A Tale of Two Thieves

Strange indeed are the ways of the Lord. It is impossible to predict His actions. Since He is the Lord and Master of everyone and everything, He is an absolutely independent entity, not having to account to anybody for His actions. This, however, doesn’t mean that He acts arbitrarily. Since it is He who lays down the do’s and don’ts for everyone to follow (Shruti: Smriti: mamaiva aagyaa), it is unthinkable that He Himself would wantonly violate His own dicta. However, the point is that what is right and wrong from our standpoint, may not apply to Him. Hence He may appear at times to favour someone seemingly not at all worthy of His attentions out of turn and deny His grace to an apparently unblemished devotee. However, all that is eminently within the Laws of Divine Grace and prompted by considerations which we ignorant mortals have no way of ascertaining. One thing, however, is sure: in all His actions, Emperuman is absolutely fair to everyone by His own standards: He doesn’t play favourites nor does He harbour any bias against anyone (na me dveshyosti na priya:).

There lived an eminent scholar in Dwaraka. He belonged to a distinguished lineage of scholars and was impeccable in his character and conduct. By dint of hard work in his youth, he had mastered the Shastras, Itihasas and Puranas and could repeat whole chunks of them from his prodigious memory, without having to refer to books. The whole city of Dwaraka looked up to him as a paragon of virtue and as an ideal to be emulated. Not only had he acquired scholarship, he was adept at imparting it to others too. Numerous were his disciples who worshipped the ground on which he walked. People flocked to hear his discourses on Srimad Bhagavatam. When he described the leelas of Sri Krishna, many were the people who shed tears at his graphic portrayals, bringing the Lord verily before their eyes with his words of wisdom. And his discourses were works of art, polished to high precision through a careful choice of moving words, gestures and songs, all carefully choreographed in sequence. In short, he had perfected the fine-art of moving people to spiritual delight, while remaining entirely unmoved himself. Endowed with eloquence by nature, he had assiduously developed it further through hard practice and could lecture to anyone on any religious topic, with very little preparation, all, of course, for a consideration.

Lay people often mistake scholarship, especially in the spiritual field, to devotion. A person could be capable of reciting slokas and mantras by the hour, adorn himself all over with religious marks, sport a flowing beard reaching down to his chest and spend the better part of his waking time daily in temples: all these, however, are no guarantee that the fledgling, green shoots of devotion have indeed taken root in his heart and that he is nurturing them with the moisture of unalloyed piety. It is to such people that Sri Tondaridippodi Azhwar refers thus in his Tirumaalai:

Ullatthe urayum Maalai ulluvaan unarvondru illaa

kallatthen naanum thondaai thondukke kolam poondu..

Here, Azhwar makes fun of those who sport all the appropriate outward signs of devotion, but have a heart of stone that is unmoved by the Lord and His leelas.

Our reputed scholar conformed in letter and spirit to Azhwar’s description. The delicate plant of Bhakti was yet to take root in his heart, which was still filled with avarice and acquisitive tendencies. All this is not to say that he didn’t at all love God, he did: however, the priority he assigned to such devotion was, let us say, not in tune with what he professed. Matters mundane continued to rule his heart, even as he exhorted his listeners not to be bowled over by worldly pleasures and not to remain steeped in the mire of ignorance and indulgence. While he hectored his audience to remove the cobwebs of sensual pleasures from their minds and to install there the glorious form of the Lord, his own mind remained lamentably fickle.

One day, the Vidvan was at his oratorical best, during one of his discourses on Srimad Bhagavatam. His appealing words drew a responsive chord, as always, from the audience and many were the listeners who openly and unashamedly shed tears at Sri Krishna’s exploits, His exchanging his jewels for a mere  handful of naaval pazham, His endearing encounter with Sudhama, etc. He described vividly the splendour and opulence of the Lord as He reigned in Dwaraka—the innumerable golden garlands that He sported around His neck, the priceless crown studded with precious diamonds and glowing sapphires that adorned His beautiful head and the innumerable other ornaments that decorated various parts of His tirumeni and lighted up His dark complexion, making Him appear to be a mobile jewellery shop. If, even in arcchaavataram, the Lord likes to dress up in all his finery and ornaments even for His routine outings on Amavasya, Ekadasi, Sankaramanam, Tiruvonam, etc., just imagine how He would have been, during Krishnavataram! The Vidvan portrayed Sri Krishna in all His magnificence, with innumerable and priceless jewels and walking about in Dwaraka, capturing the hearts of all its citizens.

Now, among the spell-bound audience listening to this enthralling portrayal of Sri Krishna and His exploits, was a thief. Like many others who come to such discourses for purposes of their own and not solely prompted by Bhakti, the thief too was there on the call of duty (so to say). He had fallen on hard times, with gullible victims being hard to find and when at all found, not being so ready to part with their hard-earned valuables. Unable to find a well-attired victim despite hard search, he was tormented by hunger and desperate for a catch.

As you know, thieves love crowds. Crowds afford an excellent opportunity for them to ply their trade and vanish after successfully relieving some off-guard person of her necklace, chain or similar ornament. It was thus that our thief too happened to be among the audience, (apparently) listening raptly to the Vidvan’s discourse. However, the thief was doomed to disappointment, since none of the people in his vicinity was wearing anything worth stealing. In desperation, he decried the tendency of people to adorn themselves with imitation gold, not making it worth his while to rob them. Adept at discerning the purity of gold even from a casual look, he realized that people had grown wise and were leaving their real gold jewels at home, while still appearing to be well-heeled with the aid of imitation ones.

After casting his glance all around and finding few prospective victims, the thief, in sheer frustration, let his vision dwell on the Vidvan and started listening involuntarily to him. This happened at the moment when the Vidvan was waxing eloquent on the bewitching appearance of Sri Krishna, His natural radiance apparently enhanced by the brilliance of gold and precious stone-studded ornaments adorning His person. The Scholar portrayed Sri Krishna’s opulence and the magnificence of His attire in well-chosen words, bringing before the audience’s eyes a picture of boundless affluence and prosperity.

Whether or not any other member of the audience was impressed by this description, the thief certainly was. And you know only too well how professional speakers succeed in making the audience feel as if they are living in the present along with the Lord, that He is walking in their midst and listening to every word of theirs, participating in all their joy and sorrow. This Vidvan too made it sound as if he was talking not about the distant past in which Sri Krishna and His Consorts were present on earth, but as though the Lord was indeed their contemporary.

The Vidvan thus unwittingly succeeded in planting the impression in the thief’s mind that if at all there could be an ideal target, it was Sri Krishna. Like many people who listen selectively and absorb and hear only what they want to, the thief too filtered out all references to Sri Krishna’s divinity and stuck to the impression of His being a magnificent monarch, who preferred to move about in the midst of his people informally and in utter simplicity, without the unwanted (from the thief’s viewpoint) attendance of protective soldiers. The thief thus concluded that he could live his entire life in considerable comfort, if only he could lay his hands on Sri Krishna’s famed jewellery. Dreams of residing in palatial houses in royal comfort, with servants waiting on him hand and foot, all resulting from the proceeds of his prospective robbery, began playing in his mind in technicolour.

The thief was faced with a dilemma: while the Vidvan had furnished him with a detailed inventory of the precious ornaments that could be obtained by robbing Sri Krishna, he had been vague about where this opulent victim was to be found. Not to be put off by such a simple thing, the thief resolved to find out.

When the Vidvan finished his discourse and was on his way home with his substantial honorarium, the thief confronted him in a dark alley and demanded the thick gold chain that adorned the Vidvan’s neck. Loathe to giving up what he had earned through hours of discourses, the scholar told the thief of his erudition,  influence and  stature and suggested that he find an alternate victim. The thief agreed after an appropriate show of reluctance and on one condition: that the Vidvan tell him where and how to find Sri Krishna, the wearer of innumerable jewels.

The Vidvan now realized what had happened. While feeling flattered that he had made Sri Krishna come alive in the thief’s heart, the scholar was faced with a dilemma as to how he could come out of the situation unscathed. Since the thief obviously believed Sri Krishna to be a contemporary personality ripe for robbery, the scholar did not want to clarify that the Lord had lived at Dwaraka in the early years of Kaliyugam, of which more than 5000 years have since passed. He told the thief, “Yes! Krishna is indeed the person you need to meet for fulfilling all your desires (which was indeed true!). He is usually to be found in the dense forest to the east of the city. I will also tell you how to identify Him: He always wears a plethora of garlands around His neck, is to be seen with His cows (of which he has thousands), sports a flute stylishly in His hands and His arrival is always heralded by a sweet aroma drifting in the breeze. And now, if you will excuse me, I shall be grateful if you will permit me to go. And have absolutely no doubt, Krishna is the person you need to meet.”

So saying, the Vidvan took hurried leave of the thief and went home with every intention of packing his belongings and migrating to a distant city. He feared a backlash from the thief, who, he was sure, would wait in vain in the forest for hours or even days together and return empty handed to Dwaraka, full of disappointment and consequent anger, which he would naturally vent on the Vidvan.

The thief took the Vidvan’s words at face value, believing in the current existence of Sri Krishna absolutely and convinced that all he had to do was to find the fellow, relieve him of his jewels and then live happily ever after. The next day, he went to the forest to the east of the city and lay in wait for the prospective victim, whom the Vidvan had described as a handsome prince. All his thoughts were focussed on the glorious Krishna, with a lot of garlands around His neck, herding a group of cows and merrily playing the flute all the while, just as the Vidvan had described to him. Though he hid in the wayside bushes for hours together, there was no sign of the quarry. Strangely, however, the thief didn’t mind the waiting: he found an inexplicable delight in just thinking about the strikingly gorgeous lad whom he was waiting to rob and as time passed and as the magical figure filled his mind entirely, he grew inexplicably fond of Him. You may ask how a common thief could get attached to the Lord who was a total stranger to him and for whom he had not spared a thought so far in his life: I do not have a straight reply for you. At this juncture, I would urge you to read the first paragraph of this article again.

Just when the thief was about to give up the wait, go home and thrash the Vidvan for misleading him, the wind, which had hitherto been hot, turned pleasant and the air was full of a divine fragrance. A few cows came into his sight, frolicking and gamboling as if they were extremely happy.

And then the thief was treated to the sight of his life: that of a young boy, handsome beyond imagination, His entire person adorned with the most exotic ornaments ever seen by human eyes, His slender hands holding the flute, his lips dancing upon its holes to produce the sweetest of notes. The cows walked with Him with a spring in their steps, staring at Him all the while with their large, soulful eyes. The entire atmosphere, which had hitherto been desolate and bleak, had turned festive and fun-filled. The beautiful smile playing on the boy’s lips made His dark face light up like a million Suns shining simultaneously. His feet, which appeared to dance, rather than walk, were soft and red as just-bloomed lotuses. However, His eyes were the piece de resistance—they were long, broad, shining with a life of their own and adorned with reddish streaks.

The thief, who had been patiently lying in wait just for this second, found himself staring at the magnificent spectacle (of Sri Krishna) with his mouth agape, all his nefarious intentions forgotten for the nonce. He stood mesmerized by the boy’s glorious eyes, which appeared to speak to him directly. The sickle he was clutching for long, the weapon he intended to threaten the victim with, fell from his lifeless hands with a clatter.  He was awash with a hitherto unexperienced and indescribable joy.

The bonny boy drew near with His bovine retinue and stopped beside the thief with glowing eyes laced with mischievousness. He seemed to tell the thief, “Look, I have presented myself before you; now, do what you wanted to—take the jewels and flee.” Coming out of his trance and remembering his original mission, the thief told the boy, “Take off all your jewels and put them into this sack, if you value your life”. Apparently unmoved by the threat and by the upraised sickle, the boy wonder told the thief, “Remove them yourself and take them if you want!” The moment the thief’s fingers touched the boy for removing a glittering chain, the thief felt a pleasurable shock and shudder pass through his entire system.  Suddenly, he lost all desire to rob the apparently helpless boy and told Him, “Your parents will scold you if I take away your jewels. You may go now; but be careful, since you are passing through dense woods, which are full of robbers who won’t spare you. I have a small request: if you are coming to this part of the woods daily to graze your cows, I too shall come and just look at you for some time. You need not be afraid of me”

However, the boy told him to take the jewels, since He had plenty of them and His parents wouldn’t mind even if He were to lose a few. So saying, He took off quite a few chains and other ornaments and dropped them in the thief’s lap. Wonderstruck at his good fortune, but loathe to leaving the boy’s company, the thief took his leave reluctantly, went straight to the Vidvan’s house and showed him the jewels, narrating his adventures with the Boy Wonder in detail.

It was the Vidvan’s turn to be flabbergasted: he didn’t know whether at all to believe the thief. After all, he was a robber, from whom honesty could not be expected. Yet, thought the Vidvan, how could he explain the wonderful jewels he had brought, which shone with a glitter impossible to have been imparted by mortal hands? The jewels appeared indeed divine. And yet, how could the thief have been blessed with the sight of Sri Krishna, who had passed from this world thousands of years ago? Honestly, the Vidvan, though he had been spouting all manner of moving things about the Lord and impressing upon devotees the Lord’s propensity to honour true Bhaktas with His darshan, did not believe in his heart of hearts that it was indeed possible to see Him in this world through devotion.

Since the thief told the Vidvan that he would be meeting Sri Krishna at the woods the next day, the latter decided to accompany him and see for himself the truth of the matter. Accordingly, at the appointed time, both were in the woods. After only a short wait, the thief stood up with excitement and pointed to the distance, exclaiming with unalloyed pleasure, “There He is! And there are His cows, as happy as ever! And He seems to have an unending supply of ornaments! Only yesterday he gave me most of what He was wearing and here He is now, draped from head to foot with priceless jewels!” The thief was beside himself with joy at the sight of the Lord and longed to speak to Him, to touch Him and to simply stare at Him with star-struck eyes.

The Vidvan, however, couldn’t see a thing: neither boy nor cows came into his sight. He thought that the thief was bluffing: however, the look of absolute bliss in the thief’s eyes made it clear that he was obviously seeing somebody or something wonderful, which the Vidvan was not. And in a minute, it was apparent that Krishna had drawn near, for the thief jumped with joy and appeared to touch someone tenderly, his face awash with indescribable bliss. It was then that the Vidvan realized that the Lord had indeed blessed the thief with His darshan and had, inexplicably, denied him (the Vidvan) the same. He felt hurt: he had had the Lord’s names on his lips for years together, he had spoken with eloquence on the Lord’s glories for practically all his life and had brought tears of joy and devotion to the eyes of hundreds of devotees. And yet, for all his piety and service to the Lord, Sri Krishna had refused to become visible to his eyes. Adding insult to injury, Sri Krishna had been hobnobbing with a common thief, as if they were bosom friends! Could it be that having Himself been a notorious thief of dairy products, Sri Krishna had felt an empathy with the thief?

Though puzzled as to why the Vidvan couldn’t see Sri Krishna whom he himself was seeing plainly, the thief requested Sri Krishna to show His glorious form to the Vidvan too, but for whom he (the thief) would not have been blessed with the company of the wonderful boy. Sri Krishna, however, refused, telling the thief that the Vidvan had merely used the Lord’s holy names for a livelihood, without feeling in his heart even a small part of the emotions he evoked in others. The innumerable hours of discourses on Srimad Bhagavatam did indeed bring tears of devotion and joy to other devotees; but for the Vidvan, it was just a professional spiel, which he was spouting for a fat dakshina.

Surprisingly, the good-hearted thief persistently pleaded for the scholar, entreating Sri Krishna to show Himself to the Vidvan. He said,” You have shown yourself in all your glory to me, an unlettered thief, who has never uttered your names nor taken shelter in a temple even when it rained. Whatever his motives, this Vidvan has definitely been speaking about you to the masses and but for him, I would have never learnt about you nor had the stupendous good fortune of seeing you. So, for my sake at least, do show Yourself to the poor fellow!”

Having taught the Vidvan a much-needed lesson, Sri Krishna appeared before him in all His splendour, prompting tears of real joy in the scholar, who realized that chanting the Lord’s  names never goes in vain and that sooner or later, the Lord does indeed reward His devotees, even if the devotion is just lip-deep. And there ends The Tale of The Two Thieves.

The citizens of Dwaraka never speak of Sri Krishna in the past tense: for them, He is a living God and Emperor who looks after them as a benevolent Monarch, reigning resplendently in their hearts, to whom they confide all their inner-most feelings and who shares all their joys and sorrows. If only you care to listen, every particle of sand in Dwaraka will tell you sagas about the softness and suppleness of the Lord’s lotus feet, which traversed the entire city He lovingly built to house His courtiers, Consorts and citizens.

Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar

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