- Related Post: Bardo Thodol
- There had been a period of drought and disaster over all the earth (or so it seemed). A prodigious dragon, known as Vritra (the “Encloser”) had for a thousand years enveloped and held within itself all the waters of the world’s life. Planted fields lay waste. Cities were cities of the dead. Even the capital city of the gods, on the summit of Mount Sumeru, the pivotal center of the world, was in ruins. Then the vanquisher of demons, Indra, who is above all the Vedic-Aryan gods supreme, flung into the midst of the monstrous coils a thunderbolt that shattered the demon entirely.
The waters burst free and streamed in ribbons over the land, to circulate once again through the body of world. That had been a mighty victory. The gods, the saints and sages, learning of it, flocked from all directions, their hearts pulsing with joy, to celebrate their champion as in glory he proceeded to the summit of Mount Sumeru. And when, upon arriving, he beheld the devastation, he summoned Vishvakarman to his side, the architect and craftsman of the Vedic pantheon, commissioning him to reconstruct the city in such a way as would be worthy of such a world savior as himself–which in one year that miraculous builder accomplished.
- In the center of that godly residence, radiant with innumerable gems, marvelous with towers, gardens, lakes, and palaces, stood the royal dwelling of the god Indra himself, incomparable in the world, with which, however, he was not even then satisfied.
He had additional ideas: more lakes and palaces over there; a different sort of garden here! His vision of glory ever enlarging, he brought Vishvakarman to the point of despair. There was no escape for the craftsman till released by his insatiable employer. Sick at heart, therefore, Vishvakarman turned for protection secretly to Brahma, the universal creator, who abides far beyond and above the historical sphere of Indra’s temporal victories. Brahma site enthroned on the radiant lotus of a cosmic dream represented as gowning from the navel of the slumbering divinity, Vishnu. Metaphorically, that is to say, the universe together with Brahma, its creator, is the emanation of some superior god’s imagination.
- Vishnu is represented couched upon a prodigious seven-headed cobra named Ananta, which means “endless.” The serpent floats upon the cosmic Milky Ocean that is the mother of us all.Its boundless energy gives the impulse that provokes the world-dreamer’s dream and appears in space-time as the universe, that radiant lotus on which, not only Brahma, but any god may be envisioned enthroned.It is in Vishnu’s dream personified as his sakti, the goddess Padma or Padmavati, sakti being a term signifying “power, energy”, and specifically, the active energy of a deity, personified as his wife.
- So when Vishvakarman, in secrete prayer, had delivered to Brahma the burden of his plea, the lotus-enthroned divinity respond, “O Blessed One, you shall tomorrow be quit of your task!” and descending from his lotus-support, the god proceeded to Vaikuntha in the northern ocean, where Vishnu couches upon Ananta, while the divine craftsman, unburdened, returned in peace to his work.
- And indeed, next morning there appeared at the great gate of Indra’s palace, surrounded by a cluster of children infatuated by his beauty, Vishnu himself in the form of a ten-year-old, blue-black boy attired in a white dhoti, with a bright religious mark painted on his forehead, a parasol in one hand and a pilgrim staff in the other. “O Porter,” he said to the porter at the gate, “hurry and let your Indra know that a Brahman has come to see him.” Which the porter promptly did. And when Indra then arrived to greet his guest and beheld that smiling, beautiful child, he gladly invited him in.
- And having welcomed him with an offering of honey and milk and fruits, he asked: “O Venerable Boy, pray tell me the purpose of your coming.” Where-upon that lovely child, with a voice as soft and deep as of a gently thundering cloud replied, “O King of Gods, I have heard of the wonderful city and palace that your are building, and have come to refer to you a few question that are in my mind. How many more years do you expect to spend in this magnificent construction? What further engineering feats will be required of Vishvakarman? O Greatest of the Gods, no Indra before you has ever completed such a residence.”
- Full of wine of his triumph, the god broke into a loud laugh, “Indras before me?” he said. “Tell me, Child, how many might those Indra or Vishvakarmans be whom you have seen, or of whom you may have heard?”
- The Brahmin Boy laughed as well. “My Child,” he answered; and his words, though gentile, delightful as nectar to the ears, sent through Indra, slowly, a chill: “Kashyapa, your father, I knew, the Old Tortoise Man, Lord Progenitor of All Creatures; also Marichi, your grandfather, a saint whose only wealth lay in his devotion; likewise, Brahma, offspring of the world-navel of Vishnu; and Vishnu, too, I know, the Preserver of Brahma.
- “Oh King of Gods, I have beheld the dreadful dissolution of the universe, when everything, every atom, melts into an immense sea, empty of life. No one can say how many universes there may be, or how many cycles of ages in each universe there may ever have been; how many Bramhas, how many Vishnus, how many Shivas. O King of Gods, there are those in your service who hold that it might be possible to number the particles of sand on earth, or drop of rain that fall from the sky, but on one will ever number all the Indras.
- “The life and kingship of an Indra last, according to the divine standard of measure, seven eons; and the period of twenty-eight Indras amounts to one day and night of Brahma. Brahma’s length of life is 108 years, according to that standard [108 X 4 = 432]. My Child, not to speak of Indras, of those Brahmas there is no end. Brahma follows Brahma. One sinks, the next arises. Nor can anyone estimate the number of the universes, side by side, at any moment of time, each containing a Brahma, a Vishnu and a Shiva. Like delicate boats they float upon the fathomless, pure waters of the body of Mah-Vishnu. And like the pores of the body of that Great Vishnu, those universes are numberless, each harboring no end of gods such as yourself.”
- A procession of ants in military formation had made its appearance on the floor of the great hall during the discourse of that beautiful boy, and when he saw them he laughed, but then fell silent and withdrew deeply into himself. Indra’s lips, palate, and throat had gone dry. “Young Brahmin, why do you laugh?” he asked. “And who are you, here in the guise of a boy? To me you seem to be the Ocean of Virtue, concealed in deluding mist.
- The magnificent child resumed.
“I laughed because of those ants. The reason is a mystery. Do not ask me to disclose it. The seed of woe, as well as the source of all wisdom, is hidden in this secret. Like an ax it strikes a the root of the tree of worldly vanity; yet to those groping in darkness it is a lamp. Seldom revealed even to saints, buried in the wisdom of the ages, it is the living breath of ascetics, versed in the Vedas, who have renounced and transcended their mortality. But fools deluded by pride and desire it destroys.”
- Requested thus to teach, Vishu in the guise of a boy opened to the god a hidden wisdom rarely revealed even to yogies. “O Indra”, said he, “those marching ants that we saw in long parade, passing file by file, innumerable; each formerly was an Indra. Like you, each by virtue of selfless deeds once rose to the rank of a king of gods, but then, full of pride, self-serving, returned through many births to the condition of an ant. That was an army of former Indras.
- “Piety and selfless deeds elevate the inhabitants of this earth to exalted spiritual estates; the condition of a brahmin, a kine, an Indra to the heaven of a Brahma, a Vishnu, or a Shiva. But then, self-serving acts reduce them to the realms beneath, of sorrow and pain, rebirths among birds and vermin, or out of the wombs of pigs and beasts of the wild, or among trees. Action is a function of character, which in turn is controlled by custom. This is the whole substance of the secret. This knowledge is the ferry across the ocean of hell to beatitude.
- “For all the animate and inanimate objects in this world, O Indra, are transitory, like dream. The gods on high, the mute trees and stones, are but apparitions in fantasy. Good and evil attaching to a person are as perishable as bubbles. In the cycles of time they alternate. The wise are attached to neither.”
- An old yogi had entered while the beautiful boy was peaking. His head was piled high with matted hair, he wore a black deerskin around his loins, on his forehead a white religious mark was painted, and on his chest was a curious circle of hair, intact at the circumference, but from the center may hairs were gone. Over his head he held a parasol of grass. And coming directly between the king and the boy, he sat down on the floor like a lump of stone.
- Then the great and glorious Indra, recovering his character as king, bowed to his stern guest, paid obeisance, and having offered him refreshments, honey and milk and fruits, bade him welcome; whereupon the the boy, doing him reverence, began to ask the very questions the king would have proposed. “O Holy Man,” he said, “from where do you come?” What is your name? And what brings you to this place? Where is your present home? What is the meaning of the grass parasol over your head? And what is the portent of that circular hair tuft on your chest; why is it dense at the circumference, but at the center almost bare? Be kind enough, O Holy Man, to answer these, my questions. I am curious to hear.”
- Patiently the old saint smiled and slowly began his reply. “O Young Brahmin, Hairy is my name. I have come here to see Indra. Since I know that my life is to be short, I have decided to possess no house of my own, neither to marry, nor to labor. For the present, begging is my livelihood, and to protect myself from rain and sun, I hold this parasol over my head. But as to this circle of hair on my chest, it is to the children of this world a source of fear, yet productive also of wisdom. With the fall of an Indra, one hair drops out. That is why in the center all the hairs are gone. When the rest of the period allotted to the present Brahma will have expired, I myself shall die. O Brahmin Boy, it follows I am short of days. Why therefore a house, a wife or a son?
- “When every blink of the eyes of Vishnu marks the passing of a Brahma, it necessarily follows that everything is as insubstantial as a cloud taking shape and dissolving. I therefore devote myself exclusively to meditation on the external lotus feet of Vishnu. Rest in transcendent Vishnu is more than redemption, since every joy, even heavenly bliss, is fragile as a dream and only interferes with concentration on the Supreme.
- “Shiva, the peace-bestowing, highest spiritual guide, taught me this wisdom,” said the old man as he vanished. The boy also disappeared. And the king, Indra, sat alone, bewildered and unstrung.
Blessed Be The Name.
- Transcribed from “The Inner Reaches of Outer Space” By Joseph Campbell. Text originally appeared in “Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Ed: Joseph Campbell. Translation following Heinrich Zimmer