Sathi stepped through the forest once more, but she was still lost in Rishi Dadeechi's ashram. She was walking up the path to the palace, passing familiar faces, but in her mind, she was still standing in front of the Shiva Linga. She was still staring into Rishi Dadeechi's eyes and feeling like he knew something. He knew something and she couldn't possibly guess what, let alone how. The guards at the gates to the palace bowed to her and she walked by without saying anything. She took the winding path up to the front door, always open for visitors for the king. A vast hall of marble and granite spread before her, basked in the sunlight from the open roof-top. She walked towards the far corner, heading straight to the stairs leading to the princess's rooms, but was stopped before she could get there.
"Sathi! Where have you been? We were looking all over for you!" Adithi gasped, running towards her. "Kyathi is worried sick; Mother and Father have left for the temple already and we hadn't found you yet-where were you?"
"Nowhere," Sathi replied quickly. "I-I got lost."
"You? Lost? In our woods?" Adithi laughed. "You probably fell asleep in the forest, didn't you? I told Kyathi not to worry! Anyways, we should get going to the temple as well. Father is waiting for the flowers-they're about to unveil the statue any minute!"
And just like that, Sathi was brought back to reality. She fell into step behind Adithi as they rushed to the main entrance again. How could she have wasted so much time today? Today, of all days! Her father was about to unveil the statue of Lord Vishnu for the new temple he'd had built. It was rumored to be so large that it would take twenty people to pull it into place inside the temple. No one, except for the sculptor, had laid eyes on it before, but now the entire city was gathering outside the temple for the unveiling. The palace had been awash with preparation for the event for weeks now, and she'd been the cause for the delay!
They ran down the path out of the palace and towards the temple. It's oblique dome rose grandly in the distance into the clear blue sky. As they approached it, they saw the crowd that had gathered at its gates, spilling into the surrounding streets. There were hundreds of people there to witness the unveiling, all talking excitedly amongst themselves, and at the front of the crowd was the statue, covered in a rich, red cloth. Kyathi and Sathi picked their way to the front where the rest of the family stood: Kyathi and her husband, Brugu; Adithi's husband Kashyap; King Daksh, and his wife Prasuti. The king turned to his daughter and his face split into a smile as she approached him.
"Sathi, there you are," he said. "Right on time."
"Where have you been?" Prasuti asked under her breath as she took her place beside her. "We have been waiting-"
"It's alright, Prasuti," the king cut her off. "The world will wait as long as it needs to for Sathi. She is my daughter, after all."
Sathi shook her head quickly. "No, I'm sorry, father, I got lo-" she stopped herself quickly. "I fell asleep in the forest somehow."
"Never mind that," Prasuti replied. "It's time for the unveiling."
A new statue for a new temple… it was a most auspicious day for prayers and rituals. The long awaited moment had arrived when the people would receive a new place of worship from the king. They were all anxious to see the statue and to see it placed into the temple. Twenty able men stood ready on one side of the statue where two ropes had been tied for them to pull on. Several priests also stood beside them in their pure white garbs, prepared for the prayers they'd have to perform in order to instate the statue into the temple. The king turned to Kashyap now and nodded. "Unveil the statue."
The crowd around them began to fall silent in anticipation of the moment. Kashyap stepped forward, took a hold of the cloth covering the statue, and tugged. It rippled to the ground, revealing the beautiful form of Vishnu lying down on his bed made of the great five-headed serpent, Ananta-Sesha. His eyes were half-closed in a state of meditative prayer, spreading a sense of peace through the crowd. The serpent's graceful hood spread over his head like an umbrella. The surface of the rock glistened in the sunlight, making it glow ethereally.
And just like that, the silence was broken. Cheers of praise and devotion rang through the clearing. Some praised the statue. Some praised Lord Vishnu. And some praised King Daksha. Sathi smiled to her father, warmed to see a look of immense pride in his eyes as he viewed the statue. She turned to her sisters but stopped when she caught sight of Kashyap. He was staring at the statue with wide eyes. Beside him, Brugu looked no less shocked. She frowned, wondering what could be on their mind, and realized that the priests were also whispering among themselves nervously. She looked to the statue, wondering what could be wrong. The figure of Vishnu was flawless. There was every sense of peace and caring in his eyes that she imagined there would be towards his devotees. Every detail from the tip of his crown to the nails on his toes was perfect. His right arm extended over the edge of his bed, lying poised over the air as though to protect whomever bowed to him. She couldn't see any flaw in it, so why were her brother-in-laws so worried?
She stepped towards them as her father commanded the men to start pulling the statue into the temple. "Is something wrong?" She asked Kashyap. He turned to her, surprised, then shared guilty looks with Brigu.
"Of course not, my lady," he replied. "The sculptor's work is absolutely breath-taking."
"Yes," Sathi replied, "but there is something bothering you. What is it?"
The statue began its slow progress through the gates of the temple and the king followed with his wife. Kashyap gave her a short, unconvincing smile, and fell in step behind them. Sathi looked to the priests who were still arguing among themselves about something. They too, however, quickly averted her gaze and followed the procession into the temple.
The cheers of the crowd died down behind them the deeper they got into the temple. The select few (who still numbered to about a hundred) followed them excitedly through the cavernous halls of the temple. The grunts of the men pulling the statue mixed with the chatter from the crowd. Sathi listened to her father give the servants instructions on where to set up the items for the prayer that would follow the installment of the statue. Kashyap stood ahead of the scene, guiding the men towards the room where the statue would be placed and Brugu followed in his footsteps. Her sisters chatted animatedly, marveling at the beauty of the statue. Only those caught between-the priests-seemed oddly nervous.
Then, suddenly, the room fell silent. Sathi looked to the front and noticed that the statue had stopped moving just outside the doorway of its final destination. The men's grunts grew louder as they pulled on the statue but it would not budge. The king's smile fell away. "Kashyap," he called out. "What's happening?"
"The statue is stuck, my lord," Kashyap replied, the surprise clear in his voice. "I'm not sure why-"
"You-" the king called towards a group of servants off to the side. "Help them push."
The men immediately rushed to the statue and tried to push it. They leaned in, digging their feet into the ground and putting all of their effort into it, but the statue would not budge. The king's face was now overcome with irritation. Off to the side, Sathi watched as Kasyhap and Brugu exchanged understanding looks.
"Sculptor!" the king shouted. From the back of the room, a young man stepped forward. His eyes on the ground, he stood before the king with all the burden of guilt on his shoulders. "Why isn't the statue moving?"
The sculptor stared at the ground, his hands winding nervously. "My lord, I-I-"
"Speak up!" the king commanded.
"My lord," Kashyap said, drawing the king's attention. "The inauguration of a god's statue cannot happen without the god's approval. This statue, in its incompleteness, could not earn Vishnu's approval."
"Incompleteness?" the king barked, stepping forward. He was furious now and his eyes made that very clear. "Are you telling me something is missing from this statue?"
Kashyap tipped his chin upwards, gathering his strength to say his next words. "The form of sleeping Vishnu with his hand stretched out-" he motioned towards the statue.
"What of it?" the king demanded.
"Well… below his hand…" Kashyap seemed less certain of himself as the king approached closer. The room was tense as they watched on. Kashyap took a deep breath. "No matter how hard you try, my lord, this statue will not move. How can you not see that this statue is incomplete? There should be a Shiva Ling beneath his hand, my lord."
The silence in the room was like a calm before the storm. Not a soul moved in fear of what was to come. Sathi watched her father breathlessly as he stared at Kashyap. After a long silence, the king turned away without a single word and walked out the same way they had come in. After looking towards each other once again, Kashyap and Brigu followed the king's unspoken command to go with him. The men left quickly, fearful of what was to come and, behind them, the crowd burst into maddening whispers that echoed through the cavernous temple.
Sathi turned to see the sculptor stumble aside, looking so aggrieved by his guilt that he could barely walk straight. She stormed after him. "What have you done?" She demanded. "Don't you realize how embarrassing it is for Father if the statue is not placed into its room today? Do you know how many people are waiting to see their god? How could you create an incomplete statue?"
The man turned to her with tears in his eyes, stopping her cold. He bowed his head, his shoulders shaking slightly with grief. "Forgive me, my lady. I had never intended to create an incomplete statue."
Sathi sighed, realizing she had spoken too harshly in fear of her father's embarrassment. "It doesn't make sense," she said. "Why would a statue of Vishnu need a Shiva Ling?"
The sculptor gave a sad smile. "Forgive my blatancy, my lady, but your ignorance of the matter is yet another proof of your father's hatred for Shiva, and why he himself commanded that I not include the Shiva Ling in the statue."
"Father commanded it?"
The sculptor nodded. "I even created the Shiva Ling, my lady. If you wish to save your father from embarrassment, if you wish to see for yourself whether the statue is indeed incomplete or not-" he leaned down and picked up a small object from the shadows of the pillar they stood behind and held it out for her "-place this Shiva Ling in its position."
Sathi stared at the Shiva Ling in his hands, made of glistening black rock. Three white lines had been painted across its face, striking the same fear of something unknown in Sathi's heart as she had felt in Rishi Dadeechi's ashram. She looked to the statue of Vishnu where it had frozen. She looked towards her mother and her sisters who were worriedly waiting for the return of their husbands. She looked to the crowd behind them as they studied the statue and immersed themselves in discussions of how quickly they could spread rumors about this horrific event. Her father would be devastated if it were to get out that Lord Vishnu himself had rejected entrance into his new temple.
"Take it, my lady. Please."
She looked back to the sculptor and nodded. Perhaps she could place the Shiva Ling into its position, have them pull the statue into place (if it even worked), then remove it again. All of that without her father or anybody else noticing. Saying a prayer to Lord Vishnu, she took the Shiva Ling from his hands and placed it close to her chest, covering it with her shawl. She then made her way silently to the statue, trying to remain in the shadows as much as possible. The servants had tired of trying to pull the statue and had sprawled on the ground a little ways away. She took a deep breath, checked to make sure nobody was watching her, and quickly placed the Shiva Ling beneath Vishnu's outstretched hand. Then she stepped around the statue and into the light. Addressing the servants, she said, "Try again."
They rose to their feet, bound to follow her orders though they didn't seem convinced that their efforts would work. They got into position, took hold of the ropes, and began to tug.
Immediately, the statue set into motion, its grand form gliding across the floor and into its room. Sathi stepped back into the fold of her family. None of them were more shocked than her. She looked to the sculptor who wore a content smile on his lips, his teary eyes thanking her for saving him from humiliation as well. The crowd burst into cheers behind them, all of them praising the king. Sathi's stomach felt like it was being squeezed out of her. She turned back to check to make sure her father hadn't returned and quickly rushed in after the statue. As the workers dispersed, remarking at the sudden turn of events, she reached for the Shiva Ling.
It wouldn't budge.
Her heart hammering in her chest now, she tugged but the Shiva Ling was stuck in its place. She looked up to say a prayer to Vishnu and, of all the ironies that could occur at the moment, found the kind face of Vishnu's statue smiling back at her.
"Most excellent!" the king's voice boomed over the cheers of the crowd. Sathi jumped in front of the Shiva Ling and turned to see her father entering the room. Behind him, Brugu and Kashyap shared surprised looks. "I knew we would succeed in bringing our Vishnu into our temple!"
Sathi tried to smile to her father but she doubted she'd succeeded.
"Priests, kindly prepare for the prayers. We have been delayed enough already," the king called out. He then stepped towards Sathi and embraced her. "I am so happy today, daughter."
She smiled nervously as he stepped back once more. "Let me take a look at my god. Let me feast my eyes on his beauty," he said softly, his eyes roaming over the statue. Sathi stepped back towards the statue carefully, shaking her skirts out to cover the Shiva Ling but it was too late. Kashyap and Brugu had approached them as well and their eyes were trained on the Linga. They looked to Sathi, shocked.
"What do you say now, Kashyap?" Daksh chuckled, turning to her son-in-law. "Do you still believe the statue to be incomplete?"
Kashyap looked to Sathi. "No, my lord. I believe it is complete now."
Daksh laughed, his voice booming through the room. "Sathi, step aside. I'd like my family to have a look at the new statue before we begin the prayers."
"Father, we should begin the prayers now," Sathi said quickly. "It's already very late-"
She froze as her father stepped around her. His eyes trained on the statue and she knew he'd seen the Shiva Ling. All joy fell from his face to be replaced by rage. He turned slowly to look at the room at large. "Who placed that thing here?" He asked, his voice low and cold. "Who dared to bring a Shiva Ling into this temple?"
Sathi took a deep breath. "I did, Father."
Rage was replaced with shock. Daksh looked to his daughter, unable to believe his ears. He stepped towards her slowly, shaking his head as though he hadn't understood her. "You did?" He whispered. "No daughter of mine would do that, especially not my Sathi. You would never break my trust and insult me like this."
Sathi could hear the hurt in her father's voice and longed to comfort him. She turned pleading eyes to him.
"Tell me this is not true," he asked. "Everything that I taught you… you would not rebuff it like this. You would not embarrass me. It's not possible. So tell me, daughter, who told you to place that Shiva Ling there?"
Sathi dropped her gaze to his shoulder, unable to look him in the eye.
"Tell me who gave it to you!" Daksh yelled, his voice shaking with rage.
Sathi gulped, knowing she couldn't give the sculptor's name to her father. She didn't know what he would do to him in his rage, but she knew it wouldn't be good.
Then, suddenly, the sound of bells and drums filled the air. Rishi Dadeechi stepped through the crowd, followed by several more hermits from his ashram. They cut through the crowd like blood in milk, their rust-colored robes standing in stark contrast against the white robes of those surrounding them. Their appearance was no less different. Whereas every man and woman in the crowd donned precious silks and showed off their jewelry proudly, the hermits wore cotton and Rudraksha seeds. Some had spread ash on their forehead, others had their hair in dreadlocks, and most carried bells or small two-faced drums in their hands which they played now. Rishi Dadeechi, at the forefront of the group, approached the king with a smile on his face. He stopped before him and bowed his head deeply. The din of music died down as his followers did the same.
In the silence that followed, Daksh stepped towards the newcomers like a tiger prowling towards its oblivious prey. "To this day," he said slowly, "I have not crossed the boundaries we have set between ourselves. I hope you take that as a sign of my utmost respect to you and your boundaries, Rishi Dadeechi. I'm delighted to see that you have the same respect for me,"
Rishi Dadeechi nodded slowly, recognizing the sarcasm in the king's voice. His smile, however, never faltered.
"And now I know who had the audacity to turn my own daughter against me at this auspicious moment. Only you could have the gall to deceive my daughter in such a way."
Dadeechi stepped forward with a sigh. "It is you who have been deceived, my lord, if you think you can remove Lord Shiva from his rightful place in any temple."
"Your Shiva removed my father from his rightful place in my temples, Dadeechi," Daksh said. "He cursed him!"
"Perhaps you are forgetting that it was your father who piously accepted the curse as punishment for his own mistakes."
"Do you understand what it feels like to have to bear your own father's insult?" Daksh hissed. "You-who have renounced your family and live on your own as a vagabond in the forests-dare talk to me about my father?"
"I understand it must be very difficult for your father to deal with you insulting Shiva-a god that Bramha himself looks up to like his own father."
"Enough!" Daksh barked. He turned to look at Sathi over his shoulder. "I'm at fault for all of this, Sathi. I'm at fault for never telling you about Shiva til now. I wanted to surround you with all things good, all things pure and right in this world. And only that, but now it's time to tell you about Shiva-who he is and what he is."
He turned to the Shiva Ling. "Look at it. A black mark on such a beautiful statue; it is the same wherever he goes!" He looked at Sathi. "The truth is that Shiva lives in a cemetery. His work is with the dead and the filth of this world. He lives among ghosts, demons, spirits, and burning bodies. How can anyone think that such a man could be a god?"
"Tell me this, King Daksh," Dadeechi chuckled. "If Shiva is such a disgusting and terrible man, then why does Lord Vishnu worship him so much?" He waved his hand towards the statue. "Without Shiva, Lord Vishnu did not even want to enter your temple."
"You're questioning Lord Vishnu's power, Dadeechi," Daksh warned him.
"I would never, my lord," Dadeechi bowed his head. "I only wish to point out that devotion is all it takes to obtain Shiva, not power. Even Lord Vishnu wished to show us his devotion to Shiva today."
"Devotion," Daksh laughed. "A Shiva-follower is speaking to me about devotion? You don't do pooja or prayer, you don't follow the rituals, you don't even bathe yourselves before sitting down to pray to him. What do you know of devotion, Dadeechi?"
"Devotion is the only way to reach Shiva, my lord," Dadeechi replied. "We don't need anything else. All we have to do is call for him with a true heart and he comes running to us. There is no need for pooja or rituals or rules. Would you like to test it?"
Daksh waved him aside. "Of course he will come running for you, Dadeechi-"
"Then I won't call him," Dadeechi said. "Let's try it with someone else-someone he has never heard from before." With a smile, he turned to look at Sathi.
She blinked, her eyes widening with surprise. She looked to her father, sure he would only be angrier, but Daksh smiled at her. "Yes, let us try it. Let us see if your god comes running for a Vaishnav."
"Let us see," Dadeechi replied, never removing his eyes from Sathi. "Lady Sathi, all you have to do is think of him whole-heartedly. Call for him. He will come."
Sathi looked to her sisters and mother who had been watching the entire ordeal with apprehension. Her mother shook her head softly, begging her silently to not let this go any further than it already has.
"Sathi," the king said, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Let's humor this man, shall we?"
Against her better judgment, Sathi closed her eyes and touched her palms together before her. Whole-heartedly, Dadeechi had said. How could she call for Shiva 'whole-heartedly' when her father had made it very clear exactly how much he hated him? If Shiva did actually appear, which she did not know whether he would or not, it would only insult her father more and she would be the reason for it. She could not pray to Shiva… she would not pray to Shiva.
Then a thought crossed her mind. The flash of a dark Linga with three white stripes across its face. Her hands tingled as she remembered the Rudraksha she had seen that morning. Om namah Shivay, the sages had chanted in Rishi Dadeechi's ashram. In those three words, there was an ocean of peace that had nearly knocked her off her feet. She remembered walking among the sages, remembered the overwhelming urge to sit down beside them and listen to their mesmerizing chants forever. She remembered staring into the face of the Shiva Ling and not even hearing Dadeechi approaching her. She had lost herself more than once this morning and she wanted to know… she wanted to know who this Shiva was who could make her feel this way when she hadn't even met him before. She wanted to know why those sages chose to lose themselves in those three words: Om namah Shivay. Om namah Shivay. Om namah Shivay.
She remembered the drums that had drawn her to Rishi Dadeechi's ashram-the two-faced Damarukh. They sounded now in her ears in a hypnotizing beat that set her heart racing. She remembered the cool wind that had entered her lungs but had wiped her mind of its worries. Om namah Shivay.
A cry ran through the air around them. Bells began resonating through the temple, accented by the joyful cries of the sages. Sathi opened her eyes, momentarily unaware of where she was. The men from Dadeechi's ashram were dancing to the beat, their faces split into a wide smile. A curious wind of no origin and no end had picked up inside the temple, ruffling their robes. The air was heavy for they threw ash into the air in little white gusts. She blinked, wondering what could be happening.
Then she saw it-a form far in the distance cloaked by an unnatural light. A silhouette emerged slowly: the silhouette of the of a man. Yet it was so unclear. She yearned to get closer, to see him properly. The sages surrounded her, bumped into her, and she moved past them with her eyes focused on that silhouette and nothing else. The drums and bells were no longer the reason for her racing heart. She felt like she was on the edge of something, somewhere between consciousness and imagination. Somewhere between everything she had known all her life, and everything there was to know in the world. Somewhere between herself and the brilliant light that masked the man she was unconsciously stepping towards.
Then the light began to recede. The silhouette took shape and form and she found herself staring at perfection. She found herself staring at the peace she had felt so briefly this morning. His eyes were still closed in a meditation that had not yet broken; he had just come running. She called him and he had come running.