The lives of us 90’s Indian children were enriched by stories of Vikram and Betaal. I now realize how the plot for these stories doubles up as a metaphor for the workings of our mind.
In the stories themselves, a sorcerer asks Vikram, a brave and wise king, to bring him a corpse on a moonless night to a Banyan tree in the middle of a large graveyard. The corpse hangs on a tree on the graveyard’s northernmost tip. Vikram must remain silent as he carries the corpse lest the enchanted being fly back to the tree that he brought it from. Vikram walks up to that tree, hoists the corpse on his shoulder, and starts walking towards across the graveyard in complete silence.
The corpse, Betaal, then starts telling him stories. Betaal’s stories always end with a quandary. Betaal then tells the king that he must answer the question posed to him, for if he were to remain silent despite knowing the answer, his head would burst into a thousand pieces. If he did speak, however, the ghost would fly right back to its tree, leaving Vikram a few feet short of his destination.
Betaal tells Vikram 25 such stories and a typical story goes like this:
A merchant called Suryamal, his newly-wed wife and his friend are returning home after Suryamal’s wedding. Enroute, dacoits waylay them and behead Suryamal and his friend. Suryamal’s bride prays to goddess Durga, offering her own life as sacrifice. The goddess decides to bring both Suryamal and his friend back to life. In the excitement of the moment, Suryamal’s bride puts Suryamal’s head on his friend’s body and vice-versa.
Betaal then asks Vikram which among the two should the bride now consider her husband – the man with Suryamal’s head or the one with Suryamal’s body? Vikram replies that since the brain controls the body, the man with Suryamal’s head is the woman’s rightful husband. On listening to his answer, Betaal compliments him on his wisdom, lets out a maniacal shriek in the manner of animated corpses and flies right back to his tree on the northern edge of the graveyard.
Through the course of the entire night, this happens 25 times, and each time, Vikram returns to the corpse unwavering in his quest to keep his word.
This parable mirrors the state of our mind when we pay attention to something. We often ought to attend to our task in complete silence, absent to the rest of the world around us. Yet, our attention is often interrupted by several thoughts and quandaries. In those moments, it does seem like our mind would burst into a thousand pieces if we did not attend to those intruding thoughts. And no sooner than we do that, our attention is broken, our focus is lost and we find ourselves having to start over again.
Just like the stories that Betaal tells king Vikram, those interruptions are inevitable. But when we take note of them, the wise thing to do would be keep calm, resume our task and stay at it until it is done, just as king Vikram does 25 times in this ancient Indian legend.
See: Baital Pachisi