An Unfortunate Breakdown
It was past midnight when I set off on National Highway 52 from Delhi. It is often said that drivers should never travel on the highways at unearthly hours, for in case of any accident, it takes hours before another vehicle passes by.
I paid no attention to such advice. People often say I’m reckless, but I expected no problems on this particular 4-hour drive.
Driving on the National Highway is a thrill. On empty roads, with trees lined up on the sides for miles ahead of you, there is nothing better than driving there. I had covered the highway many times before, thus I had no worries on this particular trip.
I put on the stereo, which then contained a tape of Bob Dylan. I always feel that it’s best to listen to Dylan when travelling, and this time was no exception.
You can imagine the shock I received when barely an hour and a half from Delhi, my engine quit on me. I take very good care of my car, and for me there is no greater sin than to keep an ill-maintained vehicle. I failed to understand what caused the unfortunate incident.
Luckily, my car had broken down right in front of a tea stall. These ‘cha’ shops are open 24 hours a day, so I ordered a cup of tea over which I would ponder my new course of action. Sleeping in the car was not an option, as I had to reach Dehradun by dawn.
As I sat ruminating over this unfortunate turn of events, a man in the garb of an ascetic came and took the seat next to mine.
“What is troubling you, my friend?” he asked, with an expression of concern.
“I have many kilometres awaiting me on the path to Dehradun, but my car has sadly broken down,” I answered dejectedly.
“I see it is a grave situation you are in. However, I am travelling to Dehradun myself, although on foot. If you wish, I may accompany you.”
At first I thought the man was joking. He couldn’t possibly walk to Dehradun from there! I noticed the somber expression on his face, and it was clear that the ascetic meant what he said. I acquiesced, hoping that the trucks on their morning run would pick me up before long.
And so, we began walking. The ascetic began telling me about himself. His father-in-law resided in the mountainside, and he was going there to inform him of his daughter’s demise. He had walked from Benaras for this purpose, and he was on the final phase of his journey.
“Tell me son,” he said, “do you believe in God?”
I responded in the negative, being a confirmed atheist. I told him that there is so much destruction, so much evil and death in the world that God could not exist. If he did, he was dead. God would not exist if his creation suffered thus.
“Lad, you are not wrong in your belief that if God was a benevolent power, he would not lead his creations astray. Think of him as a parent, who can tell his child not to do wrong things, but will punish the child if he does wrong, which the child inevitably does do. Death, my friend, is but another aspect of life.” (The ascetic used ‘my son’ and ‘my friend’ interchangeably)
“Our soul remains immortal, my son,” the ascetic continued. “As Krishna told Arjuna in the battle of the Mahabharata, the soul changes bodies like a man changes clothes. What we do in this life affects our afterlife. We are the masters of our destiny.”
I was enthralled by his words. He went on to say that although his wife had died recently, he held no grudge against God for taking away one he loved so much. Rather, he wept, for his wife would be united with the Almighty long before he would.
“Perception is always an important thing, my friend. There are many people who fail to understand Mahadeva, Shiva. I worship the destroyer. He is benevolent, yet terrible. He is great, yet he destroys. The soul grows weary of its mortal frame, and Shiva the merciful takes it away to peace.”
Never before had I been so astounded by words of any man. At that moment, the trees, the roads and the dark blue sky all took on the image of God. Time stopped for me, and I floated as if on a blue dream, flying free of all mortal desires.
The time passed as if by magic. I reached the outskirts of Dehradun, and it seemed incredible that we had covered so many kilometres in such a small space of time. I turned to thank the ascetic, who simply said,
“I leave you here. Go in peace.”
As the ascetic walked down the isolated road to the mountains, my mind swirled with his words, and it felt refreshed.
I was returning during the light of brand new day to the place where my care had stalled when I received the shock of my life. I discovered the tea stall was not there! I stood speechless next to my car, staring into the jungle where I was sure a tea shop had been the previous night!
As I drove down the highway trying to figure out what had happened, an image of the ascetic deep in meditation popped into my head. The peaceful, ageless face; the matted hair – who did that ascetic remind me of? The image I had seen before, but the name did not come to me.
In the distance, I saw a temple of Shiva, and as I passed by, it struck me. Oh Mahadeva! Why didn’t you tell me then?