A Journey Beyond is an allegorical tale of King Janaka and Ashtavakra of Ramayana, which appeals to modern people caught up in and torn by the difficulties of their lives.
Literary Fiction Spiritual
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"A Journey Beyond: The King's quest for liberation" is a novel that tells the story of an ancient Indian king-of his turbulent life, of impending war in his kingdom, and of treachery and intrigue within the secretive world of his palace. Although dramatic, the work is an allegorical tale meant to appeal to modern people caught up in and torn by the difficulties of their lives.
One day, King Janaka of Mithila dreams that he has lost his kingdom and become a beggar. Awakened, he realizes that his power and luxuries are ephemeral, and there's much beyond one's mundane life, and thus his spiritual quest begins. And it couldn't happen at a worse time. His daughter Sita must be married soon, but the sages say her suitor must first string a mythical bow. Kings and princes try and fail, and decide the contest is a trick. As the game of skepticism, doubt, and treachery unfolds within the palace, news come that enemy king from the neighboring kingdom march towards Miithila, and people around the king are shocked to see his indifference; he spends his valuable time with sages including Ashtavakra, seeking wisdom. When the whole world believes a calamity is imminent, the king upholds his conviction and deep-rooted faith that there's a connection between what is inside and outside a person. Hence he goes deep within himself, unraveling a new world - and eventually a new reality unfolds for the kingdom and the palace.
This book is allegorically written, with strong messages and insights, for the modern reader who is caught in the rat race, who has forgot the meaning and charm of life. Although the story is set a few thousand years ago in India, it throws light on the modern reader's questions about existence, and one can easily relate himself to the king and his struggles.
Based on the grand Ramayana epic of our vibrant storytelling tradition, my novel renews and deepens beloved characters for modern readers. The title of the book, A Journey Beyond, derives from king's search for self-realization: for enlightenment that comes in the blink of an eye.
Janaka, the king of Mithila, dreams that he has lost his kingdom and become a beggar. A witch appears in his dream and warns him of the same fate. Upon awakening, he becomes obsessed with the idea that his power and riches are only ephemeral and begins spending more time on contemplation, neglecting his royal duties.
Kushadwaja, his younger brother, is agitated by Janaka’s lack of concern about his daughter Sita’s wedding. It has been prophesied that only the man who is able to string a divine bow will be eligible to marry Sita, and a contest is held yearly to search for such a man. The king is horror-struck when Kushadwaja informs him that an old woman was seen at the gate of the palace, who appears similarly to the witch in his dream.
In another part of the kingdom, Ashtavakra, a 14 year-old deformed sage comes back home to confront his mother. He demands to know who his real father is, despite multiple questions to his mother throughout the years. Although adamant at first, his mother reluctantly tells him the truth. Ashtavakra meets with his grandfather, Uddalakka, and he reveals the story of what happened to Ashtavakra’s father and his demise 14 years ago when he set out to King Janaka’s kingdom. Uddalaka gives Ashtavakra a mission, to guide the King and get him away from the influence of his greedy palace sages, in exchange for the whereabouts of Ashtavakra’s father.
The King’s dream repeats itself. He asks the counsel of his palace sages and they propose to invoke a yagna, a ceremony to interpret the dream’s meaning. The sages relay different omens being seen throughout the kingdom and relates it to the King’s dream, including the two demons that has been terrorizing and killing sages in the nearby forest, Bhayanak Van.
King Janaka asks for the advice of his most trusted advisor and prime minister, Mahosadha, regarding the dream. Mahosadha, who is a pragmatic and excellent strategist, dismisses the idea and believes it to be a fantasy. However, King Janaka has already set his mind to conducting the yagna. During the ceremony, they receive a very ominous news.
Sita, the King Janaka’s eldest daughter is being prepared for the Swayamwar celebration. The king sets out to find her in the castle and reminisces about the time when he found her as a baby in a bamboo cradle many years ago when Mithila suffered drought. King Janaka talks to Sita about his dream and his worries. He confides in her that ever since the dream, he wished to make changes in how he was ruling his kingdom. He talks to her about Ahimsa, non-violence. The wise Sita advises and comforts him, bringing the King comfort.
News is received that a rival king, Sudhanvan, is preparing for an attack against Mithila. Mahosadha hurries to inform the King but gets shocked to hear that King Janaka has cut down the number of Mithila’s army, as well. King Janaka also tells him that he wants to implement Ahimsa immediately. This further upsets MAHOSADHA, whom the king trusts like a brother. Mahosadha attempts to confront the king, and Janaka tells him that he doesn’t foresee a war, but he is expecting a new guru to come and teach him what he needs to know.
One night, King Janaka wakes up to a horrible scream. He believed it came from beneath the ground and so he followed the sound. He was led to the dungeons by Mahosadha and to the King’s horror, he discovers the demise of the prisoners. King Janaka, unable to shrug off the unpleasant feeling from his trip to the dungeons and the aftermath of events, decides to have a ride with his horse to the forest. There, Janaka reminisces about his father and the night he disappeared into the forest. Upon getting back to the palace, the king was confronted with a surprise.
Ashtavakra, the young sage, arrives at the gates of the palace. He then presents himself in Janaka’s court and astounds him and the nobles with his wisdom and enlightenment.
As tension escalates in the palace, and the enemy king’s arrival approaches, the king becomes more engrossed in spiritual discourse upon the arrival of Ashtavakra, despite the disapproval of those around the king.. During the discourse with his new sage, the king realizes that the whole world is a superimposition of the mind, and that chaos, wars and problems are only reflections of a troubled mind. King Janaka gains clarity as more and more wisdom is imparted to him by the young sage. Finally, Ashtavakra teaches the king about Sankalpa, the vow of intention that creates reality. King Janaka goes deeper into his mind and prepares himself for what was to come.
Fear is rampant in the kingdom as the enemy approaches closer to the palace. Queen Sunayana comforts the citizens while King Janaka goes into himself and appears indifferent. How will the King put his mind at ease in the midst of chaos? What will be the end for the kingdom of Mithila? Is the King’s dream a foretelling of what will happen next?
This book will appeal to the group who like spiritual subjects, and for those who believe in learning new philosophy to improve the quality and attain meaning in their life.
Any reader who enjoys reading the books such as Conversation with God series, The power of now, The Monk who sold his Ferrari, Siddhartha (Hermann Hesse) would love reading this book.
There are many organizations with millions of followers dedicated to the study of spiritual subjects and propagates the philosophy of Ashtavakra such as Osho International, Art of Living Foundation, Sadhguru’s followers (Isha Foundation) and readers of the new-age genre. People who engage in meditation, yoga, and health and wellness practices will be able to relate to the contents of the book.
This book is allegorically written, with strong messages and insights, for the modern reader who is caught in the rat race, who has forgot the meaning and charm of life. This book has new interpretations of liberation, enlightenment, consciousness, and the absolute realities of life. It invokes the age-old question of whether what we see are delusions of the mind or reality. Although the story is set a few thousand years ago in India, it throws light on the modern reader's questions about existence, and one can easily relate himself to the king and his struggles.
Ashraf Karayath was born in Nadapuram, a village in Kerala, India. After finishing his education in the early 90’s, he migrated to Dubai. Ashraf’s formal education includes Master of Arts in English literature from Farooq College, Calicut University.
He has 25 years of extensive business experience coupled with a background in Management Philosophy. He handled various professional and business roles in multiple areas such as fast
food, business consulting and M&A, and software. He was also responsible for launching cloud computing solution for reputed international brands in the Middle East. And he has been evangelizing this new technology platform and its innovative business model for many years ever since its infancy.
He was an active member of various associations in Dubai, including Toastmasters during its initial
stages. He had chances to speak to various audiences for many occasions and he inspired them with his insightful speeches. He frequently spoke about how to take control of one’s own life in tough situations, showing people their undiscovered potential. This is where he realized his passion, and perhaps, mission in life: to empower others with the right knowledge and help them to own the game they most want to win in life.
A Journey Beyond book has a complete Marketing Plan with the target audience, planned activities and a well-defined ROI. It is available upon request.
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Monk who sold his Ferrari
The Power of Now
Tuedays with Morrie
Conversations with God
Jonathan Livingston Seagull
1. The Beggar King
The end, when it came, was sudden. Too sudden. Janaka Maharaj, the legendary king of Mithila, was captured. He knew that all empires, however wisely ruled, come to an end and invariably that end would be as quick and decisive as the swinging of a sword above a kneeling man’s head.
Surrounded by rebels and the mutilated bodies of his trusted private guards, fear crept into King Janaka’s bones as the sharp steel was levelled against his throat. Dropping his sword and falling to his knees, he waited, utterly trapped and alone, for the final blow.
The walls around him vibrated as outside, the palace horses pounded the dusty ground with their hooves. Elephant shrieks pierced the air and added to the chilling clamour of ringing swords clashing against one another and the tortured screams of men. An enraged crowd swarmed the palace. Arrows smashed windows and hammers clanged against the statues of heroes from Mithila’s past. Sculptures, passed down from the days of the king’s ancestors, fell upon the ground, shattered. The heads of the kingdom’s defenders, their eyes frozen in their final gaze, fell as blood spurted across the royal wall and paintings of the kingdom’s glorious history. Panic-stricken women gathering stray children were swept along hopelessly in the tide of violence.
To his horror, before the king’s very eyes, the rampaging mob had set fire to his majestic palace. The growing inferno mercilessly lit the gilded throne, illuminating the brightly painted ceilings with scenes of morning skies, and spread throughout intricately carved balconies where ladies of the palace once idled away countless hours watching the courtyard below. Finally, the rising flames reflected on the ivory marble, transformed into the colours of a dying sunset. Dark clouds of smoke billowed in the sky and spread across the city, carrying into the blackening sky the ghosts of everyone the former great and invincible ruler had known and loved.
Janaka Maharaj, the great king, his formerly regal face now blank and clouded with bewilderment, had been disarmed, blindfolded, and tossed like a sack of grain upon a hard saddle, his crown falling upon the ground. The horse’s heaving sides and trembling beneath him gave away the animal’s fear, and it lurched away as soon as it was set free, desperately racing across the vast kingdom of plains, forests, and mountains, until it slowly collapsed in exhaustion at the base of a gnarled tree.
The king lay still upon the horse, broken and exhausted, the stench of the beast filling his nostrils, every inch of his body bruised from the roughness of the journey. His hands had been bound so tightly with hempen rope that they lay lifeless above his head. As he struggled to free himself, his wrists began bleeding, the blood clotting in the earth beneath him. Slowly scraping the tightly-tied rope against a gnarled old root, he eventually managed to free himself. He, who had once commanded a vast kingdom, could now only after long hours muster the energy to reach up to his face and remove the blindfold.
Blinking, in the relentless sunlight as swarms of flies buzzed around his eyes, he attempted to readjust his vision to the light. But objects remained out of focus, bright shadows against the dimness of his sight. Using his arms, he gritted his teeth against the pain as he pushed his palms against the horse to stand, but his limbs shook with the effort and pain seized him as he collapsed to the ground. He saw he was on a dirt path outside a humble village on the outskirts of his former kingdom. Dazed, Janaka managed to stumble to his feet. He glimpsed rows of low huts of mud, the doors so small that it was difficult for him to imagine humans being able to enter through them. The smell of animal dung soured the breeze, and Janaka’s nostrils rebelled against it.
Half-naked children playing in the dust stopped their games to gaze at him. The villagers in the streets, eyes wide with surprise, took in the sight of the ghostly figure. Nobody knew he had been their ruler, and he lacked the courage to say that once he had been king. His palace, his courtiers, the pomp and luxury that had once accompanied them: everything of that life now hovered ghostlike, a distant dream.
Janaka recognized nothing. Exhausted and in need of food and water, he wandered toward the dusty streets. He stooped like an old man and tried to approach one of the huts, but he lost his balance and crumpled to the ground, forced to lie there until he regained his strength. He stood up again, slowly this time, and looked at his torn and shabby clothes, his bare feet, all his ornaments and golden earrings gone. Mud caked his hands and he weakly swatted at flies buzzing around his head.
He had no place to rest. No food. His hunger pangs made him want to cry out. Anything would suffice, at least a piece of bread, a bowl of porridge, some rice soup. He needed something to fill the gnawing hole in his stomach.
From beneath the haze of filth, he saw a man holding a piece of bread and stuffing it in his mouth. Janaka slowly approached the man, trying to see beyond the narrowed gaze the man gave him upon his approach. “Please,” he choked out around the thick coating of sand in his throat, “I beg of you, could you spare some of your food?”
But the man’s features grew tight with anger. “Be gone with you,” he barked, waving his hand and shooing Janaka away.
He stumbled forward, the gnawing in his stomach growing more insistent. This time, he approached one of the huts. Upon his weak knock, a woman opened the door, her lips pursed immediately with suspicion and fear. “Please,” he whispered, but before he could finish begging for alms, the whoosh of the door closing in his face knocked him backwards a step. It was the same with everyone. Wherever he went, he was turned down. The people he asked looked at one another, fear and anxiousness etched in their faces, and door after door closed.
After some time wandering in the dust and sun, he reached a temple and saw people waiting in a queue. He joined the line of men and women of all shapes and sizes. Children were there too, barely dressed in tattered rags, their faces and hair matted with dirt. Slowly, the queue moved until after a time he finally reached the end where people were given food. There, Janaka was neither a king nor a commoner. He was just a beggar, waiting for his turn. As if from a distance, he saw himself face a bony fellow who stank of old sweat and who ignored him and his outstretched hands. Another beggar took pity on him and pointed silently towards a nearby banana tree.
Janaka went and plucked off a long leaf, folding it into a bowl. He cupped its greenness in both hands and reached out to receive his meagre portion of the bland gruel.
The heat made Janaka flinch and spill some hot broth on his bare leg. The man stared and shooed him away.
Janaka hobbled over to the shade of a tree and sat. The miserly portion smelled foul, but it was all he had and he would devour it like it was the first course of a banquet.
However, no sooner had he raised the bowl to his lips when two great dogs charged from the forest and knocked the leaf and the food it held out of his hands. The broth disappeared into the dirt. Then, just as he thought things could not get any worse he heard a hideous cackling behind him. Looking around he saw an old woman doubled with age staring at him and laughing maniacally. She only had one good eye. The other was white and lifeless, but it still peered into his soul as if she had known him all her life.
Stunned, Janaka looked into her dead white eye and a series of images started to play out as if projected on its milky white screen. He saw flames and murder, betrayal and death, and loved ones perish as his empire fell. All in vivid, excruciating detail. He tried to turn away, but a shrivelled old hand pulled him back.
“These things you keep, they will be taken from you. See what you have wrought... Do you know now if you are a beggar or a king?”
Surrounded by his courtiers, ministers, and relatives, the horror-stricken king jolted upright in the seat of his throne. Beautiful young girls on either side of his throne bent their questioning faces toward him as they waved their colourful feather fans gently, and a breeze rich with sandalwood touched his dream-clouded face. All his courtiers had been standing by in silence, waiting for him to awaken from his deep slumber.
Janaka stared in disbelief at what he saw around him, his flowing grey beard and hair streaming around him, his once-radiant, commanding visage eclipsed only slightly by the dark shadow of the dream. He remembered it vividly. But surely it was a dream. Surely he was now awake?
As if to prove to himself that what he had just experienced was nothing but a bad dream he clasped his hands to his sides. Yes! His rich garments were still there, he could feel the seed pearls and gold between his fingers. Then his hands moved tentatively to feel his golden crown and his gown heavy with sapphires and emeralds. All there as they should be. Surely this must be confirmation that nothing had changed. He was King Janaka, the ruler of Mithila.
Everything was there. But that was not enough. He needed to cast his eyes upon his palace. He looked at the hall with its royal gilded dais, with its pillars carved out of white marble and etched with images of gods and goddesses, with its giant doors embossed with beaten metals, with the silver threads of its yellow curtains sparkling in the sunlight, and its paintings of former kings hanging reassuringly in their places.
These sights brought only momentary relief. Terror suddenly gripped him as he looked around once more, wondering if he had spoken in his sleep and if anyone had noticed that something was amiss. He was fully awake by now, but the effect of the dream was such that his familiar surroundings felt irretrievably foreign. In the gaping space that appeared in his mind, the dream had pushed him into a new place that was equally confusing and mystifying.
He felt afresh the wounds inflicted during the dream. His hands throbbed, and the place where the broth had scalded his leg still burned. But there were no marks. He shook his head a few times, hoping to rattle his consciousness back into place. The courtiers looked at him in mute question. They would wait, he knew, until their king sought to share his thoughts with them.
But Janaka was unsure. He felt that something significant had happened. He was changed somehow. And a question nagged at him. What if it had not been a dream? What if it had been much more? To Janaka, if what he had seen in the dream was the truth, then it followed that what he was looking at now, his present palace and courtiers, could only be shadows.
He sat up, narrowed his eyes, and searched the hall one last time with a frozen gaze.
Which one is real?
Who am I?
A beggar or a king?
2. The king’s brother
Janaka woke up during Brahma Muhurta, when the universe was in its natural stillness, before the inevitable intervention of dawn. It was an ideal to time to engage in contemplation, with no interference from the waking world. Janaka hardly ever missed Brahma Muhurta, a time when trees, plants, and animals were restfully awake, poised in the boundless stillness before starting the new day.
Janaka usually woke up at this hour to spend time, immediately after his meditation, contemplating the day ahead. It was a deliberate and reflective start that helped anchor him in stillness through the day. He took in a deep breath to calm his mind and begin his meditation. But calm would not come to him today. Something was bothering him, a sense of foreboding was creeping into his mind. The minute he shut his eyes he felt himself being carried across the barren land, tied to a galloping horse, the cackling of the witch echoing against the landscape. The ghost of thick, coarse rope fibres cutting painfully into his skin compelled him to rub his wrists to make sure he was truly free. His skin was smooth against his fingertips, and relief momentarily washed over him that he was unhindered by bindings. With strong arms, he reached up to reassure himself that his crown still sat atop his head. It was, but even as he touched the symbol of his leadership, his arms trembled.
Was the dream revealing another facet of my life? One I have never before seen or experienced? What if this is what my future holds? Must I become a beggar? Scraping for morsels? Or perhaps maybe the dream is telling me that I am already a beggar?
The sound of the morning drums heralded the change of the guards and brought Janaka out of his reverie, quickening the drumbeat of his heart. His usual calm, his commanding glance, his overflowing sense of benign authority, however, eluded him. Yet duty beckoned. He gave up trying to concentrate or reason, feeling instead, deep within himself, a growing awareness that he was at the height of a great spiritual awakening. Much like the lotus, he knew the soul could truly blossom only after enduring the toil of struggle and torment.
Kushadwaja had hurried the whole way to Janaka’s chamber, but hesitated when he arrived at the capacious, extravagant door embossed with leaves, flowers, and birds of the forest. He hesitated. Even here, in the depths of his own anger, he was afraid of his brother. He clutched his long shawl in his right hand, and the tinkling of his robes and ornaments fell momentarily silent. He thought for some time, biting the tips of his fingernails, then slightly pushed the heavy door open. Inside, Janaka, like a tiger, was pacing to and fro, his shoulders hunched in anxious thought.
The creak of the hinges of the massive wooden door, however, brought the king to a halt. Janaka stopped in front of the opulent tapestries that adorned the walls of his chambers. They depicted memorable moments from the past four hundred years of his family’s reign. He looked up and saw Kushadwaja as if for the first time.
At last, he notices me, thought Kushadwaja, folding his palms and bending towards him slightly as a gesture of respect. “Pranam, brother!”
Squinting at Kushadwaja, Janaka nodded back but said nothing. He could not understand how his little brother, so much younger himself, could have grown to be so handsome. In his early forties, Kushadwaja had the king’s almond eyes, aquiline nose, and fine black hair, but he was straighter, more regal in his bearing, and stronger. Much like a king, Janaka thought wistfully. Janaka had wasted many years attempting to mold him into a proper right hand. All that had proved useless, however. Kushadwaja remained indifferent to the palace’s royal affairs. So Janaka had decided to arrange Kushadwaja’s marriage. The bride to be was Chandrabhaga, who was charmingly wise and outspoken. Soon after their union, she and Kushadwaja had two beautiful daughters. With Janaka’s three children, they shared the idleness and golden glow of their childhood years.
It was Kushadwaja who spoke first. “Oh, brother! We have only two weeks left now!” He knew he did not need to tell his brother the source of his worry. There was only a short time left to prepare for Princess Sita’s Swayamvar, where a long line of boldfaced suitors would contend to win her hand in marriage.
It was a major responsibility and given to Kushadwaja only after a long test of time. Ever since the incident in Kewatta’s war three years ago, where Mithila lost two hundred men, King Janaka never again entrusted Kushadwaja with significant tasks.
Kushadwaja’s heart pulsed in his ears. Only after much deliberation had he summoned the courage and strength to confront his brother. He had spent the last three weeks trying to plan the Swayamvar for Sita, his niece and the king’s eldest daughter. During the Swayamvar, the princess’ suitors would engage in a grueling test to win her hand. Maintaining as princely a demeanor as possible, however, he suppressed the sordid details of his past failure, steeled himself, and continued.
“You asked me to keep you informed.” He tried to maintain a properly soft and modulated tone, but he choked the words out. Janaka’s gaze was on him, but Kushadwaja realized his thoughts were elsewhere. His brother’s face, a perfect mirror of his own, had become that of an old man, a stranger, with silver in his black hair, a drooping jawline, and an unruly and overgrown beard. The love in his eyes was absent, and the flesh that sagged from beneath his brows seemed to hang over them, making them smaller and duller.
So the rumors were true. Kushadwaja had heard that his brother had been acting strangely, always absorbed in thought and lost within the labyrinth of some immaterial question. It was unbecoming of a king to waver in his disposition.
Making a quick decision with a deep breath, Kushadwaja fell into step with his pacing brother so that he was shoulder to shoulder with him, the younger prince’s shoulder a bit higher and prouder than that of the king. Janaka stopped, turning his head slowly so that he could eye his brother, though he remained expressionless. Awareness flickered in his gaze as he took measure of Kushadwaja, who quelled the shudder that threatened him. The glint in his brother’s expression was one he knew well. Sometimes, it happened that the king inexplicably knew things in advance.
Opening his mouth before his brother could, Kushadwaja spoke, “You are the king of Mithila, brother, and the custodian of the Divine Bow. Your beloved daughter Sita has been unmarried too long, and I will see her engaged if you will let me, but you have not dispelled any of my concerns.” As he finished speaking, Kushadwaja uncomfortably glanced up at Janaka, who stood calmly beside him.
Unsettled, Kushadwaja swallowed thickly, wondering whether he had said too much. Janaka stood unmoved, as if his words floated towards him across some great distance. His gaze, however, didn’t waver from Kushadwaja, although he arched his brows quizzically. An air of dissonance filled the space between them.
Blinking slowly, Janaka finally interrupted the silence, forcing words through his lips almost painfully. “I remember. But you said you could be trusted to take care of everything.”
The word trust sank its sharp claws into Kushadwaja’s heart. Overwhelmed by the pangs of guilt the word provoked, his hold on his temper began to slip before he could regain his tightly-held control. “But I can authorize nothing without your order, which I requested last week, and you have yet to answer. We have not arranged the guest quarters. The chief cook awaits your orders and his funds. And what about the entertainers?”
Janaka began to pace again, following the same route from the upper level of his private chamber down to the lower chamber and to the window that overlooked the terrace. The eastern sun was breaking across the distant Himalayas and on his kingdom. He stopped at the turquoise ledge over the brilliant yellow terrace, satisfied with the sight of the sun breaking out over Mithila’s verdant plains. Then he turned and paced again. “Do not worry. Things will be taken care of.”
Kushadwaja heaved a frustrated sigh, clenching his fists by his sides.
Janaka turned away dismissively, his expression distant and as void of emotion as when he had been a young king and Kushadwaja just a boy. But the younger brother would not stand for it. He strode across the room until he stood before his brother once more, unable to tolerate Janaka’s loftiness for one more moment.
“Dear, brother! What has happened to you?” His voice rose, “We cannot seem to reach you. What has upset you?”
Janaka did not respond.
Kushadwaja grew quiet, staring at the seemingly empty king. Where is my brother? Is this the same man who always taught me the value of responsibility?
Finally, Kushadwaja continued softly, “I have told you this many times, brother. All I need is a word from you. If you allow me, I will take up the responsibilities and fulfill my duties.”
The king’s mind was so muddled with thoughts that he could not entertain his brother’s pleas. It was true that the Swayamwar was of absolute importance for the kingdom and his daughter, but he felt a sense of dread carving its way so deeply into his mind that he could not worry about anything else but the dream.
“Not now, my brother,” Janaka said dubiously while placing his hand on his shoulder and glancing sympathetically at Kushadwaja. “I will tell you when the time comes.”
Desperation seized Kushadwaja. His dignity had been torn from him, and his hands ached from clenching his fists. He forced open his palms, but he could not erase the hurt from his voice. “How long have I been asking for responsibility? You put me in charge of the Swayamwar for Sita, and yet, you dismiss me? Without giving me the authority to execute that order?” His voice rose further, trembling. “I have always wanted your support, but I can see now that it will never happen.”
Janaka stared into nothingness, slowly turning his vacant but subtly focused stare on his brother. “Silence, Kushadwaja! You do not understand what is going on.”
“You think I am too ambitious, that I am hasty and make errors. You always think about what happened during the Kewatta war. But, I am not the same person anymore.”
“What are you talking about?”
Kushadwaja lifted his chin. “I know when I am made a fool of. Not only me, but I think everybody who has taken the Swayamvar seriously is being made a fool of. Truth be told, you do not want Sita to marry.”
“That is untrue.” Janaka’s voice was sharp. “Kushadwaja, I’ll not hear of any more of such nonsense. I think your mind has been poisoned. That is your only fault.” Janaka threw up his hands and looked at his brother.
“You have always said this. You feel that I am not worthy of my position. You think that I am easily swayed by others. I am deeply hurt that you do not have the confidence that I will fulfill my duties. It is you who are ignoring your responsibility by withdrawing into yourself.”
Kushadwaja shifted his weight, as if to leave, and sighed. “I will be of service when you require it.”
He turned to exit, pausing at the door and glancing back only once to meet his brother’s distant gaze. “Yesterday, an old woman with wild eyes, disheveled hair, and in tattered clothes visited the palace gate and demanded to meet the king. She claimed that she had a great secret to pass on to you, but the guards did not allow her to enter. They tried to dismiss her, but she said she would not leave without telling the king what she knew.”
Kushadwaja continued, “So they detained her and sent a message to me. I rushed to the gate and spoke to her.”
Motionless as stone, Janaka, kept on looking at Kushadwaja, waiting to hear his next words.
“She was not ready to reveal the secret to me, but eventually I convinced her to give in. She came to warn us that Ravana, the invincible Asura king of Lanka, would soon arrive at Mithila in disguise, wreaking havoc by abducting Sita.”
Pain sliced through Janaka’s chest at his words, and he struggled to catch his breath. When he was able to, he searched Kushadwaja’s face, his brows knitting together anxiously.
“Why was she not sent to me then?”
“She was just a mad old witch. Why do we need to take her seriously? I mentioned it to you only because it was about Sita.”
“What did she look like?”
“An old hag. They all look alike, don’t they? Oh now I think upon it...she only had one eye.”
“And did she say anything else? Anything you remember? Janaka asked, a slight tremble in his voice.
“Nothing of any import. The babblings of an old witch, shrieking on about warnings or something...”
Complete silence reigned for several moments more powerfully than the despair-struck king, as if that silence were ruling the kingdom. But Kushadwaja paid no attention to the king’s silence, instead he rubbed the spot between his eyes. Anger and humiliation throbbed within his head, and he briskly turned once more from the chamber, leaving his brother alone. The king did not notice and jumped at the echoing thud of his great chamber door closing a distant sound against the roar of his fears.
For some time after his brother had left, Janaka paced. Finally, when he grew tired, he sat still for a while, trying to find some peace, before finally giving up and walking towards the edge of his balcony, which overlooked his vast kingdom.
He surveyed it quietly. Mithila was bound on the north by the Himalayas, on the south by the river Ganges, on the east by the Kosala River, and on the west by the river Gandak. In the far distance, he could get a glimpse of the Kosala and Gandak rivers as they snaked through the land, trailing away northward to the horizon, where the Himalayas rose to the heavens, cloaked in clouds still tinted pink with dawn.
From his window he could see the lovely orchard behind his palace, bearing rare and colourful fruit and filling the air with sweet, ripe scents: plantains, rose apples, jujube, and mangos bending low with its plump fruit that had the complexion and softness of girls’ cheeks. He had always loved and cherished nature, but he had never enjoyed hunting like all the other kings. Trekking through the dense forest gave him the thrill of adventure. For him, every moment was one of survival amongst the unforeseen dangers lurking all around him.
Although Mithila did not have any rivers or other natural resources, Janaka more than made up for with his wisdom and ingenuity. Under his rule, the kingdom’s water was stored in reservoirs and a thriving trade with other kingdoms added wealth. Often, jealous neighbours tried to wage war against Mithila, but Janaka and his trusted advisors’ timely interventions thwarted all conflicts before they could threaten his kingdom. His resourcefulness and training in the art of war had secured victory even against larger armies, such as in the battles of Kewatta and Chulani. Citizens of Mithila thrived in this prosperous and secure society and held their king in the highest esteem.
As the king paced back to his chamber, the tail end of his long shawl followed like an obedient pet. The attendants watched with a mixture of dismay and curiosity, awaiting his instructions. Janaka felt their eyes on his back.
They all but leapt for the door. As it shut again, the thud echoed the one still ringing in his ears—the sound of his own brother slamming the door closed.
Who is that old woman, and is there any truth in what she said? He thought. He had been warned about Ravana, the Asura king, or king of demons, many times before. The demons, with their might and power had been causing troubles for the kingdom for decades. Ravana could not risk an outright attack, but he could come in disguise and try to create chaos by abducting Sita, his beloved daughter. Janaka slowly wiped his sweaty palms on his shawl.
But is my brother right? Is the dream interfering with my duties? Kushadwaja’s judgment is not dependable. He is spoilt and volatile and so much younger than me that I sometimes forget he is my brother and not a little boy.
The Videha blood ran too thinly in his brother’s veins. Since their father had disappeared, more often than not, Janaka had been playing the role of his father and guru rather than that of a brother. Their mother had spoiled Kushadwaja, and when she had died she had left Janaka with a man who now slammed doors like a drunkard after yelling at him.
Janaka had been raised to be the ruler of this kingdom from the day he was born. It had been passed down to him from prior generations, all the way back to Nimi, the first king of his tribe who had ruled the Sarasvati river region. They were the rulers of the Videha Dynasty, The Disembodied Beings, because their lineage upheld the importance of philosophy and detachment towards worldly affairs despite ruling large kingdoms. Janaka had devoted himself to becoming a true Videha, practicing hardships to go beyond the limits of his body, conquering temptations of the mind and desires of the senses. He believed in a world beyond the ephemeral body, beyond earthy luxuries. Janaka was a seeker. His own journey towards self-realization was paramount in his mind, but he never disregarded his kingly duties, and he was a beloved king to his subjects. He often traversed through his kingdom, learning about his peoples’ lives in the villages, their joys and troubles, often partaking in their rituals, ceremonies, weddings, and funerals.
Now Kushadwaja’s outburst had made him reconsider the question. Is life meant to be this endless fight over trivial matters? He drifted back to his dream, holding on to the details because he knew in his heart, in some cryptic way, that the dream was a portent from the gods and that he must heed it. For a moment, in the middle of his opulent chamber, he felt as if he were a beggar again, with mud caking his hands and flies nesting in his hair, with the riches of his kingdom suddenly emptied like water from a water jar, and where blood falls from the sky.
“A beggar or a king. Who am I?” he mumbled as he began to pace again.
The wind rang in his ears, and cold seeped into his bones. Will I spend the last years of my life allowing my brother to lose his temper at me? Will I excuse him forever? His years were growing short and the grizzled beard on his face, long. As he descended the stairs he felt his legs weaken, forcing him to sit down on a chair, breathing heavily.
As wind hissed down the stairwell, following him, calling him, he looked at everything that surrounded him—the hard white marble, the royal yellow curtains, the long corridor, the bright yellow balcony, the pink roses. Everything looked as if it were the reflection of a shallow pool. Nothing looked real. Everything seemed meaningless. Void of real existence, like bubbles in a stream. Everyone lied—the courtiers, the ministers, the guards, the chambermaids. Everyone. They were all performers in a meaningless show meant just to please him, but they were hollow inside, devoid of sincerity or genuineness. Everything around him seemed to look back and smile tauntingly. Everything was ephemeral, with no more real existence than smoke, an airy being, assuming multiple forms, deceiving him.
Once again he was deeply gripped by the fear of loneliness. In the seat he rested in, his hands grasped at the elaborate carvings on the arms of his chair. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. His posture straightened, his muscles stiffened, and in his mind he had a vision. Then, immediately, his eyes shot open and were widened with a dazzling insight. A realization had come to Janaka in a flash: His father had left this land like a beggar, with nothing in hand.
I carry the title of king, but all of this is ephemeral. Maybe life is like this. It is too short and fleeting, like a dream, but we are caught in the follies of the temporal world and do not see them as they truly are.
Janaka yearned for guidance. How will I find my path? He felt like a helpless infant, pushed out of a deep slumber with a jolt. Am I now awakened? Who will hold the light to my steps?
He walked to the balcony and leaned on the yellow ledge, inhaling the fragrance of trailing pink roses that hung from saffron-coloured pots. The palace had been built high on a series of green terraces that descended to the great expanse of plains. From this vantage point, Janaka could see the palace orchards, the sunlit plains, the rolling foothills, the tangled forests of pungent camphor in which his father and grandfather and all of his ancestors back to the first king of his tribe had disappeared.
In the camphor forest the trees grew thick, holding in shadows thick as blood. Locking gnarled limbs together, the trees intertwined so that the black wilderness grew from the land as though from a single root. No one ventured near it except for the king himself and any of his entourage who was brave enough to volunteer. Most of his subjects felt its dark presence. Yet, for Janaka, it was a place of peace.
What he could not see within and beyond the trees were the thoughts and unspeakable desires of those far from his palace who would wish him ill. Nor could he hear their words as they whispered and plotted. For if he could, he would be frozen with fear and disgust. Of all the words that were being uttered out there in the dark forests and wild borderlands one word could be heard more than any other. Not so much a word as a name: “Sita… Sita… Sita…”