“Oh! I Forgot!”


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Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

How many times have you and I kept something “safely”, forgotten all about where we kept it and searched high and low for the same, some time later? How many times have we left behind at home some important thing or the other, which we ought to have taken to office and have had to rush back to collect the same? And few indeed would be the people who have not forgotten their reading glasses and kept searching for the same every now and then. More than we prosaic people, scientists and philosophers are reported to be extremely forgetful persons, their genius perhaps making them so focussed on their research, leaving little space in their “hard discs” for anything else. We thus hear of “Absent-minded Professors” and of scientists like Archimedes who rushed out from his bathroom, excited over a discovery, but clad only in his birthday suit. And there are persons who develop selective and convenient amnesia, in respect of things or sums they have borrowed from gullible others. Yet others, suffering from the same malady, remember only the favours they have done others, but not those received.

It is interesting to note that even Sri Rama was credited with forgetfulness–of course of the right sort. Sri Valmiki says that He never remembered any number of insults or injuries caused by others, while recollecting vividly and for a long time, the favours done to Him by others—

“na smarati apakArANAm satamapi Atmavattaya”

Forgetfulness increases with age, with one’s memory playing tricks on one. As we grow older, we are unable to recollect names, to match names to faces and to remember events and places. It is as if the grey cells are slowly losing their bytes.

Of course, you can’t call forgetfulness an unmitigated curse. It also serves to many as a healing agent, making them gradually unremember (to coin a word) tragedies and catastrophes, which have all but destroyed them. The passing away of a near one, the loss of a fortune in business or speculation, the words of venom hurled at one by a close friend or relative in anger, an ignominy suffered in full sight of one’s peers—all these cease to trouble us after a few months or years, only because of forgetfulness, which is indeed God’s kindest gift to mankind.

Here are a few instances from our Scriptural lore, where forgetfulness has often played a crucial role.

If you want to read of a classic case of considerable hurt being caused by lack of memory, you need not look beyond the story of Shakuntala. Emperor Dushyanta, while on a hunting expedition, chances across Shakuntala, the foster-daughter of KaNva Maharshi, losing his heart to her at once. The Sovereign’s feelings are heartily reciprocated by the damsel and the couple decide to enter into wedlock immediately and consummate their marriage too. Dushyanta presents Shakuntala with his signet ring and returns to his capital, intending very much to return and make the lady his queen formally. However, as fate would have it, he forgets all about the momentous happening, including the unforgettable beauty of Shakuntala and of having made her his wife, with only the five elements as witness. In the meanwhile, Shakuntala waits and waits for the King’s return and finally, in desperation, repairs to the royal court, only to be rebuffed by the forgetful King and sent out unceremoniously, all her claims of matrimony rejected summarily. The Royal Ring, with which she could have proved the truth of her version, is lost in the meanwhile, leaving Shakuntala with little proof of what took place. The Ring is swallowed by a fish and finds its way to a fisherman who slits open the fish’s stomach and is surprised by his find. Recognising the Ring for what it is, the fisherman takes it to the King, in the hope of being rewarded. It is the sight of the ring that jogs the King’s recalcitrant memory, filling him with remorse and making him rush immediately to bring Shakuntala back to his palace with profuse apologies and all due honour. Though the royal couple did live happily ever after, we may say with certainty that the trauma and torment caused by the Emperor’s forgetfulness would never have been forgotten by the poor Shakuntala, who would definitely have taken care thenceforth to have at least a hundred witnesses present, whenever she said something important to the Emperor.

Srimad Ramayanam too portrays how forgetfulness can seize even the greatest of souls. We are told of a curse that Dasaratha incurred during his youth, having directed an arrow unknowingly at the source of a particular sound, while on a hunting expedition. The Chakravartthi finds out to his dismay that what he mistook to be a wild animal was in fact a Rishi kumAra, the only son of a blind, elderly couple who depended on the former for each and every one of their needs. Deprived of their sole source of support and sorrowed beyond measure by the untimely demise of their promising progeny, the elderly Rishi curses Dasaratha that the latter would die similarly of “Putra shOkham” or the pangs of parting from a dear son.

Though dismayed at the turn of events, the Emperor forgets the curse in course of time, as he engages in statecraft, piloting the fortunes of his vast empire. And for sixty thousand years, we are told, the Emperor did not beget any sons to carry on the famed IkshvAku dynasty and performed Putra KAmEshti, praying for progeny.

It is thus Dasaratha’s forgetfulness that makes him yearn for offspring, for, had he remembered that he would die of pangs of separation from his son, he would perhaps not have prayed for one at all. We may therefore say that the entire epic would not have been born at all, but for the Chakraavartthi’s lack of memory—there would have been no Rama, no Sharanagata Rakshanam and the world would have been denied of an eternal guidebook of good conduct. This is no mere canard, as can be seen from the following couplet of Sri Valmiki, which tells us that Dasaratha forgot all about the curse for sixty-thousand-and-odd long years and recollected the same only when he was almost on his deathbed, tearfully recounting the details thereof to Kousalya—

“tasya chintayamAnasya pratyapAt karma dushkritam
yat anEna kritam poorvam agyyanAt shabda vEdinA”

Another key character in the Epic too suffers from amnesia, we are told by Sri Valmiki. You would be surprised to learn the identity of this glorious character, who is renowned for his sharp intellect (“buddhimatAm varishttam – புத்திமதாம் வரிஷ்ட்டம்”) and unmatched valour. It is none other than Sri Hanuman, who is credited with forgetfulness. As a child, Sri Maruti was so extremely super active and mischievous, that Rishis had trouble carrying on their activities, when he was around. Unconscious of his superhuman strength, Hanuman used to visit the hermitages and wreak havoc with his innumerable pranks. We must understand here that it was no enmity or hatred that caused Tiruvadi to do all this, but mere boyish exuberance. However, whatever be the reason, the “monkey business” was indeed a nuisance to the Rishis, who threw a curse on Hanuman, in self-defence. The effect of the curse was that the Vanara Veera totally forgot his own prodigious strength and recollected it only when someone reminded him about it.

It is thus that we see that when one brave monkey after another recounts his prowess in terms of the distance he could jump and clear, Sri Hanuman sits silent, listening to everybody but not contributing to the conversation at all, when it ought to have been he who should have been at the forefront, telling all that he could easily cross the ocean and reach Lanka, with his indefatigable energy quite undiminished. It is only after Jambavan reminds Hanuman of the dimensions and depth of his strength, that Maruti recollects and gears himself up to the task.

Would you be surprised to learn that all of us, even those with the sharpest of memories, do suffer from the most debilitating form of forgetfulness? It is this forgetfulness that makes us go round and round in unending circles in the maze of SamsAra, knowing not the way out. It is this lapse of memory that is responsible for all our suffering, for our descent from the exalted pedestal that is rightfully ours, to the unspeakable mundane morass. It is the inability to remember our own original splendour, the magnificence and glory of the Lord, the inalienable relationship that we enjoy with Him, our roles as eternal servitors to the Supreme Being, etc.—it is our lack of recollection of these vital statistics that makes us wallow in the quagmire of SamsAra. If only we manage to remember all these, we would never have occasion to be born in this miserable world and would be as happy as the permanent residents of Sri Vaikuntam, who never forget their relationship with the Lord and are hence never called upon to undergo the rigorous imprisonment in the physical bodies prone to destruction.

If this is the experience of mundane mortals like us, what could exalted beings like Azhwars feel on the subject? Does this lack of memory apply to them as well?

Sri Nammazhwar tells us that the Lord tries His best to banish the bane of forgetfulness from us. Knowing full well that we mortals would forget Him in a jiffy and at the slightest provocation, He appears before us, looking extremely beautiful with His long, red-lined and lotus-like eyes, imprinting them on our soul in such a way that we are unable to forget Him, even if we fervently wish to. And once we become the subject matter of those famed broad and black eyes, there is no forgetting them—He just wouldn’t let us forget Him, try as we might, says Sri Nammazhwar in the following pAsuram, which portrays eloquently the boundless love and affection Emperuman has for us, which prompt Him to cure us of our deplorable lack of memory for all the proper things—

“Marappum gnAnamum nAn ondru uNarndilan
marakkum endru sentAmarai kaNNodu
marapppara en uLLE manninAn tannai
marappanO ini yAn en maNiyayE?

மறப்பும்ஞானமும் நானொன் றுணர்ந்திலன்,
மறக்குமென்று செந்தாமரைக்கண்ணொடு,
மறப்பற என்னுள்ளே மன்னினான் றன்னை,
மறப்பனோவினி யானென்மணியையே?”

Once we manage to recollect our real roles as the servants of the Lord, there is no going back to the old days of forgetfulness, for, He doesn’t let us forget, says Sri Tirumazhisai Azhwar too—

“andru nAn pirandilEn, pirandapin marandilEn

நின்றதெந்தை யூரகத்தி ருந்ததெந்தை பாடகத்து
அன்றுவெஃக ணைக்கிடந்த தென்னிலாத முன்னெலாம்
அன்றுநான்பி றந்திலேன்பி றந்தபின்ம றந்திலேன்
நின்றதும் மிருந்ததும்கி டந்ததும்மென் நெஞ்சுளே.”

Forgetfulness is thus both a virtue and a curse. When it is about the injuries or insults meted out by others to us, it is a virtue. When it comes to forgetting good turns done by others or the eternal relationship we have with Emperuman, it is a curse.

The trick, therefore, is to develop selective amnesia.

Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

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