It was mid-January and the rugged bus with windows jammed midway did not offer much succor against the cold evening wind. I was on a trip to Dharamshala with a friend. Our noisy front seat neighbors – a middle-aged hefty Sardar and a young Pahadi boy, probably of 18 or 19, were still settling in their seats. They painted a pretty picture of Indian Laurel and Hardy.
After half an hour of chit chat Mr. Hardy secretly introduced us to ‘old’ Mr. Monk. “He is a warm company on a cold night” he winked as he poured the old man into plastic – use and throw cups. My friend declined the offer courteously and went back into his tour guide marking the places to visit and things to do. I was appreciating-while I could – the snow covered peaks of distant hills, highlighted in a pinkish hue against the backdrop of twilight sky. Soon all went dark. I was surprised that I could still see the snowy peak in the moonlight. It was gorgeous. Laurel, the pahadi boy, suddenly said to me “They say there are three things worth watching in the moonlight – snowcapped mountain, frothy waves of the ocean and…” he paused, staring at the rum in his plastic cup.
“And the luminous face of the weeping Russian ‘bhikkhuni’.”
I was clueless about where he was going with this. Probably he was drunk.
“The journey is long. If I may entertain you with a story of the land we are going to, where I hail from?”
The answer did not matter and he went on with the following story –
“A very long time ago, believed to be sometime in the 18th century, a Russian merchant arrived in India on Business. He was accompanied by his mistress of golden-brown hair and blue eyes, whose beauty is believed to be so otherworldly that the merchant confined her indoors so as to not attract attention. During her days of house arrest her handmaid used to tell her stories about Buddhist monks, their austere lifestyle and their philosophies. She began to romanticize the idea of such free spirit and one day she managed to elope with her handmaid to the Himalayan foothills, believed to be current day Dharamshala, where the wandering monks use to settle for some time, preaching and practicing Dharma before moving onwards their eternal journey. The Russian mistress pleaded before the monks to take her in their shelter, tell her tales of their adventures and journeys and teach her their philosophy. But she was not accepted as she was a woman – of tremendous beauty – and the monks followed a strict restrain of let alone talking, but of not even looking at a woman directly.
The news of this lady’s beauty and incessant appeals reached a young Monk who was highly regarded for his achievements at a very young age. He preferred seclusion, spending his days in the bliss of meditation, weaving and teaching small children. That morning before he came to know about the Russian mistress, his pupils and fellow monks witnessed him struggling through his meditation. His eyes moved erratically behind the half open eyelids, his body emanated heat that could be felt from an arm distance. Later he declared that he would accept the young mistress in his ambit since she had nowhere else to go. The other monks did not approve of this but could not be much vocal about their disapproval.
The Russian mistress was elated at being with the monk. She did the daily chores, learnt how to weave, and went along with the monk for daily strolls in the meadows. She used to sit for hours watching the monk meditate and used to long for him to come out of it so that she could ask him about what he saw when he meditated, whether he could see the future and whether she was there in his future. The monk answered her questions in a cryptic manner which frustrated the young mistress. She once dared to ask the monk if he would marry her. She promised him that she would make him the happiest man on earth, she would take care of him the way no one has ever cared for anyone before, and that she would carry his legacy forward. To this he answered, “I know that will happen, but what has marriage got to do with it?”
She used to stitch pretty gowns for herself and tie her long golden-brown hair in complex braids in an attempt to allure the monk into the material world, thinking that he is too young to have an undaunted monk spirit. But she was disappointed every time. One fateful day, as the monk meditated and chanted in a state of trance under an oak tree, the Russian mistress, hypnotized by the sound of the verses, leaned on his shoulders and started humming the tune of the chants. When the incident reached the ears of the monk community, they called for the young monk and the Russian mistress and reproached them for breaking the laws and trust of the community. They ordered the Russian Mistress to leave their settlement and never return. The young monk who maintained his calm throughout, turned to the senior master and said, “Master, my soul savior, what word have you got for me?” The master smiled pleasantly and said, “Your time has come. You must leave for the higher Himalayas, wander through the forests and face the test of your years of practice. I wish you success.”
The Russian mistress could not bear the guilt of being responsible for the misfortune of the young monk. She decided to follow him into higher Himalayas and spend her life in repentance. The community objected to this, to which the Master said, “Nature is the only governance required where those souls are headed. Our laws have no value there.”
The young monk walked for months across towns, villages and farms living as a ‘Bhikshu’. The mistress followed like a shadow feeling sorry for him for she had lived the time when selling skin was preferable to begging. One day when the monk did not feel too well and wheezed with every step he took, the mistress insisted that he should take rest while she set out asking for Bhiksha. She recited flawlessly the sutras which she had learnt by heart over a period of time, hearing it repeatedly from the young monk, unaware of what the words meant. Her mesmerizing appearance contrasted by the pious recitals dazzled the civilians and brought generous amount of donations of food and clothing. When she presented her achievements to the monk he asked her to put forward her palms together. He kept whatever he could on her palms and gave away the rest to the needy, the animals or birds. She argued why he gave off that which could secure them in coming days. He replied unperturbed “Have so much as to destroy the existing desire and not to create new desires by means of abundance… This is what you had been reciting when you asked for Bhiksha.”
That simple statement spoken ever so calmly stirred a storm in the mistress’s heart. She felt as if in some corner of her soul, a small patch of dirt melted making way for a streak of white light that filled her body with uncontrollable bout of energy. “Teach me what it means. All of it.”
That night the young monk told the Russian mistress that the journey would be difficult and lonely from then on and that she should return if she did not want her luscious hair to metamorphose into dreadlocks, the chilly winds to carve a crevice on her soft lips, the sharp rocks and the rough forests to tear through her silk gown. So she appeared before him at the crack of dawn, with a shaven head embellished by a crimson rash, dressed in a plain robe that she had sewn herself, a cloth bundle of meagre belongings and a small bhiksha bowl. People gasped, some with pity, some with ecstasy, at that tableau that was captured in time, and in legends. And thus she followed him once again deeper into oblivion in the hope that one day her love will be reciprocated.
Years passed, and the initial teacher-pupil relationship transformed into camaraderie. The Russian mistress, a learned woman now, never let her hair grow back. She could now discuss life and death philosophies with the young monk and sometimes make a joke which made the monk laugh like a child, the latter a greater pleasure for her than the former.
The example set by the young mistress should be a proud moment for any teacher. The young monk remembered his master’s last words and believed that he was successful at the test of his years of practice. But, at the core, he carried a seed of discontentment. He also grew weaker with incessant coughs year after year, winters bringing out the worst when his lungs would just freeze. They usually descended down to nearest village to wait for winters to pass, but that year the young monk refused to descend until he found the cause of his discontentment. The Russian mistress descended alone to gather the necessities. It was snowing when she returned in the morning of the third day accompanied by a helper from the village. She found the young monk meditating under a deodar tree, wheezing the verses abruptly between violent coughs, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.
The mistress slowly and deliberately assumed her position on a rock opposite the tree where the monk struggled to meditate. And just as a tributary gradually joins the mainstream of a river, only seamlessly without creating a ruffle, her voice filled the gaps in the chants of the monk. The willful chants of the mistress- ever so melodious and vibrant- reverberated in the atmosphere in such a way that the monk eventually went quiet. He sunk deep into his own consciousness, where he had never been before. This isolated and dim corner was devoid of any thoughts or memories or any preconceived notions or learnt lessons or feelings or desires. Just an empty room with a shut door, a faint sound leaking through the gap at the bottom. Noticing that the door was about to collapse against the force of the sound, he opened it and there he saw ‘Her’ love pulsating as a heartbeat at the core of the voice which poured into the void space. In that avalanche he saw the journey of love – how it transformed from a stage of infancy- argumentative, adamant, to a stage where it blossomed – sacrificial, perseverant and finally to a stage when it simply exists as an omniscient entity. When it does not have to reach any place, which has no end and the beginning of which cannot be determined.
That was the happiest day in his life as promised by the Russian mistress. He had entered into the mistress’s subtle being. Just like the coalescence of two water droplets on a window after it has rained, the two souls united. He wondered if it was the same place he attempted to reach the day he heard about the Russian mistress for the first time, but lost his way. He wondered if his years of exile were after all a test of all the lessons he had learnt or a new and final lesson in itself.
Feeling liberated from the entrapment of the weak and decaying body; his lungs not clenched anymore in the fist of worldly limitations, he drew all the strength that he could and rejoined the mistress in the mystical recitation of the sutras for he believed there to be another door that might open to the soul of the universe. ‘Her’ love had revealed the secret of their souls to him. It was time ‘His’ love carried her to that hidden door.
Legends say that at that moment a whirlpool of snow storm enveloped the ‘lovers’ and as a loyal guard shielded them for hours until the moon rose high up in the sky. At the end of it all, they say, it was so silent that one could hear as the last flake of snow settled on the leaf of deodar tree. The monk laid there slouched against the tree trunk, purple face, lifeless. The Russian mistress’s shaven head, pale white face and blue eyes glowed with a sort of phosphorescence that rendered the moonlight useless. She wept silently for days cradling the lifeless body of the monk. Who knows whether the tears were of losing a beloved or a precipitation of a complex mix of emotions – of revelation, of acceptance, of duties to be fulfilled, of never ending journey that awaited her.
She did fulfill her promise of carrying forward the young monk’s legacy. Year on year as the legend of the young monk and the Russian mistress spread, monks and civilians alike, old and young alike, set out towards the mountain where the Russian mistress was believed to be living, in search of the door to universal soul.”
“Do they still live there, the monks? Where is this place? I would like to meet them to know more about that universal soul thing. This could be a great adventure” My friend broke the silence at the end of the narration.
“I am afraid I can’t tell you that. It is a forgotten legend sir. It prevails only within some of the old tribal communities people hardly know of. I heard it from my parents, they heard from theirs. But the link breaks after some point in the hierarchy. My parents believe that it is just a made up tale to mesmerize children and to draw them into monkhood. But my great grandfather believed firmly in the legend. He used to say that the secret , the mystical land where the young monk died and where the bhikkhuni helped the seekers in their quest shall be revealed only to those who are true seekers.”