The Pundit by Sthanapathi Rukminamma

The place was Kasi [Benares] and the time midnight in a dark fortnight. The streets were lifeless. There was no light but for the glimmer from the stars. Oil lamps in some far off place were showing the final stages of their life. Therefore, we could say there were no lights.

The street did not look like it had been swept in a long time. The owls were screeching. Some noises were coming from invisible persons clung to the walls. A few huge trees stood on the street. Foxes were howling sporadically. It was windy. The roaring from the sea waves was audible now and then. Tall buildings were on either side of the street. There were no people but some noises and a few sighs were heard from somewhere. The smoke from the burning bodies was hitting the nose hard.

A man was wandering on that kind of street. He was hungry. Would anyone be kind to him? No, not even Annapurna[i] to give him food. Nobody was there. He was smeared with the cobwebs that covered the streets. With wobbly legs, he kept walking crisscross from one end to the other of the street. In between, he was mumbling hungry in a weak voice. Unable to walk, he fell, got up and continued to walk slowly. He was tired and so rested head against the wall. His voice was getting weak and weak, hardly comparable to any note. Where is a person who could take him in and give him food? There was none. It was getting hard to breathe. In that moment, suddenly he heard saamagaanam (Vedic chants) and metaphysical discussion from somewhere. Weak as he was, he reached that place with great effort.

A pundit was on the porch. He asked, “Who’re you? What do you want?”

There was no answer.

The pundit took him into the house and gave him food.

The man felt alive again. He said, “My name is Sarvamangaludu. I am the youngest of the three brothers. My parents died when I was one month old. My brothers became my parents. They are commendable scholars in Vedic studies. They got married and their wives moved in with us. I grew up with no fear, never understood what fear meant. I was sixteen and did not even know how the alphabet looked like; I was niraksharakukshi[ii] literally. People called me vagrant. I had no skills to do any work. I did nothing at home but eat. My sisters-in-law were insulting me constantly. Not a moment passed by without being humiliated by them. I went around like the insults meant nothing to me. One day, my older Vadina (sister-in-law) gave me some gruel and rice, and spoke harsh words. She said, ‘How could a niraksharakushi with no reading skills expect to have three platefuls a day?’ My younger Vadina echoed similar thoughts.  

As I heard them, the wad in my mouth slithered and fell on to the plate. My plate filled with tears. I did not say a word. My brothers saw that but spoke not one word. I left without eating another bite. I swore in my heart that I would not return home until I became a pundit of the highest order.

I decided to study in Kasi. I knew the proverb, going to Kasi and going to the graveyard mean the same. I have been reckless all my life, why worry now, I told myself.

I have walked all the way and here I am now. I have no idea how I got here. I could not find food for two days.” Thus, he told the Pundit his situation completely and openly.

Pundit was happy to hear his words. “If you stay here, never step outside the front door, accept my authority for twelve years, and study, I will teach you the entire knowledge. Will you do that?”

Sarvamangaludu fell on the pundit’s feet and cried, “Yes, I will accept your  authority definitely. Please, make me a great scholar.”  

The Pundit comforted him and offered him to help.

“What is your name, sir,” Sarvamangaludu asked.

“My name is Ghanaapaathi[iii]. Tomorrow is propitious day to start your education,” he checked the panchangam[iv] and said.

Ghanaapaathi’s study hall was located in a corner at the end of the big garden, next to the house. Sarvamangaludu started his study there with unflinching devotion. Nobody was allowed to go into that room except himself and the guru. It was always very quiet. He never left the room except for a couple of minutes to eat. During breaks, he worked in the yard along with the guru.

After a while, his study of kavyas and plays was completed. Sarvamangaludu acquired some knowledge.  

He noticed something strange about the guru during that period. At times, he could not see the guru but hear his voice. He also sensed some sweet and unusual sweet before the guru reappeared. Even as he watched, the guru become one of th many trees in the area and then become normal again. During those episodes, Sarvamangaludu wondered if he was dreaming. The guru was sleeping on the bed in one moment and disappeared in the next. And the bed was not touching the floor. He never saw the guru eat. Sometimes, the guru went into a corner in the garden and made horrifying noises, which frightened Sarvamangaludu. Also, he would shoot up to the sky and return to normal stature. Sarvamangaludu, after noticing that the bed was not touching the floor, he tried to push it down. As soon as he touched the bed, the guru showed up on the bed asleep. After that, Sarvamangaludu never tried it again.

After watching these episodes for a while, he asked the guru, “Why do you act like that?”

“That is the power of Yoga sastras! You will also know in course of time,” Ghanaapaathi pacified him.

Sarvamangaludu said, “I am having bad dreams. Things like—I go to strange and unusual places with you; you call up and talk to ugly and beautiful people; we watch plays and run around on the mountain tops; you pick me up and hold me when I fall out of fear—all these happen soon after I fall asleep every day. All this is mindboggling. What is that?”

“That’s all due to excessive bile. You will not get those dreams anymore,” the guru said.

Saravamangaludu kept quiet, thinking that one must never scrutinize the power of great souls and God’s authority.

                                  2

It was twelve years short of one day. Sarvamangaludu had learned thoroughly not only the four Vedas, Vedangas, 64 arts, gajakarna, gokarna vidyas but also other branches of knowledge. He had the entire knowledge on the tip of his tongue. He became a scholar, surpassing his guru, mastered the detailed mysteries of all the arts thoroughly. There was no question in his mind that he had studied this one but not that one.

After all these years, he became curious about the city. He forgot that it was one day short of the twelve years he had avowed. He sneaked through the backdoor of the garden and reached the Dasaswamedha ghattam[v] site. In one corner, several scholars were having a discussion on the puranas. In another corner, people were being entertained. Sarvamangaludu kept walking, watching each of them, and reached the area where learned scholars were having heated dialogue on sastras. He scrutinized them carefully and understood the topic. He participated in the discussion. The members of the group were surprised by the debating skills of Sarvangaludu, who had just joined them.

From the moment Sarvamangaludu entered the discussion, Dunti Sastri was watching him closely. Sarvamangaludu was talking as if he was the very incarnation of Sanskrit erudition. He refuted other scholars’ arguments in one minute. The pundits were silent. He established his arguments successfully and asked them to invalidate it, if they could. Nome of them responded. All the scholars praised his erudition and honored him.

The president asked him, “Where did you receive your education, young man?”

Sarvamangaludu replied politely that he had received his education from Ghanaapaathi in the same town.

The president sat with a strange look his face and without a word.  

Sarvamangaludu could not understand his reaction.

Suddenly there was huge commotion. Members started screaming, “Aaaa aaa aaa Ghanaapaathi—that brahmarakshasi (Brahmin demon)you studied with him? How strange!”

As soon as the words hit his hears, Sarvamangaludu got scared. He shut his ears. “What? It is Brahmin demon? My guru?” he said and collapsed.

They all carried in their arms the president who fainted and went away. There was not a soul in the place. At the mere mention of the Ghanaapaathi, the place that was bubbling with countless individuals was deserted completely in a split second . Sarvamangaludu lay there unconscious on the boulder where he had collapsed.

Stars were showing up in the sky, one by one. The evening-prayer bells in the Visveswara temple were ringing.

Dunthi Sastri, who had been watching Sarvamangaludu from the moment he had set foot in the meeting place, returned to the scene. It was dark all over as if it had received a coat of tar. Dunthi Sastry approached Sarvamangaludu. He brought  the Ganga waters in a dish, sprinkled on his face, wiped it gently and helped him sit up. Saravamangaludu came to, barely. He swallowed two bowls of water fast; he felt better. “What is all that? Why did they run away?” he asked.

“They were scared in case Ghanaapaathi might show up for your sake. So they ran away,” he said. “Everybody is afraid of Ghanaapaathi; nobody can measure up to him. I too ran a little distance, then picked up courage and came back to see how you were.”

“So, how did my guru became a demon? Is he dead? If you know, please tell me the truth,” he begged.

“Ghanaapaathi may come back, if we stay here. He has the habit of sitting in the gatherings in disguise. Let’s go to Visweswara temple.”

They went to the temple and sat in a private place. Dunthi Sastry said, “Ghanaapaathi died twenty-five years back, he is dead hundred percent. We all—his wife, children, friends, relatives, poets in town and other scholars—have seen it closely. Ghanaapaathi died no question; he was like a nail in the beam. Per the Advaita custom, he was put on the stretcher and  taken to Manikarninka ghattam for cremation. The guard at the graveyard made a note of his death. I was one of the pal-bearers. He was cremated.The body turned into ashes and was submerged in the Ganges River. The family performed the death rituals and charitable offerings  for twelve days per custom. The wife Purnamma’s head was shaved too.

“On the thirteenth day, somebody knocked on Ghanaapaathi’s door. Purnamma opened and saw her husband Ghanaapaati appeared just the way he had been when he was alive—swinging ear-ornaments, Kashmir shawl, palm-size red dot on the forehead, wide red eyes, pleated dhoti. She looked at him to her fill. She shrieked and called her sons. The sons came, stood away from them and watched their father.

“Ghanaapaathi came in and closed the door behind him. ‘You don’t have to worry about yourselves. You carry on as usual. I will stay in the garden,’ he said and went into the garden. He had no mundane desires, nor that attitude. For annual ceremonies, their relatives would come and at that time he would not be seen.

“Yes!” Sarvamangaludu said.

“Ghanaapaathi never told said he had been to that house. He would go around town after everybody had gone to bed. He never hurt anybody. Nevertheless, everybody was afraid even at the mention of his name. Right now I am afraid too.

“After he had entered the house, the word that Ghanaapaathi became a ghost spread in the entire town within two or three days. The houses and buildings on that street were evacuated. Nobody ever said that he had talked with his family members except for the few words on the day he had returned the first time. He would play with grandchildren and great grandchildren whenever they went into the garden. Ever since he had come back, nobody ever complained of illness, not even a headache. All of them enjoyed good health to the full. It was the same with their wealth. His sons had children yet stayed in the same house. Their wealth remained the same. Sons were working. They could leave the doors wide open at night yet nothing was lost ever, not even a straw. Others in town would not visit them. They did not even walk on that street in the daytime.”

Throughout the narration, Sarvamangaludu listened with unflinching attention. They were not aware of the time passed. They heard the noise as the temple doors closed and walked outside.

Sarvamangaludu started remembering the things  the guru had done one by one. His fears started getting to him. He debated whether he should go home or not. If he did not go, the guru might come after him and harm him. At the same time, he could not muster the courage to go home. He could not decide. His heart spun like the elephant fruit in a bamboo platter. There was nobody to give him advice. He was walking one foot forward and one foot backward. He would walk two feet forward and four feet backward. The guru could find me even if I hide, he told himself. He also thought, I defied the desire to hold onto life and got this far, why fear now? If the guru comes and tries to kill me, I will beg him to let me live. Then the question of what if the guru refuses to listen? There is nothing wrong in offering this body, construed of the five elements, as a reward to the guru who had bestowed me with knowledge. He felt elated at the thought that there was nothing more desirable than offering his body, if the guru so wished. Yet the hold of the wish to live on him was tightening; it would not break off. Finally, he reached home, struggling each step of the way.  

He pushed the back door. It was locked from inside. He went to the front door, and went straight into the garden, without saying anything to anybody. He saw the guru sitting in front of the lamp. The guru looked gentler than before. In between he was also looking dreadful.  

Sarvamangaludu collapsed to the ground as the guru opened his eyes and looked at him.

“Dear young man, where did you go? It is late and dark. Why are you scared?” Ghanaapaathi asked.

Sarvamangaludu started crying on hearing those words.

Ghanaapaathi said, “I will not reprimand you. I know where you went and what you did. You don’t to say anything. I did not say anything, why are you scared? You are not in any danger. Do not cry, do not be afraid. The twelve-year session comes to an end tonight. I was hoping to endow you with a mysterious mantra. With that, you not only would know the happenings in the past, the present and the future but also many good deeds could be accomplished. But now, even if I give it to you, there is not going to be any use.

“I got this life because I had not taught others the knowledge I had possessed. Now I got my redemption by sharing my knowledge with you in this manner.” So saying, the guru turned into huge flames and disappeared.

Sarvamangaludu screamed and dashed into the house, crying.

(End)

(Note: The story illustrates the importance of the gift of education or sharing knowledge. Readers interested in the review of the entire collection of the author’s stories, may click here and for the link to the anthology.)

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Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi



[i] The presiding Goddess in Kasi, known for giving food.

[ii] Phrase meaning illiterate. Lit. not one letter in the stomach..

[iii] Literally, pundit of superior knowledge.

[iv] Lunar calendar.

[v] An embankment of the Ganges River in Kasi (Benares) where Brahma haNid performed Aswamedham. (Offering ten horses in a Vedic ritual.)