The Sixth Witness
The Sixth Witness21 mins 161 21 mins 161
It all began with my dear and loving wife. Her dear and departed mother, my mother- in- law, had been bothering her ever since her sudden death three years ago. I think my wife was feeling extremely guilty that she hadn’t done enough for her mother; in fact, she felt ashamed when she recalled the various occasions when she would argue and fight with her mother on almost everything. Well, when my mother-in-law passed away, my wife felt, in some way, guilty for her untimely death. She used to remember her mother telling her that her children (five of them) were of no use to her as they would neither listen to her nor take care of her. My mother-in-law had lost her husband long ago to cancer and as part of the rituals after the death, had gone to Gaya in Bihar to do the ultimate Pind Daan. She had gone there alone because her children did not believe in rituals. While there, and this was told by her to my wife, she had done the Pind for herself too, as she did not think there would be anybody in the family who would do it for her when she died. You see, my wife remembered this when her mother passed, and felt guilty as hell.
Three years after my mother-in-law’s untimely death, my wife suddenly got the opportunity to visit Gaya through one of her friends, and she insisted that I must join her. She would perform the Pind there not only for her mother but also her father and ancestors. Little did I know that this trip, which I made reluctantly, would turn out to be one of the most memorable experiences in my life!
Gaya is one of the holiest towns in India and Hindus believe that their ancestors will get eternal salvation if the Shradh and Pind are done for them here. Millions of believers visit this shabby town every year and thus Gaya is one of the most visited Hindu pilgrimages. Also, the historical fact that Lord Buddha received his Nirvana under a bodhi tree in Gaya (Bodh Gaya), makes the place one of the holiest for the Buddhists who throng it throughout the year. You can see how human beliefs make even a nondescript location so historic and important!
That is how the journey to Gaya began. Who knew that the journey would be a roller coaster for me!
M wife and I were put up in her friends’ friend’s lodge. We had reached the place in the early hours of the day and after a fresh bath and breakfast, we were ready to go to the ghats for the ritual. A brahmin was summoned to conduct the rituals for us. He took us to the Vishnupad temple on the banks of Falgu river where the rituals were to be performed.
Close to the river bank, there was this square platform on which the brahmin sat us down and set up his stage. All around us there were groups of people huddled around their own priests performing the pindam. Pinda or Pindam are traditional balls made of rice (or wheat as was the case here) which are then ceremoniously offered to ancestors with the chanting of hymns and mantras, with great devotion (Shradha). At Gaya, pinda is offered at three spots at the Vishnupad temple; the first set is offered right on the banks under a large Peepal tree, the second inside the temple at the feet of Lord Vishnu and the third to the Akshay Vat (Banyan tree).
All around me I could only see males performing the ritual. It is believed that it is the duty of the male successors to perform pind- daan for ancestors; my wife was the only lady performing the ritual. Since she was in the center, I stayed on the fringe watching the brahmin conduct the proceedings. Soon, I was timed out and lost consciousness of my surroundings.
The forest around me was thick and overbearing, and I could barely see beyond the trees and leaves. It was raining hard and heavy and the sound of water was terrifying. I was wondering if it was day or night. I could see no pathways and I had no way to find out where I was. There seemed to be no point in wandering out in the forest and I decided to stay put where I was.
It seemed an eternity before the rain stopped and a great silence descended on the forest. I could now hear sounds other than the light raindrops falling on leaves. Birds had started their chatter, probably planning to venture out for food. In a while, there was light all around and I could infer that the sun was out. Now I could see a mud path twisting and turn ahead of me and around the trees. I began to walk and kept walking until I reached what seemed to be the edge of the forest. I could now hear the gushing of water, probably a river.
It was indeed a river like one I had never seen before. The waters were white like milk, despite the obvious fact that the rainwater was a different earthly color. The milky waters were flowing ferociously threatening to breach their banks. I could not see the other end of the bank, the river was that wide. I stood there, alone and in total awe. I also noticed that the sands, though wet with water, were glittering in the sun. It was like pearls strewn on the sand.
There was no one around and I strained my eyes to spot life along the bank. Far away I thought I could see the figure of some human beings and I started walking towards the spot. As I drew closer, I began to notice that the forests were no longer following me and in their place there were structures, indicating habitation. The figure on the sands grew larger and I could now make out a man sitting on the river bank. Closer inspection revealed that the man could be a beast of some kind for the lower body visible to me looked, unlike humans. Where was I and what was the thing before me?
I strangely felt no fear and boldly walked up to the human-beast. Its eyes were closed, as if in meditation; long hair flowed down its head and mouth. Its face was definitely human, more like a Sadhu in deep meditation. Sitting erect, he must have measured more than six feet. He had large feet and hands were folded in prayer. When I walked up to him, he did not notice me, maybe because he was deep into his meditation.
I wandered away from the meditating sadhu and the river to explore the land. At a short distance, I could see dwellings. As I got closer, I could see they were small hutments made of mud with thatched roofs and small doors. A group of men sat huddled under a big thatched shelter talking animatedly. I walked up to them to make inquiries, but nobody noticed me! It was then that I realized that I was not visible to them at all! I went close and sat with them, without noticing my presence. Somehow, their language which was unfamiliar in my modern world sounded familiar to me.
They were talking about the Sadhu on the sands. His name, which was being repeatedly used, was Gayasur and he was also being referred to as Asur. I could infer that the Sadhu had been praying to the Gods for a very long time, perhaps in the hope that they would “visit” him and grant him boons. The general consensus seemed that the Gods have to visit him sooner than later as the giant had been unwavering in his meditation, having given up food and water. They feared that he may die of hunger any time as no one can survive forever without eating.
Even as they were talking, the sky lit up quite unnaturally. The light seemed to emanate from everywhere and created panic amongst the villagers who were now pouring out of their homes. Someone shouted something and they all started running towards where the Sadhu was sitting. I joined the crowds and soon we could see a very large group of strange entities descending before the sadhu. The villagers shouted that the Gods had finally arrived.
The group of interstellar personalities was led by a tall man with chiseled features. These entities were covered in ethereal glow indicative of their divine nature. The tall man touched Gayasur on his shoulder and the Sadhu awoke with a start. On seeing the astral figures around him he raised his arms in prayers and fell at the leader’s feet.
“We are pleased with your prayers Gayasur. Pray tell us what is the objective of your meditation?”
“I seek the welfare of human beings Lord. Please grant me the power to absolve humans of their sins to enable them to be in your benevolent presence after their death.”
“ So be it. Any human who comes to you with reverence and touches you shall attain salvation.”
With this, there was a sudden gust of wind and the entire astral team disappeared. The Sadhu got up and addressed the villagers.
“ You have all witnessed the Gods granting me the power to give human beings salvation. Go and spread the word until it reaches every corner of the planet and beyond. Henceforth, anyone receiving my blessings shall attain salvation and go to heaven after death. Now bring me food and water before I die of starvation.”
The villagers clapped and rejoiced and rushed to bring refreshments to the sadhu. Suddenly, the voice of our priest in Gaya asking us to get up and follow him woke me up and I regained my earthly consciousness. I was still sitting at the ghats and my wife was performing the Pind. I wondered if it was the stories I heard at the ghats today that made me hallucinate about Gayasur. But no, I was definitely there in another era witnessing the granting of the boon by the Gods to Gayasur. I wanted to tell all present that the story was not a myth but true, but who would believe me?
The next day, I accompanied my wife to a place called Sita Kund, across the Falgu river. This, we were told was the place where Sita had offered Pind to her father in law, Dashrath. As my wife wandered around to explore the place, I sat on the steps of the ghat on the riverbank, and then it happened again. I found myself in the same village where I had been transported yesterday.
It struck me that I was in another time zone, quite different from yesterday. The place was the same but things had changed. In place of hutments, I could see fine houses. The people also seemed to have become more affluent. Their manner of speech was more refined. Indeed, I have arrived here once again after the passage of time, I don’t know how much.
In a splendid structure, more like the temples we see today, I could see a huge crowd milling around. These were not just people from this village, they are travelers from far who have come here to visit the Sadhu who provided salvation to all. Inside the structure, on a regal throne sat Gayasur, dispensing salvation to one and all.
I spied a group of astral entities amongst the crowd. They stood at the back, witnessing the proceedings with dismay. I edged close to them to overhear this fascinating conversation:
“ Our Lord had done a grave mistake. Why did he have to grant the salvation boon to this Asur?”
“ Look at him! He has grown rich on the offerings of rogues and murderers. Hell is empty and heaven is overflowing. Thanks to Gayasur, thieves, cheats, liars, and sinners have all been granted access to heaven. How long can this last?”
“I heard a group of Gods has petitioned the Lord himself to intervene and correct this monstrous mistake.”
Even as they were speaking, blinding light enveloped the hall and soon a big team of astral bodies led by the entity they called Lord, descended before Gayasur. Gayasur immediately stood up and fell at the Lord’s feet.
The Lord spoke: “ Gayasur, I am very pleased with you. We have come here to perform a very special ceremony and I desire your help.”
“ Name it Lord. Everything that is mine is yours.”
“Gayasur, this is no ordinary ceremony, and it requires to be performed on the most sacred and pure spot in the entire universe. You, my dear, are the worthiest of all as even your mere touch grants salvation to a living being. Now, it is only natural that we perform our ceremony here, on this spot. I need you to lie down so that we can do the needful on the back of your holy body.”
“ Lord, what can I say! Truly you have blessed me today by considering me worthy in all the worlds. Do what you need to do Lord.”
Saying this, Gayasur laid down on his face and the Lord began the rituals using his back as their platform. On completion, Gayasur made a move to stand but the Lord put his foot on his back and pressed him to the ground.
“What’s the matter, Lord? Have you not completed the ceremony? Or is your visit something to do with me rather than the ceremony?”
“Gayasur. There is a certain order to the universe and I am sorry to say that my boon to you has upset that order. In order to right the situation, I need to let go of you.”
“ Lord, you are the Master of the universe and we are all mere mortals. It was never my intention to upset the delicate balance of the universe. Even so, now that I can understand your predicament, and before you let go of me for eternity, may I request something of you?”
“Proceed dear Gayasur.”
“ If indeed you love me as you say, let my name be immortal and this entire town should bear my name when I am gone.”
“So be it. Henceforth, this place shall be known as Gaya, and so everyone will remember you.”
“Lord, let is also be that this place should be sacred for every human being who desires the salvation of their ancestors. Let them come here to offer me a ball of rice with a pure heart and a prayer for their departed ancestors. Whosoever does this shall ensure the release of their ancestors from wherever they are to your world.”
The Lord smiled and said: “So be it Gayasur. You deserve to be remembered and being a pure soul yourself, let it be that whoever offers pindam at Gaya shall release their ancestors from any realm their soul might be.”
The Lord pressed on Gayasur’s back with his foot and miraculously Gayasur disappeared. All that remained was the imprint of the Lord’s foot.
The crowd looked stunned at the spectacle and soon they raised slogans of “Long live Gayasur”.
My ordeal was not over yet. I was just about coming to terms with the spectacle I had just witnessed when I suddenly found myself in the jungles again, this time over some hilltop. Again, this was a new time zone and everything had changed around me.
I was now amidst a group of wanderers who had perhaps sought shelter on this hilltop. Beneath a temporary shelter, I saw a woman and two men, eating some food. They were dressed in the simplest of clothes but looked regal. Soon, another man came up the hill and rushed towards them.
“ My Lord, our emperor and your father Dashrath is no more.”
“ My poor father. Reports of his bad health have been coming to me regularly. May his troubled soul rest in eternal peace. He was truly heartbroken after our exile. Imagine a father has to send his sons and daughter in law to 14 years of exile! It was not his fault, but there was no way he would not blame himself for what happened. It’s a pity that we shall not be there to cremate the noble soul, but there is nothing we can do about it.”
“Ram, I agree we are too far removed to reach Ayodhya, but there is something we can do here. Not very far from here is a place called Gaya. I have heard that people flock to the place to offer pind daan to their ancestors. They believe that the place is holy and blessed by Lord Vishnu himself. It is also said that whoever offers pind daan for their father and forefathers here do a great service. By offering pind daan the forefathers are released from wherever they are and reach the highest realms of heaven. Our noble father’s soul would have just started its journey. We must offer Pind so that it can go straight to heaven”
“Yes Laxman, I have heard that too. We should proceed immediately to Gaya and do the Pind daan. What do you say, Sita?”
“It is our duty to do so, and it is a good thing we are near this holy place. Let’s proceed at first light.”
I followed the three on their walk to Gaya through thick forests and hilly routes. I don’t know how long it took, but we reached Gaya early one morning. The place was transformed again, since my last two visits. A small structure had come up where the Lord set his foot on Gayasur’s back. Even at this early hour, crowds of people were trudging towards the river bank to make their offerings. Small shops had sprung everywhere selling material required for the pindam ceremony.
I gathered that a special set of skilled and knowledgeable professionals called Panda had emerged to control the rituals. Prayers and hymns were chanted before pindam was offered.
Tired from all the walking, Ram, Sita, and Laxman rested a while under a pilgrim shelter. I could see that they were just ordinary people here, as no one recognized them as the famed Ram his wife and brother. Their exploits, which we all know in our world, had not yet percolated to masses here.
Sita was first to get up and bathe in the river. When she came back, Ram and Laxman went to bathe before they could begin the rituals. While they were away, I sat beside Sita. Soon enough, a panda came up and enquired where she was from and would they required his help with the rituals. Sita told him that her husband and brother in law had gone to bathe and he could talk to them when they returned. The pandit sat at a distance respectfully.
I could notice cows wandering around, and one, in particular, came up to us. Sita stroked it fondly and the cow cozied up to her. We were sitting under the shade of a very large banyan tree and nearby there was a large tulsi plant.
The sands of Falguni river, as it was now called, shone in the sun. The milky waters of the river were gushing with enthusiasm. Suddenly, we could hear someone speak, apparently to Sita. The voice was heard but we could not see who was speaking.
“Sita, I am Dashrat, the unfortunate one. I am glad to see you and my sons here in Gaya. I am happy they have forgiven me for my ghastly sin, and they are planning to pray for the release of my soul. Forgive me my child, for because of me you had to undergo so much trouble.”
“Father”, Sita exclaimed. “Please do not apologize for what is really not your fault. The decision you made was right by Dharma and it was our duty to obey. We have really had the opportunity to explore our wonderful land beyond our boundaries and learn a lot. Your sons love you and respect you and you can leave this life without any regrets.”
“ But where are they? I do not have much time now, seconds are precious. I cannot leave without accepting the pindam, and I am very hungry. So my dear daughter, please give me my pindam so that I can attain my salvation..”
“Father, it is improper for a girl to offer pind daan; I’m afraid you have to wait for your sons to arrive.”
“ No, it's not in my hands to wait. I can already feel the call and I will leave soon. It is also appropriate that in the absence of my sons you are the person worthy of conducting the ritual. Please do not refuse, or I shall not attain release.”
“ Father”, Sita was in despair. “ How can do it? I do not even have the rice to offer you?”
“ Does not matter. Give me a handful of sand and that will do.”
The pandit was watching in fascination. From what he had heard he could gather that these were not ordinary pilgrims. It was Ram, the great warrior whose tales he had heard fleetingly; son of the famed emperor Dashrat who was legendary. Some believed that Ram was no ordinary human being, he was the incarnation of Lord Vishnu himself, though this was only hearsay. If that was true, then he, the humble pandit, was on the threshold of helping Ram and Laxman to perform the pind daan, a privilege few pandits would have.
The cow too heard all. Lord Ram was here with his wife and brother to offer pind daan to his father. What an opportunity it was for the cow to be caressed by the Lord himself. Her next incarnation would as a greater being would be assured by his mere touch.
The banyan tree looked stunned. It had heard about Ram too, though much was not known about him in these parts. What a privilege will it be to have the noble Ram, Sita and Laxman under its shade!
The Tulsi plant was also wondering how blessed it would be to have Ram offering its leaves in prayers.
But all this would not happen if Sita agreed to Dashrat’s request. Would she or will she not?
I could read all these thoughts and wondered if the stories I heard in my world about this incident were really true.
Sita had a hard decision to make. On the one hand, was her departed father-in-law demanding pindam from her or else he would remain trapped in unknown realms. On the other hand, it was ordained that the pindam be offered only by his sons, not her. Ram was a scrupulous follower of the path of righteousness, what would he say about this? She was all alone here with no one to validate her story. There was only a banyan tree, a cow, a tulsi plant, the waters of the river and a panda sitting at a distance. Surely they had seen all that had transpired.
Dashrath was now desperately asking her to hurry, or else he would be gone. Sita dug into the sand and made a ball and offered to Dashrath. How would he accept this, she wondered. At the very moment, a hand came out of the sands and snatched the mudball from Sita. Dashrath had accepted the pindam and he disappeared satisfied.
Ram and Lakshman were stunned. They could not believe that their father would have come and gone in such a hurry. They could not believe that he could have accepted pind from Sita as she claimed. This was unheard of. But why would Sita lie about this?. There was nothing she gained from it. Could it have been in her imagination? Was she hallucinating about the event? There was no way to find out.
Sita could read their disturbing thoughts. She said “ I can understand your feelings. I am not lying, nor it is imagined by me. That cow there, the brahmin, this tulsi plant, that river there and this banyan tree, they all saw it. Ask them.”
The brahmin said “ I’m truly sorry but I witnessed no such thing. I’m sure the lady was having a dream.”
The river said “ Such things as the lady says are only figments of her imagination. I saw nothing.”
The tulsi plant said, “ Neither did I ".
The cow said, “ I must have been sleeping when it happened if at all it did.”
I watched this unfolding of events with distress. Why are these witnesses lying? Was it because they wanted Ram to patronize them? But what about the poor lady? What will happen to her if the last visible witness, the banyan tree lied too? I desperately wanted to help her but there was no way I could make myself visible. I had to do something. Sita’s honor was at stake and I could not be a mute witness. I sprang up and sat on the banyan tree, willing it hard to speak the truth. I willed myself to become one with the tree’s spirit.
Sita was now looking crestfallen as she tearfully looked at the last witness. “ What do you say oh noble tree? Am I lying as these creatures have said?”
“ No, Sita is not the liar. These four witnesses are lying because they are selfish. They all want to be touched by the great Ram. But I shall speak the truth., Sita did perform the pind on Dashrath’s insistence. I saw it and so did these four. Now, it's my word against theirs. So Ram, why don’t you offer pind now and see if your father accepts it? If he does appear to receive your pind, then Sita and I are to be punished for lying. If not, punish these four.”
My logic appealed to Ram and Lakshman and they offered pind and prayers to their father. But their father did not accept the offering, much to my relief and Sita’s. The banyan tree was meanwhile stunned and mute, wondering what had spoken from within
Ram and Lakshman turned to Sita and apologized to her for doubting her. They then requested Sita to punish the brahmin, the river, the cow and the tulsi plant for their offense.
“ Brahmin, you were selfish and cared not for my honor. Henceforth, you and your tribe shall never be satisfied with what you get. You will remain to ask for more.
Oh, holy river! Your waters give life to all creatures and thus considered holy. But here, in Gaya, you shall not be seen henceforth. Your waters will remain beneath the ground.
Cow, how can you lie? Your mouth shall henceforth remain unclean and no one shall touch you on your face. You shall, however, be revered only from behind.
Tulsi, you will henceforth grow in the most unclean places and not anywhere near this holy place.
Oh, great banyan tree. You have truly saved my honor today. You will remain evergreen, not a leaf shall fall off you and people henceforth shall pray to you whenever they come here. You will be known as the Akshaya Vat”
My wife was shaking me violently and shouting at me. I came back to my senses and saw everyone around staring at me. They all thought I was dead or something. How could I explain what happened to me? How can I tell them that it was me who saved the day for Sita? That I was the sixth witness to this historical story? Even Sita and Ram and Lakshman would not remember me.