How Many Lives Does One Live?

This story has been culled from different chapters of the Yoga-Vasishtha Ramayana. Beginning at paragraph 19 of chapter 15, it jumps to chapters 17, 19-21, 23-27, 29-45 (in snatches), 56, 58, and finally ends in chapter 59. There are besides, numerous discourses of a philosophical nature, on death, for instance, descriptions of ethereal journeys across various worlds, of wars with miraculous weapons such as those used in the battles of the Epics. In one place alone there may be a touch of physical history or interpolation. This is in the account of King Viduratha, ruling over a kingdom overrun by invaders from Sind. In A.D. 712 the Arab General Bin Kassim advanced from Sind into the Multan area. His vanguards were the newly converted lower castes, liberated and equal as Muslims. The King's sallying out of his fort, leaving a token force to defend the walls under the Queen, is a historical fact. The story itself provides a profound insight into the nature of leela, the comprehension of which is the secret of that sama/a which the Gita speaks of. -- Lt. Col. Gunindra Lal Bhattacharya

Said the sage Vasishtha to crown prince Rama:

Human anguish is caused by Ignorance. The Divine Creation is a total harmony. Through purity and aspiration man can partake of that knowledge and live liberated lives. I shall avoid the subtleties of Yoga and instead tell you the story of the two Leelas.

In times of yore lived a Prince named Padma. Strong and powerfully built, he was handsome, brave, wise and a patron of the learned. His consort was the happy Princess Leela, who was sensitive to every mood of her husband. All the rooms in her suite were carefully arranged with flowers. Nightly, bathed and perfumed, she welcomed her beloved Prince with a flower garland woven by herself. The pair passed their time in witty talk, and amour. Yet, when alone, there was a gnawing anguish within her.

One night Leela awoke to find the bedchamber flooded in moonlight. She sat up to look at her dear lord. How peacefully was he sleeps! She shuddered at the thought that he would someday decline, then die. Wistfully she asked herself, 'How shall my Lord be free from old age and death? How can I preserve my present youth and bloom, so dear Jo him, for an eternal life together?" Dawn crept in, and the birds sang, but she had found no answer.

That morning, at Leela's request, learned men attended the Audience Chamber, to debate over the Princess' two questions. They asserted that no man could attain immortality on earth. The old assured her that all life was unreal; so was her happiness and so would be her fears. The young did notfully agree. One, with ancient wisdom in his dark eyes, said, "I feel hunger, I feel a pinprick -these are not unreal to me though they may be to another or to a god. There must be a state of consciousness which can see and experience more than one form of existence."

Leela looked up and said, "O young sage! Tell me the way of this simultaneous apprehension of multiple levels of experience. You shall be my guide." "It is not guidance that you need, Princess," he said, "For all know of your devotions and austerities. But they are only preparations. Now must rise aspiration from your heart. But it is only Grace, a boon from the gods that can give the abilities you seek. There is nothing that I can do."

Back in her chamber, Leela pondered. If she died before her husband, she would suffer no pain at his passing away. But should he die before her!

"I must then ensure," she concluded, "that even after he dies my husband's spirit shall never leave the confines of his body. Then could I move about in his presence for ever."
In her devotional chamber Leela lit a lamp, looked at it and sat down to concentrate. Within her heart were her two prayers. Her lips uttered the name of Saraswati, the Goddess of Wisdom. She prayed in the mornings; she prayed after the Prince slept.
So days passed into months.

It was on the hundredth night that Saraswati touched the fair head of the Princess, whose eyes gazed into an unknown infinity. Seeing the vision of her desire, she bowed down in great joy. Tears welled out of her large eyes.

"Child, look into my eyes," said the Goddess. "I grant the boons I read in your heart. After your husband dies, his soul shall not go beyond the precincts of this shrine and I shall appear before you whenever you need me."

Thus assured and delighted, for many years the princess brought joy and laughter to all around her.

Prince Padma passed away one day of a sudden seizure. His body was brought into the royal bedchamber where Leela waited, grief stricken. The men left, the maid closed the doors, and Leela sat at the foot of the royal bed, despondent, puzzled, till she recalled her boon. She prayed to Goddess Saraswati.

Ever responsive to her devotees, the Goddess appeared. Asking Leela to wipe her tears she said, "Remove the body of your dead husband to your prayer chamber. Never will this body decompose as long as fresh flowers cover him. His soul, being pure as the air, shall never depart from there and you will always see this body as if still alive."

Leela organized everything as directed. The ministers and the servants wondered but did as told.

At midnight, when Leela entered, Padma indeed lay at peace. She waited anxiously to see him come alive. Then she prayed again. "Mother," said Leela to the Goddess as she appeared, "My husband's body remains fresh indeed as you ordained. So am I near his body. But show me where he truly is now. I have shed my grief. Grant me this knowledge."

"It is good, my child, for grief is an enemy of knowledge. Know that your husband's spirit now dwells in the twilight zone which contains, in a simultaneous vision, the physical and the mental planes of being. In the Mental Plane exists what is non-existent here. Come with me."

Leela followed the Goddess. Amazed, she found herself harmlessly passing through the walls of the chamber. Then flying with great speed they came to a royal palace far away. A conference was in progress, and on the throne was her husband, discussing with his ministers his plan for war against the king of Karnataka.   

Suddenly there was a wild fire, the flames leaping high. As she moved away she found both the moon and the sun shining at the same time in the firmament. The clouds roared, the winds whistled past her, terrific were the noises of thunder.

The scene changed. She found herself in an ashrama. She recognized her husband, now about ten years old, playing with his friends. Then, suddenly, he was sitting on his royal throne while many of his subjects offered obeisance and the learned conversed and discussed Reality.

At last Leela found herself in her prayer chamber. It was still the same night. With deep humility she knelt at the Goddess's feet. "Mother, teach me." They communed in silence.
"Know that to see the immense supra-sensible worlds which with the sensible make a total harmony, one needs to develop a spiritual nature. It comes through faith, growth in spirituality, and the attempts to lose the sense of one's insistent current personality. The early gains are experiences in meditation, in sleep, in trance. In time one develops a clear-sightedness or intuition. One ultimately develops a subtle body that can travel into the Planes and has the ability to merge with any other form it contemplates. Yet, it has to return to its original body.

Through your prayers and vigils you have curbed much of your earthly desires, but the sense of your personality has not gone. So you need my presence and my touch. Now you will see yourself in another personality and your beloved Padma as the husband of another." The Goddess paused. "But, first, assume your subtle body," she added.

The Goddess in her form of Wisdom and Leela in her Meditative form passed through the royal palace, rose high and yet higher. Leela watched all her emotions leave her heart in airy forms. She was freed from human feelings.

After crossing many worlds, the planes of Gandharvas, and Siddhas, Heaven's meadows of Parijat flowers, hills of emerald and sapphire, glimpsing from a distance the battles of the demons and the gods, they reached the land of Bharata. They descended upon a valley. The Goddess spoke, "A Brahmin named Vasishtha lived here with his wife Arundhati. They had a son, Jeshthasharma. The family spent their days satisfactorily without care of gain and without fear of impositions of any king.

"Yet, one day a king passed by on a hunt and the Brahmin was attracted by the pomp and riches. Then on, his only desire was to be a king, possess wealth, wield power and rule a mighty kingdom, the envy of all.

"Age took its toll. The Brahmin died; his wife Arundhati died too. He became in time what he had dearly wished to be: a king. He and his wife were no other than King Padma and yourself, Leela, in your former lives. Do not wonder, child. Space and time that the mortals know can be different, yet better seen from the higher planes."

Seeing the sorrowing son, Jeshthasharma, Leela willed and appeared to him. He saw in her the likeness of his departed mother. Joyfully he bowed down to her and she blessed him. At Leela's touch his grief fell away. Then, Leela, unseen now by her son, turned to the Goddess and asked, "Tell me, Mother, why was I seen by my son and why did I not see my husband before his death?"

"Have you noticed, dear child, that when you blessed the Brahmin's son, you did so as his dead mother Arundhati? You had and have forgotten your identity as Leela now, purified by yoga. Hence, earlier neither you nor your previous husband, Vasishtha, could meet each other. But now only you may. The Brahmin in his intense desire has been so born as King Viduratha. Devoted to her husband and wishing to be united to him again in their next life Arundhati, too has been born again as Princess Leela, that is you."

"I may have shed my identity as Leela just now, but within me is a great urge to be united with my beloved husband." "Which husband, child? Your first husband was that Brahmin; your second, Viduratha, is reigning in error; your third, Padma, is at the palace, lying in state with you in attendance."

"But Mother! I am here with you. Who is that Leela at the shrine then?"

"Don't you recall the boons you had asked of me? You, as the young Princess Leela, wanted your husband Padma's spirit ever to dwell! in that shrine so that you could be in his presence. Padma's body never rotted. But your body had pined away. The attendants cremated the body of young Princess Leela, but her subtle form remained there. Come and see the King Viduratha whom you had married for a time."

The two now hovered over a battlefield.

Viduratha's kingdom had been invaded from the west by the ruler of Sind whose trained forces challenged Viduratha's army. But, a Brahmin in his past life, he was not crafty enough, though very proud of his valour. He met the enemy forces head-on and was held by strong resistance from masses of foot soldiers. The enemy's marauding horse cavalry moved round Viduratha's chariots, avoiding direct fights. They shot arrows and vanished to re-group and attack again and again from unexpected quarters. In the meantime, large groups of the Chandala invaders went directly to Viduratha's capital and put it to flames. The city, held by the queen and a token force had to surrender. The Chandalas looted, ravished, killed. The dreadful news reached Viduratha at the battlefield. Greatly enraged, Viduratha bravely charged the enemy. As he lay fatally injured he prayed to Saraswati.

"Mother," said Viduratha, "pray take care of my people whom I have ill-served. I now know that I should have had spies in Sind, since a Prince may never trust a neighbor. Nor had I studied the enemy' s battle-craft. I thought of war only as one fought in our old epics."

"Dear son," said Saraswati, "your capital is being put to order. The king of Sind is severe on malefactors. He has already entered the town with his marshals and restored order. If there is something else you want, ask now as your time is short."

Dying Viduratha prayed that the Goddess might save his minister and the minister's virgin daughter, to whom Viduratha had lost his heart. "So be it," said Saraswati.
Leela, asked why her husband Viduratha could not see her and why was he defeated in the battle.

Goddess Saraswati replied, "He had not prayed for victory. He was proud of having displayed his courage. The king of Sind, on the other hand, had prayed to his god for victory and that was granted to him. Nor could Viduratha see you since he had chosen in error to reign as a king. He was not pure enough to catch your vision, nor do you yet have- the power to break the sheath of sin and appear before one whose last thoughts were for his minister and his virgin daughter. But come, let us follow the soul of Viduratha and all will be clear to you."

Through various planes, they watched the soul of Viduratha carried at great speed by attendants of Yama, lord of the dead.

"This king died a hero's death in battle. He is not to enter the city of no return," declared the Sentinel. "The last order recorded here says that he is to be taken to a shrine in the city of King Padma and his spirit be put into that body. So it is recorded; so let it be done."

"Come, dear child, let us follow," said the Goddess, and they followed the attendants of Yama, saw them enter the prayer chamber and put the spirit of Viduratha into Prince Padma's body through the crown of his head. The body looked fresh as ever before. So were the flowers, just as Princess Leela had desired, just as Goddess Saraswati had asked her to ensure. But where was she, the Princess Leela, young and pretty as Prince Padma had desired her ever to be? Leela of the subtle plane had matured.

Within, she could feel that she was no longer the shy bride Leela of Prince Padma. Sad, she looked down.

Smiling, the Mother Goddess addressed her, "I know what you muse in your heart. But look at the foot of the royal bed." Sitting there was a young Leela, a mirror image of her figure when she had been Padma's bride-queen: she and yet not she!

"Dearest child," said the Goddess, "we come to the end of your adventures. Listen and be fully liberated, so that at will you may dwell in this plane of the Mind where both the sensible and the supra-sensible conjoin to give this creation its full meaning. Then death, suffering disease fall away as barks of a growing tree.

"You had prayed for your lover's spirit ever to hover in this shrine so that you, the young princess-bride, could ever and ever enjoy the feeling of your lover's life and nearness. There lies as fresh as ever the body of your lover, Prince Padma. And there at the foot of the bed is young Leela since in that form you had captivated Padma's fancy and had desired ever to do the same.

"Recall your second husband's fervent prayer to me about the virgin daughter of his minister. I had granted that prayer and therefore after fire lit by the invaders from Sind had consumed the minister and his family, I had my guide bring the girl's spirit -here and introduced into your emanation.

"Recall, again, that you have seen with me the attendants of Yama carry the soul of your second husband Viduratha and put it into the body of Padma, your third husband.

"If you will, you may now be united to your husband, that was first Vasishtha the Brahmin with you as Arundhati his wife; and then by choice of error, Viduratha the king enamored of his minister's daughter, and finally, Padma whom you married last as Leela."

"Come, child," concluded the Goddess, "let us disclose ourselves to the other Leela. We shall judge her from the way she conducts herself."

They manifested themselves. At that instant the young Leela of Viduratha found the chamber suddenly illumined by two soft heavenly faces full of kindness and understanding. She fell at their feet. Gently the Goddess Saraswati raised her.

"Tell us dear one, who are you and how you happen to be invisible to all here, but us?"asked Saraswati. 

"Revered Mother/' replied the young Leela, "I was a daughter of the minister of King Viduratha. The king had taken a fancy to me and used to address me as Leela. Before the enemy from Sind attacked his kingdom, I was wedded to the king with my father's consent. Our palace was put to flames by the invaders. Escape would have meant dishonour. I preferred to die in the all-consuming fire with the name of my dear husband on my lips. Suddenly I found myself conscious within a small body, very subtle, but a body that the fire could not reach. A guide met me. We must have sped as fast as thought. There was a subtle body at this corner of the bed that looked as my material body had appeared to me in my mirror. My guide gently made me enter that body through the left nostril. I then went up to see who lay in that bed. To my delight it was my husband, Viduratha himself, sleeping soundly, with masses of fresh flowers all around his body. I did not wish to disturb my Lord and ever since I have been sitting here waiting for him to awake. But days have passed, many attendants have come and gone. The flowers are changed daily with fresh blooms. None seem to notice me, nor did I have the courage to accost anyone till I had myself been seen by my beloved Lord. That, Mother, is my story, difficult even for me to believe."

Looking at the silent elder Leela, the Goddess said, "I will raise the Prince from his stupor." She moved to the head of the bed and touched the head. The Prince, unaware of what had happened, thought that he had been awakened in the normal manner for some urgent business of state. "Enter, who waits out there," declared Padma, with the authority usual to him.

At this the two Leelas moved forward and bowed. "We await your commands," both said in similar voices. Amazed, Padma looked at one and then at the other. Both of them had the same features, the same shape, voice and gesture. "What are you? Are you apsaras in the form and features of my bride-princess and my consort? And who is she who dazzles my eyes with glory?"

The elder Leela said, "1 am your former consort, Leela. The other Leela by my side is a reflection of myself, cast by my free will for your service and pleasure. And this is Goddess Saraswati, Mother of all wisdom in the three worlds. It is by h er grace that she has presented herself to us, O Prince, it is she who brought us three back from the other worlds."

Deeply moved, Prince Padma knelt before the Goddess. "Mother, shower your blessings on mankind so that we strive to drive all evil from our hearts and merit your grace. Deign to confer on me the blessings of understanding so that I may be just and liberal. Grant me wealth so that I may bring prosperity to my people.

“I grant you your prayers," said the Goddess. "I leave with you two Leelas. It is for you to discover the extent of wisdom in them and profit thereby." Then she vanished.
Rising, the Prince Padma embraced the two Leelas. By then the attendants were awake, their sleep removed by the Goddess when she left. There was great joy in the kingdom.

The two Leela's grew to love each other more and more. As the elder Leela recounted her adventures, the prince and the younger Leela listened in rapt attention and grew in knowledge, meditating in the Mental Plane where the past and the present, the material and the spiritual conjoin, they developed the ability to face death with equanimity.


More by :  Suprobhat Bhattachayra

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