In Search of Salvation |

Hunt, Dave

An excerpt from God of the Untouchables

“Sneak thief! Robbing your own family!”

“I’m sorry . . . I didn’t mean to do it!”

“Like I don’t mean this!” His father gave him another hard slap across the face.

“He didn’t mean to doctor the books either. His pen just did it by itself,” growled his Uncle Terukalaya sarcastically. The plants from which indigo was extracted grew profusely in the fields around Proddatur, and Terukalaya sold the hardened cakes of concentrated dye to cloth merchants in the Bombay area. Returning from a trip, he had been looking through the business records and happened to discover the latest embezzlement.

When the first 20 rupees he had taken had gone undiscovered, Vankateswami had been encouraged to do the same thing again . . . and again. Soon it had become a way of life. His father had eventually caught him and slapped him around the porch with the help of his uncles until his face had burned with the stinging blows. But the smarting pain of shame within had been far worse than the throb of his swollen cheeks. He had promised never to do it again, and had meant it; but his highest resolve was no match for the morbid craving to have his own money, which dominated his life. Weary of this continual inner struggle, he would give in on the condition that this would be “the last time.” Of course, it never was.

Far worse, however, than the shame and guilt and inner turmoil was the fear that the horrible prediction his father made each time he caught him would indeed come true: “If you keep this up, you’re going straight to hell! Do you hear me? Straight to hell!”

Vankateswami would stand with drooping shoulders, head bent forward, eyes to the floor, trembling inside. It wouldn’t be long, however, until everyone would be jovial again as though all was forgiven and forgotten. His father would pat him on the back and tell him to cheer up . . . but Vankateswami couldn’t get the thought of hell, nor the fear of it, out of his mind. Once he had been confident that karma would make him something better in the next life, perhaps even a Brahmin. Now he feared that his evolution could only be downward: to become a rat, or hated scorpion, pushed even lower by his karma . . . to drop at last into the flames of hell with no escape. Hadn’t Jaigee herself said that transmigration of the soul could be downward as well as upward?

The family had recently made a pilgrimage to Benares on the banks of the Ganges where the elderly waited to die, hopeful that if their dead bodies were committed to its sacred waters they would go directly to heaven. He had bathed in the Mother of all rivers, but felt no sense of purification from sin. The old fear of hell still haunted him, yet he hadn’t stopped stealing. Indeed he couldn’t. Should he return there to drown himself in the Ganges? Would that assure him of nirvana? If he could only be certain . . . but there were so many divergent opinions from hundreds of gurus all claiming to be the present living reincarnation of Rama, Krishna, and Christ. There was, however, another way to escape hell that almost all agreed upon. Some of his cousins had paid large sums to the priests for special pujas to get their cremated parents into nirvana. But what if there wasn’t enough money . . . or suppose his heirs weren’t willing to pay the price?

“How are you seeking salvation?” he asked Jaigee very earnestly one evening in private. Less interested in the business and more concerned with preparing for the next life, she was growing daily more feeble, but her mind was still sharp.

“There are many paths,” she replied thoughtfully. “Yoga is the best, but few are able to practice such strict discipline. Each must seek his own dharma. If one does more good than evil, at least the progression is upward from one life to the next—”

“And if one’s evil deeds outweigh the good . . . ?” he interrupted.

She looked at him sympathetically. “Speak and worship the sacred syllable Om. This is the Supreme Brahman. It is said that ‘Om is the bow, one’s Self is the arrow, Brahman is the target.’ By repetition of Om and meditation you will find your true Self.”

“I repeat it more times that I can count—and all the best mantras—but still I have no peace. I am afraid of hell!”

“Manu has said, ‘No violence, truthfulness, nonstealing, purity, sense control—this is the dharma of all four castes.’ Follow this rule.”

“I have tried without success.” Suddenly he felt angry. Others had failed, too. “No one fully follows the Vedas!” he grumbled. “Not even the Brahmins. It is no secret about the girls who stay so long in the temples. In our own village I have heard—”

“It’s certain that stealing is wrong!” she interrupted sharply, cutting off any further accusations against the priesthood, though she knew there was justification. “It is unbecoming for a thief to accuse others!”

“I take nothing that isn’t my own, what my father refuses to give me. Just wages. He is unreasonable.”

“It is stealing,” she said firmly, but the sharpness had left her voice. He was her favorite in spite of recent events.

“Sometimes it is right to steal,” he argued defensively. “Even the gods have stolen. It is said that Krishna steals the women’s saris when they bathe.”

“It isn’t the same!” she said indignantly. Her voice softened again. “You will change. I have much faith in you.”

This was not the subject he had intended to talk about, and it made him uncomfortable. “You didn’t answer my question,” he reminded her. “How do you seek salvation?”

“I have hope that my karma will bring me to nirvana within five more reincarnations. So my guru tells me . . . but nothing is certain except writing the sacred name of Rama.  I have filled books with his name. Perhaps some day you could count them for me.”

“Of course. How many times do you wish to write it?”

“It is said that anyone who writes Rama 100 million times will reach nirvana without fail.”

“That is a lot of writing,” said Vankateswami thoughtfully. “Far easier to die beside the Ganges so one’s body could be given to the sacred waters.”

“I have written it 5,000 times in a single day, but my fingers grow ever more stiff with age. I do not count very high, but others say I have already written 5 million. If you would do a favor for an old woman, tell me the true count.”

Always quick with figures, Vankateswami had been calculating rapidly in his mind: 5,000 a day was about 1,800,000 a year, which left more than 50 years to go. It would not be a kindness to an old woman to tell her that. “Someday I will count them for you . . . ,” he said absently. “Someday.”

“Jaigee! Jaigee! Where are you?”

Vankateswami’s mother pushed her way through the curtain hanging across the open doorway and hurried to Jaigee, wringing her hands. “Your youngest brother . . . they don’t think he’ll live!” She burst out crying, unable to talk anymore.

“He’s only fifty!” Jaigee wailed, on her feet now, looking puzzled and alarmed.

Vankateswami’s father had entered the room and was standing just inside the door, beckoning for his mother. “I’ve called for the bullock cart,” he said quietly. “Come. I’ll go with you.”

It was late that night before the two returned from Proddatur, exhausted and heartbroken, with a strange tale. Jaigee’s youngest brother had been famous for his accomplishments in yoga, and was a well-known wrestler, excelling in a sport that the Muslims had too long dominated. Vankateswami had seen very little of this famous man who seemed always to be secluded in his own room practicing yoga or away in the gymnasium where the local wrestlers gathered. But he remembered well what Jaigee had so often told him.

“He’s a great yogi!” she had often said with ill-concealed pride. “Sitting in the lotus position, by the power of his mind, he can lift himself almost to the ceiling!”

“Have you seen him do it?” Vankateswami had asked in awed tone when he first had heard this as a small boy.

She had nodded gravely. “I . . . and very few others. It is a sacred practice, not for the eyes of the world.”

Now he was dead. Apparently he had decided upon a public demonstration of his powers. With a crowd of people watching, he had attempted a front flip from the top of the roof, but had landed on his face and never regained consciousness. Some thought he had reached nirvana. Others said it was a premature death, and therefore his spirit must wander, haunting family and friends. No one knew for sure.

Unfortunately the funeral came at a very busy time for the moneylenders. Business, of course, was always first, as Jaigee well knew; so she carried her six sons’ apologies to Proddatur when she paid her last respects to her brother’s ashes. Vankateswami was secretly glad he couldn’t go. He had developed a strong aversion for funerals, with their long processions, drum beating, mourners wailing, Brahmin priests chanting mantras and waving the sacred flame. It left him unnerved for days, viewing a corpse—and how could one avoid that at a cremation ceremony, with the body laid out on the carefully stacked logs soaked in kerosene or dotted with camphor, to be ignited by the eldest son, the widow beating her breasts and wailing inconsolably just behind him. It always reminded him that one day his body, too, would lie lifeless on a pile of logs, leaping flames turning it to ashes . . . while his soul would doubtless be tormented in the depths of hell by even hotter flames.

“You’re obsessed with hell,” one of his uncles suggested. “There is no such place—so don’t worry. Vedanta teaches that this life is but a dream from which we will awaken to oneness with the Absolute. Life, death, heaven, hell, good, evil—none of them really exist. So don’t take this dream so seriously.”

“Then why do you scold me for stealing?”

“One has to be practical also,” he said irritably and broke off the conversation.

Vankateswami had already tried to adopt the view that all was maya, but without success. It didn’t help to tell himself that his thievery was just an illusion—the torment of guilt and fear of hell were still there. Regularly at the temples, perambulating around the shrines in the courtyards, giving money to the priests—money he had stolen from his father—Vankateswami found no peace. The gods seemed unable, or unwilling to help him. When the wind caught a sari, making it cling to a girl, outlining her hips or thighs or breasts, he would hate himself for the thoughts that filled his mind. Hands stretched out to the warmth of the sacred flame extended by the priest, then fingers pressed firmly against his forehead, he would pray fervently to the gods, without success, for strength to overcome the evil that raged within him . . . and for salvation from hell. It was the latter that concerned him the most.

Then one day while Jaigee’s guru was visiting her, Vankateswami decided to seek his advice. When he heard the familiar sounds of farewell, he entered the room where they had been talking and prostrated himself before the Master, a man about 60 years of age. The guru’s long, gray hair was matted with dirt, and his full white beard, framing a rather pleasant wrinkled face, covered most of the black beads hanging down the front of his saffron robe.

“I know your desire,” he said, motioning to Vankateswami to arise. “Your grandmother says you fear hell and seek salvation.”

“Yes, Master. I have tried the path of action, but my bad deeds grow faster than the good. Truly I need your help!”

“You are too young to have such heavy concerns,” the guru replied soothingly. “Is there not much happiness in youth?”

“I do not wish to be happy now only to land in hell!”

“In the Vedanta it is said, ‘For him who knows the true Self both good and evil are alike; indeed, both do please the Self for him who knows thus. This is the secret teaching.’”

“I do not understand.”

“You concern yourself too much with good and evil and karma, and have neglected the way of knowledge.”

“Yes!” exclaimed Vankateswami eagerly. “That is because I have no guru to teach me!”

Bowing toward Jaigee, her guru started for the door. Vankateswami jumped into his path. “Holy Master! I will be your follower, cook your food, wash your clothes . . . only lead me on the path of divine enlightenment!”

Palms together in front of him, smiling, the holy man half bowed again. “What do you know of the Scriptures?”

“I know many mantras and have read the Vedas, perhaps not as diligently as I should. . . . ” Vankateswami hung his head.

“The Bhagavad-Gita is the Book of books. Read it faithfully every day for six months . . . and then I will examine you. If you are worthy, I will be your guru.”

That promise was like a benediction and gave Vankateswami new hope.

The family’s only copy of the Bhagavad-Gita was in Sanskrit. Determined to learn all he could, he read it aloud each morning when the business opened, and his father and uncles would correct his pronunciation and explain the deeper meanings. Six months would pass quickly, and then he would be a follower of this great guru, and his salvation would be assured. It troubled him somewhat that Jaigee, who had been taught by this guru for years, seemed so uncertain of her own salvation. But his case was different: He was younger and could do what she could not. There was hope for the first time in months.

He was familiar in a general way with the Bhagavad-Gita, but reading it daily brought new appreciation. Indeed, it was the Book of books. He fell in love with it. The narrative style made the truth much easier to grasp. Krishna would forever be his favorite among the gods.

Then one morning, with several customers standing about listening as he read, in one terse sentence in chapter 4, his beloved Bhagavad-Gita snuffed out that last ray of hope he had been nurturing, leaving him in darkness and utter desolation:

Lord Krishna came to save the righteous and to condemn the sinners.

Reading the words again, Vankateswami asked each of his listeners who knew the Sanskrit well to explain the meaning. When all had agreed with what he himself had easily understood, he closed the book of books in despair. His doom was sealed. Lord Krishna was the kindest, the closest to man of all the gods, the reincarnation of Vishnu the Preserver, who came to show men the way of salvation . . . but he had come to save only the righteous and to condemn the sinners! No salvation for sinners? Then there was no salvation for him!

Walking slowly into the house, he put the Bhagavad-Gita in its place on the shelf beside the family gods. Then he went back to the books of account, but the figures on the page were blurred and meaningless. Something inside him had died.


You will find Part Two of Paul's story here: