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MahaMementoMori: Fables Beyond COVID’s Warning Wall – A monthly series that gently reminds us to remember what life would be like if we succumbed to a pandemic. While settings shift from India to America, and characters change as well, each story explores the vital nature of relationships in life and death.
The camels come to Pushkar, Rajasthan for the annual festive Mela. Their herders, the Raikas in their white, cotton kurtas streaked with sweat and dust, accompany the old and young hump-backed ships of the desert to the fair, haggle for good deals, and occasionally come to my temple.
The pilgrims come here for spiritual reasons. They may be Hindus visiting mandirs or they may be Sikhs visiting gurdwaras, but they come to this desert township to worship in their houses of worship.
The tourists – unless they are interested in camels, spirits, or sand – don’t come to Pushkar. It is a place a bit like me, out of sight, out of heart, out of mind.
During the Mela, Raikas, pilgrims, and tourists converge upon Rajasthan’s Thar Desert. Shortly before Diwali fireworks light up the winter sky, my village’s population grows from 20,000 to 200,000, and I, Brahma – The Creator of the Universe – become central once again. I no longer have to play second fiddle to my wife, Saraswati, or third fiddle to Vishnu, the Preserver, and Shiva, the “Destroyer.”
I don’t at all mind the attention that Saraswati gets from students the world over; after all, she is the Goddess of Knowledge. But I am a bit miffed by my diminished role in the Hindu Trinity. Shouldn’t the trimurti feature a balance of the three Gods? Aren’t Vaishnavites and Shaivites a bit too respectful of Vishnu and Shiva? Why do they permit themselves to be led by their dogmatic noses like camelus dromedaries, the camels roaming the Thar? It is true that I lost many worshippers due to my telling a whopper of a lie (perhaps I should not have used the innocent ketaki flower to delude Vishnu about Shiva’s essence). But what is the difference between that lie and the fiction that Shiva and Vishnu’s storytellers concoct? Ah well, at least once a year, I can count on those 180,000 extras in the great drama called the Pushkar Camel Fair. My true bhakts come to worship me in India’s most important Brahma Temple (alas, the only substantial Brahma Temple remaining in the land of a billion people and nearly as many places of worship).
One visitor who came in the off-season claimed to be the most devoted Brahma Bhakt, so I offered him a small test: What is the primary criterion for pledging spiritual allegiance to Brahma?
Many have been asked this question, and almost all have failed.
Some have said that a true believer must travel in all four directions – North, East, West, South – just like my four heads. Incorrect! While that may be a good basis for being a journalist interested in the N-E-W-S, it does not suffice for devoting yourself to me.
Others have suggested that a devotee must have read all four Vedas, Closer to the truth but also not quite right, for while my four heads and matching hands do symbolize the Vedas, simply reading Hinduism’s great books is necessary but insufficient.
On the other end of the intellectual spectrum were those (including a few hirsute women) who grew beards to match my own. While I fancy my facial hair and admire those who can manage to keep crumbs of roti out of theirs, this criterion is far too superficial to qualify one as an adherent to Brahma, the God who created the universe.
On a quiet day when not a single outsider, but one, had come to me, I asked my sole visitor about his criteria for seeking spiritual enlightenment in Pushkar. He responded, “Brahma-ji, I desire a life away from the crowd.”
My interest piqued, I asked, “And how does that qualify you to be a Brahma Bhakt?
He said, “In every crowded gully across India, without making an effort to look, one can see Shiva (and his Parvati); across the world, in most every Hindu household’s disorganized puja space, there’s Vishnu (and his Laxmi) cluttered behind Krishna (and maybe his Radha); but you have to come to Pushkar to take Brahma’s darshan (of course, your consort, Saraswati, is prevalent in schools and music rooms, but to see you, true devotees must trek to Pushkar).
I was enjoying Brahma Bhakt’s treatise on the Hindu Gods and Goddesses, thus I extended our dialogue. “Kindly answer this question: Who in the Trinity is past, who is present, and who is future?”
He eagerly said, “Brahma is the past, Vishnu is the present, and Shiva is the future.”
Pleased that my devotee understood the Trinity’s chronology, I congratulated him and continued my interrogation. “Well done. Now tell me why you desire a life away from the crowd.”
He said, “Besides having the honor of seeing you, Great Lord, I have come to Pushkar for three reasons: (1) my time in this physical body is limited, thus like you, I am becoming the past; (2) as for the present state of affairs across our pandemic-afflicted world, I wish to not infect anyone with my suffering; and (3) writers aspire for their words to live beyond them into the future, so I hope to use my remaining quiet time to put pen to paper and pray that my words outlast the paper they are written on.”
I was startled by my visitor’s understanding that his earthly visit was almost over. I asked him one more question: “What is the ultimate path to be far from the madding crowd?”
Brahma Bhakt passed with the flying colors of a rainbow, like an arrow released from Lord Indra’s Dhanush across the desert sky: “Live a virtuous life and escape the cycle of rebirth.”
Dr. Raj Oza has written or contributed to: Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation; Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas; P.S., Papa’s Stories; and Living in America. He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.com/author/rajoza.