Ruru gives up half his life to save his girl who was bitten by a snake
And now he hates snakes
- rope/snake Advaita
We have the episode of Ruru beating Ruru, which is a demonstration of Rope-Snake analogy from Advaita tradition. In the story, the Brahmin Ruru, whose wife was once bitten by a snake, had vowed to kill every snake he encountered. Once, when he was in a forest, he saw a lizard named Ruru and mistaking it for a Snake began to beat it. Just as the Rope-Snake example, wherein the rope is mistaken for a Snake due to dim light, Ruru mistakes the lizard for a Snake due to his animosity towards Snakes. The lizard narrates one more story, in which he had himself frightened a Brahmana by creating a snake form out of straws, another good example of rope-snake analogy. The doubling of names like Ruru-Ruru or Jaratkaru-Jaratkaru (the parents of Astika) also serves as a metaphor for “Pratibimba”, an Advaitic concept which became very popular in latter Advaita tradition.
The myth of Ruru occurs as part of the Bhṛgu cycle of myths in the Pauloma- parvan, the fourth minor book from the Adiparva of the Mahabharata. The first of the myths in the cycle recounts the mythic birth of Cyavana, the son of the legendary ṛṣi Bhṛgu. The rakṣasa Puloman abducts Puloma, Cyavana’s mother and Bhṛgu’s wife, while the sage is away. As Puloman is carrying her away, her son falls from her womb and burns the demon to ashes through his radiance. Cyavana later fathers Pramati, who in turn fathers Ruru.
The narrative then recounts the story of Ruru and his war on the snakes, following his wife Pramadvara’s death from snakebite. The daughter of a celestial dancer and the king of the Gandharvas or divine musicians, Pramadvara steps on a snake on her wedding day and dies of its venom. Although Ruru is able to resurrect her through offering her half his life, he vows vengeance on all snakes, clubbing to death any snake he sees.
One day, he sees a “snake” on a rock. Raising his stick “like the staff of Time”, he strikes it. Astonishingly, the “snake” turns around and asks why Ruru has struck him. When Ruru explains his vow, the “snake” protests that it is not a snake but a lizard. He asks Ruru to desist from harming lizards, who are like snakes in that they share their misfortunes but unlike them in that they do not share their joys. Frightened at meeting a talking lizard, Ruru asks the speaking reptile his name and why he has taken on this form. The lizard then relates his story: he was formerly the seer Sahasrapada Ruru. One day, he startled his friend Khagama with a snake made of grass. The terrified sage promptly fainted but, on coming to, cursed Sahasrapada Ruru: “As you have made a powerless snake in order to frighten me, so by my anger you shall become a powerless reptile. Fearful of the power of Khagama’s austerities, Ruru begged his short-tempered friend to forgive him. Seeing his agitation, the sage relented. Although the curse cannot be undone, he says that he will be relieved of his curse on seeing Ruru.
The myth of Ruru appears to articulate three distinct stages: forgetting or heedlessness, danger, and recognition. Let us see how the etymological meanings articulate a comprehensive narrative of a fall from being: the first level, forgetting, is represented through the names Cyavana, Pramati, and Ruru and, in particular, through Pramadvara’s tragic fate. Cyavana’s name suggests that on one level he represents a fall into becoming (compare the name Acyuta or “the unfallen one” as one of the names of Viṣṇu/ Kṛṣṇa). In contrast, his son Pramati could be seen as representing the agitation or churning of creative thought (cogito, co-agitatio). Ruru, whose name suggests a duplication of Hru, can be seen as embodying the multiplicity of becoming in contrast to the oneness of being. The Bhṛgu genealogy thus can be seen as articulating a progressive fall away from being.
Multiplication as an explanation for cosmogenesis is also attested to in the Narayaṇıya, where the One Being, Hari, first becomes fourfold, creating the four vyuhas. These vyuhas precede the creation of the universe. Narratologically, the epic places the Nara-Narayaṇa pair and the Svetadvıpa beings between the vyuha narratives and the One Being. Thus, the epic is fully aware of duplication as an explanation of how the One Being became many.
Ruru is captivated by the sensory beauty of Pramadvara. The narrative presents both an etymological justification of her name (she is named for her intoxicating beauty) and a dramatic justification: in the narrative she blindly steps on a snake on the ground and dies as a consequence of its bite. When Ruru turns to an ontic, empirical object, he falls away from “providence” or Pramati.
The process of his fall follows a definite series of stages, which can perhaps best be understood through turning to the Bhagavadgıta, which occurs in the sixth book of the Mahabharata, the Bhıṣmaparvan. Bhagavadgıta 2.62–63 describes the stages involved in the fall from being into becoming:
“When a man thinks about sense objects, an interest in them develops. From this interest grows desire, from desire anger; from anger arises delusion, from delusion loss of memory, from loss of memory the death of the spirit, and from the death of the spirit one perishes.”
The Ruru narrative appears to follow these stages. The first stage is depicted through Ruru’s interest in the sensuous and desirable young maiden, Pramadvara. This interest blossoms into desire, and Ruru wishes to marry her and be with her. The narrative then moves to the next stage of this process, that is, from elucidating forgetfulness to danger. When Ruru’s desire to be with Pramadvara is frustrated, it turns into anger and anger then clouds his judgment. He indiscriminately attacks the snakes, even those that have not harmed him in any way. Ruru’s delusion is indeed so great that he has forgotten himself: not only in the metaphorical sense but even in a deep ontological sense. He forgets that he is a brahmin, one whose primary duty is to study and remember brahman, or true being, and not to perpetrate violence, whether justified or unjustified. More seriously, he forgets his true nature as the son of Pramati or true being and identifies himself with the temporality of a life span. This process of becoming finite continues in his commerce with the finite: he gives up half the measure of his finite life span for his beloved.
At this point, the narrative takes a curious turn: it introduces a talking lizard who is also called Ruru, who informs the dumbfounded brahmin: “I was once the thousand-footed seer Ruru—and here I am reduced to a reptile by the curse of a brahmin”. Indeed, the talking lizard shares not only Ruru’s name but also his fate. Both Rurus have fallen to the level of a lower creature: the seer has become a reptile; the young son of Pramati has forgotten his brahmin nature and has become a brutal killer. Further, the seer Sahasrapada Ruru embodies yet another level of duplication: he is cursed to become a powerless reptile for frightening the seer Khagama with a snake made of grass. Like Ruru, he has fallen through the power of images or fallen prey to images. The narrative of the two Rurus can be best explained as follows: the two Rurus are not distinct from each other, and Ruru does not meet some other being in the forest—he encounters himself as in a mirror. The danger becomes apparent once it is mirrored.
Once the seer’s name is revealed, the narrative moves on to the third stage: recognition. Ruru heeds the warning articulated by the lizard: on seeing him- self reflected in the object of his hate, he is awakened once more to his true nature. He recalls his name and his own history: he has fallen to the level of a reptile that desires to harm others but cannot. His violence is ultimately directed against himself, in that he is both oppressor and oppressed. The duplication of Rurus mirrors the morphological duplication of the name itself—Ruru is formed through a duplication of Hru, meaning, “to howl.” Ruru’s name refers to the nature of existence as a repeated howl at becoming. Indeed, becoming, forever prey to death, is inscribed into the very language at its most basic grammatical level as a painful howl. Further, ruru is also the name of a terrible serpent. The young brahmin is himself a snake, a denizen of a rauravam: a hell inhabited by rurus. The two Rurus share the same fate in more ways than one.
Let us come to the name of the final protagonist in this narrative, the seer whose curse transforms a young boy into a snake—Khagama. Khagama means “a bird.” The antagonism between the bird and the reptile foreshadows the story of Garuḍa and his cousins the snakes at Mah"abh"arata 1.21.1– 1.30.25. In 1.30.15–20, Garuḍa fetches the nectar of immortality (amṛta) and places it on kus ́a grass but Indra steals it before the snakes can partake of it. The snakes, in a futile attempt to gain immortality, lick the grass and the sharp grass causes them to become fork-tongued.
In the myth, Khagama’s words have a transformative power: they turn the young Sahasrap"ada Ruru into a reptile and hold out the prospect that he will regain his original form on meeting Ruru, the son of Pramati. However, this poetic power of transformation is limited in its effect and thus akin to the sto- len amṛta placed on the grass, which cannot bring the snakes the salvation they seek. Indeed, Khagama says that the young Sahasrap"ada will be relieved of his curse on meeting Ruru, son of Pramati or the son of “providence.” Thus,
in this myth, the claims of poetic immortality are made to give way to a salva- tion of a different order, namely, ontological salvation.
The amplification of two Rurus is not restricted merely to a doubling of characters or fates. The lizard’s proper name is Sahasrapada Ruru, or the thousand-footed Ruru. But a lizard has four feet, while a human only has two. The name cannot refer to real feet. It is rather an etymological clue for Ruru’s multiple past lives. Feet are a metaphor for walking in becoming in contrast to abidance in being.64 Sahasrapada is to be understood as a multiplication of lives or embodiments rather than a grotesque multiplication of a body part.
These several multiplications—a snake that turns out to be a lizard, a seer who was turned into a lizard for making a snake of grass, a lizard that turns out to be a seer, and a seer who is the nominal image of the sage Ruru—high- light the fact that becoming is a series of images without an original.65 On the verge of destroying himself, the distraught Ruru discovers the mind-boggling multiplicity of becoming. An etymological understanding of the lizard’s name awakens ontological memory in Ruru. He is the myriad beings signified by the word Sahasrapada. In a flash he realizes that he is that one being. The return of the memory of the oneness of true being is Ruru’s salvation.
Once the mimetic nature of the universe becomes apparent, the narratives of the two Rurus begin to converge. The snake first reveals itself to be a lizard, the lizard then becomes a man, and, finally, the man vanishes. His disappearance symbolizes a return to his true nature as the young brahmin Ruru as well as a reabsorption into being. This first reabsorption then continues into a second reabsorption once Ruru returns to his father, Pramati. Note that Ruru does not return to Pramadvara. In keeping with the meaning of her name “inattentive” or “careless,” she is quite appropriately forgotten. Her role in the narrative appears to be no more than that of a temporary distraction.
The introduction of A"st"ıka into the narrative is also significant. A"st"ıka, whose name means “possessed of the quality ‘there is,’” represents salvation through being. The epic indicates this by showing how Sahasrapada Ruru disappears once he introduces the motif of Astıka. Further, with the arrival of the Astıka motif, even Ruru returns to his father in a symbolic reabsorption into being and the story ends. In addition, this theme of undoing the work of genealogy and mortality extends into the outer frame of the story. The myth with which the Bhṛgu cycle begins (the myth of Cyavana) relates the story of a fall from being into becoming. That narrative cycle then ends once being arrives in the form of Astıka. There is a further proof of A"st"ıka’s function as a savior: in the next book, a snake sacrifice unfolds on a cosmic scale. King Janamejaya sacrifices the snakes by the thousands. As the snakes fall helplessintothefire,onlythearrivalofA"st"ıkabringsthesacrificetoanendand saves a remnant of the snakes. The snake cycle provides the necessary hermeneutic apparatus to understand the work of time on a human, mortal plane: the field of becoming or the Kuru field. Two types of activity happen on that field: the destruction of war and the ontological education of Arjuna contained in the Bhagavadgıta. Like Ruru who must undo Ruru, the Kuru field is the field of activity where one must undo action through “giving up” of the fruit of action.
With this overview of the myth of Ruru, let us return to our original thesis, namely, that the myths of Orpheus and Ruru present two distinct possibilities of transcendence: poetic immortality and salvation through being. In the myth of Ruru it is evident that the transformative power of words—Khagama’s curse and later promise of redemption—cannot grant real immortality. The lizard lives toward an event in the future, but he can attain salvation only through a recollection of the self that engenders being. Moreover, in the case of Pramadvara, too, we see how the words of the envoy of the gods and the king of the Gandharvas to Yama, the god of death, can only bring about a finite resurrection. Although Yama’s words have the power to bring her back to life, she will nonetheless have to die some day.
The myth of Ruru elucidates this limit in relation to four distinct cycles— genealogical (his birth from Pramati), cosmological (Pramati as churning), agonal (conflict with snakes), and sacrificial (the upcoming snake sacrifice). Each of these cycles begins with the fall from being into becoming and ends only through a reabsorption into being. Becoming is an endless cycle of creation and destruction—the prime index of this endlessness is the name Sahasrapada or “thousand-fold.” Because becoming is an endless cycle, action that is directed outward cannot bring the cycle to a close. Ruru, for example, cannot end becoming irrespective of how many creatures he kills. There is always a remainder that escapes to continue the cycle. This logic of the endlessness of becoming implies that salvation is possible only through turning inward to being.
Poetry cannot reach the ultimate transcendence of being which also transcends language. Every other form of overcoming mortality, such as giving up half one’s life (in the myth of Ruru) or following one’s beloved into Hades (in the myth of Orpheus), is limited and cannot save one’s beloved for good.
In the Mahabharata, the Ruru narrative continues into the Astıka narrative, which addresses the need for salvation through being. Moreover, just as Ruru’s lamentation gives rise to salvation in the form of Astıka, Dhṛtaraṣṭra’s lamentation at the beginning of the Mahabharata is answered in the soteriological philosophy of the Bhagavadgıta. The myths of Orpheus and Ruru establish that only the desire for self-knowledge and self-realization can lead to a permanent overcoming of mortality.
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