Three nights Damayanti passes in the wilderness.
She journeys northward and comes upon a silent green grove, morning peace heavy upon the trees.
It is a hermitage ‑ a ring of leaf huts.
Small fires dot the undergrowth.
Embers glow a pale red in the pale light.
A crystal stream meanders
singing through the flowering trees.
She sees the emaciated yogi sitting cross ‑legged
beneath the trees, eyes open,
yet unseeing in meditation deep.
She recalls the ancient ones –
Vasistha, Bhrigu and Attri
who lived their lives eating sparsely,
taming their passions,
pure in heart,
breathing slow breaths,
seeking the road that leads to heaven.
Fearless wild creatures graze around this haunt.
Monkeys, black faced and curious throng the trees.
She is glad to feel her tense muscles relax,
glad to be free of the beast‑haunted night.
Here is a shelter of peace.
The yogi emerges from his meditation.
He sees Damayanti in her weary loveliness.
Jewelless, unadorned, she seems a queen.
"Welcome!” he says to her. “Rest here for a while,
and tell me what you would have us do."
"Worshipful one who lives in peace in the midst of wild beasts and hard work, is it well with you?"
"I thank you noble lady, it is well with us.
Who are you, so beautiful, so noble, yet so sorrowful?
Are you the mountain yakshi,
or the spirit that lives in the river?"
"None of these am I, no goddess of the wood,
nor a mountain or water sprite.
I am a woman with a tragic tale."
She speaks about herself,
not a quaver of self pity in her voice.
And at last, wearily she asks, "Have you not seen my Nala? "
"Beautiful one, the future is yours and it will be great,
that we foresee.
Yes, you will see your Prince soon.
You will regain your lost love, Bhima's sad daughter!
You will know him as your Nala of times gone,
free from trouble,
purged of sin,
governing all Nishadha again in his glory,
once again the joy of his friends and terror of his foes."
“But tell me, O Great One,” she says,
“why do I look for one that has abandoned me?
Am I not a fool in love?
The gods themselves asked for my hand,
and yet I chose cruel Nala!”
“You chose Nala because
you were husband and wife in a previous birth.
The karma between husband and wife runs deep.
Ask why you chose him, why you are facing this difficult time? Ask what you must learn from this,
for everything and everyone that comes to us,
is trying to teach us something we have failed to understand. Your Prince is not himself.
He is possessed by Kali,
the Evil Spirit of the Kaliyuga.”
“My Nala, possessed?” her delicate hands rise to her throat. She pauses in thought before she speaks:
“Ah, I know now, O Great One!
My lord neglected his ablutions before his prayers . . .
and the evil possessed him.
That is why his eyes grew lustreless,
he failed to notice me.
All he could think of was the dice!
No, it was not the Nala I knew!
His face did not shine with light.
He was no longer beautiful!”
“It is most easy to lose one’s beauty, daughter of Bhima!”
“I bow to you with deepest respect,” says Damayanti.
“Perhaps I must learn humility.
Perhaps the gods are teaching me that loyalty to a spouse
that seems disloyal, is not foolishness, but a great virtue. How do you, Great One, transcend the pride
of being chosen by the gods?”
The yogi after a minute of silence, answers:
“There are as many methods of spiritual practice
as there are people.
But if there is no deep thought behind the practice,
there is no outcome.
The mere practice of the mantra of words has no lasting effect. We are here to think and meditate,
but it is a choice open to all.
You are always on the threshold of the unknown
until you attain enlightenment,
and I have yet to attain it!
To become aware of one’s instinctive, inherent awareness,
one must drop all worldly preoccupations
– such as the awareness of one’s beauty, or privilege. “
“Then I must thank my Prince
for all the realizations that lie in wait for me.
But O Great One, I do not wish to lose my beauty!”
“What is beauty?" says the yogi with a smile. "One becomes beautiful because of an inherent goodness.
One loses this beauty when goodness turns into selfishness. You have
seen this in Nala.
Ego breeds ugliness, daughter.
Do not be led by mere appearances.
Look for the light in the eyes,
the brightness in a smile.”
Damayanti means to thank the yogi
for the comfort and advice he has given her,
but he vanishes before her astonished eyes,
huts, fires, stream, grove, all.
She sighs. "Was it a dream?
Why has this happened to me ?
I am seeing things in my misery.”
She moves on.
The spring is gone from her step,
her head hangs like a wilting flower.
She spies the Ashoka tree that takes away grief
and flings herself upon the dark brown trunk.
There are no flowers.
If there were flowers,
she would soak them in water
and drink a palmful to ease her sorrow.
"And flowers there shall be!" she cries,
touching the tree with her left foot.
Buds break upon the branches and open slowly,
the soothing pale yellow flowers of the Ashoka.
She makes a container from a large, shiny leaf
and drops the flowers one by one
into water from a nearby spring.
Smiling, she stirs the potion with a finger,
then lifting it to her parched lips,
drinks and claimed by sleep,
forgets her searing pain for the night.
Like Sita fleeing from Ravana,
she would lie safely beneath the Ashoka;
no beast, no ghoul would venture into its shadow.