King Vikramaditya :The Forgotten Quest
It was a dark and stormy night. Flashes of lightning lit up the evil faces of shrieking ghouls and laughing vampires .
Sheets of rain poured down. King Vikram strode fearlessly up to the ancient tree. He pulled the corpse down, put it on his shoulders and started for the cremation ground.
The Vetal then said, “You come to this ghastly cremation ground alone every time. Your action makes me wonder what exactly you seek. In my view, what you are doing is very foolish. There are times when a learned person does not know what to do. Listen to the story of Shashanka and you’ll understand”.
“Shashanka was the son of the royal priest of the kingdom of Karnasuvarna . He and Prince Swarnakirti, the heir to the throne, were friends from childhood. King Makaranda decided that his son must go to the University of Takshashila for mastering the martial arts. While Swarnakirti made his way to Takshashila, Shashanka who had decided to become an ascetic, entered the forests to meditate.
As the years went by, his spiritual strength grew by leaps and bounds, but he remained humble. However, Shashanka was not aware that his progress was being watched by the gandharvas who were starting to feel insecure and uncomfortable.
After a long and involved discussion, the gandharvas decided to play a simple trick on Shashanka. To put the plan into action, Guna, one of the gandharvas , assumed the form of a soothsayer and went to meet King Makaranda at Karnasuvarna. “Your son has the potential to become the greatest king on earth. You can help clear his way by performing a great animal sacrifice”, he said.
When the king expressed an interest, he continued, “On an auspicious day, you must sacrifice one of every species of animal and bird to be found in your kingdom. And the sacrifice must be done by someone who has conquered hunger and thirst, and has been subsisting only on tulsi -water for more than a year”.
Following the soothsayer’s advice, King Makaranda ordered one animal of every kind to be caught for the sacrifice. A team of ministers was sent to the forest to find a suitable ascetic. When the ministers discovered Shashanka, they requested him to perform the sacrifice. However, Shashanka refused since he believed killing animals, even for sacrifice, was wrong. When the news reached the king, he offered his kingdom and his daughter’s hand in marriage to the ascetic to win him over.
The king secretly planned to go back on his word once the sacrifice had been performed. When Shashanka looked at the blushing princess Bhargavi, he was enticed by her beauty. He renounced his spiritual quest and agreed to perform the sacrifice. The sacrificial pit was ready. Thousands of animals were lined up for the sacrifice. Shashanka stood at the mouth of the pit, sword in hand.
As Shashanka raised the sword, an elephant, which was first in line, instinctively raised his trunk and trumpeted in terror. It was a death call; all the animals cried out in unison. The ascetic was overcome. He dropped the sword and turned away, his shoulders sagging. Unable to perform the sacrifice, he apologized to the king and walked away to atone for his sins”.
The Vetal finished his narration and posed his riddle to King Vikram: “O King, Shashanka had been enchanted by the beautiful princess and had agreed to conduct the animal sacrifice, even though it was against his principles to kill animals. And yet when it was time for the sacrifice, he suddenly changed his mind and bowed out of the scene.
Did he suddenly lose his guts at the sight of so many animals waiting for the sacrifice? Or did he suspect that the king might cheat him of the princess and the kingdom? If you know the answer and still choose to remain silent, your head will split into a million pieces!”
King Vikram answered immediately, “Neither of your conclusions are true! You mentioned that on seeing the princess, Shashanka went into a trance. But when he was ready, sword in hand, and waiting for the sacrificial rites to commence, the death cry of the elephant and the panic of the other animals jerked him out of the trance. He realized the enormity of the sin that he was about to commit – all for the sake of a kingdom and a wife! That was why he begged the king’s pardon and went away — to atone for his evil desires”.
As soon as King Vikram answered the Vetal’s question, the corpse slipped away from his shoulders and glided back to the tree.