The Miracle Plays of Mathura - Bhaktimal, Pt. 2

BY: SUN STAFF

Brahmanas


Apr 17, CANADA (SUN) — Dramas depicting the pastimes of the Vaisnava saints - Bhaktimal Natak Mandali.

In today's segment, we offer a complete play manuscript performed in the late 1940's by the Bhaktimal Natak Mandali troupe in Mathura. The story centers on the life of Vaisnava saint and mystic poet Kabir, who gained popularity due to this humility and spiritual potency. The local brahmans became very angry with him and tried to ruin his reputation in various ways, but Kabir is said to have gotten the Lord's special mercy, thus outwitting the arrogant brahmans.

The storyline is simple and sweet, made all the more interesting by the stage directions included in italics, which give us the real flavour of the performance itself. Most charming are the references to stage props and personalities like the dog and the ox, comprised of numerous feet poking out from beneath flapping sheets and the most austere of stage props. In the absence of an opulent theater setting, the audience focuses entirely on the actors, who tell an inspiring story of Kabir's pure devotion to Lord Ram.


Kabir and the Brahmanas

Brahman: You must not say that anyone can be equal to a brahman. You are a disciple of Ram, and Ram used to worship brahmans. No one can be equal to a brahman!

Kabir: All who take refuge in the protection of God are of the same worth. God never gives any sort of superiority to anyone. A brahman is a brahman, no doubt, but if an untouchable, even, worships God, then he is better than a brahman.

Brahman: You actually seem to be saying that a sudra can come up to the level of a brahman. If you keep insisting on this, I shall have to call all the brahmans together to take this matter up with you.

Kabir: Yes, call all the brahmans. I am ready to have a discussion with them at any time!

Exit both.

In the next scene Kabir enters with a piece of new cloth over his arm. From his monologue we learn that the hungry weavers of his family have sent him to sell this product of their loom and bring home food. He is approached by a shivering half-dressed beggar who pleads for the cloth. Kabir tears it in two and gives half to him. A second beggar comes, and Kabir gives to him the other half of the cloth. In despair, Kabir then goes off into the forest (front left), sits down, and in bhajans calls for Ram's help. His singing becomes muted, and our attention is drawn to the rear of the stage, where the curtain has opened upon the main room of Kabir's house. His hungry mother sits there alone, bemoaning the long absence of her son. From a corner of the stage a bejeweled visitor peeps in upon this scene. By his high cylindrical crown we know him to be Ram. The Deity confides to the audience:

Ram: My devotee Kabir has been worshipping me in the forest these last three days. His family is in need. I must provide for them.


Kabir lecturing to sadhus while Vishnu does Kabir's weaving
Illustration from Mahipati's Bhaktavijay, late 19th c.


Stepping offstage for a moment, Ram returns immediately in the guise of a wealthy merchant (seth), carrying bags of money. Insisting that the mother accept these as charity, the seth goes away leaving the bags on her floor. The curtain closes on Kabir's home. Our attention is attracted again to the forestage, where Kabir, still sitting in the forest, is heard singing the kirtan 'Jay Sita Ram jay, jay Sita Ram!' A sadhu enters.

Sadhu: Why are you sitting here while money lies heaped up in your house? The poor are being fed there, and here you are, sitting in the forest!

Kabir: Who could have done this but the Lord Ram? This money has been given by the Lord and it must be used to bestow charity on poor people.

Exit Kabir.

INTERLUDE

The curtain opens on a shivering old seth seated on a divan. His white whiskers bob while he shakes and coughs. The old man is feeble and tired. His son and daughter-in-law, at the other end of the room, make remarks which indicate that they are tired of him. Enter Narad, the messenger between heaven and earth.

Narad: Old man, I bring you happy news from the heavenly regions! Sri Krishna is eager to have more people with him in Golokdham, and has sent me to deliver to you His special invitation to come direct to heaven. Sir, you are weary and very miserable: Why not come away to heaven?

Seth: I would be glad to come to heaven, but I am about to have a grandchild. I must live a little longer to see my grandson. No, thank you, I don't want to go to heaven just yet. Later. Not now!

Exit Narad. After a little more coughing, the old seth crumples up and dies. His daughter-in-law covers him with a cloth.

Daughter-in-Law: Husband, you must go quickly and make all the arrangements for the funeral rites.

Son: I'm hungry. I'd rather eat first. [A ghastly exhibition of filial disrespect.]

Daughter-in-Law: Hush! We must look respectably sad.

Both weep loudly. The curtain closes.
Narad enters at right front and circles about.

Narad: (to himself): The Lord has sent me again to see whether anyone is ready of his own free will to accept a call to heaven. But I find everyone greedy for this life.

He arrives at the seth's house, i.e., before the curtain.

Ho there! Sethji! Are you at home?

There is a barking noise at the base of the curtain, and out leaps a dog (a small actor covered with a brown cloth). The dog is, of course, the miser reborn. Narad stoops and touches the animal, thus enabling it to converse.

O Sethji, can it be you? I asked you to come to heaven with me, but you refused. Now see the plight you are in! Throw aside this wretched form! Come with me now!

The Dog: You may want to take me to haven, but I won't go. I'm keeping guard here over the money I have earned. I won't leave this place until my boys grow up and learn how to take care of my wealth themselves.

Narad (leaving): Why are you so devoted to your gold? Goodbye, poor dog!

To himself:

I promised the Supreme Spirit that I would bring all miserable people to heaven. But, whomsoever I approach, he refuses to go. Everyone is so much attached to the things of this world!

Exit Narad.

MAIN STORY

Enter three brahmans, in discussion.

First Brahman: Where has Kabir obtained all this money with which he is feeding the poor and making such a big name for himself throughout Banares?

Second Brahman: We must make a thorough probe into the source of these funds of his.

Third Brahman: It is a trick of his guru Ramanand. By distributing charity through his disciple, Ramanand hopes to make himself popular and spread his sect.

Second Brahman: We shall demand that he give money not only to poor people, but to us brahmans as well.

First Brahman: We really shouldn't accept gifts from such vulgar people as he is. He is a low-caste man.

They fall into controversy but in the end agree to be broad-minded on this point.

Second Brahman: So we shall all go to Kabir's house now and demand cash from him.

They circle the stage and approach the curtain. It is drawn back, revealing Kabir at home. Kabir comes forward to them, offering salutations.

First Beahman (yelling in a harsh voice): Don't touch me! Keep away, you low-born rogue!

Third Brahman: You have been giving away money in charity, right and left. You will explain this, hear!

Second Brahman: Don't address him in such an angry tone. Explain things to him calmly.

First Brahman: One can't be lenient with such fellows. One must speak to them harshly. See here, you! You have insulted brahmans by not giving alms to them. You have given money to sadhus and poor persons, but not to brahmans.

Third Brahman: Money given in alms is to be distributed among all the devotees of the Lord. Do you mean to say, by this behavior of yours, that brahmans are not among the Lord's devotees?

First Brahman: Where did you get this money? You must be committing robberies.

Kabir: The Lord gave me the money. I have not stolen it.

First Brahman: If you hadn't, you would be sharing your money with brahmans as well. If you don't start giving to brahmans, too, we shall run you out of Banaras!

Kabir: Please wait here a little. I shall arrange to give you money.

Exit Kabir.

Second Brahman: Now he has made his getaway. Don't expect him ever to come back with anything for us.

The God Ram looks in on the scene from a corner of the stage.

Ram: Just see how my devotee Kabir is being tormented! To save his honor I must provide some money for him.

Exit Ram.

The musicians lead the crowd in the kirtan, 'Sita Ram, Sita Ram, Radhe Syam, Radhe Syam!'

Re-enter Ram in servant's disguise, effected merely by wrapping a cloth cover about his crown. He carries bags of money.

Ram (to the brahmans): I have been sent by Kabir to present these offerings to your reverences.

He presents to each of the three brahmans a bag of coins.

First Brahman: Money from a man of such vile caste is hardly fit to be accepted.

But he takes it.

Second Brahman (turning away): We must still find out the source of all this wealth. Kabir must be exposed and driven out of town before his cult spreads any further.

Exit the brahmans.

The swelling hubbub of a joyful crowd receiving alms is now heard at rear. There are shouts of 'Jay Kabir!' Enter Ram, still in disguise.

Ram: Now I must go and bring Kabir back to his house. He thinks the brahmans are still sitting here waiting for their money.

Ram crosses the stage and walks past Kabir, who is once again sitting downstage 'in the forest'.

Ram (to Kabir): Why are you sitting here while brahmans are being given alms at your house?

Exit Ram.

Kabir: It must be Ram who has done all these things to save my honor. Since the Lord is so watchful over me, I must renounce my worldly vocation and devote myself entirely to him.

Kabir moves backstage toward his house. As he approaches it, shouts of 'Jay Kabir! Jay Kabir! Kabirji ki jay jay!" are heard from that direction.

Kabir: I must leave the world rather than be spoiled by being worshiped in this way. I shall do such an act that people will look on me with hateful eye and turn away from me.

Finding a prostitute sitting at the side of the street, Kabir raises her up and walks up and down, arm-in-arm with her. The three brahmans enter and see the pair.

First Brahman: This is a disgraceful thing for him to be doing! We shall tell his disciples how they are praising him for nothing!

Exit brahmans.

Kabir: Good! Now I shall be rid of all this adulation.

Exit Kabir.

INTERLUDE

Enter Narad. Beating the time with a small kartal in each hand, he sings a kirtan beginning 'Na-ra-yan, Na-ra-yan, sriman Na-ra-yan!' Circling the front of the stage, he approaches the one-time home of the seth.

Narad: I have come again to try to take the seth to heaven. He is not living here in the form of a dog any longer. He has died and has been reborn as an ox.

As he drawn hear, an 'ox' ambles out around the end of the curtain. (Again, the animal is a stooping actor covered with a cloth.)

O foolish mortal! Now you have departed the body of a dog only to become a bullock at the door of your grandchildren. You are getting harsh treatment from them. I entreat you now to come along with me to heaven and leave this miserable world.

The Ox: I would be willing to come to heaven, but every day my song brings merchandise from Mathura for his shop, and I pull the cart for him. If I were to go to heaven, he would have to pay high cartage charges for that.

Narad (departing): I admit defeat! I have not been able to get one wretched soul to come to heaven. Everyone is greedy for this life and for the things of this world.

Exit Narad.

MAIN STORY

The court of the Maharaja of Banaras. Enter the brahmans.

First Brahman: O King, we have serious news for you. Kabir has been found out in a shameful deed. The scandal is all over the city. Your guru, who calls himself a saint, has been loitering about the streets with a prostitute!

Maharaja: This is a surprising report. My spiritual guide can hardly have done such an act.

Second Brahman: We're not lying. You may ask any person in the entire city.

Maharaja: When I accepted him as my guru, I never expected such behavior from him. Call Kabir!

A messenger goes, and returns with Kabir. When Kabir enters, the Maharaja remains seated - a manifestation of gross disrespect toward a guru.

Kabir (aside): I know he has heard the report about me, because he shows me no reverence.

From his personal waterpot Kabir begins to sprinkle water about over the floor.

Maharaja: What are you doing?

Kabir: A priest in Jagannath Puri has burned his foot, and I am cooling the burn.

A Brahman: This is all humbug. Nobody here in Banares can know what is happening in Puri.

Maharaja: I shall send a messenger and find out whether what he says is true or not. O sepoy! Go to Jagannath Puri and ask at the temple there whether on this day, at this hour, any priest's foot has been burned.

Exit the sepoy. Until his return, Kabir leads the audience in the kirtans 'Jay Sita Rama jay jay Sitat Ram', and 'Jay Ram, Jay Ram, jay jay Ram!' Re-enter the sepoy.

Sepoy: I have made inquiries at Puri, and the word of Kabir is true. A priest burned his foot badly on that day. Since then it has healed.

Maharaja: Now I shall never get salvation because I have insulted my guru! God can forgive an affront to himself but not an affront to his devotees. There is no greater sing than the sin of insulting one's teacher. How can I ever get salvation now? What remedy is there?

A Brahman: With hands and feet bound, you must throw yourself into the Ganges to drown. If your guru chooses to forgive you, he will save you.

Curtain.

In the next scene we see the Maharaja standing on the riverbank with tied hands, preparing to drown himself. Kabir appears. He protests against the cruel suggestion of the brahmans and forgives and soothes his disciple. The two go offstage together, singing a kirtan.

INTERLUDE

Enter Narad.

Narad: I've made several trips to this earth and have entreated a number of people to go with me to heaven, but I've had no success. Let me try again.

Narad walks toward the house of the one-time seth, trolling a spirited kirtan:

'Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare!
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare!'

Narad (arriving): That ox is not here any longer! Where are you sethji?

The only reply is a low squeak, coming from the base of the curtain. Hearing it, Narad stoops, and catches sight of something too small to be seen by the audience.

Narad: Alas, have you finally come to this? First a prosperous shopkeeper, then a dog, then an ox - and now a maggot in the open sewer outside your grandchildren's house. And do you still want to cling to this world? You are dragging out such a pitiable existence here!

The Maggot: Oh no! I'm quite happy here in the gutter. The children come out and play and eat their food here, and the little scraps that they drop, I eat. I like it here!

Narad: Oh worldly creature! So long as your heart longs for life in this world or runs after wealth, you cannot get salvation.

The Maggot: Am I the only soul you have to worry about? Must you get me, and me only, into heaven?

Narad: I have had no time to look after the others, I have had such trouble with you! And now, since you are so ignorant of what is for your own welfare, I am going to pick you up and take you to heaven whether you like it or not!

Raising a tiny thing from the floor, he wraps it in the loose end of his dhoti. Exit Narad. The curtain at rear now opens on the heaven of Krishna. Enter Narad, dragging behind him the reluctant seth, now once again in human form.

Seth (entering heaven): I testify that I have not come here of my own free will. I have been hauled here by force!

Two attendants have been holding up a sheet across the opposite corner of the backstage. They now remove it. Lord Krishna is disclosed, in glittering costume, sitting in state upon His heavenly throne. Under the Divinity's gaze the seth is at last subdued. He staggers and falls to his knees.

Seth: O Master, you are the Lord of irresistible Might! I tried to defeat Your mysterious power, but I have been defeated. O Lord of Mercy, you have made my welfare your own concern. Forgive my foolish mistakes!

Narad (shaking a playful finger at the seth): Now don't let the notion enter your head that you will go back to earth again!

Curtain.

MAIN STORY

Two brahmans enter the forestage. Their talk discloses that they are going to Delhi to carry to the emperor a complaint against Kabir. Winding about the stage, they arrive in front of the imperial palace, (i.e., the curtain). A sepoy emerges, wearing a fez.

First Brahman: Kindly inform the emperor that two brahmans have come from Banares to see him.

The sepoy opens the curtain. A bearded ruler is seen, seated on a throne, flanked by several attendants.

The Brahmans: O emperor, salam!

They bow low. [For brahmans to bow before a ruler is disgracefully obsequious behaviour.]

Emperor: What has brought you to my gate?

First Brahman: We have a complaint to bring before you. In our city a Hindu teacher named Ramanand has converted a Muslim weaver named Kabir. He has started betaking himself to the temple instead of to the mosque. If you do not put a stop to this sort of thing all your Muslims will become Hindus.

Emperor: We shall call a halt to this!

(To sepoy) Bring Kabir here under arrest!

Sepoy leaves and comes back with Kabir. Kabir enters without bowing to the emporer.

Attendant: Why are you so ill-mannered? Bow to the Emperor!

Kabir: I do obeisance only to Sita Ram.

Emperor: Why have you left your own religion and become a Hindu?

Kabir: I donít find any difference in them. Some say Ram, some say Rahim.

Emperor: He does not abandon his Sita Ram so easily. Sepoy, tie him hand and foot and throw him in the Jamuna!

Sepoy leads Kabir away, and shortly returns.

Sepoy: We have just bound him tightly according to your order, and have thrown him into the deepest part of the Jamuna River.

Before the sepoy finishes speaking, Kabir himself strolls upon the stage.

Sepoy: How is it possible that he has come back alive?

Emperor: Sepoy, you have taken a bribe and set him free!

Sepoy: No, he must have some magic power!

Emperor: I am determined to make him give up the name of Sita Ram. Throw him into the fire!

Sepoy takes Kabir out again and re-enters.

Sepoy: I have fastened him down under a great heap of faggots and set fire to them.

Emperor: If he comes out of that alive, your skin will not be safe!

Kabir walks in. Great applause from the audience.

Sepoy, he has paid you well for this! Now tell me truthfully what you did!

Sepoy: I swear that I left him chained in the middle of a vast pile of flaming logs!

Emperor: I am ashamed that a man who is a Muslim should abandon his faith and take up another religion. I cannot rest. Kill him right here in my presence!

A Brahman: That is a fine plan. If you kill him before your own eyes, that will be the end of his repeating of the Name. Put him under the feet of an elephant!

An elephant is brought in (a makeshift quadruped draped with a grayish sheet, its trunk a dangling strip of cloth). The elephant's trainer urges it upon Kabir. The beast makes a few steps in Kabir's direction, then shrieks, rears and backs away. The emperor rises.

Emperor (to the brahmans): You wretches! What do you mean by misleading me and causing this true devotee to suffer at my hands? Kabir's fame was rising and yours was falling, and you were jealous of him!

(To Kabir) Kabir, it is the True Name that you speak. I repent that I have given so much trouble to God's devotee. Forgive me.

The emperor falls to his knees before Kabir. The sepoy removes his fez and bows low.

Kabir: Never mind, be at peace. Remember the merciful name of Ram and pray to Him constantly. Depend upon the Lord. He will watch over you.

Emperor: Kabir, from this day, because the Hand of Mercy is upon me, Sri Sita Ram will I worship!

In a final attempt to discredit Kabir, his brahman enemies try to bring down upon him the wrath of the sadhus of Banares. In his name they invite hundreds of them to a feast at his house, without his knowledge. But Ram's providence, in the form of plentiful provisions, foils the scheme. The sadhus are fed, and at long last the brahmans are converted and forgiven.

In the closing scene of the play, we see Kabir's followers, Hindu and Muslim, standing over his deathbed, disputing whether his body should be buried or burned. When someone finally pulls back the shroud, they find that the body is gone! Where it had lain there is only a heap of flowers. The two factions divide the blossoms and carry their portions away singing the kirtan:

Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, patita pavana Sita Ram!
Isvara Allah tera nam, sab ko sanmati de Bhagavan!



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