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Stories of Vikram and Betal
Betal's Nineth Story: Whom does the wife belong - Body or Head?

<< Index of Stories of Vikram and Betal

Far and wide through the lovely land overrun by the Arya from the Western Highlands spread the fame of Unmadini, the beautiful daughter of Haridas the Brahman. In the numberless odes, sonnets, and acrostics addressed to her by a hundred Pandits and poets her charms were sung with prodigious triteness. Her presence was compared to light shining in a dark house; her face to the full moon; her complexion to the yellow champaka flower; her curls to female snakes; her eyes to those of the deer; her eyebrows to bent bows; her teeth to strings of little opals; her feet to rubies and red gems, and her gait to that of the wild goose. And none forgot to say that her voice affected the author like the song of the kokila bird, sounding from the shadowy brake, when the breeze blows coolly, or that the fairy beings of Indra's heaven would have shrunk away abashed at her loveliness.

But, Raja Vikram! all the poets failed to win the fair Unmadini's love. To praise the beauty of a beauty is not to praise her. Extol her wit and talents, which has the zest of novelty, then you may succeed. For the same reason, read inversely, the plainer and cleverer is the bosom you would fire, the more personal you must be upon the subject of its grace and loveliness. Flattery you know, is ever the match which kindles the Flame of love. True it is that some by roughness of demeanour and bluntness in speech, contrasting with those whom they call the "herd," have the art to succeed in the service of the bodyless god. But even they must--

The young prince Dharma Dhwaj could not help laughing at the thought of how this must sound in his father's ear. And the Raja hearing the ill-timed merriment, sternly ordered the Baital to cease his immoralities and to continue his story.

Thus the lovely Unmadini, conceiving an extreme contempt for poets and literati, one day told her father who greatly loved her, that her husband must be a fine young man who never wrote verses. Withal she insisted strongly on mental qualities and science, being a person of moderate mind and an adorer of talent--when not perverted to poetry.

As you may imagine, Raja Vikram, all the beauty's bosom friends, seeing her refuse so many good offers, confidently predicted that she would pass through the jungle and content herself with a bad stick, or that she would lead ring-tailed apes in Patala.

At length when some time had elapsed, four suitors appeared from four different countries, all of them claiming equal excellence in youth and beauty, strength and understanding. And after paying their respects to Haridas, and telling him their wishes, they were directed to come early on the next morning and to enter upon the first ordeal--an intellectual conversation.

This they did.

"Foolish the man," quoth the young Mahasani, "that seeks permanence in this world--frail as the stem of the plantain-tree, transient as the ocean foam.

"All that is high shall presently fall; all that is low must finally perish.

"Unwillingly do the manes of the dead taste the tears shed by their kinsmen: then wail not, but perform the funeral obsequies with diligence."

"What ill-omened fellow is this?" quoth the fair Unmadini, who was sitting behind her curtain;" besides, he has dared to quote poetry! "There was little chance of success for that suitor.

"She is called a good woman, and a woman of pure descent," quoth the second suitor, "who serves him to whom her father and mother have given her; and it is written in the scriptures that a woman who in the lifetime of her husband, becoming a devotee, engages in fasting, and in austere devotion, shortens his days, and hereafter falls into the fire. For it is said--

"A woman's bliss is found not in the smile Of father, mother, friend, nor in herself; Her husband is her only portion here, Her heaven hereafter."

The word "serve," which might mean "obey," was peculiarly disagreeable to the fair one's ears, and she did not admire the check so soon placed upon her devotion, or the decided language and manner of the youth. She therefore mentally resolved never again to see that person, whom she determined to be stupid as an elephant.

"A mother," said Gunakar, the third candidate, "protects her son in babyhood, and a father when his offspring is growing up. But the man of warrior descent defends his brethren at all times. Such is the custom of the world, and such is my state. I dwell on the heads of the strong!"

Therefore those assembled together looked with great respect upon the man of velour.

Devasharma, the fourth suitor, contented himself with listening to the others, who fancied that he was overawed by their cleverness. And when it came to his turn he simply remarked, "Silence is better than speech." Being further pressed, he said, "A wise man will not proclaim his age, nor a deception practiced upon himself, nor his riches, nor the loss of riches, nor family faults, nor incantations, nor conjugal love, nor medicinal prescriptions, nor religious duties, nor gifts, nor reproach, nor the infidelity of his wife."

Thus ended the first trial. The master of the house dismissed the two former speakers, with many polite expressions and some trifling presents. Then having given betel to them, scented their garments with attar, and sprinkled rose-water over their heads, he accompanied them to the door, showing much regret. The two latter speakers he begged to come on the next day.

Gunakar and Devasharma did not fail. When they entered the assembly-room and took the seats pointed out to them, the father said, "Be ye pleased to explain and make manifest the effects of your mental qualities. So shall I judge of them."

"I have made," said Gunakar, "a four-wheeled carriage, in which the power resides to carry you in a moment wherever you may purpose to go."

"I have such power over the angel of death," said Devasharma, "that I can at all times raise a corpse, and enable my friends to do the same."

Now tell me by thy brains, O warrior King Vikram, which of these two youths was the fitter husband for the maid?

Either the Raja could not answer the question, or perhaps he would not, being determined to break the spell which had already kept him walking to and fro for so many hours. Then the Baital, who had paused to let his royal carrier commit himself, seeing that the attempt had failed, proceeded without making any further comment.

The beautiful Unmadini was brought out, but she hung down her head and made no reply. Yet she took care to move both her eyes in the direction of Devasharma. Whereupon Haridas, quoting the proverb that "pearls string with pearls," formally betrothed to him his daughter. The soldier suitor twisted the ends of his mustachios into his eyes, which were red with wrath, and fumbled with his fingers about the hilt of his sword. But he was a man of noble birth, and presently his anger passed away.

Mahasani the poet, however, being a shameless person--and when can we be safe from such?--forced himself into the assembly and began to rage and to storm, and to quote proverbs in a loud tone of voice. He remarked that in this world women are a mine of grief, a poisonous root, the abode of solicitude, the destroyers of resolution, the occasioners of fascination, and the plunderers of all virtuous qualities. From the daughter he passed to the father, and after saying hard things of him as a "Maha-Brahman," who took cows and gold and worshipped a monkey, he fell with a sweeping censure upon all priests and sons of priests, more especially Devasharma. As the bystanders remonstrated with him, he became more violent, and when Haridas, who was a weak man, appeared terrified by his voice, look, and gesture, he swore a solemn oath that despite all the betrothals in the world, unless Unmadini became his wife he would commit suicide, and as a demon haunt the house and injure the inmates.

Gunakar the soldier exhorted this shameless poet to slay himself at once, and to go where he pleased. But as Haridas reproved the warrior for inhumanity, Mahasani nerved by spite, love, rage, and perversity to an heroic death, drew a noose from his bosom, rushed out of the house, and suspended himself to the nearest tree.

And, true enough, as the midnight gong struck, he appeared in the form of a gigantic and malignant Rakshasa (fiend), dreadfully frightened the household of Haridas, and carried off the lovely Unmadini, leaving word that she was to he found on the topmost peak of Himalaya.

The unhappy father hastened to the house where Devasharma lived. There, weeping bitterly and wringing his hands in despair, he told the terrible tale, and besought his intended son-in-law to be up and doing.

The young Brahman at once sought his late rival, and asked his aid. This the soldier granted at once, although he had been nettled at being conquered in love by a priestling.

The carriage was at once made ready, and the suitors set out, bidding the father be of good cheer, and that before sunset he should embrace his daughter. They then entered the vehicle; Gunakar with cabalistic words caused it to rise high in the air, and Devasharma put to flight the demon by reciting the sacred verse,"Let us meditate on the supreme splendour (or adorable light) of that Divine Ruler (the sun) who may illuminate our understandings. Venerable men, guided by the intelligence, salute the divine sun (Sarvitri) with oblations and praise. Om!"

Then they returned with the girl to the house, and Haridas blessed them, praising the sun aloud in the joy of his heart. Lest other accidents might happen, he chose an auspicious planetary conjunction, and at a fortunate moment rubbed turmeric upon his daughter's hands.

The wedding was splendid, and broke the hearts of twenty-four rivals. In due time Devasharma asked leave from his father-in-law to revisit his home, and to carry with him his bride. This request being granted, he set out accompanied by Gunakar the soldier, who swore not to leave the couple before seeing them safe under their own roof-tree.

It so happened that their road lay over the summits of the wild Vindhya hills, where dangers of all kinds are as thick as shells upon the shore of the deep. Here were rocks and jagged precipices making the traveller's brain whirl when he looked into them. There impetuous torrents roared and flashed down their beds of black stone, threatening destruction to those who would cross them. Now the path was lost in the matted thorny underwood and the pitchy shades of the jungle, deep and dark as the valley of death. Then the thunder-cloud licked the earth with its fiery tongue, and its voice shook the crags and filled their hollow caves. At times, the sun was so hot, that wild birds fell dead from the air. And at every moment the wayfarers heard the trumpeting of giant elephants, the fierce howling of the tiger, the grisly laugh of the foul hyaena, and the whimpering of the wild dogs as they coursed by on the tracks of their prey.

Yet, sustained by the five-armed god the little party passed safely through all these dangers. They had almost emerged from the damp glooms of the forest into the open plains which skirt the southern base of the hills, when one night the fair Unmadini saw a terrible vision.

She beheld herself wading through a sluggish pool of muddy water, which rippled, curdling as she stepped into it, and which, as she advanced, darkened with the slime raised by her feet. She was bearing in her arms the semblance of a sick child, which struggled convulsively and filled the air with dismal wails. These cries seemed to be answered by a multitude of other children, some bloated like toads, others mere skeletons lying upon the bank, or floating upon the thick brown waters of the pond. And all seemed to address their cries to her, as if she were the cause of their weeping; nor could all her efforts quiet or console them for a moment.

When the bride awoke, she related all the particulars of her ill-omened vision to her husband; and the latter, after a short pause, informed her and his friend that a terrible calamity was about to befall them. He then drew from his travelling wallet a skein of thread. This he divided into three parts, one for each, and told his companions that in case of grievous bodily injury, the bit of thread wound round the wounded part would instantly make it whole. After which he taught them the Mantra, or mystical word by which the lives of men are restored to their bodies, even when they have taken their allotted places amongst the stars, and which for evident reasons I do not want to repeat. It concluded, however, with the three Vyahritis, or sacred syllables--Bhuh, Bhuvah, Svar!

Raja Vikram was perhaps a little disappointed by this declaration. He made no remark, however, and the Baital thus pursued:

As Devasharma foretold, an accident of a terrible nature did occur. On the evening of that day, as they emerged upon the plain, they were attacked by the Kiratas, or savage tribes of the mountain. A small, black, wiry figure, armed with a bow and little cane arrows, stood in their way, signifying by gestures that they must halt and lay down their arms. As they continued to advance, he began to speak with a shrill chattering, like the note of an affrighted bird, his restless red eyes glared with rage, and he waved his weapon furiously round his head. Then from the rocks and thickets on both sides of the path poured a shower of shafts upon the three strangers.

The unequal combat did not last long. Gunakar, the soldier, wielded his strong right arm with fatal effect and struck down some threescore of the foes. But new swarms came on like angry hornets buzzing round the destroyer of their nests. And when he fell, Devasharma, who had left him for a moment to hide his beautiful wife in the hollow of a tree, returned, and stood fighting over the body of his friend till he also, overpowered by numbers, was thrown to the ground. Then the wild men, drawing their knives, cut off the heads of their helpless enemies, stripped their bodies of all their ornaments, and departed, leaving the woman unharmed for good luck.

When Unmadini, who had been more dead than alive during the affray, found silence succeed to the horrid din of shrieks and shouts, she ventured to creep out of her refuge in the hollow tree. And what does she behold? her husband and his friend are lying upon the ground, with their heads at a short distance from their bodies. She sat down and wept bitterly.

Presently, remembering the lesson which she had learned that very morning, she drew forth from her bosom the bit of thread and proceeded to use it. She approached the heads to the bodies, and tied some of the magic string round each neck. But the shades of evening were fast deepening, and in her agitation, confusion and terror, she made a curious mistake by applying the heads to the wrong trunks. After which, she again sat down, and having recited her prayers, she pronounced, as her husband had taught her, the life-giving incantation.

In a moment the dead men were made alive. They opened their eyes, shook themselves, sat up and handled their limbs as if to feel that all was right. But something or other appeared to them all wrong. They placed their palms upon their foreheads, and looked downwards, and started to their feet and began to stare at their hands and legs. Upon which they scrutinized the very scanty articles of dress which the wild men had left upon them, and lastly one began to eye the other with curious puzzled looks.

The wife, attributing their gestures to the confusion which one might expect to find in the brains of men who have just undergone so great a trial as amputation of the head must be, stood before them for a moment or two. She then with a cry of gladness flew to the bosom of the individual who was, as she supposed, her husband. He repulsed her, telling her that she was mistaken. Then, blushing deeply in spite of her other emotions, she threw both her beautiful arms round the neck of the person who must be, she naturally concluded, the right man. To her utter confusion, he also shrank back from her embrace.

Then a horrid thought flashed across her mind: she perceived her fatal mistake, and her heart almost ceased to beat.

"This is thy wife!" cried the Brahman's head that had been fastened to the soldier's body.

"No; she is thy wife!" replied the soldier's head which had been placed upon the Brahman's body.

"Then she is my wife!" rejoined the first compound creature.

"By no means! she is my wife," cried the second.

"What then am I?" asked Devasharma-Gunakar.

"What do you think I am?" answered GunakarDevasharma, with another question.

"Unmadini shall be mine," quoth the head.

"You lie, she shall be mine," shouted the body.

"Holy Yama, hear the villain," exclaimed both of them at the same moment.

* * * * *
In short, having thus begun, they continued to quarrel violently, each one declaring that the beautiful Unmadini belonged to him, and to him only. How to settle their dispute Brahma the Lord of creatures only knows. I do not, except by cutting off their heads once more, and by putting them in their proper places. And I am quite sure, O Raja Vikram! that thy wits are quite unfit to answer the question, To which of these two is the beautiful Unmadini wife? It is even said--amongst us Baitals--that when this pair of half-husbands appeared in the presence of the Just King, a terrible confusion arose, each head declaiming all the sins and peccadilloes which its body had committed, and that Yama the holy ruler himself hit his forefinger with vexation.

Here the young prince Dharma Dhwaj burst out laughing at the ridiculous idea of the wrong heads. And the warrior king, who, like single-minded fathers in general, was ever in the idea that his son had a velleity for deriding and otherwise vexing him, began a severe course of reproof. He reminded the prince of the common saying that merriment without cause degrades a man in the opinion of his fellows, and indulged him with a quotation extensively used by grave fathers, namely, that the loud laugh bespeaks a vacant mind. After which he proceeded with much pompousness to pronounce the following opinion:

"It is said in the Shastras----"

"Your majesty need hardly display so much erudition! Doubtless it comes from the lips of Jayudeva or some other one of your Nine Gems of Science, who know much more about their songs and their stanzas than they do about their scriptures," insolently interrupted the Baital, who never lost an opportunity of carping at those reverend men.

"It is said in the Shastras," continued Raja Vikram sternly, after hesitating whether he should or should not administer a corporeal correction to the Vampire, "that Mother Ganga is the queen amongst rivers, and the mountain Sumeru is the monarch among mountains, and the tree Kalpavriksha is the king of all trees, and the head of man is the best and most excellent of limbs. And thus, according to this reason, the wife belonged to him whose noblest position claimed her."

"The next thing your majesty will do, I suppose," continued the Baital, with a sneer, "is to support the opinions of the Digambara, who maintains that the soul is exceedingly rarefied, confined to one place, and of equal dimensions with the body, or the fancies of that worthy philosopher Jaimani, who, conceiving soul and mind and matter to be things purely synonymous, asserts outwardly and writes in his books that the brain is the organ of the mind which is acted upon by the immortal soul, but who inwardly and verily believes that the brain is the mind, and consequently that the brain is the soul or spirit or whatever you please to call it; in fact, that soul is a natural faculty of the body. A pretty doctrine, indeed, for a Brahman to hold. You might as well agree with me at once that the soul of man resides, when at home, either in a vein in the breast, or in the pit of his stomach, or that half of it is in a man's brain and the other or reasoning half is in his heart, an organ of his body."

"What has all this string of words to do with the matter, Vampire?" asked Raja Vikram angrily.

"Only," said the demon laughing, "that in my opinion, as opposed to the Shastras and to Raja Vikram, that the beautiful Unmadini belonged, not to the head part but to the body part. Because the latter has an immortal soul in the pit of its stomach, whereas the former is a box of bone, more or less thick, and contains brains which are of much the same consistence as those of a calf."

"Villain!" exclaimed the Raja, "does not the soul or conscious life enter the body through the sagittal suture and lodge in the brain, thence to contemplate, through the same opening, the divine perfections?"

"I must, however, bid you farewell for the moment, O warrior king, Sakadhipati-Vikramadityal! I feel a sudden and ardent desire to change this cramped position for one more natural to me."

The warrior monarch had so far committed himself that he could not prevent the Vampire from flitting. But he lost no more time in following him than a grain of mustard, in its fall, stays on a cow's horn. And when he had thrown him over his shoulder, the king desired him of his own accord to begin a new tale.

"O my left eyelid flutters," exclaimed the Baital in despair, "my heart throbs, my sight is dim: surely now beginneth the end. It is as Vidhata hath written on my forehead--how can it be otherwise? Still listen, O mighty Raja, whilst I recount to you a true story, and Saraswati sit on my tongue."

<< Index of Stories of Vikram and Betal

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