When the astrologer
read his newborn son's horoscope
he was grieved
it heralded the father's death,
but on deeper scrutiny
he was overjoyed to learn
the child was fathered
by his wife's lover!
There was a certain very wise, most unworldly, excessively honest Rajah who ruled over a
kingdom so well-governed that in all its broad dominions, poverty was all but unknown. Oh,
perhaps a habitual gambler here threw his inheritance to the wind; perhaps an opium-addict or
two lay penniless and dreaming in a back alley, caring for nothing but smoke . . . perhaps there
were a few widows.
The poorest woman in the kingdom was one of these widows. (Certainly, there were no more
than five or six in the whole realm.) She, a virtuous Brahman, lived under the Rajah's very nose,
in the shadow of his castle wall, and she supported herself and her only son by grinding corn for
anyone who asked. From the leavings of the corn, she baked her son's daily bread.
It was coarse.
It was hard.
It was dry and full of hulls, but the little boy knew no better, and he thrived upon it.
Till one day the Brahman widow's next-door neighbor celebrated the arrival of his first-born--alas! it was a daughter, but he rejoiced anyway, and he wanted everyone he knew to share in his
good fortune. The Brahman's widow often ground his corn. Round to her house he sent a
bowl heaped with good things: rice cooked in milk, and with sugar to sweeten it! The widow
was overjoyed. For love of her little son, she gave him the whole bowlful. The little boy
scarfed down the lot in a trice. Such luxuries opened his eyes to a miraculous world of plenty.
He licked the bowl clean, clasped it to his heart . . . and, "From this day on," he vowed to his
mother, "I'll never eat anything else!"
She laughed happily, never dreaming he meant it. But the very next day, when she set his share
of the loaf before him, he curled his lip and wrinkled his nose, and declared in a medium roar:
"Now, you eat," commanded his mother, and the little boy sat up straight, struck out his chin,
scowled mightily and repeated: "WON'T!"
He wanted rice and milk and sugar, and he didn't want anything else.
"Now now," scolding his mother, aghast at his ingratitude. "That's more than I can give you,
and you know it. That's the treasure of all the world, my son, the more because those who have
it do not value it. Devi alone can grant this treasure to you."
Very near to their humble hut was a neglected temple of Devi which no one bothered to visit
anymore. The Brahman boy, consumed with desire, went there and flung himself face-down at
the feet of the statue of Devi, which was eight-armed, but riddled with cracks. For four days
straight, refusing all bread and admonishments, he lay at the feet of Devi. On the fifth day the
goddess appeared before him and asked him what favor he wanted.
"Rice and milk every day, please," replied the child. "And lots and lots of sugar on it!"
"So you shall have it," said the benevolent goddess, "but such a humble wish is easily granted.
Ask for something more difficult."
"Won't!" said the little boy happily. (He had just learned the word, and was enthralled.)
Besides, he could think of nothing he wanted except that. Rice and milk and lots of sugar--what
more could any boy ask? Thus, Devi laughed, for she thought him wiser than his elders. She
kissed his brow, and before she vanished, handed him an amritphal, one of the fruit of immortality.
"You've earned it," she said.
The little boy, alone once more in the decrepit temple, examined the shining fruit. He puzzled
over it. He scratched his head, then trotted home to his mother and presented it to her. "Rice
and milk and sugar, please," he requested.
"And so you shall have," said his mother, laughing and weeping at once, for she recognized the
fruit for the wonder it was. "Oh my clever boy! You hold the coin that will buy it in your
hand. Don't let a living soul take it away from you, but go straight to the Rajah's palace and
give it to no one but him."
The boy went to the palace, where the Rajah was holding judgement. Indulgent soldiers let him
past. Ushered into the presence of his ruler, he handed over the fruit which conferred
immortality. "Mother says you'll give me the treasure of all the world for this," he told the
flabbergasted Rajah. "Please, some rice with milk and sugar? Every day."
The fruit shone in the Rajah's hand like a sapphire of Ceylon. "Give this child," he ordered,
when he was able to speak for awe, "and his mother too, such a gift in return that they will never
know want again." He dismissed his servants and his guards, and cradling the amritphal
reverently, became lost in a dream of eternal youth.
Then, because he was a good man, he thought, "The cares of my position wear me down every
day. Immortality would be nothing but endless tiredness. I should set the fruit aside. But
wait! The only thing in life that makes me smile is my darling Rani, dearest of wives. Her
youth is her chief beauty, her beauty is the flower of my life: the fruit which springs from that
flower should also be eternal. I will give my Rani this gift, and she will be young for me forever."
That very day, he laid the amritphal in his Rani's silken lap, and she thanked him excessively.
She dandled the fruit playfully, kissed it several times, and pretended to juggle it, while laughing
with a delicious babbling brook of a laugh. Secretly, she was imagining the moment when she
could steal away, and meet in secret with the handsome young darogah of her husband's horses.
How wonderful he was! How besotted she was with him! Theirs, she fancied, was a passion
eternal. "We will run away together," she said to herself, polishing the glossy fruit against her
cheek; her cheek was rosy and glowing, sweet as the fruit itself. "We will always be together.
We will grow old together. Let me but ask one kiss of my beloved, and I will give him this
worthless apple and smile as he tosses it to the horses in the stable."
When she gave the fruit to her lover, he did not disappoint her. He scarcely looked at it, but
stowed it carelessly away in his coat. Then he divested himself of coat and sash and turban and
all other articles of attire, and devoted himself to making her forget there was such a thing as
tomorrow, let alone eternal life. Having succeeded (magnificently!) he slunk out of her
bedchamber unobserved, with the deft agility of one who has pleased many, many women in his
time. Within the hour he was strutting through the streets of the city, money given to him by the
Rani jingling in his pockets. He spent all the money in a tavern, after which he went around to
see the dancing-girl who was, that particular month, the dearest thing to his heart. By the break
of dawn he had pleased her quite as well as he had pleased the Rani, and he left the magic fruit on
He was certain he loved her as no man had ever loved a woman. Besides, he was young and
carefree, and already thought himself immortal.
The dancing-girl laid aside her flashy jewelry, stripped the soiled sheets from her bed, wrapped
them up in a bundle and balanced them on her head, after which she walked down to the river to
wash them clean. This was what she always did after entertaining a lover. She carried the
amritphal in one hand as she walked, looking at it wonderingly. "My life is sinful," she thought,
"and full of men who use me and leave me to my sorrows . . . why prolong it? I am not worthy
of this gift. The Rajah is the father of his people, the favored son of a fortunate god. As soon
as I'm done with the laundry, I'll beg my way into his presence and lay the fruit at his feet."
And so she did.
She did not understand why the Rajah sat for a very long time staring speechlessly at her tribute.
At last he found his voice. "Where did you get this, child?" he asked.
"From the darogah of your horses," she replied.
In an instant the whole painful truth came to the disillusioned Rajah. "What," he asked himself,
"is human faith and the vanity of royal rank, when my Rani can betray me with one of my stable-servants, and her paramour prefers the kisses of a lowly dancing-girl over the favors of a queen?"
He reflected bitterly upon the illusions of earthly life. Then, leaving the scorned fruit on the seat
of his empty throne, he turned his back on the world and became a wandering sadhi.
Kabir and the Lustful Grocer
This tale is told of the great poet-mystic Kabir, that he always showed great regard for the
wandering faquirs of Islam. One day a party of dervishes came to visit him, and he welcomed
them respectfully into his house. Hospitality demanded that he feed them with his best, but he
had nothing to show his hospitality with--not as much as a single grain of rice! So he went out
and begged from house to house in the town, but found no luck.
Coming wearily back home, he took his wife aside and said, "Hast thou no friend who could give
you a scrap, no one you could borrow food from?"
She answered, "There is a grocer down the street who threw the eye of bad desire upon me, and if
I asked something from this sinner, he would give it."
Kabir said, "Go immediately to him, grant him what he desires, and bring back something for my
The woman went with dragging steps to the business of the lewd grocer. She made her demand,
and the grocer said, "If you come this night to me, your request is granted." So she hung her
head, and swore an oath to that effect, and went out with a loaded basket of rice and oil and good
things, more than enough to satisfy the dervishes.
When the meal had been cooked and served and eaten, and the dervishes (very happily) fell
asleep, she looked out through the house-door and saw a heavy rain falling, heavy as the
monsoon, so much that the street was awash with running water and the mud knee-deep. Then
she said hopefully, "Let the weather excuse me from paying my debt tonight." But Kabir, in
order to keep her true to her word, took her on his back and carried her in the darkness and the
rain, through the cold and clinging mud to the shop of the bad grocer; he set her down without a
spot of mud on her, and withdrew to a shadowy corner to wait.
She went inside. When the wicked grocer saw her with her feet unsullied, he said, "How did
you arrive with not a speck of mud to show the walk?" but she turned her face aside, and would
not answer for shame.
He asked again, she was silent.
A third time he conjured her, and invoked the holy name of God to make her give him the truth.
She was unable to evade answering. So she told him the whole thing, and the grocer, when he
heard, uttered a shriek and fell senseless at her feet. He woke with her bent over him, shaking
him, and Kabir looking on--whereupon he leapt up, and fell at Kabir's feet this time. From that
day onward he was a changed man, lived a virtuous life, distributed all his wealth among the poor,
and became a wandering sadhi himself.
Sakoontala, or The Lost Ring
(An Indian drama by the playwright Kalidasa, originally translated from the Sanskrit by Monier
There once was a Kshatrya king in India, Visvamitra by name. For many long years he pursued a
feud with a great Brahman sage called Vasishtra, and during these years--centuries--indeed,
thousands of years their battle went on!--the Kshatrya king purified himself with austerities
undreamed-of, eventually becoming so pure through his sufferings that he attained the caste of
Brahman. In fact he was so zealous in his meditation that even the gods became alarmed, and
Indra himself took notice and sent a nymph of heaven to distract him. Menaka was the angel's
name. Visvamitra was unable to resist her divine allure, and had her to share his hermitage for
Sakoontala was their daughter, as lovely as her mother.
She was reared by holy men, in a colony of hermits. There, with wise men and women about
her, and their sons and daughters for her playmates, she grew to womanhood. And there, one
day, a king came hunting through the nearby forest, and discovered her picking flowers by the
riverbank. Two other girls were with her, and they had been wading in the water; their feet still
sparkled with wetness. One of the girls was named Priyamvada, and the other was Anasuya, and
where one was spritely, the other was shy; where one laughed like a little girl, the other seemed
lost in sweet dreaming thought; where one was bold, the other blushed, and all in all they were the
most charming girls imaginable. But the king had no eyes for anyone but Sakoontala. When he
first spied her she was beating off a large bee that swooped around her, drunk with nectar,
disturbed by her hand as it buzzed among the flowers. It whirled about in wild circles now, and
Sakoontala beat it back with a stalk of lilies. Then she ran from it, uttering little screams, and
rushed headlong into the bewitched king's arms. She looked into his eyes: for them both it was
He pined, she doubted. Both grew pale. Neither could eat a bite of food. They almost starved
to death, till Priyamvada and Anasuya put their heads together and came up with a conspiracy,
and through the wiles of the two maidens Sakoontala confessed her love to a bush in the garden .
. . behind which was the young king, listening to every word. What else could he do, except
step forward (as she leaped into the bush, smitten with shyness) and tell the fountain beside the
bush exactly what he felt? Eventually Sakoontala emerged from the bush. Her girlfriends
tiptoed out of earshot. The king kissed her feet, and began to work his way upward, professing
eternal adoration. Both were delirious with joy.
Soon, secretly, by the rites of marriage prevalent among Indra's celestial magicians, they were
united in wedlock.
Almost immediately after, the king (professing eternal love) left Sakoontala and returned to his
own city of Hastinapur, where he had three hundred wives already. Before he left, he put a ring
on her finger, with his name engraved on it: "With this ring of recognition," he said, "all will know
you for my bride." He loved her more than all of the rest of his wives combined, he assured her
many times over, and yet--somehow--somehow, she could not help feeling abandoned.
So she moped and she mourned, and she wandered through her days lost in a reverie of her lord's
most delicious kisses. At this time, no less a personage than the great sage Durvasas arrived at
the monastery. He expected to stay for several weeks. He also expected to be met with the
flattering hospitality due to a man of his no-doubt excessive virtue . . . and so he was, except by
Sakoontala, and she did not notice him at all!
It was a glaring affront. The sage's nature had been sweetened by meditation upon the
pointlessness and illusions of this earthly coil; he was a very goldmine of penitential merit, a
paragon of wisdom, the wellspring of humility. He expected better. Whatever he had been like
before nine-and-ninety years of repentant beggardom improved him, no one could guess. Suffice
it to say that he scolded Sakoontala up one side and down the other, and ended by laying her
under a curse.
"How dare you think of your lover when I am here! Well, you'll soon see the error of your
ways. Even as you dream of him, he'll remember you no longer, not your name, not your face,
not your kisses or the moments you shared. He will disown you, rash maiden, just like a
drunkard the morning after--forgetting the promises he made while reveling the night before."
Sakoontala was so deep in sad thoughts of her beloved that she didn't even hear his words.
Her two friends, however, did. They were swift to throw themselves at the sage's feet, two
flowers uttering birdsong-sweet pleas. "Pardon her!" cried one, winding her arms round the
hermit's ankle. "She is young and foolish, forgive her!" cried the other, washing his feet with her
"Oh, very well," he said, relenting a bit. "My curse, once uttered, cannot be taken back: every
word which leaves my lips is, after all, perpetual truth. But I shall say further than at the sight of
the ring of recognition, this spell will be lifted." Then he disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
They had to be satisfied with this. Putting their heads together, they decided not to breath a
word of all this to Sakoontala herself. And Sakoontala herself was busy greeting her father, who
had been absent on pilgrimage--having gone to Soma-tirtha to propitiate Destiny, which
threatened his daughter with some calamity. Her father approved of her marriage, once he heard
of it. He gave it his blessing. He decided to send her to her husband's city, with a few of his
hermits to chaperone her on the trip.
She wept as she said farewell to Priyamvada and Anasuya. For their part, they whispered in her
ear: "If by chance he does not recognize you, show him the magic ring."
Soon enough they were in the king's city. But in fulfillment of the curse, the king had lost every
memory of Sakoontala, and when she was shown into his presence, declined to call her his.
True, he was not blind to this beautiful woman who stood before him, but take her into his house?
No, no. He was a virtuous man, and he had noticed not only her beauty but a certain condition
afflicting her. He would not enrich his palace with a lady who was, quite obviously, the wife of
She dissolved in tears; if he did not know her, perhaps he recalled the royal signet he had put on
her finger? "Oh, really?" said the skeptical king. Trembling, Sakoontala lifted her hand to
display the ring. It was gone. It had been stolen.
"You had better leave now," said her true love, a barely-perceptible smile twitching the corner of
Her father's hermits, insulted, refused to take her back to the monastery. "This is your wife,
keep her!" they said, turned their backs and marched away. Sakoontala broke down completely,
fainting in a heap on the floor. The king sighed. Then he gave orders for his personal priest to
take care of this weeping madwoman, till she came out of her lunacy and stopped calling him
Sakoontala was led away weeping. The instant she was out of the king's presence, the heavens
opened up and a shining cloud swept down to the earth; she vanished in the cloud, carried up to
heaven. It was her divine mother Menaka who had rescued her.
Of course, eventually, the ring was found.
Left behind on earth, the king remembered and repented all. Between passion for his lost love
and remorse at his cruel treatment, he suffered a thousand deaths. For many years he grieved.
At last the gods themselves took note of his repentance. Indra himself sent his charioteer to lift
the king into the heavens, to a divine monastery upon Golden Peak, the abode of the servants of
the God of Wealth. There he found his son, a young boy so bold and warlike that he was fond
of playing, not with ordinary pets, but with lusty young lions. And there was Sakoontala,
wearing the gown of a widow. The king begged her forgiveness, explained the origin of the
spell that had made him forget. Then he returned to earth in Indra's own chariot, taking his
bride and heir with him.
Astrologer poem by Bihari ("The Satasai", Indian love-poetry, seventeenth century. Translation by K. P. Bahadur.)
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Last Updated August 24th, 2002 by Sylvia
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Last Updated August 24th, 2002 by Sylvia