The Story of a Prostitute
There’s a beautiful story in Srimad Bhagavatam. Impressed by his knowledge, King Yadu enquires an avadhuta, an enlightened master, about his guru who answers that he had many gurus including a prostitute.
“A Prostitute?” the king scorned.
“Yes, why not?” The avadhuta said. “Hear what I learned from her.” And he went onto narrate the story of Pingala.
Pingala was a glamorous courtesan in the ancient city of Videha. With her red lips like freshly-cut strawberries, beautiful, buxom and seductive, she smelled of exotic flowers. Her sight was enough to evoke desire. Indeed, her stunning beauty was the reason why she was made courtesan at the first place, for the kings and powerful merchants would otherwise break into fights over her. Pingala enjoyed royal patronage unlike any other courtesan in the country.
Through the years, she had learned to practice the craft of love with the same detachment as a doctor’s towards her patient. And yet, as is the way of love — mysterious and unreasonable, she lost her heart to a prince. The young prince promised to visit her on a certain date.
Pingala turned away all other patrons on one excuse or another that day. She took a long beauty bath, had herself anointed with various unguents and herbal packs. Carefully, she had her hair plaid with mowgra, jasmine and other flower buds. She donned her crimson red saree made from the finest silk. Her forehead, ears, neck, wrists, ankles were adorned with expensive ornaments of gold, ruby, emerald and diamonds. One could easily mistake her for an empress.
All decked up and ready, she eagerly waited for her prince, to be in his loving embrace and see him from up close. Afternoon was fading away into dusk but the prince didn’t show up. Meanwhile, many men who came to seek her favors were turned away. There was only one person she wanted to see. Feelings of loyalty and love washed away all other desires in her heart and she just wanted to belong to the prince.
Every few minutes, her anklets would tinkle, her fineries would chime as she would run to the gates to find out if the prince showed up or if accidentally the guards might have barred his entry. She would chastise them to be more watchful. She would peep through to see every palanquin and every chariot with great anticipation. Maybe this was the prince, she would think. Even her handmaids were surprised to see their mistress so anxious. To keep her mouth fresh and red, she didn’t eat the whole day and only chewed betel leaves.
Twilight turned to darkness as the night thickened. Pingala lost her appetite and she was getting more desperate by the moment. Stars started twinkling here and there in the sky. A few more hours passed, full moon had appeared along with some more stars. The crickets were clittering and the chakora bird would sing every now and then making a long mating call. The wait and love in Pingala’s heart was alive as ever but there was no sign of the prince.
She spent the whole night awake, her eyes grew tired, countless times Pingala had adjusted her dress and embellishments. Tens of times she saw herself in the mirror and redid her makeup. Many times, she sprinkled fragrance on her self. All to make it perfect when the prince arrived. But he never did. The flower buds in her hair were wilting away, brownish tinge appeared on the fair jasmine flowers.
Just before the dawn broke, while people were waking from a night’s sleep, Pingala too woke up from her ignorance with a deep realization.
The avadhuta tells the king:
na hy aṅgājāta-nirvedo
manujo mamatāṁ nṛpa
(Srimad Bhagavatam, 11.8.29)
O King, just as a human being bereft of spiritual knowledge never desires to give up his false sense of proprietorship over many material things, similarly, a person who has not developed detachment never desires to give up the bondage of the material body.
Pingala, however, rose above her false sense of existence that day. She experienced great vairagya, detachment, and ananda, bliss. She realized that she was already complete and that she didn’t need another man to fulfill her. That, the one she should have loved, the one for whom she wouldn’t have to wait day and night, the one who would never abandon her was already inside her — God.
Pingala’s narrative continues in Srimad Bhagavatam as follows:
aho me moha-vitatiṁ
yā kāntād asataḥ kāmaṁ
kāmaye yena bāliśā ॥30॥
santaṁ samīpe ramaṇaṁ rati-pradaṁ
vitta-pradaṁ nityam imaṁ vihāya
moha-pradaṁ tuccham ahaṁ bhaje ’jñā ॥31॥
aho mayātmā paritāpito vṛthā
straiṇān narād yārtha-tṛṣo ’nuśocyāt
krītena vittaṁ ratim ātmanecchatī ॥32॥
yad asthibhir nirmita-vaṁśa-vaṁsya- sthūṇaṁ
tvacā roma-nakhaiḥ pinaddham
kṣaran-nava-dvāram agāram etad
viṇ-mūtra-pūrṇaṁ mad upaiti kānyā ॥33॥
videhānāṁ pure hy asminn
aham ekaiva mūḍha-dhīḥ
yānyam icchanty asaty asmād
ātma-dāt kāmam acyutāt ॥34॥
Piṅgalā said: Just see how greatly illusioned I am! Because I cannot control my mind, just like a fool I desire lusty pleasure from an insignificant man. ॥30॥
I am so ignorant that I have given up the service of that person who, being eternally situated within my heart, is actually most dear to me. That most dear one is the Lord of the universe, who is the bestower of real love and happiness and the source of all prosperity. Although He is in my own heart, I have completely neglected Him. Instead I have ignorantly served insignificant men who can never satisfy my real desires and who have simply brought me unhappiness, fear, anxiety, lamentation and illusion. ॥31॥
Oh, how I have uselessly tortured my own soul! I have sold my body to lusty, greedy men who are themselves objects of pity. How ignorant of me that I hoped to get money and sexual pleasure from my profession. ॥32॥
This material body is like a house in which I, the soul, am living. The bones forming my spine, ribs, arms and legs are like the beams, crossbeams and pillars of the house, and the whole structure, which is full of stool and urine, is covered by skin, hair and nails. The nine doors leading into this body are constantly excreting foul substances. Besides me, what woman could be so foolish as to devote herself to this material body, thinking that she might find pleasure and love in this contraption? ॥33॥
Certainly in this city of Videha I alone am completely foolish. I neglected the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who awards us everything, even our original spiritual form, and instead I desired to enjoy sense gratification with many men. ॥34॥
(Srimad Bhagavatam. Srila Prabhupada Translation. 11.08.30-34)
I’m not sure if I’ve much more to add or say; Pingala’s story is a message in itself.
Somewhere, it’s not just her story but every person’s who has ever loved anyone and sought to be loved back in return. After meeting thousands of people, I’ve observed that the most common cause of grief is not people’s expectations from their relationships but generally the relationship itself. All worldly relationships are bound to have challenges, predominantly because we want the other person to fulfil us (and the other wants the same from you). Having said that, I’m not suggesting that relationships are bad or that you shouldn’t be in one. A great deal of our happiness depends on the quality of our personal and social interactions, after all. The truth still remains that if we don’t know how to keep ourselves happy, no one else will ever be able to do that for us.
There’s only so much the other person can give you. Ultimately, your happiness depends on your selfless karma as well as on how you treat yourself. Doing something for the one you love is not always selfless. If rather than buying a watch for yourself, you buy a bracelet for your wife, it’s certainly thoughtful and caring but not necessarily selfless if you see what I mean. You have great emotional investment in such a relationship. Quintessential selfless is when you do a karma with little or no expectation in return, maybe when you do it with no emotional or any other vested interest of your own.
At any rate, my fulfillment in life is my personal responsibility. Who has ever discovered an ocean of happiness by looking up to the other person? We must have the courage and wisdom to walk the path of dharma with contentment and gratitude instead of constantly counting on others to fill our cup up.
If Pingala’s happiness depended on the arrival of her prince and how well he treated, accepted and loved her, she was never going to find permanent happiness, for longing in love and the intensity of feelings is transient. Besides, it’s not possible to love someone without first being fulfilled ourselves. And the feeling of fulfillment is an inner experience. Others can give us a glimpse of it, but in the end, it’s your own depth of character and existence that dictates how content you are.
Whatever you seek from others, learn to give it to yourself first. To be selfless in love is to love the other person the way he or she wants to be loved. Start with yourself. Take responsibility. You won’t find yourself waiting for someone to knock on your heart’s door. Instead, you’ll discover that your heart is as big as the sky, it has no doors, it’s vast and has ample room for everyone.
The question is until you arrive at Pingala’s realization, how to make your relationship work if you are already in one? Next post.
And, one last word: you always draw your energy and inspiration from whoever is the center of your life. In love, you become the one you love. If it’s a materialistic person, you’ll find yourself becoming increasingly materialistic too. If he or she is a spiritual person, you’ll evolve into a calmer person. If the restless or narcissist type, you’ll feel restless and anxious yourself. If the center of your life is beauty, God, divinity, compassion or any of these, you’ll become an embodiment of that.
This article first appeared on os.me.