, trying to cultivate nothing but a feeling of gratitude for life and all that has been created. I reminded myself about my fortune to be able to take time off from my duties, travelling to the other side of the world to do nothing more than reflect on and find meaning in my life, seek knowledge, apologize for my errors, and give thanks for the opportunity of life even with all its unpleasant challenges.

“You done, bhai?” He asked me, more than ready to go.

I delayed my response, “Yeah,” trying to hold on to one moment of silence before returning to our camaraderie, “Ok, let’s go get fleeced.”

The lions spied the antelopes returning from the watering hole and swiftly herded us in the direction of the donation booth – complete with credit card machines. Reaching the top of the ghat, we had mustered up a couple of hundred rupees between us and deposited them in the donation box to the sound of a seething pundit who hissed like a snake between his teeth, “You guys must be joking!”

We weren’t, although we usually are. Simply ignoring the pundit, we marched up the last steps after having concluded our puja. And it was just before exiting to the street lane that my friend leaned in from the crowds swirling around us to say that we would go find some people to feed, to contribute in a way more meaningful for us, led by our own conscience to give back what we felt was due.

Conscience: Mine had been bothering me as I left the waterfront.

Looking polluted and lifeless, one does not have to be a scientist to see that the situation of the lake is dire and that no amount of religious belief in its purity will miraculously turn the lake clean.  The insatiable and irresponsible consumption of water, sand and forests across Rajasthan can easily be summarized in the environmental situation of the Pushkar Valley. Tourism is clearly aggravating the situation – hence my conscience about how we all participate in depleting resources for the things that are important to us. But that was not the only thing weighing on my mind. I realized there is only one way to clean that lake – to clean any lake – and that is to turn an entire vision inward. For although an intellectual understanding of the dynamics of sand mafias, water mafias, corruption, economics or poverty is both necessary and useful, it will never be enough to incite change if the individual still feels incomplete and wanting more comfort. Seeing that craving requires another kind of effort, another vision, and it requires some space.

Rising high on a mountain top across the lake and into the sunset lies the Savitri Temple to Brahma’s spurned wife. It is to where Saraswati had stolen away to be alone with her veena after her conniption.  High above the valley, I like to think of it as not only the place where she got enough space to see Brahma’s teardrop form the lake, but also the distance needed for her greatest art – which is much more than, but not unlike, playing the veena.

As Knowledge, she is the human capacity for viveka – discrimination – the power to discern what is real and what is not, as well as to differentiate among all the many objects, actions and people in this world. Therefore, it is not only the ability to distinguish among musical notes, but also to determine whether a lake is clean or not, despite what others would have you believe; it is also the ability to judge if someone has arrived to help you pray or cheat you spiritually; and to conclude when your husband and all his family have given more value to mere rituals because of what others might think than to have a little patience to wait for Knowledge to arrive in order to do what must be done!

Viveka is considered a great blessing and aptitude with it is indeed the mark of intelligence. But it comes with a catch, what I like to call the other curse of Saraswati: while it is effortlessly turned outwardly to touch, taste, feel, hear and see the difference among even the slightest shades of gray in the Universe, it is very difficult to turn inward to witness the same in the mind to discover oneself.

That is why even the most intelligent, discriminating mind can be so unwise and treat others unwisely.

It is not without reason that the very word discrimination has taken on another meaning, one that refers to something unpleasant. The most sloven use of viveka is to assess nothing more than the obvious differences among people and thereby treat them with inequity, unseeing Creation in all of them. The misappropriation of individuals as if objects, placing them into one of the three boxes in the mind – labelled like, dislike and indifferent – is to disregard the subject in all of them. Coveting, disdaining or ignoring others according to caste, creed, color and gender is therefore the opposite of treating others as you wish to be treated, which compromises the very ground on which you stand.

Even when standing firmly on a stone ghat.

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Saraswati had stolen to the mountaintop by no coincidence. Mountains are associated with knowledge, because they are distant and require one to see distances. And, diametrically, it takes a lot of internal space in order for one to practice turning viveka around and inward to be able to see the mind with distance, discerning how it works. Constant and unrelenting practice is required to undo the curse of Saraswati. It is like learning to play an instrument, which must be repeated and repeated and repeated until viveka can dispel not only the false conclusions we have of others but those we have of ourselves as needy and limited, unsatisfied, uncomfortable, alone, divided, separate, different – unable to see our indivisibility with All that there is.

It is only then that the compassion necessary to clean a lake can blossom into an act of generosity, realizing that there are other things more important than getting what one wants, the way one wants. It is the discovery of being so wealthy that one can do more important work than adhereing to one’s (and other’s) endless desires, and thereby becoming the bearer of real gifts. An act of peace. A moment in life when everyone profits.

And it is a lesson my friend very rudely delivered for the second time that day.

Standing in front of the hot vat of a sweetshop at night, we felt the tug of little hands pulling on our kurtas. They were small boys, dirty, obviously beggars. When they asked for the local delicacy, malpua – the ridiculously sweet pancake cooked in hot sugary syrup – I moved to intervene: “No, bhai, this is not food. If we are going to help, let’s find them some daal or at least a kachori.”

He briefly looked at me to register my complaint but ignored it, continuing his exchange with the chatty children who happily bounced in anticipation.

When I saw him move to buy their malpua, I tried to intervene again, but he silenced me with the upright palm of his hand: “I will give them what I want. Nobody can tell me what I have to give and what not to give to anyone. I help any children the way I want, but I help. They are happy; I am happy. You think too much.”

Teri…” Biting my tongue, I hushed myself from cursing with the foulest Hindi imaginable.

The insult quickly subsided when I saw how happy the children were eating their sweets. I smiled. How silly I was. How blind. Despite all my viveka, I couldn’t see that it wasn’t really about food or help: the children simply wanted malpua. I also get happy when life delivers the sweets I want: why shouldn’t I afford the same generosity to the children? I had already consumed so many resources of this world just to be there standing next to those children. What a grave mistake we make when we think we know not only what is best for others but what will be the result of our efforts – despite all our knowledge.

Neither had I seen how happy the gift of giving had made my dear friend. After curtly delivering a limit to me, I watched as he disarmed from the war within and around him, merrily chatting with the giggling children who slurped their malpua. For it is the giver who shall always be the first beneficiary of any act of kindness; the second is the receiver, who opens hands and smile in gratitude; and I like to think that there is yet a third: those who watch and learn from afar – even when loathing malpua and standing right next to kindness in a dark and bustling lane of Pushkar.

I looked over and downward to a ghat from the main thoroughfare, getting a glimpse of the moonlight shimmering on the holy lake. I wondered if it had been Brahma’s conscience that led him to shed a tear, forming the lake of Pushkar, once he realized the grave mistake he had made, worrying more about protocol – what He thought was right or about what others might think – than about Knowledge Herself and all her Splendor.

ओम् तत् सत्

 

Acknowledgements

My eternal thanks to my teacher, Gloria Arieira, who put me on the path to wisdom — no matter how I stray.

To Mr. Vibhu Khanna, more than a friend, more than a brother, part of me.

All Pushkar photos by Ricky Toledano.

 

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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