Editor: Part one of this article is by respected Vimla Patil. After reading her piece Suhas wrote this piece.
King Vrishadhvaj was from a very pious family. His ancestors had worshipped all the Gods and Goddesses and had performed the stipulated rituals according to custom. Vrishadhvaj, however, was devoted to Shiva alone. So fanatic was his devotion that he banned the worship of all other gods and goddesses. The demigod Surya (Sun) could not bear this and he put a curse on the king that the latter would lose his wealth and kingdom.
Vrishadhvaj was attacked by his enemies. He lost and was forced into exile. He died in penury as did his son, Hamsadhvaj. Hamsadhvaj had two sons, Dharmadhvaj and Kushadhvaj. They propitiated Lakshmi, the Goddess of Fortune and won back the kingdom and prosperity their grandfather had lost.
Soon thereafter Madhavi, the wife of Dharmadhvaj, became pregnant. As her pregnancy progressed her body became radiant. In the night of a full moon she gave birth to a divine girl of incomparable beauty. The sages named her Tulasi.
Since the girl had been blessed by Lakshmi, she bore the marks of the Goddess. The lotus flower was imprinted on her feet and her palms and her soles bore a reddish hue. Her skin had three folds above her deep navel. She grew up to be an extremely beautiful maiden.
Tulasi wanted Lord Krishna to be her husband. At an early age she went to the Himalayas and undertook harsh penances. In the heat of the summers she surrounded herself with four fires and the sun overhead. In the winters she immersed herself in the ice-cold waters of the Ganga River. In the rainy season she exposed herself to the torrential downpours on the funeral grounds. She first lived on only fruits and water, then on dried leaves and finally on air alone. All this time she stood on only one leg.
Brahma, the Creator, approached Tulasi and told her that her desire would be ultimately and eternally fulfilled. But first she would have to marry a demon named Shankhachuda. It is only through this marriage that Krishna would come to her. Brahma advised her to continue her austerities and wait for destiny to unfold its plans.
The sage Kashyap was the father of the demi-gods and demons. One of his wives, Danu, was the mother to a race of demons known as Danavas. Her son Viprachitti carried forward this clan. His son Dambha was a powerful demon. Dambha had no sons so he decided to perform austerities to please the Gods. During these a hot flame burst from his head and began to scorch the world. Vishnu then went to the demon and asked him what he desired. The demon first paid his obeisance to the God and said that he wanted a son. His wish was granted and Shankhachuda was born.
In his youth Shankhachuda began to perform austerities in order to obtain boons from Brahma. Pleased with his penance Brahma asked Shankhachuda what he desired. "I have two wishes." The demon said. "I want to become invincible and I want to marry Tulasi."
Brahma asked, "Why do you want to marry Tulasi?"
Shankhachuda then narrated a story from his past. "In the region of heaven known as Golok I lived as Sudama and Tulasi as Viraja. I was madly in love with Viraja but she had her mind set on Krishna, who as you know is a manifestation of Vishnu. Radha, the consort of Krishna, was wary of Viraja for this reason. Once when Viraja tried to get intimate with Krishna, Radha appeared and cursed Viraja with a life on earth. Later I too became a victim of Radha's curse and have to live a life on earth. Since Tulasi is here as well I would like to marry her."
Brahma said, "I have already informed Tulasi that she should marry you. She is presently awaiting your arrival at Badrinath in the Himalayas. Now let me come to your other wish. I do not understand why mortals desire invincibility. But since you ask for it I will give it to you with two conditions. This is the amulet of Krishna, himself. Always wear it. No harm can befall you as long as you are wearing the amulet. The second condition concerns your wife to be. You will remain invincible as long as Tulasi is faithful to you."
Shankhachuda thanked Brahma for the amulet. He said, "I will always wear the amulet. And as for Tulasi, she is a divine maiden. No mortal can ever attract her. And she has already been a victim of Radha's wrath and will dare not approach Krishna again. My invincibility is secure. I now go to woo Tulasi."
Tulasi and Shankhachuda married according to the Gandharva tradition. In this form of marriage there are no rituals. The two garland each other and consummate the marriage. Then they had an extended honeymoon during which Shankhachuda showered his bride with jewelry form the collections of the wives of the demi-gods. After that he began his conquests.
He first took control of all the demon races and became their supreme commander. He then attacked the demi-gods and dispossessed them of their realm and wealth. The demi-gods went to Brahma for help. Brahma took them to Shiva. After some discussion, Brahma and Shiva approached Vishnu. All the three Supreme Gods together began to plot the end of Shankhachuda.
"Surely you can handle him," Vishnu said to Shiva.
"My trident is sufficient to kill him," replied Shiva, "but Brahma has given him some crazy boons."
"Oh! Those!" exclaimed Vishnu. He then chastised Brahma. "You are too quick to grant boons and then you come to me to clear up the mess." He asked Shiva to prepare for battle. And he assured Brahma and Shiva that he would take care of the boons.
Shiva set up his battle camp on the banks of the Chandrabhaga river. He sent Pushpadanta as his envoy to Shankhachuda. When Pushpadanta entered Shankhachuda's capital he was struck with awe. This was the most opulent and grand city he had seen. Explaining his mission he was able to get an audience with the demon King. He told Shankhachuda that Shiva was prepared for war. Either Shankhachuda return the areas and wealth that he had taken from the demi-gods or he face Shiva's wrath. Shankhachuda did not think fit to send his reply through the envoy. "Tell Shiva that I will personally greet him tomorrow," he said.
That night all the demi-gods approached Shiva and offered to join the battle under his leadership. Meanwhile Shankhachuda was spending the night with his wife, Tulasi. He knew that Shiva was invincible but he also knew that he was protected by Krishna's amulet and his wife's chastity. Still one never knew what destiny had in store for them. Tulasi and Shankhachuda spent this night as if it were their last.
Next morning Shankhachuda got up before dawn and performed his prayers and rituals. He then gave donations to the mendicants and brahmans as was his daily practice. After that he led his army to where Shiva was camping. Leaving his army behind he went to meet Shiva. Shiva asked Shankhachuda to be seated and the proffered advice.
"You are a great king with a great lineage. It does not behove you to take by force what is not yours. Return to the demi-gods what is theirs. This act will not be seen as your weakness but your strength. Material wealth, as you know, is temporary. Correctness of character is what will serve you in good stead eternally. From every angle there is only one right path before you. It is my humble suggestion that you follow it".
Shankhachuda replied. "The demi-gods have never been fair to us demons. And you Supreme Gods have always unjustly sided with them. We and the demi-gods together churned the oceans to obtain the life giving ambrosia, but Vishnu deceived us and denied us the opportunity to become eternal. Since then every generation of demons fights the demi-gods and this will continue forever. I humbly request that you leave us alone and let us settle our own issues."
There could be no end to the argument, so the two decided that war was the only recourse. Shiva and Shankhachuda decided not to fight the first battle. From their respective positions they watched their armies attack each other. The battle was fierce but it was soon apparent that the demi-gods would lose. Shiva ordered his son Kartikeya, who was the general of the demi-gods, and Kali, the ferocious incarnation of his consort Parvati, to enter the fray. Kali decapitated whoever came in her way and drank their blood. Kartikeya let loose volleys of arrows on the Demon hordes. Now it was the turn of the demons to stare at defeat.
The time was ripe for Shankhachuda to enter the battle. First Kartikeya engaged him. He showered pythons, mountains trees and other huge objects on Kartikeya. Kartikeya retaliated with divine weapons that released streams of water and fire. It seemed to be an equal fight till Shankhachuda took his divine iron spear and struck Kartikeya, rendering him unconscious.
Kali picked up her unconscious son and took him to Shiva. She then took on the might of Shankhachuda. Each hurled divine weapons at the other. However neither was harmed. Meanwhile the armies of both the Demons and demi-gods were being decimated. During this duel there was an oracle from the skies "Kali, you are not destined to slay Shankhachuda. Let Shiva take over."
The battle between Shiva and Shankhachuda was ferocious. Divine missiles and illusionary tactics were used by both sides. The encounter lasted for over a year, in which most of the demon army was decimated, but the demon king stood firm. Shiva could have killed Shankhachuda any time he wanted, but he had to respect Brahma's boons. So he bided his time till Vishnu entered the scene.
The battle would halt every evening and resume the next morning. Even in the heat of the battle Shankhachuda would not forget to perform his acts of charity. It was at this time Vishnu appeared in the guise of a mendicant. He told the king that he had not eaten for days and made the king promise to give whatever he asked. After obtaining the vow he asked for the amulet. Shankhachuda gave it away without a second thought and then began to ready himself for the duel with Shiva. His wife's chastity was protection enough for him and in any event he would prefer death to dishonour.
Vishnu then went to Shankhachuda's capital disguised as the demon king. He created an illusion of the king returning from a great victory. There were soldiers in a boisterous mood shouting and dancing to the beat of drums. A messenger saw the approaching victorious army and informed Tulasi. Tulasi ran to the gate of her palace to greet her husband. They embraced warmly and Tulasi was unable to discern that the man she was with was not her husband. Then Tulasi led Vishnu inside and bathed and applied medication to his wounds. After a sumptuous meal Tulasi demanded to know the details of the battle. Vishnu explained that after an equal duel with Shiva, Brahma intervened and stopped the fight. Shankhachuda was allowed to keep whatever he had won from the demi-gods and they would be forced to accept his supremacy. Vishnu then took Tulasi to her bedroom and they spent their time in great intimacy.
Shiva was keeping track of the proceedings with his divine vision. No sooner than Vishnu violated Tulasi's chastity, Shiva released his trident at Shankhachuda. When the king saw the resplendent weapon hurtling towards him he realized that his faithful wife had been tricked. He knew his end had come. He put down his weapons and remembered his Maker. The trident smashed into Shankhachuda's head and burnt his body in a flash of flame. The demi-gods rejoiced and fell at Shiva's feet. Shiva then collected the bones of the demon and flung them into the sea. These bones were converted into sea shells. ( 'Shankha' means sea shells). Shankhachuda reverted to his original form, that of Sudama, and went back to Golok.
Meanwhile Tulasi sensed that the intimacy had been different this time. In a flash she realized that the man lying on her bed was someone disguised as her husband. She was livid. She screamed and abused and threatened to kill. Vishnu then reverted to his real form. Not the four armed one that is normally associated with him, but that of Krishna, the form that Tulasi as Viraja was in love with. Tulasi fainted. When she recovered she said, "You are no God. You are colder than a stone. You have deceived me. By fraud you invaded the most intimate, the most defenseless, the most private state of a woman in order to kill her husband who had done no wrong. I curse you to become a stone."
"I know how you feel," replied Vishnu, "But all this was destined. Shankhachuda has already returned to Golok as Sudama. Only his death could lead to his deliverance. He was valiant and philanthropic and you have every right to be proud of him. Unfortunately his death was linked to the violation of your chastity and so it had to be done. But you as Viraja ways desired me. This was the only way I had of granting your wish. Though you have cursed me I will bless you. Your mortal remains will be turned into a life giving herb, known as Tulasi (Basil). Not only will it have tremendous medicinal properties, but it will be considered holy as well. Every household will grow it and use the leaves in my worship. In order to sanctify your love for me, generation after generation will enact our marriage. You will be in the form of Tulasi and I will be in the form of Shaligram, a stone that you have cursed me to become. Now give up your mortal form and merge your soul with me."
Tulasi realized the wisdom of Vishnu's words. But there was one worry nagging her. Moments before he died, did her husband think she was having an affair while he was struggling for his life? Vishnu put her doubts to rest. "Shankhachuda had complete faith in you. He had realized that I had some how managed to trick you, just as I had tricked him into giving me the amulet." On hearing this Tulasi was relieved and gave up her life. She knew that she had got the best possible deal.
The author is a Structural Engineer. His id is [email protected]