The Jambudweepa continent was facing a revolution. Gautama was worried that he might have to lose his position to one of those young men who thronged the city streets these days calling for a change in the hierarchy. Since he had been inducted into the clan of the rishis he had gathered everything. Gullible commoners only needed someone to scare them with the name of god and they would bring him gifts. Gautama would often impose hefty fines on men who came to him with the confession of a sin. His household flourished and his kinsmen lived like kings.
Gautama knew that it was the King’s doing. He was threatened by the popularity of the rishis who had settled in different parts of the continent and enjoyed a considerable control over the masses. Gautama decided that it was time he should pay the king a visit.
Before he left for the capital city of Amravati, Gautama gave one last look to his palace and his beautiful wife Ahalya. Her gold ornaments glittered in the sunlight and filled Gautama with an anxiety about his future. What if all this was gone? Instinctively his hands smoothened his silk clothes. With the pair of swift horses, that he had acquired from a wealthy merchant who had come to be absolved from the sin of killing his wife, it took Gautama no time to reach Amravati.
As soon as he turned into the city streets he was greeted by a weird sight. Gautama’s popularity had been immense in the capital city and whenever he visited the city, commoners would flock around his chariot to get his blessings. This time people did look at his chariot but stood confused whether to approach or not.
At the King’s court Gautama was welcomed with the usual pomp. The King who had been given the epithet of Devendra sat in the centre of the court on a massive peacock shaped gold throne. Gautama couldn’t help but feel envy for this man. Devendra looked resplendent in his gold embroidered silk clothes and ornaments fashioned in gold and precious stones. He also wore his customary crown and had a cunning smile on his face. Even though Gautama had met him before he was always struck by Devendra’s peculiar appearance. He had a hooked nose and had a vulture’s eyes under his bushy eyebrows.
Devendra folded his hands in mockery and with a cunning smile playing on his lips asked for the reason of Gautama’s arrival. Gautama held his anger and in a polite tone said “O’ Mighty King of the Kings, I have to request you to quell the revolutionaries who are threatening the harmony of this bountiful country.”
Devendra laughed a menacing laugh and then replied “O’ Great Sage how could I punish people who are here to serve religion. They are doing the work of God. Who am I, just a king, to interfere with that?”
Gautama knew that he needed to come to the point. “O’ King of the Kings, I have come with a proposition. I promise you a share of my riches and the allegiance of my followers if you in return promise to keep my small kingdom safe from the revolutionaries.”
Devendra raised an eyebrow at the word “kingdom”. “First of all, it is not your kingdom you scoundrel.” Devendra’s voice raised with every word and Gautama was taken aback. “Second I have much more riches than you rishis can’t even dream about.”
A hopelessness began to grip Gautama’s heart. “But…” Devendra continued, “…you have something that I don’t have.” Gautama looked at him inquisitively.
“I have heard that you have married a young and beautiful maiden. Her beauty remains unrivalled in the whole of Jambudweepa. If you give her to me… for one night I promise to keep your so called kingdom safe.”
Gautama looked at Devendra in shock. He could see the lecherous longing in Devendra’s eyes.
“What do you say?” asked Devendra fiddling with a small bejewelled dagger.
Gautama began to ponder. Though he had control over his people he had no army of his own. The arrival of revolutionaries in his corner of the continent was imminent. He wondered about what to do.
While Gautama stood thinking Devendra filled with rejoice for he knew that he had won half the battle. Gautama kept thinking, it was a hefty price but the reward was great. Finally after much thinking, Gautama nodded his assent. The two decided that it was best that the exchange be done at night and without Ahalya’s knowledge. After the deal was struck, Gautama made his journey back to his palace.
Ahalya had a tiring day. She had a lot to do in the absence of her husband. She not only maintained the daily worship rituals but had to take care of the proceedings of the small teaching centre, her husband had established. Ahalya was a learned woman and excelled at the responsibilities her husband left her with. After the long day, Ahalya lay on her bed wondering when Gautama might return from the capital. Thinking and longing for her husband she fell asleep.
It was around midnight when she heard the neighing of Gautama’s horses. She stayed in bed waiting for him. Soon enough Gautama silently opened the door to her chamber. Ahalya couldn’t see his face for he stood before the small lamp in the room but as soon as he entered, the room filled with the fragrant smell of jasmines. Gautama loved applying jasmine oil on his bare body and never left home without it. Ahalya stretched her arms towards him in the dark. Gautama extinguished the lamp and fell onto Ahalya.
She felt Gautama to be different that day. He was exhilarated.
“How was the trip to the capital?” asked Ahalya in whispers amidst the kisses.
Gautama did not answer. Ahalya asked “Was it fruitful?” Gautama did not reply again. “Why don’t you say anything?” Gautama replied with a passionate kiss on her lips. After their love-making, Ahalya lay naked on her belly and heard to the rhythmic sound of Gautama’s breathing. Suddenly the door of room opened and light poured onto her. She was scared. She quickly grabbed sheets around her and turned toward the door. Who was it? Had the revolutionaries decided to attack at this hour?
It was Gautama standing in the doorway. She turned to look at the man in her bed. It was a man with hooked nose and brown eyes. She had never seen him before. He was smiling cunningly.
There were other men standing behind Gautama.
“Look what the king has done to me? Where are the gods today? Oh, this foul man has defiled my wife.” Ahalya wasn’t able to look at Gautama for her eyes were brimming with tears. She couldn’t understand how this could happen. Gautama then addressed Ahalya “You, you filthy woman, this is how you repay me for taking care of you, giving you silk clothes to wear when you rotted in that rat hole of your father’s.” Ahalya suddenly realised what was being implied. She fell on Gautama’s feet and begged him to stop. “No, my lord, it isn’t true. I have done nothing. This man pretended to be you. I don’t even know him.”
“Look at how she pretends to be innocent. How long have you been philandering with your lover?”
“No, no, no. It isn’t true. I am your wife.” Ahalya’s throat choked with various emotions and she couldn’t say anything more.
“Now you remember you are my wife! And what happened when you were having fun with your lover. Get out of my house right now. I don’t have place for a foul woman like you.” Gautama left the room with anger in his eyes. Devendra stood up from the bed and got dressed. Then he turned to Ahalya who was still lying on the floor weeping. “Well, if you decide to leave him you can come to me. I can certainly find some use for you.” Devendra said casually and then left the room.
By the next morning, the news of Ahalya being caught with her lover by her husband had spread like fire. Gautama didn’t lose much chance and began to incite his followers against Devendra. “What he did with my wife, he can do it to yours? Do we need a king like him? Is he a protector or a predator?” Devendra returned to his kingdom marvelling at the master stroke Gautama had played. He knew that men in Jambudweepa treated women as their honour and had no respect for a man who would defile their fellow men’s wife. He knew about common men who if caught had been stoned to death for sleeping with another man’s wife. He wasn’t under any threat to his life but he knew that Gautama had tainted his image in front of his subjects. Ahalya the victim to Gautama and Devendra’s schemes was kicked out of Gautama’s household.
No one knew where she went. Meanwhile, the revolution began to spread more rapidly and even though Gautama had secured his position as a pious man, capable of making big sacrifices, he was still under threat of a revolution. He had betrayed Devendra so there was no hopes of military support. He decided to liquidate all his assets and become a travelling ascetic. While travelling the length of the continent with his faithful servants, Gautama witnessed the tide of change. Revolution had taken wider turn and Kings were being usurped along with religious leaders. He was in the southern tip of the country when he learned that Devendra’s kingdom had been overthrown by a new set of leaders who called themselves Raghuvanshis. Serves him right, was all Gautama said.
Gautama returned to his native land after many years and found that the place had altered completely. The new kings were certainly taking care of the citizens. Gautama had changed too. He now wore coarse clothes and smeared ashes all over his body. Instead of living in a palace he set up a cluster of huts for himself and his devotees on the periphery of the city. He began to gather information about the changed city and how he might gain his initial position among his inhabitants. Over the years many people from the city had migrated to the capital of the new king and new ones had settled here. Different cultures had mingled and given way to new ways of living and new rules of morality.
As a testimony to the changing times a new dance hall had been opened in the city by a courtesan who had earned widespread fame for her beauty and wit. Whoever had visited her, had felt the depth of her knowledge and wisdom. When Gautama heard about her he wished to visit her instantly but could not because he had settled himself as an ascetic who had performed rigorous meditation and did not allow even the shadow of a woman to touch him. It would be inappropriate and damaging to his image. He sat down to connive a way to meet the lady.
In the next few days, Gautama tried to learn as much he could about the courtesan. What he learned was that the woman encouraged men who visited her to engage in spiritual, religious and political discourses and then selected one among them who caught her fancy. Those who had the privilege to spend the night with her vouched for her skills in bed. Many a men had fallen in love with her but she never reciprocated their love. Even the wealthiest of merchants, handsomest of men or wisest of scholars were not able to evoke love in her heart. They all wanted to give her a respectable life but she rebuked them all saying respect was only a mirage. If she was famed for her beauty, she was equally famed for her stone heart. “The stone lady” they called her for she lacked emotions and would easily give up one lover for another.
The more Gautama thought about her the more she intrigued him. When he could not contain his fire any longer he decided to pose as a merchant and visit the lady. When night fell, he carefully took out his old silk clothes. Though they looked a little worn out, they still reflected his opulence. He also dug out his jewels from a chest and dressed as a merchant. He cleaned his ash smeared face and applied kohl to his eyes. After he was satisfied with his appearance he sneaked out through a back door and made his way to the dance hall.
He was impressed with the grandeur of the interior and struck by the tastefulness of the mistress. Soon the hall was full with admirers and heated discussions had ensued in all corner. Gautama waited with bated breath for the lady to make her appearance. He was confident that he would impress the lady with his plethora of knowledge and indeed he did. The famed lady did not make an appearance but after a while a hand maiden came to him and whispered in his ears to accompany him to the lady’s inner chamber. He gathered himself and followed the maiden. The inner chamber was decorated in white and gold and a woman sat on the bed with her back to him. The hand maiden stopped outside the chamber and left. Gautama slowly made his way to the woman and sat beside her. He felt very apprehensive about what to say. He had taken many women but had never had experience with one in the profession of love.
The woman eased it out for him. She spoke in a sweet voice “I am called the stone lady but for you I will be Nishigandha.”
“Beautiful name, you have.” Gautama said in a timid voice. He had never felt intimated with a woman before.
“That is not my name. But I can’t let my lover call me Stone lady, do I?”
“No…” Gautama gathered his confidence and trying to emulate a husky voice said “…and how does Nishigandha look? May I see that beautiful face which has enticed many a men to fall on their knees…”
“Indeed.” Replied Nishigandha and turned around just enough to give Gautama a glimpse of her face. Gautama felt intoxicated by her beauty. She was like one of the nymphs scriptures talked about. He had travelled a lot and met many women but no one equalled Nishigandha’s beauty. She had the most alluring eyes. While staring at her, Gautama felt a strange sensation of familiarity but he brushed it aside. He knew he had never met any woman like her before. Soon he had Nishigandha in his arms and he was kissing her most passionately. The legends were indeed true, she was a great lover and knew such tricks in bed that left Gautama astounded.
Gautama didn’t realise when he fell asleep but he had had the most fantastic dreams to dream that night. Nishigandha kept appearing in his dreams. At first she led him to a thorny bed and made love to him over the thorns while he bled through his back. Then she suddenly disappeared and in her place appeared a woman who had Nishigandha’s features but she wore a white cloth without any ornaments, weeping. She looked very familiar but the dream ended before Gautama could recall who she was. Sunlight strayed through the curtains and Gautama could hear whispers all around him. He woke up and found that he had been stripped of his silk clothes and was wearing his coarse clothes of ascetics. All his ornaments were gone and his body was smeared with ashes. Nishigandha stood before him and behind her were many men and women he could recognize from the city.
“See what the ascetic does in the night!” someone in the crowd said.
“None of us are free from carnal desires are we, maharaja?” another one said.
Nishigandha stood smiling.
“You witch, you knew. You did this to me. How dare you try to besmirch the name of an ascetic.” cried Gautama in desperation.
“Dear husband, it’s all your doing.” said Nishigandha calmly.
“Husband” everyone was shocked.
“Ahalya…” Gautama was shocked too.
“You know when you kicked me out, I was helpless and ashamed. I had nowhere to go. You were not ready to believe me. So I decided to end my life. But God wasn’t willing to free me yet. A man, a kind man saved my life. He was a traveller. He asked me why I wanted to kill myself. I told him that unknowingly I had cheated on my husband. He was amazed and said what strange place this world was. Then he told me a story. He had just been to the court of Devendra and had witnessed a peculiar sight. A man, a rishi, had bartered his wife in exchange for protection from the king. He couldn’t recall the man’s name but with my help he could remember that it was Gautama.”
The crowd gasped.
Nishigandha continued “I had two options either to die or to live. I decided to live. I had been waiting for this moment for too long. I wished to expose your truth. You men hide behind the garb of religion and make us women go through hell. But I won’t have it anymore. This is your true face. You are a lecherous old dog who always thinks about his own profit.” She turned to the crowd and said “this man here, you can reinstate him as your revered ascetic if you want but do not forget that he is a wolf in sheep’s hide.” With this she turned around and left the room leaving Gautama and the world of morality behind.